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Psychohistory

In response to:

Understanding White Racists from the December 30, 1971 issue

To the Editors:

Dr. Robert Coles’ treatment of my book White Racism: A Psychohistory in his essay “Understanding White Racists” [NYR, December 30] is quite a feat of legerdemain. Indeed the entire piece is.

In a few short pages he conjures up the Common American Man, the ghosts of James Agee, George Orwell and Simone Weil, and a host of Bad “well-to-do intellectuals who write about subjects like ‘the authoritarian personality’ and ‘white racism’ (for the government, foundations, or editors).” He locks this cast of characters in heroic struggle, the Bad intellectuals sneering at the Common Man and calling him a “white racist”; the Good intellectuals living amongst the people and, becoming “confused and outraged,” directing their hate to the Bad intellectuals; and the Common Man, struggling on, turning his hate now to blacks, now to the Bad intellectuals. Behind lurk the “vested interests,” seen at times by all the dramatis personae (except for the Bad intellectuals, who never seem to see anything but their sterile theories) as the real enemy. Now enters the magisterial Dr. Coles, to clear it all up. Not for him such rancor. Magnanimously he reveals his own feelings, administers a scolding to the Bad intellectuals and exhorts us all to “fight hard and politically” for a better America.

A neat trick. But the greater wonder is how Dr. Coles imagines that the causes for which he has carefully labored can be served by such a masquerade. Does falsification of another’s ideas and the use of anonymous working-class commentary (against what? who in particular?) as a bludgeon against them advance our meaningful knowledge of human phenomena?

Whether my book advances such understanding significantly is not at issue here; the reader will have to see for himself. But I must point out that its ideas are not those he depicts—indeed, why anyone would write such a book, even for the government, foundations, or editors, is beyond me.

A few of the grosser distortions: For a start, he fails to cite even the title correctly, leaving out the one term—“Psychohistory”—about which the whole work revolves. With that out of the way he can come up with a remark such as that I am “convinced [white racists] constitute the largest group of this nation’s population”—a piece of nonsense which enables him to flail at me for blaming “white racists” for our ills.

What is omitted is that the explicit intent of the work was to break out of this kind of conceptual trap, for which purpose the psychohistorical method attempts to integrate psychology with the fundamental economic and political levels of historical determination. As I stated quite clearly, we do not suffer from “white racists” but from a way of life that generates scapegoats of all kinds for the benefit of a certain type of power. To pursue this thesis I used psychology strictly to draw “Ideal Types (in Weber’s sense)” (p. 54), categories to which none of us, as individuals, have either the pride or shame to belong.

Why Dr. Coles failed to grasp this is perhaps related to several other difficulties in his essay, aside from those already mentioned—to a confusion of theory with a retreat from reality; a reluctance to go beyond consciousness in his psychological understanding; and an ensnarement in a liberal ideology that grows out of and so perpetuates the established order. It seems doubtful that we can get at the essential changes in the structure of power with the kind of sloganeering he offers.

In any case the issue is not one of being more right but of establishing ways to come to grips with the destructivity that generates racism. Given the state of things we can ill afford anything that works, as Dr. Coles’ essay does, to stifle dialogue.

Joel Kovel, M. D.

Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Bronx, New York

Robert Coles replies:

To answer Dr. Kovel’s two substantive points, described as my “grosser distortions,” I did indeed omit the subtitle to his book, as did his publishers when they printed “White Racism” alone on the book’s very first (title) page. I was not reviewing his book or any other book, simply trying to write an essay—and he is certainly entitled to call the essay anything he wants, “a feat of legerdemain,” “a neat trick,” a “masquerade,” though to use such language and then call for “dialogue” is a bit inconsistent. A review would certainly have had to deal with his psychohistorical theories, which I found to be just what I said: “bold and imaginative.” I note that he now wants to disavow what he said repeatedly in his book—I quoted one example, p. 212—that white racists are the largest group of this nation’s population.

The rest of the letter requires no answer but is edifying; the tone, the resort to caricature, and ultimately the sad effort to bring in “liberal ideology” and a “reluctance to go beyond consciousness,” all stand out and can only be regretted. But I want to say this: I must emphatically agree with Dr. Kovel when he says that the “anonymous working-class commentary” I presented gives a very special perspective to his ideas, though I don’t think the word “bludgeon” is warranted.

As for the anonymity of the people whose words I offered, that is just the point I tried to make: unlike Dr. Kovel and me, ordinary working people are indeed “anonymous,” though quite full of all sorts of ideas, and maybe even a few theories. Dr. Kovel says he wants to “integrate” the psychology of such people into a broader view of what is going on in the world, and more power to him. His book is full of psychological generalizations, even charts of what is going on way deep down in the minds of the “white racists” he is writing about.

The critical question, of course, is whence these formulations, these “ideal types” he mentions in his letter. Has he listened to “white racists,” gone out and talked with them, spent some time with them in his office or their homes or places of work? Or has their “psychology” been conveyed to him in some other way, and if so, exactly how, or rather, on the basis of listening to whom? It is irritating if not scandalous to be required to go through a book 300 pages long written by a clinician and find not one single clinical example, not one real-life person’s words or feelings in evidence. Freud’s genius was to observe, watch, listen, and only then come up with theoretical statements; and no wonder, these days, his daughter Anna Freud so constantly asks her colleagues to initiate “direct observation” and hold back for a good long while on those abstractions so many of us want to come up with.

In any event, I am sorry if the essay I wrote tends to “stifle dialogue,” even as I regret the anonymity of the working people Dr. Kovel mentions. I have showed his letter to the men I quoted, and they are more than willing to talk with Dr. Kovel. If he wants to come up to Boston, people from a number of families would be ready to say a few things—though I believe Dr. Kovel can find similar individuals not far from his office. I identified where the men live and work. Was I to betray an agreement of confidentiality and list the names of the men? And if the names were given, would that really satisfy Dr. Kovel’s objections?

One last thought. In White Racism: A Psychohistory Dr. Kovel finds cause for hope only among those people who somehow have avoided becoming either racists or “metaracists,” and as I indicated in the essay I wrote, quoting directly from Dr. Kovel, the definition of “metaracists” is sweeping enough to include, in one or another respect, almost everyone, certainly including Dr. Kovel and me. (“Those who acquiesce in the larger cultural order….”) What we are left with is a self-conscious and exceptional handful—Marcuse calls such an elite the “advanced consciousness of humanity,” Dr. Kovel refers, abstractly, to “the advancing edge of history”—which at some hypothetical moment in time will join forces with “the most exploited force.” I should think Dr. Kovel would have cause to wonder, though. Surely he has seen the malice and spite and narrowness, the prejudices of various sorts, that even thoroughly analyzed psychoanalysts can demonstrate—culminating in the sectarianism and ad hominem arguments that have plagued psychoanalysis, among other disciplines. And surely he has seen in this century what self-appointed political elites, in the name of various high ideals, have done to millions of anonymous, thoroughly anonymous men and women.

No, I do not go back on the argument I tried to develop in that essay. I thank Dr. Kovel for his letter and hope very much that some of the important issues he took up in his book get the further clarification I believe they very much need. And I hope that such clarifications will come from some firsthand exposure on his part to the “anonymous working-class commentary” I believe a good number of us who write about this country’s problems need to seek out and try to understand.

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