Thursday, December 8, 2011

Chairman Mao: A Portrait in Evil

This is my fifth piece on Barbara Oakley’s eye-opening 2007 “Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend.” I stumbled into her book after a Google search involving Hitler and sociopathy. What prompted the search was Nassir Ghaemi’s recently published “A First-Rate Madness” that, among many other things, raised the extraordinary proposition that Hitler was far more “normal” than people give him credit for.

Yes, Hitler had a lot of stuff going on, including bipolar, Ghaemi acknowledges, but apparently this son of a Schiklgruber would have been just another Newt Gingrich had not his personal physician in 1937 turned him into the kind of raving meth addict that made invading Poland seem like a good idea.

All this begs the obvious question: What about the nutjob who published his lunatic ravings as “Mein Kampf” in 1926 - while serving a prison term for staging a shoot-out in the vicinity of a beer hall that was part of a crackpot attempt at a populist uprising?

We will save Hitler for another day. It turns out that Oakley’s book had a much better poster boy for her study in evil - Mao Zedong, “the perfect borderpath.” As you recall from yesterday’s piece, Dr Oakley views personality as far too complex to lend itself to easy DSM explanations. Nevertheless, the DSM can serve as a rough guide.

Thus, Dr Oakley sees elements of borderline and psycho/sociopathy (plus generous helpings of narcissism and paranoia) feeding into a take-no-prisoners Machiavellian mindset, what she calls “successfully sinister.” According to 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.

But to write off Mao as a garden variety sociopath is far too simplistic. Dr Oakley contends a lot of borderline stuff was going on, as well, including 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. Observes Oakley:

There is no evidence, for example, that British prime minster Winston Churchchill secretly admired the Nazis or despised Roosevelt.

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.

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 ...


This is the fifth in a series based on Barbara Oakley's book, "Evil Genes." Previous pieces:

Figuring Out Evil
Figuring Out Behavior
Brain Science and Recovery
Why Evil Works

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