"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Cynics Are Made, Not Born 

Perhaps the most corrosive lie in politics is that predictable, cynical response to revelations of corruption, "everybody does it." First, the claim is certainly false - while it may be true that the majority of people in public service (and I choose that particular phrase with great care) are confident to the point of cockiness, self-assured to the point of self-righteousness, and pragmatic to the point of being unprincipled (or, in the alternative, ideologically committed to the point of irrational rigidity), there is little evidence that the majority of our elected representatives are corrupt. Indeed, given the number of ambitious prosecutors snooping around for scandal, it is likely that surprisingly little corruption goes completely undetected - although some is most likely swept under the rug after detection (after all, ambitious prosecutors know what side their bread is buttered on). Still, compared to most of the world and most of history, modern American politics is, I think, a remarkably clean business.

That, of course, is what makes the present administration and its minions so odious to me. Guys like DeLay, Abramoff, David Safavian, Duke Cunningham, etc., etc., etc. have made the present Republican party into a virtual Mafia, trading money and power for influence and favors to a degree that is unprecedented in modern times. That, along with certain ideological, um, quirks (torture, anyone?) explains the fear and loathing I feel, living in Bush's America. Still, as a whole, even the Republicans are probably more honest than not - for every DeLay or Abramoff there are no doubt any number of useful idiots with an "R" after their name, trying to be honest.

Which is why this article pisses me off.

It comes from the Christian Science Monitor, which is a good paper. It concerns the conviction of former Illinois governor George Ryan, who will be spending some time in prison, it appears. The reporting is accurate, if unspectacular, and the story is a compelling one. So what do I have to bitch about? Consider the headline:
Illinois jury says no more politics as usual

As it happens, there is nothing in the story to indicate that the headline is true (note that the headline was probably written by an editor, not the reporter). There is nothing in the piece to indicate that any member of the jury was interviewed at all, much less expressed an opinion that the verdict was meant as a general indictment of "politics as usual." Indeed, the phrase appears nowhere in the article; the closest is this, from the lede paragraph (emphasis supplied):
The trial and conviction on fraud charges of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan has shined a bright light on the dark corners of the inner workings of state government and its pay-to-play politics - practices that many critics say have too often been accepted as business as usual.

So, it isn't the jury speaking out against politics (or business) as usual; it is unnamed "critics." Well, no offense, but who the hell are these "critics," and what what is it exactly that they are critical of? Of corruption in politics? Of George Ryan? Who knows?

It seems a small point, but I think it's important. No less a light than the Christian Science Monitor tells us that corruption and fraud are "politics as usual" - except that the Monitor doesn't even attribute this conclusion to its own institutional judgment, but rather to that of a jury. Never mind that the jury in fact said no such thing (nor was it even empowered to do so). Upon closer reading, we see that it was not the jury, but rather some faceless critics which offered this "fact" as truth. But the casual reader walks away with a subtle, almost subliminal message, that George Ryan got convicted for fraud but that "everyone does it," and so the pool of cynicism within the body politic deepens a bit. The harm is small, perhaps, in this particular instance, but it accretes. Voters become apathetic, citizens become cynical, and worst of all, when we are confronted with evidence of truly awful corruption (as in the Boy King's Whitewash House), it strikes us as a dog-bites-man story: You say the Vice President sold influence on his energy task force to major energy providers? Halliburton is getting no-bid contracts, defaulting on them, and getting paid anyway? The small-time crooks who jammed phones on election day at the New Hampshire Democratic Party offices had close contact with the White House? So what - everyone does it, right?

Well, no; that's not right - but it is no surprise that you might think so.




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