Column: ‘A whole climate of opinion’

Published on March 10, 2015.

Can psychoanalysis explain politics and through it perhaps history itself? From time to time, we may feel tempted to reach for our idiot’s guide to Freud or Jung to understand what makes, say, a senator like Ferdinand Marcos Jr. say truly head-scratching things.

For instance, he once tweeted: “Kahit na maging maayos ang usapan natin sa MILF, kung hindi naman kasama [sa peace agreement] ang BIFF, bakit pa tayo pipirma ng BBL?” His tweet raises the question whether he understands that the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is in fact the outcome of arduous negotiations with one insurgency movement, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and not with other separatist movements, such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, the relatively new splinter group. “Even if our discussion with the MILF is in order, if the BIFF is not included, why should we sign the BBL?”

Does a childhood trauma perhaps explain why Marcos would wish to include a third party in a two-party negotiation? Is there a hidden or unacknowledged motive in his use of an impossible criterion for signing off on the new law implementing the peace agreement with the MILF?

I do not mean any disrespect, and I certainly am not being facetious, but I was led to these questions, or rather this type of question, because I had the wonderful privilege of meeting the pioneer psychohistorian Peter Loewenberg, professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles, over the weekend.

Let me borrow the words of Jacques Szaluta, a contributor to a festschrift in honor of Dr. Loewenberg, to place the professor in the right perspective.

“Professor Peter Loewenberg is the premier psychohistorian who has been a pioneer and an activist in the field. His corpus of publications has been prodigious, consisting of several books and numerous outstanding articles and reviews. Not only has he been a distinguished professor at the University of California at Los Angeles… he was one of the first professional historians to become a psychoanalyst, leading the way to integrating psychoanalytic theory and insights with history… he has been recognized by invitations to teach in numerous countries, and in the last few years he has taught, for periods of several weeks, promoting psychohistory and psychoanalysis in Beijing and Shanghai…”

A review of one of his books, “Decoding the Past,” offers a much shorter introduction to the man: Loewenberg, John J. Fitzpatrick, wrote, is the “pre-eminent authority in the field of psychohistory.”

I myself have a mixed view of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, not completely convinced by the validity of his basic insight into the human condition, or at least its universal applicability, but acknowledging his influence on modern culture (rivaled only by the likes of Albert Einstein).

In “Cultural History and Psychoanalysis,” Loewenberg writes precisely of that sweeping influence. “Psychoanalysis is now inseparable from Western culture. Today a psychoanalytic sensibility has a central place in the humanities, theater, film, literature, art, the media.” His list of specific influences is a bracing summary: “The existence of unconscious thought and fantasies, the ‘Freudian’ slip, the unrecognized, conflicted, ambivalent, and unacknowledged motive, the psychosexual phases of development, are a part of the everyday discourse of the media and of ordinary people—this too is the triumph and generalization of psychoanalysis in our culture. Freud is indeed, as W.H. Auden said, ‘a whole climate of opinion.’”

In a wide-ranging conversation last Sunday, Loewenberg said something that burned a hole in my head (I wonder what he will make of that analogy). We were talking about heroes, nation-shapers like Jose Rizal or George Washington, when he mentioned that he had once taught a psychohistorical seminar on nationalist leaders. (He also expressed the wish, or the hope, that if there were another such seminar he would include Rizal, whose prison cell in Fort Santiago he had just visited).

The idea that nationalist leaders, or politicians, can be studied profitably from the point of view of psychoanalysis thrilled me. What, I wonder, would he have made of President Aquino, who seems to be increasingly defined by his “comfort zone”—or of former president Gloria Arroyo, who caused her controversial husband to go on an extended vacation sometime in the middle of her extended term?

I realize his entry point is history, not the hurly-burly of politics but psychohistory, seems to me to open a new approach to understanding why, say, certain commanders in chief prefer to keep a shadow (and shadowy) structure of friends parallel to the chain of command.

When I asked what made him risk such an unusual move, from history to psychohistory, he said it was because he was dissatisfied with the usual explanations, drawn mainly from diplomatic history, for the start of World War I.

I have just started to read Loewenberg (full disclosure: He is the father of a good friend, the indispensable health journalist Sam Loewenberg), so it is still too early to insist on answers. But in one of his most referenced studies, “The Psychohistorical Origins of the Nazi Youth Cohort,” he writes: “…the relationship between the period from 1914 to 1920 and the rise and triumph of National Socialism from 1929 to 1935 is specifically generational. The war and postwar experiences of the small children and youth of World War I explicitly conditioned the nature and success of National Socialism. The new adults who became politically effective after 1929 … were the children socialized in the First World War.”

It would be deeply interesting to see whether the fate of the BBL now rests on the formative experiences during the martial law years of President Aquino and Senator Marcos.

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