The American Moral Meltdown Accelerates

Never has an internet article of mine received as much feedback as one that spoke of America’s still continuing moral meltdown. And, perhaps surprisingly, disagreement was expressed only in ten percent of the emails that were sent to me. The others expressed approbation; one woman even said the article literally made her cry. These facts struck me as remarkable, even heartening. For it showed once again that there are good people out there, people removed from the jerks in politics, government and the media who will say, do and write anything for the purpose of self advancement, self aggrandizement. There are still people who believe in good old fashioned honesty, integrity, competence and diligence, virtues that too often are absent in America these days.

So far, of course, the good folks have not managed to turn the tide of American meltdown. This is unfortunate, but one must retain hope, and must at least pretend — in the face of the evidence? — that things can get better. Otherwise things will not get better. Perhaps — at least one certainly hopes — the nascent, yet it would seem ever increasing, talk about a possible third party in 2008 will help turn the country around. This talk represents disaffection, not to say disgust, with the current scene — and that is all to the good. But the happy day of change is not upon us yet, so let me briefly discuss some of the further examples of moral meltdown that have appeared in the media in the last few days or have otherwise come to one’s attention.

There is, of course, that now hardy perennial, the war in Iraq. Last month it killed more than another 100 Americans, and Lord knows how many Iraqis. In the last week or so, Bill Moyers has again exposed, and George Tenet too (perhaps less wittingly) has again exposed, that this war is a horrible, incompetent mistake made by grossly incompetent, thoroughly dishonest leaders. But are we going to stop, any time soon, the American participation which opened the door to this disaster, to this creation of killing fields, and which remains so much a driver of the disaster? No, we almost certainly are not going to stop it any time soon. The incompetent fools at the top of the Administration desire to continue it — indefinitely, no less, and they desire this even though to accomplish their aims would be likely to take 10 years and at least a quarter million more American soldiers. Meanwhile the Democrats don’t have the guts to do what is necessary to stop it — which could easily be done by merely refusing all further funding of any type for the military (or, more limitedly, for Iraq) except for funds needed to finance the protection of troops during a withdrawal. Washington and the media also are filled with pundits and advisers who invent one reason after another why it would be bad to stop our participation even though to begin our participation was a terrible mistake. (In business such excuse mongering is called throwing good money after bad.) Out in the country, among Republican at least, and probably more heavily in the militaristic states of the old Confederacy than elsewhere, there are still people who think we should fight, no doubt to the last Iraqi. The lessons from Britain’s war in Iraq in the 1920’s are still a secret to most Americans. And one of the perhaps two or three greatest lessons of Viet Nam is still no less a secret to most Americans — such lesson being that as was easily discernible, to those with eyes to see and wit to understand, as early as the final four or five years of that misbegotten military adventure, America would do better (as occurred), both at home and in the world, when it ceased participating in its Indo China debacle.

There is also, in relation to continuing the moral meltdown of Iraq , a point made to me a few days ago by a guest on a new radio show called “What The Media Doesn’t Tell You.” The guest and I had a 45 minutes or so discussion of the incompetent performance of the press with regard to the ready foreseeability — which Rice, Rumsfeld, and Bush stupidly denied — of 9/11, of using airplanes to crash into structures. (Kamikazes, anyone? A bomber flying into the Empire State Building circa 1945, anyone? Other successful or attempted crashes into structures, anyone? Captured plans on Al Qaeda computers for using airplanes as missiles and statements from captured terrorists, anyone? Other similar precedents that made 9/11 readily foreseeable, anyone?) The guest — who has been a journalist for 50 years and so is likely to know what he is talking about — said to me that to be sent to Washington to cover the news is the supreme workplace accolade that can be bestowed upon a reporter. It shows that the reporter’s bosses think he or she is at the top of the profession. If that is true — and I frankly suspect the guest is exactly right — it is disheartening in the extreme to see the degree of gross incompetence that pervades so much of the Washington press corps, the degree of gross incompetence, not to say credulousness, that was again exposed a week ago by Bill Moyers. To paraphrase the (poet’s?) remark about winter and spring, when such incompetence is here, can moral meltdown be far behind?

There is also the all too usual stories of economic and sexual corruption in, and consequent moral meltdown in, Washington. Paul Wolfowitz, that paragon (right?) of Jewish American virtues which I was taught to honor and seek to emulate when growing up, that lying, stupid, power hungry sonofabitch who did so much to get us into the war, thinks it was just fine for him to participate in getting his girlfriend a new job at a much higher salary because the authorities at the World Bank allegedly knew and approved of this (which they deny). Wolfowitz says this was okay though there were plenty of others who could and, one logically surmises, in the ordinary course would have made decisions about his girlfriend’s employment, there were, one also logically surmises, plenty of other people who could and would have done the job his girlfriend received, and he himself rails and acts against corruption in third world countries. Because he is a man of such rectitude, Wolfowitz has hired the famous Washington mouthpiece, Robert Bennett, to represent him, and Bennett has proceeded to play hardball with the World Bank — another sure sign of Paul the Pr. . k’s innocence, right?

Moral meltdown also has been displayed at one of our great academic institutions, MIT, though here there definitely were sad aspects to it, aspects that speak poorly for America. MIT had to fire the head of its admissions staff, Merilee Jones, because, nearly thirty years ago, she lied on her resume in order to get a job at the university — a job for which she did not need a college degree. She falsely said she had degrees she most certainly did not have. At first it was reported that she had then said she had three such degrees. Later it was reported that she had only claimed two, but later added a third, apparently in connection with seeking a higher job at MIT. At first it was not reported that, but later it was reported that, in fact, when she applied for her first job at MIT, she had a degree from a small college in Albany, NY named Saint Rose. At the time, Saint Rose was little known, to put it mildly. Today it is a better known school of 5,000 which graduates a large proportion of New York state’s teachers.

During her decades at MIT, Jones apparently had performed very well in a number of jobs — including ones for which a college degree was required by MIT, which did not, however, check her credentials since she already was a high performing employee. Being highly regarded, she rose to the top of her professional field. For some unknown reason, though, a few weeks ago someone who knew the truth dropped a dime on her — ah, the pleasures of making enemies for one reason or another. MIT investigated and fired her despite her years of excellent service.

MIT did what it should have done when it fired her — we simply will continue to have a morally lousy country if people can lie their ways into jobs, get away with it, and later plead that the original lie should be ignored because of one reason or another, e.g., because of years of excellent service. Culprits must be punished — this is the only way we will ever put a stop to misconduct, and it is for that reason that war criminals like Kissinger and McNamara should be put in the dock now, even thirty and forty years after their horrid misconduct and despite their age. (It has been done to German Nazis you know, and the same principle should apply to our homegrown Nazis or, in one case, at least home schooled Nazi.) It is for the same reason that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wofowitz and a few others of our highest ranking Iraq war criminals should also be put in the dock. As I say, MIT was right to fire the woman for lying on her resume.

There is also a sadder side to the story, however. It is not primarily that she performed so well for so many years yet had to come to no good professional end, although that is a part of it. But the even sadder part is that the American mania for a college degree — and for a degree from a prestigious elite school, not a no name school however fine its quality — is so pronounced that Jones felt it desirable or necessary to invent false degrees when applying for her first job at MIT, and to hide the degree she did have, and felt as she did even though a degree was not a requisite for the job. This is symptomatic of the credentials mania that has infested American society, and that is now often more important than competence, even previously demonstrated competence. This mania, particularly because it substitutes credentials for competence, stifles good people lacking the credential, and makes a joke of the claim of social mobility that has always been so much a part of purported America. It is itself a form of moral meltdown.

One must recognize the possibility — I’ve read nothing one way or the other on this — that the woman’s initial lie about having degrees, a lie made when applying for a job that did not require a degree, was motivated in part (or whole?) by the desire to set herself up in advance for possible advancement at MIT to jobs which, however misbegottenly, did require degrees. Perhaps she realized that — as actually occurred — subsequent investigation of the veracity of her claim of degrees was unlikely if she already had been at MIT for awhile.

If this is what she calculated, it makes her own conduct even more calculating and reprehensible while at the same time showing even further the misbegotten character of the degree requirement — the more misbegotten here because she did, after all, perform very well in jobs ostensibly requiring a degree. The possibility that she was setting herself up for the future increases the morally reprehensible nature of her lie. Nor to be overlooked is that, one would guess, she probably had to continue with — and one gathers repeatedly put forth — the lie once it was initially set forth in her resume. Removing it from her resume might conceivably have been noticed, with consequent exposure of the lie, as she climbed the MIT ladder. One gathers she also had to provide her resume when she made speeches or appeared at conferences or authored articles or a book. She was trapped in her own lie — which regularly happens when one lies, and is one of the damn good reasons for not lying in the first place.

Let me also comment on the denouement of her career. For mass murdering criminals like Johnson, McNamara, Kissinger, Nixon, Bush, Cheney, and especially for those who are incompetent, formerly drunken, lying, nasty bastards, there should be no mercy. They should go to the gibbet. Yet they are never even put in the dock and, like Nixon and even McNamara, are allowed to “rehabilitate” themselves. But, after her initial lie, the woman at MIT spent nearly 20 years doing good, good for her school and, it appears, for the society as well. Then, unhappily, she lied again by inventing a third phony degree apparently to help get a better job, a big time job, at MIT, but proceeded to do social good for a decade. For the lies, she had to be fired. But one thinks that perhaps — even despite the second lie, although that certainly does detract from the point — she should be allowed to perform some lesser job at MIT or elsewhere after a one or two year period of suspension. Call this tempering justice with mercy, if you will. Call it recognition that the evil she did was in some incommensurable way offset by the good she did, if you will. Call it the only decent thing to do in a society that lets continuously-evil­producing-swine like some of our leaders go from strength to strength after murdering thousands, even millions, if you will. Whatever you call it, it would seem at least conceivably appropriate.

Now back to sex. The aforementioned Wolfowitz scandal isn’t the only male/female type scandal unfolding in Washington these days. There is also the possibly burgeoning prostitution scandal. One Deborah Jeane Palfrey, has been charged with operating a high end prostitution ring in Washington, doing so from her home in Vallejo, California, yet. It is said that she had 15,000 customers — 15,000!! — and ran such advertisements as ‘”Best selection and availability before 9 p.m. each evening.'” Palfrey had been convicted of opening a prostitution business in California in 1991, but says she was doing nothing illegal in Washington, was only serving people “‘from the refined walks of life here in the nation’s capital,'” offering them only “‘legal sexual and erotic services across the spectrum of adult sexual behavior,'” services such as massages or nude dancing. People, you see, were paying 300 bucks for 90 minutes — a rate of $200 per hour ­ for dancing or a mere massage. Right. Tell me more. To paraphrase Churchill, “Some dance! Some massage!” (Churchill said, roughly, “Hitler said he will ring England’s neck like a chicken.” Some chicken! Some neck!)

What has Washington all in a dither, however, is what Palfrey threatens to do if the feds continue on with their charges. She says she is going to blow the whistle (bad phrase, that) on who her customers were. Already identified one way or another have been Randall L. Tobias, said to be “the top foreign aid adviser in the State Department.” He previously was the Chairman and Chief Executive of Eli Lilly and AT&T International and, get this, was Chairman of the Board of Duke University from 1997 to 2000. As a government official, to quote The Times , he “ran agencies that required foreign recipients of AIDS assistance to explicitly condemn prostitution . . . .” He is a major Republican contributor, of course. Dick Morris — Clinton’s man — was another of Palfrey’s clients. We only have another 14,998 Washington names to go. The divorce lawyers should be having a field day in Washington pretty soon. Remember the movie called, I think, The First Wives Club? Maybe there will be a club in Washington! entitled The 10,000 First Wives Club.

Then there have recently been some things that do not constitute moral meltdown, at least not in a culture that already is heavily debased, but instead exemplify the advertising-speak that infests our lives and culture and that inevitably leads to moral meltdown because it is so shoddy, so grandiose, so devoid of reality, so something or other, but definitely not genuine. There is a new business rag from Conde Nast called Portfolio. It is apparently designed to give you the beautiful people doing their beautiful things in the beautiful city. All very lavish, very plush, the acme of with-it. The publisher’s comment to The Times was, “We’re not giving you peas and carrots. We want to capture the glamour.” Terrific. Lives of glamour. That’s what we all lead, right? That’s what’s real in America, right? One wonders: did the publisher say glamour with a u, like all the rest of us glamo[u]rous types do?

There is also Steve Case, the unlamented AOL pitchman (con man?), who persuaded the fool, Gerald Levin, to sell him Time Warner and then watched the merged outfit go downhill till he, Case, had to leave one step ahead of the posse. Case has now set up a medical website called Revolution ‘”There is a big opportunity to create the most trusted brand in health,'” says Case. Right — great PR speak, Steve. People are going to trust your website, con man Case’s website, more than, say, NIH’s, or the Mayo Clinic’s, or Johns Hopkins’, etc. Steve ought to run for President. He is so honest, sincere and sensible that he would be a worthy successor to George Bush. Steve cheapens talk, and he makes the use of words meaningless, just like George and all his buddies in Washington , and therefore would be a natural to continue the moral meltdown of the country.

You know, on an intimately related subject, Michiko Kakutani of The Times recently wrote a long review of a whole host of books by Presidential wannabes: Clinton, McCain, O’Bama, Giuliani, Edwards, Romney and others. To me, the most pertinent comment in the whole long review was “Bragging is a fundamental part of these books . . . .” That was one of the relatively few serious truths one reads about the cast of hacks, bums, liars, publicity seekers and nonstop self aggrandizers who lead our politics (to disaster). They all suffer from the perpendicular pronoun disease, as they all, in one way and another, lead the country off the moral cliff.

LAWRENCE R. VELVEL is the Dean of Massachusetts School of Law. He can be reached at


Lawrence Velvel, dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, is the author of Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam and An Enemy of the People. He can be reached at: