May 18th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Nightmare Towns and Self-Fulfilling Prophesy? (part 2 of 2)

Everybody has things that scare them. Here's one of the little things that scares me: that so many smart people take it for granted that all politicians are corrupt. And given the reason that "everybody knows" that all politicians are corrupt, I don't see any way that this belief can't keep getting stronger. Will people be able to sustain their outrage over corrupt politicians after a couple of decades, at most, of believing that all politicians are corrupt? And if political corruption stops being outrageous, what is there that's standing between us and a whole nation of Nightmare Towns? Will every city become Sin City?

Let me take that step by step and elaborate.

Not all politicians are corrupt. In fact, politicians who are actually corrupt are a tiny minority. I realize that I'm asserting something there that runs contrary to the perceptions of most of you -- not to mention a ton of very suggestive circumstantial evidence. But I say this based on having met not a few politicians, and from stories that I'm told from people who've worked even more political campaigns than I have. You can believe whatever you want, but no, the clear majority of people who get elected to public office, and that especially includes nearly everyone at the state and federal level in the US, are people of high moral principles whose office, and power, and privileges, are not for sale. So what's with all the campaign money? You've got the causality backwards. To prove that any politician's vote was bought, first show me one who voted consistently one way, then changed his mind immediately after receiving a donation. (And to be fair, do this outside the California state legislature. Whichever lackwit came up with the idea of legalizing the handing out of campaign donations on the floor of a legislature while votes are being taken was a moral imbecile.) To the extent that they are influenced by their campaign donors instead of being picked by their campaign donors for compliance with the donor's principles, virtually none of them think that the donors are getting anything for their money except a chance to make their case. True, they underestimate the power of face to face persuasion by professionals when they think they can trust their staffs to provide the necessary balance. But with very, very few exceptions, nearly all politicians are as honest as the day is long.

Everybody knows otherwise because they hear it in the news. Scandal-mongering goes in and out of style, but never completely out of style. In the wake of Watergate, which was told as the story of two newspaper reporters who brought down a corrupt President all on their own, a ton of idealistic idiots flooded into journalism looking for that kind of power and fame, and every single one of them thinks that by catching some politician in a scandal they can have their Pulitzer and their book and movie deals. So we get a drumbeat of scandal, and a lot of it is stuff where, if you actually knew both sides, you'd know that no, really, there's no actual scandal there. But boy, do the audiences love rumor and innuendo.

Scandal mongering is going to get worse, unfortunately. The Drudge Report. The Smoking Gun. The Swift Boat "Veterans" for "Truth." Now give those same slander-mongers and sleaze-sellers the power, that's coming down the road, to create spot-on recreations of what they think happened and put that on their so-called "news" web sites. As surely as the Jib-Jab "This Land is My Land" parody ended up on every TV news show, and as surely as the Swifties' ads were broadcast more for free on the news than they were as actual paid ads, those digital "reenactments" will end up on television one way or another. And then audiences will know that the rumor was true, no matter what later disproof appears or even what libel and slander suits are won, because they saw it with their own two eyes on television.

When "everybody knows" that all politicians are crooked, will we have any honest politicians? When all you have to do to get your reputation dragged down into the mud is win an election, how many people who value their honor, their reputation, their peace of mind, and their family's peace, will be willing to run for office? And given how many politicians really are outer-directed people, the "dogs" in my metaphor from the other day, how many more of them will justify stealing from the public, and selling immunity to justice, on the grounds that "everybody is doing it"? The basic mathematics of the Prisoner's Dilemma says that once they think it's inevitable that their competitors are cheating, they have to cheat to or lose.

After a few more years of nonstop political scandal and rumor mongering, will the voters still be outraged? Or will they be like those residents of Hazard that the Lexington Herald-Leader talked to, and like matching crooked electorates in places like the metro-east area of St. Louis or the northern Louisiana bayous, who have given up on reform and are just trying to pick the right horse in the race in hopes that some of the loot will trickle down to them? We could end up in a place where all the police are on the take, and all the judges on the take, and all the legislators on the take, and all the elected officials on the take, and certainly all the political appointees on the take, without even having to invoke the caustic effects of Prohibition II: The Sequel. And it's a very short walk from there to Sin City.

We had a vivid example of this back in the Reagan administration -- does anybody other than me remember "Robin HUD"? I guess not very many, since a search on the net came up empty except for a few passing (and unexplained) references. Here's the deal. In early 1989, it came out that during the Reagan administration several millions of dollars were embezzled from a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program that was funded by Congress for the purpose of offering real estate developers an incentive to build low-income housing. Instead, developers who paid bribes to the Reagan administration were allowed to tap those funds to build luxury housing. And in June, Marilyn Harrell, one of the accused HUD employees was dragged in front of a meeting of the House Committee on Government Operations and questioned about it. She admitted it openly. She also said that it was obvious that the only reason that Congress created that program was to channel money to poor people, because at the time Congress was Democrat and poor people vote Democrat. She said that it was her opinion that now that Republicans controlled Congress and the White House, they were entitled to channel that money to rich people, who vote Republican. It never occurred to her that there might be any purpose to that money other than to buy votes. For this cheerful, almost naive willingness to admit to stealing from the poor to give to the rich, for her claim that doing so was morally virtuous, she got the media nickname "Robin HUD."

We've already got a system where there are people with near-immunity to prosecution. A friend of mine used to know the local lawyer who specialized in getting upper-level drug dealers off; his business card flatly said, "If you have the dime, you won't do the time." But at least now, we have the morals left, the moral courage left, to be outraged by that. If we were a nation of inner-directed people, of people who won't call something "right" no matter how many people they think are doing it if it's actually wrong, then we wouldn't have that to worry losing that moral courage. But I worry that we are not such a nation.
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