Friday, October 29, 2010

The Problem of Power

Politicians also have no leisure, because they are always aiming at something beyond political life itself, power and glory, or happiness.
—Aristotle 


Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.
Thomas Jefferson  

Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment.
Mohandas Gandhi
 
One of the chief problems of power is that people and nations that attain a degree of power spend a lot of energy trying to either retain it or get more. In the course of doing so, there is a high degree of fear and paranoia of others who are trying to usurp their power. Hence, all kinds of measures are put in place to secure their power, including making a list of their enemies.

For democratic states, President Nixon, the former US President, is a well-cited example of what fear and paranoia can lead to, but countless other world leaders continue to operate in similar manners.

You will notice that autocratic or tyrannical states tend to place much emphasis on having a very detailed security and surveillance apparatus operating at all times. The central idea is that anyone can be plotting some subversive activity and almost no one is beyond suspicion. That is the height of paranoia, which was very much evident in the Stalinist regime of the former Soviet Union.

The infamous show trails and purges, notably in the 1930s, were signals to the masses not to even think about trying anything funny, like questioning the policies of Stalin. That would be dangerous and met with the severest and ultimate punishment, as it always was. Tyrants tend to deal with threats swiftly and without mercy.

One could look to the Roman Empire to view an earlier example of how a powerful empire dealt with dissidents. For example, Jesus of Nazareth is likely one of the most famous persons executed by its brutal regime, on the charge of sedition. History has proved the charges levied against the Galilean Jew as false, and his execution became the Roman's Empire eventual undoing.

Jesus soon became a martyr, and his teachings in some form, under the mighty pen of Paul, quickly became popular in the Roman Empire. Jesus became a figurehead for a new powerful religion that promised freedom, equality and individual dignity. It spread and eventually became the religion on the known world, and became a power in its own right. In fact, it became the power in the world.

Democracy of Crowds: A crowd of people returning from a show of fireworks spill in to the street stopping traffic at the intersection of Fulton Street and Gold Street in Lower Manhattan, New York. City crowds are surprisingly peaceful considering their size and the potential for chaos.
As Aristotle once said: "In a democracy the poor will have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme."
Photo Credit:
GNU Free Documentation License.

This religion's power has waned, yet its effects are still felt today in many so-called Christian nations of North America and Western Europe. In the United States, for example, one can still sense the Puritan ethics at work in its views of work, obedience to authority, reward and failure, and crime and punishment. Yet, it is a form of Christianity short on love, compassion and mercy, some of the qualities its founder espoused so passionately 2,000 years ago.

The United States is not the only nation falling short of its Founding Father's ideals. Nor does it have the worst human rights record, not by far. It is the nation, however, that many historically have looked to for the values of freedom, equality and individual dignity, given its noble ideals. That sentiment remains strong among its people, who fight to retain the values enshrined in the Constitution. They are fighting a valiant battle against fear, intolerance and hate. (For an interesting view about Saturday's "Million Moderate March" in Washington, see Can satire save America?)

The US is the nation with a strong First Amendment, for example, valuing freedom of speech and thought. Small wonder that it has attracted immigrants from every nation. Personally, I have known the American people to have the highest regard for these values.

Many other nations today work assiduously at quieting or silencing dissent (see previous essay, Silencing Dissent: Part II ); the list of such nations is well-known to the many human rights organizations, policy academics and political think-tanks. Even so, democratic nations are also not immune to reducing liberties and intruding on citizen's privacy, all in the name of national security interests—a broad sweeping term that can cover anything and everything that the State deems as an interest. (see U.S. Tries to Make it Easier to Wiretap the Internet: New York Times.)

That national security trumps privacy and individual liberties is worrisome, no doubt. But more problematic for all concerned is that such pursuits have the opposite effect, creating a climate of insecurity among its citizens.  Except, perhaps, for the elites. Henry Kissinger, US secretary of state in the Nixon Administration, one quipped that "power is the ultimate aphrodisiac." That might be so, but many powerful politicians have been undone by their lovers.
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Copyright (c) 2010 Perry J. Greenbaum

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