[Note: Yes, I’m aware I’m spelling honor according to the British and not the American usage.]
This evening I had the chance to watch a movie on BBC America that I had long wished to watch and that ended up being a rewarding movie, despite my disagreement with the political ideology of the film, Kingdom of Heaven. An unintentional irony of the film, one that was perhaps not noted by director Ridley Scott, was that the two main characters who appear so honorable, one Christian and one Muslim, were both ambitious and social climbing bandit kings who nonetheless had a strong sense of personal honor, even as they engaged in questionable and downright immoral activity. One the one hand we have a murderous and adulterous illegitimate blacksmith (who is nonetheless an honorable and decent man as portrayed in the film), the son of a lord who was considered a heretic, and on the other side we have a bloodthirsty but stern Kurdish leader whose dishonorable treatment of an embassy provokes war. Both of these men are bandits and thieves, grasping for power and glory and property and legitimacy that they did not possess by right, and yet there is a desire to see them as honorable people nonetheless in a dishonorable time.
We live in a dishonorable time, and today I was sent two stories by a friend of mine that in their own way help demonstrate the dishonorable nature of this time in pretty clear relief. For at least a couple of months now (I think) I have been aware of an unfolding story about bribery among pee wee football teams in South Florida. Nine men (six of whom have an existing criminal record) have been accused of a massive and high-stakes gambling ring that centered on their position as coaches of youth football teams in a football mad area. And surely the behavior of these men, if they are guilty as charged, is certainly corrupt . Frankly, though, ESPN has no credibility when it comes to the corruption of sports, given their role in bribery and the corruption of college sports through their combination of owning a network and bowls that pay considerable amounts of money and earn considerable profits off of an amateur sport that is organized in such a way as to avoid tax liability. Compared to that immense corruption, the existence of a gambling ring in peewee football is considerably minor league corruption.
This fact deserves considerable mention, not least because ESPN portrays itself (through its Outside The Lines show) as a reputable press outfit that engages in investigative journalism that exposes the corruption of other people in sports, whether it be gambling or doping or injuries or other aspects of our immensely corrupt sports culture. And yet ironically (and hypocritically) enough, ESPN is itself one of the main agents of corruption within our sports culture through its nexus of power and money and influence. What deserves special institution is that the corrupting ability of something often depends both on its wickedness as well as the size of the corrupt institution. Those institutions that are larger and more powerful are the ones who have the greatest potential for corruption, as well as the greatest harmful effects of those corruption.
And what institution is even larger and more corrupt than a media organization? A government. As might be expected, the nation of Greece provides us with an example of where people depend on a free press to defend the interests of the people from the corruption of the government, by providing exposure of that corruption, placing elected leaders under pressure to fulfill their moral and constitutional responsibilities. Greece, of course, is a basketcase of a nation. Of course, at least thanks to the recent acquittal of a journalist who exposed a list of the wealthiest (potential) tax evaders in the country, a who’s who of the nation’s economic and political elite from charges of violating data privacy laws. Of course, it helps (a little) that at least two members of the Greek government admitted to having the list, though apparently the person responsible for enforcing Greece’s tax laws, which are frequently disobeyed (tax evasion counts for about a quarter of Greek GDP and a sixth of their debt load) . Hopefully this particular emboldens Greek writers to continue to put the pressure on their elected government to enforce tax evasion laws in a fair manner.
This should not be a difficult matter. How does a nation show it is serious about cracking down on tax evasion? You go after the big fish, the ones whose tax penalties can make a big dent in one’s debt problems, and show all of the many other smaller tax evaders that they too have to pay their fair share. Given that the Greek government has been seeking to push the burden of austerity on the poor and middle class of Greece while turning a blind eye to the tax evasion of the crony capitalist class, showing some fairness and justice to an angry and restive populace is a good idea for the long-term legitimacy of the Greek government and other governments that are in the same position as they are with regards to debt and a corrupt relationship between political and business elites.
Why is there no honor among thieves? What makes ESPN think it has the legitimacy to expose small acts of corruption while turning a blind eye to its much larger act of corruption? Does it think that people are going to trust it as an information source without critically examining their own role in the corrupt nexus of sports and money? And what makes the Greek government think that it has the right to pressure a journalist for exposing what it knows the larger public, so that it can be held answerable to the people and accountable for enforcing the laws fairly and justly, ensuring that those who are able to pay and who are evading their responsibilities to pay taxes are brought into account before those of vastly more modest means are pressured by budget shortfalls? These are not difficult matters to understand, and the brazenness of thieves is at a particular high degree in these corrupt times. Let us not assume that ESPN and Greece are the only examples of this sort of corruption. Far from it. But while there is low hanging fruit to pick, let us use these examples as a way of showing the moral bankruptcy of our world as a whole, and to remind ourselves that our world as a whole is corrupt from top to bottom, and we all have our own part to play in the state of the world as it is, and in the ability of things to improve while there is yet time.