The Benign Uses of Power

WHAT is power? Is it the blast of a bomb in New York's World Trade Center? Is it the capacity to tie up United Nations trucks loaded with food and relief supplies on the roads to Bosnia? Headlines can make power seem as violent and unjust as an Uzi in the hands of a street gang.

When abuses of power grab the front page, it is important to recognize and acknowledge imaginative and benign uses of power, often ignored amid the big bad bangs.

Last month a group of eight Nobel laureates gathered in Thailand to protest the house arrest in Rangoon since July 1989 of Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her leadership in behalf of democracy in Burma. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke for all whose power is moral rather than physical when he said: "We'd like to say to the junta in Burma, you may have guns now, you may appear to be in charge, but you're not gods, you're human beings, and unless you change, you're go ing to bite the dust." Here is a case of right makes might.

Fifty years ago - the event has just been celebrated - hundreds of women known as the "Rose Street Women" gathered on that Berlin street to block the deportation of their Jewish husbands to Auschwitz. The women disobeyed orders to leave even when SS troops set up machine guns to threaten them. Six days after the protest began, the 1,500 prisoners were released. Here is still another case of power versus the illusion of power.

Rather than a period when sheer physical force asserts its will, this can be viewed as a moment in history when the power of persuasion is being used with subtle ingenuity. For years the power of communism was taken to be power at its most indomitable. All that alleged power collapsed from within, helped by a series of "velvet revolutions." Informal, almost amateur in manner, decidedly not regal, the velvet revolution is one of the new styles of power.

The front pages may follow the shooters and quote the tyrants. But attention should also be paid to the other kind of power exercised by artists of gesture and symbolism - the ways the meek continue to inherit at least a piece of the earth.

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