Monday, February 02, 2009

Ruminations 2: Fecund Corruption Exposed

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer)

This is another in what I hope to be a month long series of quasi-aphoristic (ἀφορισμός) essays, meant to provoke thought rather than explain it. The hope is that, built up on each other, the series will provide a matrix of thoughts that together might lead the reader in new directions.
BY the time institutions build great edifices to their values and operations, the power of those values and institutions have passed. The grander the outward expression the more decayed and empty the inward vitality of that effort. Beware monument builders--they are institutional historians of form without content.

Vienna is a city of many profound insights. One of the greatest is expressed in its architecture. As the Empire for which it served as a capital expanded abroad and rotted within in the 19th century, the architectural expression of that outward form of the state reached an apogee of grandeur that continues to draw tourists from all over the world. As the cancer of decay advances, the body appears grander, bigger, taking up more space, using more of its energy in the construction of the illusion of its past to project onto a future in which only the too late incarnation of its essence will remain as a sort of macabre souvenir. One might therefore be wary of grandeur, for it likely serves as a veil over a corruption within.

But the grandeur of decaying systems is not merely expressed in its architecture. It is also expressed in a hyper-affectation of the forms of that system that veils its very perversion. Thus the corruption of a system merely hides the greater corruption of the forces used to protect against itself, and in so doing, deepens the corruption of the system as a whole, even as it purports to erect ever greater protections of its integrity. But it is also a rottenness that serves as the nourishment for what comes after.  Steven Beller, "Introduction: The Life and Times of Vienna 1900," in Re-Thinking Vienna 1900 (Steven Beller, ed., Berghahn Books, 2001).

Nowhere is this more evident than in the fight against corruption by public elected officials. Since the 1970s, the federal executive has taken it upon himself to oversee the campaign against corruption by members of the legislative branch. That vigilance has produced great results--several convictions of federal legislators in a little less than a generation. Ex-congressman begins prison sentence: Cunningham sentenced to 8 years, 4 months in prison in corruption case,, March 4, 2006. There are more on the way. Bruce Alpert, Former Rep. William Jefferson's corruption trial set for May 26, New Orleans Times-Picayune, Jan. 15, 2009. The federal executive has also increasingly used its power to uncover corruption, or its essence, among members of elected state officials, leading in early 2009 to the impeachment and removal of the sitting Governor of Illinois before a criminal conviction on charges of corruption and office selling. Christopher Wills, FBI tapes played for Illinois impeachment trial, AP, Jan. 27, 2009.

And that must be a good thing. But it has come with a price: the federal government--or at least its executive (the President and his ministers)-- now appears to have an extraordinary power of surveillance over the elected officials of the federal and state governmental apparatus. In the name of fighting corruption, it might wiretap, observe, confiscate, download and review virtually anything that is produced or discussed in the office of elected officials. Of course, to the extent that an official is not corrupt, he or she ought to have nothing to fear. But an excess of zeal to prevent corruption might well mask corruption of a wholly different character. While the glorious edifices of anti-corruption are being built on the bodies of elected legislative and state officials (and they are glorious), the scope of the corruption of a governance system grounded in separation of powers grows as well. It will inevitably also give birth to a new order, a seed that will germinate from within the overripe and rotten fruit within which it is embedded.

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