Good Works May Not Be Good


We are admonished to do good by religious tradition and by nearly everyone who encourages ethical behavior. So it is particularly painful to hear that doing good is often difficult, sometimes impossible and frequently perverse. Good works turn out bad results.

A recent newspaper article stated that the Shriner's hospitals for orthopedically handicapped children receive less than one third of the money raised on their behalf. When the Shrine headquarters was questioned the press was told that "internal finances are not the public's business".

I once made a foundation grant to a group of women to start a non-profit clinic for very low cost vacuum aspiration abortions in the second month of pregnancy. They used the money to organize a political campaign to shut down a movie house they considered to be showing porn, and gave the balance to a few members of their group to start a high cost profit making abortion clinic. Not what I gave the grant for, not what I wanted.


Apple Pie Liberal Project

It may be hard to consider, but one of the most popular Liberal Causes and one that appears to be most benign is in fact perverse, and fundamentally harmful to the world's common good. Its Amnesty International.

Amnesty organizes people in a variety of countries (over 75) to lobby and campaign for the release of political prisoners in countries other than their own. Herein lies a clue to the problem with Amnesty. The reason they don't have you lobby in your own country is that you might not agree with their choice of who are the priority political prisoners in your own country.

The concept of 'political prisoner' is evidently too vague to be universally agreed upon. I must point out that Amnesty has been very effective, often in getting people released from prison, at least by their own account. A probable factor to take into consideration is that

Amnesty members are in big powerful countries like the U.S. and many of their successes are in small economically dependent countries like Singapore.


Four Reasons That Amnesty Isn't Doing Good.

1. Ideas of social order vary considerably

First is that different nations are parts of different cultures, (Amnesty's management is also comprised of people from several different cultures but nearly 100% are in the Jewish-Christian tradition) and have different governmental problems. If we only modestly concede the point that most people in the world want some modicum of social stability in their own community then we have to acknowledge that the ways to achieve this will necessarily be as varied as the varieties of cultures.

If I'm a white urban American I might call the police to deal with a black who seems to be suspiciously hanging around my house. If I'm a Russian minority person I might assume the person hanging around is the police. A Filipino in the same situation would call the neighbors over to discuss the issue and talk to the suspicious person hanging around.

The police of the world are not everyone's friend, and the solution to social or political problems is not always the police-judiciary system.

To give examples would be to belabor the point; educated people or open minded travelers are aware of this. I personally have seen sufficient physical cruelty by all levels of American police against political protesters, drunks and poor people, that I would always hesitate to use the police-judicial processes to deal with problems.

The institutions directly concerned with maintaining social order are inherently suspect because they usually pit the state against the individual.

Women who have been raped know this, as do nearly all minority Americans. The fact that rape in the U.S. is a particular police matter which is changing doesn't mean the police are changing fundamentally, just that what white middle class people with money and political power consider to be a crime is changing. Which it does all the time.

The point is that the institutions used to maintain social order and the concept of social order varies considerably with time and with your own social class vantage point. A country such as Chile that has 10 revolutions per century has a different concern about political unrest than a country such as the U.S., Canada, or Denmark that have no revolutions.

2. Political crime is not an obvious category

In the U.S., we find that our legislatures, some of our judges and occasionally our juries are susceptible to bribery so we have strong penalties against offering money to people in responsible positions who might take it, who might be motivated more by greed than by established social concerns. That is why some labor leaders have been put in jail, and why some Italian businessmen who run unpopular businesses (read Mafia) have been put in jail. To many foreigners they have not committed any crime at all except to defend themselves against their unpopularity.

On the other hand, many people freely walk the streets of Detroit who would be in jail elsewhere. The management of U.S. auto companies for example.

Unscrupulous entrepreneurs, who choose profit over public safety and clean air are encouraged and respected in the U.S., but would be quickly jailed if they were in Finland, Iran or some of the old communist block countries. Wealthy stylish women of New York or Paris, who flaunt their money and bodies, would be jailed if they were in many Muslim countries, and married men of the Western world who have divorced their families would certainly be jailed if they behaved the same way in parts of Africa or China.

As a consequence, the belief that people in one culture are suitable to judge who is a political criminal in another culture is fundamentally arrogant. It assumes a universal standard of human values, which doesn't exist.

Amnesty Says Wait

The Amnesty people would, at this point in the discussion, throw in a word or two about cruel treatment, with highly charged and detailed examples arguing that physical cruelty has a universal standard of abomination.

Hardly. Once again the judgment is faulty but very hard to demonstrate to an American because we don't see our cruelty as cruel. We have good reasons for the things we do and evidence to the contrary is readily ignored. For example, see how readily you reject the following point in spite of its factual and logical nature.

Women often tell me that the traditional practice of binding court women's feet in childhood in China, for the sake of beauty, is blatantly cruel. O.K. When it is pointed out that Americans bind the teeth of their children (braces) for the same reason they say 'no, its for good future chewing'.

Nevertheless, the good future chewing seems to be disproportionately offered to well to do girl children. Do you, the reader, think braces on the teeth for three years doesn't actually hurt or hurts less than foot binding? Furthermore to buttress the obvious fact that it is done for beauty alone is that in 30% of the cases the teeth migrate back to their original position after the braces are removed. In many wealthy countries, such as Japan, braces are considered irrelevant.

We can't conceive how cruel much of our behavior seems to others. Japanese, Chinese and many other Asians can't believe that we let infants sleep alone in separate rooms, cry at night, that we encourage them to crawl around before they can walk and defecate in their pants for many years after they can walk.

The greatest appeals that Amnesty makes about cruelty seem to revolve around our abhorrence of killing people slowly. We are particularly revolted by whipping, by pain stimulation under the fingernails etc. And Amnesty appeals to our terrors. Many readers will continue to be convinced that we are generally kind and others have a greater capacity to be cruel. So be it. That is what culture is about.

We can't conceive that a totally distinct perception of the world exists outside our world view and results in different behavior and different priorities. Which is precisely the reason that Amnesty is so popular and so fundamentally premised on the lack of recognition of cultural differences.


3. The Problem of Triumphant Democracy

Amnesty also embodies our arrogant assumption that democracy is a superior form of government that will ultimately triumph everywhere.

Its principles are universal and spreading.

They presume this because their concept of political crime, is the same as our prevailing concept. Putting someone in jail for a political crime (Amnesty's main focus is political crimes) means the person in jail has expressed views that are opposed to the established governmental power. Doesn't it?

The presumption is that individuals should always be allowed to express views different from their governments in some public arena. That is a primary tenet of democracy.

What is the "public arena"? The definition is vague to all of us. Is it a flier posted on one telephone poll, is it a statement on a prime-time national television program, is it a purchased ad? Is it a page posted on the Internet? What happens when the society has abundant mechanisms for public opposition in irrelevant circumstances and no access to important media?

I suggest that the reader ponder the difficulties of this issue. Obviously differences of opinion in type and degree exist at all levels of every society including the highest level of every government. That says nothing about the public exposure to those differences.

Maybe we have created different echelons of public arena differences of opinion because we don't want to suppress differences openly.

Possibly we maintain our consensus by ignoring small voices of differences and treat them like mosquitoes.

The common good in many cultures is achieved by building consensus, not by open conflict and opposition, but by slow quiet discussion.

This is clearly evident in Slavic, Chinese and in traditional Japanese cultures.

Furthermore government power often is identified with the power of a particular family, tribe or kin group as in Arab, Chinese, and African cultures. In such cases public political issues are mere proxies for other underlying power battles. They are inter family power struggles which we and Amnesty read as debates about political issues.


Democratic concepts

Amnesty's focus on so called 'political crimes' is once again an arrogant indifference to cultural differences and a particular arrogance about the superior value of democratic systems of governance. Let us examine the idea of freedom of public opposition in the Amnesty context. How can any governmental system measure up to what we don't even have ourselves.

Democracy refers to a governmental system of divergent-- expressed views

-- from which a few views are selected

--by vote of the members of the society

--to determine governmental behavior.

While this is an accurate description of what we believe our system stands for, it readily collapses under closer scrutiny.

This presents two problems. We hold others accountable for governance we don't genuinely have ourselves and we ignore the rock solid stability of our government and the fragility of others.

Such a definition is the basis for classifying and identifying political crimes. But how does our government stand up to scrutiny?

First, very few people vote, and only a minority percent have had the option to vote during most of our 200 years. Somehow our system has kept most people outside the voting process without causing rebellion.

Secondly, who the electorate can choose to vote for is so horribly biased that 90% of our Congress is still white-male land owners, just as it was when they were the only ones who were allowed to vote. So clearly the power doesn't change here regardless of public rhetoric.

Thirdly, publicly stated issues are usually so vague as to be impossible to translate into behavioral action. Our government rarely does what it promises in election campaigns.

While we all complain about it, people who would try to change that reality are considered cranks.

Fourthly, issues play virtually no role in any election. So the role of opposition is a fictitious concept if it is presumed to deal with publicly expressed political views. Elections here are about something else, not issues.

Fifthly, money buys most of what it wants in our governance system. So political opposition is irrelevant if it doesn't have money.

Sixth, our elected officials are seldom able to change the direction or behavior of the administrative agencies they govern, usually they are converted to the agencies values.

The summary of these points is that the Amnesty concept of political crimes and its parent concept political opposition is based on a view of democracy that is quite mythical. We don't have it.

Our own system of government, which we view as an ideal, is so entrenched in office, so responsive to our elite power structure that it has always been moderately comfortable with opposition and very tolerant of it, relative to many other countries.* Even though our country has never had a revolution, nor have its cousin governments in English and Scandinavian speaking countries**, we ignore the fact that this is unique to our culture and rare everywhere else.

It is not possible to touch on the underlying assumption of this whole discussion, that democracy is historically inevitable and spreading.

Knowledge of the 5 millennia recorded history of Egypt, the 3 millennia history of China and India, and the 2 millennia of Italy and Greece would lead many to doubt the inevitability of democracy.


4. Creating A Bad Role Model For the Future

The final problem with Amnesty is that we are a powerful country now, but not necessarily in another century, when our great grandchildren may be living. We are establishing a precedent that citizens of powerful countries have the right to try and determine who should be released from jail in weak countries.

Such a precedent can easily be extended to include who should be in jail. Even without that extension, consider a world where Iran is as powerful as we are today, but we are as weak as Ghana. Most of the blacks who are in jail who are Muslim or willing to become Shiite

Muslim would find it easy to get out, especially if the rest of our society remained anti-Muslim. The man who killed Robert Kennedy would never have gone to jail. Many others who's crimes were theft would loose a hand and be released.

Or assume Japan had the same relative position as we do today. Japan has virtually no people in prison, so we would have to release nearly everyone and be pressured to set up the kind of intricate social networks where almost no one feels free to behave like a criminal.

All in all, there are some rational reasons why Amnesty isn't such a good way to doing good. We are establishing a bad precedent.


Michael Phillips 1976



*In spite of this permanent stability we do have outbreaks of panic and stomp on opposition vis a vis Joe McCarthy and Kent State.

**This view is possible by considering the American Revolution a war of independence and the Cromwellian Rebellion as a battle of royal succession. We think our democratic history traces to Greece; this is far fetched mythology. Our institutions came from Scandinavia via the Angles, Saxons and Vikings; and we in turn have spread them wherever English speakers have settled.

Home |Public Radio |Clear Glass Press |Resume |MP's Books |Articles |Misc |E-mail|