Flags, Male Aggression and Pole Dancing

Freud Goes to the Super Bowl

It would be hard to find a more obnoxious display of American corporatism and imperialism than this year’s super bowl. The whooshing super-hero graphics, the flag-waving, the pre-hyped $11-million-a-minute ads and a succulent J-Lo pole-dancing at halftime. If I hadn’t decided to write about it as decadent spectacle, I’d have turned it off and read a book.

But, then, there was the game itself. The come-from-behind, three-touchdowns-in-five-minutes in the last quarter, an onslaught led by a modest-looking 24-year-old quarterback with goofy hair named Patrick Mahomes was an exhibition of athletic courage and intelligence that transcended all the glitzy nonsense. As a Vietnam veteran anti-war activist sick and tired of militarism and corporate piracy, it made me long for that kind of smart, masculine competence on our side.

Colin Kaepernick was a very competent quarterback and a profile in moral courage, and look what happened to him: Blackballed from a career for the unforgivable crime of “taking a knee” during the Stars Spangled Banner to oppose an epidemic of police violence against black people.

Yet, things do evolve. For some reason, black quarterbacks are now everywhere, and the NFL feels the pressure. In cahoots with Jay-Z and his Roc Nation cultural empire, the NFL ran a progressive public service ad during the super bowl on police violence. Jay-Z is in it for money, but, still, he told the New York Times he hopes his company’s social justice efforts working with the NFL will further both his and Colin Kaepernick’s interests. “We are two adult men who disagree on the tactic but are marching for the same cause,” he said. Thanks to endorsements etc, Kaepernick is reportedly not a pauper coming out of this, though it seems far-fetched to think the NFL would accept him back into the fold. They’d have to eat too much crow.

It reminds me of anti-war activists during the run-up to George W. Bush’s Iraq War whose message was blackballed from mainstream venues and, thus, forced into the street to be choreographed by the police. After it became obvious to even Republicans that the war was the immoral disaster many said it would be in 2003, George W. Bush’s war was thrown under the historic bus. Still, the “forever war” goes on and money & power isn’t giving up an ounce of its arrogance.

Today, thanks to Donald Trump, the war cycle is beginning all over again with Iran. Instead of made-up, boogie-man WMDs, it’s the demonization of General Gasem Soleimani as a monster and “terrorist” whose murder by US drone is justified “to keep America safe.” Liberal Democrats are now tripping over themselves intoning this obligatory, cover-your-ass line. Or else they’re silent.

I’ve been reading Sigmund Freud’s 1930 classic Civilization and Its Discontents and, as I watched the super bowl, I was reminded of an absurd moment of football fandom I experienced some years ago, something Freud would probably understand. I was with friends at a bar in Atlanta devoted to the Philadelphia Eagles. Don’t ask me why there’s such a bar, but there is. The place was jammed and everybody was drinking and having a good time, as was I. Every time the Eagles scored, the fans were given a shot of something green and everybody sang the Eagles fight song. “Fly Eagles, fly! . . .”

I’m not particularly interested in football, but I’m a committed people-watcher. So I was drinking, laughing and eyeballing the crowd. The Eagles were moving down the field and scored a touchdown. Standing nearby was an ordinary mid-thirties black man; he could have been a carpenter or a lawyer, I don’t know. As the Eagles scored, this excited fellow started hollering, loud, pumping his fist in a very public manner,

“Fuck that ass! Fuck that ass!”

No one else seemed to notice. I wasn’t that shocked; I just wondered: What the  hell was going on here? The man didn’t seem “gay” or to be thinking sexually. He likely had no idea how whacked-out he sounded. He was just excited his team had scored and had humiliated the other team.

Freud addresses this kind of linkage with the subconscious in Civilization and Its Discontents. The excitement of the moment has overwhelmed repressive barriers established by social contract to permit the growth of civilization over barbarism; here was a simple outburst of deep, satisfying aggression. In this case, it was a feeling of power expressed as sodomy and rape, a primal exultation over humiliating an enemy that suddenly exploded out into the open.

It’s Freud’s contention (something that feels true) that civilization requires the suppression of an anything-goes approach to sexuality and aggression, or to put it into pop culture terms, as Lenny Bruce liked to describe the male aggressive impulse: “Men will fuck mud.” The first-taboo for civilization is, of course, incest, something I recall our cats doing all the time when I was a kid. It’s all part of Freud’s fundamental theory of sublimation. Here’s Freud himself:

“[C]ivilization is obeying the laws of economic necessity, since a large amount of the psychic energy which it uses for its purposes has to be withdrawn from sexuality. … [I]t is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct. … As we know, it is the cause of the hostility against which all civilizations have to struggle.”

It also involves his theories of Eros and Thanatos, the life and death instincts, respectively, the former focusing on cooperation and love, while the later is about self-destruction, domination and hate. Both overlap with sexuality. As should be obvious following the so-called sexual revolution and today’s political struggles involving male prerogatives, homosexuality, gender issues, #MeToo feminism and abortion, this dialogue over “civilization” is an ongoing, perennial struggle.

Besides being a shrink, Freud was an excellent writer with a broad range of interests beyond things like boys wanting to have sex with their mothers, something he’s often reduced to. Late in his life, he was particularly interested in issues of violence and war. In the period following World War One, he exchanged letters with Albert Einstein, a pacifist who opposed militarism. They were both in their different ways interested in understanding the impulses toward violence and war that they saw unraveling in the newspapers. If possible, they wanted to put the brakes on future wars. Civilization and Its Discontents comes from this period.

In an introduction to my copy of Freud’s study, Christopher Hitchens quotes the British novelist J.G. Ballard on why Freud was important to him. Ballard had been separated from his family as a boy in Singapore and spent WWII alone in Japanese internment camps and other frightening situations; he wrote about this in a memoir, Empire of the Sun. Ballard “discovered” Freud at age 16.

“I felt strongly, and still do, that psychoanalysis and surrealism were a key to the truth about existence and the human personality, and also a key to myself . . . an escape route, a secret corridor into a more real and more meaningful world . . . where the deep revolutions of the psyche matter more than the social dramas of everyday life.”

Freud’s gift to humankind is the revelation of a subterranean human mind that interacts with the world. One can disagree with his theories, but he made it clear what’s going on outside our minds “in the real world” is ruled and driven by what goes on inside our minds. In a certain sense, the same process probably goes on inside the minds of animals. Complex and unruly sexual instincts and aggressive impulses can play out in this inner life, sometimes playing havoc with our outside lives. After Freud witnessed from a distance the carnage of WWI, his thinking turned to the topic of aggression.



Since war and militarism are so important to the NFL and its super bowl, I decided for fun I’d watch the spectacle with my dad’s “Jap bone” on top of the set — exactly where he would put it when the Grant family watched a WWII movie, such as one he loved in which James Cagney played his boss and hero Admiral Bull Halsey. My father had a PhD in physiology when he went to war as a PT boat skipper. He liked to tell of driving his 80-foot plywood boat out of some island harbor past a huge billboard that said: KILL JAPS! ADMIRAL HALSEY.  The bone is a fibula, the thin bone below the knee; he cut it away from a Japanese body on the island of Peleliu. With gallows wit, after hanging the bone below his boat for the fish to clean and soaking it in kerosene, he sent it home to his mom addressed to her cocker spaniel Ink. At some point, he attached the manila tag on which he wrote Made In Japan. According to Paul Fussell, a famous WWII veteran writer I knew who wrote about World Wars I and II, this sort of trophy barbarism was popular in the South Pacific. I was always grateful that my father, as crude as he could be, made it clear to his sons that war was not about glory and flags, as it is for the NFL. He could be bigoted and far-right-wing, but he always found the huge billboard outside Homestead Air Force Base in Florida that screamed PEACE IS OUR PROFESSION dishonest and ridiculous. This kind of honesty is what we should teach our children these days, rather than all the flag-waving nonsense that only makes them ripe for a sense of betrayal when they find out that stuff is lies and that war is really just horrible. At the very end of his life, when my father was all shriveled up and we’d made peace between us, one night, drinking his terrible sherry, I reminded him of a particularly gruesome tale he’d shared with his three boys. He was quiet for a moment, then he softly said: “That’s horrible.”


What someone like Sigmund Freud writes about can’t be reduced to a sound bite. It doesn’t work in a world dominated by Tweets. For me, I like the idea of dialogue with thoughts someone I see as a truth-teller wrote 90 years ago, in this case following the profound epochal conflagration of World War One, a moment that has frightening echoes for our time. It’s not like you can grab hold of this stuff and nail it down like a fact. You have to be able to think for yourself; you either trust the writer in question, or you don’t. It also entails the taking of pleasure in metaphors and literary allusions; it’s why a psychoanalyst tries to make sense of the most ephemeral of experiences — dreams — and why someone like Woody Allen is provided so much material to make jokes about his psychoanalyst and his own neuroses. It’s fluid story and narrative, comedy and tragedy, the nexus between inside and outside. It’s where people who accept and relish the notion of complexity dig in to find answers. While those interested in power and control go the way of the Spanish fascist officer who famously said: “When I hear the word culture I reach for my revolver.”

Like Freud, Albert Einstein’s thinking is wonderful to wade into. His quotes are like Martin Luther King quotes, endless compelling. Here’s my favorite that hangs on the wall in my downstairs bathroom. I pause to read it often.

“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest, a kind of [perceptual] delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

1) Of course, it’s sexist language and should include she and hers. In his time, his did include that; but in the identity politics of 2020, it’s flat-out sexist. But, then, is identity politics one of the delusional traps he cites?

2) Confession: As part of my sense of dialogue with this paragraph, I took the liberty of replacing the adjective in “optical delusion” with “[perceptual] delusion.” For me, it expresses my grasp of his grand idea much better.

In my inner world of meaning, this statement of Einstein’s stands on one end of a continuum representing the purest form of left liberalism and progressivism when you consider things like environmentalism, peaceful coexistence, democracy and supranational political bodies like the United Nations. While on the other end of the continuum, we have the narcissism, authoritarianism and tribalism represented by Donald Trump and his policy of America First.

The point is, on the inside — where at age-16 the novelist J.G. Ballard found the “key to the truth about existence and the human personality” — toward which direction on such a continuum is one being compelled by the pilot inside? Of course, none of this would obviously hold up in court, especially in this gotcha! era of baroque legal mazes. Alan Dershowitz would be so obligated to his paying client he couldn’t get it. But the farther one goes on the continuum toward Einstein’s vision of freeing ourselves “by widening our circles of compassion,” the better off the world will be in the unfolding 21st century.

It’s a tall order, for sure, and as an atheist, I realize we’re reaching into the spiritual realm. One thing seems certain: problems like global climate disaster and the worsening prospects for perennial war depend on breaking away from that delusional “prison” human arrogance loves to lock itself up in.

Freud eerily speaks directly to our age on the subject of human tools “useful to men for making the earth serviceable to them,” something that began with the “control over fire and the construction of dwellings.” He foresaw new tools of the sort we all now deal with on a daily basis. “Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God,” he writes. “Future ages will bring with them new and probably unimaginably great advances in this field of civilization and will increase man’s likeness to God still more.”

I think of all the super bowl glitz and the larger-than-life warrior special effects, the whooshing graphics, the quick cutting, that whiplash vulnerable minds this way and then that way; the ordinary young men and women assaulted by dreams projected onto their psyches of sexy mythic life and awesome superheroism; and the lethal drones hunting poor, brown people in the skies over the Middle East “piloted” 12,000 miles away by young Americans in air-conditioned cubicles sipping on Diet Cokes while glancing at Facebook updates on their i-phones.

“When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times.”