A National Crisis of Cynicism

A shared sense of constitutional justice, a confederacy of national ideals, a basic semblance of right and wrong: these values bind a people together. A nation that does not confront wrong doers or openly suppresses or conflicts with the punishment of wrong doers is no nation at all.

On November 10, 2011, more than 1,000 students at Pennsylvania State University took to the streets to protest the firing of Joe Paterno, coach of the university’s football team. Police donned riot gear, a few violent protestors flipped a van, many just expressed outrage that their beloved coach, nicknamed JoePa, had been fired.

The university’s board fired Paterno because an assistant coach on the football team, Jerry Sandusky, had sexually abused eight to ten young boys. Abuse, in this case, means activity ranging from fondling, sleepovers, oral sex – both received and given – and in one shocking event, the anal rape of a 9 or 10 year old boy in the university’s gym showers. The last event occurred in 2002 and was witnessed by a graduate assistant working on the school’s football team. The graduate assistant went first to his father, then to Joe Paterno on his father’s advice. Paterno did nothing when told by his graduate assistant and the abuse continued. This type of corralling of information, keeping scandal within the institution of football, eerily matches the epidemic of child rape and molestation within the Catholic Church over the last few decades. The story goes: abused families report to bishops who pass the information up the Church’s hierarchical ladder and then the child-raping priest leaves the offending parish and shows up in another part of the country – still spreading God’s word to good little boys and girls.

Apparently, at no point did Paterno’s condoning of rape between 2002 and 2011 sway the minds of protesting students on November 10th at Penn State. They had all the facts just like the rest of the country. Maybe the most fascinating depiction of this powerful dissonance comes through in the feature done in the middle of the scandal for This American Life.  Could these students both feel compassion for the victims and also protest Paterno’s ouster? Can someone detest the rape of little boys – many who turn to drugs (heroine, alcohol, pharmaceuticals) or suicide – but then also want to keep the coach who, when told about the sexual abuse, did nothing? Identically, Catholic parishioners seem equally unfazed by the way the Church has routed abused priests around and paid massive cash settlements in lieu of bringing down secular justice. A compassionate person might expect the exact same type of flipping vans in the streets protest against the inaction in the Catholic Church and against the institutionalized secrecy surrounding Jerry Sandusky’s string of molestations and rapes. The relative silence on both these issues indicates that presumably liberal American college students on the one hand and the presumably conservative Catholic flock on the other will both stomach the most heinous of abuses in order to enjoy the peace of mind given by the camaraderie of a shared university football team or, on the other hand, to enjoy the moral parables of a centuries old clan.[1] Thomas Paine – author of Common Sense[2] – has the best line on  the logical conclusion of this type of dissonant thought:

“When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to the things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime.”

Three months after the firing of Joe Paterno in Pennsylvania, another dissonance-spawning issue occurred outside of Orlando. The shooting of Trayvon Martin and subsequent outrage is more recent, so requires no summary. In the week of my writing this, George Zimmerman was charged by the state of Florida with second degree murder.[3] Second degree murder is basically a spontaneous non-planned murder or, read very closely here, murder based on the killer’s “obvious lack of concern for human life.” The instant Zimmerman was taken into custody the bubble of painful racial tensions burst. Why is that? Most Americans must trust the justice of the courts in a reasonable way or are at least satisfied that something, anything, happened in response.[4] A secondary bout of outrage[5] exploded concerning this case because apparently Florida – and a majority of states – had passed laws making it legal for Zimmerman, or anyone in more than half the states with similar laws, to kill someone, then claim self defense and somehow gain immunity from being arrested. According to Florida’s version of the law, if the Sanford Police Department had arrested Zimmerman, they would have infringed on his right to self defense as defined by stand your ground.  This double play caused some understandable anger and mixed with the death of a presumed innocent ripped a scab off of lingering race issues in a gun state with a bad rap sheet already for dealing with race.

Since the passage of stand your ground in Florida, rates of justifiable homicide have gone up a staggering amount. A story published by the Tampa Bay Times before the Martin-Zimmerman incident regaled a cow-eyed Floridian readership on the statistics. It sparked no outrage or protest, despite stories about homeowners chasing down burglars and stabbing them to death in the streets and other similar cases of what can only be called Wild West justice. Perhaps the line “obvious lack of concern for human life” applies – or do we execute for thievery in Florida?

The most troubling aspect of this case was the delay of justice. Martin was shot on February 26, 2012 and Zimmerman was charged on April 11, 2012. After 46 days, Zimmerman was charged with second degree murder. Do not underestimate the fear and doubt of this span of time. Delaying justice makes the populace think that without protests the government will not act. With the other events of heel-dragging, the American public is practically primed for the protest response. From partisan congressional inaction during an economic crisis to all of the condoned evil fleshed out here, the American people can hardly escape a protest response towards overlooked evils.

“Justice delayed is justice denied. “[6]

This is the same sense of detachment towards justice that Americans have felt about the financial collapse. A few corrupt and exceedingly greedy individuals managed to tank the nation’s economy. Someone clearly broke the law. Nobody has gone to jail for their involvement in the fiscal crisis despite well-reported cases of fraud. Regularly, politicians come out and opportunistically promise to bring anyone responsible for the collapse to justice, if and specifically if, they find anyone who broke the law. This always seems tongue-in-cheek: where both the listener and the speaker recognize the bullshit inherent in the promise.  And despite what Governor Rick Scott or State Attorney Angela Corey said when they had their press event to charge George Zimmerman with second degree murder, the bewildered public feels that without all the protests nothing would have happened. Ultimately, the Occupy movement of last year had the exact same intentions towards the crimes of the fiscal collapse, but did not achieve a similar press event with charges against sociopathic, self-destructive bankers and traders.

How do you address these feelings of detachment and abandonment? That’s more complicated. These emotions and their politicization – think: Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street – undermine the rightful anger they cause. They make the American public feel disassociated or even like enemies. The Trayvon Martin case and the Wall Street financial torpedoing have caused a powerful disassociation between crime and response.  Our right for a redress of grievances seems comically undervalued by those with the power to act and prosecute. Our lizard-brain’s belligerent call for justice against Wall Street, child rapists, and criminals of all kinds must seem laughable. For example, imagine, the Trayvon Martin case had just stayed another 150-word Public Safety story in your web browser or in your newspaper.  No one took to the streets. Just some kid dead outside Orlando. Can you honestly believe the police would have ever acted?

The missteps of justice in the past have worked themselves into the minds of today’s adult Americans. People like, maybe, George Zimmerman, who felt the need to go on armed patrol in his neighborhood. The government certainly cannot or will not protect the average American from pederast priests, financial criminals and all those in power who could have done something but chose not to. One can almost understand why anyone feels the need to carry a concealed weapon or participate in a neighborhood watch group.

These problems of dissonance and the despondency in the American citizen is creating a crisis of cynicism, a critical mass for a great national detachment. The government will not protect you, and to some, is out to get you. Those you disagree with are not only wrong, but evil. Their political embodiments are the very form of the evil-doers of the past: Nazis, Stalinists, Communists, Fascists, bunkered nutcases or anarchic revolutionaries. Justice is not guaranteed for someone who wrongs you. The principles of your religion or lack of religion are being threatened by the other side. All of this conjures up a sense of cosmic crisis, and your lack of ability to do a damn thing about it… well, it makes you powerless. It explains why, for example, presumably liberal students in Pennsylvania will shrug off child rape so they can enjoy football, or how some can shrug off the death of a teenager because, no matter what, Zimmerman can never show his face in public again, or even how the American voter can be so understandably Civil War-ish across the political divide.

When you take away a shared sense of fairness, everyone is a possible enemy or at best, your critical faculties for discerning real threats evaporates. And you certainly cannot rely on the justice system to determine who is wrong or evil, much less actually punish in a meaningful way. Unless there’s a reliable sense of justice and the average American can enjoy a dissonance-free experience of discourse, the more fear-motivated among us will continue to silently arm themselves and patrol the streets and we, the fearful patrolman and the silently angry alike, both know that the chance that the Big Evils – the child rapists, the financial criminals, and so on – will continue to walk the streets.

[1] Of whom, we can only assume, the moral values imposed either fall on deaf ears  or perhaps these teachings actually also condone the rape of children?

[2] Which, strangely, Glenn Beck appropriated the title for his own excoriation of modern “big government”. Strangely because Paine was 1) an actual patriot and 2) had admonished revealed religion in the book from which the noted quote comes.

[3] When I googled this to get a definition, the entire first page was dedicated exclusively to second degree murder in the context of the charges against Zimmerman, what the possible penalty is, what it takes to prove it, etcetera.

[4] Sure, make a cynical sneer, it just proves my overall point.

[5] Maybe the level of attention that televised news can offer to break down contentious issues casts the above understandable controversy in an unfair way. Basically viewers are expected to believe only one of the following is possible 1) a liberal thinks: Zimmerman was a possible racist who was lying about a struggle with the teen and had profiled the young boy – of whom much younger images than current were immediately proffered to the media in favor over more recent photos depicting a grim-looking Martin in football pads and all black jersey – because he was black and wearing a hoodie, or 2)  a conservative thinks: that Zimmerman had just defended himself, he was telling the truth about the struggle, and hey anyhow that black kid was only even in Zimmerman’s neighborhood because he was serving a suspension for having marijuana residue (not actually any smokable stuff, though) in his backpack at school in his hometown of Miami Gardens.

To be sure, not many Americans felt either of those things in such a starkly offensive way. However, some did, namely the very vocal NRA and, on the other side, incendiaries like Al Sharpton – who I have to say wasn’t as critical as he could have been. Both sides were unreasonable because again, on the liberal side, we can’t crucify Zimmerman as a racist or nutcase without evidence and on the conservative side, the NRA thinks the stand your ground law shouldn’t change at all and Zimmerman was completely inside his rights as a gun possessing American and hey, we aren’t even too happy he was charged at all so here’s some money for his defense. These stereotypical liberal/conservative arguments offend equally and come nowhere near a complete view of the scope of the issue. What they have in common is loudness and offensiveness and the appeal of only a very few Americans.

[6] Again, when I googled this, the second, fourth, sixth, seventh and tenth hits were all related to Trayvon Martin. I’d like to also point out this principle is enshrined in our Constitution as the right to a speedy trial, which does not mean the right for suspects to be arrested quickly – though the zeitgeist certainly felt that way about it.


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