If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.
Thursday 3 May 2012
天 高 皇帝 遠
tiān gāo huángdì yuǎn
heaven high emperor distant
“Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.”
A confluence of current events undergirds today’s hyper-marvelous and pithy but widely applicable epigraph (believed to have originated in the Yuan Dynasty [1260-1368]): we do what we think we can get away with because we believe neither heavenly nor earthly authority will find us out.
First, there has been much talk of late both here and in Mexico (¡ me pilló por sorpresa !) about some massive bribery scheme involving Walmart stores in that sunny land just south of our borders. The left hand of our government running ‘enforcement’ of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 (FCPA) in Washington is shocked, absolutely shocked, that there is bribery by Americans in foreign lands – while its right hand suddenly is utterly and completely unaware of the massive bribery operations in which the government itself so vigorously continues to engage: of course, we call that process ‘foreign aid’ and that apparently makes it just fine to pour hundreds of billions of taxpayer (that’s me and that’s you!) money into the bottomless coffers of foreign crooks, thugs, torturers, murderers, and all the other usual suspects.
Second, there has been much talk of late both here and in China about the shenanigans of a deeply corrupt neo-maoist Communist-party satrap by name of Bo Xilai in the city of Chongqing some 900 miles southwest of Shanghai. Along with his clan he has been operating at a level of patronage and self-enrichment that is too obscenely egregious even for the Central Politburo. This unusually (for China) transparent peek into life at the top as it’s really lived – jet junkets, Porsches, ‘girlfriends’, et cetera – while vast suffering roils the vast countryside has (so my ‘native informants’ tell me) utterly captivated the curiosity of China (see, for example, here) and made the powers that be … shall we say … uncomfortable, looking over their shoulders as it were …
Why did Bo Xilai (and no doubt countless other Communist satraps of high and low rank across the breadth and width of China – who have the sense to keep the proverbial low profile) and Gu Kailai — his wife, who apparently is under suspicion of murder — get involved in this frightful mess in which they now seem to be trapped like flies vainly wiggling in a spider’s sticky web? Why did/do executives of Walmart (and no doubt countless other American businesses – who have the street smarts to fly below the government’s selective radar) resort to immense foreign bribery? Why does the United States government?
If this were Greek tragedy, I would point to the ‘blind spot’ of madness and delusion that the goddess Ἄτη (Atē) lays on us as she accompanies us imperfect humans and facilitates our eager rush into personal doom. Does the fault lie within ourselves or in our stars? Just listen to Agamemnon (“What was I thinking?”) at Iliad 19.86-89 after he realizes his arrogant folly in having treated Achilles the way he did in the epic’s opening sequence:
ἐγὼ δ’ οὐκ αἴτιός εἰμι,
ἀλλὰ Ζεὺς καὶ Μοῖρα καὶ ἠεροφοῖτις Ἐρινύς,
οἵ τέ μοι εἰν ἀγορῇ φρεσὶν ἔμβαλον ἄγριον ἄτην,
ἤματι τῷ ὅτ’
egō d’ouk aitios eimi,
alla Zeus kai Moira kai ēerophoitis Erinys,
hoi te moi ein agorēi phresin embalon agrion atēn,
ēmati tōi hot’
I am not the one at fault,
but Zeus and Fate and dark-walking Fury
who put savage ruin in my thinking at the assembly
that day when …
But of course this is not Greek tragedy – just very consequential instances of every-day run-of-the-mill greed and corruption which various officials easily and foolishly slotted into their quotidian routines for the very simple reason that they could. Or thought that they could. Yes, these guys got caught, but what nano-percentage of the catch-able cohort are they – in China as well as in America?
Once in a while, then, it behooves all of us, individuals as well as collectives, to be mindful that while heaven may be high and the emperor far away, the emperor is not without his assiduous agents and heaven does – they say — have the last say.