Thursday, April 12, 2012

Speaking Truth To Power

By Carl
First, we need to establish a definiton: what is power?
The smartest political analyst I know once defined power as the capacity to make someone do something without resorting to force (this analyst also wrote one of the most prescient books on the American political system I've ever read. He was also one of my college professors and mentors.)
As we round into Occupy Spring, I want to quickly overview one of the problems inherent in the American system that make speaking truth to power nearly meaningless.
You read that correctly, but don't lose hope. Let me continue.
In various walks of life, you have people who are actors: politicians, businessmen, opinion makers, the guy who owns the dry cleaner.
Other things being equal, there are two forces operating on these folks: greed and responsibility. Some people will err towards responsibility when possible, others will err towards greed. Most of these decisions are pretty understandable, even the ones made with greed as the objective. It's when things get unbalanced that troubles arise.
When trying to speak truth to power, it's important to keep this in mind, because among the many obstacles that will be thrown in front of you, this dynamic will be the hardest one to overcome. Power is a powerful lure, while truth is, frankly, a pain in the ass.
If you want to put this metaphorically, you have this cartoon archetype of an angel and a devil sitting on the character's shoulder, filling the ears with reasons to do or not do something. Or if you need something a little more culturally relevant, think of power as the Dark Side, truth as the Force.
The lure of power is indisputable and there are precious few who can ignore the siren's call. Who among us hasn't listened to a juicy bit of gossip, or taken a few bucks to look the other way, or manipulated or been manipulated into doing something by the promise of a lifestyle enhancement or a bit of power?
The more power you have, the more you want. How else does an investment banker, who already has more money (power) than God make a ridiculous blunder and create a Ponzi scheme?
Power takes many forms: money, to be sure, but also information, influence, status, connections. Truth takes just one form: truth.
And truth has the power of being a pain in the ass. True, it has some impact on its own, but only to people willing to listen. For others, there's no power in truth.
It's an uphill battle for truth, until you marry truth and power.
See, as I mentioned, there are many forms of power, and people in general have power. If I write a letter to my Congresscritter asking for some action on a bill, that's me exercising my power. It may not be a whole lot, but look what happens if I can amplify this a thousand-fold.
If I can persuade a thousand people to write a similar letter to my Congresscritter, well, someone in her office is keeping score, be sure of that. And if all thousand of those letters mention or imply me as the impetus for each letter, suddenly I've become a leader of a community. I've gained power.
Similarly, power can coalesce around an idea: Occupy Wall Street is itself an example of this. Deliberately, the Occupy movement has made it clear that it's an egalitarian, democratic movement. No one person is the absolute face of the movement. The idea of income inequality is what matters.
And as we saw last fall and will see again this spring and summer, that idea has power. It's a magnetic message to a people who have had it with the "us v. them" motives that the elite of this nation have fostered (an idea that Roelofs' book goes into.)
It's not enough to get into, say Jamie Dimon's face about his bonus last year. But it might be enough to gather around his headquarters on Park Avenue and make him walk past a thousand silent people holding up signs as he scampers into his limo. Information has power, but information can take many forms, including imagery. That Dimon has to make a daily "perp walk" to his limo will take a toll, not only on Dimon but on the board of Chase Bank, on the employees who also have to make their way through that crowd, and on corporate morale in general.
Power grabs attention. Truth can't really do that unless the idea is both powerful enough and has a receptive audience.
There are many great progressive ideas floating around out there, a great many truths to be told. We just have to grab the power and exert it on an audience to get them to listen.
(crossposted to Simply Left Behind)

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