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Letters from Downunder

How smart are our politicians?

Submitted by Lindsay, Melbourne Australia!

Politician, n: An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organised society is reared. When he wriggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive. (Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary)


(10/11) I suspect that most of us sometimes wonder why our government seems to be as stupid as it is. We elect the candidates of our choice, they make their mark, or not, support the party line or not, and one of them may even become our glorious leader for a time. We go through times of boom and bust, see foreign policy made on the run, (when so often they set up the leaders they wish to support, but who become our future enemies), and, in truly democratic style, we expect them to listen to us, the people, with our great lack of comprehension and understanding of policy, which brings them down to our level so they can be in tune with us, the people, who we like to think know what is best for us.

Well, that's what we console ourselves with, but it's not really true. We're not, by and large, that knowledgeable or clever. We're happy to let our elected officials seem smart, and they have drive, goals and ideals, and put a great deal of thought and time into how to honourably discharge their responsibilities. I do not know a politician who has consciously gone into politics with the aim of defrauding or hoodwinking the people, even if this sometimes later comes about, but are they smart enough for today's world?

Regretfully, no.

I'd like to refer you to one of the most remarkable books of recent times, 'Voltaire's Bastards' by John Ralston Saul. Subtitled 'The dictatorship of Reason in the West', it gives great insight into the plight of western governments and the unbreakable rule of reason that colours every place of learning, every think tank, and therefore every political decision. In one remarkable section, he examines the rule and cult of the hero and the rise of this in American politics. He traces it back to Marie Antoinette, the first known person to rule without any reason or credentials to do so. She was glamorous, selfish, a figure of wealth and consumption whom the population initially viewed with awe; after all, she was the wife of the king, Louis the sixteenth - but it was her opposition to reform during the revolution that eventually sealed her fate.

Other foolish figureheads followed, until the stage was set for a second-rate actor to strut the boards of world leadership - Ronald Reagan. Without going into who really had the power in that government, the result was a sort of laissez faire capitalism that set the scene for the really clever operators - who have not tarnished their hands by standing for parliament in the past 100 years or so.

These are the clever guys who manipulate markets, ensure that policy will benefit them, and who, not being elected, take no responsibility for the results of their machinations. They have circumvented the democratic process, and they get away with it because they have a vision. Not the vision of a Luther-King, but the vision of power for themselves. And more than vision, they have the key ingredients of ability, knowledge, and reason. They have led your great country by the nose for such a long time that they are accepted as the ones who know, which is all too true, and the ones who hold the future in safe hands. Which is all too false, as they are the modern counterparts of Machiavelli - cunning, amoral, and opportunistic.

The crazy thing is that they have had enormous success at hoodwinking many of the people into believing them to be the saviours of the nation, the only ones who can bring it out of the mess they have brought about. Enough of the people equals enough of the elected representatives to ensure they can continue in their rapacious ways, and enough of these means they have enough of the ubiquitous media barons and commentators to brush away any concerted opposition.

So, enter Barak Obama. I have no way of knowing if he fully comprehends the powers he is up against, but I suspect he does. Do his colleagues? Not many of them, but far more of them than are on the other side. Of course he appears lame, unable to resolve the problems or make headway, because there are so many others who think they know what's best, or at least better. And that is, I fancy, the way things are all the way to local elections.

Very few of us are able to grasp the whole picture, especially not in this rapidly changing world, so we take a shot at what is local, manageable, and realistically expect to make a difference. By definition, the President is atop of all this, he's the head of state, the big cheese as we used to say - but really, how can he be? How can anyone facing the task of seeing the whole and resolving the mess that embraces everyone be on top? And just in case you believe that your party, your man can do better, remember the challenge: Whoever is in power has to cope with a system that has been let go to hell, and can only start to be fixed by someone with the will, strength, nous, charisma and sheer intelligence to become truly a leader for all people.

Marie Antoinette refused to listen to the cries for reform, and look what happened to her. Things are not so different now, except that the powerful are not in power, they're in the lead.

With all good hopes for success,

From Down Under,


Read Past Down Under Columns by Lindsay Coker