(UPDATE 5/4: Under a transparent excuse, the local league decided the growing negative publicity was too much and Matthew will be allowed to play... perhaps this victorious exercise in people-power will ultimately be a metaphor for addressing the Mean Society at large...)
In South Burlington Vermont, a ten-year-old boy has been told he can't play little league this summer. Why? Because his overwhelmed, divorced mother missed the registration deadline by four days.
Now I've been late on sports registrations for my kids. I know plenty of other people who have as well. It's embarrassing and awkward, but it hasn't prevented them from getting to play. After all, this isn't taxes or some sort of legal form we're talking about. It's Little League. It's for the kids. It's all about the kids. It exists because we think the experience and the camaraderie of the team play is beneficial for kids. But to the South Burlington Little League authorities, it really isn't about Fourth Grader Matthew Mostyn's desire and enthusiasm to play.
No, to local league president Tim Kaczmarek, "It is about maintaining the integrity of our rules." Both the boy and his overwhelmed and repentant mom apparently be damned. This despite offers from both parents and the child to pay late fees (as neighboring towns allow for) and do volunteer labor.
But let's be serious. On the scale of world injustice, this episode doesn't even register. Large scale corporate malfeasence? Terrorism? Genocide?
And yet it packs an undeniable emotional punch. Why?
Two reasons. One is purely instinctive; he's just a kid, we've all been there - some of us have our own kids. Your heart can't help but go out to him and his mother, who as an overwhelmed single parent, also engenders special empathy.
But it's more than that. Who does it hurt to let the kid play? Nobody. Who does it help to let the kid play? Everybody.
So what's the point?
The point is that, in our society, it's become of paramount importance to get the bad guy. That motivation, among a vocal (one might even say "emblematic") sector of our culture, trumps all else. And who's the bad guy? Anybody who thinks they can get something out of you they don't deserve. Mom missed the deadline, others didn't. Therefore she (and her child) do not deserve the privilege of playing.
And that's all that matters.
Matthew and Annette Mostyn, welcome to the Mean Society. One could say The Mean Society arose from the ashes of the Great Society, which reflected a collective desire to rise people up and define ourselves as a nation based on mutual prosperity and the associated collective progress that would follow.
Of course it didn't work out that way. A lot of good was done, but clearly far more work remains - and frustration, despair and desperation are historically a turn of rhetorical phrase away from becoming spite, envy and resentment. It's been repeatedly analyzed and documented how that nastiness easily gets focused onto "the other," be that immigrants in Arizona, gays and lesbians in Mississippi, etc.
But while these demographic particularizations are heinous and emblematic, no less serious is the more generalized effect. In the 90's, it became more important to stop the "welfare queens" than to make sure that those who needed public assistance received it. If helping 100,000 people could be shown to allow one person to game the system for something they seemingly didn't deserve, it was more important that we get that one cheat than help the others.
And it didn't stop there. Heated rhetoric on affirmative action over many years has caused the public to reject the very idea of the government stepping in to counter race-based institutional barriers and "old boy networks" that still keep qualified African Americans from opportunities. Hey, some unqualified minority person might get something they don't deserve. And how many times has some variation on the phrase "why should I pay for someone else's health care" come out of a recent tea party rally?
The feeling has been pervasive for some time, but it found its broader acceptance during the Bush era. No longer content to passively withold aid to our neighbors because some cheater might eke out a benefit, that nonchalance about collateral damage extended into state-sponsored killing. According to Gallup only last year, 57% of people who believed it likely that wrongly convicted individuals have been executed also continued to support capital punishment. In polls barely more than a month ago, a majority of Americans would keep the Guantanamo Bay gulag open, despite that fact that the pretense that innocent people haven't been captured and imprisoned there has fallen away.
This is not to say the Mean Culture is now a solid majority. Issue-focused polls still find majorities in support of health care reform. But the Mean Culture is louder, backed by powerful interests with regressive agendas, and amplified by a pandering media. And its been so now for decades. As a result, regardless of the polling on specific policies, meanness has crept into our collective and individual psyches and become socially acceptable among many more people than it was before.
Instead of a culture motivated by altruism and community, we've become increasingly, focused on making sure the bad guys, slackers, cheats and deviants are properly punished.
And yes, that even includes a 10 year old kid who just wants to play baseball and his mom, struggling to fulfill her responsibilities as a single parent.
To be clear, let me repeat the point is not to draw a one-to-one equivalence between Matthew's exclusion and global atrocities, but to illuminate how this poisonous attitude has infected American society across the board, from our approach to abstract policies right down to the neighborhood level. And at it's core, it's not simply a failure of altruism, or empathy, or compassion. Those are all symptoms.
It's a complete failure of our sense of honor. A society without honor will not treat its international neighbors well, or its own vulnerable populations, or its ten year old boys and their single moms.
Maybe "Mean Society" isn't quite right. "Sick Society" might be more appropriate.