Monday, November 15, 2010

The Christian Right IV 74

Synopsis of John W. Dean's Conservatives Without Conscience Chapter 2:

Why would conservatives engage in an activity like trying to impeach President Clinton? Why would conservatives take the nation into Iraq on false pretenses? Why would conservatives approve the torture of our enemies? Or spying on millions of Americans to look for terrorists? How can young Americans working for the CIA or armed forces ignore their consciences to carry out orders that defy well-known international law? What was going through the heads of Justice Department lawyers as they sifted through the law to create dubious arguments justifying torture of our enemies?

Dean found the answers in two researchers. He located the work of Stanley Milgram while searching for explanations for what had gone so wrong with Nixon's presidency. In preparing Conservatives Without Conscience, he found the work done by Bob Altemeyer.

Dean was invited to a gathering of psychologists after his book Blind Ambition was published. Milgram was there as a pioneer in the field of obedience to authority. To his surprise, and to the amazement and dismay of others, Milgram's classic experiments revealed that 65 percent of seemingly ordinary people were willing to subject what they believed to be protesting victims to painful, if not lethal, electric shocks of 450 volts of electricity. They did so simply because they were instructed to by a scientist dressed in a gray lab coat in the setting of a scientific laboratory. This authority ordered jolts of electricity to be administered to determine if the “learner” would memorize word pairings faster if punished with increasingly painful electric shocks when he failed to accomplish the task. Actually, though, the experiment was designed to test not learning but rather the willingness of those administering the electric shocks to obey the authority figure. The subjects weren't told that the “learner” was only pretending to experience pain and, in fact was not being shocked, until the end of the experiment.

Milgram invited Dean to speak at his conference precisely because the Watergate probes established that Dean did not blindly follow the commands of authority figures: Dean had disobeyed the President and his senior aides. This placed Dean at the opposite end of the spectrum from people like Gordon Liddy or Chuck Colson, who compulsively obeyed authority.

Milgram described conscience as our inner inhibitory system –part nature, part nurture, and necessary to the survival of our species [see Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, 1969]. Conscience checks the unfettered expression of impulses: “Most men, as civilians, will not hurt, maim, or kill others I the normal course of the day,” Milgram tells us. However, a normally descent person, few people assess directions given by higher authority, so that “a person who is usually decent and courteous [may act] with severity against another person...because conscience, which regulates impulsive aggressive action, is per force diminished at the point of entering the hierarchical structure.” Those who submit to authority enter what Milgram terms an “agentic state” – acting as an agent of the authority figure's conscience. Most people who resist those commands go through a series of reactions, until they finally reach the point of disobeying. The decision of whether to follow an order is not a matter of judging it right or wrong, but rather a response to the unpleasantness of “strain,” such as the natural reaction to the moaning and eventual screams of a putative victim.

Milgram supported the conclusions of Hannah Arendt's book Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). Arendt disagreed that Eichmann was a sadistic monster for exterminating Jews during World War II. She said he was “an uninspired bureaucrat who simply sat at his desk and did his job.”

“Arendt's conception of the banality of evil comes closer to the truth than one might dare imagine,” Milgram observed, because “ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, without any particular hostility on their part can become agents in a terribly destructive process.” Milgram observed that for a remarkable number of people, it is difficult to disobey authority figures, but quite easy for them to set aside their conscience.

Milligram's notion does show how, under Bush and Cheney, National Security Agency employees can turn their surveillance equipment on other Americans without objecting. It can account for CIA agents and employees hiding supposed enemy combatants in secret prisons and to engage in torture, all contrary to law.

Chuck Colson was a dependable and unquestioning lieutenant who followed orders. But after he had left the White House, after jail time, after acknowledged Nixon's disgraceful conduct, the Milgram model became a less than satisfactory model for explaining Colson's efforts to promote a bogus history of Watergate.

Tellingly, Gordon Liddy engaged in “black-bag jobs” such as searching for clues I an auto theft case, even though such activity was authorized only for certain national security cases, and even then it had to be approved by FBI headquarters in advance. Liddy describes his illegal activity as “a simple extrapolation from FBI procedure in security cases.” rather than follow orders, he has consistently “extrapolated” and regularly disobeyed and deceived superiors.

Milgram's work does not explain Liddy's performance nor the obedience of conservative elected Republicans who agreed to vote to impeach Clinton because their leaders instructed them to do so. And Milgram's model deals with following orders, not the conscience and motives of those who issue such orders. Authoritarianism, though, is a field that deals with both leaders and followers.

In Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, linguistics expert George Lakoff states that the language and thinking of contemporary conservatism is, essentially, authoritarian. The conservative's worldview draws on an understanding of the family that follows “a strict Father model.' He notes that the liberal worldview draws on a very different ideal, “the Nurturant parent model.” Lakeoff contends that the organizing ideal of conservatism is the strict father who stands up to evil and emerges victorious in a highly competitive world. This is a model for which children are born bad and need a strict father to teach them discipline through punishment.

Authoritarians as a personality type were studied at the University of California, Berkeley, a decade before Milgram's findings. The Authoritarian Personality was the result, an effort to understanding how, “in a culture of law, order and reason...great masses of people tolerate the mass extermination of their fellow citizens,” an issue of urgency following the horrors of World War II.

Dean notes that the Berkeley study introduced the idea of “the authoritarian type” which means, “people with seemingly conflicting elements in their persona, since they are often both enlightened yet superstitious, and proud to be individualists but live in constant fear of not being like others, whose independence they are jealous of because they themselves are inclined to submit blindly to power and authority.”

Alan Wolfe, a professor of political science at Boston College and the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, suggests that The Authoritarian Personality be retrieved from the shelves. “The fact that the radical right has transformed itself from a marginal movement to an influential sector of the contemporary Republican Party makes the book's choice of subject matter all the more prescient,” Wolfe wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Wolfe thinks The Authoritarian Personality has flaws but deserves a reevaluation. A good example, he suggests is {George W. Bush's} United Nations ambassador John R. Bolton. “Everything Americans have learned about Bolton – his temper tantrums, intolerance of dissent, and black-and-white view of the world step right out of the clinical material assembled by the authors of The Authoritarian Personality.” Wolfe finds that Republican senator John Cornyn of Texas and former House majority leader Tom DeLay fit this mold as well.

A key figure in advancing this research is Bob Altemeyer of the University of Manitoba, author of Right-Wing Authoritarianism (1981), Enemies of Freedom (1998), and The Authoritarian Specter (1996). In The Authoritarian Specter he asks, “Can there really be fascist people in a democracy?” and answers, “I am afraid so.” Altemeyer personally agreed to help Dean understand his field and conclusions.

Using questionnaires called “scales,” Altemeyer and other researchers have gathered tens of thousands of results from first year students an their parents, developing a large empirical database far beyond any mere partisan speculation.

In testing for authoritarian personalities, Altemeyer was not looking for political orientation. But he found that authoritarians were overwhelmingly conservative in their political outlook. “I have tried to discover the left-wing authoritarian, whom I suspect exists, but apparently only in very small numbers,” he said. He also discovered, on further research, that there are two authoritarian personalities.. Berkeley's researchers, along with other social scientists and Altemeyer himself, focused on “authoritarian followers, persons who submit too fast, too long to established authorities.” But more recently, social psychologists have “developed a measure to identify authoritarian leaders, persons who want to be submitted to.” Dean dove into this model and discovered that it fit the Nixon White House in which he served as well as the Bush/Cheney White House.

Altemeyer also pointed out that there were personalities which fit both the authoritarian follower and authoritarian leader profiles; he felt they were best positioned to become leaders of right-wing movements and undertakings. These can be called “Double High” authoritarians. It is not clear that this last group possesses a conscience.

[more on the authoritarian followers, leaders and double high types in the next blog post]

1 comment:

  1. We can see here the organization man and his evil overlord. The "economic hitman" could only be possible with organization men and women.