Friday, 19 June 2009

In which I ask a question

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I was going to tell you all about my trip, but it’s a long and delicate story and would involve downloading pictures and I can’t find the cable (as usual). Also I had a little stomach bug yesterday and I’m a bit achy and my brain is still not in full gear. But since I have left you for so long, I can’t just have a terrible blank space, so I am offering my question for the day. Which is: why is it tacitly accepted that having power is such a perfectly marvellous thing?

I’m thinking of the young people out on the streets of Iran while the Mullahs cower in their bunkers wondering what the hell Twitter is. I’m thinking of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose birthday it is today, a slight, gently-spoken women who strikes such fear into the Burmese generals that they seize on any excuse to lock her up forever. I’m thinking of the two young female journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, sentenced to twelve years hard labour in a North Korean prison by a regime so paranoid and power-crazed that it will not allow outsiders anywhere near it, and lets its people starve while it sets off nuclear explosions.

In the reporting of all these stories, the absolute accepted fact is that the state actors will do absolutely anything to cling onto power because it is the holy grail, the golden ring, the ultimate prize. President Obama is routinely described as the most powerful man in the world, sometimes with admiration, sometimes with irony. But the real irony is that compared to the theocrats and the dictators and the generals, Obama has surprisingly little power. He has an electorate to deal with, an unpredictable Congress, and a right wing opposition which often seems frankly insane. He might be able to fly his lovely wife to a fabulous night out in New York, but he can’t stop an Iranian election being rigged, or prevent Aung San Suu Kyi from being incarcerated on bogus charges, or even get his own citizens out of North Korea. At home, I suspect he would quite like to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and endorse gay marriage, but he dare not, because of the residual power of the religious right. He will find, like any elected leader, that he must trim and search for the middle ground and wheel out his famous pragmatism, however much it might chafe against his more idealistic self. Yet he looks so much happier than all those leaders for life, with their hatchet faces and their empty eyes and their suspicious minds. I think what drives his opponents, foreign and domestic, wild with rage is that he actually looks as if he is enjoying himself.

My suspicion is that this is partly to do with his own character, but also because he understands very well the limits of his own power. He has eight years at most, and then he can settle down and write another book, which will give him and us a vast amount of pleasure, because he has a lovely feeling for prose. He said recently that his highest ambition was to be a good father. The problem for all the dear supreme leaders is that they will never have that luxury. They might not have read Shakespeare, but they know well enough to be afraid of the hungry lean men who are jealous of their supremacy. The flaw in absolute power is that it breeds absolute rivals. All dissent must be crushed, all challenges, imagined and real, eliminated, all rivals vanquished. Imagine how exhausting that must be; no wonder the tyrants look so twitchy and cross. If they make the mistake of not being just a bog standard dictator, but a religious zealot as well, then their waking hours are crammed with hunting down the homosexualists and adulteresses and infidels. There is simply no time for anything as small and human as pleasure.

Other, lesser forms of power are also accepted as desirable – the power of beauty or stardom or great riches. But the great beauties live in terror of age, which will stale their infinite variety, and the stars are stalked by nightmares of the time when their glitter will dim and the new kid on the block takes over their name in lights, and the tycoons tense themselves fearfully for the next crash.

For various reasons, I have been thinking a lot lately of the things over which we have absolutely no power: mortality, illness and age. These are the crux of the human condition, and the only things that arm us against them are love, family and friendship. There are other, smaller consolations: in my particular case, two elegant black dogs, the ability to make soup, anything that makes me laugh until my stomach hurts, and occasionally a large shot of vodka. The thought of power as a desirable attribute seems tiring and pointless. There are certain people out there who will always want it, but those people are fools, and I think it is important not to forget that fact. The underlying notion that runs through the news at the moment, that the quest for power is natural and explicable is, I believe, incorrect. It is inexplicable, because it leads only to misery.

Ah, that’s better. As always, tremendous thanks for letting me get that off my chest. I had not intended a rant, but a rant it turned out to be. I think it was one too many pictures of young Iranians being intimidated by the religious police. Tomorrow I shall be more temperate and calm. Or perhaps not.


  1. Well written (as always), something to ponder!

  2. I;ve just Tweeted the link to this. Brilliant. As ever. BTW, I've had to take a break from my re-read of BIH. Problem is that every time I read a chapter I feel I have to quote it ad nauseum to every single person I see. And I fear my friends may have has enough for this week. LLGxx

  3. Beautifully put. And yet isn't that desperate hunger for absolute power, legendary beauty, incandescent fame or obscene material wealth always a strange kind of bid for proximity to God (whomever you might believe him/her to be), and thus also a mistaken case of thinking you will have eternal love if you have eternal power? They must be so miserable because, clearly, it doesn't actually work, and the only way to be loved is to love and have some humility about it.
    Goodness me! I'm going to come over all bumper sticker in a minute.
    Loved the piece.

  4. Excellent post, and food for thought on a rainy Saturday morning. 'They may not have read Shakespeare ...' lol. There is a tragic inevitability abt the human condition - have to hope there are enough individuals of quiet, good power coming through to keep our world turning. Interesting that dear old Twitter is giving voice to the previously silent majority (and v glad to have found your blog through it too!)

  5. With usual ineptitude it would seem I managed to comment and delete in one swift move last night.
    I love the way you write about things that make me want to think and to learn more and do it in such a way that I don't feel stupid for not having reflected on the subject before. Thank you

  6. What an incisive piece. The tragedy is that so many human beings never learn the obvious lesson about the lust for power.

    (Am 100 per cent in agreement about the consoling powers of black dogs and soup. And, today, I would add sunshine, elderflowers and plump, juicy lemons.)

  7. Oh it's so nice to have you back!
    Such wise well written words. And as ever promting a internal conversation and greater insight to the world at large.
    Thank you.

    ps hope you're feeling better

  8. Thank you all so much for incredibly kind and encouraging comments. You know I always have a bit of angst when I have produced a rant, so your responses are like flowers to me. Apologies for not replying before, but yesterday I spilt water on my poor computer and killed the letter L, along with several other crucial keys. I never knew how many vital words include the letter L. I shall never take it for granted again. xx


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