Monday, October 13, 2014


First, don’t assume from this book’s subtitle that is irrelevant to us here in America, or to our leadership.  It is of vital relevance, no matter the specificity of his target.  Nick Duffell’s title will have resonance for anyone who has lived through the past couple of decades in America and watched our own wounded leaders in action--or, more correctly, inaction.  That said--and we'll come back to this--his central argument is that the boarding-school educated governing elite in Britain are themselves unconsciously governed by the lasting wounds incurred by the experience of being sent away from the family at an early age, and placed in a militaristic environment in which they learn to protect themselves from a hostile outer world.  

I can speak to this.  I am what Duffell aptly refers to as a Boarding School Survivor.  As a practicing psychotherapist, he has a long-standing practice designed to bring such people back from their emotional disorientation and isolation.  I could have used his services, long ago, but had to discover my own path through this maze.  I was sent away to school at the age of seven, and by the time I escaped to freedom at the age of eighteen, I had received a remarkable head-oriented education but remained what I often describe as an emotional cripple.  I had learned the costly and dangerous art of evasion and emotional invulnerability.  As a seven- or eight-year old, I could not afford to do anything but suppress the feelings that would open me up to attack from my fellow-boarders: fear, anger, sadness, grief, the terrible pain of being separated from parents who assured me that they loved me—even though it was hard to understand the paradox of being loved and yet exiled from the family, the locus of that love.

The result of my excellent education was that I never grew up.  Rather, it took me another three decades before I realized there was something wrong with living like a turtle in a shell.  Boarding School Survivors, as Duffell describes them, are stunted individuals so caught up in their heads that they remain disconnected from their hearts.  I simplify his profoundly well-informed and subtle arguments, whose bottom line is that Britain’s ruling elite, boarding-school and Oxbridge-educated, are supremely unqualified to lead in our twenty-first century world because they get so intently focused on their distorted, rational vision of national and global issues that they remain impervious (invulnerable) to the bigger picture of human needs.  They are unable to listen, to empathize with others than themselves and their own kind.  They are guided by the certainty of their own sense of rectitude.  To doubt, to question, to have a change of heart is to be vulnerable, and vulnerability is the last thing in the world they can allow themselves.  (Duffell’s final chapter, on doubt, is particularly eloquent and on-target.)

I am admittedly unqualified to evaluate the more technical aspects of Duffell’s argument.  To this reader, he seems impressively knowledgeable and up-to-date with the latest discoveries of neuroscience and academic psychology.  He draws on a broad understanding of the philosophical development of rationalism and its critics, the countervailing social movements of repression and rebellion, and contextualizes his argument in that historical perspective.  In our contemporary times, his exemplars are primarily the likes of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, England’s current Prime Minister David Cameron, and London Mayor Boris Johnson, whose attitudes and actions are profoundly—and in Duffell’s view—mistakenly reactionary.  As he sees it, they bully and bluster their way past opposition into futile military actions and social programs that enrich the already privileged and wealthy and contribute to the continuing impoverishment of the needy.  No wonder the England he describes is an angry country.

Late in the book, Duffell expands his vision of an entitled elite to include brief reference to American leaders—in particular, of course, George W. Bush, whose blind and reckless pursuit of a delusory obsession rushed us headlong into the war with Iraq.  The disastrous results are with us today, in the form of a Middle East in unending turmoil.  Looking at America today—a nation of people surely as angry as the British—I’d argue that what Duffell calls the Entitlement Illusion is by no means limited to British elitism.  Our leaders must also be counted amongst the wounded.  Our leadership is dominated by the squabbling of little boys who have never grown beyond the need to protect themselves and their own territory from those who do not agree with them.  Our political problems are the same as those Duffell describes in his country: militarism, misguided and prejudicial rationalism, a lack of empathy for the poor and underprivileged, an assumption of rectitude that rejects other views without a hearing, an angry rejection of doubt or reappraisal of previously held views.

Entitlement, I’d argue, is not the exclusive property of the British elite.  I myself believe it’s also, more broadly, a factor of historical male privilege, the patriarchal tradition.  There is a persistent myth in our culture that sees men as rational beings, in control of events, capable, practical, while women are (still, in the eyes of too many of us men) perceived as irrational, guided by emotion rather than reason, and therefore less competent in leadership positions.  Duffell argues passionately for a middle path, one that minimizes neither reason nor emotion, but balances the intelligence quotient with the emotional quotient, the head with the heart, reason with compassion and empathy.  I agree with him, that unless we as a species can find that balance, we are in for dangerous times ahead.  His book is a timely and important reminder of the need to “change our minds” in a fundamental way, and open ourselves to the powerful--and practical--wisdom of the heart.  I sincerely hope that the book will find readers beyond the native country of which he writes.  Its insights are profoundly needed everywhere, throughout the globe.

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