Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Terrorism and Psychoanalysis

Nowadays the term 'psychodynamic psychotherapist' refers to the broad class of mental health professionals trained in treating patients in psychotherapy, informed by attention to the unconscious mind, and psychoanalysts are those who have had the most in-depth training in the field. Psychoanalysts are currently in a struggle to make their specialty less insular, and more relevant to other disciplines. Of course the greatest issue of the day has earned their attention.

But Islamists are not the first terrorists that analysts have looked at. John Alderdice is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst at the Menninger Clinic who actually participated in the creation of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, using skills from his psychoanalytic training. He has continued to work for peace in Northern Ireland in other capacities since then.

It is striking that the definition of terrorism continues to be hard to agree on in the international community--the best of them, including the new UN definition, seem to center on the idea of terrorists deliberately targeting civilians. This past January the American Psychoanalytic Association hosted a symposium on terrorism and focused their definition on a different aspect of terrorism: it is violence as communication. Terrorist acts are specifically designed to influence individuals other than the intended victims.

The psychiatric jargon for that is 'acting out,' short for 'acting out of the transference'. For example, if a patient is unconsciously angry at his therapist for going on vacation he might not experience the anger consciously, but go rob a liquor store in order to get arrested, and make himself unavailable to the therapist. Helping people shift from 'acting out' to more effective methods of communication is one of the things psychoanalysis does best, and more work on this angle may be productive for the cultural and political front of the global war on terror.

Now some analysts have actually gotten hate mail for suggesting that those who engage in terrorism ought to be listened to. But the government has plenty of smart people trying to figure out how al Qaeda thinks about geopolitical strategy. Shouldn't we tap all the intellectual tools we have in thinking about the individual and cultural motivations that make joining al Qaeda seem--and feel--like a good idea to a teenage kid in Saudi Arabia?

Alderdice speaks of the importance promoting empathy and reducing humiliation played in the success of the peace process of Northern Ireland. While I support using decisive force to bring terrorists to justice in the war on the ground, we ought to consider listening before lecturing as a strategy to win the war for minds.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Memorial Day and Bad Timing

This and every memorial day, we remember the sacrifices of our men and women in the armed services.

Unfortunately, the House Republicans last week prevented an amendment from coming to the floor that would have provided coverage for emergency contraception to military women and dependents who are the victims of rape.

I would have hoped that the House leadership might have thought that providing the medical standard of care to women in uniform at least deserved an up or down vote.

A Student Thinktank

A few weeks ago I wrote on the folly of a new liberal thinktank in the works. Well, a few college students have come up with something better.

The Roosevelt Institution is a thinktank network of undergraduates, distributed among some 30 college campuses. Drawing inspiration from both TR and FDR, these students aim to bring their research, fact checking, and organizational skills to bear on national problems. After all, it's the college interns who do much of the real work at places like the Heritage Foundation. This new 'progressive' thinktank taps these resources and brings them in contact with policymakers.

Even if the Roosevelt Institution wanted to be a 'Liberal' thinktank, it couldn't. The country simply won't buy an orthodox wealth redistribution scheme these days, and there is no clear liberal position on the key issue of the global war on terror; this group must become something different from simply the opposite of the Heritage Foundation.

But if this new organization catalyzes the academy's transition into a vibrant interlocutor with policymakers, we're in for an interesting debate. This is a movement to keep your eye on.

Thanks to Philocrites for the tip.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Beyond the Clash of Civilizations

Michael Totten wrote this hopeful piece after returning from a one month stay in Lebanon to cover the Cedar Revolution. He writes:


Beirut may be the only place in the world where you can buy a necklace with a Christian cross and a Muslim crescent moon fused together as one. It's an unofficial symbol of Lebanon's nascent national unity. What other country would even think of making something like this? I've never seen one before. But now I own two. After growing up in the 1980s with sectarian Beirut as the poster child for urban disaster zones, it was really something to see.


The barriers to mideast peace are large, but if we focus less on the weekly body count from Iraq, and more on the broader trends in the region over the course of the past 30 years, there is reason to hope for the future.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Psychiatric Committment for Sex Offenders

There are several states which allow sexual predators to be admitted involuntarily to psychiatric hospitals under civil committment laws. Unfortunately, the US Supreme Court has already upheld this practice. The American Psychiatric Association however has rightfully come out against this policy and others that blur the line between treatment and punishment, in a task force position statement.


[The diagnosis of sexual predator is based on] a vague and circular determination that an offender has a 'mental abnormality' that has led to repeat criminal behavior. Thus, these statutes have the effect of defining mental illness in terms of criminal behavior. This is a misuse of psychiatry, because legislators have used psychiatric commitment to effect nonmedical societal ends...

We were concerned that psychiatry was being used to preventively detain a class of people for whom confinement rather than treatment was the real goal.


Hospitalization, chemical castration, and other coercive or invasive measures which commonly fall under the rubric of treatment, must not become intrinsically connected to the mission of the psychiatric specialty, or mental health will lose its integrity as a profession people can rely upon for treatment.

Another problem is that psychiatric hospitalization is designed as an intervention to stabilize patients in an acutely dangerous state, not as treatment for a chronically dangerous trait. It's analogous to using steroids for asthma; it works for a short flare up, but if used for too long the side effects outweigh the benefits. In this context, we might expect sex offenders to acquire additional dependency, to learn and teach problem behaviors to acutely ill patients, and to cause many institutional difficulties for psychiatric systems not designed to care for them.

There is some evidence that psychotherapy may benefit repeat offenders, and there may be some role for coercive participation in those interventions, but that is much less invasive than confinement. Remember that the mental health field already has a long history of unholy alliance with the State in the service of conformity, and has only been attempting to extricate itself for the last 30 years with the deinstitutionalization movement. Let's not lose the ground we've gained.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Quick thought on filibusters

A good take on the recent wrangling at Prof Bainbridge:


The filibuster is a profoundly conservative tool. It slows change by allowing a resolute minority to delay - to stand athwart history shouting stop. It ensures that change is driven not "merely by temporary advantage or popularity" but by a substantial majority. Is it any wonder that it has usually been liberals who want to change or abolish the filibuster rule?


Thanks to The Moderate Republican for the heads-up.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Bush Education Policy

Much of the discussion about No Child Left Behind has centered on its provisions to base federal funding decisions on test scores, and predictably this debate says more about the participants' relative trust of teachers as professionals or the concept of competition as a means to excellence than about any interpretation of evidence for or against specific policies.

That might be because of the spotty nature of the evidence available. I have been unable to find any data online directly analyzing the effect of NCLB, though there is much indirect data. This site provides performance data from achievement tests for most states (look up yours, it's fun!), during the period of NCLB. Here is evidence that NCLB's teacher requirements are hard on rural schools.

As a physician I have to admit being obsessed with evidence of efficacy, and I must commend NCLB for stressing federal funding being targetted to well-proven educational initiatives. The Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse is an excellent idea, for instance.

It's ironic though that central provisions of NCLB are completely without evidence to support them. Taking kids out of schools with poor test scores is the biggest single intervention offered amounting to almost a third of the budget allotted to failing schools. Standardized testing has never been shown to improve educational outcomes.


An underlying principle in NCLB is that injecting a measure of competition into education provides incentive for excellence. However, it must be remembered that competition is itself a tool like any other and must be applied where it has most effect. In this case, we must identify the level of the educational organization where decisionmaking and resource allocation occurs. This is seldom the individual school, but NCLB acts as if it is. Usually principals have very limited control over personell decisions, operating budget, and other critical regulatory matters that can affect the education provided at his/her school. Thus applying incentives at that level is senseless. Make teachers compete in some way if you want them to improve their motivation perhaps. Make school districts compete if you want them to be more efficient and have better services. But the schools themselves are just buildings.

My final quibble with NCLB is that it violates the principles of federalism that Republicans traditionally champion. It represents federal intrusion into the state matter of education on a massive scale. It brings unfunded mandates of the type Republicans have long fought in other areas of government action.

There is some role for the Federal government in education, especially in the matter of college loans, and evening out regional variation in education funds and quality. But NCLB has too many fundamental conceptual flaws to be successful in the long run. The emphasis on evidence-based funding should be preserved, but the rest of the law needs to be scrapped.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Another Vermont Healthcare Experiment

In the days of Governor Dean, Vermont famously implemented the Dr. Dynasoar program, achieving nearly universal health coverage for children. Now, Moderate Republican Gov Jim Douglas has made a proposal to provide universal access to care for adults with chronic medical conditions. The Democrat controlled VT Senate recently passed a health care bill however that the governor has strongly opposed. There are two key differences between their visions.

1. The governor's plan does not cover the 14,000 out of 35,000 Vermonters without insurance, who have been estimated to be able to afford insurance but have chosen not to buy it.

2. Here's main the sticking point: The Senate (Democrat) plan is funded by a tax on payroll of companies not providing health insurance to their employees. The Governor's plan raises the existing 2% tax on health premiums to 3%, and allows taxation of premiums to VT Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

While the Democrats' plan seems like a progressive tax on the face, consider that the Governor's plan amounts to taxation of companies and individuals who are able to afford buying health insurance. The Democrats' plan on the other hand adds up to taxing poor individuals to provide the same people with healthcare. Another way of saying this is that the Governor's plan brings insured and uninsured people into the same risk pool, and avoids disturbing the existing health insurance market since those individuals have been unable to purchase insurance up to now.

If the Governor's plan is passed, Vermont would have a new type of healthcare system with an appropriate emphasis on chronic diseases and much improved access to care. It would be harder to pilot this type of program in a bigger state, but if it works here it could become a national model. I hope the Senate Democrats don't let their wealth-redistribution impulses get in the way of passing a healthcare plan this session.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Are you upbeat?

Pew recently put out an interesting study breaking the electorate into definable blocks.

The trends Pew found are, in brief, that there are more Liberals since 1999, Independents trend Republican ("Upbeats" are exurban educated, young and married, while "Disaffected" are less educated, more rural and male), and socioeconomic status does not predict political party.

Links to the questionnaire you can take yourself, and more info on the results is at Redstate.

Congressional Brinksmanship

The Modo Blog has been conspicuously silent on the judge nomination debate currently at the fore. Here's the moderate take as I see it.

The fact that the filibuster rule itself as it applies to judge nominations is in contention tells us the rule has never been set one way or the other. In other words, if nobody has tried to filibuster a judge nomination, and nobody has prohibited it, the rules of the Senate remain to be set.

We're as free as the founding fathers in 1776 to set up the process as we think best.

So to those who would see the filibuster banned, I would point out that the Founding Fathers really did see the Senate as a moderating force in government, and that it would seem to be in the spirit of the chamber to extend the right to filibuster to all Senate actions. Remember that the Constitution requires a supermajority of the Senate for other nonlegislative functions, such as passing treaties.

To those who would bring the business of the Senate to a standstill, I would remind them that the electorate will not look kindly on a do-nothing Congress in a time of international emergency.

The only reasonable option is compromise. Bring a few judges to a vote, agree to drop a few, and let's dispense with outrageous statements like Sen. Santorum's:


"I mean, imagine, the rule has been in place for 214 years that this is the way we confirm judges. Broken by the other side two years ago, and the audacity of some members to stand up and say, how dare you break this rule? It's the equivalent of Adolf Hitler in 1942 saying, 'I'm in Paris. How dare you invade me. How dare you bomb my city? It's mine.'"

[Thanks to Charging RINO for the quote]

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Taiwan Elections: Stirring a Pot of Trouble

The majority Democratic Progressive Party won by a small but substantive majority in parliamentary elections last week. This win for the party and president most identified with the independence movement; last year he told Time Magazine explicitly that he cannot accept One China, the principle that the People's Republic repeatedly vows to go to war to defend.


Taiwan is an independent sovereign country, which, according to the current Constitution, bears the national designation of the Republic of China. It has no jurisdiction over the People's Republic of China, nor does the PRC exercise any effective jurisdiction over the Republic of China.


After half a century of lip service to One China from the KMT, this is a very harsh statement from a leader of the ROC. And it means trouble for the US. While basically supportive of Taiwanese de facto independence, the US has a profound interest in preserving the fiction of progress toward reunification in order to appease the PRC. Some real movement occurred earlier this year when the head of the Nationalist Party (KMT) met with Communist Party officials.

The key word is fiction. Any movement at all, either toward reunification or toward independence, is essentially not in the US's interest. Instability in the status quo hightens Japanese attention to security matters, destabilizes trade in the region, and strains formal US diplomatic relations with both parties.

In the next few years there likely will be pressure on the US from the PRC to disengage from Taiwan, from Japan to reign in Chinese expansionism, and from the ROC to sell it more arms. The US should continue to defend the democracy on Taiwan, and must continue to engage the nascent superpower on the mainland, but in general we should do as little as possible. If the Strait again heats up, as it has threatened to do in the 1990s, that may be the hardest policy of all.

US Energy Policy and a Vermont Gas Station

President Bush has recently called on the Congress to develop a new energy policy before the summer travel season. Here in vermont, one gas station has begun selling biodiesel fuel. But there's a little more work to do.

Back in 2002 the President promised to support hydrogen fuel in his state of the union address. Though many pointed out that hydrogen was a means of transporting energy, not actually a source of energy, the administration has followed through with this promise. This site details some of the technical issues involved, but most salient I think is the need for massive infrastructure investment for distribution. Germany is already setting up such a system.

I don't see the advantage to constructing a brand new energy distribution infrastructure for hydrogen, when electricity is such a mature utility. There is already a significant foothold for electrical cars in the form of hybrid vehicles.
Also, it makes more sense to gradually evolve away from current fuel types by introducing bridge fuels like biodiesel which may eventually lead to fully renewable fuels--this lessens the requirement for additional up front investment on the part of consumers.

Federal research funds may be better spent developing alternative sources of energy, and bringing the energy storage and performance characteristics of fully electric cars up to the levels of today's petroleum vehicles, in order to more directly address the issues of pollution and reliance on fossil fuels.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

America's Human Rights Record

A recent piece in the Economist highlights the change in course on human rights the US has taken since September 11. According to Harold Hongju Koh, our emphasis has shifted from advocacy of a broad range of freedoms, to overwhelming focus on 'freedom from fear.' A summary quote:


Witness five faces of a human-rights policy fixated on freedom from fear. First, closed government and invasions of privacy. Second, scapegoating immigrants and refugees. Third, creating extra-legal zones, most prominently at the naval base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. Fourth, creating extra-legal persons, particularly the detainees of American citizenship labelled “enemy combatants”. Fifth, a reduced American human-rights presence through the rest of the globe.


Do check out his article for details on each of these trends.

It's hard to say which is worse: the actual liberties trampled by these policies, or the double standards we convey and the consequent loss of moral authority to be a voice for civil liberties worldwide. Koh cites numerous instances where authoritarian governments have used the term 'anti-terrorism' as cover for political crackdowns.

Yet these measures are products of the GOP, the party which holds individual liberty so dear in the face of government encroachment when it comes to issues like federal regulation and control of economic activities. I think this apparent paradox is residue from the cold war, when government regulation smelt like encroaching socialism. I hope that the Republicans' general concern for individual liberty which is primarily found today in economic ideas like an ownership society and tax cuts becomes reinforced in the realm of civil liberties and law enforcement as the emergency mindset of Sept 11 fades into the past.

In the meantime, let's remember that more people have been killed and oppressed by conventional governments in the last century than by any subversive terrorist group before we continue buying temporary safety and spending our liberties.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Republican Quotes

I thought I'd share a list of Republican quotes, crossposted from my diary at Redstate. I invite others to share other quotes that they like.

"Do what you can, with what you have, where you are"
--Teddy Roosevelt

"Government's view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidise it. "
--Reagan

"Wherever there is a conflict between human rights and property rights, human rights must prevail"
--A. Lincoln

"History teaches that war begins when governments believe the price of aggression is cheap."
--Reagan

"We trust sir that God is on our side"
Lincoln's response: "It is more important that we are on God's side"

"How far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without? "
--Eisenhower

"It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."
--Teddy Roosevelt

"Solutions are not the answer."
--Nixon

"Too often, my party has confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself"
--GW Bush

"Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today's world do not have."
--Reagan

"The government is us; we are the government, you and I."
--Teddy Roosevelt

"It is our solemn responsibility to show that government can have both a head and a heart; that it can be both progressive and solvent; and that it can serve the people without becoming their master."
--Thomas Dewey

"America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we have destroyed ourselves."
--Lincoln

"Materialistic democracy beckons every man to make himself a king; republican citizenship incites every man to be a knight."
--WF Buckley

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Talking with Intelligent Designers

Last month the American Association for the Advancement of Science declined to meet in hearings with the predominantly conservative Kansas Board of Education that were to take place this week. The topic? Inclusion of "Intelligent Design" as an alternative explanation to the theory of evolution in Kansas science curricula.

Intelligent design (ID) is the idea that one can infer from the complexity of the universe the existance of an intelligent designer. It's the old 'watch on the beach' theory: if you find a watch on the beach, you don't assume that the quartz and metal all just fell together like that.

The there are several relevant issues where ID meets education. One is that the theory of evolution allows us to understand phenomena (the mutation of HIV viruses in a single patient, the breeding of dogs, the ecology of a forest) that we can manipulate. In short, understanding evolution provides a useful tool, whether you agree with it or not, while understanding ID is not useful whether it is true or not. Granted, these statements are grounded in secular values, but if public schools are to have a primary purpose of teaching useful knowledge so that cultural values can be taught mainly at home and in church, that is how curricula should be judged.

Another way of stating the problem with ID in schools is that it represents only half of the scientific process. In science we make observations, induce principles from them (laws or theories), then test those theories by making controlled observations. ID represents an induction without any possible deductions. That doesn't make ID untrue, but it makes it an argument for philosophy or theology rather than science. Finally, it's not correct to present ID as an alternative to evolution, since they can be simultaneously true--evolution itself could feasibly be a product of intelligent design.

But now that I've gotten my own position into the open, let me make my main point: I am deeply disappointed in the AAAS for declining the Kansas Board of Education's invitation.

The cultural divide between secularists and evangelicals is deep, and it is fueled not only by prejudice and misunderstanding but by dismissal of other viewpoints as irrelevant. That sort of disengagement can only serve to highten polarization on this and other issues. Political polarization is not bad in and of itself; if the factions compete for adherents through rhetoric (in the Trivium sense), wise policies may result. But if they compete mainly through hyperbole and insinuation, disorder will result.

A wise man once said that the most important question in the English language is "That's interesting, why do you think that?" If AAAS had attended these hearings, the Kansas Board may have changed course, or it may have proceeded having seen people with a secularist viewpoint as wrong yet reasonable. Either way, I suspect that a policy of dialogue would have been more productive over the long run.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Lincoln's Faith

The gray zone between a spiritual private life and a religion-infused political life is an old, uncomfortable place. As David Brooks describes in a recent piece, Lincoln's bold Emancipation was fueled by faith, in a man who mostly guided by reason.


Lincoln was neither a scoffer nor a guy who could talk directly to God. Instead, he wrestled with faith, longing to be more religious, but never getting there.

Today, a lot of us are stuck in Lincoln's land. We reject the bland relativism of the militant secularists. We reject the smug ignorance of, say, a Robert Kuttner, who recently argued that the culture war is a contest between enlightened reason and dogmatic absolutism. But neither can we share the conviction of the orthodox believers, like the new pope, who find maximum freedom in obedience to eternal truth. We're a little nervous about the perfectionism that often infects evangelical politics, the rush to crash through procedural checks and balances in order to reach the point of maximum moral correctness.

Those of us stuck here in this wrestling-with-faith world find Lincoln to be our guide and navigator. Lincoln had enough firm conviction to lead a great moral crusade, but his zeal was tempered by doubt, and his governing style was dispassionate...

Lincoln's core lesson is that while the faithful and the faithless go at each other in their symbiotic culture war, those of us trapped wrestling with faith are not without the means to get up and lead.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Abenaki in Vermont

Moderate Republican governor Jim Douglas of Vermont has come out against recognizing the Abenaki as a native American tribe and the battle goes on.

The Vermont Abenaki story is a case study in what it means to be a part of a marginalized culture. The mountains between the Connecticut River and Lake Champlain had been used by native peoples since the glacier receded about 9300BC. The land was sparsely populated due to the difficult climate and terrain, and for some of the time may have been used only seasonally, but by the late Woodland period (2nd millenium BC until historic times) there was a progression to less mobile culture in the area. When Europeans first came to Vermont, the area had been cleared out by diseases spreading from Massachusetts and other southern colonies, and so the idea developed that Vermont had never had any Indians. The archaeological record however, belies this notion. The Indians using the region of present day Vermont at the time of first European contact were the Abenaki.

As European immigrants swept away native resistance over time, the Abenaki concentrated themselves in the Missisquoi (NW Vermont) area and were eventually dispossessed of their lands by Ira Allen (Ethan's brother) after what was probably a fabricated incident. Those who did not flee to Canada survived by becoming invisible: they lived among the Europeans, adopted their tools and dress, and learned English and French. However, they claim to have maintained the core of their cultural identity until they were 'rediscovered' in the 1970s by the ethnohistorian John Moody.

Throughout this lost time period, Abenakis either lived outside the view of civilization, hunting and fishing on ancestral grounds without contact with Euro-Americans, or kept a low ethnic profile while living among Europeans. They also intermarried extensively. Some characteristic features that are preserved today though include extended families living under one roof, a particular pattern of familial authority, certain religious beliefs (though many consider themselves Christian), and respect for hunting and trapping territories.

In the 1970s the Abenaki began to seek exemption from permits for hunting and fishing. The legitimacy of their status as a tribe became the central issue, and they never permanently attained tribal recognition. Certain cultural differences, such as attitude towards time (whether Roger's Rangers raid during the French and Indian War is seen as a current event) may point toward a real cultural difference, but it is difficult to translate that into a legal criterion for membership in the tribe when there has not been a continuous political entity for 200 years.

Today the struggle for state recognition (which is seen as a step toward federal recognition) is hampered by a fear of reservation gambling among state officials. Let's hope that an arrangement can eventually be worked out the preserves the state's legitimate interest to avoid casinos and license fraud, and the tribe's interest in attaining access to hunting and fishing rights. Even in the 21st century, Native American relations is not usually where we see Americans at our best.

Information cited from The Original Vermonters by WA Haviland and MW Power.
See also the official Abenaki website.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Liberal Think Tanks

It's hard not to copy a good idea.

After reading about the well-oiled conservative thinktank-media-politician complex in books like David Brock's mea culpa, liberals have apparently decided to replicate that establishment. With their own millionaire benefactors, they've quietly laid the groundwork for new progressive thinktanks. But the Left's current political and intellectual situation is much different from that of the conservative movement of the 1970s that spawned the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute.

Universities were firmly liberal by the early 1970s and many conservative scholars in economics, journalism and other social science disciplines felt unable to break into academia. This created an opportunity for millionaire benefactors to set up thinktanks in Washington DC where conservative ideas could be generated in close proximity to decisionmakers. Today these institutions have a fast line to Congress and the White House as expert sources, and continue to keep themselves relevant to policymakers by offering a variety of services. You'll note from the link the pre-made talking points.

The liberals still by and large are the majority of faculty in university social science departments. While perhaps Richard Rorty's dream of reuniting the early twentieth century academia-labor alliance is not viable, the liberals shouldn't forget about the influence academia wields, and their best minds are already concentrated there. Investing in academia builds the farm team, while investing in think tanks yields short-term political influence.

Conservatives developed think tanks when they were low on policy ideas and felt locked out of academia. Liberals today are low on policy ideas and feel locked out of government. They have the institutional infrastructure to develop novel proposals, but they're not using it well because the incentives for individual researchers' career advancement encourage more theoretical research than policy work that can be sold directly to politicians. Rewarding academics in their tenure tracks for participation as well as publication might go a long way to salvaging the listing liberal ship.

Moderates are interested in maintaining a viable minority, not just to keep parliamentary bodies pluralistic, but because the minority has the greatest incentive to think creatively and ask good questions about what the majority does. The Democrat minority of the past 5 years has in many ways been a disappointment, but copying the conservatives' institutions is not an easy fix; it's an example of the me-too attitude that loses elections.

Perhaps most distressing is imagining a liberal doppelganger Heritage-FoxNews-Rove political complex in constant rhetorical warfare with the original. How sad it would be if that turns out to be the only way to reach a political equilibrium. But it seems unlikely to work since the liberal thinktank network is being born out of contrivance rather than addressing the movement's specific needs. Besides, who would be the conservative version of Colmes?

Monday, May 02, 2005

Rebuilding Community

As promised, this blog will also feature commentary on culture and psychiatry...

Have you noticed how many new churches contain the word 'community' in their names? It speaks to churches' recognition of the disconnectedness many modern Americans feel and their attempt to fill that need.

It's no secret that the great commercial and media booms of the latter 20th century have made us more likely to become strangers in a crowd--living among neighbors we hardly know, feeling more connected to celebrities than real people. Mary Pipher blames much of this movement on psychotherapy. According to her, psychoanalysis was designed to help neurotic Victorians work through their overactive consciences, but today's patients come for help finding meaning and become egocentric when the last traces of guilt are shrugged off in the service of feeling good.

I would argue that psychotherapy at its best is coaching in participating in community. George Vaillant, the eminent American psychiatrist, spent years gathering and analyzing objective data from hundreds of intimate personal interviews with normal people over their whole lifetimes. To his eye, normal adult development consists of ever expanding circles of concern, in growing levels of complexity and meaning. A therapist, or a life mentor of any sort, can be a catalyst for this beneficial widening of interpersonal involvement.

Vaillant describes an adult developmental stage of "keeper of the meaning" when an individual has attained mastery beyond competency in career and personal life, and is able to serve as a role model and transmitter of the tradition and knowledge he/she has acquired. I might argue that it is the ability of a population to foster enough individuals to attain this stage which allows a culture to effectively transmit its ways through the generations. Vaillant also observes that mentoring is an important activity through which individuals who successfully construct and experience meaning in their lives do so.

Mentoring is at the root of community; it is among the key activities that communities form a framework to support. Mentoring happens at work, in formal instruction, and among neighbors informally. If we each find or become a mentor, as we see the need and the ability, we can foster a sense of community despite the obstacles we encounter.