Tags: Cultural | Sewage

Cultural Sewage

Tuesday, 29 May 2001 12:00 AM

An obvious example is our entertainment media, which have become filled with loveless sex, gratuitous violence, blatant misogyny, and incessant profanity. Then there is TV news, especially local news, which now entertains and titillates rather than informs. But there are other examples.

Lawyers are now the butt of jokes, but my image of a lawyer was formed when I was a teen-ager and my father died. The estate was handled by a family friend. As a young lawyer, he had defended Tokyo Rose on treason charges. During World War II, this American citizen made propaganda broadcasts for the Japanese. After the war feelings were running high, and the government sought the death penalty. Despite damage to his career, this man took a most unpopular case — his principles triumphed over ambition and greed. He got her off with a life sentence, and years later she was released.

There are still many ethical lawyers. But the image today’s kids have of lawyering is not the solid professionalism of my youth, but the "Dream Team" style of mischaracterization of evidence and testimony, Clintonian disputation on the meaning of "is," and use of language to confuse rather than inform.

The unethical minority has overshadowed the ethical majority in the popular mind. This must affect how lawyers act — most people try to live up to others' expectations. And it must affect the quality of applicants to law schools. The perception tends to become self-fulfilling. A little sewage ruins the water.

Schools are the subject of much comment. Some schools are excellent; but universities are confronted with freshmen who need remedial classes in English or math. SAT scores have declined for a generation, but the test was "re-normed" to conceal the fall. A brave Harvard professor gives his students two grades, one the inflated grade for the official record, the other the grade the student really earned.

But how is he to compete with professors who give only inflated grades? Will his classes be as popular, or his evaluation by students as favorable? And if a college were brave enough to give only realistic grades, how many would apply there? Who would risk flunking out, when another college would give better grades for less work?

In a competitive world, honesty can be a disadvantage. An honest grader, like a truthful lawyer, would encounter serious problems when facing dishonest competitors. There is strong pressure to conform to the "norm" of dishonesty.

Murphy’s Law of Dilution applies not only to schools, but also to what they teach. "Dumbing down" has been much discussed, but another problem may be even worse. My father was a respected physician and family man, and I have tried to live up to his example. But what if I believed that he was a criminal who had abandoned us? My whole life might have been changed for the worse.

In past generations, kids were taught that the Founding Fathers were great men, and that America stood for freedom and other high ideals. Some of this was exaggerated, but kids need role models. Perhaps they even need illusions. Later in life, there is plenty of time to become disillusioned.

Scholars debate the causes of the Civil War, which were complex. But the end result was that one-third of a million white men died fighting for the Union, and slavery was ended. Biographers have varying views of Lincoln, but the bottom line was that he held the Union together, facilitated the end of slavery and was murdered as a result. Many school kids no longer are taught these facts, but instead acquire a negative view of America's history and its leaders.

As a kid, I gained self-esteem from what I accomplished and from what great Americans of the past had achieved. Today's schools claim to teach "self-esteem." Yet they de-emphasize competition and inflate grades, reducing the sense of individual accomplishment. And they denigrate America's history and its past leaders, eliminating the sense of being the bearer of a proud heritage. The schools are removing sources of genuine self-esteem, leaving only unearned self-adulation that leads to cynicism.

Cynicism about our nation's ideals and Founding Fathers can lead to contempt and anger, just as kids whose real fathers abandoned or failed them are often chronically angry. Fatherless males are more likely to become criminals — might this also apply to males who were taught that their nation's founders were contemptible?

The two killers at Columbine High School gave the Nazi salute and observed Hitler's birthday. Clearly they didn't respect American ideals or observe Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays. Cynicism and anger are poor substitutes for a sense of having to live up to a proud heritage. Again, sewage makes the water foul and unsafe for young people.

This befouling affects not only our perception of reality, but also our view of symbols. Currently there is pressure to remove the Confederate battle flag from state flags and public flagpoles. It is understandable that some would object to a flag they believe stood for the continuation of slavery. Yet many people claim that the Civil War wasn't about ending slavery but about "economics." If so, the Union troops who fought and died deserve no thanks, and America deserves no credit.

Well, which is it? If the war wasn’t about slavery, but merely about "economics," the Confederate flag should be no more objectionable than a flag displaying a dollar sign. But if the flag is objectionable, then the war must have been about slavery, and the debt owed to those who died fighting it must be repaid by gratitude. Of course, if the waters are muddied by intellectual sewage, these facts are obscured. We are still left with our anger about slavery and other past wrongs, but we have no feeling of gratitude for those who risked everything to put them right. Angry ingrates make poor citizens of a free nation.

For a generation, we have been pouring sewage into our entertainment, our professions, our politics, our schools, and even our history. Let us take care not to add more sewage to our national life, lest we discover too late that sewage is all we have left.

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An obvious example is our entertainment media, which have become filled with loveless sex, gratuitous violence, blatant misogyny, and incessant profanity. Then there is TV news, especially local news, which now entertains and titillates rather than informs. But there are...
Tuesday, 29 May 2001 12:00 AM
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