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The Art of the Shakedown, From the Nile to the Potomac

Posted on Nov 5, 2011
Kevin H. (CC-BY)

By Lawrence Weschler

This article was originally published at TomDispatch.

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A bit over an hour into the five-hour drive across the ferrous red plateau, heading south toward Uganda’s capital Kampala, suddenly, there’s the Nile, a boiling, roiling cataract at this time of year, rain-swollen and ropy and rabid below the bridge that vaults over it.  If Niagara Falls surged horizontally and a rickety bridge arced, shudderingly, over the torrent below, it might feel like the Nile at Karuma.

Naturally, I take out my iPhone and begin snapping pics.

On the other side of the bridge, three soldiers standing in wait in the middle of the road, rifles slung over their shoulders, direct my Kampalan driver Godfrey and me to pull over.

“You were photographing the bridge,” one of them announces, coming up to my open window.  “We saw you.”


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“Taking photos of the bridge is expressly forbidden,” the second offers by way of clarification, as the first reaches in and grabs the iPhone out of my hand.  “National security.  Terrorists could use such photos to help in planning to blow up the bridge.”

“Do I look like a terrorist to you?” I ask.  “And anyway,” I shout as Soldiers One and Two walk off with their prize, oblivious, “I wasn’t photographing the bridge.  I was photographing the rapids.  The bridge was precisely the one thing I wasn’t photographing!”

To no avail.  I open my car door and begin to get out—but the third soldier pushes me gently back and then leans into the window, peering amiably. “And besides,” I continue, “there were no signs forbidding such photographs.  Anyway, if it’s such a big deal just give me back the phone and I’ll delete the photos.  You can watch.”

I’m beginning to panic.  As with most of us nowadays, pretty much my entire life is couched inside that bloody little device: contacts, calendars, hotel reservations, all my appointment coordinates for the coming days.

“Ah no,” Soldier Three smiles in a silkily practiced manner.  “You are not to worry.  This is not an affair about you.  This is an affair between Ugandans.  It is your driver who was at fault.  He is a Ugandan, he should have known about our national security and how no one should photograph the bridge.  Let them work it out.”

And indeed, when I turn around Godfrey is no longer behind the steering wheel.  He’s with the other soldiers, remonstrating away.  “Don’t you worry,” repeats my guy indulgently, a broad smile spreading across his face as if we are the best of buddies.  “Give them time.”  And then, as if to pass the time himself, he adds, “So, how do you like our excellent country?”

Minutes go by with Godfrey and his two interlocutors on the other side of the road, locked in fervent colloquy—much hand waving, arm flinging, rifle toying, shouting, cajoling, and then smiling, even guffawing—until finally, 15 minutes and $20 later, Godfrey comes ambling back to the car, climbs into the driver’s seat, and hands me the iPhone.

(Memo to would-be terrorists: If any of you are planning to blow up the Karuma bridge, make sure to budget an extra $20 photography fee during the planning phase.)

Anyway, Godfrey turns the key, revs up the car’s engine, and we resume our climb out of the canyon of the Nile and back onto the flat, red, shrubby plateau.

“Does that kind of thing happen often?” I ask Godfrey, who in much of the rest of his life is a Kampala taxi driver.

“All the time,” he assures me.  Two or three times a week.  He has to figure it into his budget, and it’s a large item.  Just the other day, he adds, he turned down a one-way street in the middle of Kampala and found, a couple hundred yards on, that it was completely flooded.  As he gingerly made his way back to the intersection, a traffic cop was happily standing in wait to give him a hefty fine for driving the wrong way on a one-way street—either that or a 10,000 shilling tip (about $5, which in Kampala might otherwise pay for two good meals) to make the problem go away.

It’s to be expected, Godfrey went on.  The soldiers are conscripts, the traffic cop a lowly underling, and they’re all notoriously underpaid.  Or rather, their superiors carve out a substantial part of their salaries for themselves, leaving these men with hardly enough to live on, let alone maintain a family.  The opportunity to garnish bribes becomes a necessary perk of the job.  The trouble is, he continued, such corruption riddles the entire country, infesting virtually every transaction with the state.

We are silent for a few moments, the scrub brush racing by.  Then Godfrey asks, “Doesn’t this sort of thing happen in America?”

I don’t even hesitate.  Not really, I tell him: not blatantly like that, and not frequently, certainly not all the time.

Only, then I get to thinking, because that answer turns out to be way too glib.  It’s not that the United States lacks corruption, I go on to say—or even pervasive corruption.  It’s just not of the low-level and petty variety like the kind we just went through, not most of the time anyway.  In America, corruption is concentrated at the highest levels of society—and it masquerades, for example, under the name of “campaign finance.”

Election campaigns have become so expensive that candidates have to go begging, hat in hand, to anyone who will finance them.  And the billionaires and millionaires and bankers and hedge-fund operators and portfolio managers and CEOs and their lobbyists are, in turn, only too happy to contribute.  They lard the “people’s representatives” with grotesque “contributions” after which those representatives prove only too willing to turn around and carve out billions of dollars in specifically targeted tax breaks and subsidies structured exclusively for them—precious dollars which then can’t be used to fund schools or clinics or playgrounds or to further the public good in any way.

And it’s worse than that: once congressional representatives or their senior staff retire, they almost invariably get much higher paying lobbying jobs working for the very industries over which they had once held sway—a further incentive not to upset those monied interests when still on the public payroll.

So regulations get gutted, calamities ensue, and guess who gets stuck cleaning up the inevitable mess, whether financial, environmental, or of any other sort: yup, the taxpayers.  Tax laws get dictated or often just written by the lobbyists of those same monied interests, with all sorts of sweet loopholes carved out especially for them—not infrequently for them individually—so that, in the end, the richest man in America reports he’s getting off with a lower tax rate than his secretary.

“You’re kidding,” Godfrey interjected.

No: even he’s embarrassed!  Education, meanwhile, is funded according to narrowly local property taxes—and the rich make sure it stays that way.  The result?  Their kids get a far better education than those living in poorer neighborhoods.  When people try to remedy that injustice through affirmative action programs which at least recognize the unfairness of the competition for access to, for example, university slots, the rich protest and get judges to overturn such programs as racist.  They are, however, perfectly happy to take advantage of other programs that assure the acceptance of the children of alumni, no matter their scholarly performance, and no one says boo.  It’s all perfectly legal.

In America, as W.E.B. Du Bois noted toward the end of his life, “We let men take wealth which is not theirs; if the seizure is ‘legal’ we call it high profits.  And the profiteers help decide what is legal.”

In Uganda, corruption often arises out of desperation.  In America, more typically, its wellsprings are greed, pure and simple.  And it’s hard to decide which is the more dismaying, the more disfiguring, the more disgusting.

Or actually, no, it’s not.  It’s not that hard at all.

Lawrence Weschler is director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU. His newest book is “Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative.”

© 2011 Lawrence Weschler

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Leefeller's avatar

By Leefeller, November 8, 2011 at 9:53 am Link to this comment

Alan, Recently read a book by an anthropologist named Becker, he clearly stated as his theory, tribal chiefs and medicine men were the first opportunists to dupe the majority of the people even among the hunter gatherers. Not saying I agree with his theory, just throwing it out there!

I also read another book which stated the world changed substantially with the change over to agriculture, and the invent of society being in one place and the need to store food and materials.

It is clear, most Americans, including myself know little of other cultures, I happened to spend some time in Vietnam, after my time spent there, from my observations the Ugly American appeared as a reality!

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By Alan, November 7, 2011 at 6:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Entropt2 has defined it pretty well.  Over many decades, I have had the good
fortune to have dealt with people near the ” hunter/gatherer” level in a few
primitive” countries.  In a real “community”, people cooperate for the benefit of
all.  They do things for each other without expecting anything in return.  We
seem to believe the Greeks “invented” democracy.  It existed for maybe 50,000
years before they became an entity.    I have been at a “community” meeting in
Papua-New Guinea where everyone had the right to have a say… even the quite
young.    The decisions went with the real majority.  The bigger and less
connected the “community” is the greater is, the greater is the desire to establish
oneself as the “boss”.  If you can buy support, you win.  The be able to afford to
buy support, you have to “rob” those who don’t know what is really happenig.

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Leefeller's avatar

By Leefeller, November 7, 2011 at 2:00 pm Link to this comment

Enterprising capitalism as shakedowns by the 99 percent, compared to crony capitalism of the 1 percent as shakedowns seems to suggest the difference is in the hard working skill of the opportunists!

I like this article in its clarity as, ‘the way it is’.

Tex, the FKN Newz was interesting, if it became more mainstream it would be more palatable simply by exposure of satire as reality. I suspect it would offend the tea totaled set and the 1 percent money totalers, which is what OWS is doing.  I like the message; “Live in fear Die in Debt.” 

I envision a picture of lady liberty being over shadowed by a cop in gas mask swinging a billy club!

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By ardee, November 6, 2011 at 6:16 pm Link to this comment

Billy Pilgrim, November 6 at 9:46 am Link to this comment

When we allow psychopaths to run our country, whether in the corporate world or in politics, the result is our present state of affairs.

With all due respect for your opinions Billy, I think that this labeling is too glib, too facile and not at all true. Certainly some of our politicians are at the extreme end of mental health, if only for statistical probability.

I think that our politicians and our top business leaders live in isolated worlds, far from the maddening crowds their decisions impact with such negativity. I think they believe that they are doing the right thing for their share holders and their companies.

Now the system under which we toil may very well qualify for such labeling….

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By SoTexGuy, November 6, 2011 at 10:21 am Link to this comment

“Don’t you get tired of reading relatively content-less, undefined comments on
abstractions that in reality are killing people, and yet the words go nowhere, add
up to nothing?

Yes! .. and so does this guy Deek Jackson .

.. watch out, he’s not polite talking and his videos may well be addictive!


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Billy Pilgrim's avatar

By Billy Pilgrim, November 6, 2011 at 9:46 am Link to this comment

When we allow psychopaths to run our country, whether
in the corporate world or in politics, the result is
our present state of affairs.

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By ardee, November 6, 2011 at 5:24 am Link to this comment

The discussion of corruption and greed must perforce include the information that such is a widespread phenomenon, obvious and blatantly pervasive in third world nations for the obvious reasons of course.

I think that, when discussing such here in America, the topic should dwell upon the power and influence that corrupt and corrupting corporations have upon our legislators. This, after all, is a reason why we may call our nation one that is sliding into fascism.

The author does note that the need for campaign finance reform is a key to the ending of this trend, not the branding of corrupter and the corrupted as having a psychological condition. There are, of course, other conditions and factors in need of addressing.

The undue influence of lobbying is one that comes immediately to mind and includes the penchant many legislators have of becoming a highly paid lobbyist after their career in “public service” is concluded. This career path seemingly necessitates an unhealthy relationship throughout the career of said official.

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Blueokie's avatar

By Blueokie, November 5, 2011 at 11:27 pm Link to this comment

The difference in Ugandan and U.S. corruption is the definition of “American

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entropy2's avatar

By entropy2, November 5, 2011 at 9:54 pm Link to this comment

@gerard—Lots of questions, true…not many answers. Here’s my take on one, at least.

Does “bigness” or “smallness” have anything to do with “corruption?”

Corruption is found at all levels. In my experience, I’ve found that the overwhelming majority of people I have worked with and have interacted with were pretty honorable and fair…but that there’s inevitably a small percentage that always needs to grab more and do less. The dishonorable…the corrupt…the sociopathic. They are a fact of life and will be found in EVERY organization.

Now, on a small scale, the damage these people cause is localized and limited. It’s when WE create larger and larger power structures (economic, political, religious) that the trouble really starts. So, a sociopath who might have bullied his family and cheated at cards (which is bad enough) now has the power to destroy lives and exploit the powerless en masse. Thus, bigness (concentration of power) might not cause corruption, but it certainly magnifies its ill effects.

Now, add to this that sociopaths are naturally drawn to concentrations of power like moths to a flame, and you can easily see why we are where we are.

Concentraton of power is the problem, not as the root of corruption, but as a multiplier of its damage. The only solution is to distribute power, something the mainstream left just can’t bear to do.

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By Inherit The Wind, November 5, 2011 at 6:14 pm Link to this comment

Clearly, in America, the “shakedown” is high art, to the tune of millions and billions.

In Uganda, the “shakedown” is clumsy and almost comical, to the tune of twenty bucks.  But THAT shakedown is due to a bigger shakedown back at HQ, and that is closer to what we have here.

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By gerard, November 5, 2011 at 4:14 pm Link to this comment

Many questions raised here.  None discussed.  None answered. For example:
  What is “greed” anyway? What causes it? Is there a “right amount” of greed?  When does it become “too much”? What might prevent it—or at least limit it?
When does it change from a financial question to a moral question, or does it?
  What, exactly, is “corruption”? Is it possible to limit or avoid or eliminate corruption? Where and when and how has “control of corruption occurred?
How successfully—or not?  Why or why not? Does “bigness” or “smallness” have anything to do with “corruption?”
  If raising unanswered (unanswerable?) questions like this annoys you, why? 
  Don’t you get tired of reading relatively content-less, undefined comments on abstractions that in reality are killing people, and yet the words go nowhere, add up to nothing?
  OCCUPY CORRUPTION! Could that be done?  If so, how? If not, why not?

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