Monday, August 18, 2008

Late Summer Reads on Psychology, Anthropology & National Security

For those trying to squeeze in some serious late summer reading, I strongly recommend Dr. Bryant Welch's recently published book, State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind.

Dr. Welch elegantly and succinctly describes the psychological mechanisms behind paranoia and denial, and links them to the mindset of many Americans post-9/11. This societal regression due to fear and uncertainty is exploited by political leaders and charlatans in a process Dr. Welch calls political gaslighting. The term "gaslighting" is derived from the classic movie Gaslight (with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman), where a sociopathic husband subtly manipulates his wife's reality and invalidates her sense of what is real, until she feels she is becoming insane and enters a state of mental breakdown.

From State of Confusion:
When the mind's reality sense is repeatedly manipulated by clever people with devious intent, victims' mental ability to function is effectively eroded, and they become disoriented. Rationality falls by the wayside. People behave erratically, and, because of their own ever increasing uncertainty, they become dependent on demagogues and ideologues who speak confidently and appear to offer escape from the uncertainty. This has happened to millions of Americans who, lured by moralistic bromides, have turned to neoconservative spokesmen, ministers, and politicians and become dependent upon them, even enthralled by them....

Political gaslighting is a sophisticated psychological art form that has combined with mass media techniques to become a very powerful political instrument.... the American mind is being manipulated, making America's national behavior highly dysfunctional and volatile.
The book goes into more detail on the mental and social processes involved in this national regression and experience of mass manipulation, making it clear we live in very dangerous times. Those who seek to fight back against political reaction need to read about and understand the social-psychological processes that inhabit the psyches of those who fall under the sway of such reaction, and I can think of no better introduction than Dr. Byrant's book.

"The "Melding of Science and Commerce"

For those who may not have the time to read a full book right now, there are a few good articles I'd like to recommend.

For those following the controversy at APA, a long-time psychologist has started a website, VirtualAPA, and has produced two articles on the controversies over psychologist participation in torture and coercive interrogations. While I can't say I follow some of his more philosophical musings, his analysis of the dilemma that faces the American Psychological Association and institutional psychology (and by extension, psychiatry and medicine in general) is both sharp and incisive.
Psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen are not members of APA and can only be assailed from afar as unethical practitioners or ill informed scientists. The entity of Mitchell, Jessen and Associates can continue to operate and will function according to an entrepreneurial ethic. Their SERE training model is a brand, a product that has been successfully marketed to the military and to private corporate interests. The extension of their model into the detention centers and the “reverse engineering” is a logical business decision. They have increased their market share and can justify their actions, just as any military contractor does, that their efforts are good for the country and good for business.

This melding of science and commerce permeates the entire field.
Embedding Anthropologists?

Finally, over at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Hugh Gusterson has a good article on The U.S. Military's Quest to Weaponize Culture. In the article, Gusterson explains both the rationale and the growing opposition to embedding anthropologists and other social scientists in military operational teams, such as the so-called Human Terrain Team System:
The Pentagon plans 26 Human Terrain Teams--one for each combat brigade in Iraq and Afghanistan. The five-person teams include three military personnel. Each team also includes an anthropologist--or another social scientist--who will wear a military uniform and receive weapons training. Described as doing "armed social work" by David Kilcullen, an Australian expert in counterinsurgency who advises Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq, the teams elicit information from villagers for Pentagon databases and provide cultural orientation to U.S. military leaders....

Last year, the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) issued a statement condemning the use of anthropologists in Human Terrain Teams....

One cannot grasp AAA's concerns without understanding that anthropologists have a unique research method that brings with it special ethical responsibilities: We engage in what one anthropologist has called "deep hanging out" with people, passing the time with them, often day after day for months, painstakingly earning their trust and getting them to tell us about their worlds. What distinguishes anthropology from espionage (apart from anthropologists' impenetrable jargon) is that we seek the consent of our subjects, and we follow an injunction to do no harm to those we study. According to the anthropological code of ethics, our obligations to those we study trump all others--to colleagues, funders, and nation.
The article continues with an examination of another Pentagon program, Project Minerva, which plans to spend millions of dollars "to mobilize social scientists for open research related to the war on terror."

Meanwhile, U.S. Army personnel are showing up at meetings of anthropologists and taking down names and institutional affiliations of anthropologists who had signed a public pledge not to participate in "counter-insurgency operations in Iraq or in related theaters in the 'war on terror,'" believing that "anthropologists should refrain from directly assisting the US military in combat, be it through torture, interrogation, or tactical advice."

The U.S. ruling class's mobilization of all layers of civil society for the fear-driven defense of the nation against "terror," is leading to the militarization of the society as a whole. We are already far down this path... too far, such that many sober observers would already call the United States "fascistic."

I would stop short of making that judgment, but we may be closer to it than anyone would like to think. What is lacking is an all-out domestic assault against political opponents and organizations the government deems to be a danger to its political rule and ideology. Under fascistic rule, thousands, if not tens, even hundreds of thousands would be jailed, and violent terror against domestic political opponents would become the order of the day.

Let us hope it does not come to that. A portion of the academy is fighting back, as are other sectors of the society. The "hope" presidential aspirant Barack Obama embodies (whether he really intends it or not) is precisely the hope that U.S. society can turn back from the self-destructive path it appears at times determined to follow.

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