I finished reading Anand Giridharadas’s Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, and there are a lot of great insights and lessons in it. What struck me the most, though, and what I discussed in my last post, was how fragile some of the incredibly powerful people Giridharadas interviews are. The pattern held through to the end of the text, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I’d noticed the phenomenon before I starting reading Winners Take All, but the book put a fine point on it. I’m not imagining it. They say it in their own words. It’s not enough for them to have all the power. It’s not enough for us to be at their mercy. There is a very real, non-negotiable demand for praise underlying their interactions with the public. It’s even deeper than that. There is a demand to be liked. These people are intent on being seen as the “good guys” and build mythologies around themselves. It’s why, after decades of playing with loaded dice and engaging in rapacious pillage, many get the label “philanthropist” later in life. The result is that we’re all in a live-action, improvised re-telling of The Emperor’s New Clothes. The fine garments they want the most praise for are their intelligence and wisdom. Having amassed all that wealth means they’re smarter than us. We’re just supposed to accept that on faith. They also believe they are entitled to rule us, while we praise them. At best, it’s a condescending, paternalistic worldview. At worst, there’s something deeply authoritarian lurking beneath it all.
I think we all want to be liked and respected, but there’s something not right about people who demand it. There’s something not right about people who pressure the people around them into performing it. It’s a sign of deep insecurity. Winners Take All showed again and again all the progress that is impeded by whole societies playing to these insecurities and bending over backwards to avoid making these people ever feel bad. How invested a complicit media industry is in upholding this paradigm is depressing, and it results in absurdist, morally bankrupt programming. Telling the truth can be a revolutionary act. I’m glad Giridharadas did in his book.
Maybe reading Winners Take All prodded the issue to the front of my mind, but my Instagram microblog has been full of discussions of narcissism over the past few weeks. I wonder about what is driving people who seem compelled to control other people. It’s not enough for them to run their companies and foundations. They have to tell the rest of us what to do too. I’m fascinated and horrified by it. The hoarding impulse extends beyond the wealth and seems rooted in some emotional payoff for being seen as “special” in some way. It’s never possible to praise them enough. Every now and then, the mask will slip with one of them, and we’ll see the childish petulance underlying a “visionary” leader. (Elon Musk has had a couple of these moments on Twitter.)
This, of course, happens on a micro level too — in families, friendships, romantic, relationships, and workplaces. There are demanding, controlling, fragile people everywhere. I don’t think enough of us have been prepared to deal with them either personally or societally. Strong boundaries are the only thing that has any hope of keeping people with high degrees of narcissistic traits in check. You have to be able to say, “No” and mean it. I think a big red flag that you’re dealing with someone you should give a wide berth is that they believe they get to determine all the parameters of their relationship with you. That’s by-and-large the attitude Giridharadas describes when discussing devotees of the win-win philosophy of philanthropy that doesn’t interrogate the harm the philanthropists caused to gain their fortunes. They get to decide everything, and we should just sit there and be grateful to be even a prop in the drama they’re starring in. Winning. Dominating. Controlling. Looking good. That’s all that matters to these people. And that we perceive them as superior. Saying “no” to a narcissistic parent is impossible for many people. I think that dynamic can replicate itself with some of these thought-leaders. Their fans talk about them the way young children who haven’t explored their individuality talk about their parents. They are wholly benevolent and can do no wrong. There’s a piece in the New York Times about how stan culture has infected everything that I’ve bookmarked. I think there’s something to that notion.
The fake “helpfulness” is the thing that rankles me the most about the philosophy Giridharadas discusses. Chapter after chapter gave examples of powerful people shoving themselves to the front of the decision-making process in areas where they have no expertise, talking over the people whose interest they claim to be acting in, and saying “my bad” when things go sideways. This happens on a micro level in personal relationships too. It’s simple to disentangle yourself from a relationship with a domineering, manipulative person: Just leave. It’s never that easy though, is it? All the gaslighting, constantly being made to praise their imaginary fine garments, warps people’s reality after a while. Clearing that fog takes time. Then there are practical considerations. Most of us aren’t independently wealthy. We can’t just pick up and move away. These problems are compounded when the problems are societal in scale. How do we get enough people to say “no” collectively to the power brokers discussed in Winners Take All? How do we make it clear that they don’t speak for us? That we never asked them to and aren’t interested in helping elevate them? Writing, reading, and sharing books like Winners Take All is a small start, but I think it matters. Controlling the narrative — changing it — is imperative. Narcissists and people with similar personalities understand this. It’s why they’re obsessed with perception management. We need to master those skills too. We also need to start caring a whole lot less about the feelings of people with the mentality of hostage takers. We have our lives to live. We shouldn’t have to sacrifice ourselves to people whose “service” to us is all about having their egos massaged and their images buffed to shine.
Originally published in my newsletter.