We need an ‘Untouchable’ in this era of political polarization

But can we find somebody we can all trust, an Eliot Ness of bipartisanship?

There is a comic-opera dimension to the Congressional hearings to determine the truth behind the Robert Mueller’s report. While there is nothing funny about it if you are caught up in its net, there is something inherently comic about public hearings based on the idea that you don’t trust your own hand-picked investigator. That’s taking far too seriously the advice of Watergate informant Deep Throat to “Trust no one.”

Congress says it is looking for the truth. And we would all like to know the truth; or, at least we say we do. But the truth doesn’t seem to have much of a following these days — in politics or economics.

What is the value of the truth? Does it have an economic value and, if so, how is it calculated? And why doesn’t it have a market price?

The lack of a market price for truth doesn’t mean that it has no value. We need air in order to exist on this planet, yet that does not have a market price — although as we know, at dense levels of population and economic development it does have a cost.

In our society today, two things are very clear. The first is that truth and its partner, trust, are necessary conditions for our society and, most certainly, our economy, to function effectively. The second is that we are increasingly doubtful about the ability of our institutions to deliver either one.

In the past, when our institutions could not or would not deliver what was needed and expected by the community, we took a creative approach. Today we would call it a “workaround.”

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, for example, which prohibited alcoholic beverage manufacture, transport or sales, had the unintended consequence of enabling large criminal organizations that ran the illicit trade in whiskey, beer and wine, overwhelming existing law enforcement institutions.

In 1920s Prohibition Chicago, bootlegging and other criminal enterprises raised the level of violent crime to intolerable heights. Significantly, the flow of money into criminal enterprises rose to the point where corruption had penetrated deeply into law enforcement.

To counteract the corruption, a special unit, reporting directly and only to the chief of police, was formed to combat it. Its officers were hand-picked for their integrity and dedication to duty. After two incidents in which officers in this unit refused attempted bribes, the unit became known as “The Untouchables” and achieved considerable fame as its anti-crime successes made newspaper headlines. Years later the elite group achieved even wider fame as a television series that ran from 1969 to 1963 and as a Hollywood movie in 1987.

The same underlying theme of a workaround using an elite unit was also echoed in an exceptionally durable series, “Hawaii Five-0,” which in its original form ran for 12 years, and in its reborn form is now preparing for its 10th season.

Oddly enough, in the current version the lead character is a reserve officer in the US Navy — a tip of the hat to the original, real-life group that was established in the Territory of Hawaii during the martial law period of the 1940s.

Crime is the enemy of a civilized, fully functional society; organized crime even more so. When it becomes clear that the existing institutions such as the police force are inadequate to deliver a crime-free community, society creates a new organization to step in. The “Untouchables” were just one example. Other communities had special committees; New York City, for example, used a “Commission” organization to uncover the corruption and jolt the community back to normal. These workaround organizations continued even after the drug trade replaced bootlegging as the prime mover in financing criminal enterprise.

Things are different today, of course, yet there is a disturbing similarity. As we look around us, we see our once trusted institutions crumbling from the corrosive effects of single view politics. Political polarization has taken the place of criminal enterprise as the source of corruption. But it is just as effective.

If we care about truth and trust, it is quite possible that we need a workaround. It would have to be different from the “Untouchables” or the “Hawaii Five-0, of course, because political corruption is different from criminal corruption, even though it is equally corrosive. It doesn’t require the kind of financial flow that leaves a money trail, for example.

Setting up a workaround will not be easy. The first obstacle is finding someone that all of us can trust; essentially, a man or woman who is impervious to the corruption of polarized politics.

It takes an act of faith in this country to believe that such a person exists; an act of realism to recognize that we need one.

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