Monday, September 5, 2011

Two kinds of power

Postmoderns like me tend, almost as a rule, to be suspicious of power. I think this is right. After all, human history is littered with examples of just how badly wrong things go when power is the main point of attention.  This, I think, is the subtle implication of the old adage that says "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely": it is not just 'bad' power that is the problem (the power of the Hitlers and Maos of the world) but rather power itself. This is why every attempt in human history to build a utopia has ended in tears and why every power struggle between the Dionysian and Apollonian aspects of culture end up in despair. Power itself is the problem.

But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself. Perhaps it is too simple to say that power itself is the problem. After all, isn't such assertive language simply a symptom of an underlying power-struggle? To nuance the idea, then, I'm going to suggest that there are two kinds of power: the right hand of power, and the limp, weak left hand of power. The first is the kind of power that dominates, overthrows and imposes. The second is a more profound kind of power: it is the power that gives up power. The first kind of power sets us up for the ruin of Empires; the second sets us up for compassion and forgiveness. After all, forgiveness, etymologically speaking, carries the idea of "giving away" similar to the Koine Greek aphesis, meaning "send away".

Take, for instance, the end of apartheid in South Africa. Okay, I know that the "end of apartheid" is an optimistic way of putting it, for even though the politics of apartheid has ended, the reality of apartheid is still felt in every corner of South Africa. But, well, let's just assume the "end" for the sake of argument. Nelson Mandela really had two options when he set up his rule: the the dialectical right hand of power (the violent calculus of blood to pay back the white race for their (our) horrific crimes of intolerance) or the left hand of power (a deep desire to give up the right for vengeance or recompense in order to embrace the idea of reconciliation). Mandela, with Desmond Tutu, chose the latter when he embraced the idea of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

This made political history. Instead of the Hegelian thesis (apartheid) / antithesis (new apartheid), we had a beautiful abandonment of power (the left hand of power). We seemed to skip the dialectic and move right on into synthesis. The point, however, is not that Mandela relinquished his position of power, or overthrew a capitalist system in order to establish a communist one, but rather assumed the position of power even while he gave his power away. You see, the left hand of power is paradoxical: it is strong precisely because it is weak. It conquers by losing. It succeeds by failing.

But the left hand of power, in order to perpetuate an ethic of reconciliation and forgiveness, needs to be continuous. The TRC was profound but it should have remained open, not just as a means for dealing with racial incongruity, but for dealing with all kinds of intolerance and misunderstanding. Forgiveness, as Jesus of Nazareth pointed out, is never a once-off act, but is a continuous, ongoing process. We forgive, not once, but all the time. And we don't just forgive people wrongs, we forgive them (send them away) by relinquishing our power over them at every moment of the day. Of course, I know the left hand of power is the more difficult route. It's always easier to go the eye-for-an-eye route until everyone is blind than raise a white flag to the power we have been given.

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