I don’t usually write about current events in this blog but a confluence of stories got me thinking about why it has always been such a frustrating topic for me, whether in the newpapers or as a topic of dinner conversation. It has to do with the importance of data, something I write about in the main website as crucial to psychotherapy, even while we are being supportive and warm in session. So please give a read and hang on through the end where I promise to tie it back into psychotherapy.
Each year, thousands of Haitians venture east into the Dominican Republic in search of low-wage jobs in agriculture and construction and at the big all-inclusive resorts. As always happens in such situations, greed and desperation conspire and tragedies ensue. People are stuffed into vans, paying about $100 each for the opportunity to travel like crowded cattle with sometimes barely room to breathe. Drivers of the vans have been known to throw bodies of the suffocated out onto the road. Haiti as we know has also been the victim of several natural catastrophes (flooding, hurricane, earthquake, cholera epidemic) and the country is struggling economically, to put it mildly. In the Dominican Republic, Haitians are often reviled and the victims of violence. After homes were burned in one incident, the Dominican police chief who was reached for comment wondered if the Haitians had burned their own homes in preparation for leaving. In February of this year a Haitian shoe-shiner was hanged from a tree in a public park in Santiago while across town a crowd burned Haitian flags and shouted “Haitians out”. There have been other such lynchings of Haitians for the alleged infractions of burning a Dominican flag or robbing a convenience store. There are bars that openly refused to serve Haitians or allow them on premises. Dominican newspapers run cartoons depicting people of Haitian descent as bug-eyed, big-lipped, and babbling Spanish in heavy dialect. All of this goes back at least to 1937 when tens of thousands of Haitians and black Dominicans were murdered on the orders of Rafael Trujillo, then the dictator of the Dominican Republic.
The Dominican Constitution is similar to that of the United States in that citizenship is conferred on anyone born in the country. The government, however, manages to find loopholes to this requirement and despite several rulings by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights the government continues to refuse papers and passports to anyone of Haitian descent. They argue that even families who have been in the Dominican Republic for several generations are considered “temporary”. Advocates for the rights of Haitians and Dominican-Haitians have worked under frequent surveillance and even threats. Meanwhile, in 2013 the Dominican courts passed a ruling revoking the citizenship of anyone in the country who they deemed born to “foreigners in transit”. Suddenly about 200,000 people were eligible for deportation. In the middle of last year, the government made a gesture towards rectifying this but it required that victims of the first ruling reapply for citizenship under rather onerous conditions, e.g. producing birth certificates and documentation that many people do not have.
Recently there has been an outcry from the United States government, Amnesty International, the UN, Human Rights Watch. The government’s deadline for reestablishing citizenship passed three weeks ago, and so far things have been quiet. It may be that international pressure has helped, however the government maintains that they are proceeding with mass deportations.
And how has the government responded to that outcry? At some kind of summit meeting in Guatemala about a month ago President Danilo Medina told the press “We’re not going to accept false accusations of racism or xenophobia, which are baseless in a country that has been defined for centuries by the blending of cultures.” In other words, president Medina simply denied reality. This is no surprise. People in the public eye do this all the time. There was a senator who tried to legislate the value of pi, a number familiar to school children as the ratio between the radius and circumference of a circle. Its value is the same regardless of the size of the circle. Pi is 22/7 or 3.14159. Measure any circle’s circumference and radius and the former will always be twice the latter times pi. Notwithstanding this physical reality – true everywhere on earth and at the other side of the universe – the senator in question tried to float a bill which would change the value to the more convenient 21/7.
The Supreme Court recently passed a judgment that the Environmental Protection Agency violated the law when it imposed a multibillion-dollar regulation on power plants. Texas Governor Greg Abbott leapt on this development and continued to lambaste the EPA for doing its job “with little regard for the price tag these regulations would impose”. He ended his statement with the rallying cry that “Texas will stand ready to continue our fight against an overbearing federal government that stands in the way of economic prosperity”. U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner similarly decried “the damage that the EPA has already caused by shutting down power plants and putting thousands of Americans out of work”. He applauded the Supreme Court’s decision as “a measure that would force bureaucrats in Washington to account for the impact of the rules they hand down”.
This kind of rhetoric is what we have in place of information. When arguments are put in this way, in the absence of any data, we have no way of knowing what is true and weighing the relevant variables. Are power plants in Texas damaging the environment which will result in dangers to our health and in economic hardship down the road, or is the EPA an alarmist bureaucracy that unnecessarily imposes restrictions on economic growth? We will never know until we start discussing what was described in last month’s posting as “the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be”.
Donald Trump somewhat famously got himself under public scrutiny when he claimed that Mexico is sending their rapists, drug dealers, and other damaged human resources to the United States. In fact, research has shown repeatedly that there is no correlation between immigration and crime; in California immigrants are found to be underrepresented in prisons as compared with the percent of the state population they comprise; and United States born men are incarcerated at a rate two-and-a-half times greater than that of foreign-born men.
Those reading this article may have no trouble seeing how futile and empty the words of the Dominican President, Donald Trump, and John Boehner may be, how unsupported and thus ultimately irrelevant their voices are in the absence of data. So why, one may ask, has this article been written? Because we are not listening to the data! In fact, Donald Trump’s standing in the polls has not been hurt or apparently in any way affected by the fact checking and databased counter arguments that have been presented. In short, we seem to be ignoring the data in favor of the posturing.
This kind of profound disregard of reality can be common, of course, in the psychotherapist’s consulting room. Last month we discussed victims and perpetrators of domestic violence as an example of people who rewrite history to suit their preconceptions and emotional needs. But at least in the therapist office, there is hope that careful diagnosis will ferret out the truth. Many children are brought to a psychologist with suspicion of an attention deficit or a school phobia. Exploration of the child’s behavior, functioning, and other such details often reveal that the problem is neither of these. People frequently call psychologist offices and request one form of therapy or another, before they even really know the specifics of their problems and what kind of treatment would in fact work for them.
Ignoring of the world as it is in favor of how the speaker wants it to be – or has been conditioned to see it – can be addressed and ameliorated in psychotherapy; sometimes a good “reality check” from friends and family will suffice. The phenomenon becomes more frightening and dangerous when it is committed by those in power as discussed above. It is also scary that it seems to be growing more commonplace and even accepted. When Loretta Lynch was being considered for her current post as U.S. Attorney General, she was asked in an interview with National Public Radio whether an American citizen or an illegal immigrant was more entitled to a job in this country. Her answer was that everyone in this country should work; she said nothing more. Here again is a noble sentiment that in such vague terms evades the issue and sounds irresistible, similar to describing an antiabortionist as “pro-life” and the opposition as “pro-choice – put in those terms, most people are pro-both. But in the process, data are ignored and the speaker evades reality. Ms. Lynch ducked the issues being raised, at least one of which was that given the limited jobs that exist in this country who should get first crack at them? As with the public’s response to Donald Trump’s words, it appears that National Public Radio was unaffected by this evasion; they did not challenge Ms. Lynch to actually respond to the question. One can’t help but wonder how Mike Wallace or the other original “60 Minutes” reporters would have handled such an interview.
(This article was written for another website which has me writing about current events; they rejected it as being too incendiary, too critical of governments. What do you think? I say all I quoted here was data taken from current events; I say I did not criticize governments any more than Monty Python’s Life of Brian criticized religion. But that’s for another entry.)