Penn State and the slow death of American self-reliance

In the wake of the horrific child abuse scandal roiling Penn State, many have been trying to understand how Sandusky’s predatory behavior could have continued unchecked for so long.  The focal point of this “how could this happen” question is the fact that Mike McQueary actually witnessed an assault.  Rather than rearranging Sandusky’s face, McQueary slipped out quietly, called his Daddy, and than made a chain-of-command report.  As far as he was concerned, he’d then done what he needed to do.  Paterno did exactly the same:  chain-of-command report.  And so on, up the ladder, with each person punting the problem higher, and each higher level official diluting the story so that it transformed from child rape into inappropriate behavior — and we all know that inappropriate behavior needs to be dealt with tactfully and in a way that doesn’t embarrass the institution.

So, again, we have to ask why?

Because — and this is not an idle boast — I have some of the smartest readers in the blogosphere, I can take a good stab at an answer.  In an open thread about Penn State, my readers chewed over the fact that in Pennsylvania, the law allows employees who witness a crime to go up the chain of command, whereas in Texas (for example) the law requires that every person has the responsibility to report to the authorities cases of suspected child abuse.  In other word, the culture is different in the two states, with one allowing people to pass the buck, and the other mandating that people take independent action.

There are already demands that Pennsylvania change its laws about reporting child abuse in order to bring them closer in line with the Texas standard.  While that wouldn’t be a bad idea, it would be a small bandage over a gaping wound in the American psyche:  the death of self-reliance.

Agrarian and frontier societies are, of necessity, self-reliant.  (Yes, even Europeans once knew how to make do.)  Right up until the 1960s, what separated America from other nations was that, until very recently in historic terms, it managed to be an amalgam of Western intellectualism and frontier self-reliance.  This meant that, even as increasing population density and industrialization made it unnecessary for an American family to be almost completely self-sustaining, our Judeo-Christian heritage was sophisticated enough that we nevertheless enshrines as a virtue that personal independence.

And, by gosh, if self-reliance is the standard, those pioneers were virtuous.  Here, from one of my favorite books, No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting, you can get a good thumb-nail sketch of how a family prepared to leave East Coast civilization to head for the Wild West:

Once a conveyance was determined, the woman cut and sewed the double-cloth wagon tops and sides . . . with muslin on the inside and heavy linen on the outside for extra warmth and protection . . . and attached pockets or “pouches” so that items such as knives, firearms, cooking pots, mother’s sewing and knitting basket and essential toilet articles could be tucked away safely.  [Snip]  Each item — all the food, tools, bedding, clothing, a veritable pharmacopoeia of medicinal roots and herbs, axle grease, spare wagon parts, furniture and so forth — was sharply scrutinized to make certain that it was critical to the survival of the family, the wagon and the animals both on the trail and for the first homestead.  (p. 73.)

After the pioneers finally reached their destination (and truly, only the strong survived the journey), Dad (and sons and neighbors) began the backbreaking work of hunting and farming so as to tease food out of the land, while Mom (and daughters and neighbors) kept the home fires burning.  In No Idle Hands, one can read in their own words how the children of these pioneers remembered their mothers’ accomplishments:

“Mother bore and cared for the babies, saw that the floor was white and clean, that the beds were made and cared for, the garden tended, the turkeys dressed, the deer flesh cured and the fat prepared for candles or culinary use, that the wild fruits were garnered and preserved or dried, that the spinning and knitting was done and the clothing made.  She did her part in all these tasks, made nearly all the clothing and did the thousands things for us a mother only finds to do.”

[snip]

Another mother, in addition to her regular routine of “water carrying, cooking, churning, sausage making, berry picking, vegetable drying, sugar and soap boiling, hominy hulling, medicine brewing, washing, nursing, weaving, sewing, straw plaiting, wool spinning, quilting, knitting, gardening and various other tasks,” found time to exchange work with other neighbors when they gathered together to spin and knit, skeining yarn for immediate use by simply winding it from hand to elbow and hanging it from her arm while she knit.  (p. 87-88.)

I am not advocating a return to that level of self-reliance.  My family and I would be dead within week if that were the case.  I am pointing out, however, that this was normative for large chunks of America only a century and a half ago, and that, even more importantly, this level of competence became part of America’s self-image.  We were the can-do generation.  While the Roosevelt administration, in the 1930s, jump-started the notion of a comprehensive welfare system, the generation that scrabbled through the Depression and World War II did not succumb to the cultural inertia of the socialist state.

It took the 1960s and beyond to change us into a don’t-do culture.  The “why” of that change would take a whole post (no, make that a whole book), but one can target lots of wealth, lots of youth, and a media and academic establishment that relentlessly propagandized both the virtues of socialism, while simultaneously denigrating traditional American culture and playing up the dangers of America’s home grown self-reliance ethos (“So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”).

Whatever the root causes (I can speak Marxist-speak just fine, myself) the end result is that Americans are slowly put surely slipping into the type of passivity that characterizes people living in an excessively bureaucratized, government-heavy society.   Some like this.  At a recent speech to financially powerful supporters, President Obama warned that, if he’s not re-elected, Americans might have to leave the comforts of government dependence and enter a dangerous era of self-reliance:

At a million-dollar San Francisco fundraiser today, President Obama warned his recession-battered supporters that if he loses the 2012 election it could herald a new, painful era of self-reliance in America.

“The one thing that we absolutely know for sure is that if we don’t work even harder than we did in 2008, then we’re going to have a government that tells the American people, ‘you are on your own,’” Obama told a crowd of 200 donors over lunch at the W Hotel.

“If you get sick, you’re on your own. If you can’t afford college, you’re on your own. If you don’t like that some corporation is polluting your air or the air that your child breathes, then you’re on your own,” he said. “That’s not the America I believe in. It’s not the America you believe in.”

Nothing could more neatly distill Obama’s hostility to the classic American dream, one that believed it was a virtue for people to make it on their own.  That the reality didn’t always match this cultural image, since many failed to make it at all, while others made it with substantial government help, is irrelevant.  What matters is that, for ordinary people, growing up, working, raising children, personal accomplishment was the cultural paradigm.  By contrast, Obama’s American dream, the one that he desires as the overarching cultural paradigm, is one that sees people utterly dependent on the government.  It’s impressive that Obama so resolutely clings to his dream, even as the Europeans actively prove that, during the waking hours, the dream is a nightmare.

As more and more people, with media and academic help, enthusiastically turn the government into their paterfamilias, and as more and more rules and regulations mandate that people abjure individual action, we get a rash of stories, culled from headlines in both England, where the dependency rot runs deep, and America. Watching people drown is getting to be an ordinary day’s work in dependency cultures. This story comes from the San Francisco Bay Area:

The Oakland Tribune (via Mercury News) reports on a tragic story of a 57-year-old man who drowned in the bay in Alameda on Monday after wading chest-high in the water fully clothed for nearly an hour before rescuers could reach him.

Witnesses told the Tribune that police and fire crews responded quickly to the scene, but because the Alameda Fire Department is not certified in land-based water rescues, they had to wait for the United States Coast Guard to arrive.

The Coast Guard reportedly responded within 20 minutes with a rescue boat, but because the man was in fairly shallow water, they had to wait for a helicopter instead. The helicopter took 65 minutes to arrive because it had been out on another mission and needed to refuel.

In the mean time, a woman in her late 20s who’s trained as a water rescue nurse, was able to pull the man out when he was about 50 yards from shore. Unfortunately, rescuers were unable to revive him, and he was later pronounced dead at Alameda Hospital.

One can argue, as a surprising number did at the time, that the guy in Alameda wanted to commit suicide, thereby justifying the fact that rescue work suddenly became a spectator sport.  That’s not always the case, though.  In a surprisingly similar story from England, the person wasn’t committing suicide, but rescuers again stood by, watching:

More than a dozen emergency workers refused to pull a man from a waist-deep boating lake because of ‘health and safety’ fears.

For half-an-hour charity shop worker Simon Burgess, 41, was left face down in the shallow water as they waited for a specialist rescue crew.

Mr Burgess, who had gone to the lake to feed the swans, was pronounced dead at the scene but friends claim that if rescuers had waded straight into the water he could have been saved.

The crews of two fire engines, two police cars, two ambulances and an air ambulance were told not to enter the lake, which is no more than three feet (one metre) at its deepest point, in case they ‘compromised their safety’.

That’s just two stories, right?  What if I add a third, again from England?

A jobsworth ambulance boss refused to allow his staff to enter six inches of water to treat a man with a broken back – because it breached heath and safety.

Stricken Brian Bendle, 45, suffered the agonising injuries as he stood in shallow water at a leisure lake in Somerset.

He was waiting to take his £10,000 jetski out onto the water when he was hit by another rider travelling at around 50mph.

Shocked onlookers immediately ran into the lake as Mr Bendle, from Bristol, lay face down in the water.

They floated the dad-of-three in the six inch ankle-deep water, where they supported him until an ambulance arrived amid fears moving him would aggravate his back injury.

But they were stunned when a paramedic arrived and refused his pleading staff to enter the water – because they weren’t trained to deal with water rescues.

They had to slide a spinal board under him themselves and carry him to ambulancemen, who were stood on the bank just 6ft away.

At least in the story above, onlookers weren’t so shocked that they became incapable of saving the man themselves.  It’s good to see that some initiative survives.

(I would be remiss at this point if I didn’t note that we here in America have a long and surprisingly honored history of an individual cavalierly walking away from a person trapped in water.)

Passively falling back on regulations when the situation demands immediate individual action isn’t just a water-related activity.  Here’s a recent story about someone who watched an atrocious act, did nothing at first, and then acted in the most passive way possible.  No doubt his superiors approved, as they engaged in behavior that was either just as passive or, worse, actively complicit:

[Mike] McQueary, according to his testimony in the grand jury report, witnessed Sandusky subjecting what McQueary estimated to be a 10-year-old boy to anal intercourse in the showers of a football building on campus in 2002. According to his grand jury testimony, McQueary, upset, went to his office and phoned his father, who advised him to go home, according to testimony. The next day, McQueary reported what he had seen to Paterno, according to the grand jury report. Paterno passed information that an incident of “a sexual nature” had occurred to athletic director Tim Curley and vice president of finance Gary Schultz. Curley and Schultz were charged with counts of perjury and failure to report.

I’d like to think that, had I been there, Sandusky would have received some immediate, albeit crude, facial reconstruction.  I’m small, but I’m game — and a child was involved.

Looking at these few examples, I can’t help but think of another culture that allowed itself to lapse into such a bureaucratic mindset that citizens either passively watched or actively engaged in the most heinous acts.  I’m thinking, of course, of the Nazis.  If one subordinates people completely to the state, can one be surprised if they lose both will power and moral strength?

As many of you know, I’m an enthusiastic amateur martial artist.  (If only my skills were equal to my enthusiasm….)  I do martial arts because I really like it — but I also do it so that I can act.  After a long hiatus to have children, and then to moan about how having children prevented me from exercising, I read a story in the papers that send me off like a rocket to the nearest dojo.  Back in 2008, a man stomped his child to death in front of myriad witnesses, none of whom intervened.  All of them fell prey to analysis paralysis, shock, denial (“this can’t be happening!”), etc.  I’m willing to bet, though, that a fair number of them were waiting for someone else to take care of the situation.  I go to martial arts so that I can be that someone else.

Fortunately, despite socialist government’s best efforts to mandate inaction (or, at least, to give people an excuse for failing to get involved), all is not lost.  There will always be decent people who do get involved.  As I pointed out above, in the case of the man hit by the jet ski, even though the bureaucratized aid workers refused to do anything, bystanders willingly rescued the injured man.

I doubt, too, that many of us have forgotten the story of the bridge crew that acted with incredible speed and ingenuity to rescue a drowning woman:

“They just harnessed me up and dipped me down in the water and I grabbed her and the crane drug her to the boat and that’s it,” Oglesbee said. “What are you going to do if she’s like that? It’s no big deal. The whole crew did it.”

So spoke Jason Oglesbee after being the last man in the chain that daringly rescued a woman who got swept into a dam. The story says so much about the ingenuity and courage that we like to see in the average American.

Recently, a motorcyclist trapped under a car was lucky enough to find himself in the presence of proactive people, unconstrained by analysis paralysis, government regulations, or career worries.  At great risk to themselves, these people acted:

Penn State is a tocsin, warning us what happens when our cultural paradigm encourages us to pass the buck.  The nation, as a whole, hasn’t yet reached the moral abyss that is the Penn State athletic department, but Barack Obama has stated clearly that his goal is to create precisely the bureaucratic, dependency culture that makes Penn State’s (and Nazi Germany) possible.  This is not to say that Barack Obama and his team have as their goal mass child rape, genocide, crime waves, etc.  It is to say, though, that once one creates a government system that turns people into mindless, amoral automatons, the possibilities are endless for mass evil, unconstrained by individual morals.

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