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  • Our Country ‘tis of We and Them: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on our Fractured American Identity
  • Dorothy Evans Holmes (bio)

I have come to the reflections offered in this paper after considering numerous contrasting cultural events. I will offer psychodynamic understandings of such contrasts. Among the events which undergird my thinking are the following.

I wrote (Holmes, 2009) that Barack Obama’s election was possible, in psychodynamic terms, for two reasons: his proud claiming of his own racial identity as a biracial man who identifies as African-American and the growth in our country’s collective psyche in relation to race. Though the words, “When they go low, we go high,” were first voiced by Mrs. Obama near the end of his eight years in office, it was the spirit of that phrase that in 2008 lifted Mr. Obama and, temporarily, our country, out of the never-ending mire of racism.

Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency in 2016 brought rallying calls and promises to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. Concomitant with and quickly pursuant to those appeals, regressive trends in the American psyche and in our laws became evident, such as passage of SB4 in Texas (2017) to outlaw sanctuary cities and to permit open carry of firearms. SB4 was characterized by the ACLU as giving:

a green light to police officers in the state to investigate a person’s immigration status during a routine traffic stop, based on how they look or sound, leading to widespread racial profiling, baseless scrutiny and illegal arrests of citizens and non-citizens alike.

(American Civil Liberties Union, May 9, 2017)

This paper will offer ways of understanding the instability in our country’s postures regarding cultural factors subject to [End Page 359] “isms,” including race and class. A key question for this paper is: why are the uplifting aspects of our cultural selves so subject to fracture and demonstrate lowly expressions of who we are? What is it about our civilized selves that inclines us to yield our civility to cravenness and inhumanity? Freud’s prescience helps us here.

In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud (1930) noted:

I may now add that civilization is a process in the service of Eros, whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples, and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind.

(p. 124)

We can note from this quotation that Freud saw civilization as an active, perhaps we could even say, dynamic process, aimed at achieving lofty goals. His view of civilization accords with the root meaning of civilization deriving from the Latin word, “civis,” which refers to people living in communities to achieve advanced stages of organization on many levels for the wellbeing of all. Linked in meaning to civilization is our common understanding of community, which also derives from Latin, specifically the Latin word “communes,” meaning things held in common, such as intent, belief, resources, needs, and risks. To the extent that civilized people identify with their civilization’s goals and things held in common within their particular communities, their identities are affected and they are motivated to pursue cohesion. What determines the degree of cohesion or fractures therein? Here, too, Freud is valuable, again:

The element of truth behind all this, which people are so ready to disavow, is that men are not gentle creatures who (only) want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowment is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness […] The time comes when each of us has to give up as illusions the expectation which, in his youth, he pinned upon his fellow-men, and when he may learn how much difficulty and pain has been added to his life by their ill-will.

(1930, pp. 111–112) [End Page 360]

However, earlier in the same text, Freud offered an antidote for man’s destructive ill-will towards man:

No other technique for the conduct of life attaches the individual so firmly to reality as laying emphasis on work; for his work at least gives him a secure...