Wednesday, October 10, 2012

History Student Angst

I'll just keep writing until more of you come back.  Things are better now in some ways, but I have lapsed into some kind of bourgie intellectual laziness.  Was my ambition sharpened by that morass of disappointment and recrimination?

Anyway, I like to read books about really powerful people (I wanted to say "great men") and ask myself if I'd do better.  Would I be me, were I some minor noble artillerist from Corsica?  Would I be me, were my father a king?  Would I be me, were I some horny young man with an attractive classmate conveniently drunk?

In short, I return to this--am I my assumed inclination or am I no more virtuous than my opportunity will allow?  I can't point to my restraint in this--abusers do it all the time, highlight their hesitance to offset their indulgence of brutal instincts.  I want to show you the times I've been kind to the weak and the useless, the patience I show with my boys, the time I've spent listening to those who are clearly lonely.  I was born low and I'm low in rank.  Of course this means that I see more utility in kindness, collaboration, and kindred spirit.  But what if I really didn't need anyone?  What if I stood atop a tower of bodies, others holding me up while many lie stilled by the hands of my servants?  What if I were born, as I am born, to a heritage of conquest and possession, only I occupied a rank far above any I can imagine?  What if I, an American in the greatest age of diffusion of responsibility, a man who lives under spectacle and remote drones, really stood in a place of total culpability, a place where my decisions mattered not to handfuls but millions?

Who am I to say I'd do better than the butchers?  Can the answer be anything other than assertion, opinion, speculation?


  1. If it cannot be, then nothing is real.

    Do you think you would do better? Why or why not?

  2. Too many psychological "experiments' suggest that many people would not do better.

  3. Well, by definition the answer can't be other than opinion or speculation (unless you've been painstakingly constructing an online persona all this time and are actually Barack Obama, in which case congratulations.) More seriously, I think Brian M is right: in situations where immoral behavior is encouraged and consequence-free, people tend to behave immorally.

    On the other hand, you can look at the experiments mentioned above and see why people did the terrible things they did - deference to authority, say, or an institutionalized lack of empathy - and see to what extent those traits exist in your character. It won't be decisive, but it's a place to start.

  4. I think a better answer is...if one is not absolutely power driven to begin with, one will never obtain "the opportunity". In other words, "the system" (almost any human system, a pessimist might argue)rewards sociopathic behavior. Can one be a winner at these levels without psychological flaws? And is the American ideology selecting for more of such behavior?

    There are exceptions, of course.

  5. From Philboyd's site:

    As a rule, the most unseemly thing about any presidential candidate is his desire to be president. How is it that making zillions in private equity isn't enough? How was it that the ruling over an entire American state did not quench your thirst for power? What insatiable impulse drives your dark ambition to reign over the richest nation on earth? Surely the person put in charge of the sentient drone army should not display a naked desperation for dominance. Surely the answer to this yearning for power isn’t nomination but therapy.

  6. One thing about the aforementioned psych studies revealing dreadful human nature-- there were occasionally outliers who refused to become assholes. It's worth figuring out what factors kept certain people relatively decent even when given encouragement in the other direction.