In my last post, I cautioned those of us who talk about corruption to be careful to avoid saying – even casually – that “everyone” in this or that country is corrupt, not only because that statement is incorrect, but also because it’s offensive and counterproductive. I realize that it wasn’t the most important of topics, but language matters, and the political sensitivity of corruption means that those of us from wealthier countries should be especially careful about the language that we use. (Think about David Cameron’s “fantastically corrupt” gaffe at last spring’s London Anti-Corruption Summit for an example of how poorly chosen words can get in the way of substantive engagement.) That’s not to say we should shy away from accurately describing and criticizing systemic corruption where it exists; it’s just a caution against careless hyperbole.
In that (perhaps trivial and nit-picky) spirit, I want to call attention to something else I’ve heard now several times from U.S. speakers at anticorruption conferences, which strikes me as extraordinarily arrogant, offensive, and incorrect. It goes like this:
- American speaker gets up before multinational audience to talk about the U.S. approach to fighting corruption and, in an apparent effort to defuse precisely the risk of condescension that I’m complaining about, says something like, “Now, one thing we learn from the U.S. experience is that we have a corruption problem too. Corruption is a problem everywhere, including in the United States.”
- OK, so far so good. But then the American speaker says, “The difference is that in the United States, we try to do something about it.”
Ugh. Is it possible to imagine a more ham-handed, condescending thing to say, especially to a multinational audience? I mean, look, I think that the U.S., for all its faults, can be justly proud of its law enforcement efforts to fight domestic corruption, particularly the role of the FBI, Department of Justice, and federal judiciary. While the U.S. is far from perfect, it’s my view that the culture of impunity pervasive in many parts of the world is, as a relative matter, not nearly as bad in the U.S. And I do think other countries can learn from the U.S. experience. But to suggest that the United States stands alone in its willingness to try to do something about corruption is (A) obviously factually incorrect, and (B) insulting to the hardworking, often heroic men and women in other countries who are fighting against corruption every day, and to the governments in at least some of those countries that have made anticorruption a priority, but are having trouble making progress due to a range of factors (severe resource constraints, powerful entrenched interests, complicated political situations, etc).
And really, what purpose is served, substantively or rhetorically, by saying, “The difference is that in the U.S. we try to do something about corruption”? The speech that follows that opening line would be just as effective if the speaker just said, “Now, one thing we learn from the U.S. experience is that we have a corruption problem too. Corruption is a problem everywhere, including in the United States. But the U.S. experience in our struggle with corruption – both the things we’ve done well, and the challenges and limitations of our approach – may provide some useful lessons for others engaged in a similar struggle.”
OK, OK, I know that this is beyond trivial, and I promise in future posts I’ll return to weightier topics. But this has just been bugging me, so I thought I’d get it off my chest.