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Politics and the Nature of Human Evil

You see son, when dealing with imaginary political narratives a tommy gun is the only logical choice

You see son, when dealing with imaginary political narratives a tommy gun is the only logical choice

One of the current scandals du jour (or maybe it was last news cycle?) in Washington DC involves the revelation that the IRS has been selectively enforcing the rules against Tea Party nonprofit organizations.  The details are relatively banal (it’s the IRS and bureaucracy, after all) but depending on one’s flavor of political ideology it represents an example of traitorous disregard for the constitution on our slide to fascist socialism or another desperate attempt at making political mountains out of clerical molehills.

This would all be relatively boring to me* were it not for the following Chicago Tribune piece purporting to explain the scandal as an example of “The Chicago Way.”

Here is the article in question, IRS scandal a reminder of how I learned about The Chicago Way:

This is America, I said.

“Are you in your good senses?” said my father. “We have lives here. We have businesses. If we get involved in politics, they will ruin us.”

And no one, not the Roosevelt Democrats or the Reagan Republicans, disagreed. The socialists, the communists, the royalists, everyone nodded their heads.

This was Chicago. And for a business owner to get involved meant one thing: It would cost you money and somebody from government could destroy you.

The health inspectors would come, and the revenue department, the building inspectors, the fire inspectors, on and on. The city code books aren’t thick because politicians like to write new laws and regulations. The codes are thick because when government swings them at a citizen, they hurt.

And who swings the codes and regulations at those who’d open their mouths? A government worker. That government worker owes his or her job to the political boss. And that boss has a boss.

The worker doesn’t have to be told. The worker wants a promotion. If an irritant rises, it is erased. The hack gets a promotion. This is government.

In case it isn’t obvious, this is a columnist rant, but let’s treat his interpretation as fact for our current purposes.  John Kass wants us to understand and fear “The Chicago Way” of corrupt patronage and leave us to imagine such a system playing out on a national stage.  Here is the formula:

  • Political underlings in positions of some power, under the impression that they should do everything in their power to help the political future of their boss, use that power to abuse the political enemies of the boss.

  • It doesn’t even have to be directed by the boss, this sort of thing is just assumed to be something one does for the boss.

  • This creates a system where political opponents of whoever is in power at the time find themselves caught in the spotlight of selective rule enforcement and bureaucratic harassment.

  • Those with businesses to lose, such as the family of John Kass, find themselves disenfranchised from political participation – even if they spend all their time thinking of politics rather than watching TV.

A dire situation indeed!  When such a noble, television-free family finds themselves silenced by this nefarious “Chicago Way.”  But wait, there’s something basic missing from this narrative, a small matter of motivation and similarities across groups of human beings.  Let’s see, political underlings do unethical things in return for positions with more money and power (or even just to maintain the status quo with a current position).

But what about the Kass family?  They don’t follow through with their political values – dear enough to argue about them instead of catching the latest Diff’rent Strokes episode – in order to keep their businesses running smoothly.  Now we see how deep those values run, “if we get involved in politics, they will ruin us.”

The family debates are shown for what they are: pure entertainment like TV, with similar consequences.

So for the Kass family, money is more important than integrity, just like those unethical bureaucratic underlings.  But how can these two actions be equivocal?  One group has some measure of power and actively harms others, surely they are more to blame for this regrettable situation?  I am reminded of the following misogynistic exchange (often attributed** to Churchill):

Churchill: “Madam, would you sleep with me for five million pounds?”

Socialite: “My goodness, Mr. Churchill… Well, I suppose… we would have to discuss terms, of course… “

Churchill: “Would you sleep with me for five pounds?”

Socialite: “Mr. Churchill, what kind of woman do you think I am?!”

Churchill: “Madam, we’ve already established what you are; now we are haggling over the price.”

When integrity is for sale, the price is ultimately indifferent.  Here’s another example that might make things a bit clearer.  At what price would you consider selling your child?  A billion USD/EUR?  A trillion?  The very act of pricing such a thing is abhorrent.  What is the difference between political involvement and offspring, then?  If offspring or providing for them are more important to you, then own that choice and don’t pretend that you didn’t make it.  Also don’t pretend that other people won’t make that choice for themselves.***

With this in mind, let’s get back to the case at hand.  Not getting involved in politics to avoid problems with your business isn’t the first step on the road to losing integrity, it’s the whole journey.  The problem isn’t Washington or Chicago or the politicians or “those people” over there.  The problem (if you conceptualize such things as a problem in the first place, see ***) lies in each human being, whenever we mistakenly value money or power or health or life more than our integrity and compassion for our fellow humans.  Kass is right to point out the problems inherent in systems such as the “Chicago Way,” but he makes the mistake of giving such systems too much power – in this case power to make others act without integrity.  The fact of the system’s existence and temptations does not force anyone’s hand, each act represents a choice.

Now, I’m not here to tell you what expression that integrity or compassion should take, but I have a hunch it sounds a lot like a 12-year old boy saying something along the lines of:

We talk politics every Sunday, we fight about this and that, so why aren’t you politically active outside? Why don’t you get involved in politics?

The guilty silence is telling, but the young John Kass learned the wrong lesson.  He seems to have learned that if the price is too high, if your person or property is threatened sufficiently, you don’t have to live up to your ideals.  You are absolved and can ineffectually rage against the system you simultaneously support through tirades and tantrums that never lead to meaningful action.

Self-absolution has its own consequences, namely using what potential agency you have to deny the idea that you have any agency in your own life.  Don’t be surprised at the resulting powerless feeling.  But we can all act with integrity in every situation, in spite of what others are doing or could potentially do to us.  Ultimately no Utopian political system can save you from that choice and responsibility.

  1. * By this I mean that I am uninterested in the relative worth of either side’s spin and narrative, but rather the underlying motivations that I am attempting to explore here.
  2. ** For further investigation of this quote, see Quote Investigator.
  3. *** In other words, you can’t be consistent if you want to value money over political integrity while expecting and demanding others to make the opposite choice.  If integrity is your goal, then you will have your hands full with your own.  If money is your goal, then what is wrong with bureaucrats abusing their power for money?

Categories: Communications & Media Studies, Current events, Stoicism.

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15 Responses

  1. silentmachineryJune 3, 2013 @ 11:29 pm

    Great stuff here. This is precisely why a show like The Wire completely fails as a work of art. The show, by the creator’s own admission, is meant to be polemical, meant to show how virulent capitalism creates self-reinforcing, dehumanizing institutions that rob people of their volition, humanity and integrity (or something like that).

    What it doesn’t do is assign moral weight to the characters’ complete inability to act OUTSIDE those very institutions by virtue of personal integrity (via FrugalStoic’s language). The “Baltimore Police Department” isn’t corrupt because de-industrialization forces cops to cut corners (or whatever), but each cop is evil (?) because they choose their careers/lives/property over their fellow human beings.

    Normally I’d hate to bring it all back to TV, but I think in art/media it’s an especially pernicious, seductive attitude. What are the consequences of an art that fails to distinguish between good and evil? How many watch the show and take it as a matter of fact that “this is the way things are, and there’s nothing one person can do to change it”? FrugalStoic talks rightly about “expressions of integrity and compassion.” Shouldn’t it be art’s duty to illuminate and dramatize those expressions for us?

    TL;DR Great post; The Wire sux, watch The Shield instead

  2. Oh man! Fabius cannot not have a reply to your comment, silentmachinery, so maybe we should consider a slightly more elaborate format. For example, you develop the idea of ethics in art in a post and Fabius replies, or vice versa? Sorry to put you on the spot, but this has too much potential to languish in a comment thread. Interested?

    Of course, we’d have to ask Fabius, too, but by the power of Grey Skull, I summon him!

  3. Be back in one week with 50,000 word reply. Insulting my Wire! Tzzz.

  4. silentmachineryJune 4, 2013 @ 11:20 am

    Haha, this is awesome. I’m more than happy to give Fabius the first, and probably the last, word and I’ll do my best to rise to the level of discourse you guys have so wonderfully established.

    I’m sure, in the end, unless the TV execs bone us as per usual, we can all agree that Breaking Bad rules anyway.

  5. I’m glad this inspired a Shield/Wire grudge-match, which I look forward to reading, but I will briefly wade in with my perspective (having only seen season 1 of the Wire). I disagree that the Wire doesn’t assign moral weight, to take just one example, the judge, so eager to clean up the mess using his power, finds himself vulnerable and chastened toward the end of the season. Isn’t it obvious that he made the wrong choice? Instead of sticking with his integrity at the cost of his position of power, he backed down when the going got tough – and you can see the diminished quality about the character afterwards. Just because few of the characters (or any?) break free of the system through integrity doesn’t mean the show has nothing to tell us. How many people are able to act outside the system in real life?

    To change the subject slightly, I realize on re-reading my piece that I was uncharitable towards John Kass. I would like to make it clear that any hypocrisy that I attribute to him and his family, I am in reality recognizing and speaking against in myself. In case it isn’t obvious, my goal is to change those habits of thinking in my own mind, his piece just struck a chord that I ran with and interpreted for my own purposes.

  6. havent watched the shield yet though.

    and I am hilariously actually in the process of writing reviews of breaking bad – the verdict: mediocre. The correct answer: The Wire (minus S. 5, 3, possibly 4), The Sopranos (S.1, various episodes after that, FINALE. FUCKIGN PIECE OF GENIUS THAT FINALE), Louie, The Simpsons (S. 3-7 – visit deadhomersociety for details). After that it gets fuzzy already.

    Anyway, I will utterly fail at this. Just saying in advance.

    (INSULT ANY OF THESE AND I WILL KILL YOU http://img.xrmb2.net/images/934003.jpeg + various music i do not own legally)

  7. silentmachineryJune 4, 2013 @ 3:28 pm

    @Fabius

    We’re all gonna get there together, man.

    @FrugalStoic

    “How many people are able to act outside the system in real life?”

    I thought part of your post’s point was that while the System can do many, many things: kill you, rob you, humiliate and defame you, etc. the one thing that the System cannot do is force you to NOT do the right thing; only you can do that.

    From my perspective, part of The Wire’s thesis though is that Something Odious prevents these people in these institutions from doing the right thing, and my point wasn’t necessarily that The Wire has nothing to say, but that, in saying precisely that nobody can really make a difference it forsakes, what I consider to be, the very purpose of Good Art.

    David Simon said that the series is meant to be taken like a long book, with each season representing individual chapters. Re: Judge Phalen (to whom I assume you’re referring), it’s difficult to argue when you haven’t seen how he (or everybody, really) turns out in the end).

  8. silentmachineryJune 4, 2013 @ 3:43 pm

    @Fabius

    To at least try to find some common ground, can we at least agree that Lost was complete, pandering-to-the-LCD, trash? The finale anyway?

  9. @silentmachinery, Yes, that is indeed what I’m going for, but even when I realize the system can’t force me to do anything doesn’t mean that the system immediately loses its influence over me. I think it only happens gradually, through skillful effort at understanding the systems, their methods, and what is best for me to do that I can begin to see and make the correct choices.

    That’s a tall order for anyone, and in my experience I will inevitably fall short most if not all of the time. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t stop trying or working at it, but it also means that the thesis of the Wire seems fairly realistic to me. In other words, defeating the system means recognizing and removing the system’s influence over me. While making the system “better” will inevitably be part of my future effort, the idea that I can really change the system “for the better” hinders that effort. Does that make sense? The characters within the Wire universe can make a difference, but only within themselves and what they control – it can’t work any other way. I guess I need to see the rest of the series to see how it turns out though, maybe this perspective is off.

  10. I’m at 2599 words. The phrases “The Wire”, “The Shield”, or “Ethics” have not even fallen yet. I am so sorry :(

  11. This is a nice piece that raises some interesting points, but this line at the very end of the footnotes really rustled my jimmies (as well as the original point in the essay this footnote is assigned to):

    “If money is your goal, then what is wrong with bureaucrats abusing their power for money?”

    You’ve taken a massive shortcut with this line of thinking. You’re either presuming that anyone who chooses career/money over politics will, in their pursuit of money, act unethically or sans integrity in that pursuit.

    Or, and this is what I think you were really saying, that choosing to not get involved in politics is itself a decision lacking in integrity. To which I say hogwash.

  12. “presuming that anyone who chooses career/money over politics will, in their pursuit of money, act unethically or sans integrity in that pursuit.”

    I’m not trying to presume that. If acting ethically or with integrity is more important than more money, then money isn’t the highest goal. If not, why put those limits on pursuing money? The justification would be that money is more important than those things.

  13. Acting ethically isn’t a goal, though. You’ve set up a false choice. “Either money is your goal, or acting ethically is.” Same goes for the bureaucrats. “Either being a noble public servant is the goal, or you want to feed your kids.” These aren’t real.

    One can pursue wealth without compromising their integrity. That doesn’t make their integrity the highest goal. One can also choose a life in the public sector, AND put providing for/raising their family as their highest goal, and still manage to perform their public service with integrity and honor. They aren’t failing to deliver on their commitment to family by not abusing their power over the rest of the citizenry.

    One’s integrity or personal ethics is merely their code of behavior, the rules which they live by. Collectively, society has developed its own generally accepted ethical norms. It’s not perfect, it’s not universal, but they’re there. Sometimes people who skirt them get unfairly ahead in life, be it in the public or private sector.

    Like I said, this piece raises some interesting points. I think it’s a slightly unfair position to chastise those without the power or resources for not stepping in the political ring (I think it’s quite reasonable for ethical, moral agents to avoid politics altogether in many circumstances, though there is a clear downside for society here). And it’s probably even more unfair to Kaas, who is writing pieces about systemic government failure for public consumption and signing his name to it for all the world to see. But points regarding actionless political discourse amongst friends/family as nothing more than television replacement, and people allowing such corrupt systems too much power as a personal problem.. those I find intriguing.

  14. You bring up some interesting points and I would like to address them. I should have time to do so this weekend. Sorry for the delay but I wanted to let you know I have read and appreciate your comments and will respond as soon as I can.

  15. Okay, I had a chance to reread everything. I disagree that it’s a false choice, I believe we make countless choices every day between expedience and what we claim to value most. It’s most definitely a continuum, one problem is holding others to the extreme side of the continuum (virtue) without recognizing the incredible difficulty of doing that in our own life. In other words, desiring bureaucrats to sacrifice job prospects to protect the Kass family from financial retribution for getting involved in politics.

    I realize the irony that I may be holding Kass to a standard I do not follow myself, but at the time his piece seemed to offer a convenient example of concepts I was thinking about. For the record, I only pointed out not getting involved in politics lacked integrity if it was truly as important to his family as he seemingly presented it to be. If it’s important enough to you, no sacrifice is too much. If it isn’t, why should others care very much about it?

Got insight?