Picking Up the Sticks

My grandfathers, when they were just boys in the late part of the 19th century, played some version of a game called Pick Up Sticks with their family and friends.  In their day, it was likely known as Spillicans or Jackstraws, but the premise was the same as when they introduced the game to me a half-century later.

jackstraws

Their sticks were almost surely made of wood, resembling long toothpicks—or perhaps of straw.  Mine, thanks to the unbridled proliferation of plastic in the mid-1950’s, were a colourful array of synthetic sticks, identical except for colour.

The game was simple in concept, difficult in execution.  The sticks were held in one player’s hand, then released to spill on the playing surface in a loose, randomly-jumbled pile.  Any sticks falling separately, away from the pile, were removed before play began.

The first player then attempted to extricate a stick from the pile without moving any other stick.  If successful, (s)he tried to remove a second, and a third.  Each player’s turn ended when another stick was inadvertently moved in the attempt.

In some variations of the game—certainly in the one I played with my grandfathers—sticks of different colours were worth different values.  The single black stick was the most valuable; the most plentiful yellow sticks were worth the least.

I loved when I beat them at the game, basked in the praise they lavished upon me—having no idea then, of course, that my winning was their doing.

Grandpa-and-Grandson

The game helped to develop and test a variety of skills for all who played it:  hand-eye coordination, visual discrimination, spatial relations, and visual-motor dexterities, to name a few.  And patience, of course, and attention to the task at hand.  Every player had a hawk-eye trained on the pile during every other player’s move, watching for (perhaps hoping for) the slightest movement of other sticks.

I haven’t played the game in years.  But I’ve been thinking about it lately as I read about and listen to the challenges facing the legislators we have elected to govern us in our western world.  What a tangled web of sticks they face!

A partial list of those challenges, often directly contradictory to each other, includes:

0 embracing globalism vs. defending sovereignty,

0 pursuing free trade vs. safeguarding home-grown industries,

0 growing the economy vs. protecting the environment,

0 reducing national debt vs. increasing spending on social programmes,

0 encouraging immigration vs. protecting the homeland, and

0enhancing security vs. increasing civil liberties.

I envision such challenges, and countless more, lying jumbled on the table in front of our beleaguered politicians, like a nightmarish game of Pick Up Sticks, daring them to make a move.

Deal with it! the supporters of any particular issue might demand.

protestors

It’s complicated! the legislators might reply, fearful of the repercussions they will face if, by acting, they disturb any of the intermingled sticks—sticks representing issues of equal importance to others of their constituents.

Approve that pipeline!  We need it to move our bitumen.  The economy is at risk!

Stop supporting the fossil-fuel industry!  The environment is at risk!

Can one of those sticks be moved without jostling the other?

Lower taxes to encourage business to spend!  That will expand the economy!

Stop cutting back on the social safety net!  People need help!

You’re increasing debt to unsustainable levels.  It’s a ticking bomb!

With which stick do legislators start?  And will they then be able to get at the others, too?

Fix our immigration system!  We need skilled workers coming in to the country!

Keep those people out!  They’re taking away our jobs!

Is it even possible to handle both those sticks?

consequences

Scott Fitzgerald, the flawed but immensely-talented American author, once wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  Opposed ideas might be defined as those which are not synonymous, but nor are they directly contradictory.

Trying to manage contradictory thoughts or values, on the other hand—or having to synthesize them—can be so upsetting that people who are possessed of two (or more) will often eschew acting on any of them.  This state of mind, referred to as cognitive dissonance, is why most of us seek to avoid situations where it is likely to arise.

Noah Chomsky, an American professor of linguistics, a self-professed anarchist and human rights activist, has written, “Most people…can’t tolerate too much cognitive dissonance.  I don’t want to deny that there are outright liars…[but] I don’t think that’s the norm. The norm is obedience, adoption of uncritical attitudes, taking the easy path of self-deception.”

If he’s right, how can we legitimately expect our elected officials to get it right in the face of so many contradictory realities, and so many contradictory demands from people who have come down on one side or the other of those issues?  Game or not, it must be a nightmare.

My grandfathers have long since passed away.  I cannot remember whatever happened to my game of Pick Up Sticks, long gone as well.  But I do know that I have no desire to play it on the public stage, and I do have some sympathy for those whose job it is to clean up the mess.

clean-up-your-mess

Tossing the sticks down is easy, but picking them up is difficult, nigh impossible, indeed.

My Old Friend

I have an old sweatshirt—very old—frayed at the collar, stretched at the waist, threadbare at the elbows.  Its original khaki colour, now faded, is spotted and spattered with stains, reminders of bygone games of a younger day—softball in the summer, flag football in the autumn.  Hardly discernible, though once printed boldly across the front, are the words Property of the Hockey Machine, a team I played for in my long-ago youth.

Despite the hundreds of launderings it’s endured over the years, brownish blotches—long-dried blood from one cut or another—speckle the sleeves.  Grass stains, acquired after multiple falls and spills, add their random pattern to the cloth.  A few holes, too small to stick my pinkie through, but growing, pock the fabric near the neck and waistband.

Fade-Vintage-Rip-Frayed-Cut-Sweatshurt-Khaki-

These days, for eight months of the year, the sweatshirt lies forgotten in the bottom of a drawer in my closet.  But when fall begins to give way to another winter, when it’s too cold to be out and about in a summer-light shirt, I rummage around for it, knowing it will be there, just as it has always been.

There’s no ceremony when I find it, no ritual, no welcome for a long-absent boon companion.  I simply pull it out, slip it on, and go.  Although clean when stowed away each spring, it still surrounds me comfortingly with the faded, familiar smells of male sweat, grass, and liniment.  It’s comfortable, it’s warm, and it fits.  When I put it on for the first time each autumn, it’s as though I had never packed it away.

Some of my acquaintances stare a tad too long when they see me approach, proudly clad in my sweatshirt.  “You still wearin’ that rag?” one might say.

Another might add, “Why don’t you try wearin’ it inside out?”

“I think he already is!” the first might reply, cackling gleefully.

teasing

They probably wish the sweatshirt was theirs, so their raillery bothers me not one bit.

My wife, however, cringes visibly whenever she sees me wearing it outside the house.  Inside, I never leave it where she might get her hands on it.  I mean, why risk what she might do?

This old sweatshirt, this relic of my youth, has become a fond reminder of a time when I was younger, stronger, quicker—when everything seemed possible and within my reach.

I simply cannot let it go.

Similarly, I have an old friend of more than sixty years’ standing.  When we were young and single, still living at home with our parents, we spent uncounted hours in each others’ company.  We played, we went to school, we took summer jobs together.  We talked on the phone—offering advice to one another, confiding our innermost secrets, fears, and dreams to the one pal we knew would never let us down.  We passed from adolescence into young manhood together.

With adulthood, though, things began to change.  We chose different schools to attend after high school, and divergent careers to follow upon graduation.  In due course, we married our high school sweethearts and began to move in different circles.  Children took up a great deal of our time and energy, curtailing the social opportunities we once enjoyed.  We lived in homes far removed from each other.

Parting-Ways

And as a result, we stopped spending a lot of time together.

But faithfully, year after year after year, right after Christmas, we would join each other for a few days with our young families at my old friend’s cottage.  Tucked cosily in the snow-blanketed woods, nestled on the shore of an ice-covered lake, the cottage was warmed by a blazing fire, the laughter of children, and the comfort of a shared friendship with all its memories and love.

It was never the same as once it had been, not with our wives and children sharing the space and the good times with us.  It was only late at night, by the embers of the dying fire, that we seemed to have time to talk as we used to.  With the others abed, we’d hunker down as in days of yore and talk our hearts out.

Interestingly, there was never any emotion-charged greeting between us when we arrived—no boisterous welcome, no demonstrative renewing of the old relationship.  We seemed, simply, to resume an ongoing conversation that had been briefly—but only temporarily—interrupted.  The flow of friendship followed a familiar pattern every time we were reunited, a veritable rhythm of life.

rhythm

My old friend is warm, he’s time-honoured, he’s absolutely trustworthy.  He’s always been there, and he abides to this day.  I slip into his comfortable embrace as easily as into my old sweatshirt—and with the same joyfulness.

Eventually, I know, both will be lost to me, or me to them.  But until that time, I will rejoice each time we renew the bonds.

I love that old sweatshirt.

I treasure my old friend!

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.

Paragons of Truth

It is beyond difficult to be a paragon of virtue, one free of sin and avarice, a human being to be admired and emulated, a soul who rises far above the rest of poor mortals who can only watch in awe and wonder.

Or so I imagine it must be, for (as my friends will readily attest) that description does not fit me.

There are many who have been thus esteemed, however.  A partial list from my own lifetime might include Leyhma Gbowee, Mahatmas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Shimon Peres, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, Lech Walesa, and Malala Yousafzai.  All but one of these worthies were awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their character and accomplishments.

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There are others who could be added, as well—people who, for reasons varying by nationality, culture, religion, or political necessity, had bestowed upon them (even if only for a time) an aura of goodness and purity to which we might all have aspired.  They include Churchill (but not Chamberlain), Chang Kai-Shek (but not Mao Zedong), Ben-Gurion (but not Netanyahu), de Gaulle (but not Pétain), Graham (but not Bakker), Kennedy (but not Nixon), and Mulroney (but not Turner).

In truth, however, were all those so proclaimed really paragons of righteousness?  Or were they mere mortals like the rest of us—caught up in events largely beyond their control—but whose endeavours as they grappled with those events were in sync with our western-world point of view?

A close reading today of the historical record of those who have passed away, and of the contemporaneous reporting about those still with us, tells us that, in fact, all these heroes and heroines fall short of the near-mythical status granted them.

keys

The key to understanding history is knowing it was written by the victors.  But it is pretty much accepted that not everyone who reads that official history will agree with it.  We tend, as human beings, to see truth in accounts that reflect our pre-conceived opinions, and to disagree with reports that run counter to those.

One’s assessment of such historical figures as Columbus, Napoleon, Bismarck, Rhodes, Cochise, Lenin, Roosevelt, Castro, or Thatcher clearly depends upon one’s viewpoint with respect to their accomplishments.  Who among them was good?  Who was bad?

The history of our times that will one day be written will depend to a large extent upon contemporary reporting—by the press, the broadcast media, the social media, and the special interest groups—of the events now occurring in the world around us.  And many of the people who will read that history will have no first-hand knowledge of where the truth really lies—if there even is one truth.

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news2

As a boy, I became an avid reader of the two daily newspapers that came into our home, especially the comics, the sports, and the weather forecasts.  Then, marking the example of my parents, I soon branched out into current events, and became able to identify the important people of the day, those gracing the pages I devoured.  I thought they were above us, those newsmakers, guiding the fate of the world on our behalf.  And I believed what I read about them.

Only later did I come to learn that many of my friends’ homes subscribed to other papers, and that their editorial biases were different from those we favoured.  I was shocked, truly, to realize that not everyone revered the same newsmakers I did—that, in fact, some people actually reviled them.  In an attempt to reconcile the discrepancies, I began to explore those other perspectives with a view to discerning what was true and what was misinformation.  With the advent of television newscasts, the sheer volume soon made that impossible.

But I did discover one thing, at least.  No one—not the most famous person found in the newspaper, nor the lowly paperboy delivering it (my status at the time)—was an unblemished paragon of purity.  All of us, no matter our station in life, had warts, even if those were not always readily seen.

paperboy

My mother used to encourage us to look for good in everyone—on the theory, I suppose, that if we didn’t at least look, we’d never find it.  She would remind us of the biblical admonition to mind the mote in our own eyes (I didn’t know for a long time what a mote was, but I dutifully tried to oblige), and the other about not casting stones, literally or figuratively, given our own shortcomings.  Good advice, if not always easy to follow.

So here I am, at the age of three-score-and-fifteen now, no longer believing there are any paragons of virtue in the world, but desperately wanting to believe there could be.  Here I am, not knowing what the real truth is, but desperately hoping there is one, still believing it will set us free.

As Abhijit Naskar has written, “It is a tragedy of modern life that the light of truth scares the society much more than the darkness of ignorance.”

So here I am, still reading, still listening, still exploring—still trying to figure it all out before my own time runs out.

Avoiding the Truth

How we know when politicians are lying to us, the old story goes, is that their lips are moving.  Cynical as that point of view may be, I find it increasingly difficult to believe what I hear from elected officials, be they municipal, provincial, or federal.

Mind you, it is rarely, if at all, that I actually have a face-to-face conversation with government office-holders.  My contact with them comes through newspapers and periodicals, the broadcast media (mainly television), and the innumerable digital streaming platforms that seem to be rapidly taking over the information age.

I have long been a quasi-political junkie—more queasy now than quasi, alas—‘though I have never aspired to enter the fray directly.  Perhaps, given my background as a student of history, I’ve always enjoyed seeing events unfold in real-time, even if vicariously through reading about or watching the news of the world.  My first visceral, voyeuristic exposure to that happened shortly after the Kennedy assassination, when I watched a Dallas hoodlum shoot the alleged assassin on live TV.  The blunt shock of that resonates still in my memory.

Oswald

So today, many years after that seminal event in broadcast history, I still read about, watch, and listen to the newsmakers of our present era.  But it is in the visual media that they look most real, even if sounding less than authentic.  And over time, I have come to accept everything I see and hear from them with a healthy dose of skepticism.

The main reason, I think, is that they never seem to answer the questions asked of them.  I have seen them in front of their supporters, in media scrums, at formal press briefings, even in parliamentary Question Period, deliberately avoiding a direct reply to a clearly-stated question.

If I were to be charitable, I might concede that, perhaps, they are not lying to us.  Maybe they are merely obfuscating.  Evading.  Deflecting.  Or maybe they really believe what they are telling us.  Or, most ominously, maybe they don’t know the answers.

But if I am to be honest, I think they are lying.  Deliberately.  Through their teeth.

Imagine, if you will, that you are watching a televised (or streamed) interview, conducted by a respected journalist, with me as the subject (and in order for this metaphor to work, you must also imagine that I might be a world-renowned, best-selling author worthy of the journalist’s time).  Listen to the questions the interviewer poses, listen to my answers, and determine for yourself which of my responses, if any, constitute a direct reply, or an honest one.

I’ll give you the score at the end of the interview.

Q.  Thank you for sitting down with me today. Do you consider yourself a worthy successor to the likes of Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Faulkner?

A.  I appreciate the comparison. You’re very gracious in your praise.

Q.  Yes, but what about those other writers?

A.  You know, of course, that they were American, right? And I’m not.

Q.  Okay, so what is it about your writing that so captivates your audience?

A.  Writers write, and readers read. There’s a difference.

Q.  Well, sure. But how is it that you’ve captured readers’ imaginations so thoroughly?  What sets you apart?

A.  Asked and answered. Next question?

Q.  Ummm…okay, what are you working on now? Can we look forward to another blockbuster?

A.  The great thing about our capitalist system in North America is that market forces determine what’s up or what’s down.

Q.  There are rumors abounding that a Nobel Literature Prize might be in your future.  Any thoughts about that?

A.  Alfred Nobel was a great humanitarian, an example to us all.  And I really like Bob Dylan.

Q.  Alright, let’s switch gears for a moment. Have you ever experienced what the pundits call ‘writer’s block’?

A.  You know, the wonderful Italian operatic composer, Gioachino Rossini, never wrote another masterpiece after the age of thirty-seven. Isn’t that interesting?

Q.  Yes, but what does Rossini have to do with your writing process?

A.  One or the other of his operas is always playing in the background when I write.

Only one of these eight answers was straight-up honest, rather than misleading or outright untrue—the final one.  The rest were as if taken from prepared talking-points, to be used regardless of the questions asked.

That, in a nutshell, is what I find so annoying about politicians today.  With few exceptions, and but for rare occasions, they refuse to tell me the truth.

What is the truth about climate change?

What is the truth about the mid-east peace process?

What is the truth about the sub-prime mortgage scandal?

What is the truth about the nuclear arms race?

What is the truth about our planet’s impending freshwater shortage?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, and nor do you, I suspect, because our elected leaders refuse us the information that would help us make informed decisions.

It seems not to matter who they are—a dreamy prime minister, a buffoon president, a thuggish dictator—none comes clean with us.

politico

In the burgeoning development of artificial intelligence, AI, I wonder if there is perhaps a glimmer of hope that we might someday be governed by unemotional, clear-thinking, moralistic leaders—smart machines—unimpeded by the failings of human arrogance.

But no, that would be too ridiculous to contemplate, a substitution of artificial intelligence for the limited or nefarious intelligence we deal with today.

Wouldn’t it?

People Who Know Everything

People who assume they know everything are annoying to those of us who do!

Thus spake a friend of mine (in jest I think) during a conversation about smarmy politicians who claim to have solutions to the ills that plague our society.  All we have to do is vote them into office and our worries will be over.  Or so they promise.

I confess I, too, become annoyed whenever someone presents as a know-it-all—not, as my friend joked, because I think I know everything, but because I think no one does.  Whenever I hear someone bloviating loudly on any subject, I remember a character from the Saturday morning cartoon shows of my childhood, Foghorn J. Leghorn.  I still picture him as a blustering, southern senator, speaking a mile a minute, pausing only intermittently to check with his listeners.

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“Pay attention to me, boy!  I’m not jus’ talkin’ to hear my head roar!”

“I keep pitchin’ ‘em, son, an’ you keep missin’ ‘em!”

“Any o’ this gettin’ through to you, son?”

The theory, I suppose, is that no one can contradict you if you won’t allow them a chance to speak.

The problem is, the world is a complex place where almost any issue has more than one truth attached to it.  Draining a swamp, for example, might be considered a fine idea by a developer who wants to convert it to a new mobile home community, but not such a good thing for the alligators, herons, and muskrats who already make it their home.  One’s perspective always plays a part.

If the swamp denizens are afforded no chance to speak on their own behalf, if they’re out-shouted and overwhelmed by those who know everything, by those who have the financial and political wherewithal to dominate the conversation, they are doomed.  In such cases, although both sides of the argument may have merit, only one side gets heard.  And that side usually prevails.

My experience with know-it-alls is that they seldom want to be confronted with facts or evidence that might support a view contrary to their own.  The flat-earth society comes to mind.  When presented with the famous ‘blue marble’ photograph of our planet, shot from an Apollo spacecraft, the society’s response was, “It’s easy to see how a photograph like that could fool the untrained eye.”

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There are numerous other situations where those claiming to know everything reject scientifically-based information in favour of pre-determined positions: holocaust deniers, global-warming skeptics, and tobacco users are but a few.  The staunch refusal of these deniers to entertain an opposing point of view effectively cuts off any possibility of meaningful discussion, and imposes their peculiar world-view on everyone.  In the words of the Borg, from the Star Trek television series, “Resistance is futile.”

It is instructive to reference Susan Glaspell, a Pulitzer Prize journalist and novelist, who wrote:  One never denies so hotly as in denying to one’s self what one fears is true…

I don’t know the ‘honest truth’ (if there is one) about any of these controversial issues.  But I instinctively doubt those who claim to know it, especially in the face of possibly-contradictory evidence.  Surely both sides of any argument (or however many sides there may be) should be weighed and assessed before conclusions are reached.

And in cases where such rigorous debate has occurred, the resultant conclusions should still remain open to further examination and challenge as new information comes to light.  But certainty is the enemy of an open mind, and an open mind is the enemy of those who claim to know everything.

I’m reminded of a snatch of dialogue from a long-ago film that illustrates the point.  While arguing about something, one character states his opinion in no uncertain terms, clearly brooking no challenge.

“You really think so?” his companion asks.

“I don’t think,” the first one declares.  “I know!”

After a meaningful pause, the second character says, “Good, ‘cause I don’t think you know, either.”

confused

Indeed.

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.

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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.