It was fitting that the speeches on Freedom Day were delivered by our leaders. The day is a political memorial, remembering a profound political event, and we …
Ugh. Sorry. I can’t.
Politicians? Talking about freedom? That’s basically like chickens celebrating Safety Day and inviting a family of foxes to do the speeches.
And yet, we still tune in. Our leaders still suck us in, year after year. We still get angry and despondent when they don’t deliver. We are still shocked when they say stupid, dangerous shit that gets people killed.
Still. After two decades. After a century. After a thousand years. Still.
Perhaps the problem is that alluring word, “leader”. It’s so beautiful, resonating with hope and direction and confidence; keeping us safe in our fantasy that leadership is a vocation; preventing us from seeing what modern leadership truly is.
When we stir, disturbed by nearby shouting, they murmur some extra-reassuring adjectives.
A king who costs us R54-million a year, calling foreign nationals “lice”? He’s a “traditional” leader, and we all know that tradition is good, so that’s alright then. A president refusing to pay back the money? He’s an “elected” leader, and we all know that democracy is good, so stop your clucking, chickens. All is well in the coop.
Which, of course, it isn’t. In the modern world, leadership has become a corporation that makes nothing. It makes nothing because it doesn’t have to. Profits are guaranteed as long as the taxpayers remain obedient and miners don’t shoot back. And, as is the case with all corporations, its only responsibility is to make its shareholders fantastically rich. Expecting a president and a cabinet to run a country progressively is like expecting the CEO of McDonald’s to roll out nutritious food. It might happen, but it’s not the primary business plan.
like domesticated dogs, we have had dependence bred into us
And yet we continue to snooze, determined to cling onto the dream that our leaders are serving us rather than themselves – indeed, that they love us. It’s the same dream that drives some people towards patriotism, that most unrequited love of all. (Aw, honey, I know you love your country and I know it sometimes pretends that it loves you, when it asks you for your money and your sweat, and sometimes your blood. But I’m sorry, baby, your country’s just not that into you.)
Can we wake up? Can we have a serious conversation about the use of kings and presidents? Perhaps. But before that happens, we have to admit that, like domesticated dogs, we have had loyalty, passivity and dependence bred into us over 10000 years. We will have to concede that, although humans have the ability to be glorious, we also have a deep-rooted, almost compulsive, desire to bow before imagined authority. We raise our faces to the sun and to wide horizons, but show us a crown or a beret or a badge and we’re on our knees faster than you can say “Stockholm syndrome”.
Even so-called revolutionaries are just conformists who want to wear a different uniform. Their language, saturated with military jargon, might create an aura of decisive change but it’s not fooling anyone any more, or at least nobody who was paying attention during the 20th century. Tens of millions of corpses taught us that military language is constructed almost entirely of lies. It is an evil dialect in which “discipline” means unquestioning obedience and “sacrifice” means the suicide of the weak for the profit of the strong.
Are revolutionaries ignorant for believing Wilfred Owen’s “old lie”? I don’t think so. Many are passionate readers of history. But I do suspect that, by being attracted to militaristic language, they are unwittingly revealing a deep desire to be told what to do; to be dominated and, ultimately, to be lied to.
They believe they are iconoclasts. They believe they are going to cast down and smash the old idols. As they wipe the slate clean, they could call their leaders anything. Head Democrat. Champion of the Oppressed. Messiah. And yet what do they choose? “Commander-in-Chief”, a title stuffed to bursting with the language of submission and dependence. It’s the whole package, really. A commander to obey unquestioningly, a chief to serve unconditionally.
No, if we are going to hold our leaders to account and get anything like good government, then we are first going to have to admit that we, not they, have a problem. We must admit that we are addicted to being ruled and that we believe, deep in our guts, that we deserve to be ruled.
We believe that our rulers know things we don’t. But the only thing they know that we don’t is that we’re addicts, desperate to slip into another opium dream in which kings are benign and politicians govern wisely.
It’s time to get clean. It’s time to wake up.
First published in The Times and TimesLive