I was at the Y yesterday, doing my time on the elliptical machine (poor knees haven’t been enjoying running like they used to) and ended up seeing some of the Rachel Maddow interview with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. It’s amazing to see how people can deceive themselves. On a rock tour, there are some people who have rules of romantic fidelity along the lines of “it’s not cheating if you’re in another state” or “it’s not cheating if you only [insert intimate physical action here]“. Basically, it comes down to “it’s not cheating if I do it”. I’ve heard it’s very similar in the Navy or in most jobs that require a great deal of travel.
For some reason it still shocks and offends me to see politicians and businessmen act this way. I shouldn’t be surprised any more when a guy like Blago essentially says “yes, I did this unethical and illegal thing, but it’s ok because I’m so important and such a good guy”. We had eight years of the Bush administration saying the same things – it’s not torture if we do it, it’s not lying if we do it, it’s not a crime if we do it. It makes the head spin to see how much people can get away with this. It’s especially galling that those at the “top” of society – the rich and powerful – can get away with crimes that would put a regular joe in prison for decades. There was a recent article on the Huffington Post (righties are free to roll their eyes at this point) called “The Era of Not Getting It: The Marie Antoinettes of The Meltdown” which aimed itself more at the bailout recipients than politicians, but it’s the same disease.
Regardless of where you land on the political spectrum, it seems like any sane person could agree that there should be a standard of conduct that we are all held to, and that those who hold the reigns of power should be held to them at least as stringently (if not more so) than the rest of us. We put petty thieves in jail for years longer than those who drain pension funds. We imprison people for manslaughter but let those who lied us into an illegal war with a death toll above a million walk free. And so on and so on…
We’re told that it’s the way of the world, and it will always be. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. As soon as we graduated from hunter/gatherer societies we invented the kleptocracy, where the powerful grab the fruits of the labor of their “lessers”. Narcissists are great at reaching positions of power in a society as complex as ours. Extreme selfishness, lack of empathy and need for status are the key elements of NPD. The amazing thing about narcissists is that they honestly don’t think they’ve done anything wrong. They use every ounce of their incredible mental agility to rationalize their terrible deeds, and usually get away with murder.
There’s a great film called In The Company of Men, written and directed by Neil LaBute. It’s a story of two men who decide to break the heart of a lovely woman in their office for sport – as a general revenge against women for their own heartbreaks. One of the men is a narcissist, but the other is simply hurt and is conflicted about their mission. In the end, the conflicted man is heartbroken again. The narcissist is untouched, happy as ever. Most of LaBute’s films have this same core moral – if you really know better, then your evil acts will destroy you. If you are selfish and unsympathetic you’ll probably do very well for yourself. It’s not a feel-good lesson, but it’s an important one.
I tend to be pretty hard on myself. I can take a day and easily, expertly dissect it, neatly tallying and categorizing all my sins. From jobs undone to moments wasted to carelessness or callousness to conspicuous consumption and on and on, it’s easy to let them fill my mind. I’m so aware of the many things I’m doing wrong that I’ve lost years to obsessing over them (which of course is a sin of its own). There are also, I’m sure, many transgressions I’ve made that I’m unaware of, whether I’ve subconsciously blocked them out or simply didn’t notice. Being on the depressive/anxious side of the phsychological spectrum makes me keenly aware that I lack that trick of the narcissistic mind, to never be wrong or never take blame (or maybe I do. That’s one of the fun things about brains – you never know how you might be fooling yourself). Maybe that’s why I’m so fascinated with these characters. They are a destructive alien species that I will never quite understand, and sometimes it seems that they have taken over the world and reframed our moral language to better serve their needs, even infecting those who should know better with their disease of unenlightened self interest. We have been asked by our new President to help usher in “a new era of responsibility and the rule of law”. I hope to God we can do it.
The House is voting on another bailout package today. Hopefully it’s got some provisions for transparency in it. Hopefully it will help us all. I honestly have no idea if it will or not, and the most I can do right now is cross my fingers and see what happens. All these top-down solutions to the economic meltdown fill me with a deep unease. It would be nice to think that there’s enough oversight in the bill to keep the narcissists from filling their own pockets at our expense, but somehow I doubt it. I’m used to disappointment, and it’ll take me a moment or two to get used to expecting more.