Friday, November 11, 2011

Worshiping the False Prophets

In the wake of this week's debacle at Penn State, it's hard to find anything positive to write.  It's certainly not the only news, nor even the most important I think.  However, like the politics that I most often discuss, it reveals a fundamental flaw within the fabric of our society.

People have rightly asked how those who discovered or knew about some of this abuse could have allowed it to happen.  The media is currently filled with the thoughts of psychologists who have studied such things, and they all conclude there are real conditions that allow it.  People aren't that simple, and that's that.  The witness can rationalize a bunch of reasons for inaction.

In fact, beyond those studies, I think the real issue has to do with some of the same things that affect the way we see Government, Wall Street, and all the other things that are similar.  That word is Worship!

Joe Paterno is hardly the first high-ranking public person to get fired for cause.  I'm sure there are many more, but let's look at a few.

In 1945 Douglas MacArthur was larger than life.  He had laid claim to defeating the Japanese, although many others played equally significant roles.  He was appointed to administer the occupation of Japan, and by most accounts he did a pretty good job.  He managed to govern with a gentle hand, and the Japanese people came to respect him.  He understood their mentality and guided rather than dictating.  Both in war and peace he had been successful.

Partly due to a very effective publicity machine, the American people thought so too.  When he waded ashore in the Philippines, proclaiming "I have returned" no one at home knew it was one of multiple"takes" to get the scene just right.  It didn't matter.  In fact, it mattered a lot.

The American people came to worship an image.  Yes, he'd been knocked down at the beginning, but he stood up, dusted himself off, and fought back.  Americans loved him.  No one mentioned that his entire air force was caught on the ground hours after he'd been told about the attack at Pearl Harbor.  More bad news wasn't what people needed to hear, and the myth of the man was born.

Fast forward to the Korean conflict.  President Truman made a decision that there was great danger in pressing North Korea too far, fearing that such action would bring China into the struggle.  MacArthur, again lionized after the "impossible landings" and Inchon were successful, thought he knew better, and decided he'd simply ignore Truman's directive...even though the President was his boss.

When the whole thing fell apart, Truman had the guts to fire MacArthur, and the public went nuts.  Rather than simply leave, MacArthur addressed Congress and people still worshiped at his feet.  All of this for a military man who ignored the most basic rule of the military:  Following orders!

So, back to football.  Joe Paterno isn't the first coach to be worshiped.  Just months ago we heard Gordon Gee, the President of The Ohio State University, during a press conference regarding the scandal in his football program.  When a reporter asked if he considered firing Coach Jim Tressel, a man at the center of the whole controversy, his response was simple:

“No, are you kidding me? Let me be very clear. I’m just hoping the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”

Did this man not realize that he is the coach's boss?  Was he, like so many others, so caught up in worshiping The Vest that he failed every other responsibility he had?  Sure looked that way.  His responsibility to the University, to the rule of Law, to setting a good example for the young people who attend his University, and for the legions of tOSU fans were all abandoned, overwhelmed by his blind idolatry.

The debacle at Penn State is not solely the fault of Joe Paterno.  There are many others who could have picked up the phone and done the right thing.  However, unlike the rest of those people, JoePa is different.  He is seen as a God.  He has won more games than any other coach...and that's what's most important, right?  Winning isn't the focus, it's the Only Thing!  In a program that proclaimed to be about building character, teaching young men, and all that other Good Stuff,  Winning was the only thing that really mattered.

On the night of Joe's firing, the students gathered.  They were crushed.  Their entire world had collapsed.  Everything they believed in had been taken away.  Now on one level that's understandable.  The man they believed in had flaws.  He wasn't perfect.  He wasn't God.  Like every Greek hero, he had a fatal flaw.

But rather than believe any of that, they rioted!  They assaulted.  They destroyed property.  They stood in the street and demanded that society return their God!  Why?  I don't believe any of them intended to create what happened, but they were lost in the blindness of their worship, caught up in the frenzy of their adoration.  What was obviously true couldn't be true...because...He's my God!

Sooner or later we, as a society, need to put people back on a level field.  We need to accept that there are good people, and even great people, but they are not Gods.  In too many states the highest paid state employee is a football coach.  What is wrong with this picture?  If the highest paid state employee is a University employee, then it ought to be the teacher who regularly turns out well-educated, successful, creative students who leave learning to become successful leaders, Nobel laureates, and people worth emulating.  The highest paid employee should be a man or woman who makes our society and the whole world a better place...for everyone.

Coaches have their place, and there are certainly many life lessons to be learned within the structure of athletic competition.  However, we need to make certain that success there does not equate with Godhood.


David Kudler said...

Thanks for posting this, Craig. It's funny; I had been thinking about the same subject from a slightly different angle. It's always struck me that human beings desperately need heroes. A hero is a projection outward of what each of us WANTS to be--all of the idealized dreams and expectations that we wish we could live up to ourselves. When someone seems worthy of bearing up under the weight of all of that dreaming, we dump it on them. And of course, in previous days, when public figures were distant and Olympian, the conflict between the dream and the mundane reality rarely came to light. When it did, we were devastated. ("Say it ain't so, Joe!")

I guess it seems to me that you are dead on: it's ridiculous of us to expect our icons to be anything but human. But it is an absolutely innate human response to deify some poor sucker because he looks the role. The real problem comes, it seems to me, when they start to believe it themselves.

Craig Allen said...

I think it is often true that those we worship didn't originally ask for that position. However, that level of adoration can certainly be seductive, and they can easily begin to accept it, revel in it, and eventually believe they deserve it. That corruption...the idea that absolute power corrupts absolutely, is hardly new, but remains true.

The smartest kings employed the most contrary jesters...because they feared that very effect. The dumber kings screwed up...and were eventually removed.