Joe Paterno and the Nation-State


I went to Big Ten schools for undergrad and grad and there is such a sense of pride and identity bound up with such attendance, esp. in undergrad. There is still ribbing at the bus stop among parents based on who went to Illinois instead of Michigan or Michigan State. I don't know many Iowa grads, but almost to a person, other Big Ten alum take that affiliation seriously. Save for the odd Notre Dame flag here or there, my neighborhood looks like the Big Ten headquarters, what with all the flags waving in the cold fall breeze (and this doesn't count the bumper stickers in the driveways and the t-shirts we dress our kids in). 

On campuses, this gets up to a fevered pitch, especially during football season. I gained a view into this as I participated in the protests against Chief Illiniwek in the 1990s. Pro-Chief folks were rabid in their intensity and their dedication to preserving his/their identity. I watched alum and students, parents, and fans, (many who did not even attend Illinois) look at the Chief with such pride and reverence (and some fetishization, I think) at many a game and on tv--it was frighteningly astounding. When the Chief danced his last dance, I cheered. Others cried. From that experience, seeing last night's reaction to JoePa's very righteous and long-overdue firing for his role in this shameful cover-up was not totally unexpected. Disgusting and heartbreaking, but not totally unexpected.

There's more along these lines in the thread. But I think this sort of thinking is pretty helpful. It also helps me in considering how we build our identities around entities that are given the power of violence--whether actual (armed forces, police etc.) or simulated (football.) 

We like to build our collective selves around images of strength. When that strength is compromised, (violent) denial is a rather natural instinct. Whenever the American press is covering a brutal dictator, we're big on explaining his atrocities. But we never do much writing about how such a figure comes to rule. 

We think of the people as being solely victims of power. Surely they are--but somewhere in Zimbabwe there are men and women who believe that Mugabe is a symbol of resistance to Western colonialism. In other words, a symbol of strength. And should that symbol actually prove successful, we're generally willing to tolerate horrid violence against individuals. The notion of individual rights is, itself, a modern concept and one that must be upheld by institutions and laws, as opposed to the will of a Big Man.

I think that's what disturbs the outsider looking in a Penn State. The toleration of the repeated rape of children, and then a rallying in support of those who did the tolerating, evinces a sort of lawlessness, an abandonment of the institutions that protect the weak from atrocity. 

There will be no comments for this post. We got a lot of good ones yesterday, but the topic attracts a great deal of emotion. I don't really want to host catharsis.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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