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 Diane 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.