The Authoritarian Character   Leave a comment

Sometimes there are moments when, as you are reading a book, you stop, sit up straight in your chair, and look around you in a sort of silent, physical form of exclamation. That’s what happened to me at the end of last year while reading Erich Fromm’s The Fear of Freedom (1941), a penetrating analysis of what it is that draws human beings to submit themselves to authoritarianism. What caught my attention only partly concerned what Fromm was describing – instead, it was the way in which his brief sketch of what he calls “the authoritarian character” had the effect of recalling, with startling clarity, someone that I knew.

The person in question was strikingly tall, around six and a half feet, a  physical superiority that he used to menace the space around him. Although he had gone gray, he wore a trendy spiked haircut, worked out regularly, and looked rather well preserved for a man who had just clicked past fifty. He had a loud, booming voice that he employed to great effect; walk within a hundred feet of his classroom, and you could hear him ranting and raving, putting on an energy-filled performance for a classroom full of misguided young students who viewed this weekly fountain of rhetorical fireworks as “challenging” and “entertaining” without ever stopping to think whether they were actually learning something of value.

It was more than just his dynamic but empty teaching style, however, that identified this person as the incarnation of the Authoritarian Character (AC). The central contradiction that Fromm identifies in this need to dominate others is that it stems from a profound paradox, for the authoritarian character is “torn by a constant ambivalence towards authority; he hated it and rebelled against it, while at the same time he admired it and tended to submit to it” (p.57). There is nothing wrong with authority and power, Fromm contends, when it extends from a healthy sense of oneself, but when it stems from emotional inadequacy the end product is the authoritarian character.

AC covered over his lust for power by employing a strident rhetoric of social justice. “I’m a thousand miles to the left of Karl Marx,” he claimed at one department meeting. The door of his office was adorned with a large poster of William Blake, his favorite poet, with the inscription “The Arts and Sciences are the Destruction of Tyrannies.” Inside, the office itself was decorated with posters of The Clash. He wore Sex Pistols t-shirts and hosted a radio show on the local college station dedicated to punk music. Although he hadn’t published an academic paper for more than a decade, he claimed to have expertise in African-American literature and women’s literature. He bought an apartment in East Harlem. He labeled himself a feminist, a gay rights campaigner, a vegetarian, an advocate against racism, a bulwark against all forms of injustice.

It wasn’t necessary to look far to see the inherent contradictions in this charade of left-wing piety. AC was at his rampant worst when it came to the topic of racism. A former Southerner from Georgia, AC had grown up in an era of desegregation during the 1970s and claimed that it had left a profound mark on his character. The reality was that his experiences had allowed him to identify racism as an emotional hot button, a switch he could cynically flip to stir up controversy and righteous anger at any moment. His histrionics in the classroom were focused primarily on this issue, and he would whip himself into a frenzy of rage and anger in every class, regardless of the topic, repeatedly screaming out the n-word at his students under the guise of having them “confront” the collective sins and prejudices that constitute the collective guilt at the heart of American culture. This approach created a mob mentality that appealed to the basest, most anti-intellectual instincts of his students, a contradiction that could be justified thanks to the smokescreen provided by AC’s anti-racist angle. Surely only a racist, went his perverse logic, could fail to be visibly outraged by the injustices of the past.

AC was, then, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but all the more dangerous because he had convinced himself of his own righteousness, unable as he was to identify the glaring contradictions between his rhetoric and his actual behavior. The great feminist, for example, ignored the women in the department, and it was an open secret that he conducted improper dealings with numerous young female students. When his colleagues voted for a representative to sit on the newly formed Faculty Senate, he stormed out of the meeting after narrowly losing to the department’s elder statesman, furious that the democratic process had not produced the result he wanted. He worked tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure that the administration chose one of his drinking buddies as the new Vice President, and used this access to power to persecute faculty members he didn’t like, eventually driving two of his departmental colleagues from the college. Speaking up loudly in faculty meetings against the supposed corruption of the system, he nonetheless happily accepted tenure in an institution where that privilege extended only to a select few of the full-time faculty.

It wasn’t until my final few weeks as AC’s colleague that I learned some of the nastiest truths about his past. Ten years previously, it turned out, he had been fired from a tenured position after being charged with assaulting a student at a party. That incident, in turn, brought to light AC’s behavior at a position several years before that at a college where his contract had not been renewed, also due to problems with physical violence. I could well believe it – when I saw him shortly after the Faculty Senate vote, AC, clearly in a state of rage, had himself threatened me.

Now that I have moved on from that position and entered Korean academia, where the politics are more difficult to penetrate but in which I am happy to serve with few questions, I am grateful that I no longer have to think about AC . He was in my thoughts today, though, for two reasons. The first was the deep disappointment that I felt after finishing Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a novel that unsettled me in its resemblance to AC’s teaching, filled as it is with rage and self-recrimination, emotions that hide behind a smokescreen of noble causes but that scream of dishonesty and a suppressed lust for power. The other reason is the email that landed in my inbox today. It was from a former colleague whom AC had forcibly driven out, letting me know that she was doing well, and that AC had just been fired for misconduct with a student.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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Posted February 9, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article

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