Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us by Brian Klaas

About a year ago political scientist and writer Brian Klaas began making the rounds on my favorite podcasts The Bulwark, Deep State Radio and The New Abnormal promoting his recently published book Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us. As he answered questions related to the long-purported belief that power corrupts and what, if anything can be done to keep corruptible individuals away from the levers of power I couldn’t get enough. That’s because several years ago I experienced first hand what it’s like to suffer at the hands of a tyrannical leader. I couldn’t wait to read Klaas’s book and promptly checked out his cool podcast.

Before long I used Overdrive to borrow a copy for my Kindle and eagerly went to work reading it. Employing a Malcom Gladwell-esque style Klass recalls his interviews with a wide array of individuals ranging from an African dictator to a retired American general tasked with running the occupation of Iraq to countless subject matter experts. By the end of the book Klaas showed us not only corrupt leaders looks like but how they’re able to rise to power. He also weighed in on what possible strategies we can employ to make sure they don’t always seize power and if they do, how we might reign them in.

According to Klaas, the worst tyrants, be they CEOs, third-world despots or even some out of control head of an HOA posses in varying degrees what he calls the “dark triad” of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellism.

Narcissists feel they’re naturally entitled to positions of authority and are willing to engage in risky behavior like breaking laws, regulations and norms because they see themselves as too clever to suffer the consequences. Typically, most dictators are eventually dethroned because their reckless misrule ends up pissing off enough, or at least the wrong people. Many a CEO lost his/her job by making heedless decisions that brought shame upon the company name .

Psychopaths, immune from experiencing empathy, are able to abuse others to pursue their agendas. An unscrupulous potentate will happily jail and torture dissidents while a toxic executive won’t hesitate to humiliate a subordinate during a meeting for a perceived shortcoming, especially if he/she is seen a potential rival or attempts to speak truth to power.

Lastly, aspiring Machiavellis will hijack whatever resources that come with their positions to further advance themselves. A power-crazed HOA president will target residents he doesn’t like with endless parades of citations. One East African strongman appointed a surprisingly number of women to his rubber stamp parliament, not because he shared their feminist values but because he wanted to send Western nations and NGOs the message he was a progressive ruler and therefore deserved of larger aid packages. Larger aid packages he could line his own pockets with.

One way to reduce the number of bad leaders is to ensure less corruptible individuals wind up in positions of authority. Applicant pools need to be widened as to attract as many capable individuals as possible, not just those with a pathological desire to control and abuse others. Hoping to attract a more kindler, gentler candidate pool a municipality in New Zealand produced a light-hearted recruitment video in which two police officers, played by women of color, pursue a purse snatcher. During their on foot pursuit they even stop for a moment to help an elderly woman cross the street. At the end when they finally apprehend the thief it’s revealed he’s just a dog. The goal is to attract helpful sorts, not Rambos or Dirty Harrys.

In the starkest of contrasts, thanks to minuscule applicant pools the demand for law enforcement officials in rural Alaska is so great police departments are resorting to drastically lowering standards and hiring convicted felons. Even those who’ve committed assaults, rapes and attempted kidnappings have been hired by short-staffed departments desperate to fill their ranks. (Despite the offenders having committed those crimes in the very communities they’re now entrusted to protect.)

Lastly, we must find ways to keep the high and mighty in line. Corporate America spends billions to closely monitor even its most loyal of low level employees through surveillance cameras, recorded phone lines and computer software to log keyboard strokes and website usage. But little, if anything is done to ensure high level executives follow the law, act responsibly or refrain from using their authority to pursue personal vendettas. With a disturbing percentage of CEOs psychopaths, and in all likelihood members of the dark triad, ways must be found to hold them as accountable as their lowest rung employees.

For all the reasons I’ve already outlined this outstanding book should be required reading for anyone who interacts with the powerful in any sector be it private or public. Please consider Corruptible highly recommended.

Book Beginnings: Corruptible by Brian Klaas

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, only recently I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

Does power corrupt, or are corrupt people drawn to power? Are entrepreneurs who embezzle and cops who kill the outgrowths of bad systems, or are they just bad people? Are tyrants made or born?

Last week I featured the 2019 memoir Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law by Eritrean-American lawyer and disability rights advocate Haben Girma. The week before that it was the 2016 novel This House Is Mine by German writer and linguist Dörte Hansen. This week it’s Brian Klaas’s 2021 Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us.

I heard about Corruptible late last year when the book’s author Brian Klaas began making the rounds on some of my favorite podcasts. After experiencing first-hand the horrors of toxic leadership in the workplace, Corruptible sounded like the perfect book for me. Recently, I stopped procrastinating and finally borrowed a Kindle version through Overdrive. Instead of me blathering on, here’s what Amazon has to say:

Corruptible draws on over 500 interviews with some of the world’s top leaders—from the noblest to the dirtiest—including presidents and philanthropists as well as rebels, cultists, and dictators. Some of the fascinating insights include: how facial appearance determines who we pick as leaders, why narcissists make more money, why some people don’t want power at all and others are drawn to it out of a psychopathic impulse, and why being the “beta” (second in command) may actually be the optimal place for health and well-being.

Sunday Salon

For over a month I’ve been taking part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I’m striving to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

Last week I started and finished the 2021 novel The Wrong End of the Telescope by Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine. Currently I’m still reading Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons of Cyprus: Life on a Mediterranean Island and Dzevad Karahasan’s Sarajevo, Exodus of a CityLike I mentioned last week all three of these books are for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge

Articles. With my nose buried in several books last week I managed to read just two articles. This week I’ll try harder and hopefully read more. 

Listening. Like I’ve said before, with so many things going on in the world there’s no shortage of material for my favorite podcasts. 

Watching. Right now I’m watching just one TV show and it’s Mr. Robot. Like I’ve said before it just gets crazier and crazier thanks to insane plot twists, great writing and superb acting. It’s been one hell of a wild ride. Unfortunately for me, I have only two episodes left to watch. 

Everything else. Friday, instead of indulging in my weekly ritual of fine wine and conversation at my favorite local winery I drove up to Portland. After a quick trip to Powell’s Books I proceeded to my friends’ place for an evening of beers, fun and frivolity. Our wonderful hosts fired up the grill and put on the soccer game. After watching the home team come from behind to beat our hated rivals the Seattle Sounders a few of us stayed up past our bedtimes conversing on the porch. Saturday on my way home I hit a massive church yard sale and walked away with small stack of books, almost all of which were free. Among the treasures are Pulitzer-Prize winners American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. 

Sunday Salon

For over a month I’ve been taking part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I’m striving to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

After finishing Icelandic author Ólafur Ólafsson’s novel The Sacrament  I’ve returned to reading  David Gilmour’s The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples and Stuart Jeffries’s Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School. Late last week I also started Bosnian writer Dzevad Karahasan’s Sarajevo, Exodus of a City and Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. 

 

Articles. Even with my nose buried in several books I read a number of excellent articles last week. Inspired by Paula Bardell-Hedley’s outstanding weekly feature “Winding Up the Week” on her great blog Book Jotter I’ve started incorporating these into my Sunday Salon posts and will continue to do so in the future. 

Listening. With so many things going on in the world there’s been no shortage of material for my favorite podcasts. Despite this extensive list I feel I should be listening to much more. 

Watching. After finishing up season 4 of Stranger Things it’s all been Mr. Robot. Like I’ve said before it just gets crazier and crazier thanks to insane plot twists, great writing and superb acting. It’s been one hell of a wild ride. 

Everything else. In what’s becoming a Friday ritual I met my professor buddies on Friday at our favorite winery for wine, conversation and a killer view. I’ve been drinking coffee in the mornings, but in the evenings I’ve been known to enjoy an adult beverage or two with my books and articles. 

 

Sunday Salon

For over a month I’ve been taking part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I’m striving to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

Currently I’m still working my way through David Gilmour’s The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples as well as Stuart Jeffries’s Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School. In addition, late last week I started Icelandic author Ólafur Ólafsson’s novel The Sacrament. I’ll be applying both The Pursuit of Italy and The Sacrament towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. 

Articles. Besides reading books all week I also read assorted articles that pop up on my various feeds. Over the last couple of years Paula Bardell-Hedley’s weekly feature “Winding Up the Week” on her great blog Book Jotter has been my go-to source. Used in combination with Arts and Letters Daily, Longreads and Five Books leaves me perpetually buried in great reading material. Therefore, starting this week I’ll be sharing links to a few of the pieces I’ve recently enjoyed. 

Listening. With so many things going on in the world there’s been no shortage of material for my favorite podcasts. Despite this extensive list I feel I should be listening to much more. 

Watching. With each episode Mr. Robot gets crazier and crazier thanks to insane plot twists, great writing and superb acting. I finished up season 4 of Stranger Thingsand lets just say it was a hell of a wild ride. I don’t know what I’m going to watch to fill the void until season 5 drops, whenever that might be. 

Everything else. We’ve been experiencing a heat wave in my area. With temperatures hovering around 100 degrees Fahrenheit much of last week my professor buddies and I on Friday opted to sit inside at our favorite winery and take advantage of the air conditioned. I’ve been drinking coffee in the mornings, but in the evenings once its cooled down I’ve been known to enjoy an adult beverage or two with my books and articles. Lastly, I snuck out yesterday and enjoyed an adult beverage at one of my favorite watering holes and relaxed in air conditioned comfort. 

 

 

Sunday Salon

For over a month I’ve been taking part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I’m striving to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

I finished Frank Blaichman’s Rather Die Fighting: A Memoir of World War II   as well as Adam Hochschild’s Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939. I read both books for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. 

Late last week I started David Gilmour’s The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples. So far it’s shaping up to be an excellent book and perfect for the European Reading Challenge. I’ve also resumed reading Stuart Jeffries’s Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School

Listening. With so many things going on in the world there’s been no shortage of material for my favorite podcasts. Despite this extensive list I feel I should be listening to much more. 

Watching. Mr. Robot continues to entertain with its crazy plot twists, great writing and superb acting. I also caught a few episodes of Stranger Things. On Thursday after watching the January 6 Hearings I followed it up with an entertaining and informative episode of the Lincoln Project’s The Breakdown.    

Everything else. Yesterday my professor buddy and I had some great wine as we took in the amazing view at our favorite local winery. The weather at my place has been nice of late so I’ve been reading on my porch.  While I’ve been drinking coffee in the mornings, in the evenings with my book I’ve been known to enjoy an adult beverage or two.

 

 

About Time I Read It: Command and Control by Eric Schlosser

One fall Friday evening in 2013 while drinking with friends at the pub someone recommended Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. Sadly, like many great book recommendations I’ve received over the years it took me forever to act on my friend’s advice. I even borrowed a copy from the public library not once but twice  only to later return it unread. Last week, just like I did with Souad Mekhennet’s I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad I decided to give Command and Control another chance. I secured a Kindle edition through Overdrive and went to work reading Schlosser’s 2013 book. And just like I Was Told to Come Alone I kicked myself for not reading it sooner.

Schlosser made a name for himself with his best seller Fast Food Nation but could he tackle the high stakes and technical world of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons and the global arms race they spawned? Any doubts I might have had were quickly put to rest mere pages into this book. Command and Control isn’t just a history of that arms race. It’s also a detailed and fascinating history of the costly and sometimes deadly accidents that’s plagued the weapons’ history. Anchoring this history is Schlosser’s recalling of a routine maintenance operation gone horribly awry leading to the explosion of a Titan II ICBM outside Damascus, Arkansas in 1980.

I came away from this book shocked by the sheer number of serious accidents involving nuclear weapons that have occurred over the decades. More shocking than that, it feels miraculous none of them resulted in any warheads accidentally detonating. (Although in 1961, when a B-52 broke apart over rural North Carolina and accidentally released two thermonuclear bombs one of them narrowly escaped detention. Had it gone off, it would have spread a plume of radioactive fall-out as far north as Washington DC, and just in time for Kennedy’s inauguration ceremony.) Nor did any American military commander or his NATO counterpart go rogue and facilitate the unauthorized use of one of these weapons, even during the dark hours of the Cuban Missile Crises. Luckily still, the many false alarms experienced by our nation’s early warning systems did not mistakenly set off a nuclear holocaust.

Schlosser fears we might not be so lucky in the future. Since the 1970s more countries have developed their own nuclear weapons, or in the case of Iran are actively working toward one. Pakistan and India, neighbors with deep-seated rivalries, especially over contested territory, have come close to nuking each other several times over the last twenty plus years. It’s also assumed Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has been dispersed to undisclosed locations throughout the country in hopes of protecting it from an Indian first strike. However, this potentially creates more opportunities for Islamic terrorists or rogue elements within the military to commandeer a warhead. Overall, while some developing countries like India and Pakistan have been able to incorporate Western technology into their respective nuclear weapons programs Schlosser wonders if they have also successfully imported our culture of safety and associated protocols. With India, Pakistan and Iran all possessing significantly higher industrial accident rates than the United States perhaps we should be concerned.

I found Command and Control even better than I’d expected and easily makes my year-end list of favorite nonfiction. Please consider it highly recommended.

The Best American Essays 2020 edited by André Aciman

I’m no stranger to André Aciman. In the summer of 2009 I read his 1996 memoir Out of Egypt, which had been sitting on my shelf unread for who knows how long. Five summers later it was his semi autobiographical novel Harvard Square I spent several warm evenings reading on my front step while watching the comings and goings of my fellow apartment dwellers. Even though I’d read just two of his books I considered myself a fan of his writing and looked forward to reading more of it.

Finding myself in the mood for a decent essay collection I discovered through Overdrive a borrowable Kindle edition of The Best American Essays 2020 edited by none other than André Aciman. Eager to see which essays Aciman deemed worthy of inclusion I downloaded it and went to work reading. I’m happy to say after finishing it Aciman’s choices did not disappoint me.

Annual anthologies like these are always a crap shoot. While some years better than others, on average each offering has one to three of outstanding pieces, with the bulk being pretty good while the remaining two or three selections not so hot. Fortunately, none of the essays Aciman selected are duds. Even my least favorite inclusions  had their moments. So hats off to Aciman.

Over the years I’ve read close to a dozen of these anthologies and Aciman’s introduction to this edition easily ranks as one of the best. Drawing from his deep well of erudition he explains what makes a great essay, serving up examples from Montaigne, Machiavelli and Proust. (If you’re looking for an impressive reading list, check out his interview 2015 interview on the Vox Tablet podcast.)

My favorites essays in the collection were ones with sharply focused narratives and specific topics in mind, akin to the long form pieces you’d find in Harpers, the New Yorker or Atlantic. While considered essays, they easily could be included in anthologies featuring outstanding writing in the fields of science and nature  or crime. Barbara Ehrenreich’s piece of prehistoric cave painting “The Humanoid Stain”,  Clinton Crockett Peters’s “A Thing About Cancer” – a novel look at the dreaded disease seen through the lens of the 1982 John Carpenter horror film The Thing  were two such pieces. Susan Fox Rogers’s essay on infamous 1920’s child murder Nathan Leopold and his love of birding was a fine science and nature feature as well as a crime one.

Much to my surprise just as it was with Jonathan Franzen’s edited Best American Essays 2016, a couple of my favorite essays touched on LGTBQ themes. Probably my favorite of these was the lead essay “How to Bartend” by Lebanese-American painter and writer Rabih Alameddine.  After being diagnosed with HIV he moved back to his native Lebanon to attend graduate school and pursue a “third worthless degree.” Needing cash he picked up a gig tending bar at an upstairs “faux upscale taproom with an English private club motif” complete with “pretentiously bound hardcovers in fake bookshelves.” Here half heartedly went about his job, pouring occasional drinks but preferring to be left alone to read novels during his normally slow workdays. Instead of a primer on good bartending his essay is a darkly humorous look at the difficult but ultimately satisfying process of finding ones tribe.

Instead of finding one’s tribe Alex Marzano-Lesnevish’s “Body Language” the focus is the long, painful process of discovering one’s gender, or if it be, non-gender. Even Peter Scheldahl’s life journey from midwestern bumpkin to NYC-dwelling art critic and mildly reckless aesthete recalls a passing gay affair, despite being an admittedly straight man with at least two heterosexual marriages and countless liaisons under his belt. (A degree sexual fluidity also rumored to be shared by Aciman himself.)

It feels like every annual essay collection contains more than a few contributions by authors looking back and reflecting on their long lives or the long lives of loved ones. As I grow older and slowly come to grips with my own mortality, and those around me I dislike these kind of pieces less and less, no longer complaining they’re products of an unwanted cottage industry. Instead, when I encounter such writing I grudgingly welcome whatever words of wisdom they offer while at the same time yearning for younger days.

But before I succumb to the ravages of old age, I’ll treat myself to a few more enjoyable anthologies. And as I do I’ll happily share my impressions of them with all of you.

20 Books of Summer: The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn R. Saks

My book club announced it was reading Elyn R. Saks’s 2007 memoir The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness and I couldn’t have been happier. The book, along with Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, had been on my list to read forever and this was a great excuse to finally read it. In a stroke of good luck I was able borrow a Kindle version through Overdrive and quickly went to work on it. Even without devoting my full attention I made quick work of Saks’s memoir. And like so many backlisted titles I’ve encountered over the years wished I’d read it sooner.

Born to a stable and supporting upper middle class family in Miami Saks, by all indicators and expectations was on a promising trajectory towards college, graduate/law school, professional accomplishment, marriage and motherhood. That is until as a high schooler she began experiencing hallucinations, many of them encouraging her to harm herself and others.

Convinced the hallucinations were the result of a fleeting,  experimentation with recreational drugs (once with pot, the other with peyote) her parents exiled Saks to a lock-down residential care facility in hopes of curing her “addiction.” Ran with the discipline one usually encounters in religious cults and Marine Corp basic training she emerged several years later with an aversion to all drugs, illegal and otherwise and an unhealthy insistence upon personal self-reliance. Unfortunately, as her symptoms worsened during her years away at college and later graduate school it was this instilled mindset that led to Saks mistakenly believing she could handle her debilitative mental illness on her own without any therapy, hospitalization or medication.

Left untreated her illness worsened, leading to several involuntary hospitalizations and rounds of treatment. After years of clinical dead-ends, and in retrospect misdiagnoses, she was finally diagnosed with a form of schizophrenia. This would lead to a longterm regimen of one on one therapy and a series of different anti-psychotic medications.

Despite these seemingly insurmountable challenges (not to mention surviving not one but two bouts of cancer as well as a brain hemorrhage) Saks nonetheless persevered. After graduating from Vanderbilt she earned a graduate degree from Oxford, following it up with a law degree from Yale. Later, as a professor at USC’s law school she went on to publish a number of articles and books and today is not only a best-selling memoirist but also a leading expert on the intersection of law and mental illness.

If you’re on the many who loved Robert Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family then this book is for you. Saks’s memoir is an intimate look at the mysterious and much stigmatized illness of schizophrenia, a disease whose root causes a mystery to scientists and doctors alike and cure an illusive mystery.

Echoing the Persian poet Rumi’s aphorism that a person who exhibits both positive and negative qualities, strengths and weaknesses is not flawed, but complete Saks concludes her memoir by declaring “[m]y good fortune is not I’ve recovered from mental illness. I have not, nor will I ever. My good fortune lies in having found good life.”

20 Books of Summer: Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee

Like a lot of people I was introduced to the writing of John McPhee through the New Yorker. I loved how he could write so beautifully about, well, anything. From geology to political figures, no matter how obscure the subject after finishing an article you couldn’t wait until his next one. Not only an accomplished writer, for decades he taught nonfiction writing at his alma matter Princeton, inspiring a number of his former students to become accomplished writers themselves. (David Remnick, Robert Wright and Dan-el Padilla Peralta are but a few.) Over the years I’ve acquired several of his books yet sadly made no effort to read them.

As part of my 20 Books of Summer series I decided remedy this by including a little something by McPhee. Published back in 1971 his Encounters with the Archdruid: Narratives About a Conservationist and Three of His Natural Enemies explores three (four, if you count a side trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota) beautiful, yet radically different parts of the United States and the memorable individuals strongly associated with them. From North Cascades National Park in Washington State to Hilton Head Island in South Carolina to the Colorado River in Arizona and Utah McPhee explores the areas’ natural beauty while introducing us to a pioneering conservationist and his three political rivals.

First and perhaps foremost of these is David Brower, at the time Executive Director of the Sierra Club and a life-long conservationist. Contrasted with him are his ideological adversaries: Charles Park, a mineral engineer and mining advocate; Charles Fraser, a resort developer from Hilton Head; and Floyd Dominy, a high-level government official responsible for the creation of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell. Like a geologist descending through layers of accumulated strata McPhee reveals bit by bit the interesting depths of these complex individuals, showing no matter how aesthetically pleasing and majestic these places might be they’ll never completely overshadow the four remarkable personalities forever responsible for their preservation or alteration.