When wise governance is set aside for the acquisition of raw power, the effects can be startling and unsettling. Facts and events that are unambiguous suddenly become areas ripe for dispute. Neighbors are pitted against neighbors. Those who seek to divide us for their own self interest and financial gain rise in strength.
As always, this Weekly Reader features links to recent books and articles that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy.
“Power doesn’t corrupt,” says biographer Robert Caro, “it reveals“
It is a story as old as the history of the world, and one that plays out in the teachings of our philosophers and great religions. The contrast between destructive and uplifting uses of power came to mind recently while reading Anglican theologian N.T. Wright’s 2020 book Broken Signposts.
Wright’s work looks at seven signposts integral to every worldview, including justice, beauty, freedom, and truth. When we do not live up to our ideals in those areas, Wright suggests, our societies and our individual lives become unbalanced. As a priest and Biblical scholar, Wright makes the case that looking at these broken signposts through a Christian lens provides a vision and hope for ourselves and for the world.
Many of his observations from the Gospel of John bring to mind parallels of life today, especially in the final chapter on power. Wright’s telling of the well-known New Testament story of Jesus before Pilate, in a different political arena in a different time, nonetheless creates a clear link.
Wright asserts that there are two types of power. The first, designed to control others, most often happens by bullying and fighting. Casual onlookers consider Pilate and see someone who has the fate of another’s life in his hands, who controls ruthless warriors, and who maintains his power through violence. But Wright sees a weak politician in over his head, angry at being manipulated, and determined to get his petty revenge. Think of today’s U.S. politicians with authoritarian tendencies. Many see themselves as strong, but they too are in reality weak, confused, angry, and easily manipulated by their deep-pocketed donors.
So, what does power reveal about those who do not rely on bullying, violence, and revenge? Many ancient religious and philosophical systems have an understanding of appropriate political power where the world is governed wisely by humans who will be held to account for how they exercise that power. It is built upon empathy, understanding, and love for others. It is a paradox, writes Wright, that “humans are made to exercise power, but true human power was always intended to be exercised through self-giving love.” It is power that will be accomplished by “a grain of wheat falling into the earth and dying,” and so producing many seeds.
The short-term outcomes may not be as easily attained as through bullying, threats, and violence. But power that is exercised through empathy and self-giving love has impacts that last well after the leader is gone, moving us from self to a focus on others. That is the type of power we should seek and support.
Fear is used to deflect attention from the undermining of democracy
In her Letters from an American series, historian Heather Cox Richardson recently wrote of the ways in which anti-immigration fear is used by authoritarians to retain power, deflect from their own scandals, rewrite history, and undermine democracy. Author and lawyer Teri Kanefield has a piece on her blog worth reading about power, and the difference between hierarchy people and fairness people.
New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, author of the book Dark Money — where she asserts that “the Koch brothers and a small number of allied plutocrats have essentially hijacked American democracy, using their money not just to compete with their political adversaries, but to drown them out” — linked to a recent Rolling Stone article and tweeted “All the tentacles of the ‘Kochtopus’ are aimed at killing Biden’s Build Back Better Bill on Climate, Welfare.” All aimed at keeping money and power.
And finally, David Runciman — who teaches politics at Cambridge — has a piece in the London Review of Books that points to what has really failed in America due to Trump’s unceasing push for power.
“The institutions of the American republic withstood Trump just as the Founders might have hoped: since federal government is complicated and burdensome and organised around institutional self-interest…But the one institution that was not able to withstand Trump was the one the Founders thought might destroy the republic anyway: a political party. The Republican Party establishment indulged Trump and then discovered that when it was time to move on his voters were staying put….it turned out that they couldn’t undo what they had done.“
Enjoy your reading this week.
More to come…