Everybody knows, as Leonard Cohen’s song goes, that everything is about power. Yet if you use the word in polite society you’ll see eyes glaze over as though your friends fear what might be coming next—a plunge into conspiracy theory or an inventory of global atrocities, and suddenly the topic is changed before anyone notices. The word itself reeks of polemic and conjures images of storm troopers. Yet it is the power of informed, committed citizens, even in small groups, as Margaret Mead reminded us long ago, that changes the world.
Working on the premise that two of the most enduring power tools—communication and cooperation, is available to those linked in to systems of support—this piece looks at how these tools work for and against the greater good.
What is power? Many years ago, at a holiday resort among worldly professionals, this question was given spontaneously to individuals. Answers came back readily—power is knowledge; power is what turns a decent person into a monster; power is energy; power is love. It’s these interpretations I use to examine the question.
Power is Knowledge
Chris Hedges in the February (2011) issue of Adbusters warns “We stand on the cusp of one of the bleakest periods in human history when the bright lights of a civilization blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity.” We have been convinced, Hedges claims, that we do not have the capacity to understand and fight back against the “revealed truths presented before us”.
The speed of global news allows us to virtually witness the economic, environmental and political crises as they unfold. But does this capacity empower us or leave us feeling powerless like spectators strapped and plugged into this thing called life?
When does knowledge give us power? What knowledge? The knowledge to live well among others, to be able to hold a job with a livable wage, the knowledge about how power works today?
If John Pilger, who won the 2009 Sydney Peace Prize (awards do imbue credibility and therefore some social power) warns—those who offer an alternative picture of our western, capitalist society that attempts to lead us back to the question “who benefits?” are quickly labled as conspiracy theorists—then shouldn’t we look for those alternative pictures?
Anyone reading this site has probably decided we should be interrogating power. However it’s easy to become disheartened and depressed when a pastor of a small congregation of fifty in Gainesville, Florida, gets world coverage for planning to burn the Quran on September 11th while countless others who work tirelessly on interfaith dialogue rarely get a peep from their local newspaper?
Power is what turns a decent person into a monster
A report from Germany that came through the Guardian claimed would-be Quran burner, Rev. Terry Jones, was dismissed in 2008 from a Christian community in Cologne for allegedly forcing members to give him a percentage of their earnings, working for little or no money, breaking up families and friendships and assigning himself a fake doctorate. An official sect monitor felt Jones had manipulative potential and needed to achieve notoriety.
Is power something which turns a decent person into a monster, or is the monster within seeking power in order to get out?
According to an instructor in the mental health services field—the most dangerous people are not the truly mad, but those with borderline personality disorders. They appear intelligent, charming, even charismatic, but wreak havoc on the people around them because they cannot empathize, they have no conscience.
Is charisma a natural power or is it manufactured through centuries where great warriors and manipulators are held in awe? Do we value the ambitious employee who bullies and demeans co-workers in order to rise to the top? Can we list the real achievements of Hitler, Stalin or Mugabe?
So, why did the media spend days covering this pastor’s threat? Looking at other issues on the news at that time, may give us some clues.
Brian Stelter in a reflective article in The New York Times, pointed out that this story coincided with the Moslem Centre seeking a building permit two blocks away from ground zero. Rage from those who were against or for it was stirred up along with the painful memories of September 11th, 2001.
Is a Moslem Centre in New York really a threat or an insult to those who died in 9/11, or is it suggested for the viewing public? How did the appearance of the Imam compare with that of Terry Jones?
Who benefits by this media event that representatives at Fox, CNN, ABC and others regretted running? Well the images are imprinted on the global brain and won’t be erased no matter how the story is unpacked afterwards.
Isn’t this how power works? Working through unconscious impulses hungry for locating the enemy? This may work with the unquestioning consumer, but imagine what would happen if table talk in every home in Canada was about how demons (and heroes) are created rather than identifying the monster.
Power is energy
For thousands of years we have created systems of support—family, community, language, ritual, and education, in order to survive. We are born into these systems, we depend on them and they depend on us. Certainly there is violence within them. But millions nurture the best rather than dismiss them, as Margaret Thatcher did when she claimed there was no such thing as society. Self-interest, technology and consumerism makes that easy to believe—until something tragic happens.
A loved one dies, we become ill, we lose our job. Then we look for services (which we pay for with our taxes and feel entitled to) to bury, to heal, to comfort and educate us. This is the tragedy of the commons. As long as we take the human capacity for cooperation and shared goals out of the popular narrative we lose our inherent power to solve problems.
Power is love
Generally, power lives in the mundane and doesn’t make news headlines. Parents, teachers, doctors, scholars and neighbours learn how to care, teach, heal, interrogate and help. This is love in its many functioning forms. The Dalai Lama’s editorial in the Vancouver Sun (September 26, 2009) proposes that love and compassion bring individual happiness, and individual happiness will save the world from anger and hatred.
Power extracted from the life force to exploit and oppress, never lasts forever. It is ultimately defeated by the oppressed, and infinite power lies in the application of love and energy given by those left to re-build what has been destroyed. They are us and we have been doing it for centuries and can do it in the future as long as we don’t give our power away to interests that want us all to believe we don’t have any.
Everybody knows this—we just need to be reminded.
[shorter version first published in the Flying Shingle November 2010]