Clinton might have integrated that powerful spirit in the land with the values of the secular republic created by our very religious and tolerant founding fathers. He had the opportunity to be a Lincolnesque figure in American politics. Instead he acted out the worst fears we have about ourselves and he opened the door to the more severe repercussions of our natural conservatism.
by Ray Poggi, M.D.
I was again noticing how little Mr. Clinton seems at all relevant to our current debates. I want, however, to examine the intense and mixed feelings I have (and I think many others have) towards him and to see if what lies behind those feelings could add to an understandinging of the direction we have since taken. It is my contention that Mr. Clinton was in a position to have a dramatic effect on the tide of events in American culture and politics. There was a growing conservatism and a feeling that we needed a new inspiring sense of direction for our society. There was a corresponding need to rediscover spirituality in American life. Clinton might have integrated that powerful spirit in the land with the values of the secular republic created by our very religious and tolerant founding fathers. He had the opportunity to be a Lincolnesque figure in American politics. Instead he acted out the worst fears we have about ourselves and he opened the door to the more severe repercussions of our natural conservatism and spirituality.
My exploration begins with an attempt to understand the unrelenting anger towards Bill Clinton expressed by conservatives and liberals for actions of his that were not in any way qualitatively different from the actions of all other men in both the Senate and House regardless of their party or political allegiances. Why have so many people been so furious with this other man? Why are we so furious and disappointed in him?
My hypothesis is that Clinton's antagonists sensed in him his hostility towards them. He hated them and they responded with hatred.
My impression from available biographical data is that Clinton has harbored a long-standing hatred for a father whose impact on the family was damaging. Every apparent action of Mr. Clinton's seemed directed toward becoming an perfect father. Since he was elected to that position in his family, it seems his love of family required that he accept and seek that election, that role, wherever the possibility existed to seek it. But some of his actions, once elected, dramatically undercut his own effort to be a father and represented an expression of his paternal hatred and self-hatred, stirred up when attempted to occupy the father's position.
Every action of the privileged male is exposed as an abuse of power. Clinton was compelled to apologize to those who had been hurt by his use of power. I submit that he was demonstrating unconsciously his own ambivalence towards the power given to traditional patriarchs and je was exposing the inherent abuses that are inevitably done by people who claim the role of patriarch. He was, thus, acting out his own efforts to separate the patriarchal abuse of power from his need to be a seemingly idealized father. It was as if he were saying through his actions; "I will do my job as President even though my legitimacy as an idealized patriarch has been trashed. Neither you nor I need that fantasy of ourselves in order to have and use power. Instead of having this father as your president you have, instead, a brother. Get used to it. Father is dead." I just killed him. Unfortunate indeed is such a means of resolving his internal conflict.
Strong feelings lead to thoughtless actions when the intense anxiety, pain and confusion these feelings cause cannot be mitigated by understanding. To achieve understanding, the feelings must be contained and the pain (fear, hatred, anxiety, confusion, etc.) must be understood in relation to its causes and origins.
The impulsive actions themselves are a highly condensed expressions of many related experiences that are united through shared feelings and meanings. Feelings have their own logic. The logic in this situation is as follows:
Being in a position to wield authority on behalf of others feels like being a father.
Being a father feels like being in the presence of a hated father.
On the basis of these similar feelings, my father and I are the same.
Therefore, I am the hated father.
What follows then is an action that represents an expression of hatred towards that father/self; an effort both to gain revenge, to have the fathers supreme power and to violently separate himself from the hated kinship and power.
Why is this pattern so common to men of power? For many, their actions expose their own efforts to hide from us (maybe from themselves) the idealized facade that masks their ongoing abuses of patriarchal privilege. I suspect for some this privilege to abuse their power is accepted as the perk that should go with the difficulties of the job. Having this good deal ruined by one of their own is a threat that must be eliminated. Calling Clinton criminal for doing what they after all are doing, is a way of refurbishing the image of ideal patriarch. The posture these men assumed of outraged gentlemen who, their posturing implies, have never been corrupted by such power seems to be an effort to preserve the idealized notion of patriarchal power by damning the man (not them) who has abused it.
Their actions of course must be assumed to be fueled by irrational anxiety and fury and permitted by a conscience had made a pact with the devil in order to have the privilege to abuse power and simultaneously retain the admiration of themselves and their constituency for being an ethical father. They were, as they spoke their words of condemnation, engaged in the very actions they said were only committed by the bad father, Bill. This effort to divert attention to him and away from them also is true of the hypocritical cries of corruption applied to the soft money raised by him and the Democratic Party. No American is fooled by these protestations and accusations. We all know that each of the accusers, perhaps even those who shout the loudest, are actively committing the same offenses. Again, only the blindness caused by actually believing that one is the almighty patriarch could spare these men from seeing that they are not fooling anyone. However, part of what is endemic to believing in privilege is the corresponding belief that you can fool the people at will.
Perhaps this is part of the fraternal love for Bill Clinton that confuses so many people who believe in their paternal perfection. "Fraternal" means that he is like us, a sibling, not an overlord. As a brother, he occupies a position of authority by virtue of circumstances not by virtue of virtue. For many of us the ambivalence towards our fathers has been less extreme; our father's example therefore has some seeds of humanity that make it bearable to be imperfect, bearable to ask for help when needed, bearable to feel remorse for our mistakes . We do the best we can and learn and hopefully improve. We never considered ourselves born to rule.
Some of us, then, may be disappointed in Bill rather than hate him and therefore do not want to desperately direct attention to him and away from ourselves. We are not certain how having the power he had might have affected us. We are not unhappy that he has undone the glorified version of father and revealed an ordinary man to us.
However, having had fathers we more loved than hated, men who somehow never forced us to consider them or treat them like gods, we are upset that Clinton felt the need to kill the father in him and discredit himself, the brother, in the process. I wish he had been able to make peace within himself and reveal the power in being brilliant but human. The anger that I feel towards Bill is that he has allowed these other hypocrites and genuine believers in patriarchal power to take the stage again and discourage me and others like me from believing we can be led by a brother, by a man like us rather than requiring some super man to lord it over us. We are once again having to take up the burden of proving that such appurtenances of the leadership role and the perks that go along with this version of leadership are not necessary to being a good president, good father and good brother.
This disillusionment not only in the father (in both Clinton and his accusers as 'fathers') but also in the fraternal leader, may be what is now fueling the resurgence of fundamentalist rhetoric and the effort to have god take over the secular government. The secular is us, ordinary people, trying to govern ourselves with the private help of whichever god we pray to.
Now, it seems, we are being told that God has to be the direct ruler and replace us; he must overturn our efforts to lead ourselves with his assistance. Of course, in order to overturn our fraternal or secular efforts to govern ourselves responsibly, God needs the help of a few good men, men who want us to believe that they know better than most of us, that they know what God would want us to do about such things as taxes and welfare. Only these men, closer to God than the rest of us, can say what He would do.
These men, by adopting certain ritualized behaviors and demeanors that make them seem visibly good and visibly common and humble and absolutely certain of themselves, try to convince us they are close to God. These behaviors are chosen to suggest the virtues we associate with people who are felt to be godly. They appear humble, ordinary, self-effacing, but we all know that to assess the people behind their masks we have to watch what they do and where their where the money comes from, where it goes, and who their friends are. We do have the means to sift the facts, think about them and come to a reasonable conclusion and course of action. But when we forget what we know, then we are tempted to want to believe what our leaders want us to believe...despite what we may know.
We legitimize our godly patriarchs when we no longer believe in our own goodness and in our ability to govern ourselves. Because we have lost faith in ourselves and therefore in our ability to think things through, we are willing to concede authority to the leader who will claim it, the one who acts as though he possesses a privileged position closer to the mouth of god. As a consequence we want to believe that they can lead us without our having to rely on our now discredited thinking. In our disillusioned state of mind we hope that God confers the leader's power, not us, not voters. This may be why our Chief Justice (speaking of the electoral college) felt he could say that we, the people, do not have the right to elect our leaders directly. That power was put in the hands of a privileged few--a few, better than the rest of us, closer to god than the rest of us, whom we should trust to make decisions we are incapable of making for ourselves. Sadly, thanks to Mr. Clinton (and his friends), many believe this is true.
© Ray Poggi 2005.
Ray Poggi is a member of the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute (www.sfpi.org)