A Case of Bad Politics

By Fred Dallmayr, Co-chairman, WPF “Dialogue of Civilizations”, April 24, 2014

Political philosophy has traditionally been divided on the issue of “human nature.” According to some thinkers, human nature is essentially flawed, corrupt, or bad—a corruption which can only be mitigated by strong external constraints. According to others, human nature is essentially benign or good—a goodness which manifests itself best in the complete absence of regulation. A third and probably wiser view avoids both of these strong claims, shifting the accent from “essence” to “potentiality.” In this view, human beings are capable of both good and bad conduct, with the difference depending on prevailing modes of conditioning, that is, on the habitual fostering of either good and beneficial or bad and destructive dispositions.

The fostering of dispositions is largely a matter of family upbringing, education, and civic associations. To a considerable extent, however, the tilting of conduct in one or the other direction depends on prevailing forms of politics and public policy-making. As classical authors have instructed us, a mature and responsible kind of politics aims at the cultivation of the “good life,” that is, a regime which promotes the “well-being” of all participants and also orients the conduct of participants toward justice. On the other hand, a corrupt or malevolent politics is divisive by promoting only the selfish desires of rulers or of privileged segments of the society. The consequences of these different policies are sharply opposed.

The Italian city of Siena displays in its town hall a series of frescoes which are eminently instructive. The frescoes depict respectively “The Allegory of Bad Government,” “The Effects of Bad Government in Town and Country,” “The Allegory of Good Government,” and “The Effects of Good Government in Town and Country.” The allegorical depiction of bad government portrays rulers obsessed with power lust and greed; the effects are shown to be strife, violence, and mayhem. The allegorical image of good government depicts rulers dedicated to justice and the observance of cardinal virtues; the effects of this regime are happiness and the flourishing of people in city and country. In line with these good effects the room is appropriately also called “Peace Hall.”

Anyone searching for real life scenarios corresponding to these allegorical pictures does not have far to go. Unfortunately, real life shows abundant examples of “bad government” and its effects (while cases of “good government” are almost entirely missing). Too often, regimes or individual politicians are not concerned with fostering the general well-being, but rather prefer to stir up selfish, hateful or malevolent dispositions—calculating that the upsurge of conflict will enhance their own political power or else the power of the group or country to which they belong. In the country where I grew up, the native population and the Jewish minority lived together for a long time, not in full equality but in relative peace—until the leader of an ultranationalist movement stirred up latent differences and stoked the potential of hatefulness until it erupted into an unimaginable bloodbath. None of it was due to an “essential” human nature or an unbridgeable dichotomy of peoples.

In the middle of my life, I had the opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time in India. In that country, Hindus and Muslims had lived for several centuries in relative peace. In the city which became to me a second home, Hindus and Muslims lived together in the same streets or sections of town, often maintaining close family relations. Then, almost over night, a minor incident could spark hostility and sometimes lead to horrid brutality. On closer inspection, the eruption of violence could always be traced to the actions of some politicians or political leaders who stoked the flames of hatred for their own benefit or the benefit of their group or party. Once things calmed down, people in the streets often could not believe how they had been so easily led astray.

A recent example which still is playing itself out involves the Ukraine. For some seventy years Ukraine had been part of the Soviet Union. During that time—with the notable exception of the period of World War II—Ukrainians and Russian-speaking populations lived together in relative peace, showing that Russians and Ukrainians are not “natural” enemies. This relative calm continued even after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 (despite some lingering bad memories of World War II when ultranationalists had supported the German invasion of Russia). Then, in late 2013, the fragile truce among people was disrupted when emissaries of a foreign hegemonic power perceived a geopolitical benefit in stirring up hostilities. According to reliable reports (and even taped video-recordings), the emissaries distributed a huge sum of money ($5 billion) among ultranationalists who then proceeded to topple the elected Ukrainian government in a putsch which cost the lives of nearly 100 people. One of the first acts of the putschists (later revoked) was to outlaw the use of the Russian language in the Ukraine.

Needless to say, the hostile acts of the Kiev leaders alarmed the Russian-speaking population and also the Russian Federation located next-door. Hostility generates counter-hostility. This is not rocket science. It is the simple rule of cause and effect that bad actions produce bad consequences. Soon the entire region was in uproar.  The Russian government felt challenged. In the West, NATO quickly sprang into action. Everywhere, troops, tanks, warplanes, armadas of ships were mobilized and strategically placed in position. In this manner, a new Cold War was unleashed. And judging by the heated rhetoric of some politicians, the world was teetering on the brink of World War III.

Hopefully, things will eventually calm down and sanity will slowly return to the region. Looking back at the episode, it becomes clear that the entire uproar was uncalled for, unnecessary, and pointless. The relative calm preceding the episode did not need to be broken. What is left is this daunting realization: that a small group of people in positions of power were able to hoodwink humankind, leading it close to the edge of disaster. This was not the first time, nor will it likely be the last time that the bad dispositions—latently present in people—are exploited by politicians for their own gain and to the detriment of humanity.

What should be done in such cases? Clearly, as a first step, people guilty of using lethal force should be brought to justice. In the Ukrainian case, the person distributing a huge sum of money should be compelled to pay that sum back to the treasury or (still better) to the citizens of that country. For the rest, a process of reconciliation among people has to take place, which is a work of education. By way of conclusion, I propose another kind of pedagogy. Politicians engaged in reckless hate-mongering and war-mongering should be compelled to undergo remedial education: education in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Alfarabi and other classical authors who have all pinpointed the pursuit of general welfare as the supreme goal of politics. At the end, there should be a stiff examination to test whether the politicians have properly understood the distinction between “good” and “bad” government and the difference of the effects of good and bad politics in town and country.