The rot within

Print edition : June 22, 2002

From manipulated elections to corrupt corporations, from plagiarist historians to paedophile priests... the U.S. seems to be suffering an all-round degeneration.

IT seems that the rot has set in in American life. This is not confined to one sector. It began when Bill Clinton degraded the dignity of the Oval Office by his misbehaviour. His successor George Bush promised during his election campaign that he would bring dignity and honour back to the office of President. However, the elections were manipulated in his favour. In Florida thousands of black voters were not registered and many thousands were prevented from exercising their right to vote.

An Indian begging in Jersey City. The U.S. government has done little to curb the rising number of homeless people, many of whom are immigrants who moved to the world's only superpower in search of a better life.-MOHAMMED JAFFER/SNAPS INDIA

It is beyond comprehension that the world's only superpower could not provide ballot boxes that were not defective. Inexplicably, only predominantly black constituencies got these faulty boxes. So even before entering the Oval Office Bush created grave doubts about the legitimacy of his presidency.

So both Clinton and Bush brought the political process into disrepute. Former President Jimmy Carter travels round the world in order to certify the fairness or otherwise of elections in various countries. But he was not outraged by the manipulation of the U.S. presidential election.

The degradation of the electoral process was followed by the debacle of Enron. The Enron scandal has revealed how the corporate sector in the U.S. not only has predatory tendencies, but has several crooks operating in it.

American companies are allowed by law to have their subsidiaries in safe havens and thus evade taxes. Enron, like hundreds of other companies, thus robbed the U.S. treasury of millions of dollars of tax money. Enron executives cooked their books and artificially raised the price of their shares. While many Enron employees and people who invested in the company lost their savings, top executives indulged in insider trading and made millions by selling their stocks once they knew that the ship was sinking.

Both Houses of Congress are now examining the causes of the Enron debacle and calling those concerned to depose before several committees. It is rare to find a parallel to hypocrisy on this scale. These same representatives of the people had in the past strongly resisted arming the Securities and Exchange Commission with more powers to rein in the corporate sector.

Audit firms like Arthur Anderson, who were hand in glove with these companies, lobbied heavily on their behalf. The members of Congress eagerly and vehemently espoused their cause. About two-thirds of the Republican and Democratic Congressmen received large amounts as soft money from Enron, Anderson and several other companies.

There are more than two dozen officials in the Bush administration who were involved with Enron, and some of them made millions from the connection. This pervasive and pernicious influence of Enron led The New York Times columnist Frank Rich to label the United States of America the United States of Enron.

President Bush is the top beneficiary of Enron funds. While his father made more than $10 million with the stocks of Global Crossing, which followed Enron in going in for bankruptcy proceedings, Bush was supported by Enron right from the days of his governorship of Texas. He has cleverly managed to send his papers of that period to his father's library and has, at the same time, issued an executive order that prohibits the public easy access to the presidential papers pertaining to his father's tenure.

Enron, Global Crossing, Anderson and some other companies have exposed the cancerous elements in the corporate sector as well as in the political life of the U.S.

Academia is not above board either. Harvard has come under criticism for the defective manner in which its students are graded. Furthermore, although the U.S. has a long tradition of historical scholarship, some historians now admit that they have on occasion resorted to plagiarism. Two famous historians admitted, after public criticism, to lifting material from other writers.

It started with the respected historian Stephan E. Ambrose whose multi-volume biographies of Dwight. D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon are well known. Ambrose is a prolific writer. Many of his books have been bestsellers. He is also a consultant to some television series and film companies in Hollywood. His D-Day became such a hit that he formed a company to manage his soaring income. His sons are with the company and one of them assists him in his research.

Ambrose has now acknowledged that his new book The Wild Blues has borrowed some "phrases and words" from a book by the historian Thomas Childers. But this borrowing is not confined to a few phrases. His defence was that he had used footnotes and had praised the book in question. Later it was found that Ambrose had borrowed passages from many books for some of his other books as well. Some writers noted that Ambrose's book on Nixon had passages that were lifted from other authors. Childers, who is a Professor in the University of Pennsyl-vania, has now ceased using Ambrose's book - The Wild Blues - in his class. Ambrose himself has got away with his lame excuse.

Ambrose is followed by another historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, who also has some bestsellers to her credit. She was critical of Joe Grinniss who, she alleged, had lifted many passages from her book. But Goodwin has been assailed for borrowing passages from a book by Lynne McTaggart for her book Fitzgeralds and Kennedys. Goodwin explained that her publisher had made a payment for the use of those particular passages. But it has now come to light that Goodwin is indebted to McTaggart for more passages than she had admitted, and she also "borrowed" from some others. Because of this revelation her book has been withdrawn from circulation.

Goodwin's explanation is that she has the habit of taking notes in long hand and might have mistaken them as her own while writing the manuscript. However, this explanation has raised even more questions. Critics ask how she could not distinguish her style from that of the authors from whose books she took notes.

Louis Roberts was the chairman of the classics department of the State University of Albany. He resigned recently after his colleagues accused him of plagiarism. He has been accused of lifting from other translations of Latin texts and claiming that he translated them himself. Roberts, unlike Ambrose and Goodwin, paid a price for plagiarism.

Two years ago, two journalists concocted some stories for which they won plaudits and some prizes. Ultimately the truth was discovered and they lost their writing assignments. Henry Kissinger, however, has no qualms about his misleading account of his meeting with Zhou Enlai in 1971. He wrote in his White House Memoirs that at that meeting Taiwan was mentioned briefly. But 41 items of Nixon-era papers, which are now declassified, reveal that Kissinger had told the Chinese leader that the U.S. would not recognise the independence of Taiwan. He also told Zhou Enlai that the U.S. would get out of Vietnam with or without any settlement. Kissinger says that he did not reveal what actually transpired at that meeting because the U.S. administration did not want to embarrass the U.S.' allies and was keen to establish relations with China.

It is expected of the ecclesiastical orders to set an example. But some Catholic priests have been accused of indulging in child abuse. It has become a topic of national debate, as many priests from several places have come under fire for paedophilia. Priests in Boston who were charged with paedophilia were initially not removed from their posts. Some $15 million was paid to 100 victims and another $20 million to $30 million will be paid in due course. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, the guilty priests were quietly removed.

This all-round degeneration is painful to the intellectuals and the thinking people of the U.S. They are aware that most nations of the world only have a relationship of convenience with the U.S. and do not have any intellectual affinity with it.

But this state of affairs is not devoid of some redeeming factors. Numerous individuals and institutions are not afraid to make sacrifices and put up a fight. They spend millions of dollars on worthy causes all over the world. Several hundred scholars are dedicated to the intellectual pursuit. There is no end to vigorous debate. This is the real strength and power of the U.S.

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