Out and About (Sort of): No Longer Surprised by Howard Freedlander

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New Zealand shooting
Academic scam
Jack Evans in DC

Mass murder, academic bribery and self-dealing by a District of Columbia city councilman– where does it stop? Who, or what is responsible?

We seem to have become inured to senseless human tragedy and severe ethical lapses. Cynicism has taken root.

We no longer seem surprised. That’s worrisome.

Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, in a rambling, theatrical sermon a few weeks ago at the 150th anniversary of the Diocese of Easton, preached that love of your neighbor and yourself would make God’s world free of bigotry, hatred and violence. His message is universal. It speaks to our “better angels.”

Sadly, it is unrealistic.

He was preaching to the choir. His 40-minute oration offered hope in a world filled with heinous intolerance. He offered humor and pathos. He revved up the troops to go out into the world as witnesses of goodness and grace.

The New Zealand shooter was driven by hatred against Muslims. He cared nothing about others who were different than he. He expressed his inner loathing through a deadly weapon.

At the other end of the spectrum is the troubling academic scam in which wealthy parents spent exorbitant amounts of money to gain entry for their children into elite universities. For them, everything had a price. Ethics be damned. Since they were devoted to their children and the power of money, the admissions process was fair game. Go for it.

“Love your neighbor” is meaningless to the NZ murderer and the ruthless parents of some college applicants. Bishop Curry’s words are worthless to those transfixed on mischief and mayhem. In the case of the parents offering bribes, fairness is the victim. In the case of the hate-filled shooter, love of, and respect for your fellow man are empty concepts.

So, it’s easy to rail about moral decay. In recent weeks, longtime friends have bemoaned our cultural degradation. They are concerned, as I am.

Rick Singer, accused in academic scam.

What do we do to reverse the moral rot?

I did some research. I’m not sure I came up with any profound answers or insights.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, speaking last May at the Rice University graduation, focused on the school’s honor code and called for honesty and accountability.  In striving to be honest, one would be honorable and refuse to accept political dishonesty and partisan spin. Simply, Bloomberg sought a higher standard of behavior than exists in the polluted public arena.

Bloomberg said, “When elected officials speak as though they are above the truth, they will act as though they are above the law. And when we tolerate dishonesty, we will get criminality. Sometimes, it’s in the form of corruption. Sometimes, it’s abuse of power. And sometimes, it’s both. If left unchecked, these abuses can erode the institutions that preserve and protect our rights and freedoms and open the door to tyranny and fascism.”

Pointing to the danger of partisanship and tribalism, Bloomberg said, “The more people segregate themselves by party, the harder it becomes to understand the other side and the more extreme each party grows. Studies show that people become more extreme in their views when they are grouped together with like-minded people.”

I’ve written before about the self-imposed restraints we place ourselves when we fail to listen to people with opposite views. We often demonize those who think differently than we. We remain cloistered. Our minds become closed.

We might shutter our hearts and push friends and family away.

Speaking in November 2005 on NPR about his newly published book, “Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis,” former President Jimmy Carter, a devout Baptist, condemned religious fundamentalists who believe they are right and chide those who don’t agree. He also pointed to the disillusionment with, and distrust of Washington politics. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Carter said,” In religious circles, fundamentalists are always powerful men who consider themselves superior to all others, superior to women with the subservience or subjugation of women. They consider themselves—a fundamentalist does—to be inherently directly related to God. Therefore, their beliefs are God’s beliefs, and anyone who disagrees with them at all have to be wrong or even inferior.”

The theme espoused by Carter underscores our society’s chronic lack of listening and dearth of compassion for those who think and act differently. Violence can result. So can corruption: our “better angels” have no audience in our souls.

Some speak about the widening gap in social and economic differences between the uber-wealthy, the shrinking middle class and the low-income people in our country. The opportunities for folks to gather in churches, civic groups and community activities seem to have diminished; people with similar political or cultural affinities associate only with themselves.

A sense of community diminishes.

When I think about the hate-filled shooter in New Zealand and his killing of 50 Muslim worshipers, the disgusting academic bribery and the unethical, self-enriching conduct of Washington, DC Councilman Jack Evans— I am appalled.

How do we become surprised again at outrageous behavior?

If I were to wage verbal war against cynicism, I would be tilting at windmills, overshadowed by naïveté. But just suppose that normal behavior meant being honest, expecting honorable conduct from our religious, political and corporate leaders and determining that college admission is not for sale, I wonder if moral decay, at the very least, might not spread and infect our culture.

This subject is fraught. What I consider rotten, someone else may view as normal. What I bemoan, others may commend and characterize as the human condition.

I am stumped. Unsurprisingly so.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.  

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