Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
26Oct/120

Corruption Takes Root

What is the essence of corruption? This is a question raised by the recent Supreme Court jurisprudence around Citizens United v. FEC. For Justice Kennedy and the Court has concluded, as a matter of law, that only quid pro quo corruption is corruption. An out and out bribe is corrupting, but throwing a congressman a $100,000 party or treating them to fancy meals and trendy restaurants, that is just exercising the right to freely speak with one's elected representatives. That such lavish expenditures come with expectations is, the Court insists, improvable and simply part and parcel of our democratic system.

In Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It, Lawrence Lessig explores fully the impact of such "soft" corruption. He writes that the enemy we face today is not a Hitler or even the good Germans who would enable a Hitler. "Our enemy," Lessig writes, "is the good Germans (us) who would enable a harm infinitely less profound, yet economically and politically catastrophic nonetheless. A harm caused by a kind of corruption. But not the corruption engineered by evil souls. Indeed, strange as this might sound, a corruption crafted by good souls. By decent men. And women." Such a crime, he insists, is banal, but "not the banal in the now-overused sense of Hannah Arendt's The Banality of Evil—of ordinary people enabling unmatched evil (Hitler's Germany). Our banality is one step more, well, banal."

Lessig is right to worry that Arendt's phrase is overused, but what is more banal in the banality he so penetratingly describes in his book? In any case, his book better describes the kind of endemic corruption that infects our political system than any other. It should be read.

It is also important to remember that real corruption still exists in our world. It may be more a rarity at a time when one can accomplish so much corruption through legal means, but examples of bold and brazen corruption remain.

Lance Armstrong's web of corruption that silenced and intimidated dozens of his colleagues for over a decade is one example of how corruption can succeed, against all odds, but only for a time.  Rumors of Armstrong's drug use floated around for a decade, and yet he still denies it. It took years for the web of deceit to break. As the NY Daily News wrote in an excellent review of the scandal:

The Armstrong myth was so lucrative that suppressing the truth came to require an endless behind-the-scenes campaign to bully and intimidate people into silence. Some of it bordered on gangsterism. Some of it was dressed up in the respectable wardrobe of elite law firms. But mostly it was just hot air - a fact that by 2010 had become clear enough to Floyd Landis that he stepped up and burst the bubble, blowing the whistle on the whole big fraud.

We tend to ignore corruption because it seems so inconceivable in our age of transparency. Corruption requires that the truth be kept hidden. This is extremely difficult and possible only through force and violence and even terror. But eventually, the truth comes out. As Hannah Arendt wrote in another context, "holes of oblivion do not exist." Eventually, the truth will emerge, no matter how many interests and how much money and violence is spent in the futile effort to prevent that from happening.

What brings to mind these brief reflections on the continued efficacy of corruption as well as its eventual failure is an article recently published in The Nation on the Hershey Trust. The author of the story is Ric Fouad, who is also a member of the Arendt Center's Board of Advisors. He is a graduate of the Milton Hershey School and together with a handful of other activists has been fighting a lonely battle against what he sees as the corruption of the Hershey Trust's Board, a fight that for him is inspired by Hannah Arendt's insistence on both truth, courage, and public action.

A little background. Milton Hershey was not just a brilliant chocolatier who had a radical vision of making chocolate—previously marketed only to the wealthy—available to the masses. He was also profoundly philanthropic.  Unable to have children, Hershey left his entire personal fortune to the Hershey Trust, whose mission was to administer The Milton Hershey School, a school that Hershey founded to help and educate orphaned boys—the school is now coed and serves children with living parents. That fortune is now worth nearly $8 billion.

By his own account, Milton Hershey's life work would be to help orphaned children, whose plight touched him deeply. Hershey wanted his school to bring orphans into a revolutionary new kind of school, free from industrial buildings common to orphanages. The children were to live in beautiful homes in a bucolic paradise on 12,000 acres of land. They were to work on farms to learn character and attend a school that includes a vocational curriculum as well and have great teachers. It had all the potential to be  an extraordinary facility set in truly magnificent settings.

So what is not to like? Well, for one thing, the Hershey Trust has been under investigation for six years, with no resolution and amidst plenty of accusations and charges about misspent funds and broken trust. The bucolic community-wide children's home was telescoped into a crowded centralized campus; the farms were all closed; the vocational program barely survives; and the poorest children, wards of the court, and foster care children came to be rejected in favor of what the administrators deemed a "better" class of child. Local developers made tens of millions in the process.

Tasked with administering the Milton Hershey School, the Trust's incredible resources enabled it to do much else besides. This could be an amazing opportunity to do good. It could also and become a magnet for powerful and connected people who finagled their ways onto the Hershey Trust board in order to access and control the vast wealth the Hershey Trust possessed. And that is what the article in The Nation, as well as numerous investigative articles here, here, and here, in The Philadelphia Inquirer, have alleged. You can also watch Ric Fouad's Harvard Law School lecture "Hershey's Broken Trust" here.

In Republic, Lost, Lessig writes:

The great threat to our republic today comes not from the hidden bribery of the Gilded Age, when cash was secreted among members of Congress to buy privilege and secure wealth. The great threat today is in plain sight. It is the economy of influence transparent to all, which has normalized a process that draws our democracy away from the will of the people. A process that distorts our democracy from ends sought by both the Left and the Right: For the single most salient feature of the government that we have evolved is that it discriminates against all sides to favor itself.

As true as that is about government, it is also true for cycling legends and political clubs. When corruption of all kinds pervades institutions throughout our society, it is only natural that cynicism abounds and we lose faith in the process of government as well as in the integrity of business. It is time to take corruption seriously in this country, and not explain it away as something that happens elsewhere in less civilized and less democratic countries.

You can read an excerpt of Lessig's Republic, Lost...  here, at Amazon.com, where you can also buy his book.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
3Oct/110

The Embezzlement of Hope-Aubrey Namakhwa

When faced with the challenge of thinking about the truth, I have personally been considering the phenomenon surrounding the orphanages and donor funds in poor countries, particularly in Africa. As this is an issue that has affected me personally, being an orphan myself, I will focus on my native country, Malawi.

Malawi being one of the poorest countries in Africa has for a long time been a targeted destination for donor funds. Obviously, due to the higher percentage of HIV/AIDS and health problems in the country, there are many orphans due to the death of their parents. There are therefore, many orphanages and community-based organizations in many villages in Malawi.

I am always motivated by the love, kindness and generosity that people from richer countries have shown to my country, Malawi. Having being born into a poor family and surrounded by drastic poverty in my life, I have grown to understand what it means to starve and try to live on a less than a dollar per day. I have seen too many orphan-care projects start and close. I have heard and seen many generous donors decide to boycott important orphan-care projects they were so devoted to. These were projects that were benefitting the lives of many poor and innocent orphans in the suburbs and villages of Malawi. These boycotts resulted from the embezzlement of donated funds by the people entrusted to manage the donations. One question that always lingered in my mind was why these donors whom I cherished and know to be so kind just give up on these poor lives like that? This question gave me the curiosity to search out the truth about the whole matter and I discuss it in this essay.

One thing that really puzzles me is that these donors do not just blame the people who are directly responsible for these embezzlements. Instead, they put the blame on the whole community as if everyone, from the project coordinator to the youngest infant benefitting from the funds, is crooked and untrustworthy. They hastily place blame on the whole community as if everyone is responsible for the embezzlement. “We are very disappointed in you people, you are too corrupt to be helped”, they say as they leave, “we had been so committed to helping you but you do not even care, all you want is to selfishly waste our money.” In reality, these claims are not true. They are the result of generalized thinking and a failure to analyze the situation in search of the truth.

The truth about what is going on here is not so simple. Not everyone in these communities is crooked and untrustworthy. There are many people who are faithful and good. These people are very eager to work with donors in helping the poor orphans in the villages out there. It therefore means that the generalized claims by most of the donors are simply subjective opinions raised in the midst of frustration and disappointment. It would seem that emotion has the ability to wreck havoc on our mind’s ability to search for that which is true.

A typical example of this rush to judgment happened in one of the suburbs in Lilongwe called Chilinde. There used to be an orphanage in that area known in our Chichewan language as ‘tithandizeni’, which means ‘help us please’. The orphanage took care of children between two and ten years old, small children. This orphanage was literally the difference between life and death for many children. The porridge they received every morning was the only food they could count on. They were really happy together and felt like a family, which helped numb the pain of losing their parents and being alone in the world.

This orphanage had been operating for less than a year, with things going normally. A new group of white people came to visit the orphanage. We learned that these people wanted to start funding a new project that would help those orphans as they got older. They would start a fund that would allow them to continue with their education so that they could become self-reliant. That idea was so welcomed as the children were now assured of hope for a brighter future. However, a month later this orphanage that stood as the source of hope for these orphans was nowhere to be seen. It was closed and the kids stood helpless again, literally on the street with nowhere to go.

While preparing the new project, the donors discovered that two employees of the orphanage were misusing the funds. There had been so much embezzlement that the funds that were been given to the kids were far less than they should have been. Consequently, the donors got very disappointed and disgusted and lost trust in everyone who was part of the committee. They left taking the hope for any kind of future for these orphans with them.

In this case, it is important to consider that it was the coordinator and treasurer who embezzled the funds and not the whole committee. The donors therefore, should have borne that in mind before turning their backs on the whole project. The other committee members tried their best to plead with the donors to let them explain but to no avail. Their plea was met with anger and words like ‘you people cannot be helped, we have been working so hard in your community and all this time you are just mere thieves and not to be trusted’. The truth, which the generous donors failed to consider, was that not all the people in the committee were untrustworthy and responsible for the embezzlement. There were other people in the committee who were really faithful and honest to the donors and were very transparent in handling the little funds given to them.

Now, are such honorable people unworthy to have funds entrusted to them? What about project coordinators in other orphan-care projects who have always been complemented by their donors for handling funds excellently? Is it right to disregard their hard work and dedication and generalize that the people or leaders of orphanages are thieves and embezzlers? Certainly not. But, it is easy. People are quick to believe their opinions to be widespread truth. Truly examining the situation from all sides would help these donors come up with important ways of facilitating the project while minimizing the risk of embezzlements.

It is also important to note that this inability to consider the truth of the matter here does not only affect the actions of the few donors who are embarrassed by the crooked ways of the coordinators of their projects. It also has the potential to negatively impact the thinking of other people who had been considering assisting orphans in poor countries. We are left with a potential ripple effect with far more damaging potential than drained bank accounts.  For each of these children, it is the disappearance of the only spark of hope and light they had or will ever have.

But why have things turned out that way? The answer still brings us back to looking for the truth. People who are willing to start assisting these poor orphans get discouraged because they simply choose to agree with what they are told by other donors. This complacency and assumption clouds their ability to look at the truth. The worst thing about the acts of these embezzlers is the broad strokes with which their actions now paint a whole community in the eyes of those who fail to take the time to look for their own truth.

Again, what must be considered is the impact that lazy presumption rather than truth seeking is having on orphans. The famous pop star, Madonna came to Malawi with the idea of building a vast boarding school in the Kanengo area of Lilongwe to help poor girls. The project moved very quickly, and a large area of land was bought and soon leveled. The most unfortunate thing is that the project went no further. The cause was again, embezzlement of funds by those leading the project. The worst thing is that Madonna gave up the project and has moved on to whatever strikes her fancy at present.

Today if you look at that place, all you see is desolation.  It is a visual representation of the barren future now left all of those girls whose hopes rested upon that school. Being deprived of their right to an education not only endangers their future, but the future of the world at large.

In conclusion, it is important that we start to think about the truth of every matter that concerns us in life and stop looking at things through the eyes and opinions of others. Pursuing our own search for the truth opens our minds and can bring positive change to a world in which everybody tends to look at things from a common point of view.

Aubrey Namakhwa.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.