May 19th, 2011

A Lot of Power Corrupts a Lot of Institutions and the People Who Serve Them

I look at Arnold Schwartzeneger and Dominique Strauss-Kahn and i think of Alexander the Great and Pope Alexander VII.  I also think about John Dahlberg Lord Acton who may also have been thinking about Alexander VII when he wrote: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."  And i often think about the context in which he wrote those words and how applicable they are today and are forever likely to be applicable.

Mandell Creighton, not yet Archbishop of Canterbury*, had published a history of the Christian Church and he wanted the foremost English historian to review it.  That happened to be Acton (btw.a Roman Catholic, who, while opposed to the dogma of papal infallibility, had stayed in the Church after the dogma had been promulgated) who gave the work a scathing review.  This led to an exchange of letters between the two men (The Acton-Creighton Correspondence)  One point that particularly had riled Acton was Creighton's tender treatment of Church authorities who had violated laws and standards of decency in the pursuance of goals.  Creighton replied that Popes, Cardinals and Kings and Nobles could not be held to the standards governing the behavior of ordinary people.  Acton argued that, indeed, they should be held to  a higher level of accountability because of the potential damage they could wreck with their great power.  Then followed his famous aphorism.  When Creighton pleaded historical perspective (it was a long time ago, things were different then), Acton countered that basic standards of behavior go back at least as far as ancient Israel.  Creighton tried to compare the evil done by popes to the evil done by ordinary men by contrasting an incompetent surgeon with a slasher.  The former was trying to do good, and the patient probably would  have died anyway,  Acton countered that an incompetent surgeon had no more right to have a scalpel in his hand than a killer did to have a knife in his.  Creighton seemed to have been largely won over by Acton's arguments.  I wish i could say the same for the Creighton's among us today--in law, in government, in business, in the military, and yes, probably in our schools, churches, and families as well,

Rape, unfortunately for Strauss-Kahn, is a violent crime, and it was committed in New York rather than Paris; so this probably means, at the very least, the end of his political and financial career.  But a lot of people will feel more sympathy for Strauss-Kahn or for themselves than for the victim.  For  corruption has at its base, not individual behavior, but organizational and institutional goals.  Yes, Strauss-Kahn possibly could have controlled his behavior; but there are thousands of powerful people out there and hundreds of rules to be obeyed or broken, and it is not only the powerful who believe that powerful people do not have to follow the "usual rules."  And the corruption cannot be confined only to those who behave badly, the lives of many are going to be affected by this.  Simone Weil said that power destroys both the strong and the weak  for the weak are intimidated and the strong are intoxicated.  And doesn't Strauss-Kahn's alleged behavior appear to be like that of a drunk?

We live in a world where we believe that the exercise of power fills a necessary function.  What would we do without the "movers and shakers?"  Spiritual people tell us we would live better without them, they warn us to stay away from power and its exercise.  The early church prohibited its members from seeking positions in the government or the army.  We say this was because an oath to the Emperor was required, but this was not their point.  The government and the army were the places where first century power was exercised.  Their stories of Jesus had him tempted by power, rejecting power, and finally being executed by power.  Despite all our protestations to the contrary, power today is very much like power then.

Marie Schrieber Schwartzeneger stood beside her candidate husband and assured voters that her husband was incapable of the sort of sexually harassing behavior that protesters were proclaiming.  This lie would go on the list of sins she would have to bring to her next confession.  But really, it was not her lie, it was the lie of "a politician's loyal spouse." repeated over and over through the ages since Ceasar insisted that his wife should be above suspicion and back beyond that to the wives of the first high chiefs of the first advanced horticultural societies.

* My bad.  Creighton never did become Archbishop of Canterbury.