A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Sanity Is In The Mind Of The Beholder

What brought me back to blogging was an accident. The comment spamming which kept showing up in my mailbox finally became too annoying for me to ignore. So I came over and fixed it. In the process, I made the mistake of looking at what The Anchoress was up to, and she piqued my curiosity about an On The Couch interview by Sigmund, Carl, & Alfred, of a blogger that I didn't know, Dr. Sanity.

Dr. Sanity is a politically conservative psychiatrist from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Because of her assertion of outrageously entertaining things, like the notion that politics on the left are inherently psychopathological, I could immediately see that it would be great fun to hang out on her comment pages.

She told SC&A that her favorite blog post was one done last April on Narcissism And Society. So I went over, engaged the good doctor's views on the comment pages of all three parts of the essay, and, all of a sudden, had a complete essay of my own on my hands. I'm reprinting it here. This is Dr. Sanity's starting point:

"For some years now, I have been thinking of way to reconcile my observations on human nature and psychology with my understanding of economic and political systems. Since I first studied it back in the 70's and 80's, I have thought that one particular psychological theory--Kohut's Psychology of the Self (as presented in his books and writings, particularly The Analysis of the Self and The Restoration of the Self )-- has some important implications for understanding why certain political systems are successful and compatible with human nature and why some are grossly incompatible with it."

The essay below will make more sense if you read Dr. Sanity's three posts first. I strongly encourage you to do so. Dr. Sanity's position should be seen on its own terms before turning to my deeply skeptical refutation of it.

So here is what I had to say in reply:

Nice to find you through SC&A. Nice also to wander around and find the post that you consider your favorite and comment on it.

In general, I happen to think the post is in error because it reifies what are essentially analytical and intellectual concepts ('narcissism', 'narcisstic personality disorder') applied to what actually is a far more complicated and ambiguous human experience when looked at from the inside, as a man or woman, rather than from the outside as either a scientist, ('narcissism') or as a moral philosopher ('personality disorder').

This error, I think, starts here: "a seeming epidemic of malignant Narcissism caused by a crushing of human nature and the human spirit". Human nature and human spirit are not in the least axiomatic concepts to be assumed without proof in the interests of what is clearly a political philosophy which you propose to develop later.

There is no solid evidence of the existence of either "human nature" or "human spirit" in the same sense that each of us has solid evidence of our own two hands. Their existence is essentially a matter of faith, in exactly the sense in which we speak of "having faith in human nature."

To assume them is to reify, without justification, what may easily be concepts as contentless as "the present King of France." They must be either explictly proven or explicitly treated as "faith-based". Without serious intellectual examination this covert reification will simply not pass muster, since you are clearly going to develop a political point of view from it with the end of political persuasion.

We may see the same error in the "definition" of the "self" you propose:

"The “Self” can be thought of as a content of the mental apparatus; a structure within the mind that has continuity in time and a specific location. The “Self” is therefore analogous to how one represents other people within the mind...“Identity” can be thought of as the Self’s socio-cultural position in the world."


Let's see, first the self is a "content" of some nebulous "mental apparatus". Both these concepts are, of course, metaphors, since neither you nor I have ever seen a piece of clockwork between our own ears, or between anyone else's. As far as I know clocks don't have "content", so exactly what similitude you mean by "content of an apparatus", is not particularly clear.

But then the self is also a "stucture" with "continuity in time" and a "specific" location. "Structure" is also a metaphor, and a "structure" which has a specific location that is also a "content" inside an "apparatus" is a mixed metaphor the size of the Matterhorn!

Presumably, the location of the structure is somewhere inside the apparatus and the structure of the apparatus is its content.

I think.

This little bit of literary criticism has a point. The language used is a base coinage that conceals the really serious question: Just what is it in our experience that has location in space and continuity in time? What is the advantage of concealing this question? So we can all assume that we already know the answer.

We don't.

To see how problematic this question is consider your further development of this notion:

"The “Self” is therefore analogous to how one represents other people within the mind."

Now the "one" who creates images of other people in our "mind" is ambiguous to begin with--after all, we have a "one" doing the creating and something somehow separate called a "mind" in which the images are created.

Let's consider those images. Let's think about our mothers' maiden names.

Now it is clear that the image of our mother and her maiden name is very plain upon our minds at the moment. But where was this image back when we were talking about metaphor? And where will it be two hours from now? Did the "one" voluntarily create it and just project it on the mind in response to my directive? Or did my "one" create it first in my mind and then in your mind, or did my "one" somehow force your "one" to create it in your mind?

But matters are even worse than this. The "self" is somehow "analogous" to those images which the "one" creates. So now we not only have a "self", we have a "mind", a "one", and "mental images of other people" which are like the "self" but not the same as the "self".

It's getting kind of crowded in there, don't you think?

Beyond this however, we have an "identity", which is the "self's socio-cultural position within the world". Now I presume that my socio-cultural position is marked out by things like my Driver's Licence, my w2 forms, my SSN, and my food stamp award letter. It goes by the handle of Joseph Marshall, who is on record with the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles as being 5' 7" tall, weighing 260 lbs., having grey hair, blue eyes [with a large twinkle, so I'm told], and a full beard.

So do these components of my socio-cultural position refer to my body or to my "self"? And if they refer to my "self", what about my "one", my mind, my mental images, my human nature, and my human spirit?

I will say at this point that I strongly suspect what the scientists call "narcissism" stems from our difficulty sorting out just who and what we really are, and is not a "personality disorder" of a "self" wandering in a truly mapped and completely understood inner human landscape.

To continue the examination we might profitably consider the whirling globe that adorns your header. When you encounter the 3-D ones, which you can actually whirl yourself, they are covered with a net of fine black lines of Longitude and Latitude. These lines, of course, are not really there--and I know this from direct experience.

I live in a town where 4ON latitude would be if there was a real line on the globe. It would run on the north side of 15th Avenue, which I have strolled down.

In addition, 83W longitude would, if it were really there, cross 15th Avenue between the major traffic arteries of 4th Street and Summit Street. They each run one way and, when I go to my part-time job, I travel down one in the morning, and up one in the evening on the bus.

Moreover, some zany folks on the Internet have actually prowled around the location with GPS units and have established that the crossing point would be inside the house of two fine co-eds of Ohio State University, in the kitchen, under the refrigerator.

My point, of course, is that the lines are not really there. They are intellectual abstractions of the science of Geography. As science, latitude and longitude are very precisely and carefully defined. They are also "elegant"--they meet the philosophical standards of Occam's Razor--they are the minimum necessary abstractions to do the job of locating places.

The advantage of precision and elegance is that they inhibit the reification of scientific abstractions. They keep us from believing that there are lines covering the blue Atlantic in the world as on the globe. Such precision and elegance also has the advantage that no one tries to take them beyond their proper sphere. No one, for example, uses Longitude and Latitude for political analysis.

Earlier in this essay, we saw that the root concept of these essays (the "self") is not precisely defined in the least, and we can see that the psychological terminology derived from that concept can hardly be said to be "elegant".

They are, frankly, badly in need of a shave from Occam's Razor. Concept is patched to concept is plastered on concept and arranged upon still other concepts. So many, in fact, that all sorts of incredible schematic diagrams are necessary to keep it all straight. Diagrams are impressive. So are large numbers of weighty concepts. They provide us with the illusion of knowledge, understanding, and control. This illusion allows us to hide from the central question: Can I actually recognize my own inner experience as a human being in all this complicated intellectual architecture?

In my case the answer would be, "no". My inner experience is often quite ambiguous and puzzling, but I am perfectly certain that it does not require so many intellectual concepts to explain it, that you need diagrams to keep it all straight.

What is most puzzling about it is not that it is so complicated, but that it is so simple. My analysis of "self" above was, in part, a means of demonstrating that puzzling simplicity of our inner life. True scientific elegance admits of no hiding from questions of this level of importance. There the proof of the pudding is in the eating and not the elaboration of the table settings.

But, Dr. Sanity, perhaps your inner experience requires all this architecture. I'm willing to assume this, because doing so allows me to test the matter by a simple and elegant question: Do you, personally, have a Cohesive Self? If so, how do you know you do? How do you know, in other words, that your Grandiose Self is not merely grandiosely self-deceived about its own Cohesiveness? If, however, you really do have a Cohesive Self, how did your "self" happen to cohere? Can you trace this in your own autobiography? Does it actually match your experience of your life as you live it?

As I said above, it certainly doesn’t match mine. And can you put it on display for the rest of us to see? I mean, of course, your "cohesive self" itself and not its supposed results--ambition, confidence, self-esteem, an appropriate set of ideals, and so on. These are the things that a concept of "cohesive self" is supposed to explain, and their mere presence is no proof that any such "cohesive self" actually exists as anything but a hypothetical explanation--to assert the contrary is simply circular reasoning.

Of course, in some sense this is really beside the point. And the point is this:

“Much of the evil that humans do to each other comes as a result of Narcissistic Rage and Narcissistic Idealism.”

What has gone before is the accumulation of impressive diagrams and weighty concepts solely to assert this statement of Moral Philosophy with authority, and to assert it without doing the work of articulating the principles of moral philosophy that justify it.

One of the most constant intellectual failings of our time is that of asserting your values on the cheap by clothing them in terms of science. That is why careful definition and elegance of explanation are so important in Science—a science that is not values neutral is mere special pleading for a moral philosophy without having to bother with philosophical justification for it.

Now, I myself actually enjoy moral philosophy, when it is allowed to be itself. I also practice it rigorously, without searching for anything else to cover it with. The bases of my own moral philosophy are Buddhist, and I have articulated them here. When you have the right equipment the work of dispelling muddled thinking is actually quite easy.

But there are other moral standpoints that equally dispell muddled moral thinking disguised as Science. We should remember, after all, that the Occam of Occam’s Razor, William of Occam, was a theologian of the great Roman Catholic tradition of clear, precise, and logical thought.

And with the right equipment, I can say unequivocally that nothing at all in your complicated expostion of “Kohut's Psychology of the Self” intellectually justifies any statement of any kind about the philosophical concept of “evil”.

“Evil” has merely been conjured from thin air here, with no serious antecedent development of a moral standpoint to even justify using the word. In other words, someone reading your essay all the way up to this point would have no way of knowing whether or not you thought that an abstraction such as “evil” even existed. The most they could conclude is that you believed in “personality disorder” in the context of psychotherapy.

Now, of course, even “evil” is actually merely a stalking horse. For what? For the view best expressed at the end of your marvelous interview with Sigmund, Carl, & Alfred:

"The Persistent Psychopathology Exhibited by the Left and Its Ideology."

Since the real point of these posts of yours is the establishment of the Psychopathology of Left Politics, my response here needs to start with some truth in packaging.

My own politics are liberal. They center around the notion of the "public interest". It is my view that the public interest should, in most cases, be placed ahead of private interests, and it should restrain private interests in matters where the general public is largely impacted by the results.

The public interest is the basis of what we call political commonweal. And I derive virtually all of my politics logically from the Preamble of the United States Constitution, which defines the public interest more compactly, precisely, and elegantly than anything else I know: "to form a more perfect Union, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity."

Whether this makes me part of "the Left" or not I will leave to your personal judgment.

I am also Bipolar. My mental health condition is under pharmaceutical control, and, since I never became delusional [or at least sufficiently delusional to attract attention] during my highs or suicidal during my lows, I managed to avoid the unhealable trauma of confinement. I work, part-time, on a toll-free mental health client information and complaint line, so I have a well rounded experience with real psychopathology, and this from the from the viewpoint of the client and his family, rather than the caregiver who has never truly experienced a fire in the brain, no matter what degrees they may have accumulated or how many patients they may have seen.

What does this mean? It can be phrased simply: I am in Recovery. But even though Recovery is real, you do not come out of Mental Illness by the same door you went in. No one who has not been through both those doors has any real understanding of what that means.Whether or not that makes my personal Liberal politics psychopathological, I'll leave to your professional judgment.

I am, however, highly skeptical of your political judgment. And when I read things such as this, I think I have a right to be:

“Any political or economic system that expects to succeed in the real world will have to accommodate that tension, and find a way to optimally negotiate the needs of BOTH sides of the Self--that is, they will have to take into account human nature.”

We already went through the fan dance of “human nature” above. I really don’t have any more to say about it here than I did there. You essentially accept it as a matter of faith, and I can presume it and see where it leads.

You also have a place you want to go with the fan dance: the justification of “democratic capitalism”, which you like better than the other alternatives, and the basis of your justification is “success”.

Now I have no clear idea from your essay how you measure economic or political “success”. But, insofar as I can see, the only realistic measure of “success” of an economic or political system [other than “it makes me feel good thinking about it”] is how long it lasts in time. By that standard, Imperial China was the most successful governmental system the world has ever seen, lasting, under one imperial family or another, for several thousand years. Our American flavor of Democratic Capitalism hasn’t quite made 230 yet. And ours is by far the oldest flavor of it on the planet.

"In some ways, the rise of human civilization from the cave to the present day has resulted because of attempts through the Rule of Law and social controls to set limits on the unrestrained Grandiose Self."

It is a commonplace to think that for tens of thousands of years we were simply Ugh and Glug until we suddenly wised up in a delirious March of Civilization from Herding, to Settled Agriculture, to the Roman Empire, to the Italian Renaissance, to Industrialization and Capitalism, and, finally, to the Windows operating system. It is also a commonplace to think that the remnants of tribal cultures--which were likely the general human social organization in our pre-Agricultural past, as well as for much of our March of Civilization past—still consist merely of Ugh and Glug.

It simply isn’t true.

Nearly everything of value in human experience and most of what we actually call “civilization” is already there in any Clovis point or petroglyph—the toys have gotten more complicated, nothing more, and some things from back then, like the atlatl, have never been bettered on their own terms. You find this out very quickly and painfully if you don’t handle a well-made obsidian blade as carefully as you would handle a well-made steel one. The millionth prime number is no more “prime” than the first.

Tribal cultures lasted for tens of thousands of years for one very simple reason. They worked. The jury is still out on whether the March of Civilization will work that well for that long. It is a very thin skin on a thick and solid human history—perhaps 6000 years at best. Capitalism, by the way, is even thinner—the first real traces of it, joint stock ventures and deposit banking—go back a mere 500 years, at best.

And some of the indicators of the durablity of the March of Civilization are not all that positive. If you hang out in pioneer graveyards in Ohio, many of which are still virgin prairie, you learn quickly that a mere 220 years has washed about six inches of the topsoil down to the Mississippi Delta. We also see our soldiers kicking up dust every day on the land that was once known as the “Fertile Crescent”.

Then we can turn to this:

“A perusal of any list of economic systems will demonstrate that ALMOST ALL OF THEM are relatively extreme expressions of the Idealized Parent Image/Omnipotent Object. Almost all emphasize the group, the community, the collective, the nation, the state, or god at the expense of the individual. Examples are numerous. Socialism and Communism; fascism and religious fundamentalism.”

Fifty percent of your “list of economic systems” are not economic systems in the least. Socialism is. Communism is. Fascism is not. Religious Fundamentalism is not. By Fundamentalism I presume you mean some greater or lesser degree of persecution and “heresy hunting” and not mere purity of any specific religious belief.

The actual list of “economic systems” in chronological order as they have developed in Europe and the European Diaspora is as follows: private, specie driven, merchantilism; specie poor and largely barter Feudalism; nation-state manipulated, inflation driven, merchantilism; capitalism; socialism; and communism.

The rise of European fascism took place in a largely unrestrained capitalist economic environment, and one suffering massive economic dislocations, which we have since learned to control, if not eradicate. Religious fundamentalism, in one form of another, has been with us all the way back to the initial Christian challenge of the Pagan world, through the rise of Islam, and has continued off and on through all of the economic systems I have listed above.

I don’t think my friends on the Right are psychopathologial in the least. But they often could do with a dose of accurate historical information.

So now let’s move on to politics:

“There are two general types of political systems--Freedom-based (Libertarian) and Totalitarian-based (Authoritarian)--and everything in-between.”

I presume what you really mean here is that there is a gradient of political systems from the absolutely Libertarian to the absolutely Authoritarian, though your language does not really say this. With only two mutually exclusive types of systems you can’t have an “in-between”.

You also appear to believe that everything but Democratic Capitalism is more or less authoritarian, the “more or less” being the real gradient. I leave aside the matter of “Anarcho-Capitalism”, by which I presume you mean a capitalist economy with no government attached. My small historical reading has never encountered any such thing. The nearest approach to it that I can see would be piracy on the high seas, and even pirates died at the end of a rope when the government could catch them.

Besides accurate historical information, it helps when discussing these things to work on developing clarity of intellectual conception.

So now we reach your central conclusion:

“When combined with Democracy and individual freedom, Capitalism will provide the greatest measure of happiness and well-being (by encouraging a Cohesive Self) for the greatest number of people. It allows for optimal expression of the Grandiose Self and limits (but does not suppress) it by the Rule of Law. And Democracy limits the power of the state also by the Rule of Law and by specific protection of minorities from the majority.”

I’m sure you are familiar with the title of Ayn Rand’s book, Capitalism, the Unknown Ideal. I am inevitably reminded of it here by your use of the future tense [“capitalism will…”]. It is useful here to use the future tense. Why? Because when someone asks the very reasonable question, “Why will Democratic Capitalism do this?” the obvious short answer is, “Because of Human Nature.” All the other conceptions, the Grandiose Self, and so on, merely elaborate and articulate a presumed “human nature”.

Now if your conclusion and my question were put in the past tense, “Why has Democratic Capitalism done this?” it would be extremely inconvenient for your argument, because you would have to confront the historical facts of how both Capitalism and Democracy have actually operated in the world over the past few centuries. In other words, instead of merely having faith in “human nature” one would have to confront the actual facts of human culture.

Those facts very clearly indicate that both Democracy and Capitalism, like all real human endeavors, have had mixed historical results: some good, some bad. Perhaps this is why Capitalism is the “unknown ideal”. An unknown ideal cannot be held responsible for either buttering parsnips or breaking bones.

My own Liberal politics would analyze these actual historical results of Democracy and Capitalism more precisely as: generally good effects with some bad, but manageable, side effects. It would also assert that the real issues of Democracy and Capitalism are how to manage the side effects and encourage the good effects.

I would finally remark that the constant red flag waving of “The Left” indulged in by my conservative friends [as in “The Persistent Psychopathology Exhibited by the Left and Its Ideology.”] has as it’s end the avoidance of actually confronting the concrete expression and argument for the Liberal view with Conservative intellect and refuting in on its own terms.

As we have seen in this reply to your essay, I, at least, have no trouble with confronting the concrete expression of your views and doing my best to refute them. It’s been a pleasure, and I thank you sincerely for allowing me to use your bandwidth to do so.


Blogger coturnix said...

Have you read these papers? How about Ducat's "The Wimp Factor" and Lakoff's "Moral Politics" read in conjunction with each other?

I've been to her blog a few months ago and did not bother commenting - she's nuts!

1:14 AM  
Blogger Joseph Marshall said...

And so are they all, as are we: "Twil not be noticed in him there. There the men are as mad as he." Or as mad as I.

Projective mudslinging is one of the most entertaining things about the blogosphere if you can keep your good temper.

It is high entertainment on the order of the pie fight scene in the movie The Great Race where Tony Curtis, in an immaculate white linen suit walks serenely through a gymnasium of lunatic people, dozens of flying pastel custard pies, pink, green, yellow, blue, orange, missing him by inches, only to catch the last one square in his face as he reaches the far door.

On the whole, I have kept my good temper sampling the entertainment and making a pest of myself on the conservative blogs. Being mentally ill myself helps. I am less likely to take the projective fantasies of other people's psychopathology personally. And I can usually endure the last pie at the exit philosophically.

Thanks for stopping by.

6:23 AM  

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