When I was in high school, I was aware that the world was changing and that one day I would look back and see how my own life straddled two monumental historical epochs. I remember from my boyhood the insanity of the nuclear arms race, the “comforting” doctrine of mutually assured destruction, nonsensical propaganda wars waged by dishonest governments and readily accepted by would-be patriots, an Iron Curtain and a Berlin Wall that came down entirely by accident of history and not by the might of a government or the force of an army. I even delivered a speech to my high school Public Speaking class about the violent end met by Nicolae Ceaușescu at the hands of the Romanian people he had ruled over.
In the hopeful chaos that followed the “fall” of communism — or rather, the implosion of a particular form of centralized, dictatorial, militaristic, putative communism — one group of selfish, power-hungry political actors was replaced by another. Now, by this I’m not referring simply to the change of personnel in national governments, but to the opportunists from wealthy, Western countries who deliberately sabotaged the development of the former Soviet Union and those countries within its immediate sphere of influence.
For almost two years as I read the newspaper with my father in the morning and watched the nightly news (often alone, since my father was usually one of the last people to leave the office), I was inspired by the heroism, courage, and love of family that propelled young men and women into the streets by the hundreds of thousands. They were willing to shed their own blood for the sake of political freedom, national autonomy, religious liberty, and a future of hope for their children. But when the smoke cleared, their blood meant nothing to the savvy businessmen, multinational corporations, and ambitious political climbers ready to create personal fiefdoms and fill their coffers . The unparalleled industrial infrastructure and natural agricultural abundance that the former “communist” masters had used for their own benefit weren’t returned to the people but passed along to the new “free-market” masters. Neither gave a fuck about the well-being of their people. Both regarded political power as a relationship of domination and submission.
To some it will sound anachronistic — especially since I myself am quite proudly American and I believe there is true value to the American form of government and economy — but in the world that came to an end 100 years ago this year, a world ruled by kings, queens, grand dukes, princes, emperors, sultans, chieftains, and the like, the relationship between ruler and ruled had theological underpinnings. We mistakenly think of rule by “divine right” as license to lord power over the powerless and live only for one’s self. But divine right applied to both king and subject — each had sacred obligations to the other. Obviously the men and women who occupied places of power, along with the men and women subject to that power, frequently didn’t live up to their respective roles in the relationship. Those royal and noble houses that weathered the upheaval that began in 1917 and who today serve as heads of state, to my estimation, appear to believe in their mission, their obligation to rule for the sake the people and to use power for the sake of those who have no power.
Or as Spiderman would say: With great power comes great responsibility.
Even agnostics, atheists, and humanists can see value to the Spiderman theology of statecraft. And there are perfectly rational, objective, non-religious reasons to appreciate the likes of Queen Elizabeth, the Benelux royal families, certain Middle Eastern rulers, and many others from Africa to Central Asia to the Far East and beyond. These “royals” understand that to rule is to sacrifice your entire life for the sake of those you rule. Without hesitation, without reserve, no matter what it costs you, even to the shedding of your own blood. You’d be hard-pressed to find a premier or president or governor general or would-be caliph who would prefer to die for his or her people rather than demand that the people die for their leader.
Truth be told, I don’t have much confidence in most of the entrenched generation of powerful politicians and government leaders — though I do have a soft spot for one or two in my own country. But as Dante and I make our way along the streets of New York City, we can already see a future generation that will change this world for the better and prepare all of us for the amazing things that are yet to come. Undoubtedly we would find the same were we journeying along the streets of Shanghai, St. Petersburg, Pyongyang, Copenhagen, Luxembourg City, Mosul, or Des Moines.
The day has come to look at the past with honesty and compassion.
The best way to love and honor our ancestors is to imitate their virtues and to learn from their mistakes.
This is true whether you’re a monarchist, a republican, an anarchist, or a communist. Or even a hipster.
July 10, 2017