Tag Archives: obama

A “Social Psychosis” Rises In Our Culture

Much of the ongoing debate in political, business and social/cultural arenas is rooted in an underlying disagreement about what best serves national interests and individual lives. Is it promoting the common good, or serving self-interest?

As interdependence and interconnection on this planet become ever-more apparent, new challenges and conflicts arise for personal life, the role of government and the conduct of business leadership. In response to these new realities, people’s attitudes and behavior are shifting more towards serving the larger common good; now necessary for successful, flexible and psychologically resilient functioning.

However, these shifts clash with a long-prevailing ideology, that the primary pursuit of self-interest best serves the public interest and personal success. That ideology has also prevailed in our views of adult psychological health and maturity. In essence, the pursuit of greed, self-centeredness and materialism have become the holy trinity of public and private conduct. And it’s generating a growing “social psychosis.”

That is, the benefits of self-interest in personal lives and public policy supposedly trump any that accrue from serving the common good; the latter would undermine the former, if put into practice. For example, the argument against helping the unemployed, extending health insurance for all Americans or addressing climate change is that they would hurt the economy and therefore negatively impact your well-being and life success.

To question or critique this ideology might even be called “un-American.” That would be correct; a good thing, actually, because the values and conduct that seem to have “worked” for so long now falter in today’s rapidly changing world. No longer do they ensure long-term success, well-being or security. Several observers have written about the faltering of the old system in today’s world. For example, Jeff Jarvis of CUNY, who has written about a

…great restructuring’ of the economy and society, starting with a fundamental change in our relationships — how we are linked and intertwined and how we act.

Or Umair Haque, who has been describing

…the new principles of a new economy, built around stewardship, trusteeship, guardianship, leadership, partnership.

in his Harvard Business School blog posts.

The Social Psychosis Backlash
The reaction to the growing interconnection is a creeping “social psychosis.” Like the frog in the pot of water who doesn’t notice the slowly rising temperature Continue reading


Reasons Behind The Need To Portray Obama As Anti-American

Newt Gingrich’s recent comments alleging that Obama’s is driven by “Kenyan anti-colonial” attitudes, when combined with increasingly bizarre statements from Tea Party candidates, suggest something that isn’t apparent on the surface:  That we’re witnessing the “last gasp” of a dying, descending set of attitudes and values regarding individual and public policy, including what it is to be an American.

I think these kinds of statements reflect growing desperation about sweeping changes in our society.  That is, the country is steadily shifting towards a diverse population, and acceptance of that diversity.  And, towards growing recognition of the need to serve the larger common good; that we’re all in the same boat in this globalized world, and we will stand or fall together, as President Obama recently stated.

But it just doesn’t look like that shift is happening at present, because the period we’re living through is one of a growing but temporary backlash against those changes, from  people who view them with fears and a sense of loss.  They should be understood, but not condoned or excused.

A good illustration of the reactionary thinking in response to steadily growing social change is the essay that Gingrich based his comments on – A Forbes cover story on “How Obama Thinks” by Dinesh D’Souza.  A Columbia Journalism Review article by Ryan Chittum calls it a “…shameful piece on Obama as the ‘Other,’” and “The worst kind of smear journalism.”

Chittum writes, “How Obama Thinks” is a gross piece of innuendo—a fact-twisting, error-laden piece of paranoia.  Forbes for some reason gives Dinesh D’Souza the cover and lots of space to froth about the notion popular in the right-wing fever swamps that Obama is an “other”; that he doesn’t think like “an American,” that his actions benefit foreigners rather than Amurricans. It’s too kind to call this innuendo. It’s far too overt for that.

D’Souza’s distortions and lies are clearly designed to make Obama appear to be anti-American, and anti-white; someone different from “us” who’s bent on carrying out the African tribal mission of his father (whom he met one time, briefly, at age 10). Chittum’s analysis and dissection of D’Souza’s story is worth reading. Here’s the full article from the Columbia Journalism Review.


Why Some Believe Obama is a Muslim – New Research

Here’s some interesting new research from a study of the psychology behind smear campaigns, led by Michigan State.  It  examined the rising numbers of people who believe the falsehood that President Obama is a Muslim.  The findings indicate that people are more likely to accept  such false representations, both consciously and unconsciously, when they are reminded of ways in which Obama is different from them — whether from racial, social class or other differences, according to Spee Kosloff and his colleagues from several other universities, who conducted the study.

“Careless or biased media outlets are largely responsible for the propagation of these falsehoods, which catch on like wildfire,” said Kosloff.  ”And then social differences can motivate acceptance of these lies.”

“When people are unsatisfied with the president — whether it’s the way he’s handling the economy, health care or Afghanistan — our research suggests that this only fuels their readiness to accept untrue rumors,” Kosloff said.  ”As his job rating goes down, suggesting that people feel like he’s not ideologically on their side, we see an increase in this irrational belief that he’s a Muslim,” he added. “Unfortunately, in America, many people dislike Muslims so they’ll label Obama as Muslim when they feel different from him.”

The findings are reported in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.  The acceptance of falsehoods is particularly relevant because a Pew Research Center poll in August  found that 18 percent of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim — up from 11 percent in March 2009 — even though he’s a practicing Christian.

A complete summary of the research is available in Science Daily.


The Unspoken Source of Opposition to the Proposed Islamic Center

There’s one glaring omission in the stated opposition to the proposed Islamic Center near Ground Zero.  It’s the unspoken implication that Islam is, by definition, a fanatical, terrorist religion.

As I read and hear about the reasons offered by those opposing the Center, they usually conclude with such descriptions as  ”insensitive,” “inappropriate,” or “insulting” to the memory of those whose lives were lost in the 9-11 attacks.  And yet, I haven’t heard any real explanation of what, exactly, would be  ”insensitive,” and so forth, about the proposed presence of an Islamic Center in the vicinity of Ground Zero?  The most they say or imply is that its presence would be wrong, by definition, because of its location.  But those opposed don’t really say what that connection is, in their minds, that makes its location wrong or “unwise.”

To put this in a broader context, look at the recent speech by New York Mayor Bloomberg.  He presented both a passionate and reasoned, principled explanation why it should be allowed; and why doing so is fully consistent with American values and history.  Following that, President Obama affirmed much of the same set of principles in support of the Center — until he backtracked the next day, under the not-unexpected Republican and right-wing opposition.

Here’s what I believe is the unspoken source of the opposition: Equating fanatical, extremist Muslims with Muslims, per se.  That’s why some have used the analogy of erecting a Nazi center next to a concentration camp.  Or a monument to the KKK next to a civil rights memorial.  The analogies are bizarre, and reveal the bigotry and ignorance behind them.  That is, the heart of the argument against the presence of the Islamic Center is that it would be “insensitive” because  the perpetrators of the 9-11 attacks were Muslims.  Now take that link to it’s conclusion.  Aside from the fact that Muslims were among those killed in the attack, the opponents seem reluctant to state that they are arguing that Islam, as a faith, is embodied in the terrorist attacks.  This would be like saying that because some Christians are fanatics, and some of those support killing of doctors who perform abortions, that therefore Christianity, per se, is a fanatical religion.

The triumph of emotional reactiveness and sentiment over our professed American values is very troubling.  If the opponents to the Center acknowledged outright that they’re equating fanatical Muslims and the Muslim faith in general, at least they would demonstrate logical integrity — along, of course, with outright bigotry.  But we would see what their true position is, rather than hearing them evade explaining just why they believe the presence of the Center would be “insensitive.”  This closet prejudice reminds me of Colin Powell’s retort to those claiming that Obama was  a secret Muslim, during the 2008 campaign. Powell asked what if  Obama was, in fact, a Muslim? So what?  What’s the point?   The same questions should be asked today of those who couch their opposition in words that don’t make explicit their implied conclusion.

Mayor Bloomberg was right on target when he explained the higher principles and context of this issue.  It’s worth reading.  Click here for the full speech.  Here’s a small portion of what he said.

Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11, and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values and play into our enemies’ hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists, and we should not stand for that.

For that reason, I believe that this is an important test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetimes, as important a test. And it is critically important that we get it right.

On Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of first responders heroically rushed to the scene and saved tens of thousands of lives. More than 400 of those first responders did not make it out alive. In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked, ‘What God do you pray to?’  ’What beliefs do you hold?’

The attack was an act of war, and our first responders defended not only our city, but our country and our constitution. We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.

Well said, Mayor Bloomberg.


Obama’s Handling Of The Gulf Disaster: The Psychology Behind The Criticisms

Criticism of Pres. Obama’s leadership during the Gulf of Mexico disaster has been mounting in recent weeks.  People are worried and concerned about the huge, unrelenting flow of oil and what it may do to our entire ecology.  The President’s press conference mitigated some of those criticisms, but many view his response as too little, too late.  They ask why didn’t he take command and speak to the nation several weeks ago?

A great deal of the criticism is justified, and it’s coming from both right and left. It includes not only his personal leadership but more broadly, the role and response of the federal government.

But I think there’s another, additional basis for the criticism:  The psychology of people’s fears when they’re confronted with such disasters, and how that shapes what they look for in a leader.

That is, the psychology of the criticism directed at Obama reflects something deeper than questions about BP’s performance and/or untrustworthiness, given the cozy relationship big oil has had with the federal government.  It’s also deeper than debate over what government’s proper role should be in dealing with this or other man-made disasters.

To explain, let’s take a look at some criticisms coming from both the left and the right:  On May 17, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews erupted in anger at the oil disaster. He railed about the profits BP reaps as it fails to fix it, but also criticized the Obama administration for letting BP control the disaster response.  Calling this “disaster capitalism,” (from Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine) he questioned why the President doesn’t just “nationalize that industry and get the job done,” adding that in China, “they execute people for this.”

That’s typical of Matthews’ sometimes over-the-top passion, but he’s been making solid criticism of the President for, in essence, looking like an observer, standing on the sidelines, instead of getting in there and doing something.

Similarly, other critics have openly wondered why Obama hasn’t shown more passion, like pounding the table, showing outrage; perhaps shouting.

Some conservative critics have Continue reading


Obama, Empathy And The Supreme Court Nominee

Well, people, it looks like the fight over the “e-word” has started again.  Remember last year, when President Obama said that the capacity for empathy was an important criteria for selecting a Supreme Court nominee?  He was quickly attacked by those who apparently heard “empathy” as a code word for some kind of ideological bias.  And shortly after, Obama backed off from using the term.

Last June, I wrote here about why I thought he should keep on using the word empathy, not back away from it.  I have a particular interest in the subject, having written about our national “empathy deficit disorder” in The Washington Post a few years ago — and which I recently updated on my Psychology Today blog.  During last year’s Supreme Court nomination process, critics distorted what empathy is.  It’s  actually the capacity to experience what another person experiences.  It’s what gives you the capacity for wisdom, perspective and sound judgment; not bias or distortion or being bamboozled into the other’s point of view.

Nevertheless, as Obama decides who to nominate as Justice Stevens’ replacement, it’s like Yogi Berra said: “It’s déjà vu, all over again.”

To wit: A recent article in  The New York Times asks if  Obama is looking for empathy “by another name.”  The piece, by Peter Baker, points out that

A year after Mr. Obama made “empathy” one of his main criteria in picking his first Supreme Court justice, he is avoiding the word, which became radioactive, as he picks his second nominee. Instead, he says he wants someone with “a keen understanding of how the law affects the daily lives of the American people.”

Baker goes on to say,

The issue is more than semantic. …The president emphasizes that while adhering to the rule of law, judges should also be able to see life through the eyes of those who come before the bench. His critics call that a prescription for twisting decisions to reach a desired outcome…..

The dispute became so contentious last year that even Mr. Obama’s nominee for the court, Sonia Sotomayor, disavowed the notion of empathy during hearings before her confirmation, saying that “judges can’t rely on what’s in their heart.”

In the same vein, Lee Epstein, a constitutional scholar at the Northwestern University School of Law, said in the Times piece, “You hear ‘empathy’ and you don’t think impartiality, judicial temperament.”

And getting right to the “heart” (whoops, sorry!) of the matter,

Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee. “It seems to be calling again for judges to be less committed to fidelity to the law and calling for them to reach decisions that somehow endeavor to decide who ought to win.”

All of this posturing should be exposed for the ignorance and manipulation it contains, and presented in hopes that the public will buy it.  We need to emphasize why empathy is a plus, an inborn capacity, and the basis of healing the serious wounds in our global society, as Jeremy Rifkin has written in The Empathic Civilization.  But as far as the relevance of empathy to the Supreme Court issue, The Nation’s  Katrina vanden Heuvel, writing in The Washington Post, put it in proper context:

Is it better to have a corporate stooge on the bench than someone capable of understanding how his or her decisions will affect 300 million fellow citizens? Better to have a biased judge than a humane one, a dishonest justice instead of one who’s insightful?  It… goes to show how hysterical those critics have become about empathy.

It’s sad and discouraging to witness fear-fueled distortions coming from elected officials and others.  I hope that President Obama returns to his well-founded support for empathy as a criteria.  It’s especially important at this time in our history when we need more, not less empathy, not only in a Supreme Court justice, but in our society at large, to help face and solve major problems that confront us – economically, socially, psychologically.  As I wrote previously, in the Bible King Solomon asked God for “a heart that listens.” Notice that he didn’t ask for “a head that thinks.” Continue reading