Under the Radar 2

Is the Afghan Government 

Actually Less Corrupt Than Washington?


This is the second of a series of columns inspired by the

East Village Other, written by former EVO columnist

Alex Gross and aimed at recapturing the spirit of that

unique newspaper.  These columns are equally inspired by

the exhibit about this newspaper sponsored by four NYU

divisions: the NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism

Institute, the Fales Library and Special Collections 

of NYU Elmer A. Bobst Library, the Program on 

Museum Studies, and the NYTimes.com Local 

East Village. This exhibit celebrates EVO's past

and is most welcome. But EVO's passing has left

a gap in the journalism of the present, and many

stories that EVO would almost surely have covered

have in fact been left unreported. The columns

that follow attempt to fill that gap. To see other

columns in this series, click here


At first glance the whole idea must sound ridiculous. The government of a primitive country like Afghanistan—with so many competing tribes we can scarcely call it a nation—is obviously more corrupt than our own. Afghans have never remotely passed through the many sophisticated stages of development that could perhaps one day lead to a true government, much less a democracy.

They live hand to mouth existences, not only as individuals but as a people, responding only to greed and need, hopelessly trapped in clan vendettas and the failure or success of the next poppy harvest. How could such a government possibly be less corrupt than our own?

But let's take a few second and third glances. We all recognize the usual signs of government corruption— bribe-taking, nepotism, extortion, rigged elections, and so on. Such games must be simple child's play for the Afghans.

Of course they also show up in the US, they’re probably even in today's news, but at least we expose and punish these transgressions whenever we find them. Yet in Kabul all this is simply business as usual, a normal part of everyday life. How can their government possibly be less corrupt than our own?

A normal part of everyday life. I've just put my finger on it—let me confess, back when just a few dollars had real value I was able to spend years living in Italy, Spain, and Greece, those western nations many—especially today's Germans—enjoy calling corrupt. I've also spent other years in northern nations like England, Austria, and even Germany. And since I also have a whole clutch of French relatives, I just might have a few insights into corruption abroad based on experience and family ties.

Perhaps you've already guessed it—in one form or another corruption exists everywhere, and the US has never been an exception. Just two years ago even the English were positively staggered to discover that their self-righteous Labour MPs had been enjoying a few perks on the side. Pretty modest perks too by Washington standards. This actually cost them the last election.

So let's just stop for a moment and ask two of the most crucial questions. Precisely what is corruption, and how can we actually measure it? As soon as we ask these questions, we'll find beyond any question of a doubt that corruption is—and always has been—far more prevalent in the US than in Afghanistan. And not merely prevalent, positively rampant. Let's look at a few of the real facts.

Spotting and defining corruption is easy. It's potentially any act that enables you or someone else to keep what you already have and be sure of making it even better. Or to restrain the forces that might diminish or threaten your holdings.

It's not a lot more than applying and broadening the common-sense steps you and I take each day to keep ourselves afloat in an ever changing world. And making sure those steps are fool-proof. Even if it means breaking or ignoring social norms or the law. So essentially corruption starts with you and me.

Now let's look at corruption historically. Except for England and Iceland, the US is the oldest democracy in the world.

That means that we've had 220 years to find ways of enhancing, ensuring, and concealing various forms of corruption within government agencies since our first election in 1792. Or 147 years since the end of the Civil War. Either way that's a lot of years and a lot of possible forms of corruption to look into.

In other words democracy has given a real boost to the cause of corruption. Most other nations haven't had anywhere near so long, and Afghanistan has barely had even a few years to try out anything like democracy. Obviously they're nowhere as good at corruption as we are, they're still stuck in the old primitive ways, bribery, nepotism, etc.

But for Washington these are all just kid’s stuff, and no one should assume that all such instances have ever or will ever be discovered and punished. In other words, we not only still have Kabul style corruption but hundreds of years worth of our own brand as well.

So it's remarkably simple to see why Washington must be more corrupt than Afghanistan. Even if we don't go back to 1792, even if we limit ourselves to the last fifty years, the number of paths our Representatives and Senators could have followed to enhance existing forms of corruption and create new ones is virtually limitless.

Who can ever follow all the twists and turns in the legislation that has controlled (or purported to control) our banks, small businesses, and the relations between our government and Big Business, Big Oil, BigPharma? To say nothing of our tax code and the countless ways it has enriched the wealthy and further impoverished the poor.

There have been wheelings and dealings inside wheelings and dealings, and the forces of Occupy Wall Street will need to scrutinize most of them in elaborate detail before they can come near reaching their goals.

But there's also some easier-to-spot evidence that our government has been corrupt. How else are we to explain the last three years of non-action, endless bickering, and bitter opposition in our Congress over no-brainer laws that should have been passed decades ago with little need for discussion?

And how do we explain as anything less than corruption the spectacle of one political party holding back legislation on these issues since 2009 for the sake of what may prove to be an imaginary political gain in 2012?

At least some of our best journalists have begun to uncover a few of these incestuous couplings, but it is most probably just a drop in the bucket. So when some OWS voices tell us they as yet have no specific program because "everything is wrong," they just might be on to something. The problem remains—ours and theirs—how are we to follow up, map out, and even begin to repair this labyrinthine network of almost hidden relationships.

Nor does the problem of corruption end even here. We've barely mentioned stocks, bonds, futures, derivatives, or the insurance industry. Does anyone suppose that all or even most instances of fraud and/or insider trading in these fields have remotely been detected and punished?

But matters quickly grow even worse and turn deeply personal. I'm not suggesting anything like original sin or collective guilt, but there's an even deeper form of corruption that very likely lies inside so many of us as human beings. You've met them, we've all met them, they're all around us. The people I'm talking about exist in all nations and cultures, where they are variously known as Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu fundamentalists. Not to mention zealots of extremist economic theories like communism or Milton Friedmanism.

The real problem facing all societies and governments, including our own, lies rooted in the vast number of these individuals, who do their best to get through their lives based on a very limited set of ideas, itself derived from an extremely limited set of cultures, often no more than one.

And the most truly horrific  danger these people pose is when they try to thrust their limited set of ideas, derived from that limited set of cultures, on everyone else.

This too is a form of corruption, over the centuries perhaps built into the nature of society itself, conceivably even traceable to genetic tendencies. It explains why H.L. Mencken referred to America as a "boobocracy" at a time when the word "boob" meant only dork or jerk.

We can also find various forms of corruption inside a number of professions that as yet barely exist in Afghanistan. I'm sure you can name them for me and let me end this article sooner. There's even plenty of room for corruption inside scientific and medical research—we certainly discover instances of this arising a bit too often. There's even room for corruption inside—dare I say it?—our universities. But this is a topic for several other articles.

To summarize, Afghan corruption is outright, overt, easy to recognize, while American corruption has been carefully hidden and lovingly sanctified over decades—perhaps even over centuries—by "due process of law." In other words, let's answer our opening question in no uncertain terms. There's not the slightest room for doubt: where corruption's the game, the US Government comes out way ahead of its Afghan counterpart on an almost astronomical scale.


Alex Gross has written of his experiences with the underground press in the US, UK, Germany, and the Netherlands in his book THE UNTOLD SIXTIES: When Hope Was Born.  His website for this book:
His main website: 


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