November 01, 2009

A Depraved, Violent and Indifferent Culture

I. Kill That Woman! -- Again, Still, Always

"Kill that woman!," is the order given by Herod to his soldiers, and the last line of Oscar Wilde's play, Salome. I took that line as the title of this essay. After first excerpting the final scene of Wilde's work, I wrote:
You need to understand one very simple foundational point: Women are evil. More than that, women are the ultimate source of all evil in the world.

Almost no one will admit the belief in this form, but this is what most people in the West believe, to one degree or another. Western culture is saturated with this perspective; it directs and finds expression in our films and television, in books, in our relationships, in business -- and in our politics. Whatever one may think of their political convictions (and I myself would never vote for either of them), Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin both represent historic candidacies. It is the belief that women are evil that underlies the blindingly intense hatred directed at them.
The earlier essay sets out my argument.

I'm certain that even some of the readers who seriously considered my argument found my conclusions somewhat exaggerated, perhaps even overheated. I deeply wish I could agree. Tragically and horrifyingly, if I was guilty of any error, it was to gravely understate both the severity of the problem and how widespread it is. If you should have doubts on this score, I ask you to witness the following story. As you will quickly see, "witness" is a word of critical significance:
Police in Richmond, Calif., are conducting wall-to-wall interviews to arrest those responsible for the two hour gang-rape of a 15-year-old girl outside her homecoming dance while onlookers watched, jeered and took pictures with cellphones, the Contra Costa Times reports.

The newspaper says four people have now been taken into custody, including boys 15, 16 and 19 years old. A 21-year-old man has also been arrested.


"As many as seven people assaulted her as she lay on a bench, while others jeered, beat her, robbed her and took photos with their cellphones," the Times reports. "Police say they don't know how many people watched during the course of the attack, but some reports have said as many 20."

One boy, named Rubio, tells the paper that at one point some "dudes" came up to him on the street as the attacks were going on. "They said she was naked, and if you want to get f---ed, go back there," he said.
An excellent article by Shelby Knox and Rachel Simmons lays bare many of the terrifying aspects of this story, as it reveals certain ugly truths concerning our prevailing cultural attitudes. I urge you to read the article in its entirety. Here are some passages that I found of special significance:
It's important to note the outrage at the attackers is a delayed reaction. In reality, it took several days before the national media deemed this hideous event worthy of coverage at all. Four days after the attack, officials at the school where the rape occurred were still trying to put a positive spin on it, claiming the dance was otherwise a "successful event."

Four weeks ago, Kate Harding lit up the Internet condemning the celebrity defense of Roman Polanski's rape of a thirteen year old girl. It's no coincidence that we are once again late to recognize the violent sexual assault of yet another teenage girl.

On Thursday, five days after the rape, the women of The View marveled that California law only mandates reporting of a sexual assault when the victim is under the age of fourteen. The Washington Post's first mention of the assault was on Wednesday, when it speculated that the increase in violence against women on TV left the rape witnesses so desensitized that it didn't occur to them to take any action. And almost all the media coverage of the gang rape has focused on the twenty or so bystanders who watched and even live-tweeted the brutalization of a fellow student.

When the rape was eventually reported by the mainstream media, victim-blaming was first on the agenda.


Even the feminist media that led the outrage over Roman Polanski has neglected to report and investigate this story. ...

What's even more disconcerting to us as girls' advocates is the muted response in the organized feminist community. None of the organizations that sent out press releases and appeared in the national media after Polanski's arrest have noted the connection that we're once again talking about the rape of a young girl. As the public rallies to throw the book at the defendants in this one particular case, no one has mentioned that a rape occurs every two minutes in the United States and 44% of victims are under the age of eighteen.


In a welcome exception to the widespread silence, Rosalind Wiseman argued the assault is an opportunity to talk with all teens about what it means to be an empowered bystander, and the high cost of staying silent in the face of degradation and cruelty.

It's hard not to wonder how the conversation would be different if a 15 year old middle class girl was gang raped by black and Latino men outside a suburban homecoming dance. There is a growing media narrative about Richmond, and the high school where the attack occurred, as poor and notoriously violent. Is this because we want to believe that rape doesn't happen to wealthy girls? Did it take so long for the media to report this assault because the survivor is from a working class community and comes from a school where perhaps we simply expect kids to "act like that?" Is it because we still live in a society that deems the life of a less privileged woman less important?


It's not surprising, then, that the people who are speaking out on behalf of the girl are other girls. Friends of the victim stood up at a community meeting to protest the lack of security, both at the dance and at the school in general, claiming the young woman who was raped had felt unsafe before. Margarita Vargas, who was not at the dance but reported the assault after getting a text about it, placed the blame squarely on the perpetrators."They think it's cool," she said. "They weren't raised to respect girls."

Judging from the muted public reaction to this horrifying assault, we're starting to wonder if any of us were.
So we see that racism and classism are part of the explanation for "the muted public reaction" to what is, by any measure, a profoundly disturbing story, one that demands serious reflection and investigation. As repellent as those elements are, what lies underneath this story and the public reaction are still other elements: an impenetrable desensitization to horrors of this kind, even when they occur directly in front of us, a perspective so distorted that television appears to be more real than events in our own lives, and an all-encompassing passivity where no one will stand up and say, No.

But none of this is new, and we've seen all these mechanisms far too many times to count.

II. Our Children Have Learned Well

Because of the prevailing and deep-seated cultural loathing enthusiastically directed at them, women and girls are the particular victims of both violence and our near-complete lack of concern with the cruelty they must so often endure. Clearly, however, women and girls are not the only victims.

In March 2008, I wrote about a 12-year-old boy who was systematically bullied and subjected to physical violence at the hands of other children: "Bullied, Terrorized and Targeted for Destruction: Our Children Have Learned Well." In connection with the detestation of women, it is worth noting how that element came into play even in Billy Wolfe's tragic case:
In ninth grade, a couple of the same boys started a Facebook page called “Every One That Hates Billy Wolfe.” It featured a photograph of Billy’s face superimposed over a likeness of Peter Pan, and provided this description of its purpose: “There is no reason anyone should like billy he’s a little bitch. And a homosexual that NO ONE LIKES.”
All too often, those whom we would destroy, we first feminize.

In that essay, I urged people to consider the roots of this pervasive violence. I've extracted only the summary points from the earlier article; the full article provides many details and links. Here are the highlights of that earlier argument:
The United States government has bullied, terrorized and not infrequently destroyed a long series of nations and peoples of numerous nationalities for over a century ...

When you add to this list of crimes the genocide of Native Americans and the forcible importation of human slaves and the centuries of barbarism unleashed on them, it can be seen that such crimes stretch back to the beginnings of this nation.

We do not speak of the truth of this history. When we do discuss history, we lie about every aspect of importance. Barack Obama recently denounced and disowned central aspects of the truth of our history. On the points of greatest importance, Jeremiah Wright had spoken truthfully. Obama wants to be president. You cannot be president if you tell or acknowledge the truth, so Obama denied it.

Our children are taught that we equate "manliness" and "strength" with close to complete disregard for other people, with emotional repression and insensitivity to the point of catatonia, and with a willingness to resort to physical violence at the slightest provocation, and even in the complete absence of any provocation at all.


Our government acts in this manner repeatedly. Our political leaders all applaud it, and offer a lengthy series of "justifications" for our unending national cruelty.


[These children] learned that cruelty and violence are not to be condemned, but constitute the coin of the nightmare realm of our culture: cruelty and violence are enacted many times every day in films, on television, in our personal lives, and by our government on a national and international scale. You will be rewarded for cruelty: the crueler you are, the greater the reward.

Our culture teaches children that, if you are perceived as "weak" or "fragile" or "delicate" or "sensitive," and if you are a boy or a man -- well, then, you are probably a queer, a faggot, a freak. Freaks are not fully human, which makes them excellent subjects for laboratory experiments. Endless cruelty can be inflicted on freaks, and your friends -- and many adults -- will honor you for it.


Our children learn all this, and many more lessons of the same kind. Of course, they are often vicious bullies. Our government is a murderous bully on a scale that beggars description; most politicians are bullies; the majority of adults are bullies to varying degrees. Why wouldn't these children be bullies? It's what they've been taught. In the most crucial ways, it's all they've been taught.

These children are the perfect embodiments of the central values of our culture. They have learned well.
In this latest story, the young adults who raped the girl -- and the bystanders who watched and did nothing, or even joined in and cheered the rapists on -- are not aberrations. To believe that is only another means of denial: we refuse to recognize that these are the inevitable results, indeed the embodiments, of our primary values. We refuse to see it, in the manner typical of those who refuse to acknowledge horrors for which they themselves are responsible. But the people who committed these crimes and those who failed to stop them aren't unusual or "special cases": they were doing exactly what many adults, and our government, do all the time, every day of every nightmare year. Children well understand the truth of the old maxim: don't listen to what people say, watch what they do. These young people watched what the culture around them does, and they acted accordingly.

And now -- only after this young girl's life and soul have been damaged in ways that might never leave her -- do people, but only some people, recoil from it. Even now, they recoil only from one particularly extreme manifestation of the much more fundamental problem. The Huffington Post article mentions the Polanski case. I wrote about that here. One of my major points was that our eager condemnation of the extreme case is a mechanism of denial that permits us to avoid confronting the wider, more basic issue. In the Polanski case and again here, that issue is the pervasive cruelty regularly meted out to children by adults, whether it be psychological, physical or both. See the earlier post for the details and many links on that subject. You will find still more articles on the same themes listed in "Meaningful Connections."

This latest tragedy reminds me of the tasering of Andrew Meyer, when Meyer insisted on asking inconvenient questions of John Kerry. I have written about that incident in detail -- in "A Culture of Lies, and a Desperate Need for Action," and especially in "Obey or Die." As I explained, all the details of Meyer's manner of presentation were a superficial distraction, one that almost all commentators gratefully seized on to avoid the very ugly truth that was exposed. That ugly truth began with an indisputable fact that almost no one would acknowledge: Tasers kill people. Andrew Meyer could have been killed -- for asking questions that almost no one else would ask, and when one of those questions in particular was of momentous significance. For the evidence about tasers, see "Obey or Die," and a discussion of more recent taser incidents in "The Normalization of Violence, Torture and Annihilation."

In my discussion of the Meyer incident, I noted that almost all commentators -- including most "progressive" ones (with the honorable exception of Randi Rhodes) -- said that Meyer was "disruptive," and an "ass," and that for one reason or another, he "got what he deserved." That is: he may have deserved to be killed. That was the full truth that no one, except Rhodes (of all the commentators I read and heard), would acknowledge. I identified the overall message this way:
Note the common themes: the authorities are almost always right and they must always be obeyed, even on those supposedly infrequent occasions when they are not. Being rude and disruptive and not "following the rules" is impermissible, and is even criminal -- and it is a crime that deserves swift and harsh punishment. Above all, there is one central, axiomatic, unquestionable virtue that we are all to embody at all times: obedience.

But for reasons I have discussed, in a culture like ours today and at a time of great historic peril such as the present, to "Break the Goddamned Rules" is our only hope. Yet very few people agree with this view; certainly none of the commentators described above does.
I earlier linked to a video of the Meyer incident, but that link doesn't work any longer. Here's one that does. I suggest you view it several times, as difficult as it is. If you keep in mind that Meyer could have been killed, it's almost impossible to watch. As I noted at the time, one of the most horrifying aspects of the Meyer tasering is that a sizable audience watched it occur just feet away -- and with only a few exceptions, no one did anything to stop it.

That is only the beginning of the similarities between the Meyer incident and the recent gang rape of the young girl. As I watched the video of Meyer's tasering again, these details leapt out at me. When security personnel begin to move Meyer to the back of auditorium, some audience members applaud, just as some of the onlookers cheered the ongoing rape in this recent story. Remember what they were applauding: violent sons of bitches, acting under color of law, dragging away a lone young, harmless man for asking a few questions. Many in the audience thought this a cause of celebration.

Moments later, you hear one woman say, horror in her voice, "They have a taser on his chest." A couple of people scream when the tasering begins -- but other than that, no one did a damned thing. Meyer might have been murdered -- and no one did a damned thing. The ungraspable horror is underscored when, throughout all of this, Kerry's lifeless monotone drones on and on and on, as if absolutely nothing is happening of any significance. See the connection: our government, of which Kerry has long been a part, murders hundreds of thousands of innocent people, even over a million in a monstrous genocide, and Kerry and almost everyone else in the government (including the current president) support it. As my earlier essays demonstrate, it is far from the first time our government has acted in this manner, and it very well may do so again. On what grounds do you expect any of them to give a damn when an innocent human being may be murdered directly in front of them?

The Huffington Post article mentions the possibility that the prevalence of violence against women on television has desensitized people to such an extent that they fail to act when similar violence occurs directly before them in real life. I think the problem is worse than that. I've sometimes noted that our systematic denial has moved us so far from reality that what happens on television seems more real to many people than events in their own lives. I now think that isn't quite exact. I would rephrase the point this way, to make it more accurate: unless something happens on television, it isn't fully real. Period, full stop. It isn't that such people are clinically insane, in the sense that all their connections to reality are severed. Clearly, that isn't the case. But there is a sense in which many people connect much more, certainly in emotional terms, to events on television than they do in response to what happens to them, and to the events in which they take part.

At the same time, they think that what they see on television isn't fully "real" either, even when news events are reported. So reality -- and the actual events that happen to actual, breathing (and often dying) human beings -- are banished in large part across the board. Thus, the United States government unleashes a genocide -- and for the most part, people do nothing. The deaths of innocents in Afghanistan and Pakistan increase -- and people do nothing. Here at home, the most basic protections of individual liberty are systematically eroded and even obliterated, under Obama as under Bush -- and people do nothing.

None of it is fully real, none of it matters to a degree that causes people to resist in meaningful ways. Moreover, any signs of decency, of compassion and empathy, of being willing to say, No, and to mean it, any signs of healthy, vital life are ignored or, still worse, sneered at and made the target of mockery. (For much more on that last issue, see the discussion of high school students who peacefully protested the Iraq occupation and were then threatened with severe punishment, including expulsion, in "When Awareness Is a Crime, and Other Lessons from Morton West.")

In the most crucial sense, this is not a culture that deserves to survive. In all those ways that are conducive to fulfillment and joy, those ways that concern the sanctity of life and the possibility of happiness, such a culture is already dead.

For those who genuinely wish to begin to change this, I can only repeat what I said at the conclusion of one of my earlier essays:
But, many people will say, this is monstrous. We must teach these children that such behavior is deeply wrong, and that they must change. To all such people, I reply: Then change yourselves. Change your values, and change the way you think and act. Children will see those changes, and their own behavior will alter accordingly in time.

Change yourselves. Start today. Start right now.