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But for the grace of God ...

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What a fortnight this has been for observing the human animal in his natural habitat. We're reminded daily of the clay feet, the wounded psyches, the angst of the exploiters and the anger of the exploitees. Their behavior runs the table, from naive foibles to deep, tragic flaws, linking the venal with the vulnerable. All is writ large in headlines about money, sex and power.

Like the beat-beat-beat of the tom-tom, like the tick-tick-tock of the stately clock, the drip-drip-drip of the raindrops (with apologies to Cole Porter), a voice within keeps repeating, "Why, why, why?" We want reasons why our cultural icons can move so quickly from the spotlight of center stage to hidden places among the shadows of the wings, there to reveal lives lived most scandalously.

We watch with fascination when men on stilts feed our fantasies, but there's nothing left but frustration and disappointment when we witness the witless and wasteful repeating the stupid mistakes of those who fell before them. We're inevitably teased into looking for explanations elsewhere.

Achilles had only his heel to worry about. (Our heels impose larger worries.) The arrow pierced Achilles' heel, but not before he could show an honorable side. He rose above mistakes made through anger, greed and pride, and his myth lives inside the history of literature larger than life-size. How puny our fallen titans look by comparison. No myth can be written small enough to suit.

When Bernard Madoff stood up to be punished for the pain his greed had inflicted on so many, U.S. District Judge Denny Chin imposed the maximum 150 years of imprisonment. The judge called his crimes "extraordinarily evil," and the cries of universal agreement sounded like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. But do we examine ourselves as we examine him or merely dismiss self-examination as "there but for the grace of God go others"?

Dante links the notion of greed to the biblical warning that the love of money is the "root of all evils." In his "Inferno," Dante puts the greedy together with the hoarders who give nothing to their neighbors. The tightfisted and the ravenous wolves are destined to keep bumping into each other as they endlessly push a boulder in the fourth circle of hell. They spend the afterlife in eternal conflict: "Ill-giving, ill-hoarding, lost for them the light of the bright world and in this scuffling caught."

Too bad so many of the charities that benefited from the "profits" earned by Madoff are either out of business or greatly diminished in their ability to help others. Who will make up for those losses?

When Madoff turned to face his victims in the courtroom and spoke of his life as "tormented" by his cruelty, his victims were unmoved. The news that his wife cries herself to sleep every night, consoled only by the $2.5 million she will be allowed to keep, impressed no one -- and certainly not his victims, who cry themselves to sleep every night, too. Would the Madoffs shed tears of remorse if they hadn't gotten caught? Dante is merciless toward the greedy; less condemning toward the lustful.

So, too, the public reaction to the misdemeanors of our randy politicians, such as the adultery of Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina. But for his remarkable press conference and continuing interviews, in which he looks more a fool than a sinner, he might have earned greater public sympathy.

Human frailty is fathomable -- and forgivable. Though the state briefly was left leaderless for love, South Carolina survived his absence. By printing the private letters between the governor and his mistress, the press looked even more prurient than usual. We felt sullied by reading them, but read them we did. Who among us would not take pleasure in being addressed as Beloved (and who among us would not feel foolish if an intimate letter to a beloved was held up for public entertainment)? This was not correspondence between Antony and Cleopatra, but the media were the asp in the grass.

Michael Jackson is a moral tale well told before -- a talented man who dies before ripening into maturity. By all accounts, he long ago snuffed out his talent with drugs and an obsession with cosmetic surgery that exposed the qualities of the outer man as something less than skin deep. The stick figure he left behind was pecked to death by the hordes of freeloaders at Neverland. He could moonwalk better than anyone else, but where ultimately did the walk take him?

"For all the gold that is beneath the moon, Or ever was," Dante wrote, "(it) never could buy repose."

Will we never learn?

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