The Sovereign Self
It has become popular in liberal circles to label Donald Trump a psychopath. Because conservatives generally show less compassion and more selfishness than liberals, such a conclusion seems natural to many. The novelist, Ayn Rand, has long been called a psychopath for the same reason. Rand is known as the advocate of selfishness as a virtue. Psychopaths are known for lack of empathy and putting ourselves first. As James says in How a Psychopath Views You, “People are resources to be used like any other.” In another place, he says, “I can care for others to an extent, but never more than I care for myself.” The Judeo-Christian world I grew up in espouses values that are at odds with this kind of unvarnished self-interest. To refuse to at least give lip-service to the prevailing values is a guaranteed way to incur hostility as I learned the hard way early in life and explains why most psychopaths hide their true nature behind a mask.
Western culture values selflessness in various forms and to varying degrees that can be anywhere between self-sacrifice and/or universal brotherhood based on a belief in equality. I hardly need to mention that mankind doesn’t often live up to this ideal. Those who manage to do so in a big way are often thought of as saints. Mother Teresa comes to mind. She dedicated her entire life to serving the poorest of the poor, people who often had disgusting diseases. She explained that we are put on earth to love and be loved. She vowed to see everyone as Jesus. Of course, Jesus was the quintessential example of self-sacrifice. Arthur Schopenhauer was one of the first Western philosophers to bring Eastern thought to the West. His central idea was that we are one. The enlightened man says to everyone, “This is me.” This is quite similar to Mother Teresa’s seeing everyone as Christ. It amounts to taking on the suffering of the world. On a political level, the Weather Underground Organization devised a strategy of solidarity with the most oppressed. Otherwise, a revolutionary or reformer can be corrupted by his own stake in the system. Some people have criticized WUO and Prairie Fire Organizing Committee (an above-ground version) for being kind of moralistic and social-worker-ish. As one person put it, “You don’t take care of yourselves.” The traditional Marxist-Leninist understanding is that everyone fights for his own interests. It is in the interests of all workers to overthrow the oppressor. But the uneveness of privilege makes it hard to unite everyone. For example, white supremacy gives whites more privileges so they can be tempted to support the System in order to hold on to them. The New Left of the Baby Boomers has always had a strongly moralist quality. The Right had long claimed the moral high ground with their adherence to Judeo-Christian values. By claiming that high ground from them, I think the Left obtained a potent weapon. The values in Left-Wing morality were really closer to what Christ actually preached rather than the kind of sexual prudery “morality” on the Right usually stood on. It will become more interesting and meaningful when we look at the philosophy claimed by President Trump’s main strategist, Steve Bannon.
It is obvious to anyone who is awake that the world is full of suffering. If we really are supposed to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” as we have been taught to do, the enormity of the need is quickly seen as overwhelming. Despite the lip-service to equality, it’s glaringly obvious that there is no such thing in our world. Some people are really lucky and some not. Is it OK for the lucky ones to enjoy their good fortune while others are in pain? Like a good liberal, Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall, Alvy Singer, says he can’t be happy as long as there is one person in the world who is unhappy. Notice that this value of selflessness permeates society, whether through Christianity or secular values.
Some people seem to be genuinely selfless, or, at least, a lot closer to it than the norm. People like Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn are one such example. I just don’t understand how anyone can care so much about other people, people they don’t even know. I find them amazing but I realize I don’t really want to be like them, although, at times, I have told myself I did.
My mother was a liberal humanist. It was from her that I learned what is considered good and bad. When I read Atlas Shrugged, and was exposed for the first time to the idea that selfishness and egotism were good things, I was scandalized, not by the idea but that someone would voice it out loud. Then I thought it through and realized that if I owe A my caring, concern and sacrifice and he owes me the same, it ends up a default. Nobody is enriched. It’s just a zero sum game. What was the point? From there, I got interested in conservative politics which I found very liberating having always been surrounded with leftist values. I must say, I found my conservative activism a lot of fun. Later on, when I returned to the Left, I didn’t usually enjoy the activism as much. There was always the feeling that no matter how much we did, it wasn’t enough. I think leftists are more like Christ, with the weight of the world on their shoulders. The Right was more free-spirited. A perk of selfishness? Ayn Rand has always said that life was about joy. Suffering was just an inconvenient incidence to be risen above but not taken seriously. The universe is ultimately benevolent.
Donald Trump’s chief adviser is a man named Steve Bannon who had most recently run Breitbart News Network. Created by Andrew Breitbart, this organization has been especially obnoxious to me because of the role they played in destroying ACORN. As a left-wing idealist, I had found ACORN very inspiring. They existed to organize the poorest, most dis-empowered people where they actually gained some power over their lives. Breitbart used a little termite named James O’Keefe who posed as a pimp and tried to get ACORN employees to compromise the reputation of the organization by giving him advice on how to pimp underage “illegal aliens.” They did nothing of the sort but he and Breitbart edited the footage from O’Keefe’s hidden camera to make it look like something it was not. Fox “News” put the story on heavy rotation and the right-wing politicos managed to get ACORN defunded. Andrew Breitbart died of heart failure about a week after eating a gourmet meal prepared by Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, having won a contest. Righties tried to start a rumor than these two revolutionaries poisoned him but it didn’t fly.
I had thought that with Breitbart dead, that was the end of him. Unfortunately, his organization has lived on. Steve Bannon ran it until he joined Trump in running the country. Bannon is a fascinating character in himself. He is notorious not only for his associations with White Supremacists but also for his advocacy of a racist novel called Camp of the Saints by Jean Raspail. In the story, the people of the Third World invade the West with the intention of destroying our entire civilization. They are grossly demonized, depicted as desperately poor, disease-ridden and disgustingly filthy. I believe I have discovered an underlying theme that relates to the above discussion of how the fortunate relate to the other side of the spectrum. Raspail’s main character, Professor Calgues, outdoes Ayn Rand in his whole-hearted embrace of selfishness. “He was in love. And like any successful suitor, he found himself face to face now with the one he loved, alone… unbridled charity is, after all, a sin against oneself.” (..the one true god) But the demands of the poor got in the way. “Then, after a while, there were too many poor… Through the slits in your mailboxes, begging for help, with their frightful pictures bursting from envelopes day after day, claiming their due in the name of some organization… And in time it got worse. Soon you saw them on television, hordes of them, churning up, dying by the thousands, and nameless butchery became a feature, a continuous show…. The poor had overrun the earth… if you did try to give some good linen away, they would just think you were being condescending. No, charity couldn’t allay your guilt.” There it is. The overwhelming demand of the have-nots, the bottomless pit of need. A nun who worked with Mother Teresa even wrote a book about it called An Unquenchable Thirst. Bannon is a billionaire, as are the main characters of the novel. It looks like the rich fear engulfment by the poor. I always wondered how the 1% could want to take the pittance people get from Social Security when they have so much. But if they see the poor as a threat to their well-being, it makes some sense.
The movie, Suddenly Last Summer, deals with desperately poor men cannibalizing a man who wouldn’t give them money they wanted. Another movie whose name I can’t remember showed some people giving charity to the poor and ending up being devoured by them as the hunger of the poor is insatiable.
In The Camp of the Saints, the West is paralyzed by conscience and cannot defend itself against people armed, not with weapons, but with moral high-ground, “with their woes, their wounds, their groans, their grievance, their hate.” It was a war, not between the West and the Third World, but between the values the West wanted to believe in and the values of self-love over selflessness.
As I look at the world I live in, I find the story rather unrealistic. Of course, Raspail makes the people of the Third World subhuman, truly repulsive. To someone who has never met a Third World human being, that image could have weight. But anyone who has encountered these people know how false it is. They are human beings with human dignity. They are not all starving either. They are more than hungry mouths ready to devour the people of Europe and the United States.
Furthermore, Westerners are far less squeamish about killing the have-nots of other cultures than they are in this book. As the boats headed steadily towards Europe, I am sure they would have been monitored. As it became clear that they would actually reach their destination, concrete plans would have been made. It could be someplace like Ellis Island, where immigrants to the United States used to be housed. If such segregation appeared to be inadequate, they could have bombed the boats while still on open seas. The people in the book are horrified at the prospect of shooting women and children. Look at all the women and children who have died under American drones in various places the US Empire decided to cull populations for whatever strategic reason. The West is not at all squeamish about killing unarmed, helpless populations when it seemed to suit the empire’s interests. Jean Raspail and Steve Bannon needn’t have feared. In fact, this kind of moral dilemma already exists and has existed for decades (at least). In every big city, there are myriad homeless: people literally living on the streets. Christian ethics would have every good person take these people into their homes, offer them a good meal. But who does this? Only a saint like Mother Teresa. Christians and liberals find it quite easy to ignore need and suffering and go on with their lives. Even “aggressive panhandling” is forceably prevented. Israel has been particularly adamant in rejecting refugees from Africa, even Jewish ones. But a Europe helpless to reject the call of altruism does make for good theater in which to play out the drama of two diametrically opposed moral paradigms.
Who is Steve Bannon?
Steve Bannon has made a statement that he is a Christian and a supporter of “enlightened capitalism” which is neither crony capitalism nor Ayn Rand’s libertarian form of capitalism. “It is a capitalism that really looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people…” I don’t know how Objectivism (Ayn Rand’s philosophy) “turns people into commodities or objectifies them.” I also don’t know how his “enlightened capitalism” would differ from Ayn Rand’s version. His long statement doesn’t give specifics. Nor does he explain how the rich under this form of capitalism would be prevented from buying the government which is what created crony capitalism in the first place. Maybe if you read a whole book… But I have read that crony capitalism is thriving so far under Trump.
Bannon also said he’s not a racist and thinks racism in the right-wing movement will fade away in time (the way the state in a Marxist republic will “wither away?”). It’s kind of an interesting coincidence how someone like Rand Paul also has racist associations while denying any sympathies with those ideas. What is this “Alt Conservatism” that both Breitbart and Bannon support? I found this objective, on their website: “Make Racism Acceptable Again.” No ambiguity about that. Is there?
Bannon has made a video about his views of American history and where we are headed.
That Old Amygdala
Fear does seem to be a factor in political persuasion. Brain scans have shown that conservatives’ brains have enlarged amygdalas in the area of fear. Bad news for people who want to equate conservatism with psychopathy. Psychopaths have smaller amygdalas than average folk. If anything, psychopaths have less fear than most people, not more as conservatives seem to have. Alt.Right extols fear as a positive value. “To be happy with the familiar, one must reject the alien. If the stranger wants to dispossess, rape and kill you, why invite him into your house and feed and clothe him?” What a perfect expression of fear-driven ideology!