Sunday, July 16, 2006

Must we eschew power to avoid corruption?

If power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, to avoid corruption should one avoid acquiring and exercising power?

That's the question on my mind in Llano, TX this morning as I sat by the Colorado River reading the July 10 & 17 issue of The New Yorker. (Kathy and I drove out for the day yesterday and spent the night at the historic Dabbs Hotel.) I was struck how, to me anyway, that theme cropped up in two very different articles - a review of the movie The Devil Wears Prada by David Denby, and a review of several foreign policy-related books by George Packer.

As I mentioned in my own brief review, The Devil Wears Prada didn't quite tie up all its loose ends, and I think Denby identified one of the most important and dissatisfyingly trite aspects of the film's outcome in his closing paragraph:
It presents the heroine's career options as a simple choice between power and honor. It's the same choice that "Wall Street" offered Charlie Sheen's fledgling financier twenty years ago - either become vicious Gordon Gekko or hold on to your soul. "Working Girl" proposed that you can join the establishment without turning into a beast, but someday I'd like to see a film suggesting that you can be the boss without giving up your intellectual ideals, and that the alternative - rejecting power - has its corruptions, too.
That last sentence especially hit home for me as a political activist. Lately I've once again run up against the frustratingly common, counterproductive notion that rejecting power is somehow especially noble - typically touted by folks whose political organizing philosophies are rooted in reform movements from the 60s and 70s.

Quite a few lefty organizers hold that basically all leadership is bad - at least unless it comes from some "authentic" oppressed person. I can't tell you how often I've heard progressive activists tell me the goal of political organizations should be to operate like some leaderless collective, where ideas and strategies bubble up from the "affected community," which they consider synonymous with the "grass roots." Organizers may be needed "at first," one frequently hears, but their goal should be to make themselves unnecessary.

So someone please, tell me: What social problems in the world have been resolved to the point that those committed to seeking solutions can say they've worked themselves out of a job? Racism and the aftermath of slavery? The War on Poverty? The War on Drugs? The African AIDS crisis? When do we get to stop, or instead wouldn't it be wiser to commit to the long haul? And wouldn't those who ARE in it for the long haul over time develop knowledge, experience and connections that would make them more effective leaders than someone without that background?

In fact, doesn't it do a disservice to a political movement to deprive it of experienced leadership? Aren't we harming outcomes for the so-called "affected community" when political movements reject the concept of leadership? (I actually think the politically correct phrase "affected community" is a poorly chosen term - we're all affected by these social crises, to varying degrees, or else it's easy to blow them off as somebody else's problem.)

In a surprisingly large number of instances this rebellion on the left against leaders has led to a rebellion even against the notion of political movements identifying concrete goals. After all, setting a goal implies leadership, and a rejection of other possible goals someone else might prefer. In this mindset, "organizing" is an end to itself, not a means to changing harmful laws - at most it's useful to mounting opposition to bad policies, but a terrible model for promoting a pro-active agenda.

Forty years ago liberals didn't think that way. When Martin Luther King, Jr. led the March on Washington, they did it to help pass the Voting Rights Act. Today many lefty activists insist that political organizing shouldn't focus on changing laws, but to "empower" the community. "Empower them to do what?" I've asked repeatedly over the years. Most often the answer is basically that the goal is to build self esteem, not to accumulate actual political power, which to complete the circle is considered fundamentally suspect.

The George Packer article contained a similar core theme, but on a topic unrelated to anything as trite as the fashion industry - how to respond to the rise of radical Islamism and the war on terror. Packer critiqued a book by Peter Beinart called "A Fighting Faith" that argues American liberals should develop a strategy to suppress radical Islam that is based on the global-engagement with Communism posited by Cold War liberal anti-Communists like Sidney Hook or John Kennedy.

Packer notes that a weird sort of neo-isolationism has arisen on the American left that's replaced the liberal internationalism of somebody like Kennedy. Much of this obviously is a thirty-year old hangover from the Vietnam War and the result of the baby boomer generation's disillusionment with interventionist liberal anti-Communism of Hook, Kennedy, et. al.. That approach may not be realistic or productive in the 21st Century, Packer notes. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States remains the by far the world's pre-eminent military and economic superpower, which puts us in a position of involvement in the world's affairs whether or not we trust our government officials to handle them. Writes Packer:
A serious American foreign policy toward Islamism will do well what the Bush Administration has done badly or not at all, and without the triumphalist speeches: modest, informed, persistent support for reformers, without grand promises of regime change; concerted efforts at reconstruction and counter-insurgency that bring to bear the full range of government agencies as well as alliances and international institutions. Since these tasks will fall to the United States one way or another, we should learn to do them better rather than vow never to try again.
Here's what fascinates me, and maybe it says more about me than anything these two writers were trying to get across (though both excerpts came from the articles' conclusions): Both these writers identify problems caused by a political philosophy that power corrrupts and therefore should be avoided.

Ironically, though, power is required to confront abuses of power, and that's what this highly problematic philosophical, cultural underpinning of American liberalism avoids recognizing: We need leaders. If we don't have leaders, we're screwed. If we wait for the most disenfranchised among us to establish the wherewithal to lead, those already in power will steamroll through their agenda. And who does that help? Not the "affected community."

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