If not the American way, Charlie Rangel’s life is an American way. Heading to being publicly rebuked — think the 19th Century schoolboy in the corner with the dunce cap — Charles Bernard Rangel epitomizes the best and worst of our system. He rose from the underclass in an era was black was still the wrong color through war heroism and effort to become one of the most influential politicians in the nation.
Now at 80, he’ll complete his career where the color of his skin is not important but the stain of his venality is. He surely will not stay in office or live long enough to be rehabilitated as far worse certainly-is-a-crook criminals like ex-Pres. Richard Nixon was.
Far more significant than his illegal, unethical and immoral actions over decades is how his case highlights the idiocy of self-policing. Whether it be members of the U.S. Congress or a city police force or physicians or accountants, no profession can prosecute and judge its own honestly and honorably.
Immediately, consider the laughable record of the U.S. House. In its 111 sessions (actually in effect from 1787), the body has seen fit to discipline its many thousands of members — drum roll — 22 time for censure and 8 for reprimand. Censure is the more severe but recalls and owes its life to an era of honor and decency that is sadly lacking in modern times and modern people in the main.
Censure requires a House-convicted member to stand in the front well of the room and hear a list of his offenses (all he, no females censured or reprimanded to date). This was and is supposed to be so severe a punishment that it supplants any more mundane ones, such as expulsion, prison and such as ordinary and lesser humans might face for crooked dealings. Honestly, and let’s get real, these guys aren’t even fired.
Not surprising to us in this 21st Century, Rangel was not humbled, not dehumanized in the classic and atavistic sense. In fact, he sniffled but remained proud. Thus, this belies the concept of self-policing so beloved by Americans.
Lords of Beantown
Here in Boston, we experience this several times a year with our police as well as our pols. Rarely, politicians (like our last three speakers of the MA House, state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson and City Councilor Chuck Turner) are so clumsy and arrogant that they get caught by law enforcement. Far more commonly, they are judged (light, lighter, lightest) by their peers. The same is more than true for the cops.
Police are a special case here, as unlike in other major cities, Boston doesn’t allow mere civilians to be involved in any meaningful way, no civilian-review board here. We claim the nation’s oldest police force, as the country’s first subway. That distinction is as often an insult as point of pride though. Consider our pathetic trolley sections, which much like the nation’s oldest turnpike in Pennsylvania, have aged badly and serve the public poorly.
The police here are so connected and so self-protective that an officer has to be observed by many performing the most egregious crimes to face the slightest consequences of abuse of office. The shameful phenomenon of testi-lying where the cops bald face deny any malfeasance or crimes has long been the norm. The cop unions are so powerful and so without oversight that the public basically has no say.
We see the same in professions such as medicine. There, ordinary humans are judged too ignorant to rule on or even comment on lordly doctors. They are forced to sue for money, and even then, a physician found civilly guilty is not likely to be forced to stop working, much less face criminal penalties.
Watching the Watchmen
Alas, we allow islands of deference. While we grew up hearing the fantasy that this nation is markedly different from that England of class distinctions and peerage, we must accept that we have created our own parallels.
In Rangel’s case, there is an American subtext. He was a poor kid from Harlem who grew up in a segregated and highly discriminatory time and nation. In the military, then in his professional and political life, he lived that ideal of hard work, intelligence, perseverance, luck, and personality equaling success. Ta da.
He was certainly not the first to abuse such earned privilege. He had moved into the fantasy world of the protected, the special, the, well, royals.
We in America have created our own royalty. They are in Congress, wearing badges and guns, dressed in surgical scrubs, and above all, policing their own.
As Roman poet Juvenal wrote, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (Who guards the guardians?)
Today as a nation, we show no proclivity toward stripping the arrogant classist sorts of their self-policing. Regardless of the failures over decades, over centuries, we hesitate to demand accountability from our artificial royalty.