24 May 2009

Creative accounting

There is a pleasing symmetry when the great art you encounter runs in sync with the revelation of truths about everyday life. As the whole sordid story of MPs' expenses unravels, I have been thinking about the repeated patterns of accepted norms within groups, that reinforce their own standards of morality, as echoed in art.

In The Reader by Bernard Schlink, which I am currently reading, an illiterate former Nazi death camp guard, Hanna, goes on trial - and seems to feel a greater shame at her inability to read and write than any moral shortcomings over her wartime actions. At the risk of drawing an inappropriate parallel, I did note a Nuremburgesque quality to the MPs own mea culpas: That they hadn't done anything wrong because it was all within the rules; they were just doing what everyone else did. The way all of the "honourable members" have ganged up upon the Speaker of the Commons this week matches exactly the way the co-accused in The Reader make Hanna the scapegoat over the course of the trial. And, of course, in doing so any lingering integrity is diminished in the indecent haste to cast stones.

Similarly the second series of The Wire, the fulcrum of TV cop shows, provides not only another lesson in creating TV greatness, but further examples of the self-defined norms of behaviour and morality justifying actions. The Police Chiefs who block murder investigations if they affect clear up rates, and the drug barons who pull the strings in the ghettos, are both acting rationally within the bounds of the world as they see it. For every action and outcome there is a cost-benefit analysis, but the constraints of the system make attempts to do the right thing compromised before they begin.

This all sounds as if I am saying I accept the world of duck houses, moat cleaning and second home "flipping". Certainly not, but it is a salient lesson as old as society itself, that the privilege of elites creates rot and corruption when cut off from the fresh air of accountability. And as long as it does, let's hope art is on hand to hold up a mirror to its failings.

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