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Topics: Veterans Affairs

Why there are more scandals these days

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Opinion,Op-Eds,Veterans Affairs,First Amendment,Freedom of Speech,Veterans

"I’m not young enough to know everything," Peter Pan’s creator, J.M. Barrie, observed, as if reflecting on the Great Commencement Speaker Flap of 2014.

Even so, Jimi Hendrix was young when he reputedly offered advice heeded by too few students today – "knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens."

Aware that wisdom comes from asking the right questions, not identifying the wrong answers, Professor Allan Bloom blasted American universities in 1987 for exacerbating youthful indiscretion.

In his seminal book, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Student, Bloom argued that students were graduating into a complex and conflict-riddled world without the insights that come from the clash of opposing viewpoints.

Thirty years hence, are the proliferating controversies plaguing America the consequence?

Real advance, Albert Einstein revealed, requires the creative imagination "to raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle.” We can’t solve problems, Einstein believed, by applying the same “thinking we used when we created them."

Nevertheless, “tolerance enforcers” wielding assumed moral superiority and a heckler’s veto have transformed campuses into close-minded sanctuaries. Cocooned away, students are safe from potential insult, reflective thought, disagreement – and thus from real life.

This year's commencement castoffs -- victims of a war on accomplished and courageous women -- include: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, human rights activist; Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. secretary of state; and Christian Lagarde, International Monetary Fund Chief.

Couldn’t Brandeis' class of 2014 have learned something from Ali, a Somali feminist who overcame subjugation, genital circumcision and forced marriage to become a Dutch parliamentarian, Harvard professor, and internationally acclaimed author, while living under death threats?

Wasn't it worth Rutgers graduates' time to listen to Rice, an African-American who emerged out of the segregated South to become the most accomplished black woman in American history, whose foreign policy judgments were shared by then-senators Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and John Kerry?

Wouldn’t Smith women have derived inspiration from Lagarde, the first woman to become finance minister of a G8 economy (France) and head of the IMF?

At last week’s Harvard commencement, Michael Bloomberg won applause denouncing the left-wing bias that censors unfashionable voices on campus asking, “Isn’t the purpose of a university to stir discussion, not silence it” in order “to teach students how (not what) to think?”

That's what I assumed while attending Tufts University where I co-founded a student newspaper deemed offensive by the thought police. They branded me -- and my vandalized car -- “fascist” for writing opinions about the nuclear freeze, Reagan's Social Security reform, and Jessie Jackson's "hymie-town" slur.

The problem isn’t just that “censorship and conformity [are] the mortal enemies of freedom,” as Bloomberg declared. It’s that when “everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking,” as Benjamin Franklin taught, creating a culture that breeds incompetence, indifference, greed, irresponsibility, and corruption – in essence, scandalous behavior.

Consider the latest scandal rocking Washington at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the federal government's largest civilian employer. To meet a patient caseload that's grown 30 percent since 2003 and address persistent quality-of-care problems, the VA's budget more than doubled over the period, while full-time employees jumped 63 percent to 314,000.

Yet the VA still can't match the private sector's standard of care, which is why only 40 percent of veterans are enrolled in the government-run health care system. A recent audit confirms a widespread and “systematic lack of integrity,” as employees prioritized protecting their bonuses over caring for sick and dying veterans.

It's a story of unaccountability, fraud and potentially criminal conduct that even shocked the now-former VA head, Eric Shinseki. Unfortunately, unlike the private sector, the Washington Way is: If you like your government job, you can keep it - except for scapegoats like Shinseki.

The truth is, without the disciplining and invigorating influence of an open and competitive intellectual environment, and the innovation and accountability it fosters, otherwise honorable and capable people can be rendered indecent and incompetent. It’s the eco-system — not the people in it — that mostly determines human behavior.

In the frantic circumstances of 9/11, people behaved magnificently, as is highlighted at the just-opened 9/11 Museum. Most remarkable are stories of the rescued – civilians and emergency responders – who returned to the wreckage “to do for others what had been done for us,” explained retired fireman Mickey Cross.

Even amid confusion and devastation, Cross noted “a real sense of caring for one another …” which “is something we should never forget and never stop doing.”

For those caught in the tragedy, there was no script or easy answers, only difficult questions. Yet the improbably heroic did the right thing, even under duress, which is the definition of initiative. In a more open system, VA employees would likely do the same.

We don’t need crises to bring out the best of humanity, just a better environment to produce decent, motivated and wise people.

Examiner contributor Melanie L. Sturm is an opinion columnist for the Aspen Times.
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