The best takedown I've read so far of the Joe Paterno/Penn State crime comes from Jim Kunstler. He ends with something I have pondered more than once: "Every new day that dawns lately gives further proof that we are a wicked people who deserve to be punished." As someone who grew up on the razzle-dazzle years of Frank Kush's Sun Devils, playing in the disrespected Western Athletic Conference and having teams such as Penn State, Michigan and Ohio State get all the attention, I never bought into the deification of Paterno. But who would have thought the fall would come from this. Child rape, a cover-up that lasted for years and more rotting shoes left to drop. As I wrote about Bishop O'Brien, he of the hit-and-run should-have-been vehicular homicide, crisis reveals character. The revelations continue to redefine disillusionment.
The study of history makes one wary of claiming something new or unprecedented. Monsters have always roamed in our midst. But the rotting corruption in nearly every important national institution is unlike anything I've come across in our history. In the American exceptionalism argument, I tend to come down on the side of exceptionalism, but today what makes us extraordinary is our criminality, ignorance and decadence. D.H. Lawrence wrote, "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer." Maybe so. But it was once capable of grand and good things, especially through the collective institutions it built. No more.
Look anywhere. The Air Force can't be trusted to handle the remains of dead soldiers brought home, from wars our leaders lied us into and maintain and expand for the profit of defense contractors, as well as to lock up oil supplies because they won't come clean with us about future scarcity. The Great Recession is a product of corruption taken to stratospheric levels.
Government of, by, and for the people has become a creature of the oligarchs to a degree that would make a Rockefeller or Carnegie of the Gilded Age red with progressive rage. The corruption is out in the open. The people don't care, or not enough people. It doesn't help that the media are corrupt, owned by a concentrated few dedicated to the right-wing agenda and to trivial or salacious "news" to keep the boobs in Peoria distracted. The remains of the press have had to fight its own corruption by big, compromised newspaper chains, suicidal fads and intimidation by today's brown shirts.
One of our two mass political parties has been so warped as to be unrecognizable. Captured by extremist reactionaries, end-timers and corporate money, it bears no resemblance to the party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt or even Ronald Reagan. The conservatism built so painstakingly by William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, et al, has become a combination of madness and proto-theofascism. The most insane pronouncements or proposals are dutifully reported by the media as if they were serious efforts at statecraft. The Democrats, meanwhile, are for the most part both bought off by the oligarchs and cowardly. They think we of a progressive bent have nowhere else to go. They think we're as stupid as Billy Bob in his double-wide voting against his self-interest for a corrupt Republican Party.
Some readers have questioned whether this is any different from Watergate and Vietnam. They also played off a moronic David Brooks column on Paterno. My response: David Brooks is an idiot and a tool. Every time he tut-tuts, I want to remind him that the loss of virtue he laments was brought on by the very law-of-the-jungle "conservatism" he has spent his career tooling for.
Men and women are not angels. The framers knew this, and understood that self-government depended on certain checks and balances, a careful separation of powers, as well as an informed citizenry. They created a clockwork that was intended to be self-correcting, and this has been lost, as Franklin feared it would be.
Nixon's crimes in Watergate pale in comparison with those of the George W. Bush administration. And yet it was the elder statesmen of his own party, including John Rhodes and Barry Goldwater, who forced Nixon to quit. Can one even imagine such a thing happening now? The Congress finally refused to fund further adventures in Vietnam. The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, and the Washington Post published the misdeeds of Watergate — and enough of the electorate changed its mind. Before that, Dwight Eisenhower spent eight years keeping America out of direct foreign adventures and left with a warning against the Military Industrial Complex. Again, can one even imagine such a thing today?
Well into the late 1970s, Wall Street was a sober place where capital was assembled for productive purposes. Now it is a casino dedicated to killing American jobs. Banking was sober, dull and highly regulated.
The GOP has become a party standing for one thing: Nihilism. This is unprecedented, as is the corporate control of politics and the courts.
A delicate balance has been destroyed. There was never a time of perfection or perfect virtue. But, aside perhaps from the run-up to the Civil War, this is uncharted territory, and we will bear its consequences even as some of us continue to fight against it.
There was never an age of purity. The abuses of the Roman Catholic Church were going on at America's zenith. But something has changed in recent years. We face an almost total crisis of institutional legitimacy. It couldn't come at a worse time.