Bucking the trend or buckling to the crowd?
It’s as old as history itself, the go-along-to-get-along-even-when-it’s-wrong people-pleasing, job-protecting, self-aggrandizing, look-the-other-way pretending.
Easter comes early this year, April 8th, an event celebrated with everything from Sunday-go-to-meeting new dresses and hats, to decorating and hiding and hunting eggs, to coloring contests of bunnies and baskets. But the occasion is not all bunting, balloons and baked ham. There was, after all, a Passover Plot as well, a sinister, lurking, murderous undertaking to take under one who had got in the way of people in positions of power. Center-stage in the plot was Pilate, a crucial character most notable then and most infamous now for his lack of character in catering to the clamoring crowd.
As if in keeping with this season of spin-not-spine, of weather-vane decision making, and just plain flat-out head-in-the-sand see-no-evil, a recently promoted novel in the list of must-reads concerns a village that pretends the Holocaust isn’t true. In the book entitled “No One is Here Except All of Us,” Romana Ausubel portrays in fanciful fictional form the families who agree together that what they’re hearing can’t possibly be happening and even if it is they’re going to pretend it’s not, “reinventing the world, denying any relationship with the known and starting over from scratch.”
“Let’s pretend” is usually child’s play but when it too-often is found as more characteristic than not among adults it’s no longer a game.
“No one will ever know just how much of the $300 billion plus that was lost in the savings and loan debacle (of the mid-80’s) could have been saved had a few independent auditors simply shown some degree of ethical backbone.” This is but one of many somebody-done-somebody-wrong-song examples in Joseph W. Cotchett’s book not surprisingly entitled “The Ethics Gap – Greed and the Casino Society: The Erosion of Ethics in Our Professions, Business and Government.”
It must be something in the water because one of the New York Times quotes-of-the-day from this past week was this: "It's a little late in the game to worry about anticorruption measures because what in the world is the alternative going to be? If you find people who aren't corrupt it is largely because they haven't had the opportunity." Anthony H. Cordesman, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, is commenting on the corruption that pervades Afghanistan's business and political elite.
Then there’s Eyal Press’s new book that explores moral courage with a pretty-much-says-it-all title: “Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the voice of Conscience in Dark Times.” Unlike novelist Ausubel’s fictional village, Press’s work concerns very much real “ordinary folks who seem painfully imperfect.” People like Houston resident Leyla Wydler, “who in 2003 risked her career to report on the dubious financial practices at her firm. Almost everyone ignored her at first, and she soon lost her job. But after the Madoff scheme was exposed, the case was reopened in 2009 and her hunch proved correct: her firm had swindled hundreds of clients in a $7 billion Ponzi scheme.”
Lakewood’s Jeremy Vahle could have been featured in Press’s book. Vahle is the Lakewood police officer “who suspected money was being stolen from the charitable fund” that had been established on behalf of the families of fellow officers slain in 2009.
Following his own police-officer’s hunch, Vahle, a union vice president, uncovered “a significant amount of money missing” from yet another account - the union dues the guild receives - about $70 a month, $76,600 a year - from the more than 90 police officers, detectives, investigators and sergeants that make up the guild. Vahle “obtained bank records on his own, saw the hidden account and turned the information over to his superiors at the Police Department.”
Eric Bell, new guild president who has replaced the recently resigned Wurts, says both treasurer Skeeter Manos (fingered by Vahle) and Wurts “thwarted” repeated requests for review of the guild’s accounts.
In the interest of integrity – and speaking of interest – it will be interesting to see if the City of Lakewood returns to the police officer’s fund the 11-percent interest the city gained on the revenue generated at a Lakewood casino at which Manos is alleged to have withdrawn $4,000 in $500 increments from the account he is charged with secretly establishing. That’s what you do isn’t it, return it to the rightful owner, when something stolen is possessed, whether you know it was stolen or not? And will the casino likewise chip in their share of the loot, reimbursing the kids from whose account it was wrongfully taken?
As intriguing as the intrigue complicating the plots of those plotting to pilfer the pockets of others in order to line their own are those who smell a rat and decide to do something about it. Their actions are not singular but rather involve a series of agonizingly painful and most certainly very personal decisions, often with career-ending implications.
They’re called whistle-blowers, finger-pointers, boat-rockers, often insiders who take it upon themselves to expose the hidden dark secrets - the cloak and dagger type stuff, at least the cloak, sometimes dagger – of fellow workers who are suspected in wrong-doing. They’re the “James Bond or Sherlock Holmes” of their profession, writes Cotchett, “willing to track down some obscure or unexplained ledger entry that might lead to uncovering a million-dollar fraud, but that also might lead nowhere – tedious work. And what if a crime is discovered? Now they are faced with a major dilemma. If they acknowledge and report the crime, they could be fired by less than honest superiors in the company.”
Why do they do it? Researchers under the oversight of the ethics review boards at Brigham and Women's Hospital and the Harvard School of Public Health wanted to know the answer to that question.
Researchers interviewed 26 whistleblowers, involved in drug company cases settled between 2001 and 2009. Twenty-two of them were insiders. One of them was John Kopchinski, “a West Point grad and former Pfizer sales rep, who helped the government on a case that eventually contributed to the largest health care fraud settlement in U.S. history.”
Why did he blow the whistle? "You have to live with yourself when you look at yourself in the mirror," he said.
The movies “Conviction” and “Flash of Genius” herald those brave few who forsake personal comforts and instead embark on the long and winding road for the sake of principle, and conscience, bolstered by their convictions.
Convictions such as those that drove Dietrich Bonhoeffer. When “events in Germany had become so fierce and brutal that silence and withdrawal implied complicity,” Bonhoeffer wrote that responsibility dictates “not simply to bind the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel, but also to put a spoke in the wheel itself.” (Courage, by Gordon Brown)
What the celebrated few (few are the individuals, fewer still the committees) have in common that sets them apart from Pilate and the Holocaust-isn’t-happening villagers – whether it’s Bonhoeffer marching back against the tide of those fleeing Germany; or Wydler helping to expose Madoff; or Lakewood Officer Vahle conducting his own independent and initial investigation of a fellow officer – what binds each together and keeps them duty bound to make the multiplied and successive decisions to stay the course of exposing what isn’t right and doing what is – is described by Jeffrey Stout in his book “Blessed Are The Organized – Grassroots Democracy in America.” The jacket cover pictures maybe a dozen folding chairs, all empty. The people must be out doing something. And what that something takes, Stout says, is anger. “Someone who professes love of justice, but is not angered by its violation, is unlikely to stay with the struggle for justice through thick and thin, to display the passion that will motivate others to join in, or to have enough courage to stand up to the powers that be.”
It’s the kind of thing popularized in the movie “Clear and Present Danger.” Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford) is asked by the President of the United States (Donald Moffat) to cover up the CIA’s covert military action in Colombia in which $650,000,000 had been skimmed by a friend of the President from the Colombian drug cartels. After all, says the President, “It’s the old Potomac two-step.”
To which Ryan (Ford) replies, “Sorry Mr. President. I don’t dance.”