Thursday, February 03, 2011

"It Isn't Fair, It Isn't Right," He Screamed, and Then They Were Upon Him

Montaigne wrote in his Essays about witnessing a killing during the salt-tax riots in 1548 in Bordeaux. In Sarah Bakewell's telling:

A few tax collectors were killed. Their bodies were dragged through the streets and covered in heaps of salt to underline the point. In one of the worst incidents, Tristan de Moneins, the town's lieutenant-general and governor—thus the king's official representative—was lynched. He had shut himself up in the city's massive royal citadel, the Château Trompette, but a crowd gathered outside and howled for him to come out. Perhaps thinking to earn their respect by facing up to them, he ventured forth, but it was a mistake. They beat him to death.

...In this case, Montaigne thought that Moneins had failed because he was not sure what he was trying to do. Having decided to face the crowd, he then lost his confidence and behaved with deference, sending mixed messages. He also underestimated the distorted psychology of a mob. Once worked up into a frenzy, it can only be either soothed or suppressed; it cannot be expected to show ordinary human sympathy. Moneins seemed not to know this. He expected the same fellow-feeling as he would from an individual.

I imagine most people who strive for authority and power over others, whether spiritual gurus or political leaders, instinctively know this lesson. A mass audience does not permit indecisive weakness. Make up your mind, plant your feet, and right or wrong, don't allow yourself to be swayed. In most instances, though, the best and healthiest stance to take toward life is probably a lighthearted skepticism -- "I'm not sure, but I guess we'll find out." Don't get too attached to your conclusions, don't develop tunnel vision, don't let your impulses carry you away. But when it comes to our leaders, we demand and expect confident assertions followed by decisive actions, even (or especially) when the stakes are highest. No one respects Hamlet-style waffling here. He who hesitates in order to calmly reflect is lost. Don't think, just act.

I just find it interesting to consider how often the most power accrues to those least given to introspection and judicious caution. Wait, did I say interesting? I meant terrifying.


  1. I believe the title of "good leader" is given to those who act CORRECTLY and decisively.

    Churchill would have been a terrible peacetime leader, and he would have hated it as well, methinks. But there's no question that his personal quirks, like a sharp temper and a quick tongue served England much better than the placation strategy of his predecessor, which was the result of cautious and judicious thought on the part of those in power.

    Just sayin'...

  2. I'll see your decisive Churchill and raise you the widespread decisive stubbornness and refusal to back down that led to World War I, thus laying the groundwork for the necessity of the sequel twenty years later.

  3. It's funny that Obama is being accused of being indecisive by people who can't decide whether they approve or disapprove of the protests in Egypt. Seriously, the conservatives are all over the place, some pro-Mubarak, some pro-democracy, yet they blame Obama for not doing... well, they don't say what. I'm sure a better president would have bombed someone by now.

  4. Yeah, I had him in mind when I first read that passage. It's not just conservatives -- Digby's whole shtick nowadays seems to be criticizing Obama the media image. "The optics", she calls it. The messages he's sending, the disconnect between action and rhetoric, the demand for some sort of galvanizing action...

  5. I'll see the stomping of the imperialist pride of Germany and raise you "practical" protection of capitalist interests that caused Britain to seize German lands in South Africa in 1899 because it was full of diamonds and gold.

  6. And what have we learned today kids? No matter how wrong you are, never be indecisive. History is written be the winner =)