Adrift Amid the Right-Wing Obscenity

I haven’t talked to anyone with mental health credentials since the early 1970s when I was a war resister. I contrast the need to be heard in a safe setting to someone objective as Chris Hedges in his recent observation about the lack of a political left in the US and the boutique nature of identity politics. Here’s Chris Hedges in his own words: “The Politics of Cultural Despair” (YouTube, October 18, 2020). Protesting in the streets in solidarity with others across differing identities beats the “talking cure” (how Freudian therapy is sometimes categorized) by light years!

Facing a new wave of Covid-19 and a presidential election that will prove both Emma Goldman and Philip Berrigan right about the futility of US elections, I feel like the boxer who has lasted either 10 or 12 rounds. A hero, Mohammed Ali, comes to mind. He suffered catastrophic head injuries by outlasting his opponents. The personal injuries he suffered by taking on and outlasting the most powerful government in the world on moral grounds during the Vietnam War are another matter.

There’s no doubt that countering a government during a war causes what lawyers and psychologists might call personal injury. A person can’t remain unscathed! My case went on for 51 years and it left its mark.There may be some who can remain unaffected. There’s Bill Clinton with his obfuscation of the military during the Vietnam War, George W. Bush with God knows what, Donald Trump with his notorious bone spurs, and people I know and knew who used every subterfuge to get out of coming within 12,000 miles of Vietnam and whom I once respected, but now often see in a much different light. Civil disobedience requires a genuine sacrifice. A physician friend of a friend’s physician father wrote my friend out of the military draft for a minor skin irritation and that does not qualify as paying a moral price. The great teachers pointing in the direction of moral choices were Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. It comes as no surprise to those who protest that they paid with their lives for their vision and actions.

The war resister and writer David Harris says it best in Our War (1996), a book still worth reading. I say it in Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017), but almost nobody cares to read it. I think most people couldn’t give a damn about the Vietnam War and its implications for the endless wars the US now fights, and social amnesia seems to affect most and they (government, mass media, and mass culture) turn war into a heroic enterprise.

An MS in counseling taught me enough to be very, very critical about psychology and psychological theories. A reading of Russell Jacoby’s Social Amnesia (1996) is a great primer about the failings of psychology and psychological theories.

Psychologists and psychiatrists overwhelmingly hold that the individual needs to fit into his or her larger society. When the psychiatrist Dr. Alfred Fireman wrote supporting my claim of not being qualified for active duty in the military, some in his profession had already condemned him for holding that in times such as the Vietnam War era, it was often the society and not the individual who was at fault.

Here’s a quote from the CIA torture case involving two psychologists, Drs. Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell who worked under contract with the CIA (“Settlement Reached in C.I.A. Torture Case,” New York Times, August 17, 2017): “The parties agreed to a joint statement in which the psychologists said that they had advised the C.I.A. and that the plaintiffs had suffered abuses, but that they were not responsible.” “First, do no harm.”

What is of interest in the C.I.A. torture case, besides the grotesque torture of detainees during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is that a battle took place within the American Psychological Association (“Psychologists Are In a Nasty Fight About A Report on Torture,” BuzzFeed.News, July 26, 2018) about psychologists taking part in interrogation techniques that are clearly banned under the Geneva Conventions and other laws of war. The American Psychiatric Association had long since condemned such practices during war.

What could be more fascistic than the separation of 545 migrant children from their parents (“Parents of 545 Children Separated at the Border Cannot Be Found,” New York Times, October 21, 2020)? The land of the free and home of the brave looks more and more like a fascist state with the passing of each day! Talk about psychological harm to children!

Look at the issues that have worsened over the past several decades: The rights of women, endless wars and the threat of nuclear war, climate destruction, the imprisonment of masses of people of color, job losses, the torment of immigrants, income inequality, the loss of basic human and civil rights, including the right to free expression, all fueled by a reactionary political climate and masses of people who care about nothing else than amassing consumer goods. A metaphorical mirror needs to be raised high above the US in which we can see how a far-right Senate panders to a probable far-right future justice while ignoring even the basic food needs of its people.

The therapeutic effect of writing has by itself clarified many of the pressing issues that have presented themselves during this pandemic and the insane debacle of US politics. The political left in the US has fallen apart and can’t seem to work together against the insane atomizing of people. The failure of political movements will not be solved for many in a therapeutic relationship. There are conditions, however, that demand therapeutic intervention, but the streets, where the left now protests in mostly distinct movements involving what’s often called identity politics, doesn’t offer much reason for hope for me anymore.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).