A memorable conversation

What really* happened when Crosby and Cameron talked.

The scene: 10 Downing Street. The Prime Minister is seated at a desk. Enter a stout Australian man.

David Cameron: Ah, Lynton, come in.

Lynton Crosby: G’day Dave.

DC: I’d prefer ‘Prime Minister’.

LC: But this is the Aussie straight-talking that you pay me for Davey-boy.

DC: That’s when I’m wearing my Conservative leader’s hat. For the purposes of this conversation I’m wearing my Prime Minister’s hat.

LC: But you’re not wearing a hat, David. Jeez, it’s lucky you hired a top dog like me to tell you what's what.

DC: It’s an expression. Look, I need to talk to you about something.

LC: What is it?

DC: I can’t say.

LC: Why not?

DC: Because then we’d definitely have had a conversation about it.

LC: Is this the plain cig…

DC: (Tersely) I said I don’t want to have a conversation about it.

LC: So what’s this conversation we’re having now?

DC: That’s the problem. That’s what I want to have a conversation about.

LC: You want to have a conversation about having had a conversation about something without having the conversation or ever having had it.

DC: Yes.

LC: Have you tried forgetting the conversation?

DC: What do you mean?

LC: Well, if you need to have a conversation about something but you don’t want to have had that conversation the usual thing is to forget that you ever had the conversation. That way, when someone asks you if you had the conversation, you can say: “I don’t recall any conversation.”

DC: Of course! How could I have forgotten to say I don’t remember.

LC: That’s why you pay me the big bucks. Is that all? It’s just that I’ve got a meeting with another client …

DC: Well, there is one thing. About these clients of yours ...

LC: Is this another conversation we won’t remember.

DC: No, this is about a conversation you have to remember. It’s from back when I first hired you. You agreed to abide by certain principles of engagement  to avoid conflicts of interest.

LC: I don’t remember that conversation.

DC: We’re having it now.

LC: Right now?

DC: Yes, this is it. Read this memo that Jeremy from the civil service put together about how being a corporate lobbyist four days a week won’t be a problem when you’re advising me one day a week. I think you'll find it captures the essence of the conversation, so now we can all remember having had it.

LC: (Skims memo) Right, of course. It’s all coming back to me now, Prime Minister.

DC: That’s why I pay you the big bucks.

Curtain.

 

 

 

 

*not really.

 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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I am special and I am worthless: inside the mind of a narcissist

There's been a lot of discussion about narcissists this week. But what does the term actually mean?

Since the rise of Donald Trump, the term “narcissistic” has been cropping up with great regularity in certain sections of the media, including the pages of this journal. I wouldn’t want to comment about an individual I’ve never met, but I thought it would be interesting to look at the troubling psychological health problem of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

People with NPD (which is estimated to affect about 1 per cent of the population) have a characteristic set of personality traits. First, they have a deeply held sense of specialness and entitlement. Male NPD sufferers frequently present as highly egotistical, with an unshakeable sense of their superiority and importance; female sufferers commonly present as eternal victims on whom the world repeatedly inflicts terrible injustices. In both cases, the affected person believes he or she is deserving of privileged treatment, and expects it as a right from those around them.

Second, NPD sufferers have little or no capacity for empathy, and usually relate to other people as objects (as opposed to thinking, feeling beings) whose sole function is to meet the narcissist’s need for special treatment and admiration – known as “supply”. In order to recruit supply, NPD sufferers become highly skilled at manipulating people’s perceptions of them, acting out what is called a “false self” – the glittering high achiever, the indefatigable do-gooder, the pitiable victim.

The third characteristic is termed “splitting”, where the world is experienced in terms of two rigid categories – either Good or Bad – with no areas of grey. As long as others are meeting the narcissist’s need for supply, they are Good, and they find themselves idealised and showered with reciprocal positive affirmation – a process called “love-bombing”. However, if someone criticises or questions the narcissist’s false self, that person becomes Bad, and is subjected to implacable hostility.

It is not known for certain what triggers the disorder. There is likely to be a genetic component, but in many cases early life experiences are the primary cause. Narcissism is a natural phase of child development (as the parents of many teenagers will testify) and its persistence as adult NPD frequently reflects chronic trauma during childhood. Paradoxically for a condition that often manifests as apparent egotism, all NPD sufferers have virtually non-existent self-esteem. This may arise from ongoing emotional neglect on the part of parents or caregivers, or from sustained psychological or sexual abuse.

The common factor is a failure in the development of a healthy sense of self-worth. It is likely that narcissism becomes entrenched as a defence against the deep-seated shame associated with these experiences of being unworthy and valueless.

When surrounded by supply, the NPD sufferer can anaesthetise this horrible sense of shame with the waves of positive regard washing over them. Equally, when another person destabilises that supply (by criticising or questioning the narcissist’s false self) this is highly threatening, and the NPD sufferer will go to practically any lengths to prevent a destabiliser adversely influencing other people’s perceptions of the narcissist.

One of the many tragic aspects of NPD is the invariable lack of insight. A narcissist’s experience of the world is essentially: “I am special; some people love me for this, and are Good; some people hate me for it, and are Bad.” If people with NPD do present to health services, it is usually because of the negative impacts Bad people are having on their life, rather than because they are able to recognise that they have a psychological health problem.

Far more commonly, health professionals end up helping those who have had the misfortune to enter into a supply relationship with an NPD sufferer. Narcissism is one of the most frequent factors in intimate partner and child abuse, as well as workplace bullying. The narcissist depends on the positive affirmation of others to neutralise their own sense of unworthiness. They use others to shore themselves up, and lash out at those who threaten this precarious balance. And they leave a trail of damaged people in their wake. 

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times