This article was originally published in Fall 1996, and has recently been converted into HTML text format in October 2022; please excuse any grammatical errors. This piece reflects the editorial standards of the time.
Michael A. Milburn and Sheree D. Conrad
The Politics of Denial
MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1996, 237 pages with bibliography, index, and footnotes.
Renewing American Compassion
Free Press, New York, NY, 1996, 195 pages with index, no footnotes.
I grew up in a right-wing, white, lower middle-class Southern Baptist world, where Mother tried desperately to raise her daughters to become “ladies.” Both great-grandfathers had been poor foot soldiers for the slaveholding Confederacy. My father, however, was a “Yankee,” a second generation German Lutheran transplanted from Cincinnati to the South. His legacy was to temper my mother’s Southern Christianity with a hearty dose of Teutonic authority and self-control (except when a few drinks warmed his nature).
I always thought something was wrong.
As a freshman in Tallahassee, Florida, I was a Republican libertarian—a Goldwater Girl. I made the unusual trek down the hill from the university and up the hill to town to meet with typical Southern Republicans. There was a retailer who believed Communists had infiltrated the women’s shoe industry: those pointy high heels created so much pain that women were left vulnerable to communist propaganda. The owner of the local Fountain Restaurant happily offered it as a meeting place for Republicans and the White Citizens’ Council, but not such lowlife as the Klan. When Goldwater’s Vice Presidential candidate William Miller came to town, I posed sitting on his lap.
I began to doubt my new-found Republican libertarianism when, in the campaign office, one guy railed against the United Nations. That didn’t sound right, so off I went to the library to read about the UN. It sounded OK to me. Maybe I was more liberal than I thought, like Nelson Rockefeller.
The next time I was in the office I said something like this and my companion waved his cigarette-stained fingers at me: “Don’t you begin to think like that, little girl. Anybody who supports the UN supports one-worldism: that’s liberal, and liberal is just another word for a cowardly communist. And they should all be shot.”
I went back to the library and decided he was right. I wasn’t a liberal. I was a socialist and would stay in the library like Karl Marx did. I never returned to the office, despite pleas that I pursue a future helping the Young Americans for Freedom organize girls on campus.
I knew for sure by then that something was definitely wrong. Now, more than 30 years later, I am still trying to figure out what it is.
Mainly, I have studied history, politics and social theory in order to figure out why the ideas of the various parts of the Right have so much staying power. As a teacher, writer and organizer I have tried to examine the strategies and tactics they use to gain influence. Social policy is my “field” because it is where the deepest, most radically reactionary current of thought and action can be openly debated, and where people have the best chance of grasping both the ethics and the concrete stakes involved in different choices.
I now speak knowledgeably to academics, activists and students about the political danger when radical capitalist logic is buttressed by Christian fundamentalism and patriarchal authority, all premised on nativism and racism.
But somehow it isn’t enough. There is always the nagging suspicion that the only people who understand are those who already agree. And that many who agree have never in their life actually met anyone like my relatives or fellow Goldwaterites. They wouldn’t have any way to answer the ringing calls for “family, faith and freedom” still preached daily in the North Georgia country where Mother now lives—where a majority of the voters cast their primary ballots for Buchanan last Spring.
Often I think that none of our rational and strategic ploys make a dent in the presumptions that support right-wing activities. Look at the growing national movement of state-based policy organizations called Family Policy Councils, which now operate at the Iocal and state level in more than 30 states. These groups exist to promote a rightist agenda of “stable families” with policies such as eliminating no-fault divorce, ending teen pregnancy, and punishing long-term welfare recipients.
Nobody ever talks about the price of “stability” in families like mine: the insufferable false politeness of women whose never-acknowledged ambition is deformed into deceitful interpersonal manipulation; the sarcastic brutality of men pledged forever to a militaristic ethic that never questions the very authorities who ruined their souls; the universal cover-up of children’s pains and failures that could never have been as bad exposed as they seemed when hidden.
But can we talk about how wrong the Right is without going off some deep end of pop psychology character assassination?
In The Politics of Denial, Michael Milburn and Sheree Conrad suggest some answers. As social psychologists they are willing to go beyond necessary but insufficient structural explanations for right-wing thought. It is not just capitalist or patriarchal “necessity,” they argue, that makes conservatives so rigid, punitive and consistent in their self-fulfilling determination that people will only act responsibly when threatened with punishment. Instead, they present powerful evidence showing that the seeds for a self-referential, rigid, right-wing world view are sown when individuals are raised in families and communities that are both physically and emotionally punishing to children. To compound the injury, that such treatment is wrong, painful or harmful is denied.
Miller and Conrad build on the work of Alice Miller and others regarding the long term effects of harsh, punitive parenting and the origins of authoritarian attitudes. They carefully examine the process whereby “when individuals deny the emotional component of an experience—for example, the fear, pain and anger of childhood punishment—the meaning of the concept of abuse is lost and the person has great difficulty accepting or understanding information relating to such abuse.” (p.40)
The authors painstakingly review study after study to show how the experience of abuse, coupled with the denial that it occurred and/ or the insistence that if pain did occur it was for one’s own good, produces “a rigid intolerance of mistakes” that is seen “both in impossible high standards for their own performance and anger toward those they perceived to be ‘screwing up.”’ (p. 42) This produces a family dynamic “based on an underlying assumption that the parent-child relationship is one involving a contest of wills, of who will control whom and who will receive consideration and attention for their needs.” (p.48)
I especially appreciate how much Milburn and Conrad move beyond the individual and family consequences of denial to speculate directly about the links between refusal to acknowledge dysfunction and right-wing political beliefs.
They study the associations between childhood experiences with abuse and stem discipline and the presence of a range of political positions, such as school discipline, capital punishment, acceptance of diversity, and opposition to abortion. They review conservative Christian parenting guides and even the personal histories of Christian Coalition leaders to suggest that for fundamentalists, political discourse will always be a moral debate and that action in the public, as well as the private, sphere will often be motivated by anger and discharged only by a projection of one’s own sexual, aggressive, rebellious, disrespectful and subversive impulses onto an out-group. The authors conclude that in order to maintain psychological equilibrium, fundamentalist political activists will always need outgroups they can define as distinct from the mainstream (p. 87).
Miller and Conrad also examine the psychological roots of support for an extremely rigid and conservative social ethic in groups outside the relatively isolated world of the Christian Right. They suggest that in many white families there are unspoken rules that forbid people from acknowledging how out of control life often feels. Consequently, many whites insist that Black people, if they want to succeed, must follow their lead and deny both their historic pain of slavery and the continuing abuses of racism.
Some of the authors’ grounding assumptions are a bit sweeping, and force me to raise standard materialist doubts. For instance, in their drive to demonstrate how denied rage underlies so much of conservative political ideology, Milburn and Conrad sometimes forget to restate what they initially acknowledge: that material realities often make it impossible for people to overcome their denial. With capitalism, sexism and racism so profoundly powerful, it is hard to acknowledge one’s weakness and still feel able to act at all.
It is hard not to look for outside enemies when the concrete means to change one’s own life seem so profoundly unavailable. The authors’ conclusions would have been stronger had they been supplemented by more developed strategies for “breaking through denial” and openly challenging its political consequences. We also need to know how we can do so while simultaneously making the personal and parenting changes the authors envision.
Despite such limits, one of the greatest benefits of The Politics of Denial is that it allows me to read books like Marvin Olasky’s Renewing American Compassion without becoming incoherent with rage. Olasky, a senior fellow at The Progress and Freedom Foundation, had argued in an earlier book (also introduced by Newt Gingrich), The Tragedy of American Compassion (1993), that American society can renew itself only if it gives up its commitment to a “false compassion” and goes back to individualism and basic values of work, faith and family. “The perspective from 1990 shows that the social revolution of the 1960s has not helped the poor,” he had proclaimed … “Let’s transport an able-to work, homeless person back from the present to 1890 and ask the question, ‘Are you better off now than you were then?”’ Olasky’s answer was a resounding “no” and he proceeded to defend poor houses, orphanages and permanent placement of children whose parents failed to support them.
In Olasky’s current book we see a “softer” side of the story, with Olasky again preaching tough love, but this time with less attention to the toughness and more emphasis on his understanding of love as a voluntary, non-institutional process of providing opportunity. He argues that we only hurt people when we give them what they ask for because it violates both Christian principles of “love and discipline” and “orthodox Christian anthropology—that man’s sinful nature leads toward indolence and that an impoverished person given a dole without obligation is likely to descend into pauperism.” (p.41)
With The Politics of Denial in my head, and years of radical politics and practical study under my belt, perhaps I can begin to answer such arguments in ways that large numbers of people can hear. I have learned that we can’t always stop family members from spiteful actions or prevent bad things from happening to children. But maybe, instead of judging or denying, we can say out loud that harmful events occurred; that mean words and actions hurt and were not right; and that our best hope for a better world is one where we keep trying to avoid denial of our pain, and keep saying that it is OK to cry and to stand up for ourselves, it is healthy to ask for help, and it is good to be able to depend on others to deliver that help.
I have to believe that such values are right and better for humanity (and for my own family). Perhaps what is wrong with the Right is that its version of “faith, freedom and family” is a merciless taskmaster that does not allow for human frailty.