The Corruption of the Best is the Worst

If you conversed with Ivan Illich long enough about education, politics, and religion you would eventually hear him utter this Latin phrase: corruptio optimi pessima (“the corruption of the best is the worst”). Illich often used it to describe Christianity, where he saw that, in the words of this blogger, “'a community of spirit’ has been betrayed by church systems and methods designed to control, institutionalize, and manage Christian vocation.” Upon reading this New York Times article today, I’m certain Ivan would be nodding in agreement and praying even harder that we see clearly and understand the predicament we are in instead of just blindly reacting, or simply ignoring, the deeper issues these things reveal about us.

Only about one in five has much trust in banks, according to Gallup polls, about half the level in 2007. And it’s not just banks that are frowned upon. Trust in big business overall is declining. Sixty-two percent of Americans believe corruption is widespread across corporate America. According to Transparency International, an anticorruption watchdog, nearly three in four Americans believe that corruption has increased over the last three years.

. . . After years of dismal employment prospects, Americans are losing trust in a broad range of institutions, including Congress, the Supreme Court, the presidency, public schools, labor unions and the church.

. . . In 2001, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranked the United States as the 16th least-corrupt country. By last year, the nation had fallen to 24th place. The World Bank also reports a weakening of corruption controls in the United States since the late 1990s, so that it is falling behind most other developed nations.

The most pointed evidence that breaking the rules has become standard behavior in the corporate world is how routine the wrongdoing seems to its participants. “Dude. I owe you big time! . . . I’m opening a bottle of Bollinger,” e-mailed one Barclays trader to a colleague for fiddling with the [LIBOR-PF] rate and improving the apparent profit of his derivatives book.

 Have we have gotten so used to the bland lies we are told by our “betters” and officials that our internal alarms do not go off about them anymore? For instance, I have long been struck by how no one has lost a job or their standing as a credible authority for repeating throughout the nineties and the turn of the century that statewide assessments and the federal No Child Left Behind act would not result in “teaching to the test.” (I have a file of such statements from MA and federal officials over the years). This is one small example, but once our words cease to be sincere, isn’t it just another small step to where our actions cease to be sincere?