The Clare Spark Blog

January 15, 2011

Healing, Trauma, Mystery

Jared Loughner's backyard shrine

I have closely followed the media coverage of the Tucson massacre and listened intently to the President’s speech at the U. of Arizona. Much praise was heard throughout the punditry for his message of healing (including Fox News!), and though he separated uncivil speech from the actions of the (unnamed) “shooter,” still his message was received as “spiritual” and gave a sense of closure to many listeners (probably the press who longed to move on). (Meanwhile, many of my Facebook friends viewed the event as a campaign speech and a circus.) The point is that the President fortified his centrist credentials in the eyes of many.

    If you have followed my blogs on this website, you will know that I have been verbally apoplectic over the notion that “moderation” can “heal” irreconcilable conflicts, whether they are within ourselves or out in the world. The word “trauma” was rarely heard over the air waves or in the blogosphere this week, though clearly the numerous victims were traumatized, and though faith may help some of the victims and their families “heal”, I remain skeptical. Wounds may heal. Irreparable losses and deficiencies in families or in our political actions may not, notwithstanding the promises of professional “healers.”*  In my view, conflicts can often be managed; sometimes they are not manageable.

     There is now talk of “toning down” the more raucous talk-radio hosts: Obama warned us not to “turn on each other.” I’m all for that as a civilized person and opponent of all forms of demonization, since the Devil is not a character who inhabits my psyche or anywhere else in my belief system. But I wonder about the social function that the “haters” perform in society in helping others vent their rage, rage that has many possible causes: coming back from war, endless bullying in school without intervention from the authorities, horrible incidents in childhood and a general lack of knowledgeable, responsible parenting. I have written endlessly here, too, of my opposition to apocalyptic thinking that is so typical of demagogues–no matter where they stand on the political spectrum. The constant invocation of irreversible environmental changes, for instance, is a form of terror, and one can only speculate about how such talk distorts our political culture. In the case of “climate change,” propaganda can be so extreme that a pause to consider scientific evidence pro and con is forestalled because we become invested in one outcome or the other, just to defend ourselves against the worst case scenario. The alternative to either idealizing the effects of technical progress or of turning back to an imagined  Golden Age is the intensive labor of investigation and hard thought.

   I have also written about “mystery”–another concept invoked by the President last week, when he said we would never understand what the shooter was feeling (or words to that effect). The notion of limited human understanding is sometimes appropriate, but more often comes with a strong attachment to those religions that emphasize the weakness of the human sensorium, and the limited understanding that will be repaired in paradise or the underworld for the deserving (Plato speaking through Socrates!). Actually, we know quite a bit about mental illnesses of the extreme forms, and there are treatments available for such sufferers, while pathbreaking research proceeds apace and needs our support. In my view, the President missed an opportunity when he did not name Jared Loughner and his parents as victims in the massacre, for he could have opened a national discussion of social policy in the various states regarding treatment or institutionalization of the hopelessly mentally ill, including the shame attached to all kinds of emotional problems. Indeed, it is widely held that only (sex-obsessed, carnal, worldly) Jews believe in or practice psychoanalysis and related therapies. We don’t give enough weight to the power of antisemitism itself to induce what historian Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style.”

   To sum up: the rift in our country was not created by the language used or abused by politicians and pundits. Two economic philosophies face one another and only empirical investigation of the most stringent kind will support the arguments of either the proponents of progressivism or the proponents of libertarianism/laissez-faire/the self-regulated free market. Let us hope that our country eschews the demagogic comforts of conceptions like “healing” the permanently traumatized, and that we adhere to the most precise and rigorous investigations–no holds barred– of what ails us.

*Recommended reading: Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man (1857), the scene in which the Invalid Titan confronts and strikes the Herb Doctor. There is no doubt where Melville stood on the permanence of trauma, nor is there any doubt that his family resented his suffering and inconsolability.

April 5, 2010

Is POTUS Crazy?

Edgar Allan Poe

[I am adding this query to what was a popular blog: If Obama is actually suffering from a narcissistic disorder, what might be the effect of close advisors stepping down? What would be the effect of substantial Republican gains on November 2?  For a follow-up blog that quotes this one see]

Roger Simon, CEO of Pajamas Media, posted his article “President Weirdo” on April 3, 2010, postulating the Obama’s conduct suggested a serious personality disorder. It generated 263 or more comments, some of them exhibiting great fear of what may lie in store for us. I posted Roger’s article on my Facebook page, and was reminded that Charles Krauthammer, trained in psychiatry, had also mentioned that Obama was narcissistic,* while Michael Callis, another of my Facebook friends, a professional psychologist, thinks that Obama may be a “malignant narcissist.” By contrast, Victor Davis Hanson wrote a piece, published in Pajamas Media today, on Obama as a postmodernist (i.e., as a Third World ideologue), without additional commentary as to his possibly pathological mental states.  Still other highly visible opponents of Obama (Glenn Beck for instance) continue to see him as a Leninist/progressive with an agenda derived from community organizer Saul Alinsky. (The latter two diagnoses are close to democratic leftist law professor and blogger Stephen Diamond, who comments on the “social justice” mafia pushing identity politics as Obama’s chief allies. Cf., posted today, April 8).

This blog will try to place these diagnoses in an historical context, and comment too on the uncertainties that historians face when describing the personalities of great men and women.

It was not long ago when psychohistory was all the rage in political science and history circles. Figures such as Michael Rogin (authors of studies of Nixon, Reagan, and Andrew Jackson) and Peter Loewenberg became celebrities in their respective fields. But by the time I hit graduate school at UCLA in 1983, such studies were thought to be ridiculously reductive. I remember (Trotskyist) Professor Robert Brenner, with (social democratic) Professor Loewenberg in attendance, telling his seminar that in his view, putting all your analytic eggs on relationships in the family of origin was absurd. And before this instance, Philip Rieff took  Freud to task for ignoring history as the engine for human conduct. Similarly, professional psychiatrists, epistemological materialists that they are,  tend now to dispense medication for problems ranging from anxiety attacks to schizophrenia.

Psychoanalysis is often mocked as the ineffectual and expensive “talking cure,” while clinical psychologists are as divided among themselves as to clinical method as are psychoanalysts, with their famous internal debates between Kleinians, Jungians, orthodox Freudians, neo-Freudians, eclectics, etc.     So it takes a lot of self-confidence for someone without a Dr. after his name to propose that the President of the United States might be possessed of mental states that are dangerous to our national and personal security.  I am siding with Roger Simon here, perhaps because I am defending my own work as an intellectual historian along with his and that of every honorable artist. Although existentialists and their postmodern descendants will scoff at his/my (bourgeois) hubris, if you can’t think yourself into another person’s head, if you cannot piece together a history of thoughts and actions in your subject, then you have nothing to say, and nothing to give to the world but received opinions and other official platitudes. You might as well put down your pen and find a job that earns you an honest living.

The suggestion that POTUS might be a “malignant narcissist” is particularly intriguing to me. And here is where one might be able to collapse all the competing narratives as to Obama’s mental states into one historical explanation.  Read the Wikipedia article on that diagnosis, and note that “malignant narcissism” is not in DSM-IV, though narcissistic personality disorder is, and narcissism is a feature of other personality disorders as the authors of DSM-IV defined them. It is conceivable to me that Obama’s family history (especially the abandonment by his father and who-knows-what-relationships with his doting mother and doting grandparents), set him up to be the perfect candidate for ambitious politicians in Chicago, who could count on the incoherent constituencies of the Democratic Party (big labor, public sector employees, cultural nationalist minorities, dependents of the welfare state, feminists, gays, veterans of the civil rights movement, wealthy liberal Jews, post60s academics and journalists, liberal internationalists, environmentalists) to be taken in by his charisma and passionate promises for a national healing that would reconcile the irreconcilable demands and interests of  his base, an equally apocalyptic change inside the Washington  Beltway, and an avowedly anti-imperialist foreign policy. It makes sense too, in explaining his obvious rage at being criticized and blocked, to suspect that his “narcissistic supplies” are threatened. As for the grandiosity that characterizes the narcissist and other would-be healers or “moderates”, such a high opinion of himself attracts others who aspire to greatness and a cohesive human community, and who therefore tend to idealize him and overlook his contradictory statements and broken promises–for he could not and can not please the diverse elements of the base that elected him and continues to support him.

I recall that one analyst of pathological narcissism (Kohut? Kernberg? Klein?) mentions the coexistence of grandiosity and emptiness that exists simultaneously in the same breast.  If you read the Wikipedia article, note that the more power the malignant narcissist gets, the more dangerous he becomes, and the more paranoid. Even if you do not find this suggestion of a pathological personality disorder to be persuasive, and prefer an ideological explanation instead (“transnational progressivism,” postmodern anti-imperialism, crypto-Leninism), there is no way to please everyone in a “mixed economy” that depends on redistribution alone to stave off “disruption” or worse. One must step outside the premises of progressivism with its incoherence and double binds (see in which I criticize JG for not seeing the double bind inflicted by the authoritarian liberals who are at bottom organic conservatives averse to rupture, though they do not call themselves that).

In closing, I must add that when I read Obama’s first book in early 2008, I became alarmed and suspicious, for it was obvious to me as a reader that there was not one coherent voice in the narrative (could there be, given the diverse interests of his audience?), and moreover, that he could not possibly have remembered all the incidents from his childhood in such detail. In the acknowledgments, he thanks his mother for refreshing his memory and helping him with the writing (tell me, reader, if I am wrong). I should also say that all the opinions expressed in this blog are provisional and speculative, but then so is medicine and its related fields in mental health. But without the power of such free thought, tireless in its search for clues, we are mindless followers, not citizens. Hail to thee, Roger L. Simon, C. Auguste Dupin, Captain Ahab, John Milton (!), Sigmund Freud, and all those other Prometheans who have leaped from light into darkness.

*Obama was described as “narcissistic” by David Remnick in his Jon Stewart interview,  4-8-10. Remnick’s bio is entitled The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama. Has anyone commented on the odd title? Is Obama the Savior who has rescued America from right-wing materialism and racism? There is narcissism and narcissism. One definition of healthy narcissism refers to the ability to soothe oneself without “supplies” from the outer world. But for centuries the myth of Narcissus was deployed by organic thinkers to stigmatize the dissenting individual/mad scientist, who was deemed indifferent to Echo (the call of community and social responsibility). Think Dollhouse; think Flash Forward.

[Added, Dec.15, 2010: Narcissistic personality disorder is being dropped from DSM-V. We don’t know why. Has Obama become more dangerous since November 2 as his narcissistic supplies fade away? Dinesh D’Souza diagnoses him as a post-colonialist; Dick Morris sees him as a conventional social democrat (not a communist). His most left-leaning base is predicting a one-term presidency. And I continue to be baffled, but most impressed by the incoherence of both political parties, and his erratic behavior, moving from committed radical to “centrist” compromiser as opportunistic and a sign of his determination to stay in power. Meanwhile, Robert Reich calls for a vast new statist initiative to reinstate the WPA, rebuild the country’s infrastructure, financed with a perfectly reasonable 70 % federal income tax on the idle, non-consuming enough rich. Thorstein Veblen, where are you when we need you?

I had a thought that was cut off on Facebook. All this speculation about Obama’s mental states sells books and rivets audience to the great mystery of his personality. I say, go back to the coalitions that comprise both major parties and ask yourself how you could please everyone in your party if you were president. The No Label, neo-moderate solution is yet another evasion of the conflicting interests that have always characterized our democracy, and that no amount of compromise can resolve. We are not yet fully modern. Remnants of tribalism, antiquity, and feudalism remain undefeated and there is little agreement on what is truly “modern.”

Is the essence of modernity irrationalism? I hope not.

October 5, 2009

Arne Duncan’s Statism, part two

Image (64)

Don’t miss the Howard Gardner encounter described at the bottom of this blog. It is shocking and revealing about the practice of multiculturalism by a “genius” educator.

Here is what you will not find in this issue of Ed.: any mention of multiculturalism or identity politics. For the numerous photographs in this edition, introducing the new Secretary of Education to alumni of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, demonstrate beyond a doubt that the faculty is diverse with respect to ‘race’, gender, and sexual orientation. Indeed Harvard, like other elite universities, was a pioneer in the production of the group-think that favors bureaucratic collectivist thought.  As for science, that word is sprinkled through the issue, but only in the sense that managerial “progressives” use it, as the gathering of statistics that will guide the next step in “incremental” reform. Dean of the Ed school, Kathleen McCartney, tells us that “Duncan made difficult choices that were based on evidence and driven by data.” (p.3)

But you will find no exploration on how science education is faring in the republic. The closest we come to “science” is the essay on the use of a medical model: just as doctors and interns make rounds in the hospitals, “instructional rounds” will help managers to find “common ground” in evaluating teaching effectiveness. They give an example of a “diverse” network for evaluating the “good” classroom: Whereas in  Connecticut only superintendents make the rounds, ” some rounds are more diverse and also include principals, teachers, staff members, and local union leaders….Once the group forms, they identify a problem that the school or district is struggling with, observe classrooms, debrief, and then focus on what needs to be done next.” (p.24)

The assumption here is that the scientific knowledge, rigor, and relative certainty that comes with advanced medical training is automatically applied when persons who may or may not have had a training in science and its methods are making decisions that will affect the ability of students to learn the skills necessary to participate as citizens in a democratic republic. For we are faced with unprecedented challenges and polarizing controversies, such as the value of science itself (the Foucauldians say it is bourgeois conspiracy), or what to do about the related controversies that confront us, particularly the measures to be taken with respect to climate change, pollution, and public health. Without training in critical thought and the separation of fact from opinion, no sane consensus can emerge on the policies that will remedy our numerous emergencies. Am I too “secular” here? Nowhere in this issue of Ed. is the anti-intellectualism of numerous communities confronted as a gigantic obstacle to the reforms Duncan and Harvard wish to initiate. But then top-down thinkers do not consider the condition of communities where religiosity trumps creatively adapting to the modern world, and where all eggheads are suspect as totalitarian thinkers, stealing their children from them and insulting their ancestors.

Allow me to digress for a moment. I trained to be a science teacher in the mid-1950s in the Cornell State College of Agriculture, with my tuition state-supported. It was assumed that we future science teachers might be the only science teacher in a remote rural high school that had no study specimens, so not only did we study chemistry, physics, the biological sciences (including zoology, botany, human physiology, microbiology, etc.), and geology, we learned to make our own slides of cells (using rats), to trap and stuff small animals, and to pick up a fragment of a bat skull or a piece of fur from the woods and meadows and identify it by order, family, genus and species. I also took a course in nature literature that alerted me to “nature fakery” or the sentimentalization of Nature by numerous popular writers from the late nineteenth century on. The few required education courses alerted us to the problem of discipline (i.e., obedience)  in the classroom: I would say it was an obsessive concern that seemed an end in itself, perhaps outweighing mastery of one’s field. (I got to practice teach at Ithaca High School in a chemistry class; the male science faculty complained to my Cornell supervisor that I wanted to join them at their brown-bag lunches, thus hampering their alacrity in telling dirty jokes.)

    My own beliefs about classroom order were tested in my first teaching job at Jamaica High School in Queens, where I was given a class of young people who had already failed biology and were now forced to repeat the course. They were working-class kids, many were black, others were tough veterans of the streets with Polish and Italian names. I was twenty years old (having finished college in 3 1/2 years), and my first few classes were filled with conflict as these rough boys were testing my resolve. I looked at the biology curriculum that was given to me, and quietly tossed it away, instead concentrating my first efforts at finding out what these youngsters had experienced with drug peddlers, alcohol, and other matters related to their survival. [Today I would have added other health concerns and how to identify mental illness in their peers.] They responded well to an emphasis on real-life immediate concerns and at the end of the semester one of them came up to me as representative of the group and asked me to be their teacher the next semester. (That I remember this moving gesture so vividly speaks to its force in shaping my outlook as I grew older.)  And the principal, to reward me for my “baptism by fire” promised me the honors class in chemistry if I would return. Alas, it was not to be. I had a prestigious fellowship for the Masters of Arts in teaching science at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and went off to paradise for husband-shoppers.

    Because I had already had teaching experience, I was invited to audit the graduate class in methods for teaching science conducted by one Fletcher Watson. The very first session, I asked this leader in science education, “what would you recommend to a young woman teaching science in a rough inner city school?” The answer: “That could never happen.” That was the end of my love affair with Harvard, though they offered me another  fellowship if I would return to take a Master’s in “guidance.” (This on the basis of my final exam where I might have startled them with the assertion that teachers wishing for order in the classroom should meet the intrinsic and pressing needs of students, and “order” would follow.) So if this blog sounds a bit testy, you know where I am coming from. [Added 8-25-11: Harvard probably spotted a potential child-centered progressive.]

Back to Ed. There is a lovely photo of the Dalai Lama, seated in Harvard’s Memorial Church. His speech, “Educating the Heart,” was co-sponsored by the Education and Divinity schools. Here are the quotes they published, preceded by “In particular, he questioned whether education and intelligence alone bring inner peace. ‘Those people who are more compassionate, those people are religious man, community man, family man…Much peaceful, much happier.’  In contrast, ‘there are very smart scholars and professors who are full of competition, full of jealousy, and full of anger. Sometimes they even commit suicide,’ he said, pausing when he realized who was in the audience. ‘I don’t mean disrespect to the academic community.’ The Dalai Lama also stressed that compassion starts at home. ‘If you see people who are more calm and ready to show love and kindness toward others, those people probably had a mother who provided  more affection at a young age.’ ” The article closes with a mention of his watering the roots in a tree-planting ceremony attended by deans and Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, “in addition to blessing a pregnant woman’s belly….” (p.11) The link to Arne Duncan’s inspirational mother Sue is completed here.

I could stop, but in fairness to Arne Duncan, I should mention his objectives as described in the McQuaid article: “The Obama economic stimulus package contains a huge windfall for education, approximately $115 billion–more than double the department’s annual budget…Most of those funds are going to avert catastrophic school budget shortfalls caused by the recession. But the stimulus also includes an unprecedented $5 billion in discretionary funds. The largest share belongs to the Race to the Top program, in which states will compete for grants by showing they’re innovating. Duncan’s hope is to leverage that cash to create a brushfire of reform at the local level: funding and ultimately “scaling up” successful reforms and seeding them elsewhere. But his window of opportunity is quite narrow–the money will run out in two years.” (p.18) Elsewhere, “The agenda spans proposed changes in preK to college, pounding the bully pulpit to promote charter schools, merit pay, and national standards, and what’s likely to be a contentious fight over No Child Left Behind.” (p.20) [Added 9-6-09: AD appeared as guest on Stephen Colbert last night. He mentioned two other objectives, also described in Ed.:  lengthening the school year as the long summer break was suitable to an agrarian society, not an urban one, and creating the school site as a community center where adult learning could take place, as well as other student activities. Colbert did not ask him where the necessary funding would come from. The interview was preceded by a film showing the pair’s, but mostly Colbert’s, prowess in shooting hoops.]

Remember McQuaid’s characterization of Duncan as an “outsider” like his close basketball pal Obama in “Arne Duncan’s Statism, part one”? Here is how the article ends: Education may lose out if Obama is too distracted, but “Duncan’s membership in the close-knit group of Chicago transplants in the Obama administration–including top advisors David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, and social secretary Desiree Rogers (John W. Rogers’ ex-wife)–will help him keep his issues in the mix.” (p.21)

File this article and the entire Harvard Ed School apparatus/organism under the heading “the Machine that is not a Machine though it resembles one to the naked eye.”

A postscript on Howard Gardner. HG, a protege of Henry A. Murray(yes our Henry Murray, though you won’t find him on Gardner’s Wikipedia entry),  was a recipient of the MacArthur “genius” award, and in the late 1980s he came out to visit the HGSE alumni.  At UCLA he gave an illustrated lecture on his famous theory that there are “multiple intelligences.” The slides I remember in particular were one of a black youngster shooting hoops, and the one female represented staring at herself in the mirror. I confronted him for deploying these stereotypical images as if sports served as the route to learning for black kids, while girls kept journals, indulging their narcissism. The smiling mask suddenly disappeared and he snarled at me, whispering “Why did you come here?”  I have not emphasized enough in these blogs the emphasis on sports and “active learning” in the issue of Ed. that I have  presented here. I could have included the photo of Duncan and Obama playing basketball together, used in the McQuaid article.

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