Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 10, 30 August 1999

K A L E I D O S C O P E:

Vaclav Pinkava

Considering the Bill (Willy?) Clinton era, one may well ask what morality has got to do with public office. Blackmail is one key reason why morality, even in private life, does have something to do with public office. A leader susceptible to blackmail is no good at all.

There are two good ways to avoid being blackmailed:

1. Don't do anything "wrong."
2. Don't get found out - or be very, very careful.

Not being found out is relatively straightforward to define, if not to achieve. It is not a matter of subtle definition. It might even go so far as shooting the blackmailer before he blows the whistle. But whether your actions are wrong is a matter of judgment, which varies according to society, place and time. If you do something wrong, you are at risk of being found out, and the potential whistle-blower has acquired a way to influence your behavior.

Wrongdoing is a relative concept, but we could express it as an absolute, for the sake of the stickler. Wrongdoing can be expressed as a negative number, whose size is a function of the severity of the deed, negatively signed, compared to some idealised moral positive. Not being found out can be defined as a multiplier of zero. Society not caring is another zero multiplier. In this model, a moral society scores positive, an immoral society scores negative.

If we multiply the individual behaviour score by the societal judgment score, we get a positive, negative or nil result. A positive result means a healthy "moral" environment, in relative terms, ie where the behavior of the individual is in keeping with acceptable norms or not subject to blackmail.

Now, let us test the model.

The two classic areas of behavior where people "go wrong" are sex and money. However private and personal we might consider sexual behavior to be, a hotel bedroom is a good place in which to share not just body fluids but confidential information, voluntarily or otherwise (eg talking in one's sleep). Those who manage to separate public from private well enough and divulge nothing may still be coerced to speak. For example we can photograph the person indulging in other than orthodox heterosexual marital sex. Their behavior could be statistically normal, in the sense that many of the things that even married couples actually get up to in private are commonplace, nevertheless technically illegal.

To paraphrase Woody Allan "if sex is not dirty, you're probably not doing it right." As revealed during the marathon commentaries surrounding the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, some US states really do define oro-genital contact as "not sex" - but there again, they consider it perverse behavior which can land you in jail. (Maybe that's why in many legal systems spouses cannot testify against spouses?) The point is, that living among puritanical hypocrites, even normal, innocent behavior can become 'wrong' and offer a vantage point for blackmail. In our model we multiply behaving OK (+X) by a screwed up society (-Y) and we get a negative result. (-XY), ie there is some room for blackmail.

If you can bribe a politician, he is corrupt (-X) and if he is in a moral society (+Y) , and this gets found out, the politician would be finished (-XY). The threat of being deposed is a powerful blackmailing instrument.

What if politicians behave immorally (-X) in a society which is also immoral (-Y), even if the voters are hypocritical about it? The combined effect is like multiplying two negative numbers to get a positive, or maybe putting a zero into the equation, representing apathy. If the society does not care, (0) or pays lip-service to indignation, but votes the corrupt politician back in, society scores negative and the result is 0 or (-X*-Y=+XY). This means the politician is not personally at risk if 'found out', therefore there is no possibility for blackmail. He can even blow the whistle on himself, and become an honest, upfront crook, who "lives in the real world," is a "man of the people," a pragmatist who has no time for moralising. In his own eyes he is not even slightly corrupt. He never got a bribe, he took it as an unsolicited gift. Being brazenly self-assured and impolite, he owes nothing to society(??) in return. Alternatively, like the all-powerful, egotistical rulers of yesteryear, he expects to be given gifts of allegiance and feels he deserves them merely for being such a great guy. His minions and benefactors are saying "Thanks for being you, oh all-knowing one, whose very shadow we are not worthy to look down upon. Long may the Sun shine on us out of your fundament." (Any resemblance to real people you've heard of is not at all coincidental.)

It is this perverse logic that seems to have caught hold of Czech society, perhaps no more so than in the rest of the former Eastern Bloc. My fellow citizens seem to lack deep moral principles. Pragmatism is king, small quick gains stack up persuasively against huge long-term losses - like a golden fly in the eye masking a charging elephant.

The more "political sponsorship" scandals come out of the woodwork, the more nonplused everybody is. The catch-phrase "That's normal in politics, isn't it? - doesn't everyone...?" is gaining currency. The only mistake politicians seem to have made is ever to have lied and made covert transactions which are not considered at all reprehensible in voters' minds. Why waste your time hiding the money? Why squirm? Be blase. For the Czech electorate there is no question that offering money to a political party is just sponsorship, even if the gift never got taxed, even if there are slush funds overseas to prop up the billboards at election time. In our secular society, there is evident religious faith of a rather pagan kind. Ordinary people are thought duty-bound to bring gifts and kneel before their deity, and until the lord condescends, the gift will not have any effect, will buy no advantage.

We are all equal, nobody gets preferential treatment, if we all pay our dues.

I am not making a narrow nationalist point here. Look in any church in southern Europe, and you'll see candles burning around icons. Each candle represents a wish, a prayer, a bribe of sorts if you will. With each passing bribe the currency of bribery gets eaten away by inflation - "too much money chasing not enough gods." The result? Not enough favours to go round. Each one who comes forth with a gift in hand a bit too late is, at best, a generous fool, at best. Since these poor supplicants will get wise eventually can bribery therefore be characterised as a self limiting process?

Instead of striving for moral leaders, let us strive for an amoral society, where nobody cares, or even an actively immoral one where corruption is everywhere and acceptable. Why? Because our leaders will not be subject to blackmail. They will not feel pressured by public opinion to stand down which will result in more political stability. Bribery will go out of fashion because it will confer no relative advantage. How is this to be achieved? Simply elect leaders which reflect these aspirations and follow their example. They will help us, by changing the electoral system, to increase stability. We already trust them to make the right decisions, unswayed by bribes, since bribes are plentiful, where only the mean and stingy, or those who pay bribes late, are disadvantaged. If you do not know how to bribe, can you in fact do anything right? Do you deserve to survive in a competitive market economy if you can't pay the entrance fee? To all you moralists out there, I have seen the light. I have a solution for you. (Vote for me.)

Hang on a minute. Maybe, just maybe, in a society where bribes are the norm, you'll have to give ever bigger bribes just to be allowed to exist. That's called extortion or protection money, isn't it? Ah, our sophisticated elders and betters have an answer to that one. Pay as you go is a lot like taxation (isn't it?) and you don't complain about that as a moral principle. Fair point - almost. Having to pay for your right to live, whether you can afford it or not, was called the Poll Tax in the Middle Ages, was brought into modern Britain by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. It also, in the long run, contributed to her downfall. It was not considered fair, because people are not equal and therefore can't all afford to pay the same flat rate. In the British scale of values, fairness counts above pragmatism.

"Fair" taxes take from "haves" to give to "have nots." But bribes are given by the "would-haves" to the "already-haves." Feudalism, the Dark Ages and terror lie this way.

If the electorate has to bribe to survive, then political power becomes an oppressive force, rather than a public service and privilege, where decisions are based on individual whim and not public benefit, fairness and reason. A system where all are equal, but some are more equal than others. Democracy becomes dictatorship. There are losers in such a society, where morality is absent or upside-down.

You, Joe Citizen, and your children.

Vaclav Pinkava, 30 August 1999




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