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October 13, 2008

Selling An Indefensible Status Quo

Stocks plummet on Wall Street. Home foreclosures mount across the country. Shameless finger pointing and disavowals swirl in the nation's capital. And a recent Gallup poll finds that a record-low 9% of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in the United States.

The frightening numbers and front-page headlines certainly cry out for immediate short-term solutions. But they also raise a crucial question with long-term implications: How is it that our country's powerful and self-interested defenders of the status quo so consistently succeed at suppressing popular outrage and combating calls for broad-based, progressive social change?

In part, the answer can be found in the insidious use of psychological manipulation to build public support for status quo policies that benefit the few while creating hardship for so many. Some of today's top peddlers have embraced a rigid ideology that seemingly blinds them to the tragic human costs of their agenda, while others are driven by a simpler unyielding pursuit of personal wealth and power. Regardless of their motivation, their persuasion strategy often depends upon exploiting specific psychological "soft targets"--namely, five core concerns that profoundly influence how we make sense of the world. These concerns, central to the daily experiences of individuals and groups alike, revolve around the issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. Let's consider the manipulation of each in turn.

Vulnerability. For most of us, nothing is stronger than the desire for safety and security. Rarely do we knowingly make choices that endanger our loved ones or ourselves. Powerful entrenched interests therefore prey on our vulnerability concerns by promoting alarmist accounts of new perils associated with change. A path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants will bring economic disaster. Same-sex marriages will start us down the slippery slope toward a cultural wasteland. Importing less expensive prescription drugs from Canada is too risky and will jeopardize the lives of our senior citizens. These status quo defenders also compound our fears by claiming that we live in a "zero-sum" world where improving the circumstances of those less well off (e.g., through increases in the minimum wage) will inevitably diminish the well-being of everyone else. In this way, we're encouraged to see potential allies as adversaries instead, undercutting the formation of broad coalitions that might otherwise organize for progressive change.

Injustice. We often react to perceived mistreatment with anger and resentment, and an urge to right wrongs and punish those we hold responsible. Privileged defenders of the status quo frequently exploit our sensitivity to issues of injustice in a remarkable way--by presenting themselves as victims rather than perpetrators. We see this when politicians rail against the estate tax on inherited wealth, or when they cry foul over regulatory requirements that may limit corporate profits, or when they characterize class action lawsuits as frivolous and abusive. But these same influential individuals and groups often have an entirely different refrain when confronted with the grievances of others. Then they argue that addressing these concerns (e.g., the need for labor and environmental protections in "free trade" pacts) will create even greater injustices and larger numbers of innocent victims. In other words, they lament that altering the status quo will do more harm than good, and therefore the most just course of action is to accept the world as imperfect and avoid making it even worse.

Distrust. We tend to divide the world into those who are trustworthy and those unworthy of our trust, in an effort to avoid harm from people with hostile intentions. Distrust creates divisions and thereby stifles collective action. This is why the powerful beneficiaries of current policies work so hard to foment suspicions within the ranks of those disadvantaged by the status quo. Union organizers are painted as wanting only to line their own pockets with membership dues. Universal healthcare advocates are characterized as a socialist vanguard bent on undermining capitalism; organizations focused on immigrant welfare are vilified as secretly pursuing the Hispanic "re-conquering" of the American Southwest. In short, we're told that those pushing for change are untrustworthy, that they distort the truth for personal gain, and that only the gullible fall for their deceptions. And because perceptions of difference often foster distrust among groups that actually share common interests (e.g., workers of differing ethnic backgrounds), status quo defenders highlight and exaggerate any differences they can find.

Superiority. We are frequently motivated to see ourselves as better than others in some important way--perhaps in our accomplishments, or our morality, or our destiny. Defenders of today's status quo are adept at portraying America as a land of almost limitless opportunity. Which rung of the ladder we stand on is entirely up to us, and we're free to climb as high as we want. It therefore follows that those at the top possess superior personal qualities and those nearer the bottom are manifestly inferior. These arguments that ultimately blame the victim are nothing new--only the targets change. The individuals most devastated by Hurricane Katrina suffered primarily from their own "failure of citizenship. Rising personal and family bankruptcies are merely evidence of the debtors' irresponsibility. The ravages of poverty and homelessness only befall those unwilling to work hard. The goal of this narrative is to undercut efforts aimed at mobilizing for change by encouraging us to view people facing hardship with contempt and disgust. These negative emotional reactions lead to avoidance rather than engagement. This psychological distancing is further accomplished by promoting stereotypes that cast particularly unsympathetic individual cases as exemplars of disadvantaged groups as a whole.

Helplessness. Finally, we strive to avoid the experience of helplessness, and instead do our best to control the important events in our lives. Indeed, perceived helplessness has a paralyzing effect on both individual and collective action. Most of us will abandon the fight if we think nothing can be done. Thus, defenders of the status quo can maintain their privileged positions simply by creating the impression that we (and they) are powerless to alter the current circumstances. Such claims often involve discounting or deriding proposals for change on a variety of self-interested grounds--the obstacles are too large, or too complex, or too expensive, or the specific plans are ill-conceived and need substantial reworking. Frequently the blame is placed on vast forces supposedly beyond anyone's control. Livelihoods destroyed are an unavoidable consequence of unstoppable economic globalization. Draconian cuts in domestic social programs are the price we must pay for the burgeoning defense budget that ensures our survival. And so on.

The battle plan of today's powerful status quo defenders is by no means limited to exploiting the public's core concerns. But these examples do illuminate an important project for advocates of lasting progressive change. Not only must we directly challenge and debunk the psychologically manipulative appeals often used to justify and maintain deep inequalities and divisions among the American people, but we must also offer straightforward, compelling counter-arguments in their place. If not, when the dust finally settles on this current crisis, the winners and losers will remain all too familiar. Many CEOs will continue to earn more in a single day than their employees take home in a full year. Middle class families will continue to face escalating healthcare and education costs and growing economic insecurity. And the poor will continue their struggle to remain resilient despite ever-dwindling hopes for a brighter future. All of which should be indefensible.

September 10, 2008

The Lure of False Narratives: Martians and Election Day

It's only fitting that a truly memorable demonstration of human gullibility will mark its 70th anniversary just before Election Day. On the night of October 30, 1938, thousands of radio listeners concluded that Orson Welles' adaptation of The War of the Worlds was the real thing: a live account of Martian invaders landing in Grover's Mill, New Jersey. Those fooled by the show's air of authenticity exhibited signs of panic and hysteria. Some called the police for guidance on how they could protect themselves. Some fled their homes for greater safety farther from the invasion site. And some listeners fainted beside their radios. Within hours the hoax was fully revealed, and public outrage swiftly followed.

Today, Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin seem intent on creating similar mass confusion for their own purposes. Because in promoting themselves as agents of change, they're clearly hoping that voters will mistake fantasy for reality. After all, during a 2005 Meet the Press appearance McCain himself claimed, "On the transcendent issues, the most important issues of our day, I've been totally in agreement and support of President Bush." And according to the non-partisan Congressional Quarterly, last year he voted in line with the president 95% of the time -- more than anyone else in the entire Senate. But given the president's abysmal approval ratings as the election approaches (29% in a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll), it's really no surprise that the McCain-Palin campaign is working so hard to spin their "maverick" yarns.

Unfortunately, their plan could work. Research psychologists have found that fictional narratives can be especially powerful vehicles for persuasion. Even when we know that the stories are untrue. Drawn in by our emotions, we're simply "transported" by the setting, the plot, and the characters -- in part because a well-told tale helps us make sense of our own personal experiences. The problem with our susceptibility in this particular context is that we become easy prey for political predators more focused on victory than truth-telling.

When unable to separate fact from fiction, we voters can't possibly make well-informed choices. Yet as citizens it's ultimately our responsibility to weed out the pretenders. Between now and November 4th, a tenacious independent media could make our task much easier. But this would require that the media resist the lure of false narratives while demanding substantive answers to substantive questions.

If nothing else, the past eight years should have taught us one thing: a poor choice in the voting booth can lead to consequences as catastrophic as an invasion from Mars. So before pulling the lever for right-wing candidates touting their credentials as reformist agents of positive change, first look around to see whether the Martians may have already landed.

April 1, 2008

Anchors for Progressives

Imagine people randomly divided into two groups for a simple psychology experiment. Those assigned to one group are asked two questions. First, "Did Gandhi die before or after he reached the age of 140?" And then, "How old was Gandhi when he died?" Meanwhile, those in the other group are asked the same followup question, but their first question is "Did Gandhi die before or after he reached the age of 9?"

The results of actual studies just like this one are quite consistent and robust, and they may surprise you. Participants given "140 years" as their initial comparison point think that Gandhi lived much longer than those who were given "9 years" instead. Findings like these demonstrate what psychologists call the "anchoring effect": our strong tendency to make judgments that are biased toward arbitrary standards of comparison. The plausibility of these comparison "anchors" makes no difference to us--we rely on them regardless. As another example, research subjects asked whether Einstein's first visit to the United States occurred before or after 1992 give a much more recent estimate of when he arrived than those asked whether he visited before or after the year 1215.

This anchoring effect might be merely a perplexing curiosity--if not for its potentially profound consequences in the real world. Consider John McCain's recent remarks that he'd be fine with American troops in Iraq for the next 100 years, or longer. Whether he'll be able to implement the early steps of this troubling vision will depend on many things, including who's sworn in as the next President of the United States in January 2009. But the "100 years" anchor can--on its own--shift the public's expectations and comfort level for how long it's reasonable to have troops in Iraq. Several additional years suddenly seems like a brief stay when compared to a century or more.

There's a more general point here that also deserves our attention. Regardless of the particular policy debate, psychological anchors are likely to influence the public's support for various alternatives. An extreme proposal may only rarely receive broad endorsement, but it can stretch the range of options deemed worthy of consideration and thereby pull perceptions of what's reasonable in its direction. Thus, for instance, arresting and deporting 12 million undocumented immigrants may have the ring of lunacy, but nevertheless this proposal has bestowed an air of legitimacy and moderation on other highly punitive (and counterproductive) immigration policy prescriptions. This is, of course, the basic problem with "centrism" as a virtue or goal--its midpoint location depends entirely on the endpoints, which are themselves ever changeable.

Creating new psychological anchors beyond the previous range of common discourse can entail significant political risks for those seeking or holding elected office. This is why the assignment is often handed over to those who are largely immune to the consequences of electoral defeat. To our deep and lasting detriment, the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Anne Coulter, and the Fox News crowd have long embraced this role--all the while providing their conservative allies with the opportunity to appear as relative models of restraint and reasonableness in their speeches and votes on the House or Senate floor.

Over time, the successful promotion of radical right-wing psychological anchors has shifted many policy discussions far away from the values and solutions that many of us cherish. This election season is obviously an ideal time for progressive voices to push back loudly and forcefully. The anti-war movement's insistent call for an immediate responsible withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq is a perfect example. This option must be firmly established as an anchor in all serious deliberations about Iraq. Even if it represents a highly improbable outcome, it still serves to prevent the premature or artificial narrowing of future war policy debates. Progressives must similarly maintain and promote anchor positions on other crucial foreign and domestic policy issues. As for the political candidates themselves, even where we cannot prevent them from running toward the center, we can still play an important role in determining exactly where the middle ground lies.

December 29, 2007

Ten Mistakes I'll Probably Make In 2008

Many of us view the calendar's turn from 2007 to 2008 as an opportunity to start anew and to improve upon the year just past. But despite this resolve, it's easy to predict that 2008 will be another year filled with small slips and large blunders. As a psychologist whose work focuses on five core concerns--about vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness--that are especially powerful influences in our personal and collective lives, I offer this list of ten mistakes I'll probably make on the way to 2009.

Vulnerability

1. Sometimes, I'll make choices driven too much by safety concerns and too little by other important considerations. Fear will prevent me from carefully weighing alternatives and their likely outcomes--and potentially important opportunities will pass me by.

2. But at other times, I will foolishly and impulsively fail to exercise due caution. This temporary sense of invulnerability will leave me regretful about the consequences of my actions.

Injustice

3. Sometimes, I will confuse what's unfair with what's merely unfortunate; as a result, I'll hold onto unwarranted grievances that leave me brooding and angry, and that distract me from more crucial pursuits.

4. But at other times, I'll fail to recognize or appreciate real injustices, including those that I perpetrate myself. Sadly, this blindness will prevent me from acting to address the many instances of undeserved suffering in the world around me.

Distrust

5. Sometimes, I'll be unnecessarily suspicious of people who actually deserve my trust. These misjudgments will foreclose promising possibilities for collaboration.

6. But at other times, I will be gullible and believe things that are untrue. Even worse, I'll mistakenly place my faith in individuals who will abuse that trust for their own selfish purposes.

Superiority

7. Sometimes, I will wrongly presume to be better than others--convinced that I'm more deserving, that my moral compass is more true, or that my insights are more discerning.

8. But at other times, I'll be consumed by self-doubt and judge myself too harshly. The paralysis that results will prevent me from embracing valuable opportunities.

Helplessness

9. Sometimes, I will err in thinking that my own actions cannot make a difference; I will abandon efforts too soon--or not even try at all. The benefits from greater determination and resilience on my part will never be achieved.

10. But at other times, I'll grossly overestimate my capacity to control events around me. I'll stubbornly persevere and waste precious time and effort that instead could be devoted to pursuits where positive results are attainable.

Admittedly, that's quite a few mistakes. In my own defense, I expect to have lots of company. But knowing that these errors await, we can work harder to recognize them before they ensnare us. And by more carefully analyzing issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness when they arise, we can respond more effectively to the challenges that these concerns will undoubtedly pose in the year ahead. Finally, we should call upon those individuals who hold or seek positions of leadership in 2008 to do much the same—and we should evaluate them accordingly.

October 7, 2007

Forewarned Is Forearmed: Bush On Iran

The White House's propaganda campaign laying the groundwork for military action against Iran dates back almost six years--to Bush's 2002 State of the Union address in which he designated Iran as a founding member of the "axis of evil." Since then, this drumbeat has waxed and waned as other concerns--primarily the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq--have often commanded center stage. Now, with the Bush administration approaching its final year in office, a renewed push and a shorter fuse are increasingly evident. The 3-minute video above entitled "Forewarned Is Forearmed: Bush On Iran" offers a very brief but deeply troubling chronicle of the president's public warmongering and demonization of Iran. If you find the video worthwhile, please share it with others. As has been said before, "the hour is getting late."

Note: The video is also available directly on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLioyP69N3I

October 5, 2007

Congress Needs A Shot In The Arm

****Note: The following essay was co-authored with Coleen Rowley, retired FBI agent and former Minneapolis division counsel.****

Among the most important public health advances of the past century has been the development of potent vaccines against dangerous and life-threatening illnesses. Polio, tuberculosis, and measles quickly come to mind. Through a process of inoculation, a small dose of the pathogen is intentionally administered to the patient which induces immunity against the full-blown disease.

In a similar way, social scientists have demonstrated that attitude inoculation can be used to prevent the transmission of hazardous beliefs and behaviors from one person to another. For example, research reveals that adolescents can more effectively resist pressure from cigarette-smoking peers if they are given role-playing opportunities in which they rehearse their responses to students pressuring them to smoke.

But today we are in urgent need of an inoculation campaign against an entirely different threat to our nation’s health--namely, the Bush administration’s exploitation of its “global war on terror” to eviscerate the rule of law and our constitutional checks and balances; to prolong the disastrous occupation of Iraq; and to lay the groundwork for military strikes against Iran. Ever since the tragic events of 9/11 six years ago, the White House has promoted this agenda by working non-stop to spread a simple yet infectious idea: All actions taken by this president and his representatives are necessary to protect the United States from future catastrophic terrorist attacks.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 horrors, most Americans succumbed to this potent viral message. But fortunately, over time a growing majority has gradually recovered and now doubts the legitimacy of the Bush administration’s core arguments. Of course, from the very beginning the actual evidence--about links between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein, about WMD in Iraq--did not support the White House’s claims. Moreover, recent data document that the annual rate of terrorist attacks around the world has increased as much as sevenfold since the invasion of Iraq, while public support for the U.S. beyond our borders, especially in Muslim countries, has plummeted during this same period.

But the White House's relentless fear-mongering has never depended upon careful logic and rational analysis to infect the citizenry. Instead it has targeted the public's deepest worries--of mushroom clouds over our cities and the wanton destruction of our children, our families, and our communities. These 9/11-inspired nightmares are haunting in their imagery and debilitating in their effects on individual and collective reasoning--which is precisely the Bush administration's intent. Indeed, psychological research has demonstrated that reminders of one's own mortality--such as subliminal cues about 9/11 and the World Trade Center--produce heightened support for leaders who adopt patriotic appeals to national greatness and a religious fervor to "rid the world of evil."

And so the president and his followers constantly probe for weaknesses in our cognitive and emotional defenses, looking for wounds not yet healed through which to infect us once again with the fear that enables the entire White House enterprise. Consider a partial sampling from the past month alone:

• In a month-long series of TV ads from the White House front group “Freedom’s Watch,” veterans and their family members warned viewers that “They attacked us, and they will again--they won’t stop in Iraq” and “If we surrender now, it’s giving the message to terrorists that they can do what they want and get away with it” and “We’ve already had one 9/11, we don’t need another.”

• The American Enterprise Institute--the neo-conservative think tank behind the so-called pre-emptive war and “surge” strategy in Iraq--chose the eve of the 9/11 anniversary to roll out a new book with the chilling title The Iranian Time Bomb (a rehashing of arguments for regime change by military force in Iran).

• General Petreaus’s much ballyhooed congressional testimony on progress in Iraq was timed to precisely coincide with the anniversary of 9/11. While some may decry the chosen date as shameful exploitation, the Bush administration no doubt saw it as effective marketing.

• President Bush himself addressed the nation two days after the 9/11 anniversary and cautioned that “If we were to be driven out of Iraq….We would leave our children to face a far more dangerous world. And as we saw on September the 11th, 2001, those dangers can reach our cities and kill our people.”

Viruses are unremitting in finding and attacking their victims’ vulnerabilities, and it is easy to see that the White House propaganda machine operates in much the same way. The consequences of our failure to adequately resist the Bush administration’s past efforts are tragically apparent. The key to fending off new rounds of fear-mongering lies in thoroughly rehearsing the counterarguments--neither complex nor obscure--that can protect us against these tactics. In other words, forewarned should be forearmed.

Consider the standard challenge that the White House and its supporters repeatedly pose to skeptics: “Don’t you care about the safety of your family and your country?” If we have prepared in advance, we are ready with effective responses to this hollow appeal. For example:

• “We are not made safer by granting unchecked power to an executive branch with a demonstrated devotion to secrecy, the curtailment of civil liberties, and the disregard of our Constitution.”

• “The reckless and misguided invasion and occupation of Iraq has not enhanced our security at home. To the contrary, it has multiplied our enemies, drained our precious resources, distracted us from addressing real threats, and placed our soldiers unnecessarily in harm’s way.”

• “We will not sleep easier at night if this White House compounds its extraordinary foreign policy blunders by attacking Iran. Doing so risks setting the entire Middle East ablaze, creating countless casualties, and inspiring untold numbers of new potential terrorist recruits.”

The preparation and rehearsal of concise rebuttals like these to anticipated White House rhetorical assaults actually share much in common with the injections used to immunize us against the flu and other potentially dangerous infections. Of particular note, the individuals who seem most urgently in need of this inoculation regimen are weak-willed members of Congress who returned a few weeks ago from their summer recess. Rather than serving as steady bulwarks against the ravages of this president’s destructive agenda, too often they have simply capitulated to the pressure--as recently witnessed in this past August’s vote to broadly expand the administration’s warrantless surveillance authority.

When our elected representatives surrender to intimidation in this way, the entire country is put at greater risk of becoming similarly infected. So, just as we give priority to society’s most vulnerable when facing other public health crises, today’s Congress needs to move quickly to the front of the line for immunization against the latest strain of White House fear-mongering.


Addendum. For those who may be interested, the 10-minute online video “Resisting the Drums of War” is a good complement to this essay. It describes how the Bush administration has promoted the misguided and destructive war in Iraq by targeting our core concerns about vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. Looking ahead, the continuing occupation of Iraq—or an attack on Iran—will likely be sold to us in much the same way. The video examines the White House’s warmongering appeals and offers suggestions for how to counter them. It's available for viewing at http://www.eidelsonconsulting.com/videos.php

September 27, 2007

Please Join Me: DC Event "Resisting the Drums of War"

Monday, October 1st, 6:00-8:00 PM
Busboys and Poets
2021 14th Street, NW
Washington DC 20009
http://www.busboysandpoets.com

"Resisting the Drums of War: Iraq, Iran, and the Global War on Terror"

Two psychologists will share their expertise on how political leaders garner public support for a war agenda. In the first presentation, Roy Eidelson will use video clip examples to explain how warmongering messages are often designed to target the core concerns that govern our personal and collective lives, including concerns over vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness.

In the second presentation, Diane Perlman will describe the role that "psychological intelligence" can play in reversing cycles of violence and reducing terrorism. She will examine the framing, messaging, and techniques used to manipulate the public and to intimidate members of Congress, with a particular focus on current efforts designed to seduce us into war with Iran.

The presentations will be followed by remarks and expert insights from discussants Ray McGovern and Justin Frank.

*****************

Roy Eidelson, PhD, is a psychologist who studies, writes about, and consults on the role of psychological issues in interpersonal and group conflict settings. He is the president of Eidelson Consulting and the former executive director of the University of Pennsylvania's Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict. He lives in suburban Philadelphia.

Diane Perlman, PhD, is a clinical and political psychologist with an interest in the image of the enemy, the psychological dynamics of nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and nonviolent conflict transformation. She is a member of Transcend, the Global Council of Abolition 2000, and co-chair of the committee on Global Violence and Security for Psychologists for Social Responsibility. She lives in Washington, DC.

Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years from 1963 to 1990. He is a co-founder and steering group member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

Justin Frank, M.D. is a clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at George Washington University Medical Center and a teaching analyst at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute. He is the author of Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President.

June 27, 2007

Sky Dwellers, Pie Eaters, and Their Political Enablers: Faithful Defenders of the Status Quo

In the mid-1970s the TV sitcom The Jeffersons portrayed the rags-to-riches story of a black entrepreneur living the American Dream. The pugnacious and overbearing George Jefferson (former neighbor of All in the Family’s Archie Bunker) becomes a dry cleaning magnate and leaves blue-collar Queens for swanky Manhattan. As the show’s theme song recounts:

“Well we’re moving on up,
To the east side.
To a deluxe apartment in the sky.
Moving on up,
To the east side.
We finally got a piece of the pie.”

But now fast-forward to 2007 and real world America. When it comes to those deluxe apartments in the sky, today’s exclusive penthouses sit atop much taller high-rises--but the chances of ever living in one (or even breathing its rarified air as a dinner guest) have shrunk considerably. And although the proverbial economic pie is much larger today as well, a relative handful of gluttons are gorging themselves while everyone else settles for leftovers and crumbs.

In short, the “Sky Dwellers” and “Pie Eaters” of the 21st century seem to be flourishing like never before. Many corporate CEOs now earn in a single day what their average employees get paid in a year. At the same time, middle class families face escalating healthcare and education costs along with deepening economic insecurity, and the poor struggle to maintain their voice and any lingering hopes of a brighter future. Meanwhile, seduced by “the haves” to ignore the plight of the “have nots,” many elected officials make choices they should have a very hard time defending--with integrity--to their children.

The obvious question is: How do the Sky Dwellers, the Pie Eaters, and their political enablers get away with it? That is, at a time of such extreme inequality, how do the privileged defenders of a dysfunctional status quo prove so successful in suppressing popular outrage and broad-based calls for change? Undoubtedly the answer is multifaceted, but here I’ll focus on one important aspect--the psychological manipulation of five core concerns that profoundly influence how we make sense of the world. These concerns revolve around issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. Below, I offer specific examples of how each concern is exploited to persuade us to accept and perhaps embrace the status quo--despite overwhelming evidence that current policies are the source of undeserved hardship for so many.

Vulnerability. For most of us nothing is more powerful than the desire to protect and provide security for the people and things we care about. Rarely do we knowingly make choices that jeopardize the welfare of our loved ones or ourselves. Sky Dwellers and Pie Eaters therefore routinely prey on our vulnerability concerns to discourage us from questioning the status quo. Often they promote alarmist accounts of the new and heightened dangers associated with change: a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants will bring with it economic disaster; equal rights for gays will start us down the slippery slope toward a cultural wasteland; the importation of inexpensive prescription drugs from Canada will produce tragic health outcomes. And they seek to compound our fears by fostering the notion that we live in a “zero sum” world where efforts to improve the circumstances of those less well off (e.g., through an increase in the minimum wage) will inevitably prove costly to our own well-being. In this way, we’re encouraged to see potential allies as adversaries instead, which serves to undercut the formation of broad coalitions that might otherwise effectively organize for change.

Injustice. We often react to perceived mistreatment with anger and resentment, and an urge to right wrongs and punish those we hold responsible. In pursuing their greed-driven agenda, defenders of the status quo frequently exploit our sensitivity to issues of injustice in a remarkable way--they present themselves as the victims of mistreatment. We see this when their political cronies rail against the estate tax on inherited wealth, or when they cry foul over regulatory requirements that limit corporate profits, or when they characterize class action lawsuits as “frivolous” and “abusive.” At the same time, these Sky Dwellers and Pie Eaters often have an entirely different refrain when others present grievances. Then they argue that, regrettably, these particular concerns--for example, the need to include enforceable labor and environmental protections in “free trade” pacts--cannot be addressed without creating even greater injustices. In other words, altering the status quo will do more harm than good, and therefore sometimes the most just course of action is to accept the world as imperfect and avoid making it even worse.

Distrust. We tend to divide the world into those who are trustworthy and those unworthy of our trust, in an effort to avoid harm from people with hostile intentions. Distrust inevitably creates divisions and thereby stifles collective action. This is why the Sky Dweller-Pie Eater crowd works so hard to foment suspicions within the ranks of those disadvantaged by the status quo. Labor union organizers are painted as wanting only to line their own pockets with membership dues; universal healthcare advocates are characterized as a socialist vanguard bent on undermining capitalism; organizations focused on the welfare of immigrants are labeled as facilitators of a Hispanic “re-conquering” of the American Southwest. In short, we’re told that those agitating for change are untrustworthy, that they distort the truth for personal gain or other ulterior motives, and that only the truly gullible will fall for their deceptions. Moreover, because perceptions of difference can foster distrust among groups that actually share common interests (e.g., workers of varying ethnic backgrounds), Sky Dwellers and Pie Eaters consistently highlight and exaggerate any such differences they can find.

Superiority. We frequently aspire to be better than others in some important way--perhaps in our accomplishments, or our morality, or our destiny. Defenders of today’s severe inequalities are adept at portraying America as a land of almost limitless opportunity. Which rung of the ladder we stand on is entirely up to us, and like George Jefferson, we’re free to climb as high as we want. Therefore, those at the top possess superior personal qualities and those nearer the bottom are manifestly inferior. These arguments that ultimately blame the victim are nothing new--only the targets change: the individuals most devastated by Hurricane Katrina suffered primarily from their own “failure of citizenship;” rising personal and family bankruptcies are merely evidence of the debtors’ irresponsibility; the ravages of poverty and homelessness only befall those unwilling to work hard. The goal of their narrative is to undercut efforts mobilizing for change by encouraging us to view people facing hardship with contempt and disgust. Negative emotional reactions like these typically lead to avoidance rather than engagement. This psychological distancing is further accomplished by promoting disingenuous stereotypes that cast particularly unsympathetic cases as exemplars of disadvantaged groups as a whole.

Helplessness. Finally, we strive to avoid the experience of helplessness, and instead do our best to control the important events in our lives. Indeed, perceived helplessness is like poison to individual and collective action. We can witness or experience first-hand the most glaring of outrages, but if we think there’s nothing that can be done, most of us will soon abandon the fight. Thus, Sky Dwellers and Pie Eaters can secure their privileged positions simply by creating the impression that we (and they) are powerless to solve the problems we wish to fix. This persuasion typically involves discounting or deriding proposals for change on any number of self-interested grounds--the obstacles are too large, or too complex, or too expensive, or the specific plans are ill conceived and need substantial reworking. Often the culprits are identified as massive forces supposedly beyond anyone’s control: livelihoods destroyed are an unavoidable consequence of relentless economic globalization; draconian cuts in domestic social programs are the price we must pay for the ever-burgeoning defense budget that ensures our survival; and so on. The strategy is simple. Make us feel helpless and we’ll likely give up and go away.

These are by no means the only manipulative appeals that defenders of the status quo use to exploit our five core concerns. But this limited sampling demonstrates how Sky Dwellers and Pie Eaters can frequently defend their turf without really breaking a sweat. Their mission is made even easier by well-funded propaganda machines and political cronies who lend a helping hand. It is important to note, however, that persuasive arguments linked to issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, or helplessness are not always deceptive or illegitimate. After all, these concerns are often central to our lives and deserve significant attention. Similarly, the status quo is not always undesirable or the worst of all alternatives. But we should be highly skeptical--and therefore insist upon strong supporting evidence--whenever core concern appeals are employed to justify or maintain deep inequalities between “haves” and “have nots.” Advocates for progressive change must also work to aggressively debunk these appeals and offer honest, compelling counter-arguments in their place.

P.S. For those intrigued by this five-concern psychological framework, I have two online videos that may be of further interest. “Resisting the Drums of War” is available on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81UKnb5zJbM. “Dangerous Ideas: How Conservatives Exploit Our Five Core Concerns" is available on Google Video at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=844699642769511518.

May 1, 2007

Desperately Needed: A Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion

There are so many instructive comparisons between the film classic The Wizard of Oz and the presidency of George W Bush that it's hard to settle on just one. Here’s a particular angle that I think deserves more attention.

Through memorable characters and adventures, The Wizard of Oz reminds us that too often we underestimate ourselves and fail to realize that we already possess the very qualities and virtues to which we aspire. The Scarecrow travels the Yellow Brick Road in the hope of obtaining a brain; at journey’s end he comes to realize that he had one all along. Similarly, the Tin Man wishes for a heart but ultimately learns that he was a compassionate woodsman from the start. And the Cowardly Lion heads to the Emerald City in pursuit of courage--yet he demonstrates his considerable valor along the way. All told, it’s an uplifting tale of unpresumptuous, accidental heroes who rise to the occasion in the face of adversity.

But now try to imagine an altered script, an upside-down Oz where the key players, rather than underestimating themselves, instead make outrageous and false claims (to themselves and to others) about their intelligence, compassion, and courage. And also try to imagine that over the course of their own harrowing journey these travelers learn…well, absolutely nothing. Of course, sadly this re-write doesn’t require much of an imagination at all. This is the Oz rendition that’s been playing in Washington and around the world since Bush, Cheney, and their neocon entourage took center stage. Although many examples are available, let’s focus on the Iraq War alone.

The Scarecrow’s Brain. Intelligence is multi-faceted. It includes good judgment in developing goals, competence in their strategic execution, foresight in anticipating the consequences of one’s actions, and adaptability in the face of unexpected circumstances and challenges. But the reckless decision to invade Iraq (where no WMD were ever found), the inadequate plans for winning the peace after “shock and awe,” the innumerable blunders in addressing the growing strife and violence that have beset post-Saddam Iraq, and the latest unwelcome and ineffective “surge” of U.S. troops in Baghdad constitute overwhelming evidence that any Bush administration claims to “having a brain” have been little more than pretense and bluster.

The Tin Man’s Heart. Compassion also takes many forms. But it always involves both the capacity to understand and “feel” the pain of others and the desire to alleviate their unwarranted suffering if at all possible. This empathy often requires tolerance toward and appreciation of those who are different from us, because otherwise we can’t really imagine what it’s like to “walk a mile in their shoes.” And certainly the truly compassionate go to great lengths to avoid being the actual perpetrators of harm. In their war in Iraq the President and his allies have fallen short on all of these counts, as demonstrated by insufficient regard for tens of thousands of civilian casualties (at least), inadequate concern for the physical and psychological well-being of our soldiers and their families, and the condoning or encouragement of torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners.

The Cowardly Lion’s Courage. Courage too finds expression in a variety of different ways. Often it is revealed in those who elevate the truth and who embrace the risks and burdens of self-sacrifice for a noble cause over the temptations of self-interest. Frequently it can also be witnessed in those who step forward and acknowledge their mistakes--despite potential adverse personal consequences for doing so--and then change course in order to make amends. Bravery never appears as bullying, deceit, foolhardiness, or the shirking of responsibility. Thus, the Bush team fails the courage test as well. In promoting and prosecuting the war they’ve offered falsehoods whenever the truth has been “inconvenient,” they’ve passed the buck and hidden behind excuses whenever strategic or tactical errors have been uncovered, and they’ve refused to abandon their seemingly unquenchable warmongering ambitions despite catastrophic costs and massive domestic and international opposition.

Near the end of the original The Wizard of Oz, having gained self-awareness the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion become the newly appointed wise, caring, and courageous rulers of the Emerald City (and Dorothy returns to Kansas). In an ideal conclusion to the upside-down version, Bush, Cheney, and their dwindling supporters would come to the realization that they sorely lack the intelligence, the compassion, and the courage about which they have often boasted--and dramatic, constructive policy changes would quickly follow. Regrettably, of these two endings, one seems far more fantasy-like than the other.


As an addendum, in a recent online video entitled Resisting the Drums of War I specifically examine the Bush administration’s warmongering appeals and how to counter them. It's available HERE.

April 12, 2007

Public-Servant-in-Chief: In the President's Own Words

It's not Baghdad alone where we're witnessing a Bush-inspired surge. The President holds ultimate responsibility for an escalation unfolding in Washington as well: namely, the rapid proliferation of administration scandals and outrages now finally finding the light of day (deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center; politically-driven purges of U.S. attorneys; FBI abuses of National Security Letters, and the list goes on and on).

Not surprisingly, today President Bush resists reasonable calls for meaningful accountability and benchmarks on both fronts. But back in his headier days of sky-high approval ratings--late 2001 to be exact--he spoke to an audience of government employees and enumerated the standards by which public servants should be measured. From the White House website (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/10/20011015-8.html):

“Let me say a few words about important values we must demonstrate while all of us serve in government.

First, we must always maintain the highest ethical standards. We must always ask ourself not only what is legal, but what is right. There is no goal of government worth accomplishing if it cannot be accomplished with integrity.

Second, I want us to set an example of humility. As you work for the federal government there is no excuse for arrogance, and there's never a reason to show disrespect for others. A new tone in Washington must begin with decency and fairness. I want everyone who represents our government to be known for these values.

Third, we must confront the tough problems, not avoid them and leave them for others. This is never easy, but it's what conscience demands and what leadership requires. We must keep the long view, and remind ourselves that we're here to serve the public's long-term interests.

Fourth, I hope you'll never take the honor of public service for granted. Some of us will serve in government for a season; others will spend an entire career here. But all of us should dedicate ourselves to great goals: We are not here to mark time, but to make progress, to achieve results, and to leave a record of excellence.

Fifth, we should never forget that we're part of the same team. The American people do not distinguish between political and career employees. They don't hold us to separate standards. The public has high expectations for the entire government, and together we will meet those expectations.

And sixth, we should always remember, every dollar we spend is the taxpayer's money. People worked hard to earn it, and so we should spend it wisely, and reluctantly. That will take discipline and creative leadership, and I urge all of us to show that kind of leadership.”


Little more need be said. An abysmal failure as Commander-in-Chief, measured by his own words the President has utterly failed us as Public-Servant-in-Chief too.