A Letter from the Provinces: On Corruption

by Patrick Baker                                                                              December 12, 2008

We in the provinces are gleefully following the story of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. How can one take delight in such an abuse of power? Well, how can one not? Especially if you’re from Detroit, which with thirty years of corrupt mayors from Coleman “Krugerrand” Young to Kwame “Party-at-My-Mansion” Kilpatrick (interrupted by the respectable but powerless Dennis Archer) has long left its residents the lone consolation that only Chicago is more corrupt. Now it appears that the whole state of Illinois is corrupt. There isn’t much to cheer about in Detroit these days, but we – even those of us in voluntary exile – will take what we can get.

    On the other hand, it is a bit disconcerting that Mr. Boogynightsavich (come on, the hair) can incite such shock, disapproval, and outrage, without bringing one person to the streets in protest. Sure, Obama has said he should resign; the Illinois Attorney General is asking the State Supreme Court to strip him of his power; and every self-respecting (read: self-important) pundit has called for him to step down. And yet B-Rod is back at the office, doing business as usual, which means he is probably still trying to find someone to buy a seat in that private club in Washington.

    Yes, the Congress Club, America’s official home of corruption. Where laws are sold to the least scrupulous “lobbyist” in return for campaign “contributions” and hidden perquisites. Where hundreds of billions of dollars are allocated to the great sucking sound on Wall Street, while tens of millions of Americans put up with poisonous food and air, substandard education, crumbling infrastructure, mountains of debt, and nowhere to run, nowhere to go (baby – yes, it does sound like a Bruce Springsteen song). Oh yeah, and club rules allow a convicted felon like Ted Stevens, although ineligible to vote for himself in a Federal election, to vote in its hollow chambers. In light of these observations, perhaps Rowdy Roddy B should appoint himself to the seat. He already seems to know and abide by the club code.

    Meanwhile on Main Street, wherever the [expletive] that was supposed to be, We the People are sitting at home, glued to the tube, unaware that all our self-righteous anger could be dealt with more constructively than with another helping of bagged chips. We might do well to take a lesson from Greece, where in the past week bands of “outraged” youth have decided to start kicking a little in the same place they’ve been taking it for the last five years (from a government so corrupt that even Cheney and Rove could learn something). I’m not saying that Americans need to set fire to banks and cars, but they could at least stop bending over so courteously.

    Of course, there is more at stake than Illinois politics here. And frankly, it doesn’t matter who gets appointed to Obama’s Senate seat. What can that one seat possibly be worth (besides several hundred K) in comparison to eight years of misrule by a sociopath? If Hot Rod should lose his job because “incapable of legitimately exercising his ability as governor” (in the words of the Illinois Attorney General), why wasn’t Bush impeached long ago? Similarly, how could Ted Stevens almost have been re-elected? And why are bamboozling bigots like Jerry Falwell considered holy?

    We Americans have a strange idea of corruption and of inappropriate behavior. We will ruin dedicated public servants like Bill Clinton and Eliot Spitzer for sexual indiscretions, but we will obsessively romanticize Camelot, for which a more appropriate name might have been the Playboy Mansion. I wonder what Kennedy’s chances would have been if a disgruntled Nixon had sicked a repulsive Ken Starr on him, or if the likes of the indomitable Patrick Fitzgerald considered consensual sexual activity grounds for prosecution. Mr. Blagojevich seems in this sense a most astute criminal. By keeping it in his pants, he has managed to keep the American people less outraged than it should be. And who knows, that might just be his ticket to the Senate of our empire, rather than to exile in its provinces.

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4 Responses to A Letter from the Provinces: On Corruption

  1. Anthony says:

    Writing from another province: one of the main differences between Greece and the US, which in part (but only in part) explains why Americans do not burn banks and cars, is that in the U.S. the likes of Blago and Stevens are occasionally indicted. In Greece this never happens (for reasons we need not go into). Even the example of Nixon simmers in American memory to remind that even the high offices are not above the reach of justice, though Bush has strained that piece of ideology – we are due for a reminder.

  2. Willard and Cynthia says:

    We could not have said it better ourselves and share the sardonic tone! Patrick has got it just right; let the games continue . . .

  3. Bob says:

    As a native of Chicago who actually voted for Gov. Blagojevich, I have a few brief observations (in lieu of a reply to Mr. Baker): (1) Were I a Detroiter I would take little consolation from being less corrupt than Chicago; for all its graft and machine politics, Chicago is run rather well; the same cannot be said for Detroit. I doubt if any conclusions can be drawn from this. (2) Speaking of hair, the most interesting bit of news to come out of the coverage is that Blago called his hairbrush “the football,” an allusion to the “football” (the case of nuclear launch codes) carried around with the President of the U.S. I haven’t decided if this is a reflection of his vanity or his populist delusions of grandeur. (3) Everyone seems amused that Blago solicited bribes in the very same call in which he said “everyone is listening,” seemingly in reference to FBI wiretaps. In the really underappreciated film Ripley’s Game, the criminal Ripley says, “I don’t worry about being caught because I don’t believe anyone is watching.” Not even God, we imagine. I wonder if there are more interesting ways to read Blago’s remark. (4) Only days before the complaint against Blagojevich was filed, I finished a book about clientelism in Renaissance Florence called The Art of the Network, in which the author, Paul McClean, lays out and analyzes the complex vocabularies of merit, deference, and favor-seeking employed in patronage letters. A seat on one of fifteenth-century Florence’s executive magistracies was “a fucking valuable thing; you just don’t give it away for nothing,” yet I am pretty sure no one in the book put it quite that way. Say what you will, but Blagojevich is a bit more honest than the magnificent Lorenzo. That was a long time ago, of course. I wonder if the bosses in Tammany Hall were even as honest as Blago? (5) I am not a cynic, and I don’t think all (or even most) politicians are corrupt. But politics is a messy business. Bismarck was right about laws and sausages.

  4. Dave Lundeen says:

    Provincial Epistolarist,

    Your fourth paragraph puts me in mind of the following:

    “I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
    I love the country but I can’t stand the scene.
    And I’m neither left or right
    I’m just staying home tonight,
    getting lost in that hopeless little screen. ”

    L. Cohen, “Democracy”

    If it weren’t for the still somewhat unbelievable election of Barack Obama that many of us (here in Chicago and elsewhere) worked very hard to help achieve, incidents like this would really dampen my political spirits and make me throw my hands up. Instead, this could turn into a cathartic sort of nadir. One important difference from a lot of recent political scandals is that Blago has long since turned even his own party against him (i.e. before the criminal complaint). Many Republican scandals, unless involving some sort of nonmonogamous or nonheterosexual sex, have resulted in the party closing ranks instead of casting out the ne’erdowell (vide Tom DeLay’s transparent gerrymandering in the earlier 2000s and the Valerie Plame/Scooter Libby case). Americans may not be rioting, but I think many are quietly happy to see the justice system, however flawed, take down the most corrupt politicians.

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