Monday, November 14, 2022

The Movie Gaslight, and a Nation in a Narcissistic Grip

Written before the 2022 national election:

For many people, narcissism has a limited meaning: someone who is self-absorbed and caught up in their own image. But start reading about it, and you discover that narcissism expresses itself through a whole suite of symptoms. Some people with narcissistic qualities can have significant and sometimes beneficial roles in the community, but they can also exhibit traits that vary from annoying to deeply disturbing, many of which you may encounter in the workplace or at home, or most tragically in the political world. Narcissism has roots in childhood trauma, is nearly impossible to cure, and ultimately proves emotionally impoverishing for all involved. A familiarity with narcissism's many dimensions can shed considerable light on persistent problems in the public and private realms.

After hearing that Angela Lansbury had died, I watched a Fresh Air podcast about her, in which I learned that she first appeared as a movie actress in Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. Gaslight was first a play, then a 1940 British movie, then the classic 1944 version out of Hollywood. We ended up watching the 1940 version because it's free on youtube. The movie is so grim at the beginning that we at first bailed. But I was curious, read about the plot online, and knowing what would happen actually made me more interested in watching the movie. It turned out to be a perfect, if over the top, example of how narcissism can wreak havoc on a marriage.

The male character, Paul in the 1940 version, is the ultimate narcissist. He dazzles a woman in a whirlwind romance, marries her, then steadily works to undermine her confidence. Gaslighting, a term that grew out of this movie, is a classic tactic of a narcissist. He hides things, then blames her for losing them. When the gas lights in the apartment periodically go dim, he tells her it's her imagination. He is harshly critical and controlling. He seeks to isolate her from her friends and family. As he victimizes her, he claims that he is the victim. All of these are classic symptoms of narcissism. Despite his mistreatment, she loves him still, committed to the marriage and not understanding why they can't get back to the happiness they had shared early on.

In some ways, I see our country as being similarly under siege. In politics, narcissistic traits like projecting one's own negative traits onto others can prove highly adaptive, whether it be for an individual or a whole political party. The more pathology a narcissistic politician has stewing within, the more ammunition he has to hurl at his opponent. There's the doubling down on lies (a form of gaslighting), the quickness to blame others rather than reflect on one's own actions, a lack of empathy, false claims to victimhood, and the iron control to maintain party unity. 

Even as the husband Paul isolates his hapless wife Bella from her friends and relatives, in order to expand his control over her, she remains loyal to him. Can we not see the same dynamic occurring in our country, as people remain loyal to a political party bent on dismissing truth and dismantling democracy in order to tighten its grip on power? A nation's cherished ideals are sacrificed to sustain one man and the big lie.

Movies condition us to believe in happy endings. I won't say whether the author of Gaslight, playwright Patrick Hamilton, gave us one. My main concern, as an election nears, is whether a gaslighted nation can escape a narcissistic grip. 

Sunday, July 31, 2022

False Representation of Conservatism as "Tough"

For as long as I can remember, conservatism has been associated with strength. Why, exactly, is this? Is it because conservatives tend to vote for a bigger military, harsher sentencing for crimes, bigger walls along the border, more consumption of powerful fossil fuels and more exploitation of nature to strengthen the economy? Is it because conservatives stand united in opposition to liberal proposals, and hold steadfastly to a point of view? Conservatism can seem akin to bedrock, stubborn in its rigidity, impervious even to overwhelming evidence. It is the hardness of the shield that repels. By contrast, empathy and openness to truth require a porosity, a capacity to absorb that which is outside of oneself. These latter qualities may require more inner strength, yet are considered soft. 

This may be why a NY Times journalist described Liz Cheney as a "tough and hawkish conservative," as if "tough" and "conservative" are naturally linked. I'm alert to this reflexive linking, because the conservatism I've seen on display since the Reagan era has a decidedly weak and indulgent side to it. If conservatism is so tough, then why does it turn tail and run from tough issues like climate change? Can it really be called tough if it directs its toughness only outwards while shunning self-scrutiny, protecting its own from investigation while mercilessly attacking its political opponents? Can conservatism be called tough if it is constantly offering candy to voters, letting them off the hook by pretending that climate change is a hoax and that tax cuts pay for themselves? It's easy to cut taxes, far harder to cut the popular government programs that taxes support. 

Liz Cheney, remarkably, has found the courage to reject Reagan's decree forty years ago to "never speak ill of a fellow Republican." The high political price she has paid within her own party speaks to the degree to which Republicans define toughness as something to be directed outward, not at themselves.

But even Liz Cheney, for all the strength and character she has shown to finally impose standards of truth and decency on her own political party, maintains a persistent weakness in other realms. When it comes to climate change, Ms. Cheney runs from the overwhelming evidence while the nation's climate grows increasingly hostile. Her wikipedia page describes her as being known for her fiscal conservatism, but to what extent did she fight against the massive deficits of the Bush and Trump years? The pattern has been for conservatives to impose fiscal constraints only on Democratic presidents, not on their own. This is tactical partisanship, not strength. 

The article that made the unfounded association of toughness and conservatism had an interesting perspective on the role of women in the January 6 investigation. Oftentimes it is young women who have come forward to testify, while the "50-, 60- and 70-year-old men," in Cheney's words, "hide themselves behind executive privilege.” And it is female witnesses who have more often been singled out for attack by Trump and others who have attempted to recast strong women as deranged or warped by ambition. 

Toughness, then, is a trait that has falsely been attributed to conservatives who run from tough issues, ignore evidence and fail to exercise self-scrutiny. It will be all the more important to look at what constitutes strength as the climate continues to radicalize. Fossil fuel and the machines it powers played a big role in America's victory in WWII. But now we know that fossil fuels are as much enemy as friend. Using them makes present comfort and mobility possible while making the future impossible. The power they give us is also empowering an enemy that will grow more terrifying as more and more of the country becomes endangered by rising seas, increasing temperatures, drought, fires, and flooding. And authoritarianism, which we fought against in WWII, now finds fertile ground in our own country, where its brand of relentless attack and lack of self-scrutiny is mistaken for toughness. 

Liz Cheney, having decided to hold Republicans to account, is on a journey. Tough in at least one way that most Republicans are not, she is reminiscent of Bob Inglis, former representative of South Carolina, whose atypical toughness came in the form of acknowledging the overwhelming evidence and calling on Republicans to act against climate change. He was defeated in the 2010 primary, and Ms. Cheney may meet the same fate this fall, spurned by a political party that can't tolerate true strength. 

How we define and talk about strength matters. It influences what sorts of politicians we put in power, and what sort of country we will have in the future.

Related post: The Dark Side of the Reagan Legacy

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Misuse of the Word "Skeptic", and a Useful Book by Atmospheric Scientist Katharine Hayhoe

One of my pet peeves in journalism is the misuse of the word "skeptic" when discussing climate change. A recent example comes from columnist Margaret Renkl's opinion piece entitled "How to Talk About 'Extreme Weather' With Your Angry Uncle." In the essay, she repeatedly refers to "climate skeptics." But a true skeptic directs skepticism inward as well as outward--something that scientists are trained to do. People tend to associate skepticism with tough-mindedness, as in someone who refuses to accept mainstream belief unthinkingly. But the skepticism directed at climate science is one-way and self-serving--another example of the rightwing being tough on others, soft on self. It takes a tough mind to deal with unsettling realities, in this case the reality that people, by and large good and well-intentioned, are nonetheless collectively responsible for the radicalization of weather and the steady loss of our nation's sweet spot in the world's climate. 

The "angry uncle" in the title of Renkl's opinion piece might be angry because he has been encouraged to always look for blame and falsity in others, while leaving his own views unexamined. Much of the political polarization that tears at the fabric of personal relationships and the nation is artificial, sustained by misinformation and a refusal to vet one's own beliefs to see if they stand up to the facts. 

I doubt that anyone is going to get very far, talking to an angry uncle. Righteous anger is, I'm sure, a delicious feeling that would be hard to let go of. Perhaps, though, one could start by agreeing that fossil fuels are extraordinary in their power and convenience, and it would be a wonderful world if we could continue burning them without negative consequence. Maybe explore other things we really wish were true. 

It should not be too much to ask, however, for the angry uncle, so quick to attack, to direct as much skepticism inward as outward, especially at views that 1) flatter the self, and 2) let us off the hook. 

In her opinion essay, Margaret Renkl goes on to discuss a new book by Katharine Hayhoe, “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World,” Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist who is also an evangelical Christian, so is better positioned than most to view climate change from multiple perspectives. One of the blurbs about the book says this:

“An optimistic view on why collective action is still possible—and how it can be realized.” —The New York Times

Therein lies another false notion: that we are not now acting collectively. The frustration and tragedy of our era is that we are currently acting collectively to create problems, but are being denied the opportunity to collectively solve them. A distinction must be made between intentional and unintentional collective action. Though it is not our intention, we are in fact acting collectively to create problems in the world, one of which is climate change. Each one of us is highly equipped with machines that require the burning of carbon-based fuels. They are, day to day, truly marvelous machines, keeping us comfortable, taking us where we want to go. Yet every time we as individuals use them, we are also contributing to the radicalization of weather. Despite a lack of intention, the sum of each individual's actions has proven transformative. The machines we use have collectively increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in that deceptively thin layer of atmosphere above us by 50%, with dramatic consequences for our collective future.  

Renkl states that many conservatives are convinced that "doing right by the environment will involve pain, a complete repudiation of their current lives, or both." In fact, doing wrong by the environment is the source of the radical changes we see in weather across the nation--changes that threaten the very lifestyle we seek to sustain. 

One feature of Amazon that I really appreciate is the "look inside" feature that allows you to read a sample portion of a book. A brief reading of Hayhoe's "Saving Us" shows it to be very well written and an excellent book for our times. Interestingly, Hayhoe avoid's Renkl's "climate skeptics" terminology in favor of "dismissives"--a term Hayhoe uses to refer to the 7% of people whose glee in rejecting climate science and ridiculing climate advocates makes them "nearly impossible to have a positive conversation with." Though the NY Times opinion piece is entitled "How to Talk About 'Extreme Weather' With Your Angry Uncle," Hayhoe gave up trying to talk to her own angry uncle, and instead finds hope in the potential to engage positively with the other 93% of humanity. 

One big question is how to sustain people's self-esteem even as they become aware of how each one of us is contributing to the existential threat of climate change. Hayhoe appears to address this in chapters about fear and guilt, and gives advice on how to navigate the perilous waters of tribalism and identity to find common ground. Here's a useful quote from Renkl's essay:

First, undercut the politics. Becoming a climate activist doesn’t require changing political parties or renouncing long-held values. “It’s really a matter of showing people that they are already the perfect person to care because of who they are, and that climate action would be an even more genuine expression of their identity,” said Dr. Hayhoe. “It’s about holding up a mirror and reminding people that they want to be a good steward, that they want a better future. That’s when we see change.”

The book also grapples with the question of whether individual action or structural change is needed. Hayhoe's answer is "both." 

Thanks to Renkl for getting the word out about Hayhoe's very useful and readable book, but please, stop using misleading terms like "climate skeptic."

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Climate Change--Now You See It, Now You Don't

Though our machines are pouring a steadily rising amount of greenhouse gases up into our very thin atmosphere--a 50% rise in overall concentration since the industrial revolution--the earth's response to that radical change can seem sporadic and quirky. There will be a day here and there that feels outside our concept of the normal: a rain that's unusually intense, or a winter day when the air feels strangely cooked and stale. But those days quickly give way to another stretch of quasi-normality, and so we continue with the lifestyle we view as normal, which invariably includes being served by machines that continue stuffing the atmosphere with still more greenhouse gases. We are aware of climate change as a problem, yet can still go for long stretches hoping or pretending it is not. 

The same plays out in a newspaper like the NY Times. Yesterday there was a dramatic contrast between the climate and business sections. In a business article, countries wishing to free themselves of Russian oil desperately look for other sources, with no hint that their economy's demand for oil is anything other than logical and normal. Car commercials embedded in the article lure you to buy bigger, more powerful vehicles that consume still more fuel.

Then, one click away, an article in the climate section of the paper describes areas of the world that are becoming uninhabitable due to overheating.

As the consequences of fossil fuel combustion become ever more profound and incontrovertible, the marketplace's glamorization of that fuel consumption becomes ever more incongruous and irresponsible. If the marketplace were a character, it would be a brilliant, bold but blind man-child, forever pushing the boundaries, doing whatever it can get away with, brilliant in its deliverance of material bounty, stubbornly oblivious to future consequence. Government is forced into the parental role because the marketplace by nature is blind to the future and will never grow up. 

This is a time when the business section of a newspaper, and to some extent even those of us who feel a deep sense of foreboding, can still huddle in pockets of normality and cling to what has always passed in our lifetimes for normal.