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.