Life is overflowing with metaphorical material. Maneuvering through reality is a constant dialogue and negotiation between what's inside our heads and what's going on outside in the chaotic flow of what is. We understand what's outside by comparing it with what's inside. This is true whether or not the average anti-intellectual Joe Sixpack or Joe the Plumber recognizes it or not. In fact, those who don't understand this process are the ones most swayed by metaphor and symbol because they don't see it working on them.
This dialogue between inside and outside is what it means to be human. It's also how power is parsed out in all cultures, especially ours. And in America, football is a big player in the process.
For all the above reasons, the just released Freeh Report on the Jerry Sandusky cover-up at Penn State is pretty incredible. In today's New York Times, stories that started on both the Front Page and the Sports Page jumped to the Business Section. The story touches on a number of sensitive chords. The cable news shows love it.
The Penn State campus, Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno before the fall by unknown
Like nothing we've seen lately, it lifts a huge and heavy flat rock to reveal dark, wriggling life underneath. It's like the opening scene of David Lynch's Blue Velvet where an old man watering his lawn in an antiseptic suburban community suddenly suffers a stroke. The hose in his hand falls and becomes kinked, the perfect metaphor for a stroke. His head hits the grass. We begin to hear sounds of teeth crunching and struggle as the camera drops with a macro lens into the grass, to reveal a chaotic, Darwinian world of insects and survival of the fittest.
It's a powerful metaphor to open a neo-noir film about the underbelly of seemingly ordered American suburban life. It leads to one of Dennis Hopper's most menacing roles as a petty gangster.
The Penn State narrative is one of twisted sexual predation, institutional secrecy and cover-up. There's the revered status of Penn State in State College, PA -- known as "Happy Valley" -- and the empire built by Coach Joe Paterno, known affectionately as "Joe Pah." Paterno was a beloved and powerful man known far and wide for the great things he did for his school and his community. The extent of his fall from grace is not yet fully understood.
Certainly many people will reject where I'm going with this and insist that using the Sandusky incident as a metaphor is -- to employ another metaphor -- to be a vulture exploiting a vulnerable institution when it's wounded. And there's a bit of truth to that, since if the "wound" we're talking about at Penn State is the fact covered-up truth has been belatedly revealed it's obviously those who favored a cover-up who are vulnerable targets. To keep the metaphor going, it's to avoid vultures like me that the cover-up was undertaken in the first place.
Personally, I'm the object of jokes among male friends for finding football boring. I could care less about all of it. I do, however, often like the camaraderie of watching a game with friends over beers accompanied by all the male bonding that goes with the institution. Like everyone, I'm complicated -- or, if you like, a hypocrite.
Before I get to the point of this essay, there's one thing that needs to be said about the Sandusky affair, and it has to do with the nature of male sexuality that underlies the whole pathetic Sandusky/Paterno affair.
It's about how boys will be boys and how a man can, if permitted, regress to a psychological place where a nostalgic longing for the wonders of innocent boyhood crosses wires with his sexuality and suddenly he's luring 10-year-old boys into the shower " and, well, we've all read of the tawdry testimony. Anyone who has been in the military or in a male-only institution knows the ages-old rule about shower etiquette: "Don't drop your soap." As I think Freud would agree, one of the basics of male sexuality is "any port in a storm."
The point is, in this case, a powerful, grown man went beyond the pale and manifested in the world a predatory monster from within himself, and the institution he worked decades for concluded that his victims were expendable and less important than the institution itself.
The Sandusky Affair as Metaphor
Since President Obama's Memorial Day speech at the Vietnam Wall in Washington, Vietnam veteran friends and I have become aware of a $5 million-a-year Defense Department effort to clean up the image of the Vietnam War. It's called the Vietnam War Commemoration Project, and it will be in operation for the next 13 years.
In 1966, I was a 19-year-old kid with a radio direction finder in the mountains west of Pleiku. My job was to locate young Vietnamese kids doing their nation a service just like I was. The goal was to send in infantry units, artillery or Air Force B52 bombers to kill and destroy them. Later after a lot of reading, I concluded the Vietnam War never should have happened. There were much better ways to deal with the issues than war. The fact the Vietnamese beat us in the end further makes the whole enterprise a vast and tragic waste of lives and treasure. A debacle.
Besides both being fresh in my mind, what do the Jerry Sandusky case and the Vietnam War have in common?
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