43. A Story for the Fourth of July 2017

July 1, 2017

Back to School


Late this spring I caught wind of an on-line summer course being offered to alumni of the University of Chicago. Tied to the current high general interest in the subject of charges and countercharges of “fake news” in the overheated political aftermath of the Trump election, the six-week course was named, Truth and Language”.

It drew my immediate attention as a retired forensic psychiatrist with a particular interest in characterologic disorders, and especially the Cluster B Personality Disorders: Borderline, Narcissistic, Histrionic and Antisocial. It is fair to say that these disorders and traits correlate highly with the characteristics and behavior of politicians.

However, taught by a well respected professor of linguistics, the course, with 110 enrollees, began with and tended to remain focused upon the philosophical and semantic analyses of truth from the point of view of symbolic logic and truth tables. Our early readings were about sentences structure, truth-testing and meanings. There was an ongoing discussion of Aristotle’s Principle of Non-Contradiction: That the same statement cannot be both true and not true at the same time. We only arrived towards the end at Harry Frankfurt’s essay and theory of, “Bullshit”, and a look at the characteristics, as seen by Frankfurt and Cohen, of a bullshitter as opposed to a liar.

In summary, for the most part the focus remained generally upon truth, and whether it was an objective thing at all, or was instead changing and relative.

I, on the other hand, was equally as interested in the value of lying, which I think may be more prevalent than truth-telling. From lengthy discussions among the dozen or so active participants, many experts in their own fields, eventually I drew these conclusions:

Telling the truth is by and large safe and advantageous when the communicating parties are engaged in a cooperative venture, such as as when the Congress is governing the country, or when scientists investigate the mysteries of the universe.

Telling the truth is risky and lying is safer and more advantageous when the communicating parties are in competition with one another, ranging from the most benign sort of entertaining competitions clear up to global war.

From the foregoing I extrapolated that governance can only be done cooperatively or by brute force. Campaigning for office is always a competition and can range from the ethical and friendly to the most desperately vicious.

I seems to me that as a general rule, cooperation and competition are fundamentally incompatible and cannot coexist in the same time and space and between the same groups or individuals.

We are in our present pickle and buffeted by a tempest of lies because, in a violation of the essential agreement that in a democracy the majority rules, the losers in the last election have refused to concede that according to the rules under which the election was held, Trump was the winner. I can certainly empathize with their fear and outrage but I do think that their refusal to accept the election results has triggered the current problem.

Consequently, due to both of the competitors fiddling with the rules, and because the Jerry Springerized media have decided that the most attractive way to fill the 24 hour a day vacuum of the cable news schedule is with fighting, presidential and other campaigns have in this way now explosively expanded to fill all of the time between elections.

However, while the lying and fighting are now continuous, things have not quite escalated to resorting to brute force. Hence — governance has been excluded from the activities currently possible.

My solution, perhaps simplistic, would be to limit campaigning to the three weeks prior to the election. And to limit campaign contributions to, say, $500 per human citizen, no exceptions, no fiddles, no fudging, no bundling, no coercion, on pain of a very severe penalty. Those who are inclined to get back to work solving real problems would no longer be prevented from doing so by those who are not.

A Story About the Flag

In the days when the course on Truth was winding down the AlumniU website announced that another course was in progress. This one, called Connecting the Curious: Sex and the Constitution, was being taught by a famed constitutional scholar and former dean of the Law School. It was based upon his book about sex, religion and the law throughout the life of the nation. I immediately jumped into the course, catching up on reading the Brandeis opinion in Whitney v. California; Brennan’s decision in Frontiero v. Richardson; Warren’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education; Marshall’s dissent in San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez; and of course, Harry Blackmun’s encyclopedic decision in Roe v. Wade.

I watched the short videos submitted by Professor Stone, and too ignorant to be cautiously humble, leapt into the on-line discussion in progress. I was very impressed by the level of the materials and discussion and feel that my efforts were richly rewarded.

Because of a vague reluctance I did not explore, I neglected one video entitled, “Goef Stone Defaces a Flag”. Until the course was over and I was merely cleaning up loose ends.

In the two or three minute video, clipped without context from a speech before an appreciative audience, the Professor recounts a time when he and his then wife attended a march in front of the White House of ‘hundreds of thousands” of people wearing triangular pink pins.

[Ed. It seems the pins had been adopted as an emblem of gay pride and that the march was in support of gay marriage.]

The Stones were actually in Washington to attend a reunion of Justice Brennan’s law clerks, of which he had famously been one. He describes that they were in the supreme court where there is an American flag adjacent to the dais on which the justices sit. Careful to be unobserved, they pinned a pink triangle to one of the red stripes on the flag. He said, with a smile, and to chuckles from the audience, that as far as he knew, it was there still.

A classmate had commented with good humor, that he was glad to see that despite the adoption of a coat and tie in recent years, the activist in shirtsleeves and jeans still resided within.

Though the course has been over for more than a week, after thinking it over I added this comment, which I am not sure anyone will see:

Since the Flag Desecration Amendment failed to pass by one senatorial vote, and defacing the flag has been protected speech (articulated in Tex. v Johnson, 1989). it appears to me that the act was not illegal.   From the video clip it is not clear to me when the flag was “pinned”.  Nor, even if it had been an offense at the time, whether the statute of limitations would have run.

I was not aware of the significance of the pink triangle and had to look it up.

As one who grew up during World War II, and who has served in the Army in Germany when Khrushchev had threatened to overrun us if we were not out of Berlin within six months;   as one whose ancestors have served the nation and its flag, back to 152 years before the Revolution; and whose son survived a year-long tour in Iraq flying the wounded from roadside IED crater to “Baghdad E.R.”,   I can’t think of a cause so important to me that I would disrespect the flag rather than find some other way to express my support for it.  No more than I would disrespect homosexual behavior or relationships between consenting adults.

Personally I had some reservations about homosexual marriage, thinking that some benefits may have accrued to the institution over the centuries that had developed for the support of parents raising kids, and might not be as appropriate for two-breadwinner, childless families.  But having never subsequently actually run across examples that reified that concern, my reservations eventually faded.  I had always been quite willing to see some sort of civil union used, but now I don’t really mind if the title of marriage is used.  I guess as the breadwinning father of four, and later a single dad with four kids, I had felt a little jealous about the title I had earned in what I thought of as, the hard way. 

I am not at all a religious person and have never had moral objection to sexual expression between consenting adults that is benevolent and loving.

But though it was quick, clever and impulsive — cute even — the flag story only made me sad.  As if it had more to do with “street creds” for a liberal academic — was more like a thoughtless college prank than a brave symbolic act.

I don’t wish to be sanctimonious or maudlin.  I don’t mean for this to be a criticism or dismissal of other great work, or to be disrespectful to Professor Stone.  I realize that there may have been more to the story, to the act, not revealed by the brief video clip.  Nevertheless, I thought that rather than let the story stand unremarked, I ought to explain how it made me feel, and why.   

SCOTUS and Psychotherapy

In my view, the choice of whose definition applies often turns on whose purposes are to be served.

In citizens United v. Federal Election Commission SCOTUS ruled that laws that prevented corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds for political advertising violated the First Amendment protections of free speech.

In Texas v. Johnson, SCOTUS invalidated prohibitions on desecration of the American Flag on the same basis, that it is protected speech.

Both decisions extend the protections of the First Amendment deep into territory that I, as a mental health professional, would call “behavior” rather than speech. Moreover, the first one extended the protection to the fictitious entity of a corporation and the organizational structure of a union political action committee.

Though psychiatry is increasingly relegated to treatment of patients with psychoactive drugs, either enhancing or suppressing the effect of some of the body’s neurotransmitters, psychotherapy has stuck to “talk therapy”, though that too is structured in new and different ways, thought or demonstrated to be more effective than older versions. Still, one of the guiding principles is to help patients change dysfunctional behaviors by examining and expressing impulses and feelings with language rather than acting them out.

Thus, for instance, a therapist might simply stop therapy for the day if a patient insists upon acting out his or her rage with raised voice, rough language and intimidating approaches or flailing of arms. The message being, “I will listen to your words, but I will not remain when your behavior becomes intimidating, bullying, frightening or dangerous.” In short, that “I will listen to you and help if I can, but I will not fight with you or allow myself to be abused.”

(I have thought of late that the President’s Press Secretary could take a page from that playbook, responding to actual questions, and stopping the individual questioner or the entire briefing when attacked verbally or in a bullying way, simply declining to engage in that way with adversarial reporters.)

So from that point of view speech is verbal, and conducted in a basically respectful way. Burning a flag, or a car or breaking store windows is not speech it is rioting, it is unsafe, and can be prohibited. Somewhere between the two there is a reasonable boundary. Writing something on my own American flag may be offensive to many, but is permissible. Defacing someone else’s flag, or one belonging to a government may not be.

Though acts against the flag may violate other laws SCOTUS has said the desecration itself may not be prosecuted as a separate crime. Well, at least that is as I, not a lawyer, see it.

I think I may not have managed to clarify the issues, and in fact may have further complicated them with my talk about psychological factors. However, I can recommend the Wikipedia entry on Texas v. Johnson at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_v._Johnson, which does an excellent job.

The Professor’s story about defacing the American flag may have hurt my feelings, as it was at least in part intended to do, but hurting my feelings is not against the law.