Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | September 29, 2011

Emerging From the Muck

A while back I met a very intelligent man. He was working on a book to show that we are a transitional species. He didn’t need to convince me. We aspire to humanity, but we sorely lack evidence that we’ve moved very far from our bestial past.

The way we recognize power reflects our transitional status. We could simplistically divide power into three types with their motivating characteristics:

  1. Power of force, motivated by fear
  2. Power of charisma, motivated by sex
  3. Power of intelligence, motivated by reason and compassion

In real life, we rarely encounter any of these in “pure” form. After all, we’re human, and what is more human than inconsistency? One type of power can be used to serve the purposes of another type. One type of power can hamper the effectiveness of another type by design, as in a checks-and-balances system, or for dysfunctional reasons, such as those involved in addictions. Mixing them is not the problem, but finding effective mixtures has been.

Some interesting questions are:

  1. Which type or types of power predominate in a situation?
  2. Is the power mix appropriate for the situation?
  3. Will the power mix achieve desired goals?
  4. How we can alter the mix when we want to?

I don’t pretend to have answers to those questions. However, I do have some considered opinions about the three types of power.

Fear of Force

Much of the world remains subjugated under the power of fear of force. The power of actual force is rarely used, because it’s destructive. Force-wielders don’t want destruction, but control. Fear of force affords control without destroying everything worth controlling.

In the United States, we flatter ourselves and think that we are largely free from the fear of force. We aren’t; our fear is hidden by faith in our system: faith that it works and won’t go too far, and faith that system-prescribed methods will produce the changes we need. That faith has proven to be misplaced, maybe even illegitimate. It might have held true if the system were designed to work for us and to allow serious change, but it isn’t. Maybe it never was. Even Thomas Jefferson realized that self-improvement is a tall order.

“The people cannot be all, & always well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. We have had 13 states independent 11 years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century & a half for each state. What country before ever existed a century & a half without a rebellion? & what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

— Thomas Jefferson to William Smith, November 13, 1787

What precludes the terrorism advocated by an American Founding Father? Fear of the world’s most powerful standing military and police forces, along with military technology and systems of surveillance that any tyrant would drool over. All that power for the advertised purpose of protecting us from forces we fear. How do we face the power that supposedly protects us when it becomes a fearful force itself?

Tanks and planes and bombs dwarf the hand-held weapons we as citizens are legally allowed. There was no comparable power differential in Jefferson’s day, but let’s be honest and let’s be real. That perceived power differential springs largely from our fear of force. It’s in our minds. We’ve never seriously tested it, and so we have no data to support our faith in the terrible power that our military could exercise against our citizenry. It’s just a faith. Millions–or even just thousands or hundreds–of armed citizens who directly confronted a highly efficient military might be doomed, but they would not be negligible. And historical data proves that poor odds don’t necessarily spell doom. And there are many alternatives to direct confrontation, as we’ve seen from conflicts since the late 20th-Century. And there are many alternatives to physical conflict, as we’ve seen from the success of non-violent movements. We haven’t come close to exhausting our known options for resistance, let alone those we haven’t invented yet.

Power doesn’t automatically result from possessing destructive technology, hardware, munitions, and the personnel trained to use them. Power is absent without the will to use those destructive resources. Either the democratic state and federal governments of the United States, world-renowned for self-proclaimed piety, do not possess the will to destroy their own citizens, or their democratic piety is bogus. If popular will becomes strong enough that citizens defy the odds and resist superior forces, they make clear the depth of their distrust of the governance system. A democratic government that has lost the confidence of its citizenry and proceeds to oppose them proves that its democratic facade is bullshit. The near-term outcome of the confrontation would be secondary to the truth it would reveal.

Fear of force intimidates us into compliance. Its effectiveness does not depend on the true power of the force we fear or on the likelihood that it has the will to exercise its power. Untested belief in power and the will to exercise it are sufficient to induce fear, intimidate us, and inhibit resistance.

Complacency can infect even the oppressed in our highly affluent nation. No matter how poor we might be, our conditions are likely better than most in other places. Allure of potential opportunity for “upward mobility” can compensate for actual injustices and abuses, anesthetizing us from feeling indignation and rage that would actually be appropriate.

Fear of force might seem invisible or absent when force goes unchallenged. Our agreement with a force does not erase our fear of it. Servile compliance is often the direct result of overwhelming fear. Habitual compliance eventually yields agreement, even loyalty, a common experience among chronic abuse victims.

Every American knows that powerful forces exist to prevent the resistance that Thomas Jefferson advocated. We just disagree with each other about why those forces exist and how powerful they really are. Our fear of them will keep us intimidated until we decide to test them.

Charisma

Napoleon Hill, in his book Think and Grow Rich, one of the best-selling books of all time, wrote that charisma is a sexual power. Charisma and intent to exploit are the necessary and sufficient conditions for cult formation. Not all charismatics form cults, but all cultists live and sometimes die for their charismatics. We celebrate the power of charisma and reward it with office, license, and wealth. Our celebrities have it; our executives have it; our political leaders have it. Why we celebrate it remains unclear. We aren’t sure why we are drawn to charismatic people, and we’re not sure whether our attraction to them serves us well or ill.

Charisma produces only one verifiable result: followers. Their reasons for following might be squishy, but follow they will, reasons or none. Charismatic success is measured in crowd or membership size and intensity of loyalty. Gathering enthusiastic human resources is not of itself a bad thing, nor is it necessarily good. We have no evidence that the knack for making people eager to say and do things indicates the wisdom of saying or doing them. Charisma is often wildly disconnected from wisdom, just like large crowds and celebrities tend to be. Charisma gives the impression that power and wisdom are present; otherwise it does nothing, even worse than nothing. Charisma often serves as an attractive cloak that hides despicable secrets, and still we love it. As democratic and reasonable as we tout ourselves to be, we still love kings and queens, spectacle, pomp, glory, and reasons to believe.

Despite mountains of traditional wisdom and historical evidence to the contrary, our fondness for charisma lets us pretend that its power is neutral, an equal opportunity power. We pretend that it can used benevolently or atrociously, depending on the character of the charismatic. We lack evidence of that neutrality. Charisma is a function of personality; what makes us suppose that persons who vary widely in character have similar capacities for it? Great, good leaders were charismatic, but they were also few. Others used charisma to achieve unbelievable tyrannies and monstrosities. The rest of our charismatics have given us the world as we know it, not exactly a stellar product. It could just as well be that charisma is not neutral, but biased towards exploitation.

At least here in the United States, we don’t fear a Hitler or a Stalin or a Chairman Mao. Our charismatics are more cagey than that. We prefer them on stage, so that’s where they meet us. They inspire our confidence. Why? We’re not sure, except we’re sure that we like them. As long as they promised us a better world–and we didn’t insist on a much better one–they managed to maintain stasis. The boat didn’t rock and seemed to be moving, so we kept stoking the steamer and giving them the helm. But the boat is no longer steady, and most of us don’t like its direction. We just disagree with each other about why it’s rocking and where we should steer it. Charisma can’t answer those questions. Unable to agree on why and where, we fall back to fighting over who.

Intelligence

The power of fear of force and the power of charisma haven’t worked. Expecting new outcomes from further reliance on the same old powers is stupid, and that’s being kind.

We’ve long recognized the connection between intelligence and the wisdom of a course of action. We have mountains of evidence to support that connection. Isn’t the connection sometimes tenuous? Aren’t there exceptions? Of course, but the more important question is: do we have anything better? Hopefully we will find something better and move beyond the frailty and unreliability of wisdom based on intelligence, but that probably won’t involve backsliding to fear of force or charisma. Our sciences, economic systems, and educational systems rely on the connection between intelligence and wisdom, and so in turn do our societies. In other areas, like law and politics and religion, we have growing up to do.

We admire superior intelligence, as long as we can keep it within limits we prescribe; prescriptions that tend to dumb it down to our own level. Otherwise, we fear it. It challenges us. Superiority makes it seem beyond control. We lack the means to assess its intentions and motivations. We can’t be sure where it’s coming from. Trust our freedom to intelligent people? Better trust that to a strong military. Trust our governance to intelligent people? Better trust that to those who can wheel and deal, make impressive speeches, navigate Byzantine political structures, and have good camera presence. Better to trust ourselves to those who can make us feel confident and secure even when we shouldn’t, not to those who understand facts and tend not to spin them, who recognize our limitations and plan to compensate for them, and who don’t have $100,000 smiles.

Doesn’t leadership imply intelligence? Isn’t intelligence how people get to be leaders? Yes, intelligence of a sort; but look where our military, law enforcement, justice, political, and corporate leaders invested theirs. If they were truly intelligent, they would move their stock out of fear and sex, into something more constructive.

We choose our leaders and grant them power much like our ancestors did, much like our evolutionary forbears did: on the basis of striking visuals, impressive noises, and threat of bodily harm. Fear of force and charisma still rule the day. If we have in fact evolved to the point of managing our own development, we would invest in better ways and teach them to our children. Instead, the forceful get away with keeping us under thumb, the charismatic get away with keeping us fooled, and we brainwash our children to embrace the values and perpetuate the systems used to stick it to us.

The American Dream is just a dream, a myth. The myth makers never intended us to experience their promises. To realize our hopes, something far better than the mess we’ve got, we need to wake up and stop listening to them. They lied. Both fear of force and charisma are predicated on untested faiths and falsehoods. The intelligent need to wise up, rise up, and stop their inferiors from getting away with it.

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