Integrity and the American character

Today has been a banner day for me in terms of integrity. I received a final judgement from the Wisconsin DWD (Department of Workforce Development) regarding a challenge they made to one of my weekly statements.

To the uninitiated, that is those who’ve never had the misfortune of losing a job and of collecting unemployment compensation from their state of residency, every week you’re required to file a claim. Among other things, you verify that you’ve actively looked for work, and that you have neither received compensation from any other source (a job, an employer, vacation pay, etc.) or have not refused and offer of work.

This past week, I was accused of the latter.

Now, anyone who knows me knows that I take my integrity very seriously. They also know that I’m not one to lie, especially not on official documents or in matters where said integrity carries weight and the violation thereof carries great consequences. So, the State of Wisconsin telling me that I’d “lied” to them about not refusing an offer of work was no small matter to me; I was being called a liar under circumstances where I specifically go out of my way to dot all the “i”‘s and cross all the “t”‘s in order to make sure that what I submit represents the truth.

For a few days, it seemed that it came down to a matter of syntax; what had transpired between myself and an employment agency had, according to my understanding, constituted a job “lead” – something that could lead to an employer being interested in me, an interview, and an eventual job offer – not a job offer itself.

I’m happy to report that the final decision has come down, and the State agrees with me, saving me the hassle of having to appeal a “guilty” decision, as I surely would have; what else would I do if my integrity were so challenged.

But, I find this event in my life to be timed quite interestingly with the events transpiring on the national stage. Even today, on the Today Show, they ran a segment called “Silver Lining in Economic Woes”. The segment outlined ways that you can save and “even make money” during these hard economic times. In other words, how to profit from the misfortunes of others. Isn’t this exactly how we got into this mess in the first place?

Whether it’s the politicos pushing the pluses and minuses of the 700 billion buyout, or the dozens of talking heads on TV and the web decrying “how to survive these tough economic times”, it seems to me that we are missing the larger picture here; watching this country wrestle with the current economic crisis is like attending an AA meeting where everyone is drinking alcohol: we all know there’s a problem, but we can’t seem to give up getting a good buzz.

At the heart of this current economic crisis is the American character itself. Where and when did we go from a nation of like-minded citizens, concerned with representation, justice, and equality, to a hodgepodge mixture of individuals focused on looking out for #1 even if it means profiting financially by preying on the misfortune, naiveté, fear, or utter desperation of others? What is it about our daily lives that we stand by while the American experience is reduced to the lowest common denominator of how can you accumulate more than your neighbor, or win an election at all costs (even if it means misrepresenting the character of the opposition), or pursuing a doomed foreign policy to the brink of war and beyond (even if it means propagating faulty intelligence presented to your own nation even as it was reeling from the PTSD of 9/11)?

I was thinking about this today, as I pulled my car through the labyrinth of the UW Hospital parking ramp, on my way home from a job interview. As I proceeded across a straight-away, a car in front of me, coming from the intersecting down ramp, pulled right in – nearly hitting me, without signaling or acknowledging me at all.

I, of course, under the law had right of way. But right of way, or the law for that matter, doesn’t seem to matter much to most Americans these days.