Leadership : Insanity to Prophesy

Tom Hall.  He can be reached via Tghall2000@aol.com.  

Insanity in World Leadership

Auden termed the twentieth century “The Age of Anxiety.” Bernstein titled his symphony No. 2 “The Age of Anxiety.” The term is outdated. We have gone beyond the Age of Anxiety and have entered the Age of Schizophrenia, the darkest of ages. Our personalities are no longer merely disturbed. They are split, from top to bottom, among the leaders and among the people. The most dangerous lunatics in society are those who are not committable, those who would pass any psychiatric tests for insanity, but who nevertheless suffer from grandiosity, delusions of persecution, and enter public life to expose some “plot” that is “threatening” all of us.

Both Hitler and Stalin were crazy in this way, and yet both were “sane” by ordinary medico-legal standards, so too Castro, Hussein, Clinton (passive acceptance is disastrous) and a host of others. If an individual behaved in their manner, he would promptly be placed in a mental institution. But when nations behave as irrationally, their sanity is hardly questioned...and those few who dare to question it are branded as lacking in “patriotism.” Private lunacy gets a padded cell. Public lunacy all too often wins a throne seat. The world, as Balzac grimly predicted, is an insane asylum run by the inmates.

Portrait of a Twentieth Century Man

He is a short, chunky, near-bald man, with a shrewd eye, an aggressive jaw, and a ready joke for all occasions. His beliefs are firm and explicit, in every realm, from the economic to the psychological to the aesthetic. He is a man who knows his own mind, and expresses himself freely and pungently. In economics, he believes that the economic factor is the most important in human life. Ideals and spiritual qualities are all very well in their place, but it is money that makes the mare go. What most deeply influence men’s decisions are their economic needs and drives. 

In psychology, he is suspicious and disdainful of any Freudian interpretations. Psychoanalysis should be banned, he believes, because it holds that unconscious psychic factors determine our conduct...and he will have no truck with such mystical interpretations of life. In aesthetics, he is against all modern manifestations. He despises abstract art as a corrupt, degenerate and infantile activity. He will have nothing to do with music that is not traditional and familiarly melodic. In literature, he prefers facts to fancy. He wants a “message” to be got across, in plain, everyday language. Indeed, ”practical” is the keyword of his nature. He will use ideology when it suits his purposes, but what he wants to see is a huge industrial machinery operating at top productive power, a high standard of living, and an administration that is cool and efficient, with emphasis on technical and scientific developments.

He is ardently nationalistic, although he may pay lip-service to such concepts as humanity and brotherhood. He wants his nation to be first in everything, from missiles to marathons, and his entire foreign policy is based on national self-interest. What is good for his country, he firmly believes, is good for the world. He is, in short, a completely modern man: pragmatic, materialistic, bourgeois in his attitudes toward the arts, uneasy in the presence of psychological subtleties, utterly convinced that with the right political party in the saddle and the economy booming, most of the people’s problems would be solved.

What he most dislikes are intellectuals, fanatics, artists who will not sensibly serve the needs of the community in clear and simple terms but only in their own high unprecedented way, people who will not work hard at their jobs, beatniks of all sorts, religious cranks, promiscuous and immoral citizens, and those who flirt with alien creeds. His name: Nikita Khrushchev. Do you recognize him in yourself?

Who oversees the overseerers?

The state enforces morality on its citizens, but who enforces morality on the state? We are punished, as individuals, if we lie, steal, use violence or kill, but what effective restraints prevent the state from doing the same?  What is murder for a citizen in peacetime is bravery and glory in wartime. What is theft for an individual is conquest for a nation. What is lying for a person is diplomacy in foreign relations. There is a common morality among citizens of a community, but there is no common morality among nations. 

Nations are above the law; they make their own laws, and break them at will...if it serves the “national purpose,” if it is for “self-defense.” And every war is, of course, for self-defense. When our children look at the behavior of nations, throughout history and up to the present day, what can we tell them about their own morality? How can something be “wrong” if an individual does it, and “right” if an institution does it? Especially since institutions are supposed to exist for the benefit of individuals, and not the other way around. Who has custody of the custodians?

This ancient Roman question has not even yet begun to be answered. The state is the custodian of our conduct, but its own conduct is often at shocking variance with what it prescribes for us. This is perhaps less true in a democracy than in a totalitarian society...which we are fast becoming. The world has grown too big and too small at the same time, too big in its complexity and too small in its dimensions. What affects one affects all...and yet the problems are so intricate, the variables so many, the controls so sensitive, that we feel paralyzed and ineffective and overwhelmed, like an ant in an avalanche.

All people everywhere want basically the same things for themselves and for their children. It should be the tasks of governments to reconcile these common ends with the functions and needs and different systems of each society. Instead, the differences are exaggerated and the common ends obscured. Can anything short of a global catastrophe bring us to the light?  That is the only question worth asking today.

Culture mustn't claim too much

The cant that is spoken in the political sphere is equaled, if not excelled, only by the cant that is spoken in the artistic and cultural sphere. The most absurd and inflated claims are made by proponents in both worlds. Schnabel, the pianist genius, had this to say: ”All my life I have heard this talk about the power of art to bring people nearer to each other, that world peace will come only if more music is circulated and exchanged. Yet I have seen people deeply moved...as deeply moved and affected by music as is possible...and the next morning they would go into activities which you might call criminal and inhuman.” 

The fact that the Russians loved Van Cliburn’s artistry, and we loved Gilels or some other Russian performer, has absolutely nothing whatever to do with our extra musical activities, either individually or nationally. The Germans were the greatest music lovers in the world...they would sob over Schubert and moan over Mozart...but the cause of international understanding was not forwarded one inch by such appreciation. So too the people who devoutly believe that speaking a common language would make mankind act more like brothers.

There may be some good practical reasons for an international language, but it is sentimental nonsense to think that it would promote amity among mankind. One of the most distressing lessons on history, in fact, is that the fiercest wars and persecutions often obtained among peoples who spoke the same language. The early Greek city-states fought among themselves with unparalleled ferocity; so did the later cities and duchies. The English behaved most atrociously toward the Irish, and our own Civil War indicates that a common tongue did not prevent horrible fratricide.

Music is not an “international language,” nor are any of the arts. There are only two things that will bring people closer together...one positive, the other negative. The positive thing is love and the negative thing is fear. And since we are not good enough to love one another, we will be brought together (if ever) only by fear, by the very real fear, which exists today as never before, that destruction is indivisible, that we are all sitting in the same little boat in the middle of the sea, and to drill a hole under anyone’s seat is to sink us all. This is the one international language time will force us to learn to speak.  Toynbee said “Of 21 notable civilizations,19 perished not from conquest from without but from moral decay within.”

The Prophet deserves an Ear

In 1933,the great mystic Nikolai Berdyaev wrote a little book called “The Fate of Man in the Modern World”...fascinating and frightening to read this book today. His predictions have come uncannily to pass: the rise and decline of Nazism, the Second World War, the course of Russian events, the awakening of China, India, and Africa, the threat of aggressive nationalism everywhere. This quiet thinker, secluded in what practical men would contemptuously call his ivory tower, has turned out to be the most accurate prognosticator of our time. For in his ivory tower, which he describes as “Christian personalism”, he has been able to look down and chart the sins and errors of both Russian Marxism and Western materialism with devastating impartiality. Berdyaev sees the life of the free spirit violated everywhere...crushed by the despotic collectivization of the Communist state, and distorted by the shortsighted individualism of the bourgeois capitalist state. Nor is he an apologist for institutionalized religion, which he insists has surrendered to Caesarism and nationalism. Whatever we may think of Berdyaev’s ultimate solutions to these problems, it should be chastening for us to reflect that... 


...although it is usually too late when we are ready to pay respectful attention. It is only in the ivory tower that we can achieve perspective, that we can rise above the day-by-day battle of contending forces, that we can take the long view, and assay the consequences of our actions and beliefs to our children and grandchildren. Down below, there is only sound and fury, and ultimate purposes are neglected for “immediate” gains that turn out to be fatal illusions. What our age requires most of all is stepping back from the scene of combat, a withdrawal from involvement in daily events, so that we can shape our means to our final goals. Otherwise, we are the agents and victims of world affairs, not their creators or collaborators. Well over half a century ago, Berdyaev foresaw the fix we are in today...even then he called for a lessening of the sovereignty of national states and a movement toward a world-federation of peoples as the only means of saving us from the global holocaust we are now facing. “One fears that the world will attain such an order,” he wrote, ”only after a considerable portion of humanity has been wiped out.”


Lesson in the Metropolitan Mess?

If we want to understand international relations, the simplest analogy lies in a city itself. A city generally does nothing about its problems until the situation gets so bad that only radical remedies will work. Most cities began one-way streets too late. There can be ten serious accidents at a dangerous intersection but nothing is done until someone is killed. They restricted parking too late. They built superhighways only when the traffic was so congested that the superhighways were obsolete by the time they were finished. Every American metropolis today faces the immense task of turning itself around, of demolition and rebuilding, of cutting out the cancer at its core, of coping with staggering problems of slums and race relations and poor schools and high taxes and the utter lack of planning that has characterized the growth of all large communities. 

If we have not had the foresight to come to terms with relatively small problems within a given city, how can we expect that our relations with the world outside our borders can be any more rational? “Too little too late” may be the epitaph of Western civilization. The modern menaces of communism, fascism...  totalitarianism...which are stronger than ever today, in various guises, could have been effectively aborted without great wars and widespread suffering. But we lacked the foresight, the concerted will, the energy to make the effort.

The most important part of medicine is preventive medicine. Most know this. But we have not applied this knowledge to the social areas, whether it is traffic, or slums, or juvenile delinquency, or war and dictatorship. We spend, for instance, billions on prisons and reformatories, but hardly a dribble to erase the social and psychological conditions that create crime and delinquency.

Who listened to Churchill early on, “Last time I saw it all coming and cried aloud to my own fellow countrymen and to the world but no one paid any attention” and Einstein,1933 “I cannot understand the passive response of the whole civilized world to this modern barbarism. Doesn’t the world see that Hitler is aiming for war? Nations ignore history...bad lessons always have to be learned anew.”

Which American, private or public, was really interested in Cuba during the long dark years of Batista’s regime? It was an exotic isle, a pleasure spot (which men always resort to in decaying times), a gambling haven. That it was rottenly overripe for revolution did not concern us...until a Castro looms up ninety miles from our shores, to our shocked surprise, fear and indignation. No business could exist for more than a year without planning ahead, without spending considerable sums on research and development. But cities go on for years, countries for decades, building useless highways and unnecessary jails, stockpiling arms and making ineffectual treaties, in the name of “realism,” while reality slowly crushes them to death.

Why Sammy continues to run

Or “Why Alison Hargreaves Climbed Mountains” or “Why Chris McCandless Went to Alaska” - “Why does he want more money? He’s got far more than he needs, and he’ll just kill himself trying to double his fortune.” This is a commonplace enough situation. And, of course, it is obvious to most that money itself is not what the man wants: it is the “game,” the “thrill,” the gratification of “winning” that makes Sammy keep running long after he has any need to. 

What is less understood is that a chase of this sort is essentially a SUBSTITUTE EXPERIENCE. And a substitute is always something that we can never have enough of. The man is really looking for self-esteem, and he seeks to find it by winning the esteem of others. In our society, the fastest and surest way to do this is by amassing a great deal of money. So the money becomes a substitute, a symbol, for the esteem. But in the deep chemistry of the psyche, things do not work out this way. Getting the esteem of others does not give us self-esteem; worthiness comes from the inside, never the outside.

This is why a substitute experience always leaves us hungry for more. Money is only one example. Sex is another. The man who chases women, like the one who chases money, can never have enough, can never be satisfied, can never settle down to one possession. The compulsive Lothario is perpetually as insatiable as the compulsive driver in the market-place. For the same motives operate in this area. When sex becomes a substitute for love, it can never be gratified, but must go on from dizzying triumph (and each triumph ends in a kind of internal exhaustion and defeat, convalescence and continuation).

The libertine can never find what he thinks he is looking for, any more than the acquisitive man can never have  “enough” money. Our genuine needs are self-confidence, self-esteem, self-sacrifice. These can be achieved only by giving, not by getting. When something in the psyche blocks us from expressing and gratifying these genuine needs, we turn to substitute ones. But no liquid can quench our thirst except water itself.

Not only can the substitute not satisfy us; it also contains its own law of diminishing returns...like the dope addict who needs more and more of a “shot” in order to maintain the same level of euphoria. Finally, he needs massive doses simply to keep alive, to keep reality at arm’s length. Sammy runs because if he ever stopped, he would drop dead at the mere confrontation of his real needs.
© Tom Hall. Jacksonville, Florida, USA.
He can be reached via

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