Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Every baby is allowed to carry a whip

      My older son published an article last week about a secret website where hundreds of his Pomona College classmates  gather to trade hateful memes they consider funny. The provocative piece set several balls rolling. Far right freakshow Milo Yiannopoulus sic'ed the Internet on him. The school opened an administrative investigation into the web site. The publication, the Claremont Independent, where my son had been managing editor, fired him for writing the article they had just posted. Craven though that was, to their credit, the Independent kept up the article that had irked them. While reading the comments section, the repetitive, dull and counterproductive—these are exactly the people you WANT to dislike you—expressions of malice from Milo's minions reminded me of this column from five years ago. 
Samuel Johnson

     There is nothing new under the sun.
     Life today, as always, is filled with odd juxtapositions and taunting ironies generated by the eternal vanity and reflexive meanness of human beings.
      Yet for some reason—perhaps to flatter ourselves that the hardships we face are even harder by pretending they are novel—we like to think our challenges are something new, unique in the history of the world, when they're really the same old hardships in new wrappings. A few details are different, but whether you are being attacked with a sword or a bullet, or your character maligned on parchment or an iPad, the result is the same.
     A few weeks back, I discussed abortion in my column, and whenever I do, it brings out a certain class of people who apparently deplete the entirety of whatever small store of human sympathy they may possess by fretting about the fetuses of women they will never meet, because they're sure not very nice people when it comes to writing to newspaper columnists.
     And as much as I should be used to this, being the dewy-eyed, aw-gee kind of guy I actually am, at moments, certain acid attacks can seep under the armor and linger.
     I was standing at the old Daily News Plaza at the end of a long day, finishing a cigar, brooding over this, using my new phone to delete unread emails from known nutbags—a difficult thing to do, because curiosity gets the better of me, and it seems uncivil, even when I know what's going to be in the email because it's all that person ever says.
     So I was standing, deleting, puffing, thinking of how unusual a world we dwell in, with all this anonymous electronic venom to be washed away everywhere you go, and how previous generations, bathed in civility and manners and string quartets didn't have to worry about this sort of thing.
     As it happens, I was reading Hester Lynch Piozzi's Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson. Johnson is the great man of Georgian era British letters, famous for his colossal dictionary. Piozzi was his ... well, it's complicated. The wife of his friend, brewer Henry Thrale. Later his hostess, confessor, tea pourer, rumored dominatrix.
     Whatever she was, she wrote a highly enjoyable book about him, and no sooner did I grimly reflect on the storm of electronic malice that any writer who says anything has to endure nowadays, than minutes later, on the train, I happened upon this passage regarding "slight insults from newspaper abuse."
     "They sting one," Johnson says. "But as a fly stings a horse." The horse may twitch, but it never goes after the source of its affliction. "The eagle will not catch flies," Johnson concludes, mixing metaphors and species. (Here I thought it was Mike Royko who first said that).
     But not everyone could be so detached. Piozzi mourns several friends of Johnson's, one who "fell a sacrifice to their insults, having declared on his death-bed to Dr. Johnson, that the pain of an anonymous letter, written in some of the common prints of the day, fastened on his heart, and threw him into the slow fever of which he died."
     That still happens. Not to hardened columnists, of course. But how often do we see poor young people kill themselves over some anonymous electronic abuse? And while we adults are made of stronger stuff, in theory, we do have to teach our children and remind ourselves to not let such nastiness fasten on our hearts, nor to indulge in pointless counterpunching.
     Another Johnson friend, Piozzi writes, was Hawkesworth, "the pious, the virtuous, and the wise," who "for want of that fortitude which casts a shield" against attack "fell a lamented sacrifice to wanton malice and cruelty."
     That isn't why I write this. It's the next line that I just have to share:
     "All in turn feel the lash of censure, in a country where, as every baby is allowed to carry a whip, no person can escape."
     Every Baby is Allowed to Carry a Whip. Now that's a new sentiment. I'd like a T-shirt with that line on it.        
A t-shirt company actually made me a shirt, which is cool.

     Amazingly, she concludes—as we all must—that such anonymous verbal cruelty serves a purpose and should be tolerated:
     "The undistinguishing severity of newspaper abuse may in some measure diminish the diffusion of vice and folly in Great Britain. And though sensibility often sinks under the roughness of their prescription, it would be no good policy to take away their license."
     So wrote Hester Lynch Piozzi in 1784. As true today as it was then. Or, to flip open our Bibles and quote Ecclesiastes.
     "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."
     To put that thought another way—the phone may be new, and the phone may be smart, but we who use the phone, alas, are all too often neither new nor smart, and we rarely have thoughts anywhere near as advanced or marvelous as the technology that conveys them.
           —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 9, 2012


  1. Wait, huh. WHY did they fire him? Did he violate a rule or standard of the paper?

    1. Depends on whose version you accept. The Claremont Independent put out a rather opaque statement that suggests Ross pressured them into running the piece, simultaneously claiming they were always going to run it but he forced them to do it.

    2. Wow that was opaque! I don't how much of what they imply is true but what I've gotten from this is that the your son shares many of his fathers qualities. And he's what 21? My guess is the kids' gonna go far!

    3. He certainly isn't taking the easy road, that's for certain.

  2. Other questions. Do you think that universities should punish students for their speech? Public universities can't. Should elite privates who hold themselves to a standard of " free expression" punish speech?

    Fascinating questions. As for me I'm a free speech absolutist. I'm appalled by the President suggesting that people should be fired for a non-violent protest. I'm even more appalled by the op-ed in the WAPo stating that Congress should punish the NFL for allowing this speech to occur.

    However I'm also dismayed by college students who think that Hate Speech isn't Constiutionally protected speech ( private institutions can squelch speech, but should they? ) And I'm not saying Ross didn't understand that if he were at Berkley his call for repercussions would have been inappropriate...even if the speech was a violation of a speech code, but far too many smart college kids are unclear on the subject.

    1. That would depend on what that speech is, would it not? The content. "Go team!" No problem. "Let's burn down the library!" Problem.

  3. I'm completely baffled as to why your son is the one who got into trouble over blowing the whistle on this crap!
    Some of those images he posted, I've received in emails, especially the ones about Muslims & their perceived inability to live peacefully with others.
    Most of them are just classic forms of sick, black humor, not black in the racial sense, but black in that it's perverted, which can often be funny. And a few of those shown are funny! And sick.

    As Ricky Riccardo would say, Pomona College has some 'splaing to do!
    I'll bet I get attacked by the snowflakes for that line!

    1. The publication isn't run by the school, but is a private group. He's not so much in trouble as he's violated the code of the wolf pack he ran with.

  4. That would depend on what that speech is, would it not? The content. "Go team!" No problem. "Let's burn down the library!" Problem

    First of all, your example really establisheds the problem with trying to discuss Free expression. No one is offended by " Go Team" now are they? And your other example is one of the few examples of an exception to constitutionally protected speech.

    "Let's burn down the library" may be inciting violence one of the very few exceptions to Constitutionally protected free speech. And it really has to be IMMEDIATE incitement. Something likely to result in immediate action. The non plus ultra example would be " Shoot that man he has a gun and is about to kill everybody." What constitutes " incitement" is something that causes someone to act immediately without much thought. Your parallel example shouldn't be "Go Team" but "We should really think about whether the library should be torched since it contains so many offensive books"

    More importantly what you had in the situation your son wrote about , from what I could tell, was hate speech. Not speech that was constitutionally unprotected.

    Saying ( and I'm Jewish,so I use this as examples) "Jew are horrible people and we should pass laws to throw them all into internment camps" is absolutely protected. So would vile "jokes" about Jews and the Holocaust or any other absolutely disgusting statement or picture.

    Most college students today ( there was a recent study about this) are unaware that Hate speech is constitutionally protected. I find that very very troubling.

    Is your son bothered by a speech code that says it's ok to punish " offensive " speech? What if that is interpreted to include taking a knee on school grounds near a flag?

    Ps: sorry about the deleting. The text is so tiny when I comment its hard to see errors. I wish I could simply edit.

  5. Annie:

    Maybe it's your device that's the problem, but I edit my comments all the time, even if not often enough. You just have to select preview and then press the "edit" button.


  6. Thanks for sharing. Your son is to be commended for his ethics.

  7. Let me get this straight: Milo Whatever sic'ed his minions on your son for calling attention to a bunch of memes that they approved of (and maybe even made or shared themselves)? You'd think they'd be grateful for the attention.

    If I didn't know better, I'd think that they realize, deep down, how despicable and repulsive their ideas are.

    1. It's a matter of audience. What you say to your pals, hidden on a secret site, is not necessarily what you want to be identified with in public.

    2. Ain't that the truth. Trouble is, in the internet age cowards are hiding in plain sight.

      Ross writes well, Neil. You must be proud.

    3. Funny though...these are the same kind of people whose idea of a hilarious prank is to steal the membership list of the campus gay students group and send postcards to all the kids' neighbors back home "outing" them. But when it comes to their own ideas, by God you'd better respect their privacy.

      I second Tony regarding your son's writing skills.

  8. It keeps entering my mind that these awful memes are the shocking sort of things that fourteen year old boys enjoy sharing. Adults recognize their only worth is shock value and the feel of the forbidden. Weak minds would accept the memes as truth, perhaps be persuaded to a higher degree of intolerance. Which seems to rule the country these days. Chaos creates great opportunitied for those craven enough to grab for it.

  9. On the matter of enduring criticism William Wycherley, after a long career as a successful playwright published a book of poems that was criticized savagely in the press. His young friend Alexander Pope wrote a consoling letter in which he noted that "As every beggar must have his cur, so an author will have a critic."

    On the "dull, repetitive and counterproductive" comments Ross received, one shouldn't expect a semblance of wit in that source. Actually, the well crafted insult is more a British than American thing. One thinks of the modern master of the form, Evelyn Waugh, who, on hearing that Winston Churchill's deeply unpopular son had been in hospital having a non-malignant tumor removed wrote: "It says something about modern medical science that the doctors were able to locate the only part of Randolph Churchill that isn't malignant and remove it."


    1. Tom: I love the erudition you bring to this blog.


  10. Thanks for showing the other side, Bernie. I can see points on both sides.

  11. I see a bright future for Ross. Weren't you fired (at least) once? Wheaton maybe? Hey, you're
    nobody until you've been fired.


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