We’re Still Puzzled

Christopher Morris/VII
President Obama at the White House, January 2012

You know the joke. A psychiatrist shows a patient a series of inkblots. Each time, the patient sees an erotic episode. “You seem to be preoccupied with sex,” the psychiatrist concludes. The patient protests: “You’re the one with all those dirty pictures.” Ask people to read the inkblots of American political life and that result, too, is likely to tell you more about them than it does about what is really going on.

Jamie Barden, a psychologist at Howard University, ran an experiment that demonstrated this very nicely. Take a bunch of students, Republicans and Democrats, and tell them a story like this: a political fund-raiser named Mike has a serious car accident after a drunken fund-raising event. A month later he makes an impassioned appeal against drunk driving on the radio. Now ask them this question: Hypocrite or changed man?

It turned out that people (Democrats and Republicans both) were two and a half times as likely to think Mike was a hypocrite if they were told he belonged to the other party.1 This experiment only confirms a wide body of work in social psychology demonstrating that we’re biased against people we take to be members of a group that isn’t our own, more biased if we think of them as the opposition. That’s not something most of us needed a psychologist to tell us, of course. The news is not that we are biased, it’s how deeply biased we are.

This disposition is evident enough in the coverage of the current president. Edward Klein’s The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House is almost comically committed to seeing its subject in the worst possible light. This summer Klein told Steven Levingston in The Washington Post, “From the conservative point of view I’m a liberal, and from the liberal point of view I’m a conservative,” but his recent publications have included a book-length attack on Hillary Clinton and a self-published novel, The Obama Identity, written with the former Republican congressman John LeBoutillier, that depicts Barack Obama as a foreign-born former Muslim. (There is a plotline about the president’s foreskin, removed, of course, by a mutahhir, a professional Muslim circumciser, in Indonesia.) The Amateur concludes with a litany of dire facts that Republicans should publicize in order to defeat Obama. Those conservatives who think Klein a liberal are probably not paying attention.

Certainly, the rapturous reception of The Amateur among conservatives in the blogosphere must have something to do with the fact that it confirms the existing convictions of many on the American right. In Klein’s book, Reverend Jeremiah Wright recalls Barack Obama saying, “Help me understand Christianity, because I already know Islam.” One of the president’s “oldest Chicago acquaintances” asserts, “He is afflicted with megalomania.” Dr. David Scheiner, who was once Obama’s doctor, concludes, “He’s…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.