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Out-Of-Touch Politicians? Power Is Damaging Their Brains

Why we should force the powerful to submit to psychological and neurological examinations on a regular basis.

Bad case of delusions of grandeur
Bad case of delusions of grandeur

-Essay-

SAO PAULO Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is one of the most famous maxims from 19th-century British politician Lord Acton. I couldn't agree more.

In 20 years of journalism, I've met and interviewed many politicians. With rare exceptions, they all displayed a level of imbecility that both impressed and frightened me. There are no ideological differences between these people. They only needed to occupy places of power for the imbecility to manifest itself.

I'm not talking about "imbecility" in the prosaic sense of the term — idiocy, stupidity, ignorance — although there were some specimens who could be described in those terms. I'm talking about another sort of imbecility: a certain estrangement from the real world, as if it didn't exist. They are living in a distant galaxy, where the mannerisms, the language and even the common sense of earthlings have ceased to be of any significance to them.

Power inhibits the capacity to empathize.

Later, as I watched some of them fall — for incompetence, unpopularity or corruption — what astonished me was not how childish their offenses were, it was their surprise at their fall. It was as if a giant meteorite had just struck them on the head. How do we explain their bewilderment?

Science offers some help. An article in the The Atlantic penned by Jerry Useem explains that psychology and neuroscience have reached the same conclusion — power can provoke brain damage.

Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Sukhvinder Obhi, a Canadian neuroscientist, have done studies on this. In behavioral (Keltner) or neural (Obhi) terms, power has a tendency to inhibit the capacity of the powerful to empathize.

To put it differently: We're all social beings. We all act and react according to the stimuli we get from others. No man is an island, as British poet John Donne once wrote. In situations of power, this dynamic is altered. The man of power tends to surround himself with sycophants who applaud his every word, approve of every move.

For mere mortals, his actions can appear impulsive, harmful or even criminal. For a man with power, they're necessary. His inhibitory circuits are, let's put it this way, anesthetized. The damage can be temporary or lasting.

There is a way to alleviate or even revert the symptoms: offering lessons in humility. This can be done by reminding a man of the moments in his life when he had to grapple with problems like the rest of us, what Useem calls "hubris-dispelling episodes'. According to the researchers, the brain starts working properly again when this "suspension of non-reality" occurs.

This is not a new approach. When Emperor Marcus Aurelius paraded through Rome, he would make a point of having a slave next to him whisper in his ear, "Remember you are mortal." Marcus Aurelius, in the face of his mortality, was a wise man. Democracy, however, isn't typically the regime of wise men.

If humility lessons tend to restore some balance, bring back court jesters.

If the relationship between the exercise of power and the physical brain can be problematic for citizens, we should test remedies offered by science.

How about having shorter, and obviously non-renewable, terms of office? Shortening the amount of time spent in power is a form of prophylaxis that could prevent the follies of domination from damaging the human brain. We could also have a constitutional clause that would force the powerful to submit to psychological and neurological examinations on a regular basis. They would only be allowed to carry on only if their results were clean.

If humility lessons tend to restore some balance, bring back court jesters. You read that right. After formal meetings, jesters could ridicule the leader and his minions. The jester, of course, would be immune from prosecution.

Another solution? Make presidents and ministers live one week a month in the same conditions as someone living on minimum wage. That would certainly offer some perspective.

"Remember you are mortal," the slave used to tell the emperor. Fortunately, slavery has been abolished. But we still have men who think they're immortal.

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Spencer Tunick Nude Installation in Israel

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Salam!*

Welcome to Monday, where the UK pays homage to slain MP David Amess, Myanmar frees thousands of prisoners, and Facebook gets ready to build its "metaverse." Please fasten your seatbelts: Worldcrunch also takes stock of the long-lasting effects — good and bad — the pandemic has had on the air travel industry.

[*Azeri - Azerbaijan]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

Myanmar to free political prisoners: Myanmar's junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has announced the release of 5,636 prisoners who had been jailed for protesting the coup that ousted the civilian government in February 2021.

• Powerful Haiti gang behind the kidnapping of U.S. missionaries: The notorious 400 Mawozo gang is believed to be behind the kidnapping in Haiti of a group of Christian missionaries, including 16 U.S. citizens and one Canadian. The brazen kidnapping on Saturday comes as crime is spiking since the killing of President Jovenel Moise in July.

• UK to pay tribute to David Amess: British lawmakers will pay homage in parliament to colleague David Amess, who was stabbed to death Friday in what was described by the police as a "terrorist incident." Officers arrested a 25-year-old suspect whose father, Harbi Ali Kullane, worked as a media adviser to a former prime minister of Somalia.

• COVID update: Russia has registered more than 34,000 cases of new infections in the past 24 hours, a new record since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, police in the northeast Italian city of Trieste used water cannons to clear striking dockworkers protesting Italy's new requirements that all employees be vaccinated.

• At least 26 killed in floods in India: Torrential rain has triggered floods and landslides in India's southern coastal state of Kerala, killing at least 26 people.

• Facebook to hire 10,000 in EU to develop "metaverse": The U.S. social media giant plans to hire 10,000 workers in the European Union over the next five years to build a "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet that the company touts as the future.

Punishing parents for children's bad behavior: After limiting gaming hours for minors, China is now considering legislation to reprimand parents if their children exhibit "very bad behavior" or commit crimes.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Colombian daily El Espectador dedicates its front page to Alex Saab, "owner of the secrets" of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The Colombian businessman, wanted by U.S. authorities for allegedly laundering money on behalf of Venezuela's government, has been extradited from Cape Verde to the U.S. where he is scheduled to appear in court today.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

4.9%

China's economy registered its slowest pace in a year as the country faces a looming energy crisis with power shortages and increasing pressure on its property sector. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the period between July-September rose 4.9%, the weakest numbers since the third quarter of 2020 and significantly lower than forecasts. The world's second-largest economy faces a debt crisis linked to the China Evergrande Group debt crisis, while energy shortfalls have dropped factory output to its weakest since early 2020, when heavy COVID-19 curbs were in place.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

7 ways the pandemic may change the airline industry for good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

⛽ Cleaner aviation fuel: With air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel. In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials

.🛃 Smoother check-in: The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

✈️ The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less? At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel, in particular, is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"The crimes committed that night are unforgivable for the Republic."

— Emmanuel Macron became the first French president to commemorate the killing of as many as 200 Algerian independence protesters by Parisian police in 1961. For 40 years, French officials ignored the massacre, which took place a year before Algeria gained its independence from France after an eight-year war. In 2012, French President François Hollande acknowledged the killings for the first time on a visit to Algeria, and Macron took it further by attending Sunday's commemoration at the site where the events happened in the French capital. Still, many had hoped the French President would go further and take responsibility for a "state massacre," for a crime many historians consider the most violent repression of a peaceful demonstration in post-War Europe.

📈💥  IN OTHER NEWS

​Low trust, high risk: The global rise of violence targeting politicians

The deadly stabbing of British Parliament Member David Amess confirms an ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad. In The Conversation, James Weinberg — the study's author and a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield — writes:

⏪ The assassination of Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on Friday, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councilor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

☝️ Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.

🇬🇧🇳🇿🇿🇦 Not only are these experiences of abuse or threats of physical violence felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK — they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile, from New Zealand to South Africa.


Read the full piece from The Conversation, now on Worldcrunch.com

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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