Just Above Sunset Archives
August 17, 2003 Opinion
The right is neurotic and the left morally corrupt, but we do have religion.
A study conducted at Berkeley and published in the Psychological Bulletin has had the American commentators on politics up in arms for the last week or so. The study, Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition, was funded by a grant from National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. It cost one million, two hundred thousand dollars. This was government money. The study was funded by our tax dollars.
So what seems to be the problem?
Well, the conclusions about political conservatism were that such political views can be explained psychologically as a set of neuroses rooted in "fear and aggression, dogmatism and the intolerance of ambiguity."
The report linked Hitler, Mussolini, Ronald Reagan and the rightwing talk show host, Rush Limbaugh, arguing they all suffered from the same affliction. All of them "preached a return to an idealized past and condoned inequality."
As Julian Bolger summarized the study in The Guardian (UK) - with particular regard to the current administration and the President:
Well, as you can imagine, there was a lot of outrage and furor over this.
The commentators on Fox News and in the Republican press - most notably the National Review, Weekly Standard, NewsMax and Townhall - were calling this slander and a misuse of government funds by left-wing intellectuals at Berkeley trying to denigrate the heroic right, the folks who cleaned up Afghanistan and liberated Iraq and fight terrorism every day while the cowardly left tries to "understand" it. Heck, what can you expect from the campus that gave us the Free Speech Movement back in the sixties?
One of the more interesting responses came from Dennis Prager in an essay posted to TOWNHALL.COM on August 12 - What Makes A Liberal?
Prager says it comes down to naïveté and narcissism.
Heres how he describes that naïveté:
And the narcissism:
Thus he concludes:
What to make of this? Well, first a personal disclaimer. My second father-in-law was with the National Institute of Health, heading the National Mental Health part of that organization back in the early eighties, and then became Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs during most of the Reagan administration. I've hung around the National Institutes of Health and the Pentagon, with these conservatives who lack ambiguity. I chatted a few times with C. Everett Koop who was Surgeon General in the eighties, a fair guy who saw subtlety. And I met the Secretary of Defense at that time, Frank Carlucci, somewhat the opposite. I don't think I can do a general psychological profile of Reagan Republicans from these two and the others with whom I talked.
But patterns appear.
As my friend in the news business in Atlanta wrote to me about this all, "Like the Republicans, I too am appalled at the incredible amounts of money spent on this study! Next thing you know, someone will get government money to conduct a study that concludes that the sun goes down at sundown!"
Well, maybe it is obvious. These folks on the right want things simple, and in black and white, and get grumpy when you deny things are not simple and may be a bit gray. They are decisive, loyal and get things done without a lot of talk.
But looking at the issue raised here I tend to see a divide in how one processes information. Many people enjoy ambiguity and playing with ideas while others find it much more comfortable to look at the world and figure it out through dropping events, people and ideas into categories - like good and evil.
This second urge is not so much severe moral judgment as it is an urge to classify by noting differences in things. Of course, this can be blue-nosed intolerance of the I-am-right-and-you-are-wrong sort, but often it is just an attempt to wrestle the chaotic world into some kind of useful shape.
The other sort of folks have this urge to synthesize things, to note similarities that might have been otherwise overlooked. There is a way to understand the terrorist with the bomb if you think things through, rather than quickly deciding into which moral slot you want to drop him or her. Such synthesis can lead to understanding and lowering of tensions and getting out of seemingly unending brutal conflict where no one will give an inch on either side.
Yeah, but you can get killed while you are pulling all the information together.
It's a matter of whether you are more comfortable seeing connections or seeing differences. And a matter of how much time you have, I suppose.
The even more startling study, which added a religious and moral dimension to all this was summarized by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times last week in a essay he titled Believe It, or Not.
Kristof sees the divide as not one of simplifiers on the right and synthesizers on the left. It's one of religion, of fundamental belief. It is a basic, bedrock split between the religious and the intellectual these days.
America is not only turning simplistic by choice in matters of politics, for whatever reason, but much more fundamentalist in what they believe religiously.
Consider this. Americans are three times as likely to believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus (83 percent) as in evolution (28 percent). Americans believe, 58 percent to 40 percent, that it is necessary to believe in God to be moral. In contrast, other developed countries overwhelmingly believe that it is not necessary. In France, only 13 percent agree with the United States view.
In fact, Kristof claims we are becoming more "Mystical."
I checked out that website. That is exactly what it says.
After a long discussion of the Virgin Mary and the history of where that whole business stands in theological history, Kistof concludes:
Well, we are polarized as never before, I suppose. And getting as rigid in our faith, and in our anger at those who don't share it in detail, as many a Wahabi mullah.
Kristof says he is worried, "because of the time I've spent with self-satisfied and unquestioning mullahs and imams, for the Islamic world is in crisis today in large part because of a similar drift away from a rich intellectual tradition and toward the mystical. The heart is a wonderful organ, but so is the brain."
I don't see the joy and comfort in living in a strict and evangelical Christian theocracy, but many do. And more and more feel that way every day.
The conservative guys on Fox News are forever telling me they are fair and balanced, being one of the few news outlets that is not afraid to name what is bad and what is good, because honest journalism is telling the truth. Bush good. Mullah bad. Why make things more complicated?
Because they are more complicated? Well, maybe they are. But no one seems to believe that sort of approach is useful. They believe it is dangerous.
This gap isn't going to close. It is only going to get wider.
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These are a continuation of several "open forum" pages. I will not add to them myself. Send your comments to be posted to these topics, or suggest additional topics.