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Thursday, December 29, 2011

December 29, 2011: Year in Review 4: School for Scandal

[This week I will be highlighting five of the year’s most significant events, and noting some of the ways an AmericanStudier might contextualize and analyze them. This is the fourth in that series.]
The year’s (and one of the young century’s) most explosive scandal can remind us of some of our most defining national myths.
As anyone who wasn’t living under a (wifi-free) rock at the time already knows, in the first weeks of November one of the most shocking and horrific scandals in the history of American sports (and perhaps of America period) broke: the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State/child rape scandal. As I wrote in my November 12-13 post, it was hard for me to come up with any words or responses that felt adequate to the horrors at the scandal’s core, and six weeks have not made the task any easier. Certainly the scandal can and should be connected directly to our complex, longstanding national obsession with sports: not only because of the current, obscenely significant status and funding of college football (on which my colleague Sean’s comment on that blog post focused); but also because for more than a century, at least since the days of Babe Ruth, our national narratives have idolized sports figures in spite of—and perhaps at times because of—their unchecked excesses.
Another relatively obvious but equally important side of the scandal is similarly revealing of idealizing national myths. Some of the most shocking images as the scandal unfolded were not in the grand jury testimony (horrific as those details were and are), but in the sight and sounds of Penn State students and community members vociferously defending Joe Paterno, even rioting in support of the coach after he had been fired by the university’s trustees. While JoePa’s stature in Happy Valley of course has a great deal to do with the aforementioned obsession with sports, it also connects to national narratives that go back at least to the Founding Father image, through references to Lincoln as “Father Abraham,” and up to the hagiographies of Ronald Reagan—narratives of the idealization of paternalistic leaders, grandfatherly elders whose calm presences seem immune to, or at least to transcend, the everyday and too often corrupt realities of politics (whether campus or national). Whatever the accuracy of such narratives for specific individuals, the images themselves reveal a level of adoration that does, as Penn State reminded us, make it difficult to grapple with more complex histories and identities.
And then there are the kids. As I tried to foreground in that original Penn State-focused post, no response to or analysis of the scandal can or should fail to focus, ultimately, on the young boys whose lives were (allegedly, I suppose I have to write) so tragically altered and in some central sense destroyed by Sandusky and all who facilitated his crimes. While I would never try to minimize the specific, individual horrors of their experiences and those crimes, it is interesting and important, particularly when considering our communal and national responses to events like this, to connect those responses to our many longstanding narratives of childhood innocence in—and at the heart of—America and national myths like the American Dream. And as AmericanStudiers such as Caroline Levander have thoroughly and impressively documented and analyzed, some of our most conflicted social issues have likewise long been debated through the lens of American children.
The specific facts and details of the Penn State scandal continue to unfold, and as they do its story will evolve and change; but these AmericanStudies contexts will influence how we understand and respond to the scandal in any case. Last significant 2011 event tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
12/29 Memory Day nominee: Robert Weaver, the first Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the first African American Cabinet member, and one of America’s most significant scholars of our urban spaces, communities, challenges, and opportunities.

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