TCS Daily

Phonies on the Family

By S.T. Karnick - August 8, 2005 12:00 AM

Recent press reports have noted that Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens is dissatisfied with the way the team's management has treated him. Owens stated that he would not play for the Eagles this year, and demanded a trade. The team is refusing to move him, which meant that if Owens stuck to his guns (which he didn't), he would not have gotten paid the several million dollars he was contracted to receive for the season.

The specifics of the argument are the least interesting thing about it-we're all too used to seeing bloated team owners and greedy players argue over money and alleged failures to show sufficient respect for each other.

What is interesting is that Owens claims he is doing this for his family. "The most important thing is my family," he said.

This assertion has become so common and familiar among public figures as to become something like punctuation, a mere indicator of seriousness without any real content.

I won't back down on this matter, it suggests, and not because I'm a pompous, selfish donkey, but on the contrary, because I am so selfless that I will forego my own interests in order to avoid letting down my family. The invocation of family says: Even though my actions indicate otherwise, I'm not a fool, nor a scoundrel; I'm selfless and devoted to others.

Patriotism used to be the last refuge of a scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson said-until phony patriots destroyed the positive connotations of the term. Today, family is the scoundrel's first, last, and paramount refuge.

One hears this refrain continually in the media. A politician who has fallen far behind in the opinion polls decides not to run for reelection and announces he's doing so "to spend more time with my family," with wife and children standing at his side and looking simultaneously dutiful, honored, puzzled, and bored.

When Congressman Gary Condit was under fire for having an affair with an intern, Chandra Levy, who had mysteriously disappeared, it was allegedly just one affair among many on his part. He resigned to spend more time with his family, he said.

Enron CEO Jeff Skilling quit his position because-you guessed it-he wanted to spend more time with his family. Apparently those 100-hour work weeks became less intoxicating when his firm was under fire for accounting scandals and careening toward bankruptcy.

When George Tenet resigned from the CIA, the reason he gave was not that the agency was in the soup for poor monitoring of terrorist activity before Sept. 11, 2001, and intelligence failures regarding alleged Iraqi progress toward developing weapons of mass destruction. No, it was-all together, now-so that he could spend more time with his family.

Seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong recently retired from bicycle racing in order to, yup, spend more time with his family. Reporters did not bother to press him to explain how divorcing the mother of his children to marry a rock star reflects his commitment to family.

Of course, no one ever asks these persons to explain precisely what caused them to change their mind about the benefits of ignoring one's family. Similarly, reporters failed to ask Owens how his family would benefit from the loss of several million dollars of income. We don't ask, because we have come to see these statements as purely phony.

If no one takes these protestations seriously, however, why make them?

The reason, of course, is to save face and avoid having to take responsibility for one's decisions. In the case of the failed CEO, it's easier to pretend there is a positive reason for quitting, instead of admitting that he was a horrendous manager. The politician can pretend he's a nice guy instead of a sleazeball. The athlete can present himself as a devoted protector instead of a conceited hothead.

The strategy succeeds because we are cowed into submission in the charade, lest we appear insufficiently devoted to family ourselves.

But there are social consequences to the pretenses we undertake. Those who take refuge in false claims to family loyalty do far more than just serve their own interests -- they undermine ours, by demonstrating that success comes from ignoring one's family, and that the really big wheels run home only after disaster strikes.

The message is clear: If you want to make it big, ignore your family, and if you make a mess of your life, they'll be there when you need them.

Of course, some readers may think this article rather sloppily argued and awkwardly expressed. To them I can only say, don't criticize me: I wrote it very quickly -- so I could spend more time with my family.

S. T. Karnick is an Associate Fellow of the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research, based in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Editor of The Reform Club blog.


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