Bully 4U?

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.


An allegory on the banks of denial (II)

Doug Henwood recently recalled, somewhere — on his mailing list? Facebook? Twitter?  — that years ago, Alex Cockburn (peace be upon him) had said that if Social Security were to be dismantled, it would have to be an inside job — that is, a Democratic president would have to do it.

Of course Alex was right, as he usually if not always was, and I thought it was rather generous of Doug to mention the fact, considering that Doug was often quite critical of Cockburn.

The reference to old Alex brought out the usual pharisaic chorus — they laugh him to scorn; they shoot out their lips, and wag their heads, as Handel says. (Or his librettist, whoever that was.) Aiiee! Cockburn! The climate change denialist! Anathema!

I’ve had some thoughts here before about ‘denialism’ as a category, which I won’t repeat. In brief, the stigmatization of denialism seems like a kind of thought-policing to me, and I don’t like it.

In the case of climate change, however, abusing denialists seems particularly foolish. I say this as a recent victim (in a small way) of climate change.

Climate change is certainly real, as the denialists would mostly agree, though they would add — correctly, of course — that it’s happened many times in the history of the world, long before there were SUVs and coal-fired power plants. What the denialists mostly deny is that human activity has much to do with it.

Well, maybe they’re wrong — I’m inclined to think so — and maybe they’re right. But what is surely clear is that it doesn’t matter.

Anti-denialists seem to be operating on the idea that denial makes it harder to get nice enlightened policies in place that will slow, or arrest, or even reverse climate change. But this is idiocy. Denialists or no denialists, nothing is going to be done about climate change. Propaganda organs like the New York Times are already starting to speak of Sandy and her ilk as the new normal, and wondering what soon-to-be beachfront property might be worth investing in, once the existing beachfront property is washed away. Dig out those contour maps, folks.

The social order under which we live is simply unable — and uninclined — to cast its accounts based on what’s good for the world over the next three or four generations. Our rulers are looking at the next three or four quarters, in their capacity as steersmen of our institutions, and maybe a couple of decades down the road in terms of their own individual retirement.

This is not a mistake, or an oversight, or a betise. Our economy is in essence a Raubwirtschaft. Old Karl was right of course to observe that the capitalists have built amazing things and invented a lot of stuff, but they didn’t do it for posterity’s sake; they did it to steal a march on the competition, and get a bit more of the plunder.

There’s no way to steal a march on the competition by ‘doing something’ about climate change — except for advertising purposes, of course; greenwashing is thought, perhaps correctly,  to make a modest contribution to the bottom line.

Therefore, nothing will be done. Unless of course the social order were to change significantly. But we all know that’s impossible, right?


You have nothing to lose but your chained CPI

I see with delight that Obie is planning to cut Social Security, in a characteristically muffled and dishonest way, by tinkering with the technicalities of how inflation is calculated. If hamburger becomes more expensive, old people will switch to cat food. So naturally cat food should replace hamburger in the ‘market basket’. Beautiful, eh?

I say that I see it with delight although, of course, I really have mixed feelings. I like to be proved right — even before his second inauguration he’s selling out the people who voted for him, as I said he would — but on the other hand, this thievish subterfuge will definitely make my old age a colder and starker affair.

Oh well, there will also probably be less of it, since Medicare will certainly be next. Look on the bright side.


School daze

We’re always surprised when somebody goes and shoots up a school; but we shouldn’t be. School massacres — whether with guns or by some other means — are actually quite common, as a bit of Googling will reveal. (The worst ever in the United States occurred in Bath Township, Michigan, in 1927, perpetrated by a disgruntled school board member who packed the basement with dynamite. That’s a picture of the aftermath, above.)

The recent horrible affair in Newtown, Connecticut, has given rise to the predictable liturgies of thumbsucking about guns, violent video games, lonerism, mental illness, divorce, the American culture of violence. Maleness has been implicated. The local coroner in Newtown apparently hopes for some insight from genetics, according to a recent report.

Curiously, nobody mentions the common element: schools.

Schools and workplaces abound in massacres, though the death toll is never as high in the workplace massacres. The two have have much in common, though the workplace, bad as it is, is generally more benign than the schools; but that’s understandable, once you get past the the latter’s humanitarian candy-coating to its real mission, which is to serve as a kind of Sorting Hat for the former. Schools pick the Hufflepuffs and the Slytherins, and in our society, a Fifth House that didn’t exist at Hogwarts: the Superflewuffs.

So it’s unsurprising that most of the people who are really going to snap, snap in school and never make it to the workplace. Think of it as one among many aptitude tests: How much bullshit can you take before you go nuts?

No doubt a lot of things contributed to Adam Lanza’s ultimate meltdown, but I for one would be very interested to hear more about his experiences in school, a topic little discussed, and certainly never discussed from his point of view.

Consider those terrible violent computer games that we hear so much about. I don’t get the appeal of them personally, but it’s not hard to imagine that a person who feels utterly powerless — whose daily existence is one of contrived competition, pointless regimentation, and intolerable authoritarian prying into his emotional and personal life, without a shred of understanding — might find some solace in the possession, actual or virtual, of a BFG?

One recent report suggests that poor Adam — and anybody who doesn’t feel sorry for this kid has a heart of stone, as far as I’m concerned — might have been upset about his mom’s plans to have him committed. Who knows whether this is true or not, but if so, it must have sounded to him like Back To School: credentialed experts, who don’t have a clue what’s going on in your head and couldn’t care less, determined to make you a better person, able to hold down a job, or drive you even crazier trying.

That Michigan massacre, in 1927 — the one that still holds the record — occurred at the dawn of the modern era in schooling. Bath Township, in accordance with the latest pedagogical theories, had recently shut down its one-room schoolhouses, scattered around the countryside, and built a shiny new consolidated school, with the inmates now separated by grade and bussed in from hither and yon. It was a more expensive project and taxes had to be raised into order to fund it. The bomber, one Andrew Kehoe, was described as a thrifty man, and in one of those ironies you couldn’t make up, was elected treasurer of the new consolidated school board, though he seems to have thought the whole project extravagant and ill-conceived.

But then, he does not appear to have Played Well With Others, in general, according to contemporary accounts. Bit of a loner. Argumentative. Money problems. On the way down, in a society where — at least for the next two years — everybody else was on the way up.

Apple: supporting the war effort

It’s always wonderful when somebody you loathe behaves even worse than you would have expected. Thanks to a facebook ‘friend’ who is also actually a friend, without the quotes, I read with immense pleasure that:

Apple Inc., which has received over $9 million in Pentagon contracts in recent years, has rejected from its App Store, and therefore from all iPhones, a simple informative application.

Drones+ is an application that shows no depictions of the carnage of war and reveals no secret information.  It simply adds a location to a map every time a drone strike is reported in the media and added to a database maintained by the U.K.’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Apple has rejected the app as “objectionable and crude.” 

I apologize for the extremely poor Gimp skillz exhibited in the image above. After an hour of increasingly frantic swearing and expostulation, which drove my wife and children from the room, I decided that I would never understand how to overlay a transparent layer on another.

PS, December 9: I finally figured it out. Still a little clunky, but better than the original. I wish I could tell you how I did it, five minutes ago, but now I can’t reproduce it.