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Friday, April 8, 2011

Reflection on Raked Leaves and Power

First I want to reference in context a well-known phrase by Lord Acton:  “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. All 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 certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it” (Lord Acton, 1887).

In my neighborhood there are two kinds of trash containers.  Some homes, without alleys in back, have small containers for each residence.  For homes with an alley, several homes share a much larger receptacle.  The City Utilities Department uses trucks with hydraulic lifts to empty both types of containers twice a week.  This arrangement works fine on a typical week.  But sometimes events increase the trash that must be disposed of.  Say, someone is doing heavy spring cleaning or preparing to move.  Then extra trash must be disposed of and in these cases it is sometimes necessary to put trash in several alley containers—not just the one assigned to your house.  This of course can be a serious inconvenience for innocent parties.  The space allotted to them is used by others.

I am especially principled in this area.  I will typically hoard my trash if necessary until the container assigned to me is emptied.  Occasionally, when I have put my garbage in another container down the alley, I walk gingerly and hope no one will see—my conscience bothering me the whole time.  But this week I learned something surprising about myself.

James, an excellent yardman, came by my house looking to see if I had any work to do.  Actually, the situation was obvious—a thick layer of leaves covered my yard, many, many barrels full.  The leaves were far too numerous for any one alley container.  James and I reached a working agreement for him to rake the leaves, and I asked him what he intended to do with the many leaves.  He said he would use the containers up and down the alley and said not too convincingly that he would pack them down leaving room for rightful users to dispose of their trash.  In short, what I personally dreaded and avoided doing, he would do for me.

And what I found was, and this came as a surprise, that I had no compunctions whatever as long as HE was doing it.  My economic power—my ability to hire others to do the dirty work—completely served to assuage my conscience.  It became clear to me that this is one of the essential reasons that power corrupts.  Those in power can insulate themselves from the reality of what is being done on their behalf—much like the wife who hires a hit man to do in her husband without once using the word “murder.”  This has operated on a personal level for years though I never took cognizance of it.  In terms of meat in my diet, my economic power relieves me of any bloody slaughterhouse acts.  Perhaps what separates vegetarians from meat eaters is the former’s exacting imagination.  The insulation that power offers applies also, of course, in the execution of wars.  WWI and its horrors immediately come to mind.  The powerbrokers back home were far from the mauling trenches.  Yet, the same dynamic can be found in any situation of power.  The powerful, and we all are in some way or other, should ask what our power is enabling that we might have moral scruples about had we to accomplish the deed with our own hands. Power loves to abstract and generalize—to insulate itself from hard reality. In fact we occasionally admire this about powerful people.  They can facilely verbalize any harsh reality that would be otherwise unacceptable, lifting it to a plane of high nobility, exquisite tranquility, and innocuous pabulum.

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