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Dr. Freud, Meet Senator Santorum

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Rick Santorum has been a boon to the class I am teaching on Freud. Last week, we were covering Freudian slips when Senator Santorum generously provided a superb object lesson. Talking about government entitlement programs to a mostly white audience, Santorum proclaimed that he doesn't want to, "make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money." What? Is Dr. Freud in the house?

In his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud distinguished between three sorts of slips. With the first, the speaker immediately recognizes his real intention. For instance, there is a YouTube clip of a man filming a wedding. He zeros in on a woman's cleavage and effuses, "Nice breasts. I mean dress," and then cracks up. In the second type, the person making the faux pas is unaware of his or her intention until it is pointed out. (See the Senator McCain example below.) With the third type, the flupster vehemently denies the meaning of the slip, though the intention is bell clear to everyone else. That was Senator Santorum. He not only denied that he meant anything by using the term "blacks" in this context, he refused to acknowledge that he used the word. The red-faced candidate even insisted that no one in the press corps heard the term "black" -- which is patently absurd. When I played the clip for my class, everyone distinctly caught the word. Chatting with Fox's Bill O'Reilly, Santorum bumbled,"I looked at that, and I didn't say that. If you look at it, what I started to say is a word and then sort of changed and it sort of -- blah -- came out. And people said I said 'black.' I didn't." Not much, he didn't.

Freud explained that slips of the tongue were the product of conflicting intentions. On the one hand, Santorum wanted to talk about moving people from welfare to work and, on the other, there seems to be a part of him that has soaked up the old stereotypes of the black, welfare-queen driving around in her Cadillac with a six pack on the front seat. Of course, Santorum couldn't fess up to the fact that like most of us, the poison of race has seeped into some layer of his mind. But then again, this is a man who has made his own personal integrity a key piece of his campaign. And yet he seems to lack the mettle to simply own up to what he said and millions have heard. Would it destroy his quest for the presidency? Perhaps. But being a person of integrity requires being able to take a hit when morals collide with aspirations.

John McCain also provided a fillip to those of us trying to bring Freudian lessons home. Having recently endorsed Romney, Senator McCain was speaking at a rally on the issue of the economy and he burbled, "I am confident with the leadership and the backing of the American people, President Obama will turn this country around." Everyone save the senator seemed to recognize the mistake when someone leaned in to correct him. McCain immediately responded, "Excuse me, President Romney!" Given all of McCain's past criticisms of the former governor and the fact that the needle has been steadily moving in the right direction in the economy, you have to wonder if McCain wasn't speaking his true mind in the first edition of his comment.

Either way, with candidates so pre-programed today, it might be appropriate for those of us trying to glimpse into what our presidential hopefuls really think and feel to bring a little Freudian understanding to those moments when something genuine seems to glint through in a Freudian slip.