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
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
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.
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
Ahmad Sadri is currently chairperson of the Department of Sociology at
Lake Forest College, Illinois. See Features
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