Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Chemical Cheating

       “Nothing is enough to the man for whom enough is too little.”    Epicurus

        “Envy is the adversary of the fortunate.”  Epictetus

     The Barry Bonds’ trial for perjury began this week with the prosecution saying to the media, that it was “an utterly ridiculous and unbelievable story” that Bonds did not know he was taking performance-enhancing drugs during the years he broke home run records.  There is little doubt that Bonds used PEDs, but he could have avoided the serious trouble he finds himself presently in.

     In 2003, Bonds was called to testify before a federal grand jury and was granted immunity to encourage him to tell the truth.  No doubt his lawyers at the time informed him of the perils of lying to a federal grand jury.  Yet, when questioned about using PEDs, Bonds claimed that he thought the substance he was applying to his skin was only a mixture of flaxseed oil and arthritis cream.

     Bonds’ lawyers might manage to convince the jury that he is innocent of lying because he believed naively, despite the measurable, physical evidence (his head size grew from 7 1/8 to 7 1/4 and shoe size from 10 1/2 to 13) that his astonishing surge of power after the age of thirty-five was engendered by this miraculous elixir of flaxseed and not by PEDs.  But why did he need to lie?  And why did he lie when no harm could have come to him for telling the truth in the first place?

     As reported by Ben McGrath in The New Yorker, Bonds felt envy’s sting when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were dominating baseball headlines in the summer of 1998 as they blasted their way through Roger Maris’s 1961 home run record of 61 home runs in a season.  Already considered baseball’s best player, Bonds revealed himself to be also the man “for whom enough [recognition] is too little.”  Ego and envy driven, he plunged himself into a regiment of maniacal weight lifting while spreading steroid laced cream over his body to chemically transform his natural talent into a muscle bulging home run recording breaking machine.

     Too bad Bonds didn’t experience the kind of envy William Hazlitt once described:

       “Envy, among other ingredients, has a mixture of the love of justice in it.  We are more angry at undeserved than deserved good-fortune”

This variety of envy might have led him to state publicly what most in baseball already knew: that both McGwire and Sosa had fraudulently achieved their records through steroid fueled power.  By telling this first truth, Bonds could have exposed these cheats and punctured the praise being lavished on them by the media.  Perhaps at the time he felt that such action would have been disloyal and dishonorable for him to do to fellow ballplayers.  But they would have gotten a justice they deserved; instead, Bonds, whose fortune it was to possess without steroids a talent the whole league envied, succumbed to an “Envy [that] is the adversary of the fortunate.”   His envy induced him to cheat, compelled him to lie in 2003 and now has branded him as no less a fraud than those whose shabby conduct he imitated to garner a recognition synthetically won and a disgrace naturally deserved.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Trouble with the Truth

The Trouble with the Truth

     These days the art of lying seems more brazenly practiced than it was in the past.  Of course, that’s not true, but we tend to see the past more idealistically than the present and believe that the people who lived then had an innocence they really didn't.  A rebroadcast of "Nixon" on Channel 13 cleared away my naive nostalgia.  I watched Nixon addressed the nation about his innocence regarding Watergate thought how his deceptions soured the air with the words that dripped from those sweaty jowls.  How easily he lied.  When behind closed doors with his advisors, he was crudely frank about how to use lies against adversaries.  Lying for him was never a question of right or wrong, but one of practical and political utility.

    Like Nixon, many politicians will lie liberally as they try to manipulate the media and deceive the public.  They fool few, yet resist unrelentingly telling the truth. Other politicians tinker with facts in order to mischaracterize an opponent or promote an agenda.  Habitually and naturally mendacious, politicians lie as a matter of course.  However, I shouldn’t castigate politicians without admitting that everyone feels occasionally the irresistible urge to lie.   It’s easy to think of examples when my conscience surrendered custody of the will and a lie or two suited better (I thought) the situation I faced.  Who hasn’t tried to lie, mislead or obfuscate his way out of trouble? Who hasn’t stretched the “truth” to serve some purpose hidden from family, friends, and acquaintances?

     Two insouciant liars came to my attention this week when I read Stanley Fish’s blog post, “So’ Your Old Man,” and in Bob Herbert’s op-ed column, “The Sports Needs to Change,” (New York Times online: March 14.)

     Fish’s blog considers the logical flaws in Leonard Pitt’s recent column in The Miami Herald, in which Pitt excoriates Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour for not “denouncing” a proposal to honor “Nathan Bedford Forrest by issuing vanity license plates bearing his name.”  When asked by the NAACP to “denounce” the proposal, Barbour stated, “I don’t go around denouncing people.”

   Pitt’s logic might need shoring up, but his conclusion is no less valid.  Barbour has claimed not to be a racist (especially as he now runs for president), but when he tried to burnish his bona fides as a good old boy of the south and sidestep the racist implication of supporting the Forrest license plate by feigning to be a man who eschews denouncing others, he betrayed instantly his propensity for deceit.  To no avail, Barbour tried twist his way around being labeled a racist while simultaneously scoring points with those in Mississippi possessed even today by an inexorable racism.  Subsequently, Barbour learned that it was better politically to oppose the Forrest license plate proposal, and announced his plan to not sign the legislation honoring the K.K.K. leader if it reached his desk.  Is Barbour a racist?   When he refused to take a stand in the first place, was he lying to the racists who proposed the plate?  Is he lying now that he has taken a stance against it and, in fact, is really for it?  Racist or not (I think he is), at least we can count on him to lie regardless of his beliefs; though I’d think with so much practice he could become more adept at it.

   In a different story, Bob Herbert looks at the effect of the destructive violence in professional football.  Herbert tells the story of Dave Duerson who shot himself to death in February this year.  At the time of his suicide Duerson was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (he thought he was, but did not know for certain) which symptoms include memory loss, dementia, and depression.

   More and more retired football players have been reporting symptoms of dementia, memory loss, and depression, but the NFL, until recently, did what it could to hide from the public the irreparable brain injuries caused by the physical collisions unavoidable in football.  In October, 2009, NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, testified before the House Judiciary Committee and would not admit a connection between “football and cognitive decline among retired N.F.L. players. (“N.F.L Scolded Over Injuries to Its Players” Alan Schwarz New York Time October 29, 2009)

    Goodell’s testimony is another illuminating spectacle of lying.  Of his testimony, committee member Linda Sanchez noted that Goodell reminded her of the tobacco companies when they used to argue that there was no connection between smoking and lung disease. (Schwarz, New York Times, October 29, 2009)

    Since that hearing in 2009, Goodell and the N.F.L. have begun to admit a connection between football and brain damage. They have even urged states to pass legislation protecting young football players from concussions.  How many fans will view this admission and their efforts to help youth avoid damage from head injuries as sincere?  How many will forget all the years they intentionally obstructed the truth about brain damage incurred from playing football?

   The lies told by the pro football establishment about the dangers of head injuries shouldn’t be forgotten.  But even if they aren’t, the fans will continue to fill the stadiums and stare at their oversized television screens while lovely autumn days recede into winter.  Millions of dollars will flow into the coffers of advertisers and corporate sponsors.  And commentators will incessantly yap on about the game that’s greater than all the rest—a lie too many will believe or deceive themselves into believing.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

College Made Easy

“Many students come to college not only poorly prepared by prior schooling for highly demanding academic tasks that ideally lie in front of them, but — more troubling still — they enter college with attitudes, norms, values, and behaviors that are often at odds with academic commitment.”
          The quotation, which comes from Bob Herbert’s column (http://www.nytimes.com/), would make one suspect that those who fit this description either have great difficulty getting a degree or graduate with very low grade point averages.  However, his column reveals a different trend: students who are ill prepared and poorly motivated, and who advance little or not at all in the critical skills their education is meant to impart, not only get their degrees, but also leave college with averages between B and B-plus.  
That many colleges make it easy for many sub-par students to attend their schools and complete a degree is quite well known these days. That they set absurdly low standards, and offer vapid courses within intellectually vacant degree programs so students can navigate four years of learning without learning anything might make some parents upset.  Yet, if colleges were to uphold standards or impose rigor, they would be forced to turn away or flunk out too many students necessary to their revenue and existence.
The “attitudes, norms, values, and behaviors…at odds with academic commitment” that define college students have been planted and cultivated by the American public school system.  By the time kids reach college, this system has fully conditioned them to value leisure, fun, games, and just about anything else other than academic work.
When kids begin school as elementary students, they enter a system that pressures them with excessive homework and yearly tests.  Piling homework on elementary kids predates the Bush era’s “No Child Left Behind” policy, which has driven the testing mania for the past decade.  Although “No Child Left Behind” was badly conceived and implemented, its goal of challenging students by testing what they had specifically learned in each subject in the elementary grades was laudable.  Unfortunately, too many states hastily developed exams and reduced too many classroom lessons to mind numbing drill work that ended up replacing intelligent educational practices.
After the stress of elementary grade testing, students reach middle school, and are prepared to face more academic rigor.  Ironically, it is at this point that school begins its slide toward academic and intellectual anemia. In middle schools, the philosophy, and thus primary objective, is to nurture the emotional growth of kids rather than propel their intellectual progress.  In line with this approach is a policy of social promotion.  Students quickly discover that they can never study, fail five or more subjects and still proceed to the next grade.  By the end of two years, the middle school experience has eroded the academic commitment and work ethic initiated in the earlier grades and necessary to foster further academic and intellectual growth.
In high school academic discipline loses even more ground.  Students enter an environment that is obsessed with sports, clubs, bake sales; they are forced to attend assemblies, countless meetings with guidance counselors, appointments with social workers or and psychologists.  These, and endless other distractions, dominate a school’s tone and reduce class work, homework and studying to secondary importance.
Herbert’s thesis that colleges permit (maybe even encourage, I would think) students to skate through fours years of school without exerting themselves, and then reward them with respectable B-plus or B GPA’s only exposes the tip of the problem.  For six years prior, schools provide a smooth and easy way to flow toward college with little effort or concern.  To expect colleges to buck this momentum of academic sloth and negligence, especially at great financial cost to themselves, is wildly naive. So, things will remain as they are, as the few who labor and learn continue to leave behind those too foolish and indolent to know what they will have lost.