What we saw with Jerry Sandusky’s interview was horrifying. I had a hard time watching it, so chilling were his words, his lack of remorse, and his lack of simple awareness of what he had done. And yet, this scandal goes far beyond a simple predator, to an entire system of predation and unaccountability. Before the events of the last week, Penn State University Football Coach Joe Paterno was a legend; not only a great coach, he represented a positive archetype of male authority.
Paterno was not just in charge of winning games, but of moulding young male athletes, of helping boys earn their manhood. Lou Holtz, Jimmy Johnson, Tom Landry, Bill Parcells – all of these coaches are perceived as such figures. Football coaches occupy a special place in America – they aren’t media figures, politicians, or bankers, they are leaders of young men.
They are caretakers. We revere these men because they represent something more than winning. They represent male authority in its purest, best form, passing on values of integrity, teamwork, and competitive excellence to the next generation.
It wasn’t just the football team that relied on “Joe Pa”; an entire region of Pennsylvania depended on him as a father figure. That’s why Paterno’s betrayal hurts so much – he occupied a special place of great power and authority, and his betrayal can make us doubt the very notion that authority can be used for good.
Robert Bly, the poet, wrote of this dynamic in his controversial book Iron John: A Book About Men. Bly describes the suffering of generations of American young men desperate to find integrity from their elders, and to learn from them what manhood means. Every culture, he says, has myths that describe this need, in the form of stories like King Arthur, The Iliad, or (I would add) Star Wars. Our myths are essential because they frame the aspirations of the young people building the next generation of institutions. And many of these myths have at their core a powerful male who operates in service to society.
Bly called this kind of figure one who has Zeus energy, “male authority accepted for the sake of the community.” This Zeus energy is achieved through the passage of wisdom and authority from groups of older men to younger men through ceremony, ritual, and discipline. This energy is what we admired in a man like Joe Paterno, a sense that he operated for more than his own needs. Yet he did not in fact do so. With Paterno’s breach of integrity, yet another myth of great American male leadership has cracked. Another cultural elder was revealed as nothing more than a ruthless businessman seeking to protect his institution at all costs, willing to sacrifice even vulnerable children and their families. The tears of PSU students, the candlelight vigils, show just how much young people need their mythic leaders, and how badly the breach of integrity hurts.
On my show and in my upcoming book, I talk about the ways that our political institutions no longer serve our society. Whether we look at George Bush, Barack Obama, Tim Geithner, Eric Holder -irresponsible cowboys or weak conciliators afraid of resolve — we see the tragic lack of Zeus energy in our authority figures. The ideal of service to society is subverted in favour of service to money and power. We hunger for authority with integrity, but we find little nourishment.
Rebuilding our myths, channeling our own Zeus energy, is what we must do, from the bottom up, if we as a society are to recover our integrity. There are models, out of the way somewhat, of courage and male authority and power used in service to society. Bradley Manning, who still sits imprisoned, (allegedly) leaked State Department cables to Wikileaks, because he saw a breach of integrity so vast in our foreign policy that he had to act. He did this at great personal cost. Manning was mimicking the actions of another brave Zeus-energy figure, Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg’s maxim, “courage is contagious”, defines what it would mean to build a strong inter-generational sense of American manhood. Given a myth of courage, of integrity, of “Zeus energy”, societies improve themselves, serve themselves. An America where these men are mythological figures would be a place of deep integrity, with political institutions that once again serve society’s needs.
So, as we reflect on the scandal we saw last week at Penn State, we must have empathy and compassion for the children and their families that have been hurt by the betrayals of the leaders of that program. We must also recognise that such betrayals are now all around us, that our culture is beset with cultural elders who refuse to transmit good values to the younger generation, who in fact refuse to use those values as anything more than marketing props. We must be more vigilant ourselves in ensuring that we show integrity to those around us, especially when we are teaching values to the next generation. That is how we can honour those who have been harmed, by aspiring to integrity in our own journeys through life, and in how we use the power we have been given.
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