I was talking to a friend of mine the other day when he mentioned his three year old son. “The other day he told me, 'daddy, I gotta get that money.' What I want to know is, how come my momma didn’t tell me this when I was his age?”
My friend is a devout Christian, who not only attends church regularly but is an active member of the congregation. His parents and his wife’s parents instilled in both of them practically from birth the tenets of the Golden Rule – "do unto others as they do unto you" – as well as a healthy respect for the laws of the land. Producing decent, well mannered adults who contributed to society and honored their family was the goal of their parents, of practically all our parents.
But my friend’s lament was a sentiment that at face value had me castigating him. "Your parents were right. And you need to keep taking that boy to Sunday school. Keep telling him why he needs to do the right thing even when it looks wrong. Otherwise you will be raising a sociopath."
I thought about this exchange while reading the umpteenth story about Goldman Sachs and their role in the off-the-books debt transaction for the nation of Greece that allowed the country to factually represent its finances as something they factually were not. I also thought about it while I examined the disconnect we all have from our childhoods when we become adults who often have to ignore those very same rules of decency and common courtesy in order to survive in modern life. When we work in places where the official guidelines are preached in public while "do what you have to do" is exhorted in private.
In case your memory has evaporated, the off the books transactions that Goldman Sachs devised for Greece are EXACTLY the same kind of transactions that caused Enron to implode and accounting giant Arthur Anderson to crumble into nothingness. If a rose by any other name is still a rose, then a crime by any other name, no matter how many dozens of corporate lawyers and lobbyists have been employed to rename it, rebrand it, reclassify it, or re-regulate it, is still a crime.
The dilemma my friend faces is not a theoretical one, but a problem that lies at the heart of the complicated value systems we actually live by as adults, where bad acts can become good acts for the right price, where morality is flexible, where history becomes a narrative not unlike that of a science fiction movie, where we can ignore what actually existed in favor of the special effects moments that wow us or make us feel good about the past.
Here in Georgia, a standardized test scandal has been revealed, but what is more telling is the jaded nonchalance the local community has exhibited upon finding out, as if we figured that this kind of thing had been going on all the time.
Are ideals passé?
Is moral ambiguity the new normal?
Can wrong be right because we say so, even when all other evidence points to the contrary?
The professor in Huntsville, Alabama who shot several people last week, killing three of her colleagues, was shown on the news last night repeating phrases over and over as if they were an incantatory spell – "it didn’t happen, they can’t be dead" – as if she was used to bending the facts to her own preconceived narrative, as if she was accustomed to saying one thing and doing another.
If we look at America’s collective psychological makeup, what is it that we really see?
Who are we, when we know without a doubt that we are willing to listen to grim little men in pinstriped suits from Wall Street, or Congress, or Corporation XYZ stand in front of TV cameras and tell us with the all of the false sincerity they can muster that "no laws were broken", that "they bear no responsibility, no culpability, and anyway, it was the clients own damn fault for listening to us without doing their homework"?
Who are we, when we see that the Huntsville Alabama professor was released after being arrested in the shooting death of her brother "by a phone call from the Chief of Police", when we know without a doubt that this kind of thing has happened, is happening, and will happen again, for those so privileged?
Who are we, who work so hard to support the very public and private institutions that allow some of us to bend wrong into right as easily as you might crook your index finger, that parse truth selectively an unequally, that disclose some facts and destroy others, that promote nice, neat, slanted narratives while discarding the jumble of events that actually occurred?
Are these the outcomes we deserve as a society if we continue to accept the garbage that passes for acceptable excuses; if we continue to turn a blind eye when privilege bends the laws, or simply pretends they don't exist; if we continue to manufacture exceptions for some while take exceptional measures against others?
I don’t really subscribe to the adage "money is the root of all evil", but when we applaud the success of sociopaths, and sociopathic behavior, whether it is exhibited by a mad woman in a college town whose rage against god knows what has resurfaced, or it is displayed by mad men on Wall Street so deceitful the Mafia should take tips from them on ruthlessness, we are doing nothing more than building our own hell right here on earth.