When Violence Met Excellence

May 27, 1994|By RENE J. MULLER

Late Saturday night, May 14, a 77-year-old man returning with a 74-year-old friend from a performance of the Washington Ballet was robbed on the front porch of his rowhouse on Okenshawe Place.

So far, this story reads like many reports of robberies: A weapon is displayed or implied, a demand is made, money or jewelry is taken, the thief takes his leave, sometimes assaulting the victim, usually causing only minor injuries.

But on that Saturday night as this 77-year-old man was punched in the face (a common assault accompanying this kind of robbery), he fell backward and hit his head on the concrete floor of his porch. Two days later, at Union Memorial Hospital a block away, he died of complications from a head wound.

The following Thursday, Johns Hopkins University celebrated the life of Dr. William H. McClain, a professor of German there from 1953 to 1982, and chairman of the German department for 10 years.

He was eulogized as one who ''led a non-marginal life, at the center of things,'' an inspired teacher, a generous colleague, a respected scholar, adviser and friend who oversaw 30 doctoral dissertations. His reach was wide, recognizing no boundaries between academic disciplines; he knew almost as much about French literature as German literature and spoke French as well as German. He read Hegel and the classics, had an intense interest in music, played the piano, went often to hear the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. He loved his university, his city, his neighborhood, his neighbors.

As I listened to the tributes, it dawned on me that more than the man, Bill McClain, was being described and eulogized: It was the humanistic tradition itself, the best of what has been written and thought, decency, generosity, courage. It was what the ancient Greeks called arete, a notion probably best rendered into English as ''excellence,'' but without the warped self-absorption that isolates so many who develop their intellects from the best of lived life.

The irony of a gentle man dying violently is obvious. Only slightly less obvious is the fact that this country daily becomes less like the man Bill McClain was. The values implicit in his life and his work are, for the most part, scoffed at now in the professions, the corporations and the universities. While I grieved for the man as his life was recalled, I grieved also for the loss in this culture of the sensibility he lived. Most of what he stood for seems absorbed now by attitudes of political correctness or the bottom line.

Violence has always been one of the fission products after a culture fragments to the point where its citizens can no longer agree at the most basic level on what is most important, right and wrong, permitted and not permitted, in short, on what excellence (the Greek arete) is.

Violence in the middle and upper-middle classes of this country is expressed now as a socially acceptable acquisitiveness in the workplace often at, or over, the boundary of the law. Listen to Gordon Gekko, Michael Douglas' character in the movie, ''Wall Street,'' try to define the ethos of our time: ''Greed is good.

Greed works, greed is right. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.'' If our era subscribes to any creed, surely it is close to this one. I have come to half-believe it myself.

In the underclass, fewer opportunities exist than for the middle and upper-middle classes to make quasi-legal acts of greed pay off, and frank violence breaks through the social fabric as robbery and murder. The thief who assaulted Bill McClain in all likelihood did not intend to kill him, just rob him and rough him up a bit to cover the getaway. In the affluent and relatively peaceful neighborhoods of North Baltimore, this kind of lawlessness has become common, even with the private security patrols.

Had he lived, Bill McClain's assault would have passed virtually unnoticed. We have come to accept the likelihood that we will be robbed, threatened with a weapon and pummeled -- so many of our friends and neighbors have been victims. But implicit in this kind of attack is the risk that, in the chaos of the moment, the intention of the perpetrator will be accidentally exceeded.

On the Saturday night Bill McClain was assaulted, violence met excellence -- and won.

Rene J. Muller is a clinical psychologist.

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