All Commentary
Sunday, January 1, 1961

Who’s to Blame?

This article is from a chapel talk delivered by Dr. Rogge at Wabash College where he serves as Dean.

In some 63.7 per cent of all inter­views in my office, the person across the desk is there to tell me who’s to blame. and in 99.6 per cent of the cases where that is the question, the answer is the same: He isn’t.

Now if these were just simple cases of prevarication, we could all shake our heads at the loss of the old Yes-Father-I-chopped­down-the-cherry-tree spirit and turn to some other problem, such as the danger presented to the stability of the earth by the build­up of snow on the polar icecaps. But the denial of responsibility is rarely that simple, and herein lies the story.

Today’s George Washington, on the campus and elsewhere, says, “Yes, I chopped down the cherry tree, but—” and then comes 10 to 90 minutes of explanation, which is apparently supposed to end in my breaking into tears and for­giving all, after which he goes home to sharpen his little hatchet. The little Georges of today say, “Yes, I chopped down the cherry tree, but let me give you the whole story. All the guys over at the house were telling me that it’s a tradition around here to cut down cherry trees. What’s that? Did any of them ever actually cut down any cherry trees? Well, I don’t know, but anyway there’s this tradition, see, and with all this lack of school spirit, I figured I was really doing the school a favor when I cut down that crummy old tree.” [Lights up, center stage, where our hero is receiving a medal from the presi­dent of the Student Council as the band plays the school song.] Or it may run like this: “Now this professor, see, told us to col­lect some forest specimens; he may have told us what trees to cut, but, frankly, I just can’t un­derstand half of what he says, and

I honestly thought he said cherry tree. Now actually I wasn’t in class the day he gave the assign­ment and this friend of mine took it down and I can’t help it if he made a mistake, can I? Anyway, if the callboy had awakened me on time, I’d have made the class and would have known he said to get leaves from a whortleberry bush.”

Society on Trial

So far we have run through the simpler cases. Now let’s move to more complex ones. In this one, little George says to his father, “Yes, Dad, I cut down the cherry tree, but I just couldn’t help it. You and mother are always away from home and when you are home all you do is tell me to get out of the house, to go practice throwing a dollar across the Rap­pahannock. I guess I cut down the tree to get you to pay a little at­tention to me, and you can’t blame me for that, can you?” [Lights up, center stage, revealing the kindly old judge admonishing the parents to show more love and affection to little George, who is seated right, quietly hacking away at the jury box.]

These can get messy. Here’s an­other. In this one, young George has hired himself a slick city lawyer who has read all the recent books on the sociology of crime.

The lawyer pleads G.W.’s case as follows: “It is true that this young man cut down the tree, marked exhibit A and lying there on the first ten rows of the courtroom seats. Also, there can be no ques­tion but that he did it willfully and maliciously, nor can it be denied that he has leveled over half the cherry trees in Northern Virginia in exactly the same way. But is this boy to blame? Can he be held responsible for his ac­tions? No. The real crime is his society’s, and not his. He is the product of his environment, the victim of a social system which breeds crime in every form. Born in poverty, [here we leave the George Washington example] raised in the slums, abused by his parents,” and on and on. The lawyer closes by pointing a finger at me and saying dramatically, “You, Dean Rogge, as a member of the society which has produced this young monster are as much to blame as he, as much deserving of punishment as he.” The boy gets off with a six-month sus­pended sentence and I am ridden out of town on a rail.

I do want to refer to just one other possibility. In this one, the lawyer calls as a witness an emi­nent psychoanalyst who, as a re­sult of his examination of the young man, absolves him of all conscious responsibility for the crime, in testimony that is filled with the jargon of that semi-science, hence obscure, hence somewhat pornographic. It turns out that the cherry tree is a phal­lic symbol and the boy’s action an unconscious and perverse response to the universal castration com­plex.

Farfetched? Not at all. As Richard LaPiere writes in his book, The Freudian Ethic:

The Freudian doctrine of man is neither clear nor simple, but those Freudians who have turned their at­tention to the criminal have derived from it a theory of the criminal act and a prescription for social treat­ment that anyone can understand. It is, they hold, perfectly natural for human beings to violate the law—every law, from the law that governs the speed of motor vehicles to that which prohibits taking the life of another human being. For, according to Freud, man is born a criminal—an antisocial being. Society, with which the individual is in all respects at odds, teaches the individual to re­press his criminal drives and to con­form to non-natural standards of conduct. The criminal is simply one who was not fully trained to this repression or who, so trained, has been provoked by society into breaking the bonds of repression. In either event, the criminal act is compulsive; it is neither willed nor calculated. The pro­fessional thief does not steal in order to make a comfortable living in the easiest way that he knows how; he isdriven to rob homes, roll drunks, break into bank vaults, or do what­ever his specialty is as a thief, by an unconscious drive. In sum, the thief has no moral or intellectual aware­ness of the fact that he is stealing for a livelihood.

The Freudian explanation of crime absolves the individual from all per­sonal responsibility for the criminal act and places the blame squarely upon the shoulders of an abstraction—society. Modern society is espe­cially hard upon the individual, since it imposes upon him so many and often contradictory restraints and at the same time demands of him so much that does not come naturally to him. His criminal acts are therefore but a symptom of the underlying pathology of society, and it is as futile to punish him for the sins of society as to attempt to cure acne by medicating the symptomatic pustules.

Responsibility Is Personal

Where does all this leave us? Who’s to blame? Well, nobody, or rather everybody. The Freudian Ethic has eliminated sin (and, of course, that means that it has eliminated virtue as well).

Personally, I can’t buy it. I can­not accept a view of man which makes him a helpless pawn of either his id or his society. I do not deny that the mind of each of us is a dark and complex chamber, nor that the individual is bent by his environment, nor even the potentially baneful influence of parents. As a matter of fact, after a few months in the Dean’s Office, I was ready to recommend to the college that henceforth it admit only orphans. But as a stubborn act of faith I insist that precisely what makes man man is his poten­tial ability to conquer both himself and his environment. If this ca­pacity is indeed given to or pos­sessed by each of us, then it follows that we are inevitably and terribly and forever responsible for everything that we do. The answer to the question, “Who’s to blame?” is always, “Mea Culpa, I am.”

This is a tough philosophy. The Christian can take hope in the thought that though his sins can never be excused, he may still come under the grace of God, sin­ner though he be. The non-Chris­tian has to find some other source of strength, and believe me this is not easy to do.

What does all this have to do with our day-to-day living, whether on, or beyond the cam­pus? Actually, it has everything to do with it. It means that as students we stop blaming our teachers, our classmates, our parents, our high schools, our so­ciety, and even the callboy for our own mistakes and shortcomings. It means that as teachers and col­lege administrators we stop blam­ing our students, the board of trustees, the oppressive spirit of society, (and even our wives) for our own failures.

As individuals it means that we stop making excuses to ourselves, that we carry each cherry tree we cut down on our consciences for­ever. It means that we say with Cassius, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in our­selves.” This is a tough philoso­phy, but it is also the only hopeful one man has yet devised.

Reprints of this article are available at 2¢ each.




Divine Providence has granted this gift to man, that those things which are honest are also the most advantageous.

Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria

  • Benjamin A. Rogge (1920-1980) was Distinguished Professor of Political Economy at Wabash College, Crawfordsville, Indiana. He held degrees from Hastings College (A.B.), the University of Nebraska (M.A.), and Northwestern University (Ph.D.), and was a member of both the American Economic Association and the Mont Pelerin Society. He had a gift for rendering into clear English the vital principles of economics, all with a touch of unforgettable humor. He opposed compulsory, state-funded education and sought market alternatives. Among his intellectual mentors was Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek.