reflections on the vexations of power

Status-anxiety at work

I remember this interview with a (brilliant) violinist on the radio : asked why he had chosen the relative anonymity of playing in a quartet instead of pursuing a more grandiose solo-career, he answered “I guess I prefer to battle for a collective cause, if it were only about my own career, I’d feel awkward, I would lack the motivation “.   

What a contrast with the attachment to personal status and the self-aggrandizing that seem to be the hallmark of successful men in the private sector.  Well, maybe it’s my education or maybe it’s my twisted character (which bizarrely, really against all proof, keeps seeing self-doubt as a virtue) , but in any case, it’s with unceasing astonishment (and abhorrence)  that I watch the displays of this sense of entitlement of the powerful.   

Jamais de ma vie” a highly ranking director spat out in disgust when the possibility was uttered of him taking public transport in order to avoid the 2 hours of traffic jam he had to endure in his classy car.  And suggesting to a CEO that he could take the metro (just 4 stops, especially during rush hour arguably faster and more reliable than a taxi, but indeed involving mixing with the hoi polloi), was rewarded with a withering stare, as if the mere suggestion was a mark of disrespect. 

I’ve also watched with astonishment how ruthless these men of power can be, how quick to launch reprisals against those they suspect of disrespect. Are they so insecure?  Is it because all pretence to power inevitably implies a deep-seated fear of being challenged?  Is that why power by its very nature demands and expects submissiveness? 

 In any case, the anger of those who presume their authority has been slighted, often seems disproportionate to the cause. Their vindictiveness does not seem a rational reaction to, for instance, a threat of the well-functioning of the company.  It’s really about a primitive, instinctive reaction to defend their own challenged authority by violence. 

In a contemporary work-context, the violence of course does not become physical –  it’s mostly limited to firing – a very effective method to remove alleged unruly elements (and to instil fear-induced respect in those that remain).

Looking at the wider world

In the wider world abuse of power can become much uglier.
This blog does not often comment on current affairs (too much injustice and suffering out there anyway, and far too many comments swirling about already), but it’s just that I happened  to watch this American police video of how a minor traffic incident resulted into the arrest and ultimately the death of a young black woman. 

What a nightmare. You’re stopped for failing to signal a lane change, so the police officer explains. While waiting for the officer to write out the ticket in his car, you light a cigarette, perhaps tapping the wheel with irritation, perhaps shaking your head. The officer comes back and asks what’s wrong. Since you’re being asked, you somewhat curtly answer you’re indeed a bit annoyed because in fact you switched lanes precisely to make way for the police car.  This reply apparently incenses the police officer who orders you to extinguish your cigarette. But hey, you know your rights, this is your car.  How unfair, all this. The situation then escalates to the point that the officer physically attempts to yank you out of your car and threatens to “light you up” with a taser gun.  “Wow” you say, and you swiftly get out of your car, complaining loudly. You’re being arrested. “Arrested? Arrested for what???” you yell in disbelief. Etc.Etc. 

 I have no idea what happened afterwards in that prison.  But how can this be considered a lawful arrest  in the first place? In what way did the smoking pose a threat? In what way is curtly expressing (when asked) an understandable annoyance, a threat? 
Frankly, what else can one see in this but a tragic escalation triggered by a man who felt his authority was being challenged, a white man who was deeply disturbed by the lack of submissiveness displayed by a young black woman.   

Bookworms, beware!

"Subdivisions according to Generalities and Form"
"Destroying Bookworms with Ozone" (1)

Of all the millions of paper cards stuffed into the thousands of drawers - I chance upon a reference card about bookworms (and their destruction) ....
As if an haphazard Google search would instantly lead one to the ultimate virus-worm threatening the  world wide web.

Now marketed as "the paper Google" , the Mundaneum in Mons documents a late 19th-early 20th century attempt to reference all the knowledge of the world.   I' m always sympathetic towards the conservation of utopian projects, especially if they involve paper cards and wooden drawers with copper handles. And no cookies tracking my shadowy trail through the drawers ....

(1) Google-note   : no Google-results found for "Destroying bookworms with Ozone" -
 "Your search - "Vertilgung von Bücherwürmern durch Ozon" - did not match any documents."

With hindsight

Hindsight has been producing many thoughtful analyses of the dramas that litter human history – the Greek crisis being no exception.  

With hindsight, many experts now agree that the 1st Greek bail-out in 2010 should have focused more on supporting the Greeks themselves instead of bailing out the creditor-banks (but then, at the time, there was still a pervasive fear of a collapse of the banking system, so vulnerable banks were to be sheltered from further damages ). 

With hindsight, everybody now agrees that Greece was not a country ready yet to join the Euro (but, then, how could a quintessential European project exclude the country that is the cradle of European civilisation? ) 

Throughout history, historians and economists agree, with hindsight,  that the vanquished party should not be humiliated with punitive reparation demands (but then, one cannot let rogue countries get away with everything . Moreover, in the heat of the historical moment, how can one know whether it is a Sarajevo or München -situation? )

Hannah Arendt called forgiveness one of the principal political virtues (alongside courage and the willingness to make and keep promises): because no one, upon deciding and acting, can ever fully foresee the consequences.  
(But should  one also forgive those of bad faith or of proven imprudence, be it Greek superrich who benefited from the fiscal laxity - and who in the meantime have funnelled their wealth to London and Switzerland - or greedy imprudent northern banks? )  

What The Economist writes:  “Brinkmanship and crisis […] are aggravated by the euro zone’s reliance on ad hoc bail-outs, which politicise every decision. They set one side against another, breeding contempt among the creditors and resentment among the debtors. They turn wise policies into concessions that should not be given up to the other side until the last minute.”

(Nod to b: what Stiglitz writes in the Guardian )