From a recent conversation:
FWP: I’m starting to think there’s no point in doing this any longer.
FWP: The whole lead-a-horse-to-water bit.
CSO: When did you start writing?
FWP: Not long after I met you. Call it twenty-five years ago.
CSO: So what’s changed about people since twenty-five years ago, eh, genius?
There are worse afflictions than having a smart wife with no governor on her mouth. (No, don’t send applications for the position, please; I’ll stick with what I have.) Anyway, she’s right: people have always refused to see that which clashes with what they prefer to believe. They read opinion-mongers like me – if they read them – mainly to wallow in confirmation bias: the reassurance that comes from being told what they already “know.”
It can be daunting to confront one’s inability to change minds. Yet many thousands of us post tirades such as this every single day. I actually feel somewhat guilty when I need to take a day off from it. Never mind that there’s no money in it. (The fringe benefits aren’t much, either.)
Yet the recognition can be a blessing as well. It reminds me that I do this for my own benefit: to gratify my need to express myself, and to enable me to confront my own preconceptions and biases by setting them down in
black and white multicolored pixels. If others derive some benefit from these screeds, that’s merely lagniappe.
Having said all that, it’s time to address the subject in the title of this piece. And before you ask: Yes, Gentle Reader: I believe that by the time you reach the end of it, you’ll see the relevance of this opening segment.
Political tags - such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth - are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. -- Robert A. Heinlein
The use of certain words formerly regarded as technical jargon properly reserved to psychologists has become commonplace. The words I have uppermost in mind this fine Friday morning are psychopath and sociopath.
There’s some variation in the “definitions” associated with those words, because they’re taken to denote mental aberrations that can only be inferred (and not with confidence) from behavior. Yet simple encapsulations apply to each of them:
- A psychopath lacks empathy: i.e., the ability to resonate with others’ emotions.
- A sociopath lacks conscience: i.e., the sense of others as persons with rights.
Owing to the cheapening of all discourse (but especially psychological jargon), we frequently read statements from supposedly learned persons to the effect that “everyone’s at least a little [psychopathic | sociopathic].” I’m not going to take a position on that; there are enough subjects to write about. However, if we take it as a recipe for adjudging the behavior of others, it leads to certain classifications that can be useful in sociopolitical analysis.
You may have heard of Bill Clinton. He has a famous wife, who was at one time the Secretary of State. (He also used to be a governor somewhere. Arkansas, I think.) As is the case with many persons whose spouses throw them into the shadows, he had a problem with sexual fidelity. It got some play in the popular press, if memory serves.
That often happens to a man who marries a psychopath. Sex isn’t principally about physical sensations, though those are pleasant enough...if you’re doing it right, anyway. For the emotionally healthy person, it’s about the emotional implications of physical intimacy: This person cares enough about me to let me inside his defenses. If that kind of affirmation is absent from the sex act, it falls to a level below masturbation.
The psychopath, unable to resonate with another’s emotions, is incapable of affirming them sincerely. He must play-act. He must say to himself, “If I really cared about this person, I would say and do thus and such. Do I want what he has to offer me, long-term or short? If so, then I must say and do those things.” His decisions are more or less cold profit-and-loss calculations.
One who comes to the conclusion that he married a psychopath is chilled to the bone by it. It can lead him into channels of thought and action most of us would at minimum deplore. I submit that this model for the behavior of Bill and Hillary Clinton is consistent with the evidence.
Sociopathy is an even scarier condition. To the true sociopath, the rest of us are no more than components in his schemes. At worst we’re obstacles to be driven around, over, or through. The ambitious sociopath – i.e., he who has outsized ambitions – will sweep as many other persons into his plans as he believes he must to get to his goals. He won’t care how many others he hurts, or who they are.
Like most mental conditions, this one can be found in persons of all levels of practical competence. The incompetent sociopath will eventually be known as such. His schemes will be inept. More, their callousness will be ineptly concealed. A moderately competent sociopath will be more successful, both at achieving his aims and at concealing his sociopathy. When things come-a-cropper for him, he’ll often be able to get others to attribute it to human fallibility (alternately, “that’s how the cookie crumbles”). The highly competent sociopath has the potential, at least, to become known as a magnificent humanitarian and a great benefactor to Mankind, despite the utter indifference he feels toward others’ rights, prerogatives, and well being.
In Robert A. Heinlein’s science-fantasy saga Glory Road, his co-protagonist Star, “Empress of the Twenty Universes,” at one point refers to a sociopath of extreme competence: an earlier Emperor who succeeded brilliantly despite a deep loathing for the very people he served. Glory Road is filled with insights such as that one: a breadth and depth of understanding of Mankind, both along its normal axes and at its extremes. It’s Heinlein at his very best...and its depiction of political figures and processes is indispensable to an understanding of how all political systems mature, deteriorate, and destroy themselves.
The highly competent sociopath is a natural politician: a lead-pipe cinch to achieve high federal office. Whether he uses that office for “good” is wholly secondary.
"Government's a dubious glory...You pay for your power and wealth by balancing on the sharp edge of the blade. That great amorphous thing out there -- the people -- has turned and swallowed many governments. They can do it in the flash of an angry uprising. The way you prevent that is by giving good government, not perfect government -- but good. Otherwise, sooner or later, your turn comes." [Frank Herbert, The Godmakers]
Yes, I’ve used that quote before. More than once, I think. Today it rings loudly in my ears for one particular, seemingly innocuous phrase: “the people.”
What is “the people?” More to the point, how does the successful sociopath turned federal official view “the people?” Fisher Ames, a relatively unknown Founding Father, wrote that “The people, sir, are a great beast.” Herbert’s “great amorphous thing” formulation is, as the lawyers would say, on all fours with that viewpoint.
Hearken to the Web’s favorite Bookworm:
Is it redundant to say “the sociopaths in Washington D.C.”? Probably. But what I want to talk about is the spying that the Obama government committed against Donald Trump and the way that Obama himself signed an executive order allowing that illegally swept up data to be widely disseminated throughout the administrative state, ensuring leaks.
Actually, I don’t want to talk about it. I want you to read John Nolte’s article explaining why Nunes’ announcement yesterday about the government’s surveillance revealed a scarily broad spying apparatus (affecting all Americans, something I’ve written about before); improper interception of communications from Donald Trump and his team; the reasonably inferable fact that Obama, who must have been briefed about the improperly swept up and identified communications, assured that they would be leaked to a happily complicit American media.
If your mental and emotional calluses are heavy, you might shrug at the notion that The State has been monitoring everything you say and will happily and remorselessly use it to destroy you should it serve the State’s purposes. That, you might say to yourself, is the nature of the State, a “soulless machine” (Mohandas K. Gandhi). If you’re still enough of a cockeyed optimist to imagine that people go into politics and government out of a true desire to serve “the people,” you’re likely to be outraged: “If they could do it to Trump, they could do it to anyone! Hang them from the lampposts!”
If you’re like me – i.e., inclined toward the analysis of men’s motivations and the evolution of social and political systems – you draw trend lines.
The political class we suffer under today is the final stage in the evolution of sociopathy in a quasi-democratic order. To them “the people” are lower than beasts. “A great amorphous thing” isn’t an adequate description of our standing in their eyes; we’re clay to be molded into weapons, serfs, or toys. We exist to provide them with power, privileges, and perquisites. Those are the only reasons they tolerate our continued existence.
I realized shortly after the election of Donald Trump that he represents a threat to our master class and its cushy arrangements. I’m only coming to realize how great a threat he is. Every other node of power or influence in Washington, and no few in the state governments, is maneuvering to neuter and destroy him. It has nothing to do with his supposed vulgarity or plebeian origins. Sociopaths cannot abide the company of honest men. When the honest man attains an elevation over theirs, he becomes a mortal danger to them and all they’ve built.
Don’t ask whether Washington’s sociopaths agree or disagree with Trump’s values. They have no values of significance to the rest of us. How could they? We’re nothing to them. We’re votes...campaign workers and contributors...pieces in a game. The players don’t worry about the well being of the game pieces.
And now, should the fit take you, you know where to find the most competent sociopaths currently walking the Earth.