A blog by Barry Edelson

Is America a Corrupt Country?

If you wanted to expand your business and found the local zoning board uncooperative, but had your application swiftly approved after you made a large campaign contribution to a local politician, would you say you were living in a corrupt country?

If you received a mortgage from a local bank for your new home, but later discovered that your loan had been bundled with thousands of other loans, including many that were far less secure than yours, into a security that was then sold, without your knowledge or consent, to investors who profited from your borrowing at the expense of the entire banking system, would you say you were living in a corrupt country?

If you had a permit to live in the United States, but upon returning from a trip abroad you found yourself arrested and removed to a Middle Eastern country where you were imprisoned, interrogated and tortured for months without any charges being brought against you in court, would you say you were living in a corrupt country?

It would be a simple matter to fill several pages with scenarios of this sort, even without resorting to obvious examples, such as enriching companies that botched the rebuilding of Iraq, or the appalling failure to assist the flooded masses of New Orleans. It would be wrong, however, to assume that this is an indictment merely of the now departed administration of George W. Bush. Not even a dictator with absolute power has the ability to pull the trigger at every execution he orders. There must be others in the population, whether from fear, greed, zealotry, malice or some poisonous amalgam of these qualities, who carry out his wishes.

Far be it from me to rain on the inaugural parade of our newly installed leader by suggesting that his ascension to power is insufficient to cure the country's many ills. I am only taking him at his word: if each of us indeed bears a degree of personal responsibility for the failings of our great nation, then we cannot pour all the blame on the backs of Bush Cheney Inc, however execrable was their rule. No one forced anyone at gunpoint to take an unaffordable mortgage, or to vote for a government of thugs, or to accept the dissipation of their civil liberties like so many docile sheep. Nor did the United States of America resemble the Garden of Eden prior to inauguration day in 2001. Either we're all in this together, or we're not.

In retrospect, when our newest ex-president exhorted the nation after 9/11 to do its duty and keep on shopping, he was not being shallow, but calculating. Every despot knows that prosperity conceals a multitude of sins. And if wealth is unachievable, or proves to be an insufficient means of pacification, there is always war. These are the time-honored tactics of emperors and kings: shower the citizenry with benevolence, ring the bell of patriotism, distract them with a call to arms. A nation busy feeding at the trough of greed and indolence, and aroused to hatred of a feared enemy, can hardly be expected to rise up against the mistreatment of a handful of prisoners with foreign names. Or to demand transparency in the filthy dealings of its government and corporations. The Chinese Communist Party must beam with pride at being emulated so expertly by its fiercest rival. (One can only shudder at the prospect of its eventual collapse.)

We need to demand of ourselves an honest answer to the question: Have we become a corrupt nation? It is in the nature of politicians to be venal and for business to be avaricious. But there has also always been in the United States a trusted system of regulation and justice for those who would not, of their own conscience or even self-interest, respect the parameters of decent behavior. Have we, through our self-absorption and indifference, permitted our government of the people to become so impotent as to permit corruption to run amok?

Let us not now degenerate into moral equivalancy. We have quite some distance to go before we turn into Zimbabwe, or even Russia. The framework of a functioning American government still exists, and the new President seems genuinely determined to apply it to the purposes for which it was intended. But he could not be more right when he says that the rest of us have to do our part. If the strength of the nation indeed resides in the people, then it is the collective will of that people, for good or evil, that will ultimately define our place among the nations of the world.

This is why I bristle with indignation every time I hear the word "exceptionalism" abused by ideologues. The very idea of it is shameful, because it suggests that Americans are better than other people. Observe the rescue of passengers on the U.S. Airways plane that was forced to land in the Hudson River last week: among the decent people who unselfishly helped their fellow passengers, there were also a few with sharp elbows, and still others who reportedly were willing to risk even their own lives for their hand luggage. Would anyone truly expect to see this scene played out differently in other countries? Have we not all seen video footage of ordinary people the world over using their bare hands to search for victims of natural disasters buried under rubble? Will anyone dare suggest that Americans, whose government was unable to muster a respectable response to Hurricane Katrina and which has killed innumerable civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last seven years, are more kind and generous than anyone else? Will anyone doubt that miscreants and humanitarians are evenly dispersed among the peoples of the Earth?

Forgive President Obama his rhetorical flourishes on his special day, but what distinguishes America has never been its people, because we are not a "people" in the conventionally understood sense of the word. What makes America different is, plain and simply, our system of government. We violate our own creed whenever we put our faith blindly in the benevolence of the particular individuals who run our government. The founding fathers knew from personal experience how power makes men corrupt. That is why they built a system based on law: because no human being should ever be subjected, without recourse, to the deceit and cruelty of persons in power. When we forget this, we are ourselves corrupted. We forget that our unique government was not created principally to guarantee wealth and free markets, or even to defend the borders, but to do something that is beyond the power of even the most authoritarian regime: uphold justice and equality before the law.

This is what the peaceful pageant of democracy played out in Washington yesterday is designed to make us remember. Hopefully our new President will never forget it.

January 21, 2009

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