Saturday, May 28, 2011

Last Week, Next Weeks

So the political gabfests have gone quiet for the weekend, and even some political blogs are using the downtime to retool.  But a little unfinished business here from last week...

Lawrence O'Donnell, who is among other things the best-dressed man on TV, had a segment on Thursday that was both a withering deconstruction/evisceration of a front page New York Times story announcing that Sarah Palin was showing signs of a presidential run, and the funniest five minutes I've seen on television all year.  I was laughing out loud through the whole thing.  Probably not everyone's reaction but check it out.

Later on Rachel, Chris Hayes was trying to get us to remember way back to--what was it now--April--when the GOPer House voted to pass the Paul Ryan budget, with its plan to kill Medicare and pretty much kill Medicaid.  The fallout has been so deadly for the GOP that it's turned into a "what were they thinking?" moment.  Apart from the predictable GOPer overreach (predicted here among other places), there was, Chris Hayes reminded viewers, a different political context.  The GOPers were still on a roll from winning control in November, they felt they had a mandate and their deficit mantra seemed to have caught on.  The Democrats were still on the defensive, and the GOPers had forced concessions of $35 billion on the budget so that the federal government wouldn't shut down.  The Paul Ryan budget was the next step.

To Hayes' analysis, I'll add one detail and one of the biggest factors he didn't spell out.  The detail was April 15--there was a frenzy to pass the Ryan budget-cutting, no new taxes budget by tax day for its symbolic value.  The big factor was that President Obama had once again lulled the GOPers into believing their own propaganda--that he was weak, indecisive and in over his head.  He kept out of the budget negotiations, and applauded the outcome, seeming to the GOPers to be capitulating.  They thought they had him on the run.

But Obama's pushback was already in the works.  He had waited until the danger of government shutdown had passed, and then was ready to go on the offensive with his (and Democrats') priorities.  The GOPers gave him a timely gift--the Paul Ryan budget--which he used to such devastating effect in his April speech in which, among other things, he identified the Ryan plan as "ending Medicare as we know it."  And the Dems have been on the offensive ever since, thanks to public support of Medicare that is now the conventional wisdom.  Recall that Obama's speech was not received well everywhere in the media, still under the GOPer mendacious "budget-cutting" spell. But it was the turning point.

Now two problems remain in the immediate future: the need to raise the national debt ceiling, and the need for Dems to keep in control of the Medicare message by keeping it simple: we're for it, they're against it.  At the end of last week, Senate GOPer leader Mitch McConnell linked the problems by announcing that he wouldn't vote to raise the debt ceiling unless there was a deal to cut Medicare spending.

Will the Dems see the need to keep the issue clear?  Will the need to slow the growth of health care costs and further reform elements of Medicare trump this, and will GOPers then be able to muddy the waters for the next elections?  The statement from Harry Reid's office (appended at the end of the TPM McConnell report linked above) suggests clarity remains, but Reid himself is less than articulate on this matter.  There are reports that the Biden group has identified a trillion bucks in cuts, and they may include entitlements.  I find that a little hard to believe.  But all of that is going to supply political drama for the rest of the summer, and if some murky changes to Medicare ensue, right up to November 2012.   

Thursday, May 26, 2011


The Democrats mantra on the election yesterday was that it was all about Medicare, while GOPers insisted it was because of the 10% two other candidates got.  The GOPer position doesn't explain why even if they'd gotten all of that, they would still have lost 21 points from the GOPers victory margin just 6 months ago. And tracking polls showed that as the Tea Party candidate went down in the polls, most of those votes went to the Dem.

But the Dems need to notice that while Medicare was clearly the most potent issue, their candidate and new Member of Congress, Kathy Hockel was a very good candidate.  Her appearance on Rachel Wednesday was quite impressive.  She speaks clearly and to the point.  (Way better than one of Rachel's other pol guests, Harry Reid.)       

Though it didn't get much attention due to the Senate vote in which 40 GOPers voted for the Ryan budget plan to kill Medicare, but in the House Eric Cant made good on his threat--he got the House Appropriations Committee to condition a $1 billion budget supplement to help with disaster relief for Joplin--where things seem pretty chaotic right now--on cutting $1.5 billion from a program to provide loans to U.S. companies in order to create more fuel-efficient and carbon-neutral vehicles:

"It is staggeringly shortsighted to pay for the economic losses of climate disasters by choking off funding for policies that reduce the threat of future climate disasters,” said Bracken Hendricks, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “The Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program is helping US companies right now, to remain competitive and protect good manufacturing jobs, by producing highly efficient vehicles that cut dependence on foreign oil. What’s next? Should we cut funding for flood insurance and slash the FEMA budget to pay for flood damage along the Mississippi?" 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Climate Inside: Acceptance of Denial

I'm a start at the top and read down to the end kind of guy.  So that's what this is: in addition to being the third in this "Climate Inside" series, it's the first of three posts, meant to be read from top to bottom rather than the usual reverse chronology of the blogworld.

For most of the 20th century in America, psychology was something for the urban rich.  Upper middle class New Yorkers underwent Freudian analysis to such an extent that by the 1950s it was a cultural joke.  Jungian psychology always had adherents in America, but his most prominent American clients traveled to Zurich to consult with Jung himself.

When I was growing up in a working class culture, there were two kinds of people: sane and crazy.  Crazy generally meant you couldn't hold a job (or keep house if you were a woman), which in itself was shameful, a moral failing.  So sane people were those who could hold a job.  Crazy people were consigned mostly to state mental hospitals, large and far away.

Abuses in mental institutions led in the 1960s to most of the big state ones closing, and local hospitals opened mental health clinics with a range of services for people who weren't permanently consigned to mental wards.  Then the counterculture of the 60s and 70s sparked interest in Gestalt therapy and other psychological theories, the human potentials movement, T-groups and encounter groups and so on.

So the stage was set for the major cultural impact and acceptance of psychology in the 1980s, as it spread through the recovery movement, through the awareness of psychological as well as physical and sexual abuse, and such momentarily fashionable but memorable contributions as John Bradshaw's Inner Child and Robert Bly's book, Iron John, that largely began the men's movement (a psychological rather than political movement.) Meanwhile, Jungian concepts spread through weekly TV seminars on Northern Exposure and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

All this led to probably the first psychological concept to become an accepted one in everyday life: denial.  It is of course the concept that is now most associated with those who deny the reality of the Climate Crisis.  And it is meant psychologically: not just denying an asserted fact on the basis of evidence, but persistently and reflexively denying a fact when the evidence that it is a fact is overwhelming.  That's part of the sense that it's used in the term "climate crisis denier" or for example in the statement on the Climate Crisis issued last week by 17 Nobel Laureates: "We cannot continue on our current path. The time for procrastination is over. We cannot afford the luxury of denial."

"Denial" is a concept attributed to Sigmund Freud, more extensively described by his daughter Anna Freud, but popularized by the recovery movement, which began with Alcoholics Anonymous, after its founder consulted with Jung in Switzerland.  People deny something factual, deny for example that they have a drinking problem (or deny that they need help to overcome it), because they have a psychological need to believe otherwise.  Sometimes this denial is so thorough that people have no memory of something that happened (such as abuse) that they want very much not to have happened, or because it is important to them for other reasons to believe that the person who committed an act against them would never have done so.

In practice, it is a tricky concept because it can be applied to almost anything.  Anything you deny, people can say you're "in denial" about it.  (Sometimes of course they are right. "Everyone is in denial about something," writes Benedikt Carey, "just try denying it and watch friends make a list.") 

But psychologically it is a self-defense mechanism.  And it often makes sense, at least for awhile. Some people when told they have a fatal disease find it too overwhelming to accept, so they deny it, though gradually many come to accept it.  (Another way the concept of denial was popularized was as the first in the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief.)

But the trap is that being in denial will furnish its own reasons for why it is reasonable or correct.  Though the impulse and energy comes from the unconscious, the conscious is either convinced or simply willing to get out of the way, so whatever the unconscious wants to express just comes out.  Very strong feelings--especially defensiveness--are clues that denial might be operating.

Being in denial is comforting.  It means you go on as before.  Accepting that you are an alcoholic means complete and arduous change.  AA developed the now-famous 12-step program and the idea of needing a support group to help you through it, all of which were adopted for other addictions and behaviors by the recovery movement.  Such change is really, really hard, and it's natural to want to avoid it by denying the need for it.

That's applicable to denying the Climate Crisis as well.  Accepting it means accepting the need for personal and societal change that would be extensive,  and at least seems like it would be painful.  That's part of the psychology of denial: the natural reaction of avoiding pain--or more accurately, the pain you rightly or wrongly anticipate in degree or kind.

So the root of denial would therefore be fear.  Fear is a powerful emotion that opens the unconscious and its powers.  Fear is healthy when it helps us elude danger or overcome threats.  But it can also distort our perceptions.  On the one hand we might see a monster looming in the dark, when it's just shadows under a tree.  On the other hand, we might fail to see a threat because we are afraid of it--we'd rather it wasn't really there, so we don't see it there.  Those who deny the Climate Crisis accuse those who accept it of the former delusion.  The latter delusion is the product of denial.

When confronted with real danger, most of us at one time or another, and for some period of time, will have the impulse of denial.  Your impulse is:  It will go away.  The noise you hear is something else.  Or--it isn't happening yet.  I found myself with that one recently, as I read a story about the Saudis decreasing their oil output, saying that they did so because of a world glut.  Finding no evidence of such a glut, the story suggested the Saudis might be covering up that their oil reserves are finally running out.  I've been reading about Peak Oil for years.  But my first reflex when reading this story was to not accept that it was finally actually happening.  (It's probably the secret desire of many Boomers that the shit won't hit the fan until we're gone.)

But of course, to really confront these dangers, we must face them and at least admit the truth.  The evidence of the Climate Crisis is overwhelming.  As GOPer Jon Huntsman said (even though he claims not to believe we need to do anything about the Climate Crisis), if 90% of oncologists agreed on a specific cancer, we'd listen to them.  Even years ago, when global warming was seen as a distinct if as yet not proven possibility, this should have been enough to orient actions that benefit us in other ways.  We don't require 100% or even 75% certainty to deal with other threats.  There are people in Oklahoma alive tonight because, even though they'd never seen a tornado before, they built a storm cellar anyway.

The power of denial in regards to the Climate Crisis was brilliantly expressed just today by Bill McKibben in a Washington Post oped.  Instead of writing about denial, he adopted the language and urgency of denial:

"Caution: It is vitally important not to make connections. When you see pictures of rubble like this week’s shots from Joplin, Mo., you should not wonder: Is this somehow related to the tornado outbreak three weeks ago in Tuscaloosa, Ala., or the enormous outbreak a couple of weeks before that (which, together, comprised the most active April for tornadoes in U.S. history). No, that doesn’t mean a thing.

It is far better to think of these as isolated, unpredictable, discrete events. It is not advisable to try to connect them in your mind with, say, the fires burning across Texas — fires that have burned more of America at this point this year than any wildfires have in previous years. Texas, and adjoining parts of Oklahoma and New Mexico, are drier than they’ve ever been — the drought is worse than that of the Dust Bowl. But do not wonder if they’re somehow connected."

But being in denial about a persistent danger, with such persistent manifestations, does not erase the fear.  The fear and the emotions caused by the inner conflicts between what you see and what you want to believe will find other outlets.  They might lead to depression, or fuel an outsized and even violent anger.  They might push you further into other delusions that are somehow more comforting, even if they involve the world ending in some other way.

Staying in denial is made easier by other psychological phenomena to be explored later.  For now it's important to again name the purpose of writing about this.  "Being in denial" is a psychological mechanism with characteristics and examples.  It allows individuals to use the concept and test themselves against it.  Am I in denial about this subject?  Am I motivated to be in denial?   Do I evaluate information about this subject as I evaluate information about other subjects?

What do I believe will be the consequences of no longer being in denial?  That I'll have to completely change my life, all by myself, regardless of the costs?  Or is there room between denial and martydom?

What makes it possible for people to remain in denial about anything is the support of others in their belief.  That's why co-dependence and enablers are such important concepts in the theories of addiction.  Right now being in denial about the Climate Crisis guarantees you a whole network of co-dependents and enablers, as well as a whole television network and a lot of talk radio.  You might even get paid for it. The politics of this denial is briefly explored in the following post.

The Politics of Denial

The severe weather map for today.  The red squares are tornado watch, yellow is severe thunderstorm warning, green is floods, blue high winds, orange is fire weather advisory.
Here in North America, the climate outside has become alarming of late.  Massive tornadoes tore through parts of Oklahoma on Tuesday, with tornadoes or tornado warnings in Texas, Kansas, Minnesota and once again in Joplin, Missouri.  Meteorologists warn that tornadoes are possible on Wednesday in a large area east of these states, with violent weather possible as far east as Pittsburgh and south to near Washington, D.C.

This follows days, weeks and months of extreme weather, from record-breaking snow, rain, wind, heat, flooding, drought and fires, as Bill McKibben recounts in his timely oped piece in the Washington Post, which brilliantly expresses the psychology of denial.  But it is just as important in how it links psychological denial to politics and economics.  For that's a crucial element of all this.  The individual response of denial is being systematically supported, inspired, encouraged and especially exploited, by certain corporate and political interests.

After McKibben's devastating list of weather and climate events it's psychologically necessary to deny --all predicted by climate scientists as evidence of global heating--he ends with this:

" It’s very important to stay calm. If you got upset about any of this, you might forget how important it is not to disrupt the record profits of our fossil fuel companies."

That pretty much says it all.  When faced with such immense danger--possibly the end of human civilization but pretty certainly major and uncomfortable changes in ordinary life--it would seem that a self-protective human psychological reaction would be denial.  But in a healthy civilization, we would get over that, realizing how important it is to confront these threatening possibilities and do something about them.  Our leaders would lead us in doing this, and we would support each other in dealing with the psychological impact as well as the social needs.

But the same forces that want to ignore the Climate Crisis because acknowledging it and dealing with it might eventually cut into their extreme profits, are intent on supporting and amplifying this response of denial, to the extent of making it an ideological tenet of political faith.  That support is extensive and well-funded, from the buying of politicians and media, to the scruffy little details, like paying pittances to people to monitor climate- related threads on the Internet and quickly add a denial mantra to the comments.

There are other factors, many with a psychological impact, that links the needs of fossil fuel industries with the comfort zones of much of the American public.  But the manipulation of denial is of major consequence.

 This deliberate amplification and exploitation of denial has been added to the extreme polarization of politics. For it's not just denial that gets into the mix and supported.  It's anger, paranoia, xenophobia, prejudices of all kind--all supported in a seemingly clean and companionable way, but all dependent on some ugly energy from the unconscious.

 But though this denial can be psychological, and coexist with other compatible psychological phenomena, it is also a cynically political position.  This is dramatized especially by the GOPer politicians who once acknowledged the reality of the Climate Crisis and the need for action, and who supported cap-and-trade legislation (itself a GOPer idea.)  But suddenly now Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Tim Palenta, etc. have all adopted denial of it all.  That seems a lot more like political than psychological denial.  Yet it feeds the genuine denial defense mechanism of others.

This exploitation has effectively polluted public discourse, to the extent that full-throated support for confronting the Climate Crisis from anyone is rare.  Even a decade ago, it might have been reasonable to suggest that it might take time for the science to be extensive enough to be really convincing, and that it might take time for people to get used to the idea, and to finally admit to themselves that things had to be done.  And for awhile, it seemed we might be approaching that time.  But the exploitation of denial went into high gear, and here we are.  Decades after we should have begun confronting this, we won't even admit the need to do so.

So it is important for people to understand the psychology of denial and the impact of the climate inside on their thinking and behavior.  But it is also important for people to understand how powerful interests are manipulating them, turning a natural inclination into a fierce self-destructive fixed idea, and involving them in the massively destructive politics of denial. 

Denial: Costs

Denying the reality and the causes of the Climate Crisis can cost us the future.  In the long run, it could cost us human civilization as well as much of the natural world we know--including the loss of animal and plant species that would leave us bereft and struggling to survive. 

But even in the near future, even now, denial and its political exploitation have their costs, in money and lives.  This is coming into focus more and more, as the U.S. as well as much of the rest of the world is feeling the reality and the impact of huge weather and climate events that cause disasters, deaths and injuries, and tear communities to shreds.

The denial of the Climate Crisis is fueling the denial of the effects of what may be caused by the Climate Crisis.  This is another subtext in Bill McKibben's Washington Post piece.  For to truly ignore the connections among the many events, it helps to downgrade the importance of the events themselves.

Here's the kind of measured expertise that people would be heeding if denial were not so strong: meteorologist Jeff Masters' conclusion to his discussion of this record-breaking two months of tornadoes:  "In summary, this year's incredibly violent tornado season is not part of a trend. It is either a fluke, the start of a new trend, or an early warning symptom that the climate is growing unstable and is transitioning to a new, higher energy state with the potential to create unprecedented weather and climate events."

This statement allows for the possibility of this being a fluke, but the other two possibilities suggest the need for attention to preparing better for more likely disasters in the future.  Even if they are flukes, preparation is a good idea anyway--but patterns likely to lead to future danger adds urgency.  It is precisely this kind of situation--seeing patterns that can lead to future danger or future opportunity--for which the human brain has its most decided survival advantage.  But denial cancels that out.

"In policy debates about environmental issues, evidence of extreme weather is often dismissed as fleeting anecdotes," notes a Boston Globe editorial advocating more attention to preparation.  "But it is hard to ignore the cumulative impact of science, technology, and experience."

The Globe editorial then mentions "an expert panel assigned by Congress in 2008 to recommend ways to deal with climate change provided a sobering analysis of what is at stake: Every ton of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere not only drives up the earth’s temperature, causing potentially disruptive weather events, but raises the cost of taking action later on."

That's the cost of far future disasters caused by present and near future greenhouse gases emissions: the familiar if strange fruits of Climate Crisis denial.   But we need to admit the pattern and eventually the cause if we are to prepare for near future problems and disasters: everything from better structures to withstand extreme weather and protection for coastal cities to better public health and systems of response to areas of immediate emergencies.  For the society as a whole, preparation and prevention cost less, in money, in suffering and in lives.

Some of this preparation goes by the stunningly inept title of adaptation.  Doing something directly about greenhouse gases is called mitigation.  (Why does anyone wonder why scientists, social scientists and bureaucrats can't communicate when they insist on such dead vocabulary?)   I used to call this the activities of Stop it (addressing the Causes of global heating) and Fix it (addressing the Effects.)  We really need to do both, but there was a time I worried that smart Republicans would manipulate public alarm to devote all attention to addressing the effects while saying we can't afford to address the causes, too.

 That may still happen, but so far GOPers have stuck with strict denial.  Denial, together with the politically related insistence on fatally wounding the federal government while siphoning money to corporate interests, has led to such barbarity as suggested Tuesday by the House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor.  He insisted that any emergency funds voted by Congress to help tornado victims in Joplin and elsewhere be offset by cuts in government spending elsewhere, or GOPers wouldn't support it.

Cantor represents a district in Virginia, where disaster resulting from severe weather is not unknown and these days certainly not impossible.  Looking at the weather map, it could even threaten it this week.  His tune may change in that event.  But the power of denial is so great that you really can't count on even the most extreme reality to overcome it.  No one knows if Cantor or any politician is truly in denial about the Climate Crisis.  You almost hope that they are, because sacrificing lives and communities now and in the future for momentary political advantage or even the riches and seeming power conferred by wealthy corporate masters is even worse.  But the effect on the rest of us, the world and the future is the same.         

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Good Day for Obamacrats

The New York Congressional district 26 is one of the most Republican in the country, and certainly in New York state.  In the 2010 congressional election, the Republican won with 74% of the vote. 
Tuesday in a special election to replace that disgraced GOPer, the Democrat Kathy Hochul was declared the winner barely an hour after polls closed.  With over 90% of the precincts reporting, she is holding  48% of the vote, with her GOPer opponent at 42%, and just as significantly, the Tea Party candidate at only 9%.

Her victory is attributed to voter alarm over the Ryan plan to destroy Medicare.  Polls suggest this is true, though there were other important issues.  So President Obama's congratulatory statement doesn't specifically mention Medicare, though he was the first to say that the Ryan plan "ends Medicare as we know it," which started this pushback: "I want to extend my congratulations to Congresswoman-elect Kathy Hochul for her victory in New York's 26th Congressional District. Kathy and I both believe that we need to create jobs, grow our economy, and reduce the deficit in order to outcompete other nations and win the future."

Obamacrats can also point to another significant accomplishment today: Chrysler (following the example of GM) has repaid its "bailout" loans to the U.S. federal government (and to Canada), six years early.  The resurgence of the U.S. auto industry due to the support President Obama and the Democrats gave them--which GOPers called radical and socialism--is already being turned to political advantage. 

Obamacrats also are likely to benefit from a less obvious story that developed Tuesday: the rumor that Elizabeth Warren, head of the Consumer Protection Agency she virtually created, is being courted to run against Scott Brown for his Senate seat from Massachusetts.  While the politics of her actually running is being debated,  it's the rumor itself that has positive political effect.  If GOPers continue their opposition to her permanent appointment to her post--especially accompanied by the tawdry antics that accompanied her testimony in the House on Tuesday--they may push her into running, and given the impact of Medicare and the Ryan budget demonstrated in New York--it would mean at the very least that GOPers would have to spend  a lot of money in MA to support Brown, even if they didn't ultimately lose the seat.  As well they might.  So they may decide to ease off and conclude that they're better off with her in the federal government than running against them.

Meanwhile, President Obama was "greeted warmly" in London on his state visit to the UK.

Tornado Times

At this hour, Oklahoma is being hit by at least two large tornadoes, one of them reportedly massive, with wind shears above 200 mph, and an eye like a hurricane.

Meanwhile the tragedy of Joplin continues to unfold, with some 1500 people still unaccounted for.  NOAA has ranked the Joplin tornado as "the deadliest single tornado to strike the U.S. since modern tornado recordkeeping began in 1950."


President Obama and family visited his newly confirmed ancestral home of Ireland on Monday.  He spoke to some 30,000 cheering citizens of Dublin, telling them he'd come "to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way."  Earlier he's visited the village of Moneygall, where his mother's great-great grandfather was born.  He saw the house where he lived, and which he left to come to America.

President Obama also visited a pub and drank a draft Guinness stout. "Obama downed the thick beer in only four slurps. Christy O'Sullivan, a government clerical worker who took a long lunch break to watch the Obama's trip to Moneygall, told the AP: "The president actually killed his pint! He gets my vote. He's the first president I've actually seen drink the black stuff like he's not ashamed of something."

But while in Ireland President Obama kept in touch with the news from Joplin, Missouri, and directed the FEMA director to be on the scene.

Then the Obamas flew to London a little earlier than planned, to avoid plumes of vocanic ash drifting into British air space from the Iceland eruption.  They will stay at Buckingham Palace, and serious talks with UK leaders will be included along with the pomp and circumstances in subsequent days.

Joplin Tragedy

It was a single, huge tornado (though with multiple vortices) that stayed close to the ground and at times moved very slowly, as when it seemed to stay surrounding the Joplin, Missouri hospital.  With 116 dead so far, it is the most destructive single tornado in the U.S. since 1947.

And while the search for dead and injured goes on, more threatening weather is forecast for late Tuesday, including the possibility of more tornadoes.

Recipe for Iowa?

A nice bowl of Polenta and ethanol

GOPer former gov of Minnesota Tim Polenta announced his candidacy for prez with a youtube video Sunday and a speech in Iowa Monday.  In Iowa he called for the phasing out of ethanol subsidies (while presumably agreeing with GOPer dogma on maintaining Big Oil subsidies.)  Political observers are puzzling over that one, since it has always been the kiss of death in Iowa.  But maybe Polenta knows something no one else does? 

One thing I wonder if he knows is whether fellow Minnesotan (with generations of family in Iowa) and fellow Evangelical panderer Michelle Bachmaniac is getting into the race.  If she doesn't and it turns out he knew it, this would say something for his political acumen.  Because he's risking his future viability if he goes up against Backmann and loses.  Politicos figure he has to win Iowa to go on with any momentum (or money.)

Meanwhile, his shot at President Obama's "courage" went over like a lead balloon, and his assertion that he will tell the truth was contradicted by assumptions as fact, shadings and outright lies in his opening statement.  Moreover his record as governor is already being attacked by a fellow GOPer for presiding over one of the largest property tax increases in state history.  Others claim he left the state and the state government in horrible economic shape, which doubtless will come up on the campaign trail if it turns out anyone can remember his name.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Climate Inside: The Thin Thread of Consciousness

In 1957, when Carl Jung was 82 years old, he sat for a series of film interviews over four days in the August heat of Zurich, conducted by a psychologist from the University of Texas.  Jung did not give many such interviews, but did so this time because it was principally meant for psychology students.  Still, in the midst of talking about his work over half a century, he made a statement, almost a plea, of wider application and great urgency.
  "Nowadays particularly the world hangs on a thin thread," he said.  The U.S. and the USSR were building thermonuclear arsenals with the power to destroy civilizations in minutes.  Jung pointed out that the threat to humanity was no longer from outside. "We are the great danger," he said.  This of course is true today as well.  Even if the threat of thermonuclear destruction has receded, humanity as well as much of the natural world is endangered by the climate change that humanity is causing.

Why? It is not because we lack knowledge, or the power to confront this challenge.  There are economic and political forces preventing it, but given the gap between the kind of knowledge that usually prompts action, and the failure to accept it,  much of the responsibility must lie in the climate inside.  Just as it had something to do with how we learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb.

"The psyche is the great danger," Jung continued.  "And so it is demonstrated in our day what the power of the psyche is, how important it is to know something about it.  But we know nothing about it."

Jung meant not only the dearth of serious attention by experts, but mostly the refusal of even an educated public to take the psyche seriously.  "Nobody would give credit to the idea that the psychical processes of the ordinary man have any importance whatever." 
So why do they have any importance?  Especially during the first half of the twentieth century, Freud, Jung and others investigated psychological phenomena and began to explore how the psyche works.  They came up with tools that allow everyone to understand themselves and each other better, and to assert more control over their behavior.  Despite today's emphasis on drugs and very targeted therapies, these concepts and tools are widely accepted, even if mostly implicit.  I have found that the conceptual tools I will describe in this series--according to my own crude understanding of them--to be very useful.  They are useful in understanding attitudes of others that have political and very real consequences.  But I use them to understand my own attitudes and to check my rationales for my behavior.

I use Jung as a guide because he is the broadest and deepest of these thinkers and investigators.  But also because Jung emphasized the individual.   He thought the psychical processes of the ordinary person have great importance.  He insisted that the psyche of every individual is unique, and that the mix of forces and tendencies that his theories name are different for everyone.  But the more the individual knows, the better equipped the individual is to figure things out and to act on that knowledge.

I use Jung also because he thought about the psychology of all human individuals-- not just the very sick persons, but people with ordinary problems--problems and potentials we all have in common.

The most basic concept is the psyche itself, which is composed of the conscious and the unconscious.  This division didn't begin with Jung or Freud.  It's ancient.  Thoreau wrote in his journal about the relation of the two in the writing process with great sophistication.  But Jung developed it further.

These are complex subjects but just three things are most important for now.  First, the unconscious is vast and powerful.  Another psychologist likened consciousness to the froth on a wave in comparison with the ocean of the unconscious.  And the unconscious is unknown.  There are ways of thinking about it, ways to investigate it, but by its nature (and by definition) it is outside conscious knowledge or control.  "...the unconscious is always unconscious," Jung said in these interviews. "It is really unconscious."

But (second) the unconscious isn't just a murky place of fantasy--it motivates and inspires behavior.  People can and do act directly at the direction of their unconscious.  If you don't understand or accept that this happens, the unconscious has really free reign. "If you are unconscious about certain things that ought to be conscious," Jung said, "then you are a man whose left hand never knows what the right is doing, and counteracts or interferes with the right hand."

That's partly and most importantly because (third) the unconscious can supply rationales for what it does.  The unconscious routinely deceives the conscious mind as well as bypassing the conscious mind.

Some believe that's why the trickster figure--including the devil on your left shoulder, etc.-- is so prominent in stories everywhere and at every time.  We sense the power of self-delusion and self-deception.

This may seem to quash human freedom, the importance we give to conscious control.  But once I understood these elements of the psyche, I found it liberating.  It meant that by understanding that the unconscious can lie to you in the language of reason, and by using conceptual tools Jung and others developed to test whether something was likely coming from the unconscious, I could increase conscious control over behavior.  Even knowing that these complexities exist, and a little of how they work, increased my sense of who I am, and of being human.

Next time, the first of those conceptual tools for understanding one way the unconscious works to influence and even define how we see the outside world as well as ourselves, and consequently what we do.

Climate Outside:Tornado and Floods

photo from Daily Beast

photo: Los Angeles Times
 A monster tornado tore through Joplin, Missouri, killing at least 30.  It was so powerful that it destroyed entire neighborhoods, took tractor trailers into the air and dropped them in twisted wreckage outside a truck stop.  A major hospital was damaged, and so can't take tornado victims. President Obama has promised federal help.  The governor called out the National Guard, and a state of emergency has been declared.  There are unknown numbers of injured.  Some of these photos were sent via Twitter and posted at The Daily Beast. (All of these photos are from Missouri.)

  Minneapolis was also hit with at least one strong tornado, with loss of life, as was a town in Kansas.  Heavy winds and thunderstorms tore through a chunk of the Midwest. 

Meanwhile massive flooding continues from the record-high Mississippi River in Louisiana.  But there is very serious flooding elsewhere as well:  in Quebec and a large part of eastern Montana, with thunderstorms causing mudslides and threatening flooding in Utah.  Along the Mississippi, though the river has largely crested, flood waters will remain in place and the largest ever recorded water flow will continue for several more weeks, testing levees and continuing to do damage.  Flooding in other places has similar longevity.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

White House Week

In a speech on Thursday, President Obama spoke about the changes in the Middle East, the Arab Spring: "Those shouts of human dignity are being heard across the region. And through the moral force of nonviolence, the people of the region have achieved more change in six months than terrorists have accomplished in decades."

He also outlined critera for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement to bring stability to the region.  GOPers attacked his call for making the pre-1967 borders--with negotiated land swaps--the basis for negotiations, but other Presidents including Bush had supported the same standard.  President Obama reinterated and clarified his position in a speech to a conservative Jewish group on Sunday, winning Josh Marshall's praise in a post titled A Proud Day for Obama.

Next week President Obama heads for Europe: he will visit the UK, France, Poland and his mother's ancestral home in Ireland.

Another One Bites the Dust

The L.A. Times is reporting that Mitch Daniels has announced early Sunday that he will not run for President, due to family considerations.

Not unexpected---his wife left him, married someone else, left him and returned to Daniels, who married her again.  In this nebby age, a lot of splaining to do.

Update: And Another One Joins Up: stepping on his own Monday announcement, Tim Palenta issued a video announcing he is running for Prez.  Oh, and so is Godfather Herman Cain.