"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Strayed From the Heart

Often the great rabbis become so inundated by pilgrims seeking advice and prayers that they must designate a receiving secretary to serve as a buffer and a filter. This creates a potential for abuse, as that control over access can be parlayed into various advantages. Once, the rabbi of Belzyce, Poland, was told by some congregants that his secretary was selling appointments to the highest bidder and pocketing these ill-gotten gains. But the rabbi refused to fire him.

“This much I know,” he explained. “I chose the most honest man in the city. If the job corrupted him, why should I replace him with some other poor fellow and ruin his morals as well?”

No Abramoff apologist I. More than a year ago I administered – in the pages of The American Spectator – a proper scourging. Yet the fact remains that he was not a bad guy who descended upon Washington to game the system and pad his wallet. He came with a heart brimful with good intentions that eventually paved the road to brimstone. As a leader of the national College Republicans while at Brandeis, he was imbued with the Reaganite spirit. He entered D.C. to help steward “The Contraction With America”, the effort to put Boss Tweed on a diet, to shrink bloated government. How did all that good will come undone?

And, as a corollary, is it unavoidable? Is the corruption so pervasive as to be insuperable? Inevitable, ineluctable, ineludible and inexorable? Is it impossible to be a lobbyist without dirtying your hands?

The answer must be no. And yes. No, it is not necessary to be crooked. Yes, it is possible to lobby honestly and be effective. Why, then, are many good people tempted into going by the book – without giving it a second glance?

There are motives of expediency, to be sure. It is easier to catch a Congressman’s attention if you’re dropping campaign dollars into his hat. And what better way to get someone’s ear than getting some air with him on a long lazy “fact-finding” trip to Maui?

Still, that is not a sufficient lure to make a man lose his religion. My theory is that the most powerful force that moves a person off the perch of virtue is a pernicious cocktail of social pressure by the bad guys and cynicism by the good folks.

Here’s how it works. Say you come to Washington as a lobbyist for a company or a cause that is dear to your heart, and naturally you have a big expense account to facilitate your work. Or say you come to Hollywood to produce a movie about some matter of injustice that is searing into your soul, and you bring a big bankroll to make it happen. You determine that you are not going to succumb to the temptation of turning your money into illicit favors of any sort.

When you arrive, you find that the predators who predated you there, the abusers whom you are committed to abjure, seem like very swell guys. They greet you with open arms, eager to show you the ropes… or rope you into the show. The message becomes very clear very soon: play by our rules and you’re welcome. Try to go it on your own, buddy, and you’re on your own, buddy.

It is in the nature of people who are in the wrong to seduce you into their midst even if you offer them no direct advantage. The presence of virtue causes them discomfort. The film Serpico was based on a true story, but many other films like Midnight Run and Vanishing Point have described the same scenario; the honest cop who won’t take a piece of the graft money and is shunned by his brethren in blue.

This forced choice between group acceptance and righteous isolation is a powerful trap for a man. King David begins his Psalms with this message, perhaps to offer solace in poetry to the person faced with that fork in the road: “Fortunate is the man who did not go with the counsel of the wicked, did not stand on the path of the sinners nor sat in the sessions of the mockers.”

But an awful contributing factor is when the solid people are cynical. Bonnie Raitt’s song, Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About, brilliantly highlighted this phenomenon. She describes how a rumor of an affair that wasn’t happening actually caused the affair to happen. Once all the coworkers believed that these two people were getting together, it seemed pointless to stay apart. In like fashion, if everyone winks at you when you say you’re a lobbyist, assuming nefarious monkeyshines, or elbows you in the ribs when you say you’re a producer, anticipating licentious adventures, they unwittingly erode your defenses against impropriety.

Ironically, by not thinking the worst of humanity we can sometimes help to bring out the best.

13 comments:

connie deady said...

Just curious why you think Abramoff had good intentions at the outset. I generally believe corruption comes from weakness and lack of values within. Surely there are other options than joining the evil by taking it a higher level than it was practiced at and become the master of the art.

Abramoff as Darth Vader?

Tom Van Dyke said...

It is in the nature of people who are in the wrong to seduce you into their midst even if you offer them no direct advantage. The presence of virtue causes them discomfort.

This forced choice between group acceptance and righteous isolation is a powerful trap for a man.


This is how Hollywood works. An accommodation with its perversions is a necessary first step.

From there, the innocent begins to see perversion as normal, and falls into it; the perverts, with no decent society around them to rein them in, get more and more perverse.

Matt Huisman said...

I generally believe corruption comes from weakness and lack of values within.

Exactly. Which explains why we're all corrupt.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, Matt. I wish I could affirm that I'm invulnerable to the seductions of this world.

So far, pretty much so good. The seductions have been on the mediocre side.

Then again, it might be the answer to a prayer "and lead us not into temptation..."

But I'm not dead yet. Something really tasty could turn up.

connie deady said...

I guess we're all corrupt. What's really interesting, though is that we aren't all vulnerable to the same seductions.

Does Jay believe Abramoff was seduced by his ideologies, in other words his belief in the rightness of the policies he was pursuing meant it was okay to use corrupt means to achieve good ends?

(sorry Tom, I'm always fascinated by the means/end argument).

Or did he just get corrupted by the money and the power-brokering?

I'm more cynical and believe that he just was a money-grubber to begin with and that he simply rode the coattails of the beliefs to achieve his original ends which were power and money.

Jay D. Homnick said...

No way.

To be a College Republican at Brandeis in the 80s was like volunteering for clean-up duty in Hell without the asbestos suit. You had to really believe way down deep in your heart.

Kathy Hutchins said...

Here is the essence of the Washington problem: the "everyone does it" rationale is just so obviously true that it goes without saying. It is a powerful snare, because you soon believe that playing this game is the only way to get anything done here. So your moral sightline shrinks away from "is this right to do?" to "is the cause I am advancing worthy?" You will only survive intact in Washington if you have a moral code that absolutely, without exception, forbids you to exercise wrong means in the pursuit of even the highest of ends. Admit even the remotest possibility of utilitarianism or situational ethics into your heart, and you are toast.

And I see the depth and breadth of this struggle every day, because I am married to an honest lawyer.

Jay D. Homnick said...

Speaking of marriage, Kathy, rarely have I seen brevity married to clarity as beautifully as that - with eloquence as a bridesmaid.

Matt Huisman said...

And I see the depth and breadth of this struggle every day, because I am married to an honest lawyer.

A friend of mine tells a story about working with missionaries in Amersterdam's Red Light District. He asked them if they had any reservations about raising their own kids in such a crude environment. Amazingly, they said no.

In fact, they believed that their children benefited from seeing the depravity out in the open. They were able to see it clearly, and understand what it led to. Most people don't get the benefit of that kind of perspective.

The essence of the Washington problem is that it is a problem everywhere, at every level - we just don't usually realize how big until it is too late. I think we'd all like to be able to avoid the 'really tasty' seductions in life - hopefully most of us will. But those 'mediocre' ones will just as certainly spell big trouble for us too...whether you're in Washington, or right here in River City.

connie deady said...

You will only survive intact in Washington if you have a moral code that absolutely, without exception, forbids you to exercise wrong means in the pursuit of even the highest of ends. Admit even the remotest possibility of utilitarianism or situational ethics into your heart, and you are toast.

See I agree completely with your first sentence and disagree completely with your second. I don't see the problem as situational ethics or utilitarianism, but one of absolutism in the belief of being right.

I truly believe that the problem with the Cheney/Rumsfeld/Bush axis of evil is their strong belief that they are right, such that they are willing to trample on the Constitution, their opposition, the Geneva convention, and long held among concepts of fairness and justice.

I think they are so blinded by their passion for the rightness of their position that they will lie, twist, etc. on order to keep their power to continue their policies that they passionately believe in.

Just a bit of insight to explain that there are profound moral and ethical reasons why some leftist despise Bush/Cheney that have nothing whatsoever to do with partisan politics.

I perceive them as evil in their use of wrong means. Truly. And as long as people of the right fail to understand this passionate belief, we will be doomed to misunderstanding.

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

I perceive them as evil in their use of wrong means.

Some on the left (Connie *possibly* included) seem to be more passionate about Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld being wrong than Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld are about being right.

connie deady said...

CLA keep distorting if it pleases you.

connie deady said...

I amend my initial comments to Jay after reading the interesting piece on Abramoff from (gasp) Vanity Fair. It presents a fairly sympathetic look at Abramoff.

http://www.vanityfair.com/pdf/pressroom/advance_Abramoff.pdf

If anyone is still reading this.