June 17, 2012 · 1 Comments
Above: Sir Thomas More
By Marie Burns:
Maureen Dowd went to Jerry Sandusky’s trial and discovered that real people are not like the Sir Thomas More of the play “A Man for All Seasons.” Dowd’s column was an online three-pager in this week’s New York Times “Sunday Review,” a section which, as Erik Wemple of the Washington Post once remarked, “doesn’t even review Sunday.” I suppose for readers who find Dowd insightful, we should stipulate that even Thomas More was not like the Sir Thomas More of the play. “A Man for All Seasons” – the play and film – casts More as an heroic martyr but never mentions his persecution of Protestant “heretics” and suppression of Protestant literature.
Dowd alludes to More’s motivation for refusing to take an oath swearing to the supremacy of the king over the Roman Church. She quotes a line from the Bolt play in which More tells his daughter Margaret Rogers, “When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.” Robert Bolt wrote the play in 1960, and the notion of self and self-discovery were high on the agendas of the intelligentsia (and a recurring theme for Bolt).
But More’s real motivation for refusing to take the oath was, in a sense, more self-serving: More believed that “Outside the Church there is no salvation, and therefore if the claims of the Pope be true at all, then he who denies them imperils his soul.” That is, More believed that if he placed king before pope, God might not forgive him. Eternal salvation is a hell of an incentive.
Dowd never introduces us to the real Thomas More. Instead, she sticks with the fictive character and wonders if, “… with formerly hallowed institutions and icons sinking into a moral dystopia all around us, has our sense of right and wrong grown more malleable? What if we’re not Thomas More but Mike McQueary?” As Dowd tells the McQueary story, based on his trial testimony,
In February 2001, McQueary…, a graduate assistant coach and former Penn State quarterback…, saw his revered boss and former coach reflected in the mirror: Sandusky, Joe Paterno’s right hand, was grinding against a little boy in the shower in an ‘extremely sexual’ position, their wet bodies making ‘skin-on-skin slapping sounds.’ He met their eyes, Sandusky’s blank, the boy’s startled…. He said he felt too ‘shocked, flustered, frantic’ to do anything.’ … He told Paterno the next morning and went along with the mild reining in of Sandusky, who continued his deviant ways.
Dowd finds McQueary’s lack of remorse unsettling. She notes that,
Put on administrative leave, McQueary has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the school. (He was promoted to receivers coach and recruiting coordinator three years after the incident.) ‘Frankly,’ he said, ‘I don’t think I did anything wrong to lose that job.’ It’s jarring because McQueary looks like central casting for the square-jawed hero who stumbles upon a crime in progress, rescues the child thrilled to hear the footsteps of a savior, and puts an end to the serial preying on disadvantaged kids by a man disguised as the patron saint of disadvantaged kids.
Unlike the Thomas More of Bolt’s play and film (Bolt wrote the screenplay), McQueary does not live up to Dowd’s cinematic view of a “square-jawed hero.”
I expect that McQueary, who – like Saint Thomas More (both the Roman and Anglican Churches have canonized him) – is a Roman Catholic, probably is more into the Ethical Treatment of Protestants than was More. More favored and reputedly engineered the burning at the stake of Protestant heretics, including William Tyndale, whose most significant act of heresy was translating the Bible into English. I won’t pass judgment on More myself, but some experts have done so: historian Jasper Ridley called More “a particularly nasty sadomasochistic pervert,” and literary critic James Wood accused him of being “cruel in punishment, evasive in argument, lusty for power, and repressive in politics.” Generally speaking, it is fair to say that anyone who rises to the level of power More did – Henry VIII named him lord chancellor – is not above moral compromise. Right up until the time of his trumped-up conviction for treason, More found ways to accommodate Henry’s “Great Matter” – the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. During his own trial, More – a trained lawyer – evaded self-incrimination with his version of our Fifth Amendment: he refused to state his position on the crown’s supremacy and relied on the legal maxim “qui tacet consentire videtur” (literally, “he who is silent shows consent”), arguing that he could not be convicted as long as he didn’t explicitly deny the king’s supremacy over the pope.
More accommodated the king; McQueary accommodated Joe Paterno. More tried to save his own life; McQueary tried to save his job. People compromise their principles in their self-interest. One difference: Thomas More set himself up as a great moral arbiter – a humanist philosopher who wrote books and treatises on political and religious rectitude. McQueary is a football player. Somehow Dowd misses that rather stark distinction.
Dowd is dismissive of the fact that McQueary was one of the few people who actually took a positive step to stop Jerry Sandusky. There were at least a dozen people, probably more, who knew Sandusky was abusing vulnerable children. Some turned a blind eye; some swept the evidence under the rug. Mike McQueary was a 27-year-old grad student who had devoted his life to Penn State football when he saw what he saw. Many of us might claim we would do the right thing if we witnessed our boss sodomizing a child; we assume that our visceral reaction would be to save the child and nothing would stop us. We would be like Dowd’s “square-jawed hero” and immediately rescue the boy. I’m not so sure. Not everyone knows what to do in a split second. If you haven’t made a bad snap judgment, you must not have made any snap decisions. McQueary didn’t act immediately, but he did act. Penn State officials were seasoned professionals who had time to think, confer and act on McQueary’s information. They chose to help Sandusky. Keeping McQueary quiet was part and parcel of their program.
Generally speaking, whistleblowers like Mike McQueary do not fare well. When a person decides to expose wrongdoing, he does not necessarily bring down the wrongdoer. But the odds are good that he will pay a price for his principles. The tellers of inconvenient truths are heroes to a small segment of society; to the rest they are gadflies, troublemakers or traitors. The truthtellers who become recognized heroes during their lifetimes are rare. Often, like Erin Brockovich – somewhat fictionalized in the film about her, by the way – these truthtellers are not whistleblowers at all, but people with a financial interest in exposing some wrongdoing. Brockovich, for instance, was working for the plaintiffs in a suit against Pacific Gas and Electric. She was doing her job, not putting her job in jeopardy, when she exposed PG&E’s contamination of groundwater. For every Erin Brockovich, there is a Karen Silkwood – someone who does the right thing and mysteriously ends up dead in a ditch by the side of the road. Posthumous celebrity is not all that satisfying. Whistleblower protection laws recognize that whistleblowers will suffer retaliation, but – particularly in the cases of those who expose government wrongdoing – the legal protections fall short. We may glamorize whistleblowers in film, but in fact we don’t usually treat them very well, especially in the short run. In our society, to a great extent, we follow the principle of “going along to get along.” That is the way the vast majority of people conduct themselves in their daily lives. Even people who try to “change the system” usually do so as a group effort. Many of them are heroic, but it is a shared heroism less than it is an individual effort. They “go along,” too, albeit in a much smaller group.
Of course we celebrate other kinds of heroes in fact and fiction. They are people who beat – or succumb to – long odds or who take great risks without regard to their own well-being. But if we look at our heroes, many of them have been martyrs. We list Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy as among our best presidents, but surely their rankings are enhanced by their martyrdom. The Congressional Medal of Honor, awarded for war-zone military service above and be yond the call of duty, goes to service members posthumously more often than to living heroes. There is a long tradition of exalting “the noble death” that may go back to prehistoric times. It no doubt arose out of military sacrifice, but philosophers tried to get in on this dubious form of nobility, too. Socrates, of course, is the great exemplar, but later philosophers emulated him. Seneca (the Younger) readily tried to comply when Nero ordered Seneca to kill himself, though Seneca’s efforts were something of a not-so-funny comedy of errors in which he eventually and accidentally succeeded. Martyrdom among Christians became so popular in the early centuries that the Roman Church declared suicide a mortal sin to discourage voluntary emulation of the Passion story.
Extraordinary acts of valor are by definition rare, so lesser feats are often overrated or exaggerated. Nowhere is this more true than in the glorification of sports “heroes.” Decades ago, Chicago columnist Mike Royko wrote a piece in which he tried to explain to the night washerwoman at his paper, an older lady with bad knees who got down on her hands and knees five nights a week to scrub floors for pitiable wages, why Mickey Mantle and other well-paid ballplayers were “heroes” for stepping up to the plate even when they were in pain. “Is that so, Mr. Royko?” the washerwoman repeated after each of Royko’s “amazing hero” tales. I’m with the washerwoman.
Maureen Dowd thought Mike McQueary – partly because of his appearance and partly because of his vocation – should be a classical hero. Since McQueary let her down, Dowd found another hero in Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who “ignored his security team and made a snap decision to run into a burning house to save his neighbor. He said his parents taught him to feel indebted to all the people who had sacrificed for his family. And he recoiled in law school at the idea that there was not always a legal obligation to help the vulnerable.” Booker’s act was indeed extraordinary. In a coda not intended to be ironical, Dowd ends her column with Booker’s remark,
We have to fight the dangerous streams in culture, the consumerism and narcissism and me-ism that erode the borders of our moral culture. We can’t put shallow celebrity before core decency. We have to have a deeper faith in the human spirit. As they say, he who has the heart to help has the right to complain.
Booker has capitalized on this particular act of heroism and might be accused of putting “shallow celebrity” first: he conducted a long press conference shortly after the event and made a humorous promotional video with New Jersey Mayor Chris Christie which referenced the event and played up his heroism. Shortly thereafter, he went on the teevee to moralize about the rectitude of venture capitalism, and after getting slammed for his remarks, went right back on to produce a video both backtracking and justifying his original remarks. I like Cory Booker. But he is human. And he is a politician, more heroic than most but just as self-serving. Self-promotion is part of his job description.
So at least for today, which is Father’s Day, I suggest we drop our usual understanding of heroism and consider the people we know – perhaps our own fathers – many of whom are quiet heroes, people who get up every day and do the right thing – going to work, taking care of their families, meeting their obligations without complaint and with little recognition. Running into burning buildings is remarkable, but people who do their best every day are, in the long run, my kind of heroes. Maureen Dowd will not commend them on the pages of the New York Times. Screenwriters will not memorialize them.
But my kind of heroes are real. And I celebrate them.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com