The big lie of our elite institutions is that they somehow transcend human nature. That they rise above greed or appetite or weakness, temptation or violence or cowardice. That they curb the worst in us.
They do not. We're all suckers for the ideals of tradition and devotion and honor, but no institution at any moment in its history is better than the worst individual it enables or protects. We were reminded of this last week when three male midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy football team were charged with sexually assaulting a female classmate. That assault is alleged to have occurred in April 2012.
The timing of the charges is not coincidental. In fact, they arrived not long after the Pentagon released a new study on the sharp rise of sexual assault in the military -- and just a few weeks after the president and the secretary of defense gave commencement speeches at Annapolis and West Point calling out sexual assault as a "profound betrayal" of our dearest principles.
"Those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they threaten the trust and discipline that make our military strong. That's why we have to be determined to stop these crimes, because they've got no place in the greatest military on Earth," said President Obama.
"You will need to not just deal with these debilitating, insidious and destructive forces but rather you must be the generation of leaders that stops it. This will require your complete commitment to building a culture of respect and dignity for every member of the military and society," said Secretary Hagel. "Sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military are a profound betrayal, a profound betrayal of sacred oaths and sacred trusts. This scourge must be stamped out."
This was the same week it was alleged that a "leadership coach" at West Point had been secretly photographing and videotaping naked female cadets for years -- but several weeks after the Air Force officer in charge of sexual assault prevention was arrested for groping a woman in a parking lot. Which was around the same time a sexual assault program coordinator at Fort Hood was under investigation for "pandering," and which may or may not have been the same week the sexual assault prevention officer at Fort Campbell was arrested for violating a court order and stalking his ex-wife.
All of which would be low comedy, if it weren't such a tragedy. And all of which is now playing out in a complex political battle on Capitol Hill.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York had a good suggestion: Take these investigations outside the clannish self-interest of the chain of command.
Since long before the time of Tailhook, "boys will be boys" was the operative philosophy in the application of military justice. Are we in any way surprised that it apparently remains so? Taking the investigation and prosecution of these assaults out of the hands of those who benefit most by covering them up would seem an easy answer. Secretary Hagel disagrees, and thinks the military should continue to handle its own mess in its own way.
Then why 15 months to bring charges against those three Naval Academy football players? The contradictions* and intricacies and sensitivities and complications of any sexual assault case certainly, but the timing also suggests the Navy was hoping the whole episode would simply go away. A bureaucracy, no matter how elite, seeks only to protect itself.
If we need further proof of this, direct your attention to the money-laundering apparatus for college football, the NCAA, and its absurd investigations into the tattoos, free burritos and chromium rims of various young athletes – while billions of grown-up dollars flow past unexamined. Regardless of our good intentions, if there's no mechanism for external oversight, a corrupt system can produce only a corrupt investigation. Especially of itself.
Thus, it has ever been the strategy of the elite institution to shun outside oversight. To run from it. To "self-police." This is as true of the Vatican as it is of, well, the police. It can be something as shopworn as the news conference stonewall, i.e., "Our investigation is ongoing. The matter will be resolved internally," or as elaborate as the Potemkin village of a "sanctioning body." Sometimes there's a revolving door between oversight and the overseen, as exists between Washington, D.C., and Wall Street. You wouldn't rat out your old/new friends, would you?
But the fix is in. And has been for quite some time.
Can elite institutions and their honor codes and their devotion to "character building" be a partial solution to these problems? Or do the unwritten rules of frat-house omerta and cultural cover-up mean we're even less likely to solve them? Can any institution anywhere be expected to curb the worst in us?
Is honor itself a fiction, noble but impossible?
Our unthinking devotion to sloganeering is part of the problem. As we discover again and again to our sadness, it's not enough to hope for honor or pray for strength. Think of all the cheap, buck-stops-here oratory we've been peddled over the years by generals and senators, head coaches and presidents on behalf of duty, honor and failed, dirty programs.
That we're suddenly paying more and better attention is good. But maybe the only way to solve these problems is to radically remake our relationship to the settings in which they occur.
The battle between the individual and the institution continues as the defining fight of our age.
Because the institution is an idiot. It is a mindless, amoral thing against which human independence and honesty are the only weapons. Building a mechanism outside its narrow special interests is a moral and practical necessity. Because in isolation, tradition means nothing. Nor does courage, nor even honor. These things will matter only when brought to bear in the real world by real people on real problems.
* Contrary to Serena Williams and the current vogue of "shaming," it doesn't matter if the victim's been drinking. Does not matter. Doesn't matter if it's a she or a he. The majority of sexual assaults in the military are committed by and against men. In all cases, sexual assault is underreported by up to 90 percent. Worldwide, we're still imbeciles on matters of sex and money and violence and truth and magical thinking.