Discover more from Outspoken with Dr Naomi Wolf
How Not to Become a Sociopath: The "Rest of America" and the Role of Joy
Were Liberal Elites So Cruel Because They Have No Fun?
Does having fun in your life protect you from becoming a sociopath?
Since 2020, we have witnessed charming, well-educated, “civilized” people all around us — especially from what my husband calls (as others do) “the laptop class” — reveal, during ‘lockdowns” and medical tyranny — a side that is, bare teeth and all, nakedly sadistic.
Now, as our stunned society slowly tries to set itself upright from having wallowed for nearly three years in an irrational, animalistic seizure of hatred and cruelty — as it struggles to settle its hat and to brush the dust and mire of the gutter off of its suit, and to straighten its necktie — few indeed from that group want to glance back at the Lord of the Flies-type scenes of savagery that these “civilized” people cheered on.
But we who were targeted know what happened and cannot forget it. We click, sometimes ruminatively, on compilations in social media of “respectable” politicians, comedians, talk show hosts, and thought leaders, avidly stating that they wished we would just die, that we should be denied medical care, that we should be locked indoors forever, lose our jobs, and so on.
We — the targeted — must reckon with the traumatizing fact that we were on the receiving end of cruelty which the perpetrators seemed really to enjoy.
Remember all of those affluent ladies (so often affluent ladies) — total strangers — who gestured wildly at you to pull your mask up over your nose? What was their energy like? Almost eager, almost erotic, right?
They liked it. They liked the power.
Remember the tone of the society hostess who told you that you can’t come to a private event at a major philanthropist’s penthouse — because “he is being careful”? Was there a bit of a thrill, a sensual savoring, for the hostess, of the words that excluded you, and that included all of them?
Remember the stories of disabled children who came home from schools, weeping, with their masks tied to their faces by their special education teachers? Remember the tone of the elementary school principals who told anguished parents that there was nothing that they could do about the forced masking, or about kids being socially exiled in full view of the class for shamingly-structured weekly testing? Remember the Ivy League deans who told distraught parents that there was nothing they could do about mandated mRNA injections that had been tested on only eight mice? Recall the hospital administrators who told miserable adult children that they could not sneak Ivermectin to their elders, or even hug them?
They were sorry, but there was nothing they could do. Remember that?
“We are just following CDC guidelines,” all of these gatekeepers parroted, not noticing, or choosing not to notice, the famous phrase, from about 85 years ago, that this recalls.
What was the frenzy of 2020-2022 but Sigmund Freud’s and Wilhelm Reich’s repressive hysteria?
Early 20th century psychologists, notably Wilhelm Reich in The Mass Psychology of Fascism, presciently published in 1933-34, believed that when people deny themselves pleasure and meaning, they become ripe for the attractions of sadism and the lures of totalitarianism. [https://wilhelmreichmuseum.org/product/the-mass-psychology-of-fascism/] Reich believed that the repression of German interwar culture resulted in that population’s attraction to Nazism.
Even earlier than Reich, in 1920, Sigmund Freud formulated the “Pleasure Principle,” (Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/abs/what-freud-really-meant/beyond-the-pleasure-principle-beyond-the-pleasure-principle-1920/0984E1A3451EF279A8DBDF2316E09422). Freud suggested that in pleasure and joy there is a release of tension, and that hysteria and other neuroses manifest when these instinctive impulses to joy and pleasure are blocked.
While much controversy has swirled around Mattias Desmet’s 2022 The Psychology of Totalitarianism, and its core proposal of “Mass Formation” as an explanation for the mania of the recent “lockdown” past, his thesis is far from new, as he himself has plaintively had to argue. [https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/psychology-totalitarianism-mattias-desmet] Indeed, Desmet’s is an updating of directly antecedent work from Reich, which he cites, and even more centrally from Hannah Arendt’s classic The Origins of Totalitarianism, which he also cites. [https://www.amazon.com/Origins-Totalitarianism-Harvest-Book-Hb244-ebook/dp/B004Q9TLJW]
Though many readers today, in the health freedom community especially, think Desmet’s thesis is novel and controversial, it truly isn’t; it is far from novel for sociologists, social commentators and psychologists to speculate about what psychological dynamics cause paroxysms of totalitarian or Fascistic behavior in populations behaving hysterically as a mass. They’ve been doing so for a couple of centuries.
Desmet largely bypasses the aspects of Reich’s work that centers on the suppression of pleasure, for a more mechanistic focus on general thought control.
But could these theories of suppressed pleasure and the hysterical reactiveness that can arise from it — theories from the past — help usefully to explain the mania of the past three years?
Many progressive urban elites, especially, while expressing themselves on social media, seemed to like being “locked down”; seemed to boast about how isolated they were, in the depths of our mass incarceration; seemed even to enjoy being scared of “the virus” — seemed to like having something larger than themselves, larger than their $12 green juices and their Pilates workouts at Equinox Gyms, larger than their swiping right on dating apps, larger than the “Culture” section of The New York Times, on which to focus, and to which to yield their passions.
They were hungry for a cause, for a way to be part of the collective “greater good”, for a methodology to demonstrate their self-sacrifice; and so the “rules” handed down one after another by what friends of mine are now calling “our overlords,” seemed to stimulate, fulfill and gratify that longing for greater meaning, that desire to yield to authority and to lose one’s troublesome, bored, neurotic self in the collective “altruistic” hive mind.
Their lust for obedience had in it an element of pleasure; an erotics of submission as captured in the only half-joking phrase on a meme, “Lock me down harder, Daddy”.
The past three years, this social lust for submission, coinciding with a lust for domination and control; this embrace by certain elites of the performing of cruelty and of imposing cruelty (injections, more and more of them; the masks, the isolation) on oneself — recall of course the Sylvia Plath poem, “Daddy”:
“ Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.”
But in this case those adoring the Fascist were of both genders, and the Brute was the worshipped State.
What could have contributed to this neurosis, this perverse dynamics of dominance and submission, this desire of millions to lose their individuality, their willingness to sacrifice in what should have been obvious ways, the wellbeing of their children, and their acceptance, at Zimbardo-experiment-speed, of more and more levels of dystopian sadism in their own and in others’ lives?
What contributed to turning the culture of liberal elites in cities especially, into a fertile soil for breeding acts of public cruelty?
Coming from that world, and having lived in it for decades — and now living in a totally different world, a world which we may call “the Rest of America” — I suspect that one contributing factor to this sadism/sadomasochism of the elites is what Freud and Reich both suggested could be dangerous: that is, the systematic denial of pleasure, spirituality, fun and meaning in the lives of the “laptop class.”
The world of liberal elites is one of workaholism, in which family life is often downgraded as a priority, and in which spiritual life has little focus on it at all; it is also made joyless by constant self-surveillance and self-denial.
It is a world full of opaque rules, and the rules constantly shift; some of the rules are about virtue signaling, so you don’t get kicked out of your tight, judgmental, privileged little society; but many of the rules are about maintaining a class status that feels, to members of this group, as if it is constantly in danger.
Only by one’s knowing the secret codes of the elite — how one is supposed to talk, dress, decorate one’s home, entertain — can one signal to others that one is a member of the in-group and that one knows its rigid signifiers.
The code serves to keep everyone else out, even as it reinforces the status of the insiders. But the code, along with the workaholism, contributes to the self-denying atmosphere — the sense of deprivation in relation to spontaneity and fun.
I once sat in a LaZBoy recliner, and I loved it; so secretly, I always longed for a recliner. But you can’t have a recliner if you are in the world of liberal elites. Don’t ask why, you just can’t. “Those people” — the people who support “Don’t Say Gay”, who love Trump, those “out there” who are benighted, the “deplorables” — — they have recliners.
So you can’t. Your friends will smirk.
(It is only now that I am in that “other” world, the Rest of America, that I have learned that if you are worried that your friends will smirk, then they are not really your friends).
I loved the feel of wall to wall carpeting, when I encountered it in old-fashioned hotel rooms. But you can’t have wall-to-wall carpeting. It’s tacky. You have to have bare polished wooden floors, with handmade rugs from some Central Asian location. Whether you like that or not.
There are certain crackers you can’t put out, for Heaven’s sake, when guests are expected. It has to be Carr’s water biscuits. Why? Who knows?
That’s the rule.
I do not come from money. I don’t come from that world. I was raised barely middle-class; my father was a Professor at a State University. My mom was a graduate student.
When I got to Yale (which was only possible for me via a scholarship), I was humbled to discover that the Oxford button-down shirts I had bought at Sears, and had felt so proud of having selected — to prepare to fit in, as I had expected, to my new life on the glamorous East Coast — were completely unwearable.
Because they were not all cotton.
They were an unspeakable, unmanageable polyester-cotton blend.
How did the unacceptable nature of my poor shirts, with their taboo admixture of fabrics, even get communicated to me? Who knows.
In the world of elites and their prep-school children, a lifted eyebrow, a barely-hidden glance between two better-informed friends — friends who were roommates at Andover, of course — can do it in a heartbeat.
But once you have been on the receiving end of elites’ smug displeasure and censoriousness, you don’t forget it.
I internalized their codes, over time, for survival at first. But eventually their codes became my atmosphere, my world. I forgot how little they really mattered.
I knew that I was bored as a member of the world of “liberal elites”, but I did not know the remedy, because that was the only world I eventually knew. I knew that I wanted to take a Valium (not that I take Valium) when I was a young mother in Washington, DC during the Clinton years, because all — all — conversation among the Senate aides, speechwriters, Chiefs of Staff, TV pundits, Washington Post journalists, lobbyists, and so on, was about work — or else about the gigantic, costly extensions that they were building on their homes.
No art, no emotion, no spirit, no God, no philosophy, no deep questions, and little real sharing.
Later I was bored, bored, as a liberal journalist in New York City, though I was going to the most celebrated gatherings in town; to Literary Lions galas at the Public Library, to the trendy screenings; to the most written-up events. I was a regular on the formerly-golden publicist Peggy Siegel’s B List; hooray for me.
I was bored talking to the star writers at The Nation, at The Wall Street Journal, at The Atlantic, because — after you got the news of the day, it was so limited a world of discourse and so dry a cultural context. Politics, work, work, status, work, status — and maybe, as an aside, competitive conversations about how their kids were doing better than other kids with Ivy League waitlists; that was the fare of our conversations, week after week, dinner after dinner, gala after gala.
When I was first dating Brian (who is now my husband), we were going to a Peggy Siegel screening in the Hamptons. I explained that the dress expectation for men there would be khakis, a white or blue open-necked Oxford shirt, a navy blue blazer, and brown loafers; it was a uniform. I thought I was making him comfortable by explaining this code related to privilege.
Brian wears black Punisher t-shirts and black jeans and combat boots and heavy silver chain bracelets.
He looked at me with pity - pity that my life, my society, was so circumscribed.
It was not until I was ejected from the world of liberal elites and welcomed by the — what can we call it? The Rest-of-America? — that I realized that there is a massive community of people who accept others based on their character, no matter what they are wearing; who don’t look around the interiors of their friends’ homes, or assess their canapes, with icy judgment.
I have been learning that in “The Rest of America” people have other things going on in their lives than just or primarily their work or their status; and that they are allowed, and allow themselves, to incorporate meaning, adventure and even fun into their lives.
So in contrast to a subculture of hard working super-achievers who, as adults, have no fun,— I am amazed to find that the world I inhabit now, allows for joy, fun and meaning.
And I think that the joy and the sources of meaning, kept this half of the country from devolving into animal rage and cruelty.
When I was single, I was invited on a date by a local contractor. He took me hunting. I sat beside him at the foot of a tree, at dawn, in a field, watching the world of animals wake up, and listening to the meadow itself thrum with life and then start to sing. The cool mists burned away before my eyes as the sun rose. The man later shot a wild turkey and cleaned it and presented it to me as a gift. I could not cook it — it was very tough — and the date never turned into a relationship; but I recall sitting there in wonder at where I found myself, with the whole world coming alive before our eyes, and thinking, This is fun.
I remember hanging out with my friend in the modest country neighborhood where we live now. She and her husband had put a pool table in their garage and had built a bar, and had a darts board on the wall, and had brought some old couches out to the garage; we and our neighbors would all hang around, listening to country music and drinking Jim Beam, and Coors, and playing pool, and making each other laugh, as warm summer breezes swirled around us, the garage door open to the view of green hills, and to the sight and sound of children playing in the street.
And I thought: This is fun.
When Brian first took me on an ATV and we sped around our property, and he revved it to jump the wheels up over hillocks along our little river, I thought, Damn, this is so much fun.
But in my former life one is not allowed to like hunting or pool tables in the garage, or ATVs. They are all on the naughty list.
In the past, elites have always hoarded pleasure; look at the Robber Baron era. Look at Versailles. It is historically anomalous that today’s American elites are so grim and grey and abstemious. Sometimes I wonder if the same enemy that is degrading various aspects of out culture, has also sought to weaken our elites by fostering this culture of anemic self-denial.
In contrast, though, the people I know now, in The Rest of America, have a great deal of art, music, beauty, family as a priority, community, and faith, in their lives. I don’t mean to generalize or romanticize and I am sure there are many exceptions, but speaking broadly, the people I used to know, for all of their money and privilege, have relatively dry, lonely, empty lives, compared with what seems often to me to be the richness of lives, the permission to have joy and fun and adventure, in The Rest of America.
Church, friends, family, hunting, shooting, patriotism, music, celebrations — there is so much, I have learned, that makes many of those outside of liberal urban-elite circles feel that they are part of something larger; there is so much more joy and adventure and meaning culturally allowed outside the purviews of “laptop class”; — so perhaps as a result of this, if Freud and Reich are right, the Rest of America is less susceptible to the lure of collectivist cruelty.
A few months ago I was speaking to the East Valley Republican Women’s Club, in Southern California. I was full of vestigial trepidation, as I had been propagandized for most of my life to believe that “Republican women” are Puritanical, blinkered, Church Lady caricatures.
Of course, when I met them, I encountered a group of sophisticated, delightful, powerful, elegant and perceptive community leaders. I liked them all and was pleased and honored to be taken into their midst.
I was staying at a casino/resort, where the ladies’ luncheon was being held. I realized I had packed only shoes fit for East Coast weather. I did not have sandals for my down time; and we were in the desert, and it was hot.
I looked in the shop in the casino, and saw that only these shoes were available:
And I kind of loved them!
But with my lifelong training in the world of liberal elites, I instinctively thought: I can’t possibly buy and wear those shoes.
They were sparkly and red. They were too much fun. It was unthinkable.
But then I went into the luncheon. There was a beautiful woman onstage, a singer, with long black hair, and perfect makeup; and at midday, she was wearing a blazing red floor-length gown, with cutout shoulders. She looked stunning. The lighting on her glowed, as she sang the National Anthem.
We all stood, and sang with her. I got chills.
We remained standing and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Again this was something that never would have happened in my former world. But a shiver went through me again at the awesome sight of so many solemn faces, of the room full of hundreds of people, hands on hearts., all swearing their loyalty to “One nation, under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.”
Lastly a female minister gave an invocation. She asked for blessings for the gathering, committed its efforts to the service of God, and expressed heartfelt gratitude for the chance for old and new friends to be in fellowship together. (“Fellowship” was a term about whose nuances I am just learning).
The luncheon had many subsequent high points; but what I felt above all was that people in this community had meaning in their lives. They had friends, faith, they were prioritizing family life; there was music, beauty, idealism.
There is no way to know this for sure, and history shows as many right wing tyrants and left wing ones. But the emotional richness I saw and the acceptance I felt at gatherings such as that — and that I feel in my country community now, and when sojourning among the many conservatives, Libertarians and others I meet these days in The Rest of America - compared with the poverty of spirit, self-denial and censoriousness on the elite Left out of which I have been exiled — is striking.
Are the early 20th century philosophers and psychologists correct? Does emotional repression prime people for fascism?
Whatever the answer, I am glad I am free of that shadow world.
I bought the shoes, and I wore them, and I had a lovely time; and I joined my new friends in the sun.