this week's New York Times Sunday Review section, Stephanie Coontz
about "social nostalgia," that is, nostalgia about the
way society used to be. She cites a study of men with difficult
childhoods, done by the psychologist John Snarey, which I assume is
discussed in Snarey's 1993 book, How
Fathers Care for the Next Generation
(Harvard Univ. Press).
Snarey's study shows that some men replicate the problems in their
relationships with their children, while others chart a different
course. What the new course charters do is neither idealize their
fathers, nor focus on their shortcomings. Instead, they place their
fathers' failures in context, looking at them with "a sense of
sadness for and understanding of the conditions under which their
own fathers had functioned." They use their memories to avoid bad
behavior rather than as an excuse for engaging in it.
Local government officials are like fathers to young officials and employees who learn the
ropes from them. If the government's ethics environment is poor,
young officials experience intimidation, secrecy, demands for
loyalty, and disdain for those on the outside, better known as the
residents of the community. And in most cases, these young officials
continue the ethics environment. They might have hated the
intimidation, resented the feeling that their loyalty was not
returned, and had trouble feeling disdain, but they found they could
attain power by intimidating others and demanding their loyalty, or
keep clear of the whole thing by going along and keeping quiet,
thereby enabling the behavior they resented.
Using old tactics to get and keep power is especially enticing to
new groups who are finally getting a chance. The tactics might have
been used against them in the past, but they worked, and working is
what counts, especially since all that intimidation, demand for
loyalty, and requirement of secrecy was intended to keep some pretty
lucrative transactions from being discovered.
This is old news, of course. What I want to stress is that the way
to deal successfully with past misconduct is the same in government
as it is with being a father oneself. Looking at local government
leaders not with fear or anger, but with sadness and understanding,
with an appreciation of the situational pressures on them, is the
best way to go about changing the situational pressures and
discussing the past in a way that leads to a new future, rather than
the same old thing.