By the power and authority invested in me


There he was, sitting in our living room. Instead of shyly sneaking out, I walked over, stuck out my hand and challenged him. “George?” I asked. He broke into a big smile, got up and shook my hand. That was the first time I met my dad’s boss.

From that point on George and I were on a first name basis. George gave me my first job after graduating. George gave me my first promotion, and put up with pretty much whatever nonsense I dreamed up on that job. I’d learned something about power. To get it—you behave as if you already have it. Even so, I’m still not always able to pull it off.

This old revelation of mine reappeared last week when I was reading a bit of history about Tsar Nicholas II during his internment. The new prime minister of Russia, Alexander Kerensky, went to see Nicholas and was apparently awestruck in the Tsar’s presence—even though Nicholas, (who' d already abdicated the throne) was humble, gracious and most congenial. Kerensky was so excited he could barely form his sentences, according to historian Robert Massie.

The effects of power and authority shape us, though power was not such a big deal where I grew up. Of course each of us knew our place. But there was a big, wide-open future ahead of us that was completely and totally egalitarian. We late 20th Century Canadians enjoyed one of the best meritocracies anywhere, and were the peacemakers of the world. Or so we were taught.

Like most deeply held beliefs, this was mostly bullshit. Thinking back to when I was a kid, I can remember who the powerful people were. They were Catholic priests with long skirts, alcohol on their breath, fire and brimstone in their sermons and long black cars (donated by the local Buick or Cadillac dealerships) in their driveways. They were the business owners with those car dealerships. They were the town’s lawyers and accountants. They were the old widows living alone in the stone mansions beside the park. They were the towering cops in navy blue with nightsticks swinging on their hips as they walked the downtown beats. I recognized these people, and I sensed they had something I didn’t have. But I just didn’t put two and two together until I was older. Like every other kid I knew, I had the good sense not to piss any of them off, at least intentionally.

This, of course, didn't always work. When my friends and I were spotted lighting a fire in the back of an abandoned van, the police showed up at my house. The power and authority got very large—making even my parents seem insignificant.

To a large extent, most of the powerful people I met as a kid got it the old fashioned way. They inherited it. Cops had kids who became cops. Lawyers had kids who were lawyers and who later became judges. Rich people always seemed to have rich kids. Then there were the rest of us.

Way back in the 1960s a lot of us deluded kids believed that power was a shared commodity. We were saturated in “power to the people,” “black power,” “grey power,” “the power of love,” and even “flower power,” all of which added up to very little actual power at all. By the 1980s, everyone had realized that the real power was money. Guys like social activist Jerry Rubin went over the wall and became a businessman.

Power comes in two main forms today. Money and fame. They’re not always connected, as in the case of Nadya Suleman, the “octo-mom.” She’s poor and famous. But she’s more famous than you or I, so she owns some kind of power, at least in the popular media, and as long as she can keep doing more and more outrageous stuff.

Neither money nor fame particularly interests me as a source of power. It’s power in its undistilled form that gets my attention. Closer to home, there are people you might call powerful living in our area. But the only one with active power seems to be our local member of parliament. He also happens to be a cabinet minister, which I guess is even more powerful. After being elected for three terms he’s now going to retire. And just as our tiny region is gearing up for a political convention to replace him, along comes Prime Minister Harper’s communications dude, John Williamson, parachuting himself into our local riding, seeking the nomination. John, not content to just be close to power in the Prime Minister’s Office, obviously wants real power. I know this shouldn’t bug me so much, but it does.

Why should some media flack who went to high school close to this riding (Fredericton) and has never lived in this riding get the nod over any number of lifelong residents who could, should and would represent us in Ottawa? It’s rhetorical. We both know why.

In former incarnations Williamson was a reporter at the right-leaning National Post and then the director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which seems to be pretty tightly wired to the Conservative Party across the country. When I checked out the CTF website I found global warming denier Dr. Tim Ball featured on a video interview. How convenient. So if Williamson manages to get himself nominated and then elected, we know what our riding will be contributing to battling the global climate crisis—absolutely nothing.

Within our elaborately constructed representational democracy, power is carefully and purposely withheld from the people. Not much has changed since ancient times in this regard. Despite the telegenic, one-of-us, café au lait face of Barack Obama on the presidential posters, the same old power group is still running the most powerful nation on earth.

Power, I’ve concluded, is an organism. Or the binding agent of all organisms. All social societies, whether human or animal, have a few dominant and many submissive members. This is simply a fact of nature. And one which probably fuelled the notion of the divine right of kings.

I read somewhere about social dominance among the great apes: when the leader (silverback) is replaced, his testosterone levels drop at the same time as his successor’s levels rise. Of course this also relates to humans.

In a paper titled Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance, Dana Carney of Columbia University, Amy Cuddy of Harvard and Andy Yap of Columbia proposed that:

“Humans and other animals express power through open, expansive postures, and powerlessness through closed, constrictive postures. But can these postures actually cause power? As predicted, results revealed that posing in high-power (vs. low-power) nonverbal displays caused neuroendocrine and behavioral changes for both male and female participants: High-power posers experienced elevations in testosterone, decreases in cortisol, and increased feelings of power and tolerance for risk; low-power posers exhibited the opposite pattern. In short, posing in powerful displays caused advantaged and adaptive psychological, physiological, and behavioral changes—findings that suggest that embodiment extends beyond mere thinking and feeling, to physiology and subsequent behavioral choices. That a person can, via a simple two-minute pose, embody power and instantly become more powerful has real-world, actionable implications.”

And here’s their conclusion:

“By simply changing one’s physical posture, an individual prepares his or her mental and physiological systems to endure difficult and stressful situations, and perhaps to actually improve confidence and performance in such situations—such as interviewing for jobs, public speaking, disagreeing with a boss, or taking potentially profitable risks. These findings suggest that, in some situations requiring power, people have the ability to ‘fake it ‘til they make it.’ Over time and in aggregate, these minimal postural changes and their outcomes potentially could improve a person’s general health and wellbeing, which is particularly important when considering people who are or feel chronically powerless due to lack of resources, hierarchical rank in an organization, or membership in a low-power social group.”

In other words, you can make yourself more powerful if you want to. Some of us get this young. Others never do. The older we get the more we realize we are what we believe. Nothing more. And nothing less.


  1. Interesting. I wonder how long the biological and social benefits of "faking it" last and whether indeed they ultimately translate in a real status improvement. I imagine it's possible -- after all, there is that old adage, God helps those who help themselves. Those who fake assertiveness and power attract more attention and various perks. Everyday we see people who are not smart, talented or even qualified to perform their jobs, but who rise in the professional and social hierarchies based solely on the impression (image) they've managed to create and social connections they've forged in the process.

    BTW, the hormonal changes associated with a rise or drop in status can be observed in other species that live in social groups, and yes, especially in males. You guys don't have it easy, what can I say.

  2. Well, building a persona is all about faking it, in the beginning. This can be the irritating thing about teenagers as they try on new faces. I very much agree with your assessment of people climbing up the ladder based on image rather than substance. John Ralston Saul touches on this a bit, but the grand master on this topic must be Christopher Lasch (The Culture of Narcissism). Narcissism seems interwoven with consumerism and thus capitalism and our entire Western culture (non-culture). I dig Updike's Rabbit for this. Rabbit dangles between plain honesty and narcissism...

    The pervasiveness of narcissism as a cultural feature also means that qualities such as empathy are displaced, but that's a whole other subject...

  3. I'm not familiar with Saul, but will look him up now.

    You're right about narcissism as the pathology of choice in the Western world, particularly in the US. Actually, as you say, it's a cultural feature now and no longer considered a pathology unless it's extremely malevolent -- but even then it tends to inspire admiration and imitation rather than, more appropriately, shame and contempt (or something akin to both).

    For a relative newcomer to the US (I spent the first half of my life in the socialist Poland), observing the narcissistically skewed American life is quite an adventure. I don't have to mention that adjusting to it, as in embracing and accepting the values it promotes, has proven very problematic (= impossible).

    P.S. Nice to meet you too, Gerald.


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