When the news broke last Sunday that a Boeing 737 had inexplicably missed the runway at Bali airport and ended up in the sea without, miraculously, any loss of life, I couldn’t resist a sardonic smile. In the closing pages of Swedish author Jonas Jonasson’s improbably titled “The 100-year-old man who climbed out the window and disappeared”, an elephant laden, privately chartered Boeing 747 is trying to get permission from air traffic controllers to land at Bali airport. The gist of the conversation goes like this:
“My name is Dollars, One Hundred Thousand Dollars.”
“Excuse me, what is your first name, Mr Dollars?”
“One Hundred Thousand and I want permission to land at your airport”
“Excuse me Mr Dollars. The sound is very poor. Could you be so kind as to say your first name once more?”
“My first name is Two Hundred Thousand.”
“You are most welcome to Bali, Mr Dollars”.
It does make you wonder. In fact, my knowledge of Indonesia (of which Bali is a part) is founded entirely on the above-mentioned novel and Barack Obama’s positively embarrassing “The Audacity of Hope” in which he frighteningly bases his concept of foreign policy on his childhood experiences with his mother and autocratic stepfather in that country. What is interesting is that both authors take the existence of corruption there for granted and, in the case of Jonasson, he is clearly aware of his readers’ subconscious expectation that, in that part of the world, bribery will always be involved.
But that begs a question about the West.
Why is it that every time somebody in authority puts his hands in the till (or elsewhere) we freeze in indignation and shock, adopting the facial pose of someone in desperate need of the bathroom, and fast? Indignation has some logic to it. But why shock? Shouldn’t we expect it? Just look at the shenanigans in high places of only the last few months:
Starting with monarchies. There is the King of Spain’s son-in-law facing fraud charges (with his wife Princess Christina being required to appear in Court). Meanwhile, there are accusations of a political slush fund that may have benefited some of the King’s highest democratically elected political servants. And then there is the widow of King Baudouin of Belgium (who shared first place with General Franco in my childhood stamp collection) who has been siphoning off part of her considerable State pension to a foundation for the benefit of her Spanish nephews so as to avoid Estate Tax.
Republics have not been faring any better. Berlusconi’s antics in the boardroom and the bedroom do not need repeating here but even he is being outshone by the political heirs of the Sun King. The French establishment seems to be guillotining itself with the disclosure that the treasurer of President Zeropopularityrating’s party invested illegally in the Cayman Islands followed by the resignation of his Budget Minister for a similar iniquity.
Furthermore – and not because I want to be fair to the French but because I want to make a point – if we go back a few short years, a large number of MPs, constituting the rump of the British Parliament, were caught inflating their expenses, claiming for such necessities as the cleaning of a moat.
For the life of me, I cannot understand why intelligent, educated people in their millions are still shocked by these antics. There are simply too many of these good people to assume that they are the same poor souls who still believe in Santa Claus and saunter down to the lily pond at the end of the garden on a summer’s evening to dance with the fairies.
All this is not a cue for the God Squad to jump up and start lecturing on the debilitating effect on morality of an increasingly secular society. They might like to reflect on the state of organized religion which has, itself, not been having a very good press lately. Moreover, a recent book by primatologist Frans de Waal has shown that chimpanzees display considerable moral behaviour in terms of looking after the infirm, the old and the orphaned – which should wipe any remaining smug smile off the face of the average, intellectually stunted Holy Joe.
Anyone who can see past the Evangelist standing on the doorstep trying to sell human salvation – in fact, anybody who gets around to reading the older part of the Bible he is trying to peddle – should realize that immorality is here to stay. Instead of being surprised by it – society should legislate for, and strictly enforce, the bits that cause the most angst.
A few months ago I wrote about a British Parliamentary broadside against Amazon, Google and Starbucks who, it was contended by British lawmakers (in between consultations with the moat cleaner), were not paying enough tax. Committee Chairman Margaret Hodge accused them of being immoral rather than illegal. This was balderdash. Apart from the fact that a company cannot be moral, intelligent or humorous because it is just a number in a government registry – how are company managers to know who the god, or gods, it is that they are required to serve – shareholders, host country government , home country government or customers?
And, while we are at it, what defines Morality in the modern Global Village? Perhaps it was prescient that the only typo ever recorded in the official King James Bible was in the 1631 edition where the 7th Commandment was rendered as “Thou shalt commit adultery”. In those days, if you committed adultery it could cost you your life (and if you committed adultery with the wife of the heir to the throne, you watched yourself being chopped up first). Nowadays, it just costs you your house and car.
As the sun began to set on the last century, I spent a few months working in Manhattan. On my first day in the apartment on 34th and 2nd the concierge caught me on the way out. “Mista Fisher, you gotta separate yer garbage. It’s de law Mista Fisher, it’s de law”. I, of course, proceeded to do exactly what he said for the entire two months. Why? Was it because, I had a Green epiphany and considered it morally reprehensible to put recyclable and non-recyclable rubbish in the same bin (sorry, “can”)? You kiddin’, or somethin’? There were two reasons: I thought that, if I got caught 3 times putting the washed out remains of the Drip Brew filter with the empty Ding Dong packets I would get life without parole; and the concierge talked and looked like Jimmy Cagney so I wasn’t taking any chances so close to the East River.
FDR was wrong when he announced at his first inauguration that “all we have to fear is fear itself”. With all the progress in the world, when it comes to enforcing the law, there is no substitute for fear. Maybe they should bring back the Rack. It might not deter corrupt high-flyers much, but it would satisfy the moral majority’s primitive urge for revenge.