Commentary / Guest Post

When being the clean guy is a liability

We now have an anti-corruption candidate against Orbán. But as long as the corrupt ones hold power, being blackmailable is not just a precondition to get ahead – but a necessary asset to stay afloat.

And the corrupt ones can be the people as well as the political establishment. 

When you are clean, you are dangerous for the corrupt ones. They can only tolerate you when they have something on you. 

I have learned the lesson as a child when I listened to my father’s painful dilemma. As a bureaucrat he saw the exact way village leaders stole from the village. (The way to get rich was – as it is now – stealing from the subsidies the state sent to the village.) He concluded that there was nothing he could do against the scheme as everyone was involved, no one else would testify, and the scheme was being played in literally every other village. 

The question then was what he should do himself. He decided – naively – that he can just stay out of it and not say a word so that he can keep his job. There were no other jobs in the village. 

The 2020 documentary ‘Scandalous’ details the rise of the US tabloid National Enquirer and tells the story of how its original owner, a mafia scion, had killed the Bill Cosby story when it first emerged and used it instead to blackmail Cosby into a close cooperation with the tabloid.

As the journalist who first tried to break the story remarks, this is how the mafia works. When you have dirt on someone you don’t publish it. You don’t owe it to the world and the public, not even if you are a tabloid. Despite what everyone thinks, the tabloid doesn’t make the most of the dirt by publishing it – but by using it to control the powerful. So when you have dirt, you leverage it.

Cosby was thus protected by the Enquirer. In a way he became empowered to keep raping women and remain untouchable – be being blackmailable. As more and more women tried to make themselves heard with the same story about Cosby, the deal still held: the Enquirer would protect Cosby. Because he was useful.

Being blackmailable pays off more than remaining clean – in a certain environment. 

To contrast what happened to Cosby with others: Michael Jackson was not protected by the Enquirer. OJ Simpson they actually investigated themselves. Donald Trump used them for his mouthpiece (before he had Twitter) and called them day and night, often pretending to be someone else, providing dirt on others. He eventually became what they called a “silent editor”, gaining full control over the coverage of his family and his enemies – as well as using the paper for his campaign.

But those are only the guilty – with dirt on them, who were either not blackmailed – or didn’t comply. There were also innocents whose coverage can be explained by their lack of blackmailability. Like Princess Diana, who was simply a target. They didn’t cut a deal with her to kill the story of her new boyfriend and she be nice to them in exchange – and report on fellow royals from time to time. Either because they could not negotiate with a royal – or because it was too late. 

How did the Enquirer decide which person to protect and which one to out? Arguably, they could all be useful for them if they cooperated. But then there would be no dirt to fill the pages with. And no scary precedent to point at during the blackmail: look, that is what happens when someone doesn’t cooperate with us.

Maybe they tried to blackmail everyone – but not all cooperated. And we see the ones who didn’t. They are the ones who lose in the end. The innocent ones and the non-cooperators lose while the guilty and cooperative wins. 

The same problem arises in politics. Both internationally and within polities. 

Someone known to make extensive use of compromising information (blackmail) is Putin. In the case of Trump he was even bemused how embarrassingly easy it was to blackmail the guy. And Trump was no stranger to cooperating with someone who had dirt on him, having learned the craft with US tabloids, apparently.

You might labor under the misconception that you have to impress the public by being clean (whether it is business, entertainment or politics) but if you have a corrupt power broker – be it a corrupted public, a corrupt political establishment or a Don – your calculation might turn out to be wrong. Having no dirt, not even a parking ticket or a butt hurt ex, you might think you are ready for scrutiny – only to find out that some dirt would have been more useful, as it would put the power brokers on your side. 

We all assume that being clean is the safest option, probably because we are all bombarded day and night with the message that we must keep a clean profile – and punished every time we disobey a rule. But the same might not happen to everyone who does wrong. 

We are told to be good boys and girls from an early age. And we keep assuming that about others, based on the unchecked assumption that they must have been bad boys and girls if they fell.

Today’s pro-Orbán MPs and members of the government and independent institution all seem to be beholden personally to Orbán. Not only do they get their own little fiefdoms to enrich themselves – they must also have a leash around their necks in case they start to believe they are self-made and independent. For one thing, all his MPs audition with Orbán in his birth village. For another, they are never the ones with organic support in their districts. If they were, their egos would be too large to handle, they would get the mistaken idea that they have their own weight. 

The best candidate is thus the weightless, blackmailable sycophant who has everything to thank his master. And who knows it. So he has to have some dirt to offer – to cement his loyalty and to make sure he remembers who’s boss. So if they are wise, those aspiring MPs line up outside of the Don’s childhood home with a file containing their naked selfies. 

What is the lesson for someone who wants to get ahead in a corrupt environment? To be dirty?

It probably depends on the system you are in and the power brokers in that system. If they have internalized the mafia/KGB logic to collect dirt on everyone, your best bet might be not to stay clean but to collect evidence against yourself and hand it over in a file before your job interview with them. They want control over you – they don’t want a clean candidate. They don’t mind if you rape children – actually, they would mind if you didn’t. They would mind if they couldn’t hold you under control.

People who socialized under communism and matured under Orbán have all learned from both regimes that the only way to get affluent is to watch out for state spending and pocket it. Can an alternative government arise with the leadership of an anti-corruption PM? Can he ever get his anti-corruption crusade through with allies and enemies who are invested in corruption? Can an anti-corruption program win in a country where generations have been corrupted by the autocratic state? Not just to steal – but to imagine that the state is the only source of financial rewards? In a country where entrepreneurial success is not even being paid lip service?

Of course, someone can gain political power on an anti-corruption ticket. It sounds exhilarating and hopeful that corruption might end. But can they also remain in power without becoming complicit? How many in the establishment are complicit? How many of the allies are counting on the juicy corruption opportunities once they gain power? Can an anti-corruption candidate not just stay out of it – but actually stop his allies from doing it?

My father was wrong thinking he could stay clean and just let the corruption happen without him. They knew that he knew – and not having him complicit made him dangerous for them. 

Not only did he have to go – they made him the fall guy for the entire corruption scheme. And if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Those who have nothing to hide also don’t give a mind to hide what they have. And my father had an old, beaten car on his own name. Those who stole made sure to keep their expensive, new cars and multiple houses on their children’s name – so they were legally untouchable. Even after my father was cleared of all charges, a decade later, no one asked ‘who was it, then? who stole the money?’  

Accusing my father for the whole scheme kept him in litigation for nearly a decade, out of work, and even when he was finally vindicated, that wasn’t success. He was a million years older and broken. And no one learned any lessons – except perhaps the thieves who went on to enrich themselves under Orbán even more. Their method worked like a charm when Orbán’s regime came. They were positively reinforced over and over again. 

Being the only un-corrupt one was the strategy that did not pay off. It didn’t allow my father to stay out of it. It certainly didn’t allow him to gain financial security. It was a dangerous thing to do. To this day he has no house, nor do his children. For real, not just legally speaking. 

The family never recovered financially – and Orbán’s arrival made things even worse as he made corruption the only feasible way to gain financial security in this country. There is no other way anymore to gain financial security but to kiss asses, to become complicit and to hope that one day we will also be invited to win a public procurement tender. Everyone else has been treading water and slowly sinking for more than a decade now. And blamed themselves for it. 

With such a shallow market economy under siege by the state and a control-hungry regime, not even entrepreneurialism can shelter someone from politics. There is no staying out of it, not even if one is a businessman. Just ask any business, anywhere. So the question is even more prevalent: can someone stay out of political corruption and hope to get away with it? Or is being complicit and blackmailable really the only way to get ahead? 

It was true for those who did not comply with the blackmail of the tabloid – whether with actual dirt or invented one. Rather than staying out of it, they became the juicy targets.  

And of course, on the political level: Can anyone be the un-corrupt guy in politics – and get away with it? Never mind actually curbing corruption. Just staying in office may be a challenge. 

 

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