06/09/2008 07:43 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Politics on the Couch: Paranoid Anxiety, Splitting, and Racism

What follows is the third section of my new book, Politics on the Couch. Because we live in an interactive world and this election is an interactive process, I am conducting a new experiment - posting sections of the manuscript twice weekly on my blog at and inviting readers' comments which may be folded into the final print edition.

Politics on the Couch: Paranoid anxiety, splitting, and racism

It intensified the day after Hillary Clinton endorsed Barack Obama for president - the question on everyone's mind but rarely spoken aloud, "Is the United States a racist nation?" The opinion section of the New York Times ran the headline, ""Where Whites Draw the Line", and its equivalent in the Washington Post read "When Dreams Collide" - sporting pictures of a feminist rally along side an MLK march. How will racism, hidden and overt, affect Obama's chances? More subtly, if the war on terror is a fear-based war against Muslim extremists, how will people respond to Obama's middle name, Hussein?

What is it about racism that might be psychologically hard-wired or even understandable as an unwanted result of normal mental development? Elements of racism - born from a fear of an unfamiliar other - are not simply culturally or class-based. Research has shown that infants' first images are incomplete ones of the mother's breast, the feeding bottle, her hair or smile, but not of the whole person. Thus a baby with colic can see the breast as a threat one day, and a pleasurable source of nourishment on another. The baby must keep these two images apart, to keep the one imbued with anger and aggression from impinging on the one seen as loving.

This mental "splitting" (discussed in a previous blog) is followed by "stranger anxiety" that appears at about 8 months of age. The infant manages fears by relocating them in the environment, as a further form of self-protection. The good stays inside; the bad is the outside unknown. Parents are familiar with a toddler's suspicion that something usually seen as good becomes bad when contaminated by the unfamiliar - the simplest example being that the smallest speck of green parsley can spoil a whole plate of mac and cheese.

Childhood terrors are mostly self-created, powered by fear of the dangerous unknown. Before the advent of mass media made African-American sports heroes and entertainment stars as familiar as the next-door neighbor, it was entirely up to the parents of many white children to feed or dispel the fear of the strange other. Racism is becoming a non-issue for younger voters who don't use ethnic differences to define their friendships. The under-thirty generation grew up not just with Usher, Oprah, and LeBron - they saw black mayors and black actors portraying presidents and senators on TV - and it was completely natural. Those paranoid feelings that older white voters may still harbor get reignited by figures like Reverend Wright, and by members of the media who fan racist flames.

In times of war, foreigners and even non-white Americans, were sources of fear. Prison camps in Arizona, California, and elsewhere housed as many as 100,000 American citizens of Japanese descent in WWII. Now we fear Arab-Americans. An Obama campaign operative told me that his proudest moment in West Virginia was when he actually got a voter to change his mind - after an hour-long discussion, he convinced him that Obama was not Muslim.

Many have transferred their fear of the unknown from African-Americans to Muslims, Paul Krugman's hopeful column (NYT June 9) "It's a Different Country," notwithstanding. Because of this, voters may choose a known McCain - even while fully recognizing the disastrous consequences of such a choice - over an unknown Obama who might raise taxes and who might give in to the terrorists. It is easy to displace general paranoid fear about the future - whether about gas prices or jobs - onto an African-American whom they worry isn't up to the job.

What we have is a fused paranoia - fear of the black part of Obama merged with the Hussein part of his name. Such a merger was emphasized by Fox News "analyst" - someone very far from a psychoanalyst - Liz Trotta who said that "And now we have what some are reading as a suggestion that somebody knock off Osama, un Obama. Well, both if we could." In my opinion, her so-called joke could not have been spontaneous or unscripted.

But just as there is a whole kernel of wheat in every Wheaties flake, there may be some legitimate basis for this paranoid fusion in the minds of many Americans. During the heat of the Black Power movement in the late 1960s, for instance, many leaders converted to Islam and took Islamic names. Boxer Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali; basketball player Lew Alcindor became Kareem Abdul Jabbar; jazz critic and playwright LeRoi Jones became Amiri Baraka; and Black Panther H. Rap Brown became Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin.

The question posed at the beginning of this blog is no longer so simple, for we must wonder not only whether America is a racist nation but what form of racism we're talking about. It is clear that whatever the form, racism is based on fear - some of which is in fact consistent with psychic development. It is natural for the baby to fear strangers; it is even natural for the child to hate green specks in the mac and cheese. Could the baby be right? After all, one bad apple does spoil a barrel, and a single gunshot - more than one time in America's saga - changed history.

I agree with Obama when he said, as he claimed victory on June 3, that Americans "don't deserve" another election "that's governed by fear." But fear is a natural and normal and part of the human condition; it just shouldn't be the basis of how we vote. Obama would do well to talk about fear - that it is natural for people to fear the unknown and, by extension, be wary of him - and that it is nothing to be ashamed of or denied. Therefore I want stress one aspect of FDR's 1933 inaugural address: The problem is not fear but fear of fear. If we accept fear as part of the human condition we need not be ashamed of feeling it.

What scares you about the candidates, the media, and yourself?
How can voters tell the difference between paranoid anxiety that distorts and suspicions that may contain some truth?

How have our suspicions and fears changed over the years?

Next: True and False Reparation

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