A Yankee Notebook, Columns

In Full Flower During Recent Debate

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EAST MONTPELIER – I’ve been listening to sermons for over eight decades. At first, of course, it was because I had to. Next, because it was the thing to do. Now, occasionally, because I want to. And I must say that over those more than 80 years I’ve heard a few good ones. And a few thousand not quite so.

One that’s stuck with me over the years has come bubbling to the surface in recent months, largely because of the epic food fight that characterizes current American life. Its topic, if you were to assign one, is “You See What You Know the Name Of.”

The priest described himself mowing his lawn, a typical modern homeowner droning back and forth on a Saturday afternoon, cutting grass. “I see just grass,” he said. “But someone in the business might see Kentucky, fescue, zoysia, or Bermuda. I see just what I know the name of, grass.”

Probably the reason I’ve remembered that statement is that I found it very useful in my years as a contractor, which were marked by serious downers in the early years, followed by success near the end. My customers, I found, saw what they knew the name of: If they’d been conditioned in one way or another to mistrust contractors, they not only mistrusted me and my guys, but often couldn’t be trusted themselves.

I developed the mantra, “Trusting people are trustworthy.” It served me well for decades, and still does.

I have a favorite exemplar in this state of being: the Witch of Coös, the elderly subject of Robert Frost’s poem of the same name. When the old lady’s son claims they couldn’t tell the identity of the skeleton in their attic, she replies, “Yes, we could too, son. Tell the truth for once . . . Son looks surprised to see me end a lie . . . But to-night I don’t care enough to lie: I don’t remember why I ever cared.”

It’s obvious, watching current events unfold on the media, that many people in public life don’t feel that way. According to professional fact-checkers, the presumptive Republican nominee for the presidency lied publicly about 35,000 times during his four years of incumbency, and was once again in full flower during the recent debate (of which the less said, the better).

But that’s beside the point I wish to make. What’s interested me is the prodigious use being made of a psychological trick first posited by Sigmund Freud and now brought to bear with great effectiveness in a society cleanly riven by opposing points of view.

It’s called projection; it’s pretty easy to spot; and it’s often done unconsciously. It’s the old game of seeing what we know the name of. Defenders of public virtue often use it in condemning societal ills that they’d love to indulge in themselves, but for various reasons can’t, or can’t admit that they have or want to.

The most obvious current example is the accusation, without any evidence, of electoral fraud frequently leveled at Democrats, when the proven cases have involved instead the accusers. Remember the Democratic white slavery ring that Hillary Clinton and others were operating out of the basement of a pizza parlor that, when invaded by a gun-toting patriot, turned out not to have a basement? You’ve got to wonder what fantasies churned in the cranium of that young gunsel that made it likely that others were involved, as well.

Here’s a textbook definition of projection: . . . the process of displacing one’s feelings onto a different person, animal, or object . . . most commonly used to describe defensive projection, attributing one’s own unacceptable urges to another. What do you suppose young celibate priests experience, and then tend to ask pubescent boys about their carnal, but venial sins? Why did Donald Trump, an apparent Adderall addict, predict that his opponent in the recent debate (about which the less said, the better) would be drugged?

So when an angry, righteous patriot accuses you of stuffing the ballot boxes or discarding ballots in a brook, be sure you at least have surveillance tapes. If you’re falsely accused of larceny, keep your hands in your pockets with a firm grip on your wallet. And always wonder, when you hear someone go off on the immoral or illegal behavior of another (my mother used to call it tsk-tsking) what’s really going on. What’s going on is usually projection: just someone seeing what they know the name of.

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