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Accountability: Today’s missing, essential value

Sunday, August 4, 2013
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Growing up in the mid-20th century, one was consistently cautioned to build and maintain an impeccable and unassailable personal and professional reputation.

Deemed essential for success, its diminution or loss was seen as permanently damaging or even fatal to aspirations and careers.

The fundamental principle imparted was that we are all accountable for our actions and that the world will not hesitate to hold us so.

Is this still true? You tell me.

The city of New York has the unique — and perhaps not proud — distinction of having two formerly prominent but disgraced politicians running for high office. The fact that the source of disgrace was their peculiar sexual peccadilloes is incidental and, in the wider scheme of things, inconsequential. The larger issues are the recklessness and self-indulgence of their behavior and their ultimate betrayals of personal and public trust and commitment.

New York also has a prominent sports figure whose apparent inability to comply with his profession’s rules prohibiting the use of performance-enhancing drugs threatens the continuation of his playing career.

When caught “red handed”, the wrongdoers — after the perfunctory stonewalling and initial denials — usually admit to their transgressions, ask forgiveness and negotiate or accept a sanction of some sort or measure (and maybe “seek counseling”). Weiner and Spitzer did. Rodriguez is still protesting his innocence; at least until he’s convinced they have the goods on him. Then, he’ll likely do the same. These are hardly commendable responses, but they have become pretty standard for the genre.

“To Err is Human”

We can and should forgive episodes of human weakness, though of late Weiner appears to be testing the limits of that mercy. However, that doesn’t mean that the voters of Gotham need to entrust the penitents with public office again as demonstrative evidence of that forgiveness.

Their betrayal of their life partners — private matters in the main — may or may not be endemic. One is free to judge for oneself. But they most certainly betrayed their commitments to their supporters and constituents.

The “Sheriff of Wall Street” — and who doesn’t deny it needs one — rendered himself immediately impotent (pun intended) with his reckless behavior and bad judgment.

Liberals in dire need of a sharp, loud, intelligent and effective voice in Congress saw not only their most able spokesman at the time disgraced, but their own most deeply held convictions unfairly and needlessly ridiculed with him.

Talk about handing your delighted enemies the tools of your own destruction! If these guys are so gifted, so talented, how did they fail to see this all too certain outcome on their own — especially in an age where privacy and secrecy are so difficult to maintain?

Maybe they see the prior examples of Clinton, Vitter and Sanford as ultimate vindications?

If that’s true, what does it say about us? Why do we keep embracing the same flawed characters when there is a wealth of talented people among us who’ve never gotten the breaks and richly deserve an opportunity?

If television can teach us anything, shows like “America’s Got Talent” and “American Idol” have demonstrated that fact to us over and again. That talent pool can’t be limited to just show business. How much better off would we be if others got that opening instead?

No consequences

However, these three cases are merely symptoms of a much larger and pervasive delinquency. Lack of accountability runs the length and breadth of our contemporary society, especially so for the powerful and well-heeled. This deficiency is the true root of many of our problems. It is the essential missing social value.

The most obvious examples are the misdeeds and malfeasances on the part of banks and financial institutions on New York’s Wall Street. However, it is most manifest in the sclerotic condition of many of our institutions — public and private — that, over time, have amassed or been allowed to amass enough power to insulate themselves from real consequences. Whether it’s “too big to fail” or too gerrymandered to be defeated, our systems lack the competition and dynamism they once possessed to examine, reform and renew themselves.

Furthermore, this sclerosis is being reinforced by a legal profession that seems dedicated more to assisting those who would avoid or limit to the fullest extent possible any moral or legal responsibility for their behavior than in achieving true respect for ethics, law and justice. (And before you tell me that this statement portrays a misunderstanding of the adversarial nature of our legal system, let me point out that it is lawyers who assist in the writing and passage of laws that seem to always provide loopholes to those who would use them.)

Costs Should Deter

Getting back to Spitzer and Weiner, some claim that they have already paid for their actions. Really? They had their day and they blew it. They cost us in ways they can never repay. If it’s this easy to get back into the game — and so soon — the costs are clearly not high enough to deter the conduct.

Restoring real accountability — stark, sure and lasting consequences for bad actions — has to take center stage. We have to start somewhere, and using the ballot box to send that message seems an appropriate beginning.

So, the advice from this corner to the voter in the five boroughs is to think twice and then think again before pulling that lever (or punching that chad or whatever it is we do these days when we vote).

And in Rodriguez’s case? Well, good luck getting enshrined in Cooperstown, A-Rod.

John Figliozzi lives in Halfmoon. He is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

 
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