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Is Discussing Elite Psychology a Wasteful Trap?
I think it is.
Elites do a lot of wild, insane, ridiculous stuff.
In my view, there is a trap that people fall into where they try to figure out the psychology of elites. It’s perfectly natural to fall into this trap. What goes on in Donald Trump’s head? Joe Biden’s head? Mitch McConnell’s head? Justin Trudeau’s head? People spend hours and hours and hours trying to figure out whether Donald Trump is lying, or actually believes his falsehoods, or just has no concept of truth. People puzzle over what in the world Obama thinks, knows, believes.
The truth is that only the people close to elites are able to know what these people think, know, believe. It’s extremely hard to try to deduce what elites think, know, believe on the basis of what they publicly say/do.
At its root, the logic is that of the Grand Inquisitor, who bitterly assailed Christ for offering people freedom and thus condemning them to misery. The Church must correct the evil work of Christ by offering the miserable mass of humanity the gift they most desire and need: absolute submission. It must “vanquish freedom” so as “to make men happy” and provide the total “community of worship” that they avidly seek. In the modern secular age, this means worship of the state religion, which in the Western democracies incorporates the doctrine of submission to the masters of the system of public subsidy, private profit, called free enterprise. The people must be kept in ignorance, reduced to jingoist incantations, for their own good. And like the Grand Inquisitor, who employs the forces of miracle, mystery, and authority “to conquer and hold captive for ever the conscience of these impotent rebels for their happiness” and to deny them the freedom of choice they so fear and despise, so the “cool observers” must create the “necessary illusions” and “emotionally potent oversimplifications” that keep the ignorant and stupid masses disciplined and content.
Despite the frank acknowledgment of the need to deceive the public, it would be an error to suppose that practitioners of the art are typically engaged in conscious deceit; few reach the level of sophistication of the Grand Inquisitor or maintain such insights for long. On the contrary, as the intellectuals pursue their grim and demanding vocation, they readily adopt beliefs that serve institutional needs; those who do not will have to seek employment elsewhere. The chairman of the board may sincerely believe that his every waking moment is dedicated to serving human needs. Were he to act on these delusions instead of pursuing profit and market share, he would no longer be chairman of the board. It is probable that the most inhuman monsters, even the Himmlers and the Mengeles, convince themselves that they are engaged in noble and courageous acts. The psychology of leaders is a topic of little interest. The institutional factors that constrain their actions and beliefs are what merit attention.
Chomsky’s point is crucial, so let me re-quote it:
The psychology of leaders is a topic of little interest. The institutional factors that constrain their actions and beliefs are what merit attention.
This is a great point. You can spend hours trying to figure out what in the world goes on in Obama’s brain. It’s perfectly natural to wonder about such things, but it’s a complete waste of time. Chomsky also put it well here (I added a hyperlink):
CU: So is Obama brainwashed by the system?
NC: I don’t know anything about Obama. You’d have to ask his psychiatrist and his family. And I also don’t think it matters. I mean, I don’t care what, say, Brezhnev actually thought. I care what he did.
We shouldn’t care what goes on in the heads of elites. It’s a distraction. It’s a trap. Just this morning, I was wondering about what goes on in Mitch McConnell’s mind. I need to fight the tendency to wonder about such things. I need to avoid the trap going forward.
(I want to thank the CIA for putting Necessary Illusions online for everyone to enjoy for free. Click here and take a look at the URL.)