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
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
and is most welcome. But EVO's passing
a gap in the journalism of the present, and many
stories that EVO would almost surely
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
Afghanistanwith so many competing tribes we can scarcely call
it a nationis 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, theyre
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 itlet 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 manyespecially today's
Germansenjoy 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 itin 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 isand always has
beenfar 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 kids
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
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 remainsours and
theirshow 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 researchwe certainly discover instances of this arising
a bit too often. There's even room for corruption insidedare 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 decadesperhaps even over
centuriesby "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
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: