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):
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.