Tuesday, November 06, 2012
An Election Day Question: Is Joe Biden Demented?
Yesterday, I linked to a nonprofessional's diagnosis suggesting that the Republican leadership is sociopathic. Today, I thought it only fair to link to a story providing further diagnoses, one by a nonprofessional and the other by a professional (which is not to say he was acting in a professional fashion). They suggest, respectively, that Mitt Romney is suffering from mental problems and/or that Vice President Joe Biden is suffering from dementia. The story containing those diagnoses, as it turns out, is actually about the increasing partisanship and bitterness of cable news networks. Talk about burying the lede! What if one or more of those diagnoses are right?
Admittedly, others might take other lessons from this rash of diagnoses, such as: 1) practicing politics through long-distance DSMification is unhelpful, both as politics and as psychology; or 2) just as we might look for structural and environmental causes and cures if a large number of people in some particular area turned out to suffer from mental illness, so if we conclude that large numbers of politicians are crazy, we might focus more on the pathologies of the entire American political and cultural system than on partial analyses--analyses that also, coincidentally, confirm our own sense that we are rational and just, while the only explanation for our opponents' beliefs and conduct is that they are not. Granted, the latter approach is something that even those Americans who usually focus on structural pathologies of American politics sometimes forget. You Americans must get tired of commentary from foreigners that begin "You Americans..." Still, I've got to say it: From my perspective, it sometimes seems to me that you Americans are all crazy, or at least that many aspects of your political structure and culture are.
And with that, have a great Election Day!
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I happen to believe our society is in fact aptly characterized by a general diagnosis (which need not rely solely on the DSM) along the lines of Erich Fromm's “pathology of normalcy” locution (in our case, cultural and political life seen as expressing low-grade, chronic, schizoid tendencies), the idea of which, as others have noted, is not original to Fromm but has ancient pedigree in Platonic thought, among the Stoics, Hindus, and Buddhists, for example. As Richard Burston writes in his fine summary and assessment of Fromm's psychoanalytic and social psychological thought:
“The idea that the average individual is enveloped in a welter of delusions that are buttressed or reinforced by convention, consensus, or the prevailing social order--radical and extreme though it may sound--is vividly inscribed in the prophetic and Platonic consciousness. Indeed, the diligent historian of ideas is confronted with a strange situation that most clinicians seem loath to contemplate. It is this: that in most societies, the majority of those deemed normal, who share in consensually validated belief systems and are free of manifest mental illness (according to prevaling standards), think of themselves and their fellows as being eminently sane. By contrast, a sizable number of thinkers, philosophers, and prophets--in a proportion that varies somewhat from one society and period to another--regard the majority of their contemporaries as deluded and as radically, often willfully, estranged from the truth.”
Inspired by a recent post at Concurring Opinions by Maxine Eichner that addressed some problems that afflict our current conceptions and praxis of “wealth and work,” I touched a bit on this topic in a recent (guest) post on the “economics of well-being and happiness” at The Faculty Lounge wherein I draw from Daniel M. Haybron's important book, The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being (2008):
“The United States is by a wide margin, among the most affluent nations in human history, and many Americans enjoy unprecedented freedom to shape their lives—for those individuals, a great success in moral and economic terms. Yet no one ever accused us of ‘knowing how to live.’ This is perhaps because, arguably, we don’t. Surveys find an overwhelming majority of Americans reporting that Americans have badly placed priorities. And there is no evidence that Americans grew any happier over the recent decades that witnessed astonishing growth in material standards of living. Self-reported happiness has remained essentially flat, while rates of suicide, depression, and other pathologies have soared.”
We need to ask the most fundamental questions if we are to begin addressing possible ways to free us from this oppressive economics and culture of “wealth and work.” Again, Haybron:
“The modern era’s overriding preoccupation, arguably, has been the betterment of the human condition, inarguably, a noble aim. Yet the real focus has been on our material conditions, with far less attention paid to the question of how we are living and what our way of life does for us, or to us. Once it has well enough satisfied the basic constraints of morality, the chief question facing any civilization is: do its members enjoy a reasonable level of well-being? We probably won’t get much of an answer to this question if we simply ask what they have got. For human well-being mostly depends not on what people have but, among other things, on what they do with what they’ve got. A better question, arguably, is this: do they live in a sensible manner? A decent response to this question will require us to understand whether their way of life suits their natures. And central to that project, surely, will be seeing whether their way of life conduces to their flourishing psychologically. If a civilization cannot muster a reasonably affirmative answer to this question, then we might reconsider whether it is properly called ‘civilized.’ For if people do not flourish psychologically, they do not flourish. Period. It is with the psychology, I would suggest, that the really interesting story about the flourishing of these creatures lies.”
And reminding one of the extensive literature on the well-known problems that follow equating well-being with or reducing well-being to preference satisfaction, Haybron writes:
“It is commonly thought that someone’s being satisfied with her life creates a presumption that her life is, in fact, going well for her. But most people, in most places, are satisfied with their lives. In some places satisfaction may be near universal. This may lead most people to conclude that they are in fact doing pretty well, yielding perhaps a remarkably contented race. Maybe the conclusion is true; but what if it is not? As Wittgenstein shows us, life has to be pretty grim for a person not to have good reasons for being satisfied with it. (It sure beats the alternative.) Many people may reasonably be satisfied with lives that are not, by anyone’s standards, going well at all. If so, it would be a grave mistake to take their assessments—or our own—as final in matters of personal welfare. [….]
The pursuit of happiness is not easy. Given that the basic conditions of our lives, and the way we live, are so heavily dependent on our social environment, we may want to look more closely at the societal dimensions of the question. [….] Even if we are suspicious of using policy instruments to promote happiness, we might at least consider the limits of individual effort, and the importance of context, in shaping how happy we are. Take, for example, recent initiatives to develop and teach methods by which people can make themselves happier. Such efforts can produce very real benefits, and in fact many of the ancients were in a version of same business. While there are legitimate worries about such techniques sometimes reducing to cheap spiritual analgesics, I see no reason why this cannot be avoided. A more interesting question, it seems to me, is how far individual efforts like this are likely to improve human well-being on a broad scale. If the problem lies chiefly in the way you live, and this in turn depends heavily on the kind of society you inhabit, then positive thinking techniques and the like are only going to get you so far. [….]
While moderns have been right to place psychological states like happiness at the center of well-being, the character and value of these states is surprisingly elusive. We should not assume that matters of personal welfare are at all transparent to the individual. The potential for error is great. Indeed, it should by now be easy at least to imagine people settling, en masse, for unfulfilling lives. The question now is whether, given the facts of human nature, such a result is anything more than a bare possibility.”
Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Nov 6, 2012 9:35:11 AM
I read Prof Buchanan's linked article and, like most writing of this type, it tells us more about the disturbed thought patterns of its author than it does of the nominal subjects of the article.
Posted by: Mark | Nov 6, 2012 10:34:43 AM
I am absolutely unwilling to characterize Prof. Buchanan as disturbed, etc. That said, I think I've made clear that I doubt the usefulness of even good-faith efforts to apply psychological diagnostic criteria or language in this way.
Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Nov 6, 2012 10:51:00 AM
I will therefore amend my comment to just say that the article tells us more about the author than it does of the nominal subjects of his article. Harmony prevails!
Posted by: Mark | Nov 6, 2012 11:12:06 AM
Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Nov 6, 2012 11:18:40 AM
To Paul's point, here's Matt Taibbi:
"People who live in other countries, who grew up in the third world or live now in terminally wobbling mob states of the ex-Communist variety, they must look at our behavior now in election years and think we're crazy."
Posted by: Matt Bodie | Nov 6, 2012 4:08:12 PM
And here's The Onion:
Posted by: dkn | Nov 6, 2012 6:46:24 PM