Longer ago than seems possible, I served in the Peace Corps. I returned to the U.S. in 1991 after two years in the West African country of Mali realizing what pretty much every Peace Corps volunteer I've ever met realized. That you get far more from the experience than you give. That's not what surprised me most about my time overseas, though. Living in a different culture revealed how thoroughly American I am. That's the thing that blindsided me.
I was astonished by how much of my own culture was invisible to me. That is, until I went to a place where none of my culture's unwritten rules applied. Only in a foreign land did the countless ways American culture guides my actions and shapes my behavior and my outlook on life become visibly apparent.
My western ways determined what I found most trying about living in one of the most physically harsh and materially impoverished places on Earth. It wasn't the extreme heat (up to 120 degrees in the hot season, low 100s and humid in the rainy season and high 80s and low 90s in the day with overnight lows in the 60s in the "cold season"). Not the language, which was a bear for me to learn because the same word had multiple meanings depending on subtle changes in tone my ear could not discern. It wasn't the absence of electricity, running water or flush toilets that was most difficult to cope with. Eating exclusively with my hands took some getting used to, but it ended up feeling like second nature. So did living without TV. Periodic bouts with malaria were no picnic and dysentery was a drag. All the boils from chronic staph infections seemed alarming at first. After awhile tending them became part of the routine.
Nope, the hardest thing by a longshot was the utter lack of privacy and personal space. I always thought a desire for some privacy was human nature. In Mali, I discovered it is cultural. A Malian friend of mine told me that people who want to be left alone are either mean or crazy. Or American, I thought but never told him.
Reading the editorial in Sunday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about Wisconsin's political culture caused me to reflect back on my time in Mali. The newspaper described a "culture in which politics takes precedence over policy, money is king, leadership too centralized and re-election is everything." Such an assessment stands in sharp contrast to what you hear when our state's politicians take inventory of themselves. They congratulate each other for their high-minded devotion to public service. Most of them don't see what the Journal Sentinel sees. Once assimilated into the culture, they grow blind to how the hand steers them.
A few short years ago, six of the most powerful state legislators in Wisconsin were paraded into courtrooms and were convicted of one form or other of criminal misconduct in public office. Charges ranged from bid rigging and accepting kickbacks to extortion and what the state's attorneys characterized as "theft from the public." That theft involved the systematic use of state offices, state equipment and state employees for personal political gain.
One of the legislators went to prison. Others did some jail time. One got a guilty verdict and 15-month prison sentence overturned on a technicality and awaits a new trial. The thing that never ceased to amaze me was how none of the six could seem to see that they had done anything wrong. Neither could an astonishly large percentage of their colleagues in the Legislature. To this day, most of them don't see what prosecutors and judges saw. They are blind to the hand that steers them.
My how Wisconsin has changed. Back in 1978, the face of scandal here was a state senator by the name of Henry Dorman, criminally charged with making a few personal calls on a state telephone. The charge was eventually dismissed in court, but not by the voters. Dorman was defeated in a primary election that fall, ending his 14-year career. News accounts at the time emphasized that Dorman had been tainted by the "scandal." His unauthorized phone calls were more than the citizenry could bear, an unacceptable raid on the public treasury. The hand steered them to throw the "bum" out.
The tale of Henry Dorman is a measure of what Wisconsin's political culture once was. The standards imposed by that culture have slowly but surely been lowered over the years. We now have a culture in which politics trumps policy, money is king, leaders are all-powerful and re-election is everything. Some of our modern lawmakers have become lawbreakers, but the real scandal in our state is what is perfectly legal and totally within today's cultural norms.