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What's Wrong with the Character Council?

By Gregory Flannery · March 29th, 2001 · Burning Questions
Did you thank your boss this morning for the opportunity to maximize company profits?

Enthusiasm is the character quality for the month of March, brought to you by the Character Council of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. The Character Council would like you to repeat after them, "I will be an energy-giver. I will smile. I will treat every job as important. I will put my whole heart into what I do. I will not be discouraged by failure."

Billboards and media promoting worthy causes aren't new. We often see messages pooh-poohing cigarettes or advocating seat belts.

But the Character Council takes a much more comprehensive approach to telling us what to do. Indeed, one of the 49 qualities that will be shoved in your face in the near future is virtue, whose subordinate pledges include promising to tell others what to do. The Character Council would like you to repeat after them, "I will do what is right and encourage others to do the same."

Scolding, it seems, is in fashion. Associated Press reports President Bush has taken to lecturing parents. "My job is to say to the moms and dads of America, 'Your most important job is to love your children with all your heart and all your soul,' " Bush says.

You might have thought Bush's job was to serve as commander-in-chief of the military, chief executive of the federal government and leader of the Republican Party. But then you might also have believed that claptrap about Bush's wanting to limit the role of government.

The city of Cincinnati has proclaimed itself a City of Character. The Cincinnati Public Schools have declared themselves a School District of Character. More than 675 city police officers and firefighters have so far received character training, according to Iris Cole, spokesman for the Character Council.

How can anyone object to promoting character? What could possibly be wrong with benevolence, forgiveness, generosity, meekness, tolerance, wisdom -- some of the qualities scheduled for monthly promotions here and in other cities of character?

Consider the source and the goal. The Character Council has no particular religious or political bent, Cole says.

"This crosses all boundaries," she says. "These things contribute to the success of a person."

Says who?

"That's a very good question," Cole says. "These are time-tested things. They've been proven."

But wait. While some of the qualities touted by the Character Council are of obvious benefit -- punctuality, for example -- others seem downright antidemocratic. One of the 49 qualities is obedience. The Character Council would like you to repeat after them, "I will obey my authorities immediately. I will have a cheerful attitude. I will complete all that I am expected to do. I will not complain. I will go the 'extra mile.' "

Do we really want citizens to obey immediately? Questioning authority, even civil disobedience, are aspects of character that seem more consistent with liberty. Do we really want to discourage complaining? If not for whistleblowers, then Watergate, illegal Cincinnati Police wiretapping and all manner of crimes by "my authorities" would have gone unstopped.

One of the moving forces behind the Character Council is Richard T. Farmer, chief executive officer of Cintas Corp. You've heard the name before. Farmer is a major contributor to the Republican Party. His company was in the forefront of a successful effort to block new ergonomics regulations intended to protect workers from injury. His company successfully lobbied several years ago against anti-pollution rules proposed by the Environmental Projection Agency.

The Character Council hasn't said so, but we surmise Farmer's position on rules to protect employees and the environment is an exercise in thriftiness -- yes, another quality endorsed by the Character Council. Please repeat after Farmer: "I will save more and spend less. I will make good use of what I already have."

Perhaps an Alternative Character Council should be set up to give guidance to Farmer and others. Please repeat: "I will put workers' safety before corporate profits. I will put environmental safety before corporate profits. I will not lay off workers so long as the corporation is making a profit. I will not oppose efforts to organize labor unions, because employee well-being is every bit as important as corporate profits."

Wouldn't that show true character?

BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.



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