Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
writer editor born-again horse girl

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July 29, 2008

A story about corruption in the Boston Fire Department caught my eye in Sunday's online Boston Globe. Well, no, actually it was some commentary on the story that caught my eye. As corruption goes, this was pretty ho-hum: In January the Globe reported that "74 percent of Boston firefighter retirements between 2005 and 2007 were based on accidental disability claims, more than twice the rate of similarly sized cities." This prompted a federal investigation, and now the files of three firefighters -- one on disability and two with applications pending -- have disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The commentary, headed "The Culture of Corruption" and written by Drake Bennett, led with the tale of a fire inspector who claimed to have sustained a career-ending back injury (making him eligible for a full, tax-free disability pension) but six weeks later finished eighth in a professional bodybuilding competition.

The story went on: "In trying to tease out the factors that allow corruption to arise and persist, experts are increasingly looking not only at laws and punishments, but culture. The image that emerges is of a particular community -- a country, an institution, an office, a group of friends -- developing a taste for corruption that depends on a set of assumptions not only about what is right and wrong, but about what one's neighbors and colleagues are doing, of what one deserves from and owes to the community. It takes a village, in other words, to breed corruption."

This is news? It took "experts" and who knows how many well-funded studies to figure this out? As boondoggles go, this ranks right up there with the bogus disability claims. If this is news, no wonder this country is so screwed up: the people in charge are clueless about why we, and they, do things.

First off, it's not just about "corruption"; it's about life. (Yeah, there's a whole religion based on the assumption that corruption and life are the same thing, but I'm not one of them, and besides, you know what I mean.) Pay attention to the decisions you make over the course of a day, two days, a week. How many of your decisions are based on hifalutin moral, ethical, or political principles? If you're like me, not many. Most of your decisions are based on a continuous, barely conscious reckoning and balancing of expectations, your own and those of the people around you. You show up at work or church or town meeting because they expect you do, and you expect yourself to, and if you didn't show up, you might have to explain why you weren't there.

If no one expects you to show up, you have to exert a lot more effort to do so, and if your friends are likely to razz you for showing up, you have to exert even more effort. You have to be a hero, a saint, a whistleblower -- someone who stands apart from the crowd. No matter how loudly we claim to admire such people, most of us are profoundly uneasy when they're in our immediate vicinity. One reason for this is that they rattle our expectations a bit. They expand our sense of what's possible, and if we keep following that thread long enough we might get the barest inkling of a glimmer of a suspicion that we might not have to keep doing what we're doing, or not doing what we're not doing.

"Normal" is not a fixed bundle of characteristics. It's not a synonym for "boring." Norms vary from one place to another. Not just from country to country, or region to region, or town to town; they vary from one household to another, even from one room in the house to another -- what's normal in the bathroom is generally not normal in the living room. And they change over time. Most of us, most of the time do what's normal, what doesn't rock the boat, what keeps the boat moving in a generally forward direction.

What looks abnormal or heroic or weird from the outside usually looks normal, maybe even inevitable, from the inside. On May 5, 1971, a friend and I left the Georgetown University campus and headed down to the Capitol. We were both angry at the way D.C., U.S., and university authorities had responded to the Mayday demonstrations -- around 7,000 people had been arrested the first day, mainly for congregating in groups of more than two, and by the end of the week the number would be something like 13,400 -- and we had heard that there was going to be a protest rally on the Capitol steps. Neither of us intended to get arrested. Not only were we in the middle of finals, we were involved in feeding and housing demonstrators on campus. The couple thousand or so people who rallied at the Capitol were angry but orderly. Four congressmen -- Dellums, Abzug, Rangel, and Mitchell, bless 'em all -- came out to address us. Then, for reasons known only to their leaders, the police decided that it was no longer lawful (a variety of normal) to sit on the Capitol steps, even though we were there at the invitation of the congressmen and were listening to them speak. In a very few, fast-flowing minutes my idea of what was normal, expected, and acceptable underwent a sea-change. I crossed the line that separated lawful from unlawful; not only that, I grabbed my friend's hand and pulled him along with me. By that point what I did wasn't extraordinary at all; it was the normal, expected, and acceptable thing to do.

The civil rights movement became powerful as it became normal. Isolated individuals advocating civil rights for black people could be, and generally were, run out of town, or intimidated, or killed, or otherwise silenced. But when individuals banded together in groups, organizations, a whole movement, they could challenge the old norms and eventually sweep them away. Once nightriding and cross-burning was normal. Now these are the acts of isolated individuals, or isolated groups too small to do more than very local damage.

This is the key to organizing. It's why leadership is important: leaders can't change the norms singlehandedly, but they can make it safer for the rest of us to come out of the woodwork. "Human nature" is a red herring. Who cares if you can't change human nature? If humans have a natural inclination, it's to do what's normal. Working together we can change the norms.


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