June 18, 2012

"As our institutions decay, is our sense of right and wrong crumbling as well?"

I had several topics in mind for today's post, but then I read the lead-in (above) to Maureen Dowd's piece on our "moral dystopia" in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times. After reading the piece, I decided to urge everyone I know to read it.

Since I want you to read the full piece, I won't make a full summary here. I'll just say it begins with the trial Dowd is now covering: Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State football coach, is accused of sexually abusing young boys he was supposedly mentoring. Dowd's piece focuses on Mike McQueary, the former Penn State assistant coach who entered the school's locker room late one night glanced into the showers and saw Sandusky sodomizing a young child -- the "little boy who was never found, who was never even sought by Penn State officials." Rather than step forward to stop the rape, McQueary left to talk it over with his father and a family friend. In the morning, he reported what he saw to coach Joe Paterno. He then "went along with the mild reining in of Sandusky who continued his deviant ways."

"We've moved from a culture of character to a culture of personality."
That's a quote Dowd uses from James Davison Hunter, a professor at the University of Virginia and author                of The Death of Character. Here's another quote:
We used to experience morality as imperatives. The consequences of not doing the right thing were not only social but deeply emotional and psychological. We couldn't bear to live with ourselves. Now we experience morality more as a choice that we can always change as circumstances call for it. We tend to personalize our ideals. And what you end up with is a nation of ethical free agents.
And people like McQueary, who is suing Penn State for firing him, saying "I don't think I did anything wrong to lose this job." And people like John Edwards, who sees nothing wrong with thinking he could run for President of the United States while hiding his pregnant mistress from the public and his cancer-stricken wife.  Living in Washington DC, where it seems like half the city's leaders are either under indictment or investigation, I have plenty of local examples of public officials with moral dysopia.

But not all of our elected officials fail the character test. Dowd asked Newark mayor Cory Booker why he ignored his security team and ran into a burning house to save his neighbors. Here's part of his answer:
We have to fight the dangerous streams in culture, the consumerism and narcissism and me-ism that erode the borders of our moral culture. We can't put shallow celebrity before core decency. We have to have a deeper faith in the human spirit.
"With formerly hallowed institutions and icons sinking into a moral dystopia all around us," Dowd asks:
 Are we all in danger of becoming Mike McQueary?

My first reaction when finishing Dowd's piece was to find myself almost in tears as I contemplated the deterioration in our culture and politics during my lifetime. Then I realized that was the easy, self-indulgent     response. How about taking a look at your own life, Schappi, and see how much of Mike McQueary you find there?

Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa,  Mea Maxima Culpa
As you can see, I was raised Catholic. (I heard an interesting statistic last week: turns out I'm a member of the second largest religious denomination in the United States -- ex-Catholics.)

Once upon a time, I'd try to excuse many of my moral lapses by saying "that was when I was a practicing alcoholic." But I've been sober for 33 years now. I understand the wisdom and truth in what  my recovering alcoholic mentor Dusty told me at the outset: "Whatever character defects we displayed as drunks, we'll repeat while sober."

But I also like this alcoholic recovery slogan: "It's OK to look back. Just don't stare." So I try to acknowledge my past failings and learn from them. But not beat up on myself.

Lately, in my mindfulness meditations, I've been focusing on compassion; I worry that the mean-spiritedness I see all around me might be contagious. But Dowd's piece is a needed caveat that compassion for the failings of others doesn't mean you walk away from a kid being raped in the shower.

Serenity Prayer Time
Once again, I need to ask my Higher Power to grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, even when it's as horrific as the picture of that kid in the shower, with McQueary walking away. And I need to ask for the courage to intervene if I'm confronted with similar evil.

Meanwhile, I can contemplate this Father's Day  how lucky I am as a father and grandfather and great-grandfather to have the wonderful offspring I do. Even at my advanced age and with the moral morass all around (and inside?) me,  I still find myself at times spontaneously saying "I love my life!" Which is exactly what I said Saturday night about 6pm as I was sitting in the back of my garden, drinking coffee and gazing at this scene:


Nancy Sedmak-Weiss said...

John, Interesting, thought provoking piece. I have been pondering, and debating, the McQueary situation since it first came out. I think that McQueary's horrific failure was due to an age-old fear of the power structure. We continue to try to legislate a duty to step forward (legal ethics codes, Sarbanes-Oxley, etc.), and we should keep trying, but I think it takes outstanding courage to act in the face of superior power. That said, however, what is new, and what the players' union is helping us face, is that football is much more than just a game, it is very big business, and subject to the abuses that come with that.

I look forward to read what other people think.

Bill said...

 Your "mea culpa" reminded me of an experience some 22 years ago when a therapist said it was his belief that all of us always do the best we can. By this he meant that, at any given moment, whatever we did must have been the best we could do because if we could have done any better, we'd have done it.This "I am the best of all possible me's" could have come straight from the mouth of Dr. Pangloss and would have been comical had it not been urged as a serious, and even insightful, concept by someone with degrees from Duke and Yale. My reaction, then and now, was that it is profoundly wrong and is diametrically opposed to centuries of Western philosophy: That we always somehow fall short, that we can always -- and should strive to -- do better. My therapist's view, unfortunately, has become the dominant view, and provides no-fault absolution for every conceivable form of misbehavior -- certainly easier than a few Hail Marys or a Yom Kippur fast. And it has given the phonies on the religious right a rhetorical club with which to beat up (albeit  hypocritically) on the rest of us.

Larry said...

In his comments at the memorial service for victims of the Tucson shooting in January 2011, President Obama said, " We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that’s entirely up to us."  I think that is the compassion to which you were referring.  I try to remember that when I am feeling overwhelmed by the  news of the day.  

Carol said...

Part of me is willing to believe
that McQueary basically went into shock, unable to believe what he thought he
saw could actually be happening,  and only after he talked through the
episode with his father did he realize that there’s no other way to interpret
what he saw and took some steps to do something about it. That explanation
doesn’t really explain his defensiveness rather than heartbroken remorse at not
having intervened, though everyone reacts to guilt differently.


In any event, McQueary’s sins
can’t compare to Sandusky’s. Pedophilia is evil enough, but this guy’s in a
league of his own, the way he calculated to prey on the most vulnerable of kids
who’d be most accustomed to “putting up and shutting up” with abuse w/o any
compensation,  easiest to bribe into staying silent in exchange for some
payoff that no well-adjusted kid would need/accept, and least likely to be
believed if they did speak up. 


Then again, maybe Sandusky’s not
so unique. I guess the same can be said for most of the priests who preyed on
kids for decades, confident that no one would believe a man of God would commit
such a sin and even when if confronted with irrefutable evidence, they’d have
the complicit acceptance of a coverup  from higher-ups in the Catholic


Bill said...

 The real problem, as that conversation with the therapist now comes back to me, is that the Dr. Pangloss approach effectively forecloses further inquiry. I remember that my response to the therapist was that the issue wasn't guilt, but trying to determine how to "do the right thing." The only way to do that is to question one's prior behavior, and if you believe -- as I do -- that asking the right questions is the most important part, the real evil of Dr. Pangloss' approach is that it forecloses the inquiry. In a misguided effort to ease guilt, it ends the critical conversation. So it not only provides absolution for past sins, it grants license for the future ones, which is worse.

John said...

Thanks for all the thoughtful comments.  This sad story has come to a satisfactory conclusion in the trial but it will go on forever with the victims.