Speaking Truth to Power

Judging from the ubiquity of its symptoms this time of year, Halloween and its lucrative progeny of horror flicks, costumes, candy and other paraphernalia has become an American celebration, second only to Christmas. Parades in the larger cities push already fragile limits of propriety even as manufacturers produce apparel that spares no one’s religious or political sensitivities. Even as the innocent forays of children into their neighborhoods, gathering treats from total strangers or playing scary tricks on them, becomes a less securable venture each year, parents at least remember days when no one saw in this a potential risk of harm.

True, one of the purposes of Halloween is to remind us that behind every smiley clownface may lurk the potential boogeyman, what seems sweet might leave a bitter aftertaste and things that should be dead and gone might suddenly rise up to haunt us. Myth and fantasy typically parody brute reality – to help us transcend or at least tame it and maybe even laugh it off. When the play gets too real, however, the comedy becomes a tragedy as Italian verismo opera so well dramatizes. A fine line is crossed when the humor and satire come so close to being the reality itself that is no longer possible to tell the difference.

A decade or two ago, it might have come as a surprise to read that supposedly serious students of journalism are deriving their “news” not only from mainstream media like CBS, NBC, The New York Times and the Washington Post but also from Jon Stewart as CNN’s Reliable Sources revealed recently in a series of interviews. Yet anyone who reads the recent developments in the rollout of the Affordable Care Act website, the soap opera of the federal government shutdown, the bizarre turns in international affairs involving the NSA’s surveillance activities – not to mention the surge of violence in Iraq and Syria and Iran’s imminent refinement of weapons grade uranium – may wonder how far away the crazed world of Dr. Strangelove we may actually be.

The world is suffering from what appears to be an exponential proliferation of dysfunctional government. Commentators are not silent on its disastrous potential. At the same time, few have dared to question whether a “fully functioning” government is the panacea. After all, perhaps the most efficient form of government is a dictatorship. No one could doubt the horrific, inexorable reliability of the death machine generated by the tyrannical Third Reich.

Even as we find ourselves more suspicious each day of the capacity of a highly centralized government to marshal the complex resources of our technological, intellectual and economic capital, we might be asking ourselves whether we are looking in the wrong direction for hope in human progress. When asked once how she would propose to address the needs of the teeming, impoverished masses of Calcutta, Mother Theresa responded, “one person at a time.” She well understood the human, personal essence of every healing act of charity.

Far from an admirer of organized Christianity, Thomas Jefferson often voiced his views about the role of government in terms that might today sound seditious. “I am not a friend to a very energetic government,” he said. “It is always oppressive.”

Observing history, Jefferson feared the chilling effect of state power on human liberty and creativity. “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.” Calling leadership to task is not a sign of disloyalty but an exercise of our God-given freedom, indeed a civic responsibility.

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