Democracy works best when ordinary citizens inform themselves and participate in public policy discussions

Monday, November 14, 2011

Nittany Lies: Anatomy of Corruption

My father grew up in Western Pennsylvania.  He taught me how to block and fire out of a three-point stance when I was four years old.  He taught me how to block before he played catch with me, and we hardly ever played catch--the essence of the game is blocking and tackling--that's what we practiced.  As I grew older, about the only activity we both truly enjoyed doing together was watching football on T.V.

When I first got into watching football as a young boy, it was almost exclusively the pros.  Eventually I came to appreciate the college game, which my father preferred.  He loved watching line-play, he loved good blocking and tackling; he loved a strong defense; he loved Penn State, and he loved Joe Paterno.

After a series of strokes, my father passed away in April of 2009.  Although he is missed by those he left behind, I am glad he did not have to witness someone he greatly admired, so thoroughly disgraced.  He had also believed in the flag-waving rhetoric of the Nixon presidency.  After Watergate, he lost interest in discussing politics.  He was someone who really had faith in strong leadership by righteous individuals.  He believed that great men made great things happen.  The idea that all human beings are deeply flawed was not a principle he chose to promote, and he had great difficulty recognizing his own flaws.

As I stated in a previous post, in the context of political leadership, I do not believe our leaders are supposed to be good.  I believe leaders are supposed to be held accountable.  I don't mean they are not capable of doing good or even being great.  What I mean is that all human beings, to varying degrees, are susceptible to the corrupting influence of power.  The Framers of the Constitution understood that human beings could not and should not be trusted with power.  I believe the Constitution was their attempt to provide the framework for a type of government that did not require trust.  It requires a balance of power and the consent of the people whom the government serves.  In other words, the different branches of government should be accountable to each other and ultimately to the people.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has helped raise awareness of the fact that when corporations are legally defined as people and money is considered free speech, the framework of accountability breaks down.  The upshot is a system which no longer provides equal access to the legislature or equal protection under the law.  As a result multi-national corporations have been able warp the political process to create a legal and regulatory framework that absolves them from appropriate oversight and accountability. 

The corrupting influence of power, coupled with a lack of oversight and accountability, is not benign.  On Wall Street it contributed to global financial meltdown, and at Penn State it contributed to the victimization of children.

This is not about Jerry Sandusky.  If the allegations about him are correct, then he is a serial rapist of children and a monster. 

This is about the corrupting influence of power on people who are not monsters, good people, even people considered to be "great".  The fact that Joe Paterno and others were made aware that someone associated with the institution was abusing children is not an allegation.  They have already admitted it to be true.

There is no doubt that Penn State Football is an institution of power that generates hundreds of millions of dollars for the university.  When given the choice between protecting children or the institution of power, Joe Paterno chose the institution.  He chose himself.  His power is derived from the fact that the program he runs is a bonafide revenue generator.  When someone chooses to protect their own power rather than exercise responsibility, that person is corrupt.  The great Joe Paterno is corrupt.  The great Joe Paterno who had the reputation of running a "clean" program was susceptible to the corrupting influence of power.

This is not about throwing Joe Paterno under the bus.  This is about understanding the irresistible corrupting influence of power on human beings.  Wherever there is a concentration of power there must be oversight and accountability.  The greater the power, the greater is the need for oversight and accountability.  Wherever power concentrates in the absence of oversight and accountability, there will be corruption.  This is axiomatic.  The corruption will not always manifest in the form of child abuse, but it will always occur.

There can only be one bottom line.  If a line is drawn below the bottom line, then that is the new bottom line.  If one draws a series of horizontal lines across a sheet of paper, starting at the top and working down to the bottom, then the last line drawn, and only the last line drawn, is the bottom line.  If revenue generation is the bottom line then protecting children is not the bottom line.  If revenue generation is the bottom line, then academic excellence is not the bottom line.

Academic institutions are a lot like corporations.  Instead of a board of directors, there is a board of trustees.  Great football coaches do not tolerate meddling in their programs.  In other words they do not consent to sufficient oversight and accountability.  Universities with tremendously popular athletic programs have decided that revenue generation through those programs is paramount.  The reason Joe Paterno was let go was because the scandal finally revealed became a threat to revenue generation.

It is tempting to say that cover-ups do more damage to these institutions than the initial crimes.  Certainly the cover-ups revealed do.  For how long did the crimes against children within the Catholic Church go on before the scandal was revealed?  Decades, centuries or millennia?

How much corruption during the Paterno era was effectively covered up?  If you can get people to keep quiet about children being raped, the more common scandals associated with top-flight collegiate athletic programs should be relatively easy to hush.  Maybe Penn State Football wasn't so "clean" under Paterno after all.

In the Dune novels, author Frank Herbert postulates that it is not power that corrupts but rather power attracts the corruptible and absolute power lures the absolutely corruptible.  He suggests we should never promote those who seek promotion.  While this suggestion may be insightful, the fact is we cannot force the unwilling to be political representatives, priests, university presidents or football coaches.

I am willing to concede, for academic purposes, that there are exceptional human beings whose character is so strong they are able to resist the corrupting influence of power.  These individuals are rare.  How rare?  Perhaps as rare as Jesus.  In any case there are not enough of them to populate every public office, every church office or every position of authority throughout our society.

There are those who will say that blaming the cover-ups at Penn State or within the Catholic Church on some sort of axiomatic systemic corruption somehow acquits the individuals of their personal responsibility and lets them off the hook for their turpitude.  People should be accountable to themselves.  In people that have power over themselves only, that is all that is necessary. 

I believe having blind faith in those in whose hands great power is concentrated is an abdication of personal responsibility.  Just as it is the duty of every citizen to keep informed, insist on appropriate oversight and hold our government accountable, it is the responsibility of every student and the families of students to insist on appropriate oversight of school programs and hold those in authority accountable.  Blind faith in those in whose hands great power is concentrated is misplaced and negligent, even when the person with the power is Joe Pa.

Bringing democratic oversight back to our political process requires the dissolution of corporate person-hood, eliminating the concept of money as free speech and greater citizen participation.  I do not know how to integrate democratic oversight into our institutions of higher learning.  It is time to begin the discussion in earnest.

Football Addendum:

When I was a kid, O.J. Simpson was my favorite athlete.  My uncle used to call me O.J.!