Last night, during the debates, Tom Brokaw asked an interesting question. He informed the candidates that this question required only a one word answer, then asked is Russia the Evil Empire?
Of course, that’s not a one word answer, and to their credit, neither candidate answered so simply. But the question got my sociological imagination running…which was bad because I was really tired and wanted to go to bed.
My first response was that “evil empire” is a redundancy. But why would I think that? So this led me to ask, what is a nation, be it evil or not? And relevent to the debates, what is a leader? What is a great leader?
Every person has the potential for good and the potential for evil, and any of a myriad of combinations of both characteristics. (I’m intentionally avoiding the idea that “good” and “evil” are relative social constructs) What motivates people has a great deal to do with the society in which they live and the contingencies of their lives. Regardless, individuals can be seen as ensambles of potentialities.
A nation, therefore, can be defined from a symbolic interactionist perspective as the sum total of all potentialities among the citizenry. How do individuals achieve their potential? To what ends do they utilize their potential? In what way does the potential of individuals interacting within a nation, writ large, manifest in national character? These are the questions that came to mind.
Is Russia the Evil Empire? Of course not! The United States has bloodied its hands in some pretty dispicable ways throughout history, does that make the United States an Evil Empire? No. Nations are the manifestation of the potentialities of their citizens. And very, very few citizens have what we would call evil motives, or potentialities.
So how do we explain the evils of imperialism, be it Russia, or American, or Chinese? That’s where leadership comes in. If a nation is the sum total of citizen potentialities, the leaders of a nation must be those who inform, develop and direct the potentialities of the citizenry. Great leaders are those who can inspire people to recognize the potential that they, themselves, possess and use that potential as a source for social evolution, enlightenment, justice and creativity. Poor leaders are those who do nothing to inspire or develop citizen potential. Moreover, they may even inhibit and oppress human potential.
To be evil, a nation must direct that human potential toward selfish, often destructive ends. They must inspire with fear and anger and hatred, xenophobia, paradoia and racism.
The use of human potential toward the advancement of humanity as a whole must be the measure of the individual, the nation and the leader. By this standard, how many of our leaders, how many of the leaders throughout history, have been truly great?
Will McCain or Obama be great leaders? Will they inspire the best from individuals and inspire the best in the nation? Will they guide this great nation, so full of wonderful potential toward the advancement of human dignity throughout the world? We can’t make that prediction here, but we can look at what they have done so far…and it doesn’t look promising.