Tonight is the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It is a time for reflection on the last year and the start of a 10 day period in which Jews repent for past sins and pray to be included in the Book of Life for the coming year. Rosh Hashanah is an intersection of memory, fear, and hope. We remember and consider our last year, fear being judged as lacking, and hope for a good year to come.
Memory is the most impermanent of mental constructs. All that we are depends on our history, yet our memories are as plastic and flexible as the most malleable clay. Current memories depend to a remarkable extent upon the needs of the present. If we need a memory to support a current feeling or thought, we can easily manipulate it to do so; if a memory no longer serves a useful function we can all too easily alter or forget it. This takes place within each of us on a regular basis and within societies on an ongoing, regular basis.
For example, consider an individual who believes that their troubles are the fault of their father, who was distant and cold and never around. When that person finally comes to accept ownership of his own troubles, a different memory becomes necessary to facilitate the forward development. At that point his father, though often not around, becomes a man who devoted himself to supporting his family and despite his emotional limitations, loved his family and sacrificed his own desires for his family. The changed memory allows and assists a changed future for our hypothetical individual.
On a societal basis, we see the battles being fought over ownership of memories daily. The last eight years have been very difficult for America and the last weeks and months have had an extra valence of negativity, as a crisis many years in the making begins to cut at home. Barack Obama offers a memory designed to enhance the future he proffers. All of America's problems are the result of mismanagement by the Bush administration and the change that Obama represents will usher in a new Golden Era in which government works for the little guy, the world loves us again, and the planet can begin to heal. One premise that underlies Barack Obama's appeal resembles the premise that has underlined many human follies through our history. That premise is that conditions in our world have changed in such fundamental ways that past events can no longer be instructive; in other words, everything is new under the sun. The business cycle can be repealed by our magnificent modern society and human affairs are being transformed such that we really can have "Peace in our time".
Dr. Y, a 40 year old married Physician with two children, shared many superficial traits with Mr. A. He was very bright and had achieved a fair amount of status in his field, yet had a tendency to fall short when offered opportunities to become more prominent in his field. His marriage was problematic. Like Mr. A, he had lost interest in his wife after their first child was born and like Mr. A, complained that his wife's weight gain had left her unappealing to him. Their backgrounds had some significant differences. Dr. Y was one of three children of a beautiful, young mother and a successful, rather domineering father. His father was a CEO of a mid-size company and the family grew up with a privileged life. The parents were very involved in their own social life and there were a succession of nannies involved in primary childcare. Dr. Y could only recall the names of two of the nannies; one had been his nanny when he was 7 years old and he had been her favorite. He thought the nannies did not last very long because his father had a bad temper and a sharp tongue but noted that he hadn't been terribly concerned about his nannies growing up; they were just there to take care of the children. (sic)
Dr. Y's therapy was considerably more difficult than Mr. A's. Although Dr. Y would often appear to accept my comments, almost every comment was met with a response of "you might be right, but...." He was often imperious with other people and dismissive of their concerns. He explained that he didn't really need therapy but had only entered treatment because his wife was concerned about their marriage. He did not see any particular problems in the marriage but if she insisted, he was willing. Only after his wife threatened to leave him if he did not change did Dr. Y become somewhat more involved in his therapy.
We learned that Dr. Y had always been intimidated by his father and that throughout his childhood he and his two brothers had had an active, ongoing struggle, often devolving into fisticuffs, for supremacy. The sibling rivalry was bitter and the three brothers still found it difficult to get along with each other. His father was a brilliant, great man, something that Dr. Y insisted upon repeating at frequent intervals. When I asked if he were trying to convince me or him of this, he angrily replied that everyone knows that Psychiatrists were the dummies in Med. School and I could not hope to understand.
This ushered in a long period of attacks on me. I was a useless therapist, probably not too bright, and coming to see me was a waste of money. He would continue, however, because that was the only way he could save his marriage. Of note, he did not particularly care about his wife's feelings; to the contrary, if a divorce would not cost him so much money, he would gladly grant her one (although she clearly did not want a divorce.)
After a year of this, Dr. Y let me know, in the most off-handed way, that he was having an affair, and had been for several years. His girlfriend was beautiful, much sexier than his wife, and most importantly, "willing to do anything!" Of note, he added that her body had not been ruined by having children.
A person's character is a highly stable summation of physical, mental, emotional, and social characteristics. Character tends to be firmly established by the time a person becomes an adult and remains stable throughout life, though different developmental milestones can alter the balance between the various competing dynamic structures that comprise character. As such, character changes slowly and, as typicallyhappens as people age, often character becomes more rigid as time goes by. Psychoanalysis is a therapy that seeks to change character structures and patterns that are maladaptive, and such change tends to be effected in two distinct ways. I would like to describe brief vignettes from two different analyses to illustrate the differing ways in which people can effectuate change; the differences are instructive for understanding how change takes place in cultures, which after all, are the summation (and emergent qualities) of the character of the constituents.
[Disclaimer: All identifying data has been altered in such a way as to make identifying the patient impossible. The unconscious conflicts and character structure descirbed are accurate but otherwise, details have been purposely obscured.]
Mr. A was a 36year old married lawyer when he came for treatment. He had two children, 5 and 2, and had been married for 7 years. He sought treatment because of a pervasive sense that he was not as successful as his talents suggested he should be, he was unhappy in his marriage, and becoming increasingly estranged from his family. In our first meetings he described his wife as a beautiful woman whom he had loved and desired for many years, but that after the birth of their first child he had begun to lose interest in sex with her. He thought her weight gain and chronic fatigue were majopr factors in his loss of interest. At work, he was highly skilled and was being given more responsibility but the last two projects he had worked on, he had faltered just as the projects were coming to fruition, requiring the assistance of his "rabbi" (his mentor at the law firm) to finish. He wondered if this might be a repetition of a childhood habit he thought he had conquered; in high school and college he always started out at the top of the class but had trouble studying and preparing for his final projects and exams and usually obtained a grade significantly lower than he expected.
Mr. A came from an upper middle class family. His mother was a former model who was still quite beautiful. He had two brothers and a sister and was recognized throughout the family as his mother's favorite. His father was an anxious man who had gone into his father-in-law's business. Mr. A recalled people humorously commenting that his father must have some hidden charms since they couldn't see just why she would have married him. He recalled his father laughing at such comments and agreeing that he had married above himself. The early treatment revolved around two distinct areas, work and sex:
I do not have time today for a long post, so I thought I would ask a question that has been troubling me for some time. The Conventional Wisdom is that Barack Obama is a very intelligent person. The evidence for this is that he attended Harvard law school and was the editor of the law review. Once the CW settles on a narrative, there is little effort made to challenge the CW. Furthermore, once the CW has been established, all "news" is filtered through a lens that discounts evidence that refutes the CW and emphasizes "news" that supports the CW. As an example, Jerry Ford, one of the most talented athletes to occupy the White House, was determined by the CW to be physically clumsy. The MSM paid acute attention to any and all pratfalls that President Ford took and ignored all evidence of his athletic ability. While this was only peripherally related to his candidacy for re-election (though the idea that his physical clumsiness reflected a less than supple mind was certainly part of the reason the MSM so eagerly latched onto the meme) the idea stuck and Gerald Ford foreverafter was remembered as a clumsy man. Joe Biden offfers another example. The CW has it that Joe Biden is the foreign policy solon of the Democratic party (and Biden himself has missed few opportunities to tout the size of his IQ.) Despite his ability to seemingly commit a gaffe a minute, there is little evidence that the CW on Joe Biden has been affected by his gaffes.
And that brings me back to Barack Obama, who is quite obviously an extremely talented politician who has a special gift in his ability to give a speech. One should never discount the importance of communication skills in a President (just contrast the Presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton to the current President with his unfortunate communication deficit.) However, ideally a President should also have analytical skills and a facile, acute intelligence. My naive question is, therefor, where is the evidence that Barack Obama is uniquely gifted intellectually? Where is the evidence that he has the kind of penetrating intellect that we would prefer in a President? A corollary is, where is the evidence that he has the superior judgment that we would desire in our President?
Since Barack Obama may well be our next President, I would be much more comfortable with the idea if I knew he had either the intelligence or the judgement (preferably both) for the job.
[To anticipate the comment that Sarah Palin has similar lacunae in her record, I would respond that we will have plenty of time to see if she avails herself of the on-the-job training as Vice-President; in four to eight years we will have seen enough of Sarah Palin to determine whether or not she has the requisite intelligence and judgment to lead the country. On the other hand, learning about Barack Obama's judgment and intellect while he is engaged in his on-the-job training as President is a much more troubling thought.]
In The Trouble with Islam: Part I I described how the current iteration of political Islam, aka radical Islam, aka Sharia Islam, supports the externalization of problems within the Arab world. In other words, for much of the Arab world, there is little inclination to accept repsonsibility for one's shortcomings and a powerful tendency to blame one's failures on others. The Americans and the Jews are the most popular objects of hate, but the psychological strucure can accomodate any convenient enemy. Further, accompanying the externalization is the psychological defense of projection, in which one's own unacceptable thougths and feelings are imputed to others.
[Externalization: Islam is perfect and the final word of Allah. If the Arab world cannot compete with the Jews and Americans, it cannot be any fault within Islam and therefor must be because the Jews and Americans are impeding our progreess.
Projection: Islam is a religion of peace. We do not hate Americans and Jews, however, the Americans and Jews hate Islam and are trying to exterminate and kill Muslims, therefor we have to try to exterminate and destroy them first.]
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — In his old life in Cairo, Rami Galal knew his place and his fate: to become a maintenance man in a hotel, just like his father. But here, in glittering, manic Dubai, he is confronting the unsettling freedom to make his own choices.
Here Mr. Galal, 24, drinks beer almost every night and considers a young Russian prostitute his girlfriend. But he also makes it to work every morning, not something he could say when he lived back in Egypt. Everything is up to him, everything: what meals he eats, whether he goes to the mosque or a bar, who his friends are.
“I was more religious in Egypt,” Mr. Galal said, taking a drag from yet another of his ever-burning Marlboros. “It is moving too fast here. In Egypt there is more time, they have more control over you. It’s hard here. I hope to stop drinking beer; I know it’s wrong. In Egypt, people keep you in check. Here, no one keeps you in check.”
In Egypt, and across much of the Arab world, there is an Islamic revival being driven by young people, where faith and ritual are increasingly the cornerstone of identity.
The article goes on to describe what happens to Mr. Galal when the contradictions between his internal world and the life he is living become too painful:
In the New York Times yesterday, Michael Slackman wrote a long piece looking at the difficult task of being Young and Arab in Land of Mosques and Bars, in Dubai. The piece hints at some important issues though, in the nature of a newsmagazine piece, is relatively superficial. I plan on addressing the article more directly tomorrow, but as a preamble, would like to discuss some of the developmental tendencies in Arab culture that provide the substrate for the kinds of difficulties described in the article. The focus in the article is on the tension felt by ambitious young Egyptian men who move to Dubai to take part in the exuberant life there (the vibrant economic and social possibilities) and the sense of dislocation they feel coming from the stagnant Egyptian quasi-theocracy to the free wheeling "wild West" atmosphere of Dubai. My interest is to examine the intersection of the personal with the larger societal conflicts found within the Middle East.
Dubai's freedom and license present particular problems for young men who grow up in traditional Arab homes. This relates to the ways in which Arab culture attempts to civilize their boys. Civilizing one's sons is a task shared by all cultures but with very different approaches in the Arab world from the West.
One of the most important aspects of male childhood development concerns the "taming of the drives." Boys typically have much greater levels of aggressive and sexual energy than girls and have a commensurately more difficult time taming their passions. A culture that fails to assist their young men in the task of controlling their passions is a culture that is unstable and prone to violence.
Traditionally, boys have learned to control their tempers and appetites, in part, through religion. In this not all religions are equivalent. Judaism and Christianity focus on the inner world of the youngster. Sin is an inescapable risk, and atonement for harming others is paramount in both religious traditions. As well, the need to look within and find fault within, is also an important part of religious instruction for children raised in the Judeo-Christian culture. The adolescent, especially, receives help from religion in curbing his most dangerous impulses (toward violence, or perverse* sexuality, for instance.) Judaism and Christianity provide a framework and structure whereby unacceptable impulses can receive assistance from an external buttress in the difficult task of managing intense impulses. For this reason, it is not at all uncommon for adolescents to pass through a time of heightened religiosity and asceticism on the way to young adulthood, when their aggressive drives tend to ameliorate and their adult executive apparatus (the ego) can better handle the intensity of the drives.
[*I am using perverse in the sense of sexuality that has a much greater than usual amount of aggression in the mix.]
[One aspect of the "culture wars" that is problematic and routinely denigrated and dismissed by our enlightened elites, is the effect on the developing mind of the cultural sea change in sexual attitudes that were ushered in during the 1960s. As sex not only became much more of a recreational pastime, with the widespread availability of contraception and abortion, the idea that all limits on sexual expression were somehow "bourgeois" and devalued became prominent. "If it feels good, do it" was a mantra that has become increasingly incorporated into our cultural zeitgeist. Sex for recreation without consequence has become accompanied by an explosion of sexuality and pornography in the culture. Sex sells, it is a multibillion dollar business and the effect has been a simultaneous overstimulation of our young with a weakening of the societal prohibitions against what once were considered unacceptable sexual behaviors and practices. In part this is a redress against the inhibitions of earlier times, but it also represents the freeing of the Id that the left has long championed. The pendulum that swings between license and responsibility has gone quite far toward the licensing side of the ledger and the effects on society have been mixed, at best. Many people are freer than ever to live their lives the way they prefer, but there has been an accompanying diminution of responsibility for the results of our prescription that "anything goes."]
Arab culture has taken a markedly different tack from the Judeo-Christian West.
By now you will all have read M_O_M's post, How Did We Get Here? and have a much better understanding of the financial mess that we are in. John Robb looks at some of the same data and applies his own particular prism to events. Essentially, an incredibly complex edifice of financial structures grew atop some fundamental assumptions which proved to be unsustainable:
Information cascades are important. They explain many of the big problems we currently face. Here's how an information cascade works:
1) An event occurs or a problem surfaces.
2) A person who is perceived to have good data/insight into the event or problem makes a decision.
3) Other people, observing the first person's decision, opt to avoid original analysis/discovery and copy the earlier decision.
4) The more people that copy the earlier decisions, the less likely any new discovery or analysis is done.
If the earliest decision was correct, then everything works out. If it isn't, the error is compounded until it becomes a major problem when it collapses. In today's world, with its copious communications systems, information cascades occur with increasing rapidity. They can spiral out of control in hours/days. This also means that on the flip side, an information cascade can collapse suddenly, when the original decision(s) is(are) proven wrong.
An information cascade is a good explanation for why the financial industry became so hopelessly lost. They based their decisions on economic and financial theories that claimed to have predictive power in EXTREMELY complex domains (since this methodology came from careful study in academia, it was assumed to be correct). The information cascade was the rampant application of these theoretical models throughout the financial industry over decades. However, as Nassim Taleb (although the writing is often tough to decipher) points out in this brief, the true predictive capacity of these models was nil/nul/void, since they are extremely vulnerable to black swans -- the collapse of the massive hedge fund, Long Term Capital Management proved this point nearly a decade ago. So, what happened when the black swan arrived that demonstrated that these models were wrong? The system imploded as confidence in all of the previous decisions made with those models are called into question (the information cascade collapsed).
The assumption that we understood how the mortgage business would be impacted by the decisions to extend mortgages to many, many people who had previously been considered unable to maintain them, proved to be incorrect. Once the defaults began and the mortgages had been dissected into small pieces, no one knew who had the bad loans and no one had models that were able to assign values to the financial instruments. At that point, no one was willing to loan money to anyone else because they correctly worried about being repaid. And at that point human psychology took hold and people did what they tend to do when events spiral out of control and out of the illusion of control: they panicked.
Tom Barnett, the thesis to which John Robb is the antithesis, suggests the proper response of government is to establish a "permanent panic-regulator":
If anyone, especially a politician, tells you he has an easy answer to the current crisis in the financial markets, don't believe him; he's trying to sell you something.
If anyone, especially a politician, tells you he knows who is to blame for the current crisis, don't believe him; he either thinks you are an idiot, or he is an idiot.
If you want to understand how we got where we are and who shares in the responsibility, immediately race over to Maxed_Out_Mama's and check out How Did We Get Here? I guarantee you will feel, and be, a whole lot smarter after you have read her post.
One of the common criticisms made of conservatives is that they do not appreciate nuance and ambiguity. The progressive "reality based community" understands the world in much more depth and complexity than the simple minded conservative. The fact that this is repeatedly shown to be wrong is immaterial to those who insist on seeing their right-wing opponents as one dimensional caricatures. The sad truth is that ideologues do tend to see the world in simplistic terms, whether they are on the right or the left, and when one's ideology becomes paramount (even when you are unaware of how you using ideology to simplify a complex world) the ability to deal with difficult real world issues ensues.
For example, it is much easier to simply demand that all abortion be outlawed or that all abortion on demand be legalized, than to deal with the difficult moral and ethical dimensions of abortion. Weighing the interests of an incipient human being versus an adult human being with all her complexity is a terribly difficult task. It is emotionally simpler to simply pick a position and stick with it rather than tolerate the ambiguities and competing interests that either extreme would prefer to ignore.
The American Psychological Association has now come down on the side of ethical purity. As a result, our ability to deal with difficult and often ethically ambiguous situations will suffer as a result.
In a dramatic turnaround that could strain the long-standing ties between the psychology profession and the military, the American Psychological Association has reversed its policy of encouraging members to assist in the interrogation of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other overseas prison sites.
The professional association's new policy, which was reached by a referendum, goes beyond telling members, even those who are military personnel, that it is off-limits to participate in interrogations at detention centers abroad. Members would be prohibited from working at such sites in any capacity that directly assists the government. The prohibition would apply to psychologists who work as psychological profilers or even as clinicians who treat detainees as mental health patients.
"This goes beyond interrogations," a Boston psychologist who has sought to change the APA's position, Stephen Soldz, said. "The thought is that if you are there and a part of the military chain of command, then you are part of the system."
The American Psychological Association, following similar decisions by the American Psychiatric Association, has placed ethical purity above more mundane concerns, for example, concerns about stopping potential mass murder. This is a clear example of the pathologizing of aggression, a trend that has been noticeable and increasing at least since the Vietnam war, when the myth that the military was turning normal young boys into murderous killing machines became entrenched on the left.
A letter from a Psychoanalyst published on the International Psychoanalysis website, originally published in the September 15 issue of The Birmingham News (Birmingham, AL), extends this anxiety over aggression: