Out of court

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Corruption is a Cancer

     I happened to be in Egypt touring about 2 months before the revolution in January 2011.  People often ask me if I noticed any sign of it coming.  Frankly few Egyptians would openly discuss their politics with an American tourist, other than some nicety about our current Prez.  However, one older taxicab driver did mention something that I now realize was a peek into an open sore there.  It happened when he told us to meet him in a certain location after we toured a mosque.  When he hastily pulled up, he told us to hurry up and get in his cab before the police came.  I asked him if that was due to traffic.  No, he replied, he did not like paying bribes to the police so normally they would not let him pick up or drop off passengers in that location.  He was angry about that and went on about how corrupt the police were and how it made life for him much tougher.  I didn't connect that complaint to the revolution until later when I learned of the Tunisian vendor who burned himself to death because he was harassed by the police for their bribes.  Corruption is what ignited the Arab Spring.

    Egypt is still in political turmoil due to the reigning party refusing to share power or respect minority rights, but I have no idea if there is less corruption.  What I do know is that in many societies corruption is endemic.  We were just in India last November and there corrupt police took bribes right before our eyes.  It happened in the holy city of Varanasi, which is on the Ganges River where people come from all over India to purify themselves in "Mother Ganga."  (To me the Ganges is filthy and polluted.  I wouldn't put my toes in it, but we saw people bathing in it and drinking it right next to holy cows that ambled past them in the shallows.)  Anyway, I was standing on a street corner about a mile from the riverfront and apparently the police were preventing most motor vehicles from entering this very congested street where the hordes descend to the water.  However, every now and then, a tuk-tuk driver (3-wheeled golf cart-like cab) would stop and hand a few bills or coins to the cop and drive into the so-called forbidden zone.  If I wanted, I could have waited and videotaped more transactions.

     This was minor corruption compared to what the high level politicians in India had going.  While in India, the India Times ran a story about the millions of dollars each and every ruling government coalition since independence from England in 1947 had scored from corruption--building contracts, payoffs, permit payments--you name it.  The justice system and police were especially corrupt.  This was well documented in a recent Pulitzer prize winning book--"Behind the Beautiful Forevers."  Reading like a novel, this book details the actual lives of some individuals living in the slums of Mumbai (aka Bombay).  Several family members in the book are falsely accused of murder and the family is literally forced to bribe police and judicial officers to prevent further injustice.  It is a book to make anyone angry.  Recently the rape and murder of a young woman which was ostensibly aided or at least overlooked by corrupt police made the news.  Whether it will lead to meaningful reforms is hard to say.

     Just scan the news and stories on corruption span the globe.  Consider the drug cartels in Latin America, or the national sport of tax evasion in Italy or Greece, or the near absolute power of industrialists in China and don't forget the Russian Mafia and its government which will punish its own un-adopted children to spite America.    

    Which leads to America.  Here, the police and judicial system is quite clean.  I grew up in Chicago where voting "early and often" were touted. It is no longer corrupt there but in many states there have been barriers erected to make it harder for some people to vote.  More significant is the corruption that unlimited campaign spending has caused.  It is complex but it is obvious that Congress is beholden to powerful interests and lobbies who donate to their campaigns freely.  Maybe a congressman cannot enrich himself personally but he can fatten his campaign budget by voting the right way.  After he retires from Congress he can work for one of his favorite lobbies or industries and then enrich himself.  This is corruption American style.  And it is slowly eroding our democratic ideals. 

    I doubt we will have an "Arab Spring" here but the power of money is perilous. 

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