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The Politics of Shyster-ism


I don’t recall coming across the term Shysterism in any of my political science classes back in my college days to describe a type of government that takes its meaning from the definition of the word Shyster:  “someone who acts in a disreputable, unethical, or unscrupulous way, especially in the practice of low politics or business.” The corruption in President Grant’s administration in the 1800’s covered in the many daily newspapers that used to exist (long since perished but re-emerging in the form of blogs), the muckraking of the early 1900’s, and other instances in American political history, suggest that there has always been shysters having a hand in government policy making .What seems unusual in the contemporary political scene, is that it has been institutionalized. Expectations of Congress are so low, that a good number of people feel that it is run by a bunch of Shysters who are shilling for corporate and other private interest to the harm of the collective and common interest. The for-profit media whose primary interest is financial gain and whose decision of what to cover and how to cover a story is carefully gauged so as to not upset those who provide access to power and revenue inflows have no motive to question the game itself, the “ism” as a whole, and are only interested in covering the dramatic interplay of the actors.

A Shyster is by no means of a foolish nature or lacking in intelligence. The defining quality has more to do with moral disposition in that it is skewed toward selfish ends. A shyster does not care one way or the other about seeking some common good, or desire to fulfill a vocation or calling. It reminds me of Coriolanus where Shakespeare uses the historical stage of Ancient Rome to dramatize the tensions between the patricians and plebeians. Menenius in responding to a Citizen who was a member of the OWS of the time tells him “ slander the helms o’ the state, who care for you like fathers, when you curse them as enemies.”  The audience of Shakespeare day could believe that he was speaking from the heart whereas for the modern-day reader in the age of teleprompters, market research, and targeted single issue politics, it would ring hollow if placed in the mouth of one of our “honorable”  Senators. The Citizen’s response to Menenius seems to hold up better over time:

Care for us! True, indeed! They ne’er cared for us yet: suffer us to famish, and their store-housed crammed with grain; make edicts for usury, to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome act established against the rich, and provide more piercing statues daily, to chain up and restrain the poor. If the wars eat us not up, they will; and there’s all the love they bear us.”

(Listen to George Carlin’s 3 minute gem on “Care for us” here:  )

The emergence of Pope Francis onto the world stage suggests the existence of a tradition that has the potential to elevate and inspire individuals out of a complacency that accepts Shysterism as the norm. Whatever the Pope may mean to you, I don’t think you could call him a Shyster. In Religion and the Rise of Capitalism  R.H. Tawney highlights the contribution of religion in Medieval times by acting as a counter balance to a world that was tilting ever more in the direction of earthly pursuits of money, power, and social status: The Church provided an alternate view in “…its insistence that society is a spiritual organism, not an economic machine, and that economic activity, which is one subordinate element within a vast and complex unity, requires to be controlled and repressed by reference to moral ends for which it supplies material means.”

From the donation of Constantine where supposedly the authority over Rome was transferred to the Church to the peace of Westphalia where secular governments reasserted their authority over the State, to the 1980’s  and its role in providing a public space for Lech Walesa and his Solidarity movement, the Catholic Church has been a force in Western World politics. The degree to which it should engage with issues of public policy is going to elicit differing viewpoints, as it has in discussions of Archbishop Bergogolia’s role during the Pinochet years. In comparison with the brutal dictatorships and poverty in some parts of the world Shysterism in the U.S. seems like a benign tumor on the body politic, but something that needs treatment before it turns malignant.

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