My family and I recently returned from northern Argentina to visit my in-laws. It had been three years since our last trip, and I was heartened to see that, despite continued economic instability, San Miguel de Tucumán, my wife’s hometown, looked better than before the pandemic: the roads were relatively clean, graffiti had been painted over, stray dogs were rare, bright LED lighting had been installed in many of the parks and plazas, and police were amply posted on street corners. Observing with the eyes of a southern California resident, I commented to my incredulous in-laws that their city looked cleaner, safer, and more vibrant than most parts of Los Angeles. It was good to see some progress for a change, even if superficial.
At the same time, Argentine society at the national, provincial, and city levels remains systemically crooked. The effects of this corruption are visible to the casually discerning eye. Why is there water continuously running along the curbs in poor and middle-class neighborhoods? Because the potable water and sewer systems are broken. Why doesn’t the government fix them? They occasionally do, but the problem is that some contractors, “friends” of local politicians, take the money but never complete the work (in one case near my in-law’s home, workers dug a massive trench and put the pipe in the ground but never bothered to connect it, leaving the water to bubble up and swallow the busy road above). Why are there such long lines outside pharmacies located near public hospitals? Because some hospital employees steal the materials and resell them to doctors for use in their private practices, forcing patients’ families to buy their own supplies (bandages, syringes, medicines, material for casts, etc.). Why is there a checkpoint in the middle of the countryside? To collect bribes for real or invented vehicle infractions. (I once accompanied my brother-in-law to the police station to pay a speeding ticket—nearly everyone “speeds” in Argentina, but a police officer randomly picked him out for bribe money, which he refused to give—but everyone in the office pretended not to know how to process the fine payment with the hopes of getting the bribe themselves). Why does it take years for a construction project to be completed? Because inspection officials and their political bosses demand 25% (or more) “extra” to keep projects moving forward. When I ask my Argentine family what they feel about this corruption, which saturates every part of civic society, they shrug and sigh, “Y bueno, por lo menos no roban todo”—What can you do? At least they’re not stealing everything.
Notwithstanding limited improvements, corruption remains the single greatest reason San Miguel de Tucumán, and Argentina as a whole, remains relatively poor and unstable. And, of course, this situation is not unique to Argentina: both individual and systematized corruption undermines personal, familial, and social wellbeing throughout most of the world.
Nevertheless, there remains a sense of morality and civic sanity in Argentina that has been lost in “developed” countries, including much of the United States. While gender, sexual, pro-abortion, and racialist ideologies have made headways into Argentine politics, particularly at the national level, their basic claims still happily cause consternation among much of the populace. For example, many Argentines can accept that governments misuse public money—but how, they wonder in disbelief, could tax money (or any money) be used to support gender-identity programs to poison and mutilate children, even against their own parent’s wishes? It’s inconceivable. Sure, it happens, they admit, that politicians and drug cartels join arms (it’s lamentable, but there’s a lot of money involved, and so you can see how that kind of thing happens, bad as it is). But, they say, you’re telling me that some American cities permit and enable hard drug use in public, including in front of school children? That’s madness. There isn’t much you can do about prostitution, they grant, because boys will be boys, and, besides, it’s only in certain parts of town that you can easily avoid—but am I hearing you right, they respond, that fully grown men in the United States are civically feted for dressing up like risqué women and dancing provocatively in front of children? Unbelievable. I can understand, they admit, that, though it’s wrong, someone may think there is a justified reason to be “pro-choice”—but is it true, they ask, that American politicians and activists “shout out” that abortion is good and even pass laws to prohibit saving babies who have survived failed abortions? I didn’t know such barbarity was possible. Everyone knows, they acknowledge, that being politically-connected gets you favors underneath the table—but, they say, you’re telling me that it’s your government’s policy to favor some racial groups over others in distributing benefits. Isn’t that . . . racist?
In short, the people I talk to in Argentina—family, friends, and taxi drivers alike—can comprehend the existence of corruption. But the things they hear about the US (and that I confirm are true) are hard for them to fathom. That’s not corruption in their eyes. It’s another category of wrongdoing altogether. It’s the good turned upside-down and inside-out.
But what, really, is the difference between the two—corruption on the one hand, perversion on the other? While corruption in Argentina and everywhere else deserves the strongest possible condemnation, it occurred to me during this last trip that something morally different really is happening in the US and the West more broadly—something worse than corruption. Notwithstanding the shamelessness with which politicians and businesswomen and men engage in corrupt practices across the globe, you’d be hard pressed to find one who declares, “Corruption is good, and it’s my right to engage in it.” Corruption is usually an open secret—open, yes, because everyone knows it’s happening, but also a secret in the sense that no one will fess up to it. And why would they? Everyone knows that corruption is bad and no one in their right mind admits, less publicly proclaims, they are engaged in wrongdoing. Corruption, in other words, is the sin of liars and hypocrites. Yet the one good thing about liars and hypocrites is that their falsehoods and hypocrisies serve as undeniable testimony to the existence of the objective moral standards they are violating: you can’t be a liar if there is no truth, and you can’t be corrupt if there’s no such thing as right and wrong. As the saying goes, hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue.
But what happens when the wrongdoing starts hungering for the spotlight? When “under the table” becomes “above the table—and proud of it,” when the dark alleys, uninhibited by personal or public shame, pour out into the plaza to perform their devilish dance, when the elites and their lackeys stop pretending like they believe there is a difference between good and evil? When this kind of moral eclipse shadows entire societies, corruption begins to feel positively quaint. To be sure, both corruption and perversion are poison, and I’d rather not have to pick between them. But at least corruption, like a thief who fears other thieves, has the grace of detesting itself when others do as it does. Perversion, on the other hand, takes a long, lascivious look in the mirror, delights in what it sees, and desires the whole world go out and do likewise.