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Power and the Pandemic: Was the Cure Worse Than the Disease?

President Donald Trump, right, listens as Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health Anthony Fauci speaks during a news conference about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House, Friday, March 13, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The current coronavirus pandemic should be taken seriously.  Not only are people’s lives at stake but so is the future of society as we know it.  The fear of massive loss of life due to COVID-19 seemingly revived the old medical adage from the Age of Heroic Medicine which states “Drastic cases call for drastic measures.”  This mindset explains the once-popular practices of blood-letting and ingesting lead and mercury to purge disease from the system even though the patient sometimes was left in a weakened condition from which he or she never recovered. 

Like over-aggressive bleeding, could shuttering business and curtailing liberties not also be producing an unwanted outcome?  At the risk of being accused of wanting people to die, I think it might be time to obtain a second opinion on the regimen that has been prescribed to the nation.  Especially since the side effects on society may long outlast the medical crisis we now face.  We have been subjected to powerful medicine with an emphasis on “power.” 

With a disclaimer to the reader, as a historian, I examine the nature of republics and trace the history of that form of government as it reemerged on the world scene at the end of the 18th century to the present.  What I have come to believe is that power and its application lays at the base of all political systems whether republics, monarchies, theologies, or those forms based on the supposed communal good.  What follows is a simplified explanation of power and its application as related to government.  It may seem obvious but many exhibit a lack of basic understanding of the forces that drive history and current events. 

Power falls into two categories which I label positive and negative. Different leadership or governing styles employ the trait that is closest to their core philosophy.  Positive power contends that people have the ability to choose and make wise choices or put simply, a belief in free will.  It is optimistic and includes positive motivation: encouragement, praise, reward, and acceptance into a group. These things are thought to make a person (1) accomplish whatever task is a hand, (2) make it more likely a person will make the right choice for himself and the group, and (3) promote harmony within the group through shared goals and values.

Negative power assumes that people cannot or will not make the appropriate decisions by themselves and thus cannot be trusted with self-government.  In this model, positive power will have little effect; therefore, people must be pressured to do the right thing either for themselves or the group.  Negative motivations include threats, demands, force, shame, embarrassment, exclusion from the group, and ridicule.  The model also limits choice, helping to make sure the person makes the “right” one.  It depends on repression to keep people thinking and behaving in the approved way.  

Both world views believe their approach is correct.  Could this be leftover from the once contentious religious struggle that pitted the ideas of predestination against free will?  This is possible, because the past clings to us even though some try to ignore it.  The belief in free will certainly contains an element of optimism.  Conversely, the belief in predestination is pessimistic in that it offers no choice in the matter of one’s life.  Born a noble and there is one path for you.  Born a peasant and there is a different, unalterable path for you.    

Systems of government reflect their optimistic or pessimistic outlooks.  The society shaped by monarchies, statism, and dictatorships follow the wide range of repressive motivation to keep societies unchanging and in check.  The people cannot be trusted to make decisions about themselves or the group.  Therefore, negative motivation must be applied.

Systems such as constitutional monarchies and republics are by nature optimistic.  People are viewed as potential solutions, not problems.  Self-control is expected and extended to the members of the group.  Although poor decisions will be made, there is a belief that ultimately more “right” decisions will be made than “wrong” ones.

Elitism and equality are important parts of these two competing systems.  Repressive governments and societies assume that a talented few will rise to manage those who cannot manage their own affairs.  Education, wealth, social breeding are qualifications for those who enter the managerial class.  I am not saying leadership because this approach leads to the opposite of leadership.  There is no intention to wait for people to follow—they must be herded.  As in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, equality is promised but it is clear that some animals will be more equal than others.

Conversely a system that promotes equality, or at least manifests a belief in equality, is open to the possibility that anyone can move up in society as long as they make the right choices for themselves.  Thus, instead of a static existence, free will enables people to shape their own lives. This is an optimistic point of view or outlook that promises a better future.

 Why do people choose to live in repressive societies?  They must be convinced (1) that there is no hope for advancement, and (2) they must believe that they need a class of elites to look after their best interests because they cannot.  In addition to negative motivation, these people are made to feel that only the system can provide for them.  Furthering this notion, the elites provide “bread and circuses” for those who mind their positions, stick to their preordained roles, and do not cause trouble.  Thus, control of resources to be employed as rewards or punishment is vital to making a repressive system work.

There is a principle in geology called uniformitarianism that contends that the same processes that happened in the past currently occur in the present and will continue to apply in the future.  I apply that idea to my philosophy because it allows me to view the history of humankind not as a series of isolated events but as a continuum connected by geography, people, and principles.  Thus, understanding the role power plays in government provides and understanding of the past, present, and future.

I further learned from geology that the world operates on different scales: large, small, and in between.  It may sound trite but what is the Grand Canyon but a really big gully, or the Blue Ridge Mountains just really big hills?  Big or small, these features are shaped by the same processes.  I believe that these two models of power extend beyond politics down into society and even manifesting themselves in the individual. 

In truth, often the positive and negative models overlap like in a Venn diagram. The key, though, is to identify a government’s, a business’s, or an individual’s core philosophy because it will always reveal itself.  Personally, I find the freedom and hope offered by the positive model much more appealing and hopeful.  Whatever your belief, you owe it to yourself to understand from where power comes and how it is used.   

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