The art of the shakedown

A bit over an hour into the five-hour drive across the ferrous red plateau, heading toward Uganda’s capital, Kampala, suddenly, there’s the Nile, a boiling, roiling cataract at this time of year, rain-swollen and rabid below the bridge that vaults over it.

Naturally, I take out my iPhone and begin snapping pics.

On the other side of the bridge, three soldiers standing in the road, rifles slung over their shoulders, direct my driver, Godfrey, to pull over.

“You were photographing the bridge,” one of them says. “We saw you.”

“Taking photos of the bridge is forbidden,” the second announces, grabbing the iPhone from my hand. “National security. Terrorists could use such photos to help in planning to blow up the bridge.”

“I wasn’t photographing the bridge,” I explain. “I was photographing the rapids.”

I’m beginning to panic. Pretty much my entire life is couched inside that bloody device: contacts, hotel reservations, all my appointments for the coming days.

One of the soldiers smiles silkily. “You are not to worry. This is an affair between Ugandans. It is your driver who was at fault. He should have known about our national security. Let them work it out.”

And indeed, when I turn around Godfrey is no longer behind the steering wheel. He’s with two soldiers across the road, remonstrating away. Minutes pass with Godfrey and his interlocutors locked in fervent colloquy — much hand-waving, arm-flinging, rifle-toying, shouting, cajoling and then smiling — until finally, 15 minutes and $20 later, the driver climbs back into the car and hands me the phone.

“Does that kind of thing happen often?” I ask Godfrey, who in much of the rest of his life is a Kampala taxi driver.

“All the time,” he assures me, as we put the Nile behind us. Two or three times a week. He has to figure it into his budget, and it’s a large item.

It’s to be expected, Godfrey continues. The soldiers are conscripts, the traffic cop a lowly underling, and they’re all notoriously underpaid. The opportunity to garnish bribes is seen as a necessary perk of the job. The trouble is, he continues, such corruption riddles the entire country, infesting virtually every transaction with the state.

And then Godfrey asks, “Doesn’t this sort of thing happen in America?”

Not really, I tell him, not blatantly like that, and certainly not frequently.

Only, then I get to thinking, because that answer is way too glib. It’s not that the United States lacks corruption, even pervasive corruption. It’s just not usually of the low-level and petty variety.

In America, corruption is concentrated at the highest levels of society, masquerading, for example, under the name of “campaign finance.” Election campaigns have become so expensive that candidates have to go begging to anyone who will finance them. And the billionaires and millionaires and hedge-fund operators and CEOs and their lobbyists are, in turn, only too happy to contribute. They lard the “people’s representatives” with grotesque “contributions,” after which those representatives prove only too willing to turn around and carve out billions of dollars in specifically targeted tax breaks and subsidies structured exclusively for them.

As a result, while we don’t, in general, have to pay off police officers during traffic stops, we do live in a society in which one of the richest men in America reports that he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary.

Education, meanwhile, is funded by local property taxes, and the rich make sure it stays that way. The result? Their kids get a far better education than those living in poorer neighborhoods. When people try to remedy that injustice through affirmative action programs, the rich protest and get judges to overturn the programs as racist. They are, however, perfectly happy to take advantage of programs that favor the children of alumni. And it’s all perfectly legal.

In Uganda, corruption tends to arise out of desperation. In America, more typically, the wellsprings are greed, pure and simple. And it’s hard to decide which is the more dismaying, the more disfiguring, the more disgusting.

Or actually, no, it’s not. It’s not that hard at all.

• Weschler is director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU. His newest book is “Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative.” A longer version of this piece appears at Tomdispatch.com.

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