My last post about how Democrats can gain a lead over the Republicans on issues of national security started a chain of thoughts that led me to think more about the concept of bullying. Applying the label of “bully” to George Bush’s and the Republican’s domestic and international policies triggered in me a strong emotional reaction that led me to think more about what that word and concept meant to me and to others. I had after all been subject to bullying during a couple phases of my life and the label had personal resonance.

Bullying has until recently not been the subject of much intelligent discussion or study. Since the Columbine massacre in 1999, there has been something of an upsurge in interest in the concept of bullying as the two teenage perpetrators of those killings were known to have been bullied and that bullying was apparently rampant in that school. Still I believe the concept of “bullying” is something that tends to recede into the background unless one is immediately involved in being openly bullied or knows someone who is openly suffering from the effects of bullying.

I believe bullying however is a powerful term and metaphor for more general concerns that most of us share and that animate a sizeable portion of our political and social life. Bullying is about the exertion of power informally to establish dominance and to “cow” (bull, cow…get it?) or humiliate others. If we accept that there are informal status/dominance hierarchies between people and between social groups, bullying is the “shadow” or alternative method to attain status. Bullies are using their relative strength/power and/or willingness to fight to improve their social position, at least in their own minds if not in reality.

Bullying can be contrasted with legitimate or socially sanctioned status competitions that can highlight physical strength but also can highlight an unbounded number of socially recognized goods but that usually comprise: age and maturity, beauty, youth, likeability/charm, endurance, intelligence, knowledge, physical gifts, risk-taking, unusual and exemplary possessions, amount of possessions. Those who succeed at one or more of the socially sanctioned status competitions attain a higher informal status than those who resort to bullying to achieve status or rewards but the two strategies may be intermingled in any one person. Fair, regulated competition is the rough opposite to bullying; fairness governs legitimate status competitions but is completely absent from bullying. Bullying is by its nature opportunistic, exploiting an existing or exposed weakness for either pleasure or unclear gain other than self-aggrandizement. In the boxing ring or other sporting competition, this opportunism is part of the game but in bullying this is not legitimized.

Bullying can be seen on a variety of social levels from the molecular to the macro. One can find areas of bullying within longstanding relationships where one partner in the relationship is able to bully the other though otherwise the relationship runs along without much coercion. Of course there are the obvious bully-bullied relationships you find in schools and workplaces. Organizations can through superior economic or legal muscle bully other organizations for economic or political gain. Nations of course can bully other nations with superior military strength or through various economic and political means. What makes these activities bullying rather than simply exertion of power is that the exertion of power in bullying is repeated and is viewed by most third parties as not having a sanctioned goal. The actual activities that comprise the bullying usually straddle the boundary between legal and illegal but not so illegal as to be without justification for the bully.

As the foregoing discussion indicates, bullying happens most concretely and clearly on the individual and small group level. When the metaphor of bullying is extended to larger organizations of people, the exertion of power becomes part of the mission and goal of the organization, so it is less clear cut what is bullying and what is legitmate exertion of power, i.e. what is fair to do. Nevertheless, the attitude and appearance of bullying is important in our understanding of what happens between corporations, legal entities and nation states. The emotionally laden metaphor of the bully as well as actual systematic use of force for unclear or conflicted ends animates the political sphere

Politics in democratic societies are largely concerned with issues of fairness, refereeing legal status competitions, and creating a polity (political body) out of the naturally and historically diverse group of people that live in any given country[ I left out some big ones here: self-defense and international relations – zoon]. Unlike in court politics or dictatorships, democratic politics is the place where natural and historically given imbalances in power between individuals and groups of individuals are either regulated, excluded or attempted to be leveled. So the issue of bullying is a pivotal one in defining how different political actors think of the role of politics.

In contemporary American politics, one way to define the two main political camps is in relationship to bullying as an orientation to the world not necessarily to the schoolyard or workplace practice of it. Liberals typically are anti-bullying; are against the opportunistic exploitation of power differences and are willing to make laws that outlaw or marginalize it. The conservative right is largely for the use of power differences if not their actual preservation. Conservative political commentators generally are less restrained also in using tactical verbal bullying in arguments with their liberal opponents. The advocacy of unregulated or minimally regulated markets also opens the door or turns a blind eye to the potential for economic bullying or at least the unrestrained exertion of economic power in competition. Bush and his administration post 9/11 represent most clearly the notion that unrestrained use of power has positive benefit for the United States.

While I am loathe to invent or re-invent another “ism” it appears as though there might even be a case to be made that there is something called “bully-ism” which accepts that bullying is a tool and way of life on all levels of society. Bully-ism as a life strategy suggests that the only way to avoid being bullied is to become a bully. George Bush seems to have traversed this path in his own life in that he was bullied as a child and has now become a bully on an international scale. Bully-ism suggests that the first step is to exploit a transient or longstanding advantage rather than acting in the common good or according to social rules.

I think it is abundantly clear that on the global stage, acting and playing the bully has gotten the United States into a mess. We have exploited our strengths without regard to what other people in the world would want from us in the way of leadership and protection. Israel has, in part with the encouragement of the US government, also played the bully and is now in a very difficult situation with regard to its neighbors.
In this account, it would seem difficult to see how someone could ever subscribe to “bully-ism” who wasn’t sadistic and power-mad; I do think that non-sadists have supported this political orientation for a variety of reasons. Within “bully-ism” is the recognition of non-ideal disparities in the world that are real and cannot be attuned to all of our ethical notions. There is also the ethical standard of Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, then who will be with me?” Within bully-ism is a fundamental anxiety about taking care of the self, a self that will be abandoned by the collectivity and by ethical standards themselves. The Reagan revolution and right wing movements have built their political following on these perceived and real lapses within liberal thought and political practice in the 1960’s,70’s and 80’s.

More on this in a later post


In previous posts, I’ve outlined how political dominance comes about through capturing the cultural middle and high ground and making one’s positions commonsensical through the clever use of language as well as through disseminating facts that support one’s view of the world. I brought in Gramsci’s notion of hegemony to describe how secure political leadership is achieved through not simply a focus on the “issues” but also an attunement to cultural trends and traditions. While for me as for Gramsci himself, the right seems to have intuitively understood how to achieve hegemony better than the left, there is a counterargument from the far right that the media and US cultural institutions are already successful left-wing Gramsci-esque propagandists and subversive of traditional American values as construed by the far right.

Leaving this argument aside, which will degenerate quickly into a “he says, she says” kind of dispute, it appears that political actors of any stripe are now saddled with a disastrously misconceived Middle East/Iraq/Iran policy. Current political leaders, who happen to be Republican and conservative have been able to achieve a hegemony over political discourse about security and war over the last 30 years against which the Democrats have been able to make very little headway. While George Bush did not campaign in 2000 by tapping into this perception of Republican strength in national security, post 9-11 Bush has become the embodiment, even a caricature of what Republicans think strength is and what most Americans have come to associate as acting the strong man.

Democrats, in order to succeed in the upcoming mid-term elections, (and I am thinking about Ned Lamont in particular) need to be able to come across as strong and protective of the American people in a way that is differentiated from Republicans but not purely reactive to them. In recent history, they have not been able to connect well in this category, particularly ever since the Reagan-Carter contest in 1980. When they have tried to go in this direction, they have usually selected someone who may have a resume that has national security or military credentials but have not been able to “perform” as the stronger. Rep. Jack Murtha, who has a military background, is probably an exception and his credibility in this realm is difficult to transfer to other Dems. The Republicans, on the other hand, even if they have no military experience to speak of, seem to have created a “gesture” that evinces strength independent of who is speaking.

I am going to suggest below a wholesale re-definition of strength in a networked, interdependent world that if pursued aggressively by Democrats can help turn the tide and redefine what will make us secure in an era of anti-Western sentiment within the Islamic world and beyond.

George Lakoff, whom I credit as the one Democratic strategist with a holistic vision similar in scope to that of Republican strategists like Richard Viguerie, Kevin Philips in his former form, Karl Rove, and Frank Luntz, has a major problem in his suggestions for Democrats (“Don’t think of an Elephant”) which is diagnostic of perhaps a deeper dilemma for Dems. As I have noted in an earlier post, Lakoff wants Democrats and liberals to defend, what he calls their “nurturant parent” values as contrasted to the “stern father” morality that he feels is prevalent among conservative Republicans. A lack of defense of this position, he feels, has led to Republican and conservative dominance on the political scene, even during the Clinton years. Conservative Republicans are confident in their morality and portray it as such, while Democrats seem unsure and apologetic.

I believe Democrats need to fashion a new synthesis that is not strictly nurturant parent but is also what I am calling “protective father” morality or values. I am very advised {meaning I am using this word advisedly – zoon} in using “protective father” rather than “protective parent” and I will explain. I believe Lakoff had something of a failure of nerve in explaining his system and understanding the inherent problems in the division of moralities in which he outlined. The paragon of nurturance in most families continues to be a female parent, i.e. the mother. Fathers can be and are nurturing but it is not usually their specialty and they are usually required to have the role of protector and rule maker as well, though not in all families. While I believe his “stern father” observation about the Republicans is psychologically correct, his calling the Democratic equivalent “nurturant PARENT” with no apologies or modifications was named out of political correctness. As he was naming a role or psychological construct, he could have been forgiven for calling it “nurturant MOTHER”.

Furthermore, the Republicans continue to benefit from deep anxieties that Americans have about gender roles, which the Democrats are now almost required NOT to uphold. It is not as though there are not strong, even masculine-acting, Republican women, Condi Rice for one. But programmatically, the Republicans are about reinforcing gender roles, or this has a place at least on the conservative wing of the party, even as women or gays can and may achieve high rank within the party. Gender roles are going to be around for a very long time, even as there is increasing equality of opportunity. A determinedly sex-neutral political language can further exacerbate these gender anxieties, particularly when there are physical threats, economic uncertainty, and therefore regression to more childlike states in the population. I believe it is counterproductive for Democrats to forefront an attempt to emancipate society from these roles as the fiasco with Gavin Newsom’s urge to campaign for gay marriage PRIOR TO the 2004 elections shows. The nation is currently facing graver and more pressing issues, as much as this type of statement may chagrin gay readers. Therefore, I believe it makes sense to assign positive gestural roles to the sexes at least for political purposes.

The solution, I believe is to EXPAND the gestural roles that the Democrats play and in this case, I am suggesting that “protective father” is one role that Democrats should easily be able to portray with positive effect. I believe this role is not just a bit of political stagecraft but has actual political content and suggestions for action that are authentically Democratic and liberal. I will highlight some of the advantages of the “protective father” role with regard to issues of national security below:

Protective Father: National Security

  • Reinforces and Builds Friendships/Alliances
  • Looks ahead to Future threats and countermoves; thinks beyond immediate situation
  • Shows the world the capability for negative reciprocity (retaliation)
  • Will fight valiantly for his children; even to self-sacrifice
  • Will talk to enemies if it will protect family over the longer term

This sketch of the protective father role contains within it the seeds for an attack on the profligate use of our defensive resources by the Bush Administration and by Democrats who are too close to that Administration, i.e. Lieberman. The most glaring resource that the Democrats seem to have overlooked is that WE HAVE LOST MANY FRIENDS through our Iraq adventure. While I am thinking about how Ned Lamont can make the most of his primary victory, any number of other Democrats including women Democrats could potentially don the gestural role of protective father, though there are some pitfalls to being a “warlike protective mother”.

If you are dismissing what I am writing about right now as “psycho-babble” or the like, ask yourself how Republicans maintain their poll lead over the Democrats in fighting terrorism despite all the windfalls they have given Islamic radicals in reality. How is this so? It’s true, the American public is spectacularly ill-informed or not particularly interested in international politics so that might account for some of this.

It is my wager, though, that the American public has simply fallen for the gestural role of “Vengeful Father/Bully” that Bush has assumed post 9/11 and continues to re-exploit whenever the perception of danger escalates. This Vengeful Father/Bully role is rooted in old experience for most Americans because we knew someone who was the bully when we grew up. In our childish way, we thought we would be safe if we were on the side of the Bully or escaped the wrath of an angry father. I don’t think Democrats have taken seriously enough the primitive nature of the attachment to that set of schoolyard roles which Bush and his Administration re-enacts and to which they have as of yet no effective answer.

Therefore, if Democrats are able to attack the Bully role from the point of view of the protective father as outlined above, the reality portion of the Bush administration’s and its apologist’s exploits would become clearer to most people. For instance the bungling of the Iraq war can be seen as entirely an enactment of the Vengeful Father/Bully role in which there was simply no planning and violence was thought to have a magical impact upon that part of the world, suddenly yielding a liberal democratic ally. The PROFLIGATE WASTE of sympathy for the USA post 9/11 was clearly the move of an emotionally driven Vengeful Father/Bully rather than a circumspect but powerful Protective Father. The usefulness of friendships and allies against radical Islamicist networks was overlooked by the Vengeful Father/Bully, etc.

I think Democrats need to proceed aggressively and understand the psychological needs of the American public as much as they need to talk about policy differences. Luckily what I am proposing here suggests policy directions as well as a coherent, psychologically recognizable role for Democrats that is positive and productive.

Continuing my last post, which I just finished, I wanted to finish this train of thoughts to move on to the next.

A solution to Middle East conflicts needs to have the following characteristics:

  • Basic equity between ethnic and religious groups considering economic, political, cultural and historical factors
  • Separate irrationalist beliefs where possible (millenarianism chief among them) from negotiable political and economic concerns.
  • Create environment where advocates of violence and annihilation become isolated from popular support.
  • Minimize armed conflict and military solutions to political and economic problems.
  • Move retaliation and revenge based “honor culture” both within and between ethnic groups towards a “law culture” where an impartial third party (the law) can mete out justice.

These desiderata are directed as much at the United States, Israel and their allies as they are at the Arab states, Iran and para-statal and non-state entities like Hezbollah or terrorist groups.

A condensed version of the general problems that need to be addressed are:

  • Tribalism and ethnic Hatred
  • Political and Economic Imbalances and Disputes
  • Millenarianism/Religious Chauvinism
  • Political and Economic Role of Middle East in World

What continues to be bemoaned in the West and in Israel, is that within the Arab states and of course in Iran, there are very weak “middle” or moderate forces. Emergence of radical Islam or what I call violent anti-Western Islamic millenarianism has been a source of concern. Additionally, What Arab populations are angry about are the United States’s ham-handed attempts to control political actors and alliances with corrupt regimes and favoritism towards Israel. The invasion of Iraq was a case in point for what the “Arab Street” believes about the US’s attitude towards the Middle East. In addition, Israel’s military dominance in the Levant, close alliance with the US and to a lesser degree European powers, relative economic success, and treatment of the Palestinians continues to rankle.

Given the difficulty and intransigence of these issues, it will help to be able to break down the problems as much as possible while at the same time being able to group like problems together. I believe a first step will be to attempt to capture and put into words as much as possible the main dividing issues that overlay the nuts and bolts political and economic issues which will be the subject of more conventional diplomacy. I will assume that traditional assumptions that have blocked previous efforts can be pushed aside given the bewildering intractability of the conflicts and the rising violence. This assumption may be naive but without this faith in a future, I don’t think there can be a peaceful solution.

Step 1:

International conference on “Military Conflict, Millenarianism and Tribalism in the Middle East: Divorcing Religious Extremism, Ethnic and Religious Hatred from Local and National Interest”.

Sponsoring body: Coalition of religious and political groups, UN.

Location: Geneva or Cyprus


  • Leading academics on Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Middle East ethnography, political science, military strategy, millenialism.
  • Representatives of major religions involved, preferably high ranking bishops, imams, rabbis and their intellectual advisors.
  • Representatives of governments, political movements and parties in the Middle East
  • Representatives of UN and NGOs


1. Millenarianism and Religious Extremism in the Middle East, Past and Present – historical overview and present situation

2. Survey of Inter-religious and Ethnic conflicts in the Middle East. Overview of flashpoints

3. Compile list of territorial and economic claims from all sides. Distinguish whether claim has non-negotiable religious or ethnocentric component. If has these components hold it out of consideration or modify claim to remove non-negotiable religious or ethnocentric component.

4. Create map of conflicts between negotiable claims. Create another map with conflicts between claims that have elements that are beyond negotiation (religious or identity issues).

5. Create outline of conferences to settle claims – who, where and what would be the agenda.

An ambitious plan but we need to start somewhere. Working out the details would be itself the product of much negotiation.

In earlier posts, [1] [2] , I’ve argued that it is most accurate to describe many of the most unpredictable and violent forces in the Middle East as “violent, anti-Western Islamicist millenarians”. I have also argued that millenarianism is a phenomenon of many religions and maybe an expression of a universal human tendency. Despite its distribution across religions, millenarianism can be racialist or tribalist in its expression despite evangelistic and universalistic ideals sometimes expressed within millenial beliefs; what often happens is that the tribe or community of belief substitutes itself for the universe with sometimes very aggressive, violent attempts to conquer the world. I want to lay out more explicitly the psychology and phenomenology of millenarianism to see if it is something that can be overcome, fought, cured or outgrown.

First, let me distinguish between “millenial stories” and “millenarianism”. Millenial stories run throughout the structure of monotheistic religions as well as other religious systems. In addition, some of the secular belief systems of the 20th century (fascism, communism) have strong millenial components. For the purposes of this discussion, a soft “belief” or acquiescence to a belief system with millenial stories in it is not the same thing as “millenarianism”. In millenarianism, the millenial story is believed literally and there is palpable belief in the imminence of the coming of the messiah or millenial age, which is then acted upon. Most adherents to religions or belief systems with millenial stories in them either view the millenial story figuratively or it is viewed as a distant event and not imminent. In some religious and secular belief systems there are schools of believers who in a concerted way disown literalism and millenialism without jettisoning the basic structure of the religious stories.

It is therefore, difficult to get away from millenial stories if we look at some of the most hallowed and passionately defended bodies of thought over the last few…er…millenia. Their ubiquitousness suggests that there is something deep in our psychology that finds such stories appealling. For one, the notion of being saved, is a very common regressive hope in most people: that we will be swept up again like children once our lives are over or we have collectlvely reached the end of time. Whether we will be taken care of by god or the secular messiah, there is something psychologically compelling about this story, even though it cannot be said that belief in a messiah or a life after death are requirements for adherence to all millenial religions and secular belief systems.

So millenial stories are perhaps an important cultural/psychological release mechanisms that are probably not going to go away anytime soon. Even if they are problematic in some way, they are so ubiquitous that we would need to go on a perhaps fruitless attempt to re-wire ourselves as a species.

It seems far more do-able to develop a collective and individual sense of how extremities in our beliefs can get in the way of our living productive healthy lives together on this increasingly crowded globe. Millenarianism is then one such extremity and as I have argued, a highly influential one in portions of the Middle East and the United States.

What separates millenarianism from a simple belief in millenial stories or a non-millenial psychology?

  • Literalism – millenarians believe the millenial story that they have inherited or that has been delivered to them by their leaders literally. Literalism means in semiotic terms that people see the signs and the things they represent as being IDENTICAL. This is sometimes called “concrete thinking” in psychiatry. There is no space for interpretation or argument. Not all literalist religious believers are millenarians but all millenarians are probably literalists as the belief system has become an action plan.
  • Collapsed Time Horizon – Millenarians have discounted present, short-term and intermediate-term time frames and instead view time as collapsed, with the past, present and future intersecting in the present or at a time in the tangibly near future. If short and intermediate time frames do exist they are dictated and fated by prophesy but independent consideration of possible futures is foreclosed by the coming of the millenial events. Leaders of millenarian movements can plan strategically and can therefore think in short and intermediate terms but rely on the passion and collapsed time horizon of millenarian followers to execute their plans
  • Intolerance of multiple beliefs and perspectives – a corollary of literalism is that there are no multiple perspectives, therefore no diversity in belief. There is only one true belief
  • Tendency towards tribalism/racialism/ethnocentricism – As shared belief systems often emerge within a specific ethnic and language group, there is a tendency towards racialism. This may exist in people who are not millenarians, so the racialism is a larger set of beliefs among which are millenarian racialism/tribalism. Millenarianism however will intensify racialism.
  • Underlying cultural shame, humiliation, confusion, desperation – Throughout history, where there is cultural disruption and decay, millenarianism becomes more likely to emerge as a force. In some sense, much of the justification for millenarian means and beliefs come from a perception of corruption of the existing world, which is through the work of millenarian forces to be washed away through religious or politico-military means.

So the question remains, can these parts or factors in the emergence of millenarian belief be addressed or changed either by intentional effort or by circumstance?

  • Literalism or concrete thinking is not going to be abolished from the world anytime soon. Some people have great difficulty separating representations from reality, the more so under stress. On the other hand, literalism can be unlearned through intelligent educational work and the availability of a variety of relevant information sources. Within cultures with limited information systems, literalism is going to be more common.
  • People might experience time differently if they have hope for a intermediate term future. Intelligent people may recognize the problem for what it is if it is pointed out to them. Others may need to be shown by example. Hope for the future is again key in undoing a collapsed time horizon
  • Considering multiple perspectives is possible if people are not constrained by a narrow struggle for survival and cultural integrity. It is less likely in desperate circumstances.
  • Tribalism is a complex phenomenon and needs to be addressed separately from millenarianism.
  • Cultural shame and humiliation may very well be amenable to change if addressed as such and the people within the culture see that they can DO something for themselves to step-wise improve their situation. Changes in circumstances may also provide opportunities to partially overcome cultural shame and humiliation or at least become aware of its more destructive aspects.

I have a few ideas about how specifically the grip of millenarianism and its associated political repercussions may be loosened in the Middle East as well as in other political arenas, which I will share in my next post on this topic.

I’ve wanted to move on to apply the tools that I’ve already introduced but it occurred to me that at least one more tool was missing to make some of the points I’d like to make about contemporary American politics.

The next tool is the concept “hegemony” as elaborated by the Italian political thinker, Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci was a Marxist who wrote his most influential works during his incarceration by the Italian Fascist government where he died in 1937. Gramsci’s thinking has always been very influential on the Italian left but was discovered in the English-speaking world in the 1970’s. While his thinking now has broad currency in the democratic left in many countries, I believe his concept of “hegemony” has applicability outside the left and could very well be applied by sectors of the right and the center as the left, as much as the former would disturb Gramsci and Gramscians.

Hegemony in common parlance means “political dominance” but Gramsci made a distinction between coercive political dominance and dominance by consent or acquiescence. Hegemony for Gramsci means that a ruling group establishes its rule as commensensical rather than oppressive. Thus when a ruling group can make its rule seem to be a part of culture rather than the product of political manipulation or worse military and police action, then that ruling group is “hegemonic” or has “achieved hegemony” in the Gramscian sense. The power/influence distinction is analogous to the coercion/hegemony distinction that Gramsci draws, where in hegemony, the ruling group exerts influence more often than it does power.

One of the ways that Gramsci then thought that political power could change hands through the voluntary action of groups not in power was through what he called “a war of position”, which was in part a cultural conflict over what is commonsensical. Traditional politics and open political and military conflict was what he called “a war of movement.” The implication of his thinking is that significant political change is also cultural change and change in what is considered commonsensical and right by the population.

Gramsci’s thinking can be applied to the oppositions between political parties who compete for elected offices as well as the more radical changes in ruling political groups that Gramsci as a Marxist originally intended. Even if applied to the kind of class opposition that Gramsci was talking about, the implications of his work suggest a more gradualist and democratic form of transition than the Bolshevik and Maoist movements inspired.

How is Gramscian hegemony applicable to the US political scene and useful for political actors who are not necessarily wishing to upend or level social distinctions and status hierarchies? Lakoff’s theories about framing and how framing generates public support for a conservative political agenda can be framed by the concept of hegemony. Lakoff is saying that right wing politicians and consultants have cleverly framed the debates about tax policy and abortion with words that make conservative choices commonsensical. While notion of hegemony suggests that it is not just language that maintains a political and cultural order, media and language are pivotal in maintaining public consent for policies that may not ultimately serve the best interests of the population.

The recent growth of both right and left wing media critics implies that the entire political spectrum agrees that what people see and hear on the media about any subject and in any genre can have a decisive impact on their political outlooks. The concept of hegemony would help explain how both sides of the political spectrum are realizing the cultural nature of political attitudes and their changeability.

Using the notion of hegemony, a political group or party would need to think holistically about how to achieve political change or electoral victory. The question that would be at the top of the strategy list would be:

  • What would we need to do to make my candidates/party’s policies and actions commonsensical?
  • What would we need to say and do to make our opponents’s positions and candidates seem out of touch/manipulative/contrived?

This is not just about framing or choice of language but would involve choosing political stands and positions that interlock as well as developing a cultural strategy that is effective in establishing the common sense of the party’s political positions.

This type of planful and holistic strategizing is thought to have been the strategy of the right starting in the 1970’s that laid the groundwork for Reagan’s victory and what is thought to be the ongoing political trend towards conservatism in the US. Most commentators trace the beginning of this strategic approach to Richard Viguerie, who utilized the tool of direct mail to organize conservatives and helped found the “Moral Majority” in 1979. It is the right’s dominance in the areas of morality and national defense that has allowed Republicans to win the Presidency and hold control of Congress for most of the last 20 years.

Lakoff’s strategy is the closest to a hegemonic or counter-hegemonic strategy on the liberal left, though as suggested above he seems to feel that the action is in the linguistic frames rather than in the choice of issues and policies. Where he seeks to create a holistic vision or at least a consistent linguistic frame is in his notion that there are two distinct visions in American politics and values, a confrontation between what he calls “strict father” morality on the right and “nurturant parent” morality on the left. I believe that Lakoff’s division does not allow the liberal left to aggressively reclaim some important cultural territory that does not fit the “nurturant parent” model. It is more likely that a hegemonic policy has strains of both types of morality rather than being a pure form of one or the other type.

More on the applicability of the hegemony concept later.


The next concept in my political toolbox series is on a concept called “splitting” which has wide currency in psychology and psychiatry but has not made it out into the mainstream american vernacular. This is not “splitting” as in log-splitting or “splitting” as in leaving. This is a psychological process that is key to know about if we are to understand what a “grown-up” political strategy looks like. I am using the words “adult and mature” as positive values for political strategies at this moment in time because they are sorely lacking in the leading political groups of our time.

Splitting is when you can’t hold “good” and “bad” feelings about something or someone together in your mind at the same time. Things and people are “all good” or “all bad”. (And I’m not talking about the recent popular translation of “OK” i.e.”it’s all good”) Adults are usually able to view things in shades of grey but children and some adults are not as capable to see the nuances and the degrees of “in-between”. Sometimes the same person can at one time be “all-good” and then, when they frustrate or disappoint become “all-bad”.

Despite the hopeful progression to an ability to see good and bad together, splitting I would argue is operative throughout life and is not something that we give up entirely in our minds. We dream of “all good” outcomes and experiences and we panic and tremble at the thought of “all bad” outcomes and experiences: both key motivating factors in our lives. But most of the time we are able to recognize these mental events as dreams and nightmares. Under stress, though, we are more inclined to rely more heavily on splitting as we try to nurture ourselves with the “all-good” world of dreams and to insulate and distance ourselves from what appears to be causing us pain.

So what does this have to do with politics?

For one, political debate and struggle is often an affair where splitting is encouraged: one side usually tries to paint the other as “all bad” and themselves as “all good”. This is nowhere more apparent than in an era where negative campaigning is encouraged. While even the most civil campaigners are going to slant the discourse in their favor, negative campaigning makes splitting all the more pronounced. Of course as you get deeper into the game, the debates and rhetoric are supposed to occur within the bounds of collegial atmosphere between political opponents. Recent developments in American politics indicate that that collegiality has eroded in part because of changes in political ideology but negative campaigning has also contributed to the antagonistic atmosphere.

During wartime, splitting is also bound to happen as governments mobilize their troops, their political factions and their population to fight an enemy that in all probability is not “all bad”. The sacrifice of war requires a heightened sense of one’s own goodness as troops are required to violate conventional morality in fighting, wounding and killing an enemy. Post-traumatic stress disorder or combat fatigue is more likely where there is less of reality to support one side’s justification for going to or staying in a war. Exaggerated pictures of the evil of the enemy are often consciously created in what we have come to call propaganda or even the more subtle forms of media manipulation that are available in recent times.
It should now be obvious how important the concept of splitting is in our current situation. The Bush administration has created a situation where conventional wars are being waged in a fight against insurgencies and terror cells. Bush holds fast to a definition of the fight against what I have called “violent anti-Western Islamic millenarianism” as a war and has helped create something that resembles a conventional war which arguably has in turn created more enemies.

George W. Bush has been the focus of a number of psychological studies that touch upon him as part of a culture of hyper masculinity in American politics and a not entirely successful depth psychological portrait prior to the 2004 election. From the perspective of the phenomenon of splitting, it’s pretty clear Bush has a preference for a lack of nuance, for the black and white, in a way that seems to go beyond intellectual limitations he might have. Worse than the personal effects of his own psychological landscape, in combination with his administration he has encouraged Americans to rely more on less developed forms of thinking, in this case described by the concept “splitting”.

My efforts in earlier posts to redefine our opponents in the war that we are engaged in, have in part been attempts to reverse the tendency to split, in which how you call your opponents plays a big role. If you are fighting “terrorists” or “fascists”, you will throw anything you can at them. If are fighting “millenarians” you will need to think a little harder about how to fight them.

An adult political worldview then is one where splitting only plays the minor role of maintaining the dreams and hopes, the basic value orientation of politics but does not dominate the strategic “how-to’s”. Adult politicians need to draw from as much of their intellect as possible to evaluate the situation, to be able to study and assess both their own camp and the opposing political forces’ situation. Adult politicians are not simply striking out at the opposition from a fortress of certainty but are continually collecting new information that may lead to new strategies.

It is no accident that there is something soothing about how Bush’s splitting and the certainty that he evinces. Since the late 1970’s, the American public has been searching for simpler narratives and the Christian right/neo-conservatives have been able to deliver these simplifications. For politicians to be open to experience and to reflect on the complex information that is part of statecraft and running the huge US government means of necessity to enter realms which take them far from the everyday concerns of most people, yet end up having significant effects on those people. The work of state is a specialized job.

The anti-statecraft movement on the right that Reagan helped start but that has found its highest expression in GW Bush rebelled against the idea that one needed to take the specializations of state seriously. One only needs to look at the conduct of the Iraq war to see how casually and arrogantly US government functions were treated by our administration.
So a grown-up political worldview needs to stay grounded in values and high ideals but realize that values alone cannot create workable policies. Furthermore, an adult political worldview realizes that there are compromises to be made which of necessity will not recreate that sense of warmth and certitude that family or religion might confer. Yet these compromises will yield in most cases superior policies and protect family and hearth better than child-like simplifications.

More on this in future posts.

In the first installment of the “political toolbox” series, I brought in the concept of “interpellation” to help us understand the connectedness of social and political actions and activities. Interpellation is the way that an individual or group (i.e what a listener can take away from hearing something said or announced) can bring away a sense of identity from how they are addressed or how they hear something (the “hey, you”). Today, we will add a concept that builds on this useful tool.

Relationships between people and groups of people are based on patterns of give and take and expectations about what comes next after you say and do something. One of the most important elements of the patterns, rules, and expectations of people interacting with other people is called reciprocity. Anthropologists, in particular economic anthropologists, have studied cross-cultural patterns in how these interactions take place and the way people who participate in trade and social interaction think about what should happen in an interaction. Game theory is tool by which patterns of reciprocity can be modeled, though it assumes “an economic man” attitude (maximizing gain, minimizing loss) to interactions that may not apply to all cultures and situations.

Marshall Sahlins created the most commonly used classification for types of reciprocity. Positive or generalized reciprocity is where giving occurs with no expectation of payment. This happens most often between families and is sometimes called the pure gift. Balanced reciprocity is the case for a vast majority of interactions in complex industrial and urban societies, where something of equal value or payment is expected after someone says or does something to you and for you. Balanced reciprocity involves informal or formal accounting by both parties about whether a transaction has been consummated successfully. There is finally negative reciprocity which justifies taking from others, including killing them, and is usually applicable to war situations, particularly tribal warfare or criminal behavior.

I have used poetic license in associating three related but more dramatic sounding concepts to each of these types of reciprocity. I am applying the Greek and then Christian concept of Agapē (αγάπη) [pronounced ah-gah’-pay] to positive reciprocity. Agape love is a non-sexual love of others that is unconditional. Amok is from Malay and it means being out of control, fighting others wildly and we use it in English in the phrase “to run amok (amuck)”. Obviously I am using this word to represent negative reciprocity in the extreme, an uncontrolled taking of life and health from others. Finally, there is the law of Talion or Talion law, which is the principle of “an eye for an eye” that emerged in early legal codes (Hammurabi), in the Bible (both old and new Testament) and also in the Koran. Of these three poetic words for types of reciprocity, the “amok” label is the most limited because negative reciprocity can be very controlled but certainly running amok is the most extreme case of negative reciprocity.

We are tempted to attach value judgements to each of these types of reciprocity in part because they themselves are extremely important parts of our values systems. But a more neutral, fact-oriented view of them would indicate that each of these codes or systems have had their place in human history and the evolution of our species. Certainly within the advanced industrial societies, balanced and positive reciprocity are each extremely important in maintaining social functioning and cohesion. Balanced reciprocity, however, depends on both positive and negative reciprocities to really work, so negative reciprocity as a potential and a concept is never far away. Thomas Hobbes‘s view of society which some dismiss as too pessimistic is based entirely on the avoidance of harm through the social contract. We do keep in mind both rewards and punishments when we go about our lives and are in fact quite obsessed with scenes of negative reciprocity, if the success of war and horror movies are any measure.

So this may seem all very general, but it seems though at times political actors, like our government and other governments, assume one or the other type of system of reciprocity and, for that matter, a particular historical accounting, that doesn’t quite match up with that of partners.

Take for instance, the Iraq war. The US government/Bush administration went into the conflict believing (it seemed) that it would be viewed as an act of agape love for the Iraqi people or at the least a huge investment in their future (talion law) which they would repay by becoming a representative democracy and selling us their oil (or maybe giving it to us). This was an exchange that was decided pretty much unilaterally (though Chalabi was thought to represent the Iraqi people when he did not) and without consideration for the actual value that Iraqis would attach to either a war waged on their behalf or the actual costs and actions on their soil that this would involve. It is almost comical, if it were not such an incredible tragedy, how out of touch the current US government has been with general laws of reciprocity and more specifically what the Iraqis might think of the offering.

Stepping back for a moment into the realm of general phenomena, it might also be productive to think about individual and cultural differences in the admixture of agape, talion and amok. On the individual level, let’s think about people we know: there are people we know who are spontaneously generous and from whom we are assured that no harm will come to us. There are other people who seem to be a volatile mixture and who could easily get involved in fights or at least verbal conflicts. Most people we know are somewhere in between.

If you follow tennis, there was recently a match between two women tennis players whose personalities in this dimension could not be more different: Kim Clijsters, the Belgian star, is known throughout the tennis world for her bubbly personality and generosity. On the tennis court though, she often does not match her physical talent with a cutthroat desire to win. Maria Sharapova, nominally Russian but living now in the US, known for her striking looks and youthful accomplishments on the tennis court, is almost the exact opposite. Though physically talented, the most striking thing about her game is her tenacity and desire to win and to earn money, a pursuit to which she openly admits. She appears to have more of talion and, even amok (she is pretty “savage” in her grunting on court and has a serious glower to her) in her self-presentation and this has helped her to accomplish a lot at very young age. Certainly there is also a contrast between them in their early developments, as Sharapova has pulled herself and her family out of poverty from out of the collapsed Soviet Union while Clijsters is the daughter of a Belgian soccer star. On the other hand, not all people who arise in these approximate circumstances would come out exactly as admirably in their own ways that these two have.

More importantly for a political discussion, can we generalize about the readiness of certain cultures to expect and engage in certain patterns of exchange? This is a question which may well have received some study but I’m quite sure that there is more to do, especially if exchange is generalized to mean all types of exchanges (not just economic but political and social). The most relevant literature for the current political dilemmas we are facing is the contrast made between honor cultures and cultures of law. In honor cultures, which have nomadic roots, law is enforced by codes of honor and where direct retaliation is expected. Honor cultures are found where valuables are mobile, like cattle or moveable goods or in cultures which stem from nomadic culture. The US South and West are thought to have honor cultures in terms of their historical origins as well as, in the case of the West, their economic livelihood (cattle ranching). In an honor culture, the threat of negative reciprocity is a deterent to theft, where the law or government is weak and/or far away. Readiness to show the ability to “run amok” with pre-emptive threats may even be encouraged. In a culture of law, one is supposed to approach others with an assumption of balanced reciprocity.

In the case of the Iraq war, if we use the honor/law culture distinction, we have a confusion on a number of levels. We have nominally a culture of law (the United States) that has leaders that have breathed deeply of the honor culture of the American West who are trying to impose (half-heartedly I feel) a culture of law on a society with a very strong honor culture (Arab). How are the leaders of the US not credibly representing a culture of law, of balanced reciprocity? For one, the war was not justified by what Iraq had done to us, so we were not responding in kind to their aggression…the case was cooked up from historical examples and slim evidence of a future threat. We were acting more as if international relations were governed by codes of honor where we would be recovering from the slight of 9/11 by showing the world that we were capable of “running amok” by starting any old war. We conducted the war as if a “beat down” of Saddam Hussein was the point rather than the nominal goals of developing Iraqi society and democracy. The famous “bring em on” comment by Bush which he now regrets is an example of how the face off was spurred on by the US leadership. I don’t think this message was lost on what became the militant Iraqi opposition.

Overcoming the hurdles of an honor culture in the Middle East is a task that would need to be undertaken in a step-wise approach with massive participation and initiative on the part of the native populations there. They cannot transform their culture and the attendant forms of government because we need and want them to. The solutions for micro- and individual level problems would need to found in those transformations and it is clear that neither we nor the most prominent Iraqi or Middle Eastern democrats have a handle on what that would entail.

In a given international confrontation, political actors need to be able to assess what the reciprocity rules that are operative on both sides and whether a compromise or joint set of reciprocity rules can be achieved. Additionally each side needs to be aware of the state of “accounts” as they exist in the transaction history and be able to act with full knowledge of what is owed and expected and what is possible to occur at a given stage in the interaction. The meaning of a violent incursion or reaction will differ, though it is easy to say that these types of actions are the least controlled in their effects in a large majority of situations.

More on this later.