As a lifelong student of the martial arts and a movie buff, I’ve always been interested in martial arts films. One of my favorite is a 1988 action flick entitled, Above the Law, the film debut of aikido master Steven Seagal. The movie deserves attention, for its title and story capture a symptom of our postmodern society that begs immediate intervention.
Like a cancer invading the human body, it appears that more and more people, especially those who occupy responsible positions in both government and major corporations, believe and act like they are above the law. The culture of corruption that accompanies this insidious disease must be stopped “stat” and should never be tolerated. In a society that presumably values and espouses citizen participation, neutral competence, and executive leadership in its public sector, one would think that this kind of mentality would be an oxymoron. Unfortunately, it is not.
Public confidence in government has always waxed and waned with citizens being distrustful for good reason. It was the English historian and moralist, Lord Acton who, in 1887, expressed his now famous opinion that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” The dire implications of what I refer to in my book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts, as the will to power (of which the will to money is its primitive form) cannot be isolated to government officials. One needs to look no further than the U.S. for ample evidence of the consequences of such “above the law” power-seeking in the corporate world. We can now even see a hybrid of sorts popping up its Medusa-like head that was born out of an unlikely public-private partnership. Government (taxpayers) provide “bail-outs” to private sector corporations deemed too big to fail who reward their top executives with compensation and benefit packages that most people couldn’t imagine.
The recent news that Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit, whose company got a bail-out, has been awarded a big bonus to keep him shows the Board of Directors felt he’s worth the money. We have to wonder how much money is really “enough” and what does such a move say about the corporate soul. Does this kind of decision help to advance the cause of meaningful capitalism, change that we can believe in, or does it only illustrate that the greed factor is joined at the hip with the pursuit of power? To borrow from a fellow Greek American, Arianna Huffington, the pigs are still at the trough–like those in George Orwell’s classic, Animal Farm, which portrayed how corrupt leadership, combined with the ignorance and indifference of the people, foiled the best of intentions. Orwell sums up the power principle at work in today’s government and corporate cultures, “All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Does combining Orwellian logic with the opinion of Lord Acton explain why so many “powerful” people act like they are above the law? Does this account for the behavior of so many government officials who are on the take or refuse to hold themselves and others accountable for their actions? What about the long list of powerful men, celebrities and politicians, who admit to infidelity? Putting sexual compulsion aside, have they come to believe their own hype about how powerful they are, a Master of the Universe complex, and are more willing to engage in narcissistic and risk-taking behaviors in order to exercise their will to power? Do they believe that they are above the law, even if not in a strict legal sense, and can get away with whatever they want?
Consider former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Did he think that he’d be able to have two lives like he did in his movie, True Lies? Did his celebrity status influence his judgment and behavior? Consider the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former leader of the International Monetary Fund and possible contender for President of France. While he didn’t have the celebrity status of the former Governator Schwarzenegger, Strauss-Kahn belongs to the ruling class and followed a crooked, possibly criminal, path. Like Arnold (now the Cheatinator), he felt invincible, untouchable, and above the law. The so-called Socialist leader with a taste for $3,000-a-night luxury hotel accommodations now won’t get a chance to play an action hero under the auspices of the IMF.
The Schwarzeneggers, Strauss-Kahns, and their ilk, could learn a great deal from my ancient Greek ancestors. It was the Athenian tragedian, Aeschylus, who observed that, “It is not the oath that makes us believe the man, but the man the oath.” At what point will government service be treated as a noble calling rather than a “career path” for pigs at the trough? Never, as long as the general population remains complacent. Never, as long as the citizenry remains ignorant and indifferent to the alternatives to the status quo. Isn’t it about time to demand term limits for those in elected office? Isn’t it also time for elected officials to demonstrate that they are humbled by the honor and privilege of serving? Isn’t it time to rediscover the ancient Greek notions of virtue and character in all leaders? To demand that such personal attributes be required as criteria to lead?
The ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, said that “character is destiny.” In light of what’s been happening in the parallel worlds of politics and business recently, a “do as I say, not as I do” mentality shows that character isn’t their destiny.
Dr. Alex Pattakos and his partner, Dr. Elaine Dundon, are the co-founders of The OPA! Way® lifestyle of “Living Your Inner Greece!” which means living all of life to the fullest with Enthusiasm and Meaning. In addition, Dr. Pattakos is the author of the international bestselling book Prisoners of Our Thoughts, and Dr. Dundon is author of the international bestselling book, The Seeds of Innovation. You are also invited to follow The OPA! Way on Twitter @TheOPAWay and join the OPA! Village.