Special Feature by Dr. Festus L. Brotherson, Jr.

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After the Terror has Gone, where will the US Go?

Posted September 25th. 2001

I have not been privy to the full presentations at the University of Guyana's (UG's) symposium on Saturday, September 21 on the terrorism that hit the USA on September 11, but the reports suggest a rather lively participatory session that provided useful opposed insights, e.g., those of Dr. Mark Kirton and, especially, Mr. Frederick Kissoon. They and other panelists were trying to predict what changes will occur both by happenstance and by deliberate American policy towards the world in the post-terrorism event period. Put another way, and going beyond the ambit of the UG focus, after the terror has gone, what developments can reasonably be expected, and where will the US go regarding policies on its economy (especially trade and aid), wider globalisation issues including sharing of advanced technology, security in the Gulf and Middle East, immigration, and even on the newly declared war on terrorism? The UG effort was valuable for beginning an academic discussion.

Why will the USA change after this horrendous act? I turn to Jose Ortega y Gasset for an interesting answer having to with the staleness and unacceptability of sameness that beleaguered the Roman Empire when change was compelled but ignored. Says the influential thinker: "That (their) faith in modern culture was a gloomy one. It meant that tomorrow was to be in all essentials similar to today, that progress consisted merely in advancing, for all time to be, along a road identical to the one already under our feet. Such a road is rather an elastic kind of prison which stretches on without ever setting us free."

But another way of responding to such quo vadis questions involves approaching them from a psychoanalytic perspective. I have some limited expertise in this area but not sufficient enough to essay persuasive answers by using the methodology. And I won't try to do so in this article. My objective is to help spark interest among analysts to use it, if they can, or at the very least to be aware of it and the bounty that might or not result from its employ.

The field of study is psychohistory and it has a mixed record in its ventures. This approach to inquiry assumes significant merit in examining major traumas that occur in a nation's evolution and during the youthful upbringing of its emerging leaders. The traumas are judged to be so impacting that they reverberate and influence whole populations and individuals through time and space - some more limitedly than others. So sweeping is this influence that they spark generalities regarding how we explain orientations and actions of states and their leaders.

We might say, for example, that the experiences of Germans and Jews were so traumatic during World War 11 that both peoples have pursued aggressive policies aimed at non-recurrence of the catastrophes. Due to the trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese cannot be easily persuaded to rearm or rebuild a military machine of any might, and, again, Germans remain collectively ashamed over the slaying of millions of Jews. But let us offer more on what exactly is psychohistory.

David Statt tells us that it is an attempt to apply modern psychological thinking to the study of historical events and people. In the words of Peter Lowenberg, it "…combines historical analysis with social science models, humanistic sensibility, and psychodynamic theory and clinical insights to create a fuller, richer more rounded view of the past" and understanding of the future. It marks, he says, "a continuity of the strive of the historian's part for unity of man and culture, life and ideas in the past and in the present." The field reflects the logic of an interdisciplinary marriage between history and psychology.

General conclusions have been controversial, to say the least. One valid criticism is that the field can tell us only after the fact why certain traumas occurred and how certain leaders were affected. It lacks the ability to predict. At the same time, however, while neither fully persuasive nor binding in the sense of results being fully congruent with the rigours of research tenets, psychohistorical findings have been deemed valuable if only by offering interesting, observable, patterns of continuity and sameness. Besides, the search for predictability in areas of speculation is by nature hazardous in any field of study, and, when an event as horrific as the recent terrorist strikes have been, it behooves us to use as many tools as possible to chisel away at mounds of opaqueness in search of answers.

Some of the extant, valuable psycho historical studies that lend credence to this approach include works on the late Richard Nixon. Worthy of leisurely reading are two in particular - Bruce Mazlish's "In Search of Nixon: A Psychohistorical Inquiry;" and Fawn Brodie's very enterprising effort, "Richard Nixon: The Shaping of his Character." Ms. Brodie also wrote the much acclaimed "Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History." The American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) also does useful profiles of world leaders in the psychohistorical investigative tradition.

There are also very fine essays on Third World leaders such as Indira Gandhi and Fidel Castro. Notably, Henry Hart's "Indira Gandhi: Determined not to be Hurt" is a classic, as is Eric Erikson's most impressive "Gandhi's Truth" that set the standard for methodology and, in retrospect, accuracy. There is, too, Gene Vier's "Analyzing Fidel." (There are studies of whole societies such as Japan, Germany and the Jewish Diaspora that hue to the same assumptions and methodology and thus, embrace psychohistorical analysis). Studies on the Palestinian and African Diasporas in this vein were not found, although some other types of interdisciplinary works are available.

In the case of works on individual leaders, there is an assumption that individuals are singularly so powerful that they significantly impact the march the history. This is a conclusion that is passionately rejected by many thinkers of differing ideological loyalties. A most severe critic of them is Fidel Castro himself and a whole slew of scholars in the Marxist tradition of class analysis, institutionalists, and even pluralists who, as we know, are the ultimate backers of democracy. I think that what such criticisms miss is that psychohistory might well be an extension of the sociology of knowledge - especially since it pioneers a fusion of Freud and Marx by filling the gaps. Further exploration of this important theme is most controversial but beyond the scope of this general essay of inquiry.

But two works I immediately can think of signal why there are many skeptics. There is Gail Sheehy's rather lazy if not superficial effort with Mikhail Gorbachev in her book, "The Man who Changed the World," and there is, too, the controversial "The Psychiatric Study of Jesus Christ," by the renowned Albert Schweitzer in 1948. The first promises much more than it delivers, and the second is too controversial and rich in untapped data to be completed, as it was, in a mere skimpy, booklet form of seventy pages. Both raise more questions than provide answers. But then there is Howard Cummins' ambitious work that is also in pamphlet form of only sixty-three pages but which is quite lively. He attempts an analysis of Mao Tse Tung, Winston Churchill, Hsiao K'e, Winston Churchill and Viscount Montgomery by exploring linkages in their personal values to their decision-making. His methodology? Says he, "I…combine a technique used by psychologists and psychiatrists for analyzing patients with some of the more recent advances in political science."

Of course, the origin of this tradition of inquiry for explaining and limitedly determining the paths leaders and peoples journey along might well lie in the pioneering work of Harold Laswell in his 1930 classic work, "Psychopathology and Politics." Since then, there have been works that have built upon his ideas by such luminaries as James Barber and Fred I. Greenstein for personality studies that categorize leaders by types, and Victor Wolfenstein (with whom I studied) who identified certain traits in leaders who became revolutionaries.

I attested earlier to having some but not enough training in the field of psychohistory to produce any earth-shaking findings from such an enterprise pertaining to the American experience with terrorism on its mainland - its first mainland experience with war since the 1812 invasion by the British (I think) which was won by the Americans. But there are important variables that make up the general duality of the American character of pragmatism twinned with some missionary idealism, and which its leaders have usually shared, e.g., Manifest Destiny and Monroe Doctrine and even Bill Clinton's Building a Bridge to the Twenty-First Century. Might the September 11 events be so traumatic that fundamental change will occur in the American mindset? And there might be something compelling and revealing psychologically in one of President George W. Bush's statements when, in making clear that there will be a US military response to the terrorist attacks, he said, with a hint of tears: "Look, I am a nice guy, but I've got a job to do."

There is also what is referred to as the Puritan Spirit that infused original settlers from England that is still reflected today in conservative use of the mass media re advertising and perhaps on the abortion issue as well, when compared to European cousins. There is, relatedly, the Calvinist Ethic that, along with a puritanical orientation gives energy to the original Adam Smith, Malthus, etc. brand of capitalism and the type eventual capitalist democracy that emerged. Worthy of mention, too, would be the significantly verified finding over time, of John Stuart Mill's "A Journey to America." These and other works at the very least help, in part, explain a unique American mindset and foreign policy of contradiction that has often placed the superpower (a role it did not initially relish) on the wrong side of history many times, e.g., most notably, Vietnam and South Africa.

I end by commending again the psychohistorical approach of inquiry to interested analysts.



Dr. Brotherson is a Guyanese professor of political science and corporate risk-assessment consultant who resides in the USA.