Monday. May 9, 2016.
There’s no way to discuss this without the Democratic presidential campaign coming into it. The word has been embraced by Bernie’ supporters as a battle cry. It’s their Rebel Yell and they let loose with it not just when they charge at Hillary and the “Democratic establishment” but in their attacks on her supporters and any journalists and pundits critical of Bernie. They’ve narrowed the definition of the word to serve partisan and ideological ends which makes their application of it suspect. But so are the Hillary supporters’ attempts to deflect it or refute it. That’s politics. But my object here isn’t strictly political, and Bernie and Hillary don’t appear here as the particular politicians they are but as representative human beings. I’m not going to argue that Hillary isn’t corrupt or try to turn the tables and argue that Bernie’s really the corrupt one---Don’t kid yourself, I could do it. It’s being done by others. But I’m not going to, mainly because I don’t believe it. I don’t think he’s corrupt or at least I don’t think he’s any more corrupt than she is. As far as I’m concerned in this post, they’re both corrupt, because they’re politicians and politics is corrupting, but more because they’re human beings, and to be human is to be corrupted.
I’m a Puritan and this is a Puritan’s post.
Saw a bumper sticker recently, “Billionaires Can't Buy Bernie”, and my first thought was Why would they want to?
What value would they get for the money? He's the junior senator from Vermont. Before he ran for President he had virtually no influence on national politics or policy. He’s spent his Congressional career denying himself the opportunity to acquire influence. It's been more important to him to be a lonely voice of conscience than a mover and shaker within the ranks of the establishment. Which has made him something of a hero if not a saint but it’s left him with nothing to sell that billionaires would want to buy. That should change now. He has influence to spare now, if he makes the most of what he's accomplished over the course of the campaign. More sway within the party. More power in the Senate. More invitations to his make his case on TV and online and in print.
This may attract the attention of a few billionaires.
I’m not saying Bernie is bound to be corrupted. Just that'll he be facing different and greater temptations from here on in. And the temptations won’t only come in the form of money.
That money is corrupting is a given. The given. The larger the payout, the greater the temptation. That's logical and likely, but it's not a certainty that the tempted will always give in to the temptation. All that money flowing into the coffers of politicians in Washington and the state capitals from the rich and powerful is suspicious and worrisome. But the truth is that a thousand dollar donation from a trusted friend can be more corrupting than a ten-thousand dollar one from someone you know wants something less than noble out of you. To the latter you can say, I'll take your money, pal, but don't expect me to do you any favors and then you can consciously and stubbornly stick to your principles. To the friend who seems to be asking nothing of you you can say thank you and have that be the end of it until the day that friend needs a favor. Then your friendship makes you feel obligated to help and the next thing you know you're both indicted.
Bernie is obligated to his donors, even to the ones giving less than $27. But the favor they're asking is for him to do what he's doing anyway. When something comes along that forces him to choose between what his supporters want and what he thinks is right, his supporters understand if he decides to act according to his best judgment and against their wishes because that's what they like and admire about him, his integrity on such matters. So there’s nothing inherently corrupt in his taking their money. I think accusations that he’s being corrupt by continuing to take their money even though he has to know by now he has no chance of winning the nomination and that talking and acting acting as if he does is disingenuous at best miss the point that his supporters want him to do this, take their money and keep on campaigning.
Believe me, all that money Hillary’s raking in from the rich and powerful bothers me. I haven’t seen any evidence that she’s been bought and paid for, but the offer’s on the table. Your conviction that she’s picked it up is just that, your conviction. She may have voted and acted in ways you think aren’t in the People’s interest, but you can onl assume she’s corrupt if you believe she's going against her principles in voting and acting in what you consider solely Wall Street's interest. You may think that Wall Street's interests are by definition corrupt, and I’ll grant you that a good case can be made for that. On the other hand, Bernie’s taking a lot of union money and cases have been made that unions are corrupt, so there's that. Even if they aren't, not every demand they make in their rank and file’s interest is in the People's best interests, and taking their money will eventually put you in the same position as taking money from that friend, only they're likely to be less understanding if your conscience tells you you can't vote their way.
A politician with too great a regard for his principles and who stubbornly sticks to doing what he knows to be right to the point that he puts himself in the position of being of unable to do anything for the People's good except shout about how righteous he is is corrupt. He's been corrupted by his own virtue or rather by his pride in his own virtue.
Pride, after all, is a deadly sin.
Depending on the moralist making the case, it's the worst of the seven. Others would argue it’s anger. But pride is at the root of almost all the others.
They’re all corrupting of course---pride, lust, anger, envy, gluttony,greed, and sloth---and good people are as subject to them as the wicked. There’s another word for what they are beside sins.
The names are in a way pernicious. They’re evil-sounding names for normal, even healthy feelings. The words make it sound like having feelings is sinful.
Nothing wrong with having feelings, unless you’re a Vulcan. Nothing wrong in acting on them, usually.
But the words---the sins---are descriptions of feelings that have gotten out of control. Sin---or Vice, if you’re uncomfortable calling things a sin--- is giving in to our feelings at the wrong time and to the wrong degree and purpose. Virtuousness is resisting or at least controlling our feelings.
The ancient Greeks had it that the source of all corruption and evil is one of our most basic, admirable, and useful feelings, the one that's cured diseases and has us visiting other planets. Curiosity. Everything went wrong because Pandora just had to see what was in that box.
Adam and Eve can be said to have been undone by curiosity too but it's more telling to emphasize what they were curious about. That apple was from the tree of knowledge. Ok, literally, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But traditionally simply knowledge. We're fallen and exiled from the garden because we wanted to know.
The lesson of both myths is that to be human is to be corrupt.
Everything about being human is corrupting. Everything we do or feel introduces temptations. People are corrupted by ambition, by success, by fame, by desire, by love, by loyalty, by want and need. Hunger, illness, and fear are corrupting. Religion is corrupting. But so is a lack of faith. Pragmatism. Realism. Idealism. Pessimism. Optimism---there goes Mr Micawber waiting for something to turn up. Despair, of course. But hope too, if it keeps us from dealing practically with the circumstances of the moment in the hope something better will come along. Too much hope can be a form of despair.
Charity can be corrupting, both the giving and the receiving. It’s possible to be too charitable, to give irresponsibly. And of course accepting charity can be destructive of character by creating both dependency and the expectation that you don’t have to solve your own problems or get yourself out of trouble so why bother to avoid creating problems or getting into trouble?
This is one of the reasons we liberals want to do something drastic about wealth inequality. Why we want to “soak” the rich with taxes. Why we want more and stricter regulation of business. Why we want to prosecute more banksters and other white collar criminals. Because the rich and powerful are too charitable towards each other.
The rich and well-to-do are rich in more than money and property. They are rich in friends or at least sympathetic connections and relatives with money and property and sympathetic connections of their own. They enjoy a system of mutual support and aid that amounts to a private safety net. Essentially, they live in a private welfare state. They are relieved of the necessity of having to be responsible and take responsibility. They can do pretty much whatever they want, take, take, take and give nothing back, delay no gratification, and cause and get into whatever trouble their appetites and whims lead them into, secure in the knowledge that they’ll pay no price, somebody will come along to bail them out, pay the bills, and smooth things over.
Wealth and comfort like that are corrupting. Poverty is terrifically and tragically more corrupting. People whose every thought and ounce of effort for most of the day is goes into putting food on the table that night and keeping a roof over their heads for the next month don’t have much left over for planning and provisioning for the longterm future. They don’t have the resources that the middle-class and the wealthy can make use of to keep themselves out of trouble or much recourse when they get into it, so why bother worrying about it and wasting steps to avoid it? What’s the point of delaying gratification when you know that delaying it will cause it to disappear? Poverty is soul-crushing, heartbreaking, and mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting. It robs people of self-respect and, worse, it robs them of hope. For the poor the worst of the deadly sins isn’t pride or anger or envy or greed. It’s sloth. Which is not physical laziness. It’s the failure to exercise virtue---to control self-destructive and self-damning feelings. But why make the effort if you’re too tired and despondent to care and you know it will all come to naught anyway? The point of a welfare state---that is, a charitable government---is to save people from corrupting despair.
On the other hand, there are problems with giving people “free stuff”. People do become dependent. They don’t need to learn to take initiative or responsibility or exercise self-control. Even FDR worried that some of his programs could be ways of putting people on “the dole.” It’s good for people to have to work. It’s good for them to contribute to their own upkeep and health and well-being. It’s important to give people something to strive for, but then it’s good that they then strive. People should be independent, self-reliant, and, to the degree it’s possible, self-sufficient. They want to be. Charity that saves people from having to make the effort and take responsibility is corrupting. And degrading.
I’d better watch out. This kind of talk can get me called a neo-liberal, which reminds me that words can be corrupting along with a facility for using them.
Intelligence can be corrupting. Very smart people are routinely too smart for their own and other people’s good.
Politics is corrupting.
Really, Lance? No kidding? Politics is corrupting.
Politics is corrupting because…
End of Part One.