Bernard Madoff




Our society is increasingly willing to accept lying, cheating, and other behaviors traditionally considered immoral and unacceptable. That allows people to shun responsibility for their actions, and makes irresponsibility a social norm, Mike Gray notes.


He’ll cheat without scruple, who can without fear.

He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.

—Benjamin Franklin

When I was teaching in middle school, near the end of the academic year I would conduct an informal poll of student attitudes in the guise of a free-writing assignment.

The subject was always about cheating: Should you do it? Would you do it? Is there any reason why it should be allowed? Have you ever done it? and so forth.

Then I would read their assignments, tally up the results, and report back (in a general way, never revealing individual responses that could prove embarrassing) to the students.

Every time I performed this exercise, my reactions to the results were always the same: confirmation, surprise, and dismay.

Confirmation: There were always a few pupils whom I sometimes suspected of cheating but could never catch them at it.  (Does it surprise you that a student would admit to it in a paper he knows will be read by a teacher? They do it all the time; bragging about it to someone in authority elevates them in the eyes of their peers. Being disingenuous on a full-time basis is just not on their horizon at that age.)

Surprise: A few, a very few who I would never have expected to be cheaters admitted to it, usually without any hint of remorse. For just about every imaginable "reason" under the sun it proved necessary for them to cheat.

Dismay: The attitude that yes, there are times when cheating is a necessity indicated a lack of moral instruction on the homefront.

Please don’t get the impression, however, that every pupil favored cheating. The majority, around 60 to 70 percent, always thought it was wrong, giving me a reason for hope.

Nevertheless, on average three or four out of ten saw nothing wrong with cheating if the situation warranted it (which I would frame as "if you had to").

As a followup, I would initiate a class discussion on just when the situation would warrant it. Most of their justifications usually amounted to lame excuses for being lazy. Then I would ask for a show of hands: How many of you would let a doctor treat you who you knew for a fact had cheated on his or her medical school tests? At most ten percent would raise their hands (and most of those, I suspect, were just to impress their friends).

When it came to cheating that can have dangerous real world effects, rather than simply doing it on a test, the students were quick to change their attitude.

To my knowledge, I never had Barack Obama, Timothy Geithner, Tom Daschle, Bernie Madoff, Johnny Sutton, Charlie Rangel, or Chris Dodd in any of my classes (although I’m certain I’d remember Hot Rod Blagojevich), but if I had it’s barely possible one or more of them would have been among those three in ten who could find some justification for cheating "if the situation warranted it."

And it looks as if they’re not alone.

Until last year I had never heard the expression "too big to fail." Since then, however, talking heads in every quarter have been using that concept to excuse illegal and immoral behavior on the grand scale: by corporations, departments of government, special interest groups, and many individuals in them.

Ducking responsibility has become a national pastime. In a politically correct culture, admitting guilt is discountenanced because that would imply that some sort of moral judgment can be made about someone’s behavior, and that is inadmissible to the relativistic PC mindset.

Consequently, no one does something "wrong" any more—they just "make mistakes." And not just mistakes but "honest mistakes." People "forget" to do something like paying their taxes, which they hope will be dismissed as an "honest mistakes." After all, isn’t it easy to make mistakes with a tax code that is as hideously complex as ours is?

Thus these "mistaken" people and their media enablers perpetuate the national Excuse Machine: "I’m not responsible, it was all a mistake, go away."

To their way of thinking, this excerpt from world literature can have no possible application to them and their situation:

"For without [the City of God] are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolators, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie."

No, all they ask of us is, as Steve Martin used to say, "Well, excuuuse me!"

"I’m guilty" never crosses their minds, much less their lips.

What’s more, their success at avoiding responsibility encourages everyone to follow their example, doing wrong and expecting everyone to allow that, yes, "mistakes were made," and move on.

But of course those of us who are not "too big to fail" don’t get the chance to do that—and we have to pay for the damage when others do it.

—Mike Gray