Freud was Wrong!
No, Freud was not right! Many basic tenets of Freud’s theory have been completely disproved. To name several: Psychosexual stages. The Oedipal complex. Belief that repressed memories from the first year of life can be unearthed. Sexual fantasy about intercourse with a parent is responsible for hysteria. Even more damning, his methods and procedures cannot be called scientific, his evidence lacks scientific credibility, and what was offered as evidence was sometimes fudged, if not outright fabricated. Not surprisingly, Freud is absented from contemporary psychological pedagogy, theory, and research. Claiming, “Freud is right!” is akin to shouting, “Long live the king!”; historical curiosities, both.
Key features of Freud’s theory, in addition to being wrong, are repugnant to modern sensibilities. Misogynist perspectives are integral to the theory and to the man. To name but a few of the more egregious: Penis envy. The moral inferiority of woman. Only psychosexually mature women can achieve vaginal orgasm, while orgasm by clitoral stimulation is evidence of stunted development. “Women oppose change, receive passively, and add nothing of their own.”1
And yet…and yet…Freud’s influence is pervasive, profound, and enduring. This may appear misguided and misinformed given the systematic disproval and pervasive disregard of his work. But his influence is deep, personal, and subterranean—dare I say unconscious— insinuating itself into our daily thoughts, beliefs, decisions, and conduct.
William James coined the term Cash Value to describe criteria to assess the merit and truth of an assertion or belief. Cash value is used metaphorically, meaning “does the assertion have practical utility; does it have real-world consequences or is it merely empty words?”2. Freud’s work is freighted with immense metaphorical— and literal— cash value.
Edward Bernays was the nephew of Freud. His mother was Freud’s sister and his father was Freud’s wife’s brother. Born in 1891, and brought to the United States with his family in the first year of his life, Bernays injected his uncle’s insights into the very marrow and bloodstream of American culture, altering its pulse and functioning—along with the rest of the world. He did so using the unique means and methods of American culture to achieve its most valued end: Cash. Life magazine named Bernays one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century.
The Darkness that Sells
Dark forces surge through us, compelling us to think, act, and scheme to satisfy our primal impulses, all outside the bright lights of consciousness. Reason is a weak voice, easily overwhelmed by our desires, or employed, along with various other means, as a defense to protect us from awareness of the real, base motives that drive our thoughts and actions. This is Freud’s foundational vision of the human psyche. It is unflattering, if not repugnant, and not widely embraced. But it is a vision with inestimable cash value; one exploited by Bernays.
Edward Bernays made his fortune, fame, and lasting influence by convincing people to buy things they don’t need, selling harmful products parading as health and beauty, rousing individuals to eagerly embrace slogans, and compelling them to surrender their individuality to the passions of the herd. He is considered to be the progenitor of public relations and is called “The Father of Spin”. He published a seminal book, Propaganda, that became Joseph Goebbels’ guidebook for his many Nazi propaganda campaigns, including developing the Fuhrer cult and orchestrating the genocide against the Jews.
Bernays became a highly sought, and extravagantly paid consultant to a number of leading businesses. His many successes include helping the American Tobacco Company to sell cigarettes to women, advertising them as glamorous “torches of freedom”; and aiding the United Fruit Company to sell bananas, and when the newly elected president of Guatemala threatened the business interests of United Fruit, Bernays persuaded the CIA and the US government—through rumors, innuendos, and manipulation of the press about a growing Communist menace—to overthrow the his government.
After World War II, Bernays rebranded “propaganda”, calling it “public relations”, giving it a more favorable spin. However labeled, his intent remained the same:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.Bernays; Propaganda
We are more firmly in the grip of the subversive forces of marketing, “public relations”, and propaganda than ever. Social media, and the entire electronic universe within which we are submerged, that invades the inner most regions of our mind, are shrewdly engineered using Freud/Bernays-inspired principles to compel our attention, impel us to embrace unexamined and unwarranted conclusions, and propel us to act passionately in ways that exploit our unconscious desires—and, also, meet the explicit aims of the social engineers.3
This is a worldwide phenomenon. We are a mob. Or mobs. Twittering, tweeting, Facebooking, “liking”, chattering, texting, Instagramming, Photo-shopping, rumoring, instigating, provoking, inciting, lying, messaging, massaging, insisting, imploring; “truths” swirling in clouds blanketing the globe, marketed, managed and mined for profit—political, economic or otherwise.
The Darkness that Lurks
We, at least many of us in the US and the West, have lived in relative peace and prosperity for the last 75 years. This, a long quiescence, after nearly a half century of paroxysms of savagery, slaughter, mayhem, and madness that consumed nearly the entire human race. A period that has been tamed and denuded of its horror; disconnected from us, neatly archived as World War I, WWII and the Great Depression. But archiving does not eliminate, or even diminish, the impulses that lurk in the human heart that gave rise to this bloody history. The political, economic, and international structures that helped establish and maintain this quiescence, as well as the beliefs, routines, and practices that buttressed public life and private affairs, are being torn down; tossed overboard. They may presage a growing whirlwind and coming storm of civilizations and their discontents.4
Freud was right…beware.
See how efficient it is,
how it keeps itself in shape–
our century’s hatred.
How easily it vaults the tallest obstacles.
It is not like other feelings.
At both once older and younger.
It gives birth itself to the reasons that give it life.
When it sleeps, it’s never eternal rest.
And sleeplessness won’t sap its strength; it feeds it.
One religion or another—
whatever gets it ready, in position.
One fatherland or another—
whatever helps it get a running start.
Just also works well at the onset
until hate gets its own momentum going.
Its face twisted in a grimace
of erotic ecstasy.
Oh these other feelings, listless weaklings.
Since when does brotherhood draw crowds?
When has compassion ever finished first?
Does doubt ever really rouse the rabble?
Only hatred has just what it takes.
Gifted, diligent, hard working.
Need we mention all the songs it has composed?
All the pages it has added to our history books?
All the human carpets it has spread
over countless city squares and football fields?
Let’s face it:
it knows how to make beauty.
The splendid fire-glow in midnight skies.
Magnificent bursting bombs in rosy dawns.
You cannot deny the inspiring pathos of ruins
and a certain bawdy humor to be found
in the sturdy column jutting from their midst.
Hatred is a master of contrast—between explosions and dead
red blood and white snow.
Above all, it never tires
its leitmotif—the impeccable executioner
towering over its soiled victim.
It’s always ready for new challenges.
If it has to wait awhile, it will.
They say it is blind. Blind?
It has a sniper’s keen sight
and gazes unflinchingly at the future
as only it can.
- Freud; “The Psychical Consequences of the Anatomic Distinction Between the Sexes.”
- William James was a leader of the Pragmatist school of thought, a uniquely American philosophical approach that eschewed high theory for practical results.
- Do not blame Freud—he is just the messenger. He also is not a total pessimist, believing that individuals can gain power over their unconscious impulses. “Where the id is, there shall ego be”, was his motto for psychotherapy; that confronting our demons, bringing to conscious awareness the forbidden impulses, allows us to manage them. Psychotherapy, curing mental illness through talk, is another great , but overlooked, contribution of Freud.
- Read Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontent for a sobering counterpoint to the happy chatter of the promise of a new age technological bliss that awaits us.
- She was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1996. Polish, she survived the Nazi horrors of WWII and endured the many years of Soviet occupation. Her galvanizing poetry was forged within this historical caldron.