The Death of Character

Character counts, as Peggy Noonan reminds us, but what does it count for? Read any random selection of recent news stories and tell me how many describe acts of childishness and downright depravity. We live in the age, not of whimsy and flightiness, but of proactive degradation–of oneself and of others.

It has always been thus–that we lament the lack of character residing in our youth. Since Plato complained about their long hair and lack of manners, adults have envisioned themselves as better, stronger, tougher, and smarter than the youth that follow. Such is to be expected, I suppose. We who have lived a bit longer need to feel as if we have not wasted our lives. Accusing them of doing so is an easy way to feel better by comparison. But how do we fit “flash robs” in that framework? Are gangs of techno-coordinated youngsters raiding and robbing a store en masse just youthful exuberance? Am I just being a bitter middle-aged man when I say that there was a time when people at least knew that was wrong?

For all our misgivings about young people, their shortcomings are far more forgivable than those who have reached adulthood by the calendar but not in character. Noonan’s list of recent offenses include Secret Service agents sent home for…ahem..partying, as if they had gotten drunk on an overnight high-school field trip. Or the Navy Captain who makes and shows off-color videos. Or the GSA convention in which we taxpayers are made the butt of their jokes–and pick up the tab for their profligacy.

I hesitate to bellyache about other people’s shortcomings, as I have plenty of my own. I did things in my 20’s that would make my poor mother explode were she to learn of them. (If you are reading this, Mom, I am making it all up for effect. Clever, huh?) Somehow, though, I managed to grow up. It was slow and it was painful, but I knew deep inside that being a man in full is not like being a child in full flower. Adulthood means knowing that what I do now matters not only through its consequences, but through its effect on and demonstration of my character.

That is what seems to be dying in our culture–the sense that what one chooses to do matters. It has often been said that we are replacing a sense of self-responsibility with a sense of entitlement. For me, that just doesn’t capture it. It is more than a sense of entitlement; it is a drive to destroy. Occupy a public park with no consideration of other users. Gig taxpayers and rub it in their faces. Cheat on college exams. Help students cheat on achievement tests so everyone thinks you are a better teacher than you really are. The lights are being turned off and all the mirrors broken. Look anywhere but at yourself. Judge anyone but yourself. Run, run, run before someone sees you naked, stripped of your pretenses and lies.

Just as addicts and abusive spouses require enablers, so we as a nation have our Grand Enabler. Government scratches us where we itch–that irritating place in our souls where I come to face me and you come to face you. Tax the rich for being better at earning money than us. Retain the teacher who can’t read, much less teach, lest we hurt feelings. Better to chop another down a couple of notches than ask ourselves why we aren’t a couple of notches better than we are. We all need work on ourselves. Character is the difference between someone who knows it and someone who denies it.

All of which plays right into the current Administration’s game plan. Obama has a seething disdain for the idea that what we are comes mostly from what we choose to do. In the President’s view, if he can’t make something right through government, it is only because he hasn’t gotten to it yet. Individual character for him is anathema because it threatens his vision of an all-knowing, all-powerful state. Of course, it would be too obvious to say so outright, so we see government pushing its influence into more and more private life, especially anything that looks like it may teach someone how to be accountable.

To wit, Obama now wants to make it illegal for kids to work on farms. Supporters will call people like me barbaric and silly for even raising this issue, but one theme keeps oozing from it. Farm kids must not continue learning character through work. Being raised on the farm is not the only way to acquire character, but it is a hell of a good one.

When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to drive a tractor. I will let you in on a little secret, though. Tractor driving is the most boring thing this side of home movies. So why was I so excited? It was because I knew that driving a tractor was a step into adulthood. My father would not have dreamed of letting me control a device on which I could get killed in an instant of carelessness unless he knew I was ready. When I finally was, I felt the wind in my face, the dust on my neck, and the pride of knowing I had passed an important test–of character. Since then, I have always known there was a self-responsible step forward even when I was screwing up royally. Character is slow, patient, demanding. It is a theme, not a goal, and it has carried me forward like a mighty river through the worst of times.

You’d think that would be a good thing–character and accountability, that is. Yet our leaders seem to want us to be helpless, to be without character. A man or woman with character is the bane of a tyrant like Obama’s existence. Every person with character represents an obstacle to his vision of an all-encompassing government. Every man or woman willing to say no to him and yes to himself stands as a stark reminder that not all of us are minions of our would-be monarch. Everyone who proves himself worthy without him makes Obama look useless, which he is.

This, my friends, is why Secret Service prostitutes and GSA extravagance are so despicable. Is there nothing left to which a decent man or woman will say no, not only because it is against the rules but because it runs afoul of of one’s character? No nation can survive that harbors, no celebrates, depravity and lack of restraint. Standing up to tyranny requires people who need no government to know what not to do. As we become more and more a part of Obama’s collectivist vision, we lose the very thing that makes us whole and keeps us free. He must be fought on every front, not by replacing a jackass with Dumbo, but by living lives that honor courage and integrity, that say in the face of tawdry temptations, “I could, but I won’t.” May we all find the strength to live so.


About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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1 Response to The Death of Character

  1. Kay Neal says:

    Your post reminded me of something I read in John Taylor Gatto’s Underground History of American Education. I took the following out of his free online version of the book:

    In 1909 a factory inspector did an informal survey of 500 working children in
    20 factories. She found that 412 of them would rather work in the terrible
    conditions of the factories than return to school.
    — Helen Todd, “Why Children Work,” McClure’s Magazine (April 1913)
    In one experiment in Milwaukee, for example, 8,000 youth…were asked if they
    would return full-time to school if they were paid about the same wages as
    they earned at work; only 16 said they would.
    — David Tyack, Managers of Virtue (1982)

    It seems that the inmates really are in charge of the asylum in this country.


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