Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely

November 13, 2009

 

In my time as a newspaper reporter I often had to interview famous people, and I noticed that film stars, sports idols and in general those who had earned their reputation by entertaining us were invariably the easiest to be with, while heads of state and corporate CEOs who wielded enormous power over others often left me feeling in some way violated. Afterwards, in my hotel room, I would try to figure out why I, a combative Irishman with no respect for wealth or rank, would feel somehow soiled by the encounter.

In seeking an answer to the riddle, first we have to acknowledge that large and complex organizations – such as a country or a major corporation – cannot be run by a committee, whatever the outward appearance may be, and even a committee must have a strong chairman. So we habitually appoint a heavyweight individual to direct proceedings, and we cede him considerable power for the purpose. Such jobs attract a particular type of person having particular characteristics.

We ordinary people occasionally have base impulses, but are restrained from imposing them on others by a comprehensive system of law and order and by the opinion of our fellows, but the power-seeker is not like that. From childhood he has come to believe that rules are for lesser folk, to be disregarded whenever convenient. So, not unlike the habitual criminal, the dedicated power-seeker is, to a greater or lesser extent, a sociopath.

But something more than just absence of conscience is needed to reach the heights. Power is not achieved by individual effort: the power-seeker needs accomplices who hope to profit from association with a leader and who are easily persuaded that questionable measures are justified. And beyond these is an army of fence-sitters, who have to be regularly convinced that what is happening, albeit distasteful, is for the greater good, and it is to this group that the power-seeker, or even the power-holder, must direct the full force of his personality.

When analyzing my reactions after interviewing the mighty, I at first thought the peculiar feeling of weakness, of desire to cooperate, was baggage I myself had brought to the meeting, influenced by the subject’s reputation. But that didn’t explain the sense of having been used, and against my will. Finally, I had to conclude that successful power-addicts are master hypnotists who can convince a roomful of doubters or even a whole legislature that black is white and wrong is right. How else explain the groveling respect paid to thugs such as Hitler and Mao, or a hundred others in our own day?

Lastly, I cannot omit mentioning that a high proportion of power-holders are almost ludicrously oversexed, justifying the conclusion that they originally sought power not for the dubious pleasure of  exercising it, but for the opportunity it affords to influence a wide circle of attractive admirers, who, for sound biological reasons, are drawn as moth to flame by the indefinable aura of power.

So if the old story is true that a hypnotist cannot make you do something you don’t want to do, then we may draw our own conclusions about the behavior of attractive moths.

 

In my time as a newspaper reporter I often had to interview famous people, and I noticed that film stars, sports idols and in general those who had earned their reputation by entertaining us were invariably the easiest to be with, while heads of state and corporate CEOs who wielded enormous power over others often left me feeling in some way violated. Afterwards, in my hotel room, I would try to figure out why I, a combative Irishman with no respect for wealth or rank, would feel somehow soiled by the encounter.

In seeking an answer to the riddle, first we have to acknowledge that large and complex organizations – such as a country or a major corporation – cannot be run by a committee, whatever the outward appearance may be, and even a committee must have a strong chairman. So we habitually appoint a heavyweight individual to direct proceedings, and we cede him considerable power for the purpose. Such jobs attract a particular type of person having particular characteristics.

We ordinary people occasionally have base impulses, but are restrained from imposing them on others by a comprehensive system of law and order and by the opinion of our fellows, but the power-seeker is not like that. From childhood he has come to believe that rules are for lesser folk, to be disregarded whenever convenient. So, not unlike the habitual criminal, the dedicated power-seeker is, to a greater or lesser extent, a sociopath.

But something more than just absence of conscience is needed to reach the heights. Power is not achieved by individual effort: the power-seeker needs accomplices who hope to profit from association with a leader and who are easily persuaded that questionable measures are justified. And beyond these is an army of fence-sitters, who have to be regularly convinced that what is happening, albeit distasteful, is for the greater good, and it is to this group that the power-seeker, or even the power-holder, must direct the full force of his personality.

When analyzing my reactions after interviewing the mighty, I at first thought the peculiar feeling of weakness, of desire to cooperate, was baggage I myself had brought to the meeting, influenced by the subject’s reputation. But that didn’t explain the sense of having been used, and against my will. Finally, I had to conclude that successful power-addicts are master hypnotists who can convince a roomful of doubters or even a whole legislature that black is white and wrong is right. How else explain the groveling respect paid to thugs such as Hitler and Mao, or a hundred others in our own day?

Lastly, I cannot omit mentioning that a high proportion of power-holders are almost ludicrously oversexed, justifying the conclusion that they originally sought power not for the dubious pleasure of  exercising it, but for the opportunity it affords to influence a wide circle of attractive admirers, who, for sound biological reasons, are drawn as moth to flame by the indefinable aura of power.

So if the old story is true that a hypnotist cannot make you do something you don’t want to do, then we may draw our own conclusions about the behavior of attractive moths.

 

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