Phi Beta Kappa Address, December 7, 2011
I recently had the opportunity to attend the UGA Department of Theatre and Film Studies’ production of the Arthur Miller play All My Sons. The production was excellent, and after seeing it I made a point of rereading the play. It seems particularly timely. All My Sons was the first major success for Miller, one of the great American playwrights of the 20th century. Produced in 1947 at the Coronet Theatre in NYC, it focuses on a middle-class American family shortly after the end of the Second World War. Three years after the fact, family members still struggle to accept the death of their son and brother Larry, who was lost at sea, his body never recovered. The play unfolds almost as an overwrought melodrama. Early on, you become aware that something is wrong. The mother Kate believes Larry is still alive and that one day he’ll return. Any mention of her son upsets her. The father Joe Keller is a loud and boisterous man who seems to love his wife and his family. He presents himself as a consummate family man, a successful factory owner, and a paragon of civic virtue. Gradually this illusion of a family grappling with tragedy evaporates. The dead son’s widow Ann returns from New York for the first time since Larry’s death. The surviving brother Chris, we learn, has been writing her and now he wants to propose. Joe is upset, supposedly because this marriage would force his wife to accept Larry’s death. But other facts come out: Ann’s father, Joe’s former partner, is in jail, imprisoned for manufacturing and selling faulty cylinder heads for use in military warplanes. 21 deaths were the result. Then we learn that Joe himself was imprisoned, blamed by his partner for the same crime. Later exonerated, Joe says it was all a mistake, but then we learn that he could have prevented the sale of the faulty parts and that he basically set his partner up to take the blame. Finally a letter that Larry sent to Ann on the day of his death reveals that he couldn’t live with newspaper stories about his father’s involvement with the faulty parts, and that he plans to kill himself by crashing his plane into the China Sea. What this means is that Joe caused his son’s death, on top of the deaths of the other airmen. He betrayed one son, lied to the other, betrayed his business partner, and has to get up every morning and stare at himself in the mirror. He did so, he explains to Chris, to save his business.
All My Sons is about how a man builds his vision of the American dream on a fantasy—that he has lived a good life, he’s been honest, he loved his sons and his wife, that he’s much beloved, that the unfortunate things that have happened to him were the result of people who took advantage of him, people he unwisely trusted. This was the image he presented to his son Chris. What he didn’t want Chris to know was that it was more important to him to protect his livelihood, his business, than it was to withdraw the faulty parts and save American lives. The play is about failure of responsibility, about evasion of the truth, about breaking the basic bonds and values of human connection that keep us all going, that prevent us from diving our own planes deep into the China Sea.
And so we come to the sad and awful story of Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky at Penn State University. You all have heard the details of this tragedy. I won’t repeat them. Let me say that though I am not a football fan (other than of the Georgia Bulldogs), I have always regarded Joe Paterno as a man who set a standard for character, excellence in academics, and service to his University. He was a model for other coaches and for players to emulate. His career is marked with many good deeds and accomplishments, with an excellent record in football, but now more than anything else, it is marked with this scandal. Shakespeare, in his play Julius Caesar, wrote that “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
We don’t know all the facts of the Penn State scandal, and more of them will undoubtedly come out. What is clear is that in one way or the other Mr. Paterno and other university and athletic officials failed to act in a responsible and moral way. They failed to report one crime, at the least, and failed to prevent other similar crimes from happening. These men might not even have wanted to admit the truth, they might even have hidden it from themselves. Where was the failure? What and who failed? We’ve heard many answers: Coach Paterno did not report the crime soon enough, or Assistant Coach McQueary did not report it soon enough; neither of them followed up; they all allowed Sandusky access to University facilities even while rumors of his activities were flying. Friends were protecting friends. University officials –the president and vice presidents--were complicit because, wanting to protect the university’s reputation, they suppressed what they’d been told. College football was blamed for becoming such a money-making industry that it made decisions on the basis of profit margins, rather than what was good for the players or the school’s academic mission or the welfare of young boys. Our whole society was blamed.
We can find blame for this mess in a whole lot of places. But I’m less interested in sweeping generalizations about higher education or college football or modern American culture than I am in understanding how presumably decent people could fail in such a fundamental way. Here were men who heard rumors, received reports, even directly witnessed events that they ignored because they couldn’t believe them, or they wanted to protect friends, or they wanted to protect their own jobs, or they wanted to protect the football program, or they wanted to protect their university, or they simply didn’t want to put their reputations on the line. They didn’t take responsibility.
Arthur Miller’s play is about men who fail to do what is right, about a man whose desire to protect his name and his business causes the death of his own son and of other American young men fighting in the Second World War. Joe Keller loses his son because he allows profit motives to corrode and destroy basic human values. When his surviving son calls him a murderer, the accusation is not unjust. “You can be better,” Chris chastises his mother at play’s end when she asks him what more than sorry can she and Joe be for how events have turned out. “Once and for all you can know there’s a universe of people outside and you’re responsible to it, and unless you know that, you threw away your son because that’s why he died.”
Numerous works in literature pose this question of responsibility. Think first of the parable of the Good Samaritan in the Book of Luke in the Bible. In the novels of Charles Dickens, social and moral injustice is a major target. In Herman Melville’s story ”Bartleby the Scrivener” an entire office staff sits by, first joking about and then ignoring a man whose repeated statement “I would prefer not to” signifies his decision to die. In Franz Kafka’s story “The Hunger Artist” a man’s decision to starve himself becomes a sideshow attraction in a circus. Spectators don’t care that he is dying—they are just entertained by his advancing emaciation. Think also of the 2008 film Doubt, based on the play by John Patrick Shanley, in which the principal of a church school struggles with her growing suspicion that the priest of her church is molesting a young student. Finally, consider this statement by Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus tells his son: “The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience.”
The Penn State scandal is doubly shocking for those of us who work in higher education because it forces us to pause and wonder whether, in a similar situation, we also would fail to act, whether we would fail do to what was right, or whether we would just ignore it and hope that the machine rolled merrily on.
In a larger sense, the scandal should prompt all of us to ask similar questions: am I failing to be responsible to my fellow man and woman? Are there injustices in our neighborhood or our community or our nation or our world that we should not allow to go unchecked? Should we act on behalf of the fellow human beings with whom we share this globe?
One might not have to agree with their methods, or everything they believe, to acknowledge that both the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements are based in part on the desire of citizens to call attention to what they believe is wrong. These are both, in my opinion, flawed movements, but at least their members are not willing to sit still and do nothing. The members of Occupy Wall Street are expressing their belief that the American banking and investments industry is, like Joe Keller, putting the desire to make money above the welfare of millions of other Americans, above the welfare of this nation. Lives are destroyed, people suffer. One can think of many other injustices and problems in the world that demand our attention: poverty, economic disparities, the national debt, the global economy, climate change, environmental decay, pollution, disease, intolerance, violence, racism, sexism, resource depletion, over population, the list goes on and on, and it seems a darker and more difficult list than it has ever seemed in my lifetime. Unfortunately, this is the list that confronts you in the life ahead.
Our hope of survival in this troubled world may depend on your willingness to take responsibility.
As Phi Beta Kappa graduates of the University of Georgia, I know that many of you have already taken steps to be responsible by volunteering in service programs and charitable organizations and other activities that serve the campus and community. That service can’t end when you leave here. Having done good work here at the University, ready to go out into the world to take on jobs or further study or even a stint of leisure time, none of you is free of the necessity of doing more. Your achievements here suggest that you will lead good and comfortable lives. But those same achievements make clear that you have much to give. My hope for the future lies in the abilities and new ideas and intelligence and enthusiasm and commitment of people like you. Our world needs you. You have an obligation to give, and to exercise courage in the face of injustice. I hope you will. Thank you.