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Pay to play

A mighty city's culture has fallen so far that corruption seems normal

Pay to play

Philadelphia is a city of culture, no doubt about it. We've got the largest collection of French Impressionists outside of Paris, and more Rodins than anyplace but Rodin's homeland. We've got the Liberty Bell and you don't. We were the first capital of this fledgling nation and have other bragging rights of primogeniture: first medical school, first hospital, first stock exchange, first zoo. I ate braised rabbit at the "City Tavern" where Tom Jefferson tweaked the Declaration of Independence. We've got Le Bec Fin - and yo! we got cheesesteaks and Rocky (culture isn't only highbrow culture). While all your paintings stifle indoors, we wear over 2,000 artworks on our brick and mortar exoskeletons, being the mural capital of the nation. We've got the Phillies, Eagles, Flyers, Sixers, and Phantoms (though we don't treat any of them right).

But we've got another "culture" too. I refer you to definition 5c of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary: "the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes a company or corporation or city" [italics mine]. Culture, like statistics, has to do with groups, not individuals. Nobody ever heard of a culture of one. Rather, the way it works is that the one becomes part of a soup in which the individual constituents both lend and lose some of their own identities. The essential character of culture begs watery metaphors, for some reason: A fish knows not it's in water because it doesn't know non-water; an ebbing tide lowers all boats.

Our boat has sunk to a new low in recent weeks with a slew of federal indictments for municipal corruption having to do with the awarding of city contracts to politically connected firms and individuals. It began last year on Oct. 7 with the accidental discovery (think masking tape at the Watergate) of an FBI bug in the ceiling of the mayor's office during his already sagging reelection bid. Rather than being the final nail in his coffin, the finding galvanized the mayor's base and propelled him to a landslide victory on Nov. 4. That's Philadelphia.

The culture of Philadelphia has been most frequently described as "pay to play," a phrase interestingly noncommittal as to moral evaluation. This is no accident. We as a "company, corporation, or city" are internally conflicted as to our "attitudes, values, goals, and practices" about political corruption. To press us on it is to ask us to evaluate the water we invisibly swim in and the very air we breathe. One man's influence-peddling is another man's "networking." To charges of shakedowns, featherbedding, conspiracy, and high flying on the city's dime, the kingpin's defense attorney said of his client: "He's doing precisely what is being done by other firms and other lawyers right now." His sidekick's defender said: "The victors of political races enjoy the spoils of success. . . . This is life in the big city." I'm afraid his is a sincere befuddlement.

The good news is that a few still keep their heads above water in the moral miasma and see the high watermark from which our vessels have all uniformly been lowered while we weren't looking. U.S. Attorney Patrick L. Meehan, announcing the indictments, had a less ambiguous name for the current mess than the jaunty "pay to play": a "culture of corruption," he called it. "How can the people of Philadelphia have trust in a system in which public trust routinely is bought and sold?"

The Bible knows how "pay to play" poisons all culture: "If a ruler listens to falsehood, all his officials will be wicked" (Proverbs 29:12). "Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked" (Proverbs 25:26). "The wicked freely strut about when what is vile is honored among men" (Psalm 12:8, NIV).

Where culture spirals down the drain, it's not surprising that government-appointed ethics commissions multiply (such as our mayor's 21st Century Review Forum), any more than it is surprising that husbands having affairs send flowers to their wives. But even John Contino, executive director of the state Ethics Commission, admits, "You're never going to get a law to stop bribery." Extortion and bribery are already illegal, after all. Mr. Contino might well have said, "It's the culture, stupid!" Or as the Bible puts it, "If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?" (Psalm 11:3).

Back to the foundations, then. One of the things that makes America livable, compared to all the rest, is that it's a country where you don't automatically expect to pay out baksheesh to expedite every service of government. Lose that and we have lost it all, Rodin, Le Bec Fin, and Rocky notwithstanding.