WHAT DOES Chairman Mao have to do with that jerk brother or sister who wrecks everyone's Thanksgiving? Funny you should ask. Barbara Oakley's 2007 "Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend" masterfully connects the dots.
Her starting point is "the successfully sinister." These are your classic Machiavellians - charismatic and ruthless - out for themselves at the expense of anyone unfortunate enough to happen to breathe the same air.
We are led to believe the cream finds its way to the surface, but at the end of the day we find the scum also rises. But then we have the people who don't grow up to be politicians or CEOs or pop idols. They simply make your life miserable. People like the author's sister, who break their mother's hearts.
What is going on here? As Dr Oakley makes clear, these individuals are successful for a reason. To a person, they are virtuoso manipulators, cut-throats, and con artists. If life is a game of chess, they are four moves ahead. You - what Dr Oakley loosely describes as the altruistic - never see it coming. Eventually we may get smart, but not before the damage is done.
The Connection to Personality Disorders
The "high-Machs" have long been known to correspond to sociopathy, but this gives us only a partial picture. More recent findings also point to a generous portion of borderline personality disorder. The two conditions overlap, but in key areas they are in diametric opposition. While sociopaths have no problems with their inflated sense of self (so much so that sociopathy is easy to confuse with narcissism), those with borderline tend to suffer from a breakdown in personal identity. But it's not a case of one or the other. Dr Oakley steers clear of over-reliance on DSM labels, but is comfortable in their use as a rough guide.
Your boss from hell may lean toward sociopathy, for instance, with an assist from borderline, and a bit of paranoia thrown in. Someone else may major on borderline and minor in sociopathy with some extra credits in narcissism. Strict categories are very misleading. Brain science is daily demonstrating that our genes are not coded with the DSM in mind.
The same brain science also makes it abundantly clear that we are not as in control of our thinking and behavior as our over-inflated egos would have us believe. Someone who is genetically wired to over-react to stressful events, for instance, is prone to act a lot differently in social situations than those who are not. This is neither good in and of itself. Indeed, panic is often the appropriate response. But when we need to dismantle a bomb or talk our way through airport security, cool as a cucumber is desirable.
Cool as a cucumber also works when sticking a knife in your best friend's back.
Now multiply all the complicating factors by infinity. Certain genetic tendencies and environmental influences may either mitigate or amplify other ones. Different parts of the brain may be over-communicating or under-communicating with each other. It may be this way in that individual or that way in this individual. We're a long way from understanding evil, or for that matter just plain being an asshole, but we all know what being victimized is like.
The Darwinian Arms Race
According to Dr Oakley, it all may have started in earnest about 10,000 years ago with the introduction of agriculture. Prior to that, there was little advantage in gaming the system. But with the beginning of densely-populated permanent settlements and sophisticated social structures came unlimited opportunities to climb to the top on the backs of others, with disproportionate benefits accruing to the successful.
The trusting and naive majority were no match for this new breed of Machiavellian. From their new positions of wealth and power, the successfully sinister acquired the opportunity to breed in vast numbers and thus pass on their genes.
But there was a major catch. As the ranks of the successfully sinister grew, there were fewer altruists left to prey upon. Moreover, the remaining altruists had picked up their own new set of coping mechanisms. Dr Oakley compares these back and forth shifts to a Darwinian arms race. Indeed, our higher cortical regions with their highly developed social software may have evolved eons earlier as protection against our scheming and opportunistic fellow humans.
Meanwhile, altruism carries its own selective advantages. Not everyone wants to mate with a Visigoth, for instance, much less have one in the neighborhood. The altruists (I'm using the term very loosely, here) may eventually gain the upper hand, but in the process they wind up sowing the seeds of a new generation of victims - ripe for plucking by a yet more sophisticated breed of the sinister. On and on it goes.
Fast forward to the chaos of the twentieth century and the type of environment the Emperor Caligula would have felt very much at home in. Hitler and Stalin certainly did. So did Mao.
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Chairman Mao - The Perfect "Borderpath"
According to Dr Oakley:
Mao was the most Machiavellian leader of the many Machiavellian leaders of the twentieth century. For three decades, he held absolute power over the lives of one-quarter of the world's population.
To give a sense of perspective: All the wars of the world from 1900 to 1987 resulted in 34 million combat dead. Mao murdered twice as many.
As a boy, Mao rebelled against his teachers and staged highly manipulative showdowns with his father - unheard of behavior in traditional Chinese society. The pattern continued into adulthood with a succession of wives and womanizing and the neglect and cruelty he visited upon his children. As an aspiring revolutionary, he was ousted from the Communist ranks six times for his lack of ability to play well with others.
The following appeared in one party circular:
He is extremely devious and sly, selfish and full of megalomania. To his comrades, he orders them around, frightens them with charges of crimes, and victimizes them ... His customary method regarding comrades ... is to use them as his personal tools.
Mao had the last word. Ultimately, he had his critics tortured to death.
His manipulative behavior continued as "Great Helmsman," playing off members of his inner circle against each other and bringing aboard new sycophants. Li Zhisui, Mao's doctor and longtime associate - described his hero as "devoid of human feeling, incapable of love, friendship, or warmth."
Li recounts sitting next to Mao at a performance. A young acrobat slipped and was seriously injured. The crowd was aghast, but Mao continued talking and laughing with no show of concern. There were occasions when Mao expressed sympathy, but according to Oakley, he lacked true empathy, the ability to put himself in the shoes of others.
Dr Oakley describes Mao as "the perfect borderpath." His sociopathic traits are fairly easy to pin down, but his behavior also included wild mood swings and lack of impulse control, not to mention lack of continuity with his own identity. In all probability, Mao did not even believe in Communism. As he said of himself: "My words and my deeds are inconsistent." Speaking with a forked tongue is normal in politicians, but Dr Oakley maintains Mao took it to pathological levels, such as admiring America in private while vilifying it in public.
Complicating matters was a heavy addiction to barbiturates, which may have exacerbated his underlying pathologies. He was also addicted to sex, any form, possibly as a comfort from psychic pain. Hypocritically, Mao required his own people to endure ultra-puritanical constraints.
Meanwhile, Mao launched his country on a ruinous course with one daft economic enterprise after another. Thirty million peasants died of the ensuing famine from his "Great Leap Forward" of 1958-60. Mao's response was to pretend it never happened. This type of "magical thinking" was a trademark of Mao's behavior. The trait is identified with schizotypal personality disorder (schizophrenia lite). Mao's second son had full-blown schizophrenia.
Another schizophrenia connection was his paranoia, which most likely served him well in his rise to power. Those who found themselves on his wrong side were decidedly less lucky.
Mao's "Cultural Revolution" beginning in 1966 resulted in at least three million dead and the persecution of another one hundred million. As opposed to Stalin, who conducted his crimes against humanity mostly in secret, Mao made a spectacle of his personal reign of terror, delighting in the public torture and execution of his victims.
For all this, Mao was a charmer, a trait he shared with Stalin and other dictators. Another trait in common was his own mystical notion of his role as leader and messiah, fed by a brand of narcissism that morally justified doing whatever he thought right, no matter how wrong.
Figuring Out Mao
Mao died in bed in 1976 at age 82, venerated as a God-figure while leaving his country destitute and in shambles. How, you may ask, could one man get away with wreaking such havoc? The only explanation that remotely makes sense is that time and place and circumstances created Mao, just as similar conditions had spawned Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and all the rest. Social, political, and economic chaos gave Mao his head start. And once he gained absolute power no force stood in his way to stop him.
One could argue that in a more stable society, Mao's outrageous psychopathy would have taken him out of the game at a very early age, but Dr Oakely reminds us that Mao was the ultimate Machiavellian, one inclined toward success. Thus:
In a capitalistic economic structure, Mao might have made his way to the top of a business enterprise. There, like a surprising number of managers today, he would have run roughshod over colleagues and subordinates while devising unreasonable programs even as he took out anyone who objected.
In politics, says Dr Oakley, an American-born Mao might have become a populist demagogue in the 1930s Huey Long mold (I will leave the obvious contemporary examples to others), rising to a high level of electoral success, but saddled with the major inconveniences of a free press and checks and balances.
Lest we congratulate ourselves on how Mao-proof our democracy is, the mini-Maos in our midst did a splendid job in running amok through the first decade of this millennium, thereby bringing the entire world economy to the brink of extinction in 2008. Ironically, the US was bailed out - at least temporarily - by post-Mao China. Scary thought.
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