Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Narcissus and Krauthammer

Well, I'm not a doctor like Charles Krauthammer. On the other hand, I also try hard not to be a dissembler or a hypocrite. Most of all, I think it's not a good idea to project.

What was especially bizarre about Krauthammer's recent column decrying Dean and "Bush hatred" was that, as a psychiatrist, he should know better than to degrade the seriousness of his profession by inventing and proferring for public consumption half-baked "maladies" such as his "Bush Derangement Syndrome." The nakedness of his double standard (the genuine derangement of Clinton's attackers goes down the memory hole, of course) is one thing, but practicing voodoo psychoanalysis for political profit reveals the real depths of Krauthammer's corruption.

It's not that psychology or psychiatric analysis are beyond the comprehension of lay people, either -- though bogus crap like Krauthammer's faux psychology certainly worsens that comprehension. Still, in my work as a journalist in dealing with criminals and extremists, a familiarity with psychological and psychiatric literature and current research is often a real necessity, and I've always tried to make sure my work is informed with that kind of background. I try to offer it in relevant doses for my readers as well.

I've had a certain exposure both to the psychiatric literature and the real-life examples of actual mental disorders (not invented ones) that crop up frequently in the criminal sphere -- particularly antisocial and narcissistic personality disorders. While it's important that lay people not attempt to draw too definitive of conclusions from such readings, they can be very illuminating.

With that in mind, some of you may enjoy this well-drawn exegesis on Narcissistic Personality Disorder, from Joanna Ashmun, a layperson with firsthand experience. Ashmun's work is solid.
The most telling thing that narcissists do is contradict themselves. They will do this virtually in the same sentence, without even stopping to take a breath. It can be trivial (e.g., about what they want for lunch) or it can be serious (e.g., about whether or not they love you). When you ask them which one they mean, they'll deny ever saying the first one, though it may literally have been only seconds since they said it -- really, how could you think they'd ever have said that? You need to have your head examined! They will contradict FACTS. They will lie to you about things that you did together. They will misquote you to yourself. If you disagree with them, they'll say you're lying, making stuff up, or are crazy.

Does this sound like anyone we know? Like, every conservative in the entire friggin' movement?

OK. OK. [Deep breath.] Let's not jump to conclusions. At the best, we can say this is only a narcissistic trait; it doesn't mean they're all narcissists. It does suggest that some of them probably are, though.

And of course, we've all known our share of liberal narcissists too. The syndrome by no means is relegated just to conservatives. But its behaviors are enjoying a real, shall we say, renaissance among the American right these days.

Speaking of Krauthammer, James Benajmin (who, by golly, is a doctor) at The Left Side of the Dial gives us some useful details about the nature of projection, which has been cropping up with increasing frequency on the right side of the dial:
What is projection? Freud viewed projection as an ego defense mechanism used to ward off anxiety. What the individual does is to attribute their undesirable traits onto someone else, thus enabling them to hate said others instead of themselves for possessing those undesirable traits. For example, a husband who has been carrying on an extramarital affair may project this undesirable quality onto his wife by showing suspicion towards her potential to be unfaithful. Let's face it, that various famous and obscuroid right-wingers have advocated violence against various liberal and/or Democrat targets is well-documented and need not be repeated here. To the extent that these people want to portray themselves as "reasonable" or "fair and balanced," such pronouncements by themselves or likeminded individuals has to be inducing some cognitive dissonance. What better way to handle a guilty conscience or to reduce the dissonance than to latch onto any angry rhetoric from one's political enemies and use it as "evidence" that those enemies are a bunch of hate-filled violent thugs.

At what point does it become a hall of mirrors? It's important to step back and do a reality check -- and especially to examine ourselves and ask if we're projecting our own undesirable traits onto Republicans, the same way they are doing to us.

But an inventory of the charges inveighed against conservatives by liberals, and particularly against Bush, shows little in the way of a mirror image or any serious projection. They are, indeed, largely factual, and there are no significant counterparts in liberal behavior. Leading the nation to war under false pretenses? A stream of blatant falsehoods? Violent eliminationist rhetoric? Antidemocratic policy initiatives? An illegitimate president? Conservatives make such countercharges all the time, of course -- in fact, they seem preoccupied with the "I know you are but what am I" form of argumentation -- but they never produce substantive evidence to support them. There is, on the other hand, a preponderance of evidence for the liberals' case, and they present it, often voluminously.

It's worth keeping in mind, moreover, that the factual evidence is always what separates the credible from the incredible, investigative reporters from conspiracy theorists. It should always be at the forefront of any arguments liberals use.

Still, as Ashmun subsequently notes:
[At this point, if you're like me, you sort of panic and want to talk to anyone who will listen about what is going on: this is a healthy reaction; it's a reality check ("who's the crazy one here?"); that you're confused by the narcissist's contrariness, that you turn to another person to help you keep your bearings, that you know something is seriously wrong and worry that it might be you are all signs that you are not a narcissist].

People with narcissistic personality disorders, it must be emphasized, can be extremely high-functioning. Some of them become political leaders, some are business icons, some are media, entertainment and sports stars. In my experience, network anchors, motivational speakers and fundamentalist preachers are extremely prone to the syndrome. Oh, and syndicated newspaper pundits.

A little more from Ashmun:
Narcissists I've known also have odd religious ideas, in particular believing that they are God's special favorites somehow; God loves them, so they are exempted from ordinary rules and obligations: God loves them and wants them to be the way they are, so they can do anything they feel like -- though, note, the narcissist's God has much harsher rules for everyone else, including you.

That sounds very much like a particular Republican I know of. Of course, so does this:
Narcissists are totally and inflexibly authoritarian. In other words, they are suck-ups. They want to be authority figures and, short of that, they want to be associated with authority figures. In their hearts, they know they can't think well, have no judgment about what matters, are not connected with the world they inhabit, so they cling fanatically to the opinions of people they regard as authority figures -- such as their parents, teachers, doctors, ministers. Where relevant, this may include scientists or professors or artists, but narcissists stick to people they know personally, since they aren't engaged enough with the world to get their authoritative opinions from TV, movies, books or dead geniuses/saints/heroes. If they get in trouble over some or another opinion they've put forth, they'll blame the source -- "It was okay with Dr. Somebody," "My father taught me that," etc. If you're still thinking of the narcissist as odd-but-normal, this shirking of responsibility will seem dishonest and craven -- well, it is but it's really an admission of weakness: they really mean it: they said what they said because someone they admire or fear said it and they're trying to borrow that person's strength.

Mm-hm. And then this:
Narcissists feel entitled to whatever they can take. They expect privileges and indulgences, and they also feel entitled to exploit other people without any trace of reciprocation.

Well, I remain professionally reluctant to draw definitive conclusions from any of this. But sometimes I feel as though the clue-by-four has been hitting us upside the head for about three years now.

[Thanks to Maia, who has been discussing this piece at Salon's Table Talk.]

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