A review of Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test: A Journey through the Madness Industry and Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty
Both The Psychopath Test and The Science of Evil are constructed around psychological “empathy tests.” Both ask whether evil can be scientifically pinned down. Both were published in 2011 by British Jews. Both are extremely valuable books. And both suffer from the same, predictable blind spot.
There has been a lot of talk about psychopaths lately.
The category “psychopath” or “sociopath” (the terms are interchangeable), invented more than half a century ago by Hervey Cleckley, has been a stealthy presence in popular culture ever since. From vintage Hitchcock to The Silence of the Lambs, Hollywood has evinced a fascination with psychopathic character traits and the macabre crimes with which they are sometimes associated.
Psychopathy, for those who’ve missed all the talk, is a kind of congenital and incurable amorality that afflicts one or two percent of the population. It seems to be at least partly biologically based, the product of certain types of brain dysfunction.
In recent years, Martha Stout and Robert Hare have upped the ante by publishing nonfiction bestsellers about psychopathy. Stout’s The Psychopath Next Door is a self-help manual for self-defense against psychopathic neighbors, co-workers, or even family members; while Hare’s books, including Snakes in Suits, explore the extensive damage psychopaths inflict on society and reflect on what can be done about it.
Talk of psychopathy has been growing even faster and louder in the subculture of political skeptics pejoratively labeled “conspiracy theorists” by big media propagandists. Many of the roughly 200 million Americans who think the JFK assassination was an inside job, like the roughly 100 million who think the same thing about 9/11, have begun to whisper about the possibility that people with psychopathic character traits (like Lyndon Johnson and Dick Cheney) have a huge advantage in the competition to rise to the top of power hierarchies. This hypothesis might explain why power elite members regularly commit crimes so horrible and outlandish that most ordinary people find them incomprehensible, hence impossible and to be ruled out a priori. The corollary: Anyone who sees and speaks the truth must be a delusional “conspiracy theorist.”
Read “Twilight of the Psychopaths” – the most popular thing I ever wrote
The political skeptics’ interest in psychopathy got a big boost from Andrzej Lobaczewski’s Political Ponerology: A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes. Lobaczewski, a Polish psychiatrist, discovered that the Communist party elite in his country was top-heavy with psychopaths, whose cognitive style and behavior had managed to contaminate the whole society. Published by Red Pill Press at the turn of the millennium, Political Ponerology became an underground classic post-9/11. Many in the 9/11 truth movement asserted that the US was suffering from psychopathic contagion under Bush and Cheney, just as Poland had under its Communist dictatorship (and as Germany and Russia had under Hitler and Stalin).
Now, as the second decade of the 20th century begins, two British-Jewish authors have contributed valuable mass-market works on psychopathy. Both books are built around very similar personality tests: the Hare test for psychopathy, and the Baron-Cohen test for empathy (psychopaths are zero-empathy people). Interestingly, both books, despite their wildly different approaches to the topic, suffer from virtually identical blind spots.
Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, like all of Ronson’s books, is a hilarious work of journalistic genius. (Full disclosure: Although Ronson repeatedly consulted me while writing the book, and at one point planned to have me administer psychopathy tests to wealthy and powerful individuals under his sponsorship, I have no financial stake in this or any other Ronson book, nor have I ever received a penny from Ronson, much less been flown to Europe to administer psychopathy tests to royalty and aristocracy as he originally proposed.)
The Psychopath Test is a brilliant riff on one of my favorite comic themes: In this crazy world, who’s really crazy? Might the the inmates be running the asylum?
Ronson has mined this sort of comic territory before. In Them: Adventures with Extremists he snuck into Bohemian Grove with the “paranoid extremist conspiracy theorist” Alex Jones; and while predictably poking fun at Jones and other political skeptics, the real punchline of the book comes when Ronson is shocked to discover that the annual secret meeting of the world’s movers and shakers known as “Bilderberg” – almost entirely blacked out from the mainstream media – is indeed real, rather than the figment of paranoid conspiratorial imagination he had assumed.
Ronson’s second book, The Men Who Stare at Goats, follows the same trajectory. It begins by making fun of seemingly crazy military guys who think they can kill people psychically just by staring at them – and practice on goats. Which seems fairly amusing and harmless, unless you’re a goat. Or perhaps even if you are a goat. But by the end of the book, we learn that the US military and intelligence community’s interest in bizarre psychic and psychological experiments has a much darker side. We learn, for example, that many experimental subjects have been tortured to death by the CIA during Mengele-style mind control experiments, and that one of the experimenters who wanted to blow the whistle – Frank Olson – was pushed out of the window of a high-rise to protect the perpetrators of these atrocities. (The full story is told in Hank Albarelli’s A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Secret Cold War Experiments.)
Listen to my interview with Albarelli here.
Similar experiments, Ronson suggests, may be going on in today’s archipelago of secret prisons associated with the “war on terror.”
Ronson’s first two books play around with their respective domains of fringe research in ambivalent fashion: Ronson leads the perceptive reader toward concluding that while political skeptics are amusing and somewhat mad, some of them may have a point.
Unfortunately, Ronson’s otherwise excellent The Psychopath Test is not just mildly unfair, but wildly unfair to political skeptics, whom he pejoratively labels “conspiracy theorists.” He packs almost all of that unfairness into just one chapter – the one focusing on David Shayler, the former MI-5 agent who exposed some of MI-6’s murderous intrigues with al-Qaeda, became a major figure in the 9/11 and 7/7 truth movements, then suddenly went mad and declared himself the messiah.
Ronson’s hallucinatory description of the 7/7 truth movement makes one wonder whether he himself got a dose of whatever was given to Shayler: “These people evidently believed an accidental power surge had coursed through the London Underground that morning and that the British government wanted to cover up this corporate manslaughter by blaming it on Islamic suicide bombers” (182-183). This is a bit like saying “the people who believe the Gulf of Tonkin Incident was faked claim it was staged by aliens from outer space.” I have done a fair amount of research on the 7/7 truth movement (and the Gulf of Tonkin Incident) and I have never heard anyone blame accidental power surges or space aliens. The fact is, Ronson’s claim is a lie. The 7/7 truth movement has always blamed a false-flag operation, not an accidental power surge, for the London bombings.
Ronson then suggests that only a tiny minority of the 9/11 truth movement agrees with the 7/7 truth movement: “Now everybody knew somebody who was convinced that 9/11 was an inside job. They were armchair Agatha Christie sleuths, meeting on forums, sending each other YouTube links, telling each other they were right. Only the most extreme magical-thinkers among them were 7/7 conspiracy theorists, too: while 9/11 obviously wasn’t an inside job, 7/7 OBVIOUSLY wasn’t an inside job” (183).
Again, this just isn’t true. I happened to be in Washington DC in July, 2005 shortly after the London bombings, mingling with the crème-de-la-crème of the 9/11 truth movement – respected academician David Ray Griffin, Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, historian Webster Tarpley, 9/11 timeline creator Paul Thompson, author-researcher Nafeez Ahmed, the folks from 911truth.org, dozens of other big names, and a few hundred concerned citizens. Everyone I spoke to there was shocked at how pathetically obvious the 7/7 false-flag job had been, how it had been botched almost as badly as 9/11. The “bombers” had to have taken trains that weren’t even running; the “backpack bombs” exploded UNDER the trains; the many security camera images of the bombers what would have existed had the bombers actually been bombers were never produced, while only one blatantly photoshopped “security camera” image ever emerged; Ariel Sharon was warned to stay out of downtown London right before the blasts; and in perhaps the most outrageous screw-up in false-flag history, the UK’s top terror consultant Peter Power appeared on television that afternoon and, visibly shaken, announced that he still couldn’t believe how each of the four bombs had exploded at exactly the time and location as the imaginary bombs in a “terror drill” he was involved in that day!
It wasn’t just the 9/11 truth supporters at that conference who were quickly forced to face the obvious fact that 7/7 was yet another false-flag attack. In my eight years in the 9/11 truth movement, I have never met a single 9/11 truth supporter who didn’t think 7/7 was an inside job. My radio show draws a good-size audience of truth-seekers from around the world; I am regularly on Press TV with its potential audience of over 100 million; my blog posts get lots of comments, and I have repeatedly covered 7/7 as well as 9/11 – in fact, I even wrote the preface to the best book on 7/7, Nick Kollerstrom’s Terror on the Tube. Surely if someone in the 9/11 truth movement thought 7/7 was actually done by Islamic suicide bombers, they would have left a comment to that effect on one of my many broadcasts or articles on the subject, or mentioned this to me in conversation or during a radio show call-in. Yet Ronson apparently wants to convince us that most people who dispute the official story of 9/11 accept the official story of 7/7. This is so obviously, absurdly false that it qualifies as a baldface lie.
Within a page of telling us that 7/7 skeptics blame an accidental power-surge, Ronson changes his story: Now they believe “the bus hadn’t really exploded. It was actually a fake stunt, using fancy pyrotechnics and stuntmen and actors and special-effect blood.” Again, this is an absurd caricature of the actual beliefs of 7/7 skeptics. What could possibly lead Ronson to make up such ridiculous stuff? Is the 7/7 truth movement’s real position – that the London bombings, like 9/11, were false-flag attacks designed to demonize Muslims and incite a “clash of civilizations” – so psychologically threatening, so anxiety-producing, that Ronson’s mind automatically generates a smokescreen of gibberish to save him from having to face what these people really believe?
In case we didn’t hear him the first time, Ronson repeats the absurdity by describing a 7/7 truth meeting as follows: A speaker insists that “7/7 never happened. It was a lie. There were vigorous nods from the crowd” (188).
After lying about the 7/7 truth movement’s position in such astoundingly delusional fashion, Ronson produces exhibit A for his brief that “conspiracy theorists are crazy”: David Shayler. Ronson suggests that Shayler’s beliefs that 9/11 and 7/7 were inside jobs, and his later announcement that he is the messiah, are symptoms of the same underlying madness.
Ronson showed, in The Men Who Stare at Goats, that intelligence agencies are run by psychopaths who drug people to drive them mad, torture innocent people to death in mind-control experiments, and murder their fellow operatives to cover such things up. Yet it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that Shayler, a renegade MI-5 agent who exposed MI-6’s murderous scheming with al-Qaeda, might have been slipped a dose of something by his former colleagues; i.e. that Shayler was perfectly sane when he exposed his government’s orchestration of al-Qaeda plots and spoke the truth about 9/11 and 7/7, but had been rendered crazy by the time he announced he was the Messiah. Ronson’s failure to even entertain this rather obvious possibility raises questions about his own mental health.
Immediately after his bizarrely mendacious descriptions of 7/7 skeptics, Ronson relates his outrage at seeing the skeptics’ internet discussion thread entitled Jon Ronson: Shill or Stupid? His inability to understand why someone who paints such a ludicrously false and defamatory picture of 7/7 skeptics would be considered shill or stupid suggests that Ronson himself may suffer from a selective deficit of empathy.
But what is the nature of that empathy deficit? Why does Ronson, who feels badly about being a little bit unfair to his other subjects, not even notice that he is being wildly unfair to 7/7 skeptics?
A possible clue:
On page 195, David Shayler tells Ronson: “A viewpoint arrived at without evidence is prejudice. To say Muslims carried out 7/7 – those three guys from Leeds and one from Aylesbury – to say they did it is RACIST, Jon. It’s racist. It’s racist. You’re being RACIST to Muslims if you think they carried out that attack on the evidence there.” Ronson responds: “Oh, fuck off.”
Now let’s be just a little bit honest here. Ronson is Jewish. It has been my extensive experience with Jews in the US, UK and France that the Jewish community is pervaded by unbelievably extreme, rabid Islamophobia. Yes, there are plenty of exceptions; I feature dozens of them on my radio show. But back in the (pre-9/11) days when I was dating Jewish women, working for Jewish employers in such places as New Jersey, Paris, and San Francisco, taking courses from Jewish professors beside Jewish graduate students, writing for student and alternative newspapers dominated by Jews, and generally hanging out more with Jews than with goys, I quickly learned that the vast majority of the dozens of Jews I hung around with were strongly bigoted against Arabs and Muslims.
I never saw comparable Islamophobia from non-Jews…until 9/11. Since then, the non-Jews have become just about as Islamophobic as the Jews were even before 9/11. Which, of course, was the main achievement of 9/11. Why Osama and 19 young Arabs wanted that is just one of those eternal mysteries.
Now I’m not saying that just because Jon Ronson is Jewish he, too, is probably bigoted against Muslims; inclined to blame Muslims for 9/11 and 7/7 without critically examining the evidence; and unconsciously afraid of what might happen to Jews if it turns out that 9/11 and 7/7 were perpetrated by the people who benefited from them. I’m not saying that, am I? Well, maybe I am.
Let’s keep being a little bit honest: As former CIA Bin Laden Project Head Michael Scheuer says, the US and UK have been dragged into what is, at bottom, a religious war in the Middle East: A war between Jews and Muslims over Palestine. It is perfectly natural that Jews should be prejudiced against Muslims, and vice-versa.
Jon, you’re neither shill nor stupid; you’re a good guy; you just haven’t quite transcended your milieu. I forgive you.
* * *
When I first saw Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Science of Evil on my library’s new books shelf, I figured it was Borat’s attempt to one-up Ronson – an even more over-the-top dark comedy about psychopathy. I imagined Borat traveling around Europe administering psychopathy tests and enemas, on-camera, to nobility and royalty.
But it turned out to be a straight-faced scientific treatise. Simon Baron-Cohen, I learned, is actually Sacha Baron-Cohen’s (Borat’s) nerdy cousin – an expert in brain pathology, especially the types of brain malfunction linked to psychopathy and other empathy-deficit-disorders.
That struck me as interesting, because Sacha Baron-Cohen’s Borat seemed to me to be a walking, talking empathy-deficit disorder. It wasn’t just that he doesn’t give a hoot about hurting the innocent bystanders he films in his stunts and turns into the butts of his jokes (which is sort of what Ronson does too, only Ronson worries about it and tries not to be TOO unfair to anyone except truthers). The problem is that the maker of Borat pretends to give us lessons about the evils of persisting anti-Semitism – yet the whole film is one big, vile, anti-Muslim, anti-Kazak stereotype! Imagine a Muslim filmmaker dressing up as a “stupid, greedy Jew from Israel” and doing a Borat-style comedy in reverse. To say that he’d never work in this or any other town again would be an understatement.
You’d think that Simon Baron-Cohen, M.D., the specialist in empathy-deficit disorders, would be curious about whatever empathy-deficit disorder permitted his cousin Sacha to make what must be the most offensive, insensitive, hyper-bigoted “comic” film in history. (Okay, I admit it, it WAS funny.) Here’s what Dr. Simon says about Borat:
“(Hitler’s Final Solution) shows how dangerous it can be if small un-empathic acts go unnoticed. My cousin Sacha (whose comic character Borat exposed contemporary anti-Semitism by posing as an anti-Semite himself) quotes Cambridge historian Ian Kershaw’s chilling phrase: ‘The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference.'”
What colossal indifference, what monumental lack of empathy can blind both Sacha and Simon Baron-Cohen to the way Borat appears to a Muslim from Kazakhstan, who will spend the rest of his life hearing tittering references to Borat every time he mentions his homeland? Can even a psychopathic level of lack of empathy explain the inability of the Baron-Cohens to see that Israel is the genocidal aggressor, and Palestine the victim, in that “conflict”?
While correctly arguing that lack of empathy is a cause, and empathy a potential cure, of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict (the core of the much broader global war between Jews and Muslims), Simon Baron-Cohen is apparently unable to see that from the perspective of Palestinians, Muslims, and indeed all neutral informed observers, this is a conflict between evil (hyper-tribalistic genocidal invaders from across the seas, driven by ancient religious myth) and good (people fighting to save their children and homeland from the aforementioned invaders). As long as one empathizes equally with both sides, AND seeks out the relevant facts, this is the inevitable conclusion one draws.
But Baron-Cohen, like so many liberal Jews, invokes a false symmetry between the two sides of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict – a false symmetry that is just as offensive as dismissing the Holocaust as a tragic Nazi-Judea conflict, in which atrocities were committed by both sides, neither side was right, etc. etc. Look at how Baron-Cohen constructs his false-symmetry: “Our inclination might be to condemn a suicide bomber who comes over the border from Gaza into Jerusalem…but if we applied the same logic, we would also have to condemn Nelson Mandela…Equally, we would have to condemn Menachem Begin when he…blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on July 22nd, 1946, killing ninety-one people and injuring forty-six others…” (167)
In fact, all sane people must condemn Begin much more harshly than the Palestinian bomber or Nelson Mandela, for the same reason they would condemn Dr. Mengele more harshly than a participant in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. It is a question of who is the aggressor, and who is the victim. In the Zionist-Palestinian conflict, it is not Palestinian Muslims who have militarily invaded New York, massacred Jews by the hundreds of thousands, and attempted to set up an ethnically-cleansed Islamic State there. It is, rather, American and European Jews who have invaded, occupied, and ethnically-cleansed Palestine – a land that has been Islamic virtually ever since the religion of Islam existed. It is rather as if Arab Muslims were to invade Rome and ethnically-cleanse the Italian peninsula of Christians through starvation, mass-murder, and confinement to de facto concentration camps. Christians would never accept that; and neither will Muslims ever accept an apartheid, ethnically-cleansed Jewish State in Palestine.
So let us ask Dr. Baron-Cohen: What part of the Jewish brain is malfunctioning to produce this widespread empathy-deficit disorder that has infected not only Jewish people themselves, but also other Westerners whose culture comes from Jewish-dominated media?
“Tania Singer…found that both men and women activate their cAAC/MCC and AI when they see someone in pain whom they regard as fair and like. Interestingly, men on average showed less activity in this part of the empathy circuit when they see someone in pain whom they regard as unfair or who they do not like. It is as if men find it easier to switch off their empathy for those who might be competitors, or who they judge are out of line, or with whom they have no vested interest in remaining in a relationship” (34).
Do Jews, on average, tend to have a similar brain mechanism for switching off their empathy for “those who might be competitors,” meaning potential enemies of the tribe? Might Jon Ronson be unable to understand and empathize with the actual beliefs of truth movement participants because the truth might include Zionist involvement in 9/11 – a horrific prospect from the Zionist and Jewish perspectives, a prospect that kindles atavistic fears of pogroms? Is Sacha Baron-Cohen unable to perceive his gargantuan affront to Kazakhs and Muslims for the same reasons? And is Simon Baron-Cohen’s obsession with the evil of the Nazis, blindness to the evil of the Zionists, and blindness to his own cousin’s massive lack of compassion, a product of the same mechanism?
In asking these questions, and in criticizing the blind spot shared by Ronson and the Baron-Cohens, I am not arguing against the overall value of the two books. The Psychopath Test is a fine work, funny and humane and self-aware and outrageously funny. And The Science of Evil, with its recognition that empathy is an extremely valuable limited resource, is an important contribution to the literature of the psychopathy-empathy spectrum. And besides, the empathy test at the back – prefigured by Philip K. Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – is loads of fun! (I scored a very respectable 54, which translates as “slightly above average.”)
So by all means, read these books! But don’t miss their critically-important blind spots.
Dr. Kevin Barrett, a Ph.D. Arabist-Islamologist is one of America’s best-known critics of the War on Terror.
He is the host of TRUTH JIHAD RADIO; a hard driving weekly radio show funded by listener donations at Patreon.com and FALSE FLAG WEEKLY NEWS (FFWN); an audio-video show produced by Tony Hall, Allan Reese, and Kevin himself. FFWN is funded through FundRazr.
He also has appeared many times on Fox, CNN, PBS, and other broadcast outlets, and has inspired feature stories and op-eds in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Chicago Tribune, and other leading publications.
Dr. Barrett has taught at colleges and universities in San Francisco, Paris, and Wisconsin; where he ran for Congress in 2008. He currently works as a nonprofit organizer, author, and talk radio host.