Tag Archives: psychology

To War! America’s National Psyche

11 Sep

I’m reproducing a set of notes I wrote up during the 2000 Presidential Election. I’m republishing them now in recognition of yet another turn in the long-spinning wheel of American mythology.

Everything is connected to everything else and the causal forces meeting in the historical present stretch back into the past without end. Figuring out where to start is not easy. My sense is that we need to focus our attention on the dissolution of the Soviet Empire in the late 1980s. That left the nation without a national scapegoat, thus radically altering the nation’s psycho-cultural landscape. We no longer had Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire to kick around.

As some of you may know, my thinking on these matters has been strongly influenced by an essay Talcott Parsons published in 1947 on “Certain Primary Sources of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World”. Parsons argued that Western child-rearing practices generate a great deal of insecurity and anxiety at the core of personality structure. This creates an adult who has a great deal of trouble dealing with aggression and is prone to scapegoating. Inevitably, there are lots of aggressive impulses which cannot be followed out. They must be repressed. Ethnic scapegoating is one way to relieve the pressure of this repressed aggression. That, Parsons argued, is why the Western world is flush with nationalistic and ethnic antipathy. I suspect, in fact, that this dynamic is inherent in nationalism as a psycho-cultural phenomenon.

For the most part I have used Parsons, and others as well, in arguing about the nature of racism in the USA. While Africans were brought to this country for economic reasons it seems to me that during, say, the 19th century African Americans increasingly assumed a dual psychological role in the white psyche. On the one hand, they were a source of entertainment. On the other, they were convenient scapegoats, as became evident with the lynchings that emerged during Reconstruction and continued well into the last century. That is to say, African America served as a geographically internal target for the ethnic and nationalist antipathy Parsons discussed.

Thus we have the thesis in Klinkner and Smith, The Unsteady March (U. Chicago, 1999). They argue that African Americans have been able to move forward on civil rights only during periods where the nation faced an external threat – the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the major wars of the first half of the 20th century. When the external danger had subsided, gains were lost. From my point of view, they’re arguing that, when external danger looms large and demands attention, the citizenry can focus aggression there and so ease up on the internal colony. Beyond this, of course, it becomes necessary to recruit from the colony to fight the external enemy, both physically and propagandistically – be kind to your black citizens when you fight the Nazis, etc.

Continue reading

Evolutionary Alienation

27 Sep

What do you mean by that? you ask. Crudely put, we evolved in a world surrounded by plants and animals. We’re now headed pell-mell into cities where plants and animals are largely absent. And so we no longer fell at home. We’re alienated. We miss our friends and companions.

And we’re not going to find them by cruising the web or watching CGI movies.

Do you actually believe that? you ask. How the hell would I know? says I, I just thought of it.

What made you think of it?

Two things: cartoons and community gardens.

How so? Continue reading

A Garden State of Mind

20 Sep

Though I watched my mother tend to her flower gardens, I even helped her weed, and each Spring I looked for the irises to bloom, I didn’t become a gardener. For one thing, I never owned a home with grounds for a garden, though I could certainly have planted gardens in the house I rented in Cropseyville, NY, for two years or so. But I never had any such inclinations.

Thus it comes as a bit of a surprise to find myself tending plants, pruning them, a bit of weeding, and a bit of watering. I like it.

But what’s it about, this gardening thing? Here I’m thinking as an evolutionary psychologist, you know, the folks who believe that we’ve got Stone Age minds we’ve got to harness to operate the Modern World. And I agree with them, in a way.

Our Stone Age ancestors didn’t garden, nor do our primate relatives. We all forage and eat plants, and we also do a bit of hunting for animal flesh, humans more so than other primates. We’ve got ‘instincts’ for those things. But we’ve got no gardening instinct.

Nor for that matter, do we have instincts for quantum mechanics, archery, basket weaving, hopscotch, square dancing or bowling, among many other things. So how does our Stone Age mind do such things?

Obviously we’ve got to construct routines for these various purposes. Continue reading

Jonathan Haidt Decodes the Tribal Psychology of Politics – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education

1 Feb

Meanwhile, though Haidt still supports President Obama, he chides Democrats for a moral vision that alienates many working-class, rural, and religious voters. Though he’s an atheist, he lambasts the liberal scientists of New Atheism for focusing on what religious people believe rather than how religion binds them into communities. And he rakes his own social-psychology colleagues over the coals for being “a tribal moral community that actively discourages conservatives from entering” and for making the field’s nonliberal members feel like closeted homosexuals. (See related article, Page B8.)

“Liberals need to be shaken,” Haidt tells me. They “simply misunderstand conservatives far more than the other way around.”

via Jonathan Haidt Decodes the Tribal Psychology of Politics – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.