Feb 12 , 2003
These days, everyone notices the man named George Bush, who reminds us uncomfortably of our descent from politically aware primates. George Bush is singularly important these days, it seems, whether this is meant admiringly or with revulsion. Is this man named George a unique man or a uniquely dangerous one? Is he a special case? Let us think. Has a ruler ever appeared so ridiculous? Yes. Has a politician ever been so vocally hypocritical about principles? Of course. Has any administration of officials ever lied so much? Frequently. Has a political coterie ever offered such an unpromising ad hoc ideology? Again and again and again. Has paranoia from a punctuating event ever been exploited so for political and financial gains? Certainly. Has any ruler abused his power similarly? Sure. But has anyone else ever had so much importance attributed to them — so that they might wield so much power on a whim? Ah — no. In this one extent, Bush is a singular case by some moderate amount, in part by his ability to acquire that attention, but mainly through the unprecedented accumulation of wealth and technology by the accumulated abilities, over the years, of other human beings in general.
The temptation presents itself at times like these that seem so singular (and more so, because we ourselves live in them and not in other times), to see special cases and fail to draw the proper conclusions by comparison and parallel. We are all too likely to miss the readily appreciable and even the obvious. A knowledge of robust philosophical theory with historical and scientific support can save us from this temptation, however.
Robust need not mean weighty or complicated. In fact theory about politics usually performs at its best when cutting through the lot of compounded circular reasoning and self-appreciation most political science and political theory comes to — understandably, since its preconditioned disposition is the justification of the unjustifiable, which becomes easier when its analysis gets obfuscated by complication. In short philosophy about politics needs to become anti-political, in order to make profitable sense to us. It needs to cut through this Gordian knot with a sword forged, ironically, of the 'libertarian' insight that we can evaluate social relationships just in terms of force — and any other trenchant insights that can help us see clearly.
In particular there is a tenet to remember, brief and yet serviceable, and certainly full of implication. The saying "power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely" is accurate enough for many cases, but more often applicable is the amended principle power draws the corrupted, absolute power would draw the absolutely corrupted. Watch for this always, always, always. You see, far more frequently than a noble, healthy, honest human actor can become tempted by circumstances, circumstances will tempt and beckon quite different sorts of human creatures to, for example, beat one's chest in a bold adventure of war-making without risking oneself, or to suckle at the plentiful teat of budget and monopoly without the trouble of earning what one gets, or to mark the good and evil territory afresh and gain the elusive respect of fellow members of a primate clan.
Consider, without sentimentality for time, creed, locality, nation, tribe or another particular appearance of uniqueness, the stark shadow of a situation cast onto the measure of politics as social power. Here at the moment we have before us a man believed powerful, more noticeably to all the world than any other man or woman called powerful. In the case of this one man, he lives now enrobed by an apparatus for making a man more powerful on earth than any other man ever — any king, any emperor, any human ever worshipped as a god. Seated atop a large territorial nation state, a system of belief in either his goodness or paramount rights, and a network of world alliances and factions loosely at his call, in short atop a political empire more powerful than any other in time — because all of mankind has never been so powerful in every way, and an empire harnesses the power of capability like all politics does, but for its own consumptive effulgence — this man rides a massive dragon that eats that it may grow, and burn out brighter with more roar and flame so that everyone may notice.
He would like to be Saint George fighting The Dragon. But he is not even "Saint George" astride that imperial dragon. He is not a bold warrior, nor a pious follower of a faith. He is a bumbling man in many ways, not a clever man with words or the theories that cast principles so that they may be understood, a man with embarrassing failures to redress in his lifetime. What other sort of man could better appreciate the enrobing as warrior-saint such an empire can provide? But neither is he some special case. There must be thousands or millions much like him pushing for their ride. (If they can't ride the big one, they will line up for others more modest.) And there will be a few more like George before the ride closes down, not in majesty but in ignominy and pathos, and wishful myth-making about past glories. So it was with Rome, so it was with China, so it was with Persia, and Britain, and Germany, so it was with any great culture that spoiled and became an empire. This is politics.
There is nothing special about it.
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on Feb 12, 2003