THE FIFTH COLUMN (2/2)

The present generation of students may not be aware that it
was dangerous for a young, untenured professor of the sixties
to admire Karl Marx. Admirers of Marx were likely to be
champions of civil rights and opponents of the war in Viet
Nam. Ernest fell into this category, but he was not a
political Marxist. He was a humanist who, like the early
Marx, advocated a more rational and ethical society.
Nevertheless Ernest was perceived by the reactionary faculty,
especially his archenemies the empiricists, as an
intellectual and political radical.

Becker relentlessly opposed the narrow positivists who were
taking over the chairs of academic power and who arrogantly
maintained that fundamental questions are nonsense, belonging
in sophomore philosophy classes, and that the only legitimate
path to knowledge is the slow, steady accumulation of
value-neutral facts. Ernest criticized the new empiricists
for their narrow, trivial, meaningless pursuit of facts,
separate from any consideration of values. He called them
"number mumblers." The empiricists in turn, stung by Becker's
criticisms, called him a fuzzy-minded bleeding heart, a poet,
a philosopher, a speculator in ideas, a weaver of myths, a

Becker was a victim of the purge of radicals and Marxists
from American universities during the late sixties and early
seventies. This purge was one of the earliest waves of the
present reactionary tide in America.

The conflicts which were intrinsic to the social and
political history of the sixties, were brought to an
explosive intensity at Syracuse by a series of events that
began in 1962, and culminated in Ernest being fired from the
faculty in 1963 and blackballed by academic psychiatry.

After publication of the Myth of Mental Illness, Szasz began
to talk and lecture on his new theory. On several occasions,
he testified on behalf of patients who were petitioning for
release from involuntary confinement in a state mental
hospital. In his testimonies, Szasz condemned the use of
psychiatric diagnosis to justify depriving people of liberty,
and he compared mental hospitals to jails.

Dr. Newton Bigelow, then Director of Marcy State Hospital and
former State Commissioner of Mental Hygiene, became very
angry with Szasz (Bigelow, 1962). Some of the patients whom
Szasz had defended were inmates of Marcy. Bigelow petitioned
Paul Hoch, then State Commissioner of Mental Hygiene, to bar
Szasz from teaching in the state hospital system. He claimed
that if Szasz does not believe in mental illness, then he
should not be teaching heresy to state-paid psychiatric
residents and interns, nor taking clinical responsibility for
mentally ill patients. On November 26, 1962, Hoch ordered
Marc Hollender to ban Szasz from teaching or performing
clinical functions at the Syracuse State Psychiatric

To understand the events that followed this order, it is
necessary to understand something about academic psychiatry
in general, and the situation at Syracuse in particular.
Academic psychiatry uses involuntarily confined mental
patients as a teaching resource. Academic psychiatrists often
administer staff facilities in which involuntary patients are
confined. At Syracuse, Hollender was both chairman of the
Department of Psychiatry at the medical school and director
of the state mental hospital which was, as he called it, "the
flagship" of the department.

As chairman of psychiatry, Hollender was independent of the
State Commissioner of Mental Hygiene. As director of the
hospital, he was an employee of the Commissioner and was
bound by official directives.  Hollender responded to the
order from Hoch by assigning Szasz to a room in the medical
school for his classes and seminars. Hollender figured that
he was not violating Szasz's academic freedom. He was merely
switching the location of Szasz's classroom to the medical
school, where he could speak freely.

At first, Szasz accepted the order, but then changed his
mind. He had already fled Hitler's fascism in Europe as a
teenager and was not going to passively tolerate repression.
State psychiatry was trying to punish and silence him for
critical ideas which it was his right as professor of
psychiatry to express. If the hospital was part of the
medical school, he argued, then he should be permitted to
teach there, like other faculty. If the hospital was not part
of the medical school, then Hollender should change his

Szasz fought Hollender's order by hiring a good lawyer, and
filing a formal complaint with the medical school
administration and the local chapter of the American
Association of University Professors (AAUP).  Szasz also
boycotted all department activities at the Syracuse State
Psychiatric Hospital. After two years of investigation and
controversy, the AAUP finally upheld Szasz's charge that
Hollender had violated his academic freedom. But the boycott
generated a passionate controversy which eventually split the

Ernest and I joined Szasz in boycotting the state hospital.
We joined for several reasons. A teacher we admired and loved
was under attack.  Also, since we shared Szasz's view that
the medical model of psychiatry serves as an ideology for
social control and obstructs the development of an ecumenical
concept of mental illness, the state's attack on Szasz was
also an attack on us. A third reason was that Szasz was
fighting for the rights of mental patients, and by extension
for the rights of all oppressed minorities across the world.
The struggle at Syracuse was a part of the global struggle
for human rights and dignity with which we both identified.

A few other members of the faculty joined the boycott either
because they agreed with Szasz's views on psychiatry or
because they affirmed his right to teach them in any academic
installation, including the state hospital. The reactionary
faculty opposed Szasz, either because they disagreed with his
critique of mental illness or because they were dedicated
conformists who believed it is a sin to oppose authority and
who feared and hated freedom, especially in psychiatry. These
reactionaries conspired to harass Szasz and lure him into an
act of insubordination which they could use as a
justification to fire him.  Failing in this, they went after
his junior, non-tenured associates.

Until this conflict developed, Szasz and Hollender were close
friends.  They had both trained and taught at the Chicago
Institute of Psychoanalysis, where they met Julius Richmond,
who later became Surgeon General. Richmond came to Syracuse
in 1954 as chairman of the Department of Pediatrics. He was
instrumental in Hollender's appointment as chairman of
psychiatry. Hollender, in turn, invited Szasz to join the
faculty as full professor with tenure, hoping he would be the
nucleus of an exciting new school of psychosocial psychiatry.
Until Hoch's order, the new school was taking shape. Szasz
and Hollender collaborated on several papers critical of the
medical model of psychiatry. Becker and I wrote and lectured
on our new views of mental illness. But the repression of
Szasz destroyed the friendship between Szasz and Hollender,
split the faculty into hostile factions and ended Becker's
career in academic psychiatry.

Becker was outraged by state psychiatry's efforts to suppress
a university professor. He was dismayed that a fundamental
law of civilization was being violated, the right of free
inquiry and free expression. Ernest expressed his dismay to
some medical student friends. Shortly thereafter, he received
a phone call from Hollender demanding that Ernest come
immediately to his office in the hospital to explain why he
was criticizing the department to prospective applicants for
training. I was with Ernest when he received the call. He was
indignant. He told Hollender that he would not come to the
hospital because it was run by the state and was hostile to
free inquiry. He was a professor at the medical school not an
employee of the hospital. If Hollender wanted to talk to him,
he should come up to the medical school. Hollender fired
Becker on the spot for insubordination.

Becker's career in psychiatry was finished before it began.
His dream of a revolution in psychiatry was over. Within a
few years, every one of Szasz's followers were purged from
the faculty and Szasz was isolated. A potential new school of
critical psychiatry which might have shaped a current of
modern thought and mental health practice had been aborted.

>From that moment on, Becker was a wandering exile. He was
effectively barred from obtaining another academic job in
psychiatry. Szasz was anathema to ninety-nine percent of
American psychiatrists and seeking an academic position with
Szasz's recommendation was like trying to join the Catholic
priesthood with the devil's brand on your forehead. Ernest
was also shunned by the sociologists because his degree was
in anthropology, and he was shunned by the anthropologists
because he had never done what they considered legitimate
field work. Douglas Haring had arranged for Becker's years in
Paris to be counted as meeting the field work requirement.

Some friends at Syracuse University found Ernest a one-year
appointment in the Department of Sociology, but despite the
instability of his employment, he continued to speak his
mind. He backed the students in their fight against the
university's _in locum parentis_ control of student life. He
opposed the ideological, pedagogical and administrative
domination of the empiricists. He fought for civil rights and
against the war in Viet Nam. Predictably, the reactionary
faculty opposed his reappointment and he was on the road

The following year, Ernest went to Rome at his own expense,
to sit at the seat of western civilization and reflect upon
its history and destiny. The product of this sabbatical was
"The Structure of Evil: An Essay on the Unification of the
Science of Man" (Becker, 1968). The following year he
returned to Syracuse where Tom Green found him a one-year
appointment in the school of education. In this period,
Ernest worked on his neo-Rousseauian theory of education
(Becker, 1967).

Ernest was then invited by the Department of Sociology at the
University of California at Berkeley to replace the departing
Erving Goffman, on Goffman's recommendation. At Berkeley,
Ernest became enormously popular with the students. He
finally had reached an audience that resonated with his
fundamental, critical questioning and his imaginative
perceptions of human nature. After two years, the faculty
again, predictably, refused to renew his appointment. The
students appealed, and in an unprecedented gesture, offered
to pay Ernest's salary from their own student funds. But the
university, lacking both courage and wisdom, refused to
permit it. Ernest briefly became a media hero when this
comi-tragic play at Berkeley was covered by Time Magazine.

Ernest moved across the Bay to the Department of Psychology
at San Francisco State. He loved San Francisco and would have
remained in this plum position indefinitely, had he not felt
a sense of desperation about the course of world events and a
compulsion to commit a moral act as his contribution to
history. When Hayakawa called the police to suppress an
antiwar demonstration on campus, Ernest resigned in protest.
It was a tremendously courageous act, an example to the
morally bankrupt American universities which refused to
divest from the South African apartheid regime on the grounds
that they would lose money. When he resigned, Ernest had a
wife and three children to support, and no prospect of a job.

An interdisciplinary group of social scientists at Simon
Fraser University near Vancouver invited Ernest to join their
department.  Simon Fraser was bitter-sweet for Ernest. It
provided him with the tranquil setting in which to
concentrate on his mature works, "The Denial of Death" and
"Escape From Evil" (1975). But he remained grim about the
dark forces of human evil that seemed to dominate world
events and history. And he was sad and disappointed about
being repressed, ignored and exiled from his own country.

A fascinating fact of the sociology of knowledge is that
Becker's work on psychopathology has never been noticed,
never been reviewed and never been mentioned in the
psychiatric literature. Szasz has suffered a similar fate.
Because Szasz's early papers and books were published and
widely read, it is not generally known that psychiatric
journals will no longer publish his work. Becker and Szasz
are both non-persons in the official history of psychiatry.
Like that other great political monolith, our alter ego the
Soviet Union, Americans too suppress and control threatening
ideas. Thankfully, we do not usually imprison dissenters,
although there are exceptions to this rule. But we repress
dangerous ideas subtly, by means of the academic blackball
and the refusal to publish.

In his later years, Becker returned to his psychological
studies, but with an added religious dimension. His perennial
questions focused on the problem of the tragic human flaw. In
his inquiries into the roots of tragedy, Becker rediscovered
the insights of the ancient Greeks, Hebrews and Buddhists.

The basic problems of human life are the result of the
consciousness of the fact of death. The word "human" comes
from "humus" which means mud.  From mud we came, to mud we
shall return. So it is with all living things. Nothing lasts
forever. One day, even the sun shall die. But human beings,
of all the beings in the universe as far as we know, have the
power to be aware of the certainty of death and to dream of
eternal life. This power is based on the capacity for
language and symbolism, the distinctive thread of human
consciousness, from which profane time and history are woven.

The presence of death casts a dark shadow on human life.
Becker believed that the driving mechanism of self and
society is the denial of death, that is, the creation of a
web of meanings, goals and activities which generate the
illusion of transcending death. At the center of this web is
self, and at the periphery is society. In Becker's view, self
and society are a tangle of fictions which individuals take
as reality in order to repress the inevitability and finality
of death. The root of tragedy lies in the fact that the
desires, hopes and dreams of human individuals are eventually
doomed to be frustrated by the fact of death.

Becker called the techniques by which individuals and groups
create the illusion of transcendence of death "immortality
mechanisms." The chief immortality mechanism of every
individual is what Becker terms "the oedipal project," the
project to transform one's self from a child into an adult
person in society. To accomplish this task required taking
(mistaking, really,) personal and social fictions as
realities. This is the meaning of Becker's statement that
every person must choose in what level of illusions to
believe and act upon in order to project meaning and purpose
into life.

The root of evil, Becker believed, is in the restless
strivings of individuals and groups to transcend death and
nonexistence through the pursuit of eternal meanings. This
implies that the source of evil lies in the selfish strivings
and ambitions of egos and nations.  Confirmation of this fact
does not require experimental research.  Buddha became aware
of it twenty-five hundred years ago, without the benefit of
modern science. It requires only the effort and the
willingness to recognize the evidence of the ordinary life
that the stubbornly aggressive, self-serving desires of
individuals and states are the primary causes of self-induced
human suffering.

Becker's most precious legacy to us is his encouragement to
ask fundamental questions, ultimate questions. Unless there
is free and open inquiry into these questions we will never
know the difference  between truth and fiction. Individuals
and nations are very vulnerable to mistaking for truth their
self-generated fictions which are basically myths and
ideologies which justify the aggressive enactment of their
immortality projects.

It is but a small step of logic to realize that knowing the
difference between truth and fiction is vital for the
evolution of the human species. Becker would rest peacefully
if he knew his life contributed to this awareness.

FOOTNOTE 1 This article was reprinted from KAIROS
(1986), Volume 2, pp. 8-21.

Becker, E. (1961). Zen: A rational critique. New York:
Becker, E. (1962). Birth and death of meaning. New York: The
Free Press (2nd ed. 1971).

Becker, E. (1964). The revolution in psychiatry. New York:
The Free Press.

Becker, E. (1967). Beyond alienation: A philosophy of
education for the crisis in democracy. New York: Braziller.

Becker, E. (1968). The structure of evil: An essay on the
unification of the science of man. New York: Braziller.

Becker, E. (1969). Angel in armor: A post-Freudian
perspective on the nature of man. New York: George Braziller.

Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: The Free

Becker, E. (1975). Escape from evil. New York: The Free

Bigelow, N. (1962). Sass for the gander. Psychiatric
Quarterly, 36(4), October.

Leifer, R. (1969). In the name of mental health: The social
functions of psychiatry. New York:  Science House.

Leifer, R. (1979). Biography of Ernest Becker. International
Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Volume 18. New York:
The Free Press.

Szasz, T. (1957). Pain and pleasure. New York:  Basic Books.

Szasz, T. (1961). The myth of mental illness: Foundations of
a theory of personal conduct. New York: Hoeber-Haper.

Ron Leifer, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice in
Ithaca, New York. His address is 215 North Cayuga St.,
Ithaca, N.Y. USA. He has a book to be published in November
entitled "The Happiness Project: Transforming The Three
Poisons" which are the causes of the suffering we inflict on
ourselves and each other (Snow Lion Press, Ithaca, N.Y.).
His email address is ronleifer@aol.com