Tuesday, March 11, 2014

What Is It About Corruption That Fascinates?

The television series, House of Cards is a major hit around the world.  It is a
Netflix television series about a an unscrupulous Washington politician. To the West Wing, political junkie, it is the antithesis of the popular television drama of years ago.

Whereas West Wing was a series about a likeable president with a White House staff of do-gooding liberal bleeding hearts, House of Cards is quite the opposite.

As one magazine reported, the unlikeable, but fascinating main character and his wife, who is equally diabolical, share a common goal to become the ultimate power couple in Washington.  "Their world is dark, devoid of redemption and humility."

The husband, the main character, is a Democrat, former House of Representatives majority whip, responsible for getting proposed laws through Congress.  After he was rejected for an appointment as Secretary of State, he goes on a revengeful rampage.  His wife, is equally vulgar, and the head of a major nonprofit organization.

Everyone in Washington is basically evil and corrupt.  Even the media presents the world of self-glorification, personal agendas, and seemingly unaware of the main character's ruthless pragmatism. The publisher of the major Washington, D.C. newspaper berates the editor of the paper, saying, "We don't need people that follow the rules.  We need people with personality."

And, indeed, the series if filled with people with personalities, evil, vile, ugly, addicted, and corrupt personalities.  As a recent article said:

Most chilling is Frank's [the main character] rather gleeful acknowledgement of is diabolicalness.  In one scene, Frank struts into an empty cathedral, stands before the pulpit and states, "Every time I've spoken to you, you've never spoken back -- although given our mutual disdain, I can't blame you for the silent treatment."  Then he looks at the viewers -- and smirks, "Perhaps I'm speaking to the wrong audience."  He turns his gaze down -- to hell -- and calls: "Can you hear me?  Are you even capable of languages, or do you only understand depravity?"
You see, this is one of the quirks of the show.  The main character winks and converses with the show's audience and viewers.  In doing so, he manipulates the audience and "like a great chess master, he delights in divulging his strategies, tricks of the trade, and zingy one liners."

For some, myself included, there is a shocking quality to the program.  The plots are evil.  The language coarse and vulgar.  But, one learns that perverse depravity does reach into its pits.  One wonders how much darker can this plot and language get?  Yet, as one writer put it, this program points to the truth: that human sin is boring, unexciting, trite, and only various shadows of the same color.  Nevertheless, the series deals with virtually every sector of society, from family, to third sector, to government.

So, what do we make of this?  According to IMDb Moviemeter [the Internet Movie Database, and the world's most popular and authoritative source for movie, television, and entertainment content and celebrities] the Netflix original series is the most popular television program in the world.  This does not mean that it is the best television show, only that it is the most addictive and a show that raises "a ton of buzz and interest" on social media and on entertainment news reports.

Perhaps as evidence of this is the fact that President Barack Obama recently tweeted to his Twitter followers: "Tomorrow @HouseOfCards. No spoilers, please."  Like so many viewers, the President was reported to have been doing "binge-watching" the entire second season's 13 episodes.  During a meeting with Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO, during a White House meeting, the President was reported to have said, "I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient" in real-life Washington, D.C.

What is interesting about all of this, House of Cards is not a free television service.  It can be watched only by subscription on Netflix as a rate of $7.99 for the streamed movie and television service.  Statistics from a year ago reflect that Netflix had 27 million viewers in the U.S. and 33 million viewers worldwide.

What is even more amazing is that Netflix has "mind-boggling" access to consumer sentiment in real time.  GigaOm, the leading voice in emerging technologies, reports that Netflix looks at 30 million "plays" a day, including when viewers pause, rewind, and fast forward programs.  As a result, as reported by the Netflix Chief of Communications, "Because we have a direct relationship with consumers, we know what people like to watch and that helps us understand how big the interest is going to be for a given show."  Financial news about House of Cards, report that Netflix stock surged after the Netflix decided to invest in two seasons, 26 episodes, in House of Cards. 

However, not only is the series popular in the U.S. and around the world, according to most reports, it is one of the most watched shows in China.  The Financial Times reported that if the articles in the Chinese press are to be believed, we can learn a lot about the watching habits of senior Chinese leaders. Much has been written about Chinese President, Xi Jinping, reportedly considering the American classic movie, The Godfather, as his favorite Western "cinematic indulgence."  Wang Qishan, the former Vice-Premier of Finance, now the ultimate arbiter for discipline in the Communist Party's standing committee is said to favor House of Cards.   He has reportedly told his colleagues in the cloistered leadership compound, Zhongnanhai, to keep abreast of this Netflix series.  Indeed, he has instructed his subordinates to check the release date of the new season.

The series is streamed on Sohu.com.cn, one of China's biggest online video services, which purchased the exclusive rights to the series for mainland China and posted the latest season at the same time as Netflix.  As in the U.S., and I suppose elsewhere, there is binge-watching.

So, what lies behind this fascination in China with the political intrigue of House of Cards?  Is it because the Chinese, probably like many around the world, view the series as quintessentially American, because it is a movie series about official corruption, political double-crossing, and state violence?  But, this particular series of House of Cards is adapted from the original British BBC version by the same name, which I understand is also watched in China. In season 2 of the series, there is a major role China plays as the plot unfolds.

If you read news reports, such as those carried in the The China Daily, the show is perceived in China to be a niche product on the high-end of viewership thereby bringing in an audience of quality rather than quantity.  Its popularity in China is rooted in China's penchant for backroom political maneuvering, palace drama, and the like.

Yet, few in China have seen the relevance of the series to the present Chinese reality, notwithstanding the level of corruption there, and as The China Daily recently reported: "even fewer have acknowledged what the drama has told us about ourselves."  Nevertheless, The China Daily, continued:
But let's face it: The dramatized wheeling and dealing of the US congressman has striking similarities with the many exposed Chinese scandals involving the "tigers", or high ranking officials, who usually also hold seats at the legislative bodies at various levels.  The Machiavellian characters remind us of the corrupt official who climb the ladder by whatever means available, including intricate maneuvering to outdo rivals.
Indeed, as I posted several weeks ago regarding living in an age of corruption, House of Cards, may have had its own China counterpart to the main characters in Bo Xilai and his wife, Gu Kailai, with their own arrests, trial, and conviction.(http://www.rvanbroekhoven.blogspot.com/2014/02/living-in-age-of-corruption.html).

The China Daily reported that over the years, Chinese researchers have looked at factors that drive public officers down this treacherous road.  What these researchers found was what could be summed up in ten common personality traits that prompted hundreds of Chinese officials to become corrupt.  These included a strong need for power, greed, a need for instant gratification, jealousy, risk-taking and expectation of returns.  Not that different from what many of us experience in our own personal lives and situations.  So, there is no reason to be proud of who and what we are.

But, these similarities between what is reflected in House of Cards, and the conclusions from that research transcend borders and ideologies, do they not?   The news media in the United States is filled, almost every day, with reports of asserted corruption.

In the last 24 hours, the television news reports and newspapers in Washington have been filled with the news concerning the negotiated guilty plea of a businessman and illegal fundraising operations that violated both federal and local campaign finance laws.

According the news reports, the businessman, Jeffrey Thompson, also a major contractor with the Washington, D.C. government, pleaded guilty to funneling more than $2 million in illegal donations to federal and local political campaigns over a six-year period.  Not only was the mayor of Washington, D. C. implicated in this scheme, but also were the campaign of Senator Hillary Clinton in her quest for the White House, and numerous congressmen and senators.

In a recent Wall Street Journal column, following the President's State of the Union address, the writer wrote that this year, the television coverage was distinct from prior years which showed the President walking down the aisle of the House of Representatives after his dramatic entrance was announced.  Now, every cabinet-level officeholder marched in shaking hands and "high-fiving" with breathless congressmen, a 'bland and banal' bunch indeed, with power to destroy life, through EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] regulations, the placement of children in school, the defining medical coverage out of existence, and to what appears to many, the twisted enforcement of the tax code and tax agency to further political goals and destroy opposition to government programs."

Indeed, government lawsuits against religious nonprofit organizations threaten the very concept of civil society and of religious freedom.  The lawsuit against the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic order of nuns, who came to America in 1868, and now operate about 30 homes for the needy across the country.  There are no allegations of corruption against the Little Sisters of the Poor organization.  Rather, the government simply mandated that organization and others similarly situated had to comply with a law that they claimed violated the teaching of the Church.

But, we all know of scandals that taint the everyday world of charity.  A little more than a year ago, there was a picture of a young girl holding an umbrella over an aged street cleaner woman sitting on a curbside in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, China.  This was part of a fundraising appeal to help those
in need.  It was subsequently disclosed that the picture had been staged and that the little girl was not simply a little girl who happened to be at that place and able to help the elderly and needy woman.  There was an outcry among the public and in the news media claiming that this was an example of corruption in the charity sector and that the public had been fooled.

Years ago, there were similar concerns about a fundraising appeal in which an obviously homeless man had been fed and sheltered in a homeless shelter.  The appeal appeared in newspapers in the major cities in the United States, extending from California and Washington State in the West, throughout the Southwest and Midwest, to the major cities on the East Coast.  The picture was the same, and the story of the man's hardship and life were the same in all the newspaper fundraising appeals.  As is often the case, the appeal was prepared by a professional fundraising consultant, under contracts with homeless shelters and food kitchens throughout the entire country.  As in the case of the little girl in Shenzhen, China, the claim was the there was corruption in failing to accurately disclose the source and nature of the appeal.

While there are so many more examples that could be used in this discussion, what is unclear is just what corruption is and how an act or course of conduct is determined to be corrupt.  Is it possible, that what is thought to be corrupt in some situations or environments, is not considered to be corrupt in other similar situations?  Is corruption an issue of immoral conduct of a certain nature, that is, that it violates certain moral norms?  Or is corruption more in the nature of a legal issue, violating some legal code, whether criminal or civil?  Why is it that certain forms of corruption are like a train wreck or automobile crash where people must stop to see what is going on?

I started this post with an extended discussion about the Netflix series, House of Cards.  What is it about House of Cards that draws so many viewers from all over the world notwithstanding what is the obvious and total depravity reflected in it, and the vulgar and coarse language used throughout the series?  Why is it that the elites, the intellectuals, members of the ruling classes are so drawn to it?

What I find interesting in the series, is that there is no competing worldview. This is not about simple Machiavellian characters that remind us of some of what we see in government and the politicians' collaboration with business interests as suggested in The China Daily.  If the show is entertaining, and perhaps it is that, it is not long before the "craving for meaningful, colorful grace gets louder and louder."  Or maybe, we simply become dull by the graphic display of sin and depravity, and we miss the social transformation that is going on all around us in the world and this great shift in worldview as represented in this story.

Ravi Zacharias, a world-renown apologist, once noted that there are three ways in which belief systems are passed down from generation to generation that influence the culture.

The first is what he called the foundation substructure.  This is the theoretical level which comes primarily from the intellectual, philosophical, and academic communities.  What are the basic ideas of truth or reality, of morals, of values, of meaning that influence people and how they see themselves and their communities?

The second is what he called the infrastructure, where the culture is influenced aesthetically, that is, through the invasion of the imagination through the arts. Few people read the great thinkers of Western, or even Easter civilization, or those shaping or emerging from the Enlightenment.  The popular media and entertainment sectors of society usually inform our contact with the world of ideas.  What is portrayed in the media or entertainment sectors, reinforces our ideas of reality, morality, and values.

The third level is what he calls the superstructure, or the prescriptive level.  In its most general form, this is what we might get on popular talk radio or television shows in which various celebrities speak with authority on issue for which they have no expertise.  These matters include everything from global warming, to health and psychology, from abortion to gay rights, from human rights to animal rights.  All proclaimed with authority, although there is no wisdom or knowledge or expertise to back up the claims.  It is what also goes around the kitchen tables in homes all over the world as parents try to respond to their children's questions, or in our community centers and churches.  The problem is that we may use reason and discuss the issues somewhat rationally at the substructure and infrastructure levels of theory and at the level of the invasion of the imagination through the arts, entertainment, and media, but at the superstructure, or prescriptive level, we are usually expressing subjective opinions that often defy rational dialogue.

A problem with any discussion of corruption, whether at the government, business, or third sector level, is a certain lack of clarity and a great deal of confusion about what it is that we think corruption is.  We may view House of Cards as nothing more than simple entertainment without ever realizing that it is seeping into our consciousness and imprinting some sense of reality, some sense that there is no difference between morality and immorality, between the good and the bad, or between the beautiful and the ugly.  In doing so, it may well begin a process of legitimizing pragmatic, materialistic conduct that is without any redeeming social or moral value, while at the same time creating an attitude of skepticism and cynicism about anything external to our own personal interests and experience.

And in the modern era of technical advances, instant communications, social networks, and loss of the ability to concentrate or think linearly and rationally, we simply are unable to make rational judgments about the kind of society we want and our roles in that society.  Scary, isn't it?