Watch Out for the 'Nocebo Effect' in WashingtonBy Llewellyn KingWhether you like it or not, you are living in an age of political anxiety. Don’t just sit there, worry.To make it easy for you I'll provide a list of things to worry about. If worrying about them causes them to happen or makes you sick, despairing and even suicidal, then you're experiencing what doctors call the “nocebo effect.”Increasingly, sociologists and some historians are using the nocebo effect to explain instances of national psychogenic illness, when whole countries become anxious and depressed by untrue and harmful information. The Japanese obsession with cleanliness, for example.In his recent book, “Mind Over Mind: The Surprising Power of Expectations,” Chris Berdik writes about a plague of compulsive dancing that hit Strasbourg during the summer of 1518. People were dancing themselves to death in the city's summer heat.Berdik relates that Strasbourg physicians wanted to bleed the dancers, but city fathers prescribed more music, which worsened the epidemic. People believed they'd catch the deadly dancing bug, and they did – an example of the nocebo effect, in which peoples' expectations cause harm.In a placebo effect, according to medical definition, a medication with no known therapeutic value is administered to a patient, and the patient's symptoms improve. The patient believes and expects that the treatment is going to work, so it does. A nocebo effect occurs when a dummy medication taken by a patient is associated with harmful effects due to negative expectations or the psychological condition of the patient.My thesis here is that if we as a nation worry enough about what ails us – or what we're told ails us – we'll do ourselves damage. Indeed, that may be what is tearing Congress apart and is threatening the larger economic well-being of the nation.Here are seven things that may be having a nocebo effect on our national psyche:
Our schools are failing to produce the kinds of math and science graduates that will keep us competitive with the Chinese.
Our deficit is out of control and will destroy all of us.
Our values have been suborned by alien cultures and religions.
Our infrastructure is a goner and we'll never be able to fix it.
Our political system is irreparably broken, leading to anarchy and lawlessness.
The Republicans will control the U.S. House of Representatives forever, the Democrats will control the White House forever and the country will sink into chaos through gridlock.
As any debtor will tell you, worrying too much creates a kind of toxic syndrome of thought in which solutions are crowded out by anxieties, leading to more disasters: the nocebo effect.The atmosphere in Washington these days is not only poisonous, it's also despairing. Members of Congress are sure nothing good is going to happen. They believe the old military oxymoron that the city has to be destroyed to be saved will apply to the economy, which will have to go into freefall to be saved.That’s the nocebo effect at work. Would anyone like to dance? – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
Invasive species like the Burmese pythons are living large in Florida, the Asian carp are making their way up the Chicago River to the Great Lakes and, of course, there is global climate change — after which, Armageddon.
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The trick is to say that you have a plan. If you say it often enough, your opponent will come to fear that you really do have a plan.
A collection of political concepts, informed by ideology, will coalesce in due course, and you'll begin to believe that there is a plan. Just add a sprig of parsley after the election, and it will be ready to serve.
Richard Nixon told the electorate that he had a plan for ending the Vietnam War. He didn't have one, but it was enough to help carry him into the White House.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has studied the "plan" playbook. He used his mythical plans to out-gun President Obama in their first debate.
Romney claims to have a plan for everything. He carried the day with frequent references to his plans, without fleshing out one of them. Talk about faith-based; just believe in Romney's plan, and it will come to pass.
Obama, in a performance that left his supporters ready to hit their heads on hard objects, let Romney build a cotton-candy mountain of sweet conjecture with hardly a challenge. Who advised Obama? Not only did Obama keep his powder dry for the entire engagement, he apparently didn't even bring it with him. He offered a muddled defense and no assault.
No shot was fired toward Romney's gaping vulnerabilities. One glancing round, that looked as if it might be the opening of a barrage, was when Obama told Romney that he'd have difficulty reaching out to the Democrats if he destroyed Obamacare as his first act of business. But the moment passed; the advantage was not driven home.
As so often with Obama, he failed to trumpet what his administration has accomplished: steadying the financial ship, saving the automobile industry, passing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), killing Osama bin Laden, and beginning a course toward rationalizing military expenditures.
These aren't small things; they are things that history may judge Obama very favorably for. But the president let Romney, ably assisted by the weak moderating of Jim Lehrer, characterize them as failure.
If this was the debate on which it all hinges, as many have suggested, then Obama's performance is tantamount to capitulation, again assisted by Lehrer's inability to restrain Romney's volubility bordering on mannerlessness.
Which raises a question that has hung about Obama throughout his presidency: Who is the essential Obama? The president often seems like a guest at his own party. Confidence abounds when he's on stump, but deserts him elsewhere.
It was this second Obama — the man who goes to watch the play when he has the lead role — on the stage in Denver. Obama stood, eyes down, smiling as if to endorse, not discredit, Romney, looking like a spectator who had come to watch Romney's bravura performance. In dealing with a hostile Congress, in lauding what his administration has achieved, even when trying to comfort the bereaved, Obama slips away into a place inside himself; he projects that sense of being alone in a crowd.
A girlfriend of Obama's youth is said to have told him that she loved him, and he responded "thank you." Passion on demand is not Obama's thing.
Romney can turn up the passion for brief interludes, like the debate. It's the sustained effort that makes him look awkward, uncomfortable and unsuited to public life. In the short format he can talk about the "plan" — whatever plan that is. No zingers here, no transcendental thoughts, nothing to suggest he understands how really difficult life is for working people; he conveys no empathy for most of the electorate.
Romney is a throwback to when gentlemen ran for office on the basis that they knew what was good for everyone else. No plan then, just an innate sense of superiority.
Paul Ryan, Romney's running mate, is going to have a much harder time in his debate with Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday. That's because he has a plan, and it's written down in his House budget. And most people don't like it.
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The manner of a man's arriving is not without consequence. Tom Enders, the
German-born and American-educated head of Airbus, the European aircraft
giant, likes to do it by parachute, if it is an open-air event. People
don't always remember what he says, but they sure remember how he got
Of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, it could be said that he parachuted into the
race for the Republican presidential nomination. The manner of his entry
will be remembered, as it was meant to be.
Perry orchestrated a drum roll of media speculation, leading up to his
announcement. He assessed, contemplated, debated, discussed, examined,
explored and weighed entry. The media followed: might he, should he, would
The drum roll, fed by leaks, grew louder as the declared candidates
traveled to Iowa for a debate and straw poll. Then Perry, with an
announcement in South Carolina, jumped and precision-landed on the parade
Poor Michele Bachmann, left like a performing dolphin that has had its
fish snatched away. She had won the straw poll, deserved a few hours of
party adulation and had her joy cut by this man, who dropped in from the
West, all swagger and handshakes.
Perry hit the ground campaigning, when she was hoping to savor a victory
moment or two. Those famed southern manners don't extend into Texas
politics. Ask fellow Texan, Kay Bailey Hutchison. He crushed her in a
Republican primary in Texas.
In Perry's political lexicon Texas, and things Texan, are at once policy,
ideology and creed. But Perry's Texas is not all of Texas, with its
alluring geographical and social diversity. It is the Texas of the
caricature — of barbecue, boots, swagger and can-do. It is not the Texas
of artists in Austin, of the symphony in Houston, ballet in Dallas or jazz
in San Antonio.
It is an inauthentic Texas, minted not on the ranches and the oil rigs,
nor the ugly, sprawling, low-income housing that surrounds the bustling
cities – a testament to an increasing chasm between rich and poor. It is
not the place where schools are failing, the prisons are overflowing, and
the execution rate is the highest in the advanced world.
Perry's projection of Texas, which he sees as a template for the rest of
the United States, is as inauthentic as tumbleweed — an invasive species
from Russia. Perry's Texas was created in novels, honed in Hollywood and is
part of the myth that Texas and Texans are imbued with qualities denied to
lesser breeds beyond the Lone Star State.
The problem with believing in myth, and elevating it to the the standing
of principle, is that myth is flexible and can be adjusted to reality.
Ergo the early revelation that Perry is happy to disavow difficult things,
like global warming. He says that there is a list of scientists, growing
almost daily, that say global warming is not the result of human activity.
This is cunning. It disavows responsibility without having to deny the
evidence. While the heads of most advanced governments worry about the
impact of greenhouse gases, a President Perry will not have to.
Perry has also laid down his marker as a man of faith, or at least a man
of public piety. He might want to note that the two most publicly
religious presidents of recent times, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush,
left office in low esteem and are not faring well in the first books of
history. He may want to ponder why the Founding Fathers were so anxious to
separate church and state.
Perry's political barbecue sauce, such as berating the Federal Reserve,
may be the precursor to a string of tired, old political nonsenses, like
returning to the gold standard; quitting the United Nations; and
abrogating treaties, in the belief that every commitment abroad is an
infringement of sovereignty.
Perry has made a dramatic entry. Now we wait in trepidation; even George
W. Bush's people are alarmed. Are we to be shown the real Texas, at the
same time proud and flawed, or the synthetic one, doctored for political
effect? — For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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