In 2009, the Cornell Law Review published an article called “The Anti-Corruption Principle” by Zephyr Teachout, then a visiting assistant professor of law at Duke University. In it she maintained that that the framers of the U.S. Constitution were “obsessed” (that was Teachout’s word) with the dangers of political corruption – bribery, cronyism, patronage, the making of laws designed to benefit a few at the expense of public well-being, and so on.
Such practices, and the attitudes going with them, had eaten away, termite-like, at the ethos of the ancient Roman republic and done untold damage to the spirit of liberty in Britain as well. The one collapsed; the other spawned “rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know / but leech-like to their fainting country cling,” as Shelley in a poem about George III’s reign wrote some years later. But in Teachout’s reading, the framers were obsessed with corruption without being fatalistic about it. The best way to reduce the chances of corruption was by reducing the opportunities for temptation – for example, by preventing any “Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust” from “accepting any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State” without explicit permission from Congress. Likewise, a separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches was, in part, an expression of the anti-corruption principle.
Teachout indicated in a footnote that her argument would be expanded in a forthcoming book, called The Meaning of Corruption, due out the following year. It was delayed. For one thing, Teachout moved to Fordham University, where she is now an associate professor of law. And for another, her law-review article gained the unusual eminence of being cited by two Supreme Court Justices, Antonin Scalia and John Paul Roberts, in their opinions concerning the landmark Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission decision.
Now Teachout’s book has appeared as Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United, from Harvard University Press – an appreciably livelier title, increasing the likelihood (now pretty much a certainty) that it will inform the thinking of many rank-and-file Democratic Party supporters and activists.
Whether it will resonate with their leaders beyond the level of campaign rhetoric is another matter. Each of the two parties has a revolving door between elected office and the lobbying sector. While discussing the book here last week, I mentioned that suspicion and hostility toward lobbying were conspicuous in American political attitudes until fairly recently. They still are, of course, but with nothing like the intensity exhibited when the state of Georgia adopted a constitution outlawing the practice in 1877: “Lobbying is declared to be a crime, and the General Assembly shall influence this provision by suitable penalties,” including a prison sentence of up to five years. Other efforts to curtail lobbying were less severe, though nonetheless sharper than today’s statutes requiring lobbyists to register and disclose their sources of funding.
“[T]he practice of paying someone else to make one’s arguments to people in authority,” writes Teachout, “threatened to undermine the moral fabric of civil society…. In a lobbyist-client relationship, the lobbyist, by virtue of being a citizen, has a distinct relationship to what he himself might believe. He is selling his own citizenship, or one of the obligations of his own citizenship, for a fee.”
The lobbyist’s activity is “more akin to selling the personal right to vote than selling legal skills,” as a lawyer does. Nor is that the only damage lobbying does to the delicate ecology of mutual confidence between state and citizen. It “legitimates a kind of routine sophistry and a casual approach towards public argument. It leads people to distrust the sincerity of public arguments and weakens their own sense of obligation to the public good” – thereby creating “the danger of a cynical political culture.” (So that’s how we got here.)
Clearly something went wrong. The anti-corruption principle, as Teachout formulates it, entails more than the prevention of certain kinds of acts – say, bribery. It’s also supposed to strengthen the individual citizen’s faith in and respect for authority while also promoting the general welfare. But private interest has a way of seeing itself as public interest, as exemplified in a railroad lobbyist’s remarks to Congress during the Gilded Age: If someone “won’t do right unless he’s bribed to do it,” he said, “…I think it’s a man’s duty to go up and bribe him.”
Teachout refers to an erosion of the anti-corruption principle over time, but much of her narrative documents a recurring failure to give anti-corruption laws teeth. “Criminal anticorruption laws were particularly hard to prosecute” during the 19th century, she writes, because “the wrongdoers – the briber and the bribed – had no incentive to complain,” while “the defrauded public was dispersed, with no identifiable victim who would drive the charge.” The concept of corruption has dwindled to that bribery defined as quid pro quo in the narrowest possible terms: “openly asking for a deal in exchange for a specific government action.”
In a colloquy appearing in the Northwestern University Law Review, Seth Barrett Tillman, a lecturer in law at the National University of Ireland Maynooth, suggests that a core problem with Teachout’s argument is that it overstates how single-mindedly anti-corruption the framers of the U.S. Constitution actually were. The Articles of Confederation made broader anti-corruption provisions on some points, for example.
And “if the Framers believed that corruption posed the chief danger to the new Republic,” he writes, “one wonders why corrupt Senate-convicted and disqualified former federal officials were still eligible to hold state offices—offices which could indirectly affect significant operations of the new national government—and were also (arguably) eligible to hold congressional seats, thereby injecting corrupt officials directly into national policy-making.”
Concerned about corruption? Definitely. “Obsessed” with it? Not so much. There is much to like about Teachout’s book, but treating the framers of the Constitution as possessing the keys to resolving 21st-century problems seems extremely idealistic, and not in a good way.
It's taken a while, but we’ve made a little progress on the mathesis universalis that Leibniz envisioned 300 or so years ago – a mathematical language describing the world so perfectly that any question could be answered by performing the appropriate calculations.
Aware that the computations would be demanding, Leibniz also had in mind a machine to do them rapidly. On that score things are very much farther along than he could ever have imagined. And while the mathesis universalis itself seems destined to remain only the most beautiful dream of rationalist philosophy, there’s no question that Leibniz would appreciate the incredible power to store and retrieve information that we’ve come to take for granted. (Besides being a polymathic genius, he was a librarian.)
Johanna Drucker’s Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production, published by Harvard University Press, focuses in part on the capacity of maps, charts, diagrams, and other modes of display to encode and organize information. But only in part: while Drucker’s claims for the power of visual language are less extravagantly ambitious than Leibniz’s for mathematical symbols, it is a matter of degree and not of kind. (The author is professor of bibliographical studies at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies of the University of California at Los Angeles.)
“The complexity of visual means of knowledge production,” she writes, “is matched by the sophistication of our cognitive processing. Visual knowledge is as dependent on lived, embodied, specific knowledge as any other field of human endeavor, and integrates other sense data as part of cognition. Not only do we process complex representations, but we are imbued with cultural training that allows us to understand them as knowledge, communicated and consensual, in spite of the fact that we have no ‘language’ of graphics or rules governing their use.”
Forget the old saw about a picture being worth a thousand words. Drucker’s claim is not about pictorial imagery, as such. A drawing or painting may communicate information about how a person or place looks, but the forms she has in mind (bar graphs, for example, or Venn diagrams) perform a more complex operation. They convert information into something visually apprehended.
We learn to understand and use these visual forms so readily that they seem almost self-evident. Some people know how to read a map better than others -- but all of us can at least recognize one when we see it. Likewise with tables, graphs, calendars, and family trees. In each case we intuitively understand how the data are organized, if not what they mean.
But the pages of Graphesis teem with color reproductions of 5,000 years’ worth of various modes of visually rendered knowledge – showing how they have emerged and developed over time, growing familiar but also defining or reinforcing ways to apprehend information.
A good example is the mode of plotting information on a grid. Drucker reproduces a chart of planetary movements in that form from 10th-century edition of Macrobius. But the idea didn’t catch on: “The idea of graphical plotting either did not occur, or required too much of an abstraction to conceptualize.” The necessary leap came only in the early 17th century, when Descartes reinvented the grid in developing analytical geometry. His mathematical tool “combined with intensifying interest in empirical measurements,” writes Drucker, “but they were only slowly brought together into graphic form. Instruments adequate for gathering ‘data’ in repeatable metrics came into play … but the intellectual means for putting such information into statistical graphs only appeared in fits and starts.”
And in the 1780s, a political economist invented a variation on the form by depicting the quantity of various exports and imports of Scotland as bars on a graph – an arresting presentation, in that it shows one product being almost twice as heavily traded as any other. (The print is too small for me to determine what it was.) The advantages of the bar graph in rendering information to striking effect seem obvious, but it, too, was slow to enter common use.
“We can easily overlook the leap necessary to abstract data and then give form to its complexities,” writes Drucker. And once the leap is made, it becomes almost impossible to conceive such data without the familiar visual tools.
If the author ever defines her title term, I failed to mark the passage, but graphesis would presumably entail a comprehensive understanding of the available and potential means to record and synthesize knowledge, of whatever kind, in visual form. Drucker method is in large measure inductive: She examines a range of methods of presenting information to the eye and determines how the elements embed logical concepts into images.
While art history and film studies (especially work on editing and montage) are relevant to some degree, Drucker’s project is very much one of exploration and invention. Leibniz’s mathesis was totalizing and deductive; once established, his mathematical language would give final and definitive answers. By contrast, graphesis would entail the regular creation of new visual tools in keeping with the appearance of new kinds of knowledge, and new media for transmitting it.
“The ability to think in and with the tools of computational and digital environments,” the author warns, “will only evolve as quickly as our ability to articulate the metalanguages of our engagement.”
That passage, which is typical, is some indication of why Graphesis will cull its audience pretty quickly. Some readers will want to join her effort; many more will have some difficulty in imagining quite what it is. Deepening the project's fascination, for those drawn to it, is Drucker's recognition of an issue so new that it still requires a name: What happens to the structuring of knowledge when maps, charts, etc. appear not just on a screen, but one responsive to touch? The difficulties that Graphesis presents are only incidentally matters of diction; the issues themselves are difficult. I suspect Graphesis may prove to be an important book, for reasons we'll fully understand only somewhere down the line.