Monday, November 29, 2010

Two crime writers on corruption and cultural misunderstanding

Christopher G. Moore, crime novelist and student of cultural differences between East and West, wrote once that in Thailand
"The gift giving which flows as a tangible sign of respect is the slippery slope that descends easily into corruption. It becomes the basis of patronage and the client/patron relationship."
Elsewhere he has enumerated the right to ignore traffic laws as an unearned privilege that accrues to the Thai elite.

I expect that he'd approve of the following passage from Charlotte Jay's The Yellow Turban in which a character looks back at his arrival in Pakistan:
"If the doctor had offered me his bribe a month or so later after I had contracted a few of the local money-getting habits, I might not have been so overwhelmed with indignation. But I was new to the land. I obeyed the signals of traffic police without thinking and was shocked when Iqubal had slipped past them. I queued up at the post office for stamps, instead of thrusting my way through the grubby peons gathered round the window and slamming my money on the desk, as I was to do a month later. And the taking of a bribe was neatly labelled in my mind as antisocial—even criminal perhaps."
and this:
"Naturally he had heard of the corruption of the East but he had, I think, believed that this was largely a charge manufactured by certain Europeans to explain their own failure to understand the Oriental, and that with the departure of the British such evils would simply and automatically cease. And he was too honest and naïve to stand up to the collapse of his ideals."
Jay, an Australian, lived in Thailand when the novel, published in 1955, was released, according to a blurb for my edition. I'd guess from the two passages I cite here that she, like Moore, thought with considerable insight about what happens when Westerners try — and, in the second case, fail — to adjust to Eastern notions of conduct and ethics.
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Read more from Christopher G. Moore on East, West and the places where they meet.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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11 Comments:

Anonymous Christopher G. Moore said...

In most of the West, we are raised in a tradition where the rule of law. This tradition, though, is never quite sufficiently explained to us. In North America, the laws create a way for outsiders and strangers to deal with one and officials even though they are from a different ethnic group, religion or social class. At least that is the way I remember the West. Or as I wish to remember it—as a place where outsiders and insiders get along and go along with the same set of rules. Indeed the mythology is that no one is better than anyone else. Given what has happened in America over the last decade, I am certain a number of your readers will say that I’ve been away too long. May be. Whatever the erosion of rule of law in the West, the East remains distinct.

In the East, outsiders (and that is most people) remain at a disadvantage when dealing inside the system. The rule of law is relatively weak; and what we think of corruption is transfer of funds to those who hold power in return for a benefit. It is a payment exacted for those who fail to have the right family name, social status, religion, party affiliation or wealth. For outsiders (which includes foreigners and the disconnected locals) seeking to make their way in the East, they will require an ally and a protector to survive and prosper.

In the West, we use lawyers, who like a warlord or patron, know how to evoke the process that brings power to the service of those requesting a benefit. Who is to say at the end of the day, which system costs the outsider more? And perhaps the much of the current political debate in the States reflects a growing realization that the West is being divided between connected insiders and powerless outsiders. So, in the end, it well may be that the West is growing day by day to look more like the East.

November 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

This will require fuller consideration than I am capable of at 2:40 in the morning. For now, I'll say that Charlotte Jay's first character comes to a grudging recognition of the sorts of differences you discuss, and her second is paralyzed by his failure to do so,

November 29, 2010  
Blogger Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Very good post. My friend from India fascinated me with stories of corruption, bribery and how things get done in that country. The novel "Shantaram" provides excellent insight into such things as well.

November 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I had not heard of Shantaram before. It looks like quite a book. Thanks.

November 29, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Shantaram is a best seller in my local bookshop and most of this city. I liked it but not as much as I thought I was going to. Here especially it is overhyped.

I have one corruption story about India. The missus and I got on a train at a small station in Himachal Pradesh. The conductor told us that there were no berths available in the sleeping car even though we had a sleeper ticket. We accepted this with resignation. The conductor was very smiley and nice and after he gave us the info he just hung around. I couldnt figure out what was happening and then it occured to my wife that possibly he was looking for baksheesh. She told me in French to give him some money. I offered him the Rupee equivalent of about two dollars and he took us briskly to our completely empty sleeping car. It was not an unpleasant or scary experience at all.

November 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, does the baksheesh in this instance constitute an economically desirable and efficient transfer of wealth? Would you have been asked (and would the conductor have expected the same sum) if you had been poorer or a native?

The derisory (to us) sum reminded me of the time gang of youths in black vinyl jackets saw me taking pictures in the streets of Guilin and demanded "Two dollah." I happily handed over two yuan, worth about fifteen cents at the time, and the transaction pleased all sides.

November 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mrs. Psychopathology of Everyday Life suggested a little pourboirse for conductor in हिमाचल प्रदेश, did she?

November 29, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Oh I'm sure I overpaid horribly.

I also was asked for money after I had taken photographs of women washing clothes in a river in Peru. To be honest I thought it was a bit of a cheek. I was pretty far away from them and in the end I was compelled to give everybody something. I felt a bit taken.

November 29, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

No it more like "Donnez lui some argent, Adrian."

November 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder how I'd have reacted had the Guilin youths behaved in a more threatening manner. I suppose I thought that "dollah" was their translation of "yuan" rather than in fact a demand for two dollars. The subsequent transaction proved me right. Or maybe they were enterprising but happy-go-lucky young souls who would have been happy with anything opportunity threw their way.

November 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dang, I hate it when my copied-and-pasted Hindi is impeccable but I mistype a French word. That should be pourboire.

November 29, 2010  

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