Sunday, December 21, 2014

Resisting Institutional Corruption

Necessary Angels

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.” Luke 2: 8-9 (The King James Version)

Given the culture of corruption, compromise, and inadvertence that is endemic at Boston University, and the complete indifference of university administrators over me to the reports of professional misbehavior and ethical misconduct I have submitted in the past seven or eight years, I have been reading up on institutional dynamics and bureaucratic malfeasance—on the pressures placed on individuals who are members of large organizations to “go along and get along,” to “keep their heads down and their noses clean” to conform with institutional policies, and specifically on the pressures placed on individuals to put aside their personal moral judgments and ethical values (if they have any left after they have been members of the institution for a certain amount of time) in the service of submitting themselves to group values. In these circumstances, the individual effectively ceases to exist, turning his or her heart and soul over to the system, thinking and feeling with the brain of the group.

I have read ten or twelve histories of the rise of the Third Reich and the cultural and institutional dynamics that created Nazi Germany. I have read five or six histories of the Communist scare that grabbed American culture by the throat in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, and of the success of the efforts of Senator Joseph McCarthy to intimidate, blacklist, and imprison artists, intellectuals, and bureaucrats who dared to think and say things that were not supposed to be thought and said.

I have read scores of books about the power of leaders to pressure, intimidate, and corrupt individuals under them—including more or less the complete works of Kurt Eichenwald (the author of Serpent on the Rocks: Backstabbing, Lying, Embezzling, and Cover-ups; Conspiracy of Fools; The Informant; 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars; and many other books), and of Michael Lewis (the author of Liar’s Poker, The Big Short, The Money Culture; and many other books). I have read Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera’s All the Devils Are Here, John Rolfe and Peter Troob's Monkey Business, and many other case studies of the causes of the recent financial meltdown.

And I have read several dozen books about “whistle-blowing”—the all-too-uncommon event where an individual bucks the pressures to conform and the demands that he or she suspend his or her personal ethics and reveals questionable practices that are normally hidden by secrecy and silenced by the hard-to-resist bribery of institutional approval and financial reward. It's not surprising that pushing against the system that pays your salary is so rare. Truth-telling, particularly if it goes against the grain of the institutional ethos and contradicts the party-line, can take a lot of courage—and have a lot of unpleasant consequences.

A few weeks ago, I happened to come across Richard C. Cook’s Challenger Revealed, a detailed insider account by a former NASA employee of the corporate mindset that resulted in the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle—and, of even more personal interest to me, a blow-by-blow description of how the author was treated when, in desperation and as a last resort, after NASA attempted to deny and cover-up a multi-year history of gross moral failures and abdications of duty, Cook stuck out his neck and went to journalists at The New York Times with insider documents that revealed the truth about the causes of the explosion, and was ultimately asked to testify before Congress. His courage and ethical principles in going public with what he knew and in producing the documents he did were, needless to say, not appreciated or rewarded. Rather than being treated as the patriot and hero that he was, he was reviled both inside and outside NASA as a disloyal turncoat who was betraying institutional secrets and revealing things that he should have kept his mouth shut about. Even the Congressional committee in charge of the official investigation into what was at that point the greatest tragedy and loss of life in the space age treated him abusively and disrespectfully when he testified before it. The exposure to other people's courage and principles can do that to those who lack courage and principles, who understand nothing beyond conformity and group-thinking. As the quote that heads this page from the second chapter of Luke understands, we are herd animals who function most comfortably in flocks, tribes, and groups, and the piercing, individualistic vision of angels almost always terrifies us. And fear, in the human species, on planet Earth, is almost always the father of anger and hatred. The one who is stands out is retaliated against.

Cook almost lost heart during his long and highly public ordeal, but tells the story of how, at his lowest emotional point in the whole series of events, when it seemed that his courage and principles were only being repaid with hate, punishment, and abuse, he received a letter in the mail from a woman in Vermont he had never met, and how it helped him survive the ferocity of the criticism and ostracization. In the spirit of the season, I reprint the text of it here. (As a teacher, I have to admit that I particularly love the mention of “the young” in the third from last paragraph. My hope too is in them.) —Ray Carney

Dear Richard,

I am writing this letter because I have a message for you. In every system God puts someone to break the system. You are the one God put in the system. How do you break the system? By not going along with it. You will be challenged to do something that is wrong and against your system. Stand up for right and God will be with you. This is the time to stand up and be counted.

God’s plan is for everyone to experience the good way and the bad way and then choose which way you want to go. The good way promises nothing and gives you everything. The other way promises everything and gives you nothing but despair. God is for everyone. The other way benefits no one.

God knows that you can do it. You have been tested many times and have come through for good ways. God knows that there are good teachings mixed in with bad teachings and we are confused. That is why He sends a guardian angel when we are in a bind. We know that fear knocks out God and this is what will be used on you. When you feel this coming on, ask for God’s help. He will send help from above. A guardian angel.

You will be opening the door for good ways to come in and the young to come in and help. They are strong in God and will show us the way.

We will be rooting for you to come through. We love you for hanging in there when the going gets tough. As the saying goes, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

God bless you and take care of you. We will be praying for you. Pray that God’s way comes through.