The Anti- Authoritarian Revolution
By • 5/23/07
The last gasp of the Authoritarian Personality.
The last column on the Inverted World, “The Origin of the Myth,” used the work of Theodor Adorno to illuminate the effect of the Holocaust on the West’s image of itself. Adorno blamed the Holocaust on basic Western traditions, values, and institutions, including science, capitalism, Christianity, patriotism, and white racial identity. In the 1950 book The Authoritarian Personality, Adorno argued that conservatism and ethnocentrism among white Americans were examples of “pre-fascist tendencies” that threatened a resurgence of Nazism. The effect was to pathologize normal and healthy behaviors.
The Authoritarian Personality proved enormously influential. Sociologist Nathan Glazer said of the book in 1954, “No volume published since the war in the field of social psychology has had a greater impact on the direction of actual empirical work being carried on in universities today.”1 The influence of the book, which soon became a classic, continued long after the 50s: between 1966 and 1984, The Authoritarian Personality was cited in over 1,800 publications in the human sciences.2
The Authoritarian Personality, along with other work that criticized right-wing authoritarianism in the post-World War II period,3 also had a strong influence on American society. Though Adorno’s ideas were radically opposed to those of contemporary mainstream America, they found easy acceptance in the overwhelmingly liberal communities of American human scientists and intellectuals. Due to skyrocketing rates of university education, the ideas of intellectuals have played an increasingly powerful role in shaping American attitudes since the 1950s. The massive shift in American attitudes that took place in the late 1960s and 1970s, especially among young, college-educated people, were an anti-authoritarian revolution. Previous articles on the Inverted World have examined the rise of the “whites as cancer” myth in the 70s. It is important to understand that the demonization of whites was part of a wider rebellion against the Authoritarian Personality.
The basic trait that characterizes the Authoritarian Personality is ethnocentrism, or the belief in the superiority of one’s own group and a strong sense of racial identity. Highly ethnocentric people in the survey that the book was based on supported segregation, the maintenance of white social dominance over blacks in the US, and American dominance in world politics. They also thought whites were inherently more intelligent and civilized than blacks.4
The authors of the study found that other personality traits were likely to accompany ethnocentrism, and these traits collectively made up the Authoritarian Personality. Among the other traits characterizing the type were:
- Conventionalism, or a rigid adherence to conventional, middle-class values. Conventional people reject intellectualism and support what today would be known as “family values.”
- Authoritarian submission, or a submissive, uncritical attitude towards the moral authorities of the ingroup.
- Authoritarian aggression, or a tendency to be on the lookout for, and to condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional values. Hostility to homosexuals was typical of this trait.
- Stereotypy, or the disposition to think in rigid categories.
- Anti-intraception, or the opposition to the subjective, the imaginative and the tender-minded.
- Power and “toughness”, or the identification with powerful figures and exaggerated assertion of strength and toughness.5
The origin of the Authoritarian Personality is explained in a weird and obscure Freudian jargon that could mean more or less anything. However, the basic story seems to be that the personality type is the result of a disciplinarian upbringing at the hands of a strict, punitive, and moralistic father. Adorno accepted dogmatically the absurd, and now discredited, Freudian idea that young boys feel sexual attraction for their mothers. The stern father puts a taboo on these romantic feelings, thus causing a life-long sexual repression. Boys raised in this environment come to hate their fathers but cannot admit it, so they project their hatred outward onto minorities. At the same time, they accept the father’s word as absolute law and never develop a critical attitude towards it. The need to believe in moral authorities is augmented by fear of an insecure and changing world.6 The overall effect of Adorno’s book is to associate the perfectly rational belief in racial differences and a healthy adherence to white group interests with fear, insecurity, sexual repression, and blind faith in authority.
Hostility to all aspects of the Authoritarian Personality marked the 1970s. It was the period in which white ethnocentrism lost the last remnants of legitimacy in American public life and the whole of the American political class became officially committed to non-discrimination and racial equality. The government took draconian steps, such as busing and affirmative action, to eliminate the vestiges white racial solidarity.
Moroever, the decade saw an unprecedented attack on traditional American moral authorities. One of the most distinctive phenomena of the 1970s was the rise of “investigative journalism,” whose goal was to throw a spotlight on corruption and unlawfulness in the American government. Journalists exposed not only the Watergate wiretapping and cover-up, but many other instances of government mendacity and criminality. As a consequence, Americans’ faith in political institutions plummeted.7
The 70s were also a time of unabashed rejection of conventional behaviors and glorification of individualism. One of the decade’s most successful self-help books, Your Erroneous Zones, advocated the abrogation of even the most basic restraints on individual desires. The book declared, for example, that the obligation to attend the weddings and funerals of family members was oppressive and crimped the free spirit.8 The popularity of The Village People, who publicly celebrated their homosexuality, makes clear the decade’s penchant for the non-traditional.9
The Village People were part of the sexual revolution that seized the 70s. It was a decade when being “repressed” was the ultimate sin. Feminists like Germaine Greer, for example, preached that women could break their subjection to men through promiscuity; by the end of the decade, a majority of women said there was nothing wrong with pre-marital sex for the first time in American history.10
Americans came to favor the subjective, imaginative, and tender-minded over the objective and rational. As David Frum says in his excellent history of the decade, How We Got Here, “It was in their feelings that the Americans of the 1970s put their trust.”11 It was the golden age of therapy, when people paid good money to gush about their neuroses to trained professionals. The decade also saw the rise of the sensitive, emotional “New Man,” epitomized by Alan Alda.12
The primacy of the subjective over the objective created a revulsion against science and technology that was in the spirit of Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, discussed in “The Origin of the Myth.” As Frum writes:
The man in the white coat had been the hero of the hour in the 1940s and 1950s. His radar saved Britain in 1940, his atomic bombs compelled Japan’s surrender … . Twenty-five years later, that same scientist stood arraigned for defoliating and napalming Vietnam, and one best showed one’s opposition to that war by turning one’s back on modern science and its works.13
Nowhere is the decade’s reaction against the Authoritarian Personality more evident than in the situation comedy All in the Family, which first hit the airwaves in 1971 and was the most popular television program for several years. Archie Bunker, the sputtering, loud-mouthed buffoon who is the lead character of the series, embodies the type. Ethnocentrism is the keynote of his character: he holds forth constantly about Spades, Spics, Hebes, and Chinks. Also prominent is his earnest and pathetic patriotism. These two traits of his personality frequently come into conflict with another, as America had already been defined as a “proposition nation” based on freedom and tolerance rather than race. Says Archie:
Here in America—the land of the free where Lady Liberty holds her torch sayin’ send me your poor, your deadbeats, your filthy … so they come from all over the world, pourin’ in like ants … like your Spanish, your P.R.s from the Carribuan [sic], your Japs, your Chinamen, your Krauts and your Hebes and your English fags … all of them free to live together in their own little separate sections where they feel safe, and break your head if you go in there. That there is what makes America great!14
Archie possesses a robust belief in the superiority of his own group; he tells his daughter, “Gloria, you married the laziest white man I ever saw.”15 He has the authoritarian’s reverence for the authorities of the ingroup. He avidly defends Richard Nixon against his detractors, and, in one episode, pens a letter to him beginning “Dear Mr. President, your honor, sir:” He is censorious towards non-conventional values, continually berating atheists and communists. He shows his orientation towards power and toughness by constantly shouting at his family, and his distaste for the sentimental and tender, by chastising his daughter and her husband for displaying affection.
The show attributes Archie’s authoritarianism to the usual causes: sexual repression and fear of change. In one episode, revealingly titled “The Threat,” the Bunker family receives a visit from the spectacularly well-endowed wife of one of his friends, and Archie cannot keep his eyes off the lady’s barely covered breasts. This tabooed attraction throws him into such confusion that he accuses the lady of trying to seduce him, resulting in her indignant departure and the expected loss of his friend. Archie’s liberal son-in-law Michael (or “Meathead” as Archie calls him) duly points out the Freudian lesson to his wife: we have to be able to accept our urge to ogle and fantasize, or our instincts will turn destructive. Similarly, Meathead regularly accuses Archie of being motivated by fear:
You know why we got a breakdown of law and order in this country, Archie, because we got poverty, real poverty, and we got that because guys like you are afraid to give the black man and the Mexican-American and all the other minorities their just and rightful share of the American dream.16
In fact, the producer of the series, Norman Lear, attributed Archie’s personality to “fear—fear of change, fear of anything he doesn’t understand.”17
Archie is also a fool who is never allowed to be right or to score a point against Meathead, who always states the ideologically correct position. Reviewers of the show called Archie a “loser,” (75), a “blusterer,” an “ignoramus,” (200) and a “Neanderthal” (83).18 One demonstrated how far Adorno’s ideas had penetrated into American society by damning him as a “proto-fascist.”
The anti-authoritarian revolution transformed Adorno’s slur on white racial identity into a commonplace. The age created a stereotype that still causes people to dismiss arguments for the race realist perspective without even listening to them. Henceforth, anyone who spoke out against the principles of non-discrimination and racial equality would be automatically linked with sexual repression, fear, and uncritical authoritarianism. Our goal must be to break these associations and show the world that it is we who are the truly critical spirits today and liberals the unthinking bigots.