Frank Underwood and the Art of Coercion

By now, many of you have started watching House of Cards on Netflix in which Kevin Spacey plays President Frank Underwood, who used to be Vice President Underwood, who used to be Congressman Underwood, who got to be where he is by making Robespierre look like Mother Teresa. It’s hard to beat an opening scene in which he pisses on his father’s grave. As if that weren’t enough, he also spits on a crucifix, tries to wipe it, and then causes it to smash into pieces in the sanctuary of a church. And who could forget how in the previous season he shoved a young journalist to her death in front of an oncoming Metro train? Obviously, it wasn’t the red line to Shady Grove, which never runs on time. Even so, he’s not exactly the kind of guy you want running the executive branch (or any branch).

Frank Underwood (his succubus wife played by Robin Wright calls him “Francis”) has mastered the art of getting people to do what they do not want to do. In a word, he is the master of coercion. He got a president to resign, a vice-president to give up his post to be governor of Pennsylvania, and the aforementioned journalist to sleep with him for information. He even got one of his own Secret Service agents to join him and his wife in a menage-a-trois. Along the way, he got people to crumble, fall, and die. Presumably, none of these people wanted to do any of those things, but they did them. Francis can be very persuasive.

Beyond the evil machinations of Frank Underwood, there’s a lot of coercion going on in life. In fact, it is so pervasive and, at times, subtle, that we hardly notice it. I notice it trying to get students to do things they either do not want to do or cannot do. Most of the time, they do not want to come to class, do the reading, or even move their chairs around to form small groups. If left to their own devices, they would literally be left to their own devices–mainly smart phones and tablets. But since I have a moral and professional obligation to make them learn something beyond their own noses, I force them to do things.

But our entire civilization is based on coercion. We make people do things they do not want to do under the pretense of learning or professionalism. By the time students get to be medical doctors, lawyers, engineers, professors, writers, intellectuals, etc., they have been beaten up so much by the educational system that the only thing they can think of is how to give those behind them the same drumming.

But our entire civilization is based on coercion.

But we do the same thing in a lot of other areas: religion (holy days of “obligation”), work (where fear is probably the greatest motivator), publishing (what’s hot and what’s not), advertizing, marketing, sex. Sex. And need I mention politics, not at the level of Frank Underwood but the ordinary citizenry, you and me?

I remember a news report years ago about a new helicopter the military was building. The Congressional analysis of the helicopter weighed more than the helicopter. Reports, rules, regulations–all of it drumming the life out of people. Cogs in the great wheel of the machine, which is how that GM engineer felt regarding his role in approving the faulty ignition switch. But that’s another story. Except it isn’t. There’ll all the same story.

I am not suggesting that we live in chaos, everybody doing what he or she damn well pleases. I am not an anarchist, although I have to admit that I like Antonio Gramschi, the great Italian anarchist, and that the older I get the more I find anarchism less objectionable. What I am saying is that we ought to be less like Frank Underwood and allow people to bloom where they are planted, as the saying goes. For all the leadership and business books that are out there–and they are legion–isn’t that the essence of real leadership?

It’s something that Frank Underwood doesn’t quite grasp. I am not sure he ever will, although we’ll have to wait for the final episode to find out.

Like fiction? Check out the “Mercury trilogy” (The Gringo, Laura Fedora) and the autobiographical Nine Lives here. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”

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