Octavia Butler on How (Not) to Choose Our Leaders
By Maria Popova
In 1845, as the forgotten visionary Margaret Fuller was laying the foundation of modern feminism, advocating for black voting rights, and insisting that “while any one is base, none can be entirely free and noble,” she contemplated what makes a great leader and called for “no thin Idealist, no coarse Realist,” for a person “of universal sympathies, but self-possessed,” one for whom “this world is no mere spectacle or fleeting shadow, but a great, solemn game, to be played with good heed, for its stakes are of eternal value.”
But how does a nation, a society, a world concerned with more than the shadowy spectacles of the present identify and elect such leaders to shape the long future?
A century and a half after Fuller, Octavia Butler (June 22, 1947–February 24, 2006) — another rare visionary — offered a glimmer of guidance in her sibylline two-part series set in the 2020s: Parable of the Sower (public library) and Parable of the Talents (public library) — a set of cautionary allegories, cautionary and future-protective in their keen prescription for course-correctives, about the struggle of a twenty-first-century society, Earthseed, to survive the ecological collapse, political corruption, corporate greed, and socioeconomic inequality it has inherited from the previous generations and their heedless choices.
Like Ursula K. Le Guin, Butler straddled the timeless and the prophetic, saturating her fiction with astute philosophical and psychological insight into human nature and the superorganism of society. Also like Le Guin, Butler soared into poetry to frame and punctuate her prose. Each chapter begins with an original verse abstracting its thematic direction. She opens the eleventh chapter of the second Earthseed book with this verse:
Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.
To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.
To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.
And yet our discernment in choosing wisely, Butler intimates in a chilling short verse from the first book, can so often be muddled by our panic, by our paralyzing fright and pugilist flight:
Fighting their rescuers.
With staggering prescience and perhaps with a subtle wink at James Baldwin’s assertion that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven,” Butler lets us know that drowning people do not choose their leaders wisely:
When apparent stability disintegrates,
As it must —
God is Change —
People tend to give in
To fear and depression,
To need and greed.
When no influence is strong enough
To unify people
One against one,
Group against group,
For survival, position, power.
They remember old hates and generate new ones,
They create chaos and nurture it.
They kill and kill and kill,
Until they are exhausted and destroyed,
Until they are conquered by outside forces,
Or until one of them becomes
Most will follow,
Or a tyrant
Again and again, Butler cautions against the blindness of choosing from a state of heightened emotion — the very blindness which political propaganda is aimed at blinkering over the eyes of the electorate with the constant stirring of our most reptilian fears:
When vision fails
Direction is lost.
When direction is lost
Purpose may be forgotten.
When purpose is forgotten
Emotion rules alone.
When emotion rules alone,
In a short verse evocative of the closing lines of Jane Hirshfield’s stunning poem “The Weighing,” Butler beckons us to become Earthseed — to become “the life that perceives itself changing” — and to effect change with our conscientious choices:
There is no end
To what a living world
Will demand of you.
A century and a half after Margaret Fuller’s admirer Walt Whitman peered at the democratic vistas of a thriving society and exhorted humanity to “always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote,” Butler leaves us with this central question of personal responsibility:
Are you Earthseed?
Do you believe?
Belief will not save you.
Guided and shaped
By belief and knowledge
Will save you.
Initiates and guides action —
Or it does nothing.
The shortest verse in the book distills Butler’s largest message:
Kindness eases Change.
Complement with David Foster Wallace on what a “real leader” means and Hannah Arendt on loneliness as the common ground for terror and how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression, then revisit poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s magnificent ode to choosing kindness over fear and Audre Lorde’s magnificent ode to choosing creation over destruction.
Published August 23, 2020