Educating for Demoracy: A Lesson From Russia

I recently saw a foreign film that was one of the most outspoken about government corruption since the days of Frank Capra. Ironically titled "The Fool," the story line is pretty straight-forward. A young, idealistic plumber discovers that due to a structural flaw in a low-income housing project, it is in danger of imminent collapse which could result in the death or injury of its 800 inhabitants. What gives the film a special moral edge is that many of those living in what is actually slum housing are rejected alcoholics, abused wives, and rootless youth: the "nobodies" of an uncaring society. The film ends with the imminent disaster about to occur despite the efforts of "The Fool" to save the residents.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the film, however, is not just the unvarnished revelations of public corruption but that the movie was made by Russians! The film, directed by Yuri Bykov, made a sensational impression at the Locarno Festival where it received a number of honors including Best Screenplay. Whether it will ever be seen widely in Russia, however, is another matter. The level of corruption, from the mayor of the town in which the disaster is to take place through all of the major public officials under her thumb with implications of higher up complicity paints a dismal picture of an almost dysfunctional society, in which the 50-year-neglect of the building when funds allocated for its maintenance are pocketed by those responsible for its repair. Despite the heroic efforts of the young idealist, in which he risks everything: job, home, family and even his life, he fails in his efforts for no one in a position to do something is willing to risk his or her personal well-being by being held responsible for the disaster. An earlier film,directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, "Leviathan," a more direct attack on corruption in the Putin regime, is being censored by the Ministry of Culture which may well censor "The Fool," since it is critical of the status quo and should therefore have gotten no governmental support.

Although the film is specifically about corruption in the former Soviet Union, I feel that the lessons it teaches about the consequences of unchecked greed are applicable to many other countries, including, of course, the United States. A number of instances revealing the extent of government corruption have occurred within the last few months with the indictment of the former leader of the New York State Assembly, Sheldon Silver, and his counterpart in the State Senate, Dean Skelos along with Skelos' son. And as recently as today (July 25, 2015) State Senator John Sampson has been found guilty of obstruction of justice making him the second State lawmaker, Thomas Libous is another, convicted of a felony in the last week! Even Governor Cuomo is not above suspicion in the face of his cancelling the Moreland Commission, assigned to investigate government corruption. One can only shudder at the prospect of still more indictments of public officials in New York State as well as elsewhere.

As an educator, these issues present a moral dilemma: how can we who are entrusted with educating our children to be good citizens succeed if the democracy we live in is so compromised by felonious public office holders? Cynicism among the young can grow into nihilism in a society that not only tolerates corruption but regards it as part of "doing business as usual." Of course I'm not so naïve as to assume that in the past, from the beginnings of human society, there were not many instances of such behavior, especially when there was no alternative to the rule of the strong and the privileged. But in the past we had the luxury of time on our side to find the best methods of organizing society; now we no longer have that luxury since we face an existential threat.

Unless a serious effort is made to educate the public of the "facts" that face our planet in terms of environmental degradation and the need to consider radical changes in our life styles and the way we use our resources, this planet will rapidly run out of the `"stuff" needed to sustain human life. Serious water shortages in a number of locations such as California can be a harbinger of more potential disasters to come. In terms of education, what must be made clear to students is that along with certain rights and privileges come obligations to contribute to the public good. And the lesson from Russia, for all of us who are in a position to do so, is to educate the public to the need to recognize not only our rights but our obligations to future generations.

Democracy is not just a one-way street. It must try to serve those it governs the best way it can. "The Fool" knows this but unless the civic-minded are recognized as "The Wise," we are in danger of becoming a society run almost exclusively for the rich and privileged driven by its greed and thoughtlessness to accelerate the deterioration of the only planet we can inhabit. It is our structurally flawed society that desperately needs to recognize its danger before it comes crashing down.