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On White Hysteria

(Rally of far-right activists in Portland, Oregon, August 17, 2019. Photo: Mark Peterson/Redux Image, New York magazine, December 19, 2019)

With less than a thousand words (in her recent preface to a New York magazine photographic portfolio by Mark Peterson, with additional reporting by James D. Walsh), Claudia Rankine has offered what is, for her, a typically eloquent and essential assessment of the state of our nation. She begins with Dylann Storm Roof, the young assassin that in 2015 killed nine African Americans at prayer in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina; she then notes Roof’s ongoing exchange of letters with Billy Roper, head of the Shield Wall Network, a white nationalist group in Arkansas.

“‘I have a lot of empathy for him. I’m 47, and he’s young enough to be my son,’ Roper said of Roof . . . ‘These millennials and now, I guess, Gen-Zers that are coming up, they are not stupid about the demographic trends and what they portend for the future. That angst, that anxiety that plagues them, drives them to do rash things—whether it’s that rash or not—I can empathize with.’”

Rankine herself underscores Roper’s sentiments. “I would humbly suggest,” she comments, “we believe that Roper is being sincere, and that he speaks for many.”

What most struck me, however, as I read Rankine’s distillation of the danger we face, was the richness and precision of the vocabulary she uses to describe it: “white nationalists,” “Klansmen,” “hate groups,” a “white ethno-state,” “white-nationalist hate groups,” “white supremacists,” “neo-Nazis,” “far-right groups,” a “white-power manifesto,” an “anti-immigrant manifesto,” “white-supremacist extremism,” a “white-supremacist gathering,” a “white-supremacist group,” a “contemporary American Confederacy,” “public rallies,” “private rituals,” “domestic terrorism,” “white nationalism,” “very fine people,” and all of it, “homegrown.” The differences between these various descriptors are nuanced and important, and the right’s own manipulation of its complex of self-identification during recent years has been no less so.

It might well appear, then, that the last thing needed today to capture, confront, and oppose this menace is a new term of art. And yet an essential element is still missing from the discussion. The most proper and precise diagnosis for the Roofs and Ropers of our nation, it seems to me—and what makes their sentiments into a political force, rather than an isolated symptom—we need to call “white hysteria.”

Hysteria, as anyone with a vague sense of the history of psychoanalysis knows, is an etymologically Greek word as old as misogyny, a term that originated in Egyptian and Greek pseudo-science which speculated about ailments caused a womb that ostensibly wandered within the female body. In the late nineteenth century, beginning with Charcot, and then Freud, came official recognition that men suffer from hysteria as frequently as women (though, if anything, the tradition of misogyny undergirding this diagnosis increased). For a time within psychoanalysis, hysteria became a catch-all term, not for uncontrolled emotion, as it is used colloquially, but for any and all physical ailments without apparent somatic origins, for which trauma (lately become a catch-all term of its own) was assumed as cause.

For a brief period in the mid-eighties and early nineties, during the heyday of Rocky-Rambo-Terminator-Braveheart bashfests and body-building beauty queens, there was some discussion of male hysteria within feminist and cinema studies. Re-screening today that particular strand of cinematic history, I suspect, one would find much of the prehistory for today’s white nationalism. Certainly the bare-chested, skin-scripted buffies captured in the collection of Mark Peterson’s photos seem to have either stepped off the silver screen or be auditioning for it. Reading our history of white nationalism together with the tradition of misogynist theories about the nature and causes of hysteria should also help to explain why white nationalists have come out of the closet at the very moment that the long-suffering victims of male arrogance and sexual violence are breaking their silence. As Tabish Khair observed, in a column written shortly before the 2016 election, “the most powerful and reactionary political forces today—even when they are opposed to each other—are united by the subterranean or open existence of male privilege and/or anger and resentment against gender equality”.

At least within psychiatric circles, this long and sordid story of misogyny seems at last, in its terminology anyway, to have ended in gender neutrality. What was once termed hysteria by psychoanalysts today is labeled “somatic symptom disorders.” Moreover, within this array of mental illnesses, which also includes conversion disorders (where actual body functions are lost, e.g. in blindness or paralysis), a particularly relevant subset has been identified: body dysmorphic disorders, where obsessive ideas about one’s appearance come to dominate one’s sense of self. Those suffering from BDD, psychiatrists tell us, are particularly prone to suicidal ideation. The most familiar form of body dysmorphia, perhaps, is anorexia nervosa; reverse anorexia, usually referred to as muscle dysmorphia, was first isolated as a diagnosis in the late 1990s, shortly before the Schwarzenegger transition from Terminator to Governator.

So far as I know, no one has as yet described a form of dysmorphic identity that manifests itself primarily as a form of cultural or ideological hysteria, and yet that’s what I hear in comments from the likes of Billy Roper. Surely the obsessive self-critique of anorexia nervosa or muscle dysmorphia is influenced in part by fashion, social media, and sports culture. Others don’t see in the mirror what the individual with BDD does, because it isn’t there. When white nationalists declare war on the future, the social mirror that obsesses them is no less a product of distortion. Remember, Billy Roper, a middle-aged, white supremacist organizer, begins and ends his filial evocation of Dylann Roof by speaking of empathy, and thus of his own direct connection to the angst and anxiety he attributes to the young neo-Nazi assassin. Psychoanalysis has long described suicide as a form of homicidal impulse turned inward. If muscle dysmorphia is the reverse of anorexia, how could outward manifestations of aggression not be its logical consequence? Tattoos—cutting that marks the body as titles and cover art market a book—are the perfect liminal emblems of this unstable inward/outward dynamic.

As we know, the line between political insiders and outsiders has been no less unstable since 2016. A recent New Yorker column by David Remnick admirably recapitulates the current state of the party of Trump, and thus, of our union. He notes that,

“There was a time, not so long ago, when Lindsey Graham recognized, and said publicly, that Trump was ‘unfit for office’—and when Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, Susan Collins, Cory Gardner, and so many other Republicans in Congress recognized Trump for the moral vacuum that he is. Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff, once called Trump ‘a terrible human being.’ Rick Perry, his Secretary of Energy, saw him as a ‘barking carnival act’ and deemed his candidacy ‘a cancer on conservatism.’ Ted Cruz called him a ‘pathological liar’ and ‘utterly immoral.’ They used to care. But things have changed.”

The New Yorker editor goes on to enumerate former loyalists (Mattis, Cohn, McMasters, Kelly, Tillerson) who, having exited the Executive branch, now profess—Remick calls it “coming clean”—contempt for their former boss. Implicit in both lists is an unstated charge: that bad faith or duplicity rules within Republican ranks. In Congress as in the White House, Remnick sees willed suppression, perhaps strategic or tactical, of ostensible principles, a trait no doubt identifiable in any collaborator with authoritarianism, anywhere.

Rankine’s preface to the Peterson photo portfolio ends on a related note. Calling for us to “address domestic terrorism for what it is,” she concludes:

“White nationalism, legitimized by our president’s support of ‘very fine people,’ has flourished in part because of this refusal to look it squarely in its face and acknowledge it as homegrown. Without a full accounting of the reality, there can be no remedy. To look away is a form of collaboration.”

“Disturbing as they are,” Rankine correctly surmises, the images captured in Peterson’s photos “portray the American story.” Looking this truth “squarely in its face,” she argues, is the only remedy. That we have not yet accounted for it in full, that our government “only recently, and tentatively, began to address” it, is, as Rankine claims, a “form of collaboration” that has been with us, “institutionalized” since the Civil War.

Unlike either Remnick or Rankine, however, I’m not at all sure that collaborators necessarily suppress or ignore the contradictions inherent in their behavior. Scary as it may sound, I think they believe in what they’re doing. Nor do I think the way forward will come primarily from any full accounting, essential as such truth-telling may be.

Instead, I suspect that, as Remnick also says, “things have changed,” and that, as Rankine herself urges us to do, we must assume that Roper’s claim of empathy is sincere and that “he speaks for many.” I also believe, as did Spinoza, that people possessed with a false idea do not relinquish that idea when they are confronted with the truth, simply because it is true. Instead, as Spinoza recognized, “an emotion can only be controlled or destroyed by another contrary emotion,” one “with more power for controlling emotion.”

The rogues’ gallery of costume parties, private rituals, and public rallies documented by Peterson, though essential, is unlikely to sway public opinion by the mere fact of its exhibition. At least since the rise of Breitbart, and of Fox News before that, there has been plenty of countervailing expertise in alt-right tabloids that specialize in disturbing and alarming the masses—though their phantoms and monsters tend to be foreign, dark-skinned, gender-fluid, antifa, or preferably all of the above. Few people of any political persuasion go to freak shows and come back feeling solidarity or empathy; the effect, instead, is a more solid sense of self and norm, along with hardened opposition to the freakish other.

So how then, and why, is white hysteria anything other than simply deplorable? Let’s return, one final time, to that reaction which Rankine claims speaks for many, and let’s recall just how familiar it is. When white supremacists like Roper refer to the “angst, that anxiety that plagues them, [that] drives them to do rash things,” to me he sounds no different from any common or garden variety adherent to the party of Trump, from representatives of Congress down to members of the MAGA-capped mob. In the past three years, we have heard a non-stop drone of similar rationalizations—couched occasionally from a qualified distance, more often in expressions of empathy, and at times with equally violent rhetoric—in Republican commentaries about their raving lunatic of a leader. White hysteria is not an isolated symptom, recognizable by the adoption of shaved heads, paramilitary paraphernalia, particular tattoos, or tiki torches. It is a political force, a shared belief uniting the cult and the army of Trump, and it can only be countered by something contrary and more powerful. So let us be crystal clear: the intention and purpose here is not to favor—or oppose—any particular political figure. Though certain individuals in certain countries are certainly representative—indeed, they even self-promote as poster boys for the problem, as Khair’s column makes clear, our current forms of cultural hysteria are widely shared and structural. Any progress towards a cure will have to go deep or go home.

Long ago, during the waning days of the Weimar Republic, Georges Bataille recognized that “for fascist movements, the existing State has first been something to conquer, then a means or a frame, and . . . the integration of the nation does not change the schema of their formation.” Bataille also knew that the natural enemy of fascism is socialism. What was true in the 1930s and 1940s will be unchanged in 2020. Today we again have a social movement that speaks truth instead of lies, and we again have political leaders who actually care about repairing lives that have languished far too long under neoliberalism. But all this talk of “electability” (a chimera that no one before November 10, 2016 would have ever included in any sentence containing the word “Trump”) has to stop. Speaking truth and being on the right side of history are surely desirable, but when it comes to winning immediate political battles, these are minor virtues.

What is needed, and fast, is for the nation to unite behind a political force stronger than white hysteria, resurgent today just as it was back in 2016. What is needed is a revolutionary’s sense that the nation is at risk, and that freedom, equality, and social justice must win the day, by any means necessary. Only two years after Bataille penned his trenchant analysis on the psychological structure of fascism, and three years before Henry Ford would accept from Hitler the Grand Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle, Langston Hughes penned a clarion call to this country:

“For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that's almost dead today.”

“O, let America be America again,” exclaimed the country’s greatest poet. “The land that never has been yet— / And yet must be—the land where every man is free.” Hughes had no illusions about what his country had been. As a gay man and African American poet, how could he not know its history, how could he not fear for its future? And yet, like women coming together to reclaim our capital, like lawyers rushing to airports to counsel immigrants, like citizens protesting the race-based violence of their state, like high schoolers marching for an end to armed self-slaughter in our schools, like the young mobilizing everywhere to save this planet from the horrors we’ve prepared, Hughes also understood that there is no progress without vision:

"O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!"

When Bing Crosby sang “White Christmas” for the first time in a radio broadcast on December 25, 1941, he was certainly crooning a different tune than much of what has been said in this post. To win the battle before us, however, will take a similar level of inspiration and sacrifice—precisely the sort that Crosby himself provided a few years later, in a USO performance for the troops in France in 1944.

And there really is only one thing I want for Christmas: Smrt fašizmu, sloboda narodu!

Jim Hicks is Executive Editor of the Massachusetts Review

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