The Not-so-Forgotten Virtues of Utterly Corrupt Politics

This little essay, The Forgotten Virtues of Tammany Hall, takes the occasion of the physical Tammany Hall being designated as a city landmark, to point out all the good works performed and social progress achieved by criminally corrupt politicians.

Apropos of nothing, I suppose.

The physical, as opposed to the philosophical, Tammany Hall

Some of Tammany Hall’s boots on the ground were making sure that impoverished immigrants didn’t go hungry or freeze, and got jobs, and otherwise were able to make a home in America. Other boots were beating up opponents, stuffing ballot boxes and demanding bribes of various sorts for anyone who wanted to do any business in New York.

So, are these two sets of activities – basic Christian charity and utter political corruption – inseparable? Or is it merely an historical accident? Was it the only thing that could work at a time and place where political power and formal charitable activities were controlled by long established and virulently anti-Catholic Protestants, and where tens of thousands of impoverished immigrants arrived each year, immigrants who were Catholic Irish, Italians and Bohemians or Jews? Was there any hope of the immigrants getting any sort of fair shake from the powers that be if they played by the rules?

On the one hand, clearly the corruption and charity were not separable where the ‘charity’ consisted of handing out spoils system contracts and jobs or the money that came from them or from graft and bribes.  And I would imagine that, if a voter were to be as ungrateful as to promote a non-Tammany politician or position, there might be repercussions.

On the other, just looking at the cast of characters, the immigrants were united by their suffering – and by having been dealt with evilly by the governments they were fleeing. The Irish were formed by centuries of murder and mayhem at the hands of the English, for the enrichment of whose lords they labored. The suffering of the Jews is legendary. Others, such as the Italians and Bohemians mentioned in the essay, may have only suffered the usual fates of peasants in quasi-feudal arrangements. Nothing in the history of any of these immigrants would lead them to expect a fair shake from the people in power.

Tammany corruption probably hardly even registered. To an Irishman, beating up a political opponent in a bar probably seemed like a friendly tip o’ the hat. That no business could be done unless the proper authorities were paid off seemed hardly noteworthy – was it any different in the mother country?

And yet: the loyalty of the immigrants and their children and grand children could be easily played. I’ve written here of the disgraceful, not to mention horrifying, behavior of the Southies that gave Whitey Bulger a pass for decades, as he murdered their neighbors, sold drugs to their kids and alternately bought off and used political intimidation to keep the legal dogs at bay.

What happens when the Tammany Halls become the establishment? When they get to run New York, Boston or Chicago for 150 years? First off, it becomes in their interest to make sure that whatever animosities drove the original problems that put them in power in the first place never get resolved. The enemy must stay the enemy, even if he has conceded on virtually all the original points. Next, the idea must never perish that there  isn’t really any such thing as honest government (Plunkett’s “honest graft” being as good as it could ever get in practice), that all governments act for the interests of some at the expense of others, and that all that matters at the end of the day is that the bacon gets brought home. Thus, Bostonians seem remarkably untroubled by the machinations needed to bring home the Big Dig and the fiasco of its execution, but relish that the money got spent at home.

So, the rhetoric of the heirs of the political machines is ever us against them, is ever about ‘fair’ (a usefully undefinable term in practice).  Their base is largely untroubled by corruption, as it seems to believe that the opponent – there’s only one, by long-standing consensus – will inevitably be at least as corrupt, and will worst of all bring the bacon to somebody else’s home.

Maybe they’re right. If so, democracy and republican government are already dead. Hope has long been a less appreciated civic virtue.  Lose hope that you can work with other citizens even when you disagree with them, and power is all that’s left. In the words of Conan, we’re just playing to see who gets “to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.” That’s who gets the bacon.

One last thought that’s been rattling around: This us against them attitude, wherein the other is the irredeemable enemy, is difficult to distinguish from power dynamic thinking, whereby identifying the oppressor and victims is the first and last step in all political thought. It’s tragic to think that Irish Catholics, the great grandchildren of those who actually suffered under the English, would fall for this. At least initially, they got involved in the political machines to redress and obvious and bitter wrongs, to feed the hungry, warm the cold, and house the homeless. But this automatic forgiveness of your team and conclusive presumption that the other team wills and promotes only evil –  well, they may be right, but if so, America is already dead.

Hope is only a virtue when things are hopeless.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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