Dearest Rachel –
As soon as I wrote it out, it occurred to me that someone might read the title and assume it was something like the Five Point Palm technique from Kill Bill or some such. And while I understand that something along these lines actually exists among certain aboriginal tribes in Australia – but apparently this practice, commonly referred to as kurdaitcha, only works on those who believe in its power; there is a former Prime Minister who was so cursed back in 2004, but is still living to this day, whereas most aboriginal victims succumb to their curse in little more than a week’s time – that’s not what I wanted to talk with you about today. Although in fairness, it’s a topic that I find no less mystifying.
Because, you see, today is election day, and I don’t understand the mindset of most of the people on offer to vote for, regardless of party – because I can’t seem to grasp the point of power.
As far as I’ve always understood, power – whether on an individual basis (both in terms of one’s own physical strength and ability or the inherent authority granted by one’s knowledge or status), the household level (we use the term ‘power company’ as a generic term to describe the electric and gas utilities for a reason) or that granted by the state in the form of government office – is a means to an end, rather than an end in and of itself. Power allows you to accomplish things, whether for good or ill, for altruistic or selfish ends. It isn’t an end in and of itself, or at least, it makes no sense to be.
So why is it that so many people seem to pursue it – and hold onto it – for what seems to be nothing more than its own sake?
It’s the sort of thing to think about on a day like today, when you cast a ballot for all the people you hope have the country’s best interests in mind – or at least, claim to be wanting to use the power of their new-found position to push it in the direction you, as the voter, would have them do so. But very few politicians – if any – are truly that noble; and even the ones who might be so considered (at least, by their supporters) are as likely to seek it as a sop to their own egos as much as they are a means to set a proper course for the jurisdiction they’ve been put in in charge of. After all, they seem to reason, those that elected them (which, by definition if not in truth, serve as a majority) appear to agree with them that they have all the right answers, resulting in a feedback loop of self-gratification.
And that’s just the most innocuous use of power that I can imagine. Others are not nearly so benign – although, as a use (as opposed to power for power’s sake), they are still understandable to me. High office, for example, can a means to wealth… but not from the salary the official receives (although it tends to be fairly respectable in comparison to what I used to make – and I was doing all right by the time you allowed me to retire). Let’s start with the more crude forms, such as graft and bribery. It isn’t enough that this official earns a wage from the government – he can get paid to do his alleged job by people with a vested interest that he rule one way or another on a certain matter, or offer permissions to these people that his electorate might not have approved of (but hey, his pockets are being lined, so who cares? They don’t have to know).
On a slightly more subtle path, there are others that make their money through the markets. I hear of at least one Member of Congress (and like with cockroaches, when you see one, there are dozens you’re unaware of) whose spouse makes trades that seem remarkably well-timed, especially due to legislation that comes through benefiting the companies they invest in. It might be forgiven if it were more public knowledge; can you imagine if John Q. Public could invest in the same things at the same time as Senator So-And-So’s better half, and get himself a piece of the pie? But as a rule, warrants and options don’t tend to be made available to the average public investor; only the rich are allowed to get richer. Such are the perks of power, and I can understand pursuing it, even while acknowledging its veniality.
Less savory is the implication behind Henry Kissinger’s assertion that ‘power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.’ The mental image of the former secretary of state getting it on with anyone – disturbing enough when he was in power in his fifties, virtually unfathomable now that he’s pushing the century mark – probably goes to demonstrate his point. Powerful men, by virtue (and I use that word somewhat ironically) of their power, seem to be able to attract women when they have little else to recommend them. Consider Harvey Weinstein, and what he could do for (or to, if the woman didn’t go along with him) an aspiring starlet. Again, a loathsome use – even abuse – of power, but it does go a ways toward explaining why some men would seek it out.
What I don’t understand is the quest for power for its own sake. I often ask about why certain politicians might enact this or that piece of legislation, and get met with a response along the lines of “to maintain their hold on power,” as if the power was an end in and of itself. And it makes no sense to me.
Part of it comes from my own take on the concept, viewed through the lens of what I refer to as the Spiderman Doctrine: “With great power comes great responsibility,” as Uncle Ben put it. As I’m not a fan of having that kind of responsibility, I don’t see the appeal to power. Sure, there are all these perks to it (if you’re willing to give up that many pieces of your soul for them), and if you’re so idealistic (and egotistical) as to think that you’re the only one who could get stuff done in your community to your liking, have at it. But it’s definitely not for me. Now, when I mention this opinion to others, I’m told that those in charge hardly concern themselves with responsibility anymore – it’s all about the power itself. And I can’t wrap my head around it.
The closest thing I can come to, in terms of envisioning the concept of ‘power for power’s sake,’ is O’Brian’s vision of the future, as told to Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Imagine a boot, stamping on a human face – forever.” In his telling of it to his nearly-broken prey, he seemed to relish the thrill of victory in every single moment. And maybe, just maybe, I can wrap my head around the idea of celebrating that moment of ‘we won, you lost!’
But in every moment? No, once you’ve obtained power, you must do something with it. Those who put you there are expecting you to, and to spend the rest of eternity simply gloating over your victory isn’t going to be enough. Unless, of course, you intend to turn your supporters into part of that human face you’re stamping upon, and crush them just as viciously as you do to your opponents. This seems counterproductive in multiple ways; first, obviously, you wind up turning your supporters into your enemies just as much as your original opponents (even more so, in fact, since they will be reeling from the sting of betrayal, and will likely be that much more determined to avenge themselves), and by doing so, you are nearly guaranteed to be outnumbered by that mass of humanity you are trying constantly to subdue.
In effect, O’Brian is quite wrong in his dream for the future. There’s no joy in trying to relive that moment over perpetually; indeed, quite the opposite. While it’s true that, if power is what one truly desires, their future does look very much like a boot stepping on the face of humanity, pressing down upon them and grinding its cleats in until bruises turn to gashes and flow in bright red rivulets, it’s not from triumph at all. The moment the power-mad ceases to mark time on his victim, there remains the very real threat that the victim will rise up and attempt (if not succeed) to return the favor. Rather than victory, this exercise of raw power is done out of pure fear.
And it’s no way to live.