The Banality of Vile: The Jeff Cogen Story

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Jeff Cogen succumbed to depraved urges that stalked him. But maybe the best lesson here is not one pertaining to Cogen at all, but one regarding ourselves and the systems of power we create.

Cogen was chairman of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners until September 16th 2013. Cogen resigned after allegations of an affair with Sonia Manhas, a policy advisor for the Multnomah County Health Department. Subsequent revelations have created a furore of indignation. Has Cogen been using drugs other than alcohol, nicotine, caffeine or proscribed pharmaceuticals? Were public funds misappropriated? Were positions allocated for nepotistic reasons? Local media has veraciously devoured this sultry story with all the lurid pizzazz more often the purview of national outlets.

Cogen has stepped down from his position, and the Oregon Attorney General has dismissed the possibility of criminal charges for substance abuse, nepotism and misappropriation of funds on the grounds that the evidence is inconclusive. The entire event remains a morass of speculation. It is therefore spurious and difficult to comment. But that has never stopped the media

We live in a ‘freeish’ society, thus whenever the actions of the media are held up for critique it is essential to ask the question, what is ‘the media’? Our media companies are private organisations that generally aim at turning a profit for disgorging information. The media, in aggregate, must be viewed as the market manifestation of general social demands regarding information. Turns out, sex sells, even when the product is supposed to be news.

This is not an epiphany. It is rather one more example of something annoying. The same goes for outrage concerning the allegations.

Even if all the alleged crimes are taken as true, when looked at specifically in a greater context, they are trite. The contention that Cogen consumed marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy seem trivial. My views may be excessively liberal, but most of our politicians get drunk on the weekend. Interpersonal relationships always matter in gaining employment. And the allegations regarding misappropriation of funds are slight, at best. Cogen supposedly charged taxpayers $150 to transfer his hotel-room away from other committee members in order to facilitate meeting Manhas during a business trip. The more substantial allegation that $75,000 was allocated to the Multnomah County Food Initiative in a shady manner has been outright dispelled by budget inquests.

This is not to imply that I approve of the actions taken by Cogen, or disapprove of his forced resignation. I, rather, disprove of the voyeuristic and sensational social reaction to the events. This can best be discussed through the most sensational, yet least important part of this story: the affair. I am always mad when politicians cheat on their partners, but this is because it renders them incapable of achieving anything else. It becomes the story. It renders policy mute. I do not condone infidelity because I do not condone breaching trust in important interpersonal relationships. It does not bode well for the character of the person concerned. But there are mitigating factors to consider.

A study of 1,561 professionals, done by the Association of Physiological Science, shows a high (gender neutral) correlation between infidelity and power.[1] The conclusion forwarded is that humans desire monogamy, but also struggle with a compulsion towards infidelity. Power increases confidence and eases the attraction of possible partners. We should not be surprised that our politicians have affairs. Many of those outraged might very well do the same if put in a similar position.

Ultimately, sexual promiscuity on behalf of the powerful is simply one more piece of evidence suggesting that power corrupts. That individual actions and individual morality are rooted in context: most are capable of abhorrent behaviour if placed in the appropriate surroundings.

This is the lesson. We must construct our systems with the foreknowledge that those administering these systems will be corrupted by the power they hold. In this instance the infrastructure of accountability worked. Cogen is gone. But maybe we should hold our politicians that authorise extra-judicial assassinations, secretive spy programs, illegal wars and unsustainable financial practices to a similar standard to which we hold adulterers. Maybe we should leave Cogen alone and remember that he did some good things during his time as County Commissioner. To name a few, he oversaw the creation of a county farm for the Oregon Food Bank, the opening of the Gateway Center for Domestic Violence Services, a liberalisation of policy for immigration holds in Multnomah County jails and the creation of a Mental Health Crisis Assessment and Treatment Center. But fundamentally, maybe we should move on with our lives, stop reading news that simply titillates and get angry about something real.

[1] http://leeds-faculty.colorado.edu/mcgrawp/PDF/Lammers.Stoker.Jordan.Pollmann.Stapel.2011.pdf

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