Politics: Fragility, fear and guilt
THE difference, perhaps, between the power of Man and that of the gods is glory. Gods are not just powerful but they are also supposed to be perfect and infallible. And so are they glorious. Kings and queens of the earth can be all powerful and even mighty but they cannot achieve glory because they are men and women that are not holy. From the biblical book of 1 Samuel we learn that once upon a time kings became kings and ruled by divine anointment.
As divine appointees and anointed ones kings became inviolable. Kings came to be addressed as “Your Excellency,” “Your Magnificence” and “Your Eminence” because they as God’s chosen ones reflected part of his perfection and glory. In Africa kings were also representatives of the ancestors and ambassadors of the creator on earth. One of the capital achievements of the French Revolution was to nullify the idea of the divine right of kings and expose them as fallible human beings that were not perfect and whose power needed to be checked.
The whole idea of democracy has its scaffolding and fulcrum in the belief that no single human being or a group of them should hold power that is not checked or bridled, lest the power is as it frequently happens, abused. Democracy as a political system has its roots in the distrust of leaders as human beings and in the need to get populations to oversee and hold to account their chosen rulers. For the reason that they are not perfect human beings, leaders may not only run short of glory but must not be trusted with absolute power.
“To God be the Glory” is a religious dictum that emphasises that no matter how excellent and successful an individual may be they still cannot claim glory which is only attributable to God. The wisdom is that whatever excellence human beings may reflect and show on earth, the glory of it all still belongs to God. Only God’s power and God’s justice can be trusted to be true, fair and glorious. What this foundational wisdom means to politics and what lessons it holds for political theory and practice is the objective of my short article today.
The importance of innocence
For the reason that they are fallible and without glory, human beings are fragile and vulnerable beings that are bereft of perfection. In a way, the first wisdom about being truly human might the admission that one is not and cannot be perfect. The admission that one is guilty of imperfection and being human is the first step, in religion and in politics, towards innocence.
That one is naturally and originally a sinner is a central baptismal doctrine of not only Christianity and other Abrahamic faiths but almost all religions under the sun. Judaism, Islam and Christianity as Abrahamic religions put serious investment in innocence as a human quality that must not only be valued but must be protected and if possible rewarded. Innocence, theologically and possibly politically, does not mean the total absence of guilt but the presence of knowledge and admission that one is not perfect, not a god, but a fragile man or woman.
One of the most spectacular exchanges between a human being and God in the Bible is the dialogue over guilt and innocence between Abraham and God. Abraham courageously debated God into a promise that if there were only a few people that were innocent in the whole of Sodom and Gomorrah the two sinful cities would be spared destruction. For the sake of a few innocent people perfect divine justice commands that even the many guilty will be saved, that is how important innocence is, it can even save guilt.
In a classic statement of jurisprudence that has become an important learning point in law schools worldwide, the British jurist William Blackstone said “better that ten guilty people escape, than one innocent suffer.” This dictum has become what is called the “Blackstone ratio.” Just like the God and Abraham exchange, the Blackstone Ratio puts so much weight in innocence to the extent that many guilty people may be spared punishment to protect a few or one innocent person.
Arguably, the fulcrum and scaffolding of the modern legal and justice system are more about the protection of innocence than the punishment of guilt. Left to imperfect and vengeful human beings law and justice might just be degenerated into tools of revenge, punishment and persecution of the powerless by the powerful. The starting point of true justice therefore, might be the protection of innocence. The closest state to glory that human beings can achieve is to be innocent and just. Where God is glorious Man must be innocent and where God is holy Man must take care to be righteous. We can argue, therefore, at this juncture that the strongest and most democratic and just form of power and mode of politics under the sun is that which protects and secures the innocent. It might be the very definition of evil to subject the innocent to harm, pain, misery and suffering, at law and in religion, and in politics proper.
Communities, societies and nations can be judged for their worth on the basis of what treatment they give to their innocent and vulnerable. Kind and generous treatment of the guilty is called mercy and it is a divine virtue, when Man does not only treat justly the innocent but shows the guilty some mercy he approaches the very status of the gods. Forgiving even those that have not apologised makes Man a true minigod.
The fragility of men and women
The otherwise colonial dictum that “politics is a dirty game” is a criminal justification of the lack of holiness in politics. Powerful leaders must approach holiness by being fair, just and protective of innocence and the innocent. World history has taught us that, because of their human imperfection, some of the most powerful leaders under the sun have been fragile and vulnerable souls. In an interesting article that I recently came across: “Why Tyrants go too far?” Betty Glad unmasks the interesting truths about how some of the world’s toughest men have been cowards and insecure human beings that creatively covered their fragility behind cruelty, tough-talk and evil.
Psychologists, sociologists and philosophers have over time observed that behind the dramatic and even spectacular performances of powerful and influential people often there are concealed weaknesses, insecurities and true fragility. The psychopath in the view of the psychologist, the sociopath in the understanding of a sociologist and maybe the sophist in the perception of the philosopher may after all be that evil, harmful or dangerous person that is also sick and in need of help.
These most times sick and vulnerable people now and again find themselves in positions where they are celebrities and role models or leaders of powerful nations like the USA that is presently enjoying the interesting leadership of one Donald John Trump. When a fragile and maybe also sick person finds power all sorts of morbidities, evil and cruelties may become possible. It is exactly for that reason that leaders must, everywhere in the world, be watched closely and be controlled using institutions, structures and systems that keep power and the abuse of it in check.
The fear and the guilt of man
That “the guilty are afraid, they run when no one chases them” is not only a biblical truism but also a political wisdom. The combination of guilt and fear is, the world over and throughout history, a recipe for disastrous politics. Interestingly, some of the most feared people in the world, conquerors, despots and empire builders have been people that are driven not by power and ambition but fear. Most powerful people that outwardly and daily appear to love power are instead people that fear powerlessness. Some men and women, I observe, are driven to power by weakness and fear of their fragility and vulnerability. The love for power and the fear of powerlessness might be much closer to each other more than we realise. A fearful person who covers his or her fear behind the need to be feared is a very dangerous person, especially when they have power in their hands.
The reason why Frantz Fanon called “shame a revolutionary sentiment” is that when a morally strong person becomes guilty of anything they most likely have the emotional and mental stamina to feel and admit shame. The feeling and admission of shame leads to correction of the wrong that has been done or the insurance that it will not be repeated. But when an insecure and fragile personality becomes guilty of a sin in religion, a crime at law or some immorality in ethics, they most likely do not have the emotional and mental durability to admit and own up.
Instead they blame others, God and even the devil for their own crimes. They become denialist and can end up committing further and much more serious crimes to cover up and try to silence their previous offence. So many disasters in world history and world politics were caused and committed by fearful and guilty people that are fragile and vulnerable inside themselves. Researchers in politics, philosophy and psychology have authoritatively established that such monstrosities as Hitler and Stalin were faulty and fragile human beings from their childhoods to their mature insanities of cruelty and evil. So dangerous are fragile, fearful and guilty people, especially in power politics. It becomes important, for that reason, that political philosophy and law find and keeps solutions for the problem of fragile, fearful and guilty people in the vocation of world and local politics.
The measure of all good
power and politics
In practice politics as an occupation or even a profession, or a vocation, is an arena of conflict and contestation. It is only in politics, and maybe in law once in a while, that the truth is not always true. Politicians and their supporters and opponents almost always have different versions of their different truths. Politics is the arena where there cannot be any one truth but there are truths. So what is the truth and justice of politics? How can politics be true and just? And who under the sun is going to be a truthful and just politician in a world where the same politician is a saint for some and a monster for others in the same country or even village. It is not surprising that it is in politics that such strange concepts as that of the “post-truth” and “alternative facts” have emerged. Politics resents truth and justice as much as truth and justice suspect politics, always.
My submission, from a philosophy and politics of liberation perspective, is that true, just and liberating politics is that which acknowledges the guilt of man, does not pretend to glory and protects innocence and understands guilt. Good and liberating power is that which loves and fears innocence and the innocent, I think. I think that is what Christ meant when he was advertising his kingdom; it is innocent children to whom the kingdom belonged, and it is the meek and humble that would inherit the earth. Justice, liberation and therefore true power belongs to the peace of the innocent. All power and politics that punishes the innocent and rewards the evil is unjust power if it is not satanic.