“The fish rots from the head”

The phrase, “The fish rots from the head,” is sometimes used to express the idea that all problems in a company or country can be traced back to its leadership. The phrase suggests that corruption enters a country through its leaders, filters down to its citizens and, in some classic tragedies, even affects the environment. The example that immediately comes to mind is Agamemnon.

But does the phrase “The fish rots from the head” hold true in a republic like the United States, where all citizens have the right to vote?

Consider the following:

Not according to David Groman, a fish pathologist at Atlantic Veterinary College, which is part of the University of Prince Edward Island, in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Groman may not be the Quincy of fish (he’s not a forensic fish pathologist), but he does make it his business to know how and why fish die. Which means that he knows how and why fish rot.

Groman found time between his fish autopsies to comment on the rotting-fish metaphor. “I don’t know where that proverb comes from,” says Gromon. “But it’s a poor metaphor. And, I must say, it’s biologically incorrect. When a fish rots, the organs in the gut go first. If you can’t tell that a fish is rotting by the smell of it, you’ll sure know when you cut it open and everything pours out — when all the internal tissue loses its integrity and turns into liquid.”

Having learned about dead fish, the CDU next went looking for information about fresh fish: The call went to Richard Yokoyama, manager of Seattle’s famous Pike Place Fish Market, which has been in operation since 1930. “Before I buy a fish from one of our dealers, I always look at the belly,” says Yokoyama. “On a fish, that’s the first thing to go. That’s where all the action is — in the gut. If the belly is brown and the bones are breaking through the skin, I toss the fish out. It’s rotten.”

Source: Do Consultants Rot from the Head Down?

It’s common for citizens to berate their elected officials, but did they not elect them? Perhaps the corruption in American government and business–the “rot,” if you will–did not start with its leadership, but rather its citizens.

Most people equate “corruption” with greed, lust, and wrath. We rarely associate “corruption” with sloth–or, to use a more contemporary word, apathy. I think it’s fair to say that low voter turnout, voting based on emotion rather than reason, and failure or refusal to vote based on an informed decision are symptoms of apathy.

Conversely, it could be argued that candidates for positions of power (such as Senator and President) in the United States can not get elected without cooperating with the existing power elite, thus reinforcing the less optimistic view that the United States of America is a republic in theory and an oligarchy in practice. Many elections invite voters to decide between two individuals, neither of whom possess the character or experience demanded to effectively lead a state or nation. Would you rather vote for the unqualified candidate wearing an elephant on his lapel pin or the unqualified candidate wearing a donkey on his lapel pin?

In other words, the right to choose between the lesser of two evils is not equivalent to the right to choose between good and evil and should not be treated as such. Damage control is not the same as progress.

Consider another quote:

Quandary is, one doesn’t generally get the chance to wield political power without the ambition to actively seek it.

Source: Battlestar Galactica, Season 4 Episode 8 (“Sine Qua Non”)

It could also be argued that corruption does not originate with any one individual, but rather persists in all people: All people are inherently corrupt. Government is comprised of people elected by other people. Therefore, government is corrupt.

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