Yes, They Were Always Crazy and Awful — The Apocalypse Cabaret Newsletter for Dec. 5, 2020
“Americans on the average do not trust intellectuals, but they are cowed by power and stunned by celebrity.” — Viet Thanh Nguyen
That pretty much explains our situation now, doesn‘t it?
Were They Always Crazy, Or Did Something Happen?
What the fuck happened to these people? There are SO many Republican office holders who we used to take seriously who are now so divorced from reality that they’re losing visitation rights.
The question is even more urgent, and baffling, if you’re one of these peoples’ former colleagues. Writing in the Bulwark, J.V. Last says that a recurring theme at conservative never-Trump publications like his is the question of whether so many other conservative figures “went crazy,” or whether they were always crazy and just passing as normal?
“Were they always like that,” he asks, “and they just hid it well?”
He doesn’t have an answer. And it’s very unlikely that there is actually a “the answer” to this question.
But I suspect that a useful framing of the issue can be found in scholar Daniel Ziblatt’s book Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy.
Going over the history of democratization in 18th and 19th century Europe, Ziblatt comes to some striking — and well backed — observations. Most specific to this question is that conservative parties tend, by definition, to be backed by those in the existing structure who wield considerable power. Because those are the people who are invested in the status quo — hence “conservative.” And their primary allegiance isn’t to “conservative ideals,” a la Edmund Burke or Michael Oakshott, but to preserving their position in society.
Because they already wield considerable power — social, economic, and political — they could often prevent the successful transition to a democracy. They might not be able to win a civil war, but they could prevent a healthy civil society from forming.
But they wouldn’t do that if they believed that they had a reasonable chance of winning elections in the emerging democratic norms. When “conservative elites” believed they were democratically competitive, on their own or as part of a coalition, they were staunch defenders of democratic systems. But when they believed that a democracy meant the inevitable loss of their power and prestige, they aggressively undermined it.
Flash forward to 21st century America, and you find a Republican party, backed by big business and white resentment, that is simply not competitive in popular elections. They cannot win the presidency via popular vote, and they are only maintaining their leads in a number of state legislatures through gerrymandering and voter suppression.
It is feasible to think that what we are seeing now is these coservative forces, and their chosen party, attempting to undermine a civil society to keep their power in the face of democracy … and that what this looks like up close is less a well thought out plan and more like people going bat-shit crazy when faced with the reality that they would have to change significantly to remain politically competitive.
Which is to say: Michael Flyn and Rudy Gulianni and so many, many, others, were always sane and rational people when the world was arranged in a way that kept them and their colleagues on top. But their rationality was always conditioned on that: forced to choose between rationality and being part of a powerful status quo, they chose staying in power. Most of the time, this just looked like coming up with bullshit but “rational” arguments for de facto voter suppression — however sane they were they were always comfortable with that — but now, as the voters who want change reach critical mass, it’s turned into something proportionately ugly. For some people, this comes in the form of a cynical hypocrisy. For others, it’s a kind of madness. They were sane as long as they weren’t forced to choose between sanity and a long-term loss of position.
This won’t apply for every person every time, but I think it’s probably essentially correct about the mass phenomenon.
Being Weird And Brilliant Is Different From Being Cruel
I love that framing of the question: is being recognized as a “genius” a way that people can get their terrible behavior excused, much in the way that filtering illegal money through a legitimate business is a way of getting to keep it scott free?
The conclusion that Agnes Callard comes to is that yes, yes “genius” as a concept (as opposed to the thing itself) is mostly a way of excusing terrible behavior, and that we shouldn’t let it happen — for anyone’s good.
As a child, she realized that: “were I a prodigy, other people would line up to cooperate with me, on my terms, and my “bad” behavior would suddenly get reclassified as charming idiosyncrasy.”
And further: “Not too long ago, someone dismissed me, contemptuously, as “rude and clueless.” I know from experience that in other contexts people like her embrace and applaud my “idiosyncrasies.” What I now understand, but didn’t as a child, is how small the difference is between those two reactions.”
On the whole, she thinks, excusing the behavior of geniuses is bad for them too: “Real connection requires ethical community, and ethical community requires shared rules — not the exemption from them.”
It’s a great read, but I think she misses the distinction between “cruelty” and “weirdness.” Genius excuses both — but one it shouldn’t excuse at all, while the other of which ought to need no excuse.
We have no real justification for letting brilliant people treat others cruelly — she is entirely right that this is our own moral failing and ultimately a way of further isolating the brilliant mind from the communities that could otherwise support them.
But if we’re talking about genuine idiosyncrasies — the kind of weirdness that raises eyebrows but doesn’t actually hurt anyone — why not let genius excuse it? In fact everybody should have the right to be weird, you shouldn’t need to be a genius to be off-kilter, but if the idea of genius at least lets some people off the hook to breathe a little easier, why the hell not? We have every reason to be concerned if genius masks cruelty — but genius doesn’t mask weirdness, it only makes us kinder to it. That part doesn’t strike me as so bad.
The bizarre story of Professor of Higher Education Matthew J. Mayhew’s relationship to football is the kind of car wreck that, if you stare at it long enough, gives you the impression that you’re learning how engines work.
Spiritual People Are Just Awful. And They Know It
A recent study links “spiritual training to narcissism, upending conventional wisdom but surprising absolutely no one who has spent significant time in spiritual communities.
I have a lot of potential issues with what I understand the study’s methodology to be — among other things, their self-invented scale of “spiritual superiority” strikes me as nonsensical — but the fundamental premise that there is a correlation between spiritual training and megalomaniacal egos seems not only sound but is a recognized issue in spiritual traditions.
Much in the way that psychology, as a field, has a justified reputation for attracting people who are screwed up, and politics has a recognized issue of attracting people who want power over others,“spirituality” as a field, has known issues with who it pulls in. It seems overtly paradoxical that a set of practices which frequently (your tradition may vary) calls for the annihilation of the ego would attract people who have raging egos, but the dynamic is very real: having spiritual “credentials” gives you moral authority, with the added bonus that people are supposed to give you the benefit of the doubt for not having a raging ego. In fact, they’re inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt for being selfless. In fact, it’s one of the few areas of life where you can literally get credit for being kind of superhuman. This can be an irresistible combination for bad people.
But it’s not news. Way back in the 2nd century, the vital Christian theologian Tertullian left the church after it became the official religion of Rome because now that it had status it was pulling in all the wrong people. Tibetan Buddhism — which for centuries was also the temporal authority in Tibet — had specific religious figures and practices which were understood to be necessary when monasteries got too full of themselves.
Today the term of art in New Age-ish communities for this phenomenon is “spiritual bypassing,” “a tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks,” which was coined in the early 1980s by Buddhist and psychotherapist John Welwood. But I think the more potent term was coined by Chogyum Trunpa Rimpoche as early as 1973 (probably earlier): “spiritual materialism.” Put simply, it is the idea that you can use spiritual blessings or realizations to gain status in exactly the same way that you would use a fancy car or suit.
The point is not that “the wrong people” go into spirituality so that they can be spiritually materialistic — although that is absolutely a problem. The point is that anyone who is in fact engaging in a serious spiritual practice is going to have to work their way through spiritual materialism. Much like deciding to be celibate doesn’t automatically resolve all of your psychosexual issues, bur often brings them right up to the surface to be wrestled with, engaging in spiritual practice doesn’t automatically make you humble or egoless. On the contrary, it means you have to work through that stuff. It’s not only easy to get caught up in it, but working through the kind of ego that would catch you up in it is exactly the point.
Saying “there are narcissists doing spiritual training” is like saying “hospitals are full of sick people!” Which is to say that yes, spiritual communities and people visiting them should take precautions, but that understanding the context around this is kind of crucial. Hospitals know they’re full of sick people — a study revealing that a majority of people in hospitals are suffering from some kind of illness would not actually be news. Spiritual communities are well aware of the issue. It’s only a shock to people who have not been paying attention.
Two recent articles, which have nothing to do with one another but pair elegantly, suggest that brain drain is also at the heart of our nation’s political problems — and is the reason we are collapsing in on ourselves.