In “The Last Picture Show,” a 1971 movie that’s stayed in my head for 40 years, some bored high school boys amuse themselves by arranging the sexual initiation of their “slow” friend.
You can tell that one of the guys, the lead character played by Timothy Bottoms, knows in his bones that this is a cruel and sordid business, but he can’t summon the courage to stand against the jokey machismo of his peers. He doesn’t actively participate; he just watches, shame-faced.
When the boy’s protector, Sam the Lion, sees what’s happened, he (played by Ben Johnson) delivers one of the movie’s great speeches:
“You boys can get on out of here, I don't want to have no more to do with you. Scarin' a poor, unfortunate creature like Billy just so's you could have a few laughs — I've been around that trashy behavior all my life, I'm gettin' tired of puttin' up with it. Now you can stay out of this pool hall, out of my cafe, and my picture show too — I don't want no more of your business.”
Haven’t we all been around some kind of trashy behavior at one time or another, and failed to act or speak?
Of all the conversations I’ve had about the Sandusky scandal, the one that stays with me wrestled with just that question. We had been reading about what Mike McQueary says he saw and then did, and what Joe Paterno and Tim Curley and Gary Schultz and Graham Spanier said they heard and did, along with the comments of readers who were quite sure they would have pulled Sandusky off his victim and gone to the police and can’t fathom why all these respected and, in the case of Paterno, revered figures didn’t do the right thing.
We would all like to think we would unhesitatingly come to the aid of victims, but in trying to understand how or why these guys might have failed to act, my little group of friends tried to recall our own shameful failures of moral courage. One participant in this discussion remembered an experience quite similar to the “Last Picture Show” scenario I just sketched out. In this case the victim wasn’t a developmentally disabled boy, but an injured bird. The bored teens thought it would be amusing to place the bird under the tire of a car, then rev the engine. Our friend was horrified at the cruelty of it, but could only watch, mutely.
You don’t forget moments like that.
Someone else in the group remembered being called “a faggot,” one of those situations where one is supposed to be a good sport about being teased when you actually feel humiliated. If I’m getting our friend’s reaction right, the episode was doubly painful: He was both offended by the other person’s homophobia and ashamed of his own.
His story brought back the many times when I’ve smiled weakly at a racist or anti-Semitic remark or joke, but said nothing. I also dimly remember abandoning my friend Arthur when he was teased about being fat. I was a chubby kid myself, and grateful to Arthur and his tormentors that they were teasing him rather than me. The vagueness of that recollection makes me suspect that there are other, worse ones, that I’ve blotted out altogether.
We can’t undo such moments. But maybe we can atone for them by doing the right thing the next time. Just after the earthquake in Haiti two years ago I was on a plane to Florida. When my seatmate asked me the reason for my visit, I told her my mom was in the hospital. She said she’d pray for her and talked about how, if my mother was suffering, it might be time for her to be “called home.”
Not exactly how I see the world, but fine, the woman meant well. But then she started talking about all the Haitians she had encountered in the healthcare industry in south Florida, and how they were such hateful people, and that maybe the quake was God’s punishment for their hatefulness.
The hatefulness of her own words was magnified by her piety. I couldn’t let it pass. As politely as I could, I said the obvious thing: that in my experience there were good and bad people in every group, that you couldn’t generalize, etc.
That put an end to that conversation, which was a happy outcome. I was under no illusion that I had made her see the error of her ways. It wasn’t about her. It was about my having seen the error of my own ways.
We are instructed, in the Age of Terrorism, that if we see something, we should say something. That should apply to the local acts of terrorism — the trashy behavior — we see in our everyday lives as well.