While Barack Obama became the US's first black president, the country shifted to the right electing Donald Trump as his successor. Trump's election promise to “make America great again” fuels the country’s racist movements.
Charlottesville, a city in Virginia in the US, was in the limelight during clashes between neo-Nazi groups and leftist protesters on the status of statues which honour the civil war heroes of the southern states. The city’s University of Virginia was founded by Thomas Jefferson, the third American president, who has long been celebrated as one of the most liberal presidents of the country – yet he had also had slaves in his household.
In order to understand the root causes of the clashes, TRT World spoke to a renowned Turkish-American psychiatrist, Vamik D. Volkan, who taught at the University of Virginia's psychiatry department for decades. Volkan has lived in the city for more than 50 years. One of the leading experts on political psychology, he has also led many field studies and written many books on psychology's place in politics and international relations.
Volkan says in modern times, human beings have become more advanced in terms of science and technology. But human feelings like happiness, pain, hunger for power, fear, love and trust have not evolved much.
You have taught psychiatry at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, for about 50 years. Why did white supremacists pick your old campus for their rally last year?
Vamik D. Volkan: I have lived in Charlottesville over 55 years. There is a [particular] statue here in downtown. It is the statue of General Robert Lee which has been there for decades.
Currently, world affairs are [rapidly] changing. Changes in technology and communication systems are unbelievable [and all these changes happen to be on a global scale]. Everybody is asking who we are now. Many countries are asking who we are now. When we begin asking such questions, most of the time we go back in history, finding historical events which [we would like to believe] belong to us. Similar things [concerning identity problems] are happening in America. During the last presidential election, the main theme was “Making America Great Again.” The term Making America Great Again meant for some people making America white again.
At the same time, we observe that the racism issue in America is a constant topic. When I came to this country in the early 1950s, in Virginia, in North Carolina, in the South, schools were still segregated. White children went to one school and black children went to another school. If you were black, African American and needed to get on a bus, you could not sit in the front row. You sat down in the back row of the bus.
In the 1960s, I had worked in an old African-American mental hospital. All patients were African Americans. This is how I got exposed to what was happening in this country. America was great in terms of law, democracy, etc, but it was also the most racist country once upon a time. There are still remnants of it.
Liberals and African-Americans tried to get rid of the statue of Robert Lee last year because he was the leading general of the south [which was against the abolishment of slavery] during the American Civil War. After that, this issue of getting rid of historical monuments has expanded all over the country.
The city of Charlottesville did not know what to do about that because legally they can not get rid of these statues. In my own view, history is history. By getting rid of statues, you do not change history. My own wish was that they would not do anything about the statues and keep them as they are. Instead, if they want to expose the humiliation of black people and racism in this country, they could build other statues next to those ones like the Lee’s statue.
In any case, when the city of Charlottesville made a move about what to do with statues, white supremacist groups from all over the country including neo-Nazis came to this university town. They created this mess, killing one lady, hurting many people and mostly humiliating Charlottesville people. That was a very hurtful thing. It is still going on. Dealing with racism in America is a big issue.
The good thing about America is the fact that the system of law and order is still intact. Why this happened in Charlottesville is tied to its history. Three presidents including Thomas Jefferson came from this city. These white supremacist groups tried to claim this old American legacy by coming and protesting here. They ended up creating a horrible mess.
In your own conceptualisation, you find similarities between individual and social psychological patterns. You have developed concepts like chosen trauma, time collapse, social regression and destructive and constructive leaderships. How would you explain the recent incidents in Charlottesville according to these concepts?
VV: During the presidential election, because of the fears [rooted in Islamophobia] and the refugee crisis, Donald Trump constantly kept referring to such issues, saying “to keep refugees out, to keep Muslims out.” This has induced all kinds of anxiety and fears in people here. I do not mean all America. But Trump has been elected by a large number of Americans. After the election, this issue became very hot.
All the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who wanted to make all America white again felt empowered [with Trump’s victory]. Things like the end of segregation, the defeat of the South and Lee’s losing battles in the civil war have eventually materialised as “chosen traumas” for these white extremist groups. [Volkan invented the concept of “chosen trauma” which he defines as “the shared mental representation of the large group's massive trauma experienced by its ancestors at the hands of enemy group, and the images of heroes, victims, or both connected with it.”]
Everybody went back to their own chosen traumas. Many countries say “Who are we?” now. When there is a revolution or war in a country, people start asking, “Who are we now?” What has happened in the world right now is the globalisation of who we are now. It is all over the place in the world.
Take Great Britain where it has materialised with Brexit. They are asking themselves who are we now? What is Brexit? They literally say with Brexit, “We want to decide who can come to this country. We want to go back to the days of Great Britain.”
In China, most recently, they named a new holiday which refers to their fight against Japan [during World War II)] that represents one of their chosen glories. People are trying to find past glories and chosen traumas of the past in order to answer this metaphoric question about who we are now. It’s all over the world. The same thing is happening in the US too.
What do these incidents say about the current state of American psychology?
VV: It induces fragmentation. Obviously, “the most civilised Americans” are so afraid [of these developments]. We are shocked that in America people are going around, carrying Nazi flags and saying America is only for white people. It’s an illusion, but they are screaming, yelling and killing people. They are here and a [social] fragmentation is obvious.
Why is Robert Lee so important for some Americans?
VV: Lee was the famous general of the South. The American civil war was fought on the idea that slavery was going to be taken away from the South. In a sense, the African-American issue was the main issue of the Civil War. African Americans do not want to honor him with any kind of statues. He was against the African-American [identity] and was for slavery.
But this is history. I have some African-American friends who think that this is part of history and statues could stay as they are. But people could erect more statues to mark the new part of history. But when chosen traumas are reactivated, one of the first things people do is they go and attack statues because statues represent old times and other things.
Do you see any kind of social regression in theTrump presidency?
VV: I never met Trump, so I can not say anything about his psychological state. But all we hear on television every day from him is his black-white view of the world. He divides the world in two groups. He uses words like fantastic, unbelievable, great… There are grandiose things according to him. On the other hand, he uses words like fanatic and stupid for opposition people or people he does not like.
For him, the world has been divided into fantastic unbelievable good people whom he belongs with and people who oppose him are nothing and stupid. He is constantly tweeting on various themes [using this kind of tone]. His style certainly affects people’s mind without people being aware of it.
To what extent do you think white supremacy is part of America’s core identity?
VV: Under current political circumstances and adjustment to Trump presidency, they [white supremacists] found a voice. Trump blamed all sides about what happened in Charlottesville. Everybody and all parties to the conflict have played a role for clashes obviously. But comparing people who wave Nazi flags and yell “Only white people should live in America and all blacks, Jews or Muslims should not be around,” to people who are more sophisticated and humanistic is just horrible.
But the good thing about America is the legal system is still working. Regardless of what Trump says something about immigration or related issues, a judge is still able to make a contrary decision.
How much do you think white supremacy is part of America’s core identity at the moment?
VV: Nobody really knows about that. It’s an emotional thing. Some say it’s 18 percent. The issue is not about percentage. A country like America that goes around and says, “We are great and the most democratic people on the earth. We are the model for humanity,” has people who express themselves in the most horrible unhumanistic way, exploiting freedom of speech. That’s very hurtful.
Why do some Americans feel a strong desire to keep these statues? Do they think that if statues are gone, something important will be lost from their national identities?
VV: There is Lee Highway in Virginia. If you want to change names, there are a lot in the US. The Lee statue is a mere example. There are hundreds of them here. There are schools named after the South’s war heroes. My thinking is you can not change history by taking out statues. If you want to express your trauma and your glory, you put up a new statue for that. History does not change by removing statues.
Things like what happened in the US are also happening in Germany, Myanmar [and other places] with refugees.
The development of technology is unbelievable in the world. But the human mind has not changed much and has not co-opted yet with all the changes we go through in recent years. Everywhere we see this trend of questioning about who we are. People want to invoke old glories and traumas everywhere. It’s a mess.
How are we going to settle these differences?
VV: I am not a prophet to know [about that kind of settlement]. We need to have a voice and understanding about large-group psychology and make it louder. We need calm people.
Do these incidents prove that humans constantly tackle with their identity problems?
VV: Watch Ertugrul [an immensely popular historic Turkish TV series] and find the answer. Human nature does not change and technology can not change it easily. We need kind, fatherly and motherly leaders to address those questions. Sometimes some good events happen in the world which becomes models to others.
Sometimes the world has good leaders and sometimes it has evil leaders. How do you explain their coming in power? Is there a rational process or is it just a matter of luck?
VV: Luck. Luck is a very good word.
Will the human mind not change at all?
VV: The mind is the same. We have competition, honour, humiliation, the instinct to be above others and killing. Those parts of human nature have not changed at all.
The Human mind changes very slowly. You can not change it by pushing a button.