Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Census Questionnaire

We received our 2010 Census questionnaire this week. Last week we got our advance letter, warning us that the questionnaire would be here shortly. That letter cost the taxpayers something like 85 million dollars nationally. The Census director, Robert Groves, says that sending that letter was worth it because it is expected to increase the response rate to the questionnaire by five or more percent. That would save money on sending census takers to follow up on those who don’t fill out the questionnaire. Of course, the idea that money will be saved anywhere in this process is belied by the fact that preliminary census efforts earlier this year had cost overruns. Operations to save money by scoping out buildings to see whether they were occupied proved too expensive. People were hired, trained and worked only one day before quitting.

The questions on the questionnaire we received include whether you are at your address, because the mailing is addressed only to “Resident.” You are asked to give your name, phone number, how many people live at your address, their names, whether you rent or own, and the ages, dates of birth and races of everyone who will be living at the address as of April 1.

Since there are only two people in my household, it took little time to fill out the short form. I understand that the long form questionnaire that asks many more questions will come later and, as always, will go to fewer people. Cross your fingers they don’t come back at you with the long form.

Psychoanalysis and Gestalt: A Corrective to the lineage of psychotherapies

Recently, I found a chart slipped into one of my old psychology books that shows the connections and lineage between psychoanalysis and gestalt therapy largely mediated by Wilhelm Reich. There was a rather petty movement among psychoanalysts to write Reich out of their history after he broke with them, which has made it rather awkward—not to say political—to properly record the history of psychotherapy. For example, in their important textbook, “The Psychiatric Interview in Clinical Practice,” authors Roger MacKinnon and Robert Michels confess not knowing where the approach used in their text came from, and yet that approach—describing each psychiatric disorder in concrete physical and behavioral terms—is precisely the approach that was pioneered by Wilhelm Reich in teaching psychoanalysts in Berlin in early the 1930s. (The institute in New York where MacKinnon and Michels learned this approach was founded by Sandor Rado, who happens to have been Reich’s training analyst.) For many decades, Reich was “he who cannot be named” in terms of his actual positive contributions to psychoanalytic therapy, although it was politic to dismiss him as in an article penned by Richard Sterbe who captiously argued that where Reich was original he was wrong and that where he was right, he was entirely derivative. He gave as an example a paper by Karl Abraham, “A Particular Form of Neurotic Resistance Against the Psycho-Analytic Method,” which Sterbe claims is the entire basis of Reich’s best thought. This paper can be found in “The Psychoanalytic Reader” (edited by Robert Fliess) among other places, but Fliess also includes several of Reich’s early papers, which can be used for comparison. Such a comparison of Abraham and Reich shows that Abraham’s idea of prioritizing the material to be analyzed so that the therapist analyzes the resistance before analyzing the underlying material was so tentative that the tentativeness can be seen in the verbal hedging of his title. Indeed, the idea of prioritizing the material to be analyzed—central to Reich’s character-analytic approach—is so subtly, briefly and tentatively presented in Abraham’s paper that a reader could be forgiven for not noticing it at all. It was certainly not envisioned by Abraham as an approach to be applied systematically to every single resistance. Reich may well have gotten the idea from Abraham, but his development of it was an original contribution.

(Every new idea can be wrestled into submission by arguing that it is derivative. I once heard Thomas Szasz declare that every new idea is invented when its discoverer reads about it in someone else’s work; as an example, he made the case that Freud’s work is derivative of Socrates. Put simply, there are no new ideas under the sun, but this should not prevent us from giving due credit to those who have articulated the obvious when no one else was willing to pay attention to its full implications. This is what Reich did, and he played both a creative and evangelical role in making psychoanalytic-oriented therapy into a relationship between two real human beings rather than a consultation between an immaculately objective specialist and an objectified analysand.)

My overarching interest in my previous life as a student of psychology was—obviously from my chart—the connections between psychoanalysis and gestalt therapy that I found to be too often oversimplified. Yes, Friedrich “Fritz” Perls met Freud and trained as a psychoanalyst, but there is more to it than that. There are too many differences between what one of my psychoanalytic teachers liked to call “full-dress” psychoanalysis and gestalt therapy. In fact, what my teacher was calling attention to was the difference between old-fashioned Freudian analysis and modern psychoanalytic-oriented therapy, which actually shares more in common with the gestalt approach than either shares with Freud’s psychoanalysis.

I have now forgotten who Perls trained with, but I believe he had an unsatisfactory initial analysis followed by a more satisfactory one with an analyst who may have been the one who sent Perls to finish his training with Reich. Perls also attended Reich’s teaching seminars. Thus the psychoanalysis that informed gestalt therapy was already filtered through the Reichian character-analytic approach. In parallel, character analysis played a seminal role in the development of ego psychology’s technique of “defense analysis,” which is essentially character analysis by another name. The chief difference between character analysis and defense analysis is the psycho-somatic approach of the former as opposed to the psychodynamic approach of the latter. This “body-mind” focus of character analysis was brought over into gestalt therapy but was eschewed by ego psychology where Freud’s view of the internal dynamics of the mind were transformed into a different but equally non-somatic theory. (The same could be said of other psychoanalytic-oriented theories such as “object relations.”) Perls, nevertheless, presented a psychodynamic structural model of his own in his writings, even though several critics noted that this model had little if anything to do with the practice of gestalt therapy. That seems to be because Perls was really practicing character analysis while superficially nodding toward psychodynamics.

Reich’s influence on gestalt therapy did not stop with his early mentoring of Perls, however. Perls lost contact with Reich before his former teacher transformed character analysis into orgonomy, an approach that completely subordinated talking therapy to a focus on the somatic manifestations of psychopathology; however, after both Reich and Perls came to the United States, their students, patients and colleagues had cross-fertile contacts. Principally, a patient and student of Reich, Alexander Lowen, took the writer Paul Goodman as a patient, and Goodman was also a student and colleague of Perls, as well as a patient and colleague of Perls’s wife, Lore “Laura” (Posner) Perls. The intellectually acquisitive Goodman taught Laura virtually everything that he had learned in his therapy with Lowen. Goodman, who voraciously read the writings of both Freud and Reich, persuaded Laura to import into gestalt therapy both theory and practice from Reich’s orgonomy, albeit filtered through Lowen’s practice. (Reich, for his part, disavowed Lowen’s work, and, the one time that Goodman met Reich, the poet got nothing more from his hero than Reich’s plea that he “stop writing about me.”)

Obviously the name of gestalt therapy suggests a connection with Gestalt psychology. Both Fritz and Laura Perls were junior colleagues of the psychiatrist Kurt Goldstein, who was influenced by the more purely academic Gestalt theory of Max Wertheimer, who was, in turn, one of three or so proponents of the Gestalt approach to understanding how the human mind processes visual and auditory information. Goldstein developed this idea into the "organismic" notion that the entire range of perception including proprioception as well as internal mental activity can be understood and analyzed in terms of Gestalten or “wholes.” Laura Perls also had worked directly with Wertheimer, and it turns out that her understanding of Gestalt psychology as approach to research psychology that is alien to psychotherapy led her to resist her husband’s decision to call his therapeutic innovation “gestalt therapy.” (German nouns are always capitalized, but I am putting “gestalt therapy” in all lower case because it has become an English language term.)

It should be noted that Kurt Goldstein shared a strong affinity for existentialist philosophy with Fritz Perls, and the two, seemingly independently, later referred to themselves as existentialist therapists.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Martial Arts Instruction Videos Reviewed

I recently ordered and received Kung Fu Grandmaster John C. Y. Tsai’s video tapes, “How to Protect Yourself” and “How to Protect Yourself Against Weapons.” These originally went for $99.95 back in the ’90s but I got each tape for a couple of bucks through Tsai (who pronounces it “tie,” presumably for the benefit of those English speakers who cannot handle pronouncing “ts” at the beginning of a word even though we miraculously manage to pronounce it at the ends of words like “puts”) offers many useful notions and techniques but underplays the importance of footwork and hip work in the execution of many of the moves he demonstrates. This is unfortunate. You would benefit far more from these tapes if you had some idea about what is going on below Grandmaster Tsai’s waist where the frame of the camera conceals what the rest of his body is doing when he steps aside from an attacker’s thrust. That said, his basic ideas about self-defense in life-threatening situations seem sound.

First of all, learn not to think like a victim. This is, of course, easier stated than done, but Tsai has a plausible psychological gimmick to counter the impulse to curl up in a ball and await the inevitable. He suggests thinking of your loved ones, as if they were with you and also under threat from your assailant. I would add that if you have sufficient self-esteem, you might even realize that your loved ones would really miss you terribly if someone killed you. So, even though your spouse or parents or children or friends might not be there, thinking of them might motivate you to put yourself into what Tsai calls a “protective” as opposed to a “victim” mode.

The next consideration is that you must be willing to counterattack unhesitatingly and ruthlessly if you want to survive a life-threatening assault. The saying “He who hesitates is lost” applies to this situation. Tsai urges his audience to practice the moves he teaches so that your body learns to perform them unhesitatingly. (An old Roman military saying puts it this way: “Conduct your drills like bloodless battles, and your battles like bloody drills.”)

Tsai limits his instruction to a few moves because he does not want to bewilder the student with too many choices and have him or her hesitate because of too many possible responses to a given attack. There are two components to the techniques he teaches: 1) counterattacks using the hand or foot, and 2) vulnerable areas of the assailants body that can be easily and effectively targeted. Tsai does not advocate that his presumably out-of-condition audience should try to learn fancy techniques such as reverse-spiral flying kicks. Rather, he recommends a finger or a knuckle to the eye, the edge of the hand to the throat, low kicks to the knee caps, and stepping on toes or the instep (especially effective with a woman’s high heel). The most vulnerable targets on the assailant’s body include the eyes, neck, throat and knee areas. About kicking somebody in the knee cap, Tsai notes humorously, “When somebody is bigger than me, and when I kick right, then he probably be shorter than I am.”

For the hand thrusts to the eyes and throat, Tsai advocates that you train yourself by putting your arm through paper targets. The idea is to learn to follow through so that you use your hand against your assailant’s body with enough force to cause damage by penetrating the surface. Psychologically, this is difficult for most human beings because it doesn’t sit well with the area of our brains that keep us from torturing puppies or gouging out another human being’s eyes. When faced with an opponent in whom that part of the brain is inoperative, however, it may be necessary to override your inhibitions in order to defend yourself. Paradoxically, if my life were threatened, I might have less compunction about delivering a penetrating blow to the throat than to the eyes, even though that could actually be more deadly than an eye gouge. Tsai even teaches a special technique called the eagle claw, which, when applied to the throat could bring about death very quickly. This is a sobering aspect of Tsai’s videos: the techniques he teaches on these tapes can kill, in some cases instantly. He does not teach these things with the intention of making killers better at killing, but with the expectation that his video student is a normal human being who might one day face a life-threatening attack, and Tsai hopes to prepare him or her to stay alive.

Advanced martial arts training takes years to perfect, and many quickie self-defense courses uselessly teach you to block blows, merely delaying your attacker. Such minimal defense could get you killed in a real, life-threatening situation. As Tsai notes in the “Against Weapons” video, you should not use your arm to block a knife attack because you will only end up getting your arm cut open. The best defense is an offense. Far better to attack a vulnerable area immediately and disable or even kill a knife-wielding assailant as quickly as possible. (At one point, Tsai mentions an easy way to stop an attacker using an ordinary pen—yes, it can literally be mightier than the sword.) The aim is to prepare you for fast and dirty ways of staying alive if the worst should happen.

Tsai’s Chinese accent does get in the way sometimes, and I found myself wishing that there were subtitles, but if you watch these tapes over and over—as you should if you want to get anything out of them—eventually you will understand almost everything he says. Although a little more attention to rudimentary footwork would have been in order, Tsai’s videos each deserve a B+.

* * *

You might understand the importance of hip and footwork better if you were to see the few tapes that I have from “Human Weapon,” the cable TV series from a few years back. It was a reality/documentary-type program about two young men who travel the world studying martial arts in different countries. It is not to be confused with a less edifying copycat show, “Fight Quest,” which focused, as its title suggests, on its pair of young men getting into fights in different countries and often getting hurt without teaching them or the audience very much of anything. Instructive comparison episodes for these two series are the ones that each did on Krav Maga (Hebrew for “close combat”), the Israeli Defense Force’s official martial art. “Fight Quest” does provide a brief scene of Israeli soldiers practicing the use of an empty firearm as a club, but this constitutes a negligible addition to the superior information provided by “Human Weapon.” “Human Weapon” went into Krav Maga’s history (invented by a man whose father had introduced jujitsu to Czechoslovakia one hundred years ago), philosophy (similar to Grandmaster Tsai’s but for advanced combatants), and physics (including hip and footwork). Meanwhile, the installment of “Fight Quest” left you wondering what, if anything, set Krav Maga apart from any other martial art. That’s an A for “Human Weapon” and a C- for “Fight Quest.”

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Constitution and the Census

I got my warning from the U.S. Census. “Your response is important. Results from the 2010 Census will be used to help each community get its fair share of government funds for highways, schools, health facilities, and many other programs you and your neighbors need. Without a complete, accurate census, your community may receive its fair share.”

That’s slightly less insulting than the Census Bureau’s radio spots that tell us that we won’t even know how many traffic lights or teachers our community needs unless the federal government tells us. (See my post for February 24.)

Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution calls for a census (“Enumeration”) only for the purpose of determining how many representatives each state should have in the House of Representatives. The number of representatives is determined by the population of each state. No other purpose for the decennial census was contemplated by the Founders. It is a good question as to when any other purpose arose, but certainly the number and reach of these other purposes has increased in the past one hundred years.