FEBRUARY, 2006

 

Mythic Prelude:

 

Corruption and Bleu Cheese

Yes, step right up! Corruption! In the mid-winter of 2005 - 2006, when so many smelly deals and sleazy practices keep coming to light in so many places, it can seem at times that, well, everybody except you and me is either engaged in corruption, or writing or speaking about it. And now that I've started writing about it, you may be the only one left who has no link with corruption at all. Congratulations!

Everybody's talking about it. Two weeks ago Congressman Ron Paul, a Republican from Texas, published his lengthy article "Searching for a New Direction," about the causes and possible cures for the "recurring, constant, and pervasive corruption in government." When even a Texas Republican turns up some hole cards and calls the dealer, then there's been a seismic shift in the slimescape, and surely -- something is about to slide. Isn't it? And what better time than now, just after the hopeful start of the new lunar Year of the Fire Dog (Jan. 29), when the Day of Setsubun (Feb. 3) is here. Like the Japanese children who pelt the clown devils with dried beans in the comedies enacted now at Shinto shrines, we should be able to shout "Out with the Bad, In with the Good!" and nail the crooks now that we know who they are. Right? Because gosh, what they're doing is wrong and they should be punished. Shouldn't they?

Of course they should. But in the realm of practical politics and economy that are down to earth if not down to mud, and down and dirty, as poker players say, we know what will happen. A few really outrageous crooks will get put for a little while in minimum-security prisons where the main hardship they'll endure is that the kitchen is out of Montrachet this evening. A few congressmen and senators who were dumb enough to get caught will have to resign their powerful committee assignments, even resign their seats, and after a decent interval they will either be re-elected or will re-enter the game as lobbyists. There will be some new laws to ban this or that kind of shady favor. And things will look better for a while, at least until the rats find a new place to gnaw through the plaster, run across the rafters and get into the grain again.

Is corruption inevitable because "human nature" is hopelessly sinful and E-word? No, not really, though some religions have been able to fool billions of people with the bozo logic that because some of us have gone wicked, we all are, we're even born bad, and every new baby who looks as innocent as a duckling is in fact tainted by an "original sin" committed by mythic ancestors who lived before the stone age and were served an apple by a snake, and this is why people have been checking prices on menus ever since.

Every human being is subject to corruption, at least insofar as physical death brings the decay of matter, and illness can cause the body to putrefy even before death comes. In this sense all living beings must enter a state of corruption sooner or later, and we naturally dream of being liberated into immortality "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump," when, as Paul wrote (1 Corinthians 15:52), "the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed." Thus, the belief goes, we can never escape corruption as long as we are in these physical bodies. Eternal freedom from the bite of time, like Joe Hill's pie in the sky when you die, will come only in the bliss of the blue beyond, never "down here" where mortal bodies must bear fat, fatigue and geezer feet.

If every one of us has to suffer corruption sooner or later, is it possible that companies, churches, governments and other human institutions can be completely free of it? Certainly not, no matter what dreams we harbor and what laws we pass. We can be sure that even before Hammurabi got all the cuneiform carved in the oldest surviving code of law we know of, some contractor in Babylon was getting somebody in the Bureau of Ziggurats to bend the building code in his favor by slipping him a little lapis lazuli bullock with gold horns. Like prostitution and gambling, graft and influence buying are among the vices that will always be with us, no matter how we wish we could achieve "honest business," "clean government" and other worthy but weightless dreams.

A little etymology can perhaps help sidelight some nuances on how much official corruption we can live with, since we will never live completely without it. All the words derived from the rumpere - ruptus root verbs -- after 47 years, Latin finally comes in handy; it's never too late, folks! -- mean "burst." Eruption means a bursting out, as when a volcano blows lava or a person less pleasant than you vents some suppressed rage. He may do this by committing interruption, a bursting between. Disruption means bursting apart, and today's exhibit, corruption, means a bursting together, whereby things that normally stay in their discrete, orderly places somehow break through the bounds that separate them, so a process of chaos and disintegration ensues. Just as all the parts and juices in a healthy body, even corrosive digestive fluids, do each other no harm as long as they stay in their proper roles and places, so, we suppose, human societies remain vital and creative as long as the church, the company, the government, the army and the press all stay where they're supposed to be. Sure they're going to cross each other's frontiers. Ambitious people always do. They may even get the infiltrating of each other's borders down to a schedule and a science, and nobody seems to mind much as long as the big shots take care of business, and deliver the security, public services and entertainment that everybody wants.

"Chicago," Lenny Bruce used to say to Windy City audiences who'd start laughing in the pause even before he continued the line, "is so corrupt it's thrilling." Everybody knew that Richard J. Daley and his whole machine were complete crooks and bullies, but somehow their artistry in stealing as much as they did, in so many creative ways, made them endearing and even lovable to many as long as the street lights stayed on, the garbage got picked up, the trains didn't fall off the Loop, the cops didn't murder anybody besides Black Panthers and the Cubs stayed at Wrigley. As an auto mechanic I knew in Honolulu once observed, "there's a fine line between dishonesty and nonchalance." Sometimes the line can even be very precise, as it was for George Washington Plunkitt, the New York state senator of a century ago who explained in his zippy little jewel of an autobiography the difference between honest and dishonest graft. He seemed to have no problem with one and only lukewarm objections to the other. "I seed my opportunities," he wrote, "and I took 'em."

Students of history know that corruption, especially the most common type in which business crosses the border into politics and buys public officials, has often been cited as a sign that a society is healthy and free. Gibbon claimed, famously and controversially in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that corruption is "the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty." One of his primary sources, Tacitus, would have agreed, commenting laconically as usual that “We are corrupted by prosperity.” The Romans, fictional as well as real ones, understood this well and had much to say about the practical relationship between money and both sides of the law. "When a criminal has what you want, you do business with him," the wily senator Gracchus, brilliantly played by Charles Laughton, says in private to the surprisingly naive Julius Caesar (John Gavin) in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus. Gracchus' remark for public consumption, when the constitutional crisis looms, is equally apt: "I'll take a little republican corruption any time, along with a little republican freedom."

This link between corruption and liberty, this supposition that freedom is somehow safe as long as there's enough grease to allow it to move freely, has long implied that it's better to have the rules loose and open enough for some sleaze and opportunity than to have a system so strict and severe that neither money nor luck can flow. Better rich and dirty than poor and pure, though countless self-righteous poverts -- those who believe money is dirty, and that they are virtuous because they don't have it -- would disagree with as much heat as such people can normally generate. The late Peter Ustinov, who also appeared in Spartacus as the lanista Lentulus Batiades, summed it up in another context as well as a witty realist can. “Corruption," he opined, "is nature's way of restoring our faith in democracy."

The holes in this line of reasoning are easy enough to see, especially the idea that dictatorial regimes are less corrupt than democratic ones, as anyone who's ever heard of Stalin, or has lived as I do in Hosni Mubarak's Egypt, well knows. The point is rather that unfree societies are also corrupt, but so excessively rigged in favor of the porkers already at the trough that no one else can get close, so the material rewards don't spread to nearly as many pockets as they would if the system were more "free." Thus the classic problem with corruption, as so many human beings see it, is not really that it's "wrong," but that the gravy train is not stopping anywhere near me. One of the real attractions about "democracy," at least what has passed for it so far on our planet, is that it offers greater profit, by fair means if we must and foul means when we can, to those so addicted to the thrill of greed and the fear of scarcity that no matter what they have, it -- and by implication they -- are never enough.

So the terms of today's crisis of corruption, most glaringly now in the United States, are easy to see. As constitutional freedom evaporates and wealth is increasingly maldistributed, and the two trends feed on one another at a time when more than half of the world's leading economies are corporations, not countries, the facade of "democracy," whatever we hope that means, becomes harder and harder to prop up. More voices now begin to use the once unthinkable word.

How to define fascism most simply? By going to the essential source who invented the term. For Benito Mussolini, fascism should more accurately be called "corporatism" as it is an integration of state and corporate power in an arrangement so seamless that it would no longer look seamy to anyone except those who dare to speak and write about how the classic tale we all know has now been turned completely on its head. It's no longer that the emperor has no clothes, but that he and his fellow thieves have almost all the clothes, leaving fewer and fewer for anyone else.

The natural reaction to this is, and will be, such increasing rage that one almost needs to be a master satirist like Kurt Vonnegut, in his new book A Man Without a Country, or a prose poet as elegant as Gore Vidal, in his recent article "President Jonah," to vent his fury without igniting his keyboard and making his wireless web link a hot spot in too many ways. One essential skill that the time demands, apart from speaking our truth to those who will listen, is to process our anger so that it will not poison us. The phrase anger management could not have arrived in our usage at a more opportune time.

What can I contribute to this essential therapy from 7,000 miles east of Washington, D. C., in Egypt? Perhaps only a bit about how the ancient Khemitians, not "Egyptians," handled anger, by the lights of the traditional "wisdom keeper" Abd'el Hakim Awyan. The ancient people of the Nile called for help from whichever of the neters -- not "gods" -- could be most helpful. Neter, in the ancient suf language (from which we get sophia) is the source of our word nature, because the people saw these curious composite symbols, with their human bodies and animal and bird heads, as natural forces embodying the abilities and emotions that we share with the Universal Source of our being.
Some of them -- 360 altogether, by Hakim's reckoning -- are well known to us. Isis often wears a vulture headdress because of all mothers, the vulture is the most fiercely protective of her young. Horus the falcon has keen vision, and naturally runs the third eye. Thoth has his bird's head as neter of wisdom and learning because the ibis invariably goes to the purest water in the stream. And the less familiar neter shown here has his unique role too. Why would anyone honor Sobek the crocodile, or want to acquire his qualities, even build an exquisite temple to him at Kom Ombo? Because the Khemitians observed that this being, even more than the goat, can digest and eliminate anything, even the hideously unpleasant hippopotamus. So he is clearly the specialist to call when it's time not just to "manage" anger -- the Khemitians would have wondered why anyone would put up this toxin any longer than he has to -- but to digest it, break it down into its parts and excrete it away.
Yes, this is easier said than done, especially for those who assume that the cause of the anger will not only get worse -- as it surely will -- but will never go away. But it will change, and sooner than we think. The transition begins next month, in fact, with the first major Lunar Standstill of 2006, about which more in the March UFC. For now, a story to help show why today's immense, overwhelming odor of corruption is a signal of a change soon to some.

A college friend of mine once recounted a story about a lecture that Salvador Dali came to give at a university in St. Louis. The great man walked to the podium carrying a glass and a bottle of whiskey, which he belted with brio as the evening went along, so that his talk soon became, if not technically surrealistic, at least -- ah -- less structured than such speeches tend to be. In the Q & A at the end, someone asked Dali what he thought of Jesus, and Dali said, "Jesus is mounds and mounds and mounds of bleu cheese." The silence can be imagined. What he meant, as he explained, is that we get bleu cheese from corruption, as new bacteria begin to spread through what was undergoing decay. It is this mysterious new organism that gives bleu cheese its magnificent flavor and exquisite color. If not for corruption, we wouldn't have bleu cheese, we wouldn't have Jesus, or anything else that comes to revivify us.

All the corruption is, in fact, right on time, as 2006 is the last year of the Awakening phase, part two of the 13-year cycle of transformation from 1999 to 2012. It has to rot a little more before it glows. Corruption is a necessary thing. And this time it's a very, very good sign.

Keep holding that frequency.

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Copyright 2006 Dan Furst. All Rights Reserved.