Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Local Politics as a Morality Play

Recently an author friend reinforced for me that if one is going to write about local history or politics, it is helpful for the reader to put the information into a national (or even international) framework. 

One of our local rags (free circulation and owned by a newspaper consortium) recently carried a blisteringly offensive reader letter attacking our Town Council with words like ‘ignorant’, ‘arrogant’, ‘misguided’ and 'unqualified' for not allowing unbridled residential development, while on the opposite page the paper's columnist informed us that the mayor of that same council has been the victim of a scam by a recently convicted tax auditor who was a consultant to Solmar, a large local development firm. That Benedetto Marotta (the 'mar' in Solmar) was unaware that his high-priced consultant who falsified documents to frame the mayor was actually moonlighting from our national tax authority defies understanding. One cannot help wondering if the letter writer’s contempt might have been better directed. The same Solmar threatened a half billion dollar lawsuit against our town back in the summer of 2008 if the same council did not backtrack in its support of managed growth for the municipality.

It seems to me that there are several issues here that transcend local interest.  Apart from the fact that so far no mayor in this province has suffered similar criminal victimization, there is the cultural acceptance of the idea that threatening ratepayers with the possibility of rate hikes to pay for lawsuits against their municipality will beneficially affect outcomes.  Also the acceptance that libellous invective against elected officials is excused by 'press freedom'.  Both activities are tawdry at best. In an increasingly multicultural society like ours they can reflect behaviours imported from societies with different mores than ours, mores that reflect how developed countries once were but have moved beyond.

Some years ago I was chairman of audit for the board of a health technology start-up. The inventor who was also the CEO was a university professor with a childhood in Central Asia. As his father had been a camel herder, his achievement was extraordinarily praiseworthy.  Our auditors came to me one day with a problem. The CEO's expenses were excessive.  He travelled a lot and had been submitting his expenses in triplicate in a cunning way that disguised the fact. When I discussed this with him, he advised that the grief in his job justified this reward. It is likely that such 'extra' payment was the norm for successful people where he came from. How does one get a talented and very bright academic overachiever to understand that in the Western world such behaviour, while acceptable in the time and place of his youth, is regarded as beyond immoral and actually illegal? 

Today we have not just Sicilian and Calabrian mafia but Russian and Bulgarian mafia. They and our Asian gangs too often come from societies with limited or no tradition of public morality. It takes many generations for the sense to develop in newly governed societies that public order comes best from public morality taking hold at the grassroots and being demanded of its leaders. I wonder how, with the often rapid changes in the national origins of our new citizens, we in the older democracies can speed this process up, so that we can sustain a just society into the future?

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