The Burning Bush
I had a curious reaction to seeing George W. Bush in his third debate with John Kerry. I felt sorry for him. I'd never seen anyone look so uncomfortable and frightened as he had seemed over the three debates. His famous smirk and defensive sneer, and his dissociated fumbling of answers in the first debate were replaced by overcompensating anger in the second. In the third debate he grinned with the desperation of a trapped animal showing good will so he wouldn't be abused. When he watched Kerry, his eyes were blinking so rapidly I thought he might faint.
I saw a man stripped naked and afraid. I saw a weak person trying to survive until he could once again be sheltered and loved. Putting him up against even a tired John Kerry, with his serious intent, his command of the issues and his full adult humanity, was almost cruel. John Kerry is flawed, as we all are. But John Kerry is a man. George W. Bush is a wounded boy.
We've seen that frightened wounded boy before, sitting in front of children of grade school age, a child's book in his hands, immediately after he'd been told that a second airliner had crashed into the World Trade Center, and it wasn't an accident. He was then, and still is, President of the United States.
The debate was last Wednesday. This past Sunday, an article appeared in the New York Times Magazine that electrified Washington and the blogosphere. It was by Ron Suskind, who authored the best selling book in which former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neil chronicles Bush's obsession with Iraq and his willing ignorance of anything that contradicted his preconceived views.
Suskind begins by quoting Bruce Bartlett, a Republican official in both the Reagan and Bush I administrations, speaking about G.W. Bush: "This is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts. He truly believes he's on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence."
Bush explained his decisions by saying he went on instinct, on intuition. But soon he wasn't explaining his decisions at all. The circle of advisors grew smaller and tighter, and knew not to question. Because Bush is Chief Executive, his faith-based initiatives were no longer a personal quirk. They were holy writ.
The article quotes Christie Todd Whitman, former Secretary of EPA as saying on the day she announced her resignation, "In meetings, I'd ask if there were any facts to support our case. And for that, I was accused of disloyalty."
(Suskind notes that Whitman, "her faith in Bush...renewed," now denies saying this, and heads the Bush campaign in New Jersey. Which is evidence why Suskind's initial premise---that a Bush victory would mean a civil war within the Republican party-is wrong.)
The article states that Bush really sees the war against terrorism as Christians against the heathens. It quotes Bush talking to a private dinner of fat cats and suggesting his second term priorities will be faith-based initiatives, drilling for oil in the Alaskan wilderness, mollifying the Saudis, and that he expect to make up to four appointments to the Supreme Court. Suskind writes that Bush's appeal is his sense of certainty, gained from his faith-based decision-making. In perhaps the most widely quoted portion on the blogosphere, Suskind writes:
"And for those who don't get it? That was explained to me in late 2002 by Mark McKinnon, a longtime senior media adviser to Bush, who now runs his own consulting firm and helps the president. He started by challenging me. ''You think he's an idiot, don't you?'' I said, no, I didn't. ''No, you do, all of you do, up and down the West Coast, the East Coast, a few blocks in southern Manhattan called Wall Street. Let me clue you in. We don't care. You see, you're outnumbered 2 to 1 by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don't read The New York Times or Washington Post or The L.A. Times. And you know what they like? They like the way he walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it's good for us. Because you know what those folks don't like? They don't like you!'' In this instance, the final ''you,'' of course, meant the entire reality-based community. "
This final observation has already become such a rallying cry that one well-known left-leaning blogger, Atrios, has added to the title of his blog the legend: Proud Member of the Reality-Based Community.
But the opposition of faith and reality doesn't quite get to what really is going on in Bush, or even in the Bush followers, it seems to me. I see it in different terms. I'll express it in the simplest, shortest possible way: when G.W. Bush believes he is listening to God, he is listening to his own unconscious. Bush is a captive of his own shadow: at least his personal fears and rages, and perhaps by now something of the collective fears and rages.
Because he is ruled by his unconscious, when he looks at the Other he sees mostly his own projections. He can't discriminate in realistic terms, to discern who is an enemy and why. He sees only the evildoers, the projections of his own shadow.
He is a captive because he does not know this is happening. He believes the source of his certainty is elsewhere. He must have certainty, because he is a wounded mess, and fundamentally has a weak ego, which requires constant reassurance and approval. The only place he can go for certainty is his unconscious. It speaks to him. But even if he could understand this, he couldn't face it. He can't face that he could be wrong. Not any more.
Many now enable him, for their own benefit. Without his protectors, flatterers and supporters, he is naked, he reverts to the behavior of a scared child.
Many people who had their doubts about his intelligence were reassured when he named Dick Cheney as his v.p., and then Colin Powell as his Secretary of State. They would tell him what he didn't know. But the essential problem with George W. Bush isn't his lack of knowledge. It is his lack of self-knowledge.
For one thing, it's why he doesn't listen to anyone like Colin Powell when they tell him what he doesn't want to hear.
But his well-known disdain for introspection is not just the personality preference of a clearly extraverted executive. It is essential to his equanimity. He couldn't remain sober, let along function, without the certainty that his projections provide.
All that is bad enough. It means that the most powerful human on the planet is in very meaningful ways a buried child. If he had been President of the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis, none of us would be alive today.
And that may not even be the worst of it.
Also this week, I took another look at the play I wrote two summers ago, which features a fictional meeting between H.G. Wells and C.G. Jung in New Mexico in 1940. This sent me back to reading a biographical account of Jung in the years preceding and during the rise of Nazi Germany and World War II. That in turn sent me to related texts.
The similarities of issues and ideas in 1940 to the present political context have definite echoes in my play, and they would be quite clear to a contemporary audience, if any ever had the opportunity to see the play performed. But after the debates and reading Suskind's article, reading an account of Jung's activities and thoughts in those years by someone I hadn't read before (Barbara Hannah, a student and later long-time friend of Jung) took on new textures of relevance.
Jung was horrified by the rise of Hitler, and it influenced the course of the last series of books he wrote, in the 1940s and 1950s. They all concerned the conjunctions of conscious and unconscious. I don't pretend to understand very much of what little I've read of this work. But Hannah's biographical account makes it clear that Jung believed there were times when the unconscious predominated in society, and one of those times was the 1930s and Hitler's Germany in World War II. Germany was possessed. "It's no use saying you are not at war with the German people, you are," Jung told Hannah, who was English. "They are all possessed like Hitler and absolutely unapproachable."
Hitler, a fundamentally weak person who flew into childish rages, used modern propaganda techniques and other emotional manipulation to convince Germany he had the simple, correct answer, and he was the strong leader who would protect them and make them conquerors again. They would have control over their lives, and take their rightful place in the world. They would avoid injury and humiliation by smashing their enemies before their enemies could attack them.
Now suppose you were reading or seeing a fiction, in which an American President, in office by virtue of a Supreme Court decision that stopped a vote recount and endorsed his victory by a handful of votes out of millions, took the nation to war against a smaller country that hadn't attacked the U.S. or even a single U.S. citizen. Suppose that later, when the U.S. armed forces are bogged down in that country, and violence and terrorism are increasing there, it is discovered that every single pretext this President gave for going to war has turned out to be not true. Further, there is informed suspicion that much of the evidence was known to be false.
Still, this President announced that he would attack any nation he deemed a danger, without provocation and more or less without evidence. Whenever anyone within his administration or even near it questioned his premises, strategy or public relations imagery, his minions would vilify them without scruple, and attempt to destroy them utterly by any means possible, including lies.
Suppose this war continues to go badly, at the same time as enormous deficits are accumulating, and the economic well-being of the country is in question. There are grave questions about the continued vulnerability of the country to terrorism, while some measures taken to prevent terrorism have turned out to be inept intrusions, randomly violating civil liberties and punishing innocent citizens without system of redress or justice.
Suppose as well that most citizens are economically worse off, and there is widespread dissatisfaction with the system of medical care, which seems on the verge of collapse. Public education is unequal, and mostly very bad; Americans are becoming the worst-educated, least-healthy citizens in the industrialized West. Then gasoline prices go through the roof, signaling a grave energy crisis in the near future. At the same time, a shortage of flu vaccine just as the flu season starts, not only threatens the health of vulnerable people, but suggests the public health system is itself highly vulnerable, if not in shambles.
Suppose corporate greed is unchecked and is rapidly being consolidated in a few hands. Financial institutions practice usury with impunity. The U.S. government improperly imprisons both foreigners and citizens for years, and engages in torture and abuse in Iraqi prisons and Guantanamo prison. America, once admired throughout the world, became feared and hated by most of the world, all in the course of two or three years. And hovering above all of this, is an atmosphere inexorably heating, threatening all life on the planet, but which this President ignores, while he denies that he is ignoring it.
Confronted with all this, you would be justified in saying this plot is over the top. Any one of these things in the past would have been sufficient to bring down a presidency. Yet the president in question is apparently leading in the polls, and has at least an even chance---some say a likelihood---of being returned to office.
How can this be? Some are now looking to the faith-based versus reality-based model. I believe that's too simple, and it is not entirely accurate. Evangelical Christianity is to Bush what German nationalism was to Hitler. It's the form taken by the appeal to the collective shadow, the national unconscious.
The unconscious is itself a reality. It is part of all of us. In many ways it nourishes us, and is the source of much knowledge. But consciousness is crucial, to be aware of what comes from the unconscious, to judge and discriminate, to decide. To tap the unconscious is vital. To be dominated by the unconscious, to be unconscious, is fatal.
Why might it be erupting now? The ecology of ignorance, and its constituent parts (the contemporary forms of "modern propaganda"), is a contributing factor. My intuition, my instincts tell me there is also a class component. Middle class Americans are uncertain about their status. Many came from (and are headed back to) the lower middle class or working class; in the recent past they had money, but they weren't sure they had class. Now they don't have money but they still have some stuff, and the uncertainty is joined by whiffs of fear only symbolized by the bogie man called terrorism. Bush has wounds like theirs, the lack of self-knowledge like theirs, (though probably worse) but his inferiority feelings are linked to a legacy of superiority from his very certain ruling class upbringing. They feel his pain. But they see his certainty. Their inferiority needs his sense of superiority, and the confidence he gets from his projections, from his shadow in the unconscious.
Jung took a longer view, analyzing a dynamic of opposites and how they turn into one another over eons-as, for example, "the dilemma of Christ and anti-Christ." The reversal of dominants, called enantioendromia, was a tendency Jung explored in his last books.
Those familiar with the Biblical Apocalypse may note that the anti-Christ appears to be the Second Coming. Perhaps those of a strictly reality-based rationality cannot admit the possibilities of eras of evil erupting and possessing entire peoples. Fortunately, if that is indeed what happened in the 1940s, there were nations strong enough to stand up to Hitler and his Germany, and their allies, and defeat them. Hitler appeared to be a tower of strength and resolve. But like most bullies, he was actually a coward. Perhaps even a wounded child. Nevertheless, much of Germany followed him. And his followers crushed anyone who dared to oppose them.