Is ‘So What?’ the Answer to All Our Scandals?

By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York Newsday, December 2, 1986

I hear the question frequently now: “Why isn’t the public more outraged about corruption and deceit in high places?”

Although the question, when posed in New York City, is often directed at the spreading municipal corruption scandal in the Koch administration, the askers also include in their puzzlement the lack of a grass-roots outcry over chicanery in Washington — everything from official “disinformation” to influence-peddling by former White House aides like Michael Deaver and Lyn Nofziger to the selling of votes in Congress for campaign contributions.

I’m never quite sure that those who ask about the absence of popular indignation really expect an answer — or even want one. One of the ironies is that the askers seem to regard themselves as separate from the all-purpose “public” — instead of looking for answers in the interiors of their own minds.

In any event, pundits who write for newspapers don’t have any swift answers, either. So the reason for doing this column is to grope for some thoughts.

First, it has to be noted that, in fact, the front pages of late are replete with outrage — this over the Reagan administration’s now-exposed program of selling arms secretly to Iran and sending some of the money, by equally covert methods, to the anti-government contras in Nicaragua.

But this is an outrage born of stirred memories of Watergate and Nixon’s coverup and impeachment proceedings. A year’s worth of influence-peddling couldn’t have raised this reaction.

Don’t we really care very much about powerful people, in both public and private places, breaking laws and cutting corners to make easy money? Did we used to care more, in some earlier generation?

To both, I don’t know. But I wonder if Americans haven’t mutated into a society inured to scamming and skimming. It’s no accident that “Dallas”, “Dynasty” and “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” are very popular television shows.

Are we truly indignant about insider trading on Wall Street or merely envious of those who can get away with it? If a shrewd trader can pay a $100-million fine and still live like a Mogul king, are we not just a wee bit enticed by the prospect even as we grumble about his sleaziness?

Has the visibility and sheer size of the big-money-to-be-made caused America’s eyes to bulge with the possibilities? The thought sometimes occurs that maybe the quantity of riches conveyed into everyone’s living room — by television and newspapers — has altered the quality of our attitudes to some degree.

You hear a lot of talk these days about the need to restore family values, to bring ethics into the classroom. But some of these people talking values and ethics don’t always seem to have much of an acquaintance with them.

You also hear a lot of talk about how America was wearied by Vietnam and Watergate, that the country lost its sense of pride and confidence, and that as a result we have lowered our expectations of the officials we elect and of the governments they then run.

Maybe so. We have a president who smiles and waves a lot at us and pinches our cheeks and lives pretty much in retirement. And we have a mayor in New York who will go anywhere to be on television, even to World Series games he does not enjoy watching.

So perhaps we do ask less of our leadership than we used to. It seems at times that we require little more of them than to amuse and entertain us and take away some of our anxiety — that is, make us a little less uneasy in a world that seems too complex and sometimes threatening and coming very near to us. It’s all too much for us, we may be saying to them — please reassure us and make us feel good.

We don’t seem to be demanding that they run the machinery of government well or produce thoughtful policies. We also don’t seem to be insisting that the policies be fair to all segments of our society.

You almost never hear a public official say anything about the needs of the working class anymore. They’re not fashionable — those factory workers and small farmers and store clerks. Maybe, in our new age of conservatism, “working class” has the tainted ring of a socialist phrase. But shouldn’t we try to “conserve” these people, too?

I have noticed, in poverty-ridden Third World countries where I lived for a time, that when the scales of unfairness tipped too far in favor of the affluent and powerful, the usually acquiescent poor sometimes lost their docility and developed a capacity for protest. Are we — in our much more prosperous world — losing sight of the balance of equity necessary in a society that depends for its progress on at least the opportunity for fairness?

Other questions: What if fairness and equity and ethics should break down or become badly frayed here? Even if we do not get outraged at the behavior of our leadership, will we not lose respect for ourselves?

As you can see, I have many more questions than answers.

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