Today, no other political label gets thrown around as frequently, or with as much reckless abandon, as “neocon.” The most popular liberal blogs name and shame neocons, real or imagined, on a daily basis. The term is used in a fashion similar to the way “communist” was during the 1950s—an all-encompassing indictment—this time indicating an imperialistic and “warmongering,” even an “insane,” worldview. The anti-neocon fervor has reached truly McCarthyite proportions: just a few months ago, Steve Clemons of the left-wing New America Foundation argued in favor of “Purging the Neocons from the American Soul.”
...By now, “neocon” has mutated into a political curse word to discredit not just those who happily accept their status as neoconservatives, but also anyone who merely believes that the West should respond in muscular fashion to national security threats, such as those posed by the cooperation of Iran, Syria, and North Korea on nuclear weapons technology and the equipping of terrorist groups around the world. The chief purpose of this emergent rhetorical style is to cast aspersions on anyone who believes, say, that Iran must not attain nuclear weapons, even if it requires war.
Kirchick then details a perfect example of the new political discourse:
When Joe Lieberman, whose positions on domestic policy are indistinguishable from those of the majority of his colleagues in the Senate Democratic caucus, makes mere mention of Iranian or Syrian support for armed elements in Iraq, Matthew Yglesias—one of the most popular leftist bloggers, writing from his perch at The Atlantic—duly calls the senator a “neocon,” a “psychotic rightwinger,” and a “warmongerer.”
And then notes (regretfully, I think) that:
The long tradition of liberal anti-totalitarianism thus appears to have come to an end, at least in mainstream political rhetoric.
Just yesterday, Lieberman delivered speech at a Center for Politics and Foreign Relations/Financial Times breakfast at The Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, which should have the leftists up in arms (or is that too militarily aggressive a description for them?). Lieberman said:
“Since retaking Congress in November 2006, the top foreign policy priority of the Democratic Party has not been to expand the size of our military for the war on terror or to strengthen our democracy promotion efforts in the Middle East or to prevail in Afghanistan. It has been to pull our troops out of Iraq, to abandon the democratically-elected government there, and to hand a defeat to President Bush.
“Iraq has become the singular litmus test for Democratic candidates. No Democratic presidential primary candidate today speaks of America’s moral or strategic responsibility to stand with the Iraqi people against the totalitarian forces of radical Islam, or of the consequences of handing a victory in Iraq to al Qaeda and Iran. And if they did, their campaign would be as unsuccessful as mine was in 2006. Even as evidence has mounted that General Petraeus’ new counterinsurgency strategy is succeeding, Democrats have remained emotionally invested in a narrative of defeat and retreat in Iraq, reluctant to acknowledge the progress we are now achieving, or even that that progress has enabled us to begin drawing down our troops there.”
Senator Lieberman also indicated, “…there is something profoundly wrong—something that should trouble all of us—when we have elected Democratic officials who seem more worried about how the Bush administration might respond to Iran’s murder of our troops, than about the fact that Iran is murdering our troops. (full text at the link)
My thoughts on neoconservatism can be found here ; and I recommend this book by Douglas Murray and this article from Commentary by Joshua Muravchik. These exceptionally articulate and provocative discussions are the sort of discourse deemed "psychotic" by the political left, without any objective evidence--and usually, in the face of evidence to the exact contrary-- to back up the claim.
As a psychiatrist I am often on the receiving end of this particular rhetorical technique. Many paranoid and delusional patients use it when they declare that it is not themselves who are delusional, but the psychiatrist evaluating them!
And, who in the postmodern world of the political left--steeped as they are in all sorts of conspiracy theories (simply check out the Democratic Underground for the conspiracy du jour) ; awash in exaggerated emotionalism; and drowning in paranoia and denial--is still capable of making a distinction between reality and psychosis, since it's all just relative anyway, isn't it? One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, after all. Bush is worse than Bin Laden; and U.S. military bases are terrorist training camps, etc. etc.
For them, all assertions are simply a matter of opinion--infused with strong feelings, of course--and their opinion is just as good as yours--no, better! Because they adhere to a "higher" truth and subscribe to a "higher" reality! A reality that is made from wishes, feelings, and fantasy.
A disinterested observer looking at both the political left and right as they engage in discourse would see the following kind of accusatory exchanges:
"You are projecting!" or "You are the one in denial!"
"No, you are!"
"Who's paranoid now?"
Thus we come to a fundamental question. How does one assess if either left or right is speaking truth? Or, how does a reasonable person evaluate opinions and political discourse in general for connectedness to reality?
Here are some clues, and it is how psychiatrists (at least competent ones) are able to assert, not only that a person who believes aliens have implanted monitors in their brain (an obvious delusion); but also that persons who maintain that Bush=Hitler, or that a Christian theocracy is about to be imposed on the US or that there is no threat from Islam, are also flirting with outright psychotic (i.e. out of touch with reality) delusions. The former are frank, truly psychotic delusions for which people often seek medical help; while the latter are some of the everyday delusions and self-deceptions that are used to maintain one's sense of self and perserve a dysfunctional worldview.
The "new" political discourse is just a more malignant and rather desperate iteration of the usual type of political discourse that has always been a part of human interaction ("politics as usual"). Only today, it involves an even more maladaptive style of communication (i.e., postmodern rhetoric) that is symptomatic of severe psychological dysfunction, as well as the ideological disintegration of certain groups.
The new political discourse makes it imperative that each individual must be able to determine, rationally and without prejudice or self-delusion when he or she is using maladaptive psychological defenses to disguise his or her own biases and unacceptable feelings.
George Vaillant in The Wisdom of the Ego makes the following pertinent observation:
“…whether a defense is normal or abnormal depends on the eyes of the beholder. We always regard our own vigilance toward our enemies as adaptive, but we view their mistrust of us as an unwarranted projection of their own shortcomings”
Feeling strongly that your particular position is the correct one is not relevant to the truth. While feelings may be useful pieces of data with which to understand reality, they are an extremely unreliable method for assessing what is true and what is not. An overreliance on them to the exclusion of reason and critical thought is a strategy that is fraught with pitfalls and almost always leads to self-deception and delusion. The worship of feelings is never a good long-term survival strategy. Nevertheless, with that said, sometimes feelings are all one has to go on.
This is not a trivial issue since the experience of emotion and the conscious application of reason are both very fundamental aspects of being human.
While each person's perception of the world is, in part, determined by their own subjective experience, one of the unique aspects of learning psychiatry is learning how to use one's own feelings and subjective reactions to glean information from reality. In a previous post on "Feelings, Countertransference and Reality", I wrote:
To make an assessment of the gut feeling's appropriateness, the contents of the unconscious must be explored and brought to the conscious level and considered. Those unconscious internal conflicts can easily mask the inappropriate aspects of the feelings, making them worthless as a means of understanding the external world.
Taking this kind of action as a method of checking and understanding one's own feelings is a process called "insight" or "self-awareness". Some people do this quite naturally and honestly. Some learn in therapy or when they are in crisis. But if insight is absent then one's feelings have the potential to do great harm --both to one's self and to others.
Some unconscious factors, or psychological defenses, that can make one's feelings untrustworthy are: 1) the person you are responding to has become symbolic of someone else in your life (displacement, fantasy, or perhaps distortion); 2) focusing on one particular aspect of a person, you ignore other, more objective data that are available to you about the person (denial); 3) you place your own unacceptable feelings onto the other person--e.g., I'm not an angry person, -- he's an angry person! (projection or full-blown paranoia).
The truth is that there are countless ways that unconscious processes within ourselves can distort our responses to others and to reality itself.
Growing up and attaining maturity requires that we take a moment to consider such factors playing a role in our emotions before we act on those emotions. If we come to know ourselves and understand our own weaknesses, vulnerabilities, limitations and secrets; then our emotional responses to people or to the world can be very valuable tools to help interpret the world. But they are only tools, and if not used wisely, they can do more harm than good. Feelings cannot be used in a court of law--for good reason. And they are not ultimate truth in the court of reality, either.
As I have gained experience in psychiatry, more often than not, when I trust such feelings and proceed to analyze what is bothering me about the situation, I discover a wealth of information that would have otherwise remained hidden. Sometimes that "wealth of information" is only about myself; but even in that case, I learn something new --frequently something insightful that I didn't want to know--about myself.
Even with all the training; and even if one possesses self-awareness and a keen insight into one's own motivations and interpersonal dynamics, when it comes to implicitly trusting one's feelings above and beyond all other data; one has to be very cautious. All too often, mistakes are made; feelings can simply be wishes that have nothing whatsoever to do with the reality. If we are lucky, we discover this before too much damage is done.
The key to gaining control over behavior that is motivated by maladaptive, unconscious psychological processes is to make them conscious. This requires that a person be able to reflect on his or her behavior or feelings and on the contents of one's mind; and with honesty and forthrightness develop some insight into why one feels, thinks, or acts a certain way. This is particularly important if the way one is thinking, feeling or acting is causing serious problems to one's self or to others.
Returning to the acrimonious political debate mentioned earlier, how can a reasonable person decide if someone is "projecting" or in "denial" versus accurately responding to and interpreting objective reality? In other words, how do you tell if the use of a defense is a symptom of some underlying psychological problem versus whether it is adaptive and healthy?
In order to be adaptive, a psychological defense:
• should regulate, rather than remove affect – that is, instead of totally anesthetizing a person, the defense would just reduce the pain (and therefore make it easier to cope; rather than to avoid coping altogether); or, instead of facilitating emotional hysteria or emotionalism, it should keep emotional responses real and not exaggerated--i.e., either too little emotion or too much.
• should channel feelings instead of blocking them - i.e., allow a healthy expression of those feelings in a way that can discharge them in socially acceptable ways rather than keep them hidden and yet motivating behavior.
• should be oriented to the long-term; and not simply short-term comfort or avoidance. That is, feeling good in the short term is maladaptive if it prevents you from recognizing the long-term dangers or consequences for your behavior; and in a political context, doing what is expedient to win an election or score political points without acknowledging the negative consequences or impact one's behavior will have on the nation as a whole is clearly maladaptive (and literally deranged).
• should be oriented toward present and future pain relief; and not focused past distress.
• should be as specific as possible - that is, as a key is to a lock; not as a sledgehammer applied to a door.
• the use of the defense should attract people and not repel them (Vaillant points out that the use of the mature defenses --i.e., humor, altruism, sublimation etc.-- is perceived by others as attractive and even virtuous; while the immature defenses are generally perceived as irritating, repellant, and even evil). Watch this video, for example, and try to imagine how many of the political leaders in either party could be this comfortable making fun of themselves. It is a sign of psychological health when a person can take his or her foibles and appropriately mock them in a pleasurable manner.
For the purposes of answering the key question about which side of the political spectrum today is primarily behaving in a paranoid and delusional manner (remember, everyone uses maladaptive and dysfunctional psychological defenses at one time or another. The difference is a pervasive and persistent pattern of use that suggests a desperate attempt to escape reality) ; and which side is in denial and projecting their own unacceptable feelings onto the other side-- to the detriment of both?
Consider the articles linked to at the beginning of this post:
-The political left asserts neocons are "psychotic" and evil; when, in fact, the neoconservative movement carries on the most fundamental aspects of the liberal tradition (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness)--a tradition which, once upon a time, the left claimed as its own.
-The fervor and exaggerated emotionalism of the left's hatred of neocons is light years out of proportion to any possible reality. Neocons do not claim perfection; nor is perfection even possible in dealing with human events and interactions. But the left has put forward the claim--based on something like "The Protocols of the Elders of Neoconservatism", I assume-- they are responsible for all the evil in today's world; even as they studiously ignore the groups and ideologies that actively promote the subjugation and destruction of western civilization.(DYSREGULATION OF EMOTION INSTEAD OF PRODUCTIVE CHANNELING)
-They don't just dislike President Bush or rationally criticize his policies and offer rational alternatives to winning a war; they compare Bush to Hitler; say he is worse than OBL; and viciously denounce anything he does; or alternatively doesn't do because they know who their real enemy is (SLEDGEHAMMER INSTEAD OF KEY).
-They are willing to declare defeat and surrender in Iraq; continue to appease Iran and use almost any issue if they think it will get them votes (SHORT-TERM GAIN VERSUS LONG-TERM)
-They put everything into a the Vietnam template because they feel most comfortable using what they consider to have been a "winning" formula to achieve power; they have been traumatized by their losses in the 2000 and 2004 election cycles and exhibit all the signs of PTSD (FOCUS ON PAST PAIN)
-They frequently use tactics that are (and ought to be) repellant to most dispassionate observers to forward their ideological agenda and, in doing so, see themselves as "clever", "creative", and even "humorous" (see here for multiple examples of this). In a sense, they are humorous, but not in the way they imagine. They talk about being "inclusive" but their entire ideology demands that people be categorized and put into categories that foster racism, sexism, classism, anti-semitism; and, of course, they emphasize, promote and glorify victimhood as a primary political strategy.
Clearly, the use of immature and repellant psychological strategies is not confined to the political left --consider how a lot of the humor of Ann Coulter falls rather flat at times. But for every Ann Coulter on the right, there seems to be a dozen or more malignant Al Frankens, Michael Moores or Rosie O'Donnells. It wasn't always so; and there was a time in American politics when the right could justifiably claim the title for most dysfunctional ideology (see here).
A discussion of the factors that influence the development of mature, i.e. functional, defenses and healthy adaptation can be found here.
Probably the first prerequisite for accusing someone of engaging in self-delusion is that one must accept that there is an objective reality, external and independent to one's self; one's beliefs or one's emotions or feelings. Without such a fundamental epistomological foundation, it is completely meaningless to accuse anyone of being "delusional", "paranoid", "psychotic" --or of using any other immature psychological defense or strategy.
That is because if you believe that reality and truth are both relative; and that one person's reality and truth is as good as anyone else's, then when you impute delusion, denial or paranoia etc. to others--you have effectively demonstrated the invalidity of your own philosophical premises.
That is why it is so amusing to observe the left's arrogant appropriation of the term "reality-based community" -- when they don't believe in any reality except for the one defined by their own emotions.
Whether the left likes it or not, there is a world that exists outside their heads and outside their emotions and wishes; and that the entire purpose of reason --which they reject in favor of the "superiority" of their feelings --is about understanding that world. And that just because they feel a certain way doesn't mean that it has anything to do with reality.
The social subjectivism and moral relativism that forms the foundation of their ideological position maintains that our minds are disconnected from reality to begin with. And, isn't that the definition of psychosis? And, isn't it the preferred state of being for today's postmodern leftist?
If everyone's point of view is equally valid and good, then why is so much hatred and animosity directed toward "neocons", conservatives, etc.. Their POV should be considered as valid as anyone else's and to insist otherwise completely invalidates the ideology.
There is a common pattern and obvious logical contradiction in all the rhetoric of the political left: subjectivism and relativism in one breath, dogmatic absolutism in the next.
The left's "new political discourse" is marked by a grim determination to avoid reality at all costs, and to evade looking at themselves and their own unconscious motivations for as long as possible.
UPDATE: Now this is an excellent suggestion! Joe Lieberman is the kind of Democrat I could vote for --or at least live with--once upon a time, in spite of the fact that I disagree with much of his social agenda. He was once good enough to be a VP candidate for the Dems; if he became one for the Republicans in 2008, then the "Grand Old Democratic Party" would surely make a comeback and marginalize the current crop of losers--or at least let them remain in deep space where they can't hurt anybody.