Death and Night
…you and your crew may still reach home
Suffering all the way, if you only have the power
To curb their wild desire and curb your own
Like a W.H. Auden World War II–era poem we live in an age of anxiety, of negation and emptiness. His poem is as prescient now as it was then, for when injustices and ethical issues are not addressed early they lead to even more anxiety, more fear, more misjudgments and more injustice. We are now confronted again with the headlines of Faustian children—whether it be about Michael Scanlon (TPMMuckraker: “Abramoff’s Partner Doesn’t Want to Cough Up Ill-Gotten Millions”) or Tony Rudy awaiting his May 3 sentencing in United States District Court. As the Financial Times columnist Harry Eyres so sadly wrote about the “Lords of Finance” ("Why We're All Fausts Now") we need to remember that Faust sells his soul to Mephistopheles (the devil) for worldly glory and happiness. The question becomes who is the descendant of Faust and who is the descendant of Mephistopheles? Both Abramoff men “wanted”—be it knowledge, money, power, love (or sex). Faust wanted knowledge initially, then he wanted only power and as power is money, he wanted only money. Scanlon also wanted his Helen of Troy but that discussion would entail a complete examination of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
At what point did their shadow become midnight and hell swallow them up? Was it when Scanlon sought to ensure that his invoices would be paid by proposing that the insurance death benefits of the Tigua tribal elders be transferred to him? Was it when Rudy sought to pull his wife into Abramoff’s corrupt embrace by bargaining her “charitable work” to him? But to focus solely upon these two destructive day traders of human essence is to ignore the larger lesson they provide.
We all have elements of the shadow. We in this beautiful capital city of Washington are to some degree restless pursuers of material goods, all in danger of selling our souls for money, for disconnected sex, for vacuous careerism. The question is how does it end for Scanlon, Rudy and ultimately us. Is it like Héctor Abad Gómez, the murdered Colombian professor, who stated that the political, mental and physical violence of our world is borne out of inequality and a “wanting.” A simple hollowed out “empty wanting” where reality is anything but a nobility of spirit and courage. Is it two cities each occupying the same ground who continually plot against each other? Is it the absence of an eye toward that which is immortal and the eternal, one’s reputation? Is this only a hellish place inhabited by hot gases where the ultimate Mesphisto seeks to mock his adversaries by Dancing With the Stars but in doing so confuses fame with infamy, unable to discover in himself the seeds of his own destruct?
F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose The Great Gatsby was the seminal work of our time, was both wrong and right in two of his most famous lines. One from an unfinished novel (The Last Tycoon) is that “there are no second acts in American lives,” which has clearly been disproved in contemporary Washington, D.C. The other is the eternal line inscribed on his shared tombstone with his wife Zelda in Rockville, Maryland: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” If all comes to dust why not hasten the end like Abramoff, Scanlon and Rudy with the reckless exploitation of other people’s dreams.
Where was their humanity? Where was our humanity? Where was their compassion? Where was our compassion? Oh yes, I remember now. I forgot the constant admonition “Tom, why do you care? They are not your clients. This is American capitalism. Everybody does it.” But I knew then and it has been reaffirmed in the decade of my involvement in this issue that as the French writer Jacque Barzun noted there needs to be a recognition of faith in a social duty that recognizes the immense debt each of us owes to so many others, both dead and living. This debt can only be discharged by living for them and protecting them. Fittingly his essay “Towards a Fateful Serenity” is ultimately about serene faith—“the faith that inspires social duty is the honor of being a man, of being a man of honor.”
I recently viewed the beautiful film Of Gods and Men and what so moved me was that these monks were totally free. They were free from want, free from ego, free from that which can destroy one’s self, but serene faith was their brother. I cannot forget the sins of Abramoff, Scanlon and Rudy. But, like the eight monks of Tibhirine I can commit to healing the wounds. In the end I will place my faith in Walt Whitman’s poetic sisters that “incessantly softly wash again, and ever again this soil’d world”.… ultimately healing the soul as night heals the body.
Tom Rodgers is a Blackfeet and advocate/lobbyist for Indian country. He was the main whistle-blower in the Jack Abramoff scandal, has received academic ethics awards for his efforts, the Tom C. Rodgers O-tee-paym-soo-wuk Ethics in Government Scholarship by the University of Denver Sturm College of Law was named in his honor, and he appeared in the Sundance Film Festival documentary release Casino Jack and the United States of Money.