Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Judging Character

You will not get very far in this world if you’re a poor judge of character.

But, how do you go about judging someone’s character?

You can’t do it in the blink of an eye. You might fall in love at first sight with someone who has good character, but it’s more likely that you will misjudge.

Of course, if the person you fall in love with is a friend of a friend, or has been vetted by your community, the chances are better that he or she has good character.

Still, you do not judge character at a glance.

Many of us know this. And many of us still do it. How often have you dismissed a person from your circle for a momentary lapse of judgment, an offensive or insensitive remark?

Forgiveness is a virtue, and it's not a bad idea to learn to forgive singular mistakes. But you cannot forgive someone who does not ask to be forgiven. And you cannot keep forgiving someone who keeps making the same mistakes.

Habitual mistakes are another story. Character shows itself in what we do habitually. Our habits, good or bad, are our character.

If you always show up on time, I know something relevant about your character. If you only rarely keep your word, I have the right to conclude that you have a significant character flaw.

But, if you mostly keep your appointments and then forget one, I will not consider that episode a sign of bad character.

Character reveals itself over time. It shows itself in consistent behavior.

If you have fallen into one or another bad habit, you can only repair the damage to your character over time.

Rome, as they say, wasn’t built in a day. It wasn't rebuilt in a day either.

Knowing how to judge character is not the same as making  a psychiatric diagnosis.
When psychoanalyst Justin Frank muses that George Bush had unresolved childhood sadistic impulses and that Barack Obama suffers from an accommodation disorder he is merely showing that psychoanalysis is pathetically inadequate to judging character.

For all of his years of training Frank can do no better than to descend to the level of playground taunts: George Bush was too mean and Barack Obama is too nice.

This is simple-minded to an extreme.

As it happens, George Bush has always been considered, by friend and foe alike, as a nice guy. Barack Obama has never impressed people as a very caring individual. For someone with an accommodation disorder, he was extremely intransigent during his administration’s first two years.

As has always been the case, psychoanalytic insights have nothing to do with reality.

Obviously, Justin Frank is covering his political bias with pseudoscientific cant. He is, however, demonstrating that psychoanalysis has a lower calling, lower than the mere effort to treat mental illness, task at which it has never distinguished itself.

Psychoanalysis has a lower calling, that being its use as an instrument of character assassination.

Those who take offense to this view should reflect a little about what constitutes real sadism. Which was more sadistic: the capture, trial, and execution of Saddam Hussein, or the capture, sodomization, and assassination of Moammar Gadhafi?

Now that Barack Obama is notably proud of the way Gadhafi was sodomized and assassinated, is it really fair to ignore his sadistic impulses?

We learn nothing when we imagine that world leaders are acting out unresolved childhood issues. If you think that George Bush invaded Iraq because he had an unresolved Oedipus complex, you can just as easily argue that if he had not invaded Iraq it would have been because he had an unresolved Oedipus complex.

We should judge world leaders in terms of their leadership: the policies they implement and the success or failure of those policies. We should not try to assassinate their character because we disagree with their philosophy or policies. 

And how does the supremely arrogant Justin Frank come to think that he knows the answers to difficult public policy issues?

Looking for childhood antecedents is an exercise in futility. If we want to know about a leader’s character, we should not pretend to have special insight into his psyche.

Leaders are individuals and individuals have character traits. They have habitual behaviors that count as part of their character. If these behaviors are visible to the naked eye, they tell us as much as we need to know about the leader’s character.

They certainly tell us much more than do a psychoanalyst’s fantasies about the leader’s toilet training.

When it comes to our current president, classicist Victor Davis Hanson has observed something that seems to have escaped the psychoanalyst’s notice.

Hanson points out that Obama habitually condescends to people. Sometimes they are friends; more often they are enemies. Clearly, Obama sees a political advantage to disdain.

In Hanson’s words: “After only one year plus of campaigning and three years of governance, there is already a sizable corpus of Obama’s targets. The common theme is less ideology, politics, race, class, or gender than a sense that many groups and people simply don’t measure up to Obama’s high standards. Some are deemed lazy, stupid, greedy, fearful, or clinging; others are too affluent, of questionable ethics, and ill-informed and ill-intentioned — and thus are culpable for our current problems.”

Obama is a master of the art of demeaning caricature. Whether he is calling Wall Street bankers “fat cats,” or chastising  Pennsylvanians as “… bitter [people who] cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment.”  Or when he calls Donald Trump “a carnival barker.” Or saying that doctors: “Needlessly chop off the limbs of diabetics and take out tonsils to increase their own profits”

Hanson has many more examples. At the least, they show that Obama’s tendency to condescend is habitual. Obama insults with impunity.

For one thing, this shows us that Obama is wildly insecure about his own status and stature. Confident people do not puff up their self-esteem at someone else’s expense.

Hanson offers his own, non-psychiatric, analysis: “Yet lecturing, demonizing, and caricaturing are not just symptoms of narcissism or being socially dense, but are also a revelation that Obama feels that he can say almost anything he wants, with the expectation — always borne out in the past — of few consequences. Still, his handlers worry about this habit, which explains both the serial use of teleprompted scripts even for the briefest of commentary and the almost lightning response from the White House, either that the latest target had it coming, or that the president’s critics themselves were suspect in noticing such insults, or that the remarks were meant only in jest. Note as well that while almost everyone else is culpable, the president himself rarely is — at least not as much as ATM machines, George W. Bush, tsunamis, the European Union, the nine-month-old Republican-controlled House, the Arab Spring, and skyrocketing oil prices. Others err; but the president has made all ‘the right choices.’”

What does Obama’s character flaw mean? It means that he is radically incapable of taking responsibility or admitting error.

Happily enough, we can judge Obama’s character without knowing or even imagining anything about how he long he was breast fed or how often his diapers were changed. 

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