From 1999 through 2010, I lived in Caracas, Venezuela. I arrived just after Hugo Chávez began his presidency, so I saw a rather vibrant Venezuela for several years before its subsequent deterioration under Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution. As an immigrant, I saw Venezuela as an outsider, and at the same time, I could reflect on the United States from outside its borders.
In the United States, many people work extraordinarily long hours. Our Puritan work ethic has become hypertrophied in a culture of alienation, postmodernity, and high technology. People in the United States are productive, creative, and generous. In Venezuela, on the other hand, the work-life balance leans heavily in the direction of life and leisure. Businesses are struggling and workers are hungry, but many shops don’t open on time and are closed for two hours at midday. Efficiency is almost a foreign concept, and vacations come around faster than the months. People work to live, not the other way around. Weekends are spent at the beach enjoying the sun with family and friends. Late-night parties are frequent in Venezuela, even in the middle of the week. The country’s work-life balance is something about which the United States could definitely learn.
Many North American visitors are impressed with the emphasis Venezuelans place on family and friends. With time, however, one discovers that this emphasis stems partly from a cultural tradition and partly because the government and business sectors do not function efficiently, so people need their family and friends (their connections) just to survive. In contrast, one finds that in the modern metropolitan areas of the United States, services function so well that it is really quite easy to live alone independently — a rugged individualist. You can do it yourself, do your own thing, be your own person, be free, individuate, self-actualize, sit in your own apartment, and sink into a magnificent pit of loneliness and alienation — all on your own terms!
Venezuelans don’t suffer the isolation and alienation that North Americans have been suffering for the last hundred years, nor do they suffer postmodern angst. They are too involved with the pleasures of life. Their troubles are more characterized by emotional entanglements, family enmeshment, and the constricting expectations of family and friends.
The United States is a well-oiled machine with rules and laws for everything. In Venezuela, on the other hand, the party at 8:00 p.m. doesn’t start until 10:30 p.m. The photocopies promised for tomorrow will not be ready tomorrow and the red traffic light is actually a little greenish. For a North American accustomed to rules determining everything, I found Venezuela somewhat frustrating but also thoroughly enchanting. Over the next decade, however, the loose relation between the word and what it signified made room for lying, corruption, violence, the breakdown of institutions, and eventually the destruction of the very fabric of society.
Governments determine the laws by which racial, ethnic, or religious groups will be rejected or protected. As a multicultural experiment, the United States has struggled to come to terms with multiculturalism throughout its history. Genocide, slavery, and segregation are just three of the most obvious institutions with hard edges of influence over the lives of millions of families and their children for generations. While there are more races, religions, and ethnic groups in the United States than in Venezuela, the fact is that in Venezuela, the races have been freely mixing for hundreds of years, while the United States had laws against interracial marriages up until the 1960s. The sharp lines between the races in the United States are actually blurred in Venezuela, and the sharp lines between the classes in Venezuela are blurred in the United States.
Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement focused on bringing social injustices to consciousness, challenging racist laws, and securing voting rights for the disenfranchised. These are the levers that change society and change the lives of families. Are taxes collected? Do the taxes get to social programs? Do children have health care? Is primary and secondary education compulsory? What are the laws regarding corporal punishment and child abuse? What are the laws regarding homosexual families? Is birth control legal and available? Is abortion legal? Is military service a requirement? Are there child labor laws?
In 2006, under the Chávez regime, a new law was proposed to make any comments critical of the government — even those spoken in private — illegal. It caused an uproar and, though it was not passed, let the Venezuelan people know that their freedom of speech was no longer a right to be taken for granted. It could be withdrawn at any time. This threat helps us to see that psychoanalysis can only exist in a society with democratic freedoms. It is impossible to free-associate on a couch if there is no free speech in the street. Is the patient a government spy testing the analyst’s loyalty to the regime? Is the analyst reporting the opinions of the patient to the government?
During Venezuela’s national strike of December 2002 and January 2003, I had a number of patients who experienced a collapse of analytic space when their intrapsychic fears were confirmed by political realities. Totalitarian governments oppress the psychoanalytic enterprise whenever they move to silence people. They are threatened by the subversive nature of psychoanalysis and have squashed it in many countries throughout history.
The United States is not under totalitarian rule, but its history is stained by shameful policies we need to remember in order to not repeat. These include the genocide of North American indigenous people, the enslavement of Africans, the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, the establishment of racist laws, the Red Scare of the 1950s, the ill-considered war in Vietnam, its interventionist policies in Latin America, and more. In the 1970s, Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst for the Pentagon, presented classified information to the public concerning the United States’ failed policy in Vietnam. In September 1971, the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding, was broken into at the direction of the White House. The US government was looking for confidential information in order to discredit Ellsberg.
How is a young person supposed to develop a benign superego when there is state-sponsored violence and a corrupt judicial system? How will a person’s anxieties be understood when he/she is literally being watched and under attack?
The history of any country leaves its marks on the lives of every individual and on the generations of every family. A ninety-five-year-old in the United States remembers the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, and the fear of Communism. A sixty-five-year-old lived through the Cold War, the death of Kennedy and King, the civil rights movement, and the counterculture. A forty-five-year-old grew up in relative peace until the fall of the Twin Towers. A twenty-five-year-old is a changeling raised on the new high technologies, grave threats to the human species, and an unimaginable future on the horizon. Add class, race, religion, gender, and changing politics to the equation, and it is clear to see that we all wear our national history on our skin and in our family heritage. The hard edge of government control influences child development by determining the parameters of personal, familial, and social life.
There are factors that protect some groups, families, and individuals from the hard edges of governmental influence, and these include personal wealth, education, access to power, and ethnic and religious privilege. Beyond these factors, governments can establish laws that further protect vulnerable individuals and groups from the hard edges of social and governmental imposition. These include solid institutions, a system of checks and balances, and the establishment of civil laws that protect the rights of citizens. These laws defend the freedom of religion, freedom from slavery, the right to own property and an independent judiciary, equal rights before the law and due process, freedom of the press, and more. These governmental factors create buffers between the hard edges of malignant social and governmental tendencies and the peaceful and dynamic development of growing children.
During the course of my life, I have seen a great deal of turmoil in the United States, but it almost always resulted in moves toward expanding freedoms: freedom of speech and political protest, civil rights, women’s rights, rights of the disabled, rights for gays and lesbians, labor laws, legal protections from dangerous products, and protections for the environment.
In the last three years, President Donald J. Trump has awakened the beasts of misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, religious hatred, classism, big-business greed, ignorant hostility, xenophobia, white nationalism, conspiracy theories, and more. I am proud to say Trump is being resisted like no president in US history, and yet a real threat exists as he is attacking civil rights laws and eroding the institutions of democracy, first with the destruction of the Republican Party, attacks on the free press, the erosion of confidence in the justice department, the distortion of the truth, the warping of the very principles of critical thinking, the abandonment of common decency, and the replacement of scientific knowledge with baseless beliefs, often of a conspiratorial nature.
Trump, like Chávez before him, is a demagogue, a strongman bully, a thugocrat, and his effect on people is like that of an angry father — while some identify with him and enjoy the way he unleashes his uncivilized impulses, others are frightened and feel overwhelmed and powerless. As I wondered about my feelings of fear and powerlessness, I immediately linked them to my experience of Chávez in Venezuela. I realized the terror and powerlessness evoked by the bully is an experience we all know. It is the terror and powerlessness of the infant in the face of an external world beyond its control and unjustly imposing itself. When faced with the bully one needs to feel that terror and powerlessness, link it to similar experiences one has known throughout life, and then remember that as infants we were helpless. Now, we are not. Now we are grown up, we have education, experience, and have acquired bases of power. By remembering rather than repeating, we are able to act politically rather than be frozen in neurotic fear. We can join with others; we can push back—and we must push back. ■
Daniel S. Benveniste, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in the Seattle area in Washington State and a visiting professor of clinical psychology at the Wuhan Mental Health Center, in the People’s Republic of China. He is the author of The Interwoven Lives of Sigmund, Anna, and W. Ernest Freud: Three Generations of Psychoanalysis (2015) and is an honorary member of the American Psychoanalytic Association. https://benvenistephd.com
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