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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Power to do - What?

Power corrupts.

If this is true, and unavoidable, then we are doomed.

We are condemned to live a cycle of endless despotism and revolution as those who seek to cure injustice yield to the all-powerful corrupting influence of simply being in a position to tell others what they have to do. The liberator becomes the occupier becomes the feudal lord ruling through lackies and vassals.

In the early 1960s, the conservative revolution arose by claiming that they sought power only for the purpose of giving power back to the people. Barry Goldwater claimed that his first concern when reading a proposed law was not whether it would do good or evil, but whether or not it was Constitutional. Through excessive spending and taxation, he (and his fellow young conservatives) saw the government simply over-reaching in an attempt to do good things that it had no business doing. His famous opposition to the 1965 Civil Rights Act was based on this very premise - he stated very clearly that he thought it was detrimental to force Black children and White children into different schools, but the citizens of Arizona (that he respresented) had no right to tell the people of Mississippi or Alabama how to run their schools.

Goldwater stated the problem fairly succinctly in his book The Conscience of a Conservative:

"We need men in power whose only purpose is to eschew power."

But how do we entice such men to seek power in the first place?

As much as I believe that the Bush Administration is guilty of abusing its power in any number of circumstances, I do not believe that they are guilty of doing so intentionally - at least not in most cases. When the President sent us to war on false pretenses, I don't think he did so simply because he wanted his oil stocks to spiral upwards. I know there are plenty of people out there claiming that, but I've not seen any convincing evidence to that effect.

I do believe they are guilty of what I will call the "First Crime of Power".

They too easily mistake earnest dissention for partisan bickering. It is a type of willful deafness to dissention and blindness to reality that turns decision-making procedures into a deadly echo-chamber of consent. It is the institutional equivalent to "the soft bigotry of low expectations".

It is a form of the abuse of power. At the very least, it is the first dreadful step in that direction.

I want to point out that it isn't only Republicans that are guilty of doing this. The first thing partisans do after the votes are counted is consult The Plum Book, which is something like a political Bible of patronage positions such as ambassadorships, beaurocratic appointments, and positions. "To the Victor Go the Spoils" they crack and clink their champaign glasses while clipping a new cigar.

But that isn't a Biblical implementation of a power structure.

Nor should it be an "American" practice.

Jesus provided an example of building a cabinet when he chose his Twelve. Luke says that Jesus spent all night in prayer and contemplation before choosing which of his followers to annoint with his authority and his power. Among those he chose were a couple of rough-hewn fishermen, an academic, a tax collector, a militant rebel, and what we would today consider a CPA.

That's a pretty broad crosscut of society to build consensus. In fact, the Twelve often disagreed and argued - sometimes about very petty things (such as who would sit closer to Jesus in Heaven). Before they followed Jesus, there is no indication that they even knew each other and there are some indications that they didn't agree with all of his choices and didn't particularly like each other from day one.

The closest example I can find in the political realm is that of George Washington. For his four main advisors, he chose Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Henry Knox, and Edmund Randolph. There is little reason to believe that the men particularly liked each other and Jefferson and Hamilton came close to actuallly hating the sight of the other.

When was the last time you saw a President reach across the aisle to pick someone from the opposition for a top-level position simply because he or she was the best qualified for the position? Yes, I know that Norm Mineta held onto his Transportation Secretary job throughout this Administration, but when was the last time you actually listened to anything the Secretary of Transportation had to say?

No, we are too used to our politicians picking contributors and party cronies for important positions. There are some legitimate reasons for doing so - I don't really advocate picking Judas, for example, as Secretary of Defense. But in a time when there are a large number of both parties who qualifying as being centrist and moderate to varying degrees, what would be wrong with picking from the other side of the fence?

Russ Feingold, who really is the most liberal member of Congress (he can make Ted Kennedy look like a staunch Conservative at times), voted to approve all of the President's Cabinet choices during his first Administration. When outraged liberals demanded that he give an accounting of himself, he stated, "I want to send a message that I am willing to listen to their arguments and that I don't want to be left out."

To my knowledge, he has never been listened to and has continually been left out - even being singled out for a particularly nasty race in '04. So much for bipartisanship.

The judicious use of power requires exactly that - a judicious review of the situation. For the record - judges are supposed to listen to all sides of a case and balance the rights, responsibilities, and needs of everyone involved.

What would the Bush Administration have sounded like if Wes Clark had been asked to be the Secretary of Defense rather than Donald Rumsfeld? Certainly, Clark, who has decades of military service and is familiar with problems that the modern army faces on the ground, would have been judged to have been qualified.

We have become a nation of straw men, led by a scarecrow in chief. We dance with men of common straw and dismiss our detractors as so many crows.

But if we are to dance off to Yellow Brick Road comparisons, we must also say that our leaders lack courage, as well. It takes no courage to send men to their deaths, rightly or wrongly, on the other side of the globe. Rather, courage is looking steadily into those who expect patronage from your position and saying, "You just don't measure up," or "It's the wrong decision for the country."

Anyone who does this, in my opinion, is fulfilling the Biblical portrait of leadership. Anyone who fails to do so is simply dancing merrily down the path of despotism and violation of public trust.

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