Those of you who are Bob Dylan fans will recognize the line from his song ‘Desolation Row,’ one of my personal favorites. Written in 1965 the song appeared on Dylan’s 6th album, Highway 61 Revisited. Reading through the lyrics today the great poet/songwriter seems eerily prescient. The first stanza alone captures perfectly the zeitgeist of today’s America:
They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row
A blind commissioner. A riot squad. The circus coming to town. And where do you find yourself? In Desolation Row. At its core the song asks one central question: where has the value of integrity gone? The bleak answer Dylan seems to offer is this: nobody knows.
We might say the same thing today, 51 years after Dylan first recorded ‘Desolation Row.’ Can you imagine – Bernie Madoff was just the tip of the iceberg! This morning in the NY Times an article appeared describing yet another five star hedge fund that promised double digit returns called Platinum Partners. Working mostly in the Jewish community, it turns out the managing partners were colluding to run a Madoff like ponzi scheme, taking out high risk loans and money from other investors to pay those who wanted to cash out. Seven members of the firm have been arrested and face serious charges.
But why not? What the heck? It is everywhere, happening all the time, folks ignoring reality and just moving ahead to get their little piece of the action. Look at Wells Fargo and their fraudulent accounts. They have so much dishonesty to deal with they actually have a ‘how to report fraud’ tab on their website (if you like you can visit it at this link: https://www.wellsfargo.com/privacy-security/fraud/report/). Or what about VW, the ‘wagon of the people,’ company, knowingly and intentionally deceiving customers and governments about diesel emissions. This wasn’t just a sin of omission, it was a sin of commission. They had to plan it, create the software that would bypass the testing procedures, test that software, make sure it properly and effectively lied about the car’s status. But faulty airbags, who cares? To use a technical term, the chutzpah of it all. When you can’t trust the people who brought you the VW bug, when you can’t trust the people who run your bank, manage your investment money, who can you trust?
So maybe it is more important than ever to fight to maintain a sense of personal integrity. What does it say in Ethics of the Fathers? In a place where there are few people, strive to be a mensch (Avot 2:5). It is precisely when values like integrity are under siege that you have to step forward and reaffirm traditional ideals. Integrity matters. Truth matters. Right and wrong matter, and we can discern one from the other. Doing the right thing makes a difference. Doing the wrong thing is – well, actually wrong. Even on Desolation Row. It may be the case the Madoff was just the tip of the iceberg, and the Titanic is sailing at dawn. But you don’t have to board the ship. The shame of it is you can’t even make the journey in your old and trusted VW van.
You can read the rest of the Desolation Row lyrics on Dylan’s website. Here is the link: http://bobdylan.com/songs/desolation-row/