Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Moral Vacuum Of Authoritarians

Megan McArdle read about the Penn State cover-up and wondered how such a terrible thing could have happened. In a later post, she inadvertently demonstrated how.

I have been thinking some more about the Penn State case, and why McQueary and Paterno did what they did. And I have come to the conclusion that most commentators are overlooking a rather obvious contributing factor: they liked Sandusky.

The authoritarian "leader" identifies with the powerful, not the victim, so her first impulse is to protect them from loss of power. Authoritarian relationships are based on power, not on emotional ties, but such naked wielding of power is socially unacceptable, so the authoritarian leader cloaks his use of force with emotional words. It makes no sense at all to talk of liking Sandusky. Anyone who liked him before they caught him raping a child would certainly not like him after. Certain personal qualities, such as the need to rape children, are definitely a relationship-killer. Empathy for the victim and fear of violation would destroy any empathy for the rapist. But that would assume that one is capable of empathy, of feeling what others feel.

McQueary grew up in State College; his family was friends with Sandusky, and of course, Sandusky had coached him. Paterno had worked with Sandusky closely for years. And if you think about what you would have done in a situation where you caught someone you love and respect in that position, is it really so obvious, as the chest thumping punditariat proclaims, that you would have leaped into the shower, beaten the snot out of him, and frog marched him to the police station after you rescued the kid? Really? You'd have done that to your father, your favorite uncle, your best friend, a beloved mentor?
On a trivial level, McArdle's writing is offensively hackneyed. On a more important level it is just offensive. Yes, we would turn over a rapist we knew to the police. Rapists are dangerous. They rape people. Rape is a very bad thing that hurts people terribly. But this must be spelled out to authoritarians, since rape is partially a crime of power, and they get all confused about whether or not a crime of power is wrong.

It is chest-thumping to say we would get the rapist away from the child he is currently raping and call the police. No frogs would need to be marched, no rapists would need to be beaten. (He could easily be shoved and knocked down). A few steps, grab the kid, wipe your hand on your shirt, pull out your phone and call the cops while getting a towel for the kid. The fact that McArdle creates an imaginary situation to make stopping the rape much more difficult and less attractive is utterly astonishing. People will do terrible things while defending power, as the entire Penn State case shows. But because they are protecting the rapists' enablers and the bankers' thefts and the industrialists' polluting, they must go through a complicated process of denial, which McArdle helpfully outlines below.

Think about what that really entails: overcoming all the shock and horror, the defensive mechanisms that make you question what you're really seeing.
This case is so striking to us all because it is, for once, utterly clear what should have been done: stop the rape and the rapist. Nobody needs to search his soul, despite the genuinely shocking nature of the sight. There was no visual ambiguity, no question of what one was seeing, which is not always the case. The rapist was caught in the act. A defense mechanism is to protect one's self; the only question is what McArdle would be protecting herself from.

The total destruction of a long relationship as soon as you name it out loud and accuse him to his face.

The (private) act would not do that? Only the public act of turning the rapist over to the police?

The actual physical logistics of grabbing a naked sixty year old man, detaching him from that child, and then pounding on him for a while as a ten year old you don't know watches.

Strawman. But the words "you don't know" are extraordinarily important and show up again in the comments, where McArdle and a commenter have the following exchange.

eannie 2 hours ago
What if it was your kid in the shower being raped by Sandusky? It has nothing to do with beating up on Sandusky, it only had to do with rescuing the child . He might have stopped a stranger from beating a dog, but he couldn't overcome the bonds of friendship and loyalty to rescue a little boy? Maybe so.
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McMegan 1 hour ago in reply to eannie
Oh, I'm quite sure that he would have stopped Sandusky from molesting a boy he knew well. In-group/out-group distinctions are an unfortunate feature of human existance. Saying "Well, only bad, authoritarian cultures like Catholic priests/football programs" is itself manifesting exactly the thinking that made McQueary's cowardice possible.
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Statements like these should bar people from public life but of course they will not. McArdle has no idea of how repulsive her sentiments are because she has no idea that it is genuinely possible to care about what happens to people we don't know. Empathy for anyone outside of her small circle of family, friends and acquaintances is impossible for her. She does not care if anyone suffers or is even killed by the policies she is paid to push.

Snug and smug in her in-group, McArdle declares that building a society based on a hierarchy of power and maintaining power by persecuting those outside the power group is just structural, just something that everyone has to put up with because that's the way things are done. Then McArdle gets in a kick at the critics of authoritarianism, since the silly-headed muggins don't recognize the necessity of obedience to power and scapegoating the powerless. Finally, McArdle goes out in a blaze of glory by claiming that those who denounce authoritarian power structures and their abuses are abetting authoritarian power structures and their abuses.

My god, this woman is worth every penny. She has raised power-worship and naked manipulation to a fine art; her prose gushes forth with an endless stream of Randian invective and moral degeneration. She is Aphrodite, born on a wave of propaganda, who gave herself to the god of war and gave birth to moral monsters such as this post.

The fact that the minute you go to the police, you will have utterly ruined this man's life: he will be jobless, friendless, and branded as the worst sort of pervert by everyone in the country--oh, and also, in protective custody so that the other inmates in jail don't, like, kill him.
Have empathy for the rapist, not the little boy.

That's a pretty huge emotional hurdle to leap in the ten seconds or so that McQueary had to do the right thing. Isn't it quite understandable that your instinct might be to get away? To look for some way that didn't have to involve jail? Wouldn't it be a huge relief to tell your superiors and let someone else take care of it?
She still hasn't mentioned the naked raped kid standing there. McArdle quotes Andrew Sullivan, who emphatically states that he would help the child, but she finds his attitude "blithe." McArdle asks, what about the Jews, huh? You think you'd rescue them but most people didn't out of fear and conformity. So there!

Oh, well, that's an extreme example, you may say; McQueary was at no risk of life and limb. Fair enough, but one can name dozens of less dangerous situations where only a small minority actually does the right thing, but everyone believes that they woulda. Consider, for example, child abuse (sexual or otherwise) in families. How often is the offender actually reported to the police, and how often do the families simply keep the kids away from Grandpa because, well, you know. I'm sure at some level they worry about other kids Grandpa might be touching--but they also worry about what would happen to Grandpa in jail, and the rest of his family in the court of public opinion.

For an authoritarian, what you say is much more important that what you do behind closed doors. The group will still accept you as long as you bow to their power and live by their rules, within their parameters of what is and isn't acceptable. McArdle reminds her tribe of this fact--it's okay to act immorally because everyone does it; that is, the group says it's okay.

When you find out that someone you know is a pedophile, that doesn't erase your knowledge that they're also a human being. It does in the public mind, of course, but it's very different when you know them.
No--and I cannot emphasize this enough--it isn't.

We are evolved to live in small groups, with very deep loyalty to the other members. In most situations, this is in fact a completely laudable sentiment. But this is the dark side: it is very hard for us to betray the members of those small groups to which we belong, particularly if we have strong emotional bonds to that person.

All attention is concentrated on obeying the power structure, conserving it and maintaining it. The powerful is the group. The little boy is not and betraying him is irrelevant.

Sigh. Let's get this over with.

There is a scientific name for people who are not bound by these sorts of ties: sociopaths.

Or: McArdles.

And as I understand it, they do not, in fact, make excellent agents of justice, because they don't care about the victims, either.

Indeed they don't. McArdle spends another two paragraphs reminding her readers of their place in the greater order and justifying letting a rapist go because he's a friend but she obviously recognizes the difficulty of the task and so goes for the audience's jugular, using an argument that she know will work because it has worked for her.

Can you really be so sure that you'd have stepped in right then? Can you honestly say that you've never cut slack for people you like and respect, and maybe people who also happen to have some impact on your career? You've never kept silent while they were doing something that you were pretty sure was really wrong? I'm not talking about looting the company coffers or molesting children, necessarily--maybe it's the friend who cheated on his wife, or the one who's occasionally rather nasty to his children, or I don't know, a political administration who you like but who also does some stuff that is really pretty bad. If you have found yourself making excuses to let them--or yourself--slide, then you know basically how McQueary felt.
McArdle does not understand that some people make moral decisions based on their own values, not the values given to them by the elite authority. Here is true moral relativity, since morals are not absolute and are not based on a person's personality and core values. They are based on whatever the authoritarian leaders want their followers to think and feel, whatever will benefit those leaders.

That doesn't excuse what McQueary did. His reaction may be common, but it was still wrong.

Public obeisance to the (fake) standards of the group duly noted.

And we encourage others to do the right thing by forcefully declaring what that right thing is, and shaming those who fail to live up to even a very difficult standard.
You don't have to do it as long as you agree to say it and force everyone else to say it as well.

But categorizing his act as depraved and incomprehensible is unhelpful. It's unfortunately normal, and entirely comprehensible. Saying otherwise allows us to write off what happened at Penn State to evil people, or a "culture" full of nasty, macho football lovers. It allows us to avoid confronting the real problem, which is that people are evolved to form intense bonds that often trump more abstract principles . . . and also, to be very good at coming up with excuses for not doing what they should at great personal cost to themselves.
McArdle's specialty is taking concrete situations, muddying them up, and declaring the entire situation is too abstract to understand or act upon.

Of course, that's not neat and convenient: we don't get to think that the problem is localized to far off people who are nothing like our wonderful friends and relations. But I think it's perhaps more likely to help us prevent such happenings in our own backyard.
Of course it will abet such happenings, but that's the whole point of McArdle's post, isn't it.

Remember, it's not about McArdle, it's about the attitudes and beliefs that have been ingrained in her and millions of other people. But their words are useless before the truth, which is why they work so hard to hide and deny it.


zombie rotten mcdonald said...'s not....did she really say that the person who would have STOPPED the rape was the sociopath?

She's not just an idiot; she's a monstrous idiot.

She should be eaten by a grue. I would conform to her principles and not stop THAT attack.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

The total destruction of a long relationship as soon as you name it out loud and accuse him to his face.

OK, there's no way I can know what McQueary was thinking, but by his actions, he seems to have been thinking EXACTLY this.

He seems to have been concerned about his position and career, the relationship with Sandusky that helped those, and saw the ability to preserve them by kicking the issue up the chain of command; it seems like he was rewarded for that action, being made a permanent coach.

OK, maybe McQueary is not as appalling a creature as Sandusky, in that he did not rape children. But only by a matter of degree; neither of them (and Monster McArdle too, for that matter) ever seemed to consider the boy(s) as real people, being violently attacked.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

I thought I was as sickened by this whole episode as a zombie could get; but Monster McArdle has managed to take it even further.

Well done, Monster. You have made a zombie be repulsed by the human race.

Kathy said...

I wonder who suggested to ArgleBargle that she use the "maybe the witness liked the molester" excuse for his inaction. I don't think she's intelligent enough to come up with it on her own.

A lot of her essays are like that: as if someone, somewhere, suggests she use a particular approach to the topic (such as tribalism), and she grabs the ball & runs with it, not realizing its a ball of shit. Or just not caring.

My guess would be that in the college football culture there is quite a bit of "forced sex", aka Rape; of fans, cheerleaders, prostitutes... What McQueary (jeez what a name) saw was worse than "the usual", but not all that uncommon. Perhaps he was abused when a much younger football player, and figures its just part of "the game".

It would be interesting to hear his excuse.

Susan of Texas said...

It's nuts to defend McQueary's actions. I can only think that she is promoting her own practice of turning a blind eye to immoral acts.

"Can you really be so sure that you'd have stepped in right then? Can you honestly say that you've never cut slack for people you like and respect, and maybe people who also happen to have some impact on your career? You've never kept silent while they were doing something that you were pretty sure was really wrong?"

The story of her life.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

"cutting slack" =/= "allowing a child rapist to walk free"

It's really not that ambiguous, Megan.

nate said...

"Empathy for anyone outside of her small circle of family, friends and acquaintances is impossible for her. She does not care if anyone suffers or is even killed by the policies she is paid to push."

This is probably the best description of libertarians I have ever read. I know some of them, and they can be kind, caring people to their family and friends.

Anybody outside that circle? Tough shit, jack.

On another note, is there any depth to which McArdle won't sink? Defending covering up pedophilia now, Megan, really?

I'm certain she'll still be welcomed to the Yglesias/Klein dinner parties, of course.

atat said...

God, she is such a wretched excuse for a human being. It's times like this when I really hope that, at the very least, McArdle will have a Colonel Kurtz moment on her deathbed when she finally recognizes the damage she's done. That's when she'll see a fleeting image of that boy's face and recognize it as human. I'm sure it will be the first time in her life that she'll experience a tiny sliver of shame.

One can hope.

Susan of Texas said...

We know she'll defend assault, torture, rape and murder. I suppose there must be something horrible she hasn't supported yet.

She's said repeatedly that she would not support adultery, no doubt because that would affect her personally.

Susan of Texas said...

Oh, god. Mrs. Douthat let Ross have the computer again. Charles Pierce rips him to shreds but Douthat's piece is beyond belief and you can never have too much ripping.

Clever Pseudonym said...

Did she really write that it's reasonable to look the other way over kiddie rape if it's perpetrated by someone who could help your career? Of all the vile, self-absorbed, pretentious, horribly written rubbish Megan has published, this has got to be the absolute worst. It's disgusting enough in premise, made even more insufferable by her usual condescending tone, suggesting that the real problem the rest of us Great Unwashed have is that we've merely not thought of the matter as deeply as she has. What a miserable tw*t.

You see, Megan, one of the conditions I happen to have for liking and respecting people is that they don't enjoy raping children, even ones I don't personally know. I don't consider that standard impossibly high.

tony in san diego said...

all McQ would have had to do was walk up and say to the kid, "Let's get you out of here," and wrap him up in a towel. He didnt have to beat up the coach. It would have been easy.

What I don't get is how these people could shake his hand later, or sit at the same awards table with him, ever again. But they did. Nasty.

Lurking Canadian said...

I am inclined to be forgiving of what McQueary did (or didn't do) at the moment of crisis. At that instant of shock and horror, I don't think any of us is capable of a reasoned response. A friend of mine once put it like this:"That's why cops and firefighters and soldiers train so much. It's so their spines will do something sensible even when their brains lock up."

However, his inaction after the shock wore off is inexcusable. If I were in his place, I'm afraid I probably would have run away at first, too. I think my spine is a sniveling coward. But, I do think that I would have gone back to help the kid within minutes, once I was able to think again. I would hope I would NEVER think the way Megan suggests here, about giving the guy I knew the benefit of the doubt. Or, if I did, at least I hope I would have the common decency to kill myself from the shame.

Anatole David said...

Amazing the lengths she'll go to defend wrongdoers in powerful institutions. She'll never lift a finger to defend folks thrown into homelessness and poverty by the widespread fraud committed by her heroes. In fact, she'll blame the victims and champion fraudsters.

This piece of agnotological(how could we know?) apology from McArdle only proves her undying fealty to "successful" institutions. Wall Street and Beltway insularity breeds this "concern".

Kathy said...

Drastic action would probably not have been necessary for McQ.

A direct phone call to the police was all that was required.

Would I run tell my Boss if I saw an employee stealing a car, robbing a 7-11? Hardly. McQ sounds as tho he was looking for an excuse to not help. Leave it to Someone Else.

BillCinSD said...

You all do know McQueary claims he did stop the rape that he witnessed and talked to the police (which certainly could mean campus police) after the rape.,0,2227303.story

Anonymous said...

Good god. A new low, even for McMegan. Disgusting.

Sharon said...

"she has no idea that it is genuinely possible to care about what happens to people we don't know."

Got it in one.
Apparently, she really believes that cutting someone some slack means you'd run away if you saw an adult raping a child.

Susan of Texas said...

I guess we'll have to wait for the full story. Either way, it's hard to believe that people would justify doing nothing.

Mr. Wonderful said...

Late getting here, but for once, Susan, I think your thoughts about authoritarianism are de trop, however astute.

As someone once said, "All children are OUR children." If a kid wanders into traffic, you don't stop before yelling or acting and think, "Wait, do I know that kid?"

What would make McMegan rue this column and think differently? Alas, only having her own children. That would do it, although it shouldn't. (Although how typical: once it's personal, THEN she might have an epiphany of empathy.)

I thought I'd seen it all with this woman, but how wrong I was.

I agree with tony in san diego: you step in, you minimize the furor so the kid isn't further traumatized, and you get him out of there. And then you call the fucking cops. How much nuance, or personal special pleading, do you need to be repulsed and outraged by the buggering of children? McArdle should be ashamed--deeply, mortally--that we're forced to even ask.

Susan of Texas said...

Yes, having kids does make a difference.

The post is such a mistake. How could she have thought it was okay?

Batocchio said...

Like her heroine Ayn Rand, McMegan has great difficulty simulating human emotions and worships sociopaths (her astounding words, noted by ZRM, notwithstanding).

As Bill notes upthread, McQuery's claiming he did both intervene and report it. Initial shock in that situation is understandable. But the follow-up seems to have been severely lacking, and the situation's horrible. We'll see what else comes out.

But regardless of all that, nothing absolves McArdle for what she wrote. It really both amazing and utterly predictable, as Anatole David notes, who she champions and who she scolds. But even for her, this is grotesque.

Bobo and Chunky Bobo are despicable enough, blaming it all on liberalism. McArdle is scolding her readers for caring about a child victim of rape. Shorter McMegan: "I'm not the sociopath, you're the sociopaths!" She will scream it 'til her dying day.

Susan of Texas said...

It's just amazing that she would excuse McQueary. She's not just morally empty, she also doesn't have enough social awareness to realize that her post was offensive.

brad said...

Not sure why I care, I guess I have some sociopathic non-tribal empathy in me somewhere, but it turns out McQueary didn't fail to stop the rape or to go to the police personally, according to recent reports.
I'm not sure how or why that was left out of initial reporting, but most likely it was part of the attempt by the power structure to hide the failures at the top of the food chain for as long as possible.
Protect the king!

brad said...

Oh, whoops, already mentioned in this thread.
Ah well, bears repeating. McQueary has received death threats behind this probable spin effort.

Anonymous said...

Did Megan really Godwin's Law herself here?

Anonymous said...

Reading Ms. Megan's piece, one firmly believes that Ms. Megan has raped Peter Suderman on multiple occasions.

Not for the sex, but merely for the social structure of their tax reduction partnership.