March 8, 2009

Why Noblesse Oblige IS Important

Do you remember that awful moment in American history, when the big news of the day was about a stain on an intern's dress? Do you recall the incredulity we felt as the Starr Report was published for the world to read and how we weren't sure what was worse: the arrogance of a man who'd deemed himself untouchable, or the incredible waste of time and energy the arrogance had caused?

At the time the facts were emerging, my family and I were living in Japan and my children were going to the American School on the outskirts of Tokyo. One morning my oldest boy got into trouble for making a reference to subject matter that had been covered in great detail in the media. When the school called to tell me of the punishment he would receive, I couldn't help but see a terrible irony in the situation. Both disappointed and embarrassed, I wrote the following letter, which was published in the Japan Times. Please, let's not ever say character doesn't count.

Dear Sirs:

Today my fourteen-year old son was told that, as punishment for something he said, he won’t be welcome on the school bus next week. This action raises an interesting question regarding what is–and is not–acceptable behavior.

The facts are not in dispute. There was a conversation at the back of the bus regarding the Starr Report. A boy asked a question that, though tasteless, was consistent with the juvenile curiosity of those involved. He speculated as to whether Ken Starr asked Monica if she, “spit, or swallowed.”

As a course of observation, my son replied, “There’d be no reason to ask that since the evidence was on her dress.” People within earshot agree: This was his only contribution to the discussion. However, a parent, who happened to be sitting nearby, complained to school officials. As a result, several students, including my son will have to arrange alternative transportation next week.

I won’t fight the punishment. I think it’s reasonable to maintain standards of taste and decorum. But what of Bill Clinton? In a world where a young boy can be punished for making a comment no more vulgar than the factual events detailed in the Starr Report, what lesson have we taught the most powerful man in the world about the acceptability of his behavior?

Yet more importantly, what underlying message have we passed on to our children? One thing is for sure; my son has learned a lesson and it’s not a pretty one. He might say: If you’re the president, it’s okay to engage in illicit sexual activity. Moreover, you can lie about what you’ve done and even get others to lie with you.

But if you’re a fourteen-year old boy, watch yourself. Don’t even talk about what the president does. That would be too vulgar.

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