Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar

Sigmund Freud[1]

[Note: G. Sallust, our disreputable founder, dropped by the other day and left this piece on Sigmund Freud and current events. He ordered us to publish it. We obey.]

[So why discuss cigars? Well, mostly because the Prime Minister of Israel seems to have gotten into trouble over them. Then, of course, there’s my personal interest. Many years ago I smoked, researched and talked about cigars, and waved them around in meetings, etc. I was pretty obnoxious, I’ll admit, but I’m over that now. Just ask anybody. But the cigar magazines aren’t; today they’ve moved into politics, recently interviewing Arnold Schwarzenegger as a cigar aficionado, and advertise everywhere. So it’s natural, I suppose, that the occasional head of state develops a taste for them.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s hobby isn’t unknown in Israel. It seems he [and his wife] have a reputation for high living, sort of like the McDonnells in Virginia. Israeli media report, according to the Washington Post[2], that one Hollywood producer, over the last eight years “spent up to $130,000 … on boxes of [Cuban] cigars and cases of champagne for the Netanyahu clan.[3]” The local police want to know more, and are interviewing the couple.]

Freud on Cigars

Are cigars really important to the powerful? Perhaps. Freud had a lot to say about this, but in the context of dreams. In a nutshell, he hypothesized that sex is the primary instinct that brings humans together.[4]  People seek pleasure – especially sex – and try to avoid pain. But men are aggressive.[5] Civilization tames men by imposing rules of conduct; this in turn creates stress and hostility,[6] some conscious and some repressed.

Stress manifests itself in our dreams. In fact, Freud said the majority of our dreams are about sex.[7]

Dreams speak to us in symbols, not in facts. For the most part dreams express sexual themes in a kind of standardized way. That means, of course, that dreams of this sort employ a symbolic language that patients and doctors can understand and discuss with one another. But Freud warns that nothing about dreams is set in concrete. Psychic material has a “curious plasticity.” If necessary a dreamer might employ “anything whatever” as a sexual symbol.[8]

So what are cigars, at least in dreams? Freud says that in general dream symbols represent either the male or female principle. Long, sharp or pointy things symbolize “the male member.” Those include, for example, “[a]ll elongated objects, sticks, tree-trunks, umbrellas … all sharp and elongated weapons, knives, daggers and pikes ….”[9] Cigars qualify, I think; they’re certainly elongated, and in their various forms do look a bit like a catalog of the types of you-know-what available on humans. Freud was a famous cigar-smoker, you know, so perhaps that’s why, one day, someone asked him. “Gee, Mr. Freud, why are you puffing on a phallic symbol?”

At least that’s the legend, that he was asked something like that. He could have answered, I suppose, that (a) cigars are phallic symbols in dreams, but he was conscious, and not dreaming, so the symbol had nothing to do with him; or, (b) he could have said civilization imposes the same stresses [i.e., repression] on all of us, whether we are awake or asleep, so dream symbols have significance in either case. The story is that he went with option (a). “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” In his place, I might have gone with (b). Awake or asleep symbols of the male member are important.

Of course, we don’t really know if he was, in fact, asked that question, although it seems an obvious one. And, of course, no one has verified the answer. And these days we all know that not everything said, or printed, is true.

Cigars as Status

But if the whole story is apocryphal, why worry about it? There’s another reason why people lavish time and attention on things like expensive cigars. They are status symbols, that is, things that only people of high status can or do have. In the case of Cuban cigars, they’re very expensive and therefore only available to the people who can afford them. Also for a long time they were difficult to get, because of trade restrictions. I suppose that’s beginning to relax now.

Cuban cigars, like yachts, big diamonds, complex mechanical watches and expensive cars, are important because they cost a lot, and people with money buy them. [Such things aren’t really useful; if rich people didn’t buy, the market would disappear, and the product would be junk or at least devalued.] So if you flash an expensive cigar, you tell people you have money to burn; and, as we all know, wealth is pretty much the sole determiner of status in today’s world[10]. But what happens if the public learns you get your status symbols for free? What do people think?

Actually, if you depend on others for your Cuban cigars, you pretty much look like a flunky; like a client, back in the old Roman times, who relied on a higher-status person for favors, and supported him [or her] in return.[11] That, I think, is not the message a politician today should want to send.

Airplanes as Symbols

As long as we’re talking about phallic symbols, we might as well discuss the airplane for a bit. Aircraft were relatively new back in Freud’s day, but he knew about them, and thought they were a clear symbol of the male organ. Why? Well partly because the airplane is cigar-shaped, elongated and kind of pointy; and partly because it flies. [12]  The airplane is also a status symbol, in that some rich people have one. But the rich can afford to buy the occasional aircraft only because the public also wants to fly, and supports the air transport industry. Most aircraft are bought by airlines, or governments.

It’s the government programs that interest me, especially the ones that grossly exceed budget or grossly underperform expectations, or both. Let’s start with an apparent success story. Recently I learned our Government has an unmanned space craft, the X-37B, which launches into low-earth orbit via rocket, can loiter there for hundreds of days, and returns to earth as an aircraft.[13]

Judging from the published photo, it meets all of Freud’s criteria: elongated, pointy and all that; but it really doesn’t get much public notice, probably because its missions are classified. That’s a pity, because it’s also a success; it performs, and there don’t seem to be any complaints about cost overruns. So far our government has no plans to buy more.

Then there’s the F-35. Everybody has heard about this turkey. The actual contract for it was awarded in 2006, 11 years ago, and since then the program has been subject to seemingly endless design, redesign, tinkering and delays. Recently the Air Force declared the F-35s delivered to it to be “combat ready,” but there may be some controversy about that. The program has been described as “the most expensive military weapons system in history.” As of 2014 it was reported as $163 billion over budget and seven years behind schedule.[14] We and our allies are committed to buy lots more of them.

So what’s my point? Just this: I don’t know the details, but I’m astonished at the cost. I understand the politics of the situation; probably the business generated by the F-35 is important to every state that has a Congressional delegation that’s important to DOD. But can we afford something like this? Is it answering threats that nobody poses?  Are we in too deep to get out?

I don’t know, but I don’t think anybody should be fooled into buying F-35s just because they are the most expensive fighter aircraft in the world. Granted it would be a powerful symbol to have such things in our inventory, but is the symbol worth the price? Or is the F-35 more like a Cuban cigar, prestigious simply because it’s expensive?

If you’re not worried, just remember: Benjamin Netanyahu has bought some.[15]




[1] This is attributed to Sigmund Freud, see Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (Little, Brown) (16th Edition, 1992) at Freud, p. 570, n. 3, but so far our research hasn’t corroborated that. See, e.g., Wikiquote at , which calls the quote “misattributed.” See also at . By the way, not too long ago we wrote a blog about Freud and dreams. See our blog of 2014/07/09, Dreaming Again, at

[2] And what better source could there be? See The Washington Post, Eglash & Booth, Netanyahu on hot seat over Cuban cigars, secret recording (Tuesday, January 10, 2017) at p. A10.

[3] Id.

[4] See Freud, The Major Works of Sigmund Freud (Franklin Library, 1982) at Vol. 1, Civilization and Its Discontents, p. 615 – 683. Henceforth this will be cited as Civilization at ___.

[5] See Civilization at p. 654. Men “are not gentle, friendly creatures wishing for love, who simply defend themselves if they are attacked, but … a powerful measure of desire for aggression has to be reckoned as part of their instinctual endowment.”

[6] See Civilization at p. 663: “The natural instinct of aggressiveness in man, the hostility of each one against all, and of all against each one, opposes this program of civilization.”

[7] See Freud, The Major Works of Sigmund Freud (Franklin Library, 1982) at Vol. II, The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 204, 337. “The more one is occupied with the solution of dreams, the readier one becomes to acknowledge that the majority of the dreams of adults deal with sexual material and give expression to erotic wishes. … No other instinct has had to undergo so much suppression, from the time of childhood onwards, as the sexual instinct in all of its numerous components; from no other instincts are so many and such intense unconscious wishes left over, which now, in the sleeping state, generate dreams.”

[8] See Interpretation of Dreams at p. 314: “Dreams employ this symbolism to give a disguised representation to their latent thoughts. Among the symbols thus employed there are, of course, many which constantly, or all but constantly, mean the same thing. But we must bear in mind the curious plasticity of psychic material. Often enough a symbol in the dream content may have to be interpreted not symbolically but in accordance with its proper meaning; at other times the dreamer, having to deal with special memory material, may take the law into his own hands and employ anything whatever as a sexual symbol, though it is not generally so employed.”

[9] See Interpretation of Dreams at p. 315.

[10] Unless you’re the Pope, I guess.

[11] Want to know more about the old Roman patronage system? Check out Wikipedia at

[12] See Interpretation of Dreams at p. 317: “As a very recent symbol of the male organ I may mention the airship, whose employment is justified be its relation to flying, and also, occasionally, by its form.”

[13] See, David, Air Force’s Mysterious X-37B Space Plane Wings by 600 Days in Orbit (January 10, 2017), available at .

[14] See the Wikipedia entry on Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, at the introduction, available at

[15]  See Yahoo News, Lewis, Netanyahu says Israel ‘mightier’ as first F-35 fighter jets arrive (December 12, 2016), available at–finance.html