Sunday, October 12, 2003

Hearing the Little People speak

In "Measure for Measure", the Duke conceals himself as a monk, moving around under cover observing his subjects and the misdeeds of his deputy. This happens in other Shakespeare plays, for example when Henry V moves unrecognized among his troops before battle.

Leaders can't do that any more. In our culture of images and intimacy, it's so much easier to recognize celebrities. In earlier days, clothes made the man; one recognized the King by his vestments. Dressed otherwise, who would recognize him?

Leaders arguably now have much more "scientific" ways of knowing what their subjects think: opinion polls. But these are much more indirect than having a soldier say to your face, "But if the Cause be not good, the King himselfe hath a heauie Reckoning to make, when all those Legges, and Armes, and Heads, chopt off in a Battaile, shall ioyne together at the latter day, and cry all, Wee dyed at such a place, some swearing, some crying for a Surgean." (Henry V, Act 3.)

Leaders can no longer hear the unsullied truth - with a clean conscience. They either have to reveal themselves, and pay the price of sycophancy; or, have the truth mediated by polls and focus group sound bites; or, eavesdrop on conversations through surveillance techniques. Sure, it is ethically questionable for the King to disguise himself to hear his subjects - but it is much less immoral than to be a Peeping Tom.

It is the modern condition: we know more, but we understand less. The leader has more data, but less direct knowledge. The only anti-dote, I imagine, is for the Big Man to spend substantial time with his underlings; so much time that after a time they forget who they are talking to, and tell the truth.

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