Men and Monsters

Imagine a couple of hypothetical scenarios. Both involve your spouse.

Say your husband telecommutes to an educational non-profit. He works from home about three weeks a month, and goes to the office for one week of meetings and other business functions. When at home you notice that he sometimes takes an afternoon off and has a cocktail while streaming a movie on Netflix. You ask if he should be doing this and he says probably not. But he adds, “when the cat’s away dot dot dot” and goes back to his movie. Do you call his boss and tell about his abuse of company time — he is getting paid full-time, after all? Or do you grin, bear it, and look for another opportunity to bring up his ill-formed work ethic?

Here’s the second hypothetical. Say your wife, who works for another non-profit, this one a county agency that places homeless families in government-assisted facilities, has figured out a way to embezzle funds from several budget lines in her agency. You are disappointed. When you discover that she is using the money to pay for a high-end collection of running gear that you thought was pretty pricey but decided not to inquire about because you are often accused of being a control freak, you become angry. But what do you do, after you confront her and she says she is sorry and will stop? Do you tell her boss and thus insure that she will lose her job, which will certainly hurt the family’s financial health? Do you report her to the civil authorities and risk seeing your wife going to jail? Or do you simply tell your session so that they can shepherd your wife to repentance?

The point of these scenarios is that when you are close to or love someone who does something wrong, you are likely not to get litigious and insist that the full force of the law be brought against your relative or friend. Instead, you will likely try to do anything to save your spouse from punishment and embarrassment. You may know that this is wrong. But the law is a cold instrument when it comes to loving someone and looking out for them. You may even be willing to let someone else be the bad cop rather than yourself. In the long run it may even help the relationship that you were not the snitch while your conscience is clear in not having to cover for your friend or relative.

Longtime readers of Old Life may likely see where this is going if they have been following the news about Penn State. Yesterday, the Louis Freeh report on the Sandusky scandal at Penn State came out. Philadelphia’s talk show hosts cannot shut up about it. Too good for ratings, not to mention more self-righteous posturing. But it has also been in the headlines of most radio news syndicates. The report is a big deal because it shows apparently that Joe Paterno, the man considered to be without a moral peer in the world of collegiate athletics, knew about Sandusky’s behavior and kept it from “authorities” (Freeh used this word frequently in his remarks before the press but did not define them — are they civil, political, religious, university, divine?).

I do not doubt that Joe Paterno did something here that was wrong — how wrong is a question that few in our culture of moral midgets are qualified to determine. I am even convinced that he committed other acts that were wrong. How his career should be regarded is hard to say since the public is involved in this process of regarding and right now JoePa’s stock has plummeted. Reputations are flimsy investments. Whether I am a moral cretin for not shouting from the mountain top that JoePa is desperately wicked may be debatable if readers take into account the scenarios above. I did not know Joe Paterno personally. But from what I did know, he was a hero, a friend, a commendable “authority,” someone to whom to be loyal. For this reason, I cannot look at JoePa only through the bright light of the law, or through harrowing thoughts about Sandusky’s victims. JoePa was admirable and a moral failing does not change all his other accomplishments.

Could it be that Sandusky was at one time also an admirable man? Could it be that JoePa esteemed Sandusky and did not want to see his friend suffer, even though he knew that what Sandusky was doing was wrong? Freeh’s report never considers this angle. In fact, a line from Freeh’s remarks to the press yesterday indicate what may be a glaring flaw in this report:

The evidence shows that Mr. Paterno was made aware of the 1998 investigation of Sandusky, followed it closely, but failed to take any action, even though Sandusky had been a key member of his coaching staff for almost 30 years, and had an office just steps away from Mr. Paterno’s.

The words, “even though,” suggest that Paterno should have taken action against Sandusky precisely because he had such a long association with him. It assumes, quite counter intuitively, that the closer you are to someone, the more inclined you will be to turn them in. Huh? What makes much more sense, at least on planet earth, as opposed to the moral laboratory that most commentators on this scandal inhabit, is that Paterno did not take any action precisely because he was so close to Sandusky. Maybe the report says a lot about the relationship between JoePa and Sandusky that would undermine this speculation. But Freeh’s remarks never seen to entertain this possibility. (Freeh even says in god-like fashion that Paterno and company did nothing to stop Sandusky. Was Freeh a fly on the wall in JoePa’s office, home, or local watering hole where the head coach may have pleaded with his assistant to stop playing around with boys? Was Freeh actually tailing JoePa with FBI agents long before he conducted this investigation?)

And one of the reasons why Freeh and others can’t fathom that JoePa may have had a close and fraternal bond with Sandusky is that for most Americans a pederast is not a human being but a monster. So it is unthinkable that anyone could ever like or love such a person. But if sin comes in all shapes and sizes, in persons lovable, smart, funny, intelligent, and even inspiring, then it is possible to imagine why JoePa may have acted the way he did. Heck, all of us who are married, have children, or come from families (which would be practically anyone reading this) knows what it is like to look away from a loved one’s foibles, failings, and sins, and “pick your battles.”

The Gloating Coalition?

The news of Jerry Sandusky’s conviction for child molestation has some Christians beating their breasts over their faith’s influence on western civilization. Joe Carter, one of TGC’s aggregators, has a quotation from a piece at the Catholic World Reporter that argues Sandusky would not have been found guilty in the ancient worlds of Greece or Rome:

If Sandusky would have lived 2000 years ago, he would not have been found guilty of anything. He would not even have been noticed. His actions would have been entirely unremarkable. There would have been no disgust, no anger. The verdict would have been innocent, and in fact, the notion that he was guilty of anything would have been unintelligible.

Carter jumps on the bandwagon:

For 2,000 years, the influence of Christ has had a profound—yet underestimated—influence on all aspects of Western culture. We often take for granted that without the “salt and light” of Christianity, behaviors that we consider disgusting and taboo would be accepted and commonplace. But what will happen if the influence of Christ and his followers continues to wane?

Discerning which is more remarkable here — the bad taste or the theological blunder — is difficult to say. Why would someone use this occasion to boast about the cultural effects of one’s faith? Why not show a little humility, mixed in with a dose of compassion for both Sandusky’s family, not to mention the victims (and their families), and back away from exploiting this story in the culture wars? Is this really going to persuade anyone on the other side or will it confirm the Religious Right’s reputation for self-congratulatory righteousness (and thus inspiring the faithful)?

At the same time, I thought the gospel was not about punishment for sin but forgiveness from its guilt and penalty. If the Gospel Coalition is going to stand up for the gospel, wouldn’t a fitting perspective here be to suggest that Christ might forgive even a sinner like Jerry Sandusky (if he repents and trusts in Christ)? But that kind of message doesn’t play so well in the culture wars where Christians invariably want more law and less forgiveness. Mind you, this is not a plea for anarchy or libertinism, not even a return to Rome or Athens. It is simply to show that the way of the gospel and the church’s ministry is distinct from the sword of the magistrate and the justice it wields.

This kind of historical credit-taking is downright unbecoming since it seems to attribute to Christianity (in a very whiggish way — how Roman Catholics go whiggy is another matter) all the blessings of modern society. To keep modern historical advances in perspective, a recent piece by Diedre N. McCloskey in The New Republic on happiness may bring these cultural warriors back down to a complicated earth. Here is an important excerpt that suggests Christianity did not give us all the benefits that some would have us think. The Enlightenment deserves a little credit (or blame depending on how you interpret the turn from otherworldliness to worldly preoccupations:

On a long view, understand, it is only recently that we have been guiltlessly obsessed with either pleasure or happiness. In secular traditions, such as the Greek or the Chinese, a pleasuring version of happiness is downplayed, at any rate in high theory, in favor of political or philosophical insight. The ancient Chinese sage Zhuangzi observed of some goldfish in a pond, “See how happy they are!” A companion replied, “How do you know they are happy?” Zhuangzi: “How do you know I don’t know?” In Christianity, for most of its history, the treasure, not pleasure, was to be stored up in heaven, not down here where thieves break in. After all, as a pre-eighteenth-century theologian would put it—or as a modern and mathematical economist would, too—an infinite afterlife was infinitely to be preferred to any finite pleasure attainable in earthly life.

The un-happiness doctrine made it seem pointless to attempt to abolish poverty or slavery or wife-beating. A coin given to the beggar rewarded the giver with a leg-up to heaven, a mitzvah, a hasanaat; but the ancient praise for charity implied no plan to adopt welfare programs or to grant rights of personal liberty or to favor a larger national income. A life of sitting by the West Gate with a bowl to beg was, after all, an infinitesimally small share of one’s life to come. Get used to it: For now and for the rest of your life down here, it’s your place in the great chain of being. Take up your cross, and quit whining. What does it matter how miserable you are in this life if you’ll get pie in the sky when you die? Such fatalism in many religions—“God willing,” we say, “im yirtzeh hashem,” “insh’Allah,” “deo volente”—precluded idle talk of earthly happiness.

Then, in the eighteenth century, our earthly happiness became important to us, in high intellectual fashion. By 1776, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was an unoriginal formulation of what we all, of course, now admitted that we chiefly wanted. John Locke had taught, in 1677, that “the business of men [is] to be happy in this world by the enjoyment of the things of nature subservient to life, health, ease, and pleasure”—though he added piously, “and by the comfortable [that is, comforting] hopes of another life when this is ended.” By 1738, the Comte de Mirabeau wrote to a friend, recommending simply, “[W]hat should be our only goal: happiness.”

“Our only goal.” To see how strange such a remark is, consider whether it could have been uttered by a leader of opinion in 1538. Martin Luther? Michelangelo? Charles V? No. They sought heavenly, artistic, or political glory—not something so domestic as happiness. Yet, in the late seventeenth century, even Anglican priests commenced preaching that God wanted us to be happy as much as holy. They called it “eudaemonism.” Anglicans and, astonishingly, some New England Congregationalists turned against the old, harsh, Augustinian-Calvinist line. We are not, declared the eudaemonists, mere sinners in the hands of an angry God, worms unworthy of grace. We are God’s beloved creatures, his pets.

The eudaemonistic turn was a Very Good Thing, resulting in fresh projects to better our stay here on Earth, some of them remarkably successful. Democracy was one, since, if you followed the fashion for universal happiness, it became impossible to go on insisting that what really mattered was the pleasure of the Duke or the Lord Bishop. Enlightened despots of the era claimed to seek the good of all, which paradoxically gave the populace the idea that maybe they themselves could do it.

Parallel with the stirrings of democracy and its accompanying welfarism, advocating for hospitals and free public education, was a new bourgeois dignity and liberty. Starting in Holland and England, and in the North American colonies of the English, the paired bourgeois revaluations combined to cause modern enrichment. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835 that “all the English colonies [in North America] at the time of their birth … seemed destined to present the development of … the bourgeois and democratic liberty of which the history of the world did not yet offer a complete model.” Or again about the first industrial nation: “Looking at the turn given to the human spirit in England by political life; seeing the Englishman … inspired by the sense that he can do anything. … I am in no hurry to inquire whether nature has scooped out ports for him, and given him coal and iron.”

The Day of Moral Perplexity Has Come for Angelo Cataldi

I had thought about entitling this post, “Predators All,” since the revelations of child molestation mount and mount. First it was the Roman Catholic Church, then Penn State, then Hollywood, and now comes word from several adults that Bill Conlin, a longtime baseball beat reporter for Philadelphia’s Daily News, molested them as children. This news cuts close to home for our dear moral blow hard, Angelo Cataldi, since Cataldi has hosted Conlin many times on the show to talk RBI’s and walks-hits-per-inning. Even closer to home, Angelo and Bill are neighbors during the summer when they occupy their beach houses in Sea Isle City, New Jersey.

Not that anyone living outside the Delaware Valley really cares about these Philadelphia media figures, but listening to the shows today (now that classes are over and grades are in) may be of interest to non-Philadelphians if only because of the tone that the various hosts have deployed to discuss this latest scandal. As clear as Angelo and others have been in condemning the alleged acts, the hosts have also exhibited a degree of anguish that was entirely lacking in the case of Joe Paterno. (One important difference is that Conlin yesterday resigned from his writing post, so no one can call for his job.)

On the one hand, all the talk show hosts looked up to Conlin as one of the best baseball minds in Philadelphia (a mind and voice that earned him the J. G. Taylor Spink Award this year for meritorious contributions to baseball writing). In other words, they knew him and could never have imagined that Conlin was capable of such behavior. Now, though, the moral wheels are grinding and different hosts are agonizing over the darkness of human nature, and wondering how much they need to be suspicious of anyone they know.

On the other hand, the hosts are not nearly so condemning of the adults who enabled Conlin (allegedly) to escape any charges for over forty years (and now the statute of limitations means that Conlin will not face criminal charges). No one is wondering who among Conlin’s editors knew about this. No one is blaming the parents of these children who did know (allegedly) of the molestation but did nothing because they did not want to hurt a friend and family member who was coming into his own as a reporter and columnist.

In other words, what is happening in the world of Philadelphia sports journalism is precisely what did not happen when news from Happy Valley arrived in Philadelphia. Instead of imagining how those close to Jerry Sandusky might have reacted to protect both a friend and an institution, Philadelphia journalists called for the figurative death penalty for everyone close to Sandusky.

It is a complicated world out there.

By the way, I keep wondering when the shoe is going to drop in all of these child molestation scandals. We live at a time when practically every form of sexual desire is tolerated; the institutions that promote some of those forms even wind up sponsoring sports talk radio. So why exactly, for instance, do these men who sometimes go to gentlemen’s clubs think that sex between an adult and a child is wicked and perverse? The obvious answer is consent. The children are subordinate to the predators and have no recourse. The flip side of this deduction is that consensual sex is fine, no matter how kinky.

What I don’t understand is how consent makes sex, no matter how perverse, okay. Is the desire of a man for a boy okay? Is it perverse and disgusting? Or does it only become twisted when carried out on a boy (who is incapable of giving consent)? Could it be that certain forms of sex are perverse, no matter whether the partners are consenting and no matter how “natural” either of the partner’s desire is? Could it even be that sex between a married woman and her single boss is also perverse no matter how consensual the sex or natural the adulterers’ desires are?

The reason for asking is to see if the moral sense that does regard child molestation as heinous might also be available to draw lines in other places. These other lines would and should apply as much to heterosexual as to homosexual forms of sexual desire. Ideally, the true form of consensual sex would be one where two people have consented to be each other’s sexual partner for life and to be responsible for rearing any offspring that proceed from their sexual relations.