The Stanford Rape

The “Stanford rape”, in which a freshman named Brock Turner raped an inebriated and unconscious woman, has become a spectacular layer-cake of contemporary American pathologies. It has given all of us – journalists, politicians, academics, bloggers, “activists” – something to contemplate with outrage. This community of outrage has, I think, taken the form of a mob that has reached a moral and political consensus. The outrage itself, however, contains a number of fractures that are worth a closer look, and that are quite revealing about how we punish and how we constitute ourselves as a public in this country. None of it is remotely edifying.

The rape that Turner committed is the least remarkable part of the spectacle. It is, after all, the spectacle of widely endorsed entitlements – that of the white male, that of the economically privileged male, and that of the male athlete – rolled into the behavior of an undergraduate. What Turner did is so commonplace, in its pieces if not in its totality, that it is not just his parents (who have tried to defend him, rather stupidly) who share in the culpability. We can find traces of Turner in every small town where adults show up to watch high-school football games and seventeen-year-old boys are heroes of the community. It indicates, among other things, a refusal to grow up: a permanent infatuation with the combination of testosterone, violence and adolescent irresponsibility, and a worshipful identification with the sites of that combination. This is a model of community premised on the carnivorous camaraderie of young males. Females inhabit it as cheerleaders and meat. When this settler-colonial masculinity – the association of the little school on the prairie – is fortified and extended by corporate sponsorship, university scholarships, over-involved alumni-fans and the bros-and-hos dynamic of the frat party, we get the incitement to sexual conquest that produced Brock Turner.

It is tempting, no doubt, to see Turner’s parents as enablers, if not instigators, and to turn on them for their angry and defensive response to his punishment. But to dogpile on family members attempting to cope with disaster in the full glare of the media and public opprobrium, and to fault them for not being more concerned with the victim of the crime, is quite bizarre. Parents in that situation will defend their children, no matter how unsustainable the defense. Likewise, public introspection can hardly be expected to be their immediate reaction or priority. They may very well have shared some of the assumptions that Brock Turner exhibited when he forced himself on an unconscious woman, but the entitlement to “twenty minutes of action,” even if it is taken literally, is not the obscure disease of a margin of society. We cannot eradicate it without rethinking institutions and a “way of life” in which we are very broadly implicated: campus life, youth culture, team sports, success. Nor can we assume that we, in the community of outrage, are entirely and reliably immune to it.

The sentence imposed on Turner has drawn as much criticism, if not more, than the crime itself. It has been suggested that a non-white or poor defendant would have received more severe punishment, and that Turner – the privileged white boy – got nothing more than a slap on the wrist from a sympathetic white, male judge. That position is indefensible. It is true that a black rapist, or one who was not a successful athlete at an elite university, would probably have received more than the six months in a county jail (three with good behavior) that Turner got. The discrepancy is undeniably appalling, and Turner’s sentence is scandalous. But the scandal is not what it appears to be. Most of those who have broadcast their outrage at the sentence have overlooked the fact that six (or three) months in jail is not the main substance of Turner’s punishment. Those months are, in the main, a gesture of punishment, and a semi-obsolete gesture at that. In a society that fetishizes incarceration, the public reflexively expects to see imprisonment after a conviction. In the process, however, it can overlook the reality that imprisonment in America has been entwined, since the 1990s, not only with the rhetoric of institutional failure (articulated as overcrowding and recidivism) that is as old as the modern prison itself, but also with less theatrical forms of punishment and control. These are not as visually impressive as orange jumpsuits, but they are equally flawed in conception and damaging in execution.

The core of Turner’s punishment, as anyone who has been paying attention must realize, is the requirement that he register as a sex offender, and the felony record itself. Taken together, these ensure that he will remain under intrusive police supervision for the rest of his life. He will not be able to live where he wants, he will have to report to the police every time he moves, and he must stay away from certain (and sometimes not so certain) areas. On some days, like Halloween, he may be required to stay indoors and hang a “Beware of Sex Offender” sign on his door. People concerned for their children’s safety, or moved by curiosity, will be able to look up his name and address online, harangue him on the street, and petition his landlord to throw him out. In most states, he will not be able to vote. Various foreign countries will block him from entering their territories. Most importantly, his ability to pursue a profession will be crippled. Every time he applies for a job, he will have to disclose his crime, simultaneously shaming and disqualifying himself. There is no realistic way for him to get off the registry, or to retire his criminal record. This is hardly the lot of a criminal who has escaped punishment. It is the lot of a seventy-year old pariah who is still paying for a crime he committed when he was hardly twenty. Many, if not most, in Turner’s position would have preferred a prison sentence that actually ended with “time served.”

That, as much as the near-certainty that a black man would have also received a stiff prison term in addition to all of the above penalties, is the scandal of Turner’s sentence. Like eighteenth-century English juries that displayed a reluctance to convict because they wanted to protect defendants from a savage regime of punishment, the judge in Turner’s case appears to have done what he could to mitigate the consequences of the conviction. In doing so, he may have showed his social biases; he certainly showcased an institutional bias that was never in doubt. But he also showed the limits of what elected judges can do to interpret the law. He could not (or at any rate, did not) overturn the conviction, or stop the more or less automatic punishments it carried. Turner’s whiteness, money and standing as a Stanford athlete may have saved him some prison time, but his life was over as soon as he was convicted.

Race and class are indeed relevant to Turner’s punishment, but in ways that are quite different from what the critics of his sentence have underlined. The various registries and regulations for mandatory and quasi-mandatory sentencing that emerged in the 1990s, and that continue to form a cornerstone of American law-enforcement and punishment, were intended primarily to control urban criminals and “super-predators” (to borrow Hillary Clinton’s racially coded term): to contain, in other words, the poor and colored scum that had not been locked up by the incarcerating zeal of the Reagan-Bush era. They utilized a broad brush, eschewing nuance as a political weakness and an administrative handicap. The sex offender registry, in particular, was notoriously but deliberately promiscuous. It indiscriminately included people who had been caught urinating by the roadside, flashers, molesters of six-year-olds, teachers who had had sex with high school students, sellers of pornography, people with child porn on their computers, rapists who had bludgeoned or maimed their victims, dates who had not taken no for an answer, and, of course, innocent people who had been convicted of such offenses because they looked the part. New York City only recently changed its laws to exempt street urinators from criminal conviction and registration. The lack of intelligent discrimination in offenses and penalties was both a posture (“tough on crime”) on the part of lawmakers and prosecutors, and a calculation intended to take the human element out of judgment and give severe punishment a machine-like certainty. That promise of certainty reassured middle-class whites, who did not anticipate – does anyone ever anticipate? – that they might themselves fall in the path of their machine of judge-proof, defense-attorney-proof, nuance-free security.

The concept of security is itself quite relevant, because the extension of punishment beyond the prison term and into a diffuse and permanent condition is the sign of an epidemic of insecurity and a related willingness to expand the surveillance state. It is inseparable from the ubiquitous video cameras, Homeland Security, the NSA, no-fly lists, and the culture of “If you see something, say something.”  Less readily visible are a set of connections that take us back to the American rejection of adulthood in favor of innocence. Mandatory sentencing, laws named after lost children, registries and permanent surveillance all reflected an extraordinary anxiety about the vulnerability of juveniles. Not only was there an explosive intensification, in precisely this period, of the fear that strangers were out to hurt our children, entire populations – college students in particular – were infantilized by administrators and faculty. This was not necessarily a top-down swaddling; students – especially those who believed they were marginal and oppressed – showed great interest in swaddling themselves. In the process, they and their older well-wishers equipped the state (and a host of state-backed entities) with the intrusive, arbitrary and all-pervasive power of super-parents. Below the imagined layer of protection, there was only fear: the familiar fear of child molesters, rapists, terrorists, blacks, Muslims and immigrants that gives the contemporary state its scope and rationale.

This is not a state that possesses, or is expected by its protégés to possess, the capability for nuance; that has been jettisoned in the quest for safety. It is, therefore, appropriately represented not only by the ultra-violent police, but also by the self-righteous mob baying for blood. The individual members of this mob are quite certain that none of them, or their son, would ever commit a sexual offense or crime of any kind, even though they participate in a society saturated with incitement to precisely such behavior. The mob may have a valid moral point. Indians who demonstrated on the streets of Delhi after the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey undoubtedly had a moral point. But in demanding the death penalty for rapists without thinking through the problems posed by the death penalty for all of society, to say nothing of their own complicity in chronic forms of “legitimate” and “illegitimate” violence, they were worse than villagers with pitchforks, who at least have no pretensions to liberal citizenship. Much the same can be said for those who seem to think that the American state should sentence a twenty-year-old to a lifetime of social and professional leprosy, and still feel that that is not punishment enough.

The consequences of this mob mentality go well beyond any particular miscarriage of justice. It raises, first of all, an echo of old English juries and the Bloody Code: when the law is an ass, it opens itself to subversion from within the judiciary. Secondly, despite the likelihood that judicial bias provided some minor relief from legal stupidity in Turner’s case, the burden of stupid laws and procedures inevitably fall disproportionately upon the socially disadvantaged, who are most likely to be brought to trial, inadequately defended, and convicted. Third, the unrestrained public outrage we are witnessing is fascist and childish. It is childish in its lack of proportion and perspective, and fascist in its bullying quality, in which everybody feels the need to join in pulverizing the captured criminal. It is fascist also in its demand for declarations of self-repudiation and public repentance, which eviscerate the concept of privacy of the soul – even that of the criminal – without which liberal democracy cannot survive. It marks the corruption of the judicial process by a notion of “victim’s rights” that exceeds legality itself, introducing emotional readings of statements about how badly the victim felt after being raped. (Is a rape victim likely to feel something other than bad? Would a victim who was not a Stanford student, and not as capable of writing an eloquent statement, be less worthy of attention from Joe Biden, not to mention a national commotion?) When trial and punishment become a spectacle of "feelings," including tearful suffering and confession, and inevitably, the observer's need for spectacular satisfaction, we enter the terrain of witch-burning, which has never been far removed from the American courthouse and prison.

Fascism, it is worth remembering, is not a binary quality that a state either possesses or does not possess. It is a ubiquitous tendency within modernity, utilizing specific histories and cultural resources, that must be identified, confronted and contained in every society and state. A fascism of the left, undergirding a community of fear and vindictiveness, is no less real or obnoxious than a fascism of the right. A man has been convicted of a serious crime, although hardly an extraordinary one. He should be able to receive a reasonable punishment and then get on with his life, without becoming the scapegoat of a savage civilization.

June 11, 2016

Muhammad Ali and Celebrity Culture


The death of Muhammad Ali this week once again focused attention on the cultural work of remembering a celebrity. Undoubtedly, if Ali had been a great boxer and nothing more, remembrance would have been less substantial than it was. He was, after all, a man whose heyday preceded the Internet and cable television. What gave the legend of ‘The Greatest’ its substance is Ali’s record of outspoken political activism, especially his opposition to the Vietnam War. Celebrities with pet causes are not very hard to find in America, but in Ali’s case it was not posturing. It was an intelligent, sophisticated stance that connected the racism of Jim Crow with the racism of a murderous foreign policy, and that came with the willingness to make real sacrifices. When he refused to fight in Vietnam, he did not flee to Canada: he stayed and took the punishment, and gave up some of the best years of his athletic career. Dr. King (or Gandhi) could not have asked for more.

It was extraordinary, but simultaneously, it was not so. While is tempting to regard celebrities – athletes in particular – as freaks, they are products and emblems of their historical moment. Ali was a part of the trajectory of the racial politics of America after the Second World War, following in the wake of Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. He was more publicly angry than them, and famously less modest, marking a crucial transition of ‘mood’ within a wider civil rights movement that brought us the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. The shift from tight-lipped forbearance (not deference) to undisguised anger and self-praise in the public sphere coincided with the willingness to connect the dots between racism in America, which obviously involved black Americans, and racism in foreign policy, which in the imperial world was a white man’s domain. Many whites who tolerated Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights activism recoiled when he began to speak out against the Vietnam War: he had gone beyond the permissible boundaries of the ongoing American conversation about race. But looked at in another way, it reflected a permission that came from blackness itself: a transgression that was enabled, even incited, by a culture – and not just black culture – that had discovered the excitement and moral legitimacy of rebellion but not yet found a sophisticated method of containment. It made for a brief moment when black Americans (and not just athletes) could stand on the international stage and clench their fists like John Carlos and Tommie Smith, provided they were willing to pay a price.

The price paid enhanced, rather than diminished, their status as public figures. The place of public sacrifice to the making of blackness in the Civil Rights era was not immediately evident to white observers. Hannah Arendt, for instance, reacted with outrage to black parents who exposed their children to tear gas and police dogs on the streets of southern cities. It had to be explained to her that the parents were neither callous nor cowardly, but engaged in a coherent moral strategy. To her credit, she came to understand what moved parents to put children in harm's way, beginning with the recognition that they were already in harm's way. Whereas the idea of the sacrificing parents was hardly new to the self-image of a beleaguered minority, the publicly demonstrated willingness to risk losing what was most precious supported the claim on public space itself, and made for a new, public, racial substance.

For men, the visible combination of sacrifice and transgression disrupted a long-established line between childhood and adulthood in the American construction of race. The infantilization of the black male – the phenomenon of grey-haired men being addressed as ‘boy’ by whites young enough to be their sons – was an old strategy of racial intimidation, with its immediate roots in the terrorism that overtook the South after the Tilden-Hayes Compromise of 1877 ended the Reconstruction. Even older roots can be found in the soil of the plantation presided over by the paternal slave-owner, where to be (publicly) the slave and the (unacknowledged) child of the white man could be literally the same thing. It was the interruption of this existential childish (or more generously, childlike) condition by the Reconstruction, with its spectacle of adult black men engaged in the public life of citizenship, that spurred the terror of the Klan. The black man was a political and sexual rival, but a ‘boy’ was either harmless or perverse, or dead, even when he intruded into the public eye.

The possibility that black Americans had internalized their infantilization proved to be a raw nerve for writers of the post-World-War-II period, as evidenced by the controversy over Richard Wright’s novel Native Son. Wright’s Bigger Thomas – a nightmarish genie in bottle of violence – may have been deserving of sympathy, but he was also emotionally, intellectually and morally stunted. In a series of commentaries on the book that effectively destroyed their friendships with the author, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin both took Wright to task for perpetuating a racist construction of the black man-child, especially in an era when colonial subjects from India to Senegal were becoming citizens not only of their nation-states, but of the world. Wright had, of course, intended his famous protagonist to exemplify the damage done by racism and the explosive threat that damaged men posed to society, and it is as difficult to deny the psychological truth of Bigger Thomas as it is to deny that of Raskolnikov. Ellison and Baldwin, however, argued that it was an incomplete truth, and that Bigger, with his inarticulate violence, had been locked by his author into a particularly pernicious ghetto, in which the signifiers of adulthood – reason, wit, politics, art, agency, the awareness that home is located in a world of justice and injustice – were absent and impossible.

Ali, who was more a contemporary of Ellison and Baldwin than of Wright, added those signs of manhood and public wholeness to the subjectivity of the black American celebrity. Indeed, he made them constitutive of celebrity. The combination of adulthood and the overt violence of the boxer was potent stuff, and this potency can in no way be separated from Ali’s famous sex appeal. It was threatening (and thrilling) not so much because Ali was exceptional, as because he was in the vanguard of a wider rejection of the ghetto of children. Indeed, it can be argued that the systematic destruction of the various Black Power movements in the late sixties and seventies by the agencies of the state, in which extra-legal violence was freely used, was aimed at defeating this breakout and restoring the boundaries of Bigger Thomas’ world, transgression of which was merely criminal: a police matter.

It would, of course, be inaccurate to say that the restoration has been complete. But the fact that we find Ali’s political bent to be extraordinary suggests that there has been a real rollback. Black American celebrities are far more common today than they were when Ali made his inflammatory remarks about Vietnam. Remarks about a country that has literally been set on fire should be inflammatory; it is soothing rhetoric that is outrageous in such circumstances. But for the most part, we have stepped back from the fiery stuff, Black Lives Matter notwithstanding. The apparent step backwards has not been towards the stoicism of a Jackie Robinson or even Nichelle Nichols, but in the direction of the pouting narcissism of Kanye West, in which self-love is totally disconnected from solidarity. It is connected, instead, to consumerism: what one buys and shows off, what one’s name is used to sell, and one’s own marketed image. It is connected, in spite of the content of rap lyrics, to a fundamentally inarticulate image of the petulant man-child who needs a mother – or a record company – to manage his petulance.

It is essential that this critique not slip into a dishonest or hypocritical rant about ‘the black celebrity’ today, particularly when the critic is located outside or on the margins of the black American experience. In 1986, when Chrissie Hynde excoriated Janet Jackson’s generation of R&B musicians for having become the Pepsi Generation (‘How much did you get for your soul?’), the validity of the observation wilted before the irony of a white commercial artist scolding black artists for being, well, commercial. Today, there can be little doubt that regardless of color, celebrity status – and the public voice it potentially carries – is far better contained by the marketplace than it was contained by any counter-authority in the 1960s. But since color can hardly be disregarded when it comes to worldwide distributions of power and resources, any context that appears to operate ‘regardless of color’ is deceptive: it has been actively, politically neutralized. Its horizon has shrunk so dramatically that the world of injustice in which Ali fought and spoke, and that remained somewhat visible during the boycott of apartheid South Africa, is now quite invisible to those who seem to exist entirely in the public eye.

The stultifying effect of that containment is quite stark if we look beyond the American setting towards places where the corporate annexation of mass culture is relatively new. Sachin Tendulkar, for instance, is nearly a perfect example of iconic insularity. He had the good fortune of being one of the handful of modern athletes who have inhabited a level of ‘greatness’ that can come only from fortuitous cultural circumstances. Midway into his career in the 1990s, he was already celebrated – and not just in India – as the greatest batsman since Don Bradman, and certainly he had more media exposure and adulation than Bradman did in the 1930s. But Tendulkar’s generation of Indian cricket stars – wealthier, more famous and more in the public eye than any previous lot of Indian athletes – were also extraordinarily buttoned up, even when they took their shirts off and ran victory laps around the stadium. They had nothing to say that went beyond platitudes, even about sport itself. They seemed incapable of anger or organization. Literally the products of economic liberalization, they were either privileged by the status quo or aspired to privilege; they lived in the world but hid from it in moneyed enclosures.

It helped that they were mostly middle-class, upper-caste and Hindu, but even those came from less secure social locations were generally uninterested in provocation. The exceptions, like Vinod Kambli, received no quarter from the gods, and their provocation was rendered as juvenile misbehavior. Unlike their predecessors, who at least occasionally spoke their minds, Indian athletes who emerged after 1991 were superbly contained, to the extent that sacrifice became not only incomprehensible but meaningless. They were guarded men in every sense of the term. They knew better than to rock the gravy boat, comprising their sponsors, their boards and their government (which had become indistinguishable). They had, effectively, adopted the position of good children, to be seen but not heard except in jingles and propaganda. As men who saw, heard and spoke no evil, they were no less mutilated, and castrated, than Bigger Thomas or Vinod Kambli.

Ali was the product of a cruder arrangement of control, in which rebellion was both more imaginable and more compatible with celebrity status and public life. Its hallmark was an assertive wholeness of eyes, ears, brain and tongue: a breaking out into the world, not a zealous guarding of privacy. (We hear constantly how Tendulkar has had to protect his privacy.)  Ali had to be put in jail, not in a mansion, and jail made him stronger. Now the mansion is containment enough. Outside the mansion, there is nothing except paparazzi: no politics, no pain, no joy. The public stage that was once experienced as liberation is now experienced as layers of containment, compliance and conformity. We have, in a sense, gone from one pole of extraordinary subjectivity, signified by rebelliousness and adulthood, to another, signified by docility disguised as dignity.

June 6, 2016