The autistic confederacy

Sam Smith, 2002 – The French students who drew a connection between contemporary economics and autism have made one of the more profound observations of our time. Technically, the kind of autism exhibited by leading economists – and (although the students did not note it) leaders in politics and media – is called higher functioning autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. Here are some professional descriptions:

“Asperger’s Syndrome, also known as Asperger’s Disorder or Autistic Psychopathy, is a Pervasive Developmental Disorder characterized by severe and sustained impairment in social interaction, development of restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities. These characteristics result in clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. In contrast to Autistic disorder (Autism), there are no clinically significant delays in language or cognition or self help skills or in adaptive behavior, other than social interaction. Prevalence is limited but it appears to be more common in males . . . Adults with Asperger’s have trouble with empathy and modulation of social interaction – the disorder follows a continuous course and is usually lifelong . . . ”

“There is a general impression that Asperger’s syndrome carries with it superior intelligence and a tendency to become very interested in and preoccupied with a particular subject. Often this preoccupation leads to a specific career at which the adult is very successful . . . ”

Nothing so well describes the monocular mania over “free markets” and related clichés that has characterized the thoughts and words of our elite since the days of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. What better description of our typical political or media leader than: “Has an average or above average intelligence. Has highly developed language skills. Lacks social interaction skills. Exhibits inappropriate behavioral response to social situations. Lacks understanding of humor or irony . . .”

There has never been the slightest logical reason for believing that all of life’s mysteries could be explained by reference to quarterly reports, yet over the past couple of decades this has become a wildly held assumption of those in charge of running our country, from the think tanks to the White House to NPR.

Critics have struggled vainly to suggest the contrary with a notable lack of success. The reason is now obvious: they have attempted to defeat pathology with logic. It doesn’t work, not because the single-factor obsessives are idiots or even evil, but because they are afflicted.

And it’s far from just a matter of Reaganomics. Politics have come to be characterized by the serial introduction of small ideas of even smaller rationality but which soon find themselves elevated to iconographic status in everything from op ed pages to the federal budget.

Among them: the fictional huge federal surplus, the even more fictional Bush tax cut, the false depiction of the status of Social Security, the enormously expensive capture and imprisonment those who prefer marijuana to vodka, the very autistic assumption that counting student test scores is the same as educating students, and, most recently, an obsession with anti-terrorism to the detriment of every other aspect of American existence.

Key to the Asperger style of politics and media is the constant repetition of thought patterns and the imperviousness of the practitioners’ thinking to outside fact or argument. The technical name for this is perseveration which has been defined as “the persistent repetition of a response after cessation of the causative stimuli; for example, the repetition of a correct answer to one question as the answer to succeeding questions,” an almost perfect description of what regularly occurs on your average Sunday talk show. A less technical but even more generally apt definition is “continuation of something usually to an exceptional degree or beyond a desired point.”

How did it happen that we have become cursed with a perseverating elite that endlessly repeats the same thoughts to whatever is said to it, and which insists on pursuing ideas well past any possible usefulness? Well, one theory is that the SAT has played a role, helping to choose an establishment that, while seemingly diverse, is actually disproportionately comprised of those of above average intelligence but who think life consists mainly of coming up with the right answers. In their own ways, both Clinton and Bush (not to mention Ted Koppel and Jim Lehrer) have manifested this disconnect between “policy,” i.e. the right answer, and something called life which is in the end an imaginative and moral creation and not merely a technical problem.

This is a matter of no little concern. Those of us still willing to let the empirical, the non-quantifiable, and the creative into our lives are being bullied, twisted, and threatened by a politically autistic confederacy at every level from the obdurate local bureaucrat to CNN with its propagandistic mantras parading as news to a president who doesn’t know when to stop saying “terrorist.” At its worst, the privatized and gated logic of our leaders is of the same ilk that once created a nation of good Germans willing to follow the pathology of a few.

Silently, without argument or recognition, the logic of our nation has drastically changed – from “show me” to “tell me,” from experience to propaganda, from the empirical to the virtual, and from debate and discussion to addictive perseveration.

Autistic epilogue

SOME WEEKS BACK I put forth the hypothesis that a growing portion of America’s elite suffers from higher functioning autism, a disability characterized by, in one definition, “severe and sustained impairment in social interaction, development of restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities.” The higher functioning autistic is typically quite intelligent and verbal but has a closed loop sort of mind resistant to new information and ideas that normal observation and interaction offer.

It is not clear that this, in the case of the elite, is a genetic problem. Rather, there is a strong suspicion that late 20th century higher education – particularly at certain well known law and business schools – has been more influential. For example, a woman who works at the World Bank reports that she prepared two policy options for her boss who, after a quick review, declared option A clearly preferable. The woman spent a restless night going over the matter and by daylight had concluded the opposite: option B was better. She cautiously told her boss of her concerns and he promptly responded that, okay, they would follow option B. But you were so certain about option A, she said. Oh that, he explained, was just something he had learned at the Harvard Business School: to always be decisive.

Here is further evidence that something strange is going on in the minds of the elite. To accept the notion that America is the greatest empire of all history, we must ignore that fact that America’s greatest military and economic icons – the Pentagon and the World Trade Center – were recently damaged or destroyed by a few angry young men armed with box cutters. We have to ignore the fact that our boundless power over Afghanistan has been achieved through the dismantling of our Constitution, a massive propagation of paranoia, the strip searching of grandmothers, and other dysfunctions not typical of a well-functioning, smug empire. And your typical empire does not ask the Norwegian air force to provide cover for its major cities. Further, demonstrating massive power over Afghanistan is not all that good a measure of imperial might given that our bombs cost a couple times more than the Afghan GDP.

A rational person might assume that September 11 was – regardless of what one wants to do about it – a tragedy revealing some deep problems in the way we have been functioning. But it would appear that some members of our elite — who have been infatuated with words like hegemony ever since they first heard them in Gov 101 – have extracted exactly the reverse meaning, namely that the attacks have revealed us to be now the biggest, baddest, and best empire the world have ever known. To them, a mind is a clearly a terrible thing to waste on new information.

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