A major problem in society today is the lack of positive role models for our young people. The wanton sex and violence on the Internet, in movies, on television, and in our world provides negative pictures of life in America. More and more we see images of people behaving badly. The search for fifteen minutes of fame and a reality television show seems to bring out the worst in some segments of society. The world of entertainment has given us Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton who have repeatedly been charged with drug use and DUI. And then there’s Mel Gibson and his anti-Semitic rant blaming Jews for “all the wars in the world.”
The sports world has given us superstar Mark McGwire whose 70 home runs in 1998 broke Roger Maris’s record of 61 round-trippers that had stood since 1961, 34 years after Babe Ruth hit 60 homers in 1927. After years of denying it, McGwire publicly admitted in 2010 having used performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career. McGwire’s record was shattered just three years later when, in 2001, superstar and seven-time league MVP Barry Bonds slammed 73 home runs. Bonds is currently being investigated for making false statements to a grand jury in 2003 when he denied taking performance-enhancing drugs and for perjury and obstruction of justice. In 2002, one year after Bonds set the record, Alex Rodriguez won the home run title with 57 --16 less than Bonds -- and the highs have been going down steadily ever since as drug testing has become routine in baseball. In 2010 league leader Jose Bautista hit 54 home runs, 19 less than Bonds.
We have far too many legislators in Congress and state government who have been charged with corruption, influence peddling, and other acts that demonstrate disregard for the public interest. As a Californian, I am most offended by recent revelations that former city officials of Bell, California were paid extraordinary salaries including the former City Manager Robert Rizzo who made $787,000 in salary (reportedly $1.5 million including benefits) compared to President Obama’s salary of $400,000. Barring any adjustment of his retirement pension by CalPERS, Rizzo is scheduled to receive $600,000 a year from two city jobs – the highest paid pensioner in that retirement system. Payments to Rizzo are unconscionable especially in a town of 38,000 residents and where 1 in 6 people live below the poverty level.
I’ve searched my mind for positive role models in today’s society and have come up with one who stands out – Oprah Winfrey. Oprah has dedicated her life to caring about others -- improving other people’s lives in a selfless manner. She helps others out of a sense that it is the right thing to do and not because she expects anything in return. In 2007, at a cost of $40 million of her own funds, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls opened near Johannesburg, South Africa. Undoubtedly, there are other role models out there. Former CBS television anchor Walter Cronkite was known as “the most trusted man in America” for his accurate and unbiased reporting during the early stages of the space program, the Vietnam War, and John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
JFK was a role model in part because of the words he spoke in his 1961 Inaugural address that challenged America to “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” How does that sentiment measure up in today’s entitlement society? Kennedy’s greatest accomplishment was to set the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. On July 20, 1969, the dream became reality when the Apollo 11 spacecraft landed on the moon. We all celebrated the accomplishment of American ingenuity. Compare this success to our woeful experience for more than thirty years of failing to not only get closer to the goal of energy independence but, instead, to be more dependent on the unreliable sources we should be trying to escape.
To be fair and balanced, some point to Ronald Regan as a role model. In 1987, Regan challenged former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in a speech at the Brandenburg Gate commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin to “tear down this wall.” Many credit Regan for, at least in part, the destruction of the wall separating East from West Berlin that spirited in the fall of Communism. Both JFK and Regan inspired others and their words contributed to unprecedented accomplishments for the betterment of society.
So, what can be done about this problem? First and foremost we need to understand what makes for a positive role model? It is a person who exhibits the following virtues in word and deed: honesty, integrity, trustworthiness, caring and compassion, fairness, and personal responsibility. Ethical people “walk the talk of ethics.” We must encourage and reward good behavior. Behavior that inspires us to be the best we can be and doesn’t depict the lowest common denominator in society. However, it will take a virtual revolution in all aspects of society to make this happen. Television and the motion picture industry have to return to depicting good people acting well such as in the Cosby show some years ago where Bill Cosby, as he does today, emphasized personal responsibility. The sports world has to act quickly and decisively to punish those who violate league policies. Like it or not sports figures are role models for our youth. Government officials have to rededicate themselves to serve the public good. All of us have to take a step back and consider just what do we want to be known for in our lives? How do we want to be remembered? If one sentence about your life could be written on your tombstone, what would you want it to be?