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By Vikas Datta
Title: Nothing but a Circus - Misadventures Among the Powerful; Author: Daniel Levin; Publisher: Allen Lane/Penguin Random House, UK; Pages: 208; Price: Rs 699
Power, according to Henry Kissinger, is the ultimate aphrodisiac, but it seems more akin to a drug -- it is irresistible for many people, creates dependence and causes a range of rather deleterious effects. What is worrying is that it is mostly these people, holding influence over millions of others, who also have to face the consequences.
Offering a fascinating but sobering look at a gamut of these effects, spanning but not limited to overweening conceit, a prodigious sense of entitlement, contemptuous disregard of contrary opinions or suggestions, and compromises with moral principles and personal relationships is this book by Daniel Levin.
A lawyer-turned-political and economic affairs advisor, Levin draws on his experiences of working with governments and development institutions around the world for the last two decades to present a scarcely-believable panorama of the powerful -- and those who think they are powerful -- in his first book.
And both cases of specimens can act the same, he shows.
"Over the past twenty years I have laughed a lot and I have cried a lot. But mostly I have laughed a lot. I have met countless experts offering solutions without a problem, countless pundits drawing distinctions without a difference, countless gatekeepers whose only purpose is to make sure that the gates they are guarding remain shut, and countless political operators fuelled solely by their naked ambition...."
But it is not only the traditional purveyors of power that Levin deals with, though he has met "grandiose politicians who take responsibility for their mistakes with bombastic displays of contrition, without really taking responsibility... because they got others to pay the price and take the fall", or "rulers who are pure geniuses at accumulating and preserving power" but not governance.
It is instead the slightly lower and less visible strata he details, and in his "rogues' gallery" features a name-dropping fantasist who led Levin to believe he was close to a Gulf monarch, a UN expert convinced his untested theory was the perfect panacea to Africa's problems, and an aide of a big Chinese corporate boss unable to understand what he was demanding was not possible.
Then there is an advisor in the US State Department with differing views on corrupt practices by American and outside firms, a US Congressman taking offence at questioning of his knowledge, the spoilt son of an African minister and the like.
Some examples are closer to Levin's life and work, like a crooked office manager, an overbearing employee taking advantage of official benefits, and a client, who calls him on the phone of a pair of business partners who had introduced them and proposes to cut them out of the final deal (this story goes on to have a pungent twist).
But don't consider this only a dark account of unalloyed ambition and manipulation, for Levin is an engaging narrator who entertains as he educates in these stories, which are all true though seeming highly improbable. However, in some cases, names and other details were changed or blurred, for he admits, it was not his intention to shame the perpetrators or settle scores.
Some of the stories are darkly humorous -- such as his strange experiences in Dakar airport, his accounts of the corridors of power in Washington and the UN, and at the banquet of a Chinese tycoon with a purported fine taste for wine. Some are strangely uplifting -- learning the business acumen of Angolans in a visit to a "black market" on the outskirts of Luanda, and a Kenyan intern at the UN who makes more sense than a whole chamber of experts; and some sobering -- his encounters with a quartet of Russians.
What they all go to show is that while "jesters and eunuchs" can be found in the courts of power -- and self-importance, self-aggrandisement, vanity, narcissism, back-stabbing, incompetence and ineptitude found in bulk -- yet "people in and around power can be so predictable and so extraordinarily ordinary".
This is the main lesson -- for it is the undue esteem and attention we pay to the self-important powerful that fuels their sense of being above the others, and must be curbed for our own benefit.
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