CLARENCE CENTER, N.Y. Feb. 18...On a gloomy Thursday afternoon (Feb. 12) a random sampling of Americans boarded Continental Connection Flight 3407 departing Newark Airport en route to Buffalo.
Psychologist Mervyn Fliegel calls them "the givers."
On that same day another group in D.C., New York, Dallas,Miami, Chicago and Hollywood, were desperately phoning, emailing and texting their lawyers, agents, flacks, trainers, astrologists, aromatherapists--anyone who could help them salvage their public lives.
Fliegel, research director of PUNS (Psychologists United for a New Society) calls this group "the takers."
Several hours later the "givers" were lying dead in the burning wreckage of flight 3407.
The "takers" were still single-mindedly trying to burnish their tarnished images.
"It's an American irony that you can take a random sample aboard a commuter plane and find people with more talent, character, courage and dedication than you'll find in the centers of political, financial and artistic leadership, " Fliegel says.
In his new book Who We Give Our Power To And Why Fliegel tries to answer the question of why ordinary people are morally, ethically and often intellectually superior to those they choose to run their lives. He calls this "American schizophrenia" and uses the event of February 12 as a textbook example.
Among the ordinary Americans who were flying to Buffalo on that day were:
A much decorated Marine (Silver Star, two Bronze Stars), who had survived two helicopter crashes in Vietnam.
A human rights crusader who had tirelessly worked to expose the genocide in Rwanda.
A woman whose husband had been killed on 9/11and had since become a leader of victims' advocates groups.
A young hockey player who had been the first female ever to play on a men's team.
Two jazz musicians, good friends, who were on their way to perform with Chuck Mangione's band.
"These people were social altruists," Fliegel said. "Whether it be human rights, terror victims, hockey or jazz they had sacrificed money, career and family life in the service of a cause greater than themselves."
Among the stars, leaders and role models who were spinning their way out of trouble as they had each done so often in their lives, were:
An ex-president trying to salvage a "legacy" out of the wreckage of his administration.
Another ex-president going insane with thwarted exhibitionism.
A Treasury Secretary who had cheated on his taxes and had been brutally criticized for his financial rescue plan.
A Secretary of State whose husband is collecting millions of dollars in lecture and lobbyist fees from countries with whom she will be negotiating.
A prominent politician who had been forced to withdraw from his cabinet post because of $110,000 in undeclared income.
Still another who had withdrawn from a cabinet nomination because of an FBI Investigation into illegal fundraising.
A baseball star, accused of lying about steroid use, who was trying to buy his way back into the public's good graces with crocodile apologies and a $3.2 million gift to a college baseball program.
A Governor impeached for solicitation of bribery.
A newly appointed Senator under investigation for perjury.
Various disgraced economists and financiers, who had lied, embezzled and misrepresented trillions out of the public coffers.
Movie stars, athletes, celebrities who had abused substances and each other...
"These are the sociopathic elite," Fliegel says. "People who have risen to dominance in every area of American life. Their only cause is themselves and they pursue it relentlessly without regard for truth or scruple."
Fliegel says that these radically different personalities share one character trait. "They are addicted to risk. They tempt fate like reckless drivers, breaking rules, lying, intriguing, even committing criminal acts. The fear of discovery and punishment is an almost sexual thrill for them."
Again he asks: "Why do we give these people power over our lives?"
Fliegel says the American obsession with "world-wide celebrity, astronomical wealth and record-breaking achievement" is so demanding that only liars, cheats and connivers can hope to succeed.
"Those who aspire to success soon learn that it cannot be achieved by skill and application alone," he says. "They become cynical about the system they are subverting, contemptuous of the people they are manipulating."
The true problems begin when the sociopathic elite gain power, Fliegel says.
"The thrill is gone," he says. "They become bored with the every day tasks of this power. They have no respect for the process, only for the prizes. They become inattentive, unfocused. They make terrible mistakes...
"Many are misled...Millions die...Tens of millions are ruined..."
Fliegel says the American political system has to be restructured so that the altruists, people like the passengers aboard that tragic flight, can assume leadership roles.
"We need to put the careful drivers behind the wheel again," he says.
Causes Heywood Gould Supports
Leukemia and Lymphomia Association
American Cancer Society
St. Jude's Children Research Hospital