THE WORLD HAS BEEN NOISY over the past couple months, and I have been silent.
After fifteen years living and working with corruption and its consequences in countries like Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Honduras and Nigeria, it was time to point the magnifying glass, so to speak, at the mirror. I’m at work on a book on corruption in the United States. The parallels with those developing countries are even more precise -- and the implications for all of our futures even more alarming -- than I had feared.
Now that I’ve moved from the research to writing, I've got little energy or creativity to spare, so I will be popping up here only rarely for the next six months or so. But a few notes now and then will give a sense of what’s on my mind.
THE UNITED STATES OF DISGUST
The map below is the most eloquent statement on the condition of our democracy I have seen. Under the electoral college, those who voted for Mr./Ms. Nobody – by not registering or not voting – would have wiped the floor with the official candidates in 2016, had their votes been counted. Look at the electoral college votes in the top right-hand corner. In my state, West Virginia, non-voters outnumbered voters in nearly every single county.
One of my favorite neighbors -- a wonderful man, a careful and proud worker, always funny, drives a school bus -- doesn’t vote. Why? “Whoever we vote for, they’ll just put who they want in there.”
I thought this over. “Who’s ‘They?’” I asked.
“You know, the fat cats.”
A majority of American citizens either can’t easily vote or don’t see the point. Until that changes, it’s hard to consider the United States a democracy. A crucial election is coming up. Please, urge your neighbors to vote, whichever way they lean. The 1% has the money, but we have the numbers. Let's use them.
Speaking engagements since August have taken me from San Salvador to Lexington (KY) to Belgrade to Copenhagen. I'm still struck by how globalized corruption networks are and how dangerous – and how underestimated, even now.
In a few media interviews, I have tried to put current U.S. events in some historical and geographical context. Though the corruption we’re currently experiencing has been decades in the making, it has attracted close attention only now – and largely for partisan reasons. People point fingers across the political divides. But that is no way to solve this problem.
And while ordinary Americans spit insults at each other over issues like immigration, guns, and gender, those perched on the top of our political and economic system, whatever their party, unite on the matters of real concern to them: tax breaks for the rich, lobbying and corporate money in politics, and judicial clemency for corruption and corporate crime. The same goes internationally. Kleptocratic networks thrive in leftist and conservative countries, under military and civilian rule alike. Their only ideology is money.
And indeed, my most interesting conversations have been with ordinary people about that topic of endless fascination (the subject of Chapter 2 of this forthcoming book).
With pastors and then congregants in Cumberland, MD, I discussed a dramatic episode from the New Testament: The Cleansing of the Temple. Jesus marches up the steps of what was the most magnificent building complex east of Rome, and starts throwing furniture around. He upends the tables where money-changers were converting pilgrims’ tithes into the only currency the Temple accepted – and taking who knows what commission in the exchange. Heaps of coins crashed to the ground, bouncing and rolling on the marble flagstones, as pigeons, sheep and goats scattered in a braying pandemonium. The Lord’s house, Jesus roared above the din, was become a den of thieves.
There’s a great deal to this story. I learned a lot from examining the historical record about what the Temple looked like in those days, and what purposes it served. The Supreme Court was housed in the complex; tax-collectors deposited their personal fortunes there for safe-keeping; a garrison of Roman soldiers overlooked the grounds from a nearby tower.
“Who,” I wondered aloud to congregants of the Emmanuel Episcopal Church, “would our money-changers be today?” The answers came fast: “Big Pharma,” most agreed, because of the profits drug companies have made on people’s addiction and fatal overdoses, and their ability to do so for so many years by putting “politicians in their pockets.” “Credit card companies,” someone else said. “Banks.”
“The problem with the money-changers,” one woman pointed out, “wasn’t just that they were corrupt. It’s that they were in the Temple – they were in the sacred space.” She had been thinking about that other side of the equation: What is that sacred space, today? What’s our Temple? “Pick yours," she concluded. "Your home, your school, your church, your doctor’s office… What are we bringing in? Everywhere, you have to pay dues to some big corporation.”
And, I thought, our government. I was thinking of our almost religious reverence for freedom and democracy. I was picturing the marble buildings in Washington, with their domes and columns. What manner of corruption have we brought inside our temples?