There’s a moment in the recording of Cardinal George Pell debating Richard Dawkins on QandA that is one of the most revealing statements Pell has ever made; which says more about him and his worldview than arguably any other example from his long history in public life.
The moment comes at 18:59 minutes into the hour-long video. Cardinal Pell is talking about why God came to the Jewish people, and he says:
“…so for some extraordinary reason, God chose the Jews.They weren’t intellectually the equivalent of the Egyptians … [as you can see from] the fruits of their civilisation. Egypt was the great power, for thousands of years, before Christianity. Persia was a great power. Chaldea. The poor little Jewish people, they were shepherds. They were stuck, they’re still stuck, between these great powers.”
Tony Jones, not one to let slip such an opportunity, immediately pulls Pell up on this and asks him directly whether by this he means that the most famous of all Jewish men, Jesus Christ, was intellectually not up to it. Pell tries to sidle past this excellent point as Dawkins looks on in wry, disdainful, amusement and the half of the audience not in thrall to the Catholic Church cheers.
Leaving aside the blatant and ugly anti-semitism of Pell here, the point I am talking about is the way Pell reveals his utter disdain for “the poor, little people” and his admiration for the “great powers”.
For a man like Pell, only other men of great power are of interest. The little people are just that, little. He reveals his identification with power and dismissal of those who lack it again, in his testimony to the child sexual abuse Royal Commission, when he justifies his reason for glossing over the dangerous sexual proclivities of certain priests, moving them from parish to parish when the complaints got too loud, rather than confining them away from children.
“It was a sad story,” he tells the Commission from his comfortable sinecure in Rome, “and of not much interest to me.”
No. George Pell was not interested in those children. George Pell had no interest in the powerless. He was not interested in the abuse or wellbeing of those his church MADE powerless, such as women and children. Only men were of interest to George Pell and of them, only men with power.
Power. It’s the single most seductive force in the human world. We would like that to be not Power but Love, but the truth stares us in the face every time we look at or listen to the dangerous behaviours of the men who crave it, trade in it, and value it above all else. What else is wealth but power? The power to go anywhere, do anything, and have whatever one desires. The power to control world events. The power to control other people.
It’s the craving for power that motivates so much of capitalism, so much of patriarchy, so much abuse, so much damage. What would this world be like if, instead of allowing this, we called the craving what it is, addiction? What if we had a category of abnormal mental health called Power Addiction? And recognised it in those who would lead us into exploitation and ultimately, as we are all having to face right now, into the strong possibility of human extinction?
It is suicidal, this lust for power. It is homicidal, ecocidal, planet-destroying, and yet we take it for granted that ambitious, power-hungry men (and some women) make all the really important social decisions.
It’s not as if they hide it. Cardinal Pell, one of the highest-ranking religious authorities in the Christian world, thought nothing of publicly denigrating his own religion’s prophet because his culture was not one of the “great powers” of the time. Pell would probably be more comfortable in an old religion that openly worshipped Power .
But in these early years of the 21st century after Jesus, it’s not difficult to more or less ignore the Christian aspects of Christianity, to disregard the things Jesus Christ had to say about the powerless, the weak and the humble.
It is unremarkable to worship the trappings of wealth and power in the Christian churches rather than the lowly man on whom they are based. It’s easy to twist a few words about Abraham in the Old Testament to enforce the revolting notion that the Christian God rewards his favourites with wealth and success and therefore the humble, sick and poor are not only unworthy but actively sinful, as the Pentecostal churches do.
The success of all churches in creating political and social power bases has to do not only with their brilliantly successful tax-avoidance strategies, but also their appeal to the power addict in all of us. They appeal to greed and call it holy. They appeal to hate and call it righteousness. They appeal to fear and call it Hell or Eternal Damnation and tell you that only through them can you avoid this fate—much, much worse than death and by the way, here’s the tithe plate.
When the wonderful sci fi series Firefly was made, it didn’t find favour with Fox executives because, as one was quoted saying (I paraphrase): “it’s just about a bunch of nobodies, we don’t get to see the real powers in that universe.” Star Wars on the other hand, despite its reputation as concerning a scrappy ragtag team of freedom fighters, and its inception in George Lucas’ mind as an allegory on the Vietnam War—with the USA as the Bad Guys—changed as Lucas changed, to feature the wars between the major powers of its universe: the Jedi and the Empire. Both actual bloody protofascists. And if it was personal success and wealth that motivated Lucas’ change of focus, he succeeded. Unlike the brilliant Firefly, the Star Wars films have about 562 sequels and counting. Firefly got one.
The powerless are not of much interest to George Lucas, George Pell, or Fox executives.
But they MUST be of great interest to the rest of us because, as power is condensed in the grasp of fewer and fewer men, and I do mean men, the ranks of the powerless grow. Our interests are aligned and the powerful are the enemy, this becomes increasingly clear all the time. And as to our powerlessness, we do have one great superpower and that is our sheer numbers. If we worked together we could overcome the power of wealth and might, which is why the powerful work so hard to divide us, sowing discord and division, making it harder and harder psychologically for us to agree to disagree on some issues, put them aside, and act in concert from our common interests.
And too many of us assent to this division, refusing to admit that a working-class Trump voter could have had motivations other than racism and stupidity, or that an atheist may have something wise to say about morality and community, or that anti-vaxers have something in common with Anarchists: their innate distrust of authority.
We assent because most of us have similar psychological dysfunctions as the power addicts. We want external answers, ideologies we can follow to create our better world, manifestos which can cover the gaping gaps in our heads and hearts and lead us to the sunlit uplands.
But the truth may well be that there is no political, economic or social strategy that will save our world until we discover what causes Arseholery and what causes Power Addiction and how to cure it. Because any and every ideology or faith is full of these, of power addicts and arseholery, and every revolution will end up with the people powerless again under a new set of faces at the top table until we cure the problem at the source.
So what is the source?
I contend that the real problem lies with the way we raise our children.
This is not the sexy answer. This doesn’t involve firepower, secret resistances, or brilliant theoretical analyses.
This is the long slow plod towards the better world through the tried and tested technique of raising kids in such a way that they don’t have a gaping hole in their psychological centre, they’re not full of secret self-loathing, no one of them needs power and control over others to feel okay about themselves.
And you have to start with birth.
In the West, for a long time (and still too often), we delivered babies by pulling them out of their mothers’ wombs into a shockingly bright and cold world, cutting the cords immediately with sharp scissors, holding them upside down by one leg and whacking them on the bum until they cry. Then we say they’re breathing, all is well, and leave the mother to sacrifice her sleep, her career, and any hope of social respect to the project of maintaining their lives for the next couple of decades, until she’s withered and mad, and they’re so stupefied by school and wage slavery that they’re willing to repeat the process.
Does that seem like the way to raise generations that can solve our terrible problems and bring paradise to earth?
I’d like to talk about how we raise our children more, but this essay is already 1500 words, and nobody has the attention span for that. My own beloved offspring* just said: “make it a Tik-Tok and I”ll read it.” He said he was joking but he wasn’t. I raised an arsehole. Ask me more about how to bring up children……
*he's not beloved. He just shouted at me to turn my bloody music down AND IT WAS When the Levee Breaks. Arseholes. Arseholes everywhere.