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Art Lee column: Corruption is a way of life in some countries

Stories of big-time corruption among foreign governmental officials still comes as a surprise to some Americans.

Daily newspapers during these last months have reported over and over again the ongoing corruption in the government in Afghanistan, the ongoing crookedness starting at the top with their president and filtering all the way down to the lowest levels of offcialdom.

The crookedness is all there: graft, payoffs, fixes, shakedowns, bribes, stealing, kickbacks, kidnapping, skimming, payola - and more. Like murder. That list pretty well covers it.

Should we be surprised? Not really, because corruption is imbedded in the Afghan government culture; that's simply the way it was and is, not that the average citizen likes it that way either here or there. Of course, admittedly no Mother Teresas are in charge. Americans don't have to like all this corruption, let alone accept it as "right" or even normal; just hold our noses and try to understand it, we're told, difficult and dislikeable as it is. Alas, it just is. It's endemic. In this smelly equation we're reminded of the obvious, that different cultures have different "rules" and these values vary and they are not the same anywhere/everywhere "over there." And to the naive who don't want to believe this immorality goes on throughout much of the world, there comes a line of retribution summed up in the sarcastic vernacular: "Wake up and smell the coffee."

Coffee hour

A tiny wake-up call on this subject came to me several years ago from a Bemidji State University student from Southeast Asia. He was a delightful young man who simply exuded personality; he had a smile so big and winning that it would make President Obama's great smile look like a grumpy frown. Among the many things this young man was attempting to learn in America in his one year here was English, and his progress towards this goal at the time was slow and not steady. One sound he could not seem to pronounce was the letter "L" (it came out as an "R") and so he addressed me regularly as "Mr. Ree." There was also a problem in his missing the "T" at times and overall his syntax was fractured. The results came out in his always friendly greeting: "Ahhh, Misser Ree, how you are?"

Despite these problems, we still had communication success most of the time, and eventually I inquired about his home and family back in Southeast Asia. I asked about his father and what he did for a living, the question first resulting in his great smile and then his wake-up (for me) answer: "Ahhh, Misser Ree, father mine have good job. He Customs Collector. Make much money. Big bribes, y'know."

His last sentence came out as a simple statement of fact; there was no more difference indicated in his tone of voice than had he declared something about the ho-hum weather.

When apparently at his answer I showed facial surprise and raised eyebrows, he seemed perplexed and thus quickly explained: "That how things done in country ours. All know it. Do it. Those who have aut'ority all do it. We used to it. That's life." Then the smile.

Well, that's one "explanation" of life "over there," I guess, even if the "coffee" does not smell very good. Another needed conclusion: Long live Integrity!

American culture - though hardly immune from corruption - essentially still maintains a solid belief in basic fairness and the notions of what is basically right and wrong. Thus in comparison to "over there," American values seem better all the time. Indeed, a pretty good culture, at least relatively. To illustrate, America's streets and highway driving patterns operate very well, and this is not because of laws or the Police or the Highway Patrols; no, they do so well because of the fundamental decency of American drivers. That simple. That good. And that's good. Long live Decency!

Art Lee is a BSU professor emeritus.