Sunday, June 12, 2011

Reposting FDL Book Salon: Robert Jay Lifton's new memoir, "Witness to an Extreme Century"

I had a great time hosting Firedoglake's Book Salon this afternoon. The guest was famous psychohistorian Robert Jay Lifton. Reposted below is the introductory post I wrote for the occasion. Readers should click though to read the entire exchange between myself, Dr. Lifton, and a number of commenters, touching on subjects from mind control and torture, to the Armenian genocide and the legacy of Hiroshima. Co-author with Dr. Lifton on a couple of books, and recently a blogger on the Wikileaks story, Greg Mitchell shows up in a number of the comments.
We are extraordinarily fortunate to converse today with psychiatrist and psychohistorical researcher Robert Jay Lifton. His new memoir, written after 60 years of professional life, is an amazingly fascinating and entertaining book. Dr. Lifton speaks in his persona of a gifted, intelligent, and rational observer and thinker, a self-described disciple of the Enlightenment and a humanist approach to understanding.

Yet Dr. Lifton was more than a mere witness to history. As his book describes it, his experience working with traumatized returning Vietnam veterans transformed the researcher into an activist as well, and he has continued making outspoken criticisms of U.S. military and interrogation/torture policies ever since. In 2004, he was one of the first medical professionals to speak out against the participation of doctors, nurses, and medics in torture by U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.

Dr. Lifton’s witnessing was always of an active sort, however, seeking to use understanding and intellect to bring light to some of the darkest episodes in recent history. To visit his work is to descend along with him into the most hellish and evil places in modern times, and his work acts like a kind of Virgilian torch for use by we Dante-like pilgrims, visiting hell to discover our own humanity, no matter what uncomfortable truths might await us.

In his book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China, one of the most important works of psychology in the 20th century, Dr. Lifton interviews the victims of a massive “thought reform” campaign by the victorious Chinese Communist Party, undertaken in the aftermath of a terrible civil war, and under the blows of the Cold War and Korean War. In the process of this encounter with totalism – the manipulation of mind and personality by preying upon the fear of death, the power of group pressures and interpersonal pressures to produce false confessions, the internal splitting or dissociative properties of the mind, and the inescapable drama of individual identity formation – Dr. Lifton’s analysis made a tremendous contribution to our understanding of extreme psychological states, and extreme modalities of social and historical experience.

There were other such confrontations and discoveries, as Dr. Lifton’s personal intellectual and career journey led him to study another totalistic assault, albeit one imposed by distant technological, yet terrible means, in his study on the victims of Hiroshima, later published as Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima. Years later, he wrote, along with Greg Mitchell, Hiroshima in America, an amazing book about U.S. societal reaction to the destruction of the atomic bomb, the psychology of the men who decided to use it, and the collective denial that has captured our society ever since, while the insane destructive fantasy of total nuclear annihilation haunts us still.

Dr. Lifton’s memoir is organized around these fateful encounters, and the works that emerged from them, from the “thought reform” and Hiroshima work, to his massive 1986 study, The Nazi Doctors – about which he speaks at length about the difficult personal toll in undertaking such a work – and his encounters with the traumatized Vietnam veterans, and opposition to the Vietnam War in general (Home from the War: Learning from the Vietnam Veterans).

Dr. Lifton’s work has continued to enlighten in an activist way, from his work on the apocalyptic Japanese cult, Aum Shrinrikyo (Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism) to the extreme ideology of world domination that arose in U.S. ruling circles following 9/11 (Superpower Syndrome). But his new memoir, while it takes the reader on a journey into the dark territory surrounding “an extreme century” is also a moving personal account of personal development, and of those he encountered along the way.

Accompanied by his supportive and accomplished wife, BJ, and sometimes his children, Dr. Lifton had the good luck to encounter and collaborate with some of the best minds of the last century. Those who seek anecdote about the famous will not be disappointed, as Dr. Lifton describes his relationship with his great mentor, the famous psychoanalyst and theoretician Erik Erikson, his meetings with anthropologist Margaret Mead, his confrontation with Nazi doctor and famed ethologist, Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz, his friendship with novelists Elie Wiesel and Norman Mailer, among other fascinating people who populate his new work.

Dr. Lifton did not remain in an ivory tower. As he explains in his memoir, stirred by the protests of the 1960s, he became an activist, and was twice arrested for civil disobedience against the Vietnam War. At his Wellfleet, Massachusetts home, he initiated a series of yearly meetings, beginning in 1966, and still continuing today, drawing together an idiosyncratic collection of academics, clinicians, artists and thinkers to discuss what he first characterized as psychohistory, but apparently grew larger into wide-ranging discussions about psychology, history, art, current events, all animated by Lifton’s own personality, rooted in inquiry, honesty, and good humor mixed with intellectual rigor.

As a balance to the dark powers of totalism, which draw upon the deepest roots of human psychological vulnerability and threaten the very planet in its death-defying search for unreachable immortality and omnipotence, Dr. Lifton counterposes a vision of a protean self, of symbolic immortality through embracing the connectivity of all humans throughout time. Proteanism concerns “the self’s capacity to change and transform itself,” its creative capacities, and its many cultural variations.
At a large reception during a conference, a graduate student I didn’t know confronted me in a New York/sixties manner so brash as to be almost charming: “Hey, Lifton, I tried to be a protean man and it doesn’t work.” Again I smiled, this time perhaps with a little more uneasiness. I told him that proteanism was not an absolute – one didn’t have to be changing or reconfiguring one’s psyche every day – but rather a tendency of the self. That was true enough, but I knew it to be only the beginning of an answer. (Witness to an Extreme Century, p. 369)
Modern history has presented us with the gravest questions and dilemmas, but Robert Jay Lifton has presented us with the beginning of some answers, and for this we can be grateful. With that, let’s welcome to Firedoglake, Dr. Robert Jay Lifton.

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