2014-02-15

Power Corrupts

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.
John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton
Jonah Goldberg notes that Lord Acton had something else in mind rather than how we normally interpret the quote as giving rise to moral weakness in the person who exercises power. Acton is not saying that power is corrupting of those who have it so much as he is saying power has a corruptible effect on the perceptions of the non-powerful. The paragraph from which the absolute power quote is plucked is from a letter that Acton wrote to Bishop Creighton:
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.
David Henderson helps to explain: "If people think 'the office sanctifies the holder', then it's easier for the office-holder to get away with bad things." It is a version of Hans Christian Andersen's, The Emperor's New Clothes. Because those being swindled did not wish to offend or be seen as contrary to the Emperor, they acted in ways not becoming honest persons. This obeisance to power made the townsfolk in the tale powerless to resist the trickery of the swindlers who exploited other human characteristics such as the desire to fit in.

Goldberg continues, "Power corrupts the way that other people view the powerful. Acton was speaking about how, when historians write about popes, they tend to forgive all sorts of things that they would condemn in lesser men."

We see a variation on this altered perception when observing how the powerful are judged by others. Often, movie stars are 'cut slack' when they lead lives of debauchery or live with mistresses rather than a spouse. Those around them quickly explain why we should not judge, how it is just artistic quirkiness or that it is none of our business; that some indiscretions and oversights are permitted in support of genius. When under the influence of power's radiation, people stop judging powerful, famous and influential people in the same way that they judge their business associates, family members or friends. Dispensations are given in lieu of interventions.

Goldberg points to such things as Justin Bieber having a pet monkey as evidence of the resulting altered expectations. "If you had the kind of money where any wish could be granted and the job of everyone around you is to say, 'Yes,' you would get a monkey. And that is why you know things are going to go badly, because everyone is saying 'Yes' to everything." Prudence and discretion prevail among the non-powerful when they are not under the irradiating influence of the powerful. The setting aside of normal council and judgment of behavior by the non-powerful is just the very sort of corruption Acton was addressing. Lord Acton's observation instructs the non-powerful to be wary of the corrupting influence that power may have on their judgment and morality. The powerful are not the only ones susceptible to power's inveiglements.

This plays out in the political realm too. One might speculate on how this kind of obsequiousness played a role in President Obama not fully understanding that the Affordable Care Act's health exchange website's launch was doomed. The inevitable results are compounded when pride and arrogance of the powerful are coupled with 'honest old ministers' and 'trustworthy officials' who are vested in shared outcomes and are therefore even less likely to be well versed in critical appraisal of the actions of the powerful. Nobody wants to be the one to tell the Emperor that "he hasn't got anything on." Even less so if the powerful are enacting outcomes you agree with.

More and more, the press's ability to judge has conformed to Lord Acton's observation about the corrupting influence of power. But their shared ideology with the left causes them to swoon under the influence of leftist power while giving them extraordinary abilities to resist the deleterious effects of power on judgment when power is held by the right. The shared desire for specific outcomes further alters the Acton effect and they look less like the 'honest old ministers' and more like the old Hollywood fixers Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling.

By way of the Amazon description of The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity Machine, some 'splainin':
Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling are virtually unknown outside of Hollywood and little-remembered even there, but as General Manager and Head of Publicity for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, they lorded over all the stars in Hollywood's golden age from the 1920s through the 1940s--including legends like Garbo, Dietrich, Gable and Garland. When MGM stars found themselves in trouble, it was Eddie and Howard who took care of them--solved their problems, hid their crimes, and kept their secrets. They were "the Fixers." At a time when image meant everything and the stars were worth millions to the studios that owned them, Mannix and Strickling were the most important men at MGM. Through a complex web of contacts in every arena, from reporters and doctors to corrupt police and district attorneys, they covered up some of the most notorious crimes and scandals in Hollywood history, keeping stars out of jail and, more importantly, their names out of the papers. They handled problems as diverse as the murder of Paul Bern (husband of MGM's biggest star, Jean Harlow), the studio-directed drug addictions of Judy Garland, the murder of Ted Healy (creator of The Three Stooges) at the hands of Wallace Beery, and arranging for an unmarried Loretta Young to adopt her own child--a child fathered by a married Clark Gable. Through exhaustive research and interviews with contemporaries, this is the never-before-told story of Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling. The dual biography describes how a mob-related New Jersey laborer and the quiet son of a grocer became the most powerful men at the biggest studio in the world.
When shared ideology and the Acton effect collide, morality appears to be whatever those in communion say it is. Because of the shared ideology of many in the media and the politically powerful left, today's 'news' media, reminiscent of the old Hollywood press, functions as the clean-up squad for the Democratic party. The fawning, equivocation and favorable interpretations on behalf of simpatico political luminaries induces fremdsch√§men in anyone who isn't a sycophant. The inclination toward moral weakness brought on by the Acton effect is, when combined with shared ideology, transmogrified to relativism that is morally hyper-vigilant toward those one disagrees with and morally indifferent to those with shared ideology.

So while Hillary assembles an elaborate defense of Bill's promiscuities and explains to Diane Blair why his affair might have been understandable and partially her fault because she didn't properly recognize his stress (victim blaming that would be excoriated by feminists the world around if uttered by any other), or while Bill and she haven't lived together for 15 years and largely live separate lives, we are treated to a sanitized contemporary hagiography that explains away behavior - that might be questioned if done by a close friend or relative - as the deep, sophisticated and complex actions of a modern woman pursuing lofty moral goals and that they are a deeply in love couple that have a happy marriage and home life.

The Fixers work diligently to present the story they want to present because aligned ideals and power conspire to corrupt the non-powerful's perceptions of the powerful. One expects this of the staff. But we should have higher hopes for a free and independent press.

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