The cult of oily men
It must be universally acknowledged that the pressing crises of our times are directly linked to preceding ages. These ages were moulded by great men and women, the avatars of Gods, and we encounter them today as statues on our boulevards, neon signs at airports, and visages on currency notes. This is no theoretical excursion into history, for the ages of the world overlap. It is time to scrutinize these great ones, and to end the one-sidedness that seems to pervade any popular narration of their lives.
The two-question test of oiliness
1. Did the great man personally, or through active membership of a power structure, ordain, justify or profit from the oppression, exploitation, torture or murder of human beings?
2. Did the great man use a position of power to squander public resources, advocate nepotism, deny the right to dissent, deliberately ignore opportunities to improve or defend the public weal, or attack cultural or environmental artifacts, for personal gain?
If the answer to either of these questions is in the affirmative, then the great man might well deserve the ignominy of oiliness.
Because such a man shines in false glory, as if covered with a sheath of oil. Because such a man appears invulnerable to the accusations of dastardly acts, akin to a slippery criminal being chased. Because such a man is often hypocritical, mouthing noble virtues, yet mired in the blood of many, another quality conveyed by the adjective ‘oily’. Why men? Only because the present language prefers the male gender to represent all of humanity — also, it so happens that most of these great ones are the opposite of feminine.
The potentially oily ones
Having explained the reason for the label ‘oily’, and defined the criteria for admission to the club, let us look at some of its members. Even a general awareness of the world must suffice to know why some of the greatest among the great ones are to be called oily.
Some examples that bear debate are (allegations in brackets):
Leopold II (mutilation, murder and exploitation in the Congo), Gandhi (documented racially dismissive against sub-Saharan Africans, role in bloody turmoil of 1947), Napoleon (wars of aggression, murders in Egypt), Stalin (death camps, famine in the Ukraine, arbitrary arrests), Obama (drone war, Guantanamo Bay), Churchill (occupation, Bengal famine, Dresden firebombing, documented racist remarks against Arabs and Indians), Indira Gandhi (attacks against the Indian republic — daddy and son were also prime ministers, declaration of a state of Emergency), Mao (the murder of millions), Kim Jong-Il (dictatorship).
This is not a comprehensive list, neither of perpetrators nor of their crimes, and to it could easily be added revolting generals, captains of churches, controllers of capital, and almost all members of the hereditary nobility, from across the world.
Anachronism as faulty defense
Some insist that we may not judge the men and women of the past through the prism of the present. We may not, indeed cannot, impose our values upon them.
However, the current exercise is not about attacking them personally, for many of them have left this plane of existence, but to insist upon a critical analysis of their ideas and deeds. We can, and should, question and condemn ideas and acts also from the past. And, most certainly, extend this analysis to the oily ones amongst us.
The symbolic and the structural response
Once we have systematically inspected the oily ones of the past and the present, let us tear down their statues, and use the material to build shelters for the homeless, benches for lovers, and toilets for all. A plaque we shall place there to celebrate those aspects of the oily ones which we would like emulated, for which we are grateful. Surely, we are capable of honoring ideas and acts, without insisting upon raising also the individual to the status of a demi-God?
Much more important than the symbolic reaction is that we erect barriers to a single person possessing a surfeit of power.
We should not, and probably can not, try to remove the human desire to secure superior conditions for the self. We must, however, make the price of this superiority transparent, and ensure that it does not constitute an attack against human dignity and liberty. Nietzsche proclaimed the death of the cult of God. We must strive to end the cult of oily men.