Holding On To Our Humanity

In Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, we are watching someone act like one of Russia’s czars from the past.  One of those czars, Ivan, was even known as “The Terrible,” a title that Putin has now earned.

The fatal flaw of all dictators is that they surround themselves with sycophants, “yes men” and “yes women” who agree with everything they propose no matter how bizarre or dangerous.  This means that if a dictator such as Putin is driving his country and the world toward a cliff, there is probably no one in his inner circle who is calling out a warning.  

The derivation of the term “czar” holds a key to understanding Putin.  Czar is the Russian version of the term “Caesar,” the title of the emperors of Rome.  We might remember from history classes that many of the Caesars of Rome fell into megalomania and insanity, one emperor actually making his horse a senator.  

Of course, none of Rome’s Caesars were born megalomaniacs, and neither was Putin.  The Caesars became insane over time because the sycophants surrounding them were too afraid to contradict them, too afraid to point out the errors in the ruler’s thinking.  In the current crisis we are facing, many people are praying that Putin will have a change of heart and mind.  It might be as useful to pray that those surrounding Putin will find the courage to warn him of the cliff ahead. 

My wish is that Putin knew a bit more about Roman history.  A little-known fact about the first  Roman Caesars was that they recognized the danger of being adored by the people.  When one of them rode through throngs of adoring citizens on the streets of Rome, a slave was positioned just behind the Caesar in his chariot with one simple but critical task—the slave was to whisper over and over again in the Caesar’s ear “Remember that you are only human.” 

Most of us have one or more people in our lives who disagree with us and are willing to express their disagreement.  We might find those people irritating.  We might wish that instead of criticizing us, these “thorns in our sides” would accept our points of view without question. 

Actually, these irritating people help keep us sane and in balance.  They help us remember that we are human, not perfect, that our thoughts and pronouncements can contain flaws, that our convictions might be built not on rock, but sand or, even worse, fog.

Do you want to really help your party’s political leaders?  What presidents, senators, and representatives need is not blind obedience, not “whatever-you-say-I-will-follow” support, but people of their party willing to call them out when they propose legislation or behave in ways that might be popular in the short run but are not in the interest of the common good. 

It is common to assume that the most significant difference between a dictatorship and a democracy is the type of ruler sitting in the seat of power.  A difference that is equally important is the role the citizens are allowed or are willing to play.  People in a dictatorship either bow down before their leaders, or they keep their mouths shut.  People in a democracy should never fall into hero worship or silence.  Our role is to speak to our leaders with courage and remind them that “You are only human.”