10 November 2011

The Teaching of Tribalism

There are many young people demonstrating in the world today. All across the US and in many other nations people are building the Occupy Movement. In London, today, students are being attacked, as they ask for access to education, by the morally-challenged London Metropolitan Police and their own government.

But in State College, Pennsylvania last night there was an unusual demonstration. At least a few thousand students at the Pennsylvania State University came out into the streets to demonstrate their support for child sexual abuse and those who allow that crime to continue.

Penn State students attack the press for reporting about child sexual abuse

The students from Penn State would complain. They are, they will say, not supporting child sexual abuse at all. Rather, they are exhibiting loyalty. But that's the thing. These students are insisting that because Joe Paterno coached "their" team to 409 wins, because he has given "their" school much money, because Joe Paterno's iconic stature is important to them, Paterno's "dignity" is more important than the abuse of children.

It is a horrendous moral calculus, but not an unfamiliar one. Look at the Catholic Church. Look at the executives and staff of the corporations which destroyed the global economy. Look at Barack Obama's basketball loyalty to Arne Duncan. Look at the behavior of Donna Shalala at the University of Miami (Florida).

"Big-time athletic programs are not entirely unlike nation-states," Kate Fagan writes at Philly.com, "Everyone wears the colors, says the pledge, and sings the school anthem. Everyone worships the logo, recites the fight song, and reports up the chain of command."

Teaching tribalism. We do it all the time. In secondary school after secondary school across the United States we mix our national symbols with our local tribal symbols. And in both cases, our goal is to build tribal loyalty, and yes, tribal loyalty means that nothing is more important than "us" against "them."

Does it matter if them is "the Soviet Union" as it was in my childhood, or "Iran" or "Saddam Hussein's Iraq" or "Venezuela"? Or, for those banging around "Beaver Canyon" (a headline writer's dream) last night, the University of Nebraska? No, "brand loyalty" - tribal loyalty - skews the most basic morality which allows humans to share this planet.

It might be Katie Couric gushing over Navy Seals and breathlessly encouraging a war on Iraqis in 2003, or it might be Mike McQueary doing nothing after witnessing the brutal rape of a ten-year-old by a tribal elder in 2002. It might be The New York Times reprinting Dick Cheney's propaganda word for word, or it might be no one at Enron, or AIG, or Bank of America standing up and saying, "this is wrong" and reporting crimes in progress. Whatever, we teach our children - and you can watch those children in action on video from last night in State College, Pennsylvania - a twisted view of the world in which institutions matter more than people.

American children pledge allegiance
to their flag, 1930s
A friend of mine from the Netherlands, on her first trip to the United States, went to visit an elementary school. She came back to our big old house in Midwood, Brooklyn that afternoon shaking. "What's the matter?" I asked. "When I got there in the morning," she told me, "they made all of these little children stand up and chant some kind of loyalty oath!" She was horrified. "I've never seen anything like it except in films of the occupation." By "occupation," of course, she meant the German occupation of her nation during World War II.

Sometimes we need to hear these kinds of discordant observations. I never liked the "Pledge of Allegiance," I refused to say it once I hit seventh grade. Vietnam and then Chile and all. But I never connected it to the brutality of Naziism until Maria came from Amsterdam and held up a mirror.

I'm not claiming to be immune. Tribal loyalties - New Rochelle, NY. Bohemia and the Czech Republic. Ireland. Arsenal. The Derry City Football Club, the New York Mets, the New York Jets, the soon-to-be-Brooklyn Nets, the New York Rangers. I'm an American. I'm a New Rochelle High School Huguenot through and through. An Isaac E. Young [Middle School] Knight. I'll always be, conceptually, a member of the New York City Police Department. And yes, I am a Spartan, with deep if conflicted loyalties to a university where I have spent many years of my life.

Yes, as much as I want to remember being proud of Tom Izzo's willingness to kick his point guards off the team when necessary or to accept his own suspension for "minor" recruiting misdeeds of an assistant coach, as much as I quote Jud Heathcote's line after they lost an NCAA tournament game to a Georgia Tech shot taken two seconds after the final buzzer - "if you can be beaten by one referee mistake," Heathcote said, "you weren't far enough ahead" - I have also cheered for the football teams led by by the deeply ethically challenged George Perles, when we all knew he was bad for our university. I probably let myself wonder if Derry City really needed to get relegated for cheating on all their player contracts in 2009. I'm sure I find reason to defend NYPD officers at times when I should not. I haven't complained much about public money being wasted on Citifield or the Barclays Centre. All of those ethical lapses are part of the same socially constructed cultures which makes me listen to football games in the middle of the work day, or look up to see how Ray Rice has done each Sunday.

Fagan, then a 21-year-old University of Colorado basketball player, relates her role speaking to an NBC reporter regarding the conversion of female students into prostitutes to lure athletic recruits to Boulder. "As a 21-year-old in Boulder, I couldn't see the humanity - the women whose lives had been damaged - standing just outside our black-and-gold athletic gates. I pulled on my CU letter jacket and refused to understand why a few women wanted to destroy our athletic family. I explained to NBC that our sports teams were shiny and clean. Anyone claiming otherwise didn't understand what we stood for." She couldn't see the humanity, because she'd been trained in loyalty.

Fagan was, I'm sure, even then much more coherent than this Penn State undergrad commenting on YouTube, "Im guessing you didnt go to penn state cause you obviously have no idea. The things hes done for this university way out does anything bad that he has done in this case. The fact that he has taken this school from a small farming school that nobody has ever heard of to one of the best academic schools in the nation is remarkable. Penn State would barely even be a school if it werent for him. He has every right to feel that he is being mistreated because he is," but the impact of the university's training was the same: A moral calculus which means those you've been taught to deify need not conform to the rules, which means that almost any crime is secondary to your institutional loyalty, which means you no more go outside of the chain of command at your company or your school than you would if you were in the Mafia.

Loyalty is not all bad. Loyalty is essential to human society. But loyalty should never be taught as somehow involving unquestioning, or lack of doubting, or shutting off our moral compasses. As I asked yesterday, what would Mike McQueary have had to see happening in Penn State's football building that would have gotten him to call 9-1-1? The rape of a ten-year-old was not enough for this 26-year-old, steeped in PSU's concepts of loyalty, to over-ride his faith in a God-like Paterno and get him to pick up his phone. "McQueary locked eyes with the "boy" and Sandusky briefly and then quickly left the room" (says the Grand Jury report). What if he had seen a ten-year-old being stabbed to death? Would he still have walked away, gone home, talked to daddy and JoePa? And what about Paterno himself? What would McQueary have had to tell him to get him to dial 9-1-1? Maybe, "there are eight boys buried under our practice field"? How horrendous a crime would it have had to be for Paterno to move loyalty to Pennsylvania State University into 'second place'?

Germany, 1934-1945 - how could people not know?

When this involves others, we shake our heads. How could Germans in the 1930s and 1940s not have known? How could police officerscover up crimes? How could those guys at Enronhave slept at night?

And now it is time to stop shaking our heads, and to start asking questions of ourselves. It is time to take the kind of stock of ourselves which brought Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny to the floor of the Dail this summer, to discuss Ireland's deep tribal ties to the Catholic Church. It is time to assert that loyalty is great, but we must be very careful about how we teach it. This is, perhaps, a speech everyone at Penn State, and everyone involved in school athletics, maybe everyone involved in education, needs to listen to this week.

There have been few loyalties as binding as that between the Irish people and the Catholic Church,
and yet, the protection of children must matter more.

We owe our children more. We really do.

- Ira Socol

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