Beyond The Protest

As we all know, Colin Kaepernick has drawn the ire of thousands of people around the country for having the audacity to kneel during the National Anthem before football games because of what he sees as social injustice in this country. Lately, we are told, he has even received death threats, as have others who have followed his example; this underlines the fact that most people are more upset about the protest itself than they are about the injustices that the protest is designed to call to our attention.

That there are serious issues between the black communities and the police forces of many cities is beyond question. Recently a black man in Charlotte was shot because his car broke down and the police who arrived on the scene thought he had a gun (doesn’t everyone these days??). Countless other examples could be pointed out, including the recent shooting in Tulsa. And this suspicion and fear between the people and those paid to protect them is the root of the problem that Kaepernick’s protest is supposed to highlight.

It does appear, fortunately, that finally there is some movement beyond the protest itself to bring the two parties together for dialogue and an attempt at mutual understanding. Clearly, there are two sides to this issue, as there are to any complex problem. And the only way the problem will be solved, if indeed it can be solved, is if the parties who fear one another come together to present each other with their legitimate (or illegitimate) complaints  — Donald Trump’s mindless stop-and-frisk suggestion to the contrary notwithstanding.

As has been well said, we do not need fences to keep us apart; we need bridges to bring us together. Above all else, we need to bring the fear out into the open and try to understand the grounds for it and determine whether or not there is a way to uproot it and replace it with trust. This will not happen unless the two sides, in this case, come together and talk.

I never thought much of Kaepernick’s gesture in itself. It is disrespectful of our flag and this is insulting to a great many people. But as a symbol I thought it praiseworthy. If, as appears to be the case, it has made real dialogue possible then we could defend the protest not only on the grounds of the First Amendment, but also on the grounds that it has opened lines of communication that appeared to have been blocked by unreasonable fear and distrust. There would, then, be two reasons to applaud Kaepernick’s actions — as well as that of the other athletes who have had the courage to demonstrate with him.

Too often in the past athletes have refused to get involved in social issues when they are in an excellent position to speak out and act with courage. I will not attempt to speculate about the motives that have kept people like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods silent in the past, but it is good to see that others are willing to stand up (or kneel down) in the face of serious social issues that affect us all. And Jordan is finally putting his money where his mouth should have been all this time.

The heart and soul of moral responsibility is that those who are in a position to effect change act and not remain silent. Kaepernick has shown great courage in taking this step. Let us hope this leads to real solutions and that those who would pillory the man turn their attention away from the protest itself and reflect on the actions that have brought that protest about.

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Personality vs. Character

I’m reading Christopher Lasch’s book The Minimal Self again in which he analyses with penetrating scrutiny the sickness that pervades today’s consumer society. It is a society, Lasch insists, that puts a premium on appearance over reality, resulting from the fact that advertisers have convinced us that it is only appearance that matters. We “upgrade” when what we are using is no longer in fashion, whether or not it still works. Indeed, he says, it’s not about how the thing works anyway. It’s about how our owning it will appear to others. We must have the latest because our friends will think less of us off we don’t. (Oh, and by the way, make sure to leave your trailer home standing prominently next to your house so folks will know you have one!)

Lasch knows better than anyone that the reduction of the “minimal self,” which  we are fixated on, does not translate into the need to build better character; rather it translates into molding our own appearance so we will be attractive to others. In today’s parlance, he might say, it’s all about how many “likes” we get on social media. Regarding the cult of personality, Lasch notes the following important difference:

“Since [a person] will be judged, both by his colleagues and superiors at work and by the strangers he encounters on the street, according to his possessions, his clothes, and his ‘personality’ –not, as in the nineteenth century, by his ‘character’ –he adopts a theatrical view of his own ‘performance’ on and off the job. . . .. the conditions of everyday social intercourse, in societies based on mass production and mass consumption, encourage an unprecedented attention to superficial impressions and images, to the point where the self becomes almost indistinguishable from its surface.’

Indeed, it was Martin Luther King, Jr. in my memory who was the last to speak not only about the “moral high ground” but also about judging men and women by the “content of their character.” We don’t talk much about character any more (or about the moral high ground for that matter). We don’t seem to care about what sort of person, say, an athlete happens to be. If Tiger Woods is a womanizer and behaves like a wild animal on the golf course we care not a whit as long as he can hit his drive over 300 yards and beat the opposition. Though, in saying this, it must also be noted that in our racist age it is interesting that a black man can be so popular in a world otherwise peopled by wealthy white men who play a game at posh golf courses. That, in itself, may be a good thing.

In any event, the switch from a concern with the kind of people we are to the concern with how we appear to others is based on our consumer culture, according to Lasch, and results in a superficial view of the world — indeed a view filtered through a lens that is focused primarily on the shallow self and how what we do will impress others. We want them to “like” us, whether they like us for the right reasons or not. The “minimal self” is still the focus of our attention, but it is not focused on the deeper self that is formed in the real world meeting both success and failure, growing by way of occasional suffering and struggle. This is a self that can only be found by looking elsewhere. Instead we find a shallow self that purchases goods on the basis of their popularity (“It’s a terrific shirt, sir. Everyone is wearing them today.”) and presents itself as something to be bought on the same basis, a self that cares only about how many friends it has on Facebook.

A Tragic Tiger?

Aristotle wrote the book on tragedy. Well, actually, he wrote a short treatise he called “Poetics” in which he sought to define and describe tragic drama. In that treatise he described the tragic hero in careful terms. The hero must fall from great heights — like Oedipus who was a King of Thebes who ended up blind and poor. Indeed, it was probably Sophocles’ play that Aristotle had in mind as the paradigm of Greek tragedy. But the hero must fall due to a “tragic flaw,” what the Greeks termed “hubris,” or overweening pride. Not pride as such — that was OK. After all, every Greek should take pride in the fact that he is a Greek and not a barbarian — a term they invented to describe people whose language they couldn’t understand and which sounded to their ears like the bleating of sheep.

In these regards, one might argue that Tiger Woods is a tragic hero in Aristotle’s scheme. He fell from great heights — from the #1 player in the world to something around #286 at present, playing badly, unable to make the cut at the last three major tournaments. His tragic flaw may well be his overweening pride, indeed his conceit. He still thinks he can regain the #1 spot in the world and refuses to allow that there are better players out there. To listen to him is to hear the words of a deluded man who still thinks he is the man he was years ago. It just ain’t so.

Tiger’s demise may be sad, but it is not tragic. It’s pathos, as the Greeks would say, not tragedy. Not to Aristotle’s way of thinking. The philosopher was convinced that in addition to the features mentioned above the hero must be a noble man. Now he may have been thinking of Kings, like Oedipus, but scholars usually insist that his word “noble” must be taken in a much broader sense. But no matter how much we broaden it — even if we broaden it enough to drive a bus through it — by no stretch of the imagination can Tiger Woods be regarded as a noble man. He is anything but. He is a spoiled, self-centered, delusional athlete whose best days are behind him and who, like many athletes, simply will not admit that a new day has dawned.

Thus, Tiger Woods is not a tragic hero. Indeed, one might argue that he is not a hero in any sense of that term. He is simply a sad case of a man who was spoiled by his parents, became convinced he could walk on water — because that’s what he was told over and over — and discovered that even when frozen the water was too thin to hold his weight.

Enough Already!

I write this a few hours after Tiger Woods was forced once again to withdraw from a golf tournament because of pains in his lower back. Indeed, we have been given a detailed description of Tiger’s problems, including the fact that his “glutes” tightened up because fog delayed his tee time and he hadn’t had time to warm up properly when he had to actually hit his first shot — something the producers thought America needed to know. I suppose if those producers discovered what brand of deodorant the man uses they would determine that this is something America needs to know as well. Anyway, the whole withdrawal thing has been covered ad nauseam in the public media since the moment it occurred, including uninterrupted coverage on the Golf Channel of his long trip from the golf course via golf cart, his change of shoes, a closeup of his woebegone expression full of self-pity, to his eventual disappearance in his expensive rental car — the hell with the golf tournament and the fact that the rest of the players were still on the course! It does make one wonder.

After Tiger failed to make the cut in his last tournament, turning in a score that would suggest he was a moderately good amateur club player, the TV airways have been filled with endless analyses of his golfing problems, which focus on the fact that he has lost confidence in his stroke and is worrying too much about the mechanics of the game, etc. etc. To which I say two things: (1) Enough already! The man is over the hill and there are other good golfers out there who deserve a little TV time, and (2) Tiger’s problems have nothing whatever to do with his golf swing. They have to do with his utter confusion about just who the hell he is.

Tiger Woods is the reductio ad absurdum of the self-esteem movement that has swept the country and dominates our schools. He has been told since he was old enough to swing a golf club (on national TV at an age when most kids are still sucking their thumbs) that he is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Growing up he became convinced by doting parents and an adoring public that he could walk on water. After seeming to fulfill the hopes and expectations of all and sundry by winning stacks of golf tournaments while making an obscene amount of money, marrying a beautiful wife and having two lovely children, he was discovered to be an inveterate adulterer. His wife found out about his infidelities and chased him out of the house with one of his golf clubs (reportedly). Then came his total humiliation, including a very public divorce and a stay in a rehab center where he was supposed to learn how to keep it in his pants, after which he tried to come back to the golf course and win a few more major tournaments. It didn’t happen. He actually won a few minor tournaments, but it was clear that he was a shadow of his former golfing self. Why were we surprised? His self-concept had been shattered. He suddenly found himself up to his ears in the very water he had been told for years he could walk upon.

Though, doubtless, there are some who watch to see if Tiger still has some of the magic that made him one of the best golfers ever, I suspect that much of the golfing public continued to follow him with something akin to morbid curiosity: after all, how often does one get to watch the gradual meltdown of a major star, a superb athlete who could no longer “bring it” the way he had done for years? But those “fans” are like buzzards picking at the innards of a dead carcass; thanks to the entertainment industry the sporting pubic has been fascinated by the man’s demise, refusing to just let it go. Enough already! Let the poor man try to put his self back together, if he can — though a good psychiatrist would be more to the point than another swing coach. But, in the end, we assuredly can learn a valuable lesson from his fall from on high.

As I say, though an immensely talented athlete, he is a prototype of the spoiled child who has been told all his life he was exceptional. Reeking with self-esteem, he suddenly learned he had feet of clay. His sense of who he is has been severely damaged and no amount of stroke correction and no change in coaches can repair the damage that was done by doting parents and an adoring public who apparently never let him learn about failure. He is today a tattered shell of his former self, complete with numerous physical problems to go with a middling golf game. Just listen to his press conferences and read his body language!

Thus, those who think that we do our kids a favor by telling them how terrific they are until they feel entitled to have whatever they want should take a long look at Tiger Woods and reflect on the damage we can do to young people when we lead them to think they are superior beings and forget to remind them from time to time that, like everyone else, they are flawed. We need to let our kids fail so they can learn how to deal with failure. And we need to reserve our praise for those moments when they actually accomplish something noteworthy. Otherwise, they might fall from the heights we place them upon — like Tiger Woods.

Racism and Fried Chicken

You may (of may not) have heard about the brew-ha-ha between the professional golfers Sergio Garcia and Tiger Woods. They don’t like each other. That much is clear. After Tiger recently won the Players Championship Garcia complained that Woods had made noise drawing a club from his bag during Sergio’s back-swing — as he was about to hit his drive. Woods later said the Marshalls had told him Garcia had finished his stroke, though the Marshalls later denied having said anything (indeed, why should they say anything?). In any event, Woods complained that Garcia was “whining,” and when later asked if he had given any thought to picking up the phone and suggesting to Sergio that the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot and they should have done with petty quarrels. Woods simply said, “No.” Soon after, Garcia was asked if he was going to have dinner with Woods and the following exchange took place that is now causing a bit of a storm:

COMMENTARY | Sergio Garcia crossed a line Monday he never should have toed.

At the European Tour’s annual gala dinner ahead of its flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship in England, Garcia responded to a question asking if he would have dinner with Tiger Woods at next month’s U.S. Open at Merion.

His reply, according to The Guardian: “We will have him round every night. We will serve fried chicken.”

The comment about “fried chicken” is universally regarded as racist, since it alludes to the preference for fried chicken that is stereotypically associated with African-Americans. Fuzzy Zoeller, a lesser player than Garcia, had made a similar comment in 1997 following the Masters Tournament and is still apologizing for it. It is hard to live such a thing down, and Sergio is now busy attempting to back-track, though one suspects we have not heard the last of it. The media will keep it alive as long as possible — perhaps even longer!

But it is hard to like Tiger Woods, despite the fact that he is perhaps the greatest golfer who has ever played the game. His life is an embarrassment, given his sexual preference for a variety of women other than the one he happened to be married to — who also happens to be the mother of his children. All signs suggest that he is a typical self-absorbed American athlete who cares about nothing but himself. He lives the grand life-style so many Americans identify with success and would love to emulate; this may explain his immense popularity, though, here again, we must wonder how people are able to separate the man’s wealth and athletic ability from his character and adulate a man whose every action suggests a dwarfed consciousness limited to self with little or no awareness, much less concern, for his fellow humans. His psychic makeup may be explained, I suppose, by his doting father and mother while an only child growing up and the attention that has been heaped on him subsequently — not to mention the millions of dollars he rakes in each year with his putter and his winning smile. But, again, America’s fascination with this man, who appears almost daily on sports shows even when he is playing badly, defies adequate explanation. In fact, America’s ability to separate an athlete’s on-field behavior from his off-field shenanigans and indiscretions does give one pause. Here again we come back to what makes a person worth admiring: do we really forgive a man or a woman anything if he or she happens to be good at hitting a ball, skiing downhill at breakneck speeds, or dodging would-be tacklers? It appears we do.

In any event, I’m not black, but I like fried chicken and would be happy to join Sergio for a meal. However, I have no desire whatever to sit down to a meal or even a casual chat with Tiger Woods. I don’t like what the man is even though I admire what he can do with a golf club. And it has nothing whatever to do with his race: it’s because of something Martin Luther King spoke about long ago; namely, “the content of his character.”

Sweat Shops

I must confess I thought the whole sweat shop thing had been long since eradicated. But not so — not in Jakarta any way. A recent story  gives us some of the disquieting details of the treatment workers receive on a daily basis while making 50 cents an hour for a shoe company that is reportedly worth $49 billion and spends $3.2 billion in sports endorsements alone:

They’re one of the world’s top sports clothing brands, but for years Nike have been dogged by allegations of sweatshops and child labor.

Now workers making Nike’s Converse shoes at a factory in Indonesia say they are being physically and mentally abused.

Workers at the Sukabumi plant, about 60 miles from Jakarta, say supervisors frequently throw shoes at them, slap them in the face, kick them and call them dogs and pigs. . . .

At the PT Amara Footwear factory located just outside Jakarta, where another Taiwanese contractor makes Converse shoes, a supervisor ordered six female workers to stand in the blazing sun after they failed to meet their target of completing 60 dozen pairs of shoes on time. “They were crying and allowed to continue their job only after two hours under the sun,” said Ujang Suhendi, 47, a worker at a warehouse in the factory.

The deeply unsettling thing about the story is not so much the description of the treatment of those workers — though that is certainly enough to disturb the sleep of any sensitive person. But what about the fact that none of the athletes who endorse Nike shoes for millions of dollars has spoken out about the abuses? One might argue that they don’t know, but ignorance is not an excuse when you are getting the kind of money these people are getting to endorse a pair of shoes that Moms in the ghetto have to shell out $200.00 for so their sons or daughters can keep up with the neighbor kids.

I note such names as Hope Solo, goal keeper for the American soccer team, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Michael Jordan, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Michelle Wee — you know, the big names in sports. None of these people has said a word and Jordan, for one, has been with Nike since before Noah filled his ark with all those noisy, smelly animals. It does make one wonder why we adulate these people — because they excel at a sport, I suppose; certainly not because they have exemplary character. In fact, as I have noted in previous blogs, we don’t admire people for the “content of their character,” as Martin Luther King put it, we admire them because they can shoot a basketball, hit a golf ball, kick a soccer ball, or win a tennis tournament. Hardly reason to admire anyone. It suggests that we are indeed a shallow people.

One might argue that we cannot expect athletes to have a social conscience, that their job is to perform at a high level in their sport: they have no responsibility to their fans to set an example. Indeed, this is a hot topic among the talking heads on such TV networks as ESPN. But it does seem that when a person agrees to take millions of dollars — and we are talking about millions of dollars — for endorsing a product these people would first make sure the company is one they would want their names associated with. And Nike does not pass muster on that score. They have been running sweat shops for decades to make the outlandishly expensive shoes that kids simply must have. And they treat their workers like dirt. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t wear a pair of Nikes if you paid me.

Contrasting Heroes

One of the most famous of the “Great Books” that educated people read for centuries — and which has been dumped on the garbage heap recently with the rest of the books by  “dead white European males” — is The Noble Lives of the Grecians and Romans by Plutarch. The book, which in translation is about 1300 pages in length, attempts to draw parallels between the lives of famous Greeks and Romans to serve as a model of behavior  for young men growing up following the book’s appearance in the early years of the Roman Empire. Plutarch was born around 50 A..D. and while many of the biographies he wrote are now considered inaccurate, he is nonetheless praised for providing us with “a  faithful record of the historical tradition of his age.” In a word, we are given a very detailed picture of what it is that people in those days, and for generations that followed, regarded as exemplary conduct. Most of the men Plutarch wrote about were regarded as heroes, men like Solon and Pericles of Athens, Alexander of Macedon, and Julius Caesar of Rome.

Plutarch, we are told by his modern editor, was “a moralist rather than an historian. His interest is less for politics and the changes of empires, and much more for personal character and individual actions and motives to action; duty performed and rewarded; arrogance chastised, hasty anger corrected; humanity, fair dealing, and generosity triumphing in the visible, or relying on the invisible world. His mind in his biographic memoirs is continually running on the Aristotelian Ethics and the high Platonic theories which formed the religion of the educated population of his time.”

In the year of our Lord Two Thousand and Thirteen, or the year of “His Airness” as they call one of this country’s greatest heroes, Michael Jordan, we are provided a study in contrasts. This week’s Sports Illustrated is about 40% full of pictures and stories that provide us with ample evidence of the degree to which this man is revered in this country. If we hadn’t seen the magazine, our eyes and ears could have provided ample evidence after a few moments of watching ESPN which seems to run on and on….(and on) about Jordan. The reason? We are nearing the 50th birthday of His Airness.

And how does Jordan compare with Pericles, Alexander, and Caesar? Not very well, sad to say. He is clearly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, basketball player who ever set foot on the court. Just ask him and he will proudly show you his six N.B.A. Championship rings. But as far as character is concerned, Jordan leaves something to be desired to say the least. His focus does not appear to be on living the good life, except as that is defined by Madison Avenue and the American population at large. He is worth a fortune and most, if not all of that fortune, he spends on himself. Consider the “newly built $12.4 million, 11 bedroom mansion in Jupiter, Florida on three acres of land” where Jordan and his 34 year-old fiancée recently moved — as we are told in Sports Illustrated. The home is near a golf course and also near his close friend Tiger Woods. Jordan loves to play golf and gamble, we are told, and he is part owner of the Charlotte Bobcats of the N.B.A. — a team which badly needs a player of near-Jordan caliber. To be near the team, Jordan also owns a “$3.2 million penthouse in a condominium in downtown Charlotte.” He paid $50 million of his own money to buy into the Bobcats. His money comes from endorsements, mostly: Nike pays him handsomely to put his name on basketball shoes which cost the kids of this country $250.00 a pair — an amount of money that mothers of young boys and girls in the inner cities must somehow come up with in order that their children get the very latest in foot gear. And if you are hungry you can enjoy a meal at one of the steak houses that bears his name and even delight in a five-course meal “inspired by his life and career” for only $125.00.

In a word, Michael Jordan represents in so many ways the ideals and achievements admired in this country which stand in such sharp contrast with the ideals and achievements of the “Grecians and Romans” Plutarch wrote about. In case you wondered, this is called “progress.”

Orchestrated Confession

Following the release of a 100 page document by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that Lance Armstrong is an inveterate liar and a cheat, the man confessed his sins in a two-part interview with Oprah that has caused no end of ripples in the media pool. In a word, after getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar he has shed some crocodile tears and “confessed” that he was indeed stealing cookies. Among the other sources that have found Armstrong’s confession of interest is USA Today which led its January 19th edition with a story that asks the question whether or not Americans will forgive the man for his many sins.

The article contends that forgiveness is in the American character — “especially if you can throw a ball, sing a song, make a speech, coach a team, or hold a camera.” I would add that it helps if you can manage a tear or two.  A number of examples are mentioned, including such infamous types as Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, Martha Stewart, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Clinton, and Bernard Madoff. But Armstrong may be a horse of a different color: he lied so convincingly and for so long the author concludes that he may have a difficult time.

What Armstrong must do, apparently, is work his way through a proven procedure that includes public confession, contrition, conversion, and atonement. It’s not at all clear, however, that Armstrong has made it over even the first hurdle, given the staged format of his “confession” on the Oprah show. But in the end, the article concludes he may be forgiven because he has done so much good with his fight against cancer, his involvement with the culture of professional cycling which makes him only one of many rule-breakers, and the fact that “he didn’t hurt anyone.”

This is where I part company with the author and begin to wonder about the thoroughness of his research. He seems to ignore the people that Armstrong hurt in so many ways, including other cyclists whose careers he destroyed and whose lives he almost certainly destroyed as well — not to mention the people he took to court and collected money from because they supposedly slandered him. He was nothing if not a bully and a master at intimidation and it took years for people around him to have courage enough to speak up. So when the author says he “hasn’t hurt anyone,” he is clearly wrong, and this makes me wonder if we can believe anything we read — even if it is written in what is generally regarded as a reliable source. It’s enough to make one a bit cynical — even if Armstrong’s behavior hadn’t already accomplished that.

Athletes as Heroes

I have written about heroes before, suggesting that heroic people are often the most ordinary folks who show exceptional courage in the face of adversity or are simply willing to swim against the tide of popular opinion. I have also mentioned the very few athletes I regard as heroes — not because of their athletic prowess, but because of their humanitarian tendencies, their desire to make the world a better place. I also wrote that I thought America’s hero, Tiger Woods, was yesterday’s news, a man who has had his day and should now disappear into the darkness.

But this has not happened, of course. While Tiger has failed to win a major tournament in years, he has recently won his second PGA event of this year and seems to have his MoJo back. He’s a favorite to win the upcoming U.S. Open. That is good for the golf enthusiasts (and the TV networks) because the man can play golf better than anyone else on the planet when he is “on” his game. But as a human being the man is a mess. And for over a year he has stumbled and lost on the golf course as well. The interesting thing is that through it all American sports enthusiasts never lost their love of the man. Even when he was losing his name appeared with remarkable  regularly on ESPN and when he appeared on the golf course — even when he was playing badly — he received the loudest applause, and the highest TV ratings. It is strange, indeed. Why do we worship great athletes who are flawed human beings? We did it with people like Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe in tennis as well. It’s not new. But in Tiger’s case it is extreme, since his popularity didn’t wane even when he was struggling.

The answer comes in the form of a statement in a recent Sports Illustrated article (June 4, 2012). The comment is made by Dan Naulty a baseball player who was very much caught up in the steroid scandal and topped off his steroid use with alcohol abuse. At one point after he had been traded from the Minnesota Twins to the Yankees he was taken to jail following a brawl in a bar which took six bouncers to quell (so strong were the steroids raging through his system). Once the cops found out who he was, he was released by the men who all wanted his autograph. No charges were brought. Naulty tells the story: “I barely graduated high school. . .I probably graduated college with about an eight-grade reading level. And when you play major league baseball, society is at your beck and call. They don’t care if you have character.. .. They don’t care if you ruin your life. They care about performance.”

In a nutshell, I think Naulty got it right. Tiger Woods’ sustained popularity with golf fans is almost certainly attributable to the promise of the return of his old self on the golf course, the brilliant shot-making together with curses, frowns, violent fist-pumps, mutterings at the crowd, and the rest of his ugly performance behavior. But a new Tiger began to emerge along with the skills that seemed to be returning: a Tiger who smiled more often and even stopped and signed autographs. This was apparently the new Tiger: anxious to reward the loyal fans who knew he would be back with all his skills intact. He has learned what side his bread is buttered on.

We don’t ask much of our athlete-heroes: just that they perform at a high level. When the men themselves (it’s seldom the women) screw up we only ask for a brief apology and then it’s back to business as usual. As long as they continue to perform at a high level, or show promise of returning to that level soon (not too long, we have short memories, after all) we will continue to adulate them and keep them on their pedestal, whether they deserve it or not as human beings. That tells us something important about ourselves and our culture: we identify with success and great wealth, not with character.

In Dan Naulty’s case, he turned his life around. After retiring from baseball he went on to get a degree in applied theology (from Oxford University of all places) and is now a minister helping other people work their way around the traps and pitfalls of a seemingly meaningless life. Now that’s true heroism: doing what he can to make the world a better place. But since he no longer performs on the field, he has disappeared from the public eye; his name no longer appears on ESPN’s bottom line. Now that he is admirable we no longer hear about him. There’s irony for you!

Punishment

In a recent blog I quoted Tiger Wood’s statement that stroke penalties in golf for slow play were unacceptable because they would cost the players money. I want to pursue this a bit and talk about punishment in general. It does seem to me that the purpose of punishing someone for breaking the rules, or the law, is to make them want never to do that thing again. In golf, if players don’t want point penalties, then that would be an appropriate penalty precisely because they don’t want it: it would deter them from playing slowly. If we levied a penalty the players thought acceptable, it wouldn’t be effective. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a penalty at all. I sometimes wonder how Tiger ever got admitted to Stanford!

In any case, it raises the question of what punishment is all about. Thomas More, in his remarkable book Utopia, thought punishment ought to improve people, make them better. In our culture, historically, we have operated on the principle of deterrence: punishment ought to deter future undesirable behavior. But we apply this principle in strange ways. If a man robs a bank at gun point, we “put him away” for a few years. It is supposed to keep him from robbing banks in the future — not only while he is in jail. But we know this doesn’t really work, and the culprit is often robbing again once he is back on the streets — having learned new tricks while in jail, no doubt. The principle itself is strange anyway: years in prison for taking money that doesn’t belong to him. It’s the same punishment we dole out for a man who repeatedly beats his wife: doing time. In neither case does the punishment make much sense.

Don’t we like to say the punishment ought to “fit the crime”? Years in prison for beating one’s wife doesn’t seem to fit somehow. Perhaps we ought to put the man in a locked room with two or three other men and have him beaten up until he feels what his wife felt. This, in brief, is the principle Dante operated on in his Inferno: the punishment fits the crime. For example, usurers who were deeper in Hell than murderers since they commit a violent crime “against art, God’s grandchild” sit around a plain of burning hot sand with bags of coins strung around their necks forcing them to watch the bag through eternity — presumably waiting for it to grow larger. After all, that’s what usurers do: they lend money at interest and make the money grow without actually doing anything to earn the profits. At least that was the Church’s view at the time.

Dante, of course, never questioned the appropriateness of capital punishment. It was generally accepted by the church that one who commits murder forfeits his life and deserves to die at the hands of the state. Aquinas argued this in his Summa Theologica, insisting that those who murder are animals and ought to be treated as such themselves: it’s their choice. In principle I would agree, but as I have argued in a previous blog the flaw in the scheme is human fallibility. Jurors and even eye-witnesses make mistakes. If humans never made mistakes then capital punishment would be entirely appropriate. But we make mistakes more often than not, so it can, and does, lead to terrible blunders. Be that as it may, “doing time” is a strange way to punish a person for taking another person’s life, or for most of the acts we regard as criminal.

We aren’t very creative in thinking of appropriate ways to punish people, though I can think of one interesting counter-example. A judge in a township not far away from me fined a construction company $100,000 for bid-rigging — and insisted that the amount fined go to four regional universities to establish programs in business ethics. My university already had the program, so we used the money to start a lecture series and brought in some very interesting people who spoke to us about business and ethics. Now that was appropriate punishment, and a very constructive way to “make good” on a rotten situation.

But this example is certainly the exception. In general we like to think the punishment  ought to fit the crime; it ought to deter the criminal from further crime and, as Thomas More thought, ideally it ought to reform the criminal and make him a more useful member of society. This last element we seem to ignore for the most part in our desire to “get back” at the criminal. So in the final analysis, we punish people to make ourselves feel better, to relieve our own stress at the thought that the guy is “out there,” or to satisfy our own need for revenge. None of the lofty reasons we give for punishing people seems to hold water. So we settle for what makes us feel good.