Shadow Projections on the President


A couple of months ago I wondered on this blog whether some of the vitriolic attacks on Obama (as distinguished from reasoned disagreement) were driven by racism, and now I see that others are wondering the same, including Maureen Dowd and Jimmy Carter.  But a reader of Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish has a more complex argument that, I think, hits closer to the mark.  It rang a bell with me, in any event, because it involved a thread that has been running through American literature from its beginnings.  Here is the post in its entirety  

The reader writes that,

 “A common meme on the left is that racism is driving the hatred of Obama. I think the root is deeper  and scarier: it is shadow projection.

“Our ego wants to believe we are wonderful and so cannot tolerate evidence to the contrary. Consider America. As good as we are, we have a dark side and our actions often have dark consequences. We are large and cast a large shadow. If we were a more mature people we would simply own our dark side, integrate it into part of our self- knowledge, and act accordingly. However American mythology says that we are the good country, and to maintain the pure version of that belief we are willfully ignorant of our faults. In the minds of many “patriotic” Americans, we have no dark side. Unwilling to own our dark side, we project our shadow onto others.

“The Cold War gave us a long period as “the good country” as the Soviet Union gave us a steady (and objectively evil) force onto which we could project our shadow. After the fall of communism we finally found Saddam Hussein to play that role, which clouded our perceptions of the real Saddam (and again, he was objectively evil). Since the Iraq war we’ve looked for a new target onto which to project our shadow. Perennial candidates China, North Korea, and Iran don’t quite suit our needs, and “the terrorists” finally wore thin. I have wondered who our next victim would be. Now we know.

“It is Obama.

“The right is projecting its shadow onto Obama. The same qualities that make him a saint to the left make him the devil to the right – he is easy to project onto.”

The reader offers an explanation for one of the things that has puzzled me the most: that Obama is being blamed for some of the very things that Bush was allowed to get away with:

“That is why he is the out of control spender when they sat on their hands through all of Bush’s malfeasance. That is why his talking to schoolchildren is dangerous when our government wiretapping its citizens wasn’t. That is why saving the financial system from years of Republican regulation is taking away our future. The more evil revealed about the right’s excesses on torture, or wars of choice, or nearly destroying the economy, the more evil Obama will look in their eyes, as they cannot tolerate owning responsibility, because in their own minds they are only good.

“That is why he is the Fascist/Communist/Socialist/Muslim… that is the list of our shadow projections over the last 60 years.”

 It may be a bit overstated but this is as good an explanation as I’ve heard about why gun sales are skyrocketing, as is enrollment in white supremicist organizations; about why there are preachers who are praying for Obama’s death and demonstrators who are equating him with Adolph Hitler.   The fury is not just about policy differences.

Two days ago I wrote about Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer,” which is a story about the successful acknowledgment and integration of one’s shadow side.  Once the captain has taken in his dark double, he is able to achieve completeness and grow to maturity.

But American literature is filled with examples of integration failure, going back to the early Puritans. John Winthrop’s shining “City upon a Hill” was offset by Jonathan Edwards’ “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” and this violent duality contributed to the Salem witchcraft trials.  Melville wrestles with the light and the dark in Ahab’s mad quest for Moby Dick: the obsession to slay the evil whale, employing all the technological prowess of a modern whaling ship, ultimately overpowers the wonderful multicultural companionship on the Pequod.  All are swallowed up in the final cataclysm, Ahab, ship, and everybody but Ishmael.  There’s a warning for our own multicultural society.

But the author who perhaps gets at it best is Nathaniel Hawthorne.  I’m thinking particularly of such stories as “Young Goodman Brown,” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “Ethan Brand” and The Scarlet Letter.  In each of these tales, there are men who desire so deeply to be pure (or to possess purity, like the scientist in “The Birthmark” and Giovanni in “Rappaccini’s Daughter”) that they cannot acknowledge and accept the darkness that in an inevitable part of us as humans.

The theme runs throughout American literature.  When Huck encounters the demand that he grow up in this society, he lights out for the territory.  Gatsby’s idealism, the vibrations of the tuning fork struck upon a star, cannot stand up to reality.  Neither can the Joads’ vision of a green and luscious California in The Grapes of Wrath.   The European vision of Americans as perpetual adolescents has a certain truth to it—the belief that we can perpetually start fresh, that we don’t have to pay for the past, is constantly exposed as false.  Authors like Faulkner (in Absolon, Absolon), Robert Penn Warren (All the King’s Men), Flannery O’Connor (Wise Blood), William Styron (Sophie’s Choice), Morrison (Beloved), Philip Roth (The Human Stain) and Gloria Naylor (Linden Hills) all make their home in this awareness.

In my view, Warren and Morrison offer two of the healthier responses.  In All the King’s Men, protagonist Jack Burden must acknowledge Governor Stark’s vision that “man is conceived in sin and born in corruption, and he passeth from the stink of the dydie to the stench of the shroud.”  It proves true of the man who raised him, of the woman he loves, and of he himself.  But in the end he and she are able to accept this about themselves and move on, finding love and a future together.

In Beloved, meanwhile, Sethe ultimately faces up to the traumatic experience of slavery, including what she has done in response to slavery, to establish a sense of self.  Once she does so, she can accept the love of a good man. 

Is The Daily Dish reader correct, and am I, that Americans who can’t face up to the bad things that have been done in our name end up blaming Obama for those very things?  Is he a shadow projection? As Sullivan says, “I should say I’m not endorsing this view by publishing it. . . . But the rage itself, the spluttering ire directed at this young president who inherited one of the worst legacies in modern times? I can’t explain it myself. But I’m happy to air theories.”


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  1. Barbara
    Posted September 18, 2009 at 4:48 am | Permalink

    Sadly, this does make sense to me. It’s more than just “home field advantage” in excusing or ignoring the faults of “your guy”. It seems necessary to demonize the opposition because having to acknowledge error is a fate worse than death.

  2. Posted September 18, 2009 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    I’m sure there are many reasons for the insanity happening on the right now. You know it’s not about the policy when even Bill O’Reilly thinks a public option could be good.

  3. Posted September 18, 2009 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    Of course, this is just one of many theories. David Brooks has different ideas.

  4. Robin Bates
    Posted September 18, 2009 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    I generally appreciate David Brooks’ measured comments–there is a danger of the left, like the right, of becoming hysterical and losing perspective, and it’s certainly possible that the news media, which caters to fears (and always has) to hype sales, may be blowing right-wing hysteria out of proportion. I very much hope he is right and certainly don’t want to irresponsibly stoke the flames. But the fact that millions of people are listening to inflammatory language thanks to Limbaugh, Hannity, and Beck; that serious politicians are throwing around phrases like “death panels”; that Obama received unprecedented numbers of deaths threats for a presidential candidate; and that some people with guns are taking this rhetoric seriously enough to engage in shootings so that every few months what used to be unthinkable has almost come to be expected–makes me worry that there might be cause for concern here.

    The novels I mention are like the press in that they dramatize the situations of people who are enraged, sick, or cornered and show them resorting to violence or suicide. Novels are not real life and so must be read as using symbolic language to get at truth. On the other hand, good novels are good social barometers that are in touch with deep currents so it’s worth checking out the contemporary book scene to see where we are at the moment.

  5. Rachel Kranz
    Posted September 18, 2009 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Well, I really hate David Brooks’s “anti-elitist” theories generally (though I LOVED his “Bobos in Paradise,” which I thought was BRILLIANT)–I think David Brooks has completely invented this “Red State” populist resentment to attack HIS opponents, creating a cultural war to mask a political one.

    With regard to Obama, I don’t think it’s either shadow projection or “simple” racism: I think the idea that an African-American man can be president makes people crazy in some of the same ways that gay marriage makes them crazy: they want to believe they have some authority, security, legitimacy born of tradition, and then certain events (a Black president, a gay married couple) turn their world upside down. The crisis of legitimacy is the crisis of THEIR legitimacy–they aren’t legitimate BY RIGHT any more (their marriages aren’t sanctioned by God and tradition, because people that “God” & tradition said couldn’t marry, are; their racial notions of entitlement are upset by someone taking what he is not supposed to be able to have).

    Along with that, I think the Right sees their ideological hold on the country being discredited after three decades of Reagan-Bush-Bush and even Clinton criticizing Big Government and promising infinite capitalist wealth from the stock market and new technology. I think they know they’ve lost and that knowledge makes people hysterical and crazy.

    Unfortunately, “lost” is a relative term. Gay marriage is clearly the wave of the future but may (or may not) take decades…Public health care is clearly what’s needed (as Betsy says, even Bill O’Reilly gets that), but it may not make it through Congress, etc.

    What’s frustrating to me is that there is no Left or People’s Movement to offer an alternative home to the people who feel betrayed by Obama’s Presidency and who are willing to be led by the right-wing media. Maybe those people would never be open to an alternate view, but how come “their side” could organize its appearances at the Town Meetings, and “our side” couldn’t get it together for weeks, till the unions finally started trying to send people? The promises of the economy have REALLY let people down–and they need someone to blame–and Obama as a leader isn’t giving them the obvious candidates (capitalism, the right-wing Republicans) because he’s too busy trying to build consensus. A Left or even a Liberal Movement isn’t out there making noise either. So the field is left to the Right, and because they ARE responsible for promoting and supporting and in some cases creating the mess, they are hysterically looking for someone else to blame. But I don’t think it’s shadow projection so much as genuinely wanting to hold on to their power, and appealing to people who can’t understand why they seem to have lost so much of theirs.

  6. Robin Bates
    Posted September 19, 2009 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    What Rachel says about David Brooks makes a lot of sense. If I’m reading her right, he’s angry and disillusioned about Obama for not being as moderate as he thought he would be and so he projects his anger into the protesters, whose anger therefore seems somewhat legitimate. But why people weren’t exploding with anger when we plunged deeply into the red with tax cuts and unpaid war expenses and unbridled deregulation–all of which I believe he more or less supported–makes one question his current stance. He was not a true conservative in these moments, failing to stand up to Bush’s radical agenda.

    I also like how Rachel reminds us to always look for the economic story behind any rage. Cherchez l’economie. Racism and shadow projection always have a back story.

    An understanding of how stories work help us sort through a variety of political stands.

  7. Barbara
    Posted September 20, 2009 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    Thinking of this in terms of the story, I think the rage is about being taken in by a con but the anger is misplaced. People wanted to believe that tax cuts and “righteous deficits” (i.e., for “justifiable” wars) plus deregulation would lead to prosperity. Now that myth’s been exploded (yet again) and if you were on that bandwagon and hurting now then either you were a dupe or it’s the other guy’s fault for messing things up. Interestingly, no one seems to be saying “If only McCain and Palin had been elected!” which, I think, indicates at least a subconscious recognition that there was a pre-existing snake in the garden.


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