#110 Selfishness

On June 6, 2017

Hello Everyone,

My wife, Penny Sebring, and I have just returned from a trip to South Africa with a group of students from Grinnell College.  At this top liberal arts college, they participate in a career exploration and planning program called Education Professions, which we started.  We travelled to Cape Town and Johannesburg to learn about their education systems in the context of the country’s racial history which has much in common with our own.

While we were there, we were frequently asked to explain how we could have possibly elected Donald Trump as our president.  I came to say that it was simply our nation’s period of “temporary insanity.”

While we were in South Africa in the spirit of trans-national cooperation, Trump announced that he had decided to withdraw from the Paris climate accord in a decidedly different spirit.

As usual, I found David Brooks’ column useful in making sense of that woefully wrong-headed decision (see attachment.)  In part, Brooks wrote:

This week, two of Donald Trump’s top advisers, H. R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, wrote the following passage in The Wall Street Journal: “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a cleareyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”

That sentence is the epitome of the Trump project. It asserts that selfishness is the sole driver of human affairs [emphasis added].

Selfishness is the operative word here.  And, the extreme manifestation of selfishness is narcissism, where the self is the epicenter of the universe.  Some of you may recall that I identified Trump as a narcissist in Obamagram #100, about 20 months ago, fairly early in the last campaign.  He continues to act true to form.

Brooks convincingly argues that self interest is not the only, nor even the dominate, force that drives human behavior.

In the essay, McMaster and Cohn make explicit the great act of moral decoupling woven through this presidency. In this worldview, morality has nothing to do with anything…Everything is about self-interest.

…Powerful, selfish people have always adopted this dirty-minded realism to justify their own selfishness. The problem is that this philosophy is based on an error about human beings and it leads to self-destructive behavior in all cases.

The error is that it misunderstands what drives human action. Of course people are driven by selfish motivations — for individual status, wealth and power. But they are also motivated by another set of drives — for solidarity, love and moral fulfillment — that are equally and sometimes more powerful.

People are wired to cooperate…

People have a moral sense…

People yearn for righteousness…

People are attracted by goodness and repelled by selfishness…

Good leaders like Lincoln, Churchill, Roosevelt and Reagan [and Mandela and Tutu] understand the selfish elements that drive human behavior, but they have another foot in the realm of the moral motivations…They try to motivate action by pointing toward great ideals.

Realist leaders like Trump, McMaster and Cohn seek to dismiss this whole moral realm. By behaving with naked selfishness toward others, they poison the common realm and they force others to behave with naked selfishness toward them…

They make our country seem disgusting in the eyes of the world.

That brings me full circle to our trip to South Africa.  One of the people we met with was Craig Paxton, a native South African and a colleague of Penny’s who founded and runs an educational NGO called Axium in a very rural area in the east.  In that most unlikely of places, he employs research done by Penny and her UChicago Consortium partners that discovered that five factors, or Essential Supports, are necessary for creating effective school cultures.  Apropos of Brooks’ observations, this research emphasizes the power of collaboration among all of the adults involved in children’s education – school leaders, teachers, and families – all in an atmosphere of “relational trust.”

The contrasts between those research findings on collaboration and their shared application between nations 9,000 miles apart, on the one hand, and Trump’s most recent display of selfishness could not be more stark.

I also continue to see almost all of his behavior, from his major decisions to his most banal tweets – not in conventional political terms, like “playing to his base” – but simply as efforts to attract non-stop attention.  Only in this way, can he feed the insatiable demons of his narcissism — the most extreme form of selfishness.

Similarly, while in South Africa, it is hard to avoid the lessons that apartheid (the Afrikaans word for “apart” and “hood”) has to teach us.  Apartheid in South Africa, and Bannon-style white supremacy in our own country, are both prime examples of selfishness run amok.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


adobe pdf file

Brooks – Donald Trump Poisons the World – NYT 6-2-17



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