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Over and over, I read and hear about power. The United States is a power, a great power, a super-power locked in ineluctable contests with other powers that pundits comment on endlessly. These contests seem to be the price that is paid for being a great power. Meanwhile, I make granola and dig in the garden. What am I, as a citizen, supposed to do with this power? It isn’t my personal power. I can’t borrow a cup of it. On the other hand, no one is holding me accountable for this power. As our global reach makes plain, the power is military but also economic. The emotional basis of American power resides in the belief that the United States is inherently virtuous and anything the nation does is virtuous. Self-criticism need not apply. An example of this virtue from recent times would be George Bush stating that “By the grace of God, America won the Cold War.” God apparently pays close attention to the doings of nation-states. Who could argue with such power?
Power cannot prove itself to be power without enemies. Otherwise, it is merely a presence, so much money lolling in the bank. Since the world has always been a fractured place, enemies have not been hard to find. One tribe loathes another tribe; one king loathes another king. In modern societies via media in various forms the loathing is distributed to the population. They hate the Kaiser, the Jews, Putin, immigrants, Saddam Hussein, counter-revolutionaries. The targets change but the loathing remains. In this nasty way, mere people on the street get to participate in power. The power becomes “our” power. We can scapegoat together.
A fair question to ask is what good is this power? The power came to the United States because of the advantages of geography, geologic assets and various political and economic means of exploitation such as slavery and industrialism. The power came, too, because Europe ruined itself in two wars while Japan ruined itself in its war. Russia suffered grievously in World War Two but was not ruined. The sheer immensity of Russia would be hard to ruin. After World War Two, the United States had the main advantage in the power sweepstakes.
This doesn’t answer the question because power exists as an entity in its own right, almost as a philosophical concept and certainly as a vital, instinctive force. As a male endeavor based over millennia on little more than might makes right, power creates a thralldom among its initiates. Reasons cannot rebut power; power only respects other power. Thanks to power, dictators and elected leaders can reward and exculpate their cronies but, foremost, power—a triumph of vanity—is busy insisting on itself. Numerous virtues oppose power such as humility, gratitude and compassion, but power has no interest in behaviors that seem like confessions of weakness. However much God is evoked, à la George Bush, religion as a motive moral force is beside the point. God is allowed as a sort of back seat driver. The leaders—presidents, kings, queens, prime ministers—are in the front seat. Financiers, generals, directors of top-level agencies and corporate heads ride shotgun. All are what the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert called “athletes of power.”
It is very hard for any of us who live in a certain time under certain circumstances to understand the fatal outcome that inevitably comes with power—overreaching that destroys itself and destroys others. The United States, to take the example that has concerned me in my lifetime, has believed it is entitled to use its power in the name of whatever shibboleths it promotes. It would be irresponsible to not use the power, the argument being that if you don’t do it, someone else will. That is a poor argument and much of the so-called thinking that goes with power is not much more than that, as in if NATO is not strong enough, Russia will be in Germany tomorrow. Indeed, what was NATO to do with itself after the fall of the Berlin Wall? Go home and meditate and raise peonies? No! Power is happy to make all sorts of imputations based on its need to stoke the fear and loathing that make power appear invincible and necessary. Power creates a climate of illness and suspicion and then points to its creation and says, “See what the world is like? Aren’t you glad to rely on power to keep safe and secure?”
If the human race destroys itself, thanks to its horrible weapons, power will have achieved its real goal because power is not a friend of human beings. Power is the attempt to act in a god-like way in the sense that the gods (including the Christian one) can be destructive. Power is a nightmare that acts as though it is an acceptable way of being. We live, thus, in a world in which nightmarish behavior is routinely countenanced and has always been routinely countenanced as the way political business is conducted, be it at the hands of explorers coming to the “New World” or jihadists or rapist soldiers or Crusaders pausing on their way to Jerusalem to slaughter Jews.
Our world is fond of looking at anything that is vexatious as a problem that can be solved. Power, however, is not a problem. Power is a condition that stems from male aggrandizement. Women are allowed to buy into this but they must do it on the men’s terms. Like Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton, they must be iron maidens. The final card in power’s deck is always death, typically in the form of warfare, though extortion, torture and shaming are regular accomplices. Typically power plays out at less than lethal levels, for instance, in the competitiveness that capitalism enshrines—winners and losers, the powerful and the powerless, the haves and the have-nots. Over recent decades in the United States, as people lose jobs and face economic devastation because the corporation needs to make more money, everyone is instructed, in one more mirthless irony, about the possibility of personal empowerment. You may not possess the big power but you can have power in your life. Positive thinking can push power aside. In the sense of being more than the enormities that power feeds on—wealth, nationalism, weaponry, virtue, patriotism, overweening pride, bigotry, religious mania, to say nothing of fear and loathing—this is duplicitous poppycock that keeps us all busy on the self-assertion treadmill. Telling off your boss is one thing; invading a sovereign nation is another.
Power hungers for high stakes. Like a compulsive gambler, power cannot leave the table. Thus power however much it pretends to act in the name of democracy or self-determination or liberation is a captive that must continually assure itself of its power. For with the baton, the sword or the mandate comes hubris which can be quiet, residing complacently in notions of inherent superiority (the British were very good at this) or noisy, as in May Day parades of military hardware. Power seeks to maintain the status quo yet must be vigilant about other powers, hence the quotient of fear and loathing that goes with power, hence the frightening faces of power, those photos of Hitler or Stalin or Mao smiling.
What power always fear is truth and power’s inevitable tactic is to discredit truth as an irrelevancy, a vagary, a misconception, a naiveté. Truth is a search that depends on each person but is a communal activity because what truth says has implications for each person that go above and beyond the byways of power. Truth is modest and speaks to daily life and the sanity of people wanting to live lives that are not torn apart by power’s lusts and strategies, lives that are spared the falsities of initiated wars, of broad-scale recrimination and condemnation in which groups of people are targeted as enemies. Power destroys individuality and the telling, complex stories that go with individuality. Power gives the stark commands; everyone who is beholden must answer. A suitable myth is always at hand to assure the populace of power’s wisdom—the enemy is reprehensible.
Teaching young people to care about truth is the gravest threat to power. Power, as we know it in the United States, has little to fear in that regard since schools are ruled by quantified assessments, career ambitions, ritual asseveration of the value of “basics” and assertions that truth is purely in the eye of the beholder and thus of little real merit. Anything that threatens the ruling mythology of unassailable rectitude may be condemned as negative and un-American. Serious literature is an intrusion in the idyll of power and can be treated as impractical. Anyone who bothered to read ten pages of Paul Bowles could tell you the invasion of Iraq was a doomed enterprise. But what did a writer know? What truth could there be in imagination?
A great power believes it will always be a great power. Ask the shades of the Romans or the Dutch or the British. The denizens of those empires went about their daily business as the wheels of power turned smoothly or roughly. No end was in sight because the last thing power can imagine is its diminution by its own hand. The belief is that only an enemy can do undo power, that the conceit born of power has no consequences. It’s sobering to think of the pitifully modest the steps that humankind has taken to an understanding of power as a disease not a benefit, that wisdom lies in seeking to get beyond the fear and loathing that go with tribalism and that the so-called march of civilization has, in that regard, led nowhere. We can’t, says power. We mustn’t, says power. What about the barbarians across the Rhine or the ocean or on the other side of the world? What about those who aren’t us and don’t want to be us? Power has only one answer: our right-thinking and our identity will oppose their wrong-thinking and bad identity. Thus far humankind, whether it speaks of defense or security or safety or homeland or a hundred other notions, has not gotten beyond that answer. Giving up the nation-state pretense of being all-knowing seems more than humankind can handle, absurd as that pretense is. Thus power can speak confidently and does each vicious day. Power is always making news. It cannot help itself.
Copyright 2022 Baron Wormser
Baron Wormser’s many books include the novel Some Months in 1968 (Woodhall, 2022). He lives in Montpelier, Vermont.
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“Power is the attempt to act in a god-like way in the sense that the gods (including the Christian one) can be destructive. Power is a nightmare that acts as though it is an acceptable way of being.” Powerful (whoops!) essay. Thank you, Baron!
Baron Wormser, this is briliant and echos so well written and though my feelings exactly. I have one question: “or jihadists or rapist soldiers or Crusaders pausing on their way to Jerusalem to slaughter Jews. ” Didn’t they slaughter mainly Moslems (and the Jews that had remained, of course)?
Yes, they were out to slaughter whatever heathens and apostates they could get their hands on. Since I’m Jewish, I have the image I once read about of Jews being herded into a building that is then set on fire.
Thank you, Baron. Another great essay filled with long- and well-contemplated truth. Reading an essay you have written is like finally stepping into a broad landscape the reader suspected existed but of which has only ever had partial views.