Recently an incumbent state senator was found to have misused her Senate expense account to the tune of over $5,000. The senator had been getting reimbursed for years for expenses such as a post office box and mileage expenses to and from the box that was used for state, campaign and private purposes. There were questions about other mileage charges to other locations as well. Additionally, she admitted using a state phone for personal and political use. All these items and others could cost her thousands of dollars to repay.
Her reasoning for these actions was that the senate should have told her if any expenses were not allowable. The senate leadership responded with the explanation that the Senate operates on an honor system.
The problem with the senator and with state Senate leadership is that neither claimed to be accountable for taxpayer money. Both are passing the buck. And that attitude seems to have become part of not only the culture of the state Senate, but also of U.S. culture. These attitudes begin with the powerful elite and filter down to average citizens.
The following story is an example of that “trickle down effect”: When I taught sociology in high school, there was a story in the text about a German farming family, the Kleins, who had immigrated to Russia in the early 1800s and had settled just east of Crimea. Their descendents had lived there for more than 100 years before the Russians drove them out in a fit of xenophobia (fear of foreigners). They emigrated to live near Lincoln, Neb. As most immigrants do, they settled among their own, the father working as a laborer for the railroad.
These German-Russians had difficulty assimilating and continued to speak German and follow the customs they had developed while living in Russia. Because they had lived there with an autocratic and patriarchal czar as their leader, they also had a patriarchal father figure as absolute head of the family.
Since their family was Lutheran, they stayed Lutheran in America. Their religious beliefs were also, like the German and Russian cultures, rigid and uncompromising. The church taught them about a God who was strict and unbending. Their world consisted of a series of opposites, black and white, good and evil, salvation and damnation.
Because getting an education was required by the state of Nebraska, the children enrolled in public school and learned English as well as American culture and values. They became the translators for their parents of American culture.
The Kleins had three sons: the oldest remained the most “Rooshin” as his way of coping with his Old World family and the New World culture: strict, obedient and dutiful. He was drafted into the Army during World War II and later became a policeman telling others to obey.
The youngest became the most American, shucking his German culture and background in the process, as his way of coping with two cultures. In his desire to fit in, he became interested in American history, eventually ending up as a high school history teacher, teaching others about U.S. culture.
The middle son was the one most caught between the Old World and the New. He became the rebel, the one who refused to obey either his parents or school authorities. Seeing his brother drafted, this son enlisted and ended up getting killed in World War II. But in doing so, he became a hero to the town and, as a result, his family was accepted into American culture.
Gradually, as time passed, the family structure of the adult children became more democratic and less rigid in their beliefs. The church changed too, becoming less rigid and unbending, emphasizing the grace of God rather than his wrath.
There are lessons to be gained from these two accounts: The senator and the Senate leadership should put into practice the comment Ronald Reagan made about nuclear disarmament with the Soviets: “Trust and verify.” They need to hold themselves accountable. The story of the Kleins show us that what happens at the highest level of a culture and its government creates attitudes and behaviors that filter down to the lowest levels of society.
We are living in a culture where the financial elite in their greed can nearly destroy a nation as they almost did in the economic meltdown of 2008, yet all corporate leadership escaped prosecution. Instead, the government rewarded them with taxpayer bailouts. They escaped accountability for their actions. Look at our families and our institutions and you will see a mere reflection of the attitudes of our power elite who shift responsibility onto others.