Fair and unbalanced

Posted: May 28, 2004 12:00 AM

 There?s something wrong with me. Probably with you, too. Michael Milburn says so.

 Milburn is a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts and the coauthor of ?The Politics of Denial.? He says conservatives need some time on the couch.

?We found that, particularly for males who had never had any psychotherapy, when they reported a high level of childhood punishment, they were significantly more likely to endorse a range of punitive public policies like support for the death penalty, opposition to abortion, support for the use of military force,? he told Newsweek magazine.

Well, page Dr. Freud for me. I?ve somehow reached the ?wrong? conclusions on all the issues Milburn cited.

Now, if you want to tell me why I?m wrong about any of those positions, feel free to do so. But, to take one example, whether you?re pro-life or not, how is opposition to abortion a ?punitive public policy??

After all, in an abortion, at least one person is punished -- the unborn person. But that isn?t really a public policy. It is, as we?re frequently reminded, a private decision. And anyway, that sort of punishment  probably wouldn?t bother Milburn. That?s because he seems to define deviant beliefs as ?any beliefs I disagree with.?

Milburn, who Newsweek calls an expert in ?what determines political attitudes,? gives away his political philosophy in the interview. He opines that politics is ?a matter of priorities. Is it going to be education and health care or is it going to be tax cuts for the rich and the military??

There?s a textbook example of the liberal -- ahem -- thought process. Tax cuts always benefit the rich, and always drain money from education and health care. Now, it?s all right for Milburn to think these things (even though they?re not true), but it?s not OK for him to call into question the sanity of those who disagree. Didn?t his parents ever tell him to be open-minded?

And in Milburn?s mind, everything turns on upbringing. ?What we have found, really broadly, is the higher level of punitiveness among political conservatives is really strongly associated with experiences, generally, of harsh punishment from childhood. It?s not just going to be that they were spanked; there?s a whole family climate, and punishment is just going to be one of those indicators of that,? Milburn said.

Well, consider me disturbed. No, not mentally disturbed, as Milburn would seem to think. Disturbed that a psychologist who?s never seen me is so quick to diagnose me -- and millions of other conservatives. So much for medical ethics.

 In the end, Milburn offers some hope for disturbed conservatives. ?The extent to which emotion connected to childhood punishment was driving their political attitudes, when they had an opportunity to sort of reflect on that and [have a] short-term catharsis experience, that sort of energy disappears,? he told Newsweek.

But that doesn?t do much for me. You see, I was seldom punished as a child. Not necessarily because my parents were soft on me, but because I really didn?t act up very much.

Plus, no amount of psychotherapy will change my ?support for the use of military force,? especially since I remember watching people plunging to their deaths on Sept. 11. Only the use of strong drugs would make me forget that or convince me that a military response to that attack was inappropriate.

Now, if Milburn wants to do the country a real service, maybe he could analyze former Vice President Al Gore?s recent speech. The man who somehow got more popular votes in 2000 demanded that the actual president?s entire national security team -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and CIA director George Tenet -- resign en masse.

Gore also blamed the administration for the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.
?How dare the incompetent and willful members of this Bush/Cheney administration humiliate our nation and our people in the eyes of the world and in the conscience of our own people,? he thundered. Now, I?m no doctor, but Gore?s ideas seem a bit crazy to me. For one thing, how could the administration be responsible for something it didn?t even know about? For another, is it really good to start with a new foreign policy team during wartime?

There?s at least one comforting thought in Milburn?s analysis: It?s safe to say I?m being harder on my children than my parents were on me (as my mother will surely attest). So at least I won?t have to worry about them growing up and rebelling against my authority by becoming -- shudder -- liberals.

If Milburn is correct, they?ll probably be even more conservative than I am. So my only political concern is that they?ll eventually be John Birchers. It could be worse. They could be Gore supporters.