Saturday, March 10, 2007

"Stop all the clocks"

posted by k

Auden's poem "Funeral Blues" became famous when it was read, very movingly, by actor John Hannah in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. Few people know that Auden wrote it in collaboration with the composer Benjamin Britten, who provided a parodic and exaggerated blues accompaniment so that it could be a cabaret song for Hedli Anderson. Fewer still know that a version the song first appeared in the obscure Auden/Isherwood play, The Ascent of F6, where it was used as the mock-elegy for a politician. It wasn't meant to be taken seriously although, as with all the best parodies, there's an undercurrent of serious feeling at odds with the mockery.

One of the subjects of The Ascent of F6 is the way people desire leaders and heroes who will tell them what to do. This was an urgent question in the 1930s with fascism on the rise throughout Europe and elsewhere.

As many on the right admired the "strong leaders", Hitler and Mussolini, some of those on the left idolised "Uncle Joe" Stalin. Leadership was in vogue; in a late 1930s essay, Cecil Day Lewis urged communists to follow the urgings of D.H. Lawrence in Aaron's Rod and promote "the will to obey".

History doesn't entirely repeat itself. However, it offers lessons. One lesson must be the duty of citizens to mistrust their leaders. But it's a lesson that hasn't sunk in. "Leadership" remains a popular ideal. The National College for School Leadership trains its members to inspire children, but is rather vague about what the results of that inspiration will be. The search for "role-models" has become a craze. I'd choose the fallibly human over the role model any time. Friendship is a better model for society than slavish obedience.

The desire for leaders is creeping into mainstream political debate. The "citizens' forum" set up by Downing Street - a typically phoney attempt to achieve endorsement of political aims by a carefully guided focus group - led a participant to make the widely quoted statement that "
we really believed that rather than the local people getting involved too much it was about getting the right leaders in place". And while the recent Commons debate on reform of the House of Lords resulted in the largest majority for a 100% elected second chamber, a call for a wholly appointed House of Lords was led by ex-Liberal leader David Steel.

Of course, there's something attractive about having a strong leader. It makes us feel safe and comfortable. It's like being a child again. But it's not safe and citizens should be grown-up human beings, ready to think and work and participate in their own democratic processes.

As talk about leadership continues, I want to think about how democracy can be advanced and extended - how people can have power in the processes that control and organise their lives. Even Members of Parliament don't have much power. That vote on the House of Lords didn't decide anything - it was purely advisory. And the involvement of 60 citizens in a focus group at Downing Street seems a pretty poor substitute for an election and public debate.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I regret I only have time for brief comment.
With a prevailing wider ignorance in any age of history, people are delighted to abrogate responsibility for what happens in their lives and world, for they find it convenient to displace that responsibility to some "leader", whether of political, religious or editorial source. They don't have to think too much and in that become vulnerable to over-simplified bigotry, fascism, and the oratory of the half-articulate. In accepting trust in a leader as prime they are also diminishing the strength of arguments for checks and balances within that remit. I would go a little further and suggest that in a secular world (whatever your view of that) the role of the politician who is constantly arguing for your material salvation (money, resources, acting against threats to the nation)is alike to that of some God of an older history. This is reinforced by the current absence of any effective political debate on the roots of our action and modes of life in the world. In the UK, and visibly in America, there is no real distinction between the political outlook of the major parties. By way of example, we could not repeat the social and property revolution of the post-war Labour Government.

There is a fundamental distinction to be made. Those who are called upon, through election or life circumstance, to a position of leadership, whatever the duration of that, then accept that responsibility in a context of election or circumstance, in a context of ethics (and appropriate safeguards), ability and inspiration. Conceptually there is some relinquishment of ego in the sense of wider service. That is some form of ideal.
Those whose ambition is to be in a position of leadership fall into a somewhat different category. A personal sense of certainty, of rectitude, of power can lead to the magnification of the ego, even to the extent of facilitating a psychopathology. Such people pay scant regard to other than selected cronies, scant regard for those who have to be moved out of a sphere of influence to facilitate your ambition, scant regard for the rest of humanity and no regard for that advice or report which might contradict their preconceptions. They have no vision for the world other than as a means of reflection for their grandiosity.
Mind you, it can be argued that one of the flaws of most democratic forms is that we act to give power to precisely those people who are seeking it and in that we pave the way for the ego-driven rather than for those who retain some conception of service.
One might comment that at least we get to vote. Yet now, with the sophistications of "spin", sophisticated psychology in propaganda and the interlinkage of the media reports with opinion forming, the nature of that vote is the more readily manipulated than it once was. It is power and fame which are the icons of the day's idolatries. Effics? Wossat?


10:51 am  

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