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Alienation
Copyright 1999,
Dorian Scott Cole
 Corruption
Lawless societies, dirty politics, and failure in the law and courts 
 

"A man who understands the complex essence of the nominating process, as Nixon did so supremely, will inevitably defeat a candidate who seeks the goal by emphasizing substance." 
The White House Years,
by Henry Kissinger 

In a far away nation, a young child lies starving. His mother, only a step away from starvation, is totally unable to do anything to get food for her child - not even by theft because there is no food. The good people of many nations hear their need and their despair and send food and money. But along the way, some politician diverts the funds to his personal bank account and prevents the food from being distributed. A bureaucrat, uncaring, sells the food for money to the black market. If any gets sent inside the country, distributors sell it to those who have money and line their own pockets. Armed militias steal the food and give it to their cause. And thanks to corruption, none reaches the starving child.

The starving child and his mother are truly alienated. They expect the world to care, but they are completely powerless to do anything about their situation and there is a sense of great despair. As the mother watches her child starve, there seems no point to creating life in this barren and cruel world. Each day is a battle with those around her who would steal her food - her social structure of shared values and pursuits and support have completely broken down (norms) - it is every man for himself. They have expectations of living life - at least surviving. Where is the government which is supposed to look out for people? Where are people who care? Life seems meaningless.

Who are these corrupt people who would let others starve to put money in their own pocket? The answer may be very close at hand. Sometimes corruption stems from just greed, as in justifying "white collar crime" corruption that seems to, "Hurt no one." In reality it hurts everyone. It is also uncaring. Unfortunately examples abound.

In my local area, a woman was recently fired from her job. The reason? She also held political office and failed to support something that would have benefited her company. The good of a corporation over the public interest?

We know businesses are often mercenary to the point of losing perspective, or being downright dishonest. But the newspapers, on the other hand? We expect a much higher standard from them. But what happens when the editors court the politicians? On a news broadcasts today, an editor at a large national paper confessed to agreeing to an arrangement with a local politician - business favors in return for good press coverage for the politician.

We almost expect politicians to be corrupt. This is a sad state of affairs. Frank Vogl, writing for the Earth Times News Service wrote in a business ethics article on corruption that "Stories of corruption, involving vast sums, are rampant from Russia and Ukraine to Pakistan and Indonesia and on across Latin America and Africa. But national leaders remain in power. They can steal and abuse their office and it seems to make no difference. They remain the partners of Western governments. Why? .... it is better to work with the corrupt leader now in office than risk having this leader replaced by an even greater villain."

But we need look no farther than the US to see corruption in political leaders. During the early days of running for office, potential leaders seem to be able to talk substance. Issues momentarily seem important. But let the race heat up and talk about issues begins to fade, replaced buy mud-slinging - telling dirty truths about the other candidate, often eliminating the one to whom the most mud sticks. It is more important to win the election than to be competent. And if enough dirty truths can't be found, then it is simply OK to fabricate them. Or stuff the ballet box. Corruption. And we tolerate it. We think, "What can we do? That seems to be the nature of politicians."

While politicians may have complex motivations for seeking office, money is a consistent motivation for just about everyone. People are so hungry to make money that they seem blind to potential conflicts of interest. Some banks have noticed that they have a captive audience at ATMs. So they are going to generate money from that audience. How? By showing Hollywood movie trailers - previews of coming movies - for profit. Movie distributors are obviously interested and will pay the banks. So I have to ask about the conflict. What is the incentive for serving customers faster and keeping the lines shorter? Not much. What is the incentive for making lines longer? Money. Guess which incentive usually wins. To wit, class action suits have recently been filed against some banks for allegedly arranging the order in which checks are presented for payment to maximize the number which bounce. At $28.00 for each check returned, it doesn't take many to pay an accounting department salary for the day. Why shouldn't they take money from someone who is struggling? (A line hater, I'm all for entertaining lines, by the way - I might even stick around some quasi-micro-theaters for an Internet length movie - 40 minutes.)

Even the State and Federal government can't avoid conflicts of interest. The Federal government and tobacco growing states have long been in the business of subsidizing tobacco farmers, capitalizing on tobacco crops by controlling growing areas, and reaping major tax benefits from tobacco crop and smoking products sales. Government sponsored laboratories have done research for years on tobacco products. For as long as tobacco health risk warnings have been in the news and on cigarette packs, many tobacco growing States have been willing partners... for the money. They probably could be sued just the same as the tobacco companies. Do they learn? Many States sued the tobacco companies for ongoing health costs for tobacco smokers, and won large financial settlements. Now they have come to depend on the annual tobacco settlement revenue. And now with the possibility of declining tobacco revenue because of pending individual lawsuits, they are potentially drawn into each individual conflict because a court victory for the smoker jeopardizes State revenue. They are in the impossible position of needing more people to smoke and die, and needing fewer court victories for smokers, so that the revenue stream will continue. The States are addicted - they can't say "NO" to drugs... er, that is no to money.

What about the police? Surely we can trust a police officer. The L.A. Rampart police seem to have taken 1930 era gangsta' movies to heart. "How do you clean 'em up? Lock 'em up, beat 'em up, bump 'em off. Who cares if they are innocent - they send a message to the others." The Rampart police are only the most recent in a long line of police corruption scandals. (Enough said - most of the police are good people doing a very thankless and frustrating job.)

Well, if there is anyone who isn't corrupt, it is you, me, and the Doctor, right? Not so fast. Unscrupulous doctors bilk you and I out of millions of dollars a year through Medicare fraud. And a recent survey indicated that at least 40% of physicians cheat on health insurance to give their patients coverage for services to which they are not covered by their insurance plan. Of course, we all turn down the physician's offer, don't we? Yeah, just as I suspected, the Devil got you, too, and I'm the only one left.

My apologies for taking the moral high ground when I am no better than anyone else. Instead of pointing fingers at others, we each should demand the best from ourselves first, and then from others.

Corruption seems to have become a pervasive way of life for much of our society. A day can't go by without hearing of some corrupt activity being uncovered. Scandals over termite treatments done shoddily just to get the maximum number of new jobs done for the profit, scams to sell unnecessary furnace items to people, people scamming the elderly out of their life savings, leaving them penniless... Even the Internet, barely ten-years in popular activity, seems populated with an overdose of outlaws trying to scam the elderly, the young, the innocent, even brazenly breaking into the FBI and CIA Web sites, and vandalizing commercial sites.

In every segment of our society where there is money available, the mouth of corruption gorges itself on every penny that it can slither its tongue around - an insatiable glutton -
 t  h  e  r  e    i  s    n  e  v  e  r    e  n  o  u  g  h.
The April 7, 2000 ABC 20/20 show aired a report on the auto-body repair business. How many people have asked repair shops to skimp on repairs so that they could use the repair money for other things? Is that a root cause of corruption? One State survey reported that 40% of car repairs were fraudulent.

One inspector examined 300 cars and found that 100% were improperly repaired. Defective parts often weren't replaced. The cars were just plain unsafe to drive. Because of faulty repair, some cars could have catastrophic failures during an accident, and often safety devices such as air bags were replaced with blanks.

But that isn't all. Police surveillance videotaped body shop employees purposely damaging cars to raise the repair bills.    

Go to any large city and try to set up an exhibit in a convention center without paying off the union. Listen to the city news and try to avoid hearing of a corrupt official or judge fighting to stay out of jail. Try to go into politics and get anything done without making agreements with corrupt people. Corruption is a pervasive way of life in our society, and it is worse in many other countries. The Russians, who don't yet have the legal system in place to deal with capitalist style corruption, have major corruption in their society. It is fertile ground. Many people go months without wages and survive by bartering. Bartering and corruption are old friends to the Russians. Is it any wonder that International Monetary Fund loans meant to help the Russian democracy, got channeled right back out of the country by those who could get their hands on it?

In the face of all of this corruption, what do we think? When it comes time to reelect government officials, we think that the thief who is in office is better equipped to deal with the other rogues in office, so we reelect him. Or if we do try to clean it up by electing "clean" representatives, they find it impossible to do business in politics without being sucked into "the system," that is, without becoming corrupt. For example, Senator John McCain stands for what he believes in and doesn't play the game the Washington way. For that he is called a maverick, a loner, and obviously many in Washington won't try to work with him... which doesn't say much for them. I'm not promoting McCain, but better just one John McCain than all those who promote dirt, lies, and corruption.

I usually avoid reading the books about corruption that land on the bestseller list. I even dislike writing about it. With the steady barrage of negative news, it is difficult enough to keep a positive outlook on our world without immersing myself or others in the worst. Corruption alienates all of us from our world because we can't trust people. What that means in practical ways is the following: We avoid giving to worthwhile causes because we believe that the money is squandered. We reelect crooked officials, perpetuating corruption, because we believe that only they can get the job done for us - get our fair share. We don't go to the police because we don't trust them or the legal system. We are generally convinced that officials in the school systems and government don't have our best interests at heart, and we often oppose them out of fear of what they have up their sleeve. We avoid many people and companies because we believe they are simply trying to scam us out of our money. When we stop to count the cost, corruption has major impact on us all. Alienation.

Alienation:  Denied expectations. Powerlessness. Meaninglessness. Normlessness. Cultural estrangement. Social isolation. Self-estrangement.

Alienation in our daily lives: When we choose to endure corruption, the feeling is that corruption is beyond our control, hopeless, we are powerless to do anything about it. We have the expectation that things should work better, and those in charge should fix it, but nothing happens. Our expectation is met with inaction. We have the feeling that there are no norms that people ascribe to - what good is it to be honest when it just means that someone is getting our share? We have the feeling that some part of the moral meaning in our lives is estranged - we know corruption isn't right, but we feel that we have to live with it. We have the feeling that we can't trust anyone anymore, not the government, not the police, not the schools, even our charities and religious institutions are suspected of making the backhand grab for money, and maybe even our significant others are just waiting to get their hands on our money. We have the feeling that we can't be what we should be and want to be - estranged even from ourselves.

Corruption is a cancer that destroys our world from within. It was Christ who said, "The love of money is the root of all evil." Money symbolizes power and greed. He didn't say that money and power are bad things. It is all in the way that these things are used whether they are for the purpose of good or evil. But the person who l  o  v  e s  money - who lusts after it greedily as the mouth of an insatiable glutton - there is evil. Thankfully not all who are corrupt are evil.

What to do, what to do?

My opinion. I think that there are three essential answers to corruption. (Note that I am offering my opinion, not offering proof of methods. My opinion is that these answers that I offer are based on time tested and proven principles in the governmental and ethical/moral arenas.)

First, the rule of law is essential. Part of the current problem in Russia is that no rules of conduct in a capitalistic society have been hammered out from experience. Part of the problem in Bosnia is that the new fledgling government has not had time to get the country under control. Greedy, corrupt people exist in the US, Russia, and all countries, but the rule of law prevents lawless conduct. In the US, if people break the code of conduct to which we all agree (or all must conform), you go to jail and the law takes the money. If laws are not in place, and a society has not agreed to live by and enforce the rule of law, then there is nothing to stop corruption.

Second, it takes leadership, and takes raising the profile on the issue to the point that it must be dealt with. It is up to the news reporters and writers (including fiction) to keep placing the issue before the people, exposing corruption in all of its ugly forms and places, and making the people aware of the consequences of corruption. It is up to politicians to take it before their members and get action and enforcement.

Third, countering corruption requires a grass-roots movement to successfully eliminate corruption. Each person has to begin by saying "No" to corruption, and then demanding that politicians and government officials say no to corruption, and then requiring those with whom we do business to do so honestly. If we don't demand this of ourselves and others, then we only have ourselves to blame.

All of us are guilty of corruption to some degree, but we don't have to feel trapped into it as if we were that kind of person. I believe that who we become has less to do with what we have done and more to do with what kind of person we are or want to be. While that may seem like a pie-in-the-sky outlook that disregards reality, the influencing factors are direction and action, not position. People are dynamic, always becoming, always moving forward, either positive, negative, or confirming what they have been, but always forward. Every moment is a new moment to confirm that we are something else. The dynamic nature of people makes change possible. While momentum, habit, and circumstances may work against us, we are not cast in stone.

Dynamic Direction illustration

 

Pos -   

   What I believe I am and want to be

 

What I have done -

What I do  -   Same  -   

    What I have done is what I am

 

Neg -

 

What my negative feelings tell me I am

Consider then, two people who have very different outlooks on things:

One person says, "I have been a thief. I make my living anywhere I can find opportunity to take it. I don't have to care about the people who suffer - I don't even have to see them. A thief is what I am. Realistically, I will probably always be a thief."

Another person says, "I have stolen, but I am not a thief. I am an honest person at heart and I do care about other people, even if only a little. And I will try to be an honest person, and maybe even a better person than I am today."

Two people going in very different directions, at least partly because of what they believe that they are. Both have bad things in their pasts, and both will probably do things that are wrong in the future. But the person who is going in the positive direction will do less and less wrong as time passes (and hopefully won't become ensnared by crooked friends and situations for which he has few defenses). The fact that we have done something wrong, or have been weak, unprepared, or just plain stupid, doesn't make us wear a "label of defective character" for life. And thankfully, most of us aren't forced to be corrupt.   

The ability to be corrupt depends on what a person believes about himself.  

Let's begin again and see if we can write this story differently this time. In a far away land, a young child lies starving...

- Scott
Series Contents

International Anti-Corruption Conference, Transparency International, http://www.transparency.de

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