All the Young Dudes 

'Tis a Wise Child Who Knows His Own Father

It's not entirely my morbid imagination. David Vitter, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum all appear to have the same father. It's the look in their eyes, which is why Michele Bachmann and Paul Ryan--whose eyes indicate they were sired by Marty Feldman--aren't on the same list.

The first five have that saner-but-shifty-eyed look of people who can't be candid with cameras, reporters, colleagues or anybody else. They're charming and glib in social situations, superficially intelligent, deeply self-centered, given to oversimplification of the issues and, judging from their politics, lacking ethics, empathy, conscience and real emotion. That's the clinical definition of a sociopath, and it doesn't bode well for our Republic that all these folks have imagined themselves occupying the Oval Office at one time or another.

It makes you think that Richard Nixon financed his first congressional campaign by becoming a professional sperm donor.

Anyway, when I look at the coming crop of presidential aspirants, what comes to mind is Yeats' line about the best of us lacking conviction and the worst of us being filled with passionate intensity.

These are people who see themselves as taking moral stands, but they despise the idea that we should take care of the most vulnerable people in our communities. Instead, they suggest we should get rid of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and food stamps, institutions that have allowed this country's old, damaged, poor and sick to make it through our post-2008 winters. They also want to replace public schools with a voucher system that would ensure separate-and-unequal education, religious and cultural incest, and de facto racial segregation.

These guys have the morality of Charles Darwin, who suggested the future belongs to the fleet, the smart, the horny and the ruthless. It's anything but the morality of Christ, who said, "As ye have done unto the least of these, ye have done unto me."

If Christ were suddenly to appear leading an army of angels, the ambitious young champions of the Republican Party would find themselves in deep Dantean doo-doo.

In the meantime, these folks face us with a nature-versus-nurture question. Does political office result in sociopathy, or do sociopaths, in early 21st century America, find themselves uniquely fit for political office?

As is the usual case with nature-or-nurture questions, the answer is both, but that answer leads to yet more questions: How can a nation deal with the sociopaths in its midst? Does it give them billions to make fighter jets that will be obsolete out of the box, or does it spend those billions keeping children alive, clothed and educated? Does it reward them for shipping whole industries overseas and creating a quadrillion dollars' worth of unredeemable derivatives, or does it regulate its borders and its financial industry so as to prevent shell-game economics, massive unemployment and the eventual collapse of public institutions? Does it continue to elect them to high office and make them the heads of corporations, or does it put them in jail and throw away the key?

To put it in moral terms, do we reward Pride, Envy, Anger, Laziness, Greed, Gluttony and Lust, or Faith, Hope, Charity, Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude and Justice?

You can look at Republican-run states for answers to these questions, but states run by Democrats aren't much different. What surprises me is that when the two political parties decided to play Good Cop/Bad Cop and put the squeeze on the American people, the Republicans wanted in the worst way to be the Bad Cop. It's one thing to devote your life to the manifest pathologies of evil, but it's another to revel in them. A lot of pious Republican statements about fiscal responsibility, self-reliance and freedom come from the DSM-V rather than from the Bible.

The idea that sociopathy might be a genetic trait, able to be passed on to children, is enough to make you look hard at the moral capacities of your own parents, and to wonder if your Darwinian worldview is hereditary. Lots of people would give you a pass if you confessed that your dad was Dick Nixon. They would understand that you couldn't help yourself when you--helped yourself. And lied. And compiled lists of enemies. And sent your country's young people off to futile wars.

Of course, you'd still be you, even if your genes were in control. A self-preserving society, in order to limit the damage caused by your presence in it, might put restraints on your ability to do all the things you want to. Laws result from the recognition that while a world of totally free sociopaths might result in survival of the fittest, it also results in the death or enslavement of the not-so-fit, and the complete obliteration of moral truth.

It's civilization-by-Mafia. As the Godfather movies showed us, that's an arrangement that's hard on everyone. Survival of the fittest becomes rule by the strongest, and being the strongest is always a temporary condition.

It leads to a thought experiment: Imagine that you've been fathered by a leading American male politician (not John F. Kennedy--that would be too easy, for a variety of reasons). Look carefully at your own history, checking for moments when you were generous to less fortunate people and other moments when you cut them off at the knees. Find a politician whose behavior makes him a credible genetic match. Contemplate the burden of your inheritance.

If enough Americans are willing to imagine this scenario, the Republican Party will wither and die. Trouble is, all the ex-Republicans will promptly become Democrats, doing whatever it takes to get back in office. It's in their genes.

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