The Arab world is aflame, with both short- and long-term consequences that we can only guess at. Longstanding regimes in Tunisia and Egypt have been swept away, and, as this is being written, time may be running out on Libya’s long-running dictatorship. Other non-Democratic governments in the Middle East are also threatened.
Much of the press coverage of these events has been very good, although, as always, there is kind of a herd mentality. This time, the herd has focused on the uses of social media as keys to understanding earth-shaking events. The result is that something fundamental is being missed. And in this fundamental thing, there is a warning for governments everywhere.
There is a theme that these events are a cry for freedom. And there is truth in that claim. But the spark that set off the conflagration that has shaken an entire region was not caused by political oppression. It was caused by a form of corruption. A young Tunisian fruit vendor was slapped and insulted by a municipal inspector, who then proceeded to confiscate his scale.
In response, having suffered one humiliation too many, 26-year-old Muhammad Bouazizi bought a can of gasoline, went to the town square and set himself afire. Beyond the petty insults, we have also learned that the corruption of the ruling clique had become so blatant that it was seen as an insult to human dignity by most “ordinary” Tunisians. The rest is history, or at least the beginning of history.
Corruption is a way of life in many places on earth. In general, poverty and corruption go together. Like the combination of poverty and violence, you can make a case either way, that poverty causes corruption or vice versa. On a generally accepted scale, the least corrupt country on earth is Iceland, with Finland, New Zealand, Denmark and Singapore close behind. The most corrupt are Chad, Bangladesh, Burma and Haiti.
When I arrived in New York as a young man from the Midwest, I was shocked at the easy acceptance of widespread corruption, both public and private. Organized crime controlled whole sectors of the economy, and everyone took it for granted. Police corruption was rampant, and all kinds of people were constantly looking for a payoff of one kind or another.
As someone who may have been quite naive, what struck me most about this corruption was not the money it cost, but how it humiliated people and robbed them of their dignity. That a man who just wanted to run a restaurant had to buy his linen from the mafia or pay off the cops seemed to me to be a form of ongoing humiliation that diminished him as a human being.
I was once working on a project in Ukraine, a pretty corrupt country. At the airport, the customs officer demanded that I give up a gold chain and cross. I refused and said, “Let’s call the minister and straighten this out,” showing him the business card of the senior government official that I was working with. He backed down, but I started thinking about the incident.
For me, this was an unusual occurrence, but there are people who face this kind of thing every day, like the young man in Tunisia. I was holding some strong cards, but, often in these situations, people are powerless. Like sexual crimes, corruption is often about power, particularly the power to humiliate.
And that is why the spark in Tunis is important to understand. Wherever it occurs, corruption robs people of their dignity, and, in the end, it may rob the system of its legitimacy. And while people may get used to living in a corrupt system, they never really stop resenting and hating being humiliated and robbed of their dignity. That is probably the main reason that corrupt systems must rely on force to maintain control and why, in the end, they are unstable. That is, unless you are willing to kill almost everyone.
As is usually the case, Americans and our mass media don’t think this has much, if anything, to do with us. We’re No. 1, right? Well, actually “no.” In the corruption rankings, we are 17th from the top, just behind those tricky Germans and just ahead of the shifty French. And even though fans can’t chant, “USA, USA, We’re No. 17, We’re No. 17,” being 17th out of more than 150 countries isn’t that bad, except that it does put us close to the bottom of what is known as the developed world.
And, being 17th, doesn’t begin to tell the full story. The corruption scale leaves out the biggest example of corruption in modern history. The richest people in the United States have perpetrated a fraud so enormous that it brought down the global economy, created mass unemployment, cast millions out of their homes and required a nearly trillion dollar government bailout. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission has documented all of this, including the examples of fraud.
Even this is not the biggest sign of corruption: The real flashing red light is the following: not a single one of these criminals has been indicted, let alone sent to prison. How is this possible? Maybe it is because the American justice system is clogged with bigger and more important cases.
For example, there is the case of the woman in Ohio who was to be sentenced to two years in prison for putting down a false address so that her child could go to a good school. Who knows what other evil she may have been engaged in, misusing food stamps or not declaring all of her tips? Given our finite criminal justice resources, priorities must be set.
While everyone can identify with the young man who just wanted to run his fruit stand in Tunisia, our massive financial corruption doesn’t have the same emotional tug. And, after all, some of the heads of these crooked banks did have their feelings hurt by having to testify before Congress. But, it is still a dangerous thing when large numbers of people in a society become convinced that everything is rigged in favor of the rich and powerful.
The U.S. Virgin Islands is surrounded by corrupt countries. Haiti, Dominican Republic and Jamaica, all have high levels of corruption. It is hard for an outsider to spot corruption, but there have always been a steady flow of rumors in the territory, mostly of petty corruption.
And there has been a handful of recent scandals. Typically it has been the kind that provokes cynicism rather than anger and a sense of injustice. In a place with weak systems, the kind of weakness that fosters temptation, Virgin Islands corruption is probably also of the kind that makes some people think, “Gee, maybe I can get in on that.”
Whatever the level, it is worth viewing events in the Middle East as the proverbial “wake-up call,” one which will almost certainly be ignored by the arrogant and those who underestimate the power of ongoing feelings of injustice and humiliation and violations of human dignity.
Whether it takes the form of a society in which the most powerful are able to treat everyone else as “the help” or the cynicism bred by the belief that anything can be “fixed,” the effect is very corrosive. Wherever it occurs, on whatever scale, corruption is a big deal.
March 2, 2011