Crooked giving

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Crooked giving

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Indigenous tribes of the northwest coast of North America had a unique way of celebrating. Hosts would throw a decadent feast, offering endless amounts of food and drink as well as generous material gifts. Guests were freely welcome to accept their host’s generosity, no strings attached. All the host asked for in return for this gesture of magnanimity was praise for how wonderful and generous he was.

Such extravagant festivals persisted until the end of the 19th century, until Canada and the United States banned the practice. The festival, known as potlatch, was usually hosted by a tribal leader or elder who lavished his guests with fish, meat, furs and blankets. The gifts, called chinook by locals, enhanced the reputation and social standing of the host.

The wild money-squandering by Taekwang Industrial CEO Park Yeon-cha is in many ways a modern equivalent of the potlatch. Park benevolently emptied his vaults and wallets for lawmakers from all sides, giving out cash in local currency as well as in greenbacks, gift certificates and even footwear from his company. His goodwill showed no partiality to political affinity and exceeded expectations. He also “didn’t want anything in return” for his gifts - and legislators, governors, mayors and prosecutors were happily pampered. He was practically family to a former president’s brother.

The difference between the Native Americans and Park was that the latter was after more than higher social status. The businessman wanted to reap as much as he sowed. He is suspected to have raked in huge profits from securities because his friends in high places leaked information and twisted arms. He sought favors in tax probes and for his daughter seeking a political career. To Park, the “unconditional” gifts served as a kind of prepayment for future favors.

Corrupt barter of gifts is a common story in political arenas across the globe. The high-profile political scandal involving lobbyist and businessman Jack Abramoff in the George W. Bush administration led to convictions of White House officials, U.S. Congress representatives and aides. He lavished expensive gifts, meals and sports trips, defrauding Indian tribes seeking casino licenses. American law defines as bribery when someone spends more than $50 on a member of Congress.

The indigenous people of New Zealand, the Maori, believe the spiritual power of hau, the vital essence embodied in a person, can be transmitted through a gift. The spirit has a tendency to return to its origin so a gift links the provider and recipient. Because of this, discretion is advised when trading gifts, as exchanges can lead to relationships.

French philosopher Michel de Montaigne famously commented, “There is nothing more expensive than a free gift.”

High-profile legislators associated with the Park bribery scandal must have been either extremely naive or just plain ignorant to think the stack of cash bore no price.

The writer is an editorial writer of the Joongang Ilbo.

By Shin Ye-ri [shiny@joongang.co.kr]

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