18. Power

08 May 2008 Comments

The day that I left Chad a text message arrived an hour before hopping on a plane for my holidays (I write this from idyllic-but-obviously-not-too-distant Stone town, Zanzibar). The text message said that a fellow named Pascal Marlinge, the Head of Mission for an NGO (Save the Children, UK branch) had been shot and killed in a car heist a short drive from Farchana.

It left me sad and a bit numb; I write this with heavy hands.  I found myself trying to make sense of it. How could this have happened? And, inevitably, why did this happen? Why would someone shoot a clearly unarmed person exiting a clearly marked humanitarian vehicle with his hands in the air? And this is where my mind has gone while sitting in airport terminals, eating street food in the grungy Escape-from-New-York backdrop of Dar es Salaam's Kariakoo district, and watching the waves foam up on shore.

The word that I keep coming back to is "power." Several years back, one of my mentors in psychiatry casually said "there is only one type of power." I am not sure if he's right, but he's the type of person that you listen to, and figure out how they came to that conclusion, even if you'll disagree with it eventually. Over the years I've muddled around with the question of what it would be, this one power, if there was just the one. And what I've come up with is this: power is the ability for one entity to set the viability conditions for another. That is, one entity can effect a gross difference in the capacities, choices, and mortality of another entity. For humans, this would include, for example, a parent or state feeding their young so that their bodies can grow and learn; teach skills leading to more vocational choices; or the provision of basic health care so that a premature death doesn't cut this potential all to shreds.

It is also, notably, the power at the end of a rifle, an apron string (families excommunicating members), an emotional outlash.  Images of tyrants always come to mind whaen I think of "powerful" people. Mussolini, Mugabe, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, Nikolai Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein. Basically what these guys did was whatever the fuck they wanted, and nobody could say otherwise. They were, and are, barbarians. 

Lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, wrath, envy, pride. These are the seven deadly sins, which may as well be a laundry-list of the manifest entailments of 20th century Western success. "Get rich or die trying." Envy was used in the sense of "malice" in the fourteenth century, as in "creating equality" be taking or destroying that which someone else had... the vulgur side of jealosy: hate someone for havng more or being more.

But this is here it gets complicated. I think that most of my cohort can rally against the despots, but what of the seven sins? It may be schlocky, but I think that TV is a sophisticated barometer of an ethos. While practicing up in the Canadian North, I had too much free time and a satellite connection, so I watched all seven seasons of The Sopranos. Hellava good show, and to my mind, there has not ever been a character as complicated as Tony Soprano. Somewhere along the way (maybe in the second season), I realized that this guy was a simmering psychopath (however pro-social). Enter "Dexter," another TV character, who is a blood-lusting psychopath who "uses his evil powers for good," killing "bad" psychopaths. Brilliant premise, but can you imagine the pilot being pitched twenty years ago? Not a chance. For 50 years, the bible of broadcasting was the Production code of motion pictures, and for 40 years or so up until the late 60s, it stated that:

"No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathies of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin."

You couldn't even watch someone pretending to be evil!  As if just the perishing thought could shift the balance to the dark side.  I remember being timorous in medical school when I asked patients if they had ever hade ideas of suicide or self-harm (a standard part of the psych exam, and for good reason). It was hard for me to ask the question, as I did not know what I'd do with the answe, or worse, that I'd throw their symathies to such an act.  It's kind of absurd that someone's going to say "wow, suicide, great idea! Never thought of it, but you've been a great help, doc." I needed to gain experience with the idea of suicide in the same way that I have needed, in Chad, to become more familiar with ideas of genocide, mass displacement, and wanton violence the likes of which I had only read about, but never seen.

But what do we do, then, when we character-identify with Tony Soprano in some way but are also revulsed at the mindlessness of actual wanton destruction and death? This is not a rhetorical question. We talk about it, and the dialogue makes it more real. There is no answer, of course, but exploring it carefully may lead to a better ability to balance the essential urges of war and peace that wage their quotidian battles in us. Maybe we'll even gain a better understanding of what power means to us, and use some of those superpowers for good.  

So what, then, would be the luminescent side of power... how can we counterpose and salvage the beauty in wilful and benevolent expressions of it? It would then be the exercise of might in capacity-building, the prolonging of life and heightening of health, all in the service of preserving the right for people to choose what they want to do. If freedom is some waffly continental breakfast, options and choice are the sustenance that sticks to your ribs.

MSF came out with a position paper of sorts called "The Chantilly Document." It starts with a single line, before getting into two pages of text: 

"The overall purpose of MSF is to preserve life and alleviate suffering while protecting human dignity and seeking to restore the ability of people to make their own decisions."

In my opinion, Pascal was doing this. He was working away from his wife and two children, in an inhospitable place, quite likely for less pay, less stability, and higher job-related anxiety than he could have found elsewhere. Like so many people that I've met out here, they hold it together for some reason or another so that, in the long run, others will have more options. This character trait I call integrity, the exercise of which is strength.

It is apalling the abuses of power that I have seen in the past several months. The stories, the lives, the wounds physical and psychological. They track closely with the absence of wide, transparent, and consensus-driven means for accountability. With no accountability, it seems that power prevails over strength.

In the end, Tony Soprano got punted by his Shrink.  Strength prevailed after seven seasons:) I hope that Farchana does, too. We're in our fifth year, now.