Once, in a certain city, I worked for a certain mayor who seemed to have the peculiar capacity of drawing all the people's disappointments and discontents upon himself. If the grass did not grow it was his fault. If the streets developed potholes he was held personally to blame by every taxi driver. But it was snow for which this mayor was most peculiarly and vehemently called to account. When a great blizzard descended on that city, so that for days the citizens were confined to their homes, the people decreed by common consent that none other but their mayor was responsible for this grave meteorological disturbance.
The tendency to find someone on whom we can unload our grievances is as old as human nature. It seems in recent years to have become particularly prevalent , and it has something to do, I suppose, with the complexity of modern existence. In a simpler time one could portion out the blame for matters that went wrong. One could seek the cause of things, and hope to maintain standards of fair judgment. But when the world appears a whirling, buzzing confusion, when everything is complicated and obscure, the only way out seems to be to put the whole burden on some chosen character. "Life is unfair," said a recent president, as he assumed cheerfully this dubious role.
That "life is unfair" probably occurred thousands of years ago to the dim mind of a little goat as he was driven forth into the wilderness. He would have been the first "scapegoat" told about in the Bible, upon whom the lot cast for Azazel had fallen. Carrying with him all the iniquities of the tribe he went out into a barren waste and there was set free, to wander, presumably, for the rest of his days. Ever since, the image of the scapegoat has haunted human minds.
About scapegoats in their modern form, certain generalizations might be made. Some leaders seem to invite being charged with the blame for everything, while others shrug off ill fortune as if it had nothing to do with them. The former are apt to be hopeful in spirit and conspicuous in appearance. They "raise expectations" as the phrase is; they are touched by the kind of pride which convinces them they can really improve the world. On the whole, these seem to me the better of men and the more admirable of public officials. But in terms of civic peace there is something to be said for the more modest figure who arouses no great enthusiasm and generates no disappointment or bitterness.
As for the rest of us, it is not always to be held against us that we seek a scapegoat. To fix responsibility upon the man at the top is one of the means by which practical life is made to operate. A rough-and-ready sense of justice tells us what we need to know in order to effectuate the alternations of power essential to a functioning social order.
"Throw the rascals out" is perhaps not the highest of ethical principles. But it is frequently a good working assumption, and it has served in the long history of free government to maintain reasonable levels of honesty, at least for much of the time.
In great crises, moreover, there is a basic need for the leader who can, in his own person, embody the hopes as well as the sorrows of his people. A Lincoln, a Churchill, a de Gaulle, have borne the burdens of all. They were scapegoats ennobled and writ large.
In a period of political rivalries and contests such as our country is now passing through, it is inevitable that men will be blamed unfairly and held responsible for much that is outside their scope. Yet it is good for us not to lose all perspective. The early Hebrews were probably well aware that the little goat going into the wilderness did not actually bear all their sins upon its back. We can be as perceptive as they, and perhaps add a little humor and tolerance of our own.