Monday, February 22, 2010

Can't Rulers Just Be Nice?

Doing the family hebrew homework last night, Eli had no trouble answering the question of what he thought about power and violence vis a vis a story about the Jewish holiday of Purim, where the Jews are once again saved from extinction from an evil anti-Semite. He started writing even before we could discuss it. "Power and violence are both bad..." he wrote in his little scratchy swirls, saying the words aloud as he penned them, slowly.

"Wait a minute," I said, "power isn't always bad, sometimes it can allow you to do good things."

He shook his head. "No, Mommy, you can't be nice if you're in power." He was so sure, I had to ask why. Again, without hesitation, with a "duh" in his tone, he explained.

"See, it's like in the Presidents book [a book about past presidents he has taken out many times from school and poured over,] the president after Lincoln was a bad president because he was nice to the South. You can't be nice, especially after a war, whether you win or lose." He smiled, pleased with himself. "You see? I gave you a perfect example," he said.

I shook my head. "I don't know..." I said. "I'd like to believe you can rule and still be nice."

He just shrugged, jaded at not-even 9. "Being nice is pretty good," he said, "but being too nice could really backfire. The people you're not as nice to then turn around and are jealous, they say, 'hey, what about me?'"

I just stared, openmouthed, listening to philosophies of rule by might come out of my progeny's little mouth. Shit.

I ran the whole conversation by a friend at Parco this morning, a human rights activist who once questioned if I thought it would be a good idea to give out black stars to bad people, like the kinds of masterminds of genocide that he put behind bars.

"Wow," he said,after I told the story, "sounds like you're raising a little Machiavelli." He defined the philosophy basically as my son had, that "it is better to be feared than loved because fear can be spread more evenly than love."

I get it, but I am hopeful that it is not true, that my son, smart as he is, will somehow in his own life, in his own promising political career, maybe in his future presidency (if he doesn't make it as a pro baseball player) manage to be nice and still be effective.

I did a little research on Eli's example and read about post-Lincoln president Andrew Johnson, a nice, honest man who was "no match for the ruthless Republicans." It is, sadly, still a problem good, nice politicians are up against every day, every election. Realistically, Eli is right: caring doesn't get you there or get the job done, would that it always could. But there are always jealous, violent forces to contend with.

According to an online summary of The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli states that "in an ideal world, it is virtuous for a prince to be good. But in reality, princes who distance themselves from ethical concerns and do whatever it takes for the benefit of their states rule best. Therefore, it is better to be parsimonious than generous, cruel than loving, crafty than honest. Machiavelli's general rule is to be as good as circumstances allow, but be willing to resort to any means necessary for the good of the state."

Oh, how I wish it weren't so. Doesn't anybody believe that gold stars can do the trick? That black ones aren't necessary? Obviously I haven't done a good enough job if I can't even convince my own son...But then, I have no desire to rule. You know why? I just want to be nice.

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