The Manchurian Candidate

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You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe?: Rebecca Jo Plant’s ‘Mom’

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The caress of your hair, soft silver
On my cheek how I fain would feel,
And from lips that are soft as roses,
A sweet kiss I would like to steal.

This poem, the full version of which was published in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes in 1918, was written by an American soldier on the field of war not to his girlfriend or wife, but to his mother. Nearly half a century later, Raymond Shaw and his mother steal a kiss in The Manchurian Candidate. Though similar, these shows of affection were received in radically different ways. In the early part of the century, such deeply felt mother-son expressions were earnest and admirable. But in 1962, the display was considered not simply inappropriate but incestuous and intensely disturbing. What caused attitudes about a mother’s love to change so dramatically? This is the central question in Rebecca Jo Plant’s Mom, which traces the complex social and political transformation of middle-class motherhood in American and the ways in which women conceived of that role.

Plant’s nuanced history is bookended by two screeds against the housewife-mother: Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers (1942), which coined the term momism as a critique of the perverting powers of Victorian-era “mother love”; and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), an early feminist text that called for women’s liberation from their domestic shackles. Though these works would seem to fall at opposite ends of a spectrum—one is a misogynistic attack on the “deforming” effects of old-fashioned motherhood, the other set the stage for the women’s liberation movement later that decade—Plant argues that both books’ criticisms stem from the same poison tree: blaming mothers for the world’s ills.

When Wylie launched his attack, mothers had already found themselves under heavy fire. Victorian culture had idealized them as martyrs and moral repositories, capable of molding virtuous and noble children, and the sacrifice required by this “sacred estate” made them symbols of civic virtue, on par with the nation’s soldiers in the trenches of World War I. In the ’20s and ’30s, critics protested this sentimental construction, arguing that the authority it bestowed on mothers was politically coercive. Wylie’s assault came at a time that Plant describes as the zenith of mother-blaming, helped along by the rise of therapeutic culture and the growing influence of psychological experts. His aim was to show that these outmoded, yet still prevalent, ideas were irrational and that women’s moral dominance in social and political realms was not only cloying but a danger to the health of the nation. Freidan offers the best rundown of the litany of offenses that women found themselves saddled with in the postwar period:

In every case history of a troubled child; alcoholic, suicidal, schizophrenic, psychopathic, neurotic adult; impotent, homosexual male; frigid, promiscuous female; ulcerous, asthmatic, and otherwise disturbed American, could be found a mother. A frustrated, repressed, disturbed, martyred, never satisfied, unhappy woman. A demanding, nagging, shrewdish wife. A rejecting, overprotecting, dominating mother.

If this account seems hyperbolic, consider a journalist’s summation in 1935: “Iron-willed, frustrated, self-sacrificing mothers, trying to live a dream life through their progeny, have wrecked more lives than has syphilis.”

The “mass-produced sentimentalism”—such as the commercialization of Mother’s Day and radio soap operas—of the interwar era served, in the words of one Wylie fan, to turn the population into “a race of soft-brained guinea pigs” and was likened to fascist mind control. (Ironically, today a similar brand of emotional idealism is in vogue with conservative political commentators such as Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Pat Buchanan, who nostalgically evoke the past as a way of condemning the current administration’s policies. “Obama is literally ripping apart the foundation of the America that we knew and grew up in,” laments Sean Hannity.) Yet at the time of its publication, Wylie’s book could boast a certain progressive air, partly by hinging on the idea that women were stultified by their domestic identity. It’s here that Friedan’s account agrees with Wylie’s. In order to fight gender discrimination, Friedan found it necessary to employ the same demoralizing tactics against mother-homemakers. Yet by 1963, such attitudes were “nothing new.” This helps explain why both Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir, who quoted approvingly from Wylie’s book in The Second Sex, saw Wylie’s critique “not as an attack on women per se but as an attack on women who defended paternalism and sexual inadequacy” —that is, not as a misogynist rant but as an argument for the psychological price of sexual and cultural inequality.

However, Plant is quick to discern an important difference between Wylie’s and Friedan’s use of mother-blaming. Although the former sought to banish women from their traditional roles as homemaker and mother, he proposed no alternative. Friedan, on the other hand, deduced “the logical implications of momism in a forceful and systematic way” and realized that to counter the pathological mother, women must pursue fulfilling work away from home and children. Plant’s study is most interesting in parsing the “fundamental division” among white, middle-class women that occurred alongside the publication of The Feminine Mystique: Though some women were liberated by their rejection of homemaking and motherhood roles as the only ones available to them, for others “those roles did not present oppression or constraint but rather the basis of a meaningful identity.” (Of course, as psychologist Anna Wolf argued in 1941, working women now had “two jobs in life, not one.”)

Plant’s examination of these reactions to Friedan’s book both enriches an understanding of second-wave feminism’s development and offers a valuable lens by which to consider the current discussion of women’s roles. In a large sense, the conversation has come full circle, and the work of equality for working women and respect for those who stay home is far from done. Ann Crittenden’s The Price of Motherhood, details the social devaluation of stay-at-home moms and the financial penalty paid by women who choose caring for children over working. Crittenden’s book is hailed as The Feminine Mystique for the motherhood movement, yet it owes more to Friedan’s 1980 follow-up, The Second Stage, in which she that argues equality is only one part of the feminist argument; the other is diversity among gender roles. In addressing some of the backlash against The Feminine Mystique when it was published, Freidan admits that many women felt forced out of meaningful identities, and she emphasizes the need for an equal partnership in domestic chores and childrearing. “After fighting hard to win respect in the workplace,” Crittendon reasons, “women had yet to win respect for their work at home.”

“I felt like my choices were either to break the glass ceiling or to accept the gilded cage,” explains one woman in a recent New York Times profile of “femivores,” stay-at-home moms who turn their backyards into extensive kitchen gardens complete with chicken coops. In rejecting the either/or that has formed the basis of women’s lives for the past fifty years, these mothers have created a third option: infusing domesticity with new meaning and real economic worth.

The Manchurian Legacy

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The New York Times ran an interesting article last week on the origins of the interrogation techniques used at Guantanamo Bay. The article claims that methods for questioning prisoners at the facility were directly adapted from those used by the Communist Chinese to torture and indoctrinate American soldiers during the Korean War. At the time, rumors regarding these techniques, known in Chinese as xinao – literally translated as “brainwashing” – inspired a few brief bouts of hysteria, as well as the “classic” novel The Manchurian Candidate, later made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra.Those interested in peeking behind Guantanamo’s walls should pick up a copy of Robert Lifton’s classic work Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China [1]. Lifton, a Harvard professor, makes only a brief appearance in the Times article, but his book is the seminal work on brainwashing techniques and is often used as text for teaching about the indoctrination methods of cults. In the book, Lifton interviews a number of Westerners and Chinese who were subjected to thought reform, delving into their prison experience, as well as their lives before and after. Although Lifton spends too much time on Freudian psychoanalysis for my tastes, his case studies are raw and chilling accounts of people whose lives have been irreversibly altered. Although for most subjects the superficial effects of the indoctrination process quickly wore off, the psychological scars were permanent. The men and women Lifton interviewed are broken, struggling to piece together their dignity and sense of self.The U.S. Military, of course, is not interested in indoctrination techniques, so much as the methods used by Chinese interrogators to elicit confessions from their prisoners. The irony is that the ultimate purpose of these techniques was not to obtain useful information, but to inculcate prisoners with Maoist ideology. As Lifton describes in detail, interrogators forced prisoners to confess to crimes they did not commit as a means of controlling their inner life. The so-called “confessions” were entirely made up, or, even more tellingly, force-fed to prisoners, who were expected to repeat them until they could no longer distinguish them from the truth. The military knows this. After all, the armed forces and the CIA have used these techniques as part of SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) and similar training programs for years. These programs, which are meant to prepare personnel to resist torture methods they may encounter in the field, are rumored to use many of the techniques that appear in the Guantanamo Bay document. The programs reportedly emphasize the use of stress positions, waterboarding, and other “fraternity pranks” (as Rush Limbaugh affectionately referred to them) to elicit false confessions from participants.What are the interrogators thinking? Their goals may not be that different than those of the Communist Chinese. After all, the Bush administration, much like the Maoists, is not interested in truth. Rather, they are interested in constructing their own reality. There’s only a fine line between Mao’s insistence that the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were successful and Bush’s declaration that the war in Iraq was a “Mission Accomplished.” As one Bush aide famously said in a quote that could be taken directly from Lifton’s Eight Criteria for Thought Reform“We create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do…” – “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush” New York Times Magazine October 17, 2004This same reckless desire has led the administration to manufacture evidence for the war in Iraq, deny the truth of global climate change, and create countless fabrications that serve only to support their own insular vision of how they think the world ought to be. How surprising would it be then, if interrogators at Guantanamo Bay were not looking for the truth, but only for support for the administration’s version of events, confessions they can use to further justify their actions, confessions they can use to try to convince us, the viewers at home, that they have been right all along. After all, the information possessed by Guantanamo’s prisoners is as much as seven years out of date, seemingly well past its expiration date. And although seven years would seem to be ample time to conduct an interrogation, it’s about the right length for Chinese reeducation methods.But don’t take my word for it. Read the book.[1] Other chilling accounts of these techniques can be found in the excellent book Japan at War, which includes interviews with Japanese POWs who suffered through the Chinese reeducation process.

Plagiarism in the News


My friend Nancy sent this story my way the other day. Apparently, back in 1998 a woman posted on her weblog an interesting discovery. She realized after reading the Robert Graves historical novel I, Claudius and the Richard Condon cult classic The Manchurian Candidate back to back that Condon borrowed passages from Graves’ book. There has been a little bit of hype surrounding The Manchurian Candidate lately due to an impending remake of the movie and a new edition of the book with a forward by Louis Menand, so perhaps that is what caused this revalation to come to light so long after its original discovery. Menand himself notes the bizarre patchwork of styles in Condon’s work and now experts are positing that Condon may have borrowed from a number of different books when writing his novel. What strikes me when reading this is that neither the author of the article nor the experts consulted seem to think this charge is particularly damning. I think maybe this stems from the fact that Condon has never been considered much more than a pulp writer anyway. Here’s the full article if you want to read more.More Than Just BaseballWhere have I been? It seems that during the nearly twenty years that have passed since he penned one of the best books ever written about baseball, Nine Innings, sportswriter Daniel Okrent went on to become an editor of Life Magazine and then an editor of Time Magazine. Now he has a new book out that is in keeping with his more recent journalistic pursuits. Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center chronicles the interesting story of a landmark of entertainment in New York City. Here’s what the New York Times has to say about the book, and here’s an excerpt.

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