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Posts tagged power

from "Frodo in a World of Boromirs," by Kurt Luchs, FIRST THINGS: On the Square, 27 October 2008

It is no longer shameful to lust after power so long as one lusts for the good of the people. In the words of Boromir, speaking of the One Ring, “For you seem to think of its power only in the hands of the enemy: of its evil uses not of its good.” The only rejoinder, in Frodo’s words to Boromir, is that “we cannot use it, and what is done with it turns to evil.” Yes, it’s that simple. And as you ascend the levels of authority, from city to state to nation, it only becomes more true.

There are several reasons. One, already alluded to, is the corruption of power. No matter for what noble ends power may be sought, at some point it always becomes an end in itself, and then the jig is up . . . but the power and its abuses live on. This is why even the most flagrantly failed government programs are nearly impossible to kill.

Another reason that centralized government social engineering simply doesn’t work is what F.A. Hayek called “the knowledge problem.” Hayek was the only Austrian economist ever to win a Nobel Prize. He won it partly for a brief essay called “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” in which he explained that government is intrinsically helpless before most social and economic problems because the knowledge needed to solve them is too widely dispersed among the members of society. It cannot ever be made known in a timely fashion to a central authority, and even if it could, that authority would lack the godlike coordinating ability needed to use that knowledge effectively. Adding to the difficulty, much of this knowledge is tacit knowledge, not consciously known or articulated by the individuals who have it.

What can make effective use of the knowledge distributed locally among the members of society? Only the free market system and its accompanying structure of voluntary trades and changing prices. Freely determined market prices are what send signals to individuals telling them how to best use their unique knowledge to their own, and ultimately society’s, advantage. Without a free market, the only way to allocate resources is by government fiat–a few, far-removed individuals making choices for us all, perhaps with the best of intentions but in near-total ignorance.


In the journal of the young James Boswell (later Samuel Johnson’s biographer), . . . a document otherwise notable chiefly for its obsessive focus on social climbing and fornication, we get this: “I went to Mayfair Chapel and heard prayers and an excellent sermon from the Book of Job on the comforts of piety. I was in a fine frame. And I thought that God really designed us to be happy. I shall certainly be a religious old man. I was much so in my youth. I have now and then flashes of devotion, and it will one day burn with a steady flame.”

It is safe to say, I think, that Boswell would not be renowned for his piety at any stage of his life. Kierkegaard’s mouthpiece Anti-Climacus speaks well to this topic [in The Sickness Unto Death]: “In general, it is extremely foolish . . . to suppose it should really be such an easy affair with faith and wisdom that they just arrive over the years as a matter of course, like teeth, a beard and that sort of thing. No, whatever a human being comes to as a matter of course, and whatever things come to him as a matter of course, it is definitely not faith and wisdom.”

We enter into the work of cultural creativity not as people who desperately need to strategize our way into cultural relevance, but as participants in a story of new creation that comes just when our power seems to have been extinguished. Culture-making becomes not just the product of clever cultural strategy or the natural byproduct of inherited privilege, but the astonished and grateful response of people who have been rescued from the worst that culture and nature can do.

Culture Making, p.227


Lake County Sheriff Mark C. Curran Jr. sentenced himself today to a week in his own jail, saying he believes spending time behind bars will make him a better cop and a better person. “I believe that I can be a better sheriff by having a better understanding of jail operations from the perspective of an inmate in the Lake County Jail,” Curran said before being locked up. “I believe that I will receive significant introspection from staying in the jail with inmates for a week.”

Curran plans to live in a cell, eat jail food, mingle and talk with other inmates in common areas, while also attending numerous programs offered in the facility, including substance abuse counseling, parenting and educational classes, along with religious services. That immersion, he said, should give him more insight into everything from safety issues to what programs may be needed help inmates straighten out their lives and avoid future crimes.

“My experience in the jail will help me to better understand our existing programming, as well as any possible unmet needs that exist in our programming,’’ said Curran, a 45-year-old former prosecutor elected sheriff in 2006.

But Curran, a Roman Catholic, also frequently cited a spiritual desire to understand what inmates are going through and how their lives may be turned around. “In Lake County, we have embraced the scriptural mandate to love our neighbor. Your neighbor must be everyone if we are truly going to see peace on Earth,” he said. “In the eyes of society, I may be sheriff, but in God’s eyes, I am no better than anyone else.”

from "Palin & The Power of the Small Ones," by Dick Staub, Staublog, 4 September 2008 (slightly copyedited)

Here are some of the themes I see at work in what is happening with Palin (and Obama for that matter).

1) Every human being is created in God’s image and is responsible for developing their unique capabilities in ways that glorify God.

2) True power resides in these God-imaged individuals whose power is released and becomes evident when they express their uniqueness.

3) Because humans are geographically distributed, this power can be found wherever humans are found. Bloom where you are planted!

These truths were taken by our founding fathers to be self-evident and are also evident in every page of biblical revelation.

In today’s fallen world we have forgotten these truths. We believe power resides in places and the people in those places. The media, politicians and the wealthy are the powerful, we are led to believe, and they reside in specific places: New York, LA, Chicago, Wall Street, and Hollywood, to name a few.

Today’s evangelical world has fallen into this trap and regularly develops strategies aimed at the powerful in powerful places. I remember a few years ago, George Barna identified the centers of cultural influence, concluding that the church did not rate very high. He shared a plan to work with large churches (also believed to be the center of power) in strategic cities (coinciding with the “world’s list” of strategic places) to recruit the brightest and the best next-generation evangelical leadership prospects to mentor them and help them enter the most powerful educational institutions (Harvard, Stanford, Yale) so they could enter the most powerful positions in the most powerful companies in the most powerful cities in the world.

I remember telling George that of the National Book Award winners I had interviewed, most were from small, out-of-the way places, and most hadn’t attended the best schools. They came out of nowhere, riding on the strength of their talent, internal sense of calling, and desire to express who they were in their work, starting where they were in some small farming community tucked away in some unknown village in the Midwest.

Regardless of your politics, this is surely the most important lesson from Sarah Palin’s debut as a national and global presence.

from "Obama's Bind," by David Heim, The Christian Century, 26 August 2008 :: via TitusOneNine

Steele’s deepest worries about Obama are not about his political chances but about his personal authenticity. Whether as bargainer or challenger or some creative mix of the two, Steele thinks, a black leader must don a mask, forging a persona that will charm or manipulate whites. In taking on this task, Steele contends, black leaders lose themselves, for they are never able to locate what they themselves really think. Steele wonders: Is Obama running for president because of his deep convictions or simply because he is aware of “his power to enthrall whites”?

But questions of authenticity can be raised about every politician. The peculiar job of a politician is to fashion repeatedly points of agreement between people with different and shifting points of view and to project a public persona that can elicit action and be the vehicle for people’s hopes. If personal authenticity is your quest, politics is the wrong medium. We can wish for congruence between the inner and the outer person of the politician, but in the end what matters for the voters is the direction of the policies chosen and the decisions made.


[Bonhoeffer] joined the Abwehr (military intelligence) originally in order to assist surreptitiously in the rescue of Jews and also to engage in political and diplomatic work on behalf of his country. . . . Bonhoeffer played this dangerous game fully. In 1940, upon the fall of France, Eberhard Bethge recalls an announcement being made in a café in a small German town. Everyone lept to their feet, began singing, “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,” and raised their arms in the Nazi salute. To Bethge’s perplexity, Bonhoeffer raised his arm as well, and then whispered to his friend, “Raise your arm! Are you crazy?” Afterward he said, “We shall have to run risks for very different things now, but not for that salute!” This kind of pragmatism, for Bonhoeffer, is what it meant to serve Christ in the real world.


The sense of success and inclusion is harder to resist than the wrath of the state. Carrots are more corrupting than sticks. This phenomenon is powerfully described in Vasily Grossman’s novel “Life and Fate” (1960). One of its central characters is Viktor, a talented physicist who stoically defends his science in the face of likely arrest, but becomes weak and submissive when Stalin calls him to wish him success. “Viktor had found the strength to renounce life itself—but now he seemed unable to refuse candies and cookies.” . . .

Russia today is much freer than it was for most of the Soviet era. However undemocratic it may be, it is not a totalitarian state. The room for honest speaking is far greater than Russian intellectuals make use of. As Marietta Chudakova, a historian of Russian literature and courageous public figure, puts it, “Nobody has been commanded to lie down—and everyone is already on the ground.” The media is suffocated by self-censorship more than by the Kremlin’s pressure. Nikolai Svanidze, a Russian journalist who works for a state TV channel, admits: “There is no person who tells [me] what you can and what you can’t do. It is in the air. If you know what is permitted and what is not, you’re in the right place. If you don’t, you are not.”

repost ah-SEE-sh?
a post, 10 August 2008

I’m not going to get into the politics of the mess in the north Caucasus except to say that there are no good guys, but I have to get a minor linguistic gripe off my chest: all the news broadcasts are talking about “ah-SET-ee-?” and the “ah-SET-ee-?nz.”  What’s next, cro-AT-ee-?? ve-NET-ee-?n art?  I realize none of the broadcasters and reporters have ever heard of Ossetia before, but you’d think the patterns of English spelling would clue them in to its proper pronunciation, ah-SEE-sh?.  I suppose it’s another case of hyperforeignification, like “bei-ZHING.”

Incidentally, Ossetian (as every schoolboy knows) is an Iranian language, and the Ossetian name for Ossetia is Iryston, based on Ir, the self-designation meaning ‘an Ossetian’ (well, actually it specifically refers to the majority group of Ossetians, and the minority Digors resent the use of that name for the whole people, causing some Ossetes to identify with the medieval Alans and call Ossetia “Alania,” but let’s set that aside—if you’re interested in the messy politics of Caucasian ethnic nomenclature and the Alans, read “The Politics of a Name: Between Consolidation and Separation in the Northern Caucasus” [pdf, html] by Victor Shnirelman); it used to be thought that Ir was derived from *arya- ‘Aryan’ and thus related to Iran, but Ronald Kim denies this in “On the Historical Phonology of Ossetic: The Origin of the Oblique Case Suffix,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 123 (Jan. - Mar. 2003), pp. 43-72 (2.0.CO;2-5”>JSTOR); the relevant discussion is on p. 60, fn. 42.  Kim says it may be from a Caucasian language, or it may be descended from PIE *wiro- ‘man.’  (The word Ossetian is based on a Russian borrowing of the Georgian term Oseti.)


By 5 p.m. Curtis had made his first two purchases: frozen chicken wings and a can of beans ($4.75); a T-shirt and pair of socks from a vendor on the street ($2.00).

Meanwhile, Michael drove his rental car around the neighborhood. When he returned to meet us he was exasperated. “The food here is awful! No fruit, vegetables are moldy. Only meat, canned food, and soda. What do kids eat? The guy at the store told me no one would eat fruit unless it’s in a can. Is that true?”

Curtis shook his head. I told Michael, “When we get back to New York, I will talk with you about diet and quality of food availability in poor neighborhoods.”

But Michael was growing upset. “All I see are liquor stores and dollar stores and fast food. There was one guy who said he’d buy my food stamps — 50 cents for a dollar in stamps? How can people live like this?”

Curtis laughed. He asked Michael if he’d like some chicken and beans. Michael said, “No thank you,” and sat on the cold linoleum floor. He was silent.

“How much does a banana cost,” Curtis asked Michael. Michael looked embarrassed, unable to answer.

“You don’t know, do you!” Curtis laughed. “See fruit is expensive; raw food is too much for low income people. And we don’t always have a fridge, so you got to keep things in cans. That way it can move with you. And one thing you need to know: low income people always are on the move — not just squatters, all low income folks.”

from "Inside Mugabe's Violent Crackdown," by Craig Timberg, The Washington Post, 5 July 2008

President Robert Mugabe summoned his top security officials to a government training center near his rural home in central Zimbabwe on the afternoon of March 30. In a voice barely audible at first, he informed the leaders of the state security apparatus that had enforced his rule for 28 years that he had lost the presidential vote held the previous day.

Then Mugabe told the gathering he planned to give up power in a televised speech to the nation the next day, according to the written notes of one participant that were corroborated by two other people with direct knowledge of the meeting.

But Zimbabwe’s military chief, Gen. Constantine Chiwenga, responded that the choice was not Mugabe’s alone to make. According to two firsthand accounts of the meeting, Chiwenga told Mugabe his military would take control of the country to keep him in office or the president could contest a runoff election, directed in the field by senior army officers supervising a military-style campaign against the opposition.

a post from Fleming Rutledge’s Generous Orthodoxy

We recently had the rare privilege of attending a private screening of Leni Riefenstahl’s famous but seldom-seen film Olympia, made to celebrate the 1936 “Nazi Olympics” in Berlin. The powerful artistry and technical mastery of “Hitler’s moviemaker” left everyone stunned.

Naturally, the number one question asked afterward was about the relation of art to morality. There has been no clear answer to this question, but here are two sets of reactions that some of us shared:

Overall, the movie is apolitical. The overwhelming effect at the end of the very long movie is of the beauty of the human body in action. Riefenstahl’s amazing camera angles, often catching the athletes from below in motion against a sky filled with fair-weather clouds, are indeed “Olympian” in more ways than one. The astonishment of the second half, which covers the athletic events themselves, tends to cancel out the creepiness of the first half.

The first half of the film is deeply disturbing. It depicts the carrying of the Olympic torch by fleet, proud runners (looking for all the world like the old Modern Library logo) and then the opening procession with numerous shots of a beaming Adolf Hitler taking the salutes of the various teams as they pass. It is impossible to resist the powerful emotional effect of this pageantry. As the team members from the various countries (including the USA) pass in review, many give the Nazi salute with Rockette-like precision, all others turn their heads toward the Führer with perfect symmetry as they march by. What did they know? (By 1936, they should have known plenty.) Did it matter to them?  I found myself choking on tears and fury. Here were the principalities and powers on review. Human nature is irresistibly drawn to spectacle, and can be manipulated in almost any direction through pageantry when it is harnessed to nationalism and the will to power. We should beware of our own proclivities when we watch the Olympics this summer.