In Review of Power

Eventually, so much of it comes back to power. We rush forward to take it up, but then at the last moment feign that—humble as we are—we only seek to serve, the betterment of our fellows. We gnash against those who disagree with us, paint them unfit for duty, then stand like the Morton Salt girl, eyelids aflutter with innocence.

The Power of Change (Some Things Change…)
When it happened that Hilary Clinton didn’t pull the top position in the Iowa Primary, she changed—her disposition, her posture—as in years past she has changed again and again to fit the situations at hand. In the hours leading up to the event, a Portsmouth woman asked how she did it. As one reporter put it, Hilary “nearly cried” with conviction that she should keep going, only “because it was the right thing to do.” “Mrs. Clinton for the first time showed a softer, more vulnerable side that voters responded to” (Shift to Softer Approach Seemed to Boost Clinton; WSJ, Jan, 10, 2008) And she pulled it off in New Hampshire—winning the votes of the younger women she had somehow disenfranchised in Iowa.

Some Things Never Do
Yet in the variety of faces, styles, and phraseologies, two things haven’t changed. First, none of Clinton’s extremist views on women’s rights, the value of life, and the role of government in the family haven’t changed at all. Ironically, with the recent release of Charlie Wilson’s War, we have a chance to look back at history—how in the post-Regan years, the (Bill) Clinton Administration reduced the CIA and it’s operational budget in Afghanistan and Iraq to nearly nothing. We lost clout with Pakastan, just years after helping create the ISI, resulting effectively in a change in Iranian relationships. It isn’t just Charlie’s War—it’s the recent assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the muscle flexing of Iranian Gunships this past week, and the link between the instability of Iraq (and the Insurgents involved) with Iran. And that’s the second thing that hasn’t changed—that how one talks, or cries for that matter, on the trail is not nearly as important as what is reality.

What is “Reality?”
In a Pilotian manner, we are forced to ask, “What is Reality?” (cf. John 18:28)—as candidates and reporters alike invite us to consider why—one year after the counterinsurgency “Surge” of US troops, while it worked, isn’t the reason for the growing stability in a very broken and troubled country. It is the power of question; while almost nobody will say that the Surge play no role in the change of course in the direction of more orderliness, many will simply question it. And therein lies the great human dilemma. Questions can be asked out of humility (to learn) and then can be asked out of pride (to challenge). It’s the quest for something over which we do not exhibit power, the quest for godhood, for a position in life that supersedes that of law, of right-wiseness, of truth. No answer—undermining the veracity of something, say the Surge—has to be given. The fact that one can ask a hypothetical question, posit the likelihood of other influences, even offer the possibility of doubt—is seen as itself something above truth, some quality unquestionable, above reproach, untouchable.

With Great Power…
It’s that untouchable right to challenge, to question, to raise suspicion which is just another feign in the great struggle for power—cast doubt and suspicion on all others. True or false, it doesn’t matter, so long as the immediate “I” is elevated. And it all seems harmless so long as the economy is strong(ish) and the dollar isn’t worthless (though it may be tolerably worth less than). Harmless, because the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one. A noble axiom no doubt—as the Courts debate this week whether voters ID cards can be required (constitutionally). No one bothers to mention that freedom and security move in opposite directions along the same spectrum—when that freedom is not of the self-governed kind. Jefferson said, “"The qualifications for self-government in society are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training"(...to Edward Everett, 1824). Yet, ours is a culture unfamiliar with long training and habit. We are, not surprising then, ill-equipped at self-government. We need not look back into the annuals of history to find the consequence of that—but look only to Nairobi and Naples. Nairobi is threatened by the possibility of anarchy, as opponents President Kibaki and Raila Odinga each stands resolute in his unwavering position. Over 700 have died—and how many more? Naples, meanwhile, lies under inconceivable tons of trash as the combination of a weakened political state and a powerhouse of organized crime makes some areas utterly ungovernable (Southern Italy’s Dirty Reality; WSJ, Jan 8, 2008).

Do we assume we are somehow above that, above the corruption of ballot stuffing and organized crime—somehow above robbing Peter to pay Paul, or outright suing him for his cloak along with his tunic? The candidates boast of themselves, but none seems well versed in the now famous words of Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”


The Deception of Choice

"Every American has the sense to sacrifice some of his private interests to save the rest." – Alex de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

“…many Iowans are still considering their options.” – Renee Montagne, NPR, Morning Edition

Loud cheers, much jubilant yelling, and these words, “This sounded like a room full of hard core supports, but Cathleen Monborg [sp?] says she’s still thinking about who to caucus for. She said it will be a game-time decision. ‘And I’ve changed three times. I started with O’bama. I went to Hillary. I went then back…wait… to Edwards and now I’m…I don’t know where I’m at but I think John Edwards is going to surprise people tomorrow. I really do.’” (NPR, Morning Edition, Jan 3, 2008)

Choice is fast becoming the great equity of the American system. It has long been a staple of our form of semi-democratic freedom. There is an individualistic pride, a vanity, about the ability to choose—a fact all the more evident in this season of politicking. And yet the value of the freedom seems lost on many.

There is no noble quality in the “game time decision”, as though last-minute procrastination produces sounder actions. The wisdom of choice lies in the art of integration—experience, knowledge, and history. But we herald choice as whimsy—as though it is better to remain undecided as long as possible. Far from decision being reasonable, well-founded, and proved, it becomes much more about feeing: What have you done for me…lately?

We are the child who year round desires this or that one object, only in the last weeks before Christmas to be swayed by the glitter of something else. After all, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” But in the words of Lewis, we are too easily satisfied—and the promise of “biggerbetterfaster” is the siren that leads down many foolish paths.

Choice is a false sense of power—as though by delaying choice we retain some secret power. NPR has interviewed dozens of people about their candidate of choice; the majority of them hold to “undecided” and “independent.” Choice withheld delays the inevitable—so long as I’m not committed they will cater to me. Somehow, I remain important until I decide. Before then, I have possibility. Afterwards, I become irrelevant—the after-Christmas disease that settles upon the not-so-satisfying gifts of the season. Choice retained is a gift unopened.

And it hides a deep insecurity. It is much easier to remain undecided and wish and wash in vacillation, than to choose early and have to defend the position—to look people in the eye and, seeing their disagreement, face their rational (or irrational, as is often the case) challenges to our decision. Those who have decided are called “closed minded,” “bigoted,” “unenlightened,” and “un-teachable.” (But at least they do not hide behind the veiled possibility that one word or smile from this candidate or that in the next day or week will be the seal that commits them. Better to remain uncommitted than risk conflict and contradiction.) And it is precisely the fear of contradiction that proves the unreasonableness of our choices deferred.

Look at Cathleen (first paragraph). She changes, and changes, and in the end doesn’t say, “I think John Edwards is going to surprise me,” but that he is going to surprise “people”—those nameless, faceless, undecided masses who too have chosen the easy out of hiding behind indecision than face the ridicule of someone more knowledgeable. Cathleen isn’t unique—the next indecision lies as close as the nearest mirror.

Though far from our recollection, there remain consequences for being the last to decide. If rushing in is the art of fools, reticence is the art of the lazy. I remember the events in CS Lewis’ book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where, nearing the end of the journey, there is nearly a mutiny. When the situation is changed, by Prince Caspian, from that of right to one of privilege the mutinous men are forced to reconsider their position and—far from wanting to stay—feared being left out. Lewis writes, “Very shortly after…there was only one left. And in the end he began to be afraid of being left behind all on his own and changed his mind. At the end of the half-hour they all cam trooping back to Aslan’s Table and stood at one end while Drinian and Rhince went and sat down with Caspian and made their report; and Caspian accepted all the men but that last one who had changed his mind at the last moment. His name was Pittencream and he stay on the Island of the Star all the time the others were away looking for the World’s End, and he very much wished he had gone with them” (187).

What unknown consequences do we bear because we are slow to decide?