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Thursday, July 10, 2008

… you know it when you see it

Years ago I read a wonderful 'New Yorker' piece by Calvin Trillin in which he discussed his preferred method for measuring the character of out-of-town guests.  He would take them down to New York's Chinatown and show them the famous Tic Tac Toe-playing chicken which occupied a place of honor in the front window of a certain restaurant.

It was a standard game of Tic Tac Toe that the chicken would play (and invariably win) against all comers.  But there was one immutable rule: The chicken always got to make the first move.

Mr. Trillin would watch as his guests would lose game after game to the chicken, and then he would silently measure their character by how they handled being beaten by a domestic fowl.

Sadly, many of his guests would reveal their personal short-comings with statements like "*Well of course the chicken wins every time... it gets to make the first move*".  Or even worse; they might say, "*Of course I lost, but the chicken gets to play every day*!"  The flaw in their character was revealed by their arguments over the rules of the game... and their willful denial of the simple fact that they lost to A CHICKEN!

Even if one were to figure out the trick or underlying reason why he/she'd lost… there is a certain humility one should assume (or at least affect) when faced with defeat at the hands (er, feet) of a chicken.  It's called '*owning up'*… and, as Calvin Trillin had already figured out, 'owning up' of any sort requires real character.

I mention this because yesterday I found myself reading the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of the cash-filled envelopes Ehud Olmert received from American businessman Morris Talansky.  Notice I didn't say 'allegedly received' in that last sentence.  You see, our Prime Minister now freely admits to having received envelopes filled with undeclared cash. Incredibly, his defense now revolves around the amount of money they contained.

I don't know about any of you, but when I read that, I began shaking my head at how completely devoid of character our Prime Minister seems to be.  His basic contention is that there is some unstated rule or trick to the corruption game that must be taken into account when judging him.  Apparently there is nothing wrong with taking undeclared sums of money from foreigners in exchange for who-knows-what... so long as it isn't a lot of money!

Forgive me for being crude, but saying, "*Well of course I accepted cash-filled envelopes... but there wasn't that much cash in them*!" is a lot like a practitioner of the world's oldest profession claiming not to be a prostitute simply because she doesn't charge very much!   Ironically, with whores there is a measure of prestige that corresponds directly to the amount of money they accept.

Getting back to the Trillin essay I mentioned earlier... our Prime Minister has spent nearly his entire term of office metaphorically standing on the sidewalk outside a Chinatown restaurant losing game after game to a chicken (or flat on his back, if you prefer that metaphor).

But when the moment finally arrived to show some humility... to finally 'own up' to the basic facts of his situation, he revealed his true character by protesting over the rules of the game.

It may be that Israeli law is ill-equipped to deal with the issue of exactly how much money must change hands before a crime can be said to have been committed.  It may even be that Ehud Olmert will evade justice yet again in this latest probe into his personal dealings.

But a civilized society should have some mechanism or test for holding its leaders responsible for what they say and do while in office.  We should be able to recognize corruption for what it is and give it a name.

And just as with obscenity, we may not be able to provide a perfect definition for it, but we should certainly know corruption when we see it.

Posted by David Bogner on July 10, 2008 | Permalink

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There's a well-known joke - so well known that I won't waste your time with the setup. The punchline is: "We already know what you are. We're just negotiating a price." Seems to apply in this case, eh?

We tend to get the leaders we deserve...so why is Olmert not being booted out to pound sand already?

Posted by: Elisson | Jul 10, 2008 1:24:01 PM

Amen

Posted by: Safranit | Jul 10, 2008 1:48:17 PM

imagine if the chickens lost, they'd be "Peking duck" so they had every reason to win.

Posted by: asher | Jul 10, 2008 1:56:05 PM

He must have taken lessons from Bill-I-never-had-sex-with-that-woman-Clinton.

Posted by: Baila | Jul 10, 2008 2:56:17 PM

Did you know? That if you have a brood of chicken and one of them injuriously perks another and some blood spurts out from the wound, the rest of the chicken join in and perk the injured chicken to death… when the victim is dead, the killers begin to cluck as if to say “One of us is dead!, how could this be!!”.

Victim = Justice.
Killers = Corrupt politicians.
Cluck = Pre-election campaign BS.

Posted by: Rami | Jul 10, 2008 3:48:52 PM

"It may be that Israeli law is ill-equipped to deal with the issue of exactly how much money must change hands before a crime can be said to have been committed."

Funny, but Hashem doesn't seem to have a problem with how much it needs to be. Immediately I thought of Exodus 23:8 "Do not accept bribery. Bribery blinds the clear-sighted and twists the words of the just."

Here's hopin' Olmert gets his cummupence.

Posted by: Maya | Jul 10, 2008 6:08:23 PM

What a startlingly apt analogy. Perhaps we'd be better off with the chicken as our prime minister; it couldn't be any more corrupt than who's in there already.

Posted by: Shimshonit | Jul 10, 2008 7:36:19 PM

It seems to me that he can do just about anything he wants and get away with it.

Posted by: mata hari | Jul 10, 2008 10:36:48 PM

Darn! Elisson beat me to the joke I was going to tell.
I'm now ashamed to admit that I was going to tell the whole joke, drawn out delivery and all.
It's obviously laudable to criticize the current prime minister for his horrific corruption, as long as we hold all politicians to the same standards (it's corruption whether it's left wing, right wing or centrist).

Posted by: Larry | Jul 11, 2008 4:09:34 PM

What some Israelis think of Olmert.

Posted by: Rami | Jul 12, 2008 10:51:55 AM

Remember the Dr. Seuss book "Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now"? In an interview, Dr. Seuss revealed that Marvin K. Mooney was a metaphor for Richard M. Nixon. Perhaps someone could write a similar book for Olmert. (Not that it would help.)

Posted by: psachya | Jul 13, 2008 6:37:23 AM

Believe it or not things have gotten worse for Olmert. He is now accused of double billing trips he took for charitable organizations. He billed each charity the full price and pocketed the second one. You can see the actual double bills that were sent out here:
Olmert's latest problem - double reimbursement for travel

Posted by: Marty Bluke | Jul 13, 2008 3:30:45 PM

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