Moral Parallels: Foshan China, Penn State

In several items (first, second, and third) about last month's horrific episode in Foshan, China --  in which 18 people walked or biked past an injured 2-year-old lying in the road, until she was run over a second time and mortally wounded -- I mentioned that such "not my problem" behavior was a failing of human nature rather than of any one nation's culture. But the uproar over the episode inside China showed that it touched a nerve there. Specifically, it was a trigger for mounting concerns about the social and cultural effects of the me-first rush for riches these past few years.

It's worth recognizing how much the details of the grand jury report of (alleged) multi-victim, multi-year sexual predation in Penn State's football program make it a moral parallel of the toddler video. People who were not themselves "to blame" for a terrible situation also did not take responsibility for rescuing its victims.

The specifics of the moral choice for onlookers obviously differ: in China, it was a random assortment of people faced with an out-of-nowhere decision in a few seconds of real time. At Penn State, it was stewards of an organization convincing themselves to turn a blind eye over a period of years. But the results -- implicit decisions to distance oneself from responsibility for other people's suffering -- are similar. And while the Penn State case could be a trigger for larger concerns -- about bigtime sports culture, about the God-coach tradition of which Joe Paterno has been a main example, about unaccountable male-run hierarchies that seem to attract pederasts -- mainly we're reminded of human failings again. I tell myself that I would never have walked by an injured toddler -- or that I would never condone an episode like the one at Penn State quoted after the jump. But people who think of themselves as "good" did these things, which is mainly a sobering reminder of what we're all capable of. Mon semblable, mon frere.

From the grand jury's account of what happened at Penn State to "Victim 2" of a total of eight young boys who were molested:

On March 1, 2002, a Penn State graduate assistant ("graduate assistant") who was then 28
years old, entered the locker room at the Lasch Football Building on the University Park Campus on a Friday night before the beginning of Spring Break. The graduate assistant, who was familiar with Sandusky [the arrested coach], was going to put some newly purchased sneakers in his locker and get some recruiting tapes to watch. It was about 9:30 p.m.

As the graduate assistant entered the locker room doors, he was surprised to find the lights and showers on. He then heard slapping sounds. He believed the sounds to be those of sexual activity. As the graduate assistant put the sneakers in his locker, he looked into the shower. He saw a naked boy, Victim 2, whose age he estimated to be ten years old, with his hands up against the wall, being subjected to anal intercourse by a naked Sandusky. The graduate assistant was shocked but noticed that both Victim 2 and Sandusky saw him. The graduate assistant left immediately, distraught.

The graduate assistant, himself a strapping former Penn State varsity football player in his 20s, did not intervene to stop a then-58-year-old man whom he saw raping a little boy. He didn't go to the police. [Here is a very tough denunciation of "the graduate assistant."] Over the next nine years the culture as a whole didn't view stopping the rapist as an emergency. The Foshan tape tells us something about a particular culture and something about people in general; similarly with this episode.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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