We still worship idols. We do not call them Baal or Astarte, but we worship and submit to our idols under different names.

Erich Fromm[1]

[This is Fred. Elemental Zoo Two has been on hiatus these last few weeks. Typically April is a bad month for us, what with the Income Tax and all, but this one has been especially vexing. G is still working on his taxes, largely because he can’t locate key documents; so we won’t be hearing from him for a while. Larry is off on a special project, investigating how international law might, or might not apply to Vladimir Putin, us, and the Ukraine. Good luck on that. Phil is still lost in the early 1950’s, reading old sci-fi and trying to draw lessons from it. Did you know that Kurt Vonnegut was an early contributor to Galaxy Science Fiction?[2]And, of course, I’m still trying to chase down and understand the outré forces that seem to control our national politics.

Every April these tasks seem endless, and some of them no doubt are; but, nevertheless progress is possible. Recently I heard G shouting “Eureka!” so I expect he’s found part of what he needs and won’t need the full extension to file with the IRS. That’s good, because otherwise we’ll have to listen to him talk about taxes for another 6 months. And Phil’s historical researches turned up a book from 1961 that may well explain a good part of the nonsense our media elites dish out when they pretend to analyze current events.

The book Phil discovered is “May Man Prevail?” by Erich Fromm.[3] Before Phil gets into it, however, I need to add a bit of context. The author was a psychoanalyst by trade[4], and his non-technical works tended to apply basic psychology to the politics and issues of the time. Dr. Fromm’s views were very popular with psychology majors in college, especially the ones who didn’t want to study rats in boxes[5], and he also had quite a following in the public at large.[6]

We’ve talked about the early 1960’s in other blogs on war. [7]Briefly, as we pointed out recently, the H-bombs, the real city-killers, were officially acknowledged (by the U.S.) in 1954.[8]After that it was easy for the public to infer that any future wars, fought with such weapons, would be catastrophic. Herman Kahn’s blockbuster treatise of 1960, “On Thermonuclear War”[9], pretty much validated this view. Kahn‘s book demonstrated that such wars were possible, there would be many, many casualties if one occurred, and military planners were considering their options.

May Man Prevail?” was intended, in part, as a response to Kahn.[10] Fromm said that mutual threats of destruction, coupled with an arms race, were unlikely to ensure peace. Instead, he advocated a policy of “universal controlled disarmament” as a way to avoid a major, catastrophic war.[11]The subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis, with its nuclear standoff, kind of put the exclamation mark to his point. We came very close to thermonuclear war that time around.

So, with that background it’s time for Phil to tell us more about Fromm the pundit.]

At last! You stole some of my better lines. For a while I thought you were going to do the whole blog without me.

[Don’t be snarky, Phil. I was trying to fill the readers in on what we’ve said before. You’re supposed to provide all of the new material. So tell us something new. I won’t stop you.]

OK. Fromm’s view was that we and the old Soviet Union shared a common pathology.[12] Neither side really understood the other, or itself for that matter. Instead each resorted to a combination of mental tricks and dodges to avoid facing unpleasant realities. He said that’s the way it works when human beings let emotions trump their reason. And it happens all too often.

The obstacles “reason has to overcome in … understanding … one’s own society are no less than the formidable obstacles that, as Freud as shown, block the road to … understanding oneself.”[13] While some might argue in other contexts that “resistance is futile,” in politics the opposite is the case. People submit to reason, if ever, only after a fight.

[I understand that part. Erich Fromm was a psychoanalyst, and tended to see politics and international relations in those terms. But let’s get down to specifics. What was it that we didn’t understand about the old Soviet Union, and they didn’t understand about us? And more to the point, what are the “tricks and dodges” he saw that prevented us from reaching agreements, where such might have been appropriate?]

Big questions, Fred. Back in that day, we saw the Soviet Union as a revolutionary force, bent on spreading its influence and eventual world domination. In reality, Fromm said, by 1960 or thereabouts the Soviet Union had evolved into a “conservative, state-controlled, industrial [managerial]” entity.[14] It had given up on fomenting world revolution.[15] That’s his analysis, not mine, but he supported it well and later events seemed to corroborate his view. After all, the Soviet Union really didn’t push to expand much after 1960 and, instead, collapsed in 1991.[16]

Also, after World War II many Soviets saw us as ringing them in with military bases. Over here we thought we were taking necessary and prudent steps to protect our interests and the U.S. homeland. Most Soviets didn’t agree.  They thought of our bases as threats to their security and way of life.[17]

So there were stark differences of opinion about who was threatening who and whether threats were justified. But more to the point, Erich Fromm, the psychoanalyst, identified the techniques we and the Soviets used to shore up our own particular views of the world. Both sides used the same bag of tricks, which Fromm called pathological thinking. Its key elements were (i) paranoia[18], (ii) projection[19], (iii) fanaticism[20], and/or (iv) hypnoid, or automaton thinking.[21]

[Unfortunately we’ve just run out of time for this session. I’m sorry, and obviously you have a lot more to say, so let’s agree to reconvene in a few days and discuss the rest of it. It may take two or more blogs to get through it all, but I’ll commit right now to cover all the points you want to make. Some of them look pretty juicy, and contemporary.]

Why did you spend all that time putting Erich Fromm into context? I wouldn’t be running so late if you had let me start earlier.

[So what? You have lots of notes. Even if I said nothing at the beginning, you couldn’t cover all that material in one session.]

Well, the next part is important. While Fromm considered paranoia, etc. to be signs of a pathology, today’s commentators seem to regard these quirks as bona fide debating techniques. But they’re not debating techniques; they’re ways to manipulate emotion, not appeal to reason.

As such they belong back in the Stone Age, when people worshipped idols like Baal and Astarte; not in the here and now, where reality is complicated and outsized consequences can flow from wrong decisions. I would no more trust a leader who relied on pathological thinking than I would trust the captain of a ship who rolls dice to set a course once at sea. Both are out of touch with reality, and probably should find jobs in show business, or the media, where reality isn’t so important.

Anyway, I’ll expand on that next week

[I’ll bet you will.]





[1] See Fromm, May Man Prevail? (Doubleday Anchor, 1961) (cited hereafter as MMP? at __) at p. 29.

[2] See Vonnegut, Unready to Wear, first published in the April, 1953 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction at p. 98-111. We have that issue on file here at the Zoo.

[3] See note 1.

[4] Wikipedia has a pretty good biography of Fromm. You can find it at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erich_Fromm

[5] Want to know what I’m talking about? Go to Wikipedia and search “operant conditioning chambers” or simply click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operant_conditioning_chamber

[6] See biography at n. 4.

[7] See, e.g., the blog of 01/31/2-14, Leaky Bomb Shelters, available at https://opsrus.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/leaky-bomb-shelters/

[8] See the blog of 03/22/2014, A Third from Galaxy, available at https://opsrus.wordpress.com/2014/03/22/a-third-from-galaxy/  The first thermonuclear device (actually a building, not a bomb) was tested by us in November, 1952. See the Wikipedia entry on “Ivy Mike” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivy_Mike  A film of the test was produced, and released to the public in 1954. The Russians tested a fusion device in August, 1953. See The Wikipedia entry on “Joe 4” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_4  We did the same with a much larger bomb on March 1, 1954. See the Wikipedia entry on Castle Bravo, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_Bravo Wikipedia also has a lengthy discussion of bomb design at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermonuclear_bomb

[9] See Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (Princeton, 1960, Transaction reprint 2010). Henceforth, the book will be cited as Thermonuclear War at __)

[10] See MMP at Ch. 7, Suggestions for peace, p. 177 – 208.

[11] See MMP at p. 207, where Fromm states that “universal controlled disarmament” may be ”exceedingly difficult to reach,” or unrealistic , but it’s better than a policy of “mutual threats and ever-more destructive weapons,” which seems to be the only other option.

[12] See MMP at Ch. 1, Some general premises, Sane versus Pathological Thinking in Politics, p. 17 – 30

[13] See MMP at p. 18.

[14] See MMP at p. 14.

[15] See MMP at Ch. 3, Is world domination the aim of the Soviet Union?, especially p. 67, 86 – 113.

[16] There’s a short description of the Cold War in Wikipedia. You can find it at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cold_War . For a lot more information, go to the History.com website at http://www.history.com/topics/cold-war

[17] See MMP at p. 26, 27: “American travelers, for instance, returning from the Soviet Union, report their impressions about the uniformity of political thinking in Russia. Everybody seems to ask the same questions, from ‘What about lynching in the South?’ to ‘Why does the United States need so many military bases surrounding the Soviet Union if the Americans have peaceful intentions?’”

[18] See MMP at p. 19-21.

[19] See MMP at p. 21-23.

[20] See MMP at p. 23-25.

[21] See MMP at p. 26-28.