May 30, 2020
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Passion Or Power?

Do Gandhi’s and Mandela’s lives tell us more than Stalin’s and Hitler’s?

Passion Or Power?

Ai Weiwei
Chinese artist and critic of the Communist Party

Throughout history, political and social change only existed in the forms we know because protest actions, be they violent or peaceful, were carried out with a lack of resources, especially in terms of communications. Individuals could mobilise and share information with others only to a limited extent. Such circumstances posed obstacles to protest actions that people could take and hindered the impact of their efforts.

Today, we are in a very different world. The internet and computer technologies liberate individuals and let them act as one. Ideas, plans and actions can be shared with others at lightning speed, and anyone may participate autonomously. New technologies finally enable humans to truly act as individuals. We no longer need to ask where an idea comes from. It gets shared quickly, and other individuals can carry it out within a short period of time.

The real revolution is in each individual mind. Everybody has to learn to become different from how they perceive themselves. The ways of bringing change and facing political and social struggles have become very different from the previous era. The work of individuals and the path to social change will continue to surprise us.

Michael Ignatieff
Canadian politician and human rights advocate

Isaiah Berlin once remarked that one should never underestimate the role of humiliation and shame in human affairs, especially in motivating men and women to rise against injustice. Power that humiliates and shames will not endure. When Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian fruit-and-vegetable seller was fined, slapped and insulted by a policewoman in a small town in December 2010, he returned an hour later and set himself alight in the town square.

With this act, he transformed humiliation into politics. He ignited the Tunisian revolution, and that fire spread across the Middle East. Emotions are facts in politics and their reality cannot be denied indefinitely. Eventually, these feelings will erupt and surge into the streets. Shame and humiliation can justify revenge and violence as easily as they can validate demands for dignity and respect. For these emotions to be bent away from revenge and forced toward justice, great leadership is required. Looking around the Middle East, we do not see these leaders emerging.

Perhaps they are there; only time will tell. We are looking for leaders who’ve endured shame and humiliation, Mandela is the example, but who have the force of character and strategic insight to rise above them. This is something more than moral nobility. It is political wisdom. When those who have been humiliated refuse to inflict it on others, we witness moral greatness, but we also create the foundation for a power that is based on justice and will endure.

Christiane Amanpour
Journalist, Host of ABC’s This Week

It has been a bad year for dictators; people power has swept several away. These events give me hope that as a people, as a global civilisation, when tested to breaking point, we can muster the character, the courage and the will to say “enough”. I think peaceful protest and civil disobedience, both collective and individual, are visually and morally awe-inspiring, and I believe they embody both passion and power.

I am stunned and gratified by the simple power of “no” embodied in Leymah Gbowee’s struggle against the Liberian dictator Charles Taylor. Her Nobel Peace Prize was well deserved. She acted without violence, harnessing the power of women to insist on peace, even to the point of forming human barricades to shut the warring factions into the conference room until they came out with a peace accord.

But in the back of my mind, I have a nagging feeling. I am reluctant to concede that often the greatest, most far-reaching and enduring change, for better or for worse, is born of war and revolution. I could examine any number of historical examples, but I know it firsthand as an Anglo-Iranian growing up in Iran and living through the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79. I will never forget the burning of the Rex Cinema during that long hot summer of 1978. People set it ablaze as they were watching a movie. That September, there was ‘Bloody Friday’, when anti-Shah demonstrators were gunned down in the streets of Tehran. There was a lot of death, many injuries, tanks, soldiers, the might of the state unleashed against the people. Martial law against the Mosque.

Only, when the ayatollahs came to power, the killings continued, along with the prison, the torture, the repression that endures to this day. Thirty-two years ago, after a relatively brief struggle, Iran changed completely.

Today, the power of the aging revolutionaries and their henchmen and their guns is arrayed against the passions of a new generation of Iranians who want to complete the experiment for social justice and self-determination.

Paul Farmer
Chair, Global Health and Social Medicine, Harvard

When I went to Cange, Haiti, for the first time nearly 30 years ago, I had little means of alleviating the suffering I saw. Passion fuelled a group working over many years to transform what’d been a squatter settlement—the people perched on this dusty hilltop had been displaced by a hydroelectric dam—into a leafy community with healthcare, clean water and education.

This passion, systematised, yielded the approach we call “accompaniment”, the commitment to stand alongside people who need your support. Accompaniment is both an objective that is set at the beginning of a task, and a mode of follow-through. Accompaniment does not privilege technical expertise; it links that expertise to solidarity, compassion and a willingness to tackle what may seem insuperable challenges.

When my Haitian colleagues and I first started seeing AIDS and tuberculosis cases in the 1980s, we saw that our patients needed accompaniment in their homes and villages, not only to take their medicines daily but also to overcome overwhelming social, economic and emotional challenges; they needed help finding food, housing, schools for their children, and jobs. By addressing these practical difficulties, we improved their clinical prognoses.

Of course, our initial programmes were small and touched only a few patients at a time. We needed to aim at a broader target, and to work with governments and international agencies to change the policies affecting the way chronic illnesses—including aids and tuberculosis—were diagnosed and treated worldwide. To do this, we needed to communicate the evidence and experience gathered by passionate practitioners and vulnerable communities to the powerful decision-makers. Progress has been made: millions are now on effective treatment for these afflictions. But many more are still dying of these treatable and curable diseases, so the effort continues. That’s accompaniment. We walk together with passion toward a goal, such as improving aid effectiveness.

Trillions of dollars in international aid have done little to improve the lives of the world’s poorest. Our aim is not to perform acts of “charity”, but to translate goodwill into jobs and direct investments in people and the institutions accountable to them.

Those in power also face tremendous challenges when trying to change the way their institutions work. When they make the choice to do what’s best for the poorest of the poor, we need to recognise and support their efforts. Working with those in power, and sometimes challenging them, I hope we can make the choices that will lead to a world more hospitable for the poor, even as we attack poverty itself.

Vitaly Komar
Russian artist. Co-founded USSR pop art movement.

I spent the first half of my life in Moscow and have lived in NY almost as long. My views on the conflict and balance between passion and power have changed frequently.

We live in a time of mass amnesia, so it’s important to explain the nature of totalitarian power during my youth.

In Soviet Russia, my artist friends and I were called non-conformists and dissidents, and our art was referred to as unofficial and underground. We called the Soviet authorities “Them”. The prisons, army and police belonged to them, as did all apartments, offices and shops.
All the print press, radio and television belonged to them, as did all banks, art collections, museums, galleries and clubs. They owned all the book publishers and art magazines. Nikolai Brezhnev’s reign was called the period of “stagnation”; we dreamed of coming up from the underground, and therefore, in search of viewers and to overcome our isolation, we decided to organise Soviet Russia’s first open-air exhibition. There were about 10 of us, including Oskar Rabine, a veteran of underground art, my old friend Alik Melamid and myself.

On September 15, 1974, we brought our artworks to Moscow’s Belyaevo park. The exhibition was the sensation of the year. All the western newspapers and magazines wrote about it. Bulldozers appeared suddenly and headed toward us. Plainclothes representatives of the authorities began to destroy our paintings. I saw how professionally “they” beat anyone who resisted. How when “they” came up against resistance, they were taken over by the passion for power. “They” began to destroy the works and not only beat the artists, but viewers as well.

One of them tried to grab my Double Self-Portrait with Melamid as Lenin and Stalin. This painting was particularly important to me. My fear vanished and, holding the self-portrait tight, I ran. He caught up to me, shoved me, and I fell face down into the autumn mud. I saw the boot he used to step on my work and how he tried to break and smash it. I lifted my head, and saw furious passion on his face; suddenly I imagined myself not as Lenin or Stalin, but as Tolstoy or Gandhi. In a quiet, confident voice, I said: “What’re you doing? This is a masterpiece!”

Our eyes met and suddenly a different kind of contact arose. For a moment, his eyes widened in surprise; then his face changed and passion yielded to compassion.

When he heard the word “masterpiece”, did he remember something important but long-forgotten? He did not smash the work but simply threw it in the back of a dump truck. A minute later, still lying on the ground, watching the truck drive off, I smiled. It was my hour of triumph. “Good Lord, people weren’t indifferent to my art.” I savoured the compliment.

I had created a unique, ephemeral work of art that, for one moment, changed the face of power. I saw the passing surprise that connected passion with compassion.

—Translated by Jamey Gambrell

Christopher Buckley
American political satirist and novelist

I have before me my dear friend Christopher Hitchens’s most recent book, Arguably. The dedication stumped me: “To the memory of Mohamed Bouazizi, Abu-Abdel Monaam Hamedeh, and Ali Mehdi Zeu.”

Turning to the introduction, I read the first paragraph, and was, as usual when reading Christopher, awed by his knowledge and the quality of his prose. Why don’t I just quote directly:

“The three names on the dedication page belonged to a Tunisian street vendor, an Egyptian restaurateur, and a Libyan husband and father.... The first of them set himself alight in the town of Sidi Bouzid, in protest at just one too many humiliations at the hands of petty officialdom. The second also took his own life as Egyptians began to rebel en masse at the stagnation and meaninglessness of Mubarak’s Egypt. The third, it might be said, gave his life as well as took it: loading up his modest car with petrol and homemade explosives and blasting open the gate of the Katiba barracks in Benghazi—symbolic Bastille of the detested and demented Gaddafi regime in Libya.”

Every revolution begins with the firing of a shot heard round the world. (Just ask Michele Bachmann.) But it is impossible to imagine the upheavals that toppled the Soviet Union, British rule in India and apartheid in South Africa without the Solzhenitsyns, Gandhis or Mandelas. None of the three had any power, other than moral.

If you can read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or The Story of My Experiments With Truth or Long Walk to Freedom without being overcome with passion, then you probably come down on the power side of the question, the one favoured by the future chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Zedong: “Every Communist must grasp the truth. Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

Is it as simple a proposition to say that passion begets power? In her Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote, “Power can be thought of as the never-ending, self-feeding motor of all political action.” (The operative phrase there is “self-feeding”.)

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell put it thusly: “Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”

As Tunisia, Egypt and Libya recreate themselves out of the ashes, one hopes—against hope—that those who rise to power will honour the passion of, among many others, the three without whom they’d still be in tyranny’s thrall.

Eve Ensler
Activist and author of The Vagina Monologues

It is easily argued that violent revolutions, war and repression bring about the most immediate, obvious change. But I think we need to look at what we mean by change. Tactics of terror and violence can change a given political situation in an instant and keep the population obedient and in line. But these tactics do not indicate people have actually changed. They simply change one dominant force for another and assure that people end up ruled by a new force of terror or intimidation.

Methods of passion involve a more transformational process: inviting commitment, vision and long-term struggle, and building movements. All these can bring real and lasting change both in the individual and the community. Methods of passion model the world we want to create. Occupy Wall Street is a striking example. I spent time there this fall and found a diverse gathering, fighting for economic justice and an end to mad greed. They created a spontaneously designed community in Zuccotti Park they would like to see mirrored in the larger world with free healthcare, composting, collective food, rotating facilitation, shared power, open and challenging discourse, safe teams for women, learning circles and meditation.

I have had my moments of rage where I think the powers that be will never end oppression, economic injustice, the destruction of the earth and the rape of women unless they are forced to. But I do not trust these moments of violence within me. Passion is persuasive. Power is dominating. Passion is contagious and inspirational. Power is threatening and coercive. Passion is inclusive and power is hierarchical. Passion moves people. Power controls them.

I think in these perilous times, a third way is emerging, a kind of escalated passion: a highly creative and mischievous energy that comes from giving one’s heart and soul and imagination to the struggle. Not aggression, but fierceness. Not hurting but confronting. Not violating but disrupting. This escalated passion has all the ingredients of activism, but is charged with the stirrings and wild creations of art. Artivism where edges are pushed, imagination is freed, stories are told, and a new language emerges altogether.

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