Published February 9, 2009
The other day, an Irishman committed suicide. Patrick Rocca, who was described in the Times of London as “a poster boy for Ireland's Celtic tiger economy” and “seemed to embody the shiny world into which Ireland transformed itself after decades on the periphery of Europe,” shot himself in the head in his home near Dublin while his wife was taking their three children to school. He was said to have been on the hook for some 20 million euros in loans with the failing Anglo-Irish bank, then in the process of being nationalized.
A few weeks earlier a German billionaire, Adolf Merckle, threw himself in front of a train after losing hundreds of millions by betting on a downturn in Volkswagen shares shortly before the company was acquired by Porsche. He was said still to be worth the equivalent of $8 billion when he died. A couple of months earlier, Kirk Stephenson, a New Zealander living in London who was chief operating officer of Olivant Advisers, an investment firm, also went under a train after sustaining serious losses. Just before Christmas, a Dane, Christen Schnor, who was head of insurance at HSBC banking, hanged himself in a London hotel room. Around the same time, a French nobleman, Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, was found with his wrists slashed in his New York office after investing $1.4 billion of his own and other people's money in the alleged $50 billion Ponzi scheme of Bernard Madoff.
Meanwhile, what was Bernard Madoff himself doing–besides preparing his legal defense and managing to stay out of jail in spite of allegations of trying to transfer assets to family members? Well, for one thing he might have been enjoying an article in the New York Times that suggested he was a psychopath. It would have been an “easy answer,” to the mystery of Mr. Madoff, said the Times reporters, Julie Creswell and Landon Thomas Jr., to conclude that he was merely “a charlatan of epic proportions.” Instead, we were told that “a more complex and layered observation of his actions” by “some analysts” might well reveal that–in addition to being (according to friends) “very smart,” “very industrious,” and “a terrific salesman”–he shares “many of the destructive traits typically seen in a psychopath.” How romantic! No easy answers there, then.
But that's the American way. Never was a more untrue thing said than Scott Fitzgerald's dictum that there are no second acts in American lives. To be fair, Fitzgerald was writing at a time when failed bankers, brokers, and money men were supposed to throw themselves off tall buildings in response to their losses–a legend that seems not to be based on much in the way of fact. But nowadays we have nothing but second acts. It's a poor charlatan of any proportions, let alone epic ones, who cannot medicalize and thereby excuse, at least to some extent, his wicked or criminal behavior–and, as in Mr. Madoff's case, he may not even have to do it himself. He may go to prison for the rest of his life, but it would be surprising if he didn't attempt to follow the lead of the New York Times and do his best to portray himself as a psychopath, victim, or some other romantic figure.
Last spring “the D.C. Madam,” Deborah Jeane Palfrey, made away with herself “after the high Roman fashion” rather than go to jail, but the economic crisis of recent months has thrown up few examples of Americans who have taken the old-fashioned view of financial disgrace. We ordinary Americans without public lives still kill ourselves when we are unhappy, depressed, or mentally disturbed, but the heroic suicide–or its nearest equivalent, the celebrity or quasi-celebrity suicide–is pretty much a thing of the past. This is because, for the most part, we have become strangers to the sense of honor and shame that still, apparently, lingers in the European breast. There is also something romantically exotic about M. Villehuchet's taking the honorable course in response to what he recognized as his own shame. In America, we have replaced honor with “self-esteem,” judgment with therapy, and disgrace with “healing.” As a result, we seem to have lost the capacity to see shame even when it is staring us in the face.
Thus Rod Blagojevich, having been caught red-handed trying to sell a Senate seat to the highest bidder, has responded to his impeachment by the Illinois legislature by comparing himself to Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. Instead of appearing at his impeachment trial, he did the rounds of the talk shows in New York, submitting to some slight indignity from the gentle mockery of his interviewers in order to establish his eligibility as (now) a misbehaving celebrity for the indulgence of the great and forgiving American public. So far is our culture from a common understanding of honor and shame that no excuse is too preposterous for what would formerly have been a shameful deed.
Thus, three days after Governor Blagojevich appeared on The View and declined to mimic Richard Nixon–though he was said to do it well–saying “I am not a crook,” HBO ran a rehabilitative documentary on disgraced preacher Ted Haggard in which the pill-popping patron of rent boys finally comes out as . . . an evangelist for therapy. The healing process is apparently well underway for Ted, and his wife, like Eliot Spitzer's, is standing by him. The disgraced–as these things go nowadays–Merrill Lynch chief executive John Thain may have been innocent, as he insisted to the media he was, of looting his failed company to pay large bonuses to its executives, but it would be a more believable claim if he were not displaying a positively Blagojevich-like chutzpah in insisting that his actions had been “completely transparent” to Bank of America, which has got stuck with the bill.
It would be very wrong indeed to wish upon the likes even of Messrs. Blagojevich, Haggard, or Thain a fate like poor M. Villehuchet's or Herr Merckle's. But it must be admitted that there is a certain dignity about these gentlemen's exit, a faint vestige of the old honor culture that was Europe's gift to the world, even if (as some would argue) we are otherwise well shot of it. It makes the unseemly competition for celebrity victimhood that is now the hallmark of American culture look tawdry by comparison, but at least we may aspire to such honor as there may be in being among the most compassionate of nations to the great who have fallen, and who demand to be pitied.
–James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History.