Monday, March 28, 2005

Where have you gone, Elliot Ness?

It's a completely idle reflection, but I was thinking about the nature of corruption in government this morning. A BBC World Service report on some African (I think) country (I was driving, and half-listening), concluded with a statement that the people of the country were apparenlty "fed up" with the corruption in the government, and were voting to do something about it.

The word jumped out at me, broke my reverie, and I realized how casually "corruption" is connected with foreign governments (even the BBC does it!). But it is seldom mentioned in connection with "Western" governments: European, American, Australian. But Central American, South American, African, Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian? Why, it's practically welded to the word "government." But what is corruption?

Is warping the fabric of the constitutional system of government for the sake of one otherwise unknown woman and cheap political theater, corruption? Is illegally detaining thousands of persons in violation of all known laws, national, state, international, what-have-you, corruption? Is tacitly (if not actively) condoning torture and prisoner abuse, corruption? Is ignoring the clear ruling of the highest courts, corruption? Rigging elections, undermining the vote process, trampling international law and ignoring treaties; is that corruption?

When do we decide a government is "corrupt," and on what basis? Cronyism? What of Halliburton, then? Favoritism to constituents, however minor numerically or politically they are? The parents of Terri Schiavo. Turning government over wholesale to a handful of plutocrats? Social Security reform. Suspension of environmental regulations. Re-writing of environmental regulations.

Etc. Etc. Etc.

When is a government corrupt? Is it in the definition of "corruption"? Or in the eye of the beholder? Are "they" corrupt, while we merely have "partisanship," "disagreements about the course of government," "differing interpretations of what the law requires"?

Remember that "shining city on a hill"? It wasn't a symbol of corruption. But it's certainly a reflection of what we should be, and a measure of what we are.

Addendum: As I was saying.

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