Mike Rice, Sean Hannity, and the Real American Discipline Problem

One of the week’s more interesting stories was the firing of Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice after a video came out showing him physically and verbally abusing his players.

But that’s a sports story, and (in spite of being a major sports fan) I don’t usually cover sports on this blog. What makes the it something more, though, is the way that some conservative political pundits* made Rice a symbol of “old-fashioned discipline” — something they think our country needs. Sean Hannity said:

I’m watching this and I’m thinking, ‘All right, I don’t like this. … But on the other hand, I kind of like old-fashioned discipline.’ … Maybe we need a little more discipline in society.

And you know something? Sean is absolutely right. This is a story about discipline, and our country really does have a discipline problem. I could line up a bunch of conservative-pundit quotes about the failure of American discipline and agree with them completely, after I make one small adjustment: They’ve flipped everything upside down. 

Is the problem at the bottom or the top? The Sean Hannities, Michele Malkins, and Eric Bollings would have you believe that our national discipline problem is the laziness and dysfunctionality of the people at the bottom of the pyramid (represented in this story by the Rutgers players, most of whom probably come from poor families and need the scholarship Rice could take away from them), and that the Mike-Rices-in-charge need a freer hand to whip them into shape.

That’s why conservatives talk and act like this:

  • Tennessee’s one-party legislature** looks poised to cut welfare benefits 30% for families whose children aren’t doing well in school. Says the bill’s sponsor, “What my bill would do is put some responsibility on parents for their child’s performance.”
  • Seven red states already require drug tests for welfare recipients, and threaten those who fail with the loss of benefits. Other red states are considering such laws, in spite of the fact that the predictions haven’t panned out. The NYT summarizes: “a Florida law requiring drug tests for people who seek welfare benefits resulted in no direct savings, snared few drug users and had no effect on the number of applications, according to recently released state data.” In These Times notes: “the notion that low-income families are overwhelmingly riddled with substance abuse is one that researchers across the country have discredited time and time again.”
  • Republicans repeatedly opposed extending unemployment benefits in the wake of the Great Recession, arguing that people would not get out and find jobs without the threat of destitution. But research by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco concluded that this effect is small. Overwhelmingly, the unemployed failed to find jobs because there were no jobs.
  • Again and again during the 2012 presidential campaign, conservative candidates warned against the poor becoming “dependent on government”. Mitt Romney’s 47% video was the most famous example, but far from the only one. Newt Gingrich pledged, “If the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” Again, the implication is that large numbers of Americans prefer government handouts and would rather not work — and that benefit cuts are necessary to discipline them.

I agree that America faces a major discipline problem, but I see the lack of discipline at the top: the bankers, the billionaires, the CEOs. Like Mike Rice, they’re out of control and need to face the consequences of their actions.

The Rice video was seen by Rutgers officials months ago, and their response was a wrist-slap: Rice was suspended for three games and told not to do it again. Isn’t that typical of how things go in America?

  • Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship treated safety violations in his coal mines as a cost of doing business. He stonewalled the EPA, dragged things out in court as long as possible, and then paid wrist-slap fines. In a very real sense, he murdered the 29 miners who died in the Upper Big Branch mine disaster. Is he in jail? On trial? Have we at least closed the barn door after the horse escaped? No, of course not. According to In These Times, Massey was sold to another corporation for $8.5 billion, Blankenship walked away with $12 million in severance and a $27 million deferred-compensation package, and “Congress has not passed any legislation tightening mine safety regulations.”
  • Dick Cheney has repeatedly and publicly claimed “credit” for the Bush administration’s program of waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” (the preferred euphemism for torture, which Ronald Reagan signed a treaty against). Waterboarding is an internationally recognized war crime for which we court-martialed our own soldiers in 1898 and executed Japanese soldiers after World War II. Is Cheney awaiting trial at The Hague? Don’t be silly. He has not even been shunned, either for his confessed crimes or for the gross incompetence of authoring our disastrous Iraq invasion. Wyoming Republicans invited him to speak at their state convention last spring. His daughter may well carry on the family legacy in future elections.
  • Our large financial institutions are essentially crime syndicates. They have knowingly laundered money for drug cartels, illegally foreclosed on people’s homes, and colluded to fix prices on credit card transactions. And that’s just what’s come out since they almost brought down the world economy and got billions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts. Are bankers in handcuffs doing the perp-walk? Maybe in benighted little countries like Iceland, but not here. Standard procedure is for the government to negotiate a settlement in which the banks pay a small fraction of their profits in fines, evidence of criminal behavior is never made public, and no one goes to jail.

I could go on; don’t even get me started on the Catholic clergy’s handling of their sex-abuse problem.

So yes, this is a story about discipline, but not about its failure: Mike Rice’s firing is a rare example of the success of discipline in America. For once, a misbehaving person in authority faced some consequences.

How did discipline succeed this time? Michele Malkin attributed Rice’s firing to “political correctness” and “the left-wing media makes a big fuss”.

In the real world, the relatively apolitical ESPN called public attention to the Rice video, and from there social media took over. Particularly damaging to Rice were the comments by professional athletes like LeBron James. And unlike, say, Goldman Sachs or Bank of America, Rutgers needs both applications from students and support from the legislature, so it has to care about its public image. (With the banks, the political pressure pushes the other way: bankers pressure politicians. Watching Congress interview banker Jamie Dimon, it was obvious who was the king and who were the courtiers.)

So in this unusual case, wrong-doing in high places got called to public attention, and the public had a way to make its power felt. Maybe that’s what we need more of if we’re going to fix our discipline problem. But Malkin disagrees:

I think there should be scrutiny of people who blow the whistle on these kinds of things.

Wussification. The weirdest response to the Rice firing came from another Fox host, Eric Bolling:

We’re in the midst of political correctness crushing our ability to teach kids, to discipline kids … I talk about the wussification of America, wussification of American men, this is it.

The idea seems to be that American kids — boys, at least — need authoritarian abuse to toughen them up. Sean Hannity seemed to agree:

Maybe we don’t have to be a bunch of wimps for the rest of our lives. My father hit me with a belt. I turned out okay.***

Again, I think they’ve got this upside-down. Who’s the wuss in the Mike Rice story? Mike Rice, that’s who. Atlantic writer Patrick Hruby explains:

Rice is lucky he’s not in jail, and luckier still that his players aren’t in jail for beating him half to death. Because if he acted the way he did in a bar, a classroom, or an office, there’s a good chance one or both of those scenarios would have taken place. But that’s the thing: Take Rice out of a practice gym, and it’s highly unlikely he would have behaved so badly. He did what he did because he’s a coach, and as a coach he had the power to do it. He knew his players wouldn’t fight back.

What’s wussier than that? We’re not “toughening” our boys by leaving them in the charge of men like Mike Rice. We’re teaching them that they should also try to gain institutional power, so that they too can push around guys they’d be afraid to face man-to-man.

Real men, real values. Hruby continues:

Forget sports culture. Forget macho culture. Like I said, this is a bullying story. And bullying is about abuse. Abuse and the misuse of power. Not to get all Spider-Man here, but in civilized society, great power means greater responsibility.

No Patrick, don’t apologize for getting all Spider-Man. That’s exactly the kind of “old-fashioned values” (Stan Lee — 1962) that American culture has lost and needs to recapture. Peter Parker becomes a hero precisely because he had an Uncle Ben in his life, not a Mike Rice.

The “real men” we need our boys to look up to are the ones who see their authority as a challenge to meet a higher standard of behavior, not an opportunity to live by a lower one.

* To his credit, Gov. Christie was having none of it.

** Full disclosure: My nephew works for the Democratic Caucus in the Tennessee Senate, which controls a mere 7 of the 33 seats.

*** Jon Stewart questioned this conclusion: “Seriously? You’re OK? Have you seen your show? Cause it seems like the show of a guy who was hit with a belt as a child.”

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  • Anonymous  On April 8, 2013 at 11:20 am

    Absolutely awesome post. I would only add that the idea that children – especially boys – need abusive, authoritarian “discipline ” and the equally absurd idea that men are “wusses” or “wimps” if they aren’t violent (or accepting of violence) adds to our current Rape Culture – the idea that men are somehow naturally violent (and hypersexual) and women and other “inferiors” are objects who exist to be used/abused/”whipped into shape” by the men who have (or want to think they have) power. This warped cultural “norm” hurts men as well as women, as the whole Rice episode illustrates.

    Thanks for clearly showing where America’s “Discipline Problem” lies. And big thanks to Patrick Hruby for his insights as well.

  • David  On April 8, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    Poor Deb. Did you see her store at MOA? Gorgeous clothing, but she’ll never get out of that hole, Im afraid, no matter how hard I work to help her thrive. If I were a lipstick MtoF transfaye and was not paid minimum wage, Id easily buy a dress or two there and wear them in private. Unfortunately, all I can afford is a pair of DSW shoes that will likely look really ugly before I can afford a replacement. You New Englanders have it easy. RIP Margaret.

  • wayofcats  On April 8, 2013 at 6:53 pm

    Thank you so much for what discipline really means. If Rice had had some, he wouldn’t have been so abusive.

    The rise of the Third Reich was thought to have its roots in the German obsession with discipline; and the subsequent harsh child rearing methods.

    Can’t happen here? Apparently, it can… if we simply beat our children enough.

  • Dangerous Meredith  On April 8, 2013 at 8:39 pm

    YES! YEs! Yes! Spot on. They have got it upside down and this is a story about bullying, pure and simple.

    I have a personal theory that our society is infatuated with alpha, and this is why we have so many aggressive, power hungry, inflexible, overly-competitive people in positions of power over other people in the community. I feel that your blog calls this out just beautifully.

    • Anonymous  On April 8, 2013 at 8:42 pm

      “our society”? speak to what you know, not everyone you have never met.

      • Dangerous Meredith  On April 8, 2013 at 9:11 pm

        I speak about the society I live in and encounter day by day. I speak about the society that my friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances and strangers I meet by chance talk to me about. I speak about the society I read about in newspapers, books, magazines, on the net; about the society I see and hear about on television, in film, in podcasts, on social media. Follow your comment to its logical conclusion and none of us would ever be allowed to write blogs like The Weekly Sift.

        In short, I am speaking to what I know, I am speaking the truth of my existence. If your life experience has furnished you with different perspectives then do report them, whether that be in this comments box or in a blog of your own. But don’t challenge my right to share mine.

    • Anonymous  On April 8, 2013 at 9:30 pm

      Please do not ever ever write or speak to David Edward Schnell in the imperative voice.

      • Kimc  On April 15, 2013 at 1:46 am

        If David Edward Schnell posts as anonymous, how are we to know it is he?


  • By No Argument | The Weekly Sift on April 8, 2013 at 11:59 am

    […] think the people on the bottom need more discipline, never the people at the top. I elaborate in Mike Rice, Sean Hannity, and the Real American Discipline Problem. If you’re talking about bankers, billionaires, and CEOs, then I totally agree: America needs […]

  • […] Mike Rice, Sean Hannity and the Real American Discipline Problem […]

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