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[casi] USA: An administration that thinks and acts as a child

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

      An administration that thinks and acts as a child

         John A. McKinnon IHT
      The writer, a psychiatrist, is co-founder and chairman of Montana
Academy, a residential school for troubled adolescents in Montana.

MARION, Montana Troubled teenagers fail at the tasks of a modern adolescence
because they try to solve sophisticated problems with an unsophisticated
approach whose elements routinely include a childish sense of time, lack of
empathy, florid narcissism, selfish ethics and concrete logic.
They are usually not stupid, nor ill - not the kids I'm talking about. But
they fail across the board - at school, at home and among their peers -
because their approach is childish.
I point this out because I want to talk about adults, and specifically about
the Bush administration and its "approach."
Temporarily (under stress) or chronically (for those who never grew up),
adults can think like immature teen-agers. To persuade you, I'll describe
this flawed approach:
Present and Future: Immature teen-agers think the future a destination to be
reached by magical thinking. They want to "be" astronauts, but see no reason
to do tonight's algebra assignment.
Present and Past: Immature teen-agers think the past a fairy tale not
usefully connected to the present. You can't teach them history.
Lack of Empathy: Immature teen-agers treat "friends" with consideration, but
only if they dress the same way and can be imagined to think and feel "just
like me."
Narcissism: Immature teen-agers are selfish, self-preoccupied, self-oriented
and self-important. If they want it, they think they're entitled to have it.
And so they don't need to ask, and if they ask they don't think the answer
has any business being no, and if it's no they are entitled to badger,
bully, blackmail, bribe or or attack to compel compliance. For there is only
one person in the relationship - "me."
Selfish Ethics: Troubled teen-agers often think they ought to be allowed to
do as they like and take what they like, and that it's all right to do so if
they can get away with it. In pursuit of self-interest, they are shameless.
Concrete Logic: Immature teen-agers are so impressed that they no longer
believe in the Tooth Fairy that they congratulate themselves for "realism"
when they ignore (because they don't yet understand) mature ethical
abstractions such as honor, tolerance, integrity, the environment, or the
good of our community. Mistaking metaphor for literal fact, they have little
sense of humor, but insist upon concrete interpretation of rules and other
texts, even when such concreteness betrays the spirit of those rules.
I have no wish to be rude, and I recognize that neither political party has
a monopoly on childishness. But I can't help seeing in this description a
synopsis of the Bush administration's approach.
Whether the administration is talking about medical care or tax cuts,
homeland security or social welfare, energy or the environment, democracy
(in Florida, California, Iraq or the West Bank) or the separation of church
and state, or the liberty of citizens and the rights of prisoners under the
Constitution, the approach has been arrogant, self-important, unempathic,
careless of the future and ethically primitive.
In this election season, the maturity of our approach to national and
international affairs ought to take priority over party, class, race,
region, creed or personality. Inasmuch as the maturity of our leadership is
an American issue, it should unite us.
We might even agree that we need an approach that includes clear, plausible
goals embedded in coherent, fully debated plans before actions are taken
that affect our children's lives, our resources and our honor; a firm grasp
of history's haunting of the present, its constraints upon future options;
true empathy, not patronizing sentimentality, for those not like us; respect
for others and other nations; a social ethic that soars above greedy
immediate self-interest; a quiet respect for integrity, separateness,
privacy and liberty, and a sense of humor, irony and humility.
Why does this matter so much?
First, because a childish approach fails. It doesn't even work for high
school sophomores. There is no reason to think it will work for our nation.
Second, because even in high school others despise strutting narcissism,
personal obtuseness, bullying relationships and selfish ethics. Faced with
arrogance and selfishness, others refuse to help us, passively resist,
applaud our humiliation and disdain all those associated with that
As we come up to elections for legislative seats and for the office of
president, let's put aside partisanship so as to rise above party labels and
disgraceful sound bites. Let's see if, together, we can elect and re-elect
those who think and behave like adults.
The writer, a psychiatrist, is co-founder and chairman of Montana Academy, a
residential school for troubled adolescents in Montana.

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