The Fear of the Powerful – Looking Ridiculous

Vaclav Havel once said “Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not.” I’ve been reading and watching a few movies and listening to a couple of radio programmes lately that have really started to impact on my thinking. They have come to me in a way that I’m surprised about, though I’m not entirely alarmed. I’m wondering if there is a growing connection and consistency to them, and how I can start to make sense of them in a way that I can action in my writing, my thinking and the networks that I belong to. Hopefully, in a way that, as Havel says, doesn’t come across as being ridiculous. So here goes:

Kevin Spacey in House of Cards

As a recent subscriber to Netflix I binged on the recent adaptation and interpretation of House of Cards, with Kevin Spacey. Updated and set in Washington, the story is age-old. The corruption of individuals as they seek power and keep power. At the centre of the story is Francis “Frank” J. Underwood, played by Spacey, as a charismatic Senator, who schemes his way to the top of the political establishment. Underwood is amoral at best. Supported by his wife, he cultivates relationships for his own benefit, and seduces naive underlings to gain a grip on the ladder to the top. In the vein of the West Wing, the machinations of American power-politics are fantastically played out with a tinge of knowing irony, and self-consciously enough to allow the viewer to join-in the artifice. Spacey’s occasional asides to the camera outlining the interior motivations of a man who prays but does not believe in god, have a pleasure that allows viewers to momentarily put themselves in Underwood’s shoes, and ask the question: ‘how would I behave in that situation?’

Anthony Hopkins in Nixon

Oliver Stone’s film Nixon, is a film I’d avoided for sometime. I’ve not been in the mood for a heavy-handed docudrama from Oliver Stone, but gave it a go. While the film is curious in its staging, almost as a deliberate homage to Citizen Kane, the central performance from Anthony Hopkins is what maintains the story. Nixon is portrayed as a brooding, insecure and reactionary office-seeker, who was prepared to cut deals with shadowy power-brokers. Stone depicts Nixon as a Machiavellian operator, who’s manoeuvrings to gain election contrasted with the simple virtues of Nixon’s small-town upbringing. This Middle-American, from the ‘wrong-side-of-the-tracks’, gained power, but was insecure and paranoid to the end. Using covert techniques to destabilise perceived enemies, using oppressive force, not only in the South Asian theatre of war, but also within domestic politics. The dark shadow that fall’s across Nixon in the latter years of his presidency, is portrayed as an almost insurmountable burden by Hopkins – which it must have been – though Stone’s message is that there is no absolution in decrying the load we choose to carry, especially when it is self-imposed and the consequence of earlier compromises of our integrity for the sake of power.

Josh Brolin in W.

W. is Oliver Stone’s biopic about George W. Bush, and his ascent to the American presidency. Rather than viewing Bush (played by Josh Brolin) as a fool, as it has been easy to do in the popular media, Stone opts for a more nuanced portrayal of a man who came to be equally controversial for a later generation, as Nixon had been. Situating Bush’s character in more human terms, of a man overcoming personal demons, who is subsequently lifted aloft to the highest office by machine politics. Stone’s representation of Bush is of a man who doesn’t doubt his calling from god, that he should run for the presidency. As a character, Bush is portrayed with a moral certainty that isn’t necessarily expressed clearly, rather always in a folksy way. Bush’s appeal to the religious-right, his conservative approach to public policy, as defined by Karl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, is taken as a backdrop for a personal and family drama. Perhaps Stone’s intention was to leave the viewer with a sense that Bush wasn’t running the administration, but was happy to be the public face of the neo-liberalism that underpinned it? As long as government policy was aligned with Bush’s faith, his families status, and the drift to a form of politics that was unquestioning and tribally divided between ‘them’ and ‘us’, he was content to leave the detail to others.


US vs John Lennon

The U.S. vs. John Lennon is a documentary directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, that pieces together John Lennon’s support for the anti-war Vietnam movement that was growing during the later part of the 1960s. As Andrew Loog Oldham, the first manager of the Rolling Stones says, ‘If John Lennon fired bullets rather than words, many more people would have been afraid’. The documentary brilliantly contextualises Lennon’s motivation for speaking out and using his voice to appeal for peace. Meeting Yoko Ono gave Lennon access to an internal voice that enabled him to speak more radically about the waste and oppression that accompanied the industrial military complex as it perpetuated the Vietnam war. What comes across clearly in the documentary is that at the time very few people talked about the war. There was little in the way of public dialogue and debate, except in more radical circles and then through the medium of pop music. The growing counter-culture, however short-lived, was an attempt to articulate an alternative point of view in which the use of power and the corruption of the state, would not be used for oppression or for the suppression of alternative views. Lennon lent his name and status to an unpopular and radical cause, and seeing this in documentary form brings together many of the disparate expressions and connections that where played out. The later persecution of Lennon, as an undesirable alien, when he faced deportation from the USA by an overzealous bureaucracy is telling. To this day, the radical individual alternative voice can be a challenge to the statues quo. The fact that Lennon did it through popular songs that survive, and will survive into the future, is remarkable.

Sue McGreggor leads the Reunion

The last programme I’ve listened to was this weeks edition of The Reunion on BBC Radio Four. “Sue MacGregor reunites some of the people who were caught up in that row: Andrew Gilligan, the Today programme reporter whose broadcast was the cause of the argument; Geoff Hoon, Defence Secretary, who was accused of leaking David Kelly’s name as the source of the story; Tom Kelly, who as Tony Blair’s spokesman was at the heart of the storm and Greg Dyke, who resigned as Director General when Hutton’s conclusions were so critical of the BBC.” Apart from nearly coming to blows in the studio, this transfixing programme brings together some of the protagonists in the Iraq War power-play from 2003. There are still resentments on each side. Dyke and Gilligan, and Hoon and Kelly still regard each other with mutual contempt. On each side there is a rationalisation about the motivations and moral certainties that still to this day get played out as either a crisis of personal conscience or as the product of a policy machine and ‘group-think’ that couldn’t be avoided. One side argues that the outcome could have been avoided, while the other argues that it was entirely avoidable.

What is telling, though, is hearing the archive news footage, when prime minister Tony Blair explained his struggle with taking leadership decisions, and how there is a need to protect the interests of the nation by pursuing an aggressive foreign policy. This echoing of Richard Nixon’s sentiments about the Vietnam war was powerful. The fact that we can be drawn-in to war on the strength of an individuals personal and internal debate and moral challenges, as with both Tony Blair or Richard Nixon, and their narrative of personal conscience is instructive. Delusion is a challenge for each of us. Perhaps we need film makers like Oliver Stone and song writers like John Lennon to occasionally remind us that the delusions of those in power will always give way to suffering and destruction. Perhaps if we take heed of Stone and Lennon we can look at things differently. As Vaclav Havel says “The exercise of power is determined by thousands of interactions between the world of the powerful and that of the powerless, all the more so because these worlds are never divided by a sharp line: everyone has a small part of himself in both.”

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