I find, to my surprise, that I have something to say about Joe Paterno.
Not, I admit, that YHB is likely to add anything to the best thing written on the topic, which is clearly the title of John Scalzi’s note over at his Whatever. Not the note, which was superfluous, really, after the title, but the title pretty much sums it up.
But since everybody is writing about it, I find myself reading a lot about it, and as I say, I find myself with a thing to add to all of it.
What started me, I suppose, was really a Robert Kuttner note called Blame Where It’s Not Due, over at TAPped, which I found troubling enough to go and find the WSJ editorial it is talking about. The text doesn’t appear to be available on-line, so I can’t really make the case, and that isn’t really what I wanted to write about anyway, but I feel that Mr. Kuttner is misreading the article. I don’t think (as Mr. Kuttner does) that the WSJ intends to blame the media for the end of Mr. Paterno’s career—it sneers a bit at media moralizing, sure, but it is pretty clear that Mr. Paterno is paying for that lapse in judgment, and the tone, I infer, is that it is just that he do so.
No, the problem I have with the WSJ editorial is that they screw up their legitimate point, that is, that Mr. Paterno’s legacy is now both the cover-up of child abuse and the achievement of decades of winning football, and in addition the various aspects of his good works at Penn State and in State College, which were many. Had he not covered up the child abuse and by doing so almost certainly enabled more child abuse, the legacy would have been overwhelmingly positive (not entirely, but overwhelmingly), but he did, and so it isn’t. And that is, as the WSJ points out is an occasion for sadness. A legitimate point, as I say, and the thing that they screw up is that they leave it at that, as if this occasion for sadness can teach us nothing about the world. Or, that it can teach us only the wrong thing—they close their note with the regret that people may learn “that no one who achieves prominence in public life can be honorable”.
The lesson, it seems to Your Humble Blogger, is that people are rarely entirely good, and that we need to be able to still celebrate the achievements of flawed people. Or even bad people, people who have overwhelmingly done damage to the world rather than good—even there, we need to be able to acknowledge that the good in them exists alongside the evil and always has. We should be able to say: Joe Paterno did these good things, and these bad things, had these aspirations and met them and fell short of them, and so on and so forth, and all those things are still true.
It’s hard to remember that about people. People are capable of great good and great evil, of banality and wit and kindness and small-mindedness, and you don’t ever get to the end of anybody. Do you know anybody really great, any person whose essential kindness, thoughtfulness and compassion has always impressed you? Is that person capable of evil? You bet your ass he is. Does that mean that your friend isn’t kind and thoughtful and compassionate? No, that’s nonsense; she is what she is. All of it. So are you. So am I. All of what we are. Joe Paterno is still the man he was last week, still the man he was a decade ago when he failed to follow up on an accusation of rape, still the man who donated a zillion dollars to help educate not only his players but his fans, still an obsessive winner, still a staple of the NCAA culture of exploitation, excitement, character-building, greed and triumph. Still capable of surprising everyone, as everyone is.
You know, someone on NPR during all this (and I don’t know who or when) said that there has never been a university so identified with one person, never been a combination of institution and individual like Penn State and Joe Paterno. And I thought to myself: that’s a problem, right there.
And although I was thinking that it was a problem because he was a football coach, in fact I think it was just a problem because he was a person. The lesson, I think, that the WSJ and Mr. Kuttner and Mr. Scalzi and poor Joe Posnanski and Jacky Parker and Cardinal Bernard Law and Joe Paterno himself and all of us should be taking away from all of this is that we are all heroes with feet of clay, and that we need to remember that while we are lauding the laudable and while we are reprehending the reprehensible. Nobody should be above the law, nobody should be above society’s norms, and nobody should be assumed to be flawless. We shouldn’t trust that the people at the top are without stain and seeing their stains shouldn’t blind us to their greatness. We shouldn’t pretend that they are entirely honorable and then entirely dishonor them if their shortcomings prevent us from keeping up the pretense. We should treat them like people, which includes not letting them cover up for each other, and also includes firing them when they fail us, but which also includes appreciating their achievements even while they fail us. Not easy, but—aren’t we people, too?
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,