Shaffer: Psychoanalytic politics

On Truth and Lies

Last week, The New York Times printed one editorial under three different names.

Charles M. Blow has a degree in mass communications. It paid off in hits. He explains Obamacare opposition thus: “The bill’s most visible and vocal proponents included a gay man (Barney Frank) and a Jew (Anthony Weiner)” (“Whose Country Is It?” March 26). Is that how we explain the backlash against Lieberman? When Howard Dean cried “we want our country back,” and Paul Krugman agreed, was it a subtle anti-gay slur aimed at pro-war blogger Andrew Sullivan?

Bob Herbert wrote a very mean satire. With a mischievous chuckle at the naifs who might take him seriously, he wrote about conservatives’ “insane, nauseating, nonstop commitment to hatred and bigotry” (“The Absence of Class in the G.O.P.” March 23). I like irony, Bob, but this is a bit much. For satire to work, it needs to be plausible, something somebody might really say.

Frank Rich experienced a revelation: “The Rage is Not About Health Care” (March 28). Really, it’s about white supremacy. It’s a Civil Rights Movement repeat, he says, suddenly recalling the off-the-topic 1964 murder of three civil rights workers. It looked like another satire until he mentioned protestors’ “mimicry of Kristallnacht,” and I realized it was just an insult to that night’s dead.

In each, a broad, nebulous “they,” guilt by association (unqualified uses of “right-wing”), connotation stripped of denotation (“rabid,” “virulent,” “paranoid,” “foaming-at-the-mouth”), certain knowledge of “their” hidden motivations. The writers won’t deign to spare a thought about the real consequences of real legislation. In Manhattan, getting a psychoanalyst to plumb your subconscious costs $200. Now, you can get three for free on nytimes.com!

This is not opinion journalism. This is junior high gossip—words not meant to inform or even persuade, just to enrage.

All three op-eds were the most viewed, most e-mailed and most blogged. Nuanced thought isn’t as tasty as pathologizing your political opponents.

A telling contrast was The Wall Street Journal. They had a different idea: “Democrats decided to raise taxes on companies that do the public service of offering prescription drug benefits to their retirees instead of dumping them into Medicare” (“The ObamaCare Writedowns,” March 27). Not “sexagenarian-phobic, foaming-at-the-mouth Democrats raised taxes.” The strongest phrase was “wholesale destruction of wealth and capital.” Then a real-life protestor, soft-spoken Pam Stout, wowed Letterman’s audience by cleverly hiding her nauseating, nonstop commitment to hatred and bigotry, behind gentle thoughts of “individual responsibility.” The audience didn’t know how to respond.

The Times editorials are a cancer on our political conversation. They are psychoanalytic politics, attempts to win with assumptions about hidden motivations, instead of reasoning with facts. Maybe there are good reasons for Obamacare and the stimulus. But they would be just that — reasons. Not guesses about invisible motives, or reminiscences of foaming mouths. The psychoanalytic style is childish and wrong but becoming more common. It’s perfect for tweets, pop-psychology, grievance-mongering and information bubbles that shelter the self-deceptions of weak minds.

Psychoanalytic politics are logically irrelevant. The argument, “If P, then Q; P, therefore Q,” goes unharmed if a bad person endorses Q out of bad motives. If Stalin came out in favor of free trade out of animus for Canadians, it would not change the case for free trade.

If New York Times writers know that Americans are motivated by hatred for gays, Jews and blacks, who in their own circles would they finger? And if they mean Americans outside of their circle, how do they know and why should we trust them? If only they can see prejudice because it’s hidden in the subconscious, how is it exclusively in the subconscious of their political opponents?

Psychoanalytic arguments are worse than untrue — they’re unfalsifiable. We can explain anything with invisible prejudice. I can’t prove you’re a bigot, but you can’t prove you’re not. The argument is intellectually bankrupt, but the threat it carries makes it powerful.

And these arguments do only harm. Do insinuations that evangelicals are closet Eichmanns itching to pogrom help Jewish-Christian relations? Or do they create division where there has been remarkable unity? Does it help minority children to say that America is so racist that they have no chance? Or is this precisely the thing which will discourage kids, create cycles of mistrust and entrench racial inequality?

Anyone can see through the psychoanalytic nonsense. But it frees pundits from the burden of learning and lets them indulge the basest political urges — feeling aggrieved and pathologizing others. It does the same for readers, who retweet with glee. Best of all, no one dares disagree, lest they be psychoanalyzed too.

It works. But it’s also wrong. Last week’s Times editorial page contributed nothing but lies and anger to an important conversation. The columnists used their power for cruelty toward well-meaning citizens. Psychoanalytic accusation is the real paranoid style in American politics. The real disease that needs curing.

Matthew Shaffer is a senior in Davenport College.

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