Standing Your Ground

Over the past twenty years, the political landscape in many of the so-called free, democratic countries of the world has become more contentious, more rancorous, more partisan than I can ever remember it.

That’s not to say that the notion of rough-and-tumble politics is a new phenomenon, for it assuredly is not.  One need only read the history books to learn about such scandalous activities as, for example: the Profumo Affair, the Zinoviev Letter, or the Suez Crisis in Britain; the Teapot Dome Scandal, the Iran-Contra Affair, or the Watergate crisis in the US; and the Pacific Scandal, the Munsinger Affair, or the Airbus Affair in Canada.

nixon

The playing of hardball politics has been with us for a long time.

Many of the examples cited here occurred long before my time as a mostly-passive observer of the political scene, so I have no perspectives on them that haven’t already been hashed and rehashed by pundits more astute than I.  Nevertheless, I think such scandals were more the exception than the rule—although I concede that may be more a commentary on my naïveté than an accurate assessment.

Today, however, regardless of whether or not political scandals roil the waters upon which sail the ships of state, there seems to be an especially bitter tone to the back-and-forth among the various political parties in each of these three nations, and even between the factions within those parties.  It seems that no one is prepared to listen to anyone anymore, so desperate are they to trumpet their own messages.

Stand your ground! is the order of the day.

Sixty-five years ago, in 1953, fighting in the vicious three-year war between North and South Korea—which also involved hundreds of thousands of troops from China, the US, and other allied nations—was halted with an armistice.  A demilitarized zone was created as a buffer between the two Koreas, and no formal peace treaty was ever signed to formally end the war.  In all the time since, both countries have fiercely guarded their borders on each side of the DMZ.  Neither side, until very recently, has even bothered to hold talks with the other, relying instead on the issuing of provocative, aggressive threats against each other.

Yet, earlier this year, for a host of reasons important to both countries, their leaders decided to sit down with each other to talk—and to listen.  That, in itself, was a notable and praiseworthy endeavour.  Even more significant, however, was the location they chose—the demilitarized zone that keeps them apart.

korean leaders

After decades of standing their ground, the two men stepped forward, across their respective borders, to stand face-to-face on common ground, the DMZ.

Is there not a lesson here for the politicians who govern us?  The Korean peninsula, by some accounts, is the most dangerous place on earth, a tinderbox where even the slightest spark could re-ignite the long-ago war—but this time with even more disastrous consequences.  Nuclear consequences.

Still, the two Korean leaders managed to take that step on to common ground, even though the precarious circumstances in which they find themselves are infinitely more perilous—infinitely more—than any found in the halls of Congress or Parliament.

So why, I ask, can our elected representatives not do the same thing, ensconced in their much safer environs?  Why can they not forego their squabbling over issues that history will consign to the dustbin, and focus on finding solutions to the real problems confronting us?

Looming environmental disaster.  Decaying infrastructure.  Racial and religious intolerance.  Poverty and inequality.  Spiralling debt.  Food and water security.  To name but a few.

No one knows at this point where the discussions that have begun between the two Koreas will lead, whether to lasting peace or to a resumption of hostilities.  And no one knows, either, how successful a coordinated, bi-partisan, multi-national effort to address the world’s problems might be.

But, just as those two leaders have tried to find common ground across the border that divides them, so, too, must our elected officials do the same thing.  They must try to understand each other, and the opinions each side holds dear, rather than labelling each other as enemies of the people.

parliament

In 1989, in his acclaimed book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey wrote:  Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.  Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

To all our elected officials, I would add this:  Stop standing your ground, look for common ground, and have the courage to take the first step forward.

The ensuing steps will be easier.

Tyrants

Herewith, four definitions—

  • sociopathic: personality disorder manifesting extreme antisocial attitudes and behaviour, and a lack of conscience;
  • psychopathic: chronic mental disorder manifesting amoral and antisocial behaviour…extreme egocentricity…an inability to feel guilt;
  • psychotic: severe mental disorder in which thought and emotions are impaired to the point where contact is lost with external reality; and
  • zealous: fanatical and uncompromising pursuit of religious, political, or other ideals.

Tyrants the world over, since the dawn of history, have displayed one or more of these characteristics in dealings with their contemporaries.  A catalogue of infamous names might illustrate the point.  Caligula; Genghis Khan; Attila the Hun; Ivan the Terrible; Robespierre; Stalin; Hitler; Pol Pot; Amin—all deserving of the wonder, fear, and loathing they inspire even today.  Under their regimes of terror, countless people suffered and died as a consequence of their perverse aspirations.

tyrant

Interestingly, this small list of tyrants contains no names of leaders of the so-called civilized world.  There is, for example, no Cromwell, no Elizabeth I, no Bolivar, no Lincoln, no Churchill, no Gandhi, no de Gaulle, no Roosevelt, no Mandela—no one, in fact, who is thought to represent the ideals we enlightened peoples cherish.  Ideals such as liberty, peace, prosperity, and good government.

But could any of these worthies have been tyrants, too?  Benevolent tyrants, perhaps, pressing forward their own ambitions, convincing us of their correctness?  And do such tyrants exist in our world today?

We live on a planet fraught with peril, both in our local communities and globally.  Granted, many dangers result from natural phenomena—earthquakes, floods, droughts, pollution, and epidemics.  And for the most part, there is a cooperative, international effort to cope with these.

Too many of the perils, however, are brought on by foolish actions in the face of consequences we know to be severe, perhaps even catastrophic—

  • the deliberate despoiling of our environment and atmosphere, knowing such actions are unsustainable;
  • antagonistic expansion of national borders, provoking states of war and massive displacements of people;
  • premeditated acts of terror, often visited upon innocents; and
  • a relentless, worldwide drive to acquire ever greater wealth, enriching the few at the expense of the many.

Insanity, it has been said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  To that I would add:  insanity is purposely doing something in the face of overwhelming evidence that the outcome will be ruinous; insanity is wielding power over others, for our own benefit, without regard for the effects it may have on them; insanity is living on a small, blue orb floating in a vast interstellar sea—a lifeboat, so to speak—and deliberately engaging in actions that will inevitably capsize it.

And insanity is the purview of tyrants.

Tyrants pursue their ends without regard for truth, careless of consequences, without attention to moral imperatives that govern most of us, never doubting the rectitude of their delusions.  Uncompromising in their beliefs, they seek to foist them on the world they inhabit.  As do sociopaths, psychopaths, psychotics, and zealots.

But an interesting thing about tyrants is that their actions are judged, not objectively, but through ethnocentric filters we all employ.  We hold, many of us, a belief that the groups to which we belong—be they racial, religious, gender-based, age-related, economic, nationalistic, political—are superior to groups to which other people belong.  It is all too tempting, therefore, to label the motives and actions of other groups’ leaders as tyrannical, even if suspiciously similar to those of our own leaders.

Tyranny, it might be said, is in the eye of the beholder.

aphorism_by_aesop_ancient_greek_poet_and_fabulist_any_cg1p45800971c_th

With respect to the first list of tyrants referenced earlier, it is likely that consensus exists among much of the world’s peoples as to the evil of their deeds.  Most of us share an abhorrence of certain actions—genocide, for example, or murder and rape.  These are obvious and odious.  But what of the smaller, less noticeable acts of tyranny we put up with?  What are the checks and balances in place to restrain the leaders to whom we grant governing power?

When I look at the state of our planet, and at the people who have brought us to where we are, I wonder if they are all not tyrants of a sort.  Whether elected, appointed, or self-installed, do our leaders act in the best interests of us, the people?  Or do they pursue their idiosyncratic crusades, heedless of potentially harmful outcomes?  Are there fifty, or more, shades of grey in the spectrum between insanity and rationality?  Between tyranny and altruism?  And if so, where on the scale do our current leaders fall?

I despair of the answers when I observe the follies they subject us to.

Benevolent tyrants are tyrants, still.