Sobran Column -- A Century of Psychobabble
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A Century of Psychobabble

December 9, 1999

He never lets you down. A reporter asked: “How much of the pain you went through last year was self-inflicted and how much due to excesses by other people — political, and Mr. Starr’s excesses, sir?”

Clenching his jaw, Bill Clinton replied snappishly: “Well, the mistake I made was self-inflicted, and the misconduct of others was not.” Clinton was guilty only of a “mistake,” victimizing only himself, while Kenneth Starr and the Republicans were guilty of injurious “misconduct.”

Presidents have to make many tough decisions, such as whether to drop their trousers in the Oval Office, and Clinton admits he goofed on that one. But those who tried to determine whether he perjured himself and obstructed justice committed, in his mind, more serious offenses. When Bill Clinton wrestles with his conscience, there can be only one winner.

“Mistake” is the language of self-exculpating psychobabble, used by indicted mayors and baseball players caught gambling. It suggests a single, almost involuntary act, not a deliberate pattern of action involving concerted attempts to deceive the courts and the public.

[Breaker quote: From 
Freud to 
Clinton]Clinton is obsessed with his “legacy,” as if that were separable from what in the Kennedy era was called a president’s “image.” Clinton’s “image” will be what it already is: an absurdly bawdy one. He will forever be remembered and imagined as the middle-aged adolescent sneaking a girl into the Oval Office for sex games. He is the only president to spawn a virtual industry of dirty jokes, humiliating his wife and daughter. He still uses his “mistake” (it was “only about sex”) to distract us from the associated lies and crimes pursuant thereto.

It’s somehow fitting that a century of psychobabble, launched by Sigmund Freud, should end with Clinton. Since Freud, psychology has tended toward a determinism that denies moral responsibility, since we are governed by “unconscious” drives and fears.

Today every literate person knows how to use Freudian lingo: id, ego, superego, unconscious, subconscious, Oedipus complex, penis envy, phallic symbol, castration anxiety, oral-anal-genital stages of development, repressed memory, displacement, father figure, projection, sibling rivalry, wish-fulfillment fantasy, trauma, polymorphous perversity, neurosis, denial, reality principle, and of course that ultimate “mistake,” the Freudian “slip.”

These dubious concepts have cluttered our powers of expression. We didn’t really need Freud to tell us that our desires are often at war with our consciences, or that children fight with their siblings. Most of his other “insights” — that, for example, little girls wish they had male parts — are now widely recognized as nonsense.

Still, Freud has spread the notion that to diagnose all is to forgive all — and that we can earn absolution for our sins by diagnosing ourselves as helpless beings in the grip of dimly understood motives. Freud convinced an age that worshipped science that he had found “scientific” explanations of the human mind, just as Marx claimed to have invented “scientific socialism.”

This ideology was as fraudulent as Marxism, but even more contagious. It permeates modern culture, including pop culture. The Freudian faith still burns brightly in literary criticism and biography; it sounds “deep” and “knowing,” and has given new life to the ever popular sport of motive-hunting. Philosopher Colin McGinn writes in The New York Review of Books that Freud offers “the heady joys of explanatory omniscience.... Freud makes us feel we are party to the dark and thrilling truth about ourselves, brave spirits in a blind world. It is all very appealing, very worldly and wised-up.”

The beauty of Freudianism is that it works two ways, arbitarily, and without any regulating method. You can use it to excuse, as when Hillary Clinton said her husband had been “scarred by abuse” as a child; or you can, with equal convenience, use it to accuse, by reductively “diagnosing” an enemy without seeming overtly hostile: instead of calling him evil, you can “expose” him as “sick.” (He’s no good, but, poor fellow, he can’t help it.)

Even totally baseless assertions about the unconscious mind can’t always be easily falsified. This too is convenient for the purpose of seeming sophisticated.

Freud’s real legacy is one of repression: the repression of common sense.

Joseph Sobran

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