The Art of Whistleblowing by Stephen Zelnick

The Unreal City

In “The Wasteland” (1921) T. S. Eliot imagines his London, post WWI:

  Unreal City,
  Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
  A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
  I had not thought death had undone so many.
  Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
  And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
  Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,…
   (ll. 60-67)

          Eliot’s city lacks energy and purpose; my city exhibits boundless energy encasing a rotting core. In morning traffic seethe the managers, professionals, service workers, and technicians, hastening to prey upon their neighbors. They serve a damaged social compact. At times, in unbidden glimpses, arises a phantom of guilt and shame. Long ago this was Herman Melville’s theme, but readers could not afford understanding “Bartleby, the Scrivener” without looking dead on at themselves.

          This essay is not a review of whistleblowing so much as a gathering of examples to inspire story-tellers. Our current art has turned inwards, tracking results of diseased social arrangements, left unexplored. The Victorian novel excelled at dramatizing the network of economic relations and their human costs. Dickens’ readers felt the pain resulting from misaligned social codes and lived experience. Fiction writers ascribed blighted emotional life to systemic unreality. Hard Times (1854) exposed a mad social science annexed to industrial aggression. Bleak House (1853) guides readers through London’s dark insanity, giving off sparks on every page, as in the minor figure of Mr. Vholes [see below].  Dickens gave us the Circumlocutions Office, statistics as stutterings, the Court of Chancery, the theory of Barnacles. Consider what follows, then, as a preliminary discussion of fiction suited to our crisis.

Ours is the age of the whistle-blower – of law officers oblivious to the damage they do, liars promoting products that kill their kind and degrade nature, soldiers disobeying orders, and so on. So far this drama has been enacted by the celebrated few – Ellsberg, “Deep-Throat”, Serpico, Silkwood, Manning, Snowden, and more recently Vindman and Troye. Look for these quiet riots against decency and order to be breaking out all around us


Media have made some famous; but most are unknown. In the 1960s
    ¿  Peter Buxton (US Health Service) exposed the Tuskegee syphilis experiments;
    ¿  John White, a junior Navy officer, released the Tonkin Gulf report;
    ¿  Perry Felwock publicized NSA surveillance; and,
    ¿  Ernest Fitzgerald revealed huge cost overruns in defense contacts.
A war economy invites whistleblowing, and with exposures come corporate counter-attacks by lawyers, armed with confidentiality agreements and thugs using physical intimidation, even murder.

After Vietnam, truth-tellers targeted the nuclear power industry, a toxic mix of profits, government largess, and plutonium vapors. Silkwood’s case was the most lurid but hardly alone.
      ¿  As early as 1976 the “GE Three” reported carelessness in GE nuclear plants;
      ¿  a decade later Ronald Goldstein exposed hazardous California plants (and flimsy protections for whistleblowers in industry-owned federal courts);
      ¿  In 1987 Roger Wensil reported on-the-job drug abuse in a plutonium plant;
      ¿  In 1988, Samuel Nunn revealed shoddy controls at Duke Power;
      ¿  In 1989, Joseph Macktal exposed poor controls at Halliburton; and
      ¿  In 1990, Vera English found herself on the wrong side of an employee confidentiality agreement while reporting GE nuclear contamination.
We may not recognize these stalwart guardians, who challenged corporate bosses, government, and the legal establishment. They lost their jobs, damaged their careers, faced physical intimidation at work and home, weathered legal assaults, yet made hard decisions and held their ground in the public interest.

Whistleblowers harried tobacco, pharmaceuticals, auto safety (Ralph Nader), air and water pollution, and the oil and chemical industries. Big Tobacco hired scientists and physicians to produce bogus reports. Big Pharma peddled dangerous drugs deploying false assurances of safety and effectiveness. Healthcare insurance perfected fraudulent billing. A rumbling began implicating fossil fuels with air pollution. Banking and finance flourished, bankrupting many and rousing a few insiders to cry foul.

After 9/11 government poured contracted tortured funds into Bush’s “War on Terrorism”, creating a free-for-all in military procurement and fraudulent accounting 
      ¿  Thomas Drake, a brilliant computer analyst, ended up employed at Radio Shack after reporting millions squandered in useless security software;
      ¿  The Iraq invasion produced reports exposing brutal treatment of civilians and of the captured enemy. We know of journalist Seymour Hersh, but not of Sergeant Frank Ford and Joe Darby who revealed the ugly work of contracted torture;
      ¿  John Kiriakou, a CIA operative revealed the use of water-boarding, and went to prison while those who tormented prisoners and hid the crime prospered.

We learned of fraud and corruption in healthcare, with Medicare abuse especially widespread:
      ¿  The nation’s largest healthcare firm_defrauded_Medicare, incurring corporate fines of $17B;
      ¿  Donald McLendon, a senior executive, along with thirty others, exposed the crime;_
      ¿  CEO Rick Scott, as punishment, now serves time as Florida’s junior Senator.
Most serious in that decade was abuse in the mortgage industry, and near fatal economic crisis.
      ¿  In 2006, Richard Bowen III attempted to alert Citicorp’s board that 60% of their mortgages were bad. He was fired. Robert Rubin, head of Citicorp, offered an apology.

Bush’s “War on Terrorism” produced the Patriot Act, empowering government to silence debate and restrict information. Information became “classified” to maintain national security. Obama went further, using the 1917 Espionage Act to criminalize the release of sensitive information and prevent exposing the torment of prisoners in Iraq (Abu Grab), rendition to foreign torture sites, and waterboarding.
      ¿  Manning revealed deadly military force used against civilians, including journalists;
      ¿  Snowden exposed the surveillance state, gathering evidence domestically without warrant;
      ¿  The “Panama Papers” uncovered vast corporate money laundering.
The Trump Administration, brazen and lawless, has invited waves of whistleblowing.
      ¿  Natalie Edwards, US Treasury officer, revealed Russia’s 2016 election tampering, involving_Maria Butina,_Rick Gates,_Paul Manafort, the Russian Embassy;
      ¿  “Anonymous” spot-lighted Trump’s extortion efforts against Ukraine.

          The cruelty of our criminal justice system is protested in street demonstrations and in journalism (Chris Hedges, Angela Davis, et. al.), but the code of silence among police, jailers, prosecutors, local judges, is rarely breached. This vast system assures the United States global leadership in incarceration, with vast numbers employed in projects that rob communities of hope and sanity. What goes on in the minds of these jailers, and what is the cost to their humanity? These interior dramas need imagining.

          My local paper, recently, ran an article, not especially featured, on whistleblowing in the police force:  “District Attorney’s Office moved to dismiss 14 criminal convictions they deemed tainted by San Jose police officers associated with bigoted social-media reports, the blogger who exposed them has published a new dispatch linking retired and active officers to extremist, transphobic, and Islamophobic posts.”  This low volume news signals what we can expect to notice erupting everywhere. The drama of seeing what has been made invisible, measuring the costs of saying something, and then exposing what is despicable is becoming widespread.


          High profile instances are the melting iceberg’s tip. Cars pour into the unreal city every workday conveying thousands who have discarded truth and honor. We participate, often unknowingly, in a broad conspiracy to chisel our neighbors, hoping to provide our families with what others have. We have been conditioned not to notice. A fair test would be to select an honored profession and see whether or not employees make their way by stealth, predation, and self-silencing.

          For example, we have known for decades that college admissions privilege the privileged -- legacy admissions for the progeny of esteemed alumni; children of wealthy donors; and now, the offspring of notables, who can arrange for test-takers, false records, and bogus letters of recommendation. However, behind the malefactors stand the administrators who let it happen -- admissions officers and staff – and higher-level officials. All of whom can tell themselves they serve a humane endeavor. Anthony Trollope excelled at exploring such mendacity in 19th C. church administration.

          Higher education is big business, raising tuitions each year and demanding increased state support. Faculty members are expensive, especially stars, famed for research or public personalities. In science and medicine, they bring research funding for lab space and equipment, and high-priced personnel. Landing a titan of research provides external funding, often counted in many millions of dollars. Hiring grandees is itself expensive and requires high-price recruiting experts. The University President officiates at convocations and in executive council, but the basketball coach, the Developments team, the science-tech recruitment officers and their stars, and the real-estate, banking, and politically connected Board Members run the show. Big players pay no attention to teaching; they answer to no one on social benefit. Some arrive in chauffeured luxury vehicles, dreaming of spread sheets, business connections, and increasing influence. They stopped reading and teaching long ago, or knowing anyone who does.

          By custom, the teaching corps is the heart of the enterprise, assisting each generation to become good citizens and worthy adults and developing professional abilities and attitudes. There would be no universities without students, even if now their main purpose is to keep the business solvent, amusing themselves in the most expensive away camp ever devised. Families would not assume ruinous debt if they did not believe college led to higher income and a better life. US education sustains the democratic dream, and having children first to college promises families respectability and wealth. Universities cultivate that musty narrative. Universities certify their own performance in educating the young. We expect students are admitted after demonstrating qualifications; they attend classes to enhance their skills; then, professors certify them for a degree … while the professoriate certifies itself under the watchful gaze of no one.

          Deans reserve budget for faculty who arrive with funding. Colleges allocate spending for highly skilled Developments Offices to raise cash to attract stars. To afford this, universities cut non-essential faculty. Transforming a workforce with specialized skills offers few opportunities for savings. The medieval labor structure -- master, journeymen, and apprentice -- serves. In this way, teaching undergraduates falls to irregular faculty (that is, full-time, “faculty” not on tenure track; part-time “faculty” hired by the course; and, lab-assistants and tutors, paid a stipend to support their graduate studies).

          This allows deans to operate within their shrinking allocation from the central treasury and relieves stellar faculty from the grinding work of teaching and evaluating undergraduates. Where possible, departments herd students into large lecture halls for faculty presentations, while close-order teaching – grading papers and running discussion sections – is passed along to graduate students. In some situations, second-line faculty serve as lead teachers, carrying heavy loads for a portion of the cost. Typically, they hold doctorates from institutions off the main track or in diminishing fields – useless fields like Philosophy, Political Science, Education Theory, History, Art History, Anthropology, Foreign Language, and English; rather than growth areas like Hotel/Motel Management, Health Records Management, and Criminal Justice. Wide-spread ignorance gushes from this “practical” compromise.

          Tenuous faculty (non-tenured) must demonstrate happy results teaching undergraduates, despite carrying outrageous teaching loads. The easiest way to manage certification is providing high grades for shoddy work. Universities now graduate many with perfect academic records (4.0 GPAs). Where a “C” grade had been honorable, B+ is now the norm. Outraged and anxious students report A- grades to the Chairman, Dean, or Affirmative Action panel for redress. Tenuous faculty cannot afford this exposure and so submit. In the science areas, many tutors and lab assistants are new to English and lack competence to explain lab procedures or basic mathematics. Undergraduates need this support, but negligence proves useful to research faculty for hiding lab assistants on research grant cost-sheets.


          In the medical care racket, a hospital aspirin costs several dollars, patient care networks time doctors for speed, and insurance agencies thrive by rejecting claims. Urban hospitals serving impoverished neighborhoods no longer count on a state subsidy that matches the costs of services. As state revenues dwindle, hospitals cover their costs with specialized care only the wealthy can afford. The costs of patching up gun-shot wounds or untended pregnancies has to be balanced by heart-transplant or brain aneurysm specialties, with investments in surgical teams and equipment and in costly sales campaigns in a highly competitive market. There is a premium in recommending surgery as often as possible and in attracting star surgeons to feature in advertising.

          Physicians are graded on cost efficiency. Their network tells them “we do not work for you, delivering you patients and providing an office and reduced insurance coverage; you work for us. We calculate your productivity each month and require you to appear for review. Spend more than 12 minutes per patient consultation, and we penalize you for exceeding the proscribed limit. If this is not satisfactory, you should look elsewhere for the business services you cannot do without.” Physicians must comply whether or not it serves the welfare of their customers/clients/patients.

          This paradigm isolates specialties, discouraging holistic approaches. You have hip pain and your problem is podiatric? We do knee surgery and handle hip pain that way. Diabetic? We like endocrine solutions and downplay diet and exercise. Deeply depressed? We have pills for that. Hospital systems attend to patient satisfaction and cost efficiencies. A marketing team designs leaflets to impress customers with the care they purchase, surveys patients after each visit to compile satisfaction scores, and calculates efficiencies to assure income output. At each stage, accountants and market researchers measure cost efficiency. The competition is excruciating, and falling behind spells extinction.

          COVID-19 has forced employees, normally working with direct access to online networks, to work from home. Call AT&T for customer assistance and you get some harassed “associate” at home, unequipped to meet your need. AT&T, your bank, and your credit card services are billion dollar operations; the pandemic has taught them new ways to force customers to work as employees by operating self-serve systems. With AT&T, customers search through a thicket of loosely interwoven web pages to service their needs. “Customer support” FAQs answer only the questions some programmer has foreseen and some algorithm has certified as sufficiently frequent. You may leave dissatisfied and indicate that on an exit survey, but the bills keep coming, and you have few alternatives in a near monopoly setting. System designers know the benefits of smiley faces and the savings from DIY sub-employment. Some clever conman writes the protocol when AT&T calls with the happy news that your modem is being replaced at double your monthly fee. Conmen sit in traffic devising new ways to fleece us. These emergency innovations will not be abandoned. Plagues provide opportunities.

          Just-In-Time Staffing: Benefits, Definitions, and Best Practices

          “With the growth of just-in-time staffing, HR leaders can now consider many shades of gray on the spectrum of how work is getting done in modern businesses. In particular, many organizations are benefiting from the flexibility and value of just-in-time staffing.” From eLearning Industry, December 2017.

          Some clever manager has made a career mark by mastering the algorithm that makes the “Just in Time” employment plan operable. The time management scheme allows mass employers, like supermarket chains and warehouse operations, to employ workers in response to predicted workflows, measured down to single days and even hours. In the new “gig economy”, this precision forces workers to be on call for partial shifts. They are contacted only a few days and sometimes a few hours before they are needed. Jobs with steady and dependable employment are now broken down into micro-shifts, paid at low wages, without benefits, and calculated to segments of hours.

          How does Kohl’s manage to offer low prices and slash-and-burn sales promotions? At times they seem to pay customers to haul goods away from their stores. Miss a payment, however, and you discover how less is more. The penalty charge is $27 dollars, and this aside from the interest assessed on continued balances. Some well-dressed bandit has calculated missed payments frequency for a clientele attracted to Kohl’s low prices and demonstrated how the back end of sales justifies prices too good to be true.


          Go-getters assailing the city’s ramparts include salesmen, urging us to purchase what we don’t need and can’t afford. The films “Glengarry, Glen Ross” by David Mamet (1992) and “The Boiler Room”, with Ben Affleck, give us a taste. Still, the hi-jinx of “Boiler room” seem quaint set against Wells Fargo crimes, involving millions of dollars and multiple tiers of corruption and cruelty.  In order to drum up business, Wells Fargo executives proposed enrolling its customer in lines of credit they never requested, imposing service charges and penalties for phantom cash advances. Executives commanded managers and they in turn their salesmen to encumber customers with false accounts. Promotions and job security provided the stomach-churning incentive. Once the scheme was discovered, salesmen paid the price while corporate masters were protected. Called before Congressional scrutiny, Wells Fargo’s CEO, John Stumpf, provided no explanation. Hundreds of employees knew what they were doing and the harm it caused customers in funds, time, and aggravation. Customer complaints disclosed the crime, and customers paid a heavy price. Stumpf suffered a fine, humiliation, and banishment from banking, but kept millions in earnings. Wells Fargo lumbers along its dusty trail as a power in banking and real estate.

          This nest of crime was minor compared to Wall Street’s mortgage scandal, which nearly collapsed the global economy, with criminality requiring the connivance of thousands. Mortgage mega-firms offered home ownership to families hungering for a home of their own. Salesmen, offering easy payment plans, advanced mortgages to borrowers who had no way to pay them. Mortgage firms, then, packaged bad debts with good and sold these poisoned debt sandwiches in financial markets at deceptive prices. When the ponderous scheme collapsed, it brought down investment houses, banks, and the debt insurance firms, along with the dreams of heavily indebted home-owners. Honorable people sounded the alarm, but top executives refused to act, silencing those trying to alert them. Honorable people were punished, along with hard-pressed salesmen and managers, while the federal government enlisted top executives, enriched by poisoned profits, to solve problems they created.

          Those cars conveying sales and marketing poets, finance and loan wizards, too clever calculators and dissemblers, sharp-tongue and obscene thugs in collection and re-possession, those tens of thousands of hyenas foraging for fresh kills, constitute a sizable portion of the unreal city’s workforce. If playwright David Mamet has it right, the suffering is not limited to their prey but extends to the operatives in “Glengarry Glen Ross”. Mamet is famous for his anger-drenched diatribes, filled with abuse and profanity. His characters trapped in a cockpit, claw mercilessly at one other, with violence directed at themselves as much as at competitors.

          Responding to a request to provide his name, the bully sent by the owners says to a salesman he is motivating: “Fuck you! That's my name! You know why, mister? You drove a Hyundai to get here. I drove an eighty-thousand dollar BMW. THAT'S my name. And your name is ‘you're wanting’. You can't play in the man's game, you can't close them - go home and tell your wife your troubles. Because only one thing counts in this life: Get them to sign on the line which is dotted. You hear me, [turning to the other salesmen] you fucking faggots?”

           Salesman Ricky Roma (Al Pacino in the film) explains his vision of life:
          “All train compartments smell vaguely of shit. It gets so you don't mind it. That's the worst thing that I can confess. You know how long it took me to get there? A long time. When you die you're going to regret the things you don't do. You think you're queer? I'm going to tell you something: we're all queer. And then what? If you think there is, go ahead, be that thing. Bad people go to hell? I don't think so. If you think you're a thief? So what? You get befuddled by a middle-class morality? Get shut of it. Shut it out. You cheat on your wife? You did it, live with it. You fuck little girls, so be it. There's an absolute morality? Maybe. You think that, act that way. A hell exists on earth? Yes. I won't live in it. That's me.”

          Mamet’s sales office resembles a circle of Dante’s Inferno, monsters chewing on one another’s brains maddened by their own self-contempt. Efforts to justify the damage they do their clients deforms them, and they attack their own. Like Dante, Mamet is a religious writer, depicting the brutality of the unreal city, the artist as whistle-blower, riveting our attention from the distractions that assure us it isn’t so.


          How pervasive is our descent into a world of each against all? Is the society uncovered by Mamet’s art, Congressional investigation, vivid journalism, and brave whistleblowers aberrant or normal? Something “those people” do, or most if not all do? Is the whistleblower’s drama only for Snowden, Vindman, and Troye, or for me and you? Who among us is not witness to and participant in systemic injustice? And when we ask, in quiet reflection, what we should do, what helps us act bravely and be ready to accept the price, who answers? This is a drama of the last days of empire.

          Henrik Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People” (1882) exposed the community compact that ties all into the weave of corruption known as reality. In that play, the medical officer assigned to the town’s new health spa discovers the waters are polluted and that illnesses reported in its early operations can be traced to bacteria in the town’s waters. Dr. Stockmann expects his discovery will be greeted with praise by the townspeople, but soon discovers the scandal will destroy the town’s economy. His idealism blinds him to the political impact of his discovery, and he is labelled “an enemy of the people” for speaking out to protect them from spreading disease. Ibsen uses the situation to unearth the compromises that bind the townspeople. The spa will produce income to provide for the poor, relieving the wealthy of that burden; small business will prosper from tourism; land values will increase; a sleepy town will find prominence and its denizens pride and the lift of progress. Dr. Stockmann’s exposure threatens to reveal a problem too costly to repair. He soon enough discovers the costs to himself and his family of telling the truth, arousing his neighbors’ hostility, including that of his brother, the town’s mayor.Ibsen spots social dynamics that now have become clear. Dr. Stockmann is a rational fellow devoted to science, but he covets fame for his discovery, even play-acting in comic fashion the grand gesture of rejecting public praise. Stockmann hopes his discovery will prove he is a better man than his celebrated brother. His motives muddy, he enters a tarnished alliance with local radicals, who hope to use the discovery against the established order. In exposing a dangerous fact, however, Dr. Stockmann breaks the code of solidarity with his townsmen. As his brother notes, the town benefits from “having a great common interest to unite us – an interest that is in an equally high degree the concern of every right-minded citizen.” But this egalitarianism is a fraud. The rebellious doctor has assaulted an ancient and hierarchical power structure, all matters benefitting large property owners and prominent families. His radical comrades peel away, once their interests are threatened. They stand for progress so long as it does not cost them their jobs and social standing. Dr. Stockmann’s rebellion threatens the remnants of a feudal order. Whistleblowing tears the weave of honored agreeableness and sets the community, with its illusory conventions, against the facts. The community is bound together by political alliances and commercial entanglements. What madman, wielding the truth and concern for the welfare of others, would presume to challenge them?

          Ibsen’s audience is receiving an education in the integuments of power that hold their world together. Liberals with bills to pay and social esteem to protect are enemies to the truth: “Do you want me to let myself be beaten off the field by public opinion and the compact majority and all that devilry? No, thank you! And what I want to do is so simple and clear and straightforward. I only want to drum into the heads of these curs the fact that the liberals are the most insidious enemies of freedom--that party programs strangle every young and vigorous truth--that considerations of expediency turn morality and justice upside down--and that they will end by making life here unbearable.”

          Some view Ibsen’s play as comedy -- Dr. Stockmann, the scientist, too blinded by idealism and pride to suspect the townspeople’s venality. However, Stockmann changes in the course of the play and refuses to buckle to his neighbors’ ridicule. Having discarded all obvious alliances – shopkeepers, politicians, press, bankers, investors, educators, and so on – Stockmann decides to enlist the idealism of the young, the anger of the poor, and the frustration of talented women in a project of education for the truth. The defenders of property, and the liberals who scheme to replace them, are bound in agreement that accumulating goods and garnering power is reality, even when it is poisonous.

          Dr. Stockmann, assisted by his wife and daughter, learns to act as a revolutionary. If there are no members of the establishment to build a future founded on truth, he will look elsewhere. When his wife points out that he cannot count on the dreamy idealism of the children of the well-to-do, Dr. Stockmann asks his young sons if they know any street urchins they might enlist for a new kind of schooling: “Don't you know any street urchins--regular ragamuffins--? … Bring me some specimens of them. I am going to experiment with curs, just for once; there may be some exceptional heads among them.” Where previously Dr. Stockmann had touted a Social Darwinist creed distinguishing the better bred from nature’s own, here he turns to the children of the disadvantaged, free from social conditioning, to build a better world. His daughter, recently dismissed for her enlightened views -- by a school mistress who shares her views but cannot say so -- bravely volunteers for the hard road of change.


          Corruption breeds behind the veil of service to the community. While the town’s residents believe they act for progress and the benefit of all, they serve the meanest and most backward among them and risk the health and sanity of the great many. In our unreal city, the school principal and those he leads know they serve a failed system, public health officers license infected properties and overlook the decay of water and sewer systems, county engineers certify unsafe roads and bridges, lobbied politicians and their staff overlook dangers to the public. Anand Giridharadas, in Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World (2018) revealed widespread use of public service to cover self-advancement. While Giridharadas focused on the great gifting foundations and celebrated individuals -- the right-wing Koch Brothers and liberal Bill Gates -- the pattern runs through the helping professions, which provide employment and a good living for practitioners while doing little to reach deep-rooted problems.

          We have traveled far since Ibsen’s day. We have now to ask about the strain placed upon a society when most if not all its activity is a sham and a danger; when healthcare and education, our food and water, the distractions that relieve our distress, are themselves a further deepening of our distress; when even the most dull among us has grown aware that the whole business is fraudulent, feeding the unreal city and turning us against ourselves and each other. This is the rot of empire, the softening spot on the melon, Joseph Conrad spoke of. “The woods are burning,” bellows Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, as clear-sighted in his madness as Oedipus and Lear.

          The critical moment begging to be dramatized occurs when the truth-teller faces the harsh consequences of whistleblowing. Living with destructive injustice, manipulation, and theft disguised as business as usual saps our vitality and erodes our moral stamina. As Rick Roma’s speech makes clear, you learn to live with it, but only at the cost of your conscience and sanity. The palliative is drink, drugs, sexual excess, luxury shopping, and ceaseless distractions – a recipe for madness for society and for each of us. Or awakened, we may reverse the hideous process by acknowledging and telling the truth at the cost of social isolation, dis-employment, and legal and physical harassment. The choice to speak out or remain silent and live with it is the drama of our times.


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