Monday, October 27, 2008

Cynical or Clinical?

Of all the things I learned as a psychology major in college, possibly the most memorable -- and widely applicable -- was a joke. It goes like this:

A woman shows up at a psychiatrist's office. "How can I help you?" the psychiatrist asks.

"I'm dead," the woman tells him.

"Of course you're not dead," the psychiatrist assures her. "You're right here, talking to me."

"No, I'm dead," she insists.

So the psychiatrist ushers her into his office and spends hours trying to convince her that she's not dead. Finally, he gets her to accept that dead people don't bleed. Whereupon, he whips out a pin and stabs her in the back of the hand. The woman grabs her injured hand and watches in amazement as blood wells from the wound.

"Son of a bitch," she says. "Dead people do bleed!"

If this sounds familiar to you, it's because it's a perfect encapsulation of Republican ideology.

Ideology means a way of interpreting the world -- that is, a worldview. The concept is related to, but distinct from, policy. Policies are the means you choose to achieve a desired outcome, and the policies you favor will be driven by your ideology. For example, a CEO whose ideology is that people are best motivated by fear will implement a policy of screaming at his subordinates. A parent whose ideology is that experience is the best teacher will let his child make mistakes. "Money makes the world go round" is an ideology. Ditto, "All you need is love." In politics, "People are driven primarily by a desire for freedom" is an ideology. So is, "People are driven primarily by a desire for security."

Normal people develop their ideologies by interaction with the world. We learn from other people's ideologies (most of all, from our parents'), observe connections, make assumptions about cause and effect, test those assumptions, keep what is useful, reject what is useless. This process is both inevitable and desirable: the world is too big and complex to deal with in the absence of some sort of organizing framework.

But because we invest so much in the development of our ideology, it takes on a value independent of the facts the ideology is supposed to help us interpret. The best way to mitigate this danger is to be aware of it, and to continue to adjust our ideology to new data. People who are unable or unwilling to recognize the danger of an ossified ideology tend to be ineffective, and, in certain positions, dangerous. Facts, after all, are stubborn things. A deeply held belief that you can fly does nothing to suspend the operation of gravity.

I know plenty of people whose ideology differs from my own. Yet I can still engage them, and respect them, because they've arrived at their ideology by applying it to the facts of the real world (it's not a coincidence that the people I'm describing believe in science). Though our ideologies (and the policies that grow out of them) differ in various particulars, they are alike at the foundation: we believe in enlightenment values such as logic, empiricism, and rationality. In other words, our ideology is built on the assumed primacy of reason.

Which is why I feel so alienated from what the Republican party has become. It's not that I disagree with professed Republican policies; in fact, if I were willing to swallow Republican platitudes about small government and the like without first chewing, I might believe the party's ideology was a close enough match for my own. The problem is, the disparity between Republican platitudes and Republican practices has become so stark that the only way to make sense of the schism is to accept that the Republican party has abandoned reason as a fundamental organizing principle.

There's so much evidence of the Republican flight from reason that it's hard to know where to start. But al Qaeda's recent endorsement of John McCain is as good a place as any. I wrote about this development last week, and the angry responses I've been receiving have been in line with Republican talking points. What it comes down to is this: when a terrorist organization (Hamas) endorses Obama, it means the organization favors Obama. When a terrorist organization (al Qaeda) endorses McCain, it means the organization favors Obama.

A person whose worldview is predicated on reason will recognize that such a conclusion is "an argument that proves too much" -- that is, that they have structured their beliefs so as to arrive at the same conclusion whether the data is X or the opposite of X. A reasoning person will understand something is wrong here, and reexamine her premises. But Republicans are unwilling, or unable, to grasp the contradiction inherent in their position. Their worldview demands an outcome: "terrorists favor Obama" -- and they then fit the facts to conform to that worldview, ignoring elementary problems of logic along the way.

The McCain campaign's most recent set of talking points provides another fascinating example. You can argue that Obama is a socialist. But you can't argue that Obama is a socialist but that McCain -- who also just voted for a $700 billion financial sector bailout, including $250 billion to nationalize banks -- is not. Nor can you argue that Obama is a socialist, but that McCain's hero, Teddy Roosevelt, was not.

Although really, could any of the people who are fulminating about Obama being a communist, Marxist, or socialist actually define these terms if pressed? If you're one of the people who's been shouting that "Obama is a socialist," try this test at home: explain to yourself what socialism means. Name three countries that you would define as socialist, and explain how their system of government differs from that of the US in such a way that their system is socialist and ours is not. And if, after performing this test, you realize you don't have a good understanding of the term, ask yourself why you're so comfortable using it to justify your position. By the way, these private tests -- you don't even need to share the results -- are part of what it means to adhere to an enlightenment ideology.

Speaking of the "Socialist!" charge, part of what disturbs me about modern Republicanism is the way its adherents use labels, cliches, and other shorthand as substitutes for thought. Think about the following Republican talking points. Do they foster understanding? Or prevent it?

Terrorist. Communist. Marxist. Socialist. Arab. Muslim. Spreading the wealth around. ACORN. We're all Georgians now. I'll follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell. I'll be Hamas' worst nightmare.

If you haven't had a chance to read Robert Draper's "The Making (and Remaking) of McCain" in yesterday's New York Times Magazine, I highly recommend it. Here's the way a participant described the campaign's efforts to decide how McCain should respond to the news in September of impending financial calamity:

“We presented McCain with three options. Continue offering principles from afar. A middle ground of engaging while still campaigning. Then the third option, of going all in. The consensus was that we could stay out or go in — but that if we’re going in, we should go in all the way. So the thinking was, do you man up and try to affect the outcome, or do you hold it at arm’s length? And no, it was not an easy call.”

The lack of thought behind all those cliches is stunning. No wonder the campaign wound up bungling McCain's response to the crisis -- their verbiage buffered them so effectively from actual thought. If this is the way they engage with reality during the campaign, how might we expect them to govern?

The millimeter-deep labels are also part of what helps Republicans justify their hatred and bigotry. "Liberals hate real Americans that work and achieve and believe in God." (What's a liberal? What kind of hatred? Who are the real Americans? Etc). "Obama and liberals are anti-American." (What's a liberal? What does it mean to be anti-American? How are the two connected?). "Western Pennsylvania is the most patriotic, most God-loving part of America." (What does it mean to be patriotic? How is that quality found more in western Pennsylvania than anywhere else, and where, specifically, is it found less?)

"Who is Barack Obama?" is also a frequent refrain from McCain and Palin themselves and from their supporters. But how can you claim not to know a man who's been on the national stage for two years; who was vetted by both the press and the opposition research arm of the Clinton machine during a long, brutal primary campaign; who has written two books, one a memoir, the other an examination of his political philosophy; and who has given countless interviews, while simultaneously feeling you do know Sarah Palin, who almost no one outside Alaska had heard of until just two months ago, and who since then has refused to do a single press conference? A reasoning person would examine this "I don't know him, but I do know her" contradiction and seek to discover its true cause. A Republican, apparently, would not.

There's more. A reasoning person would recognize the contradiction in attempts to mock Obama for being a celebrity and for the "cult-like atmosphere" that surrounds him, on the one hand, and rightwing gushing over Palin's "starbursts" and "star power" and the like on the other. Ditto for the "Obama is The One" attacks, and the belief expressed by Palin supporters that she has been ordained as the Republican VP candidate by God, in part because God wants Alaska to be a refuge for survivors from the lower 48 during the End Days.

Then of course there's the right's spluttering rage about William Ayers and Jeremiah right. You can't argue that these relationships doom Obama by guilt by association while simultaneously ignoring the Palins' relationship with the Alaskan Independence Party.

Gay rights and marriage equality is another key area that exposes the Republican flight from reason. There isn't a single principled argument that can be leveled against letting gays marry as straights do, and Republican attempts to distinguish between anti-miscegenation laws of the Jim Crow era and anti-gay laws of today are incoherent. Recognizing that logic will not be an ally in their arguments against gay marriage, many rightists fall back on religion. But even here, there is no principled application. Recently on my discussion board, a poster opined that homosexuality was a sin because the bible says so. He was referring to Leviticus 18:22: "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable."

Citing an episode of The West Wing, someone asked him about Exodus 35:2, which provides, "For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a Sabbath of rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it must be put to death." The poster's response? You have to be a biblical scholar to understand such matters, you can't cite a television show. In other words: facts don't count when they come from other than my preferred sources, and logic is suspended when its application would indicate an uncomfortable result. (I've received similar responses when I post clips from Comedy Central: rightists ignore the facts cited and profess shock that I would cite a comedy show to make a point).

True, I'm no biblical scholar. But I do know that if you articulate the principle that the bible is literally true and infallible, then you must be willing to apply that principle consistently, and forgo the right to cherry-pick the provisions you like and eschew the ones you don't. You don't need to be a scholar to understand this. You only need to adhere to the primacy of reason.

Some of the Republicans who've been responding to my posts have claimed polls showing the race breaking toward Obama are lies or don't matter. This is precisely the mentality I'm talking about. You can argue that the polls are somehow inaccurate, or that because of various fundamentals the polls will ultimately swing the other way. But saying without more that the polls are irrelevant (as, indeed, Palin herself has done) is a perfect example of a belief system so calcified that it's become impervious to facts. (Admittedly, I'm getting less of this now, with Obama's lead expanding, than I was a couple weeks ago. Which is encouraging: it suggests denial isn't necessarily an absolute condition, but rather something that's merely relatively impervious to facts.)

Probably the most telling litmus test of the Republican flight from reason is McCain's selection of Sarah Palin. You can argue that Obama lacks sufficient experience to be president. But you can't also argue that Palin's experience is adequate. I know, I know... all that Wasilla executive experience is what makes the difference. But how can time spent in Wasilla city hall count for something, and time spent in the Illinois senate count for nothing? Both of these things cannot be true, and a reasoning person will reexamine his premises rather than accept a contradiction. Reexamining premises, by the way, means inquiring more deeply into the nature of the jobs in question. Comedy Central did exactly that, and here's what they found:

By experience, by the way, I'm not only referring to Palin's scant time in government (that could arguably be an advantage), but to her lack of curiosity, and even, apparently, thought. Everything Palin knows about Iraq, she's had crammed into her during the last few weeks, and yet she's convinced that Obama's policy is a "white flag of surrender" (another one of the those substitutes for thought again). There's a term for people who adhere so confidently to an ideology in the absence of or in contravention of facts: true believer. I don't see how anyone who believes an ideology should be forged against facts can want another one of those in the White House.

I might feel sorry for Palin, but though her performance has been pitiful, she doesn't deserve pity. By her own admission, she didn't blink when McCain asked her to join the ticket. What level of narcissistic hubris is involved when someone (especially someone this inexperienced) doesn't even blink before accepting a responsibility like the vice presidency? If she were a layman who had without blinking agreed to perform heart surgery, or to repair a nuclear reactor, or to step into an air traffic control booth to direct landing planes, I wouldn't feel sorry for her -- I'd be outraged at the risk she imposed on my country, my family, and me, all in the name of her own blind narcissism.

There are so many more:

Palin accuses the mainstream media of wanting her to "shut up," while refusing to do a single press conference.

The right fulminates about The Angry Left, in the face of innumerable videos like these:

Cindy McCain claims that Obama is running the "dirtiest campaign in history." 'Nuf said.

John McCain claims to be running an honorable campaign even as his robocalls are being done by the same company that did the ones George Bush used in South Carolina in 2000 to make people believe McCain had fathered a black child out of wedlock -- a campaign McCain denounced as deeply dishonorable.

McCain claims to be able to reach across the aisle, yet can't even look at Obama during a debate -- in fact, can't even bring himself to say Obama's name.

McCain and the rightwing echo chamber rant about ACORN and registration fraud "destroying the fabric of democracy," while ignoring actual voter suppression.

I'll save what might be the most obvious example of the Republican loss of its faculty to reason for last: the party that currently presides over a half-trillion dollar deficit and a ten-trillion dollar debt continues to claim to be the party of small government. Small government used to be the centerpiece of Republican ideology; today, it's a pathetic mantra, more akin to whistling past the graveyard than any species of coherent principle.

There are many more examples of the Republican flight from reason, and I'd welcome them from readers. Particularly from rightists, whose points, I expect, will unintentionally prove my own.

I disagree with many Democratic policies and with many aspects of Democratic ideology. But these differences are nothing compared to my alienation from a party composed of people who have rejected logic and reason as organizing principles of life. My primary concern in this election is to eject from government politicians who favor faith over facts. Once that goal is accomplished, I'll look forward to doing whatever I can to hold Democrats accountable (as I've already done with Obama and his betrayal of campaign promises on FISA). And I'll continue to encourage principled Republicans to purge the party of enlightenment-rejectionists and to return to the small government, balanced budgets, modest foreign policy, individual freedom ideology that characterized the party before it was hijacked by the current crew of flat-earthers, who have more in common with a religious cult than they do with a modern political party.


Mark Terry said...

As a former psychology major, you missed one psychological term that describes much of this: cognitive dissonance.

Which George Will, of all people, used yesterday to describe the Republican party.

I think there could also be some exploration of what psychologists tell us about individuals when the cognitive dissonance becomes too great.

Barry Eisler said...

Great point, Mark. The psychology behind what the Republican party has become is fascinating. For anyone who wants a deeper look, here's an excellent three-part article called Rightwing Authoritarianism and Conservative Identity Politics. It explains a lot.


Randy Johnson said...

I'm one of those Republicans saddened to see what the party has become. I backed John McCain in 2000 against Bush for precisely the reasons he touts today. But that McCain is long gone, having sold out to the forces who torpedoed him back then. His zeal to be President makes me wonder if something someone else said(I can't remember who) is true. "He's more interested in the title than the job."
Him using the term maverick so often today is just a sick joke.

Joshua James said...

Great, great post, Barry.

I just wrote my own piece on the subject, here: Obligatory Presidential Election Post #1 but yours is far more expansive.

At some point, too, "hate media" and the effect on those watching / listening needs to be examined, the years of Rush / O'Reilly / Hannity certainly play a part in this run-from-reason political playground.

And if I recall correctly, hate radio played a significant part in the Rwanda genocide.

We need to remember these things for the future.

James said...


Your use of the word 'rightist' in this post jumped out at me. Did you do this to suggest one can be a Republican without suffering from the cognitive dissonance which seems to be plaguing the more vocal parts of the party?

-- James

Tia Hu said...

Barry, great blog!

I didn't realize you had been a Psychology major at some point. I've only seen your mention of having been a Covert Operative for the C.I.A. and a Lawyer. So we have more educational background in common than I realized.

Political double think and double speak has become an epidemic in this country in many ways.

I could agree with the comparison to Cognitive Dissonance; with the exception that these people so engaged in this blatant double thinking and double speaking seem very content with their contradictory perceptions, beliefs, and actions, lol.

If anything, this seems more like a growing form of actual public delusional thinking. This form of delusion being false and fanciful beliefs derived from deliberate political manipulations in campaigning strategies based on propaganda techniques of beguilement and subterfuge.

Cognitive Dissonance as a psychological concept requires the participant to feel emotionally uncomfortable with their internal conflict and contradictions. This discomfort then becomes the springboard to their various defense mechanisms of denial, rationalization, confirmation bias, projection, etc.

And while it would possibly appear that many of these defense mechanisms are in play; somehow I don't see the usual emotional discomfort and body language riding close to the surface in people experiencing cognitive dissonance.

Like you mention, this has taken on religious cult belief elements. And in that context, this cognitive and social paradox becomes an actual conditioned public delusion; which is completely justified internally by feeling they are religiously righteous in their beliefs and actions. These people seem far too happy with their seemingly justified anger, and bizarre beliefs and accusations about Obama, et al, to have it based in Cognitive Dissonance.

And if you may have noticed, both V.P candidates are even talking in ways that seem to be in contradiction with their own running mate candidates for the Presidency. I don't believe it is just the far right wingers who are participating in this political double thinking and speaking.

Joe Biden's rather religious sounding predictions in regard to Obama being tested to the max in an international crises within 6 months of election do not exactly bode well for the mental health of Democrats either, lol.

Obviously, any candidate elected to the Presidency of the U.S. at this time in history, with all its attendant problems, is going to be sorely tested at all levels. But it is Biden's specific time frame of 6 months, and rather religious sounding fervor, that tells me this is not based in logic and reason. Unless he knows about plans behind the scenes to cause a an even worse international crises; which is exactly the kind of paranoia the Republicans would want us to believe. So it would appear that Biden actually played right into this right wing agenda with his own words.

And that is just one example that this problem of double think, double speak, and public political delusional thinking is not limited to Republicans. It is actually contained in the words and actions of Democrats and Third Party candidates and followers as well.

I'm still voting for Obama and Biden; but I don't have true confidence in any of the candidates or even in the political process in the U.S. at this point. We have a seriously broken system and economy. And I don't hear anyone spelling out specifics on how to fix or change any of it in a truly effect way among the candidates, in Congress, or among all of we public talkers.

No one wants to give up on the supposed American Dream.

But how can we even call it a dream at all; when we have a nightmare National Public Debt that is increasing by about $3.88 billion daily. As of today the total is $10,538,606,445,853.15.
Who is going to pay that debt? And how? We just keep adding to it at an alarming rate. And this in the face of the fact that generations x, and even y, are half the size of our baby boomer generation.

Yet we want small government and a balanced budget, during a war no less, along with lower taxes and non-regulated federal banking and capitalism, free global trade, outsourcing of many U.S. jobs, internationalizing of many formerly U.S. based corporations (which no longer are even required to pay U.S. federal taxes because they are headquartered on foreign soil now), etc.

There are many contradictions in our government and economy that have been supported by both Democrats and Republicans all in the name of prosperity that translates in reality to truly benefit only about 3%-5% of our actual population. That 'trickle down effect' never happened, and never will. We are still trying to believe in Reaganomics; when it has failed us over and over again.


~Tia Hu

Anonymous said...

You've outlined some of the very same things I've been asking my conservative friends. This, of course, makes you a genius...

Seriously, this a great summary of the fundamental disconnect that's endemic among Republicans today. I think if you look historically you can see examples across the political spectrum, but it seems to be more concentrated on the Republican side these days.


KSR said...

This is a very useful journal/blog/essay (just what is this anyway???!???). It is quite easy to label the rants of politicians and their minions as hypocritical. I mean, it is often the case where a politician says one thing and behaves contrary. I believe that is the very definition of hypocrisy. But the Republican party has taken it much farther than logic would presume.

When Rush Limbaugh (and his radio show brethren…which can be extended to many TV hosts as well) started to attract a large following, the Republican party started to disseminate talking points to these pundits. Their daily messages were repeated ad nauseum and quickly became conventional wisdom. Think “the government is the problem,” or “far left liberals,” etc. These pundits have a clever talent that allows them to effectively shout their “guests” down and to silence them, rendering any opposition moot.

Throughout the years, reasoned, thoughtful debate has been impossible. Jon Stewart famously brought this to the attention of the old CNN “Crossfire” show hosts. The show lasted only a few more weeks after the shellacking. (I wanted to post the video, but it has been removed from YouTube, best I can tell. If someone can find it, please post here!).

I think what has happened to the Republican party is pure laziness. They got good at making everybody else look like wimps and walked around as if they knew how to govern. Billy Crystal, in his old SNL “Fernando’s Hideaway” character said it best: “It’s better to look good than to feel good.” That’s the culmination of the Republican party. People prancing around acting all superior, and being completely inane in their thoughts. There is no depth, there is no substance. There is a lack of humility and common concern. There is only silencing critics and a win at all cost mentality. And as Barry so eloquently posits, there is no reasoning. No wonder it’s easy for them to label their opponents as “elitists.” If it is thinking things through and challenging assumptions that make me an elitist, sign me up!

Lastly, I will say it’s these same characteristics that have made it so difficult to have a conversation with people on the right. Sure, most political discussions tend to slide toward the confrontational, but there is no conversation any longer. It’s you’re red, I’m blue and never the twain shall mix. Personally, I’m sick of it.

Anonymous said...

Barry, great post.

My problem is, what are you supposed to do if you honestly disagree with Obama's governing philosophy, but also do not like the way Mccain has done things? I decided to vote for Obama, largely based on the character issue. I think he's more pragmatic and open minded than Mccain is. Then maybe in 4 years the republicans will have a better candidate.

KSR said...

I have found the Crossfire clip. Good stuff.

Happy viewing.


Unknown said...

Interesting viewpoint. I am a constitutionalist, and favor neither Democrats or Republicans. I would like to hear your thoughts on Libertarianism and constitutional government.

I have many "liberal" friends, and many "conservative" friends. I have been to rallies and discussion groups for both. What I've discovered is that we normal average folks want the same thing, just different amounts of them. Some want "free" health care, and freedom of speech. Others want to go to church and protect themselves with guns. But the underlying desire is safety and choice. The problem comes when a group wants to force their choices on others. That is the flaw in both parties, and the ideological war we have today.

It is interesting that you brought up ideology, and the differences between the two major groups. Both McCain and Obama have a political ideology that is slanted to one side or the other. The constitution respects ALL ideologies, and favors NONE. That is what our founders intended. It is not supposed to force you into a choice, it is supposed to support your choice and enable you to pursue life.

The problem is, not once have I heard the constitution brought up in either of the two's discussions (although I haven't followed them as closely as some.). That should be the main point of discussion!! What does the constitution say about x, y, and z?

It will say: Leave people alone, let them choose. Protect them from foreign and domestic threats. Hold them to their word and enforce their agreements. That is ALL.

Addressing the confusion about the political spectrum:
The republican party has strayed. But neither party has hit the mark.

Luzid said...

When it comes to favoring faith over reality, no one does it better than Palin, who actually believes dinosaurs and human beings coexisted.

As flawed and underfunded as our educational system is (thanks in part to pro-creationist idiocy), how could ANYONE that ignorant ever be elected to any office above dogcatcher?

I truly despair for this country.

FishNoGeek said...

Excellent stuff, as usual -- especially the first section on the ossification of ideologies.

I've been valiantly attempting to explain to my colleagues in Europe how it can be that a substantial portion of the American population (we'll soon find out what percentage) will actually vote for McCain. They're thoroughly stumped, just can't see the logic.

You touched on one of my explanations: I think that many (most?) Americans don't just lack a clear understanding of socialism; they actually equate "socialism" with "communism".

If that's true, it brings some focus to the red-state rationale: didn't we just spend 50 years fighting the red evil? And now we're going to elect one?

I think that's why McCain's accusations of "socialist" (and by extension, "terrorist") resonate for Americans of some stripes.

Of course, that's a monumental leap in logic, one that defies both the dictionary and (most) history books. Personally, I find it galling, embarrassing, terrifying.

But I can also see the logic. In its natural state, it's actually an innocent, almost forgivable prerogative.

Consider: the average American of this persuasion isn't likely to have read widely on economic systems, and that's hardly a crime. Unless they've traveled abroad (and until the recent legal changes, less than 20% of Americans had passports) or otherwise been subject to intensely countervailing cross-cultural conflicts, they've never encountered anything that would disrupt the rosy patriotic ideology which is enculturated into most of us from birth.

If that's your perspective, then socialist = communist isn't a big stretch. In fact, it might be fairly logical.

But as Chesterton described, insanity is a perfect logical circle -- it's just a very, very small circle.

And so with this equation. When you grow the circle to include more history, semantics, economic theory, and philosophy, it's an obvious misappropriation of terms.

Unfortunately, in this case, it could also be very, very dangerous.

Anonymous said...


I just wanted to thank you for your well reasoned postings on your blog. I came across them via the glorious CHUD and it has been a pleasure to read your thoughts.

Keep up the good work and best wishes from Germany,