Integrity doesn’t need a law

THERE IS A WIDESPREAD ASSUMPTION that once the Bush mob leaves office, things will get better. I’m not so sure of that. After all, America has been deteriorating since the Reagan administration took office regardless of who was in the White House. The president is the ultimate canary in the mine shaft of our culture, more typically reflecting where we are rather than determining it. 

I was reminded of this by a nasty incident, small yet so revealing  of how engrained the American institutional culture of cruelty and inhumanity has become. A student at George Washington University went to the hospital for depression and because he was feeling suicidal. According to the Washington Post, "Within a day and a half of arriving there, he got a letter from a GWU administrator saying his ‘endangering behavior’ violated the code of student conduct. He faced possible suspension and expulsion from school, the letter said, unless he withdrew and deferred the charges while he got treatment. . .

"GWU was Nott’s dream school, he said recently. He’d always wanted to study foreign relations in Washington, he said, so after starting classes, making friends his freshman year and getting straight A’s, he was the happiest he’d ever been.

"But it was a tough year for GWU, with several sudden student deaths. One evening in April, near the end of the semester, a freshman jumped from the fifth floor of a dorm. He was one of Nott’s closest friends; they had planned to room together sophomore year.

"When he jumped, the complaint says, Nott and two others were trying to open his locked door to help.

"In fall 2004, when Nott came back to school, he started feeling depressed, he said. He kept thinking about how his friend had died. In September, another student committed suicide."

According to the American College Health Association, 38% of college students experience some depression and nine percent seriously consider suicide.

Could this have anything to do with the future college students see for themselves? The false expectations of parents?  Or how they are treated at places like George Washington? Such questions don’t get asked and don’t have to because today it is the responsibility of individuals to conform to the rules and, if they can’t, there are plenty willing to take their place as the country’s employment opportunities dwindle.

Where once America primarily controlled its employment market by race, increasingly it is being done by other specious moral judgments as well: the use of marijuana, weighing too much, or becoming depressed. In the end, places like GW are left with more students willing to do just what they’re told.

If you want to know where things like Abu Ghraib start it is in incidents like this where simple decency and compassion are drowned in the paperwork of a bureaucratic, legalistic, institutionally self-serving society. A place where what was once handled with a handshake now takes a 52 page document.

There is no shame in GW’s reaction to the incident. Shame has all but disappeared from Washington. Instead you have a suffering human being reduced to an administrative headache.

One of the ways you can tell there is no shame is when the institution – and the newspaper that covers it – reduces the matter to a legal problem. It has been wisely said that integrity doesn’t need a law. And no law can create it. The same is true with compassion, wisdom, and decency. George Washington University has apparently dispensed with such virtues in its business model.

As for the student, he has recovered, left GW, and will graduate from the University of Maryland this spring at the age of 20.

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