Pain Watch

by Barry Drogin

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A Michael Lerner Collection

To The Editor:

I had just finished reading Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson's "Against Therapy," and I thought, "the book is almost impossible to find and yet so full of important ideas and criticism --- maybe Tikkun could serialize it. After all, with its chapter on 'Jung among the Nazis,' its strong feminist sympathies, its critique of psychotherapy's offensive distancing from the traumas of ghetto life and the holocaust, it would be of great interest to the readership..."

Then, the following day, I read Michael Lerner's "Pain at Work & Pain in Families: Publishing as Healing." And sure enough, there it is on the masthead: published by The Institute for Labor and Mental Health. What follows, then, is what I will call a Massonian critique of Mr. Lerner's text:

From the very start, Mr. Lerner characterizes his perception of criticism as the criticism itself, and never cites any specifics. Thus his self-proclaimed "need for a psychological perspective on social problems" is faced by "resistance from those 'hard-nosed realists'"; "many liberals and people on the Left lambaste psychological analysis ... as 'middle-class' obsessions." And he dares pair the "psychological" with the "spiritual" and "moral" (since the religion is Judaism, spiritual and moral are close adjectives, but what have they to do with psychological?). Well, some of us have different reasons to lambaste psychological analysis. The tale he tells that follows shows just how his "psychological perspective" clouds his perception of what the Institute actually was doing, and why it accomplished what it did.

The working class people he worked with "resented their lifestyle," so the Institute came up with the plan to "train" shop stewards by teaching them psychological and social theory, and in so doing uncovered feelings of "self-doubt", "self-denigration" and "self-blame". At work, the stewards experienced "daily denials of their self-worth" and "infantilization." But "the pain [of work] could not be adequately drowned in liquor, drugs, or television" during their "escape ... into 'private life.'" Of course, these characterizations are all Mr. Lerner's.

The Institute formulated the plan of luring workers into "occupational stress groups" for "healthy workers." Half the time was devoted to learning relaxation, the other half to workers talking about their work. The psychotherapists all concocted elaborate theories about "self-blame" and "releasing energy." The workers became more active in their unions and interacted more with each other.

As a former shop steward myself, let me try a different analysis. Unionized employees, whose dues are minimal (but salaries are minimal, too), elect from amongst themselves stewards willing to fight for them, but these stewards are given minimal intellectual support, sense of purpose and direction, and so on. A cadre of professionals, supported by research grants, descend upon them, devoting time and effort (note how I specifically avoid using terms like "encouragement" or "energy") to the union cause. Other workers are lured into contact with these newly-educated stewards by promises of "stress management." With a strengthened union presence, workers were more apt to report management abuses and participate intelligently in the work place.

Unfortunately, "self-blame" was replaced with blame of union bureaucrats and management. However, since all Lefties know that, in classic Marxist thinking, those in power really are to blame, this was not perceived, in further research, as "indiscriminate 'other-blaming'" but as "empowerment." Perhaps the unions will take over their companies (but not without the union bureaucrats help). Perhaps management will cooperate more with the unions (but not in an increased antagonistic environment). Or perhaps this new improved form of scape-goating will evolve into Left-inspired fascism.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, the therapists "found it difficult to fit into their daily lives now that they had a deeper understanding (sic) of what they were facing," so they formed a magazine. But they were sly enough "not to create a vehicle for our ideas alone, but to create a much wider arena to which we could attract some of the most creative thinkers, writers, activists, and policy-makers."

And so we were all fooled. Well, not entirely, since from the very beginning Lerner would talk about religion, about politics, about losing the vote to pro-family platforms, and then, at the end of his editorials, when he segued into nonsense about family "pain" and how politics caused it, our minds would do the equivalent of what happens when your eyes glaze over, but we'd forgive him --- after all, every magazine tends to have a nut in charge touting some weird party line, insisting on it over and over and wondering why everyone doesn't come along. So we give him or her their page or two and then turn to read everything else. Other writers are sometimes obligated to bow their heads in the nut's direction, to fit into the magazine's "philosophy."

Of course, this is my interpretation, my generalization, my characterization. Okay, so I'll tone it down. I don't want a "mass psychology of compassion." I'm offended that Mr. Lerner waited five years to make "explicit here what has been an implicit part of our agenda all along." Please, it says "a bimonthly Jewish critique of politics, culture & society" --- that I'll read. Mr. Lerner and his cohorts from the Institute I will skim.

To the Editor:

Michael Lerner should take his "politics of meaning" ("Stopping David Duke and Patrick Buchanan," January/February 1992) more literally. When summarizing the viewpoints of others, Mr. Lerner can be intelligent and often insightful. But when presenting his own views and proposals, it is disturbing to see how his unintentional mis-use of language leads to bad thinking.

In this essay, the offending word is "pain," which shows up no less than 32 times in its 6 pages. As a psychologist, Mr. Lerner fails to appreciate the difference between physical pain, as a bodily sensation, and so-called mental and emotional pain, where the word is a metaphor, actually representing cultural and linguistic thought patterns and ideas.

For Mr. Lerner, "pain" is used to represent everything from alienation, powerlessness, frustration, abandonment, vulnerability, anger and trouble to stress, self-blame and dullness and lack of attention, validation, self-consciousness and understanding. In other words, "pain" is bad thoughts, which often lead to bad feelings. That thoughts and ideas are culturally enabled and defined, and their "bad"-ness a moral and value-laden argument, flickers in and out of Mr. Lerner's consciousness. By equivalencing all of these various modes of thought and even believing that they are "transformed" (psychologically, one assumes) into rage and fascism, he ends up with a simple-minded analysis of Nazism and Reaganism that, unfortunately, much of the rest of the in-house staff of Tikkun subscribes to. It is, in fact, the Tikkun (and Institute for Labor and Mental Health) party line.

Mr. Lerner's essay proves that the reasoning of the Far Left is often not so different from that of the Far Right. There is a distressful correspondence between Mr. Lerner's campaign against "self-blame" and portrayal of the "corporate elite" and the Nazi's reliance on scapegoating and racism. We are not helpless lemmings hopelessly prone to propaganda and media manipulation --- we are the culture, and we not only get the government we deserve, but the government we demand.

We are experiencing a war between the values of the good thoughts, namely the inherent worth of all human life, as expounded by religion, the understanding that governments are inherently oppressive, as propounded by our founding fathers, and a trust in supply versus demand, as described in laissez faire capitalism, versus the values of the bad thoughts, such as the rating of people financially due to social "usefulness," the expectation that our political officials will be cultural "leaders," and the assumption that government financing can direct resources in significant ways.

It is in misunderstanding supply and demand that Mr. Lerner misses the forest for the trees. If Americans directed their wallets and time toward environmental cleanup, educational salaries, charity and the arts, there would be no need for liberals to wonder why "progressive" policies fail. But we direct much more time and money to the car culture, television, recreational drugs of every kind (alcohol, nicotine, tranquilizers, mood elevators), escapist and sexist entertainment, real estate schemes and jobs which we find morally offensive. If we demanded morally appropriate jobs, government programs and commodities, we would get them, and the words of our government and corporate leaders would follow suit. Eliminate self-blame? But we are to blame!

The fact is, the Far Right has created its own religion (fundamentalism) that preaches bad values, and the Far Left has created its own religion (psychology) that preaches bad values. I had hoped that Tikkun would be Jewish enough to see through these false values via a theologic, halachic or talmudic discourse, but instead you have seen fit to simply redefine such words as "pain," "needs," "healing," "health," "God" and "Judaism," giving the impression of a Jewish discourse by appropriating some of its language.

A few hundred years from now, the Deconstructionists will have a field day with your magazine.


Tikkun Issue:                      Occurrences:            Pages:
------------                       -----------             ----- 
September/October 1992                  13                   7   
November/December 1992                  11                   7   

Mr. Lerner has not hit the peak of that January/February 1992 issue of Tikkun, when, in an article called "Stopping David Duke and Patrick Buchanan," he used the word "pain" 32 times in 6 pages!

In that landmark explication of his "politics of meaning (sic)," Mr. Lerner used the word "pain" to mean:


In Mr. Lerner's thinking, these are equivalent and become "transformed" into fascism!

Perhaps this is a "politics of no meaning"? Meanwhile, we'll be counting!


Tikkun Issue:                 Pain:     Caring:        Pages:
------------                  ----      ------         -----
September/October 1992         13          5             7
November/December 1992         11          5             7
January/February  1993          0         10             5
March/April       1993         11         19             9
May/June          1993          4         13             8

Followers of the "Michael Lerner 'Pain' Watch" will be interested to note the sudden disappearance of the word "pain" from Mr. Lerner's writing during President Clinton's inauguration into office. As the temporarily hopeful Mr. Lerner explained:

"It was not the recession that defeated George Bush, but his inability to convey a deep sense of caring about the economic fears that gripped so many Americans. Conversely, it was not the brilliance of Clinton's economic programs that won over America, but the fact that he seemed genuinely to care about them and their lives."

Thus "care" and "caring" have become Mr. Lerner's proposed solutions to his self-defined equivalencies of "pain" --- in Bosnia, in middle America, in corporate suites and Third World countries.

Let's continue this analysis: Does President Clinton "care" about Bosnia, or does he "care" about Elie Weisel losing sleep over Bosnia? Appoint Mr. Lerner as chief policy wonk, and we'll soon send over armies of psychologists to administer mental health "care" to each side of the conflict. Gee whiz!

P.S. In the Village Voice's "Jews Are Not White", Mr. Lerner logged 4 "pain"'s in one page! And now as an official FOH (Friend of Hillary), he snuck in 4 "caring"'s in as many sentences in the Sunday New York Times magazine piece about Mrs. Clinton. The author, Michael Kelly, referred to Mr. Lerner's proposals as "unintentionally hilarious Big Brotherism."

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