[FoRK] Personal responsibility... out of fashion

Adam L Beberg beberg at mithral.com
Thu Apr 14 11:35:44 PDT 2005

[ObSouthPark] Blame Canada!


Personal responsibility waning, experts say

Tue Apr 12, 4:10 PM ET

By Steven Thomma, Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON - Simple and direct like the man who put it there, it was a 
bold statement that summed up his approach to leadership and represented 
a value of the generation that helped him build a new America after 
World War II.

"The Buck Stops Here," said the no-nonsense sign on President Harry 
Truman's desk. Today, it sits in a Missouri museum. And with it perhaps 
the sentiment it represented.

It was more than a slogan. The notion of accepting responsibility 
without passing the buck or blaming others when things went wrong was 
central to the work ethic and moral tone of the time.

By contrast today, almost none of the leaders of the country's great 
institutions ever step forward and take responsibility for failure or 
even honest mistakes. It is sometimes imposed by others, notably juries, 
but less so by the broader American society and virtually never invoked 
voluntarily in politics, business, religion or popular culture.

In government, for example, no one was held responsible for major 
failures in intelligence in either the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks 
or what former CIA Director George Tenet called the "slam dunk" 
conclusion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Instead, President 
Bush awarded Tenet the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian 

In business, Worldcom CEO Bernard Ebber's defense against criminal 
charges was that the boss isn't really responsible for his company. A 
jury didn't agree and convicted him.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the man who presided over the country's 
worst sexual-abuse scandal, Boston Archbishop Bernard Law, eventually 
resigned his American office. But he retains his higher status as a 
cardinal, is well regarded in the Vatican where he now works and will 
soon be one of the elites who choose a new pope.

In popular entertainment, bad behavior once routinely punished on screen 
now can be excused or celebrated. In the 1960 movie "Oceans 11," for 
example, rogues led by Frank Sinatra don't get to keep their stolen 
money. In the 2001 remake, thieves led by George Clooney get away with 
the cash.

Historians, philosophers, political scientists and sociologists cite 
many reasons for the decline of an ethic of responsibility in America 
over recent decades, including:

- A culture of narcissism or self-absorption;

- The rise of celebrity worship and entitlement;

- The distractions of the war on terrorism.

Whatever the reasons, most experts agree that how people feel about 
their obligations has changed, particularly for those in positions of 
power and influence.

"Responsibility is waning. The strong sense of holding people 
responsible is getting more and more difficult," said Joan McGregor, a 
philosopher at Arizona State University. "We still hold people 
responsible all the time in a legal sense. But in a moral sense, it's as 
though no one is responsible any more."

It wasn't always so, particularly in the brief period during and after 
World War II when the country was dominated by what Tom Brokaw would 
later call the Greatest Generation.

When enormously popular Gen. Douglas MacArthur disobeyed presidential 
orders, Truman fired him, risking his own political standing.

President John F. Kennedy took "sole responsibility" a few months into 
office when the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs turned into a 
debacle. He fired the CIA director and deputy who initiated the plan.

But American society changed in the second half of the 20th century, 
much for the better, some for the worse.

Post-World War II affluence produced a mobile society, one that tore up 
the roots of closely bound ethnic communities in central cities. Many 
moved to suburbs where neighbors didn't automatically know neighbors and 
didn't necessarily share the same culture. People didn't feel as 
responsible to strangers as they did to those who'd known them - and 
might judge them.

The divorce rate shot up. The number of people living alone escalated. 
As Robert Putnam noted in his landmark 1995 book, "Bowling Alone," the 
number of people who bowled rose, but the number who did so in organized 
leagues dropped. The fabric of American culture highlighted by 
membership in organizations, noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 
1830s, came apart.

"People begin to live in a way where they don't share a lot of symbolic 
meaning with the people near them," said the Rev. John Staudenmaier, 
S.J., a historian at the University of Detroit Mercy. "They don't want 
to share. They don't come from a world where the commitments you make 
bind you."

Popular culture echoed the changes with the rise of the anti-hero. The 
voluntary Hays Code, which prohibited movies from glamorizing crime, was 
dropped. So was the Television Code, with its prohibition against 
showing criminal behavior being rewarded. Even the Comics Code 
Authority, with its requirement that good must always win, faded.

Americans adopted a new post-1960s attitude that society - not the 
individual - was to blame for errant behavior. They created no-fault 
divorce and no-fault auto insurance. Increasingly, they also turned to 
lawsuits to blame others for their own choices.

Former President Bill Clinton personified the trend.

When first accused of having an affair with a former White House intern, 
he angrily denied it and then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton blamed a 
"vast right-wing conspiracy." After he was caught lying under oath to 
conceal the affair, he lashed out at the politics of personal 
destruction. In his presidential library, he avoids personal 
responsibility and devotes most of an exhibit on his impeachment to 
blaming Republicans for trying to unseat him.

By the time he launched his presidential campaign in June 1999, George 
W. Bush, too, saw a problem.

"My first goal is to usher in the responsibility era, an era that stands 
in stark contrast to the last few decades, where our culture has said: 
If it feels good, do it, and if you've got a problem, blame someone 
else," Bush said. "Each American must understand that we are responsible 
for the decision each of us makes in life."

But he hasn't taken responsibility for failures in his government, nor 
has he assigned it to those who work for him.

To be sure, finding people responsible for failure during wartime is 
sometimes controversial.

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was constantly second-guessed by 
congressional committees. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee said one of 
those committees was worth two divisions to his side.

After Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, the government investigated and 
punished several senior military officials. Similarly, at the height of 
World War II, then-Sen. Truman led an investigation into war 
profiteering by American businesses, exposing shoddy work and saving 
billions of dollars and thousands of lives.

After the United States was attacked in 2001, Bush resisted attempts to 
find flaws in the nation's intelligence or security apparatus. Once he 
relented, investigations found fault, but Bush didn't assign 
responsibility or take it.

Investigations also faulted intelligence services for wrongly stating 
that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the United States 
invaded. Again, Bush didn't assign responsibility or take it.

In fact, policymakers who expressed skepticism about parts of the 
administration's case for war weren't asked to return for Bush's second 
term, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy, 
Richard Armitage.

Those who publicly or privately trumpeted the false intelligence were 
either retained or promoted, including Defense Secretary Donald H. 
Rumsfeld; then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice; her former 
deputy, Stephen J. Hadley; and Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of 
staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

After it was revealed that prisoners were abused in the Abu Ghraib 
prison in Iraq, Bush condemned the practice. Rumsfeld offered to resign, 
but Bush rejected the offer.

At a recent congressional hearing, a senior military investigator said 
top U.S. officials had failed to set clear rules for interrogating 
prisoners, but he added that it wasn't his role to assign responsibility.

In business, high-flying, highly paid executives presided over a 
corporate culture that some critics likened to the Gilded Age of the 
late 1800s.

"The CEO became a cult hero," said Todd Gitlin, a sociologist at 
Columbia University. "The CEO class came to believe what the cover 
stories said about them, that they were sublime geniuses who made vast 
amounts of difference in the success of their companies."

When Worldcom's Ebbers claimed he wasn't responsible for financial 
crimes committed at his company - a defense other indicted executives 
planned to use - it signaled what Gitlin called a moral collapse.

"If you think that being the CEO and being rewarded gets you off a hook 
rather than on it, then your moral principle is that ignorance is 
bliss," Gitlin said.

One thing that's allowed the powerful to abandon responsibility is lack 
of societal pressure. In 1996, Republican presidential candidate Bob 
Dole discovered that voters were uninterested in fund-raising abuses at 
the Clinton White House. "Where's the outrage?" Dole repeatedly complained.

Gitlin attributes it to the cult of personality. "There's been a 
metastasis of celebrity," he said. "Celebrity is taken to be a moral 
position. To be a celebrity is to transcend mere categories of good and 

Staudenmaier, the historian, said people are distracted. He suggested 
that's what happened in the Roman Catholic Church.

"When you're paying more attention to the definition of doctrinal 
correctness, which has been the case for 20 years, you find people 
looking past the question of whether people are doing a good job with 
the power," he said.

At the same time, he said, Americans became more exclusively focused on 
profits in business and on the war on terror in government.

Said Staudenmaier: "You take your eye off the ball and you get bad 

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