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Jewish World Review March 4, 2002 / 20 Adar, 5762

Bob Greene

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The cracks and hidden
potholes on Easy Street -- DOING a job right is its own reward. That's what they say.

Or do they?

And who exactly are they, these days? Who is still saying that?

The question seems appropriate in light of the news that has been filling not only the front pages, but the inside pages and the sports pages, in recent days. Three of the stories in particular seem unrelated -- until you take a closer look.

There's the ice skating controversy at the Olympics, in which the skaters from Canada seemed to have performed well enough to win the gold medal -- until they didn't, and questions started being raised about who might have gotten to a judge from France, which led to Friday's announcement of the revised results.

The Enron mess continued to spread, and by the end of the week people were asking whether the top executives were carrying out a con not only against the public, and against their own rank-and-file employees, but against each other as well -- whether even in the Enron corporate suites the shell game was being used by one boss against another.

In small-town Kansas, the story of the 28 10th-grade students who plagiarized their semester projects in biology class, and then -- when the teacher gave them failing grades -- managed to get the local school board to overturn (and thus undermine) the teacher. . . .

In the ways that count, all of these are the same story, on a single theme. Doing a job right is its own reward? Hard work is a victory in itself?

Tell that to the Enron workers who weren't let in on the con. Tell that to the skaters who didn't have advocates whispering into the judges' ears. Tell that to the students who wrote the biology-class essays themselves.

Tell that to the teacher who quit her job at Piper High School in Kansas after some of the students who had stolen work reportedly hooted and celebrated when their parents succeeded in pressuring the board of education and having the failing grades thrown out. The teacher obviously believes mightily that diligent work and an honest effort are the things that should matter in life -- but she'll have to find a new place to teach those beliefs, because they didn't mean very much at the school where she was making her living.

All of this is about one thing: the easy way out. It's easier to win an Olympic gold medal if someone gets to a judge. It's easier to make huge amounts of money in a corporate suite if you're playing by a set of regulations that you have invented, and that your competitors -- and your customers and employees -- have not been let in on. It's much easier to do well on a test in school if you don't really have to take the test -- if you hand in something that was written by someone else. And in our honor-the-path-of-least-resistance world, you just may get to keep the gold medal after all; you just may get to pocket the corporate money; you just may pass the course even after your school board finds out about your theft of the material.

Whatever that sports homily is -- "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing" -- has been so thoroughly transmogrified by now that it no longer has the sound of a cautionary tale. It is taken straight. If you win, that's what matters. How you did it? That's for suckers to worry about. Let them talk about it in the losers' locker room. This is what our contemporary breed of easy winners seems to believe.

If there is any comfort in all of this, it may lie in the fact that it's nothing new -- we like to say that stories such as these are a commentary on a cold and cynical modern world, but before anyone gets too wide-eyed at the audacity of the notion of fixing the Olympics, recall the Black Sox scandal early in another century. What could be more insane than trying to fix the Olympic Games? Oh, how about fixing the World Series?

You don't even have to expand it beyond ice skating -- is this any more startling than Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan in 1994? As for Enron: American business has had its robber barons since the days of filled-from-the-inkwell fountain pens and ledger books stored on high and dusty shelves. The larceny at Enron may have been carried out on computer screens and through phantom companies, but it is only the computers and the particulars of the schemes that are new. The larceny is as old as man.

So what is left to believe in? Where is the hope in all of this?

The hope is in the truth.

And the truth is that, in the end, the honest job really is its own reward.

The pure effort really is the victory.

There are days when it may not seem so. There are nights when someone else's bank account, someone else's medals, may loom large, almost like a taunt.

But then comes sleep. And the peacefulness of the deep and satisfied sleep that follows work you believed in, work in which you took pride to the core of your soul. . . .

It's not for sale. Never has been; never will be.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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