I think I stopped finding George Costanza funny when I saw the “Seinfeld” episode in which he panicked at a kids party after smelling smoke and trampled the children rushing to be the first out the door. (His callous reaction to his fiancée’s death from licking envelopes had paved the way for my inability to laugh at George.) The thought of a real-life George Costanza, the most unethical character on a show about unethical characters, serving as the captain of an imperiled ship full of passengers is horrifying, but that’s basically what befell the unsuspecting tourists on board the cruise ship that tipped over after hitting a rock off the coast of Italy. Having caused the accident, it appears, by irresponsibly changing course, captain Francesco Schettino hit the life boats before most of his passengers, and claimed to be directing the evacuation from the relative safety of a lifeboat as he defied orders from the Italian Coast Guard to return to the ship.
It is likely that as many as 30 passengers died in the accident, and Schettino is going to be tried for manslaughter and abandoning his post. Undoubtedly his defenses will be that he only made a mistake or two, that we’re all human, that he was unlucky, and that someone or everyone else was to blame. (Bulletin: he is now claiming that he “tripped’ into the lifeboat by accident!) Meanwhile, the cruise line will be sued extensively, not only for putting an incompetent coward like Schettino in a position of trust, but also for the apparent lack of professionalism of the crew, described by surviving passengers as “kids” and “waiters,” who, especially in the absence of supervision and leadership, made the crisis worse rather than better. The motto of the ship’s crew seems to have been “Every man for himself!”
Just like George!
The incident should serve as a jolting reminder of how often we place our lives and welfare, or the lives of those we love, under the control of people about whose character we know little or nothing. Airplane pilots, portfolio managers, teachers…doctors, lawyers, business managers…legislators, diplomats…generals, judges, presidents… corporate CEO’s, SEC regulators and ship captains. Every day we trust them to think about our interests first, not themselves, because, well, what other choice do we have? We can’t do it all ourselves. We presume, therefore, that the acceptance of the job and the duties associated with it indicate that an individual possesses the virtues and character necessary to fulfill those duties. But we don’t know for certain, and often won’t know, until a metaphorical cruise ship hits a rock.
In a culture that values character, faith in character can be defended. Children are brought up to respect character; there are role models, and prominent figures to admire. Public figures who who bad character are criticized and shunned. Good character is honored and rewarded. I say this in pain, but our current culture does not value character, at least not enough to justify blind trust. There may not have been the right laws in place to imprison the worst of the Wall Street architects of the financial meltdown, but they could have been exposed and fired by their own companies. Too often, there are no consequences for unethical conduct. When a teacher insults her students on her blog, she is allowed to go on teaching them. When our soldiers behave like four-year-olds while wearing our nation’s colors and desecrate the dead, the Governor of Texas, running for the highest office in the land, shrugs it off, saying it is wrong to call such conduct by Marines “despicable.” When it is revealed that Nancy Pelosi has enriched herself from inside tips on stock while making laws effecting the financial sector, there is no public outcry, and the story is quickly forgotten. When a state governor is forced to resign for cheating both his wife and his state, he is hired by Fox News to be a star analyst; when a another state governor has to resign for enjoying a prostitution ring, CNN gives him his own show. David Letterman, a serial sexual harasser, makes us laugh; Jimmy Kimmel, who encourages parents to lie to their children, makes us laugh. We cheer drug-using felons on our athletic fields, and enrich venal narcicists—the Kardashians, Trump—by watching them on TV. A likely pederast like Michael Jackson dies, and the nation goes into mourning. Stephen Glass, a journalist who lied repeatedly, is defended as a worthy entrant into the legal field. Bill Clinton, smug and triumphant, stares out at us cockily from the current Newsweek cover, with sage advice for the country, his year of lying about an adulterous workplace affair and tearing the country apart over it apparently forgiven or forgotten. Joe Paterno lets a child predator continue to stalk disadvantaged children for years, and isn’t even fired from his job as coach/saint. Newt Gingrich is running for president, and people aren’t laughing at him…at least, not enough people.
In a culture that constantly sends the message that character doesn’t matter—this was virtually the campaign slogan of the Democrats in 1996, remember?—indeed, that it’s an impediment to success, George Costanzas don’t just slip through the cracks, they thrive. Think, if you dare, about how many of them are out there right now, needing only a crisis to reveal their true nature.
When the ship hits the rocks, there will be nobody to blame but ourselves.
Or perhaps it already has.