The Impact of It All
by Stephen Cox | Posted December 06, 2011
So many Niagaras of words have flowed from the Penn State sex scandal that, unpleasant though the task may be — and it is plenty unpleasant — Word Watch needs to comment on them.
There’s no good place to start, so let’s just dive into the notorious email that Penn State Athletic Flunky Mike McQueary sent to a friend, denying that he had failed to take action when he (allegedly) saw Very Important Coach Jerry Sandusky having sex with a young boy in the showers at the football building:
“I did stop it, not physically . . . but made sure it was stopped when I left that locker room . . . I did have discussions with police and with the official at the university in charge of police . . . no one can imagine my thoughts or wants to be in my shoes for those 30–45 seconds . . . trust me.”
Surely Mike McQueary deserves a promotion. The language of this note is much more appropriate to a university administrator than to a low-level munchkin. First, there’s the strong assertion (“I did stop it”); then there’s the telling admission (“not physically”); then there’s that curious kind of statement that makes one pause, read it again, and speculate about what it really means, without ever knowing how one could tell if one had actually found the meaning.
“Made sure it was stopped when I left that locker room.” Does that mean you really, personally stopped it? If so, how? But maybe you mean that you let it go on, but when you went back and checked, you found it had stopped, possibly because of whatever it was you did, or didn’t do, before. Is that it? Should we ask for the floor plans, so we can see where the locker room was, in relation to the showers? Was the interval between the time when you saw something happening in the shower and the time when you left the locker room the same as “those 30–45 seconds”? Or what?
But the thing that really puts McQueary in the higher administrative or political realm is his chain of self-references: “No one can imagine my thoughts or wants to be in my shoes . . . . trust me.”
On this one matter, I do trust him. I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes. But I can well imagine his thoughtswhen he was confronted with the need to protect a child from sexual abuse by a high-ranking operative of the “educational” institution he worked for. I believe he was thinking, “Damn! This is gonna get me fired!”
How does a bunch of college kids marching around with candles make anyone feel better about having been molested?
That thick vein of self-regard, and the obfuscating style that is its inseparable companion, runs into McQueary’s next remarks: “I am getting hammered for handling this the right way . . . or what I thought at the time was right . . .” Silly me. I thought this mindless jock was “getting hammered” for doing something wrong. Now I have to consider the possibility that he thought he was right. Gosh. What about that? I guess if he thought he was right, I’ll have to feel sorry for him. Won’t I? Won’t you?
Uh, maybe not, but it was a good try, planting that logic tree: either he’s right — or he’s wrong, but in that case he’s right anyway, because he thought he was right. . . .
The McQueary statement that galls me most, however, is the following: “I had to make tough impacting quick decisions.” Fascinating — what were those decisions? I would like to know. Once more, either he did something right, or he did something he thought was right — but what was it? Whatever it may have been, it was “quick” (45 seconds? In 45 seconds you can get halfway through the Gettysburg Address), “tough” (on whom?), and “impacting” (again, on whom?). Apparently it wasn’t especially impacting on Coach Sandusky, or on Penn State University, or on its head football coach, or on its president, or on McQueary himself, or on anyone else involved in this mess. All of them went on their merry way, for the next nine years. One imagines that McQueary’s decision might at least have been impacting on McQueary. But what was the impact? No one knows. Nonetheless, McQueary wants everyone to care and sympathize.
Sadly, impact is not just a flunkeyism. Itis the word of choice for all those high-class people who specialize in, well, impacting public opinion. First marketed to congressmen and corporate CEOs, it soon passed to all other professionals, including professional educators such as McQueary and his associates. The Penn State scandal alone has registered as many impacts as the surface of the moon.
We are all impacted now, and no one more than The Second Mile, the organization for disadvantaged kids that Sandusky founded, and which he reputedly used as a means of identifying his sexual targets. On Nov. 6, soon after the scandal broke, Second Mile canceled a fundraising event, explaining, “While we are providing our children’s programming as scheduled, The Second Mile has decided, out of respect and compassion for all impacted by the allegations from the Attorney General’s office, to postpone The Second Mile’s Reverse Drawing . . .” If you push your way through this thicket of words, you will discover that what has made an “impact” on the unspecified “all” isn’t any actions of Sandusky himself but simply the force of the Attorney General’s “allegations” about such actions.
Coupled with this announcement was a carefully worded narrative intended to exculpate The Second Mile. It started with the all and impact boilerplate: “Our prayers, care and compassion go out to all impacted.” I suppose that includes the leadership of Second Mile, people who have certainly been impacted, if not deprived of their jobs, by the events in question. But in their case, prayer has been unavailing. Eight days after the message just quoted, the organization’s CEO resigned, modestly stipulating that any further statement on his part would take “the focus from where it should be — on the children, young adults and families who have been impacted. Their pain and their healing is the greatest priority, and my thoughts and prayers have been and will continue to be with them.”
In other words, he’s not talking. But this word impacted . . . it’s a curious expression. It used to mean that something had smashed into something else, and the latter had been seriously damaged, perhaps destroyed. Now, under the influence of obfuscating politicians, officious or embarrassed educators, and illiterate journalists, impacted can mean anything within the range of “affected in some way.” Dude! Your beagle is impacting my front lawn. Dude.
Surely, kids who have been seduced or molested by sex-greedy adults have been seriously impacted, but the more you use that word, the less it means. The image of a crater, or a tooth in trouble, seems less significant, and less humane, the more you hear it applied to humans. It’s an easy word, isn’t it? No one can claim that you aren’t caring enough, if you use such an emphatic term. Especially when you couple it with a standard reference to thoughts and prayers.
I don’t want to sound self-righteous, but when I tell someone that he is in my thoughts and prayers, I mean that I am actually thinking about him and praying for him. That’s simple enough. But what do you think is happening when the normal public figure says that people are in his thoughts and prayers? Do you believe that presidents respond to earthquakes, plane crashes, droughts, floods, and deaths in battle by actually thinking and praying about those who have been impacted? They say they do, but I don’t think they’re telling the truth.
He was patiently bemused by the stupidity of the young.
Listening to this jargon, I picture the president abruptly leaving his golf games, lobbyist shakedowns, and reelection strategy sessions to rush up to the family quarters and kneel in prayer on behalf of every person endangered by all those floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and military defeats about which he has publicly extended his thoughts and prayers during the past 24 hours. That’s what we’re supposed to imagine, isn’t it?
I don’t deny that even a president may sometimes pray, and pray for someone other than himself. Many presidents have done that. Until recently, however, they haven’t made so many confessions that they are always busy thinking and praying about people in the news. Every religious person should oppose such pretense at piety, instead of leaving it for the atheists to ridicule. One reason why this is especially important to debunk is that the hypocrisy of the official class has a way of seeping down, like fluids escaping from a corpse, into the language of everyone else. In other words, as President Obama would put it, official smarm impacts us all in a negative manner.
On November 11, on Fox News, Juan Williams — a journalist who knows and respects the English language — had the unenviable task of reporting on events at Penn State, where students rioted because the trustees overthrew the local god, Joe Paterno, the head coach who failed to act in the Sandusky case. The insurrection happened just when the university was most vulnerable, facing, as it did, an invasion from Nebraska on the coming Saturday. So after the first night of orgiastic grief, the Penn State patriots decided that smarm was better than violence. Without relinquishing their support for JoPa, they decided to take strong moral action — by holding a candlelight vigil. Huh? Yet this is exactly what you would expect from the disciples of an ersatz religion, such as college football. Light some candles, and everyone will know you’re devout. They may even confuse your worship of fuhbawl with the ceremonies of one of the higher religions.
But let’s see . . . there had to be a vigil, but what would be the point of it? What would it ostensibly be for? Of course, it was “to show support for the children who were allegedly abused” — an interesting use of the word support. One supports a football team by screaming slogans in a stadium. These verbal oblations are assumed to have a magical effect on the prowess of the team. But how does a bunch of college kids marching around with candles make anyone feel better about having been molested?
This question must have occurred to someone besides me, because the vigil organizers got more specific. They said that their show of support was aimed at “raising money for victims of sexual abuse.” That sounds good — but of course, the actual victims weren’t going to receive any of that money. Oh no. Contributions would go to “groups fighting child abuse.” Again, it sounds good. But how do you use money for something like that? Is this how we deal with other crimes? Do we give money to groups fighting burglaries? How about murder — do you think we should donate money to groups fighting that?
Please don’t accuse me of being insensitive to victims of burglary, murder, or any other actual crime. But guess what? We already have an organization that’s designed to fight such crimes, including child abuse; and it is very well funded. We all contribute to its maintenance. That organization is called the police.
Now back to Juan Williams. He had to interview two young women, students at Penn State, who were involved in the mighty candlelight vigil. These young people loved Penn State. They pitied its sorry plight. They viewed it as an innocent lamb, deprived of its shepherd (Joe Paterno). But this religious devotion to alma mater seems to have made them especially vulnerable to leakages of pomposity from the upper administrative levels. When Williams asked one of them a softball starter question, she declined to answer before she had pounded all the rivets into the official boilerplate. “First,” she intoned, “I just want to take a moment to extend my thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families on behalf of myself and all the Penn State family.”
Now President Spanier adds one more to the list of perfect objects. His statement is the ne plus ultra of administrative arrogance.
Williams reacted to this extraordinary statement in the only way in which a courteous gentleman could react: he tried to make sense of what the young woman was saying; then, failing that, he contented himself with a few pacific, grandfatherly remarks, which neither of the students appeared to understand. He was patiently bemused by the stupidity of the young. But for God’s sake, what kind of culture is it that inspires a 20-year-old with the notion that a university is a “family,” that she is empowered, by her proffered feelings, to speak for that “family,” and that she has thereby achieved the sacramental role of thinking and praying over other people, personally unknown to her — on television, yet? Her effortless assumption of the official attitude was bizarre, and unsettling, though hardly unprecedented.
Is this what universities teach? I’m afraid they do.
I should add that Penn State students were advised, at the candlelight vigil, to go to the Nebraska game wearing blue, which for some reason has been identified by someone as the color of “child abuse awareness.” Awareness? Does that word have a meaning? Is there a non-trivial sense in which my awareness of child abuse does something for its victims? In any event, the slogan of the day was, "Stop Child Abuse, Blue Out Nebraska." A strangely assorted pair of sentiments! But yes, the stadium was full of blue on Saturday, though Nebraska was not blued out. Nebraska won.
Winners and losers . . . one sadly revealing episode of the Penn State scandal was college president Graham Spanier’s official statement (Nov. 7) about the arrest of two of his fellow administrators: “The protection of children is of paramount importance. The university will take a number of actions moving forward to increase the safety and security within our facilities and make everyone aware of the protocols in place for handling these issues."
From time to time, it is given to mortals to view a work of human artifice so perfect, in its way, as to lie beyond all analytic criticism. The Taj Mahal. Andrea del Sarto’s “Madonna of the Harpies.”The final movements of Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony. Yeats’s “Crazy Jane” poems. Now President Spanier adds one more to the list of perfect objects. His statement is the ne plus ultra of administrative arrogance. One stands in awe of it: it is a perfectly pompous, perfectly empty statement. It is perfect in that way, not because it says nothing at all — it says a lot of things — but because it claims to mean something, and simultaneously withdraws all its purported meanings, thus arriving, in this most challenging of contexts, at the nothingness it pretends to reject.
The university will take actions. What actions? A number of them.
The university will increase safety and security. How? Somehow.
There are protocols in place for handling these issues. What protocols? What issues? What does “issues” mean, anyhow? Never mind; we will make everyone aware.
Meanwhile, we are all moving forward. Does that mean . . . just possibly . . . that there was something wrong in the past, which we are now moving away from? That’s a possibility. Exploring it, however, would ruin the effect.
But here’s the good part. The statement didn’t work. Graham Spanier and Joe Paterno were fired. Of the fallen Dr. Spanier, said to have been the most highly paid university administrator in America, the governor of the state opined: “People lost confidence in [his] ability to lead.”
The word wasn’t “talk.” The word was “lead.” There’s a difference. And no heap of words can cover it up.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include "The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison" and "The New Testament and Literature."
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