In observing — with some approval — the departure of the corrupt, incompetent and astonishingly lazy 109th Congress, it is not without some worry that we greet the young and hopeful 110th.
Will cynics prove right? Will politicians do what they have so often in the past... fall into bad habits that soon tarnish their idealism and our best hopes?
Let me say that I am less worried about the things that dour pundits normally dwell upon — e.g. political temptations like earmarking and lobbyist dinners — than by something far more profound and potentially devastating. So, let me offer up a dark scenario — a warning — that I hope will percolate through channels to every officeholder or sincere civil servant, during an era of political transition.
Indeed, this message may also be pertinent to some members of the Republican establishment! For we are about to discuss a terrible danger and opportunity that crosses party lines. We'll be dealing with traits like honor and pragmatism, cynicism and patriotism, cynical self-protection... and courage.
While negotiating the ethical and political minefield that is Washington, always remain wary of a particular worst-case scenario... one that can systematically undermine even the most well-meaning politicians.
That worst-case scenario is blackmail.
All of you enthusiastic neophytes to national power, this may be the very moment for a little protective paranoia. Always remember that some powerful people will see you as a threat to their interests. Some of the more unscrupulous may seek to neutralize that threat, using some classic methods known across history.
One of the most basic ancient techniques — going back to biblical times — has been entrapment and blackmail.
Remember the U.S. Marine guards at our embassy in Moscow, some decades back? It all started when a few boys — lonely and far from home — were invited to party with some local "students." A little alcohol, then sex with local hookers... (where's the harm?)... were followed by a drug high or two... and a few lewd pictures... then some incriminating ones...
At any point, early on, those young men could have saved their own lives and served their country, simply by turning themselves in. The very first to do so might even have saved his career. Others could have escaped with minor punishments. Instead, alas, they let themselves be blackmailed, by gradual stages, into doing the KGB "just a few harmless favors"...
... relatively harmless, at first. Xeroxing a few embassy visitor lists. Penny-ante stuff.
Only then, the Soviets had real dirt on the poor fellows. Proof of espionage that could produce real prison time. And meanwhile the girls and drugs kept coming. Plus flattery. ("You are special, James Bond types — above normal loyalties and laws." Very similar patterns of ego-milking helped to suborn the Walkers and that dismal FBI agent, Hanssen.)
Very soon, those marines were trapped. Fully in the pockets of their nation's enemies. And betraying really harmful secrets.
Security experts and intelligence agents know all about this process, which has been used by kingdoms, empires, syndicates and unscrupulous groups since time immemorial. Indeed, all through World War Two and the Cold War, it was a key job of counter-intelligence professionals to watch carefully for hints of subornation. They collected and correlated patterns of travel, or unaccountable wealth or crony-favoritism, keeping a wary eye open for anything consistent enough to merit closer scrutiny.
So now? Does it really matter that our roster of "enemies" has changed a bit? The KGB is gone. But there are others who do not want our civilization to thrive. Or who would influence our top decision-makers in order to be better parasites. Anyone who thought that this classic danger ended with the Cold War has got to be titanically naive.
Moreover, consider this: Bribery is actually far less efficient and reliable than blackmail!
If you bribe an official or legislator or bureaucrat, they may demand more, next time, or simply say "I helped you enough, this year." But blackmail puts them in your pocket for good. It transforms the relationship, making him or her less a business associate and more your personal servant.
Has this scenario already been in play, among members of the present ruling caste?
Of course, the imagination can run wild — colored by your degree of paranoia and your personal politics. (How else would you explain some decision patterns, in recent years, that seem relentlessly to benefit just a few hostile interest groups, over and over again, at great cost to the general commonwealth? Always start by listing the big winners.)
No, I won't go into detail here as to who I think may be orchestrating present day attempts at subornation. I have no proof... nor does that matter, since nobody can point to a single era of history when it did not happen.
We are better off assuming the tradition goes on. And that some enemies of our republic, our civilization, and the Western Enlightenment are doing it right now.
Oh, you incoming Democratic lawmakers and staffers, don't be fooled by the fact that most of the known American traitors, across the last 40 years, were Republicans! (e.g. the Walkers, Hanssen, etc.) Democrats are fallible, corruptible and human, too! Indeed, there may be forces at work in DC, right now, who aim to test this methodology on the newest players in that wild and ethically-challenged town.
(Even veteran Democratic representatives may need to heed this warning. Because only now have they become interesting targets for subornation.)
Even if I am exaggerating the current extent of suborned betrayal within the many branches and agencies and media that make up the American Establishment, The warning stands. Because this will always be a danger. A peril that can turn almost any friend of our civilization into a snake, dwelling in its heart.
Hence, let me offer a little advice to all loyal Americans — whether Republican or Democrat — who may be embarking upon careers along avenues of power.
Consign yourself to live a super-clean life. Become a personal prude. Back away from temptations, even if they take place in the apparently secure confines of (say) a billionaire's yacht or on a private estate, or a royal palace in some foreign land.
Especially in those environs! Because those may be the very people who would like to "own" a Representative or bureaucrat. The more flattering and friendly and ego-stroking they may seem — assuring you of secure and private pleasures — the stronger the possibility that the very walls may have cameras. Aimed in order to guarantee that you will remain a valued friend.
Hire a good professional paranoid for your staff. Someone who knows all about these nasty tricks and who can spot bait-lures on the horizon. Likewise, have a truly wise confidant — someone not on your payroll — to whom you can turn when temptation comes your way. And don't entirely trust either of them.
Have a scenario-plan worked out, for when you are approached with either a potential entrapment or a followup blackmail threat. Those first instants of surprise and confusion could be critical. If you are prepared (especially technologically), you may be the one to turn the tables on your persecutors... and thus do your nation a service out of all proportion to any "goods" that the bad guys have on you.
Indeed, talking this over among yourselves, you may also be well served to look into whether agencies like the FBI may offer pre-training services, empowering you, and others like you, to act decisively and confidently, when and if such a time comes. (And if they don't offer such services, they sure ought to! Ask why not.) Indeed, if you make it openly clear that you are wary, it may keep such plotters away.
Contemplate the algebra of forgiveness. Some of you reading this may have already tumbled over the edge. It may already have happened to you. Some moment of weakness or falling into temptation. Perhaps even blackmail based upon faked photos, or something you never did! Maybe you have been on a hellish spiral for years, hating yourself...
...or else rationalizing that you are really serving a superior side. That's what human beings often do. Even the worst traitors seldom view themselves that way.
However it has come down, consider this: It's never too late to do the right thing. If the subornation process that I describe has been going on in a systematic and pervasive way, polluting our institutions and corrupting our trusted public servants, how do you think history will view the first of you to show some guts? The first to stand up and fight back?
If you do it with savvy and skill, somehow turning the tables on your blackmailers, can you even doubt that your nation will value the service, far higher than it disdains your original, disreputable deed?
Help foster a civilization that rewards openness and forgiveness. This is a long term goal. But if we keep making progress toward a civilization that has a sense of proportion about lesser human failings, then we may neutralize many situations that were, or remain, "blackmailable." Little sexual lapses should matter less than graft and treason, for example. (But remember, once you are blackmailed for the one, you may then commit the latter and be blackmailed for that!)
In any event, we all need to help foster trends toward a nation and a world where people will feel safe to own up to their faults, rather than feeling terrified that their smaller slips and faults will doom their hopes. We should not be led by folks who are afraid of light.
The crux? Consider this: blackmailers love to give their victims a sense of helpless isolation. But the sickness may be far more pervasive than you imagine. And spreading. For it is the nature of evil men that they are insatiable. They will keep trying whatever has worked in the past, casting their nets wider and wider, under an illusion that the good times can go on forever...
... until, at last, they try these tricks on people who do have the courage, wit and patriotism to fight back. At which point, the whole vile deck of cards may come tumbling down.
Where will you be, when that happens?
According to the algebra of redemption, only the first who blow the whistle will get to be heroes, forgiven all, rewarded with everything. After them will come the most agile rats, abandoning a sinking ship, tattling and pointing fingers, in exchange for partial clemency...
...and the last to come out will be hung.
History shows that this kind of thing is never stable. Either it will result in democracy being thoroughly corrupted and destroyed... as has happened many times before...
... or else such schemes will collapse, as American civilization continues its inexorable progress toward an open and transparent and accountable society.
In the first of these two eventualities, you may thrive, having sided with the new oligarchs. But you will know (deep inside) that you helped to end the Great Experiment. May it gnaw your guts.
But suppose what happens is the second outcome (and I have strong reason to believe that it will be so). Then the cowards who let themselves be blackmailed or cozened or suborned or bribed or flattered into treason will eventually be brought to light. And they will be sorry.
Either way, you can see what is at stake. So be careful. Take precautions. Cut through the rationalizations. Keep your eyes open.
If you seek the people's trust and to be granted political power, that makes you a soldier: Live with it. We are a civilization that is at war for its very survival. Moreover, "terrorists" are among the most pallid and laughable of our enemies. There are worse threats to the continuation of a Great Experiment in open civilization, in science and democracy, in social mobility, in truly free markets and a joyfully open mix of competition and cooperation.
None of those great things can work well in darkness, manipulated by cheaters.
Stand up. Know what the enemy can do. And deny them the power.
Copyright © 2007 by David Brin. All rights reserved.
"POLITICAL BLACKMAIL: The Hidden Danger to Public Servants" (published in full here) was one of several written to offer advice following the 2006 midterm election.
V. I. Lenin, "Political Blackmail"
David Brin blogs at Contrary Brin and comments on Facebook, Twitter, MeWe, and Quora specifically to discuss the political and scientific issues he raises in these articles. If you come to argue rationally, you're voting, implicitly, for a civilization that values open minds and discussions among equals.
David Brin's science fiction novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages. They range from bold and prophetic explorations of our near-future to Brin's Uplift series, envisioning galactic issues of sapience and destiny (and star-faring dolphins!).
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