Friday, December 12, 2008

On Blagojevich's "Character Being Destiny" as Huffington put it

I have to heartily disagree with Arianna Huffington's post from yesterday, that Blagojevich's "Character is Destiny."

Huffington writes:

"Blagojevich's serial sleaziness wasn't about alleviating what the governor called his family's 'financial stress.' Indeed, to understand what it was about, we must turn to literature and philosophy -- the only way to get a handle on this political Tony Soprano, a Big Machine capo with a little boy's haircut. As my compatriot Heraclitus put it so succinctly 2,500 years ago: 'Character is destiny.' Look at Blagojevich's life and his checkered tenure as Governor, and the amorality that led him to hang a For Sale sign on the Illinois statehouse door seems to have been part of his character for a very long time: he was a 78-page criminal indictment waiting to happen. He married into a politically powerful Chicago family, a union that helped take him from a nobody prosecutor trying traffic court cases ("Running a red light is fucking golden. You think I'm gonna let you off for fucking nothing? I'm not gonna do it.") to the governor's mansion in little more than a decade. Soon after taking office, he began delivering favors to those willing to fill his campaign coffers. As Shakespeare had Cassius lay it out for Brutus: "The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves."

After having just read Malcolm Gladwell's excellent new book The Outliers, I would argue that one's "Cultural Background is One's Destiny". (Where does "character" come from anyway, but from how one was raised)?

Gladwell's argument in the book is that it is very difficult to overcome one's cultural legacy, that cultural legacies have "deep roots and long lives": "They persist, generation after generation, virtually intact, even as the economic and social and demographic conditions that spawned them have vanished, and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behavior that we cannot make sense of our world without them."

In one chapter, Gladwell explains that Appalachia was so violent in the late 19th and early 20th century "because of where the original inhabitants of the region came from,;" these regions were settled mainly by immigrants "from one of the world's most ferocious cultures of honor: from the lowlands of Scotland, the northern counties of England, and Ulster in Northern Ireland.

In another chapter, Gladwell shows how Chris Langan, a man with an incredibly high IQ never met with "success," because he didn't learn from his family how to negotiate, how to communicate, with authority, unlike another man, Robert Oppenheimer, who also was gifted with high intelligence, raised in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Manhattan, who attended a private school in NY, who therefore learned how to "negotiate [his] way out of a tight spot." Therefore, Oppenheimer was able to get away with trying to poison his tutor in college, he could talk his way out of things, and into things, into the position of scientific director of the Manhattan Project, while Langan couldn't even get his college professors to allow him to move his classes to the afternoon, and ended up dropping out of college.

Gladwell argues that Oppenheimer, because of the way he was brought up, with a father who had "made his way up in the business world," and who was sent to the private "Ethical Culture School," had developed the life skill of being able to get "the rest of the world to see things his way." In contrast, when Gladwell asked Langan if he would accept a job at Harvard University (he is trying to write a thesis on theoretical physics on his own) he answered: "When you accept a paycheck from these people, it is going to come down to what you want to do and what you feel is right versus what the man says you can do to reeive another paycheck."

As Gladwell writes, "What? One of the main reasons college professors accept a lower paycheck than they could get in private industry is that university life gives them the freedom to do what they want to do and what they feel is right. Langan has Harvard backwards."

Because of Langan's cultural background, his family, how he grew up, he doesn't get how institutions work, he doesn't know how to speak to people in authority properly, how to get what he wants using the right language.

This reminds me an awful lot of Blagojevich. "Quid pro quo" is not at all foreign to politics. If Blagojevich hadn't been so crude about it on those tapes, so blunt, so "low-class," it wouldn't strike us as so offensive. Blagojevich is a man who didn't get along with a lot of others in politics. He wasn't able to get people to see things his way as Oppenheimer was. In September, an ethics bill he tried to pass in the Illinois House was rejected 113 to 3.

Blagojevich's father was an immigrant from Serbia. Through his own intelligence and hard work, Blagojevich himself went to the respectable college of Northwestern and then on to law school. But as the tapes show, his language is one inevitably peppered with the "f-word." He's laughingly being compared to Tony Soprano, another man who obviously was heir to the powerful force of his ethnicity and culture. Both are men who didn't get a chance to learn from their parents how to speak the right language of those in authority, a language of restraint, to get what they want legally.

Blagojevich legally had power over who he selected to fill Obama's senate seat. If he had used different language (and of course, if he didn't directly baldly ask for campaign contributions in exchange for the seat), if he had implied instead of stated things directly, if he had borrowed the language of a more upper-crust, upper-class, Puritan, Ivy-League way of speaking, this wouldn't be a scandal.

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