Friday, April 6, 2018

Karen Horney, Philip Greven, and the childhood roots of authoritarianism and resistance

This post officially kicks off my series on authoritarianism. It begins to respond to several psychological and psycho-social questions: What causes aggression-authoritarianism in individuals? What accounts for the growth of authoritarian movements? How can we best resist them in the present and prevent their rise in the future?

Horney, Freud, and the childhood roots of authoritarianism

In previous posts, I discussed Donald Trump as a case study of Horney’s aggressive neurotic type. As I’ve noted, both Horney and her colleague Erich Fromm – whose account of authoritarianism I’ll discuss in an upcoming series of posts – were trained in the Freudian tradition. While both developed their theories in the course of working with clients and with anthropologists, sociologists, and political theorists, Horney in a sense stayed truer to her Freudian origins in retaining a focus on childhood.

This apparent similarity is misleading, though. Freud’s arguments, as Horney discussed in depth in her critical New Ways in Psychoanalysis (1939), in fact revolved around alleged instincts and stages of development common to all (presumptively male) humans; childhood experiences largely derived from the conflict between these drives and the pressures of socialization. In contrast, Horney believed Freud’s claims about innate drives lacked evidentiary support. She contended that the only innate human drive was toward healthy development. So, in her view, childhood experience fundamentally mattered, as it could either provide the conditions and support for this healthy growth or thwart it, leading to long-term psychological problems.

The fundamental difference between these two frameworks led Horney and Freud to have profoundly different views regarding individual mental health, the psychological roots of political and moral development, and the causes of fascism. Freud viewed the rise of Nazism as the inevitable resurgence of aggressive, violent, destructive instinctual drives which “civilization” could never truly suppress or contain.1 Horney, in sharp contrast, traced aggressive-authoritarian tendencies and movements not to ancient and immutable instinctive drives but to concrete conditions in childhood that prevent healthy psychological development.

Understanding these conditions is essential to understanding contemporary rightwing movements and their leaders, as can be seen in a recent article by Rebecca Solnit - “The Loneliness of Donald Trump: On the Corrosive Privilege of the Most Mocked Man in the World.” Solnit’s otherwise brilliant and insightful piece2 unfortunately falls into standard assumptions about Trump’s character. Here’s her description of Trump’s maturation:
Once upon a time, a child was born into wealth and wanted for nothing, but he was possessed by bottomless, endless, grating, grasping wanting, and wanted more, and got it, and more after that, and always more. He was a pair of ragged orange claws upon the ocean floor, forever scuttling, pinching, reaching for more, a carrion crab, a lobster and a boiling lobster pot in one, a termite, a tyrant over his own little empires. He got a boost at the beginning from the wealth handed him and then moved among grifters and mobsters who cut him slack as long as he was useful, or maybe there’s slack in arenas where people live by personal loyalty until they betray, and not by rules, and certainly not by the law or the book. So for seven decades, he fed his appetites and exercised his license to lie, cheat, steal, and stiff working people of their wages, made messes, left them behind, grabbed more baubles, and left them in ruin.
Here, Trump’s “bottomless, endless, grating, grasping” greed – presented, unfortunately, with animal imagery – is an unexplained inborn quality, as are his ruthlessness and dishonesty, his destructiveness and irresponsibility, and his attraction to thugs and conmen. If the conditions of his childhood played any role in the development of these traits, it was simply in providing the material comforts and privilege that confirmed him as a spoiled brat.

But by all accounts, Trump’s father was a cold and neglectful parent who taught him to view the world as a hostile place. His older brother suffered terribly until his death of despair, from alcoholism, at age 43. When Trump began to behave aggressively as an adolescent, it was seen not as a natural response to abusive treatment or a bid for recognition from a rejecting parent but as a disciplinary issue, and he was promptly shipped off to a military-style institution where he, like many others, was further abused (and which to this day he praises, as victims often do, for its violence).

Tony Schwartz, who ghostwrote The Art of the Deal, offers this description in a recent article:
There are two Trumps. The one he presents to the world is all bluster, bullying and certainty. The other, which I have long felt haunts his inner world, is the frightened child of a relentlessly critical and bullying father and a distant and disengaged mother who couldn’t or wouldn’t protect him.

“That’s why I’m so screwed up, because I had a father who pushed me so hard,” Trump acknowledged in 2007, in a brief and rare moment of self-awareness.”
We tend to treat people with materially comfortable childhoods as having wanted for nothing, and to draw the conclusion that their greed, callousness, or authoritarianism were inborn or the natural result of their wealth and position. But in case after case, when we’re able to look beyond their wealth, we see patterns of abuse and neglect in the youthful experiences of rich rightwingers. Indeed, I’m often struck by the casual revelations of some of Trump’s associates. To take one small example, a recent article in the New York Times about his mendacious goon of a lawyer, Michael Cohen, contains this suggestive anecdote: “In an interview, Mr. Cohen said he became a lawyer to appease one of his grandmothers, who threatened to leave him out of her will if he did not. ‘You don’t really have any money’, he said he replied, ‘to which she slapped me across my face’.”

The Koch brothers had a bullying father and a sadistic nanny. Indeed, many of those at the center of the Kochs’ neoliberal crusade, as described in Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, were similarly ill-treated. (Ironically, this cruelty is often defended as a means of protecting a wealthy child from becoming spoiled or dissolute, as though the only options for parenting were strict and abusive discipline or nothing.)

Trump himself appears to be a bullying, hyper-critical parent. The saddest stories, which are also tragically typical, are those told by his children with a desperate justificatory pride.

Children and authoritarianism in power - can anti-authoritarianism be taught?

Horney’s arguments speak not only to individual cases but to broader questions surrounding the rise of authoritarian and fascistic movements. Her childhood focus can also help us to develop thoughtful and effective means of helping children contend with the political reality of authoritarianism and develop into decent, compassionate people capable of resisting authoritarianism.

In 1939, Horney published a short piece in the journal Child Study on “Children and the War.” Addressed to readers, therapists, and parents in the countries not (yet) under occupation or at war, the article sought to engage not just with the question of how to respond to the war but of how to respond to the rise of fascist movements and regimes.

Then as now, in a moment when authoritarians have come to power and are making aggressive war, destroying democratic institutions, and violating human rights at home and abroad, Horney’s focus on the longer-term psychological effects of childhood experience might seem a luxury irrelevant to immediate needs. “Children and the War” does focus on some immediate matters, including fears about the war among children resident in countries at peace, the anxiety of boys who could potentially be called to war,3 and the challenges of speaking with children about the realities of war and persecution:
The war is a reality which parents cannot, even if they would, keep from their children…. When they come to us complaining of the meanness or injustice which they run into, few of us have the courage to let them know that meanness and injustice are among the realities they will have to learn to cope with. Invariably we try to justify the meanness, to explain away the injustice, to insist on the silver lining in what is sometimes just a black cloud. Perhaps we do all these things because the amount of ruthlessness and cruelty apparent today in the expansion drives of nations the world over is genuinely terrifying. We are frightened, moreover, because similar aggressive drives on a personal plane exist within ourselves. (229)
Horney addresses the central problem of parents who reject or resist the advance of authoritarianism – how to help children to develop as kind and honorable people under these unfavorable conditions:
For most parents, the problems presented by the war are problems in moral education rather than in psychiatric technique. First of all, it is necessary that they think their way through these problems as best they can. How have we ourselves been able to cling to any standards of decency in a world where ruthlessness and cruelty not only are prevalent but seem at times to be victorious? Are we clear as to the meaning of the old warning, ‘What profiteth a man if he gain the whole world, yet lose his soul’, and can we help make it clear to our children? (232-3)
Importantly, she rejects the didactic approach favored by many resisters:
This is the real problem, and if they grasp it, parents will not waste their time by moral preaching, by books describing the horrors of war and the beauties of peace, or by prohibiting war toys, guns, games, and stories of violence. These things never yet caused a child to become aggressive and warlike. They are merely the vehicles through which he expresses his need of aggression. Some of this need…is to be expected in the normal course of things; and, if development proceeds as it should, will in time be spontaneously supplanted by other desires and activities. War and the need to hate and destroy can be eliminated not by learning to hate war but by learning to love life. And the love of life starts in the nursery. It is all-important that the parents’ early relation to children should be free of elements which tend to arouse fears and feelings of hate which last throughout life. (233; emphasis added)
This passage is central to the import of Horney’s psychoanalytic approach to ethics and politics. Her basic contention is that helping children to become people capable of rejecting and opposing authoritarianism, and of being decent human beings generally, isn’t done through (or not only through) providing a “civic education” or preaching peace, love, tolerance, and other values, but through treating children themselves with dignity, respect, appreciation, and love. “A child who is rejected by his parents often cannot consciously hate them,” she argues, “but he ends by hating Germans, Jews, or the ‘enemy’, in whatever guise it is presented” (233).

Certainly, Horney appreciated that historical and sociological facts and positive values need to be imparted to children:
Our explanations must be simple, but in making them simple, we must guard against their becoming untrue. It does children no harm to be forced to realize that there are problems beyond their grasp – beyond adults’ grasp, too, for that matter; and that there are certain things for which they will have to wait until they are older if they are really to understand. (233)
Our older children, however, should be given a glimpse into the complexities of the scene and perhaps need training in something we call historic perspective…. They need a gradual induction into the problems of the human race, which includes a realization of the cruelties and the follies which are inescapable but which also gives them a vision of the aspirations of man and a hope for something better. (233)
But she argued that this education was insufficient, and would fall on infertile ground when children aren’t raised in a family and community environment in which these ideas and values are practiced or when children aren’t treated in accordance with them:
These are the lessons of a lifetime and cannot be imparted formally; they are implicit in the kind of family life of which the child is part and the kind of social attitudes to which he is subjected. If these are sound, children’s values, too, are likely to develop soundly and parents will not be tempted to overstuff children with principles and information which they do not want and which fail to meet their needs. They will be able to listen more attentively to what their sons and daughters are really concerned with instead of rushing to tell them what they, the parents, think they ought to hear. Otherwise, they will shoot wide of the mark and have nothing to offer children in their struggle toward maturity. (233-4; emphasis added)4 5
The Christian Right and authoritarianism by design

Horney’s work on the childhood roots of authoritarianism and anti-authoritarianism, significantly, serves not just as a source of valuable advice for parents and caretakers but as a lens through which we can understand the rise of authoritarianism in different times and places. After all, childcare isn’t idiosyncratic – people adopt approaches based in tradition, culture, religion, law, and political and scientific views. Trump and other aggressive-authoritarians are products of their familial/childhood environments, but these environments themselves are shaped by larger political and cultural forces.

It appears, though this remains somewhat speculative, that the Christian Right in the US over the past several decades has intuitively grasped the importance of abusive “childrearing” to the continued growth of their political movement. In his 2009 Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party, Max Blumenthal, drawing heavily on Philip Greven’s 1990 Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment,6 suggests that the “childrearing” movement led by James Dobson of Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council has worked to mold two generations of authoritarian adults. Dobson is
a quintessential strict father whose influence has been compared by journalistic observers to that of a cult leader. Unlike most of his peers, Dobson had no theological credentials or religious training. He was a child psychologist who burst onto the scene with a best-selling book that urged beating children into submission in order to restore the respect for God and government that America’s youth had lost during the 1960s. (10)
In fact, Dobson’s methods were explicitly conceived as a “backlash against liberalism” (61), aimed at creating authoritarian footsoldiers. As he began his crusade in the 1960s, he attributed challenges to authority to the influence of the popular pediatrician Dr. Spock, arguing that “we have sacrificed this generation on the altar of overindulgence, permissiveness, and smother-love” (quoted on p. 56). Dobson “envisioned himself as Spock’s foil,” believing that
if his teachings reached a wide enough audience, they would forge a new generation of loyal counter-revolutionaries that would return America to the golden days of the 1950s – where boys once again wore pants, girls wore skirts, and, as he wrote, ‘Farmer John could take his sassy son out to the back forty acres and get his mind straight’. (56-7)
the issues that he claims galvanized his activism – abortion and the gay rights movement – were practically irrelevant to Dobson when he first entered the political arena. In the beginning, Dobson was fixated on inducing the submission of unruly children to authority. (53)
Blumenthal discusses Dobson’s two major manuals, Dare to Discipline (1970) and The Strong-Willed Child (1992). While the first “urged parents to beat their young children” (57), the second “extended his advocacy of corporal punishment to unruly household pets” (58) - since both children and dogs were “preternaturally prone to rebellion…both should be ‘crushed’ with violent force” (58). Dobson would have liked to apply his disciplinary methods beyond the family sphere, but had to settle for the time being for offering suggestions to those in power: “Because student radicals were beyond the reach of parental authority, Dobson outlined a ten-point plan that school administrators and law enforcement officers could use to induce their submission instead” (58).

Blumenthal suggests that Dobson’s social-engineering project has found some success: his “draconian methods for ending childhood rebellion…have helped cultivate the authoritarian sensibility of the radical right-wing movement he commands today” (53). As Greven argues in Spare the Child, “Dobson’s violent child-rearing methods served an underlying purpose, producing droves of activists embarked on an authoritarian mission.” In Greven’s words:
The persistent ‘conservatism’ of American politics and society is rooted in large part in the physical violence done to children. The roots of this persistent tilt towards hierarchy, enforced order, and absolute authority – so evident in Germany earlier in [the twentieth] century and in the radical right in America today – are always traceable to aggression against children’s wills and bodies, to the pain and the suffering they experience long before they, as adults, confront the complex issues of the polity, the society, and the world. (quoted on p. 62; emphasis added)
Anecdotally, many of the leaders of the US rightwing, particularly the Christian Right, were themselves victims of childhood abuse. (Greven opens his book with quotations from Billy Graham’s mother and George H.W. Bush’s brother discussing their fathers’ physical punishments.) I’ve already discussed Trump and his associates. Dobson himself was abused by his mother, according to Blumenthal. Newt Gingrich’s stepfather “savagely beat him and his mother” (87). Mike Huckabee, as Blumenthal describes, celebrates parental abuse in his public performances:
The only way to heal the nation’s pain, Huckabee proclaimed, was to mete it out to the young rebellious ones. Again, he channeled Dobson. ‘Yes, I do believe the old-fashioned ways of discipline are good ones’, he remarked with a wry smile. ‘I was the recipient of quite a few. I tell people “My father was the most patriotic man I think I knew. Utter patriotism. He laid on the stripes; I saw stars.” True American patriotism!’ For the first time, Huckabee’s enraptured audience burst into spontaneous applause. (261) 7
The results obtained by Samuel and Pearl Oliner in their extensive research on altruism in the Holocaust, described in the 1988 The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe, suggest – consistent with Horney’s arguments - a strong link between the environments in which children are raised and their adult tendency toward altruism or authoritarianism. (I should note that these findings also confirm Horney’s sense that it isn’t parents’ or caretakers’ political views or moral and civic pedagogy that are paramount in raising children capable of altruism and resistance to authoritarianism, but the environment of tolerance, compassion, and respect in which they grow and learn.)

It’s not a big stretch to hypothesize, based on this knowledge, that some cultures and institutions (particularly schools) will tend on average to produce more authoritarian adults, and from there to surmise that some people have grasped this and intentionally designed childhood environments with the end goal of creating authoritarians. This sort of authoritarian social engineering is precisely what Dobson and his movement have openly advocated and practiced. In this context, we need to pay close attention to the fact that a representative of the Prince family, long a major funder of Dobson’s organization, is the current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

The psychological and political ramifications of this abusive culture are many. There’s a feedback loop in which childhood abuse feeds what Blumenthal calls a “culture of crisis” in the Christian Right, grounded in what Christopher Stroop describes as “an essentially cynical view of human nature as hopelessly corrupt.” This view in turn encourages personal submission to authoritarian-hierarchical and anti-democratic movements and ideologies and engenders a profound contempt for humanity. Naturally, this all justifies perpetuating the abuse of children, and on it goes.

Horney’s and Greven’s work offers important insights for today. First, and most important, is their appreciation of the centrality of childhood in the formation of the aggressive-authoritarian character, which enables a far richer – and more compassionate – understanding of contemporary authoritarians and what drives them. Second is their recognition that a didactic approach to cultivating anti-authoritarian resistance is insufficient, while treating children with respect, kindness, consideration, and justice is not only the key to their own happiness and ability to cope with trying political conditions but necessary for the struggle against authoritarianism to succeed. Last is their awareness of how authoritarian approaches to raising children can be consciously promoted and institutionalized by rightwing movements for political purposes, creating a vicious cycle of abuse and justification from which it’s difficult for people to break free.

1 Herbert Marcuse, debating with Erich Fromm from an orthodox Freudian position he mistakenly took for politically radical, cited Freud’s “hypothesis” about the role of the so-called Death Instinct in the first World War:
“Think of the colossal brutality, cruelty and mendacity which is now allowed to spread itself over the civilized world,” Freud argued. “Do you really believe that a handful of unprincipled placehunters and corrupters of men would have succeeded in letting loose all this latent evil, if the millions of their followers were not also guilty?” (quoted in Marcuse’s 1965 “The Social Implications of Freudian Revisionism”)
2 Solnit argues for a “democracy of mind and heart, as well as economy and polity,” making a compelling case for the connection between political-social-economic justice and epistemic justice and the importance of the latter to our individual well-being:
Equality keeps us honest. Our peers tell us who we are and how we are doing, providing that service in personal life that a free press does in a functioning society. Inequality creates liars and delusion. The powerless need to dissemble—that’s how slaves, servants, and women got the reputation of being liars—and the powerful grow stupid on the lies they require from their subordinates and on the lack of need to know about others who are nobody, who don’t count, who’ve been silenced or trained to please. This is why I always pair privilege with obliviousness; obliviousness is privilege’s form of deprivation. When you don’t hear others, you don’t imagine them, they become unreal, and you are left in the wasteland of a world with only yourself in it, and that surely makes you starving, though you know not for what, if you have ceased to imagine others exist in any true deep way that matters. This is about a need for which we hardly have language or at least not a familiar conversation.
3 Horney offers that a boy’s conflicts “will be heightened, of course, if his home is one in which the ‘sissy’ is despised and physical cowardice regarded as shameful,” noting that “whatever his parents’ attitude, that of society remains the same…he cannot avoid the conclusion that a man, if called, must fight for his country.” Her general counsel: “The boy needs help in facing his real fears and working out greater self-respect and assurance of his personal worth and of his dignity” (232).

4 Again, the argument isn’t that explicit moral, political, and historical lessons have no value, but that they’re insufficient and far less powerful when children exposed to these teachings are themselves treated disrespectfully or abusively.

5 One problem Horney didn’t address in this article is the fact that the psychological problems of caretakers and teachers tend to make it difficult for them, even when they honestly try to help children to become capable of rejecting and resisting authoritarianism, to avoid repeating the very behaviors – disrespect, abuse, neglect, criticism, control, etc. – that undermine the valuable message. More generally, Horney understood that recognizing and addressing one’s own psychological issues, including but not limited to one’s own authoritarian tendencies, was essential to being able to raise anti-authoritarian children.

6 He could equally have discussed Alice Miller’s 1991 For Your Own Good, which Greven cites repeatedly and describes in Spare the Child (xiii) as “of profound importance to anyone who cares about reshaping the ways in which we rear and discipline children.” (I'll have much more to say about this book in future posts.)

7 I should note that while there’s no public evidence of which I’m aware that Huckabee was an abusive parent, his daughter’s authoritarianism and his son’s involvement in the torture death of a dog, as well as their father’s public pronouncements, suggest that they may have been raised in a violent, or at least authoritarian, environment. I should also note that Huckabee plagiarized this line from Oral Roberts. In his 1952 Oral Roberts’ Life Story, he wrote “Papa believed in the stars and stripes. He put on the stripes and Vaden [his brother] and I saw the stars” (quoted in Greven, Spare the Child, 26).

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