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August 17, 2003 Opinion

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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:

The authors also peer into the psyche of President George Bush, who turns out to be a textbook case. The telltale signs are his preference for moral certainty and frequently expressed dislike of nuance.

"This intolerance of ambiguity can lead people to cling to the familiar, to arrive at premature conclusions, and to impose simplistic clichés and stereotypes," the authors argue in the Psychological Bulletin.

One of the psychologists behind the study, Jack Glaser, said the aversion to shades of grey and the need for "closure" could explain the fact that the Bush administration ignored intelligence that contradicted its beliefs about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

The authors, presumably aware of the outrage they were likely to trigger, added a disclaimer that their study "does not mean that conservatism is pathological or that conservative beliefs are necessarily false."

Another author, Arie Kruglanski, of the University of Maryland, said he had received hate mail since the article was published, but he insisted that the study "is not critical of conservatives at all. The variables we talk about are general human dimensions.  These are the same dimensions that contribute to loyalty and commitment to the group. Liberals might be less intolerant of ambiguity, but they may be less decisive, less committed, less loyal."

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:

At the heart of liberalism is the naive belief that people are basically good. As a result of this belief, liberals rarely blame people for the evil they do. Instead, they blame economics, parents, capitalism, racism, and anything else that can let the individual off the hook.

A second naive liberal belief is that because people are basically good, talking with people who do evil is always better than fighting, let alone killing, them. "Negotiate with Saddam," "Negotiate with the Soviets," "War never solves anything," "Think peace," "Visualize peace" - the liberal mind is filled with naive clichés about how to deal with evil.
Indeed, the very use of the word "evil" greatly disturbs liberals.  It shakes up their child-like views of the world, that everybody is at heart a decent person who is either misunderstood or led to do unfortunate things by outside forces.
And the narcissism:
... We live in the Age of Narcissism. As a result of unprecedented affluence and luxury, preoccupation with one's psychological state, and a hedonistic culture, much of the West, America included, has become almost entirely feelings-directed.
That is one reason "feelings" and "compassion" are two of the most often used liberal terms. "Character" is no longer a liberal word because it implies self-restraint.
"Good and evil" are not liberal words either as they imply a moral standard beyond one's feelings. In assessing what position to take on moral or social questions, the liberal asks him or herself, "How do I feel about it?" or "How do I show the most compassion?" not "What is right?" or "What is wrong?" For the liberal, right and wrong are dismissed as unknowable, and every person chooses his or her own morality.
Thus he concludes:
There are not many antidotes to this lethal combination of naiveté and narcissism. Both are very comfortable states compared to growing up and confronting evil, and compared to making one's feelings subservient to a higher standard. And comfortable people don't like to be made uncomfortable.
Hence the liberal attempt to either erase the Judeo-Christian code or at least remove its influence from public life.
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."
The result is a gulf not only between America and the rest of the industrialized world, but a growing split at home as well. One of the most poisonous divides is the one between intellectual and religious America.
Some liberals wear T-shirts declaring, "So Many Right-Wing Christians . . . So Few Lions."  On the other side, there are attitudes like those on a Web site, www.dutyisours.com/gwbush.htm explaining the 2000 election this way: "God defeated armies of Philistines and others with confusion. Dimpled and hanging chads may also be because of God's intervention on those who were voting incorrectly. Why is GW Bush our president? It was God's choice."
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:
Yet despite the lack of scientific or historical evidence, and despite the doubts of Biblical scholars, America is so pious that not only do 91 percent of Christians say they believe in the Virgin Birth, but so do an astonishing 47 percent of U.S. non-Christians.

I'm not denigrating anyone's beliefs. And I don't pretend to know why America is so much more infused with religious faith than the rest of the world. But I do think that we're in the middle of another religious Great Awakening, and that while this may bring spiritual comfort to many, it will also mean a growing polarization within our society.
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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17 August 2003

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