Native informant

The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there--L.P. Hartley
There was a report recently that Abercrombie & Fitch was in trouble for having an insufficient number of dark-skinned people in their catalogs. Quite reasonable of course, but I flashed back to forty years ago at proverbially liberal Swarthmore. We were watching the World Series in a dorm rec room, and we all burst into applause when, for the first time any of us could recall, there was one (1) "Negro" in a TV commercial. The sponsor presumably survived this daring act, and soon there were more.

I'm over sixty now, and I'm finally getting that feeling that I was alive way back in History, in the Dark Ages before television, when there were sixteen major league baseball (we didn't capitalize it back then) teams, none further south or west than St. Louis; when a long distance call was a big enough deal that it usually meant someone had died; when women were expected to keep their hair the color it would naturally be, to the point that there were commercials with the suggestively inexplicit phrase "Does she or doesn't she?" to imply the opposite possibility. (There was the even more dangerous vision of men coloring their hair, but that would at most be a refusal to accept grayness, rather than an unmanly desire for ornamentation)

One difference that comes to mind is that we took Sigmund Freud seriously in a way that may be unimaginable today. It's something of a commonplace now that the intellectual classes were influenced by Freud and Marx, and that trickled down to the masses, but Freud was far more pervasive, perhaps because his theories were not the target of a governmental persecution campaign or because no entire country had gone down the toilet by following them.

It should of course be made clear that, as is usual in such cases, Freud himself had not been a Freudian. For instance, he had made it clear that he didn't believe his methods could work on psychosis, and in general he had the proper modesty of the scientist, knowing that his theories are but hypotheses, subject to later correction and modification. His American disciples, however, thought he was being overly shy.

And so in the 50s there was analysis terminable and interminable (as the Founder himself had said), much of it approaching the latter. Being in analysis was a status symbol (another phrase that gained currency in those days).

Because Freud's theory was considered a science of universal applicability, it presumably could be used on people without their knowledge and consent. The big scare book about that was Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders, which warned that powerful symbolic meanings could sway purchasers at a subconscious level. Shortly after reading the book, I was watching television and saw a gasoline commercial featuring a close-up of the gas nozzle entering the tank. Aha! Well, not aha. It soon became clear that Freudian theories, like all the other theories in the advertising biz, worked on pretty much a chance basis, and now one of the most successful brand names in the world is Microsoft.

Freud himself had a calm approach to homosexuality, but in moralistic America, the very idea brought horror. This led to an emphasis on the remarkable concept of latent homosexuality. It was used rather as the Thomists used substance vs. accidents or the Marxists used the term objectively. What they sought didn't seem to be there, but the theory predicted it, so it was REALLY there. In particular, if a man didn't settle down with one woman and have children, he was REALLY homosexual. This approach reached its peak in the writings of the remarkable Dr. Edmund Bergler, the Savonarola of the Freudian creed, who described all sex he didn't like as Neurotic Counterfeit-Sex. (He also wrote The Writer and Psychoanalysis, in which, with his usual love for the universal quantifier, he proclaimed that all writer's block was caused by early weaning. The second edition included an afterword diagnosing the mental illnesses of all those who had failed to recognize the truth of the first edition.)

It was this concept of latent homosexuality that had a great deal to do with what turned me against Freud: the 1964 Fact magazine article that warned against Barry Goldwater's candidacy on psychiatric grounds.

Look: I didn't vote for the guy. It was my first election, and I voted for the candidate who was supposedly not going to send half a million Americans into an Asian land war, and I will always feel like something of an abused voter. But here were these supposed medical scientists telling me that one of the presidential candidates was crazy, was a "latent homosexual" who had said, "I want to be able to lob a missile into the men's room at the Kremlin." (That's the evidence. Really. His no less heterosexual rival had remarked, "I never trust a man until I have his pecker in my pocket," but that was not adduced.) Could the political beliefs of these scientists have something to do with their judgments? One Thomas Szasz, previously unknown to me, certainly thought so.

In retrospect, it is easy to see how much of the apparently scientific discussion of mental problems reduced to Blaming Mommy. The great horrible example of this approach was Bruno Bettelheim, whose treatment of the kids in his care eventually got him the name of Benno Brutalheim, deciding that all (there's that word again) autism was the result of "refrigerator moms" who didn't love the kids enough.

One particular type of input was lacking. Freud had made the memorable statement that he did not know what a woman wanted, and the more one looked at his writings, the more evidence one found of precisely that.

There probably weren't enough women in the movement to tell him different, even if he had been willing to listen. (Though as usually happens, there were more than history told about.) Freud had concluded that women can have two kinds of orgasm--clitoral and vaginal--and that these are, respectively, immature and mature.

It was assumed for years that this was, like so much else in the Freudian approach, not subject to experimental falsification, or at least that the standards of decent society would never allow such a test. But just as those standards were violated by Dr. Kinsey, asking questions that determined that the deviants were nowhere near as alone as they had thought, so there were eventually actual physiological tests violating the supposed sanctity of the Act and determining (I cannot resist putting it this way) that female satisfaction need not depend on the master's johnson. The feminist movement might not have brought into existence by those results, but it immediately had clear evidence that Freud and those who followed him failed to understand women in a crucial way.

By now, we may have reached the point where it is necessary to remember that there were good parts to Freud. He had genuine wit, his theories were useful in the particular circumstances of early-20th-century Austria, and some of the mechanisms he discovered, such as projection, still work when the bad parts of his theory are removed.