On fallibility

Jan 23, 2019 by

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Earlier this month, I started watching the Polish Netflix original series 1983, which imagines a future where the Iron Curtain is still standing and Poland is a police state.

I’m only a few episodes in, so the jury’s still out, but there was an interesting scene in the first episode where Katejan Skowron, a young law student, is being grilled in an exam by his mentor and professor, Janusz Zurawski. Young Katejan has been well-drilled in propaganda: Law and Party are all, and both exist for the sake of justice. “Ah,” says Zurawski, “but you’ve forgotten to take one thing into account: human fallibility. It’s human beings who create laws and human beings who form political parties. And human beings are fallible.”

The fallibility of human beings and the political systems and structures they create is not likely news to anyone with a pulse these days. The current U.S. president is a daily, blustering, contradicting, tweeting reminder of this, but he is only the most obvious example. Political dissatisfaction and anger are the norm in many parts of Europe these days. 2019 will be the year that both my home province of Alberta and the nation of Canada go to the polls and neither the provincial NDPs or the federal Liberals are terribly popular at the moment. Human fallibility, both in leaders and in those who elect them, has never really lacked for evidence.

I was consequently intrigued to read David Bentley Hart’s somewhat-tongue-in-cheek essay called “Anarcho-Monarchism” in A Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays. He’d prefer a benevolent monarch, it seems, to a democratically elected marketer/liar-in-chief. So would I, many days. But monarchs are so rarely benevolent. Safer, probably, to stick with democracy even if, as DBH notes, “tragically — tragically — we can remove one politician only by replacing him or her with another.”

At any rate, I chuckled out loud as I read these few paragraphs from DBH’s essay. They seem a rather depressing mirror and indictment of our political moment:

If one were to devise a political system from scratch, knowing something of history and a great deal about human nature, the sort of person that one would chiefly want, if possible, to exclude from power would be the sort of person who most desires it, and who is most willing to make a great effort to acquire it . . .

Yet our system obliges us to elevate to office precisely those persons who have the ego-besotted effrontery to ask us to do so; it is rather like being compelled to cede the steering wheel to the drunkard in the back seat loudly proclaiming that he knows how to get us there in half the time. More to the point, since our perpetual electoral cycle is now largely a matter of product recognition, advertising, and marketing strategies, we must be content often to vote for persons willing to lie to us with some regularity or, if not that, at least to speak to us evasively and insincerely. In a better, purer world — the world that cannot be — ambition would be an absolute disqualification for political authority.

Ryan Dueck is pastor of Lethbridge Mennonite Church in Lethbridge, Alta. He writes at Rumblings.


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