Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Leadership Failure? Try Decency

The time for euphemisms is running out. What we are seeing is more like a social meltdown.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning economic journalist writes about “The epic global leadership fail,” but the symptoms he cites, along with so many others, add up to a loss of the moral responsibility that used to be taken for granted as common decency:

“The global financial system teeters on the edge of collapse because European politicians refused to tell citizens of their crumbling economies that they could no longer guarantee them ‘la dolce vita’-- the sweet life--they had come to expect.

“Top executives at Olympus, one of Japan’s leading companies, resign in shame after acknowledging that for nearly 20 years they used a complex accounting scheme to hide billions of dollars in speculative trading losses.

“A revered coach and a respected president at Penn State are fired because they were more concerned about protecting their own reputations, and that of their school, than protecting young boys from an alleged sexual predator.

“And a former governor, senator and head of Goldman Sachs resigns as chief executive of MF Global after bankrupting the broker-dealer with overleveraged bets on European sovereign bonds.”

Yet this is only the tip of a moral iceberg as traditional values sink below what the late sociologist turned Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed two decades ago:

“We are getting used to a lot of behavior that is not good for us,” he wrote in 1993 in his now-famous American Scholar article, “Defining Deviancy Down,” arguing that society keeps adjusting for the amount of unacceptable conduct it can tolerate.

He pointed out that, in 1929, the killing of seven gangsters in Chicago became the stuff of legend while half a century later “Los Angeles has the equivalent of a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre every weekend.”

This weekend, we see a new low in the Republican race to the bottom with contenders condoning torture, attacking Iran, waging economic warfare with China (which could crash our economy by dumping our debt), anything to appeal to a primitive Tea Party minority that hates Barack Obama with religious fervor.

In this moral mess, Newt Gingrich, who cheated on two wives, tried to impeach Bill Clinton for sexual misbehavior and was the only House Speaker ever censured for corruption, now takes the lead in the polls while Herman Cain parades his family for Fox News to prove his moral probity in the face of evidence that points otherwise.

If Gingrich and Cain are the answers to America’s problems, what are the questions?

We learn about “honest graft” in Congress’ insider trading as its debt reduction panel begins to duck out from a Thanksgiving deadline and invite more economic chaos in an election year.

Deviancy has been redefined out of sight, taking decency along with it. Leadership may be failing, but shouldn't we be taking a closer look at our followership as well?

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