Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Departure of Dr. Sanity

Pat Santy, the psychiatrist who authors the Dr. Sanity blog, is retiring from that great endeavor. She was one of the original psychbloggers, and has afforded me much pleasure over the years. I thought my email to her might be of interest to others.

From the park bench of the Assistant Village Idiot...

Dear Pat,
I am sorry to read of your retirement from blogging, but I certainly understand. As I approach 2000 posts, I sometimes get the sense that I am writing "and here's another example of what I've been telling you for years." Such perseverance is useful - perhaps the only thing that will change minds over time - but I imagine my 80 folks/day won't put up with it forever.

If you fear that the addiction will call you back to blogging in spite of yourself, you might switch to a more high-shelf drug. You have mined a great deal of ore from the current political and social culture and sorted it into piles on the basis of your training and observational skills. You are well-placed - not uniquely, perhaps, but certainly the number is small - to contemplate this data and refine it into something durable. Gagdad Bob does that, with a more mystical bent than I would - it was he who introduced me to the similarity of liberal thought to the cargo cults and ghost dances of less technologically-advanced tribes. Your more strictly scientific mind would likely lead you in other directions.

Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style In American Politics focused on conservative pathologies. More than one modern writer has noted that his work applies more to progressives now, but it is surely significant that the work still has value after nearly 50 years. You might find something in your own thinking that proves equally enduring. You would have to turn your spotlight on conservatives as well as liberals, of course, but as a libertarian that might not prove too difficult.

I have been fascinated recently (I did a long series on it) by the question of what good ideas liberalism is a perversion of. Many have suggested that communism is an heretical Christian doctrine, and I've had some fun with that, but I wanted to look in psychological rather than historical and philosophical directions. Neo recently quoted feminist blogger Dr. Violet Socks in discussing anti-Palin venom: These people don’t hate Palin because of the lies; the lies exist to justify the hate. She then relates that to anti-Semitism. There is intriguing brain evidence that we make decisions first, then search for justifications (Gladwell's Blink is entertaining but not very rigorous on that. Good leads, though). Booker's The Seven Basic Plots, also examines that from a combined psychological/anthropological perspective. I just started that one.

That would lead you into Pinker's and Chomsky's writing on the structure of thought, Freud's and Jung's attempts to tie individual development into a more universal realm, and Fraser's and Bettelheim's thinking on the social and developmental need for certain myths. Then maybe you can figure out why all six of them were unable or unwilling to perform the simple exercise of applying their theories to their own social, political, and religious beliefs, turning the glass inward. I speculate that introspection may be an enemy of such universal theorizing, paralyzing or distracting the mind from larger questions. But Rene Girard and Rosenstock-Huessey were able to do so. And yet again, perhaps that is why their deep works are less popular and well-known.

All these liberal humanities professors with father issues... the theory of rational ignorance... the reflections on fiction-writing by Tolkien and Lewis...advertising...evolutionary biology...popular culture...theories of humor...even your fondness for song parodies might be worth exploring. Why is it not only easier, but more satisfying, to wrest a tune from one context and put it in another? Is it the layering, the echoes of the original version giving odd harmonies to the new? Is there a bride-by-capture element to this?

There are too many places where your contemplation and theorizing might go - the sections of Genesis that even the fundamentalists hurry past, anthroposophy, the brilliant flakes who posited theories of personality development - perhaps there is something in these discarded pieces that needs reexamination. Neuropsychiatry and imaging are certainly changing how we view thought itself. If our politics are strongly influenced by our genetic inheritence as shown in the anterior cingulate gyrus (schizophrenia joke there), what does that mean for changing minds?

At a minimum, I think these sorts of reflections will be entertaining. They are highly portable, and can be brought out while watching soccer games or observing parking-lot behavior. At a maximum, I think you might find something worth keeping around for a few decades. Most others with your background would gravitate to knee-jerk liberalism, or to a more distant "engineering" approach to the mind.

My long experience of being married for over thirty years worries me that you might take all this as one more burden - one more thing you should do and will feel distress if you don't. It certainly isn't meant that way. It's meant to liberate your reading and choice of activities, because with such a broad scope, just about anything you pick up or do might be useful.

Thank you for all your labor in the fields, and the great new ideas you have exposed me to.

David Wyman
Goffstown, NH

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