Words and actions

One of the things that often puzzles me about some public figures is how insensitive they are to what their words might seem to people who are suffering. Bush seems to be a classic case.

When questioned in December 2006 about how he is handling things, he says that “I’m sleeping a lot better than people would assume.”

This is a curious thing to say, and extraordinarily insensitive when you think about it. After all, tens of thousands of US soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed or injured as a result of his decisions. You would think that a person who had the weight of his decisions on his hands would worry at least a little about it and spend at least some time tossing and turning wondering how to improve the situation.

And yet, Bush goes out of his way to say that it does not bother him. What is baffling is why he would say it even if that is true. Surely he must realize that the families of the dead and injured US soldiers would expect him to not be so insouciant about it. Surely for the sake of sparing their feelings he would say that he does lose sleep wondering how to make sure their sacrifice was worth it. And yet, it seems to him to be more important to convey his own confidence that he is right than be concerned about how it might be perceived by others who are directly affected by his decisions.

In an interview with Buzzflash, Justin A. Frank, M.D., author of the book Bush on the Couch says that this is typical of sociopathic behavior:

A sociopath is. . .a person who can be very charming, but psychologically is so massively defended against experiencing guilt that he cannot feel empathy. If you don’t feel guilt, you can’t empathize, because you never can feel concern about having hurt somebody else, or anybody else suffering. Guilt reins in destructive behavior. But if you don’t have any guilt, you don’t have to feel any anxiety or anything that will hold you back in terms of being destructive or being hurtful. And that leads you to being unable to feel empathy, because empathy actually threatens your safety.

If you feel somebody else is in trouble, then you may feel you are obligated to do something about it. That’s something that is anathema to a psychopath, and it’s certainly anathema to Bush. So he is really incapable of feeling empathy. What he has figured out, with the help of his advisors, is to run as a “compassionate conservative” so he looks like a person who’s empathic. And his affability is what fooled a lot of people into making them feel that he really was connected to them, because he’s so charming. That is classic psychopathy.

This kind of insensitivity extends to other public figures. Recall former Secretary of State Madeline Albright saying in 1996 that the deaths of half a million Iraqi children as a result of the US-imposed sanctions was “worth it”, or the current Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice saying last month that that Iraq is “worth the investment” in American lives and dollars.

I am not naïve. When they say “worth it”, they are referring to their calculations about the willingness of the American public to continue to support their actions. And in Rice’s case, the families of the dead might feel even worse if they said the Iraq war was not worth it. But by saying these things in this way, they are insensitive to the fact that in the deals they have weighed and found satisfactory, the huge price involved being paid is by others. You would think that they would phrase their responses in such a way that it does not cause needless anguish to those actually paying that price through the deaths of their loved ones. Instead these political leaders come across as cold and callous and calculating.

In the early days of the Iraq war, Bush’s aides tried to portray a person who worried about the consequences of his actions. On April 2, 2003, as the initial invasion of Iraq was in full swing, aides tried to portray a president who “spends a lot of time stewing about the families of the slain, the safety of POWs and the flow of humanitarian aid into Iraq.” So far so good. But then they botched it by adding that “People who know Bush well say the strain of war is palpable. He rarely jokes with staffers these days and occasionally startles them with sarcastic putdowns. He’s being hard on himself; he gave up sweets just before the war began.” (my emphasis)

So Iraqi and American families are asked to sacrifice the lives of their loved ones for his war and in return Bush gives up sweets. Even when they try, they end up trivializing.

It has now been nearly four years since that war began. Iraqi and American lives are still being “sacrificed” and in his upcoming speech on a “new” policy in Iraq, we are told that Bush will call for an escalation of the troop levels in Iraq and emphasize the need for all of us to “sacrifice.”

I don’t believe that the sacrifices will be anything of the kind we normally associate with the word. We are not going to be asked to pay more taxes to fund an expansion of the war without driving up the debt. We are not going to have the draft reinstated. We are not going to be asked to tighten our belts and do without in any way. We are not going to be asked to do anything tangible because with Bush’s general job approval ratings now at only 30% and approval of his handling of Iraq at an astoundingly low level of 23%, it is unlikely that he will ask people to experience any real pain. When coupled with a very recent poll showing that “For the first time, more troops disapprove of the president’s handling of the war than approve of it. . .Barely one-third of service members approve of the way the president is handling the war”, it shows that the bottom has dropped out of Bush’s support for this war, something that he cannot help but realize.

I have long believed that there is no proposition, however idiotic, for which you cannot obtain about 10-20% support in opinion polls. For example, a recent Associated Press poll finds that 25% of Americans believe that 2007 will see the second coming of Jesus! (Jesus’ General astutely surmises that these must be the very same people who still approve of Bush’s handling of Iraq.) So Bush’s support has gone about as low as it can go. These editorial page cartoons pretty much sum up what people in general feel about the likely escalation (aka “surge”) that is to be announced soon in his speech.



In his much-hyped speech about what he is going to do next, what we will likely be told is to expect more of the same, apart from shifts in personnel. I expect to hear that the US occupation is going to be long and costly and that we must be patient and not expect any results from this ‘new’ plan for at least 18 months, which means that it will effectively last for more than two years, or until Bush leaves office and his successor is left to clean up the mess.

The ‘sacrifice’ asked of us will be to give up the right to criticize the actions of the worst president in US history.

POST SCRIPT: Misleading people about global warming

In August of last year, I wrote of how there were powerful economic forces that had a vested interest in creating confusion about global warming, in ways that were similar to how the tobacco industry tried to cloud the issue of whether smoking caused cancer.

It has now been revealed that:

ExxonMobil Corp. gave $16 million to 43 ideological groups between 1998 and 2005 in a coordinated effort to mislead the public by discrediting the science behind global warming
. . .
Alden Meyer, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ strategy and policy director, said in a teleconference that ExxonMobil based its tactics on those of tobacco companies, spreading uncertainty by misrepresenting peer-reviewed scientific studies or cherry-picking facts.

Dr. James McCarthy, a professor at Harvard University, said the company has sought to “create the illusion of a vigorous debate” about global warming.

The ExxonMobil executives do not care if future generations (even their own children and grandchildren) suffer from the effects of global warming as long as present profits are high.



  1. Paul Jarc says

    When they say “worth it”, they are referring to their calculations about the willingness of the American public to continue to support their actions.

    While that calculation is probably happening, and may even be in their minds when they make such statements, I don’t think that’s how they want the audience to understand those statements. I think they are trying to say something like “we are doing more good than harm, and preventing a worse outcome, which would be the result of inaction or different actions”. Of course, this still leaves open the questions of whether this is actually true, whether they actually believe it, and who receives the benefit of this course of action or would suffer from a different one.

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