The Last Infant Emperors of Patriarchy
There was a moment last week when I woke to the news that Boris Johnson was the new (unelected) UK Prime Minister, and the realisation that three years after the polarising referendum on EU membership, we now had our own version of Donald Trump. Here was another terrifying clown, a blond-haired buffoon, whose puff and bluster barely conceal his narrow-eyed bigotry, and whose lack of any discernible skills for such a powerful position are no bar to his occupying it.
The similarities between Boris and Donald are more than a matter of matching hairstyles and a partnering contempt for truth. Alongside other leaders, like Viktor Orban, Matteo Salvini and Jair Bolsonaro, they form an assault of extreme rightwing demagogues: mistaking wafer-slight majorities for overwhelming support; exploiting the fears of roughly half their voting populace at the enormous changes currently afoot, to do as they please.
Bolstered by a billionaire boys’ club of media moguls, tech kings and rapey industrialists, these figures believe themselves to be emperors but behave more like two year olds: ranting and banging and generally acting in a way that makes you want to reach for a keg of Calpol and a suitable spoon. These infant emperors squat over the planet like boys who’ve been told to leave the sandpit, but don’t want to let go of their toys. They’re not giving up their fossil fuels. They don’t want to stop the business of war. Or hand over their self-appointed right to decide what a woman does with her own body. When challenged they scream and trample on everything with the toddlers’ logic that says ‘If I can’t have this, no one can!’ Like anyone who’s yet to master the emotional equivalent of potty-training.
Patriarchy has given us plenty nuff emperors over the millennia, not dissimilar to the current crop of delusional narcissists. From the early Mesopotamian king Naram-Sin (who went for understatement with the self-appointed title ‘King of the Universe’), through Romans like Caligula (another one who believed himself God) past Charlemagne (who struck a deal with Pope Leo III that said, although not God, he could rampage his way over Western Europe in God’s name), all the way down to that more recent shining example of modesty and moderation, Adolf Hitler. In short, it’s been an age where paranoid, power-mad boys have believed themselves to be God and acted as such to the cost of anyone who said differently.
But unlike every preceding example, the current kindergarten of despots is more disastrous for the world for one simple reason: the climate has dramatically shifted and their continued reign is no longer a cute case of parochial megalomania but a recipe for global catastrophe.
This is the moment when, like Captain America or Thor in Avengers: Endgame, they have to hand over shield and hammer to the brown people and the women and recognise that, although it may have been a blast, it’s time to step aside now and stop destroying the planet. Unfortunately, it seems they haven’t quite got that memo yet.
The ongoing celebration of fossil fuel extraction and a championing of the very toxicity that is worsening life on Earth, makes it plain why such an age of emperors can’t go on. But do these tiny terrors know their time is up? What of their fellow tyrants - the oil producers, extractors and deforesters (all the members of the billionaire boys’ club who benefit from carving up the world) – do they know it either? It’s debatable. A bit like watching tots who are so tired they’re spurting ketchup all over the cat, going puce in defiance at being asked to give up the bottle and have a nap. We might know that they need a good sleep, but do they?
The attempt of these leaders at pomp (the military muscle flexing, the nuclear ranting) looks idiotic set against the real choices that need to be made for survival of life on Earth. Their lack of engagement with the only real subject of importance (highlighted by the way it takes a teenage girl in the form of Greta Thunberg to spell out the extremity of the climate emergency none of them seems willing to acknowledge) merely makes their strutting all the more empty. They are emperors without substance, not only clothed in the illusion of fabric, but with not much body to look at either.
And yet. It is all too easy to see such despotic children as separate from us; living in a galaxy far, far away where your average emperor has a giant hood and a face like Rupert Murdoch at his seventh wedding. There they are, the narcissists and psychopaths, far away from us in their palaces, stroking their cigars and overseeing their desolation. We make balloons of them and laugh at the giant caricatures of their already inflated egos; cheering the fact that, whatever else might be wrong, at least we’re not them.
No one wants to be seen as an emperor. Emperors are like a cross between Mr. Burns, Voldemort and colic: pathetic, unenviable and badly in need of winding. But I can’t help but think that what we see writ so large in them are the characteristics that each of us has once embodied and to varying degrees can revert to at the slightest provocation. Maybe we fire off angry inner tweets when someone moves too slowly in front of us, and embark on lengthy wars online telling someone why they’re wrong. We trade insults, puff ourselves up for the camera, and scroll between screens for what toy we want next. We close our ears to the call we can hear to give up our cars and flights abroad, splashing about in denial even as the adult in us knows the time has come to put away our toys and grow up. We hoist flags out of our windows and chant anthems, even when the very concept of our nationhood is build on genocide, slavery and war.
When we look at Donald, Boris and the rest of the billionaire boys’ club that still claims the right to run the show (even if that’s only into the ground), let’s remember the part of us that we share with them. The part that wants something for nothing; wants to eat all the birthday cake and not share the sweets with the other children. The part that just wants to bang the drum in the sand for one more minute.
Like it or not, these infant emperors are as human as us and they are the ones we have needed throughout this age, if not necessarily wanted. Slightly over half the population are voting and supporting these emperors, and many more of us are still embracing the tools and ideals they use to haul themselves to the positions of authority from which their inadequacies are so publically exposed. When we point the finger in rage at them, let’s take a closer look at how ugly it is, to enable us to see that least lovely aspect of ourselves more clearly. And then let us decide, like the unconditional mother, our planet, on whose grace we depend, how much compassion we can nurture for these little monsters. Despite everything.
When we are ready to be rid of this age of planet-destroying narcissists then each of us will need to leave the nursery of our own self-indulgence, stop crushing that candy and snarling at whose fault it is; recognize that even the Kings of the Universe are in this sandpit with us and face the only task affecting every creature on this loving super-organism of a planet: clearing up the mess left by 5000 years of successive infant emperors who each believed beyond argument that they knew what the fuck they were doing.