On Mixed Minds: Liberal-Conservatives and Conservative-Liberals

Originally published on Nation of Change, September 27, 2012

In a previous op-ed, “When Liberals Deny Reality: Demonizing Conservatives While Idealizing Liberals.” (Nation of Change, Saturday, September 22, 2012), I praised a recent book by Chris Mooney (The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality, Wiley, 2012). In spite of this, I was nonetheless highly critical of it.

There is no question whatsoever that I basically agreed with Mooney’s characterization of conservatives and liberals. Conservatives are generally fearful of and highly resistant to change, have an obsessive need for order and predictability, prize individual differences (money, status, etc.), and believe in hierarchy over community and egalitarianism. In short, they are closed-minded and don’t believe in science, especially if it conflicts with their deep-seated religious and social beliefs.

In sharp contrast, liberals generally believe strongly in reasoned argument, logic, and science. They are not only extremely open to change, but to learning from their own errors, and from the views of others.

Nonetheless, as much as I agreed with Mooney on the key differences between conservatives and liberals, I parted sharp company with him with regard to his overly simplistic and highly idealized characterizations of academics and scientists. While academics and scientists may be liberals politically, they are not necessarily when it comes to their day-to-day work. Indeed, they are generally very conservative. Having been a university professor for over 45 years, I know this for a fact!

In short, Mooney was seriously wrong if he thought that academics and scientists were “the shinning model for liberal thought.”

None of this meant that I didn’t regard science as one of the best ways of ferreting out error that humankind has ever invented. Science is! Indeed, I have no regard whatsoever for those who don’t respect science. Still my basic point was that science was done by humans who weren’t always the epitome of objectivity.

In spite of this, my previous critique only skimmed the surface. There is a much deeper point to be made, one that penetrates more fundamentally to the underlying nature of conservative and liberal thought.

Nowhere in his otherwise generally excellent analysis does Mooney even hint at the existence, let operation, of unconscious, psychodynamic factors. For instance, in his primary use of social psychology, Mooney mainly treats conscious, explicit factors that account for the extreme differences between conservatives and liberals. While these “factors” are not wrong per se, they are incomplete in accounting for the complexity of the human mind.

Thus, Mooney is not able to consider (or only barely) that while one may be quite liberal on the surface, one can be rather conservative and even authoritarian unconsciously. Conversely, one may be conservative and authoritarian on the surface, yet have real strands of liberalism underneath. (The latter is the true meaning of a “compassionate conservative.”)

While both of the aforementioned “strange couplings” (“liberal authoritarians” and “conservative liberals”) are most easily seen in extreme groups, they are not confined to them. Indeed, it helps to explain why any number of liberal groups that believe in respecting differences are as hateful and intolerant as can be when it actually comes to living with staunch conservatives. I know this for a fact, for in all honesty, I’m one of them!

On the surface I’d like to believe that I’m very tolerant, but deep down, I know that it’s a very different story. No wonder why the great psychoanalysts talked again and again about the tug of war that occurs between the “two or more minds that make up the human psyche.”

There is all the difference in the world between (1) conservatives that are conservative at both the conscious and the unconscious levels (they are scary consistent), and (2) conservatives that are conservative at the conscious level, but deep down at the unconscious level have a touch of liberalism, and hence, often experience considerable conflict within, which is not always a bad thing. There is also a big difference between (1) liberals that are liberal at both the conscious and the unconscious levels (this can also be scary consistent), and (2) liberal at the conscious level and conservative at the unconscious.

Humans are too complex to be conservative or liberal through and through. Thank god we are not.

We liberals constantly say that we don’t want to put people into tight, narrow boxes, and yet we often do precisely this.

I know that being a “mixed type” (liberal on the surface mixed with underlying elements of conservatism”) allows me to appreciate and understand conservatives far better that if I were perfectly consistent.

If we really want to understand conservatism and liberalism—indeed, anything human–we have to give up simplistic consistency. If the human mind is anything, it is a boiling pot of “hot inconsistency.”

Originally published on Nation of Change, September 27, 2012

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Standing Up To Political Bullies

Originally published on Nation of Change, September 20, 2012

For years, I have taught courses in Interpersonal Dynamics to undergraduate and graduate business school students alike. The prime purpose of the courses has been to help people better understand themselves and others. To accomplish this, I have had people take countless personality tests to show them how and why they literally “see highly disparate realities,” experience and handle conflict very differently, have diverse learning styles, varied aims and aspirations, etc.

One of most powerful ways of helping people learn about themselves and others is to put people into different groups based on their personalities. Thus, all the people with the same personality type are put into a common group. In this way, there are as many different groups as there are different types.

Next, all of the groups are then given the same assignment to see how they respond. For instance, each group is given the same issue of a popular magazine. Each group is then asked to cut out images from the magazine that best represents their group’s idea of their “ideal organization.” Making a collage, giving it a name, and listing as many characteristics as they can of their ideal organization allows people to literally “see” and compare an internal disposition such as personality.

A key component of the course is dealing with difficult people, whether at work, play, home, with family members, etc. One of the most powerful ways of doing this is not just to have people merely read about different kinds of difficult people and proven strategies for dealing with them, but to engage in actual role-plays. Thus, people take turns role-playing a certain type of difficult person while another person role-plays how best to cope effectively with that type.

Without a doubt, one of the most stressful types of difficult people to role-play and with whom to cope effectively is the “Sherman Tank.” In his 1981classic, Coping with Difficult People (Dell, New York), Robert Bramson introduced the term Sherman Tank and wrote masterfully about it. What could be more powerful than being run over and crushed by a Sherman Tank, which is precisely what they want? It’s not surprising that just thinking about a Sherman Tank makes most people cringe.

If one has a Sherman Tank for a boss, then no matter how well one has prepared for an important presentation, then no more than 20 seconds into it, if even that, the Sherman Tank stands up and shouts something like the following, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!” The effect is generally immediate and devastating. The victim usually slumps down and sulks away feeling totally worthless and utterly defeated.

In his many travels around organizations, Bramson found that there were a small number of people who knew instinctively how to stand up successfully to Sherman Tanks. As soon as a Sherman Tank got through shouting—more often than not, a person generally had to cut in to stop the Sherman—they said super calmly, “I hear that you don’t think much of my presentation, but please allow me to continue. If at the end, you still don’t think much of it, then I want to hear your criticisms.” If the Sherman continued to shout and even hurl abuse, the person stood his or her ground typically saying something like, “Excuse me, but I don’t respond well to being shouted at or called names. I would appreciate your not talking to me that way.”

In many cases, but not all, this defused the Sherman, especially in front of a group. Most people, even Sherman Tanks, are dependent upon group support.

One of Bramson’s main points was that one never won by being a Bigger Sherman. Indeed, the worst thing one could do was to attempt to out-Sherman a Sherman. This only made a Sherman even madder. After all, they were a master at their own game.

Of course, by standing up for oneself in this or in any other way, one could very well be fired. One had to be prepared for this going in. But Bramson pointed out that if there was any way of coping with a Sherman, it was by doing the exact opposite of them, i.e., by being exceedingly calm. One’s goal was to cope with a Sherman, not change them. That was for their therapist if they were wise to see that they needed help.

All of which brings me to my main point. If the Democratic Party needs anything, it needs to take a crash course in standing up to Republican and right wing bullies. Whether it is the so-called Republican “leadership” or out-and-out demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, Democrats need to hold their ground calmly, simply, and repeatedly. If taking on bullies directly doesn’t always work, then neither does ignoring them altogether. It’s not part of their make-up to just go away.

For instance, Democrats do themselves and the country a great disservice by being bullied and therefore by not confronting to the repeated Republican lie that the stimulus was a complete failure. The fact is that the stimulus saved thousands of jobs and kept the economy from failing altogether.

In the highly toxic environment in which we find ourselves, politics has unfortunately become the art and science of coping with overpowering bullies. To a certain extent, it always has. I hope fervently that Democrats learn this sooner rather than later.

Originally published on Nation of Change, September 20, 2012

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The Unconscious Choice: The Forces of the Dark and Light Sides

Originally published on Nation of Change, September 8, 2012

Make no mistake about it. This election is about the choice between two worldviews that are as psychologically different and far apart as any two could possibly be. The choice is difficult not just because so much is riding on it—this much is obvious–but like most crucial things in life, much of it rests on factors that are largely unconscious. The later is far from obvious.

On the one side is the Republican view of the world (the Dark Side) that is as mean and repressive as anything I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. On the other hand is the Democratic (the Light Side), which while far from perfect, shows real signs of humanity and maturity. With no apologies whatsoever for my clear bias and partisanship, let me explore the psychological differences between these two worldviews. Hopefully, this helps to illuminate the unconscious factors that play a major role in what people vote for and why. To do this, let me discuss very briefly: 1. Jungian psychological types; 2. ego psychology; and 3. American mythology. All three interact in powerful ways to produce the enormous, and unfortunately, unbridgeable differences between the current versions of Republicans and Democrats.

As long ago as 1921, Jung identified, among many others, the psychological differences between: 1. Sensing and Intuitive, and 2. Thinking and Feeling personality types.

Sensing types instinctively break all problems down into separate and independent parts for which they then proceed to gather “hard data” or “facts” that “measure precisely” the “exact status or performance” of each of the parts. In addition, they are anchored firmly in the “here-and-now.” In short, if you can’t see, feel, hear, smell, taste, or measure something in the here-and-now, then it’s not real, let alone important.

In contrast, Intuitive types instinctively look at the big picture, the whole system. They are not concerned with parts per se, but only with how they all fit together. Indeed, by themselves, the parts have no meaning or existence. In addition, they are concerned primarily with future possibilities, not with imperfect things as they are today. If they believe in measuring anything, it is the “state of the whole.”

Thinking types are primarily concerned with analyzing things impersonally in terms of logic and science. Feeling types are concerned with people’s feelings.

Putting these together in all possible ways results in four basic personality types: 1. Sensing-Thinking; 2. Intuitive-Thinking; 3. Intuitive-Feeling; and, 4. Sensing-Feeling.

Next, let me say a very brief word about ego psychology. Ego psychology postulates that there are at least three characters or voices in everyone; 1. Parent; 2. Adult; and 3. Child.

The Parent is the character that sets rules and lays down laws of acceptable versus unacceptable behavior. It is the voice that says, “Do this!” Or, “Don’t do such and such because if you do, then you will have to suffer the consequences!” The Child is the character in all of us that forever wants to play and have toys and goodies right now with no consequences whatsoever. The Adult is the character that has to mediate between the immediate, incessant demands of the Child and the harsh strictures of the Parent. The Adult says to the Child, “If you eat all your broccoli as your Mother and Father want you to do, then you can have your cookies!”

As I listen to the current Republican mantras, Sensing-Thinking and Sensing-Feeling are the dominant personalities that literally occupy center-stage. But more than this, they are Sensing-Thinking and Sensing-Feeling overlaid with a very strong Parent. The Parent Sensing-Thinking measures success solely in terms of monetary wealth alone. It disparages all occupations other that of a CEO. No wonder why the super-rich are raised up to exalted status and revered as gods. It also consigns women to secondary roles and issues harsh dictates regarding women’s rights and what constitutes “legitimate rape!” As the “natural heads of the family,” men have been “chosen by Nature to rule over women and children!” And, if “they know what’s good for them, they will obey without question!” The Parent Sensing-Feeling regards his or her immediate family or tribe as the only social entity worthy of consideration, i.e., human feeling.

Although the Democrats have more than their fair share of the Parent as well, their personalities lean more toward the Adult Intuitive-Thinking and Adult Intuitive-Feeling. The Adult Intuitive-Thinking finds expression in their concern for the “health of the planet,” which the Republicans sneered at haughtily at their latest convention. (Republicans were also conspicuously silent when at the end of his acceptance speech, Governor Romney called for compassion towards the poor and unemployed.) The Adult Intuitive-Feeling finds expression in the Democrats concern with a much broader expanse of humanity, e.g., working people, the middle class, poor, etc. In spite of their great differences, Republicans and Democrats are united in their endless chant and use of the myth that “America is the greatest nation on Earth.” It’s not that America is not great. Rather, a truly great, i.e., mature, country would not need to prop up its flagging self-esteem by ignoring and washing over its great problems, e.g., the large numbers of uninsured, incarcerated prisoners, gun violence, poverty, etc., etc.

But here again, Democrats are much more able and willing to face harsh problems than Republicans. The real tragedy is that all four personality types need one another. Intuitive-Feeling types need Sensing-Thinking types to “ground them.” And, Sensing-Thinking types need Intuitive-Feeling types to see the “larger human picture.”

Intuitive-Thinking types need Sensing-Feeling types to literally see real, concrete human beings. And, Sensing-Feeling types need Intuitive-Thinking types to see the bigger, whole system. But this is possible if and only if the Adult governs each of them. One of the strong characteristics of the Adult is that no matter what its particular Jungian personality, it says to itself, “So I’m a Sensing-Thinking type; so what!; I need all the others to complement the weak sides of my personality; we all need to work together.” However, from a psychological perspective, don’t count on it at the present time. When one party is primarily in the Parent stage and the other is in the Adult, communication, let alone cooperation, are almost impossible.

My prime recommendation to the Democrats is don’t waste your breath with the Republicans. Keep saying what you’re saying, but in the clearest, most succinct stories you can muster. No matter what one’s psychological type, stories are what move us to great feats.

Finally, as a strong Intuitive Thinking and Feeling type myself (one can be more than one), I say, “Never give hope.” As dire as things are, I believe with all my heart that the Adult eventually will prevail. This is the ideal by which I choose to guide my life.

Originally published on Nation of Change, September 8, 2012

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Corrupt to the Core

Originally published on Nation of Change, August 26, 2012

This is a rant. I make no apologies for it because sometimes that’s the only thing that can help cleanse one’s soul.

Norman Mailer was once asked why no good literature ever came out of the Third Reich in WWII. He responded–I paraphrase–“The whole philosophy was so garbled such that if you tried to write it down, all you got was complete nonsense.”

Mailer’s perceptive remark captures perfectly the essence of the whole Todd Akin fiasco. Even more, it captures the complete idiocy, if not deeply psychotic nature, of the current Republican belief system. Yes, I said “psychotic.”

To view, as Akin would like us to do, his crazy remarks merely as a “poor choice of words,” is only to compound the original crime. Words don’t come out of thin air. They are always reflective of an underlying philosophy or world-view, in this case, a deeply distorted and sick one. This is also why we must not take Akin’s outburst as an “isolated aberration” as the Republican leadership would like us to do.

Getting rid of Akin will not cause the basic illness to go away. Indeed, it only prolongs and makes it worse. To believe otherwise is merely to commit the latest form of what I call The Hazelwood Defense, the label I associate with Joseph Hazelwood, captain of the ill-fated Exxon Valdez that went aground and spilled thousands of gallons of oil in the Bay of Valdez many years ago. Exxon wanted us to believe that it was just the fault of “one bad apple,” i.e., Hazelwood, when it was a whole “bad system run amuck.”

In a way, Akin has done us a public service—I wouldn’t dare call it “great” by any means–but not in the usual ways that Liberals and Progressives are calling it, i.e., his staying in the race almost ensures that Republicans will not take back the Senate.

Not that we really need any more evidence, but Akin reveals once and for all the complete bankruptcy, if not sickness, of contemporary Conservative thought. It is so garbled that one can’t express it in any form.

The great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once famously said, “Of what we cannot speak, we must be silent.” A reverse dictum now applies to Conservatives. They must be silent because they cannot speak coherently.

Originally published on Nation of Change, August 26, 2012

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Economics: The Psychologically Naïve Science

Originally published on The Huffington Post, August 9, 2012

I admire Paul Krugman. I really do.

Having won the Nobel Prize in Economics, Krugman is not only a great economist, but he is a wonderful and witty writer. His many columns in The New York Times and books (for his latest, see End This Depression Now) are a testimony to his ability to explain arcane topics in terms that the layperson can understand. To accept his ideas is another matter.

For instance, why do Republicans violently oppose any form of a government stimulus even though that’s precisely what The Great Depression supposedly taught us in order to get the national economy working again? Yes to be sure, any stimulus big enough to do the job will in the short run add substantially to the deficit (even this is debatable), but in Krugman’s pithy words, “The time to save water is not when your house is on fire.” The time to pay down debt is when the economy is doing well, not when it’s strapped.

Again, why the nasty and fierce opposition to such ideas? That they are somewhat counterintuitive is only part of the answer. The deeper answer lies outside of economics.
If the government can successfully attack the recession — what Krugman rightly calls a “minor depression” — then when the recession is over, government will be empowered to attack a host of never-ending societal problems. According to Republicans, this not only breeds greater dependency on government, but it eventually unleashes greater restrictions on business and hence on our “freedoms.” Worst of all, it would cause billionaires to pay more in income tax for the “greater good of society.” And this in turn means giving support to those who are viewed as “freeloaders and undeserving.”

Consider another. Why do those at the very bottom rungs of society often oppose, again in the most violent terms, government health care? Because, if one accepts such aid, then one finally has to admit that one is indeed at the very bottom. And that is far too painful to do.

Irrational? Perhaps.

Notice that we have been steadily moving from the land of so-called “rational economics” into the lands of politics, psychology, and sociology.

Now Krugman is very good in acknowledging that the acceptance of his and the ideas of other leading economists is more often than not a matter of politics than it is of economics. Still, unfortunately like the great body of economists, Krugman is not good in acknowledging that, no matter what the field of human endeavor, all of our ideas rest on a foundation of deep psychological and sociological assumptions and predispositions.

This is precisely why I not only view economics as the “dismal science,” but as one of the many “psychologically naïve sciences.” This is also why in my many previous op-eds I have stressed in particular the role of psychoanalysis in helping us to understand political behavior. Yes, to its credit, economics has finally developed “behavioral economics.” But, one, it took far too long to do it, and two, the type of psychology that behavioral economics sweeps in is still not deep enough to account for the seemingly irrational complexities of human behavior.

I don’t know how to get the very poor and the very rich to change their attitudes and behavior. But, one thing I do know: If we Liberals and Progressives want all of us to change, then we’ll have to learn to tell more compelling stories that appeal to our hearts and emotions, not just our brains.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, August 9, 2012

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Psychoanalytic Politics: The Roots of Current Dysfunctional Political Behavior

Originally published on Nation of Change, July 30, 2012

What does the behavior of British children in WWII possibly have to do with today’s fractious politics? More than one would ever imagine! Indeed, it explains the unconscious roots of much of the current dysfunctional behavior on both the Left and the Right. In WWII, by being placed or lodged either in hospitals or massive care facilities, an overwhelming number of children were separated from their parents for weeks, months, and even years on end. Worst of all were those who were permanently housed in orphanages.

When they first arrived, the children cried for hours and days on end. When they eventually stopped, they became zombie-like in that they showed virtually no emotion whatsoever from that time on.

To help understand the horrific damage done to children that he witnessed daily, the British psychiatrist John Bowlby created Attachment Theory. Bowlby and his colleagues found that two key dimensions were key to explaining the emotional state of a child: Avoidance and Anxiety. Both were directly traceable to and the direct result of the emotional state of a child’s primary caretakers. During Bowlby’s time, the primary caretaker was of course the mother, if not throughout most of history. Whether the primary caretaker was either high or low on Avoidance and Anxiety had a tremendous effect on the child’s emotional development.

By means of the mother’s intense and frequent interactions—how she held, looked at, and attended to her child’s cries and general discomfort–the mother subtly and not so subtly communicated her emotional state to her child. In short, she communicated how comfortable versus how anxious she was in fulfilling her role as a caretaker.

Since the interactions took place from the moment of birth, they were largely preverbal and hence unconscious. In this way, the mother not only passed on, but influenced significantly the child’s subsequent emotional development and state, most notably one’s basic sense of trust and comfort with other people. In fact, a host of longitudinal studies have shown that the effects last a lifetime unless of course a person has undergone significant therapy.

Since one can be either high or low on Avoidance and Anxiety, there are four primary combinations or states: 1. High Avoidance and High Anxiety; 2. High Avoidance and Low Anxiety; 3. Low Avoidance and High Anxiety; and, 4. Low Avoidance and Low Anxiety. State 1 is labeled Anxious-Avoiders; state 2, Avoiders; state 3. Anxious; and, state 4. Secure.

Those who are high on Avoidance exhibit, at least on the surface, little need or regard for other people. In the beginning of life, they were saddled by a caretaker who showed little regard for them as a person. In short, their basic needs were met superficially at best. As a result, at a very early age, they gave up expecting anything from other people.

Those who are high on Anxiety were saddled by a caretaker who, while he or she wanted to meet the basic needs of their child, experienced noticeable anxiety with regard to their capability of being able to do so. As a result, they are anxious around others because they are afraid they will either be abandoned or ignored. In short, they are needy.

Again, on the surface, Avoidants have little if any need of others and experience little if any anxiety in ignoring others. On the other hand, Anxious types want desperately to be around and to be liked by others but are terribly afraid that they won’t. In a sense, Anxious types are perpetually striving to recapture the love of a caretaker that showed, or was afraid to show, little emotion toward them. Where Avoidants have basically given up, Anxious types are perpetually seeking to regain what they never had.

Where Anxious-Avoidants share the worst of both worlds, Secure types have the best. Secures not only want to be around others but are comfortable in doing so.

Studies have shown that a significant number of top corporate and government executives are Avoidants. Avoidants radiate strength and fearlessness, the very qualities our culture admires in leaders.

It should come as no great surprise that Conservatives exhibit many of the qualities of Avoidants and Liberal Progressives those of Anxious types. Indeed, Avoidants correspond most closely to George Lakoff’s Stern Father; Liberal Progressives to Lakoff’s Nurturing, if not Anxious, Mother.

Attachment Theory sheds special light on the extreme views of the Right in general and the Tea Party in particular. Even though Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman and others have argued cogently that the federal deficits are not the worst problem facing the U.S. and other European countries in the short run, and thus it would be better to incur more debt in order to get people back to work, debt horrifies the extreme Right. The very thoughts of, one, “being owned by others,” who of course they can never trust, and two, “others getting something for which they have not worked,” goes against every grain of their psychic makeup. This is precisely why no set of logical facts or arguments will ever be enough to convince them otherwise.

But, by the same token, because deep down Liberal Progressives have a need to be loved, and believe that their values are universal and thus shared by everyone, they cannot get it through their heads that logical facts or arguments are never sufficient to sway anyone, including themselves.

If ever we needed Secure types to come forward and to present good stories that can overcome the deep-seated fears of Conservatives and Liberal Progressives alike, that time is surely now.

We ignore the deep, unconscious basis of politics at our peril.

Originally published on Nation of Change, July 30, 2012

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Your Call: How should we respond to mass shootings?

On July 26, 2012, I was a guest on the radio program Your Call on San Francisco local public radio station KALW. I spoke about the recent mass shooting in Colorado and how we should be responding. What could we do, as a society, to prevent gun violence? Listen online here.

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Psychotic Nation: Media, Macbeth, Cinderella

Originally published on Nation of Change, July 17, 2012

Make no mistake about it. America is in an extreme state of mind. It is gripped by forces that can only be described as psychotic.

The great poets and playwrights understood implicitly that to understand politics—indeed, to truly understand anything human—one not only had to understand the intricacies of the human mind, but extreme states such as psychosis.

Much of what motivates humans is buried deep in the unconscious. As a result, most people are not unaware of some of the most powerful determinants of human behavior. This is why drama is so important. It is the art form par excellence that digs far below the surface of everyday life to bring up to the light and thus examine the “dark forces” that govern so much of human conduct.

This was brought home recently when my wife and I had the opportunity to attend the play Medea, Macbeth, and Cinderella in Ashland. Despite its critical shortcomings—too often it seemed that three of the most disparate characters imaginable were merely thrown together as in a disjointed nightmare—it nevertheless managed to illuminate the dark side of politics even though this was not the prime intention of the play.

Medea, Macbeth, Cinderella brings together three of the major forms of drama: Greek, Elizabethan, and the modern American Musical Comedy in Rogers and Hammerstein’s Broadway production of Cinderella. But most of all, it serves as a prime vehicle to compare and examine the role of women at three critical stages of life: middle, Medea; late, Lady Macbeth; and early, Cinderella.

One of the key interpretations of Medea is that she is driven to murder her children because of the uncontrollable rage she feels towards her husband who has deserted her for a younger woman. Lady Macbeth is complicit in her husband’s murder of the king as well as subsequent murders because of their ruthless ambition. And, Cinderella represents the stage of youthful, dreamy idealism, if not pure fantasy.

From a psychological standpoint, Medea is gripped by an extreme state of psychotic rage. In killing her children, she has lost complete contact with rationality, if not reality altogether. In a word, she is not only consumed, but blinded by overwhelming hatred. Lady Macbeth is equally blinded. She too is in a deep psychotic state, in this case one of murderous and completely out of control ambition. And, Cinderella is living in a state of pure fantasy, if not an out-and-out delusion. While she is not necessarily in a psychotic state, she is clearly on the borderline between reality and unreality. Were she to acknowledge the unresolved hatred she feels towards her stepsisters and stepmother, then she might indeed experience psychotic rage as well.

To be fair, while women are central characters in all three plays, the male characters have more than their share of psychosis as well. Thus, Media, Macbeth, Cinderella should be viewed more broadly. It is not just about women alone. It is about the human condition.The parallels with contemporary politics are astounding. The Republicans and the extreme Right are literally—not figuratively– willing to kill the children, and of course the parents, of the uninsured—if not their own in the bargain– because of their uncontrolled hatred of a government that in their eyes has betrayed them by electing a Black President. Worse, a Black man has taken away their basic and God-given freedom to govern their most personal possession, their own bodies and health. The rage they feel outshines Medea a thousand times over.

The overwhelming ambition of the Republican candidates leads to them utter the worst, contemptible, and in this sense, “murderous” lies and falsehoods.

Finally, Cinderella’s dream-like fantasies represent the Republican and Far Right fictions of an idealized America that is no more, if it ever was.

To see Medea, Macbeth, Cinderella is not only to witness, but endure the endless psychotic bouts of behavior that govern so much of our contemporary politics. This is not to label flippantly those whose political views I disagree with as necessarily “psychotic.” Far from it. My use of the term psychotic is reserved only for the use of the most violet language that characterizes President Obama in the foulest of ways. If it isn’t out and out psychotic, then it certainly borders on it.

Unfortunately, unlike the play, the curtain does not come down in “real life.” Indeed, it seems as if the “play” will never end.

As Nietzsche once said, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Our poets and philosophers know this all too well. If only the general public and our politicians did.

Originally published on Nation of Change, July 17, 2012

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The Origins of Republican Pathology: Rebuilding the Emotional Containers of Society

Originally published on Nation of Change, June 13, 2012

By now, it is of course a truism to say that the Republican Party has tilted so far to the Right that it is extreme, if not literally a cult. As harsh as this may be, it doesn’t even begin to describe what’s wrong with it. In a word, the Republican Party is deeply pathological. In saying this, I am not using the term “pathological” flippantly. While I am not a practicing clinician, I do have a background in psychoanalytic thought.My point is that in order to see pathology, one has to dig deeply below the surface of everyday life. And, that’s precisely what psychoanalysis helps us to do. While psychoanalysis originated primarily in order to help individuals, it now has an important role to play in helping society as a whole.To see this, it is enough to consider the work of Wilford Bion. Bion is one of the greatest psychoanalysts of all time. His pioneering discoveries not only shed important light on the very earliest stages of childhood, but they also help to explain the toxicity that is rampant throughout our current public discourse and politics, particularly that on the Right.

From his work with adults—most notably psychotics–Bion was able to work back to the earliest roots of psychosis–pathology in general. The earliest stages of life are governed by an incredibly powerful interplay of, mostly unconscious, intense emotions between a mother, her young infant, and the child’s other caretakers.

“Projective identification” is the technical term for the process. It is the means whereby young infants project outward onto others thoughts, feelings, and emotions that are too painful, unpleasant, and intense for them to bear at their stage of emotional development. In other words, the internal thoughts, feelings, and emotions that unpleasant experiences trigger in young children—e.g., fears of abandonment, the demise of their caretakers as well as their own fears of destruction, not being fed physically and/or emotionally and at the precise moments when the child wants it, etc.– are not only expelled in often angry and hostile ways, but dumped onto others. In this way, others, and not the child, are seen as the “cause” of all that is experienced and felt as unpleasant. In a similar fashion, those aspects of the child that are experienced as “bad parts of oneself,” and thereby unwanted, are also projected outwards onto others. This is the only mechanism available to very young infants and children for dealing with unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Their cognitive abilities are not yet developed so that they can understand what’s happening and thus deal with it in more acceptable ways.

This is the “projective” part of “projective identification.” The “identification” part occurs if the child and/or his or her caretakers “identify strongly with” the projections, i.e., psychologically speaking, regard them as “true” or “warranted.”

If the mother and/or caretakers are “understanding,” i.e., if they are not overly distressed and repelled by the often violent thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the child, especially since they are typically expressed in the form of directly hostile and vicious attacks on the mother and/or caretakers, then over time they help the child to “contain” his or her own unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

In the beginning of life, the mother and other caretakers are literally the “emotional container” for the child whose own internal “container” is not sufficiently well developed to act on its own. But if for some reason, the mother and other caretakers are themselves not sufficiently developed, then the child’s “container,” and hence development, is at risk of being impaired.This is not to lay sole blame on the mother or other caretakers, for many other factors such as abuse and trauma by others can also seriously interrupt healthy development. Also, some children are more susceptible to violent outbursts due to neurological and physical factors over which they have no control.

With these ideas in mind, let me turn to today’s toxic public discourse and politics.

In their important and powerful book, It’s Worse Than It Looks, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein lay the blame for today’s toxic politics primarily at the feet of the Republican Party (http://www.amazon.com/Even-Worse-Than-Looks-Constitutional/dp/0465031331). They especially single out Newt Gingrich.  Gingrich realized early on that the Republican Party could end the 40-year rein of the Democratic Party through the use of the worst smears and invectives, i.e., essentially by demonizing the Democratic Party. Indeed, to Gingrich and others, this was seen as the only way they could recapture the Congress and the White House. Thus, Democrats were not only branded as “socialists,” but even worse, as “traitors.”Obviously, except by conducting direct clinical interviews with Gingrich, key members of the Republican Party, and the Tea Party, we have no way of knowing what if any trauma they experienced such that they are driven repeatedly to use the most violent invectives in demonizing their opponents. Nonetheless, one thing I know for sure. One does not manifest such violent feelings repeatedly unless there has been serious disturbance of some kind in a person’s history.

But I want to make an even more important point. Social scientists have long known that there is a direct societal counterpart for every single one of the mechanisms that pertain to individuals, and vice versa Thus, society is often equated either with the mother—The Motherland—and/or the father—The Fatherland because society is a surrogate parent. It is a parent writ large. In the case of The Motherland, society is perceived and experienced primarily as benevolent and nurturing. In the case of The Fatherland, society perceived and experienced primarily as authoritarian, harsh, and unforgiving.

No wonder Birthers are driven to such extremes of pathological rage. How could a “true mother” give birth to and anoint a “Black Other” with the highest office in the world? The only way she could is through a deep act of betrayal. And, betrayal by one’s mother, real or symbolic, is the worst of all crimes. It unleashes such a torrent of fury that it wants to destroy the guilty party again and again. No wonder why The Radical Right wants to “kill government!”

In a word, the “emotional containers of society”—our grand institutions, our leaders, our supposedly shared history and values–have broken down. They are “leaky” at best. They are no longer able to “contain” the emotional impulses of the Far Right. The impulses have literally broken through the normal constraints of society that are there if only in part to help ensure civility.

To counter such tendencies that can literally destroy a society, Mann and Ornstein propose among many things, a Shadow Congress made up of retired Congress Persons to “model” civil discourse and reasoned examination of the great issues that by definition cannot be dealt with by a pathological Right. They also propose that popular figures need to speak out constantly and reinforce healthy emotional discourse.Let me end by quoting one of my favorite social philosophers, Jonathon Swift: “You can’t reason a man out of what he was not reasoned into in the first place.”

You don’t reason with pathology. You cope with and treat it emotionally with the best means society has at its disposal. You mobilize public figures and moderate politicians to speak out calmly, continuously, and forcefully, and by doing so, reinforce healthy discourse.In sum, there is no greater challenge facing us than rebuilding the emotional containers of society!

Originally published on Nation of Change, June 13, 2012

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Getting Guns Out of Our Heads

Orginally published on Nation of Change, May 18, 2012

What do the following possibly have in common?

One, Woolrich, the venerable 182-year-old clothing company, recently brought out a new line of chinos with a second pocket that has been especially designed for carrying a concealed handgun. The clincher is that the pocket has been designed so that it wouldn’t destroy the “stylish look of the pants.”

Two, Levi Johnston, former fiancé of Bristol Palin and father of their child, not only has another baby on the way, but he plans to name her “Breeze Beretta” after his favorite Italian-made pistol.

Three, over the stringent objections of Tampa’s Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Florida Governor Rick Scott upheld the decision to ban water guns during the Republican National Convention, but not concealed handguns.

If you said that these three items have nothing in common, you’re wrong! Dead wrong!

Viewing each of them in isolation not only misses a key point, but a key pattern. Taken together, they show that controlling, if not eliminating altogether, handguns is more difficult than we ever imagined. Guns have insinuated themselves so deeply into our culture that they have literally taken over our minds. The outrage that I feel towards each of these “items” individually is dwarfed by the feelings I experience when I consider their combined effect and what they say about us as a culture.

In an earlier op-ed, “Confronting Shame-Based Politics: The Biggest Challenge of All,” The Huffington Post, April 24, 2012, I made the point that shame underlies most, if not virtually all, of our major political issues and societal problems. If in addition, fear, a deep sense of powerlessness, and a growing contempt for public institutions are combined with shame, then we have a potent mixture indeed that not only underlies, but perpetuates an out-of-control gun culture.

If we are to have any hope of breaking its stranglehold on our culture, then it is imperative that we understand shame. Shame is the deep unconscious belief that one is irredeemably bad to the very depths of one’s Being. Because the feelings it unleashes are so powerful, it is not surprising to learn that shame typically leads to intense anger and hostility in the form of violence towards others (homicide) or towards oneself (suicide), both of which are typically seen as responsible for making one feel worthless. Coupled with other intense feeling such as distrust and powerlessness, shame is so overwhelming that it makes gun control virtually impossible.

Nonetheless, the situation is neither hopeless nor impossible. However, this is true if and only if we can acknowledge the incredible power of shame, and honestly face up to it.

That’s why I believe that shame is the most challenging problem and social issue facing us. Indeed, Republicans and Democrats both use it but in different ways. For Republicans, just thinking about the possibility that the U.S. is no longer Number One is too shameful even to contemplate. For Democrats, having the poor bear the major brunt of tax cuts for the rich is a shame on us all.

To attack shame requires a four-fold strategy. One, we certainly need the best academic analyses that we can muster. At the same time, we need to understand that while absolutely necessary, the best analyses are not sufficient to move the great body of people. If anything, they turn people off because they don’t address the deep, unconscious feelings that are the basis of shame.

Two, while it is also necessary to understand the bigger, underlying, cultural patterns associated with guns, this too is insufficient for most people to make a lasting dent in overcoming shame.

Three, there need to be massive, ongoing educational campaigns like those that have been successfully waged against tobacco.

And, four, there need to be continuing PSA announcements spread over years by major celebrities on the linkage between guns and shame. Most of all, we need to talk about breaking the cycle of shame so that we can stop passing it on to our children and theirs as well.

The point is not that our most pressing problems do not require the best logical arguments and policies we can fashion. Of course they do! Rather, the point is, however essential, all the logic in the world is only a small part of the solution.

The great English wit and writer Jonathon Swift said it best of all: “You can’t reason a man out of what he was not reasoned into.”

To make serious headway against our most pressing problems, we need to combine the best programs of logic with a deep understanding of human emotions. Until we do, the assault on our minds will not only continue, but become worse.

Orginally published on Nation of Change, May 18, 2012

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