Hungry Dogs in the Cellar Nip at Civil Liberties

Looking for a bedtime sedative one night last week, I found The Switch, a streamable 2010 by-the-numbers comedy. In it, a mentoring character played by Jeff Goldblum admonishes Jason Bateman’s character to stop suppressing feelings he doesn’t want to deal with. In the muck of bad writing sparkles a gem: “Beware,” he says, “hungry dogs in the basement.” Implicit in the warning is that if you’re not careful, eventually they will get out and eat you, as repressed emotions tend to do.

Not believing such a well-crafted aphorism could originate with the authors of that jejune film, I sniffed around on the Internet for a probable source. John Bradshaw, the successful purveyor of pop psychology, in his 1988 book Healing the Shame That Binds You, speaks of “our hungry dogs in the basement” and defines them as “our split off parts.” By this he means the aspects of our selves of which we are ashamed, find intolerable and so repress with great expenditure of psychic energy that could be put to better use.

Bradshaw, in turn, appropriated the metaphor from Friedrich Nietzsche who used it a century earlier in his peculiar morality tale Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In it, the fictional hero speaks of virtues arising from the very passions we first labeled evil. “Once,” he wrote, “you had wild dogs in your cellar, but in the end they turned into birds and lovely singers.”

The Baha Men, those lovely singers of “Who Let the Dogs Out?” make unsubtle comparisons between the behavior of men at a party and dogs hungry to copulate, inviting the Freudian inference that those are libidinous canines woofing in the Id’s cellar and when released are about as far from cooing birds as you can get. Pressing the point, I think a psychoanalyst might construe Nietzsche’s description of rejected impulses transformed into their opposite as reaction formation — the mechanism that turns whores into nuns, sadists into surgeons, gamblers into bankers, and criminals of all stripes into congressmen.

In Bradshaw’s 1990 Homecoming, he discusses the contaminating effect his repressed childhood anger had on his adult life: “Like a hungry dog in the basement,” he wrote, “it became ravenous.” If he failed to guard it, the ordinary nice guy he was “became Ivan the Terrible.” What saved him was accepting and championing the wounded child within.

If large numbers of people ignore the dogs in their collective cellar, the effect is vastly amplified, altering social institutions. Fearing expression of our disowned qualities in a free society, we seek authoritarian structures, as brother Ivan’s parable warned us over a century ago. We cede control to governmental and religious thugs, to folks whose self-righteousness masks boundless cruelty and an impulse to destroy. We hope their censorship and surveillance, their book-burning and war-making will protect us from ourselves, ward off our fears — both of forces both outside and inside ourselves.

In the Muslim world’s convulsions, we see nation after nation ecstatically voting in oppressive theocracies, something we’ve termed, with unconscious and exquisite irony, the “Arab Spring.” In our own country we passively accept the daily erosion of our civil liberties, a process initiated by the born-again dry drunk we put in office thirteen years ago, now being accelerated by his successor. We tolerate cameras recording us indoors and out within our cities and, with the domestication of drones, soon everywhere else as well. Some large segment of our population shares the same Wahhabi impulse to stifle science, the arts, and progressive thinking in general. Just a few years ago Harry Potterbooks were burned by Christian fundamentalists in New Mexico, Iowa, and South Carolina. The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnCatcher in the Rye, and The Grapes of Wrath are still prohibited reading in any number of American school systems. But it’s not about banning and burning books; it’s about suppressing ideas. It’s about trying to crush and control the creative spirit in whatever form it may manifest itself — and it’s about keeping our frightening impulses at bay.

Those hungry dogs have chased evolution from classrooms and stem cell research from our laboratories, hound women and gays, and threaten all of our rights as free citizens. Beware, indeed.

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