It might not go down in history along with Bunker Hill and Fort Sumter, but little Ferguson, Missouri, has become a surprise flashpoint in America’s seemingly endless race conflict.
By now we all know the story — or at least we think we know it. Yet another unarmed black teenager (almost a cliché by now in mainstream media parlance) was gunned down by a white man with a presumption of authority. Did the black teenager deserve to die? Of course not. Was he a victim of white racism, a casualty of America’s unofficial caste system? Well, that’s where the story gets complicated.
Here’s what we know. Michael Brown, a hulking 18-year-old black youth who was two days away from entering a nearby technical college, had been strolling down the middle of the street in broad daylight with his friend Dorian Johnson. Ferguson cop Darren Wilson, a white officer who happened to be cruising by in his patrol car, saw that the guys were blocking traffic and ordered them to move over to the sidewalk. A scuffle broke out at the car door, and the cop sustained some minor facial injuries. “Big Mike” Brown tried to get away, prompting Wilson to step out of his car. Brown turned around; Wilson fired several shots at the youth, who was facing him when the bullets hit. Brown crumpled to the sidewalk, mortally wounded, and his body lay there uncovered for hours while cops and neighbors converged.
The community quickly roused itself to action, Rev. Al Sharpton and the news media arrived on the scene, President Obama denounced the shooting but called for calm, and looting promptly ensued. Ferguson’s white police chief, Tom Jackson, sounding flustered, kept modifying the details of the incident and raised suspicions among skeptics who already wondered why a majority-black town would have only three black cops on its 53-person police force. Captain Ron Johnson, a black state highway patrolman and a former resident of Ferguson, was brought in to help keep the peace. An impressive speaker and commanding authority figure, he worked his magic at first but ultimately watched in despair as the demonstrations spiraled out of control. Tensions escalated after the police chief finally named the officer who shot Brown — and simultaneously released a surveillance video that purportedly showed Brown stealing cigars from a convenience store and shoving a plucky little clerk who tried to stop him.
Here’s what we don’t know.
1. Did Officer Wilson spot the cigars in Mike Brown’s hand and link him to the recent robbery… or was he oblivious to Brown’s crime?
2. Did Brown think he was being stopped because of the robbery and (therefore) in imminent danger of arrest?
3. Did Brown and Wilson exchange angry words at the car door?
4. Did Brown punch Wilson in the face? It’s unlikely that his injuries were self-inflicted, yet in all the media coverage I watched — and I watched plenty — the question never came up. This despite the fact that we knew Wilson had been treated for facial injuries at a local hospital.
5. Did Wilson slam his door against Brown, then try to pull him inside the car, as Dorian Johnson reported, or did Brown reach inside and try to grab Wilson’s gun, as the police insisted?
6. Did Brown run from the car because Wilson fired a shot at him, or was he simply trying to avoid arrest?
7. When Brown swiveled around and moved toward Wilson, was he throwing up his hands to surrender or itching to settle some unfinished business?
8. Did Wilson mistake a gesture of surrender for a gesture of aggression?
9. Finally, did Wilson coldly take aim and shoot to kill, or did he fire at the kid in a haze of stress and adrenaline?
As you can see, Michael Brown’s death is accompanied by a flurry of question marks. Anyone who tries to concoct an unambiguous, ideologically correct script from this sequence of events is just blowing smoke. And there’s been plenty of smoke in the air aside from the tear gas.
While I watched and reacted to the ensuing Battle of Ferguson, the themes that popped into my head were as numerous as the question marks. No doubt these themes reflect my own prejudices (yes, Virginia, a moderate can be prejudiced!), but I’ll let you judge for yourself whether I’m off the mark.
White-on-black killings garner wildly disproportionate media attention. Statistics tell us that blacks are approximately 40 times more likely to kill whites than whites are to kill blacks. Surprised? When young black males shot a white toddler in his stroller, beat an 80-something white veteran to death, and murdered a white female honor student at the University of North Carolina, the killings barely rated a news blip. Contrast that with CNN’s exhaustive coverage of the Michael Brown killing, preceded by solemn funereal music before each segment and equally solemn reflections on race bias in America.
Why the disparity in coverage? No doubt it’s connected to the fact that when blacks are killed by whites, the shooters tend to be white men in positions of authority (or, as in the case of George Zimmerman, mixed-race men in positions of assumed authority). Still, a little more balance in coverage would help us see that black people aren’t the exclusive victims of violence — or even race-based violence — in this country.
Are African American lives less valued than white lives? You’d never know it from the scant media coverage of black-on-white murders in relation to white-on-black killings. But we hear even less about black-on-black murders, an everyday occurrence in our big cities. I suspect that anyone living in poverty, regardless of race, is deemed marginally less important, consciously or not, than people of means. Obviously this is unacceptable. Everyone’s life is sacred, regardless of race or socioeconomic status.
Cops need to use their guns more sparingly. Even a murder suspect is entitled to trial by jury, but too many cops short-circuit the process by acting as spontaneous executioners. They have plenty of non-lethal weapons at their disposal. Unless their lives are in immediate danger, they should avoid using lethal force.
Blacks aren’t the exclusive victims of white cops. Practically nobody heard about the unarmed 20-year-old white parole-breaker in Utah who was shot dead this past week by police because he didn’t hear their command to halt. (He was wearing headphones at the time.) No doubt blacks are targeted for instant execution more frequently than whites, because their neighborhoods are more crime-ridden and therefore more heavily patrolled. But trigger-happy cops who shoot first and ask questions later aren’t averse to bagging white suspects.
American police seem to be morphing into paramilitary commandos. What’s with the camo uniforms and heavy artillery? What’s next, grenade launchers? Tanks rolling down the streets of unruly neighborhoods? It used to be that police kept a community safe from the few predators in its midst. Now it seems that police operate with an adversarial attitude toward their communities — especially black communities. After violence broke out during the otherwise peaceful demonstrations in Ferguson, the authorities rolled in like an army of occupation. Local police aren’t the National Guard, nor should they be.
Granted, police work is dangerous, and these guys have a right to protect themselves against bodily harm. But the display of force needs to be proportional to the perceived threat. An organized protest with a few outbreaks of looting shouldn’t provoke a military-style occupation. Much of the animosity between blacks and police could be defused if the cops actively cultivated better relationships with the communities they’re sworn to protect. If they did, maybe young blacks would stop regarding the law as something alien and oppressive.
Too many blacks reflexively close ranks around their own people, right or wrong. It goes beyond the universal human sympathy for one’s own tribe; it’s more of a defensive refusal to admit, at least in public, that black people can be flawed. When the Ferguson police department released that incriminating video of Michael Brown’s “strong-arm” robbery, nearly every black person interviewed on CNN decried it as character assassination. Yes, the video may or may not have had any bearing on the shooting, the timing was insensitive, and obviously nobody deserves to die for stealing cigars. But the impulse among CNN’s black commentators was to blame the messenger rather than concede that Brown might have been something other than an innocent victim.
No doubt this attitude stems from centuries of being shoved into society’s lowest niche, and it’s understandable up to a point. But more blacks should feel free to speak out against the miscreants who drag their community down. It’s not treason to denounce thugs, crooks and bullies.
The surveillance video was relevant. No, it doesn’t excuse the shooting, but it reveals that Michael Brown felt entitled to break the law and use his physical bulk to intimidate others. If he grabbed and shoved a convenience store clerk who challenged his theft, he was capable of using physical force when confronted by a cop.
Nearly every pernicious stereotype came to life. A big black youth stealing and using physical force, then blocking traffic by walking down the middle of the street. A trigger-happy white cop. A mostly black community using bad news as an excuse to loot local businesses and commit mayhem. Clueless white officials attempting to understand black anger. Black demonstrators screaming about black victimhood. Militarized police tear-gassing, harassing and arresting journalists and peaceful protestors.
Sad commentaries, all of them. I felt immensely relieved when I saw that Dorian Johnson refused to keep the cigars that his friend “Big Mike” handed to him at the convenience store. He reportedly told Brown, “I don’t steal,” and the surveillance video showed him putting the cigars back on the counter before they left. Let’s hear it for the breakers of stereotypes.
Black communities see too many of their kids die violent deaths. That goes without saying. Most killings within the black community are inflicted by other blacks, just as most white murder victims meet their fate at the hands of whites. But the spectre of violent death is a perpetual presence in poor black neighborhoods. No doubt the black underclass becomes sensitized, especially when death comes to their kids at the hands of the reviled police. Among African American families, giving a teenage son “the talk” (i.e., how to avoid getting into hot water with the cops) is a traditional rite of passage.
Officer Wilson could have stopped Brown without killing him. A new eyewitness report asserts that Brown punched Wilson, tried to grab his gun, ran as if to escape, then turned around to taunt him and start rushing at him. This is essentially what Wilson himself reported. If the account is true, Wilson had every right to act with force. But he had to know that Brown was unarmed. He could have crippled Brown with a shot or two to the legs, then knocked him unconscious before clapping him in handcuffs. Instead, he fired four shots into the youth’s right arm, and as Brown continued to charge at him (or stumble toward him), blasted him twice in the head. Maybe Wilson panicked, but a trained police officer needs to keep his poise under pressure.
So was Michael Brown murdered, or was his death the unfortunate result of his own confrontational tendencies? As it often does, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Given the conflicting eyewitness reports, the events are still shrouded in smoke, subjectivity and bias. It’s almost impossible to judge intent on the part of either Brown or Wilson. My own predictably moderate opinion is that Mike Brown deserved to get his comeuppance — but that comeuppance should have taken the form of arrest instead of sudden death, as it should in the vast majority of confrontations with police.
As some commentators have suggested, it might be time for police to wear video cameras on their uniforms. Every confrontation would be recorded so that we’d avoid those maddening “we said, they said” eyewitness discrepancies. Video recordings would also have a restraining influence on both cops and perpetrators, and that can only be a good thing.
Meanwhile, the once-obscure town of Ferguson, Missouri, has taken its place alongside Selma, Birmingham and South Central L.A. as a milestone in the history of American racial strife. More than a week after the killing of Michael Brown, the rage shows no signs of subsiding.
Will the anger and agitation explode into a bloody race war? Will white people be regarded as fair game when they stray into black neighborhoods? Will half a century of civil rights progress sputter out like a flickering torch in the rain? Probably not. But here’s what worries me: if we’re not careful, the Battle of Ferguson could signal a final, irreparable emotional rift between blacks and whites in America. We’d no longer trust one another; we’d shore up our defenses. And that would be a national tragedy. Let’s not let it happen.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
A hundred years ago this month, the Austro-Hungarian Empire began bombarding the capital of its diminutive archenemy, Serbia. The ancient Hapsburg regime, headed by the grandfatherly, impressively side-whiskered Emperor Franz Josef, had been looking for an excuse to pummel Serbia into submission, and the assassination of heir-apparent Franz Ferdinand by an impetuous young Serb was just the ticket. (The late archduke was widely disliked at home, but no matter.) Austria issued Serbia an ultimatum; the Serbs quibbled with a few of the terms, and that was enough to ignite the fireworks.
Austria’s bombardment of Belgrade set off a chain reaction that quickly spread throughout Europe and around the globe. Today we call the resulting conflagration World War I, and it wasn’t pretty even by the ugly standards of big-time warfare. The millions who died over the next four years couldn’t have cared less about Archduke Franz Ferdinand or the petty territorial squabbles of Balkan states, but their leaders apparently did. And so the bodies piled up. That’s the nature of classic warfare: rulers squabble, commoners die.
Fast-forward exactly a century, and it looks as if the world is itching for another cleansing round of mass bloodshed. How else to explain the tireless and infuriating tit-for-tat of hostilities between Israel and Hamas? Or the reckless brinksmanship of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine’s civil war? Or the wanton conquest of eastern Syria and northern Iraq by the eerily named militant Islamist group ISIS? (It’s as if the ancient goddess has returned to spread death and destruction across the Middle East and beyond.)
For now, let’s focus on Israel and its implacable adversaries. Both sides have been going at it with alarming gusto, and of course both sides claim to be victims. Hamas militants have been firing away at Israel mindlessly and persistently, like mosquitoes tormenting a sweaty horse, giving Israel a perfect excuse to fire back. Israel, no longer the plucky underdog of its early decades, has been spilling mostly-innocent Arab blood in the Gaza Strip, an Arab-occupied, Hamas-dominated patch of real estate the size of Philadelphia.
So who’s to blame? The obvious answer, at least from The New Moderate’s perspective, is both sides.
Hamas, like all Islamic terror groups, is guilty of refusing to accept the validity of Israeli statehood. What will it take for these Muslim militants to stop begrudging the Jewish people, dispersed and oppressed for nearly two thousand years, a New Jersey-sized slice of turf occupying roughly half their ancestral homeland, with a little extra desert thrown in for good measure? Where were the Jewish survivors of Nazi depredations supposed to establish a modern state for their people – Antarctica? The Jews earned their right to Israel through a combination of land purchases, grit and perseverance, and they’ve successfully defended it three times against staggering odds. The people we call Palestinians are simply Arabs who lived in an artificial state created from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. After the establishment of Israel in 1948, they were free to stay put or find a new home within a vast Arab dominion that stretches from Morocco to the Iranian border. Israelis have only Israel. This much is certain: if terror groups like Hamas stopped putting Israel in their crosshairs, the bloodshed in the so-called Holy Land would stop tomorrow.
And what about Israel, now widely vilified (especially on the multiculti left) as a world-class imperialist oppressor of indigenous peoples? First of all, Israel must plead guilty to creating a caste system that relegated its resident Arabs to second-class status. Yes, Israel was founded as a Jewish state, and you can’t blame Israel’s Jews for wanting to keep it that way. But Israel can be shockingly, almost gleefully ruthless in lashing back at its enemies; that ruthlessness has been amply displayed during the ongoing blockade and siege of Gaza. You’d think a civilized people who endured centuries of persecution at the hands of ethnic majorities would show a little more sensitivity toward the minorities in their midst – at least toward the civilians who suffer most from Israeli overkill. I’ll never forget the chilling words of an extremist rabbi who declared that “a million Arabs aren’t worth one Jewish fingernail.”
Ah, those irritating extremists – always ready to snatch war from the jaws of peace. For a while, back in the 1990s (which look increasingly like the world’s last relatively happy decade), Israel and the PLO were laying the groundwork for a permanent two-state solution. But then Hamas took the reins in Gaza and used that teeming hellhole as a staging ground for random rocket attacks on Israel. At the same time, arch-nationalist Israeli leaders like Sharon and Netanyahu emboldened Jewish settlers to plant themselves on West Bank real estate that Israeli moderates had set aside for a future Palestinian entity.
Extremists are often entertaining to watch, and they have a happy knack for energizing the push and pull of ideological debates. They’re not entirely without their merits. But once they land in the driver’s seat, watch out: they become the everlasting bane of political life. For whatever reason (stubbornness, obtuseness, or the surefire sex appeal of defiant certainty), extremists simply refuse to examine any issue, even fleetingly, from the other guy’s perspective. Maybe they’re afraid they’ll see too many bewildering shades of gray. Or they’d lose their mojo, or their fringe-element street cred. After all, sensible moderates don’t attract legions of followers in our time; just ask Bob Dole or George Bush the Elder. We’d rather follow a leader who stirs the blood.
Extremists in positions of power have been stirring the blood for centuries, but they faded from view after World War II. Today the ghost of Robespierre must be hooting with joy at the spectacle of politically empowered fanatics spreading their poisons around the planet once again. There’s been nothing like it since the glory days of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.
Putin in Russia. ISIS in modern Mesopotamia. Boko Haram in West Africa. Mugabe in Zimbabwe. The Kim dynasty of North Korea. The Taliban. Al Qaeda. And of course, those ever-dependable feuding cousins in the land of Abraham, Jesus and Armageddon.
You have to wonder how much longer civilization can withstand such willful, widespread madness before something rips and we all go hurtling into another firestorm to rival the First World War. Fanatics love to court war. Tit for tat is their modus operandi, and each gesture escalates the hostilities like one of those precision-choreographed Laurel and Hardy altercations: an insult followed by a kick in the shin, followed by a squashed hat, followed by a pie in the face, followed by a well-aimed missile.
It used to be that leaders squabbled and commoners died; that was governing principle behind World War I a century ago, as it was for most warfare since the time of the pharaohs. With a minimum of persuasion, squabbling monarchs could depend upon the raging hormones of their young men to rouse the lust for battle.
But war today has gone populist. Tribalism is triumphant. Ordinary people, fanaticized by hateful and divisive rhetoric, would gladly murder their neighbors without any encouragement from the top. Arab or Jew, Sunni or Shiite, Russian or Ukrainian, and yes, Republican or Democrat – they answer now to the primal human need for creating a common enemy, and they itch collectively for combat.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
When the Isla Vista massacre story broke last week, I was about to file it under “So what else is new?”: antisocial young white male loses marbles, arms himself with a semiautomatic and goes on a shooting spree in which he blasts multiple individuals he doesn’t know personally. Typical American news event, repeated like old episodes of “Friends” on late-night TV. Except that 1) it’s no laughing matter, 2) we should never let ourselves grow numb to such events simply because they’ve become part of the American cultural landscape, and 3) this particular rampage was especially instructive about the current state of life in our republic.
So why did the late Elliot Rodger enshrine his name in perpetuity with all the other young male maniacs by acting out his homicidal fantasies in public? Opinions sprouted like spring dandelions: it’s all about guns, shouted the anti-gun activists. No, it’s about the breakdown of marriage and morality, lamented the conservative Family Research Council. No, it’s more about our faulty mental health system, noted the well-meaning “therapy cures all” contingent. No, it’s about misogyny and white male privilege, scolded a black female columnist who (somewhat predictably) also teaches both gender studies and “Africana” studies.
I don’t entirely dismiss any of the above explanations for the Isla Vista massacre. The problem is that these explanations more accurately reflect the biases of the explainers than the motives of the murderer.
The guns-gone-wild explanation. Granted, the murderer had bought three handguns, including a Glock semiautomatic pistol, and used them to spray bullets at a sorority and a deli, killing three college students. There’s no doubt that the guns in his possession emboldened him, and that semiautomatic weapons in particular tend to bring out the worst in mentally unstable American gun owners. And yes, we need to ban those deadly ammo clips, which have no place in the homes of American citizens unless they’re planning to join a “well-regulated militia” to defend their country. (Second Amendment diehards can look it up.) But Rodger also stabbed three young men to death in his apartment and used his BMW to ram several unsuspecting pedestrians. This was a mixed-media massacre.
The morality explanation. Sure, the prevailing culture in the U.S. has tended toward decadence and dissolute behavior for decades now — but Western European culture is at least as decrepit as ours, and yet the annual gun-related death statistics there are minuscule. (In the U.S. recently, there were 3.6 gun homicides per 100,000 people; in the U.K. that same year, the figure stood at a barely perceptible 0.o4.)
The mental health explanation. The believers have a point here about our tendency to let American psychos fall through the cracks, but not in the case of Elliot Rodger. Quite the contrary. The lad had been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome (high-functioning autism) and had been undergoing intensive therapy since the age of eight. Anyway — and more to the point — we can’t start locking up every post-adolescent American male with maladjustment issues, and therapy obviously isn’t a cure-all.
The misogyny-and-white-male-privilege explanation. Please, enough with the defamation of white guys (and remember, I’m a former white guy, so I no longer have a stake in this issue). So the murderer felt entitled as a white male to take the lives of women and nonwhites? First of all, Rodger’s parentage was half white and half East Asian, which makes him genetically as white (or nonwhite) as Obama. Second, he murdered four males and two females, so there goes the misogyny angle. Yes, Rodger frequented some anti-feminist websites, but he clearly resented sexually active young men as much as he hated the young women who accommodated them.
Elliot Rodger left behind a rambling 140-page manifesto to recount his frustrations and account for his motives. I haven’t read it; I’d rather not spend that much time locked up inside the mind of a psychopath. But I did the next best thing: I watched his infamous 10-minute “day of retribution” video on YouTube. It was a fascinating experience, something akin to watching a Shakespearean villain stripped of his throne and plotting a bloody revenge — except that we’re talking about a 21st-century suburban kid from Southern California.
Seated inside his BMW, young Rodger preened for the camera and delivered a creepy but surprisingly articulate video soliloquy — a speech full of self-righteous bombast, apocalyptic threats, more than a little self-pity, and an appalling sense of entitlement. And yet his manner was soft and deliberate, as seamless and controlled as an actor reciting his lines onstage.
This was no grotesque, wild-eyed madman like Newtown butcher Adam Lanza or Jared Lee Loughner, the Tucson shooter. There was nothing weird about
his appearance, unlike the carrot-topped James Holmes, who gunned down all those unsuspecting moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado. He punctuated his diatribe with an occasional villainous chuckle, but even his sinister laughter seemed civilized. He was no ruffian.
No, Rodger came across as a dreamy-eyed young gentleman, obviously angry but refined and almost languid in his demeanor. I thought there was something a little too pretty and passive about this “kissless virgin” — especially for a young buck who purportedly lusted after all those young blonde sorority sisters who had eluded him or scorned his advances.
But wait a minute… had he actually been rejected, or had he never even approached a young woman with an awkward request for a night on the town? I heard him say that they “would have” rejected him — important phrasing here. Apparently Elliot Rodger never moved far enough outside his own head to test the waters of post-adolescent social and sexual combat. Was he unready for sex, or latently gay, or just too socially clueless to convert his fantasies to action?
No doubt his Asperger syndrome tripped him up as he struggled to master the intricate unwritten code of interpersonal relations. And it could well be that his effete, petulant personality radiated negative vibes that caused his peers to shut him out. But in the end, all those imagined rejections by comely blondes enabled him to transfer the blame for his nonexistent sex life from himself to the outside world… to the upscale, well-adjusted kids he observed cavorting in public and enjoying the tempting fruits of youth.
Ah, those upscale Southern California kids. Now we’re moving closer to the epicenter of Rodger’s fury. It turns out that his father, Peter Rodger, is a Hollywood director and photographer — surely a ticket to fame, wealth and an enviable social life. But, in fact, the elder Rodger was struggling — roughly a million dollars in debt as the result of a failed documentary he had filmed and produced. (It netted just $38,000 at the box office.) He and Elliot’s mother were divorced, and the son was acutely resentful of his family’s precarious finances.
Over and over, in his video, young Rodger repeated the mantra that he deserved to live the high life… that his good looks should have catapulted him to the glamorous top tier of Southern California society… that as a “beautiful Eurasian,” he should have enjoyed an unfair advantage when it came to attracting those desirable California blondes. Yet those blondes never swooped into his orbit. He’d see them lavishing their attentions not only on rich white frat boys, but on “ugly” (his word) full-blooded Asians and (can you believe it?) even “inferior” (his word again) Mexicans and African Americans. Admire ME, he seemed to be screaming (though he never raised his voice). They wouldn’t listen.
The postmortem portrait of Elliot Rodger reveals a young man so obsessed with looks, money, status, race, glamor and sex that he could almost serve as a funhouse mirror reflection of contemporary American popular culture. Distorted, yes, but a reflection all the same.
He had more material goods than most (how many 22-year-old kids drive a BMW?) — but not nearly enough to please him. He saw himself as a sexual and financial have-not in a society that worships sex and money. He had been transfixed and permanently warped by the gaudy images of celebrity life and conspicuous wealth that bombard us daily in our homes.
Above all, Rodger was a 24-karat narcissist. Here was a young man so thoroughly consumed by that deadly mix of self-love, self-aggrandizement, self-entitlement and self-loathing that he could serve as a textbook example of the disorder in its most lethal form.
Here’s how the Mayo Clinic website defines narcissistic personality disorder:
…a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. Those with narcissistic personality disorder believe that they’re superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism.
Wikipedia adds that narcissists are “excessively preoccupied with personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity, mentally unable to see the destructive damage they are causing to themselves and to others in the process.” You could probably tag most writers, artists, tycoons and politicians with the narcissist label, at least casually. But I think it’s spreading to the general population.
Our culture encourages and feeds narcissism now more than ever: our social media make mini-celebrities of us all. Our Facebook profiles look and read like amateur editions of People magazine. If we’re in therapy, we enjoy the attentions of a paid professional who listens raptly to our life stories. If we still read the news, we can gravitate to online articles that flatter our own political biases — and ignore everything that doesn’t. Even our schools help feed the notion that self-esteem is paramount. It’s all about us.
Of course, self-esteem can be a good thing, as long as it doesn’t cross over into arrogance or trump the needs of others. As with just about everything else in my peculiar view of the world, it’s a matter of moderation. And as I’ve discovered through hard observation and experience, moderation isn’t an especially American trait.
Americans have always been a little too enamored of “the good life,” the notion of winning big, being “king of the hill, top of the heap” (to quote a song made famous by one Francis Albert Sinatra, a working-class kid from Hoboken). In the financially unregulated, decreasingly middle class America of the early 21st century, we’re more conscious than ever of the difference between winners and losers. The difference is more visible — and more insurmountable — than ever. There’s less middle ground to support us if we don’t make it big, and we’re desperate not to be trodden under with the losers, the weak and infirm, the sad sacks, the bearers of substandard genes.
As a poor stepchild of Hollywood, Elliot Rodger probably smarted more than most of us when he glimpsed the difference between the elect and the damned. He felt entitled to live in paradise, but it was tantalizingly, exasperatingly just out of reach. And it drove him mad.
Six innocent young people had to pay for his madness. To Elliot Rodger, they were simply interchangeable symbols of his frustrations. To their parents and friends, they were everything.
Elliot Rodger’s infamous “day of retribution” YouTube video has been taken down, but you can read the full transcript here, courtesy of CNN. If you have the stamina and intestinal fortitude, you can read his complete 140-page manifesto here, brought to you by ABC.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
It came to my attention recently that I’m no longer white.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m still a certifiable Caucasian. My ancient Armenian ancestors hailed from the high plateau below the mountain range that lent its name to the so-called white race. I’m more a child of the Caucasus than your average Dane or Irishman. But it seems that history and politics have exiled me from the realm of whiteness. Let me explain.
After 9/11, I began to notice that “Middle Eastern” had become a separate racial designation on application forms – along with the customary “white,” “black,” “Asian,” “Pacific Islander,” “Native American,” ”Hispanic” and “other.” Apparently I had lived half a century under a grievous misconception: that “Caucasian” was synonymous with “white.”
It was a natural mistake. After all, vintage comedian Danny Thomas was a Middle Easterner like me. With that majestic honker of his, he could have passed for one of my uncles. And most of us still would have regarded him as white.
But the controversy came to a head this past Christmas, when conservative pundit Megyn Kelly had the audacity to proclaim that Jesus was white. In the firestorm that followed, it became manifestly clear that the Son of God was to be regarded as a person of color – along with Omar Sharif, Andre Agassi, Sandy Koufax, Tiny Tim, William Saroyan and everyone else of Middle Eastern origin.
That bit of news sealed it for me: the writing was on the wall, and I had no choice but to bid farewell to whiteness. No matter that the title role in the latest Jesus movie went to a man who looks like a J. Crew model. Jesus was now a former white guy, and by extension, so was I.
I should have known all along. I was always the darkest denizen of my grade-school class, even though I never felt slighted on account of my swarthy complexion. Still, I used to notice that the ideal American kid – especially as portrayed in Walt Disney films of the pre-diversity era – was almost always blue-eyed and freckle-faced. That wasn’t me up there on the screen. Plunk me down in a desert for a week, and I’d be as brown as any Bedouin.
I have to confess that part of me is relieved to be a person of color. After all, white people have been taking it on the chin ever since the Civil Rights era. I’m grateful that I no longer have to shoulder the blame for slavery, Jim Crow, systematic oppression, colonial imperialism, hegemonic dominance and whatever else they’ve been teaching about white people (and especially white Christian heterosexual males) in today’s academic Grievance Studies departments. Living under such opprobrium can weary the soul.
In fact, now that I’m nonwhite, I can start railing against “white privilege” – that most diabolically ingenious of grievances. You see, white people can’t do anything about the fact that they’re white. It’s a designation that will haunt them for life and render them helpless fodder for all manner of race-based accusations. We can wag our fingers at them and they’re not allowed to wag back. In short, we have them trapped.
As a former white guy, I can safely raise the spectre of “white privilege” whenever I’m rejected by a publisher or snubbed by the membership committee of the local country club. I can seethe inwardly whenever I think about white investment bankers making deals with white politicians (as we all should).
But as a former white person and a student of history, I also know that white people aren’t some unified, monolithic juggernaut. Just look at the record: these folks have been fighting one another for centuries. The Hundred Years’ War… the War of the Roses… the War of Jenkins’ Ear… even World War I – these were whites-only conflicts, declared by white alpha males upon other white alpha males, and fought almost entirely by lower-ranking white males who willingly gave their lives to oblige their masters.
It becomes apparent, if you do a little cursory research, that white people are divided into dozens of distinct nationalities – not all of whom have enjoyed special privileges in the past or present. I mean, can I really point to Romanians and Bulgarians as the authors of my systematic oppression? No? How about Serbs, Hungarians, Czechs, Poles, Latvians, Finns and Norwegians? If they’re off the hook, who do I blame?
I suppose I can always aim a self-righteous barb at the WASPs, whose British ancestors were – along with the Spanish conquistadors — North America’s first illegal immigrants. After all, those WASPs swiped a continent from its original inhabitants, introduced slavery to these shores and dominated American life until the Irish, Italians, Jews, Asians and other upstart groups forced them to share the glory. The fact that they also gave us George Washington, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Susan B. Anthony and Elvis Presley is almost irrelevant.
But which WASPs should I blame? The farmers and townspeople of New England? No, they may have been starchy and antagonistic to the notion of pleasure, but they were, on the whole, sturdy and virtuous folk. Do I blame the good Quakers of Pennsylvania or the enterprising Knickerbocker merchants of old New York? No again; they did little or nothing to oppress me and my kind; in fact, they were generally liberal in their attitude toward minorities and newcomers.
Well, then, how about the Southerners who profited from the back-breaking servitude of enslaved Africans? Now I’m ready to pounce. But the problem here is twofold: first, only a tiny fraction of Southerners ever owned slaves. Second (and probably even more important), every last one of those slave-owners is DEAD. Not only dead, but currently crumbling to dust in their graves.
I don’t know about you, but I generally have a hard time blaming crumbling skeletons for ruining my life. And because I don’t endorse the Old Testament concept of collective guilt, you won’t find me castigating today’s white folks for the sins of their great-great-great grandfathers. This former white guy will always judge individuals as individuals. It might be a better world if we all did.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
What do we moderates have to worry about? Plenty. After all, if you’re a moderate, trouble comes at you from both sides. To make matters even more interesting, our sources of trouble keep changing from year to year.
I’ve been updating the Vigilance List each year to reflect our current jitters. Some items may have moved up or down the rankings or dropped off entirely; others are still glaring at us, unimproved and unrelenting. If you’ve read these lists before, you’ll notice a couple of ominous newcomers, too. Even so, I’ve cut the number of items from 19 to 16 — partly by consolidating some of them, and partly from a belief that we already have more than enough to worry about.
Anyway, without further eloquence, let me unveil the latest list of concerns, in numerical order — complete with last year’s ranking for comparison. It’s a personal list, of course, but I hope it’s an instructive one. And bear in mind that these items should be worrisome to you even if you’re not a moderate.
1. Factionalism. (New this year — a merger of the old “Republican Obstructionism” and “Polarization”) I blamed the GOP’s wingnut contingent last year, but we’ll never overcome the reckless brinksmanship, distorted rhetoric and outright lies on both sides unless we can find some common ground and start building on it. Whether we’re talking about politics, taxes, guns, religion, race or any other divisive issue, we have to reverse our deepening factionalism or we’re probably doomed as a republic. Trend: Increasingly disturbing; politically engaged Americans have split into two “amen corners,” each one deaf to any argument that contradicts the received wisdom. Remedy: We need more outspoken moderates in politics and the media — moderates with the power to provoke as well as reconcile our hidebound partisans. And of course, we also need concerned moderate citizens to help stop the madness. Finally, we need to focus on causes everyone can embrace — like driving money out of politics (see #2).
2. Plutocracy. (Last year: #2) Let’s face it: the United States is a nominally democratic republic currently ruled by a small, self-entitled, self-perpetuating elite based in Wall Street and K Street (home to Washington’s lobbyist community). The Supreme Court’s inexcusable Citizens United decision (sorry, money is NOT a form of speech!) gave powerful corporations and plutocrats carte blanche to elect and bribe their favorite politicians. The U.S. Congress today is a sorry farce, a collection of overambitious hacks bought and paid for by big-money interests at both ends of the political spectrum. Trend: Approaching a stranglehold. Remedy: Decisive action in the form of a new Constitutional amendment to drive money out of American politics once and for all. If that fails, concerned Americans need to call for a new Constitutional Convention. (Yes, it’s legal). Think of it as Revolution Lite. Here’s a cause that can unite righteous liberals and conservatives in newfound fellowship.
3. Perpetual recession. (Last year: #1). I’ve finally bumped the Great Recession out of the top spot. Not that our economy has been rebounding with renewed vigor — no, I’ve simply come to accept our current doldrums as the “new normal.” The private sector hasn’t come through with quality jobs for Americans, and the federal government has turned a blind eye to job creation. Meanwhile, corporations are still exporting jobs with impunity and Americans are sinking deeper into debt and dejection. At least the stock market has shown signs of life, but that’s small comfort to the growing underclass. In fact, companies today focus more on beating the next quarterly forecast than on the needs of their own people. At this point we might just be witnessing the American future: prosperity for the few, unending financial woes for everyone else. Trend: In a holding pattern, and all the more alarming the longer it lingers. Remedy: More hiring of Americans by corporations currently sitting atop piles of cash… NOW, not later. Fear not, capitalists: give enough Americans decent jobs, and the money will trickle back up in the form of healthy consumer spending.
4. Racial tension. (Last year: #16) Quite the jump here. Last year’s George Zimmerman trial proved to me that we Americans just can’t stop obsessing about race — even (or especially) in the “postracial” Obama years. Distortions abound on both sides, as always, but I’ve noticed a growing (and almost mandatory) pro-black bias among liberals and in the mainstream media. For every overpublicized Trayvon Martin shooting, a dozen violent black-on-white crimes go unreported (or underreported) by national news outlets. Such one-sided coverage just inflames black resentment and reinforces the dangerously wrongheaded notion that blacks are the perpetual victims of whites in our society. Trend: Almost reached a boiling point in 2013; just simmering now until the next high-profile white-on-black crime. Remedy: It might be that we’ll never eradicate race problems in America until we all mingle our genes through intermarriage. Barring that, any discussion of race in America must be a two-way street from now on. Whites can no longer be expected to simply shut up and take the heat, and blacks need to be more receptive to constructive criticism of ghetto culture.
5. The “screw the other guy” mentality. (New this year) Maybe the Chris Christie bridge fiasco crystallized the problem for me, but I’ve detected a nasty tumor on the American character. (It’s hardly new, but it seems to be spreading.) We’re so obsessed with success, and so terrified of losing, that — for many of us, at least — it’s no longer enough to succeed; others must be crushed. Examples: short-selling investors who love sticking it to the faithful “bag-holders.” Latter-day Scrooges who expect minimum-wage workers to live in poverty. Penny stock peddlers who ride a wave of euphoria every time they swindle a hapless client. And yes, politicians and their staffers, so intoxicated by their own power that they go out of their way to thwart and humiliate less powerful rivals. We’re looking at bullying, plain and simple, and this ugliness has also gone rampant in online culture. Trend: On the upswing, and all the more troubling because it’s looked upon by too many of us as a badge of macho bravado. Remedy: A healthy dose of Judeo-Christian morality or, lacking that, a swift kick in the pants. We probably need more aggressive social and legal measures for punishing bullies and cheats, though we need to draw the line when it comes to sexual harassment charges against 6-year-olds.
6. Potential class warfare. (Last year: #4) The old American class hierarchy with its nearly invisible boundaries is splitting, like some great ice sheet, into upper and lower castes as mid-status jobs trickle away. Downward mobility is already becoming a way of life for most of us, thanks to corporate non-hiring and the mass destruction of middle-class wealth by reckless Wall Street bankers. Trend: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Remedy: The banishing of big-money interests from government (see #2), along with federally-imposed financial reforms that would restore the more equitable society of the mid-to-late 20th century: greater regulation of Wall Street and higher (but not punitive) taxes on the rich, plus elimination of most tax shelters and loopholes. And once again, creation of quality jobs for Americans by the increasingly global corporate establishment.
7. The “Great Demographic Shift.” (Last year: #5) It’s official: people of color now account for more than 50 percent of American births. This shift is more than cosmetic; while many blacks and Latinos are finding their way into the middle class, many more of them simply aren’t. School dropout rates and community social problems will doom a hefty percentage of these new babies to poverty. At the other end of the age spectrum, Americans are living longer than ever and will require decades of Social Security and subsidized medical care. How will a shrinking middle class support all these needy Americans and still provide enough funds to maintain our infrastructure? Trend: Increasing steadily. Remedy: Anything I suggest would sound like eugenics, so I’d simply encourage middle-class and wealthy Americans to procreate more freely. (Hey, it’s fun!) But I’d also recommend higher taxes on the rich (they’re practically at historic lows) and drastic cuts in foreign aid and military spending to open up resources for urgent domestic needs.
8. Militant Islam. (Last year: #15) The much-vaunted “Arab Spring” is literally fighting for survival now as Islamist insurgencies create havoc throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. At least the Islamic world is no longer a monochromatic picture of reactionary dictatorships and religious fanaticism, but the moderate elements have their work cut out for them. Fanatics tend not to give up: they fight to the last man, and eventually they get what they want. Trend: Accelerating as stability in the Middle East continues to crumble. Remedy: Support moderate Muslim movements through non-military means, and hope for a much-needed Muslim Martin Luther to emerge and call for a major overhaul of Islam. While we wait for the Muslim Reformation, we could wage a propaganda war to disabuse radical Muslims of their more primitive beliefs and practices. Meanwhile, we have to guard against creeping sharia law in Western countries.
9. The “disruptive” side of the Internet. (New this year) Not only are Web giants like Amazon driving whole industries to extinction, but compulsive hackers are distributing copyrighted properties, stealing personal information and taking it upon themselves to release government secrets. (What if a hacker had been able to release our D-Day plans back in 1944?) On top of that, we have to deal with the Orwellian Big Brotherism of Internet entities that know far too much about us. That’s not to say we’d be better off without the Internet (What would become of The New Moderate?), but I see an emerging culture of disruption, chaos and intrusiveness that needs to be tamed. Trend: Picking up momentum almost as rapidly as the technology behind it. Remedy: We need to spend more time in the real world: shopping at actual stores, visiting friends and fighting for an honest government that won’t provoke mischief by self-appointed whistleblowers.
10. “Community”-based allegiance. (Last year: #11) It used to be that nearly all Americans identified as Americans, plain and simple. Yes, we came from a multitude of backgrounds, and we honored our ancestors, but our allegiance to the Stars and Stripes trumped everything else. It also used to be that a community was the place where you lived. You made your home in your community and enjoyed the cozy feeling of belonging there. No longer: now we’ve splintered into a motley assemblage of special-identity “communities” based on race, politics, gender, religion and sexual orientation. We identify primarily with our group and its interests, which are generally one-sided, frequently narcissistic and increasingly oblivious to the fact that all of us are Americans. We need to call out this phenomenon for what it is: primitive tribalism masquerading as cutting-edge identity politics. Trend: Steadily rising, what with all the overheated rhetoric about gay marriage, racial profiling and the “War on Women.” Remedy: An invasion from space would bring us together in a hurry, but short of that, we simply need to think more about our common humanity and values. Favor the uniters, not the dividers. Whatever we do, let’s not start thinking of ourselves as members of the “moderate community.” Agreed?
11. Environmental destruction. (Last year: #14) Americans tend to overlook the ongoing destruction of remote rainforests, coral reefs, rivers and wetlands (not to mention the wild creatures that inhabit them) because most of it is taking place far from our back yards. Developing tropical nations like Indonesia and Brazil account for much of the destruction as they convert forest to farmland. East Asian nations like China, Japan and Thailand must be held accountable for the wanton poaching of critically endangered wildlife. And all rapidly developing nations are sending more greenhouse gases into the already overheated atmosphere. Eventually we’ll realize that we’ve ransacked a wondrous planet, but by then it will be too late to do anything about it. (And we’re not equipped to start colonizing distant planets just yet.) Trend: Increasing, with no end in sight. Remedy: We need to work with other governments toward establishing and enforcing international environmental regulations, because the Earth belongs to all of us. Poachers deserve to be shot on sight, and for God’s sake, it’s time for prominent Asian scientists to perform and publish experiments demonstrating the worthlessness of folk medicines derived from endangered creatures.
12. Cultural degeneracy. (Last year: #17) Movies, TV, pop music, video games, high art and everyday behavior have combined to forge a decadent culture that worships all the most loathsome and idiotic ideals. Do I believe in having fun? Absolutely. (This isn’t The New Puritan, after all.) But we also need to restore respect and affection for the nobler virtues, or we’ll crumble, as the Romans did, from internal and external assaults that we’re too weak to withstand. Do I sound like an alarmist? You bet. Trend: Still spreading like a virus, especially as mainstream pop culture increasingly celebrates our nastiest instincts (viz., Miley Cyrus, “epic fail” videos and “The Wolf of Wall Street”). Remedy: Beats me. Sometimes I think Western civilization at its apex was simply too demanding and rarefied for our species to maintain for any length of time. We’re slowly reverting to our simian roots, which may be lamentable but probably suits our natures. Still, if you have standards, don’t surrender them!
13. The federal deficit. (Last year: #8) The crisis may have passed for now, but nobody is doing anything about the underlying problem: the government is spending far more than it’s taking in. (Greece, anybody?) Where will the money come from when we’re already in hock up to our national armpits? Trend: Not going away. Remedy: Here’s a start: slash military spending and foreign aid. Dramatically. (In a fiscal crisis, the needs of Americans must come first.) The government would also be wise to start trimming those plush federal pensions, starting with members of the House and Senate. The IRS needs to busy itself collecting a fair share of taxes from huge corporations. No loopholes. Stop state-sponsored corporate welfare in the form of bailouts and subsidies. And yes, it’s time to end the cushy Bush-era tax cuts for the rich. No compromises.
14. Perpetual war and other foreign entanglements. (Last year: #9) We’re no longer fighting on multiple fronts, and the futile war in godforsaken Afghanistan is finally winding down to its close, but we’re still there. Have we learned our lesson? Can we ever again justify risking American lives in dead-end conflicts? We still haven’t learned that guerrilla fighters never surrender; they have no infrastructure to bomb and no capital to occupy, so we’d have to gun them down to the last man. And when we can’t trust the “legitimate” government we’re fighting for, it’s time to cut the cord. The United States simply can’t control and fine-tune all world events to its specifications. Trend: Easing up, but without any underlying shift in American foreign policy. Remedy: A foreign policy that shuns Neocon interventionism for rational vigilance, with an occasional drone strike to keep our enemies off balance.
15. Illegal immigrants. (Last year: #16) The mass incursion of undocumented Hispanic immigrants through our southern border appears to have slowed to a relative trickle, but the question remains: what happens to the 10-20 million illegals who have already settled here? Given the disparity in birth rates between the native-born and Hispanic immigrant populations, the U.S. could increasingly take on the attributes of a Latin American nation. That means a less-educated populace and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor, with the added element of cultural friction between Anglos and Latinos. (On the plus side, at least we might get into the salubrious habit of taking siestas.) Trend: The number of new illegal immigrants has declined, but their population within the U.S. continues to grow at a rapid clip. Remedy: Make the U.S. less appealing as a destination for illegal immigration. (This is already happening on its own as our economic fortunes decline.) And, as President Obama has proclaimed (though he shouldn’t have done so by fiat), provide a pathway to citizenship for the children of illegals who have behaved blamelessly and who express a desire for higher education.
16. Political correctness. (Last year: #19) The sensitivities of militant special-interest “communities” still tend to stifle our freedom of speech, inadvertently or not. And of course the world of academia, at least in the liberal arts, still falls under the dominion of dedicated multiculti leftists. But given all the other hot issues on our Vigilance List, I’ve had to drop political correctness to the bottom. Trend: Still with us, but hardly worth any loss of sleep at this point. Remedy: Dare to speak freely but without malice.
Feel free to take issue with any of my choices and/or add your own, of course. I’d like to hear from you.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
Barack Obama had to be searching his bruised soul in Johannesburg last week at the memorial service for the late, great Nelson Mandela. Nestled between First Lady Michelle and eyecatching Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the embattled U.S. president must have watched the deification of the South African liberator with a twinge of bittersweet regret.
I wish they’d eulogize ME like that, I can imagine him thinking. While I’m still alive, preferably. Damn, even the WHITE South Africans love Mandela. I mean, come on… I can’t believe Americans are more racist than the Afrikaners. What more do I have to do to prove that I’m not a socialist Muslim black supremacist who was born in Kenya? I’m smart. Well educated. Not bad looking for a middle-aged guy. Keep in shape, shoot hoops, good family man, got Osama bin Laden, helped avert a catastrophic worldwide financial collapse, didn’t try to nationalize the health insurance companies. What do they want from me?
You couldn’t blame Obama if he ruefully compared and contrasted his own career with that of the beloved elder statesman. After all, Mandela had been his idol, his inspiration for launching an ambitious career in American politics. The young community organizer in Chicago envisioned a noble trajectory for himself, and his fellow Democrats reciprocated by grooming him for the presidency before he had even scored a seat in the Senate.
Obama inspired enough voters to win the ultimate prize. From the outset, he promised to be one of those transformational presidents who come along perhaps once every half century. He was ready to become the American Mandela, a conciliatory leader who would soothe our lingering racial resentments and smooth the path to a long-overdue postracial society. He even won the Nobel Peace Prize just for getting himself elected to the highest office in a country with a long history of racial discord. (Mandela had to work a little harder for his prize.)
In fact, the parallels between Obama and Mandela were striking.
Both men were tall, slender, dignified and black, but with hints of racial ambiguity. (Obama’s mother was white; Mandela displayed the tawny-brown skin and “Asiatic” eyes of the original Cape tribes.) Both men stood ramrod-straight but carried themselves with ease and grace. Both could command affection as well as respect, a too-rare trait among political leaders. Their personal charm, beguiling humor and engaging smiles only added to the aura of magnetism that made them glow as if lit from within.
Mandela came from an elite family; Obama attended elite universities. Mandela lost his father when he was a boy; Obama was abandoned by his. Both were equally comfortable in the company of whites and blacks. If either of them harbored any residual bitterness toward whites, they managed to conceal and even transcend it. And finally, with minimal experience in political office and against overwhelming historical odds, both men became the first black president of their respective republics.
Do the similarities end here? Not really. Both Mandela and Obama started out as doctrinaire leftists and wisely moved toward the center as they matured. Neither man promoted policies that would discriminate against whites. And, for better or worse, neither was a hands-on policy wonk in the tradition of Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. After the hard work of winning public confidence and ascending to the presidency, both men largely delegated the nuts and bolts of governing to their trusted advisors. They were all about vision and symbolism.
It worked out beautifully for Mandela: here he was, lionized by legions of adoring whites and blacks in death as in life, revered as one of the great men of the twentieth century, even of all time. Obama? Not so much. His approval rating had recently dropped south of 40 percent, and his popularity was waning even among his formerly ardent supporters.
I still can’t believe how my presidency has imploded, I can imagine Obama musing as he listened to the endless tributes that day in Johannesburg. The Republicans were out to stop me from Day One. Damn birthers, they just couldn’t accept a black man as their president… did everything their little brains could to strip me of legitimacy. How did Madiba do it? How did he win the hearts of the white racists? Really, what did he have that I haven’t got? Was it because he was a nonthreatening, grandfatherly old man, while I was young and virile? Come on, I’m not some angry ghetto dude. I’m not Malcolm X. I’m not even Kanye West. There’s gotta be more to it.
There is. It probably didn’t help that most of us expected Obama to leap tall buildings in a single bound, or that he took office during the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. It also wasn’t his fault that he faced a screeching chorus of haters who would have opposed and undermined him even if he had single-handedly revived the economy like a man with jumper cables.
And yet the fault lies not only with the Obama-deranged Republicans but within himself. I’ve noticed that the president tends to say all the right things in his public addresses, but that his deeds rarely measure up to his words. He promised to close Gitmo, solve the illegal immigrant conundrum, even acknowledge the Turkish genocide against the Armenians after 90-plus years of systematic denial. No deal.
Worse yet, he famously pledged that “if you like your healthcare plan, you can keep your healthcare plan.” What was he thinking? Either the man was seriously misinformed about his own healthcare reform, or he was lying through his teeth. And if he was lying about his most important domestic achievement, we have to wonder what else he’s been hiding from us. Credibility is like a necklace: break it in one place and all the beads go scattering to the four corners of the room.
I think Obama likes the idea of being president more than he likes the actual duties that go with the job. He’s a dynamo on the campaign trail and at public rallies. When he speaks, he can be cool and witty or appropriately impassioned as the situation demands. But he seems to lack the vital leadership gene that converts thought into action and consensus. He has no taste for the visceral give-and-take of politics; he’s not a happy warrior like FDR or a skilled behind-the-scenes arm-twister like LBJ. Obama is essentially a cerebral introvert in an extrovert’s profession.
Here’s where Obama and Mandela part company. By all accounts, the late Madiba loved to mingle with his countrymen — black, white, and all shades in between. He was disarmingly humble and devoid of ego. He’d meet face-to-face with his adversaries and encourage an atmosphere of mutual respect. Reports of his warm and affectionate nature were almost universal — all the more extraordinary coming on the heels of a brutal 27-year incarceration. He entered prison an angry militant and miraculously emerged with a loving heart.
Mandela had been tested like no other national leader in memory, with the possible exception of the polio-ravaged FDR. Obama’s life was cushy by comparison; once he got his head straight in college, the world seemed to roll out the red carpet for him. The obstacles he suddenly faced as president must have shocked him to the core.
I’ve taken more than my fair share of abuse, Obama might have thought as he sat there in Johannesburg. I still don’t get it. Clinton was a compulsive womanizer, and everybody loves him. Bush 43 took a lot of heat, but he deserved it. Heck, even Nixon didn’t have it this bad until midway through Watergate. I could have been another Mandela, and look at my presidency now. Smoking ruins. Man, I could use a break.
So Helle Thorning-Schmidt nudged him and held up her smartphone.
A selfie with Helle and David Cameron? Sure, why not? What’s the worst that could happen?
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life . . . it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
I had just taken my seat in our ninth-grade English class at Roosevelt Junior High School in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Suddenly my friend Bill Schutter burst into the room, agitated and practically breathless. It was the afternoon of November 22, 1963, a day that had started out like any other.
“Kennedy’s been shot!,” Schutter shouted to his stunned classmates. Did we actually hear what we thought we heard?
After half an hour of fitful hope and fear, rumor and speculation (someone said he was shot in the head… no, it wasn’t that serious… why was he driving a car in Texas?), we finally heard our principal, Sherman A. “Spitball” Kelly, announce the grim news over the public address system: Kennedy was dead.
It didn’t seem possible: John F. Kennedy wasn’t the sort of person who could die. He was too young and bold and full of mirth. Death couldn’t catch a man like JFK. Assassinations were a relic of the distant past, anyway. We were living in the Space Age.
But that weekend, as my family and I huddled around our 13″ black-and-white Admiral TV and watched the flag-draped coffin being carried up the Capitol steps so slowly and somberly, it was clear that the impossible had become real: our youthful president lay inside that box. He belonged to history now, like Lincoln and McKinley and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Jacqueline Kennedy, a beautiful stoic in her grief, was a widow, and two young children had been robbed of their doting father. I can still hear the sound of the drumbeats, muffled but unrelenting, as the funeral procession headed toward that grassy hilltop in Arlington National Cemetery.
I have to confess that I didn’t like JFK at first. During his 1960 campaign against Vice President Richard Nixon, he struck me as cocky, shallow, flashy and flippant (although I didn’t use the word “flippant” back then). Finally his Inaugural Address won me over: as the East Coast lay deep in snow, Kennedy’s words scattered magic through the chilly air. Suddenly he seemed eloquent, presidential, even heroic. He had grown almost overnight.
We had no shortage of heroes in those days: Eisenhower was still alive, along with Churchill, de Gaulle, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson and Mickey Mantle. But Kennedy was different; to this day, I can’t remember anyone in public life who seemed so bright, graceful and disarmingly witty, so comfortable in his skin. His press conferences were first-rate entertainment. You could see that the man relished being president, and he glowed as if lit from within by dozens of incandescent bulbs. He was blessed with impish charm as well as statesmanlike gravitas. He was something to behold.
After Kennedy’s death, his widow cultivated the Camelot myth to enshrine his brief, shining presidency in our collective consciousness. It worked for a while, and we venerated his memory. But little by little, as the press lowered its protective shield, we discovered that our martyred president had been a flawed hero — more Gatsby than King Arthur.
Most of us know by now that JFK dallied recklessly with nubile nymphs ranging from receptionists and mafia molls to Marilyn Monroe. He had an almost pathological need to engage in high-risk behavior. He took steroids and amphetamines and lied to cover up his serious health issues. (Kennedy suffered from potentially fatal Addison’s disease, among a dozen other infirmities. Even if he had escaped the bullets that day in Dallas, he probably wouldn’t have survived middle age.) It turned out that his bestselling, Pulitzer-winning Profiles in Courage was ghostwritten for him. Nixon, who had cherished Kennedy’s friendship during their days in the House and Senate, reported being shocked by JFK’s rudeness toward waiters and servants. (And JFK had some choice words for Nixon.) Kennedy seemed to enjoy humiliating friends and associates, even cajoling a favorite White House intern to “service” his old buddy Dave Powers while he watched.
As journalist Richard Reeves put it, “He lived life as a race against boredom.” Maybe Kennedy sensed that his life wouldn’t be a long one. Or maybe it was the drugs.
Like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, JFK was a mesmerizing mixture of warm idealism and sheer illusion. Both men radiated a “romantic readiness” and a “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.” They were boyish and playful and attracted glittering crowds to their orbits. Both were, in a sense, self-made men on a heroic scale: poor-boy Gatsby amassed fabulous wealth and staged spectacular parties on moonlit summer nights; rich-boy JFK miraculously fashioned an image of vibrant health and vitality from a sickly, pain-wracked body. Both were lofty idealists with messy and disreputable connections. Both transgressed moral boundaries, and both were shot dead by bitter young men.
Illusions are powerful: they can outlast mere earthly deeds and foibles. Those of us who remember JFK — who were alive and devastated on that awful day fifty years ago — tend to remember his presidency in Fitzgeraldian terms: as “an unbroken series of successful gestures,” more notable for style than substance. And yet, given his tragically abbreviated term in office, Kennedy left us with some substantial accomplishments: he was tough on communism and made the Soviets blink… laid the groundwork for much-needed domestic reforms… set us on course to reach the moon before the decade was out.
JFK was a moderate in liberal garb, a pragmatic idealist. If he had lived, his judicious instincts might have helped us avoid the disastrous excesses of LBJ’s “Great Society” programs and scale back our even more disastrous involvement in Vietnam. Without a wasteful war in Vietnam, America might never have been torn apart by radicalism and rebellion in the late ’60s — a rift that has endured to this day, much to our national detriment.
“Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy,” the ill-starred Fitzgerald penned in one of his notebooks. John F. Kennedy was just possibly the twentieth century’s greatest tragic hero. Transcending his pain and illness and his own moral flaws, he inspired a nation — and the world — with his swashbuckling style and heady optimism. Even with the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads, the Kennedy years were among the happiest in modern American memory.
Then, still at the top of his game, riding through the sunny streets of Dallas, Kennedy had his head blown open. For those of us who were young and sheltered, that ghastly moment shattered forever our illusion of a benevolent universe, a place where everything worked out for the best. A vibrant life suddenly stopped, and even the Soviets mourned his loss. We’ll never know how our world would have been different if Kennedy had lived, and that might be the greatest tragedy of all.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.