Always She Will Be Present in My Memory and I Shall Never Cease to Bewail Her

I just do not know what to do about Marie Antoinette.

Yes, I realize that there isn’t, strictly speaking, anything to be done about her at this point – our decision-tree was pruned dramatically when she was guillotined.

But she is one of the most polarizing figures in European history, and she was killed during one of its most morally complicated upheavals; it feels incumbent on even the most casual consumer of history to have an opinion about her.

Still, making a close read of Marie Antoinette’s life wouldn’t have felt like an urgent priority except that one of my favorite writers, Stefan Zweig, wrote a biography of her, Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman.  Despite the title, it’s an essentially sympathetic biography (and let’s not forget that, on the spectrum of things said about Marie Antoinette over the years, ‘average’ is positively kindly) and based largely on her own letters.

It’s always interesting watching a biographer try and force their uncooperative subject into their narrative mold.  I had a similar experience a few years ago reading Antonia Fraser’s biography of Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, which was a long and heroic attempt to make a real dimwit seem like a sophisticated, evolved, and politically subtle monarch (interesting side note: Antonia Fraser, patron saint of lost causes, also wrote a biography of Marie Antoinette).

Likewise, even Zweig’s best efforts can’t hide the fact that Marie Antoinette was a bizarrely spoiled young woman who, for most of her life, spent her limited mental energies entirely on the superficial and, particularly, on herself.  Despite receiving a great deal of very sound, very clear advice from a number of qualified people (not least her mother, the forbidding and formidable Maria Teresa of Austria), she persisted in acting in an extravagantly self-destructive way.

But I don’t always listen to my mother, either, and if Marie Antoinette was sometimes a self-involved mental midget, she was also complicated.  She loved her children, and seems to have had abiding and deep friendships.  At the end of her life, she displayed great bravery and great composure.

She also, at least according to Zweig, had one great and lasting love, Axel Comte de Fersen (and really, who could resist a man with such a name!).  The two of them, the Queen and the Swedish nobleman, loved each other for many years; Fersen even orchestrated the royal family’s attempted escape from the Tuileries.  Fersen never married, writing to his sister, “I cannot belong to the one woman to whom I should like to belong and who loves me, so I will not belong to anyone.”

He was devastated by her execution in 1793, and never really recovered, though he lived for nearly two more decades:

“She for whom I lived, since I have never ceased to love her…she for whom I would have sacrificed everything…she whom I loved so dearly, and for whom I would have given my life a thousand times – is no more.  God, why have you crushed me thus…I do not know how I go on living, I do not know how to support my suffering, which is intense and which nothing can ever efface.  Always she will be present in my memory and I shall never cease to bewail her…The sole object of my interest has ceased to exist; she alone meant everything to me…I care to speak of nothing but her, to recall the happy moments of my life.  Alas, nothing is left of them but memories which, however, I shall preserve so long as my life lasts.”

He died in 1810, beaten to death by an angry mob that believed he had murdered the heir to the throne of Sweden.

The whole story sounds incredible, I know, but, at least in Zweig’s hands, it’s also moving.  I wasn’t prepared to find so many sympathetic coordinates in Marie Antoinette.  Zweig didn’t talk me all the way around to liking her – the image of her and her bullshit peasant hut in Petite Trianon is hard to shake, and impossible to like.

But most of us are some part bullshit, and some part real; maybe Marie Antoinette was, too.  And I’m disconcerted to feel that I dismissed with prejudice someone on whom I should have spent more careful attention; she was a ditz, and so, like a ditz, I ignored her.  More fool I, it appears – if Zweig hasn’t convinced me that Marie Antoinette was “average”, he has at least convinced me I was wrong.

Image, which is a portrait of Marie Antoinette by Martin van Meytens, is from Wikipedia.

There But For the Grace of God Go I

Brian Williams is having a bad week.

Why? Because he has been going around telling a story that isn’t true, and when he was confronted, he made an apology that also wasn’t true.

The problem seems to be that, while Brian Williams has been claiming that in Iraq in 2003 he was in a helicopter that was shot down by an RPG, he was not.  In his apology, he said that it was the helicopter in front of him that was shot down and that he had since conflated the two in his mind; however, that also appears to be untrue – it appears his helicopter was nowhere near the helicopter that was shot down.

And now, pending an investigation by NBC, he has self-suspended his anchor duties for “a few days” while the media and Internet roil with outrage.

We’re never going to get tired of this, are we, this pretending that I am holier than thou?  It’s never going to get old, watching people tear each other down for things most, if not all, of us do.  Mark my words: when the last two men left on the planet face each other, one will burn the other for something they both did the day before.

Show me a man who has never lied, and I’ll show you a man who’s lying to you right now.  Whether Brian Williams lied or strategically misremembered really doesn’t matter – either way, he succumbed to an impulse so normal and human it wouldn’t bear mentioning except that he’s being pilloried for it.

It is so tempting to make the story bigger, scarier, to become the center of it, to seem braver, better, more important.  People’s reactions are so rewarding, their awe, their interest.  Stories grow under the light of admiring attention, sometimes without the tellers even seeming to realize it.

Williams hasn’t undermined our trust in him in some extraordinary way; on the contrary, what he’s done is completely ordinary.  It’s totally unremarkable, and, unless it turns out that he has been fabricating news stories (and not merely embellishing anecdotes), totally unimportant.

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone – well, OK, I, at least, definitely won’t be throwing any then.  I’m the king of hyperbole: I exaggerate my stories all the time.  It makes them better stories, and it makes them more fun to tell.  When I write, or when I discuss a scientific result at work, I try to be scrupulous about what is true and real and what isn’t, but when I’m describing the events of last Thanksgiving dinner, I stretch and elaborate like it’s my job.

I know the difference between the two circumstances, and I’ll bet Brian Williams does, too.  I keep reading that, because he was a news anchor, he should be held to a higher standard – a higher standard, or a perfect standard?

Is it reasonable to expect that our news anchors never succumb to the desire to be the hero of a story?  Are they not allowed to slip up, even on one anecdote, even if, in doing so, they don’t harm anyone at all?  Perfection is more than human, and as long as we keep requiring other humans to be more than human, we are going to be disappointed.  And when we deny other men the pardons we expect for our own foibles, we are merely assholes.

Brian Williams looks vain and foolish – that is the appropriate punishment for the social exaggerator.  He should absolutely not lose his job.  That is absurd.

So I ask, as one inveterate exaggerator on behalf of another, let’s let this one go.  Let’s give Brian Williams a pass.

Image taken from nbcnews.org

A Brief Note in Defense of Georges Cuvier

Jean-Léopold-Nicholas-Frédéric Cuvier, known for reasons that are unclear to me (it is not as though he lacked for names) as Georges, is one of my intellectual heroes.  A French paleontologist when being French was trendy, but before being a paleontologist was, Cuvier is considered the foundational thinker of vertebrate paleontology.

He is also the person responsible for clearly formulating, and perhaps proving, the idea of catastrophic extinction.  Before Cuvier, the idea that animal species went extinct, that they simply ceased to exist, was considered something of a crackpot theory, more the province of poets than of scientists (Lucretius, for example, wrote about something very much like it in ‘On the Nature of Things’, in 50 B.C.).  Even Darwin, who understood that species must die, did not believe that that they went extinct all at once, in single events.

Cuvier saw that they might.  Cuvier saw an astonishing number of things: he discovered a number of species, made a number of correct family and order distinctions, and he saw it all from bones.  He had a remarkable ability to divine what once was from the little that remained.

Cuvier is not so well remembered as Darwin, and when he is remembered, it is usually remarked that he did not believe in evolution; in fact, he derided and punished his colleagues who did.

That is unfortunate and unattractive.  It is one thing to be wrong; it is quite another to be wrong and gloat about it.  More than that, we tend to hold it against intellectuals who did not then immediately see the good sense in evolutionary theory, in much the same way that we conclude that people who now persist in denying it are philistines and morons.

But there was, then, a great deal less accumulated evidence in support of evolution, and I would like to offer one small word in defense of Cuvier: in France, when he was living, the new theory of evolution of the species was called transformisme.

Transformisme is a fairly silly-sounding word, and not merely because it is French.  Evolution sounds like a process with impressive scope; natural selection is a machine whose gears might, over eons, grind out the diversity of life on earth.

Transformisme is a smaller word – it sounds like a journey of self-discovery, like something the ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ woman might have tattooed on her lower back.  When one confronts the expanse of geologic time, and examines the bones of the monsters that populated it, and grasps for a word to grapple with them, one finds transformisme insufficient.

(Interesting datum: Spouse, who is a scientist, when asked his opinion of the word transformisme, immediately sang, “More than meets the eye…”)

I’m kidding and I’m not: Cuvier had a penetrating analytic mind, and I don’t mean to imply that his scientific ideas were informed solely by how important-sounding the words for those ideas were.  There is no denying it: though his batting average was high, he completely whiffed it with evolution.  But there is a reason that scientists give their own projects weighty names: they signal to other people our seriousness, and the seriousness of our work.  Cuvier, who coined the names ‘mammoth’ and ‘mastodon’ and ‘pterodactyl’, understood that, and Darwin certainly did.  Scientists think very hard about what they call their discoveries – they understand that there is an element of marketing in the act of naming.  And transformisme is a right idea that starts off on the wrong foot.

Image taken from Wikipedia.

Please Pope Sylvester, May I Have Another?

There is a theory, advanced by a German historian named Heribert Illig, called the Phantom Time Hypothesis, which postulates that the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, Pope Sylvester II, and, maybe, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII, conspired to manufacture a new dating system that would place their reigns around the (admittedly sexy) year 1000 A.D.  In order to accomplish this, the theory states, they fabricated a few years, specifically all of the years between 613 A.D. and 911 A.D.

That is a lot of years.  In fact, it is 297 years, and it encompassed, among many other things, the lives of Charlemagne, the Venerable Bede, and the Prophet Muhammad, the Viking landing in Greenland, and Charles Martel and the battle of Tours.

The evidence marshalled for the Phantom Time Hypothesis is…weak.  Proponents of the Hypothesis say that there is “a scarcity of archaeological evidence” from the years 614 A.D. to 910 A.D. (there is also a scarcity of archaeological evidence for the specific years between, oh, I don’t know, 50,120 B.C. and 49,823 B.C., for that matter, but no one is disputing their existence).  They also point to discrepancies between the Julian and Gregorian calendars: the Julian calendar’s slight discrepancy against the tropical calendar should have introduced an extra day per century; however, when the Julian and Gregorian calendars were synced in 1582 A.D., there were only ten extra days, instead of thirteen.

However, the question with any temporal sync is, “synced from when?”  At the reconciliation of the Julian and Gregorian calendars, they started the clock at the first Council of Nicaea, in 325 A.D., and not the year 0 – that explains those missing three days.

Nevertheless, I am delighted with the Phantom Time Hypothesis.  The years between 613 A.D. and 911 A.D. maybe didn’t exist – that is wonderful news.

First of all, on a personal and petty note, my spouse has always claimed to be a descendant of Charlemagne.  I have always found this claim dubious, and am delighted that Spouse will no longer be able to lord it over me.

(Although, on a sad note, with the loss of the Carolingian dynasty, we will also lose perhaps my favorite-named monarch, Pepin the Short.)

But the implications of the Phantom Time Hypothesis are so much grander than the theater of my matrimonial feud will allow.  To meddle with the past, that has been the province of the gods only.  And yet this is a power I would like for myself: the power to create or erase time.  And now I find that it is the province not only of the divine, but of man!  At least, of Pope Sylvester.

History is not, to my way of thinking, well-apportioned.  There are times I would reassign.  For example, I have never been partial to the ancient Greeks; I would prefer to give some of their time to the Romans, of whom I am very fond.  I would happily trade several decades of boring Athenian democratic experiment for, say, another bizarre Roman emperor, or maybe just more time spent in 44 B.C.

Or how about the Antebellum United States – I think we can all agree that was suboptimal.  I would donate the years which belong to the Antebellum States to someone more deserving, or more interesting: perhaps to the pre-Columbian South American civilizations.

A plastic history is so much more optimistic than a static one, and, besides, perhaps we ourselves are on the edge of another leap forward in Phantom Time.  We may all wake up tomorrow and discover that we’ve been gifted several hundred free years.  In a Phantom Time universe, everything is negotiable: what happened yesterday, what happened today, and what may happen tomorrow.  Nothing is set in stone; nothing is done which may not be undone, or, indeed, which, in fact, may not have been done at all.  We can always improve ourselves, and in Phantom Time, we may find we already have.

Should I Forgive H.L. Mencken?

When I endeavor to admire men of the past, I often find myself thwarted by limitations in their thinking which are symptomatic more of their age than of their incapability.

There are technologies in thought just as in other areas of human accomplishment, and they are purchased in the same way as revolutions in medicine, communications, or military technologies: by the slow accumulation of discoveries on the part of many individuals, few of whom were working towards the same ends.  There are giants, but they are very rare, and they stand on the shoulders of many smaller men.  Secularism, equal moral standing for other races and religions, democracy, woman’s suffrage: perhaps it is as unreasonable to expect people to have anticipated these revolutions as it would be to have expected them to sit down and build an atom bomb from scratch.

Abraham Lincoln, during the 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, said:

“I will say then that I am not, nor have ever been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people.”

George Orwell, a man whose mind I admire perhaps more than any other, in 1934 wrote (to a woman!), “I had lunch yesterday with Dr. Ede.  He is a bit of a feminist and thinks that if a woman was brought up exactly like a man she would be able to throw a stone, construct a syllogism, keep a secret etc.” (George Orwell: An Age Like This 1920-1940: The Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters, p. 136)

These men were clear, brave, and forward thinkers; it is probably unreasonable to expect them to have been perfect.  But it is always disappointing when men who saw so much fail to see things which seem to obvious, and so important, to us now.

I have always enjoyed H.L. Mencken, and admired him in the same way, but to a lesser degree, that I admire Orwell: as a man who was little susceptible to the pressures of conventional thinking and who told the truth as he saw it, clearly and well.  However, as anyone who has read much of his work knows, he was prone to assertions like this one:

“They [Jews] strike other people as predominantly unpleasant, and everywhere on earth they seem to be disliked.  This dislike, despite their own belief to the contrary, has nothing to do with their religion: it is founded, rather, on their bad manners, their curious lack of tact.” (Treatise on the Gods, p. 286)

I believe that Mencken was smarter than that, and, if he wasn’t, he should have been.  If Mencken had believed, from the faith in which he was raised and which he had never examined, that Jews were going to hell, one might then plead that, though he was wrong, he was a victim of his context.  But he didn’t; he derived his own pseudo-empirical anti-semitism, and I don’t feel that I can see past that.  It doesn’t diminish his writerly skill, but it absolutely mitigates against my admiration for him as a thinker.

I don’t believe that, in this case, saying, “Yeah, well, when he was writing, anti-semitism was prevalent” solves this problem – what I admired about Mencken was his ability to see through the prejudices of lesser minds.  I see this not as a failure of his time, but a failure in his calling.  And I hold it against him.

Image of Mencken taken from Wikipedia.

Death By a Thousand Screens

Digression on ’15 Million Merits’, in Season 1 of ‘Black Mirror

In the first season of the show ‘Black Mirror’, in the second episode, titled ‘15 Million Merits’, the episode’s main character, Bing, faced with a panel of judges on a ‘Britain’s Got Talent’-esque reality show, comes out with a speech, of which this is an excerpt:

“Show us something real and free and beautiful – you couldn’t.  It’d break us.  We’re too numb for it.  Our minds would choke.  There’s only so much wonder we can bear – that’s why when you find any wonder whatsoever, you dole it out in meagre portions, and only then ‘til it’s augmented and packaged and pumped through ten thousand pre-assigned filters, ‘til it’s nothing more than a meaningless series of lights, while we ride day-in, day-out – going where?  Powering what?  All tiny cells in tiny screens and bigger cells in bigger screens and fuck you.  Fuck you – that’s what it boils down to is: fuck you.”

Well, actually, pardon me, but fuck you.

I really like ‘Black Mirror’; I think it’s clever, well-made, and well-acted.  And while I don’t mind being preached to about my T.V. consumption, I don’t like the author of that sermon being the T.V. itself.

If you believe that we are all becoming slaves to our T.V. habits, then perhaps you shouldn’t go into television production.  And while I am consuming your product, please don’t lecture me on what a pathological sucker I am for enjoying it.  This is like Pablo Escobar handing you an eightball and saying, “You know, this is really bad for you.”

One possibility is that the maker of ‘Black Mirror’, Charlie Brooker, believes that his show is qualitatively finer stuff than the rest of the dreck that occupies our tiny and big screens, and we, his audience, are meant to be pleased that we are, likewise, cleverer than the bovine masses.  We should be flattered by our own good taste and impressed with our shared acuity.  However, I doubt that the great demarcation between the enlightened and hoi polloi is who is binge-watching ‘Black Mirror’ on Netflix and who isn’t, and I dislike media which attempts to assuage my critical judgement by trying to convince me that I am more sophisticated than I am.

The other possibility is that Charlie Brooker wants to be able to shame us for our screen time while at the same time benefitting from it.  That he has observed, along with everyone else on the planet, that television makes zombies of us, and he wants to preach about that while not losing viewers, and that he is in some measure, a hypocrite.

Presumably, whatever caution he intended to inspire against technology is meant to exempt his own show.  I doubt very much that I was meant to listen to that righteous little speech, smack my forehead in epiphany, turn off my computer, and stop watching ‘Black Mirror’.

And I didn’t; as I said, I like ‘Black Mirror’.  More than that, despite the fact that, in the mouth of a T.V. character, Bing’s speech is smug and pedantic and offensive, it has the insuperable defense of being also right.  And entertaining.  And maybe the message is more important than the medium.  And perhaps the screens are only as evil as the content on them is vapid.

And ‘Black Mirror’ may be self-satisfied, but it isn’t stupid.

Black Mirror is also available on Netflix.

Friday Night Tykes

The other day, as I was enjoying a marathon of American Ninja Warrior on the Esquire Network, this ad came on, for the first season of a show called ‘Friday Night Tykes’.

A brief stroll around the internet reveals that I am one of perhaps four Americans who has not already heard of, and been outraged by, ‘Friday Night Tykes’, which follows the football aspirations and coaching of a league of eight and nine year olds in Texas.

If ‘Friday Night Tykes’ is a documentary, an unembellished chronicle of the treatment of children, then it is ghastly and deserves all the censure and outrage which it seems to have generated.  The Season One Replay linked above is appalling.  At one point, an adult tells a child, “I want you to put it in the helmet, you understand?”  When the child affirms, he continues, “I don’t care if you don’t get up”.  Another adult explains to the camera, “When they put that helmet on, it’s time to go to battle.”  At least two children appeared to be injured in the replay alone.

However, I hope that ‘Friday Night Tykes’ is exaggerated in the way of so much reality television.  The clip mentioned above, “I don’t care if you don’t get up”, is edited heavily and cuts off abruptly.  At one point, someone shouts, “You have to earn your playtime!”, which is such a caricaturishly evil thing to shout at children that I struggle to take it seriously.  And, at this point, anyone who takes reality T.V. without a healthy dose of salt is a cretin: not only is it butchered more than edited, but people don’t behave normally in front of cameras.  They know people want stories, and so they give them characters.

I am not in a moral panic about football injuries.  It is obviously a dangerous sport; the evidence is undeniable at this point that many, if not most, professional first string football players retire with crippling injuries, many neurological.  However, I believe that our bodies and our lives are our own to use or damage as we see fit and for whatever recompense we find sufficient.  I object to the information necessary to make those decisions being withheld from players and their families, but, if informed, I think it is perfectly reasonable for someone to choose a few years of high earnings or athletic achievement at the cost of some of their later physical well-being.  And if I would not make the same choice, that is not sufficient reason to deny them the ability to do so.

But those are adult decisions – children cannot make them.  Their parents pose a more complicated problem: they are charged both with protecting their children and with encouraging their development.  What do you do if your child is good at something which may bring them joy, fame, and fortune, or may cripple them?  Or may do both?

Well, certainly, you don’t shout at an eight year old that you don’t care if he gets up or not.  And even if the picture in ‘Friday Night Tykes’ is distorted through the reality T.V. lens, it’s still pretty fucking grotesque.  I called this blog ‘The Gruesome’, but I often wander from that description.  Not this week.  Kids neurologically damaging other kids while adults frenzy in the sidelines is pretty damn sick.

War Must Be, While We Defend Our Books Against a Destroyer Who Would Devour All

I have seen the hill on which I die; I have seen the banner which flies above it.  I have read the words on that banner, the same words which will, I expect, adorn my tombstone, words which have never made anyone better loved but which have become a mantra, words which I have spoken a thousand times in vain: “That’s not in the book”.

The third Hobbit movie, ‘The Battle of The Five Armies’, is also the worst, a particularly ignominious end to an already-bad trilogy.  The special effects are cheesy, the writing is abysmal, the acting is insufficient, and it is years too long.  However, the most urgent problem, one which is the most pronounced in this third installment, is that it isn’t ‘The Hobbit’!

‘The Battle of the Five Armies’ has characters, scenes, battles, sub-plots, creatures, and romances which are not in ‘The Hobbit’, by J.R.R. Tolkien, and for which lack that book suffers not at all.

I suppose it is the old story: absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Peter Jackson probably had something very like absolute creative power over the Hobbit movies, and the movies themselves have paid the price for that.

It must have required a monstrous, overweening arrogance to roll up to ‘The Hobbit’, a small, cinematic jewel of a book, penned by no less an eminence than Tolkien, and to say, “I know what this needs: Legolas, some elf-on-dwarf action, and yet more roles for Benedict Cumberbatch’.  All of these impulses were badly wrong, and it is startling that they should have been the impulses of the man who adhered so slavishly to the master’s text in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies.  Between those movies and these, someone convinced Peter Jackson that he had better creative vision than Tolkien.  He had not.

The Hobbit’ was a tight, sweet little book, which could have made a lovely movie if Jackson had not determined that it be a swollen prelude to the ‘Lord of the Rings’, continuous in tone and character and preposterously identical in length.

But, despite its miserable badness and its total lack of integrity, ‘The Battle of The Five Armies’ made nearly $55 million its opening weekend in the United States alone, reaching a worldwide gross of $100 million in only four days.  I am alone on my hill, obviously, one confused and indignant voice talking to absolutely no one: “But none of that was in the book!”

Image taken from tolkienbooks.net.

The Hobbit‘, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Have You Raped Today? Take Our Simple Survey!

I’ve been hearing a lot lately, not least in the wake of the UVA fraternity gang-rape allegations and the passing of California’s Yes Means Yes law, about a 2002 study by David Lisak and Paul H. Miller, ‘Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists’.

The authors of the study set up distribution tables at major pedestrian thoroughfares at “a mid-sized, urban commuter university”, and told students that they were conducting a study on “childhood experiences and adult functioning”.  Study participants were promised anonymity and allowed to complete the survey in private.

The survey asked a number of questions, including questions about sexual advances made towards children and prior violent conduct.  There were also four questions which, while not mentioning rape by name, if answered in the affirmative, triggered a follow-up interview:

 

  1. Have you ever been in a situation where you tried, but for various reasons did not succeed, in having sexual intercourse with an adult by using or threatening to use physical force (twisting their arm, holding them down, etc.) if they did not cooperate?
  2. Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they no want to [sic], because they were too intoxicated (on alcohol or drugs) to resist your sexual advances (e.g. removing their clothes)?
  3. Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?
  4. Have you ever had oral sex with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?

 

The authors gathered 1882 responses from men ranging in age from 18 to 71.  Of those 1882 men, a whopping 120 (or 6.4%) “met criteria for rape or attempted rape”, which means that they answered ‘Yes’ to at least one of those questions, and confirmed their assent in a follow-up interview.  Of those 120 men, 76 (or 63.3%) admitted to committing multiple rapes.  In total, the 120 admitted rapists, none of whom had been convicted or incarcerated, had committed an average of 4 rapes apiece.

There are many important and disturbing implications of this study, but my overwhelming impression was one of methodological confusion: who on earth answers ‘Yes’ to those questions?

When the authors of the study said that their questions would “never use words such as “rape”, “assault”, “abuse”, or “battery”’, I thought that the questions would be…subtler, craftier.  I’m not sure what I expected, but “Have you ever forced anyone to have sex with you?” is pretty blunt.

Here’s my question: let’s say you were a rapist (not a fun mental exercise, I know, but bear with me…).  You’re walking around, minding your own rapist-business, at school, and some stranger at a table offers you a few bucks to participate in a study about childhood and adulthood and stuff.  The study is apparently anonymous, but there are a couple of questions which bear directly on your rapey-er activities, and you don’t know the people administering it.  Now, do you, as an ambitious, as-yet-uncaught rapist-about-town, answer ‘Yes’ to those questions, to those strangers, and then, in the follow-up interviews, confirm that, yeah, you force people to have sex with you all the time?

Who does that?  Well, 6.4% of men on that college campus is who, but come on!  I suppose it’s a small mercy for the data-gatherers that they are so willing, but it does make one wonder: how many men read those questions and thought, “There is no way I’m going to admit that to a stranger”.  And that ambiguity is important, because it suggests that it is possible, maybe even probable, that Lisak and Miller’s study didn’t gather affirmative responses from all rapists in their sample populations, or even most of them: maybe it only gathered affirmative responses from the stupid ones.

‘King, Look Into Your Heart’

‘Evil’ is a word which, I think, should be applied with care.  I believe that most cruel human actions are the result of ignorance, or cowardice, or illness.  Some, though, are the result of greed, or anger, or selfishness, and those may fairly be called ‘evil’.

The historian Beverly Gage recently published the unredacted version of a famous, evil document.  In 1964, William Sullivan, a deputy of J. Edgar Hoover, then director of the FBI, composed and mailed an anonymous letter to Martin Luther King Jr.

Hoover suspected King of communist sympathies and had been tapping King’s home, office and hotel rooms, and so knew of King’s extramarital affairs.  A tape of one such encounter apparently accompanied the missive.

The letter, which was sent the same year King won the Nobel Peace Prize and which references it, is addressed to KING, explaining that it will not dignify him a ‘Mr.’, ‘Reverend’, or ‘Dr.’ in light of his “abnormal personal behavoir [sic]”.

The letter instructs him, “King, look into your heart.  You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes.”  It calls him “evil, vicious”.  It tells him, “Listen to yourself you filthy, abnormal animal” and threatens him with the exposure of his affairs, warning him that, “You are done.  The American public, the church organizations that have been helping – Protestant [edited for legibility], Catholic and Jews will know you for what you are – an evil, abnormal beast.”

Threatens him, unless, within 34 days, he completes an act unspecified: “King, there is only one thing left for you to do.  You know what it is…there’s only one way out for you.”  King, who apparently didn’t buy the letter for one minute and saw Hoover clearly behind it, thought that the letter was designed to make him kill himself.

This letter is evil along so many axes: the government wire-tapping of political dissidents, the targeting of a non-violent civil rights leader and the attempt to drive him to suicide, the leveraging of a man’s legal sexual appetites against him in the political arena, the patronizing and caricaturish attempt to play on racial loyalty.  This letter is utterly unredeemed by any generous or normal human virtue; there is nothing in this sorry episode that the American government should feel good about.

And this was not so long ago – fifty years.  I was not alive, but my parents were.  We can hardly argue that these are the sins of our remote ancestors, that we are a wholly different nation now.  Dr. Gage, in her great short piece in the New York Times, is absolutely right: when we decide to trust our government, when we try to imagine what baseness we’re capable of today, it is worth remembering what base acts we committed only yesterday.

Image taken from the New York Times article cited above.