Dear something-really-stinks drama watchers,
We love dramas because they’re entertaining. They’re intriguing and captivating. Whoever thought up the cliffhanger should be awarded the Nobel Cliffhanger Prize. Something happens you absolutely didn’t see coming and then have to wait till next season for the darn thing to resolve. Like when certain-that-he-was-dead Bobby Ewing turned up alive in the shower. It’s an old reference but perhaps the best cliffhanger ever.
It seems like cliffhangers are new every morning these days. Who’s the next to be accused? Who’s the next to be fired or to resign in disgrace? What’s the political theater’s latest shocking drama? It’s all entertaining in some ways but it also . . . stinks.
Abusers, manipulators, predators, wolves-in-sheep’s-clothing, snakes-in-suits—whatever your preferred term of derision—are corrupt. That’s obvious. What’s less obvious is the corrupting influence they have on those who follow them. As Jonah Goldberg astutely observes: “They do not merely wield power through elected positions and great wealth; they have a greater power: the power to corrupt others in their cause.” As I’ve said before, this is probably what Lord Acton meant when he famously noted that absolute power corrupts absolutely. The leader is the cancer’s point of origin and the cells metastasize in those who follow.
I’ll give you two examples of follower corruption, one involving an individual and one involving the corruption of a collective—something we now refer to as a “tribe.” In both instances, embracing the stinky corrupter left embracers with the unmistakable stench of association. (Astute literary critics will note my mixing of metaphors—cancer cells and putrid aromas. I appreciate your indulgence).
I saw a lady in my office once who’d been conned by a con artist. (By the way, I’ve altered the details here to safeguard this person’s confidentiality). She met this guy at a dog park where they routinely walked their dogs after work. She’s a very nice person and the other guy appeared to match her niceness. She got to where she really looked forward to their afternoon strolls.
I’ll spare you the details, but their initial canine discussions soon morphed into dialogue that was prematurely personal. He picked up on her insecurities and assured her that he sensed in her an untapped potential. He picked up on her strong faith commitments and baptized his words in God-speak. He picked up on her intelligence and gave her books to read. He picked up on her isolation and cast himself as a friend to the lonely. In hindsight, it was all way too much way too soon and her nose was catching a whiff of seduction. But, she rationalized, here was a handsome charmer reaching out to . . . her, an insecure and lonely individual.
You can probably guess where this story’s headed. It wasn’t long before the connection became sexual. She subsequently learned that he was married and had previously served time in prison for embezzlement. But even after discovering the ugliness, she stayed in it for quite a while. She was simultaneously enthralled and appalled.
Eventually, she emerged from the fog of confusion and ended it. She was shocked by the moral grotesqueness of his actions—he had seduced her, used her, and discarded her once she no longer served his selfish purposes. That’s when she came to see me.
She had lots of questions. How had she been so naïve? What had made her so vulnerable? Why had she disregarded her emotional signals? Why had she discounted the warnings of friends who saw what she was too blind back then to see?
But the questions that plagued her most were: Why did I forfeit my commitments to engage in things I knew were wrong? How could I have gone against what I believed? Why did I abandon the very principles I’ve always considered so important to me?
My purpose here is not to explain what we did to help her regain her bearings. But she did. “Burn me once, shame on you; burn me twice shame on me.” She’s internalized that maxim in such a way that she’ll likely never get burned that way again. To her great credit, she learned the valuable life lessons this awful situation taught her.
But I am using this story to illustrate the corrupting power of a corrupter. She stopped being the person she was and became the person he needed her to be. For a while, she lost her self.
The second story illustrates how corrupt leaders corrupt their followers. In the May 5th Drama Review, I talked about the 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I’m going to repeat some of what I said back then to illustrate my current point:
The film was directed by Frank Capra and starred a fresh-faced Jimmy Stewart who comprised the role of Jefferson Smith. A senator had died unexpectedly and the state’s corrupt political boss pressured the governor into appointing a new senator who would dutifully play his designated role in the tribal drama. Acquiescence to the political boss was the only qualification required.
Of course, this involved lying, cover-ups, and back-room deals—things Jefferson Smith’s integrity would not allow. Jeff had naively assumed that the state’s other senator, Joseph Harrison Paine, would likewise be constrained by his integrity from doing such things. It was a sad awakening for Jeff when he discovered that Senator Paine had indeed done such things–for years. He was entirely unnerved by the appalling discrepancy between the public Senator Paine and the one behind the mask. Here’s how he explained it when Jeff confronted the senator about his shady scheme involvement.
Now listen Jeff, please, and try to understand. I know it’s tough to run head on into facts but as I said, this is a man’s world and you have to check your ideals outside the door like you do your rubbers.
Now, 30 years ago, I had your ideals. I was you. I had to make the same decision you were asked to make today. I made it. I compromised. Yes, so that all those years I could sit in that Senate and serve the people in a thousand honest ways.
You’ve got to face facts, Jeff. I’ve served our state well, haven’t I? We have the lowest unemployment and the highest federal grants. But, well, I’ve had to compromise. I’ve had to play ball. You can’t count on people voting. Half the time, they don’t vote anyway. That’s how states and empires have been built since time began. Don’t you understand?
Well, Jeff, you can take my word for it, that’s how things are. Now, I’ve told you all this because I’ve grown very fond of you.
I’d like to point out several glaring incongruences in Senator Paine’s despicable rationalization.
First, he was saying he had to lie in order to serve honestly. Honest service required dishonest methods.
Second, the higher good—assisting the people of his state—was served by low-life activities.
Third, appearances—Senator Paine was widely referred to in his state as The Silver Knight—were more important than reality.
Fourth, his repeated use of the word “facts.” The not-so-subtle subtext was, “these hard facts are more reality-based than your lofty, child-like ideals.”
Fifth, his supposedly noble motivation of telling Jeff these things for his own good. Of course, Jeff’s subsequent refusal to acquiesce revealed Senator Paine’s true character—that of a vicious mortal enemy bent on Jeff’s complete and utter destruction.
And sixth, the elevation of power over truth. Lord Voldemort would’ve been proud.
As Jeff listened to this clap trap, he stood there dumbfounded, stumped for words. Because, in those situations, you’re never quite sure what to say. How do you discuss ideals with a man who justifies checking those ideals at the door? How do you talk principles when the person rationalizes the discarding of those principles to serve a supposed higher good? In actuality, the only “good” being served was the preserving of Senator Paine’s image and power. How do you reason with a man who’s renounced the use of reason? There just weren’t words.
[And what follows fits with the point of today’s letter]
And let me point out something else. When Jeff first came into Senator Paine’s office, he asked the secretary if Senator Paine was in. She said, “Senator Paine is out of town.” He wasn’t. She lied. Corrupt leaders corrupt their followers. Like malignancies metastasizing in other organs, tribal followers eventually take on the unsavory characteristics of the ones they follow. We become like whom we worship.