The Dems Need to Speak to Progressive Values, or Else Lose Badly Come November | News & Politics | AlterNet

Here's a good companion piece to the Drew Westen article (see my last post) from George Lakoff.


Westen states as eloquently and forcefully as anyone what he, I, and other progressives have been saying from the beginning of the Obama administration. I agree fully with everything he says. But ...

Westen's piece is incomplete in crucial ways. His piece can be read as saying that this election is about kitchen table economics (right) and only kitchen table economics (wrong).

This election is about more than just jobs, and mortgages, and adequate health care. All politics is moral. All political leaders say to do what they propose because it is right. No political leaders say to do what they say because it is wrong. Morality is behind everything in politics -- and progressives and conservatives have different moral systems.


Drew Westen: What Created the Populist Explosion and How Democrats Can Avoid the Shrapnel in November

Interesting article by Drew Weston looks at populist anger and what the Democratic Party must do now. Read the whole (long) article at Huffington Post.


To say that the American people are angry is an understatement. The political brain of Americans today reflects a volatile mixture of fear and fury, and when you mix those together, you get an explosion. The only question at this point is how to mitigate the damage when the bomb detonates in November.


t r u t h o u t | Joe Brewer | Why You Should Care About the Psychology of Disgust

Are you someone who struggles to understand why people behave the way they do in politics? Perhaps you've been confused by all the fervor against gay marriage. Or maybe you're taken aback by the strong emotions waged against government-sponsored health care.

To understand political behaviors like these, you'll need to become familiar with the psychology of disgust. Researchers have learned a lot about it in recent years, such as:

  • Disgust – like all emotions – is biological and can be explained through the workings of the brain;
  • Disgust is the physiological foundation for moral notions of purity and sacrilege;
  • Disgust, once felt, creates a persistent association that is very difficult to get rid of;
  • Disgust is a powerful motivator of behavior, helping deter us away from perceived threats to our health.

So what does this have to do with politics? In a word, everything.


Cathie's notes: Very interesting article and links. Here is a related article from Joe in April: Why You Need to Understand Political Psychology. Good links in this one too.

t r u t h o u t | Joe Brewer | The Death of Self-Interest Fundamentalism

So the birth place of modern market fundamentalism, in the guise of “rational choice theory”, was the military think tank that gave us the disastrous arms race. Untested and theoretical, it quickly spread throughout the highest levels of government during the tenure of Robert McNamara at the Department of Defense, then whipped through the economics departments of many prominent universities, spurred the creation of public policy analysis as a “scientific” field, and undergirded today’s global institutions of economic governance.

But things are starting to change.


Cathie's Notes: Joe Brewer's article has threads of connection (via Antonio Damasio's book, Descartes Error) to my recent post on Miki Kashtan's Empathy and Good Judgment piece at Tikkun. Brewer's article takes the discussion further into the realm of behavioral economics. Interesting stuff.

Some Thoughts on Miki Kashtan's Article: Empathy and Good Judgment

I really appreciated Miki Kashtan's argument yesterday in her post on empathy, emotion and reason:

The concern about empathy reflects a long tradition of valuing rationality, and the Enlightenment’s imperative to overcome instincts, passions, and emotions through exercising reason. This exclusive focus on reason applies across the board: to moral theory, to the law, to professional conduct, and to our assessment of our own choices and decisions.

I want to challenge the idea that we make better decisions without emotions.

Kashtan goes on to talk about the cross-wiring of human mental and emotional systems being explored by neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio, author of the very readable and thought-feeling provoking book, Descartes' Error.

I happened upon Damasio's work many years ago when I became interested in the emerging field of neuro-psychoanalysis. His work and others inspired a huge shift in the way I felt-thought about who I am and how I experience being human -- alone and in relationship to other people and to nature. I think about the systemic interconnectedness often, but perhaps not often enough. That in itself speaks to the way that threads of Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" are so tightly woven into the rug of assumptions on which we daily stand, and from which we make meaning of our experiences.

That's why I'm especially grateful when other people revitalize discussion of this fundamental relationship of feeling and reason as mediated by the brain, and continue to explore contexts in which such an idea can be played with more consciously. Kashtan has done this by relating this broader discussion to the possible values of empathy as a key emotional capacity to advance social and political transformation.

Kashtan makes reference to the backdraft discussion that occurred when Barack Obama suggested that empathy is a desirable capacity for a Supreme Court judge. The fiery debate that later shot its flame toward Sonia Sotomayor left hot evidence of the national feeling about reason versus empathy in our judicial system. (See her article for some great links about this.)

I, along with fellow grassroots activists for environmental justice, encounter similar resistance to the emotional roots of reason all the time. Recently activists got some suggestions from a federal agency that offered this bullet point on public comment writing:

“Leave the heart out". The agencies are looking for facts and will ignore emotion.

They didn't leave us totally without official avenues for emotional expression, however, suggesting that we take the emotional stuff to our Senators and Representatives. Not a totally bad idea, I suppose, unless your Congressperson happens to be among those who have publicly devalued the "heart" of the matter or demonstrated profound lack of empathy.

Here's the problem I have with such categorical dismissals of empathy, of resistance to matters of heart-mind. If cognitive and emotional systems are in fact cross-wired in the brain, the natural consequences of that structure -- most of which (for most of us) are beyond conscious control -- continue to operate nonetheless. Without awareness of this, humankind can continue to believe that it's possible to carve out territories of reason and feeling that can actually be enforced. This illusion makes it possible to believe in such things as righteous exclusion, marginalization, exploitation, oppression and killing.

When we choose, on the other hand, to cultivate awareness of our inherent heart-mind wiring, we free ourselves up to look inside, to explore how we identify ourselves, and how we relate to fellow beings and to the Earth, our home. Then we can begin to insist that we be allowed to speak both heart and mind -- any time and any place -- to mediate, as Kashtan suggests, the unconscionable suffering of people and nature:

The gift of empathy is that it integrates mind and heart in the very same act as it brings together self and other. When we ignore empathy, we pay an enormous price in the form of depression, apathy, victimization, and anger on an individual level, and crime, neglect, alienation, bullying, even war, on a societal level. When we cultivate empathy, our emotional health improves, and in addition also our sense of hope, and our capacity, both individually and collectively, to act as moral agents in addressing the enormous challenges facing us today.

If we can help each other get that far, maybe we can entertain an even wider-scale, collective integration of spiritual dimensions with those of body(brain)-mind-emotions.

The Unconscious Politics That Shape Our World, Choose Presidents and Save or Destroy Lives | | AlterNet

Scientists are finding more and more evidence that human behavior is not rational, not conscious and may be completely programmed without logic or knowledge. These unconscious drives affect jury decisions, elections, wars, our everyday experiences and can sometimes determine life and death. This is the subject of two recent books: Shankar Vedantam's The Hidden Brain: How our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save our Lives, and Guillermo Jimenez's Red Genes, Blue Genes, Exposing Political Irrationality. Both demonstrate irrationality but from slightly from different places. We recently discussed these phenomena with the authors.


Cathie's notes: Lots of articles and books popping up in the past year or so on the unconscious side of life. It has been my contention that for the past decade or two, the human collective has been living the unconscious from the inside out. When such a shift occurs (if it does) the notion of the unconscious itself becomes hidden or dismissed as relevant.

I think that the election of Barack Obama signalled a collective return to a more conscious track of awareness and expression. I'm thinking that the notion of an unconscious side of life, in such a circumstance, would become more interesting to mass consciousness, and thus enjoy more coverage by the media, which in many ways acts like an instrument that picks up on the collective thought and emotion and, in a sense, puts it into words.

I'm working on a longer piece related to these ideas.

Eli Zaretsky: The Obama Cult, Part One

Obama’s focus on biography rather than politics began with his 2004 address to the Democratic Convention, which offered his own life as a repudiation of the red/blue divide, it continued during his campaign for the nomination, which centered on meaningless slogans such as “Change,” “Change we can Believe in” and “Yes, We Can,” and it pervades the news coverage which concentrates on whether Obama is succeeding or failing, winning or losing, whether we should give him more time, or whether he has had enough, with very little overall sense of the country’s overall goals and direction, or those of his party. While this substitution of personality for politics has been going on for a long time, I believe it has reached an entirely new level during the Obama years, a level that shrinks the sphere of democratic discussion, even beyond where it had been.


Cathie's notes: [cross-posted from Citizen, Inc.] This is an interesting introduction to a series of articles that Eli Zaretsky (at Tikkun) is writing. Zaretsky reflects some ideas that are critical to understand if one wants to be an engaged citizen.

Many people have explored the idea that the citizens of a nation project their own desires, hopes and fears into leaders, and in this sense create an image or persona of the leader that is not necessarily a true or complete representation. I do think, however, that the leader and the led have a hook and pile relationship, to use the Velcro metaphor. In other words, there is usually something about the leader and something about the followers that sticks on a truth.

I'll post links to Zaretsky's articles as more are published.

[See previous posts and links on some of these ideas here and here -- these are early ones for this blog. For more recent posts, see examples here and here. I plan to write lots more on this subject at my In Hawk Space blog, but will cross-post at Citizen, Inc.]

What White People Fear | | AlterNet

Understanding the fears behind the racial politics of both conservative and liberal whites can help change a society in which wealth and well-being are still tied to race.


Cathie's notes: [cross-posted from my Raising Cain blog.] This article by Robert Jensen, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas, Austin, was written for the Spring 2010 issue of Yes! Magazine.

As a white liberal on an anti-racist journey, I found it to be interesting, informative, challenging and inspiring.

Read the whole article here. Read more in the America: The Remix issue at Yes! Magazine online here.


Environmental Protection: Moving toward a higher law

Reading Paul Verhaeghe's On Being Normal and Other Disorders a few years ago had a profound impact on the way I think about myself as a psychoanalyst, Earth citizen, and activist for social and environmental justice. At about the same time, I was researching the impact of surface coal mining on Tennessee's headwaters.

During this process, I had some Eureka! moments of intersection between these fields of knowledge that seemed to spiral around Verhaeghe's main thesis: Our psychological identity is co-created with that of an "other" (say, a parent, a culture, a nation, a planet). If this is so, argues Verhaeghe, then the way we define any deviation from "normal" must also acknowledge that pathology is based on this self-other matrix and does not rest upon (or within) just one of the subjects.

In everyday life, such an idea is not of much consequence unless we want to "fix" a "problem." Then we have to remind ourselves that all treatment approaches depend upon a therapeutic relationship to be effective.

My Eureka! moment had to do with a realization that this healing principle operates whether I am working as a psychoanalyst to alleviate the suffering of a person, or as an activist to alleviate the exploitation and oppression of people and nature.

An example that came to mind was the difficulty activists often have when we engage with governmental and legal systems around protection of our homelands. Just as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) names psychological suffering in a way that takes us further from the sufferer, so does the naming of remedies in the limited language of environmental policy and law take us further away from the trauma of exploitation.


NWP 21 hearing in Knoxville, TN on October 13, 2009 [photo by Cathie Bird]

As I have written in other posts, the formulation of arguments in that setting is forced to mesh with the language of the laws that govern environmental assessment, regulation and enforcement. In recent years, political and regulatory bodies have claimed to make a space for "environmental justice" but, to date, we still have many examples of failure to protect land, air and water, in spite of our testimony.

I think we can look at these failed environmental "treatments" in the same way as failed therapies. Somehow, our diagnoses have been pinned to an environmental equivalent of the DSM. We need a new way of doing things that allows all parties in the relationship to be a subject in this intersubjective process. My "!" at the end of Eureka was that we have failed as a human collective to protect the environment because we have failed to see land, air, water, plants, animals  as subjects – as opposed to objects -- that not only exist, know and act, but have a right to do so.

For a time on the North American continent, this higher law was known and lived by citizens of the First Nations. After initiation of First Nations genocide by European colonists, governing documents and laws of the United States evolved to protect white male privilege. To the extent we allow such laws to remain on the books, we collectively and unconsciously endorse structural racism that inherently denies subjective freedom, especially for people of color and our shared environment. Environmental law specialist, Robin Craig, says that until citizen's rights to a clean and healthy environment are amended to the U.S. Constitution, it’s likely that scientific, economic and social justice will fail to receive due consideration.

Our collective task now is to figure and feel our way out of this mess. And though we don't often hear about it through mainstream media – or our public schools -- there is a lot of evidence that all has not been lost.

The ancient wisdom of a higher law continues to be held in trust for the national collective by our brothers and sisters of the First Nations and other Indigenous peoples of Earth. As a start we could demand that our local, state and federal governments at least consider the protection-production model of relationship to the environment practiced by First Nations citizens.

Earth and its citizens are moving – however slowly -- toward higher ground, though much of this journey and its long history remain unconscious. Which brings me back to Verhaeghe. In his Preface, Verhaeghe describes a certain polarization of surface and depth, with a pendulum's swing between what information has more value: what we can see at the surface or what is hidden but operates on human consciousness nonetheless.

"The sheer complexity of human behavior," notes Verhaeghe, "demands that we reconsider the nonvisible mental constructions directing it.”

So far -- in my own psychoanalytic explorations of humankind's relationship to nature -- it seems clear that such a process is a key to discovery of mental, emotional, structural and spiritual resistance that prevents planet-wide liberation of people and nature.


[Since this article concerns an intersection of psychoanalytic thinking and environmental protection, I am cross-posting it from my Earthbytes blog.]

Tikkun Magazine - A Spiritual Perspective on Family Courts

Family courts are also often inefficient and not necessarily the best way to make good decisions. The adversary system works fine for deciding a historical fact like who pulled the trigger or ran the red light: put the two best re-creations of the event in front of a fact finder and get a decision. But family court decisions involve not historical facts but future predictions—what arrangements will be best for the children? And the target is a moving one—the answer today may be very different from the answer next month or next year. Unfortunately, most of us legally trained judges are only superficially knowledgeable about the complicated issues of family dynamics and child development raised by parenting cases, and rarely are the resources and time available to get us the comprehensive, sophisticated evidence needed to reach the best result. Add the complicated procedural rules the adversary system needs to make sure the fight is fair, and staff the system with lawyers who are trained in legal combat and paid by the hour, and you have a system that makes the health care establishment look positively streamlined.


Cathie's notes: Great article from Bruce Peterson, formerly the presiding judge of the Hennepin County (MN) Family Court. Read the rest of the article here.