Friday, May 26, 2006

Narcissism, Corruption & Politics

Those of us born in the middle half of the 20th century grew up dealing with the terms and theories of Freudian psychology. Freud is not gone, but his influence over our view of mental phenomena and the construction of personality have been overtaken by psychology and neural physiology science in many significant respects, yet, much remains. Freud began his career under the tutelage of Hans Brücke and drank deeply from the materialist causation theories of the late 19th century. Early in his studies Freud wrote about finding the material substrate of personality, but gave up the task because of the mounting evidence that science was nowhere near advanced enough to provide the necessary answers. Instead, then, Freud erected an edifice (perhaps it would be better to say "effigy") of personality that drew on the evidence of contemporary "normative" personality development, on the one hand, and from classical stories from various mythologies. That is, he found in the myths of European culture characteristic stories that expressed very well the pathologies into which human personality development can fall prey.

Among the aberrations of personality categorized by Freud that attracted attention widely among the intelligentsia of Europe (and soon North America) was the condition known as "narcissism." Adult narcissism is both normal (at very modest levels of self-absorption), but normally very pronounced among infants and children up through the age of five or so. In a sense narcissism is a stage of development that might be predicted to occur given the structural genetic inheritance of the human brain and the artifacts and processes of human culture. We conclude that a personality is appropriately embedded in society with meaningful relationships to other human beings with the term "self respect." It connotes an positive valence of integration with the rest of us.

But at first, as neonates, we understand virtually nothing of the outside world and are completely captivated by the sensations of our own bodies. Mother's smiling face only gradually is distinguished from self and much else follows this pattern of separation of one's own perceptions and needs and desires from material and psychological reality. Differentiation is not an easy process for mother's milk flows in anticipation of baby's need, and so it goes throughout early childhood that those hovering external beings seem to cater to emerging needs as if by divine plan. Perhaps "the terrible 2's" are a signpost along this process.

Children who do not shed their infantile egocentricity for whatever reason ... doting parents, mistaken understandings of cause and effect, etc. ... are usually called "spoiled," spoiled not like milk, though for some it appears to be irredeemable. No, it is more like spoiled like a ground or surface, contaminated, not by a pollutant but by a false paradigm, a false notion of how the world's processes proceed, remediable, but perhaps only with "Superfund" resources.

For those who grow up to become corrupt politicians their narcissism is marked by their insistent belief in their fundamental worthiness to "receive" bountifully and an overweening belief in the correctness of their own frames of reference. A person like William Jefferson Clinton, whose well-publicized appetites are essentially narcissistic, is trapped in a developmental cul-de-sac from which escape is thwarted by the unavailability of the personalities who played (or should have played) the necessary roles to help Bill work this out "normally" on his own. Clinton has patched together a reasonable facsimile of successful personality development (as do most of us), but as the world knows, the Clinton result leans heavily toward narcissism which is tempered (and sometimes deluded) by a formidable intellect.

A person like Tom DeLay on the other hand uses a strong will in the place of a strong intellect and is, in any case, a different sort of narcissist. DeLay is a second level pathological narcissist, whose personality's ego centrism has reached the point where starkly binary relationships exist for him: those who fawn over him and kiss his ring are favored, those who don't (and everyone in their party) are not even worthy of being called human beings. The rejection of a person's humanity provides a multitude of excuses, of course, but fundamentally a person like DeLay has no friends, only courtiers who, like DeLay, see a feeding/suckling frenzy for what it is and latch on for their own narcissistic ride.

Leadership, especially significant political leadership, is expected (by those led) to be a tight wire act. We know that leaders are fallible, but we want them to have just enough narcissism to smooth over their occasional faulty judgments and actions. We do not want them collapsing in distress when something starts to go wrong. We want them to deal with it and "move on." We groom people from middle school onward who show evidence of a willingness to "impose" their wills on others as long as we can also observe charm, humility, and deference to the real needs that others have expressed. We often lose track of kids, like Karl Rove, whose charm is deficient and whose deference to the needs of others takes a back seat to his own material and psychological desires and fantasies. These people emerge later in life as demagogues and in other ways significantly dangerous candidates for or advisors to those in public office. Voters are asked to judge whether the person is really as selfish and narcissistic as some actions would seem to indicate, but meanwhile political parties work feverishly to obscure the evidence that we might have if we were just taking stock of people in a neighborhood. Political parties are trying to preserve their investments and too often choose to deal with the narcissistic "pig" in the poke later on. It never works out!

Corruption in politics is often based on one of the several kinds of narcissism. The narcissism of candidates and office holders is exacerbated, of course, by the trappings of power and prestige. But the narcissism of voting citizens is more difficult to see and all the more difficult because of its diffusion to deal with. Currently in America we have a vigorous debate going on about issues emerging from the Bush administration, his war, his tax breaks for the rich, his arrogant defiance of Congress, domestic spying, and the whole litany of impeachable offenses. We know now (with very little help from the corporate press) that Republicans have assembled an "unholy group" of people in the White House whose personalities feed ravenously from one another, producing thoroughly narcissistic, misanthropic, and anti-democratic policies. Rove, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their sometime puppet George W. Bush are all pathological narcissists. Underlying this though, is a different sort of problem, the problem of mass narcissism manifesting itself in the jarring self-righteousness of the radical and religious rightwing voters.

Over the past two years and some I have be writing my reflections on the passing events of the day, and occasionally my perspective strikes a reader as wrong or worse, wrongheaded. The readers who think me wrongheaded write comments and send me email calling me an asshole, bastard, jackass, fucking son of a bitch, and some other similar but intersyllabically complex names you probably never heard unless you spent some time around sailors at sea. These vocabulary-challenged people are miniature versions of the pathological narcissist. Their attempts to denigrate the humanity of a fellow human being are evidence of their division of the world into people who love them and, they think, subpeople who hate them. These are spontaneous expressions of their own hapless egos, defending the indefensible territory of their narcissism. One does not find common cause with people like this. The fact is they have utterly missed the point. They are no better than the pathologically narcissistic rednecks and red state radicals for whom Bush, DeLay, Rove, and Rumsfeld are avatars of "the one true righteousness."

Eventually we discover that the handmaidens of narcissism are corruption and intolerance.

There is no one true righteousness. There is no single truth. No one can understand all of the world and its activities, and in fact, no one acting on the public stage really and truly understands what the mid- and long-term effects of his or her actions might be. The narcissists (by definition) isolate themselves and so they lose the benefit of productive discussion, discussion which might easily avoid the kinds of consequences now raining down on us from Bush & Co.

No political party is free of narcissists, but parties must learn that weeding out the pathologically narcissistic corrupt is a solemn and necessary duty. We play the game of politics in America knowing full well in advance (under our separation of powers Constitution) that we are playing with a part of human nature that all too easily slides into corruption. We must, if we are to govern ourselves democratically, be ever on the alert for signs of narcissistic pathology and remove these people from positions of authority.

James Richard Brett