Another Perspective

Has Weiner Lost His Head?

From a frank discussion with a head expert about the minds of misbehaving politicians.

By 7.29.13

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In times like these, newspaper pages are peppered with gossip swirling around the scandal. Who is the girl? Will we see more texts, more photos, more scurrilous details? Will the wife stand by her man?

Blah, blah, blah and blasé.

Whether it’s San Diego’s Mayor Filner, or NYC’s Wanna be Mayor Weiner -- or all the ones we’ve loved before -- no one is talking about the science behind this recurring saga of political science.

I’d like to crack this nut, once and for all.

I write with contemplative compassion because we’re all so very human, so very fallible, so very flawed. But most of us would be mortified if our foibles were to be exposed… to the world. The huge embarrassment would have me hiding under my bed in the fetal position. Even in today’s world of disgustingly sordid behavior that is -- sadly -- increasingly accepted as the norm.

 “The desire to show one’s genitals ends at the age of four or five,” says Dr. Jonathan Pincus, former chairman of neurology at Georgetown University and author of Base Instincts, which details his research on the brains of men in trouble.

When I was six, I experienced this very thing when André, the five-year old boy next-door foisted his wiener on me in front of our other little friends playing with us in the garden shed. I squealed with horror as I ran for the door. But he stood in front of it exhibiting, as boys also do, a bit of nascent male power.

Understandable in little boys but not acceptable in big boys.

A primitive display that’s truly a relic of our evolutionary psychology dating back to our cave days of hunters and gatherers when men had to grunt and wield big clubs to show strength and dominance.

André was duly punished by his parents who unwittingly knew a very essential biological truth: That negative reinforcement helps teach a child that this sort of behavior is inappropriate, dysfunctional, and self-destructive in the big grown-up playground called society.

Some science, simplified: It is the frontal lobe, the executive bit of the brain, that is accordingly rewired as it grows up to control all sorts of primitive impulses that come from deep within the brain and to determine when certain emotions and behavior are appropriate or not for a situation.

The frontal lobe prevents us, say, from telling somebody they’re incompetent because we’ll hurt their feelings. Or it tells us to give up a seat for an old person on a bus even if we are exhausted. There are infinite examples in life as I am sure you know.

So why did this head -- this frontal lobe -- in question permit the grubby sexting, the lies, and more grubby sexting after the lies?

Never mind the massive embarrassment to self and family…

Why do the likes of John Edwards, Bill Clinton, Mark Foley, Mark Sanford, Bob Filner, and the eponymously named Carlos Danger get dangerously close to the edge of ruining their political career? If not ending it altogether?

Could it be little Johnny’s, Billy’s, Markie’s, Bobby’s and Tony’s little neuronal branches weren’t pruned by parental punishment? Or because helmets didn’t exist back then to prevent neurological lesions in the frontal lobe resulting in bad behavior beyond their control? Or is it pure testosterone? It’s certainly a high-octane hormone but it does have its limits. Believe it or not.

Whatever it is, the culprit is naturally and always inside our little head. The extremely complicated three pounds of tissue, the governor of all creatures -- and their thoughts and behavior -- great and small.

There’s a joke amongst psychiatric circles that if all the narcissistic politicians were exiled to the moon we wouldn’t be left but with a handful. Yup, the good ol’ narcissistic personality disorder so well depicted by Narcissus who, as the ancient Greek myth goes, is so self-absorbed in staring at his beautiful reflection in the fountain, he falls right over the edge. Time and time again.

You can’t expose yourself to the devastating attacks and destructive scrutiny of running for office unless you have the narcissist’s insatiable need for adulation that far outweighs the guaranteed wounds from the slings and arrows during a campaign and throughout your political life.

And unless you’re armed and shielded with distorted feelings of self-importance, a sense of entitlement and megalomaniacal beliefs, running for office is another disorder. Masochism.

 A narcissist’s inability to empathize means they think nothing of exploiting or manipulating others to fill their own needs -- with idealistic silly young girls as targets -- particularly the unrelenting need to be fawned over.

Though this bit overlaps with a sociopath’s profile, only the pitiless, the unfeeling, narcissist can calculate words for self-gain, whether for the short-term -- press conferences promoting some fatuous legislation or intent (a bridge to nowhere, a non-profit czar) -- or for the long-term -- to be voted into office.

How many times have we watched politicians break empty promises?

Only narcissists, who believe the world revolves around them, can unflinchingly attest that their voters truly cannot live without them as their mayor, or congressman, or president.

And, implying consequences well beyond damage to political career and family, only a narcissist can equate his very personal needs with that of his constituents. Self-promotion easily supplants sensible legislation or policy. And always without shame.

So does the self-mythologizing Weiner rise to this occasion?

Let’s just say the New York Narcissus came dripping out of the fountain of bad youth in fierce defiance before the cameras, broadcasting loud and clear that his aberrant sexual behavior is justified simply and purely by his noble goal of running for the office to which only he is clearly entitled. And voters deserve.

Never mind all the time wasted on cyber-mistresses. Policy decisions mulled between cyber-foisting your privates on obsequious girls and masturbating to visions of your power and dominance cannot and should not stand up to the scrutiny of the media, constituents, or society in general. Not to mention good governance.

There was no blushing, no head down, no genuine contrition whatsoever. Think Bill Clinton -- “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Think John Edwards denying he had anything to do with his piranha even after the National Enquirer said they had photos.

The Staten Island press conference was the classic narcissistic rebel oozing with confidence that he’d bat the hell out of whatever fastball was pitched to him. He could hardly suppress his Manhattan Tunnel–sized smiles with each of his self-proclaimed home runs.

A rebel without a just cause.

Photo: UPI

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About the Author

Marilia Duffles is a contributor to the Financial Times and the Economist. She has also written for the Globo, Brazil's leading newspaper.