What do we moderates have to worry about? More than ever, unfortunately. The extremists with the loudest voices are currently battling it out to see which of them hijacks the communal bus. Both sides have been grabbing at the steering wheel, and they’ll drive us over the nearest cliff unless we moderates can raise our voices and seize that wheel.
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. This year’s list has grown from 16 items to 19. After all, 2014 was a pretty ominous year, and 2015 is already off to a rough start.
Anyway, if you have the inner fortitude, brace yourself and read our 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 most of these items should be worrisome to you even if you’re not a moderate.
1. Terrorism. (Formerly “Militant Islam,” #14 last year) Yes, militant Islam is still a dire threat to civilization, and I don’t intend to conceal that fact. But it occurred to me this past year that terrorism takes a multitude of forms, and that it’s now a more destructive force than anything else on this list. Terrorists come in all shapes, sizes and colors: we saw that a rogue regime like North Korea could, if given the opportunity, could wreak widespread havoc via the Internet. We saw psychotic lone-wolf terrorists and groups of fanatical terrorists take hostages and slaughter innocent citizens. Terrorists can target prominent individuals who have offended their delicate sensibilities; witness the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. Drug cartels like the ones in Latin America commit mass murder and go unpunished. And of course, the military branch of worldwide Islam is more militant than ever, spreading terror across Syria and northern Iraq, chopping off heads and threatening to establish a new caliphate. Let’s face it: we now live in what future historians will surely call the Age of Terror. Trend: Picking up momentum as I write this. Remedy: Intensive propaganda to stop terrorists from gathering young recruits. Zero tolerance for any terrorist group or individual, no matter how sympathetic their motives may appear to some misguided souls. And probably most potent of all: the outrage generated by the deadly acts of the terrorists themselves, especially when their over-the-top atrocities shock anyone with a shred of human decency. I was hoping that the appalling school massacre in Pakistan would turn the tide of sentiment against terror, even among Islamists. Perhaps it awakened several million souls to the carnage committed in the name of the Prophet, even if tens of millions more still cheer for their team.
2. Racial animosity. (Last year: #4) I used to refer to it as “racial tension,” but key events during the past year have boosted it to a higher and more ominous pitch. The killing of “unarmed black teenager” (almost a cliché by now) Michael Brown unleashed a months-long orgy of racial invective unlike anything I’ve seen since the late 1960s. Mainstream news coverage didn’t help; CNN fueled the flames with its incessant one-sided coverage, and the Internet blazed with even more extremist rhetoric from nutjobs on both sides. Here’s the rub: it was easy to get the impression that young black males are the exclusive victims of white cops, when in fact black cops are more likely than white cops (per capita) to kill black suspects. Surprised? And blacks aren’t the only ones being gunned down. The same week that Michael Brown met his maker, a 20-year-old white youth was fatally shot by a cop in Utah. The difference (aside from the glaring disparity in coverage)? Michael Brown most likely assaulted the officer who shot him; the white kid in Utah was wearing headphones and didn’t hear the policeman’s order to stop. And yet the latter killing was deemed less newsworthy than the former, which generated at least a thousand times more outrage. Yes, more black youths than white youths are shot by police, but more black youths than white youths commit violent crime, and a greater percentage of them resist arrest. The reality, according to statistics, is that whites are about 14 times more likely to be killed by a black person than vice versa. As an embattled moderate, I’m afraid I reached my limit as I had to read about the “genocide” perpetrated against young black males by the white establishment. Please. If you want to hear about a real genocide, talk to an Armenian. Trend: Just simmering now until the next high-profile white-on-black killing (and they’re all high profile, of course). Remedy: Beware of those who cherry-pick events to push their agenda; this is how false narratives are born (see #5). 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 left-leaning black intellectuals need to stop constructing elaborate defenses of their often virulent animosity toward whites. That said, cops need to be trained to engage more constructively with black communities and use lethal force only as a last resort (see #17).
3. Plutocracy. (Last year: #2) I’ve said it before, and unfortunately I’ll have to say it again: 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. Let’s give it a shot.
4. Factionalism. (Last year: #1) Our own deeply divided government is a culprit, of course; I can’t recall a time when we had a more fractious, partisan, obstructionist mentality pervading Congress and even the Supreme Court. But increasingly the discord is being driven by our mass media — and especially the countless “amen corners” on the Internet. Now it’s possible for partisans to read only the cherry-picked news and opinion that reinforces and inflames their own prejudices, and the rabid message board commentary following each piece fuels even more extreme extremism with war-whoops and huzzahs. Of course, the most outrageously distorted opinions generally attract the most “likes.” Trend: Still surging. Too many politically engaged Americans have grown deaf to any argument that contradicts the received wisdom (see #5). 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 #3).
5. Sacred narratives. (New this year.) During the prolonged fallout from the Michael Brown shooting, it dawned on me that the partisans among us — even the nonreligious partisans — cherish their sacred narratives with a fervor bordering on religious fanaticism. These narratives are inviolable and impervious to the intrusion of mere facts. For example, it didn’t matter that Brown most likely assaulted officer Darren Wilson before he was gunned down. No, all that mattered was that an “unarmed black teenager” was killed by a white cop. Narrative intact. Anyone who dares to contradict the narrative is denounced as an infidel or worse. Black activists and their apologists, radical feminists, tea partiers, socialists, dogmatic “trickle-down” capitalists — all of them lean upon their faith-based narratives like the zealots they are. Trend: Emerging as the prevailing means of public discourse, unfortunately. Remedy: Confront the narrative-weavers with simple facts. If that doesn’t work, build your own narrative based on observable truth, and try to spread it around.
6. Political correctness. (Last year: #16) A great leap upward this year. More than ever, it became evident that we now risk losing friends and jobs for daring to state unfashionable beliefs in public. The raw sensitivities of humorless special-interest “communities” are stifling our freedom of speech — even our freedom of thought. (“Gee, all my friends believe X, so I must be evil for believing Y.”) Trend: On the rise as special-interest groups increasingly dominate the conversation. Remedy: Dare to speak freely but without malice. If you can’t afford to speak freely, don’t be intimidated into shedding your private opinions.
7. Potential class warfare. (Last year: #6) Are we turning into a nation of lords and serfs? The old American class system with its nearly invisible boundaries is splitting into more clearly defined upper and lower castes as mid-status jobs continue to trickle away. Downward mobility is already becoming a way of life for most of us, thanks to corporate non-hiring and the various schemes used by “big money” to siphon wealth upward. It used to be, not too long ago, that the typical CEO earned 12 to 20 times as much as the average worker; now the ratio is more like 300 to 1, and nobody is doing anything about it. Trend: Still simmering, with the potential to reach a full boil. Remedy: The banishing of big-money interests from government (see #3), 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.
8. The nonexistent “moderate culture.” (New this year) Think about it: if you lean left, you can read your Daily Kos, watch Jon Stewart, take part in demonstrations for your pet causes, shop at the local co-op, join an artists’ collective and sip California wines in the company of your posh lefty friends. If you lean right, you can watch Fox News, rage against Obama on a dittohead message board, buy the latest tome by Ann Coulter or Bill O’Reilly, move to the suburbs and enjoy the annual Super Bowl party with your Republican friends. Where do moderates go for fun, spiritual uplift and the company of like-minded cronies? Practically nowhere. And yet there are so many of us; it defies belief that we’re social and intellectual outcasts. Not only does it defy belief, but in an increasingly polarized society, it’s now essential for those of us in the middle to turn our barren no-man’s-land into an attractive haven for legions of reasonable folks like us. What would a moderate culture look like? It’s hard to say, but it can’t be any sillier than the cultures of the left and right.Trend: Nothing happening. Other than a few stubbornly moderate websites, the middle appears to be a vast vacuum. Even moderately priced cars (Oldsmobile, Pontiac) and moderately priced stores (Sears, Penney’s) are dead or dying as we speak. Formerly moderate CNN apparently had to start skewing left to keep its ratings from sliding down the chute. Moderate magazines? Forget it. Remedy: As moderates, we need to do more than simply react against the extremes. We know what we’re against, but what are we for? Fairness, common sense, a bias toward objective facts rather than hidebound narratives? Fine. Now let’s build a culture around those principles.
9. The “Great Demographic Shift.” (Last year: #7) It ain’t Ward Cleaver’s America any more. People of color now account for more than 50 percent of U.S. 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 to get by (especially since the business establishment hires virtually nobody over 50). How will a shrinking middle class support all these needy Americans and still provide enough funds to maintain our infrastructure? Trend: An unstoppable train. 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.
10. Environmental destruction. (Last year: #11) I saw an alarming statistic this past year: since 1970, the world has lost one-half of its animal population (nonhuman animals, that is — and insects appear to be doing just fine). Americans tend to overlook the ongoing destruction of remote wildlife habitats 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. Finally, as more Third World nations aspire to middle-class status, they’ll be fighting us for use of the Earth’s limited resources. 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 sensible 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.
11. Perpetual low-grade recession. (Last year: #3). Yes, this one has dropped from #1 to #3 and now all the way down to double digits, and I’ve re-dubbed it a “low-grade” recession. Not that our economy has been rebounding with much vigor. The wealth isn’t spreading, the good jobs aren’t opening up, and I’ve simply come to accept our current doldrums as the “new normal.” Meanwhile, corporations are still exporting jobs with impunity and too many Americans are sinking deeper into debt and dejection. At least the stock market has been chugging forward, but that’s small comfort to the growing underclass who can’t afford stocks — and an untimely blip of bad news could send everything crashing again. 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: Unemployment is down, but quality employment isn’t up. Uncertainty and lowered expectations have robbed the American economy of its vigor. 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.
12. “Community”-based allegiance. (Last year: #10) 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: Not going away. 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.
13. The “disruptive” side of the Internet. (Last year: #9) 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?) Now rogue governments like North Korea are getting into the act, which means that terrorists might not be far behind. 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; the only reason I’ve demoted it is that we have so many more pressing issues on our plate this year. 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. Finally, a word to the wise: back up your data!
14. Cultural degeneracy. (Last year: #17) When did culture become an exercise in pushing the proverbial envelope — and how much farther can they push it? 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. 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!
15. The “screw the other guy” mentality. (Last year: #5) We’re looking at an essentially (though not exclusively) American character flaw, and it ain’t pretty. 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 be content with a life of 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. This is bullying, plain and simple, and the same ugliness has gone rampant in online culture. Trend: Still a pervasive problem, but not worth the “top 5″ billing I gave it last year. 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.
16. Illegal immigrants. (Last year: #15) 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. And we still have no clear-cut policy for dealing with them. Remedy: Make the U.S. less appealing as a destination for illegal immigration. 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.
17. Police brutality. (New this year.) Sure, cops have a dangerous job, and they have to deal with society’s low-lifes on a daily basis. They put their own lives on the line, and in the wake of the much-publicized shootings of 2014, they make tempting targets for deranged cop-haters. Any cop with an inner-city beat is instinctively primed for life-or-death confrontations, and the prevailing “no snitching” culture makes their job even more difficult. But (and it’s a big “but”) they also need to be seen as a positive force in their communities. There are too many trigger-happy cops who use lethal force to stop suspects who simply resist arrest. Too many cops who routinely harass ordinary ghetto-dwellers for “walking while black.” Too many needless clubbings and chokeholds. When there’s a disturbance, they swoop in like an army of occupation. This isn’t the sort of behavior that builds trust. Trend: Ratcheting up due to increased hostility on both sides. Remedy: Police need to engage themselves more deeply with their communities… get to know the locals as individuals if they can… be ever-vigilant but not aggressive… define themselves as protectors rather than hired thugs. If all goes well, the residents of these neighborhoods might open up to their local cops instead of shutting them out, and that would be a good thing for everyone.
18. The federal deficit. (Last year: #13) Yes, it’s always there… but nothing new or alarming popped up in the past year. Still, nobody is doing anything about the underlying problem: the government is spending 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. The government would also be wise to start trimming those plush federal pensions, beginning with members of the House and Senate. The IRS needs to busy itself collecting a fair share of taxes from huge corporations and the super-rich. No loopholes. Stop state-sponsored corporate welfare in the form of bailouts and subsidies. No compromises.
19. Perpetual war and other foreign entanglements. (Last year: #14) Our futile war in godforsaken Afghanistan is finally a closed book. But have we learned our lesson? Can we ever again justify risking American lives in dead-end conflicts? Could an insurgent ISIS draw us into yet another Middle East bloodbath? 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. We don’t want to be isolationist, but 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.
That’s my list for 2015, and it should be more than enough to keep us all knotted up with anxiety for the next year. 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.
Obama has been promising (or threatening, depending on your opinion of him) unilateral action on our illegal immigrant saga. Police and demonstrators are poised ominously along a figurative battle line in Ferguson, Missouri, until the grand jury finally decides whether to indict white police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of black teenager Michael Brown. (I suspect they’re afraid to announce their decision.) ISIS continues to decapitate helpful Westerners while we amass “advisors” in the vicinity. And Putin, that unpleasant and inscrutable mini-Stalin, has still been puttering around the eastern fringes of Ukraine without taking decisive action.
But the shoes have been dropping like thunder in the room occupied by one William Henry Cosby, Jr., a man revered not only for his comic prowess but for his once-unimpeachable air of benevolent moral authority. His accusers have re-emerged from the woodwork, insisting that the beloved paterfamilias drugged, groped, molested, sexually assaulted and/or raped them over a span of decades. The accusations first surfaced nearly fifteen years ago; there were rumblings and at least one out-of-court settlement, yet the accusations didn’t stick. Cosby appeared to be coated with more Teflon than Ronald Reagan.
Fast-forward to the social media era. Cosby’s P.R. team concocted an Internet challenge that invited creative Cosbyphiles to adorn photos of the star with catchy slogans — in the meme-generating manner of the Dos Equis Man or Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka. It would be great publicity, they reasoned.
Never in the history of public relations — at least not since the White Star Line touted the virtues of its “unsinkable” new passenger ship back in 1912 — has a publicity scheme backfired so disastrously. Here came the meme slogans:
It’s Not Rape if You’re Famous
I Don’t Always Eat Jell-O but When I Do It’s Not Consensual. And by Jell-O I Mean Have Sex
14 Allegations of Rape? Zip Zop Zubittybop!
That Feeling You Get from Being America’s Most Beloved Serial Rapist
… and many, many more. You get the picture. Almost immediately the renewed accusations from Cosby’s female acquaintances went viral.
This is serious business. Very serious. Rape allegations are notoriously hard to prove, especially after the passage of time. And of course, wealthy men are easy targets for extortionists and unstable women with faulty memories. But the sheer number of accusations, coupled with the similarity of circumstances from one story to the next — well, let’s say it’s looking as if “America’s Dad” is due for a painful trip to the woodshed.
I always liked Bill Cosby even before he became an institution. I’d catch him occasionally as that amiable paternal authority figure, Dr. Cliff Huxtable, in his 1980s TV megahit, The Cosby Show. I was pleased to see him soaring in his middle age, creating a stable and prosperous black family for the home screen and making it go mainstream.
But it was the early Cosby that dazzled me most memorably, back in the 1960s, with an immortal series of comedy albums. Half a century later, I can still hear the sound of Cosby’s Noah sawing planks for his ark: VOO-pah, VOO-pah. And the adolescent Cosby’s early attempt at shaving with a razor: “ZIP-ZOP — my face is ripped to shreds.” And of course, the first appearance of that inimitable Cosby icon: “Come on out… FAT ALBERT.”
As a former white guy, I also liked Cosby for transcending race in those early routines. Back in the fractious ’60s, he made a positive statement about race by not making statements about race. Yet he was nobody’s Uncle Tom. He never forgot his roots, and neither did we: a trace of the ghetto always lingered in his delectable vocal mannerisms. He wasn’t implausibly impeccable like the saintly Sidney Poitier. He seemed real and vital. And yet, without ever raising the subject of race, he seemed to say that it was possible for blacks and whites to come together over shared experiences and a mirthful enjoyment of stories told with wit, nuance and gusto. I still think he was the most inspired comic storyteller of his time.
Numerous comedy buffs would vehemently disagree, of course. Even before the rape allegations dominated the headlines, the anti-Cosbyites typically accused him of catering to white middle-class sensibilities… of playing it safe and shunning controversy for the sake of mass acceptance. Richard Pryor was their idol: the manic, trash-talking bad boy whose world-view was permeated by the pungent comedy of race. Pryor was Elvis to Cosby’s soothing, cardigan-clad Bing Crosby.
Bill Cosby always worked “clean” — eschewing profanity on principle — and he castigated comics who habitually spewed four-letter words. He also castigated poor inner-city blacks — with the tough love of a disciplinarian father — in a series of controversial lectures to black audiences. Even I thought he went a little overboard in mocking ghetto speech and exotic African American children’s names, but his central message was clear and on target: that poor blacks couldn’t continue to blame all their misfortunes on white folks… that they needed to get focused, apply themselves in school and disown the more insidious elements of black street culture that dragged the community down. He risked his reputation among black Americans to make those statements. It took courage and conviction to say things that blacks (and the white liberals who made up a sizable share of his audience) didn’t want to hear.
I have to suspect that Cosby’s assumption of moral authority led to his undoing, and that’s his tragedy. Society has always reviled its hypocrites. Here he was, lecturing black people on how to live and how not to live — while he was allegedly drugging susceptible women for furtive and even reprehensible amorous adventures. Diehard feminists, black activists and other enemies of patriarchal authority must be having a field day.
Still, we need to ask ourselves an important question: do Cosby’s purported sins invalidate his message? Should we go back to obsessing about institutional racism, white privilege and all the rest of the convenient left-wing academic excuses for the woes of African Americans? Of course not. The messenger may have been flawed, but the message remains as relevant as ever. Look inward. Stop blaming others. Take responsibility. Prevail against the odds.
I just hope that, in the swirl of ugly accusations that will most likely unseat an idol from his lofty perch, the essential message doesn’t end up in the dumpster.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
Boutiquification?, you ask. Is that even a word? Didn’t I mean beautification? Or beatification?
No, I really did mean boutiquification: the gradual conversion of our traditional “big box” nations into smaller, specialized, self-conscious, fundamentally narcissistic, boutique-like sub-states based on personal identity, shared tastes — and more often than not, a communal disdain for everyone outside the in-group. I’m surprised that the trend hasn’t been named until now, so I decided to go ahead and christen it myself.
Boutiquification can lead to a literal redefinition of boundaries, as in the case of the secessionist movements gaining traction in Europe and elsewhere. Scotland was expected to secede from the United Kingdom this past month, and only a last-minute collective case of cold feet kept the 300-year-old Union from dissolving before our eyes.
The map of Europe is littered with provinces and cubbyholes where ethnic and linguistic minorities now itch for independence: the Catalans and Basques, Flemish and Walloons, Frisians, Bretons, Welsh, Cornish, Tyrolians, Corsicans and Sardinians — not to mention the members of various Eastern European tribes who found themselves on the wrong side of the boundaries drawn by the Allied victors after the two World Wars.
Europe would do well to remember the breakup of Yugoslavia after the fall of communism. Slovenia and Macedonia went their separate ways amicably enough, but the Serbs and Croats shed copious amounts of blood over Bosnia, a perennial hot spot with no clear ethnic boundaries. Tribalism can be messy.
Surely the U.S. is immune to provincial breakaway movements… isn’t it? We all speak English, more or less… we’re players in a four-century drama dating back to Jamestown… we’ve melted into the melting pot. You know… E pluribus unum and all that.
Not so fast. A recent Reuters poll put the following question to our countrymen: “Do you support or oppose the idea of your state peacefully withdrawing from the United States of America and the federal government?” Astonishingly, nearly a quarter of the respondents answered in the affirmative — even without the bandwagon effect of desertions by neighboring states. Secession fever was strongest, at 34 percent, in the southwest tier running from Texas to Arizona. (There were no separate figures for Texas, but we can only assume the worst).
Among respondents who claimed allegiance to the Tea Party, which in some respects is a political reincarnation of the old Confederacy, a whopping 53 percent salivated over the prospect of abandoning the national ship. In other words, if only Tea Partiers could vote, we’d be the Nation Formerly Known as the United States.
What goes on here? Is the United States an outmoded concept? Can’t we all just get along? If not, shouldn’t we be allowed to shack up, geographically speaking, with people who think like us, vote like us, look like us, have sex like us? Isn’t that what everyone wants?
First of all, it would be impossible to break up the Union according to political leanings. The so-called blue states encompass vast tracts of red country out there in the hinterlands surrounding the big cities. Likewise, the so-called red states — even Texas — include lonely outposts of certifiable, granola-munching, sandal-shod white liberalism, not to mention significant black and Hispanic populations that reliably lean leftward.
In other words, the U.S. is Bosnia on a gargantuan scale — a vast patchwork of conflicting backgrounds, interests and loyalties through which it would be extremely difficult to run anything as simple and consequential as a boundary. So why are the acrid fumes of secessionism bubbling from below?
Simple: American culture has been boutiquified. Most of us relate more readily to our socio-political interest group than we do to our nation.
Tea Partiers believe in Jesus and guns (no conflict there, of course) and find deep fulfillment in their shared Obama-hatred. White progressives revere their organic groceries, Jon Stewart and NPR; they sniff disdainfully at Bible-believing Christians while displaying a somewhat perplexing soft spot for Islam. African Americans now routinely give their children exotic, vaguely Africanesque names, presumably to distance themselves even further from white America. Gays, while embracing conventional bourgeois institutions like marriage, seem more and more like a nation within a nation. Recently, here in Philadelphia, I scratched my head when the Inquirer featured an article about an upcoming “gay jazz festival.” (Apparently segregation is fine when a systematically oppressed group does the segregating… I had to wonder if the Inquirer would publicize a heterosexual jazz festival.)
The Internet has made it all too easy for boutiquified minds to meet and reinforce their biases in congenial precincts. Dedicated lefties, by restricting their reading to the Daily Kos, Salon and Huffington Post, can get all the news that’s fit to confirm what they already believe — and furthermore, they can revel in the shared snarkiness of their fellow-travelers who snicker at the spelling-impaired placards wielded by anti-immigration conservatives. And conservatives, for their part, can enjoy being whipped up into a frenzy of anti-government paranoia by the half-crazed conspiracy nuts who haunt the online underworld.
So what if we splinter into our own political and cultural boutiques? Aren’t we happier among our own kind… people who think like us and share the same tastes in art, literature and pizza toppings? Well, yes — the way ants and honeybees are happy: the happiness of belonging to a homogeneous little colony with a shared vision and a singleness of purpose. But even the happiest of insects don’t create great nations.
When did we become so tribal… so intolerant of people who don’t subscribe to our own beliefs, lifestyles or taste in cheeses? When did our big-box nation splinter into self-interested, narcissistic boutiques? Do we really want a nation of sub-nations? We’re all Americans on this bus, and we’d better get used to the other passengers or we’re in for a long, uncomfortable ride.
Meanwhile, out there in the deserts of Syria and northern Iraq, a self-styled imam is building the foundation of a future empire that he hopes will stretch across the Old World and reach even to the Americas. Remember the ancient adage “Divide and conquer”? We’ve already divided ourselves, and I’m afraid the united jihadists won’t encounter much resistance from our individual boutiques when they decide to conquer us.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
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.