Sunday, January 08, 2017

[Rant] Dysfunction Far and Wide

I mentioned last month that my Liberal friends (and that's most of them since I live near Ann Arbor) we're losing their minds over the election. It has only slightly abated; they are still convinced that Donald Trump is destined to destroy the world. It prompted me to give some thought to how many dysfunctional presidents there have been in my lifetime (that would be from Eisenhower forward). It turns out quite a few:
  • Eisenhower - Functional.
  • Kennedy - Dysfunctional. Behaved towards women in a way that would be called misogynist today. Also took so many drugs for various maladies he was regularly judgment-impaired (even during the Cuban Missile Crisis).
  • Johnson - Dysfunctional in the extreme. Sociopathic, and a sex pervert. Referred to his penis as Jumbo and would whip it out at inappropriate times while defying people to say they had ever seen a bigger one. On one occasion, urinated on the pant leg of one of his Secret Service bodyguards in a display of dominance.
  • Nixon - Dysfunctional. Paranoid, power mad, and deeply corrupt. Towards the end he was given to such troubling behavior that there was an informal agreement among his staff that if he ever ordered a nuclear strike they would get approval from Kissinger first.
  • Ford - Functional.
  • Carter - Functional.
  • Reagan - Functional, with the exception of the end when he began to exhibit signs of Alzheimers.
  • Bush 1 - Functional.
  • Clinton - Dysfunctional. Combined Nixon's affinity for corruption with JFKs attitude toward women.
  • Bush 2 - Functional.
  • Obama - Functional.
  • Trump - Well...
A couple of observation leap out. First, neither party has a monopoly on lunacy. Second, bad results don't automatically follow from mentally unbalanced presidents. From that list it seems there is no telling whether we are in for good times or bad times based on the mental stability of the president. That would point to the conclusion that the office of the President isn't as important as it is portrayed. My personal belief is that the country isn't run by the President or Congress or the Supreme Court, but by the Washington Bureaucracy. People are yelling at it from the right and from the left, but The Bureaucracy travels its own undiscoverable path, like the gods of Greek mythollogy arbitrarily bestowing reward and punishment on mortals. (Yes, my internal narratives are more fanciful than most.)

Also, it's worth pointing that we are still not certain about Trump. He behaves and speaks abysmally, but his actual actions since the election have been pretty normal. I know that people of my generation seem to value the office of president as culturally symbolic beyond just functional policy making and so have certain behavioral expectations, but maybe things have changed. Maybe people are so comfortable with a disconnect between words and deeds now that the president is free to act like a reality show star without consequence to policy. It's not 1965 anymore. It's not even 1995.

This is not to say the election didn't bother me. It did, but not for the same reason as most people. What disturbed me most was how thoroughly every aspect of it was dominated by emotion and irrationality. Now, I understand that human decisions are made irrationally, from a hot mess of pattern matching against memories and neurons firing in probabilistic variations around an innate behavioral tendency, and rationalized afterwards. But as the election season went along, everybody, including people I know and respect, built these astonishing narratives in their heads of the horrors that would certainly be visited upon us should the other side win. The basis of these narratives had virtually no relationship to objective reality, often running exactly counter to factual evidence. In all elections the parties work hard to demonize each other but in my memory the majority of people understand that this is just a marketing ploy, essentially a use of advertising tricks to sway opinion. Not this time around. This time it seemed not only that everyone was taking these portrayals as established truth, but actually building more outrageous stories from them. And the more outrageous the narratives got, the deeper people believed in them.

That's what's scary to me. Evil people coming to power doesn't scare me so much. The world is huge and complicated and, short of North Korea, the bad guys always have opposition. No, the really terrifying thing is righteousness. All the greatest horror in history stems not from people planning to do evil, but from people with absolute certainty in their righteousness. That's what I saw that disturbed me so much. People were so thoroughly convinced of their righteousness that I could picture them doing terrible things in support of it. And to pile on, they believed their pure righteousness was the only thing standing the way of the other side's pure righteousness. Lather, rinse, repeat until the end of civilization.

I always thought that humanity was characterized constant push pull of the rational and irrational, analysis and emotion, objectivity and sentiment. But now I see it is hardly an equal match. My view has changed and I see humanity as a chaotic stew of battling primal instincts, with only occasional flashes of reason bringing any growth or progress or hope. It's a sad belief to be forced to adopt, but at my age there is no excuse for naivete.