AFTERWORD AN ACQUAINTANCE of mine has the heretofore profitable skill of locating reservoirs of oil under the earth’s surface. Needless to say he made out very well, and now that oil is not so profitable he faces the momentous task of choosing what to do with himself. He has many interests, including writing, but he is caught in a quandary. He would like to write but feels it would be a whimsical choice because he doesn’t think his writing is good enough to make him powerful. And that is what he really wants -power. This puzzled me. Writing is what gives me power, a sense of my capabilities and spirit. It is the activity that shows me who I am, that I exist. It enables me to participate in the world by informing and questioning. I had to acknowledge two things about my friend: he ultimately does not believe in the power of his own voice, and he was talking about a different sort of power the kind that seeks to control rather than inform. Whatever my friend chooses to do with himself will not be his goal. The choice will only be a means to the goal of having power. For him, power is selfserving. Since he doubts the power of his own voice, he wants to do something that will enlarge his sense of who he is. It seems that one approach to understanding power, the universal craving for it, might be to reduce the myriad meanings to two types: self-serving and community-serving. What we do seeks either to manipulate or educate, to impose on others what we want them to believe or to enable them to formulate their own beliefs. Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus defined what I call self-serving power. For him, “power is the ability to tell others what the issues are, what they mean, and identify who the good guys and bad guys are.” In an essay called “Freedom,” E.B. White talks about what I would call Leila Levinson is an Austin freelance writer. community-serving power. He points out that Hitler understood how the spoken word can arouse the masses and change the world. White rejects such ambition: “I am under no misapprehension about ‘winning people;’ but I am inordinately proud these days of the quill, for it has shown itself historically, to be the hypodermic that inoculates men and keeps the germ of freedom always in circulation, so that there are individuals in every time in every land who are the carriers, the Typhoid Marys, capable of infecting others by mere contact and example.” Mere contact and example. To infect people with the longing for freedom through writing seems enormously powerful to me. It seems to represent the dictionary’s basic definition of power: ability to act or produce effectively. Everyone needs to know this power if she or he is going to be free. People need to believe their actions are effective, so that they truly can participate in their government and use their power to serve the community. Our-attitudes towards power seem to result, in large part, from how much we fear our basic powerlessness. My friend, when questioned, did not have much confidence in his talent. He did not believe his writing had the ability to inform people. He wants power to compensate for his feelings of powerlessness. The bottom line of our existence is that we have no real control over our lives. We can find the earth quaking under our feet, our car careening off a cliff, our nation at war without a minute’s notice. This horror makes us crave power: we want to prevail; we want control. But we do not have to counter our dread of powerlessness by controlling others. That is the crudest ‘means we have of assuaging our ownself-doubt. We can prevail by enabling others to be effective. This has a twofold gain. One’s own actions are powerful and validating, and those actions empower others. The line between self-serving power and community-serving power is thin. In serving others, we often realize power, becoming a leader, an organizer. And even though the actions did not originally seek self-aggrandizement, it is easy to enlarge ourselves with this new ability to control. The history of revolutions is the history of the usurpation of the “people’s power,” Stalin being the extreme example. But we can see it around us daily. When I worked in legal services, the government program that provides legal representation to poor people, I continually observed jockeying for power. The low-income clients formed their own councils to try to have more participation in decisions that immediately affect their lives. But I rarely observed participation that I would call meaningful. Little was done in response to the clients’ requests for community education. All I could figure was that the idea of more self-sufficiency among the clients was threatening. We need leaders and organizers. Obviously, we could not counter the political and physical will of others without collective power. But it becomes very easy to take power away from those we serve by telling them what is good for them rather than informing them of the possibilities and allowing their choice. Now the distinction between propaganda and education may seem very slight, but that slight difference is enormous in terms of our own motivation. It is our attitude towards our audience, our community, that is so critical. How do we present information? What is our intention? President Reagan has superbly demonstrated the art of framing and defining the issues for people, identifying the good guys and bad guys. He has not wanted us to question too deeply the ramifications but to take his ideas at face value. And, indeed, he has been a powerful President. Would I be as critical of the methods if the person who used them sought to redistribute wealth and promote civil liberties? Yes, I think I would, because the real question we need to ask is not what reforms the use of power seeks, but how much freedom does it create? If there were a socialist Ronald Reagan, successfully leading people to believe that redistribution of wealth would make for a better America, would people be freer even though the poor would not be poor? Money certainly helps create freedom, but it does not ensure it. More than financial, freedom is a matter of psychological power. What I would like to suggest is that, if we sought to enable free thinking through contact and example, maybe people would become able to see through Ronald Reagan. Contact and Example By Leila Levinson THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23
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