What started out as a Civil war in Syria is now much more complicated than just that; the Syrian conflict is reshaping politics as far away as Europe, and the United States.
Some civil wars stay civil; they are born, and die, as conflicts between groups of the same country. The US Civil War of 18611-1865, was such a Civil War.
Other Civil Wars, don’t stay civil for long. This is becoming more the case in modern times because of the ease by which ideology and people travel around the globe. It can be said that the war in Syria only happened because of how easily people were able to communicate with one another, how easily they could communicate circumstances on the ground. Such ease of communication has enabled both non-state actors, such as ISIS, Al-Queda, and Hezbollah, and state actors, such as Iran, Turkey, Russia, the US, and NATO, to easily participate in the determining Syria’s fate.
Before social media apps like Twitter and Facebook, this would not have been possible. The protests that eventually led to Syrians picking up arms to defend themselves against the regime, would have been isolated. Before social media, protests would have remained fragmented, and isolated from one another. It wouldn’t be wrong to ascertain that social media enabled the escalation of the Syrian Civil War. Via social media, countless movements were organizing, advertised, and funded, and from there they met each other on battlefield, sometimes as friends, but also many times as enemies.
A good comparison in the case of Syria is 1982, and the Hama Uprising. The Hama Uprising ended with the Hama Massacre. From uprising to massacre, the event lasted 1 month. In 1982, the Syrian state government was the only source of media and news in Syria. It was, and still is, known as SANA ( the Syrian Arab News Agency ). Dictators know how essential and valuable it is to control, and monopolize it, the media. The current Syrian dictator, Bashar Assad, failed in monopolizing the media, because today’s media cannot be monopolized, a consequence of the internet. With that said, just as technology opened media, it will soon close it; dictators are spending big money worldwide on media surveillance and censorship technology, and free, western based tech firms are obliging their needs.
The founding fathers of the United States indoctrinated the free press into the 1st Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, upon its founding. They clearly felt that without it, the United States would could not and would not be a free, democratic country. Interestingly, they simultaneously indoctrinated freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and freedom to protest in the 1st Amendment. We only need to look at Syria to realize how lucky we are in the US to have the freedom to protest.
As Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets have proliferated, traditional media has lost its dominance. As traditional media (newspapers, television, and magazine) loses its dominance, outlets enabled by social media have formed to fill the void, to supply the demand. This is why we have conservative news, liberal news, news for gun supporters, news for gun control advocates, news for every possible opinion on any issue you can imagine.
When all these news sources compete for attention, competition becomes fierce. When it becomes competitive, it becomes ruthless, and when it becomes ruthless, news outlets attack each other, and suddenly you no longer have unbiased news. News becomes nothing more than an angle to sell advertisements, whether it be on Facebook, or on Fox and CNN.
This is ultimately why President Trump has found it easy to discredit certain news outlets, while giving credit to others. As a man made from advertising and marketing, he understands the power of biased news, and the masses who crave it.
Many have said President Trump is undermining the free press, like a dictator would. If this was the case, he would have been charged with treason by now, as the free press is a constitutional right; the president is sworn to defend and uphold the Constitution. He is not so much undermining the free press, as he is taking sides amongst the press. He is inserting himself into the ruthless competition that is the 24 hour news industry. This is not unconstitutional, but it may be just as bad.
In this piece at Pyschology Today, the author talks about what it takes to be a modern day dictator. There are of course, plenty of examples of dictators in today’s world. We’ve wrote about one them extensively, him being the premier of China, Xi Jinping. But there is also Russia’s Putin, Turkey’s Erdogan, and some would even say, our Trump.
Interestingly, the author of the Pyschology Today piece states that the first step toward becoming a dictator is to,
“Expand your power base through nepotism and corruption.”
The author places nepotism in the same breathe as corruption; they are related in many ways. The Webster’s Dictionary definition of nepotism is as follows:
“favoritism (as in appointment to a job) based on kinship.”
Collins, another online dictionary, defines nepotism as the,
“…unfair use of power in order to get jobs or other benefits for your family or friends”
Corruption, as defined by Webster, is…
“dishonest or illegal behavior especially by powerful people.”
In Collins, corruption is…
“dishonesty and illegal behavior by people in positions of authority or power.”
I wanted to give multiple definitions, from multiple sources, to compare and contrast them. From their definitions, it’s fairly easy to see how corruption and nepotism are related. They are related by the fact they are acts performed by people in power.
The “unfair use” of power implies that there are standards/norms on how power is used, and that those standards are violated in the act of corruption and/or nepotism. The “illegal behavior by people” in power implies the same thing, an act against lawful behavior. The rules that guide the use of power, are ultimately defined in the Constitution; other laws that are passed at other levels of government must never violate constitutional law.
We can infer from their definitions that corruption and nepotism serve each other in a way.
To be in power and surround yourself by people who owe a debt of favor or loyalty, would be a good way to cover-up corruption one intends to commit. Think of nepotism as a firewall that protects those committing corruption.
Chicago’s gangs have something called a “code of silence”; no gang member, or resident in a gang territory, can speak to the police about crimes or potential criminal activity, without first consulting gang leadership. Gangs in Chicago call themselves “fam”, short for family. The loyalty that is bred by instilling the notion of family into a gang and it’s neighborhood, breeds the nepotism that leads to the corruption and criminalization of an entire neighborhood. Loyalty breeds the very nepotism that ultimately is the firewall for criminal, corrupt activity.
Nepotism can also be thought of as bribery. A perfect example of nepotism as bribery would be the way city jobs and work contracts were once (and maybe still are to a lesser extent) handed out in Chicago. Dick Mell, a Chicago alderman and arguably the face of corrupt Chicago politics, is a perfect case study for how nepotism and corruption can proliferate and contaminate an entire city. As alderman of the 33rd Ward in Chicago from 1975 to 2013 (term limits anyone?), Mell,
“… has reaped the spoils of victory. Take city jobs. The alderman has. Hundreds of them, for members of his political organization and his family.”
The above quote is from a Chicago Tribune article titled, Lord of his Ward, from August of 1996. The article is a must read, extremely entertaining, and eye-opening. Dick Mell handed out jobs as bribes, a way of buying loyalty in politics. In the below excerpt from a Chicago Tribune article from 2013, the author explains why Deb Mell, Dick’s daughter, decided that city politics might be a better career choice than state:
“Denizens of another city might scratch their heads wondering why someone would trade a seat in the state legislature for one on a city council, as Deb Mell did to take over from her father, Richard Mell, longtime alderman of the 33rd Ward. But for Chicagoans, it’s akin to what the Declaration of Independence calls a self-evident truth: State reps get to add their two cents when proposed law is debated, but a Chicago alderman’s wink and nod has the force of law.”
The definition of denizens from Webster, in case you are wondering, is “inhabitants”. I’d like to thank the author for bringing that word to my vernacular.
The Mells, as I like to call them, are monarchy in Chicago politics, unfortunately. Ward bosses in Chicago were notorious for running their neighborhoods like mobsters. In addition to city jobs, ward bosses like Mell handed out city contracts for everything from sanitation to carpentry, all based on loyalty; loyalty is almost always paid for, and in Chicago city politics, it was bought with taxpayer money.
The Chicago Tribune refers to the ward system as…
“a system whose origins go back to the mid-19th century, an alderman decides all things big and small in her or her ward.”
The system of wards and ward bosses included discretion (authority) to choose who would be hired for everything from police to tree trimming and garbage pick-up. More famously in Chicago, liquor licenses were controlled, and handed out, by the alderman aka ward boss. You couldn’t open a bar in Chicago without having a liquor license, so in a way, bars were once ward outposts, where politics was conducted, paychecks handed out, and votes taken.
In the previously referenced 1996 Chicago Tribune article, we get the inside scoop on Dick Mell’s tactics as Chicago’s 31st Ward boss from a reporter embedded in the “Mell Machine”. In the beginning of the article, the reporter describes how he witnessed a campaign meeting at the VFW (stands for Veterans of Foreign Wars) in Dick Mell’s ward. There were about a 100 campaign workers there, but that day, Dick Mell wanted to single out one man: the assistant precinct captain.
If you’ve ever voted, you know what a precinct is. The country as a whole is divided into voting precincts. According to another Chicago Tribune article, there are 167,037 election precincts in the US.
According to Pauladamsmith.com, there are…
“50 wards in Chicago, with on average 40 precincts per ward”
Below, you can find a map of Chicago’s precincts. Clearly, there are a lot of them, about 2000.
The precinct captain is a very important position within the Chicago Democratic political machine. The Washington Post did a piece titled, The Changing Face of Chicago’s Precinct Politics back in February 24th, 1987. The article is something of a profile on a precinct captain named Wayne Derengowski. Wayne’s boss was none other than Richard (Dick) Mell, the boss/alderman of the 33rd Ward. The Washington Post states,
“Derengowski, a short, intense man of 33, is the top precinct captain in Mell’s near-northwest side ward. His job is to turn out the vote in today’s Democratic primary and on Election Day, April 7.”
If there was ever a magician that could give David Copperfield a run for his money, it would be Wayne Derengowski, as the following excerpt from the same article testifies:
“His record is somewhat legendary. In the 1980 general election, for example, 102 percent of the precinct’s registered voters cast ballots. Derengowski apparently achieved this feat legally.”
Of course, this would only be legal by 1987 Chicago standards. Even Dick Mell didn’t enter the extra 2% into the official tally, fearful Wayne might go to jail for voting dead people.
The Washington Post describes the role of the precinct captain in more direct, mater of fact, terms. From the Post,
“…a precinct captain was a powerful figure. He was “the connection” with City Hall, the dispenser of services and favors. He could see to it that garbage was picked up, trees trimmed, stop signs erected, traffic tickets fixed, real estate assessments adjusted.”
The precinct captain could have your real estate assessments adjusted, but surely, he could also have them raised. Just another way nepotism and bribery go hand in hand.
In today’s Chicago, with residents taxed to high heaven, many would welcome the return of property tax favors. But the fact is, today’s high taxes are largely a result of the corrupt way the city was run yesterday; they are the cost of corruption coming due.
The following excerpt from the Washington Post shows how important the position of precinct captain is in forming a pool of future candidates for Chicago politicians.
“Any captain who performed effectively could have a city job, for the asking, for himself and his assistants. It was a must stop on the ladder to success for any ambitious young politician.”
Another major issue caused by nepotism is that public service departments becomes politicized, and tribalized. The water department becomes one politician’s territory, while Waste Management belongs to another, and so on and so forth. The nightmare scenario this would present is if two departments, of opposite political affiliation, had to work together.
The Post tells a story that left me flabbergasted, a testament to the far reach tribalism, created by political nepotism, had. I quote,
“When a Washington [Mayor Harold Washington, mayor of Chicago at the time of this article] supporter in the Water Department found out he was a Mell foot soldier, Osborn said, he was transferred to an area where he had to walk a 60-mile inspection route each day. He now is awaiting a dismissal hearing.”
Osborne, in the above excerpt, was one of Wayne Derengowski’s assistants. He was a, “Mell foot soldier”. Dick Mell was not a fan of the late Mayor Harold Washington. Mayor Washington was Chicago’s first African American mayor, and Dick Mell, along with 28 other alderman known as the Vrdolyak 29, absolutely despised him.
The Vrdolyak 29 did all they could to sabotage Mayor Washington’s time in City Hall. The Council Wars, as they were known, were brutal, and racially charged, not unsimilar to the Republican attempts to sabotage Barack Obama’s presidency. The gridlock that came as a result in both cases was paid for by the public; very little productive policy was enacted. The Chicago Reader points out a specific obstruction scheme pulled off by Dick Mell and the Vrdolyak 29. They refused to let Mayor Washington issue city bonds to pay for repaving of Chicago streets and sidewalks that dated the Depression era. When the Chicago Reader asked Dick Mell why they were doing this, Dick Mell simply replied,
“There are some who believe that to get rid of Harold Washington is good government because we simply can’t take four more years of him. Maybe someone can make the case that, in the long run, two years of not having this [bond] is worth ten years of political stability in this city. It’s a legitimate position; arguably, not voting for this bond is in the best interest of this city.”
Interestingly enough, out of the 50 wards in Chicago, the 29 represented by the “Vrdolyak 29” were to receive a majority of the benefits from the repaving of the roads and sidewalks. They were primarily white, lower middle class wards. That didn’t matter; Dick Mell and the 29 did not want the Mayor pleasing white voters, for fear those voters might vote for him in the next election. Mayor Washington made it known that as a Black mayor, he wanted to reach out to white voters. But, quoting the Reader,
“Politically, the 29 felt attacked where they are most vulnerable: for Washington intended to use these revenues to contradict their contention that he is a mayor uninterested in the welfare of the white community.”
This is sectarianism, and tribalism at work. The 29 were threatened by Harold Washington, the leader of one constituency reaching out to another, and the 29 intended to squash him, even at the expense of the their constituents. It’s no wonder that the Wall Street Journal in 1984 said that, I quote,
“Chicago is no longer “the city that works,” the authors wrote; it is now “Beirut on the Lake”
The comparison to Beirut is a comparison to the sectarian wars that decimated Lebanon and Beirut in the 1980’s. The sects in Beirut were Sunni, Shiite, and Christian. In Chicago, the sects were racial, white and black.
What’s evident here is that sectarian warfare, whether it be political or physical war, can be imposed onto a relatively peaceful public, by leaders intent on divisive agenda.
It’s summed up well by the following quote, again from the Reader,
“Ask Richard Mell and he’ll tell you, he and his 28 cohorts, the radical Shiites of the city’s northwest and southwest sectors, a crazed sect of Vrdolyakers shooting at any program with Washington’s imprint on it and then rationalizing it as being in the best long-term interests of the city.”
In 2013, Dick Mell retired from the Chicago City Council, and the 33rd Ward. He left behind a legacy of nepotism and corruption that would make any machine politician proud. From a more A Chicago Reader article talks a bit about the legacy of Richard[Dick] Mell. Working forward in time, first, of course,
“…there were the Council Wars.”
We already talked about them already. The Council Wars exposed a racial divide in Chicago that took center stage thanks to an African American mayor in office. The battles between the Vrodolyk 29 and the remaining 21 alderman brought to the forefront Chicago’s unaddressed and unhealed history around racial inequality. Martin Luther King once wrote,
“We look back at 1966 as a year of beginnings and of transition. For those of us who came to Chicago from Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama … we found ourselves confronted by the hard realities of a social system in many ways more resistant to change than the rural South.”
The Council Wars that raged in City Hall between 1983 and 1987 showed that Chicago was also resistant to change when it came to an African American in positions of power.
When the mayor died of a heart attack in 1987, just after winning re-election, Richard Mell’s reaction was revealing of the kind of man he was. While the city grieved, Mell tried to garner council votes to get himself installed as the next mayor of Chicago. The Chicago Reader pointed to this as part of his legacy:
“… an audacious but failed [Eugene Sawyer was selected] campaign to make himself mayor when Washington died suddenly a few days after being reelected in 1987.”
In trying to get support from his fellow council members, Mell went so far as to offer payment in exchange for votes. From the Chicago Reader,
“Mell later admitted offering Alderman Larry Bloom a highly paid job at a prestigious law firm in return for his vote; Channel Nine reported that the offered salary was $200,000 a year.”
We will come back to this later; years later, someone related to Dick Mell would be imprisoned for just this type of “pay to play” scheme.
The mayor’s death was tragic, mostly because he had emerged victorious in several ways, and yet never got the chance to finally serve the city, unobstructed. In the Democratic primary, he defeated Jane Byrne, the candidate the Vrdoloyk 29 thought would dethrone him, and in the general election, he handily disposed of Ed Vrodolyk, running on the now defunct Solidarity Party ticket. Yes, that’s the same Vrodolyk who led the Vrodolyk 29. His loss in the 1987 election led to the end of the council wars, and the end of the Vrodolyk 29.
Later in Dick Mell’s career as alderman, the Chicago Reader adds that his legacy will also be defined by his,
“…triumphant campaign to elect his son-in-law, Rod Blagojevich, governor—and then his falling out with Blago.”
Rod Blagojevich is a bit of a legend in Chicago politics, for all the wrong reasons. Back in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected the President of the United States, Rod Blagojevich was the Governor of the State of Illinois. In a scheme known as Pay to Play, Blagojevich tried to sell the US senate seat that was being vacated by Barack Obama. He was recorded, by the FBI, making some pretty bold, and self-incriminating, statements. From Wikipedia,
“I’ve got this thing, and it’s f**king golden. I’m just not giving it up for f**king nothing.” He was also recorded as saying, “it’s a f**king valuable thing, you just don’t give it away for nothing”, and that “If I don’t get what I want … I’ll just take the Senate seat myself.”
“This thing” he refers to, is the senate seat. The US Constitution gives the governor of the state the right to fill a vacated senate seat. Blagojevich implies in the recording that he may have had precedence to do this kind of thing, saying,
“you just don’t give it away for nothing”.
Remember Dick Mell’s attempt to bribe Alderman Larry Bloom into voting for him as Harold Washington’s replacement? This very well may have been the precedent Blago was thinking of; instead of the payer, he was the payee, in the situation. Both cases involved vacant political office, where people other than public voters had control over who would fill the office, and in both cases, bribery was involved. No doubt, there is always precedence for corrupt behavior, but precedence does not make it any less unlawful.
So what did Blagojevich want from the person who wanted to be the next US senator from Illinois? A few things. Here’s a list from Wikipedia:
“Blagojevich allegedly sought the following in exchange for an appointment:
- A substantial salary for himself at either a non-profit foundation or an organization affiliated with labor unions.
- Placing his wife on paid corporate boards where he speculated she might garner as much as $150,000 a year.
- Promises of campaign funds—including cash up front.
- A Cabinet post or ambassadorship for himself to Serbia. ”
In reading this, it’s clear how closely related nepotism and corruption are. First thing we can garner is that labor unions still pay a major role in Chicago politics. The implication of Blago’s first request is that someone with union clout would be a good candidate to take over Obama’s senate seat.
Second, Blago wants his wife compensated in exchange for the Senate seat, which is pretty outrageous. This request implies that whoever will fill the senate seat will have close ties to Illinois based corporations. It also speaks to the dangers of nepotism; regardless of qualification, she is somehow owed a boardroom position. It’s undemocratic, uncapitalist. It’s against everything America stands for.
Third, cash. Of course, gotta throw in some cash.
Finally, and probably strangest of all, Blago wanted a spot for himself in Obama’s administration. The fact he thought this would be possible implies a certain boldness on Blago’s part. It also implies that local and state politics can filter its way up to the national level. The last thing we need is corrupt nepotism infiltrating national politics (not that it hasn’t already). Again, I can only assume that Blago felt there was precedence for this, somewhere in the history of the Chicago political machine.
Today, Blago is in jail, although him and his wife are petitioning President Trump for a pardon. Dick Mell would probably love to see his daughter get her husband back, but I doubt he’s eager to take an active role in making a pardon happen. In politics, scandal will send your friends running, and your family sprinting.
Every legacy is partially defined by what succeeds it, and the Chicago Reader points out that Dick Mell’s maneuvering to,
“…have himself succeeded on the council by his daughter, state rep Deb Mell…”
is exactly that, the final piece in securing the Dick Mell legacy.
It turns out Dick Mell’s maneuvering on behalf of his daughter Deb was successful. Deb Mell, as of 2013, is the 33rd Ward alderman. According to the Chicago Tribune,
“In large part, Deb Mell owes her appointment to replace him [Dick Mell] as 33rd Ward alderman to the political machine he created on the Northwest Side, the help he provided to get her elected to the General Assembly and the timing of his decision to retire from the City Council.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel was supposed to put an end to the political machine that Dick Mell was a large part of. When it came to choosing a replacement for Dick Mell’s aldermanship, it didn’t quite work out. Not that he didn’t try. In this July 9th, 2013 piece from DnaInfo, Mayor Rahm Emanuel,
“…praised the Democratic state representative and daughter of retiring Ald. Richard Mell (33rd), but said he was committed to a process to find a replacement with a “level of reform and commitment to public service,” just as he did in replacing Ald. Sandi Jackson (7th) with Natashia Holmes earlier this year.”
The process did not last long. Two weeks later, on July 24th, 2013, the Chicago Tribune announced the mayor nominated Deb Mell to succeed Dick in the 33rd Ward. The throne was successfully passed down. Nepotism in Chicago politics was alive and well. From the Chicago Reader:
“The word for that is nepotism, and of course Blago is in prison. And as Mell conceded all those many years ago, Chicago really did need its streets fixed. But all this . . . human imperfection enhances rather than diminishes Mell’s credentials as one of “Chicago’s political legends” (which the Tribune just called him).”
In a 1996, as we mentioned earlier, a must read Chicago Tribune article titled, Lord of His Ward, was published. It is a fascinating look at the ward boss Dick Mell in his element. In the article, he’s not shy in letting you, the reader, know how the “city works”. Dick Mell’s boldness is a sign that ward bosses, especially Dick Mell, were more or less invincible. The article tells of gang members putting out the vote for Mell. It tells of Mell’s monetization of liquor licenses, and lies told to residents about reducing the bar/tavern count in the ward; in reality, more liquor licenses were being sold by the alderman’s office, in exchange for campaign contributions. In that case, Dick Mell’s response was,
“So?” the alderman says. “One [residents complaining too many bars/taverns] has nothing to do with the other [sale of liquor licenses].”
Of course, that’s ridiculous. Every bar/tavern requires a liquor license to operate. What Mell didn’t want to talk about was the truth of the matter. From the Reader,
“Throughout his career, Mell has taken in tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from liquor licensees in his ward–even from one bar owner whom Mell frequently characterizes in public as a slum landlord.”
Campaign contributions trump all. From the local level, to the state and federal level, campaign finance reform would fix a lot of problems we know of, and a lot of problems we haven’t yet discovered. Unfortunately, it’s possible that the relationships built over decades between politicians and donors, now make reform impossible. That is to say, as long as the likes of Dick Mell can pass down the throne to his daughter, with the blessings of the mayor, reform will not be passed, as the old guard is still in power. No way Deb Mell would shoot the foot that got her in the door.
If all this is not proof enough of the corruption that nepotism causes, have a look at this headline from a Chicago Tribune article dated March of 2015. Deb Mell was up for re-election in 2015. She won the race, but in a way that harkens back to the days of Dick Mell. The challenger, Tim Meegan, sued, claiming dirty politics on the part of Deb Mell and the “Mell Political Machine”. The vote was extremely close; so close that it took 160 ballots that conveniently showed up after the polls had closed to make Deb victorious. She won 50.17% of the vote. Any less than 50%, and a run-off race would have been required between the top two vote getters, Deb Mell and Tim Meegan. Thanks to what the Chicago Tribune described as late arriving ballots, the run-off never happened. If I had to guess, I’d say somewhere in the 33rd Ward a precinct captain made a name for himself in that 2015 campaign.