I always hate to admit that I’ve dipped a toe into The New Yorker, but truth will out. And there are some things the mag is kinda good at — used to be better at, of course, but still. One of them is the longish fact-laden piece — what Spy magazine once referred to as the “nine-part history of sand.”
Well, I like sand. So I was pretty interested in a long piece — you can read it online — about the sad story of poor Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who jumped off the George Washington Bridge two years ago, and the ensuing prosecution of his rather unlikable roommate, Dharun Ravi.
The piece is almost a year old, actually; but the nice thing about it was that it quoted extensively from the facebook posts and tweets and text messages of the various dramatis personae — Clementi and Ravi themselves and their various buds and bros. All the previous accounts I had seen were quite fragmentary and selective with this material, very ideological, parti-pris and Big Picture. But of course the devil as always is in the details, and in this context, the accumulation of details. One tweet does not make a canary.
A question left very much unresolved was just why Clementi decided to pack it in. He doesn’t seem to have been so very upset by Ravi’s peeping-Tom schtick, though of course he was both peeved and disgusted by it.
What did come across very clearly — to me, anyway — was how stupid and useless and damaging the whole notion of ‘bias crimes’ is. Why is it not enough that a crime is a crime? You beat somebody up, or invade somebody’s privacy, there’s a penalty. Who cares why you did it?
Some of Clementi’s buds encouraged him to take the whole matter more seriously than he apparently was originally inclined to do, and of course they couched all this in a strange salmagundi of nannyish, legalistic, and pep-talk terms — “I would feel seriously violated…. it could be interpreted as a hate crime… Report him. What he is doing is completely inappropriate…. I’m not trying to be mean but if you don’t have the guts to take control of the situation it is not going to get better.”
The idea that “taking control” in fact consists in yielding control — and to the authorities, forsooth (“Report him”) — is perhaps worth a closer look. “Taking control” becomes a matter of enlisting the authorities on your side, on terms that the authorities themselves have defined.
Clementi’s own spontaneous response seems to have been that Ravi’s actions were creepy, and that his friends’ Twitter responses were oafish and obtuse. If so, one can hardly fault his perception, can one? Or its proportionality to the offence?
Certainly we will never know why Clementi then decided to give up on a life which was, for the most part, taking a turn for the better; or how much Ravi’s actions had to do with it; or, for that matter, how much the prospect of an institutionally-mediated struggle with Ravi, into which many of his friends seemed intent on chivvying him, had to do with it.
By all accounts he had a crummy time in high school. High school is very good to some people — most particularly, to the Ravis of the world — and quite merciless to the Tylers. Perhaps Tyler was a more badly wounded bird even than he appeared to be — too wounded to be saved, or to save himself. Perhaps Ravi and his loutish friends reminded Tyler too much of high school — just when he thought he had escaped that unspeakable Gulag of smiley-face sadism.
His tweets suggest that he didn’t expect much of the Rutgers administration — and worried that he might end up even worse off than he already was, if he went to them. Clearly, there were some lessons of high school that he learned very well indeed.
But after Tyler bade farewell to this life, somewhere between his native New Jersey and Manhattan — where, if he had lived, he might someday have discovered that he was a cooler person than anybody knew, least of all himself — the response of the State and of the culture was that Something Must Be Done. And of course, since this is America, that something had to involve the courts and the legislature and the police; new laws, severer punishments, and the book thrown at Dharun Ravi, who was, after all, very much a showpiece creation of America’s most central and formative institution: a popular and successful suburban high-schooler.
We create these monsters, and then every so often we stone one to death.
Ravi was, of course, prosecuted for killing Tyler, though no one could admit that. And of course, nobody could admit that if anything killed him, high school was the prime suspect.
Hence the preposterous overreach of the charges; and the surprisingly light sentence, once the hysteria had passed and it was possible for reasonably sane people to realize just how absurd the whole show-trial had been. New Jersey — and for that matter, America — were determined to demonstrate, by harrowing Ravi through a sanitary tedious un-entertaining white-collar legal auto-da-fe, just how deeply they care about the very people they obviously don’t care about at all: the losers, the dorks, the oddballs.
A classic case of American bad conscience, protesting way too much. But then New Jersey and America woke up the morning after, with a throbbing headache and the clear if painful sense that if you’re going to knock back fifteen(*) shots of undiluted self-righteousness, you’re going to do something stupid before the night is over.
Ravi was a bit tone-deaf through the process. He had spent the last eighteen years being taught to be confident and arrogant, to ‘advocate for himself’, as they say, and he obviously didn’t realize that an accused person is for all practical purposes a guilty person, and that the proper demeanor of a guilty person is one of abject self-condemnation, like Lord Scroop in Henry V:
Our purposes God justly hath discover’d;
And I repent my fault more than my death;
Which I beseech your highness to forgive,
Although my body pay the price of it.
First-generation American, y’know. Doesn’t quite get it yet.
(*) The number of counts in Ravi’s indictment.