pop culture

Purity, Penn State, and All of Us

The Freakonomics documentary explores corruption in the world of sumo wrestling. In the book, sumo wrestlers were exposed for fixing matches to benefit one another in rankings and, therefore, social status and salary. The documentary takes this expose a step further, asking questions about how the cultural perception of purity that sumo wrestling has in Japan actually enables the cheating to take place.

Two Japanese words tell the story. The tatamea, the facade of propriety, that sumo wrestling has through its use of Shinto purification rituals hides the home, the real truth, that sumo wrestling is rampant with corruption and cheating. Here is how the authors of Freakonomics describe it:

“Purity is a good mask for corruption because it discourages inquiry.”

“The illusion of purity can not only hide corruption; it can help to make it possible.”

Within the last week, the mask has been pulled off of the Penn State University football program. For years, Joe Paterno has been held up as the paragon of what is good in college sports. He was the successful coach who did it the right way. He ran a model program. He was the living legend. The college football coach of the year award is named after him. He was the moral compass of collegiate sports.

The tatamea is the aptly named Happy Valley, where there was no need to suspect any kind of corruption because the pure Paterno reigned. The home, the real truth, was that the program with the reputation of purity actually employed, protected, and gave access to a brutal pedophile.

Certainly, Jerry Sandusky, the pedophile, is responsible for his actions. But he is not alone in culpability. Penn State, Joe Paterno, the college sports media, and all of us, share the culpability for perpetrating the myth that the Penn State program under Joe Paterno was legendary for doing things the right way. The illusion of purity that we all participated in made the corruption possible.

Penn State is not alone. Churches and Christian organizations have suffered through this same kind of humiliation as the reality of their corruption has been made public. Certainly, the easy example is the priest pedophilia scandal in the Catholic church. But much closer to home for me is the ongoing investigation into the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism and its protection of a pedophile doctor in Bangladesh.

ABWE projected an image as a professional and pure proponent of the gospel, as the best mission agency with the best missionaries. Accusations of abuse were covered up because they threatened to tarnish that image. The home of pedophilia might compromise ABWE’s ability to continue its tatamea of spreading the gospel. Even now, sadly, it seems like ABWE is still trying to sugarcoat the story to protect its image.

Certainly, Donn Ketcham, the missionary doctor in Bangladesh who perpetrated the pedophilia, is responsible for his actions. But he is not alone in his culpability. ABWE, its administrators, missionaries and supporting churches are all responsible too because they perpetrated the myth, not the reality, of ABWE. There was no need for anyone to make an inquiry because the mask of purity was hiding the corruption.

Individuals do this too. If we act better than we are, people won’t ask us hard questions. If we project an image of having it all together, people will just assume that we do. If we wear the mask of purity, we can continue to be corrupt without suspicion.

Here is what I propose:

How about we all just stop pretending?

How about we stop putting ourselves or each other up on pedestals?

How about we stop thinking that some politician, some football coach, some preacher is a moral compass for us all?

How about we stop trusting that governments and movements and corporations and charities and churches are pure or benevolent?

How about we all give up our bias of purity and employ a healthy dose of cynicism in regard to just about everything?

How about we all get real?

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” – Louis Brandeis

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Positioned for Irrelevance: WTEM ESPN 980’s Terrible Decision to Hold Tony Kornheiser Hostage

It seems that the older I get, the more rituals I develop. One of my daily rituals is to return from lunch and download the Tony Kornheiser Show podcast and listen to it as I work each afternoon. Tony Kornheiser, former Washington Post writer and hopefully future grantland.com contributor, is best known as the host of PTI on ESPN. But, his radio show might be the best thing he does.

The TK Show isn’t all sports. It is a daily ranting commentary on news, pop culture, obituaries, and the weather in the Washington DC area. It is chockfull of inside jokes that leave my work mates wondering what I’m laughing at. Like many other loyal listeners, or “Littles” as Mr. Tony calls us, I gleefully regale my family with anecdotes from that day’s broadcast, only to receive a roll of the eyes and a mournful shake of the head from Vanessa. She doesn’t get it.

But hundreds of thousands of us do. The TK Show is one of the top ten downloaded podcasts in the sports category on iTunes, which makes last week’s change in policy about its broadcast mind-boggling. On Friday, WTEM, ESPN 980 in Washington DC, decided to begin delaying its podcasts for 24 hours. Without explanation and only a brief statement on its website, the station effectively made all of us TK addicts quit cold turkey over the long Memorial Day Weekend.

Since the station has not explained its decision, one can only assume that management believes that the podcast, normally uploaded within a couple of hours of the live show’s completion, was syphoning away listeners that could help their ratings … and thus the amount they can charge advertisers. But they are sorely mistaken. One informal online poll of Littles showed that 79% are unable to listen live, either on the radio or through the live feed on the station’s website. I am among that 79%.

Maybe WTEM is trying to protect ratings. Maybe it is trying to maximize advertising dollars. Maybe it is just experimenting with formats. Certainly, WTEM ESPN 980 is positioning itself for irrelevance.

We live in a culture of instant information. I learned of the death of Osama bin Laden on Twitter. Last week, from several states away on a business trip, I watched live on-the-ground video of the tornadoes that ravaged places dangerously close to my home. News is not what is new; news is what is now. A day later, even a half day later, it is not news. Commentary on old news is stale and irrelevant.

Our media has changed. Gone is the heyday of the network nightly news. Gone is the time of turning on your radio to get the latest update. Soon to be gone are newspapers. In our increasingly shrinking world, we have the means – smart phones, iPads, laptops – to be connected, and we use the media – Twitter, blog commentaries, eBooks, and podcasts – to do so.

WTEM ESPN 980 is short-sighted if it fails to realize this. Certainly it can figure out a way to make money with it’s podcasts, but don’t delay them for 24 hours and alienate millions of loyal listeners. They have not positioned themselves for success. They are positioned for irrelevance.

I wish I could say this is an uncommon example of being positioned for irrelevance, but I can’t. Churches do this kind of thing all the time. Answering questions that no one is asking. Perpetuating ministries and programs that were designed for the culture of the 80s, or worse, the 50s. Alienating younger people by catering to the senior saints who “pay the bills.” Positioned for irrelevance.

And so do politicians. Donald Trump, as an example, flashed in the political pan earlier this year, flirting with a presidential bid. Rather than positioning himself as a pragmatic, deal-making, leader who could serve as an effective alternative to President Obama, he peed around the birther territory, claiming it as his own. Positioned for irrelevance.

And so do parents. I knew a mother once who was so afraid of her teenage kids turning out badly that she attempted to micro-manage every aspect of their lives. Rather than affirming and supporting them for who they were, she made herself a stench in the nostrils of her own kids. The older they got, the more they pulled away in rebellion. She had positioned herself for irrelevance.

I suspect that WTEM ESPN 980 will acquiesce and remove the 24 hour embargo on the TK Show and its other podcasts. They will probably get a sponsor or upload the complete show, commercials and all. At this point, I’d say the chances are 50/50, but we’ll have to see how it plays out. In the meantime, they have proven that they are clueless about what the world is like today, let alone what it will be like tomorrow. Until they get a clue, they are positioned for irrelevance.

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Big Ups to Bebo Norman

For writing a song I think Jesus would be really proud of. There are lots of versions of it on youtube with various Britney clips and pictures. I really liked the simplicity of this live version. What do you think?



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