Power and Corruption

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

These ominous words from historian John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton have joined the canon of popular catch phrases.

And while some psychological studies argue that power simply “heightens pre-existing ethical tendencies” – bringing out a person’s best or worst morality – the idea that power corrupts seems to resonate.

The popular question, would you rather be forgotten or hatefully remembered? gets to this point as well. As if those are the only options. To be great – to be remembered – is accept your own corruption.

Conceptualized differently, power doesn’t necessarily corrupt so much as it deadens. When radical organizations come into power, they become institutionalized, bureaucratic, attached to the new status quo. What once was radical becomes entrenched and stagnate, needing a new radical wave to sweep it aside.

Much of my work ultimately comes down to questions of power. Examining power, mapping power, sharing power, building power.

But if power is so terrible, why should we fight for it so? And if power is destined to corrupt us, how do we escape that destiny?

Well, for one thing, even if “power corrupts” that is not sufficient cause to leave the corrupt in power.

And if we all shared equal power, or if at the very least if there was less entrenched unequal distribution of power – the ultimate goal of many I work with – perhaps that would mitigate the corruptive influence of power.

If absolute power corrupts absolutely, perhaps we’ll be saved by modest power corrupting modestly. The power of the people should always serve as a check on the power of authority.

And if power corrupts, how can any of us with even a modest modicum of power hope to emerge unscathed?

Perhaps we can’t. Or perhaps we’ll get lucky and power will just make us more ethical after all.

But neither conceding nor hoping sound like sufficient solutions.

Perhaps the best we can do is to be honest with ourselves. To regularly regard our morals, to check ourselves for corruption as we might check ourselves for ticks. To question ourselves, to doubt ourselves, to hold ourselves up to the light and invite honest feedback.

Perhaps what we must do is to acknowledge our own corruption and then join in the fight to stamp it out.


what is generalizable knowledge?

In a group devoted to community-based research, we were discussing the tendency of academics to seek “generalizable” knowledge, while community-based groups want knowledge that has immediate significance to their own circumstances. That difference can generate conflicts over priorities and objectives. Scholars and community leaders may disagree about what projects should be funded, how time and effort should be spent, and even the ethics of research on human subjects. For example, NIH says, “The goal of clinical research is to develop generalizable knowledge that improves human health or increases understanding of human biology.” But a community group may want to find out whether their kids have a well-understood disease. They may see that as “research.”

What is generalizable knowledge? I think generalizability comes in many forms, each playing a different role in each discipline. That makes the tension between scholarly priorities and the needs of community groups complex. The situation will be very different depending on whether the scholar in question is an epidemiologist, an ethnographer, or a theologian.

Statistical generalization means applying a finding from a given population to other populations. If smoking increases the prevalence of emphysema in Somerville, MA, will that also be true in Boston or in Beijing? Widely applicable findings are more useful than narrower findings. However, people obstinately vary, and if a finding does not generalize, it can still be valuable for the population in which it was found. Thus community groups and academics only differ in the relative value they place on statistical generalizability.

Theoretical generalization means developing or contributing to theoretical frameworks that apply in other situations than the one being studied. A theory can be predominantly explanatory or predictive, like Keynes’ theory that excessive saving causes recessions. Or a theory can be predominantly moral/normative, like Keynes’ theory that the state ought to stimulate economies to increase employment. (This implies that the state has the right and the obligation to intervene.) In my view, almost all explanatory theories about people have normative elements, and vice-versa; but certainly the emphasis varies. In any case, theories must generalize: you can’t have a new theory for each case. You can, however, resist theorizing because it overgeneralizes. Or you can resist spending time on theory because you have a program to run. (Yet programs always have their own theories.)

Methodological generalization means developing or demonstrating a method that others can use in different contexts. Methodological innovations can range from highly practical new medical techniques to essays like Clifford Geertz’ “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” We do not read that piece because we are eager to understand cockfights in Bali; we read it to learn and debate the method of “thick description,” which we might apply in other settings. Academics value methodological innovation; practitioners rarely care.

Interpretive generalization. Interpreters of texts, images, events, rituals, and dreams describe the particular objects in ways that convey their form, context, and purpose. Sensitive interpretation resists generalization–but not completely. As Geertz notes:

The besetting sin of interpretive approaches to anything —literature, dreams, symptoms, culture—is that they tend to resist, or to be permitted to resist, conceptual articulation and thus to escape systematic modes of assessment. You either grasp an interpretation or you do not, see the point of it or you do not, accept it or you do not. [But] this just will not do. There is no reason why the conceptual structure of a cultural interpretation should be any less formulable, and thus less susceptible to explicit canons of appraisal, than that of, say, a biological observation or a physical experiment.

Indeed, ethnographers and humanists do generalize from their interpretations of particular objects, although, as Geertz concedes, theory based on interpretation should “stay rather closer to the ground than tends to be the case in sciences more able to give themselves over to imaginative abstraction.”

Political generalizability means using a case to achieve some kind of legal or administrative change that affects other people in other places. Some would say that policies should always reflect statistical and theoretical generalities. The law should treat like cases alike; hard cases make bad law. Those maxims suggest that we should first find general patterns through research, and then make policy fit the patterns. But I think sometimes good laws come straight from dramatic cases, which suffice to demonstrate valid points about justice.

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Exit, voice, and duty

“Idealist” is a somewhat derogatory term.

There are, of course, those radicals who wear the badge with pride – flaunting their faith in hoping for the best in a world which seems to always be preparing for the worst.

But generally speaking, “idealistic” is often used as a synonym for “unrealistic.”

And perhaps it’s just the recent run of Man of La Mancha commercials, but this characterization seems somewhat unfair. I suppose it depends in large part on how you define an idealist.

Did Don Quixote de la Mancha try to reach the unreachable star because he thought he could? Or because it would be unchivalrousness to do less than try?

Should we be the change we want to see in the world, as Ghandi never actually said because that’s they only way to change the world, or because it’s our responsibility to constantly change ourselves to the best we can be?

In Albert O. Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyaltyhe outlines “alternative ways of reacting to deterioration in business firms and, in general, to dissatisfaction with organizations: one, ‘exit,’ is for the member to quit the organization or for the customer to switch to the competing product, and the other, ‘voice,’ is for members or customers to agitate and exert influence for change ‘from within.’”

For Hirschman, loyalty mediates these two options. If you’re loyal you will stay and fight (voice), if you’re not loyal, you will peace out (exit).

I’d argue that an “idealist” is loyal. An idealist doesn’t have to believe they will win. An idealist doesn’t even have to believe that it’s possible to win.

But an idealist believes that it’s their duty to try. To exercise voice and forgo the option of exit. To fight with every breath for what they believe in, even when no one cares to listen.

If “idealist” is derogatory, its because these knights put us shame as they tilt at windmills with buckets on their heads. Because so often we choose to exit – through apathy or pragmatism – rather than to voice what we believe.

The challenges we face are complex. The forecast for success is gloomy. But the idealist knows this for certain: exit will get you nowhere.

If you feel a duty to confront these challenges – to fight the unfightable foe – then voice is the only option. You must chose to run where the brave dare not go.


Ellen Miller on passing the baton

I am no Ellen Miller (and I am not going to retire any time soon), but when the time comes, I will consider it a mark of an outstanding career if I can write as she did today:

When I was a young congressional staffer, I thought changing the world was going to be a sprint. In the middle of my career, when I launched the Center for Responsive Politics and then started Public Campaign, I thought it was going to be a marathon and you just had to be a long distance runner; so I trained up for that. Now, after eight years building and running the Sunlight Foundation, I now see this process as a relay race — and one where I’m glad to say there are many other great people running alongside me, including the terrific team we have built here at Sunlight. It’s truly extraordinary. And it’s time to pass the baton.

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Public Happiness

At first appearance, the recent call by Nicholas Kristof for the nation's "smartest thinkers," now hidden away in the arcane world of academia, to join the "great debates" about the nation's problems ("Professors, We Need You," New York Times , February 15, 2014), would seem to have little in common with Patrick Creadon's latest documentary, If You Build It.

Kristof's call out to academics is addressed to the high end of American meritocracy -- the "best and the brightest," in the old phrase.

The documentary, by way of contrast, tells a real life story of two young self-described design activists, Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller, who worked with 10 scruffy high school juniors whom many would see as on the losing end of the meritocracy. The teens take time off from shoveling cow dung to participate in a shop class with large ambitions, Studio H. Their final project, creating a local farmers market, aims at revitalizing a destitute rural community.

Their work closes on a note of measured optimism, but it has its ups and downs. The shop class is viewed skeptically by the local school board, which refuses to pay the teachers' salaries. The group also succeeds in building the farmers' market, in the process planting what Pilloton calls "small seeds in our students."

From another angle of vision, both Kristof's call and If You Build It represent a broader ferment. After all, the process of involving leading scholars in public life was well underway before Kristof's column, organized by the Scholars Strategy Network, a creation of Harvard social scientist Theda Skocpol in 2009. SSN now involves 370 academics, based on the premise that "scholars need to be more fully involved in today's great debates."

Meanwhile, signs of a movement to reconnect education with real-world public work are multiplying, as I have described before in stories about highly successful educational initiatives for low income kids. These include Youth Build and the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences.

I believe that the impulse toward what our nation's founders understood as public happiness is gaining strength against the grain of today's privatized, consumer versions of "happiness."

John Adams, the nation's second president, leading advocate of independence, chief author of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1779, was an eloquent philosopher of such public happiness. In Section Two of Chapter Six, Adams testified to the virtues of education, which he held essential to "the happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government." The Constitution continues:

Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them... public schools, and grammar-schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.

Put differently, both the Scholars Strategy Network and Studio H are seedbeds for a renewed understanding that education is a great civic vocation. The goal is not simply private success, but public contribution.

Education, understood in this way, is constitutive of a flourishing democratic society. The understanding has never been more needed.


Harry Boyte is Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.