HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

April 28, 2008
From the Editor

John Turner


Tonight I go to the Williston Library for the final session on a series of book discussions which took up the general theme of the outsider in society. Our first book dealt with the eugenics movement in Vermont, the second with the way feeble-minded people have been treated in America, the third with boarding schools set up to acculturate Indian children, and the one tonight with women who were locked up in asylums for the mentally ill from the mid-19th century until 1945.

Each of these situations had its particular causes and behaviors, and knowing the details about them is of vital interest to anyone who wants to understand how each developed. But there is a general lesson we can take from them all. Whenever any movement or institution is unrestrained, it will abuse the people it is supposed to regulate. This is true of every institution, whether it be a prison, a hospital, a church, a school, a corporation, or the general government of any nation on earth. There is no social rule more true than Lord Acton's remark, made 121 years ago, that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The curious thing is that most people will agree when the proposition is stated abstractly. But in particular cases, they will continue to be deluded that some beneficent motive can be trusted to overcome or balance the human inclination to abuse those who are powerless. We see this most commonly in the case of governments, and their incessant claim, which is generally believed by citizens, that their only motive is to serve the people of their nation.

When people have no power themselves, and when those who actually know and love them have no power of protection, those people will be mistreated in any society, and within any institution, on earth.

It is senseless to say that so and so is a good man, or a good woman, and, consequently, that the organization he or she heads can be trusted, without investigation or regulation, to behave well. The reasons that powerful persons go astray are numerous. It is seldom out of outright malevolence. But egotism, stubborn opinion, prejudice, selfishness, greed, weak reasoning and ignorance can create tyrannies that make malevolence look like a puppy dog. The human ability to rationalize one's own actions, and to fit them together with some so-called morality, is virtually limitless.

It may be useful at this point to repeat Lord Acton's full statement, made in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in April 1887: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

That's the lesson that has been reinforced for me by the reading of these four books, and I hope tonight we'll have a chance to discuss it actively.

Next week, I'll let you now how it went.


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