Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky. (slithytove) wrote,
Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky.

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Law vs. Culture

THERE'S another scandal involving bribery and corruption among city employees in the Philadelphia newspapers lately. 100 years ago, Philly was famously described by muckraker Lincoln Steffans as 'corrupt and contented', and has never lived it down. Philly is disliked throughout the rest of Pennsylvania, and politicians in other parts of the state try to run against the city, as a cesspool of political corruption and financial waste. Alas, there is some truth to that, as this current story indicates.

The first time I ever ran into corruption was in 1969. Some members of my senior high school class were taking a trip to Mexico, under the chaperonage of a few teachers. We crammed into a VW bus and took off across the country, from Maryland to Mexico. At the border, somewhere in Texas, the Mexican border guards stopped our van, checked it out, examined our visas... for an hour... two hours... Other cars crossed into Mexico while we waited. We wandered around the bridge (it was over the Rio Grande, of course), and wondered what the hold-up was. One of our teachers finally figured it out, maybe by talking to other drivers making the crossing: the guards expected to find a $5 bill tucked into each visa. Otherwise, they just held you up for a long, long time, before finally letting you cross into Mexico. I was 17 years old, and had never even imagined such a thing. I was shocked.

Corruption, both trivial, and non-trivial, is the curse of third-world countries like Mexico. And third-world cities like Philadelphia. It increases the cost of just the ordinary business of living, it sets up roadblocks for anyone who tries to improve their life situation, say by building a house or starting a business, if they have to give graft to every petty official who is in charge of approving every one of the dozens or hundreds of necessary documents. Every country has laws that forbid corruption, but in some countries they're ignored, and in some they aren't.

And what's the difference? Why is blatant corruption tolerated among Mexican border guards, and it isn't among US border guards? Why does every US company in Saudi Arabia have to have one of the thousands of Saudi princes on its payroll? Why are Philadelphia plumbing inspectors more corrupt than Pittsburgh plumbing inspectors? Why people clip the year sticker off your license tag and sell them out of their living rooms in Northeast Philly, and they don't in Des Moines? It's not the law. It's the culture.

For that matter, every dictatorship around the world has a constitution that guarantees human rights. None of those rights are observed in practice.

Remember that post about rules? I've been thinking more and more that the most important rules aren't laws at all. Laws against corruption don't do squat. Laws that mandate human rights don't do squat. It's all culture. What makes or breaks a society is how people feel about corruption or human rights. Not how they think they should feel (that's what gets written into laws), but what they really feel, inside, and how they believe it's proper to behave towards other human beings. In fact, if you have a good culture, you almost don't need laws. America is very proud of its First Amendment, which guarantees free speech. Britain doesn't have anything similar—but does anyone really believe that there is less free speech in Britain than in America?  American and Britain share a culture that values plurality, tolerance, and freedom of expression. It's not the laws, it's the culture.

Which I find really scary. Because what the hell controls culture? Laws we understand, and we can change them, reform them, abolish them, or pass new ones, if we have the will as a society, but there is no way of controlling the attitudes, conscious and subconscious, about what society feels is right and proper, which determine whether those laws are obeyed or enforced. Where does culture come from? Why is Philly different from Pittsburgh? Why is Canada different from North Korea? For the life of me, I don't know. I don't know how we got here, and I don't know where we're going. I don't know how to control this ship. I don't think anyone does.

Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

More later.


meaning: (Han) China, man
kanji == 'characters from Han China', like KAN.
akkan == rogue
'One of the most obscure of the kanji', says Henshall. Left radical is 'water', origin of right radical is obscure. Henshall suggests remembering this kanji as 'man' (bottom right radical), 'grass' (top radical), and 'mouth' (the box): 'Man from mouth of Han River in grassy Han China'.


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