Thursday, May 26, 2005

Nature's Little Kings

Over at PublicOrgTheory, Joseph Logan suggests that power is something people don't feel comfortable discussing:

Most news strikes me as being discussions of power without overtly discussing power. A story on President Bush's approval ratings nearing an all-time low is really about his power to push his agenda...but the article doesn't say that. A story on the Supreme Court's review of abortion is about the power of religious and feminist groups to advance their agendas...but the article doesn't say that. A story on a police crackdown in Zimbabwe is about maintaining or subverting existing power structures...but the article doesn't say that.

One might protest that power is an assumed aspect of everyday life, something so obvious as to not need highlighting. I disagree....I believe the tendency to assume it implicit in public life is a mechanism for avoiding it altogether.
I think there's some truth to that, and it brings a few scattered thoughts to mind. First, I'd argue that what we tend to call "power," these days, is paranoia and sadism that focuses mechanically on increasing the weakness and vulnerability of others.

Real power is the willingness to surrender oneself to goodness rather than to paranoia and sadism, or to pinched greed and calculation. Still, in political and social terms, "power" most reliably comes when you increase the weakness and vulnerability of others. The assumption seems to be that when you've increased someone else's weakness and vulnerability, you've decreased your own. Which is insane, of course.

So if power really is taboo, I'd imagine it's because weakness is taboo. Discussions about power are - or should be - uncomfortable partially because they're revealing; one's worship of power offers insight into what one is afraid of, and ashamed of, and where one's vulnerabilities lie, and whether or not one is sane.

Notwithstanding, absolute power is now an unabashed rallying-cry on the Right, where self-awareness has never been popular. The breast-beating and garment-rending over the filibuster compromise is a good example of the perennial state of dissatisfaction in which conservatives find themselves; no sooner do they proclaim themselves the Ultimate Ass-Kickin' Rulers of the Universe than they're gnawed by the rodent teeth of the Enemy Within, and go back to bemoaning their eternal victimhood.

Why does everybody pick on them, anyway? Why can't they get a break? All they're asking for is power so complete that it'll save them from the horrors of time, sex, and death. But for some reason, wicked people keep snatching this pretty bauble away. It seems odd that authoritarians simultaneously manage to see themselves as all-powerful and wretchedly weak...until you consider that the power is the mirror image of the weakness. Or, if you prefer, it's the gauze that binds their wounds.

It's amazing, really. The terrors that haunt these people have convinced them that roughly fifty percent of the country - a population that includes their neighbors and co-workers, their doctors and nurses, their customers and suppliers...their own children, in some cases - must be reduced to absolute powerlessness and driven into the Outer Darkness. That's a dead-end proposition if I've ever seen one.

But since power is illusory, it's no surprise that the people who worship it live in a fantasy world. One part of their fantasy is that they're self-sufficient; whatever they need, they can get it themselves. Another is that their aggression will somehow keep death and disaster at bay; what they do to others will never be done to them.

The Elizabethan poet John Davies had a similarly poignant self-regard, but he also had a clear sense of where his power ended:
I know I am one of Nature's little kings,
Yet to the least and vilest things am thrall.
By contrast, Nature's Little Kings on the Right recall Brecht's line in "As You Make Your Bed":
If somebody's going to be trampled, it's you.
And if someone's going to do the trampling, it's me.
Apropos of which, perhaps one of the things that infuriates conservatives about the theory of evolution is the central role of chance. Absolute power is threatened by blind chance; therefore, many conservatives have apparently concluded not that absolute power is impossible, but that chance doesn't exist. (And it may not, for all I know.)

And yet, even the most powerful people sometimes fall victim to seemingly random, for instance, when their own actions destroy them in a simple instance of cause and effect. Thus, it's reported by Otto Friedrich that when an SS officer lay dying in the mud, after being knifed by a girl he'd raped, he moaned, "What did I ever do to deserve this agony?"

That's the clearest example I know of the authoritarian understanding of power and causality. What isn't under their power, they rule with an iron fist and God's imprimatur, from now 'til Doomsday. What is under their power remains completely out of their hands, and utterly unpredictable.

The point being, I suppose, that if we want to talk about power, we need to bone up on pathology. It may be some time yet before they're prised apart.

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