Personal morality and responsibility

11B40 asked a good question, which is why I’m so focused on McQueary, when it was Sandusky who committed the crime.  It’s because I have no fellow feeling with Sandusky who, if the allegations are true, is a perverted monster.  I therefore don’t need to analyze my behavior or parenting decisions with regard to his conduct.  McQueary, however, is Everyman.  Each of us could be in his shoes.

McQueary’s response to a horrible, unexpected situation wasn’t perverse or illegal.  Instead, it was just the lowest common denominator of acceptable behavior that an ordinary human could commit.  I have within me the capacity to do exactly what he did — but I want to be better than that.  That’s why I’m also hammering away at columnists who explain what he did, not just to offer explanations, but also to excuse his conduct.  Like them, like all of us, I could be McQueary, but I don’t want to be McQueary.

Perhaps my obsession with this is also because I’m a parent in a morally challenging world, attempting to give my children moral lessons.  That hit home yesterday. As I hadn’t quite made it back to the house when my 12-year-old son got home from school, he called me, his voice trembling with unshed tears. “Mom, I have to tell you this. I need to confess. There was this old guy handing out little pocket Bibles at school [actually, next to the school, on non-school land]. Then, on the school bus home, one of the kids had candy and I wanted the candy and the kid said he’d give me the candy if I ripped up the Bible — and I did. Another boy threw a bunch of Bibles out the window.  I’m so sorry. I know what I did was wrong and I just had to tell you.”

When I got home, my son was still very upset, partially because he knew he’d done something wrong (both destroying a book and destroying a religious symbol) and partially because he was worried about getting expelled from school.  Without actually meaning to, I made him even more upset.  On my way back home after his call, I’d already called a friend whom I knew was taking her kids to a non-denominational youth night at the local church. I figured it would be good for my son immediately to go to a place where the book of God matters. When I mentioned I’d told her, he completely broke down, sobbing hysterically. “How could you? She won’t respect me any more.” (And I can’t tell you how glad I am to know that he realized that what he did would impair his standing in the eyes of the community.)

It got worse for my little guy when I opened my email and discovered an email from a friend and neighbor who didn’t know that my son had confessed, telling me about what happened and adding that several of the children on the bus were quite upset. “Oh, no! None of the parents will respect me anymore. This is horrible. I wasn’t thinking. I didn’t mean to destroy God’s property.” More sobbing. My son wrote our neighbor an abject apology for having committed an offensive act, and she sent a gracious reply.

I wasn’t pleased with what my son did, but I wasn’t angry at him.  It seemed to me that he was angry enough at himself.  He knew that he’d done an irresponsible and offensive act, although he did so foolishly and entirely without malice.  He also felt very keenly that what he had done might diminish him in the eyes of people he respects and whose respect he desires.

Indeed, I was quite pleased that he was upset and able to identify his own wrongdoing, rather than arrogant and dismissive.  He could have gone the other route:  “It’s just a book, and people who believe in it are stupid, and I should be able to rip up a book if I want, etc.”  That he didn’t, that he immediately realized he’d made a mistake, was a comforting reminder that my son is a fundamentally good person, who is simply a long way from maturity.  He is not, thank goodness, a punk or a sociopath.  A good (not angry or accusatory) talk about decency and respect, a total media blackout for two days, and a rather pleasant evening for him at a church youth group (he wants to go back) were, to my mind, entirely sufficient responses.

What was really interesting — and here we’re back at my whole obsession with McQueary and a society that passes the back and practices moral relativism — was the response from a liberal friend of mine.  Rather than acknowledging that my son had done something wrong, his ire was all focused on the old man who had handed out Bibles.

“That’s illegal.”  ”

No, it’s not.  He wasn’t on school property, and he wasn’t handing out anything that is illegal or that is prohibited to minors, such as drugs, alcohol, cigarettes or pornography.”

“Well, it ought to be illegal.  You can’t just hand out Bibles to people.”

“Um, actually, a little thing called the First Amendment says you can.”

He was shocked.

My friend’s next challenge was that handing out a Bible to school children was entrapment.

“That man was trying to entrap children.  He knew that most of them would throw it away and that boys would play with it.  There’s no difference between shredding it and throwing it in the garbage can.”

My friend was unconvinced when I pointed out that (a) the fact that many children on the bus were upset shows that treating a Bible with disrespect is not a natural or appropriate act and (b) that there is a difference between respectfully disposing of an unwanted item and deliberately destroying it in public view.  Intention matters.  And it was because intention matters that I was upset with my son for what he did, but I was neither angry nor perturbed.  His intentions weren’t blasphemous.  He just wanted candy.

Because issues such as this pop up in one form or another quite often when you have parents, you can see why I think long and hard about the messages we send our kids when it comes to right and wrong, and about responsibility to individuals and to society at large.

What do you all think, whether about my parenting decisions, about my McQueary tie-in, about societal messages, or anything else this post might have brought to mind?

Forcing all of us to pay for others’ indulgent priorities

All of us have long known that poverty in America isn’t like poverty anywhere else in the world.  There really isn’t anything here comparable to the poverty in Haiti, or Calcutta, or large swathes of Africa.  Even poor people have televisions and phones.  And it’s apparent that a surprising number of people who are living on the thin edge economically still find money, not just for basic cell phones, but for fancy ones with lots of service; and are able to buy, not just basic clothes, but status conscious name brands.  Even when one is poor, one still makes choices.

Linda Halderman writes about some of the choices her patients made when she practiced in a low income clinic.  Either because they didn’t care, or because they knew or assumed that our system, which never turns people away at the ER, provides a safety net, many of them chose not to buy insurance but, instead, to invest in things that would affect the immediate quality of their lives:  high end transportation, fancy communication devices, cosmetic surgery, etc.  Being young and healthy, and having to make choices, they invested in their present, not their future.  The question Linda asks is, as to these people, the ones who can and do make choices, why should be, the taxpayers, be forced to provide them with essentially free insurance?

Individuals in this country have a right to decide how — and how not — to spend their money.

But that right does not include accepting entitlements without sharing responsibility. Doing so contributes to the high cost of care that burdens every unsubsidized patient.

If individuals prefer to buy luxury items rather than pay for their healthcare needs, that preference should not be rewarded while taxpayers struggle to foot their own bills.

What next for the nanny state?

Here in California, the hands-free cell phone law went into effect July 1.  (By the way, does anyone know whether there was an actual increase in traffic accidents after cell phones became popular?)  This morning, I heard a story that said that 1,800 fires and dozens of injuries resulted from fireworks last year.  Of course, in most communities around where I live, most fireworks are already illegal.  Yet, I also heard a story this morning that in California alone 50 people died last year from boating accidents, but I’ve not heard a call for a ban on pleasure boating.  And, a few days ago I heard about the latest of the frequent fatal accidents at amusement parks, but I haven’t heard any calls to ban amusement parks.

A few questions:  How do does our government select which forms of entertainment to protect us from?  What is next on the nanny state agenda?  I suppose the next logical step is banning cigarette smoking by drivers.  Hard to picture a hands-free cigarette.  But what else?  And why is the government in the business of protecting us from our own (and, I suppose, each other’s) stupidity? 

This issue has deeper ramifications than one might think.  Perhaps the biggest cause of the decline of American civilization in the last 50 years is that we’ve gotten very soft.  We don’t have the stomach for a serious, protracted war.  When challenged economically, we don’t step our game up a notch, we run for the cover of protectionist legislation (conservatives are especially guilty of this one).  We use social promotion and grades-free systems to protect our children from their own failures.  We teach unearned self-esteem, rather than stressing the need to actually accomplish anything to earn self-esteem.  We ban running, active and competitive play on the playground.

At all levels, we excuse failure.  It’s the parent’s fault.  It’s society’s fault.  It’s the government’s fault.  It’s the fault of stuff that happened to our great great great grandparents 150 years ago.  It’s the UN’s fault.  It’s the EU’s fault.  It’s OPEC’s fault.  It’s the fault of all those other nations who engage in “unfair” trade practices.  It’s everybody’s fault but our own personal fault.

We’ve gotten so soft, in fact, that we expect the government to protect us from ourselves and to give us everything we need, whether we’ve earned it or not (think the push for universal health care, for example).  We think safety, security and even comfort are inalienable rights.

At bottom, all of the various threads I’ve pointed to are attacks on personal responsibility, and there do not appear to be any limits placed on the attackers.  This cannot be healthy, can it?  If we decide government is responsible for everything and no one is responsible for himself or herself how will our society survive?  In a nanny state, we all become children.  And no society of children can long survive.  Does this make sense?  And what, if anything, can we do to prevent the increasing infantization of the American public?