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Wed Apr 29, 2020, 10:10 AM

Dr. Bandy Lee interview #2 [View all]

This is my second interview with Dr. Bandy Lee, the Yale forensic psychiatrist and author/ editor of “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.”

(Q) In our February interview, you noted that you “have always conceived of this presidency as a reflection of the poor state of collective mental health in our society.” A significant number of my friends in the mental health profession found that to be such an important part. I immediately was reminded of Erich Fromm's 1955 “The Sane Society,” in which he said that the same conditions that create dysfunctional family systems will, when wide-spread, result in society becoming dysfunctional. Some of the psychosocial factors Fromm listed include addiction, violent crime, and suicide rates. Can you expand on those factors that result in the poor state of collective mental health in the United States?

(A) Yes, these effects are pervasive. This week, Yale Law School communicated with me through its office of public affairs asking me to misrepresent my teaching activities there so as to minimize them. After devoting 15 years of my teaching career to the School, I was shocked. But I have also witnessed it gradually siding with power interests over public interest, when it had been known for the latter for so long. I am not especially criticizing Yale Law School, but many of the luminaries who made the place so exceptional are gradually being replaced. This is a trend we have seen all over the country: power-hungry personalities, who are in fact wounded and disordered personalities, particularly seek out storied institutions and deplete them from within. Healthy societies keep them out of power positions from the start, but societies of poor health are drawn to them, as pathology attracts pathology. Soon, healthy individuals will fall away or be taken out, as we see with our own federal government. We think of psychological disorders as individual-confined, but they have no bounds; they can afflict a family, a community, an institution, or a nation. The dynamic principles we observe are the same as what we examine in individuals, and addiction, violent crime, and suicide that are probabilities in individuals translate into percentages in a population.

(Q) There was a John Hughes film in 1985, “The Breakfast Club,” that was a “teen flick” on the surface, but that also highlighted the roles children tend to play in dysfunctional families. It was a model that we used in social work, with the family hero, lost child, the scapegoat, and the clown. In the movie, the students learn to start the day at their negative potentials and transition to their positive potentials, despite the interference of the principal/ father figure.

(A) In real life, rather than “reel life,” it takes more than two hours to make those changes. The behaviors that children learn to get their needs met within a dysfunctional family rarely translate smoothly into the larger society. Currently, due to the levels of stress, fear, and anxiety, might some of the unattractive behaviors of Trump supporters be caused by their reverting to old behaviors in order to try to get their needs met?

(A) All individual ailments are ecological, and vice versa. There is certainly an astonishing level of free will within the human mind, even when one is handicapped—which is why I keep emphasizing that a person can be, and overwhelmingly is, still responsible for criminality, even if they are found to be “insane”—but we also cannot discount the profound influence of environment. When you have a population, you can almost quantify cause and effect, which will also follow like clockwork. My specialty has been to study macro-level societal factors that act on the individual psychology to produce violence, which led me to the conclusion that violence is a societal disorder. The inequality, deprivation, and propaganda to perpetuate and exacerbate unjust conditions were bound to produce a portion of the population that would manifest the larger pathology in their person, many who have become Trump supporters. This is how we understand and know the societal effects of Donald Trump, much more precisely than any individual patient, and have been able to predict his behavior as well as society’s response with great precision, almost every step of the way: the disastrous summits with North Korea and Russia, the problems of delaying impeachment, the massacre of our Kurdish allies and the assassination of an important Iranian general, and now the pandemic response…. You will find articles or petitions from us outlining how things would unfold, usually days or weeks before they happen, before any of the details are revealed. A “sick society” has a prognosis, just like sick individuals, and its behavior becomes all the more predictable with sickness.

(Q) Why do people react so differently to a threat that appears immediate, such as the corona virus, than to one that seems more distant, such as climate change? An example that comes to mind is the hostility that many in this part of rural upstate New York expressed when New York City residents ventured up to their second homes here at the beginning of this crisis. They tend to be people who support Trump's hostility towards immigrants from Central America. Large scale immigration in human history is frequently tied to climate change, which increases the risk of a violent competition for resources. Is there a psychological reason that helps explain why society waits for a potential problem to become a crisis before beginning to deal with it?

(A) Since all these issues have to do with prevention, it is a matter of education. What distinguishes our time from an early medieval era of calamities is the science and knowledge that we have accumulated and put to use, not the microbes or natural law. We have seen how, through willful ignorance and superstitious thinking, the president singlehandedly led us into a plague in this country like few other nations in modern times, and is still trying to undermine medical experts’ and others’ efforts to pull us further down. This should be a cautionary tale for climate change, as well as for mental health. Mental health is taken as a subjective non-science in this country, just because it cannot be seen, when all research evidence and clinical practice reveal it as no different from any other area of medicine. This is how we pretend it does not exist, that our president is normal, and that we do not need mental health expertise to understand what is happening—and live out all preventable consequences as if they were inevitable. This is how we have defeated ourselves in many areas, in everything from politics to civic life to yielding to a devastating pandemic. Hostility against immigrants and refugees is another psychological matter that has much to do with deflection of guilt through the blaming of victims, since most of the things they are fleeing—wars, oppressive regimes, economic exploitation, and climate change—we have caused.

(Q) Earlier this month, Donald Trump tweeted: “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It's under siege!” Can this be interpreted as anything other than a call to arms, increasing the potential for violence in a tense time?

(A) It is exactly a call to arms. It is a way of diverting the frustration and anger from extreme lockdown measures and the loss of 27 million jobs, which the president knows his own negligence has caused, and redirecting them to his own ends. He is building an army for himself and testing it.

(Q) In 1952, Erich Fromm published his book, “Escape from Freedom.” He examined the differences between “freedom from” and “freedom to.” He noted that “freedom from” social conventions without “freedom to” could be abused by a “leader” intent upon destroying the stabilizing institutions of a nation. In the 1970s, while discussing this, my late friend Rubin Carter said that throughout history, tyrants have known that if they could promote hatred for a minority population, they could get the masses to forget their own low level of being, thus allowing for the destruction of those stabilizing institutions. Does this explain Trump's on-going attacks on immigrants, the FBI, the intelligence community, and the federal courts?

(A) Exactly—this is a known tactic, made more efficient when you have the emotional drive of symptoms behind it. You might notice that societies under disordered leadership always exploit problems but fail to provide improved goods, since they are incapable of it. And so the solution for the leader becomes to redirect that suffering and anger against scapegoats, usually vulnerable groups in the population that cannot fight back (“strongmen” are actually cowards). “Losers”, meanwhile, are prone to feeling contempt for lesser “losers”, as they cannot stand the reflection of themselves, and become willing persecutors. Their tendency to identify with the oppressor, or the desire to see the success of their exploiter as their own success, altogether collude to make this method of madness work.

(Q) One of the dynamics of the corona virus crisis that is curious is the toilet paper hoarding. Is this a behavior in which an individual seeks to exert some degree of control in the face of an unknown situation that is marked by anxiety about the future and a general feeling of helplessness?

(A) I think you put it very well. Obsessional behavior is usually a sign of anxiety.

(Q) As the year 2000 approached towards the end of 1999, there was also hoarding. This went beyond the right-wing, para-military survivalists, and the mega-churches seeking to hoard contributions for “the end of times.” In one of my interviews with Chief Paul Waterman of the Onondaga Nation, he taught that his people, in times of crisis, knew that “divine intervention” is found in people's sharing, especially with those who are poor and in need. My generation remembers President Johnson's “War on Poverty,” and investments in efforts for prison reform. Yet, even within the 2020 Democratic Party's primaries, only one candidate included dealing with poverty as a serious campaign issue. Why has caring about the poor gone out of style? What is the impact, for example, of self-identified Christians ignoring Jesus's teaching about the Good Samaritan upon a nation?

(A) This is a theme for a whole book, but the broad trend is for individuals or societies, when pressured or with low emotional resources, to turn inward. Our state of collective mental health certainly has all the signs of decline since the days when our aim was to lift everyone up; now, we disdain and persecute the poor. Having also done divinity studies, at the same time as medical studies, I have viewed a spiritual state—where you feel unity with the universe and charity for all—as an advanced psychological state. But religion can be used as a defense or a way of hiding opposite motives. Humans were able to perpetrate the greatest atrocities of history in the name of Christianity because it provides a good cover and assuages guilt when one can define oneself as “good” based on Christian identity alone.

(Q) Recently, a number of friends have described growing difficulties in talking with people in their lives that blindly support Trump. I try to keep in mind Malcolm X's teaching that if you want people to act differently, you must first encourage them to think differently. For example, during the House's impeachment hearings, I attempted to start by finding common ground – in that instance, respect for the Constitution. Then I would recommend they read the letters from various Founding Fathers that shed light on what they intended. The Federalist Paper #65 describes the necessity of removing someone like Trump from office. I am concerned about the growing divides in our society. What are the stumbling blocks that prevent Trump supporters from recognizing the obvious? How can rational people maintain relationships with family and friends who have “drank Trump's Kool-Aid?”

(A) I would take Malcolm X’s maxim further and say, if you want people to think differently, you must first help them to feel differently. Ideology is not what most Trump supporters are after; they are clinging to a sense of identity, belonging, and having a place in the world. As a predatory personality, Donald Trump fully exploits this need. If you can provide your loved ones with acceptance as human beings, with a place to return to if they ever abandoned their cultic programming, you would lessen his pull.

(Q) Another divide that concerns me is that between those who support Joe Biden and those who had supported Bernie Sanders. A similar divide in 2016, along with other factors, allowed Trump to claim victory in the presidential election. This November, we will need unity to defeat Trump, and possibly shift the balance of power in the Senate. What are your thoughts on this?

(A) The larger divide is fueling the smaller one. The larger divide is between pathology and health, which is why no debate or negotiation is possible, since the goal of pathology is to destroy. The relatively healthy factions are not fully healthy, either, since fragmentation alone is a sign of poor health. I see the disagreement as being between those who believe only incremental change is possible (limiting expectations) and those who believe only profound change can alter the status quo (taking risks); these are not irreconcilable differences. If we were healthier, I would recommend sweeping changes that would correct the sources of our current problems—what I learned from violence prevention programming is that changes come sooner than we think—but there is also a limitation in what people can take emotionally, after the chaos and destructive changes of the last three years, and the gravitation toward the familiar is understandable.

(Q) In April of 2001, Rubin Carter spoke at Binghamton University. A professor who was writing a book on forgiveness – in her case, attempting to forgive abusive parents – asked me if I could talk to Rubin about possibly writing a chapter for her book. In his chapter, Rubin wrote about the power of forgiveness, and how while it does not include a willingness to be victimized, it was required for the evolution of human consciousness. Do you think that is an important teaching for people to apply in this strange time?

(A) Recognition of our shared human frailty will help us to forgive one another and to achieve healing. As a health professional, my enemy is clear: pathology, not the person. Offering the president the right treatment is the best thing to do for him, no matter how he objects. Intervening so that people’s minds are no longer hijacked to serve a deficient leader is humane, too. Enabling pathology while intending to respect “both sides” causes needless suffering for all, including those who are supposedly getting their way. I have experienced too many people returning to thank me, once they were given treatment and freed their minds, as if it were the most liberating experience imaginable. So, to me, the solution is clear, and it comes out of compassion and love for our common humanity. Refusing to respond with complacency, complicity, or even active collusion with pathology helps us to forgive ourselves, not to mention pathology’s victims.

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