Tale of American Betrayal Epitomizes Moral Danger
Published on Sunday, June 1, 2003 by the Baltimore Sun
Tale of American Betrayal Epitomizes Moral Danger
by Andrew Bard Schmookler

HISTORY, AS we know it, consists of the stories we choose to tell about ourselves. Since so much happens, we have to choose which, from the wealth of events, to hold before our eyes.

Consider the story - from 40 years ago - of Kitty Genovese, a woman knifed to death in New York City by a stalker. What made America seize upon this otherwise commonplace story of city crime was that her murder, which unfolded for the better part of an hour, took place beneath the windows of two high-rise apartment buildings whose dwellers heard her screams but did nothing. They didn't even call the police.

It was a terrible and disturbing story, and America held it up as a mirror for itself for that very reason. "What kind of a society are we becoming," we Americans used the story to ask ourselves, "when people feel so separate they regard such a woman's plight as none of their business?" Our attention to that story - in sermons, in articles, eventually even in an opera - served to help America address the problem of anomie that it revealed.

In April, we heard a new story that also reveals an essential moral failing in America today. It warrants the same attention that Kitty Genovese's story received, but after watching for a few days, America yawned and moved on. I refer to the story of sacrifice and betrayal at American Airlines.

You remember: American Airlines, on the verge of bankruptcy, prevailed upon its unions to sacrifice a hefty chunk of their members' wages to save the company. The unions agreed. Then word got out that, even as they were calling upon the company's more humble workers to sacrifice, the highest executives of the airline were feathering their own nests. They had given themselves big bonuses, and they had guaranteed that they would get their big pensions even if the company went belly-up.

In the face of the unions' rage, the airline's management first apologized for its "error in judgment." When that did not suffice, the resignation of the company's CEO was offered as a sacrificial gesture.

Like Kitty Genovese's abandonment by her neighbors, this tale of corporate betrayal reveals a profound moral danger besetting American society. "What kind of a society will we become," it bids us ask, "if our leaders care only about feathering their own nests?"

This problem of the moral degradation of America's ruling elite was noted several years ago by John B. Judis in his book The Paradox of American Democracy. A few generations ago, Mr. Judis argued, those in America who occupied powerful positions believed themselves obliged to use that power to serve the common good. But over the past generation or two, he wrote, this ethic of public service has been swallowed up by unethical self-service.

Little could be more dangerous for a society than for its leaders - public and private - to betray the trust of those who depend upon them. So why has this American Airlines story - which we could use to help us confront this danger - so quickly vanished?

Is it because - after Enron and other previous betrayals - it seems like nothing new? Whether news or not, this problem remains unfinished business.

How unfinished it is can be seen almost daily in the way the most powerful of private interests influence our supposedly democratic public institutions:

  • The legal settlement with the big brokerage houses - who had betrayed the small investors to enrich themselves with lucrative investment banking deals - that left those companies still profiting from their unethical conduct.
  • The awarding of lucrative contracts to close cronies of our elected leaders.
  • A pattern of public policies that give to the haves and neglect the have-nots.

    Is our failure to focus on a story such as that of American Airlines due to our nation's pre-eminent storytellers - the corporate-owned mass media - not wanting us to look too closely at the moral danger to America embodied by this tale?

    Better for us to talk about a man who may have killed his pregnant wife than about the corruption of our ruling elite.

    Better for us to regard private sexual immorality - rather than public policies that comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted - as the stuff of leadership scandals.

    What we learn about ourselves depends on the stories we hold before our eyes.

    Andrew Bard Schmookler is a writer who teaches American studies at the Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico.

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