Thursday, May 24, 2012

Five ways to look at a high school bully

Everybody's heard by now that Mitt Romney was a high school bully. The most egregious single incident that has come to light so far was Romney's assault on a younger student named John Lauber. From the Washington Post article that broke the story in national media:
[...] they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors.
The story is appalling, and multiple independent witnesses are proof the assault happened. Should we shrug our collective shoulders? It was a long time ago, and kids bully kids every day. Eighteen year olds can be idiots. We're adults, we know all that, right?

Of course, there are bullies who grow up to regret their brutish behavior and atone for it; and there are bullies who remain intoxicated by power over others.

The politically significant question is this: how are we to understand what his personal history as a high school bully means in relation to Mitt Romney's candidacy for President of the United States?

Here are five perspectives on the question, some directly addressing the incident and some related to it thematically. I'll put in my two cents at the end, while acknowledging that selection of the five perspectives counts for at least a nickle...

1. From John Diaz, editorial page editor for the SF Chronicle, in Campaign's trivial pursuits published in Sunday's paper:
It's all such nonsense. Even worse than the focus on an incident of bullying or drug use is the tendency in this culture to try to expand such tidbits from the past into a definitive psychoanalysis of an individual.

People change from their teen years, often profoundly and often for the better [...]

Character is always a legitimate issue in a presidential campaign, but there is a grave danger in trying to extrapolate from a candidate's childhood into a prediction of how he might perform as leader of the free world. [...]

It's a long way to November. Lest we forget, this nation has a long war and a moribund economy to fix.
2. In a NY Times op-ed of 11 May, titled Mean Boys, Charles M. Blow observed:
In an interview with Fox Radio on Thursday, Romney laughed as he said that he didn’t remember the incident, although he acknowledged that “back in high school, you know, I, I did some dumb things. And if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize.” He continued, “I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school, and some might have gone too far. And, for that, I apologize.”

There is so much wrong with Romney’s response that I hardly know where to start.

But let’s start here: If the haircutting incident happened as described, it’s not a prank or hijinks or even simple bullying. It’s an assault.

Second, honorable men don’t chuckle at cruelty.

Third, if it happened, Romney’s explanation that he doesn’t remember it doesn’t ring true. It is a searing account in the telling and would have been even more so in the doing. How could such a thing simply melt into the milieu of other misbehavior? How could the screams of his classmate not echo even now?

Fourth, “if someone was hurt or offended, I apologize” isn’t a real apology. Even if no one felt hurt or offended, if you feel that you have done something wrong, you can apologize on that basis alone. Remorse is a sufficient motivator. Absolution is a sufficient objective. Whether the person who was wronged requests it is separate.

Lastly, this would have been an amazing teaching moment about the impact of bullying if Romney had seized it. That is what a real leader would have done. That is what we would expect any adult to do.

3. Foreshadowing John Diaz' take quoted above, the SF Chronicle's James Temple published an interview with Jacob Kohnstamm in early May, titled Europe's more stringent view of online privacy. According to Temple, Kohnstamm is a central figure in the simmering international debate over digital privacy - and as a consistent critic of major U.S. Internet companies.

Q: One of the most controversial rules in the proposals, at least on this side of the Atlantic, is the concept of a "right to be forgotten." It has the potential to grate against U.S. views about the importance of freedom of expression. What's your take on the appropriate balance?

Kohnstamm: There's one basic principle that is behind the right to be forgotten: One of the most important things for human beings is that they have the right to grow older, to change their habits, to evolve and develop in different ways.

The Internet makes it nearly impossible to choose other ways to live, without being confronted all the time with the previous ways you thought about things. So, fundamentally, behind the principle of a right to be forgotten is this idea that you shouldn't judge a child on its childish behavior 20 years later.
4. F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby famously observed:
There are no second acts in American lives.
(Not everyone agrees that the great writer's witticism describes actual American life ... let alone actual U.S. politics.)

5. Last, Gary Trudeau has been getting his two cents in all week. Monday's Doonesbury comic strip:

* * *

Let's return to Charles M. Blow again, who (in this blogger's opinion) nailed the bottom line in prose, just as Gary Trudeau did in the four panels of Monday's Doonesbury. Here's more from Blow's Mean Boys op-ed:
While I have real reservations about holding senior citizens to account for what they did as seniors in high school, I have no reservations about expecting presidential candidates to know how to properly address the mistakes they once made.

This is where Romney falls short, once again.

There was a malicious streak at the core of the high-school boy in these accounts. Romney’s muddled and confusing explanation and half-apologies only reinforce concerns that there is also something missing from the core of the man: sincerity and sensitivity.

Targeting the vulnerable is an act of cowardice. The only way to vanquish cowardice is to brandish courage. Romney refused to do so. This is an amazing missed opportunity to exhibit a needed bit of humanity by a man who seems to lack it.

People understand regret. Romney may have been applauded if he had chosen to express some to redeem himself, but he didn’t. He chose obfuscation and obliviousness. Romney has an uncanny ability to turn a bad thing into a worse thing by failing to be forthright.

If I were looking to vote for a high school bully turned vulture capitalist turned etch-a-sketch hypocrite pandering political opportunist, I'd vote for Mitt Romney for President in November. But that's not what I'm looking for in a national leader.

Fortunately, there's a better candidate for the job.

Not a perfect candidate. Far from it. But better, by leagues and leagues.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Acting like citizens about health care
Making a world where queer kids thrive

Thanks to Mario Piperni for permission to use his Romney on Etch-a-Sketch image.


  1. Um, by a "better candidate," are you referring to the guy who said it was an "easy decision" to assassinate a U.S. citizen against whom no charges had ever been filed?

    Great blog, otherwise.

  2. @katinsf -- No, by Not a perfect candidate. Far from it I'm referring to the guy who said it was an "easy decision" to assassinate a U.S. citizen against whom no charges had ever been filed. The choices are poor. We will have one candidate or the other as president for the next four year term. I don't think that the candidates are equally poor choices. I think one is poorer than the other.