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||Edwin Drood's Column
||6 January 2015
|In which Edwin considers intergalactic snowballs and superheroes|
in an attempt to understand power and its projection.
The month of December – which ended with a bang round here as nobody seems capable anymore of waiting till after the stroke of midnight before filling the night sky with extra stars – used to be, as its name suggests, the tenth month of the Roman year. That was before a couple of emperors, Julius and Augustus, decided that their power could only be sufficiently represented by a month in which the sun is at its zenith and shouldered their way through to the middle of the bar, where they probably figured they had a better chance of getting served. This brutal but effective move shunted all the other months out to the left and right, which is why September, nominally number seven, now finds itself in ninth place, followed in the batting order by the former eighth and ninth months of October and November.
Rome’s kings, consuls and emperors set domestic and foreign policy goals partly in accordance with the latest astrological readings. We shouldn’t snigger at that. It seems to have worked better than opinion polls, keeping them on top of their game for about a thousand years. The Romans believed entire decades to be under the aegis of one or other of their god/planets, whose influence they sought to advance their current designs, whether for war and expansion (on land or sea), construction, exploration, play, diplomacy or love. They would likely have been highly impressed by the landing of a scientific probe the size of a washing machine on the back of a portent of doom travelling at the silly ridiculous speed of 135,000 km per hour, though they might not have appreciated the reasons for doing it. Why go to all that trouble unless either the payoff or the bragging rights are stellar?
|Running rings around the sun|
We’ve all been stretching a bit for suitable images to give us a perspective on the virtuosity of the Rosetta mission. My version is this: imagine shooting a piece of chewing gum from a rubber band while swinging in the park and getting it to hit a moving golf ball … so far, so good? Now imagine doing that while drunk, on a dark night, in the pouring rain. Even if we learn very little of scientific value, Rosetta has already been a triumph. But is it enough of a triumph to re-kindle the great dream of Europe, that Europe of Charlemagne, of Napoleon, of Abba, that Union which would stand as heir to the glory that once was imperial Rome? Well, no, not really.
The Rosetta mission is deeply impressive, and if European cooperation could always be this good, we wouldn’t be in such deep economic and social shit. But take away the landing and you end up with a distinctly nerdy story that has more gravitas than a room full of commissioners (Rosetta used terrestrial and Martian gravity to gather sufficient speed to chase a comet), is very long (the mission has been a work in progress since the mid 1990s) and very heavy on internal politics (it involves the scientific and economic collaboration of 15 nations instead of ONE UNION). It’s also rather light in emotionally meaningful moments. I can’t get especially gung-ho or teary eyed about a robot landing on a chunk of ice at a cost of 1.4 billion Euros. It’s not Wall-e, it’s not a giant leap for mankind and it’s not life as we know it, Jim. We’ll swing a ring around the sun, learn some stuff about the origins of water and then go into radio silence forever.
|A poor lonesome cowboy|
Recently a pattern has been emerging in the strange imbalance of power that reigns in the world. Despite the United States still being the world’s only true superpower, China is beginning to show all the muscular energy and love of risk that used to characterize the American century, but without any of the charming naïveté and eagerness that served so well as an excuse for US dominance, and without any of the scruples that stood in the way of world domination. The US is clearly in a crisis of conscience and vision with regard to its role in the world, yet nevertheless still capable of projecting awesome levels of power when it chooses. The problem is that such projections of power, understood as the ability to persuade others to do one’s will, rely for their effect on having a “will” that can be “done”. What is America’s will today? Your guess is as good as mine.
While our poor lonesome cowboy finds himself increasingly far from his ideological home, the European Union, rather like the Rosetta project, is equally stranded. Neither fish nor flesh, it lacks philosophical, political and economic coherence. This demotes it to the level of a think tank, someone you consult before taking action on serious matters. The rest of the world likes to have Europe’s good opinion, but not much more than that. To be honest, not much more is available. Neither our bark nor our bite impress very much. We are still considered a cradle of democratic values, but we lack the weight to apply these values in ways that would benefit all, in the widest sense. Perhaps, dare I say it, we don’t really believe in them.
The projection of values is far less expensive, in terms of real capital as well as political capital, than the projection of might, but values without might do not exert much influence. We all admire sainthood, but unless it’s close enough to home to impinge directly on our lives, it is unlikely to have a lasting effect on our behaviour. We speak of the “force of example”, but forget that such virtues as cannot be backed by the kind of behaviour, whose disregard might have consequences, lack the force needed to be exemplary. A case in point is the historical anecdote of the NSA bugging Angela Merkel’s cell phone (as if that were all). Germany has still signally failed to even offer Mr Snowden a permanent home. All that has actually happened, despite months of righteous posturing about friendship, respect and values, is that Mrs Merkel has a new phone. Well, so have millions of others. I hope hers is pink!
|Lights and virtues|
I recently watched a film called Hancock
, starring the ubiquitous Will Smith. It starts out as a comedy about a pissed-off, drunken and antisocial superhero and gradually gets darker and darker, until by the last reel (discounting the obligatory happy-end epilogue) you have almost forgotten how much fun you had in the first half hour. Curiously I found the film’s premise – that superheroes are leftover primal beings originally created in pairs to balance each other out – to be rather stimulating, as it meant that the movie could be read on the level of allegory. The superficial reading would be the story of two mighty forces (the US and the USSR) holding each other in a condition of mutually assured responsibility and/or destruction. As the one declines into insular domesticity, the other turns into a regional bully. However, at this level the allegory is not very satisfying, since neither of the two examples has become especially domesticated and both of them are still very much capable of irresponsible acts of playground mayhem and harassment if it means they can more easily steal the weaker kids’ dinner money.
No, the interesting reading of this allegory is to see it as a study in power itself. To be useful and effective in the long term, power needs to be clearly understood as an amalgam of might and virtue. So long as pure might is tempered with a clear set of universally applicable and universally approved values it will be able to express itself responsibly as temporal power. This will also show up in its use of force and/or coercion. Ideally, the more the values and virtues are applied, the more humane the power becomes and the less it will need to express itself as a coercive force, or even as a force at all. However, this relies heavily on a general acceptance of the virtues and values in question. As these diminish and fade, or are called into doubt, might will regain ascendancy. Might, then, is not
right unless lights and virtues are taken out of the equation. In other words, might becomes
right when it’s the only thing left.
Get back home, Rosetta, your mommy’s waiting for you!
© Edwin Drood
, January 2015
Illustration after a hand-coloured frame from the 1902 film Le Voyage dans la lune
(A Trip to the Moon
) by Georges Méliès (1861-1938).
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