Blog, Media + Politics, Psychology

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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Blog, Media + Politics, Psychology

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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Blog, Media + Politics, Psychology

Reality Wars: Measuring the Collective Mental Health of a Nation

Originally published on The Huffington Post, February 22, 2012

As a nation, we are fighting several “reality wars” at once. These wars are not only political, but deeply psychological. As a result, our collective mental health as a nation is being severely challenged and tested.

Like that of individuals, the mental health of a nation is measured primarily by how well it is in touch with reality. (Social scientists have long recognized that everything that applies to individuals has a direct analogue with larger social entities. Thus, the “mental health of a nation” is not an absurdity or a contradiction in terms.) Even more basic, mental health is measured in part by what an individual or nation calls reality in the first place, and how it treats it subsequently. Since language is the primary means we use to describe and invent reality, the language a nation uses to frame and treat important issues is a measure, however imperfect, of its mental health.

For example, consider what Republicans call “class warfare.” To call legitimate demands that the richest pay their fair share in taxes “class warfare” is not only a gross insult towards the downtrodden and poor, but it obfuscates the basic fact that the gap in wealth between the rich and the poor/middle-class is as large as it has ever been in our history. It tries to dismiss this painful fact through the use of a clever phrase.

We live in a society where inequality is as great as it has ever been. To ignore this painful fact is to ignore basic reality itself. In a word, one of the prominent measures of the ethical, if not mental, health of a society is its attitudes towards and treatment of its poorest citizens. Denial of what it is to be poor in contemporary America is harsh and unusual punishment.

The upshot is that the very term “class warfare” is self-reaffirming! The very denial of class warfare by those who coined and use the term is an especially pernicious form of class warfare!

The very term “class warfare” is injurious in itself. It would have us believe that there are no such things as class differences whatsoever in American society. True, Americans like to believe (delude themselves) that they live in a society governed solely by individual merit, i.e., we are a classless society. And yet, study after study shows that social–i.e., “class” factors–matter tremendously. For instance, the family into one is born is one of the most powerful predictors of one’s success later in life.

As another example, consider Congressman Darrell Issa’s disavowal of the fact (reality) that millions of women depend daily on the use of contraceptives for their health and general well being. His refusal to call any women to testify in behalf of their own health issues boggles the mind. It is nothing less but a complete dismissal of reality. For another, to call the Obama Administration’s attempt–whether it was politically right or wrong–to have hospitals of whatever denomination help pay for contraception purely a “religious issue” is another distortion.

Consider another prominent assault on reality. Even though a substantial number of women approve of abortion if only in the sense that they don’t want the government interfering with their bodies, the issue of abortion is only one part of a larger cultural war over the rights of gays to marry, etc. The point is that we are at war on multiple fronts simultaneously.

We are certainly bogged down in a prolonged and bitter war over the nature of political reality. Indeed, we are tearing ourselves apart daily over it. The issues include among many the basic legitimacy of our government, whether it has overstepped its bounds in mandating health insurance, whether President Obama is a socialist and wants us to become a “European type ‘nanny-state’,” etc.

No one is more aware than I of the dangerousness of labeling the divisiveness that grips us on nearly every front of our existence as not just a battle over the nature of political and social reality, but even more, as a measure of our collective mental health. To label those with whom one disagrees as somehow lacking in mental health is at best highly contentious. Worst, it borders on the dangerously irresponsible, if not demagogic. Indeed, I am among the first to deplore the fact that we are surrounded by candidates that so freely use demagoguery. For me, this is one of the surest signs of how low our health as a society has sunk.

Thus, I do not use such terms easily or lightly. In short, I am deeply worried about the health of a society that has let its grip on language and reality deteriorate so badly. It’s not just our physical but our underlying mental infrastructure that is in need of repair.

The history of the world is a long battle between narrow mindedness and an ever-expanding view of the universe and humankind’s place in it. For long periods, there is no denying that the forces of darkness and narrowness have assumed the upper hand. But, despite all the wars, destruction, etc., there has been an inexorable march towards greater understanding. I call this “greater understanding” a march towards greater “collective mental health.”

Originally published on The Huffington Post, February 22, 2012

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