I’ve been hearing increasingly from multiple quarters that the root of our problems is psychopaths and sociopaths and other loosely defined but definitely different beings from ourselves. Rob Kall has produced a quite interesting series of articles and interviews on the subject.
I want to offer some words of caution if not respectful dissent. I don’t think the “because chickenhawks” dissent found, for example, in John Horgan’s “The End of War” is sufficient. That is to say, just because a politician doesn’t want to do the killing himself or herself doesn’t mean the decision to order killing in war, or in prison, or through poverty and lack of healthcare, or through climate change, isn’t heartless and calculating. Psychopaths could be running our world from behind desks.
But are they?
When I look at national politicians in the United States — presidents and Congress members — I can’t identify any meaningful place to draw a line such that sociopaths would be on one side and healthy people on the other. They all bow, to one degree or another, to corrupt influences. They all make bad compromises. There are differences in both policy positions and personal manners, but the differences are slight and spread along a continuum. They all fund the largest killing machine in history. The Progressive Caucus budget proposes slight increases in military spending, already at 57% of the discretionary budget. Some support wars on “humanitarian” and others on genocidal grounds, but the wars look the same from the receiving end either way.
The slightly better Congress members come from slightly better districts, have taken slightly less money, and begin with slightly more enlightened ideologies. Or at least that’s true much of the time on many issues. Often, however, what makes the difference is personal experience. Senator Dianne Feinstein supports warrantless spying on everyone else, but objects when it’s turned against her. Six years ago, Congressman Mike McNulty said he was voting against war funding because his brother had been killed in Vietnam. Weren’t four million people killed there? Didn’t many of them have brothers and sisters and other loved ones? Shouldn’t we oppose mass murder even if nobody in our immediate family has died from mass murder? In Washington, no one is ashamed to explain their positions by their personal experiences; on the contrary, such rationales are deemed highly admirable — and not just among a certain group who stand apart as the sociopaths.
The spectrum of morality in our elected officials ranges from those who often indicate their concern and their desire to help if their own careers won’t suffer in any way, to those who take tentative stands for peace or justice if their own family is impacted, to those who talk a good line and always act against it, and all the way over to those who don’t even put up a pretense. But all of this is within a culture where we routinely discuss the supposed need to “humanize” humans. That is to say, we teach each other that foreigners are made more human when we see their photos and learn their names and stories and the stories of their loved ones in some trivial detail — as if we are supposed to imagine that people don’t have names or quirks or loved ones until we get a specific account of those things.
When it was revealed that a bunch of TV news guest experts on war were actually getting their talking points from the Pentagon, there was no way to watch the videos and distinguish the corrupt pundits from the truly independent ones. They all talked the same. The mercenary fraudsters fit right in. It’s the same with any sociopaths in Congress. They may be there, but how could one possibly spot the difference?
Kall raises the question of why people enjoy watching shows about sociopaths such as “House of Cards,” and speculates that people admire sociopaths’ ability to stay calm in crises, to express confidence, to project charisma, and to dominate and manipulate others. That’s probably right. And such shows spread sociopathy by example. But there’s also the function such shows serve of explaining (accurately or not) why our government is so bad. There’s also the joy of hoping against hope that Vice President Underwood will land in prison where so many of his real-life colleagues belong. But watch the real-life “journalists” playing themselves on fictional TV interviews in these shows. They clearly don’t imagine themselves as having any value that can be lost by such charades. Watch the advertisements for which many TV shows are filler, and you’ll see politicians routinely describing their opponents as behaving sociopathically.
Some experts believe sociopaths make the best CEOs of large corporations. Everybody else recognizes that the CEOs of large corporations are given incentives to behave immorally, regardless of whether it impacts them emotionally in a typical manner or not. Also encouraged to behave immorally are presidents and Congress members.
Well-designed governments encourage good behavior and bar against the potential for evil. They treat 100% — not 2% or 10% or 80% — of elected officials as potential psychopaths. Elections are made open and verifiable. Bribery is forbidden. Powers are checked and balanced. Abuses are exposed and punished. Secrecy is curtailed and openness required. War powers are placed in a legislature or the public, or war abolished. Standing armies are disbanded. Profiteering and other conflicts of interest are avoided. Adversarial journalism is encouraged. Our government, in contrast, treats every elected official as a saint capable of overcoming all kinds of bribery and pressure to misbehave, while our culture encourages them and the rest of us to be anything but.
Many agree that we should reform our government, but is something else needed to handle the threat of sociopaths, in public and private life alike? Kall wants sociopaths to be identified and prevented from doing damage. He wants them treated as alleged sex offenders are, despite the horrible failings of that approach and the much greater difficulty in identifying who is and who is not a sociopath. Kall goes further, suggesting sterilization. He writes that he would have happily shot and killed Nazis; and in the next breath lists billionaire Americans he considers parasites — later reassuring us that he doesn’t want to kill them.
The identification process is not clear cut. Sociopathy seems to be something of a matter of degree, with some small degree reaching all of us. We allowed our government to destroy Iraq, killing some million people and making millions more refugees, and we talk about that war in terms of how many Americans were killed and how many dollars it cost, as if Iraq doesn’t matter at all. Or we talk about the military investment that will generate more wars as if it were a jobs program. That behavior looks like sociopathy to others.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee is the quintessential non-sociopath on Capitol Hill, the one member who voted against launching the past dozen years of wars. But I was once in a room with her and other progressive members of Congress, relatively early in the Bush-Cheney rampage, proposing that impeachment be begun. Congresswoman Maxine Waters proposed opening an effort to impeach Vice President Cheney. Excitement gripped us. For an instant a few of us could imagine Congress pushing back against the lawlessness that has rolled on unimpeded to this day. And then Congresswoman Lee spoke up and said nobody had better do anything without getting approval from John Conyers. And that was that. Not sociopathy. But not pure principled morality either.
Studying the phenomenon of extreme cases at the other end of the spectrum from Rep. Lee is certainly desirable. What makes John McCain or Hillary Clinton tick? How could Dick Cheney contemplate ordering Americans to attack each other in the Straight of Hormuz in order to blame it on Iran and start a war? How could George W. Bush laugh off his lies about Iraq and claim it didn’t matter? How could he proudly declare he would waterboard people again if given the chance? How could Barack Obama go to Copenhagen and intentionally and maliciously block any serious agreement to confront climate change? How could he pretend to know that Gadaffi was going to slaughter Benghazians or that Assad used chemical weapons, when evidence has emerged that he couldn’t possibly have known any such things?
But if there have always been sociopaths everywhere, why are some societies doing more evil than others? Has the 95% of humanity that is currently investing dramatically less in war than the United States, identified and controlled its sociopaths? Or have they, rather, created less evil paths to power and influence? If a sociopath wants power and influence, why not give him or her a system in which good behavior is rewarded? In 1928 Secretary of State Frank Kellogg, who cared not a damn for peace, worked night and day for the peace treaty known as the Kellogg-Briand Pact because he saw rewards in that direction and told his wife he might get himself a Nobel Peace Prize. Had power lain in the direction of war-making, that’s the direction Kellogg would have headed. If sociopaths make great propagandists, why not train better critical thinkers to see through the lies? Mentally healthy or not, our Congress members are holding off on bombing Syria or Iran because we’ve rejected the idea that doing so would improve things.
There is a danger, I think, in focusing on sociopaths’ existence as the problem, of developing a cure as bad as the disease. Identifying a group of people to be targeted for discrimination, eugenics, imprisonment, or death seems like the habit of a culture that is itself more of a problem than are the genes of a small minority within it likely to be. What kind of a culture would produce such an idea? A sick one, I believe.
I agree with Kall that billionaires can be identified and their billions re-claimed. Excellent proposal! But not every immoral decider is a billionaire. Nor do I find it likely that every politician who promotes some evil practice can be diagnosed as a sociopath or psychopath. Wouldn’t it be easier to identify evil politicians by their evil deeds? What would be gained by identifying them instead as the sort of people likely to do something evil, and giving that category of people a scientific name? If an elected official fails to protect the environment, fails to advance peace and justice, fails to deal honestly and fairly with the people, he or she should be held accountable. If recognizing that such a person’s emotions may not be functioning like ours helps us to reach them with our demands, terrific. But if it prevents us from reaching their emotions in a way that we might have, and from communicating our views more widely in the process, then it’s hurting the cause of justice.
It’s not as if we can’t recognize the sociopaths coming. Molly Ivins warned us about Bush. He lost his election. Twice. Many of us warned about Obama. Twice. But Bush wasn’t born destined to engage in extraordinary renditions. Obama wasn’t born destined to drone-kill children on Tuesdays. Our entire system moves in that direction. Bush and Obama should be prosecuted and imprisoned, along with many of their colleagues — as a step toward fixing the system. But their bodies shouldn’t be studied for clues about whom to sterilize. Only a political culture already itself sterilized would think that was the solution.