When Society’s Values Go Awry

One little recognized fact in the history of the founding of the nation is the behavior of its founders. These people contributed many things on their best days and conducted themselves shockingly bad on their worst days. By today’s standards these historical heroes were bad boys doing good deeds. How do we explain this paradox?

From Alexander Hamilton to Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy, we are served by Foundersgood people, doing good work. Their careers may lay in ruins but we all lost something essentially important—further potential good work.

As heroes fall, we need to understand why they toppled at the pinnacle of their careers, making their greatest contributions. The more public the personality the more we scrutinize their lives. This may explain why the “best and brightest” among us do not choose public service. What benefits are we denied as a society when the best refuse to serve? Further, how do we define the honorable person? What is integrity? How is it defined and interpreted? How are ethics reconciled to practical events in the real world? How far off the reservation can a public servant go before being excluded from public service?

I like to think that, by experience, we know what we can get away with in any given circumstance, but often expectations of behavior change and what was once acceptable, may not be any longer.

These questions become particularly important as we explore the efficiency and efficacy of “street level bureaucrats.” Public servants make judgments and take action on a moment’s notice without the benefit of legal counsel or “groupthink.” When things go wrong, the on-scene “command” decisions are then evaluated at length by a jury of one’s peers who were not there and not under pressure—the classic Monday Morning Quarterbacks.

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We admire genius and accept the flaws of real people. Yet, we fail to understand that these geniuses are real people elevated only marginally above the rest of us. Those placed on pedestals fall hard when flaws are discovered. We act as if we never knew they existed—or maybe we never wanted to know. Wouldn’t it be a perfect world if everyone was of perfect character, particularly everyone trusted with our respect and hero worship; especially those in the public sector, our civil servants and politicians, and yes, even sports legends and religious leaders, military leaders and celebrities?

Unfortunately, they are like us—less than perfect, indeed, flawed; so, should we accept them as is or reject them when flaws become public scandal—as they surely must eventually? Can we find a middle road between acceptance and rejection; and is redemption within the scope of society?

We can begin to understand the flaws of current political, military and religious leaders when we understand flaws in historical figures that came before them. Even the founding fathers, who we are taught to admire, engaged in unsavory political conspiracies, were plagued with drinking and drugs, engaged in illegal and unethical dealings in business, politics, their personal affairs, and international relations. Does not sound too different from today’s public leaders. However, they were also bright and courageous people leading a new nation in an uncertain and hostile world. When we read of their exploits, some admirable, some not, they are still our Founding Fathers nevertheless. We are stuck with them whatever they did, right or wrong. What if they had been sent away before their greatest contributions materialized?

When a great leader falls, shouldn’t we offer forgiveness and carefully return him or her to a position where genius or at least good skills may continue to benefit society? Even if we also provide some protection from further falls? What is the price of redemption? What is the price of failing to allow a person his or her personal redemption? We cannot calculate the price of the loss of their services because their contributions do not exist after they are deposed.


Submitted by Michael Popejoy

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