Readers of this blog may recall that one of the basic aspects of the myth of American Innocence is what I have called the Paranoid Imagination. Previous essays on this subject include The Paranoid Imagination, Porn (Parts one and Two) and Sacrilicious! (Parts One and Two). Here, I’d like to review some of those thoughts and then show one of the ways the paranoid imagination expresses itself in our current political madness.
The paranoid imagination is rooted in the constant anxiety that our Puritan ancestors experienced. It combines rigid literalism, eternal vigilance, creative sadism, contempt for the erotic, obsessive voyeurism and an impenetrable wall of innocence.
Its practitioners put a fundamental – and fundamentalist – stamp on American consciousness with this simple statement: human nature was utterly corrupt, and the only escape was through grace. Furthermore, the Calvinist doctrine of predestination declared that from the beginning all persons had been either condemned or saved. But who was in which category? Their anxiety arose from the fact that no one could ever be certain of their salvation. They were at war with the self yet unable to escape it.
Their only respite from the weight of original sin was to project their guilt onto others. Since they defined loss of self-control as the basis for all sins, their answer to the perceived disorder in the world was unrelenting discipline. Christianity’s hatred of the body (and the rage it engendered) reached its extreme among those Puritans who loathed sensuality and mistrusted (and – this is crucial – envied) those who couldn’t or wouldn’t “crucify their lusts.”
Let’s consider three basic assumptions of depth psychology. First: whatever consciously disgusts us by may well be something that we unconsciously desire. We repress unacceptable fantasies with fear and loathing.
Second: that which is repressed will eventually force its way into consciousness, and the more forceful the re-pression, the stronger – and potentially more destructive – the eventual ex-pression.
Third: as above, so below. These principles are true both for individuals and large groups. And because the myth of America began in such a state of extreme psychological repression combined with an ideology of freedom, we can observe the effects more clearly in our society and history than anywhere else.
Since Puritanism had decreed that propriety and cleanliness were external indications of a clean soul, bodily needs continually reminded them of their original, corrupt nature. Since they experienced constant fear – and fantasies – of pollution, they rigidly enforced moral standards. Calvinism’s “most urgent task,” wrote sociologist Max Weber, was “the destruction of spontaneous, impulsive enjoyment.”
This led directly to another aspect of the Paranoid Imagination: the fear and hatred of images. New England Puritanism (and most of America’s intellectuals and writers for several generations were Puritans) attempted to regulate the internal fantasies of all members of the community. Theologically astute but psychologically ignorant, they never seemed to realize that the more one tries to control or eliminate images, the more we are obsessed with them and the more they demand recognition (“to think about again”).
So it should be no surprise that one of the shadow aspects of puritanism has always been the obsession with those same images. The paranoid imagination seeks itself: it constantly projects its fantasies outward onto the Other and then proceeds to demonize it. It is not simply desire, but detailed images of desire, that they project upon the Other.
This is the only way that such a person can allow his fantasies into awareness, by seeing them on the projection screen of another person.
Theology and economics combined to create yet another source of their anxiety: Just as American Protestants were condemning the body and its lusts, they were also embodying the most radical form of individualism the world has ever seen. Even as they demonized those others (red natives and black slaves) upon whom they had projected the inability to control themselves, they were working out the details of a mythology that still speaks of unlimited, capitalistic opportunity and personal freedom, including the freedom to ignore centralized authority and (in its 21st-century form) all restrictions on personal behavior.
This is crazy-making. Americans value freedom of choice above all, and yet we often scorn or even hate people who make (or appear to make) personal lifestyle choices that we disapprove of. Consider, for example, those who despise big government’s potential to restrain their business opportunities, but would use its power to take abortion rights away from women. Such “libertarians” express the inherent hypocrisy of our myths.
In time, capitalism’s relentless logic transformed a religious, if flawed, impulse into the drive for conspicuous consumption. Over three centuries, Americans gradually shifted from being primarily producers to being primarily consumers. They began by enshrining gain without pleasure and ended with a wasteful and unsatisfying national addiction to “stuff.”
But this transition evoked tremendous guilt, so the con men of advertising were there every step of the way to assist the process. And they knew the power of images, especially the power of the return of the repressed.
(A quick digression: Take note at this point that after the 1960s, the Republican Party began to take great advantage of this power, directing its vast resources toward both the attractive imagery of “family values” and the fear-mongering of racial hatred. As elected Democrats – most of whom are law school graduates – appealed to rational self-interest, Republicans – most of whom attend business school and actually study human motivation – concentrated on divisive rhetoric and imagery.)
Long before, wrote Phillip Slater, civilization had invented artificial scarcity by restricting the availability of something that theoretically isn’t scarce – sexual gratification. Although most societies do this to some extent, capitalism takes it much further. Advertising attaches sexual interest to inaccessible, nonexistent or irrelevant objects and motivates people to work endlessly for rewards that may never come. Throughout the 20th century, the American genius of marketing has been to associate images of the unattainable female body with consumer products. Crazy-making. Slater, however, wrote,
…there is no way to gratify a desire with a symbol… an emotional long shot that will never pay off. They will work their lives away to achieve a love that is unattainable.
For centuries, the Inquisition – Catholicism’s ritual of purification – had produced a constant state of fear across Europe. A Protestant version took strong root in America, and it periodically re-surfaces in epidemics of scapegoating. Inquisitions are characterized by highly imaginative cruelty perpetrated for the good of the accused. As Blaise Pascal wrote, “Men never do evil so fully and cheerfully as when we do it out of conscience.” This idea of “therapeutic coercion” can be traced back to St. Augustine, who wrote of “forcibly returning the heretics to the real banquet of the Lord.” More recently, American officers in Viet Nam claimed that they had to “destroy the village in order to save it.”
So another aspect of the paranoid imagination, celebrated repeatedly in the Old Testament, is the idea of genocidal yet redemptive violence: “The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.”
Note the complex imagery in the following examples:
Roman authorities claimed that Christians: “… burn with incestuous passions…with unspeakable lust they copulate in random unions…”
Medieval art depicts the Last Judgment with detailed scenes of naked bodies subjected to (almost) inconceivable torture. The blessed, however, will enjoy these scenes. Saint Thomas Aquinas declared that in Heaven, “…a perfect view is granted them of the tortures of the damned.”
The greatest work of medieval literature, Dante’s Divine Comedy, especially the Inferno, has dozens of examples of the most creative punishments. Here is one of my favorites:
The tears of all these sinners down their backs
Were flowing, trickling through their buttocks’ crack.
But Catholics did have a rich tradition of liturgy, ritual, incense, stained-glass images, sculpture and music (for centuries their were no pews in churches; people dancedin church). There was a strong, if conflicted appreciation of the feminine principle in the worship of the Virgin Mary. And individuals were confidant of a first-rate afterlife if they followed the strictures of the church.
Protestantism uprooted almost all of this, including the feminine principle. Martin Luther preached, “Ye shall sing no more praises to Our Lady, only to our Lord.” It gave the individual worshipper a personal relationship to God, but it constricted his imagination. That is, in leaving him in the state of anxiety I have described, it took away all but his natural, erotic nature, which now had nowhere to go but toward his paranoid imagination, toward self-hatred.
We can perceive both the anxiety and the envy in Martin Luther’s 1543 treatise “On the Ineffable Name and the Generations of Christ,” where he imagines the Devil stuffing the Jews’ orifices with filth:
He stuffs and squirts them so full, that it overflows and swims out of every place, pure Devil’s filth, yes, it tastes so good to their hearts, and they guzzle it like sows…When Judas Iscariot hanged himself, so that his guts ripped, and as happens to those who are hanged, his bladder burst, then the Jews had their golden cans and silver bowls ready, to catch the Judas piss…and afterwards together they ate the shit.
Forty years later, the English Puritan Phillip Stubbs ranted on about old customs that would not go away:
All the young men and maids, old men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods…where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes; and in the morning they return, bringing with them…their May pole, which they bring home with great veneration, as thus: they have twenty or forty yoke of oxen, every ox having a sweet nose-gay of flowers placed on the tip of his horns, and these oxen draw home this May pole (this stinking idol, rather) which is covered all over with flowers and herbs, bound round with strings, from the top to the bottom, and sometimes painted with variable colours, with three hundred men, women, and children following with great devotion. And thus being reared up…they fall to dance about it, like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the Idols….I have heard it credibly reported…that of forty, three-score, or a hundred maids going to the wood over night, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled.
And there was no longer a place for images. Sixty years after that, Puritans under Oliver Cromwell were desecrating the artwork in thousands of English churches, continuing a tradition of iconoclasm dating back to Byzantium, Islam and the Biblical hatred of idolatry. This tradition would resurface in their twentieth century crusades against pornography and gay marriage – and in their obsession with the images that have always hidden just under the surface.
And the most basic characteristic that they projected onto the Other has been its Dionysian refusal to restrain its own animal – and human – impulses. “The Devil,” said John Milton, “has the best music.”
A hundred years later, when evangelist Jonathan Edwards continued the old fire-and-brimstone tradition (“The sight of hell-torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever…”), his audiences could both shiver in fright for themselves and also righteously condemn their neighbors.
In Part Two of this essay I will invite you to (carefully) enter the minds of some of our contemporary Puritans.
The paranoid imagination seeks itself: it constantly projects its unacceptable fantasies outward. This is the only way some people can see (and potentially know) themselves: in the image of the demonized Other. In such a world of repressed desire, this is the only avenue open to healing.
Seventeenth-Century Protestants believed that both salvation and perdition fell on them as individuals. Yet paradoxically, the entire community might suffer for one person’s sins. So each person was responsible for upholding group morality. Individual sin polluted, with consequences for all New England. Ministers addressed condemned criminals (and by implication everyone else) with “execution sermons”:
You must be cut off by a violent and dreadful death. For indeed the anger of the Lord would fall upon this whole Country where your sin hath been committed, if you should be suffered to live.
They expressed their unending anxiety with this question: What will happen to us all if we allowed them to sin? What did the Puritans repress? How do we know our contemporary Puritans? As far back as 403 B.C., the Greek tragedian Euripides was already considering these themes in The Bacchae, where the hyper-puritan King Pentheus admits to his fantasy:
… if I climbed that towering fir…then I could see their shameless orgies better.
He climbs the tree, high up in the air of detached observation, far from the ground of being, the ground of the body, the humus; and so he calls forth his own humiliation, indeed, the destruction of his judgmental, puritan identity.
The most extreme of these gatekeepers of public morality take the voyeurism one important step further. It is not simply desire, but images of desire, that they project upon the Other. We find so many examples of such bizarre and intimately detailed moralizing that we must ask, what are they so afraid of? Indeed, what do they actually desire? Don’t those images come from their own fevered imaginations?
The clues to the real issues are in the Puritan’s own fantasies. In 1889, one firebrand ranted against babysitters who allegedly allowed children to masturbate: “…the crime could hardly have been worse had the nurse…cut the throats of those innocent children…” This person didn’t find that image; he invented it.
Why are we so obsessed not simply with defining smut and sin, but with describing it? And what are we so afraid of? James Hillman answers: “The free-flow of fantasy images. We don’t know where the fantasy might go.” It might take us out of our comfort zone, the zone of control. “After all,” writes John Jervis, “…sex represents the opposite of mastery of the body: an irrational subordination to the body…”
But the more images are controlled, the more we are obsessed with them and the more they demand recognition (“to think about again”). In 1991 the Supreme Court agreed that Indiana could close a private club that advertised nude dancing. Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion:
The purpose of Indiana’s nudity law would be violated…if sixty thousand fully consenting adults crowded into the Hoosier Dome to display their genitals to one another, even if there were not an offended innocent in the crowd.
Would Puritans be so disturbed by naked dancing if the act didn’t already exist in their imagination? Nobody prodded Scalia to visualize sixty thousand adults displaying their genitals. His imagination produced them. Similarly, Presidential contender Rick Santorum (don’t google “Santorum”!) muses:
If the Supreme Court says that you have a right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy…to polygamy… to incest…to adultery. You have the right to anything!..That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog…
Santorum doesn’t approve of gays in the military either, because “They’re in close quarters, they live with people, they obviously shower with people.”
Indeed. Don’t they care so deeply about these images because they can’t stop thinking about them? But here is their dilemma: they can’t allow their desires into awareness with a clean conscience unless they have demonized them and displaced them onto someone else. Once they have done this, they can feel entitled to communicate them in public and invite the Grand Inquisitor back.
Now I’m not so innocent as to assume that such salesmen actually thought up these images. Very likely, their speechwriters and handlers invented them. But the principle remains: these rants go out, daily, to audiences of millions who willingly consume them. The real political issue – and the real target – is the huge swath of flyover state white males who share those fantasies, and the white females who succumb to the fear of rape. And I’m not so insensitive as to imply that more than a few women – or men – secretly fantasize about being raped. Still, it’s curious that “rape,” “raptor” and “rapture” share the same etymology.
I don’t think Antonin Scalia had a speechwriter. He may have been less a charlatan than a true believer. In another Supreme Court debate in which he defended hyper-violent video games (while simultaneously condemning sex in those same video games), he argued:
So what if children’s active minds are engaged in decisions in which people are…dismembered, decapitated, disemboweled, set on fire and chopped into little pieces…Disgust is not a valid basis for restricting expression.
Unless, of course, that disgust is about nudity. And – whoever actually writes this stuff – the paranoid imagination that secretly desires what it outwardly condemns appears to be nearly infinite.
How about Texas politician Cynthia Dunbar, who writes that that sending children to public schools would be like “throwing them into the enemy’s flames, even as the children of Israel threw their children to Moloch.”
The best of the fantasies coincide with the broader agenda of fear-mongering. Ted Cruz warns that Iran could set off an “Electro Magnetic Pulse” over the east coast, killing tens of millions. Mike Huckabee garnered more publicity with this one: Obama is “marching Israelis to the door of the oven” by agreeing to the Iran nuclear deal. (American Jewish supporters of Israel would do well to remember that Huckabee’s fantasy is absolutely consistent with the hugely popular “Christian Zionist” view that, come the Apocalypse, all Jews will either convert or be killed).
By 2015, as traditional forms and expressions of masculinity and white supremacy were being questioned as never before (think Caitlyn Jenner), the question of same-sex marriage was provoking both a profound fear and a major fundraising opportunity for those who troll those white males who feel powerless in this new world.
Texas senator John Cornyn argues, “It does not affect your daily life…if your neighbor marries a box turtle. But that does not mean it is right…” Cornyn’s imagination conjured pictures of inter-species marriage.
Pat Robertson wonders if a man who “likes to have sex with ducks” should be protected by hate crime legislation. Not to be outdone, Bill O’Reilly has mused about marrying ducks, goats and dolphins. Or threesomes:
Not only Lenny, but Squiggy too. All right? Or I walk in with the O’Brien twins from South Boston and say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to marry me, because you’re allowing gays to get married.’
In a broken political system where most elected Democrats are too timid to criticize Israel, stand up for real gun control or defend the shrinking welfare state, the Republicans can run wild with hyperbole; their choir loves this stuff – for more reasons than they may suspect.
We could go on, and, since this is America, I will.
A disgusted South Dakota county clerk threatens to marry her dog if gay marriage passes. Arizona congressman J.D. Hayworth: “I don’t mean to be absurd about it, but I guess I can make the point of absurdity with an absurd point — I guess that would mean if you really had affection for your horse, I guess you could marry your horse.” Mike Huckabee again:
Now I wish that someone told me when I was in high school that I could have felt like a woman when it came time to take showers in PE,” Huckabee said. “I’m pretty sure that I would have found my feminine side and said, ‘Coach, I think I’d rather shower with the girls today.’
Remember Anita Bryant? “If gays are granted rights, next we’ll have to give rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with St. Bernards and to nail biters.” Even non-politician celebrities get involved. Actor Jeremy Irons regrets that same-sex marriage will lead to “fathers marrying sons.”
I will grant (thank God!) that the paranoid imagination can sometimes intend to be humorous. Pastor David Vaughn writes:
Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that everyone has a constitutional right to marry anyone (or anything), I have come to a huge decision. I have decided to marry bacon… don’t criticize me or be intolerant. That would be ‘ham’aphobic!
The comments about interspecies marriage are jokes, and they potentially carry a sense of good-natured debating points. But when they evoke that old question of therapeutic coercion, it gets much darker, because now they twist the idea (or the fantasy) until they claim to be the victims. Michele Bachmann:
…the public school system, they will be required to learn that homosexuality is normal, equal and perhaps you should try it. And that will occur immediately, that all schools will begin teaching homosexuality.
Theologian (and lawyer) Mat Staver accuses Obama of backing “Forced Homosexuality,” while former Texas Congressman Tom DeLay “Knows Of Secret DOJ Memo To Legalize 12 New Perversions, Including Bestiality And Pedophilia.” Alex Jones: “I’m not anti-marriage equality, but it’s a plan to make us ‘asexual humanoids.’” Conservative blogger Erick Erickson: “We can’t stop ‘Real Evil’ if we accept transgender people.”
Chris Christie: “A women’s Viagra pill will only increase lesbianism.” Glenn Beck: Hillary Clinton will be “having sex with a woman on the White House desk if it becomes popular”.
There are laws…that prohibit people from discussing this particular affliction, you can tell somebody you had a heart attack, you can tell them they’ve got high blood pressure, but you can’t tell anybody you’ve got AIDS. You know what they do in San Francisco, some in the gay community there they want to get people so if they got the stuff they’ll have a ring, you shake hands, and the ring’s got a little thing where you cut your finger. Really. It’s that kind of vicious stuff, which would be the equivalent of murder.
Pastor Kevin Swanson, on what he’d do if his son married a man:
What would you do if that was the case? Here is what I would do: Sackcloth and ashes at the entrance to the church and I’d sit in cow manure and I’d spread it all over my body!…These are the people with the sores! The gaping sores! The sores that are pussy (sic) and gross and people are coming in and carving happy faces on the sores! That’s not a nice thing to do! Don’t you dare carve happy faces on open, pussy (sic) sores!
John Hagee (whose programs are broadcast on 50 radio stations and 160 TV stations) calls For “Prosecuting women who say God’s name during intercourse” and suggests that “God made all lesbians flat so they could be identified by normal people easily.”
Pastor Rick Scarborough offers a unique theory: “God would cure breast cancer if our women stopped having dirty fantasies.” A leaked Mormon guidebook explains how masturbation leads to homosexuality and crime. Reverend James David Manning asserts that “…sodomites will carry babies in their testicles for nine months and then gestate them out of their assholes before this church is closed.”
Lest I be accused of hating exclusively on America, a prominent Iranian cleric teaches that men who fantasize about other women while impregnating their wives will cause their children to be gay. It’s an interesting example, because as I have written elsewhere, there is a clear resemblance between the far-right warmongers and puritans in both Iran and the U.S.
Moving on: “Christians are being taken off the face of the earth,” radio host Rick Wiles warns. Michael Savage rants, “As they start throwing pastors in prison, you’ll see who’ll cheer them. Next we’ll get the arena and the lions…” Preacher Jack Graham says that 16 million Baptists are “prepared to go to jail” to fight the ruling. Sylvia Thompson blogs:
More and more Americans will be persecuted, prosecuted, and imprisoned as this Court ruling goes into effect…All of America will then grasp what homofascism truly means.
Another radio pastor, Tim Barton: “Yes, come out and have sex with us — have to participate. They’re going to force participation and that’s what we’re seeing around the country.”
Homofacism? Forced Homosexuality? Perhaps, in displacing leather-jacketed authoritarianism onto gays, these people (or their scriptwriters) are getting down to the real fantasies. Given half a chance, wouldn’t such men, and they are mostly men, enact the role of an angry, Old-Testament God who, unique in all of the world’s mythologies, created the entire world without a wife?
The ironies deepen: As recently as ten years ago, bestiality was legal in most of the states that banned same-sex marriage. Both the ignorance and the consequences deepen as well, writes Jordan Smith:
The federal government began funding so-called Abstinence-Only Until Marriage programs in 1981 as a way to encourage “chastity” and “self-discipline.” Since then, the feds have poured more than $2 billion into this strategy — commonly known as “ab-only” — without any proven positive effects, like delaying sexual activity or avoiding unintended pregnancy. In recent years, that funding had been in decline, in part because research…shows that the programs do not work. But in an ironic twist, they’re now making a comeback. Trump…has asked that abstinence funding be increased. And…he got his wish, enough to bring total spending on abstinence up to $100 million for 2018.
What are they so afraid of? In 2002, Congress considered a bill to suppress the all-night dance parties, or raves, in which MDMA (“ecstasy”) is consumed. It was called – wait for it – the RAVE bill: “Reducing America’s Vulnerability to Ecstasy.” This is a long way from tribal cultures that consider ecstasy both a fundamental right as well as insurance against violence, or from the rites of Dionysus, in which, writes Christine Downing, “Ritually sanctioned ‘raving’ protected against true insanity.”
All literalists of both the right (Christian, Jewish or Muslim) or left (feminist or communist) assume no difference between fantasy and action and believe that having “lust in one’s heart,” as Jimmy Carter confessed, is the same as enacting it. But the more we recognize the reality of the psyche, the less need we have for acting out; and the less need we have to project Aphroditic or Dionysian qualities onto others.
Hillman concluded that our fundamental liberty should be the right to fantasize (ideally, through producing one’s own images, but if not, by viewing or hearing those produced by others). And that right can potentially ignite an insurrection of the imagination “…for fomenting curiosity to pry into what is concealed.” That curiosity could in time disentangle our obscene violence from bodily images, because violence is the enemy, not sexuality.
Eventually, the Paranoid Imagination may dissolve itself back into its ancestral source, what I have called the Creative Imagination. Read the myth: Psyche marries Eros. He is Aphrodite’s favorite son, the beautiful, winged youth. The story tells us that the soul, Psyche, cannot mature without union with the erotic imagination, and their daughter, the product of their union, is Voluptos (voluptuousness). Here is Paganism’s alternative to Puritanism: The end-result of soul-making is not asceticism but voluptuousness!