On Joe Paterno

“It just goes to show what happens when people care more about their own reputations than they do about children,” I was saying.

“I know nothing about Joe Paterno,” Mr. Magundi replied, “or about football for that matter, so I’ll just assume that, like most people in positions of great power, he is a monster of arrogance and irresponsibility. But when I look at the news reports and try to understand what he’s accused of doing, I have to admit that I’m pretty sure I would have done it myself.

“Already you’re looking at me with those big eyes and preparing your indignant replies, so let me explain what I mean, and then you can have at me. What Joe Paterno is accused of is not having done more than he had to do when an accusation against his subordinate was reported to him. He did not ignore the accusation, of course: it was his duty to report it to the school administration, and he did so. That administration received the report and decided to do nothing, and now has decided to fire Paterno for not having done enough. I hope the humor of that is not lost on you.

“But Paterno did not go to the police, and I know why not. The accusation was of a particular sort in which charge is equal to conviction and execution. A man accused of murder can be acquitted in court and go on to live a productive life, with many expressions of sympathy for the falsely accused. But a man accused of pedophilia is dead from that moment. Convicted or not, he will never be hired again by anyone. His property will be vandalized. His children will be pariahs at school. The chance that he will be murdered is not insignificant.

“So if your friend or associate is accused of that crime, what do you do? You must decide right now whether to kill him or not. There is a good chance that the accusations are true: in this case, everyone is certain that they were, though of course I should make the pro forma admission that nothing has been proved in court yet. Let us assume that they were true: the fact is that Paterno did not know that they were true. Faced with an accusation, but no proof, he did the thing that the law says he ought to do: he reported the matter to the school administration. And nothing more. Probably as a result of that decision, several more children were irreparably damaged.

“But if you want any explanation of why a man would be too much of a coward, if you want to call it that, to pursue the matter any further, do you need any more data than the spectacle before us now? Joe Paterno, who never violated any law and never abused a child, is ruined at the end of a long life, with no chance for redemption. Other men have been forced to resign their positions because they suggested that Paterno had done nothing wrong. You see how far the poison extends. It is not metaphorically but literally dangerous to say anything good about Joe Paterno, who did not molest children and did fulfill his legal obligations, but was not zealous enough for public opinion.

“And I repeat that I know nothing about Joe Paterno. He may be a snarling dragon of a man who beats puppies and deserves every kind of misfortune. But I also repeat that I would probably have been the same kind of coward that he was. And I make an even more shocking suggestion: I think you would have been, too.”

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On Vulgarity

“But I don’t see why they have to use language like that,” Mrs. Bowman was saying.

“For some reason,” Mr. Magundi replied, “Hollywood equates vulgarity with honesty. In fact vulgar language is usually calculated and insincere, especially in young people. Habits of vulgarity can ossify, and a middle-aged vulgarian is probably quite unconscious of his vulgarity. But young people teach themselves to use vulgar language because they are ashamed of not using it; and they are ashamed especially because Hollywood has told them that vulgarity is the mark of sincerity. But in evaluating the messages we receive from Hollywood, it is helpful to remember that the movies are not in the business of sincerity, and that Hollywood itself is a community of arrested adolescents.”

On Military Targets

“The difference,” I said, “is that we only go after military targets.”

“Leaving aside the question of what happens when one of our military targets turns out to be too close to a few disposable civilians,” Mr. Magundi replied, “I contend that there’s no such thing as a military target wherever there’s military conscription. Our enemies can force a man to put on a uniform by threatening him with imprisonment or torture, but that doesn’t force the guilt of the war on him and make him worthy of death. On the contrary, it seems to me that it makes him worthy of pity and protection. Morally, I can’t see how killing a random greengrocer who was forced to serve in the army is any different from killing a random greengrocer while he’s still grocing his greens.

“I’m not excusing the evil dictators who force a war down the throats of their citizens for their own selfish ends. I’m only pointing out how easily war itself lowers us to their moral level.”

On Victorian Morality

“But isn’t that kind of a Victorian attitude?” I asked.

“We’re all Victorians,” Mr. Magundi replied, “and never more than when we condemn Victorianism. We judge by Victorian standards: we pass the same humorless and scientistic moral judgment on everything as the Victorians did. We demand, as they did, that all human actions must be consistent and virtuous; and when we condemn the Victorians, we really condemn them for being insufficiently Victorian—that is, for not being scientific and consistent enough in their moral judgments. I think sometimes that I might like to revert to a less scientific and more charitable pre-Victorian idea of morality; but I’m a Victorian, living in the moral world the Victorians made, and I can no more escape that world than anyone else can.”

On Charity

“I’m with Mr. Rooney on this one,” Mr. Bates said. “I can’t understand what that guy was thinking.”

Mr. Magundi asked to borrow the newspaper and turned to the article in question. “Well,” he said, “dismissing the first remark, which is standard 9/11 conspiracy nonsense, what did this unhinged football player say?” He pointed to the newspaper.

“Here’s one: ‘I believe in God. I believe we’re ALL his children. And I believe HE is the ONE and ONLY judge.’

“And this one: ‘Those who judge others, will also be judged themselves.’

“And then there’s this one: ‘For those of you who said you want to see Bin Laden burn in hell … I ask how would God feel about your heart?’

“All of this is not only the most unobjectionably orthodox Christian doctrine, but in fact a very clear and straightforward statement of it. Yet we call it ‘hard to explain or even comprehend.’ Now, I’m not usually a dogmatic pacifist, because I think the world is too complicated to make hard and fast rules about most things. But my best theological argument for pacifism is this: that war makes a simple statement of Christian moral principles incomprehensible to people who call themselves Christians. War is a mind-altering drug: when you make your best theological arguments for a ‘just war,’ I must always suspect that, no matter how clever you are, it’s really the drug speaking. And when you say you can’t comprehend a statement like ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged,’ I know you’ve become a helpless addict.”

On Osama Bin Laden

“But you don’t seem very happy,” Mrs. Bowman said.

“It’s hard not to feel good,” Mr. Magundi replied. “But in the back of my mind a little voice is saying that murder is murder, even if the victim is a murderer. I don’t know whether I should be listening to the little voice, or to the loud voices around me that tell me to celebrate. So I’m a little bit unhappy, because I have a little voice that won’t shut up.”

On Tyranny

“But I say regulations like that are nothing short of tyranny,” Mr. Bates said, and we all noticed that his chin rose a few inches as he came to the end of his little speech.

“Tyranny is unjust and coercive control over our lives,” Mr. Magundi replied. “And I simply can’t see how it makes a bit of difference whether the control is imposed on us by a tyrannical government or exercised by private enterprise. A tyrant is a tyrant, whether his title is ‘Dear Leader’ or ‘Chief Executive Officer.’ So I can’t see how it infringes on our liberties to regulate tyrants and try to make them a little less tyrannical. It may infringe on the liberty of the tyrant a little, but only in the same way that laws against murder infringe on the liberty of murderers.”