conservatives and the paranoid-schizoid position: only an analyst can save us

The headline for this article at Salon doesn’t do it justice.  There’s no indication that the reader is about to see a Kleinian psychoanalysis of conservatives.

The idea is that conservatives are stuck in the paranoid-schizoid position, heavily relying on projection and splitting as defenses.  They’ve failed to reach the depressive position, in which a person is able to experience ambivalence and see the good and bad in people simultaneously.  The article is full of examples that make all of this concrete.

Obama was threatening for a number of reasons, not least that he adopted a form of respectability politics, while remaining relatively loyal to the black base, and running as a Democrat, whose policies were anathema to movement conservatives. Hence, at the overt level, he disarmed the demonizing projective processes, particularly in courting conservatives outrightpraising Ronald Reagan, inviting Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration, reaching out to conservative opinion writers, dining with them within weeks of taking office, etc.—but he would not validate the projection of otherness onto other blacks as a whole, which is a core purpose of the “respectable black” figure. And thus the need to otherize him (and project white evil acts, impulses, phantasies, etc. into him), as blacks had always been otherized, needed to find a new form, a new rationale. Which is precisely what the birther phantasy did. It said that everything about him was a lie, so nothing he did could make any difference. It invalidated any action he might take, leaving it to be reinterpreted by those who most despised him, without any regard to the facts.

Once established, the core birther phantasy could be applied in any situation. It took the place of a totalizing ideology to unify the conservative base, even as they remained adrift with the wreckage of the “Daddy Party” legacy. But in a sense, this move only made matters worse, deeping the hold of negative partisanship on the GOP. Defeating the monster Obama effectively took over the space where some semblance of a positive policy agenda ought to have been—if only conservatives had a clue what that might be. “Repeal and replace Obamacare”… with what, exactly? Romneycare? Really?

The more obviously hollow the the GOP’s policy side became, while Obama’s wonkish side was increasingly on display, the more compelling the projective dynamic became—all the conservatives’ incoherence, cluelessness and destructive rage were repeatedly projected into their image of him, and the more reasonable he acted, the more adult he tried to be, the more intense their infantile rage became. Nothing made them feel more like helpless infants than seeing Obama act presidential—especially when he reached out to them, inviting a mature response, which they were utterly incapable of, boxed in by their own intricate structure of lies about him, prisoners of their own dark projections.

It’s a fair assessment.  I still think projective identification (explained in the article) is an excuse for therapists who lack self-awareness.

Psychopathology is over-determined, but Matt Taibbi identifies a major source of the problem:  America Is Too Dumb for TV News.

The old Edward R. Murrow, eat-your-broccoli version of the news was banished long ago. Once such whiny purists were driven from editorial posts and the ad people over the last four or five decades got invited in, things changed. Then it was nothing but murders, bombs, and panda births, delivered to thickening couch potatoes in ever briefer blasts of forty, thirty, twenty seconds.

What we call right-wing and liberal media in this country are really just two different strategies of the same kind of nihilistic lizard-brain sensationalism. The ideal CNN story is a baby down a well, while the ideal Fox story is probably a baby thrown down a well by a Muslim terrorist or an ACORN activist. Both companies offer the same service, it’s just that the Fox version is a little kinkier.

When you make the news into this kind of consumer business, pretty soon audiences lose the ability to distinguish between what they think they’re doing, informing themselves, and what they’re actually doing, shopping.

And who shops for products he or she doesn’t want? That’s why the consumer news business was always destined to hit this kind of impasse. You can get by for a long time by carefully selecting the facts you know your audiences will like, and calling that news. But eventually there will be a truth that displeases your customers. What do you do then?

In this case, as Rush said, “Americans are well aware Muslims were cheering” after 9/11. Because America “knows” this, it now expects the news media to deliver that story. And if reporters refuse, it can only be out of bias.

What this 9/11 celebrations story shows is that American news audiences have had their fantasies stroked for so long that they can’t even remember stuff that happened not that long ago. It’s like an organic version of 1984, with audiences constantly editing even their own memories to fit their current attitudes about things.

“The whole thing is nuts,” he adds.

White friend of black people Daniel Denvir reminded me of something:

And it was in 2002 that incoming Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott strongly suggested that America would have been better had de jure segregation been kept in place.

“I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him,” said Lott, a Mississippian. “We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”

What’s remarkable, and hard to imagine happening today, is that Lott was successfully pressured to resign his leadership position.

He even had to grovel on Black Entertainment Television, for those who’ve forgotten:

Donald Trump isn’t gonna take any shit from those Mexicans at Univision.  Make America Great Again!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w87StHeTQR4

Chauncey DeVega sees history as a better lens for viewing the problem.  It’s only that conservatives are developmentally immature, individually.  It’s that their whole mindset is literally stuck in the Dark Ages:

Movement conservatism and the right-wing media are engaged in “zombie politics.” This has created a condition among rank and file conservatives where they are unable to practice critical thinking, self-reflection, or introspection. Because of this, the fully propagandized right-wing public can only think in terms of the talking points, disinformation, and lies given to them by their media and other opinion leaders. This is politics as a form of religion; it is hallucinatory ideology as reality.
For example, when challenged about their racism, today’s conservatives respond with more racism. If a person intervenes against sexism, their response is to use more sexist language. And as seen in their reaction to my criticism of how the American Right-wing routinely uses violent language to describe liberals and progressives, they, of course, use even more violent language.
Beyond the violent threats, bilious language, racism, and other poor behavior ginned up by the right-wing hate media in response to my essay here at Salon about the horrific terror attacks in Paris, the most disturbing lesson is how today’s American conservatism is a pre-Enlightenment era belief system. Its followers do not believe in empirical reality, they create their own facts, Right-wing politics is a type of religion immune from truth-claims and tests, magical thinking is the norm, and a cosmopolitan public sphere where reason, philosophy, science  and learning are valued is to be rejected and subsequently destroyed.
Science is a process designed to counter-act cognitive biases that are innate to humans.  It’s not a “natural” behavior, having emerged very late in human history.  Normal people frequently struggle with grade school arithmetic, let alone thermodynamics or Earth science.  It requires an almost postmodern sense that we’re only ever dealing with provisional models.  It requires a high tolerance for uncertain, ambiguity, little details that don’t quite fit.  The scientist doesn’t say “nature” or “nurture.”  They say “heritability of .38”.  It’s a mental discipline.  It changes a person’s sense of where they fit in the universe, i.e., their identities.
In this light, postmodernist nonsense about Foucault and “the subject” isn’t really nonsense.  There are poorly-defined, but still real, psychological changes that go along with the scientific worldview.  A long-but-worthwhile post called Science as Radicalism is relevant:

If no one you know can in any meaningful way vouch for the stranger thumping on the Particle Data Group book their claims of peer review and the like will appear no different than a theologian claiming to be correct because other theologians have checked. And of course, if you’re locked in modern versions of chattel slavery, exploring the workings of the universe is not really a good strategy for survival; nor will your first instinct be to trust the claimed findings of those who do have that privilege.

Honestly the only reason a good number of folk these days would sneer at anyone saying sun goes round the earth, that Jesus rode dinosaurs, or that the universe is 6,000 years old, or that anthropogenic global warming isn’t real, is that they recognize these claims as cultural cues of being on ‘the wrong side.’ It’s a not-popular thing. A shun the “outgroup” thing. As such appealing to the spirit of social consensus and democratic moralism is a weapon that will almost always backfire on scientists.

To most of the kids that get shuffled into ‘radical politics’ or the like scientists are the outgroup. The cultural divide that takes root in college between STEM majors and humanities majors has been long cemented and reinforced. And the few scientists in this whole affair tend to sigh and keep their heads down rather than contest every nonsense. Meanwhile expecting someone whose [sic] gone through the theoretical and social conditioning of academic fields that practically define themselves by suspicion and hostility to science — someone whose social connections are almost certainly overwhelmingly in the same boat — to just cede before the overwhelming consensus within the scientific community is like telling a FOXnews troglodyte to adopt queer terminology because everyone in San Francisco is doing it. It’s just totally disconnected from the realities of social pressures, and it expects magic from human trust networks.

Why on earth should you trust what one teacher says? Or wikipedia the time you strayed over to it? You don’t have knowledge of the immense amount of work it would take to maintain a false belief within say mathematics journals, so both sides appear roughly equivalent. Science appears to most as just a codification of what’s popular in certain circles except with those people saying “it’s extra true because someone somewhere totally tested it, whatever that means.”

Smart people come up to me and express derision or discomprehension of science all the time. A skilled hacker asks me bemusedly at a party, “so you actually think there’s like truth??” Brilliant girl in my high school chemistry explains why she doesn’t pay attention in class, “Theories in science are always changing, why bother learning one, it’ll be totally different in two hundred years anyway.”

These express themselves as philosophical critiques and sometimes develop into more challenging ones, but they’re grounded in a sense of social alienation and a rebellious dismissal of seemingly arbitrary authority.

Seemingly arbitrary authority.  Once you devote years of your life to learning the jargon of a difficult and obscure subject, it’s obvious why the New York Times article about it is misleading.
Most people experience science through textbooks or popular science things that don’t explain experimental methods.  Most scientists experience their fields through journal articles consisting of a web of citations to other journal articles, along with descriptions of experiments and data.  Science is very process-focused, but it would take too long to explain the processes.  Someone needs an initial willingness to read the textbooks until the journals start making sense to them.
The difference between science and postmodernism is that science insists that there is no Truth, but some truths are much better than others.  We have ways of ranking the truth-claims, that we agree upon.  There’s a tension:  the scientific consensus is usually the best answer, even if it’s not ultimately true.  Scientists don’t dogmatically insist on the truth of evolution.  They just aren’t hearing anything like a better explanation for all the patterns in the world.
The problem is that science is actually very open, but there’s widespread incapacity and unwillingness to learn it.  Until someone starts to learn about science, their understanding of the word “science” isn’t even the same as a scientist’s.
The real problem is getting through all of ignorant people’s emotional defenses and essentially treating their anxiety problems, including “math anxiety.”  We know from experience that respectability politics can’t soothe the fears of white people.  The whole point is that they’ve become impervious to reality.  We have a name for that:  psychosis.
A few years ago, Ian Mitroff considered how one treats mass psychosis:

Splitting does not apply only to young children. Indeed, it occurs throughout all of life. For instance, we regularly split the world into “good guys” and “bad guys,” “friends” versus “foes.” As a result, from time to time, our projections get seriously out of hand as when, for example, one views all Muslims and immigrants as inherently dangerous, and far worse, as evil. For another, we constantly project our unconscious dreams, hopes, fears, and fantasies onto our leaders. To live up to the projections of others is one of the most difficult demands of being a leader.

Stronger still, projections are highly contagious. To be a member of a group is to share its mutual projections, positive and negative. This more than anything else helps to explain the phenomenon of the Tea Party, which goes far beyond mere opposition to President Obama and his policies. The Tea Party’s vicious attacks on Obamaincluding their allegations that he is a “socialist” (one of the worst imaginable identities for many on the Right), that he “somehow hates white people,” and that he is comparable to Hitler – reflects the Tea Party’s projections. Groups accentuate the best and the worst of our impulses.

From the standpoint of psychoanalysis, how then should any president or leader respond to raw and hateful projections?

Long ago, Wilfred Bion, one of the early giants of psychoanalysis, discovered that one couldn’t reason with psychotics. In an even more general sense, Bion also discovered that there was a psychotic part of everyone’s personality.

Psychotics literally hate reason and thought for if one has to engage in rational thought, one then has to face the true, underlying reasons for one’s immense psychological pain. As a result, they choose unconsciously to run away from pain by avoiding thought altogether. This helps to explain why facts alone are insufficient to dislodge someone from strongly held positions. Without dealing with the underlying emotions that undergird our beliefs, facts and counter-arguments only serve to strengthen a person’s beliefs.

This doesn’t mean that leaders shouldn’t attempt to reason with those who disagree with them. It means that reason devoid of emotion won’t even persuade those who are in fundamental agreement with someone to begin with. The task of a leader is not merely to seek out and reason with those who can bear rational thought but alsomuch more taxing to live up to our positive projections.

In Lacanian terms, the analyst has to assume the position of the subject-supposed-to-know.  We need a leader who can successfully psychoanalyze the kind of people who vote for Donald Trump.  Not, like, diagnose them over the internet.  Actually talk to them and fix their feelings.

If you reject psychoanalysis as a perspective on the world, all of the above is just a liberal elitist using jargon to say that conservatism is a mental illness.

Psychoanalysis isn’t science.  Without a complete scientific account of human behavior, it can provide a useful set of ideas for thinking about people.  Either way, we’re having serious problems getting through to conservative people and object relations might be the best we can do right now.