[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
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
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
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,
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
"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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