Psychology is too important to be left to the psychologists.
In principle, psychology attempts to provide us with knowledge about the workings of the human mind. We often assume that only a psychologist can see through the behaviors to the truth of the mind’s workings. Only someone who knows a patient intimately can ascertain with any certainty what he really feels, really wants or is really thinking.
Of course, this assumes that we cannot truly understand what anyone is doing unless we understand the underlying mental processing that is directing his behavior.
But, why do we believe behavior expresses prior mental processing? Those who have read my analysis of the mind/body problem in The Last Psychoanalyst know that this assumption needs to be seriously questioned.
For all we know, the truth lies in the behaviors, not in the ghostly mind that is supposed to be directing them.
If such is the case, then we can learn about psychology by observing the actions and inactions even of political figures. We do not do so to discover anything about the individual’s childhood. We are not expecting to recover an unresolved personal trauma. We are not going to uncover his long, lost Oedipus complex. We are not even going to slander and defame him by pretending that he is driven by venal motives or psychosexual defects.
We will follow Aristotle and say that he behaves as he behaves because that is what he knows how to do. If his behavior is consistent, if he behaves that way habitually, that is who he is. We do not need to pry into his motives or intentions or childhood traumas.
Witness Peggy Noonan’s most recent column. In it she describes Barack Obama’s attempts to process his recent electoral repudiation.
To begin, she says:
Seven years ago I was talking to a longtime Democratic operative on Capitol Hill about a politician who was in trouble. The pol was likely finished, he said. I was surprised. Can’t he change things and dig himself out? No. “People do what they know how to do.” Politicians don’t have a vast repertoire. When they get in a jam they just do what they’ve always done, even if it’s not working anymore.
Obviously, it isn’t just politicians who do what they know how to do. Many other people, faced with adversity, fail to adapt. They find some comfort in doing what they know how to do.
This is true enough, but only up to a point. Most people, facing adversity will default to what they know how to do. But, some will know how to change their ways, the better to overcome the problem.
According to Noonan, Obama has always been a winner so he presents himself as someone who has won. He cannot accept being a loser because he does not know how to deal with defeat.
Mr. Obama is doing what he knows how to do—stare them down and face them off. But his circumstances have changed. He used to be a conquering hero, now he’s not. On the other hand he used to have to worry about public support. Now, with no more elections before him, he has the special power of the man who doesn’t care.
She elucidates the problem:
Most of his adult life has been a smooth glide. He had family challenges and an unusual childhood, but as an adult and a professional he never faced fierce, concentrated resistance. He was always magic. Life never came in and gave it to him hard on the jaw. So he really doesn’t know how to get up from the mat. He doesn’t know how to struggle to his feet and regain his balance. He only knows how to throw punches. But you can’t punch from the mat.
Noonan saw Obama manifest this tendency when he tried to open a dialogue on immigration by threatening Republicans. His message: do it my way or I will do it myself.
Evidently, it is not the line you want to use while opening a negotiation.
Beyond that, Noonan continues, no one likes Barack Obama any more. The press has gotten over him, to the point where many senior liberal journalists have denounced his White House as the worst they have ever seen. Democrats blame him for their election defeats. They are done with him.
(Of course, these same Democrats elevated President Obama to his august position, so they should take a few humble pills before showering him with disdain and contempt.)
Obama’s trip to Asia was, hailed by the New York Times as a sign that he was bouncing back from defeat. He had gotten up off the mat, dusted himself off and went out to wow the world.
We will be watching this narrative develop over time. It is fatuous cant. The Washington Post argued the point in detail.
Of course, the press did not report that Obama continues to bow to foreign dignitaries. Last week he bowed to the president of China.
Other world leaders know the score. They are happy to disrespect Obama—and America—with impunity.
In Noonan’s words:
This week at the Beijing summit there was no sign the leaders of the world had any particular regard for him. They can read election returns. They respect power and see it leaking out of him. If Mr. Obama had won the election they would have faked respect and affection.
Vladimir Putin delivered the unkindest cut, patting Mr. Obama’s shoulder reassuringly. Normally that’s Mr. Obama’s move, putting his hand on your back or shoulder as if to bestow gracious encouragement, needy little shrimp that you are. It’s a dominance move. He’s been doing it six years. This time it was Mr. Putin doing it to him. The president didn’t like it.
From Reuters: “‘It’s beautiful, isn’t it?’ Putin was overheard saying in English in Obama’s general direction, referring to the ornate conference room. ‘Yes,’ Obama replied, coldly, according to journalists who witnessed the scene.”
Noonan says that Obama is alone, but that does not quite describe it. The leaders belittled Obama because they see him as a failure.
Obama is alone in only one sense. He is alone in not recognizing that he has failed.