Tuesday, October 21, 2008

We're All Psychoanalysts Now

"Only connect."

E. M. Forster

It may be hard to get some psychiatrists to think beyond the DSM-IV, but one reason for that may be that dynamic formulations have been farmed out to the mainstream media for a long time now. Ever since our Iraq adventure began pundits have been analyzing George W. Bush's policies as an Oedipal situation stemming from his father's frustration in 1992. This is apparently dramatized in Oliver Stone's current W. (as yet unseen by me); the fact that a quasi-biography of a still-sitting president has caused relatively little stir only shows how accustomed we have become to reflexivity and reflectivity. The couch is very rarely in evidence in the shrink's office these days, but metaphorically it sits prominently amid our cultural furniture.

The pundits have found Barack Obama a tough diagnostic nut to crack, however (don't worry, the point of this post is not to attempt it here). His atypical demeanor, ranging from chilly diffidence to masterly calm, is the last thing we expect from politicians. But is that good or bad?

A friend of mine once commented to me, about a mutual acquaintance that he was unsure about, "I don't know what motivates him." That stuck with me because it seemed to capture what we most seek to know about others: what drives them, what values they hold dear. Inscrutability in others alternatively attracts and dismays us when we don't know what they, ultimately, need or desire.

What does Obama want in general, and what does he want from being President? In a recent Op-Ed piece David Brooks argued that unlike the cases of, say, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, who like most politicians craved love and acceptance, Obama's ambition does not derive from anything he lacks but rather is a kind of natural outgrowth of his identity. What this means, exactly, is unclear, but Brooks suggests that Obama may therefore be something of a dry and dull technocrat, which may be what the country is quite ready for after recent excitement. He mentions also that Obama does not seem, psychologically, to need the love of the masses, which some people find disconcerting, especially in a politician.

But in another online commentary I read recently (I can't remember where, and it's driving me up the wall), it was suggested that Obama, perhaps due to the family and geographical vicissitudes of his past, struggled with feeling detached, unrooted, and disconnected from people. The piece maintained that he pursued politics and the notion of the common good explicitly in order to forge connections with others (go into politics--that's a doozy of a psychotherapy homework assignment). We don't need psychiatry to pathologize everyday life anymore since the media does it already.

I think Obama is an unusual politician precisely because he is an intellectual. Endless ink has been spilled over what an intellectual is, for better or worse, but I would define it as someone who looks to ideas as a (significant, not sole) means of forging personal and social identity. Non-intellectuals (again, for better or worse) implicitly or explicity develop an individual and communal self based on family, geography, history, work or (often unfortunately) biology. I am oversimplifying for contrast; obviously intellectualism (?) exists on a continuum (I would suggest that more is sometimes, but by no means always, better).

Any intellectual has to begin with a sufficient degree of basic curiosity. Most people as teenagers have a dawning realization that humanity features a vast array of different, and often contradictory, belief systems involving morality, culture, and religion. The incurious are not deeply affected by this, or they implicitly decide that their personal way (and their family/tribe/country's way) is simply right and others are wrong. Recall that a perennial criticism of President Bush is basic incuriosity--he is an exemplar of the non-intellectual.

The budding intellectual arrives at the notion that through sheer study, thinking, and dialogues of ideas, useful consensus can be achieved amid the pandemonium of diverse human values. The holy grail is Truth, most ambitiously sought after in science and philosophy. We often do find Truth in science, but only about how things work, not how they should work, which is what we ultimately most care about. Philosophy aspires to such Truth in ethics, aesthetics, and the philosophy of religion, but results vary and are not always satisfactory, to put it mildly.

Many pundits have criticized Obama for political naivete, for his apparent notion that we can "come together" more helpfully than in the past, despite the myriad factors that divide us. These "realist" pundits point out that politics is the great clash of competing interests (power is everything, and it was not for nothing that war was famously described as "politics by other means"). And indeed any politician who thinks that the truth of some ultimate maxim will compel allegiance from diverse humanity would only remind us of Stalin or Mao. But short of being an ideologue, Obama has the intellectual's hope that we can unite not because of shared race, religion, or even history, but because of willingly embraced idea(l)s. Plato's philosopher-kings have been few and far between; are we ready for a distant, dry, but potentially transformative philosopher-President? Does Obama's need for a consensus of ideas complement our need for...what exactly?


Anonymous said...

I think It's a matter of both process and content. Obama's content is fundamentally rational, but he offers it with the underlying assumption that the public is also rational and adult. His style complements our desire for politicians to relate to us as adult, which makes for this unusual and elevating dynamic. His *race* speech for instance. With that he raised the caliber, and that raised our self esteem, because we're up to the challenge and he's not out of reach.

I don 't mean to sound like an Obamabot, but he is new. And his manner speaks to what I pray is a silent majority. Cool detachment and inscrutability is glamorous, and his stands out, given our fake friendly, intrusive and doglike national character. This too he challenges. And it's all so indirect and non-demanding I could faint from the sheer skill of it.

John J. Coupal said...

Our last intellectual president was probably Jimmie Carter, despite his humble beginnings.

If Obama is an intellectual, I really hope his performance as president is superior to that of his predecessor.

Unknown said...

Better an intellectual than an anti-intellectual like a certain lame duck whose name I won't mention.

Much credit to you for writing a fair and balanced analysis. See ShrinkWrapped (not to be confused with Shrink Rap) for an entirely different take on the situation.