Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Did NPR Mishandle the Drew Westen Interview? An Open Letter to NPR and NPR Listeners

I’ve spent many hours with National Public Radio, usually with pleasure and interest, but during the “On Point” interview with psychology professor Drew Westen I sat in my kitchen spellbound with anger and surprise at what I heard coming out of my radio. More than two months later I’m still very troubled by it. So I’m reaching out to other listeners in the hope that I will convince you to share my concern and we will convince “On Point” to follow up with a program to examine what happened in that hour. I continue to believe there were such significant flaws in the program that they should not be allowed to stand unchallenged.

Consider the critique “On Point” producers knew Westen was bringing to the studio. His opinion essay in “The New York Times” the previous Sunday charged that Barack Obama is a servile, cowardly man unfit for the nation’s highest office who has broken what the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., called “the arc of the moral universe.” That’s quite a feat. According to Westen, the American president, whose biracial parentage the essay linked to identity confusion, has actually broken the sacred shape of the universe. That’s demonic.

The only justification for featuring a demonizing attack on a politician on NPR would be to give listeners a chance to examine it carefully, no matter who the source is. There should not be a double standard, kid gloves when the source is a liberal and an academic. But the program hyped Westen’s critique as hot off the press, the buzz of liberals, and positioned the discussion in a posture of gratitude toward a celebrity rather than objectivity toward a newsmaker.

In his book “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation,” Westen writes that the way to disable deep-seated racial prejudices in American culture is to focus people’s attention on their conscious racial values, but in his op-ed on Obama, he didn’t do that. He didn’t discuss race at all. Neither did “On Point.” Not bringing up race and clearing the air in an hour that discussed whether our first black president has what it takes to succeed in the country’s highest office was a serious deficiency. NPR affirmed subtle but powerful racism in a program with a striking lack of skepticism and balance.

Host Tom Ashbrook identified Westen as a “practicing clinical psychiatrist,” and Westen did not correct that statement, though his biographical materials on the Internet do not indicate that he has an M.D. as required for the title of psychiatrist.

If Westen’s credentials were misstated, it is regrettable that “On Point” didn’t do its research more thoroughly. On air he was then given a VIP pass through all journalistic checkpoints. What about Westen’s own motivations and psychology? No questions asked. Ashbrook directed no personal scrutiny toward Westen at all. He didn’t interview any other psychologist to cross-examine Westen’s views. With no other psychologist to offer a different perspective, “On Point” didn’t treat psychology as a discipline but as a platform of unexamined authority. (“You’re a psychologist, a practicing clinical psychiatrist [emphasis on psychiatrist]. Do you make that kind of analysis of this president? … This is your specialty.”) This would not meet journalistic standards even if Westen worked fulltime in healthcare and education. But he doesn’t. He is an active political consultant.

The program trivialized and emotionalized the topic of presidential leadership. From the naming of the program – which anointed Westen’s ideas “the liberal critique” of Obama rather than examining them as “a liberal’s critique” – and throughout the hour, "On Point" demonstrated bias in favor of Westen’s inflammatory opinion piece. Ashbrook pushed back against callers who supported the president – “Should he have negotiated more potently with these systems of power?” – and connected callers who supported Westen with the national zeitgeist – “There’s that sense of urgency. You can feel it all around the country.”

“On Point” promoted and dramatized rather than analyzed Westen’s ideas, reducing them to near-cartoon-like simplicity. Bam! Pow! “He’s no two-fisted FDR!” The program ran a sequence of side-by-side sound clips to support Westen’s almost exclusive focus on Franklin D. Roosevelt as a yardstick to measure Obama but no recordings or reenactments of other presidential speeches to help listeners get outside Westen’s frame of reference and test his thesis. Jonathan Chait, then of “The New Republic” now of “New York” magazine, was allowed a brief rebuttal, which was valuable, but he was playing against the house, it was clear. Furthermore, not being a psychologist he challenged on the grounds of historical and political facts, while the more visceral content of Westen’s psychological critique free-floated.

“You know, if I had him on the couch I’d have a better answer for you,” Westen said at one point, depicting the president in a subordinate position with respect to his own authority, lying on a couch seeking help. The misstatement of Westen’s credentials launched a very subjective assessment of the president as someone who will do “anything he can” to avoid standing up to opposition.

I can understand that a psychologist should be able to speak out on politics just as vociferously as any other citizen, but I would also think that when speaking about the psychology of a particular individual and speaking specifically on the basis of his or her psychology credentials, professional ethical constraints would apply. A caller raised an ethical concern, but Ashbrook didn’t pursue it.

Rather than respecting Obama’s dignity as per the professional ethics code of the American Psychological Association, Westen made derogatory, ridiculing remarks about the president that did not contribute to the substance of his criticism. He described Obama “cowering in the corner” in the White House. “He has blinked every time he’s had a chance to blink. I don’t know whether there’s something in his contact lenses, but he has blinked,” he said. For all the build-up about his academic and clinical expertise, his criticism was couched in street talk and simple truisms.

Westen didn’t claim to have supporting evidence that Obama compromises because he’s afraid not to: no confidential sources who overheard the president expressing fearful sentiments, no leaked notes from a therapist working with Obama to deal with this peculiar syndrome of weaknesses and failings Westen alleges, no way of actually supporting the claim that Obama is fearful. It is important to notice that the case for Obama’s fearfulness rested on no objective, supporting evidence at all.

Obama carries himself with poise and dignity. In fact, his cool is held against him by liberal critics, according to Ashbrook. “Who is this cool compromiser?” Here, “On Point” reinforced the insinuation from Westen’s essay that not only is Obama no FDR, but there is something suspicious about that: Who is he? He tricked us. Frightened people aren’t usually cool. But Westen claims to see through Obama’s poise to a “cowering” inner Obama. The plausibility of this phantasm (personally, I think it’s a projection of other people’s emotional baggage) depended entirely on Westen’s authority as an expert in psychology, but “On Point” didn’t submit his authority to even the most basic, standard journalistic scrutiny.

“On Point” did not question Westen’s own partisanship. As a political consultant, the head of Westen Strategies, LLC, which advertises its experience working with presidential campaigns, Westen wasn’t asked if he is working with a client, Republican or Democratic, in his attack on Obama. His 2007 book “The Political Brain” doesn’t go many pages without highly praising Bill Clinton. Yet Westen wasn’t asked about his past or present thoughts on Obama’s chief Democratic challenger, Hilary Clinton.

“On Point” should have taken a harder look at the ideas that underlie Westen’s critique of Obama and asked some tougher questions. Westen’s recent work in psychology focuses on how politicians can influence voters more effectively once they understand how easily our emotions overrun our capacity to make reasoned political decisions. He argues that Democrats have been talking to the wrong side of voters’ brains, the rational side instead of the emotional side. It only stands to reason he would put his theories to work in his own essay. And he does.

He tailors the essay to liberals and crafts a highly emotional, illogical argument that is the op-ed equivalent of an attack ad against Obama. “In times of uncertainty, the last thing voters want to see in their leaders is fear,” Westen wrote in “The Political Brain.” The essay homes in on the entirely speculative theory that Obama is scared. The essay, in other words, goes for the political jugular vein. The weak logic is just a temporarily plausible delivery system for emotions that blow logic out of the water anyway, according to Westen’s imaging studies of how our brains process political content. His research finds that political partisans, in particular, ignore contradictions and inconsistencies and believe what they want to believe. Emotion-driven thinking is actually more, not less, characteristic of more sophisticated voters, he writes.

The essay is a warren of circular arguments, false dichotomies, and overly simplistic analogies mapped onto complex realities for their emotional punch (“analogical mapping”), dotted with trigger words and phrases that activate subliminal networks of associations. Westen repeatedly lays out seemingly reasonable multiple-choice answers where the most reasonable answer is not included. Strip down the bully rule and you find it’s illogical. You can never compromise with a bully, he says. But who’s a bully? Is a person 100 percent bully or not a bully at all? One way to know a bully, according to Westen, is that bullies interpret conciliation as weakness. But Westen interprets conciliation as weakness. How do we know he isn’t a bully? If he is, by his own logic we should dismiss his argument out of hand or he’ll just bully us more. Presumably, we, unless we’re bullies, would have to look at the specific compromises Obama made in specific situations and decide if they were reasonable or not entirely outside the useless bully rule.

What the argument comes down to is: It’s ridiculous for Obama to have tried to compromise with Republicans because Westen has typecast them in a stereotype so rigid it’s a wonder they can even move their mouths and tossed them into the dust bin of history as worthless, mindless obstacles to a particular liberal agenda. At another point he describes Obama’s compromises as “the politics of appeasement,” a phrase that triggers widely familiar associations with Chamberlain’s policy of “appeasement” of Hitler and ups the ante on Republican vilification. Republicans aren’t just stereotypical bullies, they’re genocidal maniacs. These types of moral absolutes aren’t typical of most psychologists’ models of emotional health. I think it’s likely that another psychologist on the program could have provided a more complex model of personality and moral choice that would put both Obama and his interactions with Republicans in a different light.

The whole bully business is essentially a cover and delivery system for emotions of contempt. Obama isn’t actually dealing one-on-one with individual bullies where an aggressive dominance display would cause the bully to fold. If you consider the bias that “On Point” demonstrated against him and the challenge of breaking the race barrier in the presidents’ club for the first time in American history, it’s evident he’s dealing with whole cloud formations of oppositional forces. But the bully rule, with its simple absolutes, gives cover and permission to push the contempt button. Contempt for what? For having the fortitude and composure to be gracious to people whom Westen calls maniacs and bullies but Obama calls “my Republican colleagues.” Vilification of other people isn’t an expression of self-confidence. Maybe another psychologist present in the hour could have brought that up.

A little further along in the essay Westen says he’s going to venture some scientific hypotheses to explain Obama’s behavior. In the next sentence he offers “the most charitable explanation” and goes on to a “somewhat less charitable” explanation. Scientists don’t make charitable and less charitable hypotheses. These over-the-top insults aren’t scientific hypotheses, and they aren’t charitable either. Appeals to the objectivity of science (“I am a scientist by training”) provided fig leaves for emotions most people would be ashamed of. I’m still trying to figure out all that’s going on with that button-pushing word “charitable,” with its comfortable superiority toward people who need charity. Does it ring the bell of the false slur that Obama is a “product of the welfare state?” I don’t know. What I do know is that the doling out of ironic charity to Obama isn’t pretty. And it isn’t liberal. These emotions of contempt don’t bubble up from any special, liberal spring.

Ashbrook didn’t question Westen at all on the darker implications of a concept central to his critique of Obama, the concept that the human brain needs and expects villains. Our brains have evolved to expect to understand our lives through narratives told to us by our parents, political leaders, and religious traditions and through our news media and culture, Westen says in his Obama essay, and villains are essential to the narrative structure we expect. We’re likely to be persuaded by political speech that fits the key in our cognitive locks. But Obama hasn’t delivered. His speeches lack villains. He’s afraid to confront bullies so he shies away from blaming anyone for anything, Westen contends, arguing that Obama should have hooked the public on his villain narrative before the Republicans hooked the public on their villain narrative.

But the arms race he calls on Obama to join is a race to the bottom of human nature. On first thought the invocation of the worst in us may seem acceptable as realpolitik. Westen proposes that Democrats can “use” these lesser instincts while keeping full mastery over them, apparently. (The implication is that the power of reason trumps the power of emotion in the leader and the leadership clique, though emotion dominates in the psyche of the average American.) On second thought, when I consider the Holocaust, when I consider the terrible price of the human penchant to stereotype and demonize, I take the implications of what Westen is saying profoundly seriously, and reject it. Lincoln’s speeches also lack villains, yet his villain-less second inaugural address is generally considered among the most powerful political expressions of the human spirit in history. Westen is not correct that good political speeches require villains.

There is a difference between whipping up generalized hatred of categories of people, and lawful prosecution of specific individuals on specific charges. And there is a difference between criticizing a politician, and demonizing him or her. Whipping up hatred and demonizing are based on emotion, not fact. It is the motivating energy of emotion-based vilifying and demonizing that Westen invokes. And whipped-up contempt and hatred in liberals aren’t all that different from whipped-up contempt and hatred in conservatives, as far as I can see. Nobody gets a special dispensation from human nature. Look at the runaway emotions of the moral-outrage binges in Westen’s book.

His Obama essay takes the form he recommends. It’s a villain narrative with taproots right down into irrationalism and superstition. Liberal titans of the past bent the great “arc of history” forward but now the fearful Obama has bent it backwards and actually broken what King called “the arc of the moral universe.” (Westen substitutes “arc of history” as an equivalent phrase he says Obama derives from King.) This is malfeasance on a mythic scale. It’s demonic. Arc-breaking resonates with a reference to “sacred” values and a claim that Obama has been “corrupted by a system that tests the souls” of politicians. The essay dials up the volume on moral outrage as if Obama’s actions were the equivalent of sacrilege.

You may think I’m over-reading, but I’m only applying Westen’s concepts from “The Political Brain.” He urges that Democrats should appeal to the sense of sacredness because it’s a powerful and built-in aspect of human cognition. He also writes that persuasive political speech deploys key trigger words, sometimes embedded in cover sentences, that activate networks of associations independent of sentence grammar and logic that are “largely unconscious and hence all the more powerful.” Once switched on, these networks of associations go on resonating after we’ve forgotten the words themselves and can interact with other associations switched on by other words, even associations to an unrelated meaning of a word or a rhyme, he writes. “Much of political persuasion occurs through changes in (brain) networks that are inaccessible to consciousness.”

Other trigger words and phrases to notice in the essay are: “Weak… impotent … conundrum … which hand is holding the rabbit … bewitched by his eloquence … enthralled … tic-like gestures of compromise." Notice that Westen describes Obama’s compromises as “tic-like gestures.” They’re portrayed as a mindless, repeated action like the release of prisoners in the turnstile of the attack ad that was part of the Willie Horton ad campaign the first President Bush used against Gov. Michael Dukakis. Obama is a robo-compromiser. Attack ads often seem to do this, portray robotic repetition that is unsettling and touches a nerve in us with the specter of a human being or human process as machine-like.

If our brains are predisposed to lock onto villain narratives, as Westen suggests, shouldn’t we be wary of them, knowing we’re easily swayed? Westen’s own thesis should make us cautious. But as I have been pointing out, “On Point” showed considerable credulity. “I assume you’ve heard a lot of amen’s from liberals,” said Ashbrook, who repeatedly speculated that many liberals agree with Westen, though calls to the program suggested that many liberals also do not. In this context “amen” is a loaded word that reinforces the demonizing motifs of Westen’s essay. It’s one more example of the program’s pervasive bias in favor of an emotional personal attack on Obama that contributes to the demonizing rhetoric already too prevalent on all sides of our political debate.

Westen suggested he would have a better explanation of Obama’s alleged fearfulness if he knew “what his genes are.” I’m not aware that there are marker genes for being “conflict-averse.” Am I out of date on the latest in genomics? Ashbrook asked him about the remark, but he was unable to explain. The reference to Obama’s genetics is disturbing. One might take it as a coded reference to race.

In fact, I find it difficult to draw a clear line between his demonizing of Obama and racism. I’m not sure how to differentiate between the psychology of demonizing and the psychology of racism. Which is the more fundamental psychological urge: scapegoating and demonizing other people, projecting our baggage onto them; or suspicion of the other tribe that obsesses specifically on marker characteristics such as race or religion? Or are they essentially the same? Or is there a different approach to understanding that is obscured by the way I’m asking the questions? I’d like to understand.

Think of it this way: Can you necessarily differentiate between a piece of writing that demonizes someone who is Jewish, and a piece of writing that is anti-Semitic? If the writer is careful not to reinforce anti-Semitism and affirms his or her respect for the demonized individual’s religious heritage, it might be possible to disable anti-Semitic prejudices, though the demonizing could play on anti-Semitism anyway. But Westen’s essay does not disable racial prejudices in the demonizing of Obama, nor did “On Point.”

One of the striking features of his essay is that he writes about the first African-American president in American history without discussing race at all. It seems to me that not discussing race makes racial prejudices more available to migrate into the emotions of contempt for Obama that the essay strives to stir. These are not the conscious racist thoughts of people who consider themselves racists. The essay is not directed to people who consider themselves racists. Racial prejudices are part of the psychology of everyone of every race. As I pointed out earlier, in “The Political Brain” Westen argues that ambivalence about race permeates American culture, and the way to inhibit unconscious racism is to focus people’s attention on their conscious values regarding race. But in his Obama essay, he doesn’t focus readers’ attention on their conscious values regarding race. The words “black,” “African American” and “race” never even appear.

With its tone of blistering condescension, Westen’s op-ed could easily accommodate racism. I’m not commenting on Westen’s intentions or the attitudes of any of his readers. I’m pointing out that the essay has a quality of disparagement so demeaning, so similar to racism, that there is an unfortunate fit between them. Don’t call it racism. Call it contemptuous superiority that is group-based. If the essay were racist, would it sound any different? Could you make the case “unfit to play in our league” any more strongly or lay the patronizing tone on any thicker? Doesn’t share our values. “Simply not up to the task.” Can’t fill FDR’s shoes. How dare he break the arc of history!

The essay contends that there is a deep-seated problem in Obama’s nature that eludes definition – it’s a “conundrum.” The supporting argument is replete with imagery that portrays Obama as servile, magical, untrustworthy, even demonic, and maps onto racist archetypes. When the shape of the anger is such an ideal carrier for racism, not discussing race is a serious flaw. As Westen himself writes: “People can choose to accept or reject messages designed to bring ideas to consciousness. They can’t as easily protect themselves from the insidious effects of ‘secondarily’ activated networks – which we aptly refer to colloquially as racial ‘overtones’ – whose influence is opaque to them because it is unconscious.”

The argument could be made – in fact, I’m going to propose it as a hypothesis, on the model of Westen’s essay – that not discussing race when it is on everyone’s mind makes the Obama-named figure less anchored in reality, more mythic, a better scapegoat, and makes race, at an irrational level, feel unmentionable and suspicious when that feeling could be dispelled with a single beam of light on it. But the essay does not shine that single beam of light. And “On Point” didn’t shine it either.

Not discussing race puts Westen’s “New York Times” opinion essay entirely out of touch with the realities of Obama’s election and presidency and the meaning of his presidency to the American people. “On Point” took the newspaper’s questionable judgment to a more serious level when it moved the essay from the opinion pages to a talk-show format and then didn’t ask the questions that needed to be asked.

In the entire hour there was full silence on the topic of race. “On Point” discussed the power dynamics surrounding the Obama presidency without a word about race. The value and significance of Obama’s African-American heritage were whited out, deleted. Listeners had to fit Obama’s racial identity into a weirdly colorless discussion of a kind of placeholder white Obama in a placeholder country where race is irrelevant – a country with no African-American culture and community, a country without the many-colored threads of our actual history, a country where people of one race never auctioned off people of another race and where people of one race never hid people of another race to secure their passage to freedom, a country whose founding declaration wasn’t sorely tested by racial difference, as ours was, to prove it was more than a paper promise; it was the bedrock capable of supporting a great nation: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

In an hour when two white men on their VIP platform patronizingly discussed a purely speculative syndrome of supposed inferiority in the president, the issue of racism in the Obama era should have been taken seriously and addressed openly. At this point I’m weary of hearing that his race is an extra burden for him. Racism is the country’s burden, not his alone. And his race is also a special grace. Obama’s racial heritage is a source of strength for him in office and a gift to the American people that he brings to the presidency for the first time in history. The African-American experience has been a wellspring of renewal for American ideals only partially fulfilled, always ahead of us. Ignoring Obama’s race isn’t politely covering over for a deficiency. It’s taking something vital and important away from him and from the country. This historic presidency will be defined by how the American people respond to it, not just by what the Obama administration does.

The concern that Westen’s essay doesn’t discuss race is reinforced, not mitigated, by the racial references the essay does contain; for race is very much present, just never directly brought into focus. Through a reference to Obama’s autobiography “Dreams From My Father,” Westen connects Obama’s biracial parentage with identity confusion and with the quality of double-dealing he claims Obama exhibits.

He invokes King’s moral authority by repeatedly using King’s arc imagery to berate Obama for how far he allegedly falls short of an African-American predecessor. But if you look more closely, you notice that the essay connects the great advocate of nonviolence with death and graphic street violence, not peace. Striking, lingering images of police dogs with “gnashing teeth” and water cannons with “blistering force” cluster around King and make available a secondary network of associations between race and violence at a subliminal level masked by the primary, conscious, positive associations with King, as Westen’s book discusses.

Furthermore, when you look more closely at the imagery of the bent and broken arc, you discover that the essay has gutted the phrase of King’s original meaning, so any biracial credibility it might seem to confer is misleading. The essay is not compatible with the actual substance of King’s thought. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” King said. For King the arc of the moral universe cannot be broken. It cannot be bent the wrong way. That’s not a minor point; that’s his whole point. The universe was created curved, and it curves toward justice, by divine purpose. Its curvature is a fundamental property. The same meaning is evident in the source sermon of the 19th century Unitarian minister whose words King rekindled. It doesn’t make sense to say Obama has bent and broken it. The essay wrings a sense of sacrilege from the breaking of the arc, but the phrase is just empty rhetoric. It no longer expresses King’s faith in a universe divinely endowed with justice.

The essay substitutes a deity-like force of history, but this worldview isn’t a secular equivalent of King’s. I wish Ashbrook had picked up on the view of history expressed in the essay and had asked Westen about it, because it’s quite distinctive and a lot hinges on it. By Westen’s account, it’s not just that certain Democrats wanted a different president in the White House in 2008. History itself wanted a different president. The first thing Westen said on “On Point” was: “History at times asks for a certain kind of person …” History has expectations, and Westen knows what they are.

History wants to replicate itself; it wants another FDR. History is cyclical. According to Westen, Obama stepped into a “cycle of American history” but has failed to fulfill the cycle as already laid out in the past. The “arc of history” in Westen’s essay feels smaller, tighter, more circular than King’s inconceivable span, more like something out of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” It’s something the wrong person could get his hands on. Westen’s essay is about arc rights. History confers power on certain people (with no reverse obligation, no worship tradition, no relational context). They know what is supposed to happen and are entitled to control progress. But here comes Obama, the Grinch that stole history. He has bent the universe out of shape.

If you want to see someone use King’s language with respect and build on it in a way consistent with King’s meaning, read Obama’s speech on the 40th anniversary of King’s assassination. Westen doesn’t mention that it was actually Obama who first came up with the concept of participatory arc-bending that he berates Obama for not understanding. The differences between Obama’s and Westen’s view of the arc-bending of history are telling. Obama invites everyone to put their hands on the arc and help create history in their own way. The arc sounds like the Internet. It’s contemporary, it’s got vibe, it connects people; lots of people come together to bend it. As Westen describes it, the arc is associated with great men of the past, and it’s heavy and rigid and liable to get broken. Similarly, when Westen talks about the storytelling that moves history, it’s not open mic. The story is handed down by a powerful teller, and Westen identifies himself with the teller.

When I turn off the siren song of the villain narrative and unplug the emotional current in Westen’s essay, I see a doctrinaire, authority-heavy polemic, a backward-looking orthodoxy with history as a controlling substitute-deity. The essay makes an appeal to group identity – the implicit “we” is distinct from “average” Americans and the “American people,” who are always referred to as “they” – group identity associated with being in the know in intellectual fields such as science and history, but it doesn’t actually use the scientific method, and the view of history is simplistic and mystical.

It is deeply disappointing that “On Point” would ride the emotion of a villain narrative rather than examining and reframing it so we could think clearly and make judgments thoughtfully. It appears the program not only promoted Westen’s demonizing critique of Obama, but embraced his concept that leaders, cultural and political, should provide emotional master narratives that match preconceptions in our brains and move history in the direction of their choosing. I’m reminded of the way the national media used the “big narrative” concept in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Major news organizations lowered standards on fact-checking and anonymous sources and rushed us an epic tale with World War II themes, only to realize later that this wasn’t World War II all over again and the narrative didn’t fit the facts. Now “On Point” has taken up the cry, “Obama is no FDR!” But why should he be? Westen’s essay holds up examples of past greatness as iron templates that crush the originality and flexibility to respond to life as it is that make men and women great. He directs our attention up, up, up to a limited number of great men of the past – basically just two – oversimplified and motionless on their shrines, and says Obama should be putting on their marble overshoes.

I don’t want my brain to lock onto clich├ęs and stereotypes and onto villain narratives that may be false. And I don’t have to live that way. Consciousness is so rich. We have so many redundant capabilities. We have within us a craving to slip the trap of what we expected and face right into it, the elemental universe, feel the wind blowing in off the future. I hope I have conveyed how appealing I find intellectual challenge and creativity, and how unappealing I find orthodoxies and attitudes that impede the fullness of consciousness I want to bring to my understanding of the events of my lifetime. Westen describes narrative as a tool for dominance, but as Solzhenitsyn said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, its truly extraordinary power is the capacity to awaken empathy. The power of narrative art touches the live thread of time and can convey to us another’s reality, outside our own.

Obama is willing and able to think outside the political boxes, and I appreciate that. He doesn’t go after people as Westen recommends in his book and as he demonstrates in his demonizing of Obama, but this is a good trait, a strength not a weakness, and voters knew about it when they chose him. It was no secret. Even during the campaign, back in 2008, Westen was complaining about Obama’s “relentlessly positive message of rising above politics as usual.” I respect and feel respected by a politician who doesn’t throw me scapegoats to satisfy a primitive polarity in my brain. I don’t think attacking and belittling Barack Obama for respecting the American people is an attractive position.

A black man with the aggressive, bully-busting style Westen and Ashbrook evidently prefer most likely would never have been elected. But the idea that Obama rose to the presidency without understanding what Westen calls “bully dynamics” I find entirely implausible. He faces a challenge unlike any previous president and brings to it new experiences and strengths. I’d say hang up the boxing-glove metaphor and look to martial arts where the fighter does not oppose chi but instead transforms and redirects it.

Westen says Americans elected Obama to fill FDR’s shoes, but I don’t see that. I don’t think Americans elected him to fill anybody else’s shoes or do what had been done before. Why would voters expect “change you can believe in” to mean change backwards, recycling history? Why would we expect our new president, in a sweeping, single-handed change of course, to repair our globally integrated, 21st-century economy based on what Westen calls the wisdom of our grandparents? We would have to be crazy if we elected our first black president thinking we’d get someone to vilify and stereotype and feed our brains a mush of prejudices we’ve been easy dupes for since we were cavemen. Please! Give us a little more credit.

The there-there-Father-know-best tone of the alternate inaugural address Westen wrote for Obama would be insulting to a cricket. Americans would sooner vote against our own economic interest than have our heads patted, as far as I can tell. It seems to me that when Westen’s charismatic storyteller was transmitting what was then considered the wisdom of the ages around the fire circle, one of the stooping, hairy-bodied figures – the great-great-great forebear of an American – probably got up and walked off into the Cenozoic sunset thinking: “Hey, ain’t necessarily so, buddy” (in the idiom of the day).

Since the Westen interview I have noticed what I consider emotional overstatement and continuing bias against Obama on “On Point.” Let me you a few examples from a Sept. 8 discussion of Obama’s jobs speech. Ashbrook asked his two guests, neither of whom had spoken unfavorably of the president: “Is the president missing the mark, whistling in the wind, not on the right track?” He asked whether free-trade policies were a “huge betrayal… Now the rabbit comes out of the hat,” language that emotionalizes the economic discussion with impugning of motive and echoes Westen’s characterization of Obama “hoping (voters) won’t realize which hand is holding the rabbit.” Out of a large email response, he chose to read aloud an email saying that Obama “is completely petrified of bringing the fight” to Republicans, which echoed Westen and added nothing of substance to the topic under discussion. He gave air time to a clip of Romney telling a joke at Obama’s expense that was not substantive criticism of Obama’s economic policies, just mockery.

In the Westen interview “On Point” took as its topic the emotional content of an inflammatory critique of Obama without reframing it for thoughtful scrutiny and without asking necessary questions, affirming racism and other damaging biases. In a week of stock-market panic Ashbrook repeatedly brought up the context of national economic emergency. But that’s no reason for NPR to interrupt its regularly scheduled responsible attitude. Emotionalism and strong personal points of view are readily available in our media environment. What’s at a premium is dynamic but balanced exploration of news content in depth, so listeners can develop informed opinions of their own.

We were expected to put our faith in the guest’s unexamined personal perspective and misstated psychology credentials as the basis for an attack on the character of the president of the United States without even hearing a contrasting assessment from any other psychologist. That’s just plain unfair to do to anyone, but doing it to our president has very significant consequences.

Do you share any of these concerns? If so, what can we do about them? NPR has special value as a publicly supported, listener-funded institution that strives for depth of coverage in an increasingly partisan and rapidly changing media environment. It is important to hold NPR accountable for acknowledging and redressing such a significant failure, if such it is.

It would be valuable if “On Point” and Boston University (which hosts “On Point”) and NPR would use their resources to increase public discussion on topics such as new forms of racism in our politics, media responsibility, and the anger-channeling political rhetoric that has brought Washington nearly to a standstill on recent occasions. Beyond that it seems we need to urge our representatives in Washington to stop vilifying each other and stop obstructing the democratically elected chief executive of the people’s government from doing the people’s work.

Personally, I think people who accept the complexity of their own emotions have a better shot at realism and maturity, and individuals who bring the whole of their individuality to their role as citizens, not just their primal emotions, create a stronger democracy. In “The Gift Outright” Robert Frost says of colonial Americans: “Something we were withholding made us weak until we found out that it was ourselves we were withholding from our land of living and forthwith found salvation in surrender” – a paradoxical surrender that results in greater strength. It seems to me that racism and excessive partisanship are weakening us in our response to a great national challenge, and what we are withholding from our land of living is ourselves.

Irvine Thomas Freeman

To hear the “On Point” program go to:

To read Drew Westen’s op-ed in “The New York Times” go to:

To hear or read Barack Obama’s speech on the 40th anniversary of King’s death go to: