No man is willingly just but only when compelled to be so
January 14, 2003
Last summer's travels took me to Russia, Iran, and China. Exercising the Persian imperative of traveling at once in horizons and psyches, (seyr dar aafaagh-o anfos) I couched some of my experiences in the context of The Lord of the Rings, the popular J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy that was my summer reading. Now that the Two Towers is all the rage and Salman Rushdie has compared it (unfavorably) to another blockbuster (Gangs of New York) I have decided to offer The Lord of the Rings through my own angle of refraction.
One of the major questions in the heart of Tolkien's work is whether "Men" can wield enormous powers and remain honest. The diminutive hobbit's heart of Frodo, the ring bearer of Tolkien's trilogy, advises him "against trust in the strength and truth of Men." His interlocutor, Boromir, is temped to wrest the potent ring of power for himself, quoting reasons of state and professing: "True-hearted Men, they will not be corrupted."
Like Tolkien's wizards and elves, the wise among men have long suspected that absolute power corrupts ineluctably. Power corrupts by removing its wielder from the company (and thus scrutiny) of the less powerful.
Like Tolkien's One Ring, unbridled power renders its bearer invisible. Twenty five hundred years before the Oxford storyteller, an Athenian immortalized by Plato told a similar story. Glaucon opens Republic's second book with the parable of Gyges ring that made its master invisible and tempted him to commit acts of grievous injustice.
Glaucon's conclusion is rather cynical: "no man is willingly just but only when compelled to be so." In other words, those who are released from social control (e.g., visibility) act unjustly. The unwholesome nature of our own fantasies about becoming invisible, Glaucon infers, proves that justice is not innate to humankind; it is a social and socially enforced virtue.
James Madison, one of the architects of American polity, shares the skepticism of Frodo and Glaucon. The twist is that he does not find the insight subversive. Madison argues that men who wield power must not be called upon to impersonate angels. "If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."
As those who adjudicate, legislate, or execute in the name of people are only mortals, they ought to remain in full view and control of the people lest they yield to temptations of iniquity. To keep the wielders of power on their toes a democracy divides their house of power (separation of powers.) To keep them from hiding in shadows of statecraft, a democracy keeps the machinations of power in full view of the people (freedom of an independent press.)
Our long road to the Madisonian reformulation of Frodo's hunch, however, has been tortuous and full of failed attempts at alternatives. In the 20th century Communists and Khomeinists alike held out Boromir's idyll that true leaders could wield absolute power without succumbing to its mordant spell. But they were wrong. Within decades their pharaohs failed and their utopias fell.
In my travels to Russia, Iran and China, I marked three strikes against Boromirian undertakings in my mind's score chart. While the Frodonian insight about human nature harnessed by democracies has made their systems transparent and their leaders visible as well as accountable, the exact opposite has occurred in non-democratic dystopias. Systems have grown opaque and leaders have been moved beyond the range of people's vision (murals don't count) and supervision.
In 1991 Russia jettisoned a large shipment of Boromirian assumptions including one that held the leaders of the workers' party to be incorruptible. More than a decade after the fall of Communism, however, Russia is still hung-over from seventy years of imbibing a utopian view of human nature.
Cold turkey may not be the best way out of this addiction, some Chinese officials believe. In China, generations brought up to be "Mao's Soldiers" are now being de-reeducated on a steady diet of possessive individualism otherwise known as the "socialist market economy." The idea is that individual initiative and the variety of options that are essential to a market economy will in time make political change inevitable. Having a choice in the marketplace, I was told by a Chinese mandarin of modernity, will eventually translate into a demand for options in political representation.
Unlike the Marxist inspired Russia and China, modern day Iran was not born of an authoritarian ideology. It was originally a populist movement with strong democratic tendencies. Many liberal democratic institutions (such as separation of powers and parliamentary and presidential elections) still survive in Iran. The Boromerian element of a "Supreme Leader" -- which is the source of most of the trouble in contemporary Iran -- was a later intrusion.
As an Assembly of Experts was convened in 1979 to ratify the new democratic Constitution of Iran, a small cabal of clergymen and their allies laced the document with references to a shadowy, non-elected office endowed with enormous and unchecked powers. In time the idea of a "Supreme Leader" hatched and steadily poisoned a revolution that had been conceived in the idea of liberty.
A quarter of a century after that fateful decision the people of Iran are at pains to correct that mistake. They have expressed their will through a reform movement that has won four consecutive, landslide elections. The more rational elements within the Iranian rightwing hope to beat a Chinese path out of their current predicament, emphasizing economic rather than political reforms.
That would be possible but for the current location of the Iranian economy (in the tank) and the intransigence of the majority of the rightwing leaders that cleave to their unchecked powers with the single-mindedness of Tolkien's Ring Wraiths. By contrast, many constituents of the reform-minded President Khatami nurse hopes for a Russian-style, rapid transformation.
The night of Iran is still young and pregnant with possibilities. But one thing is clear as day. The people of Iran are bent on abolishing the unchecked powers of the Supreme Leader. The One, Supreme Ring of power must melt in the fires where it was once forged.
Ahmad Sadri is currently chairperson of the Department of Sociology at Lake Forest College, Illinois. See Features See Bio See Homepage
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