By his own admission, Congressman Charles Rangel failed to pay taxes on some properties, violated rules on financial disclosure, and improperly used the influence of his office to secure charitable gifts for a project in his name at the City University of New York. Now, the House Ethics Committee recommends that this once-powerful civil rights leader and Congressional icon receive the penultimate punishment of censure by the full House of Representatives, the harshest penalty next to expulsion.
Why is there no pity for Charlie among his colleagues?
Rangel’s misconduct has been a disgrace, to be sure, but in prior Congressional eras he might have gotten away with a slap on the wrist, a reprimand or even lesser punishment, if any. But furious gales of change are sweeping Capitol Hill, and the price of change is escalating dramatically each day. Rangel’s unethical behavior is an easy target for the raging anger of disappointed Democrats and worried Republicans and puritanical Tea Partiers alike.
As someone who spends a great deal of time trying to get students to understand the importance of making sound ethical choices every day — that’s why we have an Honor System at Trinity, and it’s not always easy to teach about honor in this society — I have absolutely no pity for Congressman Rangel, much as I might respect his prior accomplishments. His abject pleadings remind me of students caught plagiarizing who claim that they really didn’t mean to download the entire paper from an Internet source, gosh, bad things just sometimes happen.
Baloney. Ethical misconduct is never an accident. We all have choices to make every day, and sometimes the choices are very hard because sometimes we have to walk away from what seems easy or profitable in order to do what is right. A student must risk a failing grade in order to submit an ethical paper of her own. A lawmaker must risk financial stress in order to avoid any appearance of personal gain from his position.
Rangel’s story is tragic. But he does not deserve pity. “Attention, attention must finally be paid…” (Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman) even when the lesson is most unhappy. All of the good work in the world can be ruined by a lie, a deception, a deliberate acceptance of ill-gotten gain.
Good works and bad works are not a balancing act; one bad act can demolish a lifetime of service. If we learn only one thing from the Rangel Morality Tale, it must be that there is never any substitute for honesty and integrity every single day. That’s the point of Trinity’s Honor System, and that’s why we constantly remind students of the importance of taking ownership of their actions each day.
As we come into the final stretch of papers and exams, I urge all faculty and students to revisit the provisions of the Academic Honesty Policy and to take a few minutes in every class to discuss the importance of the Honor System.
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