It stunned a lot of us: no sooner had President Obama begun nominating people to fill his top posts, than stories of scandal began swarming around his choices. No one, including some of the most respected names in contemporary American politics, seemed immune: from tax problems to lobbying concerns, nominees began dropping out almost as fast as they took the call.
It was, many observers agreed, a profound indictment of a Washington culture that assumed perks and privilege come with power.
But it also put President Obama in a bind: on the one hand, he’d vowed an ethical and transparent administration. On the other hand, the nation is facing big crises: people with experience in government could be key to getting desperately needed work done.
When it comes to making a choice between ethics and experience, how do you choose? How important is it that the people making decisions pay their taxes properly, and how much does it matter if someone called upon to make fundamental change is a system is a product of the old, failed, culture?
Meister Eckhardt, the 13th century mystic, once said “There is nothing so near God as silence.” But he never had to deal with somebody text messaging in church.
Technology has not only improved our ability to communicate with one another: it’s allowed us to communicate at all times, wherever we are. The result, for many people, is a cacophony of personal connections that never stop. We’re never out of touch.
Now, for the first time in human history, a whole generation is coming of age having never had to be away from their friends; for whom the very idea of being “alone” is alien.
A recent essay in the Boston Globe’s Sunday Magazine put the issue in stark terms. The “never off” nature of communications technology “is dulling our very capacity to ever be alone, or alone in our thoughts … we're seeing this capacity weakened, whether we're in public places known for contemplation, like churches and libraries, or whether we're just sitting by ourselves at home, losing the fight to resist answering our BlackBerries (just ask our new president) or checking our laptops for Facebook updates.”
Writer Neil Swidley says there is now a gripping terror of being alone among many people who have never had the experience of solitude, and wouldn’t know what to do with it if they did. “This is particularly true among young people,” he writes, “mainly because they don't know life when it wasn't like this.”
If those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, then America really needs to crack the books, according to Marc Pilisuk.
As a new, hopeful chapter in American history dawns, the Saybrook psychology faculty member is warning that the mistakes we’ve made before will be no less disastrous if we make them a second time around.
The last American president who promised to fundamentally change American society was Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ). The Great Society, the War on Poverty, the civil rights movement: his progressive agenda stretched from top to bottom and promised to fundamentally reinvent America to be more just, equitable, and prosperous.
Both the national unity and the money needed to make this a reality disappeared in the jungles of the war in Asia.
“LBJ had big dreams. Big plans. It was all sacrificed to the war,” Pilisuk remembers. “Lyndon Johnson, who could have been a great president, walked out in shame.”
Last week President Obama ordered 20,000 more troops to go to Afghanistan, giving Pilisuk a sense of déjà vu.
In 2009 Pilisuk worries, Obama could be headed down the same bleak road, sacrificing a promising, desperately needed, progressive agenda to a war that he didn’t start but is expected to finish.
Ask most poets who the biggest influences on them are, and you’ll usually get a list of other poets – Byron, Shelley, Keats, Frost, Whitman, Plath, or Ginsberg.
But when Tom Greening tries to think of the most important influences on his poetry, the two names he comes up with are psychologists.
“Rollo May was a big influence,” Greening remembers. “And Jim Bugental, with whom I worked for many years. Jim liked to play with words. He sometimes made bad puns, which I don’t particularly like, but he certainly had a playful side."
Perhaps that’s appropriate, because though he’s been a poet in some fashion for most of his life, it’s humanistic psychology – a discipline which he’s done as much as anyone to help shape – that has dominated Greening’s life work. May and Bugental were two of the pioneers in the field, and they saw a connection between art and scholarship that seems alien in the academic world of today.
There’s now a separation between the humanities and the sciences – one so vast that it seems novel to suggest it could be any other way. But it could: perhaps especially in psychology.
As former APA president Frank Farley wrote:
The spiritual side, the poetic side, the giving and forgiving side, the generous and loving side, are humankind's finest features. Hebb defined psychology many years ago as not being poetry. Although Hebb was my scientific hero, I demur from defining psychology without poetry.
That, Greening says, is because the arts and humanities provide both insight into the human condition and a means of ennobling it – and what else is psychology for?
Of all the emotions, love is surely the most talked about – and the hardest to explain.
Unless you’re a neurologist, that is: January saw several publications claiming that love was entirely explainable by neurochemical reactions.
“Love: Neuroscience reveals all,” reads a headline in the journal Nature’s Jan. 8 issue. You don’t need flowers: the article promises to “reduce love to its component parts,” none of which is … well … “loving” somebody.
A New York Times science blog took the idea a step further, suggesting that an “anti-love drug” is around the corner – and that by inoculating teens and others against love during sensitive times of their lives, we can prevent a lot of bad decisions.
“Such a vaccine,” it notes (with a straight face), “has already been demonstrated in prairie voles.”
Stanley Krippner doesn’t know much about prairie voles, but he does have considerable expertise in both neuropsychology and the psychology of human sexuality. A psychology faculty member at Saybrook, he says the problem with these articles isn’t so much the research – which he thinks is great – but the broad claims made on its behalf.
Imagine you’re President Obama – just for a moment. You’re about to be authorized to spend over $800 billion to stimulate the economy, and you’ve promised to make sure that everybody knows how the money is being spent as it happens.
How do you do that?
This is a time, after all, when people already have trouble keeping track of their loose change, email passwords, and Facebook “friends.” What’s the best way to make sure everybody knows how $800 billion is working its way through the economy?
To address this challenge, Obama (the real one)has announced that he’ll put updated details of stimulus spending on a website – an unprecedented display of openness, which he also hopes will “root out waste, inefficiency, and unnecessary spending in our government.”
But will a website be enough? According to Gary Metcalf, an Organizational Systems faculty member at Saybrook who teaches classes at the Federal Executive Institute, “pure transparency,” what Obama is suggesting, may cause almost as many problems as it solves.
Early this month the U.S. Department of Defense made a momentous decision: soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are not entitled to receive Purple Hearts.
That the DOD even reviewed the proposal shows how far acceptance of PTSD as a psychologically real – and devastating – condition has come.
Saybrook Psychology faculty member Stanley Krippner, author of “Haunted by Combat,” says that however good the idea, it was unrealistic to expect the military to extend the Purple Heart to PTSD victims.
“There is no question that PTSD victims can be as badly affected by enemy actions as personnel wounded by weapons or bombs. But that is not the issue,” Krippner said. To decide that a psychological wound meets a criterion set up for physical wounds is to think metaphorically. “But the military is not given to using metaphors when it comes to following regulations.”
Daniel Pitchford, a Saybrook student who works with veterans suffering from traumatic stress, still disagrees strongly with the decision.
Sometimes history happens – and nobody notices.
Two weeks ago the governors of Wisconsin and Minnesota challenged 200 years of precedent by announcing that, to cope with the financial crisis, they are directing their states to look for ways to share and consolidate services with each other.
It is virtually unheard of in the American system for states to look for ways to share services without a federal mandate. Also extraordinary is the fact that Wisconsin’s governor, Jim Doyle, is a Democrat while Minnesota’s governor, Tim Pawlenty, is a Republican – meaning that the effort crosses party lines.
Some of the services they’re looking at sharing, like pooling prison food and road salt purchases, or consolidating, like call centers and licensing functions, are so simple as to be almost no-brainers … but no two states have ever attempted this before.
What’s so exciting, says Nancy Southern, director of Saybrook’s Organizational Systems program, is that this is more than just a way to help weather a national crisis: it’s a first step in thinking about how the entire country functions.
The scene shocked the world. On New Year’s day, a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer shot and killed an unarmed black man who was, according to videos, already on the ground and being restrained.
There was an outcry of outrage across the Bay Area: in Oakland, San Francisco, and other cities groups of protestors jammed the streets and destroyed businesses, cars, and property belonging to people who had nothing to do with the tragedy.
The officer has since been charged with murder, but the question still looms large for residents, often poor and black themselves, who suffered at the hands of demonstrators: why did they do that? And what, exactly, did they want?
Certainly they wanted Oscar Grant’s killer to be charged with murder, but there were a shopping list of other demands ranging from more training of BART police to the immediate end to racism and an Israeli pullout from Gaza.
How does that make sense, observers wondered? Even if people agreed with the protestors, how could they possibly give them what they wanted?
Saybrook faculty member Benina Gould, who has studied the causes of conflict around the world, suggests that the question arises because the protestors themselves don’t fully know – at least not on a conscious level.
There’s good news for San Franciscans who are sick or injured – ambulance response times have increased noticeably after years of effort.
But it could have been great news.
That’s according to David Williams, a Saybrook PhD student in Organizational Systems, who is one of the nation’s leading experts in Emergency Medical Service (EMS) system. A consultant with Fitch & Associates, he works with communities to assess their emergency systems and advises them on improvements. He is also the research and author of two of the industry’s leading studies of operational and workplace practices and helped develop the leading EMS Leadership Forum called “Pinnacle.”
While stressing that he has not independently reviewed San Francisco’s EMS system, Williams says media reports indicate there’s still room for improvement – and that a more systemic, patient-centered, approach could be the answer in SF and across the country.