Pushing the Point of Power

Dear Culture Collaborators:

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” This quote, attributed to Abraham Lincoln, was most likely lifted from a biography of Lincoln written in 1883 by Horatio Alger, Jr. His exact quote was:

If you want to find out what a man is to the bottom, give him power. Any man can stand adversity–only a great man can stand prosperity. It is the glory of Abraham Lincoln that he never abused power only on the side of mercy. 

Both variations of the quotation seem to have their origin in the writings of Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlisle, who, in an 1841 lecture on the theme of heroism in history, stated: Adversity is sometimes hard upon a man; but for one man who can stand prosperity, there are a hundred that will stand adversity.”

I share these 19th century versions of this quotation not to demonstrate prowess of textual research (I can Google with the best of them); I do so to shed some light on the current proliferation of powerful men exploiting power, privilege and money as a proxy for sexual desirability, presuming that the tools available for the exercise of their will over others include the capacity to inflict their libido on the repulsed and unwilling.

I fear we are unfortunately off to the wrong conversation. Presuming that some men are jerks and others noble reduces the cultural conversation to the suggestion that the exploitation of power only crosses a line when that exploitation is sexual. As a result, we are indulging in a national shame-fest in our daily parade of pigs, neglecting any conversation about the corrupting influence of power.

Please don’t misunderstand; I am not suggesting we should ignore serious conversations about sexual abuse in order to punt the problem into philosophical sophistry about the nature of power. What I hope for is a serious cultural reformation in which all exploitation is called into question rather than just the most brutish behavior of sexual violence. By keeping the focus exclusively on sexual exploitation, we toss the issue into a realm in which our culture is least equipped to have real conversation. Hugh Hefner has only been dead for a few weeks; we have yet to recover the language with which we can maturely and competently converse about sexuality. Witness the stammering “ah sucks” reaction of the accused when confronted by the speechless indignance of an all too titillated media. We’re not even close to having constructive dialogue with our fathers, brothers and sons about a righteous self-understanding of their masculinity let alone a discourse regarding true empowerment of our mothers, sisters and daughters.

I would suggest, before we sweat our way through awkward conversations about not being naughty, that we undertake a significantly more productive engagement about the ultimate ends of power. That we, men and women, must aspire to positions of responsibility for the higher purpose of the common good. We should seek to create a culture where anyone who uses their position for the sole purpose of self-gratification is unworthy of respect or laud. In that conversation we can simply reject the dismissal that “boys will be boys” and seek instead leaders who are true grown-ups, men and women willing to use their power in the relentless pursuit of justice and mercy.

Attempting to find words when others are rendered speechless, I remain

With Love,

Jonathan B. Krogh

Your Pastor