A Moral Issue We Should All Worry About

March 17, 2019 by Leonard Pitts
Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy arrive at the 70th Primetime Emmy Awards at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.

If you think you’re angry now, wait till you read the court documents.

Not that the summaries of a college cheating scandal so massive it briefly bumped Donald Trump from the “Breaking News” chyrons were not enough to make a nun cuss. Indeed, the story offered a perfect storm of outrage: the wealthy, well-known and well-connected gaming the system, lying, fixing tests and paying bribes to get their kids into prestigious colleges. It didn’t hurt that two of those arrested were famous actors: Felicity Huffman of “Desperate Housewives” fame and Lori Loughlin, who played “Aunt Becky” in that masterwork of saccharine banality, “Full House.”

But there is something about the tawdry details found in the affidavit by FBI agent Laura Smith that is truly infuriating. In its 204 pages, you get William “Rick” Singer, the scam’s mastermind, coaching his clients on lies they can tell to get a different ACT or SAT test site or some accommodation the testing services reserve for kids with learning disabilities. You get him soothing parents whose kids have entered school as purported athletic standouts and now worry that those kids will be asked to actually do something athletic. You get him scheming with parents who want their kids to think they did well on tests, when actually, one of Singer’s confederates secretly substituted his correct answers for their wrong ones.

And you get attorney Gordon Caplan, as captured on an FBI wiretap, fretting about what might happen if his daughter gets caught. “To be honest,” he says, “I’m not worried about the moral issue here.”

Ahem.

I am an alumnus of the University of Southern California, one of the schools — Harvard, Yale and Georgetown are among the others — Singer helped people like Caplan cheat their children into. Me, I got in because my mom and my counselor, Mr. Isaacs, moved Heaven, Earth and all the precincts in between to get my application approved and my tuition paid.

So forgive me if I am unable to dismiss “the moral issue here” as airily as Caplan does. Forgive me if I find these people and their scheme disgusting. But there is an object lesson here beyond disgust.

We live in a nation where equality is the official creed, but hardly the lived reality. To the contrary, people are jailed here because they cannot afford justice, ignorant here because they cannot afford learning, hungry here because they cannot afford food, dead here because they cannot afford health.

And the worst thing is, we accept that as somehow preordained, beyond our capacity to fix. Meantime, Forbes reported last year that the average CEO pulls down a salary 361 times more than his workers. In the 1950s, he earned “only” about 20 times more. How well do you live on your salary? How well could you live on your salary, times 20?

Yet when working-class people demand a wage large enough to simply sustain themselves — $15 an hour — it’s regarded as a radical idea and an existential threat. As perhaps it must be in a nation where poverty is structural, where the routes up and out are increasingly constricted and workers are kept distracted from their own plight by fights over race, religion and sexuality.

So this should be a wake-up call. While poor people fight internecine wars, while they choose between lights and food, while their services are cut and their industries disappear, rich people — some, at least — are writing large checks to lie their children into college. Every advantage in the world, and they take more.

If that’s not a moral issue we all should worry about, I don’t know what is.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at [email protected].


© 2019 THE MIAMI HERALD DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

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