October 2008

Politically Speaking: Local author presents a unique view

Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: John Brackett

“Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” —Groucho Marx

Bryant Welch doesn’t pull any punches. From the first paragraph of his new book, State of Confusion, Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind, the reader gets the impression that nobody’s safe from his psychological investigation into that assault.

Welch writes, “America is rapidly becoming a nation psychologically unable to confront its problems. From the White House, from the media, and from the pulpit, Americans have been deceived by predatory political forces into fighting a disastrous war, squandering our national wealth, destroying our standing with other nations, and neglecting badly needed initiatives at home. It is a series of failures that will haunt America for generations to come…”

No, it is not light reading—though easily read. Well, if you believe in your heart of hearts that Fox News is really “fair and balanced,” or that Karl Rove’s ethical values are beyond reproach, reading the book will not be easy.

“When one reads the book, there is no question it favors a more progressive or liberal perspective. That’s a very legitimate comment to make about it. I don’t take it as a criticism,” Welch said, shortly after the book’s release.

But no matter which side of the political fence you’re on (or the one you are straddling), the book is fascinating because of the approach Welch takes—investigating today’s politics through a psychological magnifying glass, looking into the American mind. And Hilton Head Islander, Dr. Bryant Welch, has the “creds” to do just that. They are a curious mix.

“I can give you the external version of it,” Welch said. “I grew up in the Midwest. My dad was a city manager, and I was interested in politics and law. I found myself in law school. I was working in San Francisco one summer, at a nice law firm, and just thought, man, this is not where I want to be for the rest of my life. I was reading psychology books that seemed just a lot richer and a lot more interesting. So I thought, ‘Why don’t I just pursue that?’ So I graduated from law school [Harvard] and went right down to [University of North Carolina] Chapel Hill and entered the PhD clinical psych program.” So here he is. A clinical psychologist and a lawyer. Definitely a rare mix.

Welch practiced in Chapel Hill for 10 years, but got involved in political battles involving insurance companies, the American Psychological Association, and a variety of mental health advocacy issues that led him to Washington, DC and politics. He spent 17 years in the capital city, where he built the American Psychological Association’s Practice Directorate, and has held faculty appointments at the University of North Carolina and George Washington University.

“I was probably one of the few people who had spent hours listening to people on the couch and then was transported into Washington politics. When I moved from Chapel Hill to Washington, I viewed everything from a psychological perspective. But then the more I thought about it, that was the only way I could make sense of it. So I felt like I had a very unique combination of experiences and that I’d like to set down. This is a unique political time,” Welch said.

State of Confusion details how politicians and the media, specifically the Bush administration, Fox News and neo-conservatives have been successfully manipulating our reality. The psychological term he uses in the book is called “gaslighting,” taken from the1944 movie, Gaslight. In the movie, Gregory (Charles Boyer) causes his young wife, Paula, (Ingrid Bergman) to have a nervous breakdown by altering her reality by systematically withholding information from her or giving her plausible, but incorrect information about life around her. It is a very scary movie.

When Welch first conceived of the book, he said he was interested in the phenomena, just clinically, and how it affected people in a broad spectrum of situations—in a work setting or home setting. “But as I got into it, the political application of that phenomena became very compelling to me,” Bryant said.

He explained that, politically, many important decisions have been made by the White House that many people are now saying were bad decisions. He said the book is, in part, how political manipulation caused people to make some of these bad decisions.

“But probably more important is how these decisions and manipulation are having a regressive effect on the way in which we function politically, as a nation. I’m not convinced people are learning from mistakes. I think maybe people are getting more entrenched in the kind of thinking that has led to a lot of the problems. We only see what we want to see, what feels good. We are very vulnerable to demigods and people who play to the crowd. Modern media is much more powerful than it used to be, and I think you’re seeing, particularly with FOX News, the application of some very sophisticated political propaganda techniques that are assaulting the rest of the media. They are taking on the credibility of the rest of the media, saying that they (FOX) are they only ones we should listen to,” Welch said.

Welch knows he’ll get criticism about the views expressed in the book. As he said with a smile, “I have a reality I believe in and it’s sort of my responsibility to argue it. But if for a moment I think that my reality is the only 100 percent correct one, then I’ve got a problem.”

This is Welch’s first book. We ended our interview with his thought about writing it. “It’s a pretty presumptuous thing to write a book and assume other people want to hear what you have to say. And you constantly have this voice over your shoulder that says ‘Do you really think someone’s going to want to read that?’ My goal was to write a book I that I’m not embarrassed to present. And I’m not embarrassed by it.”

At the head of each chapter in the book, Welch cleverly uses quotes from a variety of sources to support his theme. That is where the Groucho Marx line came from. He also uses one from Shakespeare’s Othello:

“When devils will the darkest sins put on
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows.”

Maybe we should remember what happened to Desdemona after that little bit of “gaslighting” of Othello by his buddy Iago.

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