March 22, 2017

April 11, 2010

The Meritocracy as an Asperger’s Convention

I agree with the gist of this thesis—lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the basic childishness and emotional stuntedness of many of our “leaders”—both in TEC and in the US.  But I’m not confident that it’s the equivalent of an Aspergers syndrome, as these folks are able to function temporarily in public and on a social level.  But the emotional immaturity is striking and very strange to behold—it’s as if one is standing by, watching a 3rd or 4th grade schoolyard recess time.  I’m not sure what to call it but I don’t think Aspergers fits the bill.

From the Lehrman American Studies blog, where there is more:

David Brooks’s recent New York Times editorial on the problems of our contemporary meritocracy in the United States recalls an earlier editorial he penned in the wake of the Eliot Spitzer scandal.

In the earlier editorial, Brooks opined that Spitzer typified the character flaws that Ivy League universities promote.  They cultivate narcissist achievers with little attention to moral virtue and civic friendship.  As a result, even common sense observation of their social interaction tells us that they are too immature to handle the levers of power:

I don’t know if you’ve seen a successful politician or business tycoon get drunk and make a pass at a woman. It’s like watching a St. Bernard try to French kiss. It’s all overbearing, slobbering, desperate wanting. There’s no self-control, no dignity.

These Type A men are just not equipped to have normal relationships. All their lives they’ve been a walking Asperger’s Convention, the kings of the emotionally avoidant. Because of disuse, their sensitivity synapses are still performing at preschool levels.

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Yeah, don’t insult people with Asperger’s by comparing them to people who choose not to exercise self-control.

[1] Posted by Ralinda on 4-11-2010 at 01:53 PM · [top]

Asperger’s is not an apt analogy.

[2] Posted by Jill Woodliff on 4-11-2010 at 03:18 PM · [top]

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  That is attributed to Lord Acton in an 1887 letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton.  Acton added “Great men are almost always bad men.”

I agree with the first phrase, “Power tends to corrupt …”.  I tend to disagree that absolute power corrupts absolutely.  I have never witnessed, directly or vicariously, absolute power and therefore doubt that it exists in any human being; if it did, it certainly has the potential, but not the certainty, of corrupting absolutely.  I disagree emphatically that “great men are almost always bad men.” 

All of us, all humans, have some power, some very little, some a great deal, but we all have some power.  The way we exercise that power, however great or small, contributes to how we and others define us.

Teachers, swimming coaches, priests, those with authority over others in church, government, military and business hierarchies, parents, older siblings, spouses, police officers, security guards and bank lending officers, all have power; most are not corrupted by it.

We seem to have an obsession to label behaviors.  Attempting to “diagnose” the behaviors described by von Heyking as Asperger’s is inappropriate, in my view.  How about “wrong”?  Why can’t we just describe the behavior cited as “wrong”?  Must we stoop to the level of Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s Chief of Staff, who referred recently to a colleague’s suggestion as “(expletive deleted) retarded”?  Why not just “wrong” or “dysfunctional” or “inconsistent with our goals and values”?  Must we paint all those with Asperger’s Syndrome with the shame of the behaviors of those von Heyking describes?

Jill Woodliff, God bless her and George+, said it right: “Asperger’s is not an apt analogy”.  Instead, how about “wrong”, “harmful”, “sinful”, “inconsistent with our goals and values”?

Speaking of abuse of power, are we not abusing the “power of the pen” and the particular megaphone in use when we use such analogies or labels?
God bless.

[3] Posted by Ol' Bob on 4-11-2010 at 04:08 PM · [top]


lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the basic childishness and emotional stuntedness of many of our “leaders”

-When I think of Aspergers Syndrom, I think of kids who are victimized and bullied. If they become leaders, it is because they are people with unique contributions such as Bill Gates or people who are appointed such as Rowan Williams. When I think of our leaders, narcissists comes to mind. They are similar to sociopaths who are listed as a possible differential diagnosis. The childish/impulsive aspect is more a part of characteristics that belongs to sociopaths. Planning not impulsiveness is more characteristic of the narcissist. Sociopaths appear to respond to challenges in the same way as someone who has sustained an injury to the prefrontal cortex. John Edwards is an example of someone who fits the prototype narcissist leader label. The first strategy of a sociopath is to charm or con. If that fails they go directly to force. They do not negotiate. Both narcissists and sociopaths see others as the problem, lack any real insight and do not profit from corrective feedback

[4] Posted by Fr. Dale on 4-11-2010 at 04:22 PM · [top]

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the basic childishness and emotional stuntedness of many of our “leaders”

Actually, I do this alot and have for a long time.  Just earlier today I wandered over to “Thinking” Anglicans to see how they responded to the Abp. Orombi and GAFCON letters.  This pretty much sums up my reaction:

It’s like watching a St. Bernard try to French kiss. It’s all overbearing, slobbering, desperate wanting. There’s no self-control, no dignity.

I also noticed the total absence of reasserting commentary.  I know leftists aren’t always greeted warmly on conservative blogs but they are certianly welcome and their right to voice their opinion is usually defended.  Why does the Left fear free speech?

[5] Posted by Nikolaus on 4-11-2010 at 05:01 PM · [top]

My daughter has Aspergers and I take great offense in comparing her to those in power in TEC and in the US Government.  My daughter is much better than that.

The problem with TEC is not psychological - it is moral.  It is not that many of our bishops have psychological issues, but that they lack the moral formation necessary to be uncorrupted by power.

Phil Snyder

[6] Posted by Philip Snyder on 4-11-2010 at 05:50 PM · [top]

Philip Snyder (#6)

The problem with TEC is not psychological - it is moral.

Amen, brother Phil.  That is also the problem with all of Heyking’s little stories.

God bless.

[7] Posted by Ol' Bob on 4-11-2010 at 06:11 PM · [top]

[8] Posted by Jeffersonian on 4-11-2010 at 06:47 PM · [top]

My autistic kid shows more empathy than the elitists described in the article.

[9] Posted by Timothy Fountain on 4-11-2010 at 07:06 PM · [top]

Just in case anyone is trembling to say differently I would like to point out that I did not agree that the meritocracy has aspergers!!!!!

[10] Posted by Sarah on 4-11-2010 at 08:24 PM · [top]

The comments making the comparison of Aspergers to Meritocracy was actually by David Brooks and quoted in the article by John von Heyking. The major problem as I see it is that Brooks offered a misinformed and incorrect layman’s “diagnosis” as an excuse for behavior better attributed to a personality disorder. This behavior is their fault and they are culpable. The correct placement for Sociopaths for example is jail not a mental institution.

[11] Posted by Fr. Dale on 4-11-2010 at 08:48 PM · [top]

And not wanting to be misunderstood, I do not think Aspergers folks need to be institutionalized. Most do not even require special educational instruction.

[12] Posted by Fr. Dale on 4-11-2010 at 08:54 PM · [top]

Fr. Dale hits it spot-on in #11. It is particularly offensive to have Autism Spectrum-disordered people (who can’t comprehend their differences compared to the typical world) compared to the personality disordered (who CAN comprehend their differences, even if they find “fitting into” the typical world difficult.) I agree whole-heartedly with Phil in #6; these failures are moral and not clinical. If we spent more time calling out morally reprehensible behavior, rather than excusing so-called “clinical problems,” I think we’d have fewer Eliot Spitzers feeling free to feed their own egos.

Oh, and by the way: let’s be fair here. Politicians (or other powerful people) on the right/conservative end of the spectrum are JUST as likely to have moral failings as those on the left. Bernie Madoff’s failings are arguably just as “evil” and sociopathic as were Spitzer’s. Newt Gingrich was no different than Bill Clinton. Sinfulness occurs across political lines, so let’s not pretend one side or the other is more righteous.

OK, off my soap box…

[13] Posted by old believers on 4-11-2010 at 10:41 PM · [top]

Sarah, you’re right, the Asperger’s comparison is waaay off. Heyking’s comments make me see red-you’d think someone with his level of education would know better.
Count me in with Phil Snyder and Timothy Fountain, I have an adult son with AS who could teach Heyking, a thing or three about compassion and empathy.

[14] Posted by Invicta on 4-11-2010 at 10:49 PM · [top]

I think I agree with Fr. Dale—narcissistic personality disorder may be the likely diagnosis.  And that personality disorder is also a moral and character issue, no doubt.

[15] Posted by Sarah on 4-12-2010 at 09:12 AM · [top]

Let’s remember who David Brooks is: A sissy, who disdains the Tea Party movement, despises Sarah Palin, and is weirdly enamored of the perfect crease in Barack Obama’s pants. His comparison to Asperger’s is off by a mile, and he’s blissfully unaware that his criticism of the meritocracy applies first of all to himself.

[16] Posted by Greg Griffith on 4-12-2010 at 09:20 AM · [top]

I think I agree with his original article though, which is here:

And I don’t think that Brooks would end up making a pass at a woman in a dinner party.  All the other things you say about Brooks are probably correct, though.

Here’s the line I most agree with:

“Every society produces its own distinct brand of social misfits, I suppose, but our social structure seems to produce significant numbers of people with rank-link imbalances. That is to say, they have all of the social skills required to improve their social rank, but none of the social skills that lead to genuine bonding. They are good at vertical relationships with mentors and bosses, but bad at horizontal relationships with friends and lovers.”

This gets me back to the point, which is that I’m observing lots of bishops and Presidents running around acting like small schoolyard sneering bullies, as in the way Obama treated the Israeli leader recently.  I marveled at the put-downs and slights that he freely distributed. 

To put it another way.  I can see executing Saddam Hussein.  But I can’t see inviting Hussein to dinner at my place and walking out of the room with instructions for him to call me when he changes his mind about my list of demands, among other exercises of mocking ugly small-child behavior.

[17] Posted by Sarah on 4-12-2010 at 09:54 AM · [top]

“If we spent more time calling out morally reprehensible behavior, rather than excusing so-called “clinical problems,” I think we’d have fewer Eliot Spitzers feeling free to feed their own egos”.

All of you have good intentions but seek to mix apples and oranges, I think. 

First, Brooks should lay off amateur-shrink, or at least make effort to understand the psychiatric phenomena he attempts to relate and describe. 

Asperger’s is way off, and grossly unfair to all the people who truly suffer from such syndromes.  It is also a different DSM axis from personality disorders. 

Personality disorders ARE clinical problems but by no means are they globally “excused”.  Also bear in mind that there is a ton of stuff out there that can be DIAGNOSED, but not necessarily treated.  In many cases, where treatment can’t be “forced”(say in the context of involuntary commitment) success of treatment will depend on the patient’s willingness to be treated, not to mention the capacity for insight. 

The latter is sorely lacking in and hallmarks NPD. 

An NPDer can have moral fiber, but he/she will only have it in the context of him/herself and his/her own needs.  In not caring about others, the NPDer can appear immoral, but may not totally be. 

When it comes to an NPDer, you can “call out” morally-reprehensible behavior all you want, but their clinical problem and utter lack of insight, except to serve and validate themselves, will cause your attempt at behavior-change to fall on utterly deaf ears.

I wouldn’t say that NPDers are as lost of a cause as sociopaths, but they’re probably close.  Those who are the worst, are both; e.g. like the Green River Killer, who had no conscience in his killing but also eventually had profound needs for attention in verbally describing many details of what he did, to the police and others. 

In layman’s terms, I’d probably characterize narcissists as “sponges”, but sociopaths as “bulldozers”.  Hitler is also an example of someone who was both. 

He may not have said it right, but Brooks has done a service by discussing this in a public forum.  There’s a lot of NPD out there; it’s largely not treatable due to the “sufferer’s” unwillingness to self-reflect and self-evaluate(and thus, change behaviors), and it’s grossly dangerous and toxic in public figures and leaders, because their influence can be vast. 

The general public should try to note this whenever it goes to the polls—because, if you elect a narcissist to any office, he/she will only care to ultimately serve him/herself, regardless of campaign promises or the gift of gab. Constituents’ needs, individual or corporate, will always be secondary.

[18] Posted by Anti-Harridan on 4-12-2010 at 10:22 AM · [top]

David Brooks is a regular columnist for the NYT, is he not? What else would you expect for the paper alternatively, and not particularly inaccurately, referred to as “Hell’s Bible?”

Pax et bonum,
Keith Töpfer

[19] Posted by Militaris Artifex on 4-12-2010 at 10:33 AM · [top]


That is to say, they have all of the social skills required to improve their social rank, but none of the social skills that lead to genuine bonding. They are good at vertical relationships with mentors and bosses, but bad at horizontal relationships with friends and lovers.”

I disagree and think Brooks is missing the boat here. He is talking as if these folks were exhibiting social skill imbalances. He is not describing a personality deficit. He confuses the issue with his inappropriate comment about Aspergers. In a way, he is saying that they have become specialists in vertical advancement. I have known my share of successful folks and most deserve the success they have achieved. They are balanced, egalitarian humane and authentic people with tremendous leadership skills. The people he is describing are impostors who rarely get to the top and if they do, what got them there will keep them from remaining there. Those with good horizontal relationships are great survivors in an organization even when their skills are less than optimal.

[20] Posted by Fr. Dale on 4-12-2010 at 10:54 AM · [top]

At first I read the blurb by von Heyking, then the original op-ed by Brooks. 

It’s not a bad conversation-starter, and like Sarah I agree with Brooks’s original premise.  But, he’s trying to write about 4 op-eds in one. 

It’s also an unfair characterization to say that all type-A men are socially-maladjusted.  Maturity and self-esteem, not to mention people’s reaction to stress over time, are very complicated issues and are probably best-described on an individual case-by-case basis. 

That said, it is true we are seeing many problems like NPD in a lot of public figures with vast influence, which is not good.  A psychologist friend of mine(and he’s GREAT at what he does) recently said, “Things would be a lot better if I could just get more people off Axis II”...and frankly, I can tell you for a fact, if HE can’t, then nobody can. 

Why these things happen and how they can be addressed will be the subjects of many forthcoming PhD dissertations.  My dime-store psychology would be that we need to be most careful about what we are teaching and how we are treating our children in the home.  Bad seeds will always be possible, but moral fiber can be taught in the home from a young age, and children raised with the correct amount of love, security, and limits in the home have a greater possibility of avoiding self-esteem issues that lead to narcissism and destruction of others and self.  Quantity and quality time with children is important, and they should also be taught that people need to earn a living but should not be slaves for “more”, “the maximum for the minimum or the maximum for the maximum”, even when one truly doesn’t need the maximum—“more” is not always necessarily “better”. 

Parents have to note the time they are spending with and what they are teaching their children, both through instruction and example. 

Off the soapbox…

[21] Posted by Anti-Harridan on 4-12-2010 at 11:12 AM · [top]

I was part of a group that helped write the training standards for school counselors/psychologists and social workers.The California legislative mandate for training standards included “self esteem”. Some of you may be familiar with the “I am special” curriculum too. Generic standard eight was titled “Self Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility”. This was an attempt on the part of our panel to temper the state mandate. There was too much emphasis on the I am special part and not enough emphasis on the I am responsible part.

[22] Posted by Fr. Dale on 4-12-2010 at 11:31 AM · [top]

RE: “The people he is describing are impostors who rarely get to the top and if they do, what got them there will keep them from remaining there.”

Fr. Dale, but Brooks is talking about those people who—mysteriously—*have* gotten to the top.  These are people with incredible power and who have certainly known enough, socially and achievement/drive-wise, to climb the ladder and succeed.

But they are also somehow capable of sneering and jeering and bullying people whom they perceive as inferiors or peers.

Surely there is some sort of imbalance there.  If one smarms and swarms up the ladder they’re clearly capable of being nice.  But behaving like a small child on national television—there’s something wrong there.

[23] Posted by Sarah on 4-12-2010 at 08:45 PM · [top]

Many of these people have what others consider to be unique skills that outweigh moral and emotional maladjustment. You can name lots of folks who have made it to the top of a particular profession because of unique skills. Surgeons, Musicians, Sports figures and Movie Stars for example. Timothy Geitner is a good example of someone with extraordinary financial skills who was excused from other failings because he was supposedly the only man who could bail us out financially. These virtuoso skills are recognized early and folks are molly coddled, nurtured, protected and catered to. Many parents devote their lives to these golden children and this helps create the sense of being special and being adored. They come to expect this treatment from everyone but are not emotionally mature. Being gifted in one area is somewhat different than being what is called and idiot savant but a similar imbalances exists. And thus you have some folks who make it to the top and are tolerated SOB’s because they provide a unique service/skill. They are not sympathetic characters. They generally see themselves as misunderstood and unappreciated. They would have pushed people aside to get to Titanic’s lifeboats.

[24] Posted by Fr. Dale on 4-12-2010 at 10:12 PM · [top]


But I think in this instance the unique skill is social ability.  I don’t think that various politicians are where they are because they have some astounding skill—other than the ability to climb the ladder—they are “good at vertical relationships” and they actually have relationship skills.

We may actually be arguing over nothing here.

[25] Posted by Sarah on 4-13-2010 at 07:41 AM · [top]

I thought we were just throwing out some ideas. With politicians, there are no market forces at work. An incumbent has a tremendous advantage in staying put. I think that is why term limits as a corrective factor is attractive. The great skill of Politicians is their ability to be a chameleon. They can take on the color of the background and they are cold blooded. Bill Clinton could bond with anyone but it was a bonding of parasite to host.

[26] Posted by Fr. Dale on 4-13-2010 at 07:51 AM · [top]

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