Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Sociopaths and reptile brains


The definitive document of our Republic is no longer the Constitution. It's the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-IV. Our separation of church and state has become the separation of reality and state.

One can imagine the view from the Oval Office these days: purple cows grazing on the National Mall, a giant Yellow Cake where the new Smithsonian Building once stood, King Kong hanging from the top of the Washington Monument, cabinet meetings that look like outtakes from "The Wizard of Oz," the Trapp family singing in the press room. Marilyn Monroe wandering the halls, calling out for JFK and Bobby.

Crazy stuff. But no crazier than the neoconservative hallucinations that got us into Iraq. No crazier than giving Angela Merkel a backrub at a G-8 meeting. No crazier than dressing up in a flight suit 35 years too late for combat. And certainly no crazier than letting Scooter Libby out of a 30-month jail sentence after not commuting the sentences of the 152 Texas convicts executed during your time as governor.

The DSM-IV doesn't have an insurance code for totally crazy. But it does list Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which describes a pattern of exaggerated self-importance, lack of empathy for others, a tendency to exploit personal relations for personal gain, and an overwhelming need to be admired. It also describes Antisocial Personality Disorder, which is more serious: chronic lying, failure to plan ahead, aggressive irritability, reckless disregard for the safety of others, irresponsibility at work, and a consistent lack of remorse.

The name that comes to mind here, even before Bush or Cheney or Ken Lay or George Allen, is Bill Clinton. Ever since Clinton gave the country over to the ministrations of Monica Lewinsky, I've considered him a sociopath, successful and charming but liable to be tripped up at any moment by his failure to see the consequences of his actions. Clinton's antisocial impulses destroyed his legacy, the careers of many of the people who worked for him, and the ability of his government to pay attention to the world. More than any other person, he is responsible for the election of George Bush.

That's why it's fitting that so many Republicans justify the inside-the-terrarium decisions of the Bush administration by saying, "Clinton did it too." In a process familiar to any student of human nature, their long struggle against Clinton has turned them into mini-Clintons. All they lack is Clinton's intelligence, his fiscal caution, his foreign policy expertise, and his preference for sex over death.

There is one question that remains: Why do we elect such people? Why do we let a man with Dick Cheney's level of anger lead our country to war? Why do we believe in George Bush's born-again Christianity, when a quick reading of the New Testament shows he's lying? Why couldn't someone have seen these disturbing tendencies on the grade-school playground, and gently channeled little Dickie and little Georgie into auto mechanics or the hospitality industry? Or is it true, as Tony Snow might say, that our president and vice-president aren't sociopaths at all?

The DSM-IV provides another explanation for their behavior: irreparable damage to the neo-cortex—a part of the brain that has nothing to do with neoconservatism. It's that delicate part that controls language, reason, empathy, abstract thinking, and concepts of culture and spirituality. Such damage can occur with long-term alcoholism or, occasionally, when the brain is deprived of oxygen during a heart attack or heart surgery.

When a human neo-cortex is damaged, the more robust Reptile Brain gets control. (The Reptile Brain is so called because we share it with, well, reptiles. Anyone who doesn't believe in evolution should study the physiology of the human brain.)

The Reptile Brain is concerned with survival to the point of insanity. It's the fight-or-flight part of our brains that makes us want to kill or enslave strangers. It claims and defends territory and is concerned with hierarchy and authority. It sends us into blind panic or blind rage or blind lust. It's the part of our brain that gets caught up in the frenzy of a mob. It's impossible to reason with.

The Reptile Brain may explain the sociopathic impulses that all of us have but most of us control. It may explain administration policy. It may explain our recent presidential elections. What can't be explained is how a country founded on noble and abstract principles can survive when the Reptile Brain is in charge.

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