If I had a buck for every time someone mentioned Acton’s axiom that power corrupts, I wouldn’t have to work for a living. Because hardly a day goes by in my little corner of the world that somebody, somewhere, doesn’t mutter under their breath the two most familiar words, perhaps, of our age and time. Glancing about the glory that was once our Republic, they are bound to say, with a sad and knowing shake of the head, “Power corrupts…” – thereby erroneously invoking the British historian mentioned above.
Actually, his lordship intimated that “power tends to corrupt”. And most people who misquote Acton tend to omit the full flow of his forceful idea. Understanding only too well the inherent weaknesses of the human psyche, he declared, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And in case his hearers missed the nuances of the universal point he was making, milord added, “Great men are almost always bad men. There is no greater heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”
Sadly, in Sri Lanka today, we make this mistake far too much and far too often – to our detriment. For instance, too many of us assume that our leaders are good because the offices they hold are great. Why else would we, as a society, lionize ordinary mortals apparelled in the, er, splendour of political office? We vote faithfully for them, hang on to their every word, splash their least utterances across the headlines, and invite them to, ah, ‘grace’ our functions – even after they have disgraced themselves in thought, word, and misdeed. We it is – yes, you and I, gentle misled reader – who reinforce the self-proclaimed myth that politicos are some superior breed of creature, with our cant and our lying silences.
The most pathetic manifestation of this sucking up (sorry, I mean sycophancy) is when the business community and other power brokers in our society indulge them shamelessly. When captains of commerce and industry merely mouth and echo what our political leaders are trying to put across to the people, the public at large find that the cult of demi-godhead is trust upon them. Ours not to reason why, folks! Ours but to serve, appease, exalt, excuse, exonerate, and generally pander to the whims and fancies of the very people whom we elected to serve us. That is what is meant by ‘servant leadership’, really. We, the people, serve them… the servant leaders. Huh. Come back, Lord Acton!
In the meantime: look, there they are! About to “ceremoniously declare open” something or be ‘guest of honour’ at something else… All dressed up in spotless white national costumes – while harbouring distinctly dishonourable thoughts. Whatever happened to the national interest? Have you, as you survey your subjects like monarchs, have you failed to notice the chaos that has descended in our commonwealth, not your kingdom?
And while we scurry hither and thither to get the garlands ready to greet them and prepare the banquet, the policing arm of the powers that be will no doubt be busy disrupting the already disturbed traffic. Be prepared to be brusquely shoved aside and threatened to be spread-eagled if you stand in the way of the politico – who will shortly be standing up on a pedestal declaring to anyone who has ears that this government unlike any other government has got it right. Yeah, right! The extra price he or she has to pay to distribute prizes or present awards or kiss trophy babies is but a small price to pay for the fuss and bother made. So never mind the cold, the floods, the harvests lost…
Look at us, they seem to mock the plebeians who voted them in – as if they were patricians, and not mere proles like us. We are the champions, they cackle and chortle and cachinnate! Even if we have to lick our leaders’ sandal straps to prove how great we are and how well we understand that the badness of politicians is only the conspiracy of the dull to discredit the good that they have done. How lame. How blasé! How utterly slavish we have become.
But just a minute now, folks! We, in this country, do not always treat our parents and teachers with respect, much less our elders and betters. And our peers often get short shrift from us in our competitive, progressive, and performance-oriented milieu. So why are our politicians exempt from the general rule that respect must be earned? Is it because they can grant us favours in return for the attention we shower on them? Or the advances we may make in the marketplace because of the admiration we pretend to have for their airs and affectations? Maybe the impunity with which the powers that be can abuse anyone who fails to bow low enough or scrape suitably to specific satisfaction brings out the mice in all men (to put it politically incorrectly)?
Speaking of political incorrectness – quick, get out of the way as your humble local elected representative rushes past in a convoy of four-wheel drives and plush limos with tinted glasses. With a surplus battery of commandos left over from our erstwhile war. Who glare at innocent bystanders without fear, without favour, like they’ve seen too many trashy action flicks. No, dears, don’t grit your teeth – grin and bear it, because they’re on their way to parliament and other politically flooded places to serve the people best… by behaving like it was lunchtime in the lower-school playground.
Do I exaggerate a little? Very well, then, I exaggerate a lot! But this is peanuts compared to the monkeying around done by some of our ministers and members of p.
Be that as it may, let’s not mourn the decline and fall of our culture of political leadership, shall we? After all, one does not rant against the depravity of a petri dish full of bacterial culture. One studies it – and if one does not like the mix, one quietly dumps the culture down the tube… and prepares to mix a fresh batch.
Gird your loins to use your vote wisely. Shortly. And while you’re waiting, preach the bad news to the unconverted out there. Who still think that servant leadership is the price we pay for getting the governments we voted for.