Many years ago, the French writer, Jacques Ellul, wrote about the power of technology in our institutional life. He emphasized how assuming roles in any institution shapes behavior. I recall a teaching colleague who was promoted to Assistant Principal and within a few months, we wondered, “what happened to Jack.” Jack simply began to play our the role of being an assistant principal which meant he was on our backs about filling out reports and he had to deal with parental complaints regarding his former colleagues. If one assumes a position in any organization, within a matter of time, one acts the position even though in so doing it contradicts personal values.
In the film, Zapata, Marlon Brando acts the part of the famous Mexican peasant leader who overthrew a horrible dictator. Towards the end of the film after Zapata has won, Brando is in an office receiving peasants with complaints. One enters and complains Zapata’s friend is now acting as a tyrant. Brando soon denounces the peasant as ungrateful to those who fought for their freedom. Suddenly, he halts and realizes he is now yelling at the peasant just as years before he was yelled out by a prior revolutionary leader. Brando dashes out of the office and returns to the fields with peasants. In a sense, Barack Obama is Zapata.
Barack Obama campaigned on a platform to end hidden actions by government, to end wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to curb power of Wall Street. But, once in the position of president he inevitably shifts to defend the power of his government and its officials. Military leaders enter his office insisting they need more troops and if given more, they will end wars in Asia and the Middle East. Of course, it is the task of military officers to always want, “more,” more tanks, more planes, more troops, more equipment, etc… Obama now occupies the office of George Bush and he acts out the office of president, not what he believed before becoming president.
A CIA head enters his office with information concerning a “possible” terrorist attack. Suddenly, Obama is focusing on how to prevent the “attack” and, if it means ignoring constitutional rights, so be it. No attack occurs, and Obama feels justified because he “saved” the lives of Americans. As a professor of constitutional law, Obama was on the side of individual rights, as president, he is defending the rights of HIS government. Of course, in saving our lives his actions lead to the death of hundreds of Americans in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, in modern life, the power of position assumes power over our lives. For example, Obama has become a “war president” even though he wanted to end wars. Despite the brilliant Harvard types in our government, none understood what Jacques Ellul stated about the power of position in our institutions in shaping behavior.