Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Practical Ethics

Let's review. The chair of the board of trustees of my alma mater, Colby College, was forced to step down as CEO of Barclays because of his role in the LIBOR rate-fixing scandal. A legendary college football coach was stripped of enough career wins to knock him from first to twelfth place on the all-time list because his image meant more to him than the most basic level of human decency. Twelve people died and almost sixty more were wounded because they went to the movies, and a congressman from Texas said it was essentially the result of not letting God into our lives.

I don't know Bob Diamond. I knew who he was, knew he was a rich and powerful banker, knew he was a Colby alum and benefactor and trustee -- in other words, one more among the many with whom I share the vague connection of having attended a fine liberal arts college, but that's where our similarities mostly end. As to Mr. Diamond's ultimate culpability, well, I suppose opinions will vary. I've read some of the texts and emails that, to absolutely no one's surprise, portray precisely the sort of culture we all tend to fear in the realm of highest finance: insider manipulation as a standard operating procedure. Mr. Diamond may not have been directly involved with either those individuals or their actions, but make no mistake: bankers know where their money comes from. Bob Diamond understood precisely the environment over which he presided. I have heard some suggest, essentially as a matter of what I'll call "practical ethics," that what these bankers were doing was, in the end, benign, that the only real benefit derived from these practices was the boosting of any given bank's prestige/image, and that neither significant monetary gains for the banks nor demonstrable losses to consumers were the result. You'll have to find an economist you trust to answer that question, it's far outside the scope of my understanding. What isn't beyond my comprehension, though, what should not be even remotely beyond any reasonable person's comprehension, is that these people were doing something fundamentally wrong. I don't subscribe to "practical ethics." I tend to apply a very simple standard, one you should feel free to try at home: picture the person in your life whose opinion of you matters most; now imagine telling that person what you just did; if, based on how well you know that person, you're confident he or she would be disappointed in you, well, what you did was wrong. Bob Diamond, think of your dear sweet granny: What would she think of this mess you've made? And while we're on the subject, Colby College, recipient of many millions of dollars from the questionable coffers of Mr. Diamond, what would your dear sweet granny say?

The NCAA this week came down hard on Penn State for the failures of leadership that allowed a serial pedophile to thrive for decades in their midst. The university will pay fines in the tens of millions, lose a significant number of scholarships over the next four years, and will not be eligible for either its conference championship or bowl games during that period. In addition, the NCAA stripped the football program of all wins and honors going back to 1998, which was when, at least as far as anyone knows, those in charge at Penn State, including Joe Paterno, knew of but chose to essentially cover up questionable behavior by Jerry Sandusky. Joe Paterno, in his last days as the coach, insisted he did everything he thought was proper: he relayed information about the allegations to his superiors, trusting that they would handle the matter responsibly. Based on a small handful of internal communications that have come to light since Paterno's death, it seems reasonable to conclude that Paterno's involvement in the handling of those allegations was nowhere near as hands-off as he claimed. And the only reason that came as a shock to so many is that, for decades, an awful lot of people believed Joe Paterno was a model citizen, that somehow the many-headed behemoth that is big-time college sports had not in all those years managed to darken the soul of that one man. In the last decade of his career, many called for Paterno to step away from the game: the quality of the teams he put on the field had diminished considerably, and there were many who thought the game had passed him by. I was firmly among those who maintained that Joe Paterno had more than earned the right to walk away when he chose and on his own terms, not simply because he had, for many years, presided over a successful, winning football program, but also because he appeared to represent a level of integrity all too rare in that realm that is fueled from every direction by vast sums of money. Money is a temptress, to be sure, but so is the prospect of becoming the sort of legend whose accomplishments are all but guaranteed not to be surpassed for generations. Paterno, it now seems to me, stuck around the game longer than he should have not because he believed he had something to offer college football, but because college football had something he could take and certainly not relinquish in his lifetime: the all-time wins record. Given his status and stature on the campus of Penn State, that record, in Joe Paterno's eyes, must have seemed attainable even as far back as 1998, the year he had to make a choice: protect current and future victims of Jerry Sandusky, or preserve a personal legacy. Make no mistake: there certainly is such a thing as bad press, and Joe Paterno wasn't willing to let such a specter fall upon his little fiefdom in Happy Valley. Here, perhaps, is another measure of ethics, although this one can only be applied in hindsight: when the end result is the worst of both worlds -- an untold number of young boys suffered, and the old coach was stripped of his accomplishments -- it's fair to say you did something very wrong. Sadly, finding out years later that you chose poorly isn't terribly instructive. Paterno did say, looking back, that he wished he'd done more. To that, I would say this: it's always easy to apologize after you've gotten caught, but when you do, it almost never sounds like the regret you feel is so much about the consequences for others as it is about the consequences, now, for you. Had you lived to see it, Joe, I bet you would have been really sorry to see yourself go from first all-time in wins to twelfth. Bummer for you, Joe. Would it make you feel better to know there are plenty of people out there, like former players Matt Millen and Franco Harris, who insist you've been mistreated?

I was visiting friends in Portland late last week, and I woke Friday morning on their couch to the sounds of the varmint patrol in the back yard, sizing up the potential squirrel and skunk risk. This, roughly, is what my friend told me after I sent him a squinty-eyed text from downstairs. Since I was awake anyway, I strolled out to the deck for a smoke, and my buddy joined me a few moments later. Almost the first words out of his mouth (after explaining away the varmint patrol) was something about a whack-job shooting up a movie theatre at one of the opening night midnight showings of The Dark Knight Rises. I was still groggy and so did not immediately process what he'd said. It sank in and I began asking questions, but at that point he had no real information. In the hours and days since, of course, a considerable amount of information poured forth. Twelve dead, fifty-eight wounded. The gunman tossed tear-gas canisters into the cinema, then sprayed the crowd with automatic weapon fire. Some were hit while trying to shield others. Afterward, the gunman was found sitting placidly beside his car in the parking lot and was arrested without significant incident. Police later discovered the gunman's apartment had been rigged with a variety of explosives, booby-traps designed to take even more lives.

What little we know about the gunman, James Holmes, tells us nothing of any lasting value, and there's no need to rehash any of it here. As is always the case when a random person does the unthinkable, we try to find out everything we can about that person's life -- his history, his habits, his makeup -- mostly because we want an answer to what is almost certainly an unanswerable question: why? There is, of course, another question that floats through all our minds, the answer to which we also hope to find in the portrait of this killer: do I know anyone like that? Is he my neighbor, or the guy who works at Staples, or one of the pointless drifters on Main Street? What, if anything, can you tell me about this guy that might help me recognize the next guy before I end up like one of the people who didn't walk out of that movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado last week?

I don't want to get into a lengthy discussion about guns, but I would like to say this: it is far too easy in this country for stupid people and crazy people to obtain not just guns but arsenals. If you are among the millions of people who read the Second Amendment and believe its intent is to make sure you're entitled to carry around a comparable arsenal, you're an idiot. That is not even close to what the framers had in mind, and if you had the vaguest sense of American history in general and Constitutional history in particular, you'd know that. James Holmes was able to acquire the assortment of overpowering weapons he carried into that theatre precisely because jackasses like you insist on maintaining your supposed right to have access to such things. If your ilk had any sort of collective conscience, incidents such as this one, or the Virginia Tech shootings, or Columbine, or take your pick, would make an impression on you. The fact that the only apparent impression this leaves on the likes of you leads to the assertion that one or two good gun-toting American in that theatre might well have neutralized that gunman indicates to me not only your lack of conscience but your lack of sense. You're despicable.

Amazingly, though, not as despicable as Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert, who in a radio interview after the shootings, in what I'll admit was a clumsy, haphazard way, seemed to suggest that an incident such as this is the price of not letting God into our lives. Gohmert has since attempted to distance himself from his comments, claiming, as people so often do, that the comments were taken way out of context. I read his comments last weekend, and just now I listened to the interview in which he made the comments, and I gotta say, Louie, I'm calling bullshit. You said it, you created your own context. Now, if you'd come out after the fact and said, "I didn't mean it, I was speaking off the cuff and wasn't prepared for that line of questioning," then okay. Except you can't say that, can you, Louie? No you can't, because you said exactly what you meant: that we have become a Godless society, and that means we've got some biblical reckoning coming to us. Never mind that this person, James Holmes, is clearly among the -- what? what would you say? tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands? -- among the very many people in this country whose delicate internal wiring is just feeble enough to turn them into an orange-haired, assault-rifle wielding mass-murderer. That's not God, Louie, that's insanity. I don't think a life of praying to Jesus would have kept this guy from turning the corner. Nor do I think prayer in public schools is going to eradicate the ills of society. You know what might help, though? Replacing empty rhetoric with meaningful discourse. In fact, I would go so far as to say part of our overarching problem is that there's a ridiculous number of people in this country who maintain that the only valid system of morality is belief in a book of fairy tales. When a Louie Gohmert asserts that his God's absence from the public life of America contributes in some way to the pain and suffering of victims of mass-murder, what he is saying, in effect, is that I'm responsible in some way for that pain and suffering because I'm firmly among those who neither believe in his God nor support the imposing of his beliefs on secular life. I don't want my daughter, in her public school, to be subjected to Louie Gohmert's God or Louie Gohmert's Good Book. My daughter doesn't go to church, nor does she subscribe to the particular teachings of that Good Book I just mentioned, and guess what, Louie? She still knows the difference between right and wrong. She possesses what I would call genuine moral fiber. How is that possible, right? Maybe we just got lucky.

You may be wondering what the point of all this might be. Perhaps I'm grasping, but as I thought about each of these events and their surrounding contexts, it occurred to me that they share a common thread: some rather disturbing takes on ethics. Bob Diamond was involved in what was, at the very least, shady dealings, and yet his money (because, of course, it's a great deal of money) is still good at Colby College. Joe Paterno cared not at all about the welfare of a bunch of kids from the wrong side of the tracks, and yet there are still those who dare to suggest that the dismantling of his legacy is unfair. Louie Gohmert stood on the backs of twelve murder victims to further his right-wing christian agenda, and legions of like-minded Americans stand behind him. Perspective certainly renders much in life subjective. But ethics is ethics. Someone show me the massive grey area I must be missing in any of these three conversations. Please. I just want to be a better person.