Review of State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind by Bryant Welch, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2008, 287 pages.
I tend to be wary of those who report having switched from psychotherapy to another career because they found it more interesting or rewarding in some way. I usually imagine they just were simply not able to be successful as psychotherapists. The blurb on the jacket of State of Confusion reports that psychologist/attorney Bryant Welch spent many years as a psychotherapist prior to his years as a political insider in Washington, D.C. After reading the book I am inclined to believe he was a competent therapist in his first career. This credibility comes in part from his occasional references to vignettes from his clinical years, and in part from the way he shares his personal subjective experiences. He comes across as a man who is genuinely introspective in a way that leads me to imagine he has substantial personal psychotherapy under his belt.
Without reference to personal therapy, Welch makes a credible claim to being able to offer unique insights about the current psycho-political situation in America as a result of the combination of his clinical background and political insider perspective, as well as his degrees in both psychology and law. I was fascinated by what he offers and, by the end of the book, frustrated by what he does not.
The basic thesis of the book is that very sophisticated psychological manipulation of Americans’ minds has become the standard, and very successful, strategy of the neoconservative political movement. This strategy has been implemented through the subtle presentation of the themes of envy, paranoia, and what Welch calls “sexual perplexity” in all kinds of political propaganda. Americans have been invited to feel very anxious through the stimulation of these themes, often in a manner that is subtle enough for the cause of the anxiety to remain unconscious. Then the prospect of the relief of this anxiety is offered through the presentation of a very black-and-white neoconservative point of view. This procedure is compared to the way the husband in the 1944 movie Gaslight drives his wife crazy by manipulating her sense of reality, and the procedure itself is therefore labeled “gaslighting.”
Welch examines in detail the way gaslighting exploits unconscious conflicts in the areas of envy, paranoia, and sexual perplexity. What it all boils down to, as far as I can tell, is tolerance for the anxiety associated with uncertainty or ambiguity. As people find the complexity of the external world and their own internal experience to be rather challenging, they are vulnerable to a combination of gaslighting followed by a message offering a reassuringly simplistic solution to their confusion and anxiety. Portraying Saddam Hussein as possessing WMD and being responsible for the 9-11 attacks was gaslighting. Invading Iraq was the simplistic solution. Welch also gives a detailed insider’s account of the gaslighting behind the evolution of managed care, essentially confirming my worst suspicions.
Gaslighting as described in the book reminds me a great deal of the cult group in the seventies that profiled potential converts in airports. Those who were of a certain age, very young adults, were first selected. These were usually college students. Then those who had an air of uncertainty or anxiety were selected from those who were of the right age. The young men and women thus selected were approached and offered a flower as well as relief, through the adoption of the cult’s beliefs and practices, from the complexity of life. I find it fascinating that those who are going to have psychotic episodes usually have the first one at about this same age, suggesting that the cult group knew something about psychological vulnerability during a particularly difficult and confusing period of human development. At the same time the cult was recruiting in airports, colleges and universities were becoming increasingly concerned about student suicide risks on campus, perhaps as a function of the complexity and uncertainty resulting from of a rapidly changing culture. The current trend toward mass homicides in schools may reflect the same problem.
One of the most disturbing conclusions Welch draws is that the failure of many Americans to be able to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty, and to think independently in the face of such complexity, may feed upon itself and thus grow worse over time. As one is overwhelmed by complexity and succumbs to the simplified neoconservative dogma being offered, the relief experienced makes one less likely to try to use one’s critical faculties in the future. Failure to exercise leads to being out of shape and being out of shape makes exercise all the less appealing. When someone then suggests that exercise isn’t really necessary at all if you simply follow a certain way of viewing the world it can be very seductive--and can lead to a country of psychological couch potatoes.
This use-it-or-lose-it dilemma seems to be parallel to the emerging picture on prozac’s therapeutic action. It appears that the manipulation of serotonin levels is less important than prozac’s ability to stimulate the growth of neurons, and that the symptoms of depression may have more to do with neuronal atrophy than with serotonin levels. More importantly, optimal neuronal growth or regeneration requires active input in the form of physical exercise in addition to the prozac. State of Confusion addresses a slightly different state of mind from that of depression, but the state of confusion resulting from of atrophied psychological capacity and the need for personal effort to remediate such atrophy are very similar.
Another use-it-or-lose-it question arises over the possible atrophy of the capacity for moral reasoning. The ability to wrestle with moral dilemmas and to search within one’s own internal experience for solutions to these is critical if civilization as we know it (or hope to know it) is to survive. Just as a gaslighting political spindoctor might invite one to ignore internal struggles with questions of what is real, so might a law-and-order candidate invite one to ignore the internal moral discernment process. If one can assume that all moral questions can easily be answered by referencing what is allowed or not allowed by law, morals dilemmas are not a problem. The atrophying of one’s own capacity for moral reasoning that follows from such an assumption, however, is a problem for any culture or nation that aspires to be democratic. For the Third Reich it was more of a solution than a problem.
I was disappointed that I saw no reference to Justin Frank’s amazing book, Bush on the Couch, in State of Confusion. When Frank, a psychiatrist in Washington DC, published his book in 2005 he gave a diagnostic context for understanding the astonishment people experienced each time Bush again manifested his brazen disregard for the constitution and the laws he had sworn to uphold. He diagnosed Bush as suffering from megalomania and paranoia. I expected this clarification of what was going on would quickly lead to Bush’s being removed from office on the basis of medical (psychiatric) fitness-for-duty standards that he clearly does not meet. Instead this complexity, reminiscent of The Caine Mutiny, seemed to pass right through the American psyche unmetabolized. This is perhaps a case study in the very psychological processes that Welch describes so well.
Of course my assumption that the removal of George W. Bush & Co. would solve the problem may also be a case study in oversimplification. The tendency toward diminished psychological capacity in Americans, whether moral reasoning or just plain reality testing, is something that Welch sees as being exploited and exacerbated by Bush and his neoconservatives. However he does not see such impairment as being caused initially by this group. He suggests that Americans have been drifting toward such impairment for some time, and that Bush’s being elected in the first place is in fact a reflection of this dangerous tendency toward diminished capacity.
More disappointing than Welch’s failure to mention Bush on the Couch was his failure to provide a clear treatment plan for the American psyche. That we need to improve our ability to tolerate complexity and anxiety and to think clearly and independently at the same time is obvious. If such abilities continue to decline we will almost certainly find the great American experiment in democracy a failure, probably to be replaced by some kind of dictatorship. How to avoid such a disaster is the question that looms. Does it require more genuine education rather than merely teaching to the test? Does it mean everybody needs to have at least 5 years of serious psychotherapy before they are allowed to vote—and at least 10 years before being eligible to run for office? Does it mean that the role of the psychotherapist must be viewed in some context larger than that of the consulting room? Should we in some way be citizen-psychotherapists, seeking to address the psyche of the nation? This is a very complex and anxiety-provoking situation to me. I can feel my impulse to press Bryant Welch to write a sequel to State of Confusion in which he spells out some simple solution for me. On the other hand, even if a sequel were to address my anxiety as prozac might address my depression, I realize it would be up to me/us to put in the effort to really benefit from it.
This book review was published in Voices: The Art and Science of Psychotherapy in the Winter 2008 issue. The published version appears below.