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Obama’s obfuscation, Freud, and Portugese bread

Portugese sweet bread

At President Obama’s recent speech at a Michigan engine plan he stated that the right-to- work legislation being pushed by Republican Governor Rick Snyder is “more about politics than economics.” The same day saw headlines that his Administration shifted position  on accepting corporate donations and now is accepting up to $1 million dollars in corporate contributions.  We will have a Presidential inauguration sponsored and brought to you by economic interest. Is there a contradiction here, is this some kind of Orwellian doublespeak or is it just an innocuous coincidence?

Let’s say that the President simply made a superficial remark aimed at stoking up his autoworker union base. Does characterizing the battle taking place in Michigan as just “politics” and intimating that it is in no way tied to the wage rates a business will have to pay its workers, seem a wee bit disingenuous?  If you agree that there is more going on here than just “politics”, the President missed (or purposely avoided) laying it out in a substantive way – a way in which assumed a capacity on the part of the listener to comprehend the complex, instead of assuming that all that could be expected of the listener is a capacity to feel emotionally uplifted.  If it is too much in these times to expect meaningful explanations from political leaders and when the media only serves up the same reheated pablum, what is an isolated citizen to do?  If you tune into NPR news you are more likely to get a recipe for Portuguese bread, a review of the new Hobbit film, or a piece on the enduring appeal of Legos. No incite-ful news story is going to be heard driving home listening to NPR’s economic/entertainment show “Market Place?” Couldn’t  NPR at least occasionally go beyond the 3 minute attention-span-limiting format and do an in-depth feature? Would it be to much to expect at least a “lite” piece on the interplay between politics and economics.

It seems as though you are on your own; you have to do the homework on your own time. You are not going to get anything worthy of your time listening to the radio driving home. You might as well listen to those mp3 files you downloaded to get through the traffic delays. More than likely after a hard day at work, most people will eat dinner listening/watching the nightly news, put away the dirty dishes and try and draw a bit of release from some form of entertainment, which repeated en mass becomes a form of containment for that little bit of surplus social energy that could be put into progressive social action.

But there is a danger here if things persist. Maybe the political elites should get out their Freud primer. In The Future of an Illusion, Freud begins by laying out a view of life that begins on very basic economics principles and setting those up as a given, before proceeding on to the main topic of religion. Although he uses words like “envy” where a “sense of justice” would be more appropriate, and granted many terms and phrases are laden with psychoanalytical overtones that sound discordant to the modern ear, overall he seems to explain more about what is going on in Michigan than President Obama. Freud writes:

If we turn to those restrictions that apply only to certain classes of society, we must meet with a state of things which is flagrant and which has always been recognized. It is to be expected that these underprivileged classes will envy the favored ones their privileges and will do all they can to free themselves from their own surplus of privation. Where this is not possible, a permanent measure of discontent will persist within the culture concerned and this can lead to dangerous revolts. If, however, a culture has not got beyond a point at which the satisfaction of one portion of its participants depends upon the suppression of another, and perhaps larger, portion – and this is the case in all present-day cultures – it is understandable that the suppressed people should develop an intense hostility towards a culture whose existence they make possible by their work, but in whose wealth they have too small a share. In such conditions an internalization of the cultural prohibitions among the suppressed people is not to be expected. On the contrary, they are not prepared to acknowledge the prohibitions, they are intent on destroying the culture itself, and possibly even on doing away with the postulates on which it is based…It goes without saying that a civilization which leaves so large a number of its participants unsatisfied and drives them to revolt neither has nor deserves the prospect of a lasting existence.

So strikingly dissimilar in many respects and in approach to an atheistic Freud, Walter Rauschenbush in Christianizing the Social Order – a book very much within the early 20th century Social Gospel movement – points to an economic and political order that is similar to Freud. Rauschenbush writes:

In every social order…individuals rise to controlling positions and intrench (sic)  themselves in the places they have attained Their effort is to preserve for themselves and their children the power and wealth which they have acquired  Knowing the power of the State they seek to control politics. Knowing the power of public opinion, they influence the press and the schools. Their house is built on things as they are; therefore they are against any change – except change that will further fortify their position…The financial and political forces which the upper classes have been able to manipulate in all past eras have been enormous , and the skill with which they handled them was always the best that could be hired…we might expect considerations of justice and mercy to thaw through the icy indifference of class selfishness. But moral suasion is strangely feeble where the sources of a man’s income are concerned…The immense power wielded by the rich is an intoxicant that few can withstand permanently. Men defer to them, smooth their way for them, and make them the center of ever occasion. The morbid curiosity of the masses about their doings is unpleasant, but it is an expression of the sense of their importance….


When politicians and the mass media are unable or unwilling to speak intelligently and truthfully, when they speak to “audiences”, “target markets”, “consumers”, and not to citizens (in the Aristotelian sense – those who participate in the exercise of power), then it is time to stop applauding and repeating trite and misleading clips of speeches. Otherwise, we have to resign ourselves to baking bread, watching the Hobbit and playing with Legos – all of which I plan to do while I still can…

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