(Originally published May 10, 2012, in Capital, here.)
In politics, there is a sense there can be no shame in winning. You cannot make the world pure and good (the thinking goes) until those who are wise and just win – at whatever the cost.
I thought of this the other day when I saw members in Parliament here shamelessly cheer, applaud, laugh, and celebrate the fact they had just toppled the government. They reacted as if they had won a high school basketball game, not as if they had thrown the country into uncertainty, internally and externally, and by the way, threatened to increase the reputation of Romania as something of a political joke.
I wondered at the time whether their calculations before the vote factored in the impact on this country’s relationship with the IMF, with the World Bank, with the EC, with foreign investors as the currency falls to record lows. I wondered if the laughing members held any regard for the way they are viewed from outside? Maybe not, as group mentality abhors any sign of weakness or doubt.
Yet doubt is often a sign of strength and regard for others often a recognition of responsibility. Sure, the IMF is filled wih professionals who will say it doesn’t matter who is in charge; they will work with whatever government is in place. But how many times have they had to say that these past two years? Make no mistake, it might not change what they do in the office, but it will certainly change what they think at home.
Because what serious person would deny that you change governments only because you need to, not because you can? I am absolutely not playing sides here. I have no desire to belong to any political party, neither here nor in the US. They all look too much like lazy, overfed gangs to me. But didn’t we just present a new government to the outside world? Shouldn’t we keep a government here long enough so that foreigners can learn to pronounce the man’s full name? Are politicians here really trying to imitate Moldova?
Now, perhaps there is some historically fed perspective here that there can be no shame in surviving. And we in the US certainly have these types of childish battles. Shame, it seems, is a dwindling commodity, except perhaps in Japan. When I started my political life campaigning as a kid for George McGovern, even Richard Nixon, who perverted the presidency with a paranoid sense of entitlement, had sufficient shame to quit (just before he was kicked out). Bill Clinton, of course, did not — and so helped set a standard that continues to debase the political conversation in the US.
Of course, politics is not the only place you witness this high school behavior among adults. We see it in business and other professions. How else do you explain the outrageous salaries paid to mere mortals? That’s the game, my friends, just a bunch of boys being boys, here and elsewhere. They get so wound up by their own interests, by their own ambitions, by their own cleverness, that it all is just a game.
And sure enough, the more cheering you witness on the sidelines, the more of a game you can be sure it has become. And the more of a game something becomes (whether in business or in politics), the more you can bet that the players are forgetting who they are supposed to serve. Because now everyone else is regarded as mere spectators, not participants.
I don’t really expect this to have any impact. There are always ways to justify your actions, beginning of course by saying it was all done with the best of intentions. “Whatever was done was done for the public good” – now there’s a thought that should send chills down your spine. Because, to steal a quote from Pascal: “The only shame is to have none.”