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Might vs. Right - Power does not corrupt
NRO ^ | October 23, 2002 | Jonah Goldberg

Posted on 10/23/2002 3:28:57 PM PDT by gubamyster

October 23, 2002 5:05 p.m.

In late August 1929, in British-run Palestine, there was an Arab riot. Mobs of Arabs stormed Jewish homes and shops. Some Arab neighbors shielded their Jewish friends, even as British police provided only lackluster protection. But most Arabs — and most of the British constables — turned a blind eye to the destruction. British police chief Raymond Cafferata did his best, however. Cafferata later testified about one incident:

On hearing screams in a room I went up a sort of tunnel passage and saw an Arab in the act of cutting off a child's head with a sword. He had already hit him and was having another cut, but on seeing me he tried to aim the stroke at me, but missed; he was practically on the muzzle of my rifle. I shot him low in the groin. Behind him was a Jewish woman smothered in blood with a man I recognized as [an Arab] police constable named Issa Sherif from Jaffa in mufti. He was standing over the woman with a dagger in his hand. He saw me and bolted into a room close by and tried to shut me out — shouting in Arabic, "Your Honor, I am a policeman." …I got into the room and shot him.

This episode comes from Benny Morris's history of Israel, Righteous Victims (considered by many to be mildly "anti-Zionist" — lest you think this is all so much pro-Israel propaganda). But I really don't want to discuss Israel too much right now. Rather, I bring this up as a small illustration of another cliché that tends to addle much of our thinking these days. THE REAL LORD ACTON In 1887, in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton — a.k.a. Lord Acton — wrote, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

Of all the truisms to be found in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, this one may be the most revered as sheer genius on college campuses, op-ed pages, and idiot-radio. Alas, it is usually aimed at rich, white, conservative men and few others, but that certainly doesn't diminish the passion or frequency with which it is invoked. And, as is so often the case with people who replace thinking with clichés, the people who use it are invariably wrong.

Acton was actually referring to a tendency among historians to let their judgment of Great Men be clouded in the light of their accomplishments. Acton believed historians should make moral judgments about the men they study. The "power corrupts" line first appeared in a letter responding to a request for Acton to review a history of the Popes by Creighton. Acton didn't like Creighton's refusal to judge harshly the Reformation-era popes (a.k.a. "the bad popes"). Acton wrote:

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holder 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. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. The inflexible integrity of the moral code is, to me, the secret of the authority, the dignity, the utility of history. If we may debase the currency for the sake of genius, or success, or rank, or reputation, we may debase it for the sake of a man's influence, of his religion, of his party, of the good cause which prospers by his credit and suffers by his disgrace. Then history ceases to be a science, an arbiter of controversy, a guide of the wanderer, the upholder of that moral standard which the powers of earth, and religion itself, tend constantly to depress.

CORRUPTION CORRUPTS Now, it's obviously true that Acton, an eminent 19th-century liberal, had an abiding problem with powerful men who let their power go to their heads — but that's not really what he was talking about. He was talking about the tendency of people to say, "But Hitler built the autobahn," or "Think of all the good things Bill Clinton did," or "Remember that Nixon created the EPA." He wasn't necessarily offering as a rule of thumb that as you get more powerful you get more corrupt. Rather, he was saying that as you get more powerful the standard you are held to by historians must be more, not less, exacting. I'm not sure I entirely agree with that, but that's an argument for another day.

Today, the "power corrupts" syllogism has — like so many other things — been translated into a credo of personal morality. It insists that power makes you a bad person — i.e., self-aggrandizing, cruel, megalomaniacal, blind to all moral distinctions, and so on. And that just isn't true. If it were, history would simply be the story of bad powerful men. And, while there most certainly were plenty of bad powerful men, there was also, for instance, George Washington. He might have become a king if he'd wanted, but he chose not to. He could have stayed president for life, but he chose not to. And, as NR's Richard Brookhiser has chronicled, Washington remained a decent man, courteous to a fault in fact, as he grew in influence and power. Likewise, Abraham Lincoln — at whom certain libertarians love to throw the Acton quote — may have suspended habeas corpus, but the evidence seems fairly lacking that he was a corrupt man or that he grew more corrupt as he grew more powerful. Last I checked, Jimmy Carter didn't become noticeably more praetorian for having had the arsenal of democracy at his disposal.

Obviously, power can blur judgments. But if absolute power corrupted absolutely, that would mean that all absolute monarchs and absolute rulers were equally — and absolutely — corrupt and therefore indistinguishable from one another. I'm no great student of such matters, but I can't imagine it would be hard to disprove this. Couldn't some kings be more corrupt than other kings even though they held roughly the same amount of power?

In fact, this clichéd notion — that "absolute power corrupts absolutely" is an iron law of history — implies almost exactly the opposite message to what Acton had in mind. He wanted historians — i.e., us, humanity, society, etc. — to distinguish between the moral choices of powerful men. He explicitly rejected the idea that all powerful men are good — or bad. Acton believed that some popes were good men, who wielded their power wisely, and that other popes were bad men deserving of the historian's obloquy. He would have been horrified to learn that people think he meant we should simply dismiss the whole lot of popes as equally contemptible.

CORRUPTION CORRUPTS POWER So what does this have to do with a British police officer shooting an Arab police officer nearly three quarters of a century ago? Well, when it comes to a wide range of political issues, we've come to believe that "the powerless" are honorable and decent people, while "the powerful" are dishonorable and indecent. This partly has to do with the West's often-admirable affection for the underdog and, truth be told, to a certain Christian-influenced affinity for the weak. But it also has to do with a certain brand of intellectual-sounding buffoonery — best typified by the likes of Edward Said (or, sometimes, Al Gore) — which says that power must always be challenged because, well, power is bad (the powerful, naturally, being defined as those whom Said dislikes).

In the international sphere, this tendency manifests itself in the endless bastardization of the phrase "Might doesn't make right." On the floor of the U.N., for example, this generally useful truism is inverted to mean "If you have might you cannot be right, and if you lack might you must be right" — and this, of course, is idiotic. But that doesn't stop countless hordes of "activist-intellectuals" and feel-your-pain politicians from saying it.

The problem with this thinking is simple: It's not true, and by pretending it is we invite disaster. The truth is that there are many, many, many powerless people who are awful and terrible people. And, not surprisingly, when they do get power they do terrible things with it. Hitler and Stalin, for example, were awful people before they came into power and — predictably — they were awful people after. Power didn't corrupt them; it was merely a means by which they could more fully express their corruption.

The reason the Bush administration has turned its back on Yasser Arafat, to give another example, isn't because they've concluded that power has corrupted him; it is because they've — finally — concluded that he is too corrupt to wield power. Following his years of terrorism, giving him a mini-state was like giving a man a zoo because he's proved himself so successful at torturing small animals. Similarly, there is nothing in Saddam Hussein's history that would suggest he had been a good man but was spoiled by power. Rather, he was a thoroughly evil man from the get-go, whose will to power was fully formed long before he ever had the opportunity to pull out his enemies' tongues.

In 1929, two police officers were given the opportunity to do right. Each had power. Each made choices. One saw fit to murder and rape and to countenance the murder and rape of others; and one saw fit to put a stop to it. Both "used force," as we like to say today. Indeed, the British police officer had more power, in many respects, than the Arab one did. Nonetheless, the former was less corrupt than the latter. One used force for right and the other used force for wrong. One saw power as an obligation to be just; the other saw it as a means to act on bloodlust and revenge.

The lesson here is an important one. Indeed, it goes to the heart of conservatism and notions of liberal democracy alike. In a state of nature, or simply left to their own devices, many or most or even all men may in fact be infinitely corruptible by power. Americans often brag about the genius of our checks and balances, but the greatest check we have on tyranny is a culture which creates men who do not want to be tyrants in the first place. Every generation the West is invaded by barbarians, Hanna Arendt wrote, we call them children. And in America we teach our children from an early age — by using, among other things, the bastardized Acton quote — that abusing power is a great sin. This is why our businessmen, our police, and our politicians are, as a rule, less corrupt than, say, Russia's or China's — because they were raised that way. To believe that power will corrupt anybody and everybody equally is to believe that raising good citizens is a pointless task.

In the international realm, the lesson is similar. The nations of the General Assembly can gripe about American imperialism all they like; they can assert that we're not right because we have might to their hearts' content. But only a fool would believe that many of these nations would be more responsible wielders of might than the United States and the West generally. Israel, for example, has the power to wipe out the Palestinians — but it doesn't. If Yasser Arafat had that kind of power, the Israelis would either be dead or being plucked out of the sea by American rescue boats.

Western civilization has a lot of blood on its hands, to be sure, but that blood paid for some important lessons — including how to use strength when necessary and how to determine when it is necessary. We aren't always right, but only an ignoramus would think that the "powerless" (and therefore allegedly virtuous) nations of the world would do better with such might (imagine, say, Robert Mugabe with trillions of dollars and a first-class army). The powerless simply haven't learned many of those lessons, and so they are, understandably, more likely to be corrupt than virtuous. To give them power without educating them about the rules of civilization would be like giving that Arab police officer a badge and a gun.


TOPICS: Editorial; News/Current Events
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1 posted on 10/23/2002 3:28:57 PM PDT by gubamyster
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To: gubamyster
bump for later.
2 posted on 10/23/2002 3:38:22 PM PDT by r9etb
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To: gubamyster
...but the greatest check we have on tyranny is a culture which creates men who do not want to be tyrants in the first place.

I believe it would be more accurate to say "a culture that is virtuous or religious..." Without virtue, the culture will inevitable sway toward corruption, as indeed it has. John Adams said our Constitution was "written for a moral and religious people and it is inadequate for the governmentof any other." It is now inadequate for our people and this can be clearly seen in the absolute perverse reinterpretation of its precepts. When corrupt Men ("darwinian gods")interpret this noble document, they invariably adjust it to their bankrupt and godless worldviews (i.e. the Supreme Court). America in the 1700s was a Christian nation with Christian founders. Today, it is a pagan nation with pagan leaders.

3 posted on 10/23/2002 3:44:36 PM PDT by exmarine
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To: gubamyster
There are any number of reasons why power corrupts. But in the end, Lord Acton had it right.
4 posted on 10/23/2002 3:45:35 PM PDT by IronJack
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To: gubamyster
"It insists that power makes you a bad person — i.e., self-aggrandizing, cruel, megalomaniacal, blind to all moral distinctions, and so on. And that just isn't true. If it were, history would simply be the story of bad powerful men. And, while there most certainly were plenty of bad powerful men, there was also, for instance, George Washington..."

The missing part of the equation is TIME. Power wielded over long time TENDS TO CORRUPT. Persons of great moral stature require longer for the process to work, and might, in the cases of some VERY RARE individuals (like George Washington), have the process of becoming corrupt be longer then the individual's lifespan. Less moral individuals become corrupt more rapidly.

This process is why TERM LIMITS would be effective in limiting corrpution in government

5 posted on 10/23/2002 3:49:44 PM PDT by Wonder Warthog
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To: gubamyster
It depends on what your definition of "great" is. I think what Acton meant was someone both skilled and successful at grabbing power. Washington had power thrust upon him, Hitler did not. Clinton tried but failed to grab power, held in check by Congress and popular outrage (e.g. over Hillarycare). Bush is not a power grabber, therefore will never be great or evil in Acton's sense.
6 posted on 10/23/2002 4:05:50 PM PDT by palmer
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To: gubamyster
bump
7 posted on 10/23/2002 6:17:04 PM PDT by Ahban
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To: IronJack
Close, but no cigar. Immunity (which power often provides, of course) corrupts. If one can be held responsible then being good is self interest and no concience (an item that many people lack) is required.

That is one huge plus for Christianity. A believer knows that sins will be punished and virtue rewarded....eventually.
8 posted on 10/24/2002 5:49:17 AM PDT by Rifleman
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To: palmer
Clinton tried but failed to grab power, held in check by Congress and popular outrage (e.g. over Hillarycare). Bush is not a power grabber, therefore will never be great or evil in Acton's sense.

The President of the United States is one of the most powerful men on the planet Earth. To say that anyone who has been elected to that office either has failed to grab power, or is not a power grabber, is equally wrong.

9 posted on 10/24/2002 2:08:52 PM PDT by RonF
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To: exmarine
I'm curious as to what you mean by "Christian Nation". If you mean simply that the majority of believers in the nation professed some kind of Christianity, or that the principles that the U.S. was founded on were broadly consonant with Christian principles, then I'd agree with you.
10 posted on 10/24/2002 2:15:09 PM PDT by RonF
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To: Rifleman
That is one huge plus for Christianity. A believer knows that sins will be punished and virtue rewarded....eventually

Something I've noted on various threads that discuss Islam is that Moslems seem to think that they'll be justified before Allah by their actions, whereas in Christianity, faith alone justifies you. I wonder what the actual consensus among Moslem leaders/theologians is on the issue.

11 posted on 10/24/2002 2:17:15 PM PDT by RonF
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To: Rifleman
To an extent I agree.

Immunity is the bigger problem. This is exasperated by an uninformative media and an apathetic populace.

Second place goes to partisanship. Congressmen need to be their own men (or women as the case may be). Why should the perceived good of the party be put above the good of the nation? Why should Congressmen be punished for standing up for what they believe in?

Third is a weak disposition. Politicians should be willing to defend their actions and positions instead of hiding their votes (by voice vote or at night), spinning the negatives, rationalizing that the vote was the "lesser of two evils" (why didn't they take the initiative to write a GOOD one?) or just outright lying.

The problem is electing true believers. Most wouldn't want to sully themselves by the inherent bad associations. Then you have the pharisees who publicly feign belief yet prove to be no better or even worse than declared non-believers.

I guess I expect too much.




12 posted on 10/24/2002 2:59:59 PM PDT by Jake0001
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To: RonF
I'm curious as to what you mean by "Christian Nation". If you mean simply that the majority of believers in the nation professed some kind of Christianity, or that the principles that the U.S. was founded on were broadly consonant with Christian principles, then I'd agree with you.

Yes, I do mean that Americans were Christians - fully 98% of them. I do not mean that our govt. was a theocracy. The Founders purposefully established a civil government, but one that is grounded in judeo-christian moral principles and laws. This can clearly be seen in their reliance on Christian thinkers like Locke ("life, liberty and property"), Blackstone (God is the ultimate lawgiver), and Montesquieu (separation of powers). It can also be seen in their writings and speeches, and at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 when they prayed for hours (to Allah? nope) for God's guidance and wisdom (do deeists do that? nope).

I find it sad and infuriating that public schools (even universities!) are teaching kids that our founders were diests - this is a bald-faced lie and the evidence is overwhelming that it is a lie.

13 posted on 10/25/2002 7:53:32 AM PDT by exmarine
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To: exmarine
Some of the founders were Deists. The difference between Deism and Christians, it seems to me, is not whether God exists, or whether he can be petitioned in prayer, but in how he chooses to reveal his will. Praying to God is perfectly compatible with Deism.
14 posted on 10/25/2002 8:08:16 AM PDT by RonF
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To: Jake0001
Immunity is the bigger problem. This is exasperated by an uninformative media and an apathetic populace.

Here in the Chicago area, Carol Marin, working for one of the major networks, put together an evening newscast that was mercifully short on "if it bleeds, it leads". Fires, murders, etc., were given short shrift. More analysis, etc. Instead of "Here's another high-rise burning down", it was "Why are all these high-rises burning down? Lack of law enforcement? Corrupt landlords?".

A tremendous critical success. A ratings failure. I don't think it lasted a year. Don't blame the media; they're selling you what you want to buy.

Second place goes to partisanship. Congressmen need to be their own men (or women as the case may be). Why should the perceived good of the party be put above the good of the nation? Why should Congressmen be punished for standing up for what they believe in?

Who rises to the top of a party, but someone who puts party above all else? And once there, he sees his job as perpetuating the institution that has fed him and expects him to run it well.

Here in the great state of Illinios, few candidates raise their own money. They get it from the party. So, there are few independent voices in the State legislature, outside of the party leaders in both branches. I'll give Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill), who by sheer coincidence is at my workplace about 20 feet from me as I type this. He spent his own money and has defied the state party structures, putting some independent U.S. Attorneys who for the first time in a long time have no ties to either party, or to the local money interests, and are putting people in jail. Fitzgerald has his faults, but he also has my vote (he's not up in this cycle, though).

The other main problem is the fact that when the country was founded, the concept of professional politician didn't exist. You could and would vote your conscience because you didn't expect public service to be your main source of income; you had your farm or business for that. It also helped that being an elected official wasn't a full time job. Finally, it helped that it didn't take a fortune to get elected to office. Handbills are a lot cheaper than TV time, and thus you didn't spend all your waking hours not dedicated to doing your job to raising money so that it could continue to be your job.

15 posted on 10/25/2002 8:20:32 AM PDT by RonF
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To: RonF
Some of the founders were Deists. The difference between Deism and Christians, it seems to me, is not whether God exists, or whether he can be petitioned in prayer, but in how he chooses to reveal his will. Praying to God is perfectly compatible with Deism.

Name the deists - otherwise drop it. And you are wrong about the difference. I think you should look up the definition of deism.

16 posted on 11/04/2002 3:39:01 PM PST by exmarine
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To: exmarine
According to this site, the initial precepts of Deism laid down by Lord Cherbourg in the 17th century were:

These are (1) a belief in the existence of the Deity, (2) the obligation to reverence such a power, (3) the identification of worship with practical morality, (4) the obligation to repent of sin and to abandon it, and, (5) divine recompense in this world and the next.

Further readings on the page lead to the rejection of any particular revelation of supernatural origin.

According to this site, we have:

Deism is defined in Webster's Encyclopedic Dictionary, 1941, as: "[From Latin Deus, God.Deity] The doctrine or creed of a Deist." And Deist is defined in the same dictionary as: "One who believes in the existence of a God or supreme being but denies revealed religion, basing his belief on the light of nature and reason."

A prime proponent of Deism in the U.S. in the 18th century was Thomas Paine, of Common Sense fame. Read here for what he himself said on this. I believe that everything you can read in these sources is consistent with the statement I made. If you have something to the contrary, please cite it and I'd be glad to review it.

Here's a site that treats both sides of the question as to whether any of the founding fathers (Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Paine, etc.) were Deists. I've read sources where Washington, while invoking the teachings of Christ, didn't necessarily accept that they had a supernatual origin. And while he attended church services with his wife, he didn't take communion. If you didn't take communion at least twice a year in the Anglican church of that time, you weren't considered a member of the Church. And given that he deliberately avoided communion, he probably didn't consider himself one.It can be debated back and forth, but it would appear that while almost all the Founding Fathers accepted the existence of God, a 100% committment to a belief in any given supernatural origin for teachings and philosophies is questionable.

17 posted on 11/04/2002 6:50:32 PM PST by RonF
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To: exmarine
According to this site, the initial precepts of Deism laid down by Lord Cherbourg in the 17th century were:

These are (1) a belief in the existence of the Deity, (2) the obligation to reverence such a power, (3) the identification of worship with practical morality, (4) the obligation to repent of sin and to abandon it, and, (5) divine recompense in this world and the next.

Further readings on the page lead to the rejection of any particular revelation of supernatural origin.

According to this site, we have:

Deism is defined in Webster's Encyclopedic Dictionary, 1941, as: "[From Latin Deus, God.Deity] The doctrine or creed of a Deist." And Deist is defined in the same dictionary as: "One who believes in the existence of a God or supreme being but denies revealed religion, basing his belief on the light of nature and reason."

A prime proponent of Deism in the U.S. in the 18th century was Thomas Paine, of Common Sense fame. Read here for what he himself said on this. I believe that everything you can read in these sources is consistent with the statement I made. If you have something to the contrary, please cite it and I'd be glad to review it.

Here's a site that treats both sides of the question as to whether any of the founding fathers (Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Paine, etc.) were Deists. I've read sources where Washington, while invoking the teachings of Christ, didn't necessarily accept that they had a supernatual origin. And while he attended church services with his wife, he didn't take communion. If you didn't take communion at least twice a year in the Anglican church of that time, you weren't considered a member of the Church. And given that he deliberately avoided communion, he probably didn't consider himself one.It can be debated back and forth, but it would appear that while almost all the Founding Fathers accepted the existence of God, a 100% committment to a belief in any given supernatural origin for teachings and philosophies is questionable.

18 posted on 11/04/2002 6:51:59 PM PST by RonF
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To: exmarine
First of all, T. Paine is not considered a founder. Was he a signer of the decl. of Indep. or Constitution? Was he a governor or general of an army? Nope. He was an atheist windbag, whose authorship of "Age of Reason" got him ostracized for the rest of his pitiful life.

Secondly, there are only 2 founders that I have ever found that can be considered deists - Franklin, Wilson, and there may be one other I missed. That's it! The rest are Christians, except Jefferson who called himself a Christian but was not orthodox in any sense.

Thirdly, deism as practiced in the 18th century revolved around a deity that is not involved in the day to day operaiton of the world or universe. He created, then stepped back and thereafter takes no part at all in life. This deistic god wound up the universe like a clock and backed off. Since he is not involved, and since deists do NOT believe miracles or divine revelation are possible, there is also no need for prayer since God does not intervene in the affairs of men. I'm afraid you need something better than Webster's which gives you a modern defintion.

19 posted on 11/05/2002 4:55:38 PM PST by exmarine
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To: RonF
I might also add that you named 4 possible founders out of about 300. Is that the best you can do? Four? That hardly qualifies our founders as deists.

Further, I can cite many sources (not the least of which are Washington's own 97 volumes) that clearly indicate the man was a Christian.

Jefferson and Franklin were not - so what. Jefferson was not even involved in the Constitutional process.

You would be hard pressed to name any others because the rest of the founders (except Ethan Allen) are Christians.

20 posted on 11/05/2002 5:00:47 PM PST by exmarine
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To: gubamyster

You contradict yourself.
You say power breeds corruption, and then you say the "powerless" have not learned the lessons they need to know to be able to judge what is corrupt and what is not. You say the "powerless" need to be educated about the rules of civilization", but it is the ones who are educated and in power that are placing corruption out into society everyday, and then you throw in this quote " absolute power corrupts absolutely" Who are you with the ones with power that are corrupting society or the "powerless" that are trying to retaliate against these educated people who are ruining society?


21 posted on 09/22/2004 2:02:07 PM PDT by redbari
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To: exmarine
I believe it would be more accurate to say "a culture that is virtuous or religious..."

That's assuming religiosity necessarily causes one to be virtous, noble, untyrranical, etc. That is not the case.

22 posted on 09/22/2004 2:16:50 PM PDT by Chemist_Geek ("Drill, R&D, and conserve" should be our watchwords! Energy independence for America!)
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“...only an ignoramus would think that the “powerless” (and therefore allegedly virtuous) nations of the world would do better with such might (imagine, say, Robert Mugabe with trillions of dollars and a first-class army).”

Actually, Robert Mugabe *did* have trillions of Zimbabwean dollars at one point. Unfortunately for him (but fortunately for the rest of us), they were next to worthless, because he’d hyper-inflated the currency.


23 posted on 07/29/2013 3:46:33 AM PDT by StarchildSF (“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” -Albert Einstein)
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