Keepers of the Oath: Honor Confronts Trumpery

DISCLAIMER: This essay does not refer to “The Oath Keepers,” the extremist “anti-government American far-right organization associated with the white supremacy and militia movements.” Those who keep their oath to defend the U.S. Constitution by becoming whistleblowers in the era of Trumpery are the heroes referenced here.

Most Americans have complained about the “faceless bureaucrats“ who make up the federal workforce. At the same time, many have grown increasingly cynical about commitments of any kind, including the idea of an oath of allegiance.

Extreme American individualism implies that we have no obligations to anyone but ourselves. The “invisible hand” will somehow take care of the social good. We imagine that federal workers are all just like that IRS agent who seemed so rigid in rejecting our claim that s/he should treat that questionable expense as a legitimate deduction. We pursue our life, liberty, and happiness in illusory isolation, demanding in the same breath that taxes be lowered and that the potholes be fixed.

Most of us never meet the many career professionals who work for the security of the nation in the Department of State, Defense, and several intelligence services. Whatever you, or they, think of national policies or covert practices at a particular time, they take an oath to defend the constitution and the nation. Yes, it can all get quite confusing, especially in an era of endless wars of choice where the national interest is not entirely clear.

Trumpery Destabilizes a Complex System

The current chaos in the executive branch resulting from presidential self-dealing and a paranoid style has turned patriotism on its head. Under these conditions, it is not easy to act as directed and at the same time honor one’s oath of office. Any failure of a civil servant to put the personal political interests of this president above the national interest ostracized, transferred, or “investigated” and vilified on social media.

Foreign Service professionals cannot perform the delicate arts of diplomacy when the president’s impulsive behavior conflicts with established national policies, law, and the Constitution.

The sudden resignation of Kurt Volcker and the removal of career ambassador Marie Yovanovitch reflect the deep corruption that saturates the White House.

As a Reuters story reported on Oct. 1, 2019:

Kurt Volker, who resigned last week as Trump’s special representative for Ukraine, was to go to Capitol Hill to give a deposition to House staff on Thursday, the day he had been asked to appear.

Marie Yovanovitch, who was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine until she was abruptly recalled in May, has agreed to appear on Oct. 11, not on Wednesday as originally requested.

With their deep knowledge of Ukraine, testimony by Yovanovitch and Volker could be especially important to the impeachment probe formally launched by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week.

It looks to me as though these professionals are ready to tell what they know. Yovanovitch will testify this week. Volker has already turned over many documents to Congressional investigators. The same lawyers represent a second White House whistleblower, another intelligence official, as represent the first.

As I watched events unfold over the last couple of years amid growing evidence of erratic executive decisions and operational chaos, along with speculation about impeachment, I thought of the “Seneca Cliff.” In all sorts of complex systems, both physical and human, “progress is slow but ruin is rapid.” The pattern fits the breakdown of mechanical systems, ecosystems, and societies alike. Graphically, it looks like this:

SenecaBrite

Growth is slow; ruin is rapid. Source: http://thesenecatrap.blogspot.com/

 

Complex adaptive systems are able to maintain stability because various negative feedback loops moderate any self-amplifying tendency for some subsystems to spin out of control. However, such moderating factors do not always work, or they might not even be present, which usually signals the impending collapse of the system. By applying these principles, we can better understand what happens when political systems begin to spin out of control, then sometimes re-stabilize and other times collapse leading to chaos followed by some new often ruthless regime. Our question is whether the corrupt Trumpist subsystem or the larger system of constitutional democracy will collapse.

Where are the Negative Feedback Loops?

In the present case, we can see that the American political system, ordinarily framed by the principles of the Constitution and assured of some level of stability by officials who take their oaths seriously and enact the operational principles of the system, has begun to spin out of control. The president-who-would-be-king violates constitutional principles, laws, and regulations daily, while routinely lying about everything.

Where are the “checks and balances” that would ordinarily maintain stability? They are there, but Trump routinely ignores or defies them, especially the one called “congressional oversight.” We are not used to an executive that cavalierly refuses to accept constitutionally established institutional relations.

Honor Rises

This is where the Oath Takers come into play. The anonymous White House Whistle-blowers are honoring the oath they took to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. An old military principle is that one should not obey an illegal order, although that rarely happens. When a dictatorial regime runs roughshod over the Constitution and the institutional balance in government by his blatant self-dealing and defying the separation of powers, only those willing to risk retribution and even death by honoring their oath can bring the system back into balance again by informing congressional oversight committees of the wrong-doing they observe. Inspectors General with exceptional access to information have also come forward.

The U.S. political system may right itself yet, once all the information becomes public, forcing senate minions of the aspiring tyrant to knuckle under to public pressure. The road ahead will be rough, but our system may yet stabilize leaving us the opportunity to address the real-world existential emergencies that confront us. When that happens, it will be largely due to the Oath Keepers about whom we might otherwise have known nothing.

How to Corrupt Law Enforcement

In American political culture the idea of “corruption” is both simple and suppressed. We think of the occasional individual politician or official taking a bribe to direct funds to a particular bidder or contractor. Yet we have lost sight of the essence of corruption – exploitation – and the fact that it can take many forms but always has the same basic character. Individual instances are usually part of a larger pattern.

What is Corruption?
There are, of course, various kinds of corruption found in diverse institutional settings. The scope and scale of corruption may range from personal to systemic. An individual bureaucrat may take a bribe, or a CEO may take executive actions that serve his personal interests more than those of the company that pays him for making good decisions. He may trade securities on the basis of his inside information. If so, he has corrupted the responsibilities of his position by his unethical actions.

But systemic corruption occurs when a pattern of practices involves a number of members of an organization. In a major example, J.P. Morgan Chase and other large Wall Street banks fraudulently engaged in misrepresentation of risk, falsifying ‘due diligence’ and knowingly selling ‘toxic’ securities to clients.[1]  Senators and representatives who take political donations from lobbyists and sponsor bills the lobbyist wrote, clearly corrupt the political process. But it is accepted as ‘business as usual’ in the Congress. We live in a corrupt political culture that is taken for granted by the politicians and by the corporate media that ‘reports’ on them. The corporate state is a corruption of democracy and has replaced all but its form.

In the case of law enforcement, you might remember hearing of a bygone era when an ethical challenge faced by the “cop on the beat” was simpler than we hear of today. While making his rounds an officer is offered a free cup of coffee or a meal at the local diner. The shopkeeper considers it good business to be ‘close’ with local police. This probably still happens somewhere. But that the practice is now recognized as currying favoritism. The “peace officer” was supposed to be a neutral figure, even-handedly enforcing the law. In our complex of corrupt institutional relations and practices today, law enforcement has become one of the institutional players. In the systematic corrupt pattern of practices within the nation’s political and legal institutions, law enforcement institutions have been severely corrupted.

Self Dealing
The “War on Drugs” is now pretty famous for having failed to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S. Masses of vulnerable young men and women of color who use drugs at the same rate as everyone else are systematically incarcerated. The purpose of reducing drug use in society was turned into a practice of mass incarceration of selected target populations (blacks and browns). At the same time, the more powerful population segment (whites) is largely ignored. This is itself the corruption of a mission. But the practice of targeting the vulnerable for personal, departmental, or professional gain is yet a further level of corruption. Regardless of how ill-conceived, futile, and counterproductive the War on Drugs was and is, its conversion into a mechanism for profiteering by police departments and their corporate suppliers rates the highest condemnation.

This, of course, is closely related to the widespread militarization of civilian police. The more ‘drug arrests’ the more credits, loans, and funding for all sorts of power-imagineering paraphernalia. And once they get hold of a hammer, everything looks like a nail. ‘Use it or lose it’ has been the policy of Department of Defense when it distributes military equipment to local police. So, why not send out a SWAT team to serve a simple warrant? What is the bottom line? Well, it is the blatant shift of purpose from (legitimately) “protecting and serving” the public to (illegitimate but accepted) institutional self-aggrandizement. Power seeking and profiteering are practiced at the expense of the public interest in real public safety.

Theft as “Civil Asset Forfeiture”
By now most of us have heard of the police confiscating large sums of money, luxury cars, even mansions, from drug dealers when they are arrested. Laws were passed to support aggressive police actions against drug dealers. The loot came to be shared with local police departments that cooperated in or conducted successful raids. While such extra-judicial practices are constitutionally questionable in themselves, the practice has taken on another level of corruption. With no judicial or other check on the confiscation of the property of citizens where arrests have occurred but not necessarily indictments or convictions, the near complete corruption of the ideals of law enforcement was assured.

The practice of confiscating property from “suspects” has spread to a variety of situations where it would be hard to justify. Yet, unconstrained police now actively look for “goodies” that can be used by the department or liquidated for cash.[2]  A “reason” for an arrest can usually be constructed. This, of course, is the ultimate corruption of law enforcement, since it is essentially the use of power to engage in legalized theft. This sort of behavior is hardly different than the shakedowns of organized crime or street gangs. “Reform” is a far too weak a word to use when trying to describe what is needed to bring back law enforcement institutions into a civil society where their job is simply to “keep the peace” and protect the public. The current conflict of institutional interests and the public interest is intolerable.

The growing privatization of the public sector has squeezed state and local government operations including law enforcement. That pressure encourages police to exploit opportunities presented by ill-conceived laws allowing unconstitutional searches and seizures. In a corrupt environment, the weak are corrupted. The weakness of police culture is palpable. Only mobilized public demand can change that.
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1. Matt Taibbi, “Meet the woman J P Morgan Chase paid one of the largest fines in American history to keep from talking.” Rolling Stone, November 6, 2014.
2. Shalla Dewan, “Police Use Department Wish List When Deciding Which Assets to Seize.” New York Times. November 10, 2014.

The Found Art of Self-Dealing and the Corruption of Everything

One of the effects of the penetration of money into every realm of life is the corruption of human values. The growing tolerance for, even blindness to, corruption in politics seems obvious. But it seems to pervade both everyday life and business as well.

Corruption is not new. Neither are bribes, theft, or betrayal. Americans used to cheerily compare our public institutions and business practices with those of ‘less developed’ nations considered endemically corrupt in their imputed ‘backwardness.’ When parking on the street anywhere in Mexico, U.S. tourists begrudgingly paid a small fee to a semi-uniformed “policeman” to guard their car. This “protection money” assured them that their car would be there, intact, on their return from shopping. In many “underdeveloped” countries, such services are typically offered by the otherwise unemployed. Americans look down on such activities as reflecting a corruption of the public function, nevertheless are grateful for the service. In the U.S., we prided ourselves for being ‘above’ such petty corruption. In our naiveté, we expected our public servants to perform their functions for a salary and never take bribes. Yet we quietly acknowledge much bigger backroom deals.

The disintegration of naturally formed communities in industrial society has been largely completed. Now we have “gated communities” where nobody knows their neighbor, and “sacrifice zones” where public agencies have abandoned the population. Individuals face a complex world of economic dependence on large institutions. They look forward to a fate based solely on their ability to navigate an economy uncommitted to anyone. With little or no social support, we each confront faceless institutions at work and in public. Sociologists have talked for decades about the ‘atomization’ of social relations.

Market Madness
Society is fragmented into a collection of individuals, each of whom has little if any relationships of commitment over time. We are urged to be committed solely to ourselves as “economic actors” seeking the best advantage in any situation. After all, that is the model of human behavior that has been promoted throughout the industrial era. These conditions of personal life, of course, make people most vulnerable to the power of the elites that control employment along with the rest of the economy. It’s a perfect environment for self-dealing.

Before money became the measure of everything, social norms and values were important – yet non-economic – factors that affected the decisions individuals made. People were morally bound to manage their behavior in certain ways that often served a public interest in sustained community cohesion. Sure, crimes were committed, people cheated, etc. But non-monetary norms of human conduct prevailed in most communities.

The elevation of markets as the paragon of progress imposed heavy costs on human morality and compassion. The virtues of normative communities are not cultivated by markets; the only “market virtue” is the goal of selfish gain. That breaks down bonds of affiliation and caring.

Monetizing Humanity
The assumed good resulting from the “invisible hand” that Adam imagined, does not exist in the fossil-fuel driven industrial era. Giant banks and corporations control both markets and government. Human values are sent to the back of the bus and are simultaneously declared attained. Adam Smith proffered the “invisible hand” as a metaphor to reflect the interaction of merchants and tradesmen in a local community. They bargained and produced goods and services on equal footings. They were also cognizant of community needs, standards, and judgment of their practices. Business conducted in real time in real communities occurred under conditions quite different than in today’s corporate state.

The crowning achievement of the industrial era is the monetization of everything and everyone. You are only as human as the purchasing power your employment or business dealings can demonstrate. That is the social measure of the person. But as Michael Sandel has so clearly shown in his book, What Money Can’t buy,* a full range of the most important of human dimensions from civic virtue to interpersonal honor to community solidarity, cannot be monetized except by the corruption their very essence.

This corruption of human values, of course, is a windfall for the financial, military, and industrial power elites running the corporate state. Community fragmentation and personal selfishness allow them to more easily manipulate populations by mass media indoctrination and massive distortions of the meaning and practice of justice.

Yet, the power of people recognizing the destruction of human values, cannot be overcome by advertising or the phony patriotism of war hysteria. Attention can be diverted temporarily, but people are waking up – as Occupy and the Climate March have powerfully demonstrated – especially as the elites charge headlong like lemmings as if their actions had no bearing on the destruction we all experience more and more.
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* Michael J. Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.