Populist Rage, the Rule of Law, and Michael Vick

Some of you know that over here, in the States, an American football player named Michael Vick was signed to a team. He had been serving time for doing unspeakable things to animals, things that I would probably lock myself away for even thinking.

Some of you are also aware that the entirety of the Internet is already up in arms over this. I was at a sports message board and it took about a good minute once the news hit for people in droves to express their hatred of this man and all his progeny and the team that signed him. And by “express hatred,” I’m using a euphemism, obviously.

My thoughts are as follows:

  • We’re media-obsessed, and getting our thoughts directly from the television/media feed. Vick was on American TV all the time, there was no way to avoid this story or the spin on it, i.e. “he’s the worst person ever.”
  • People want celebrities with faults and convictions to kick around. They are intentionally looking for this, and you can see to a great degree how this has affected modern politics. It means we elect politicians that are Messianic AND keep electing Ted Kennedy, both at once.
  • If we think not about the particulars of health care reform or the stimulus or ACORN getting federal funding (don’t get me started) or anything like that, but just look at the behavior of everyone over the past few months, hmm. It looks like things have severely decayed, that no one feels any sense of restraint about anything. Everyone feels justified and is looking for a quick and easy justification (hence, why I don’t always like LGF, despite the fact I respect what they do. Events by themselves don’t even attempt to explain the whole). I know there are lots of people who are restrained, but it is clear the dominant attitude is “get mad,” and I don’t think I need to tell you where that will end up.

Ironically enough, the most thoughtful comment about the Vick story may offer us a way out of the third problem. From SethD posting at footballoutsiders.com –

As someone who’s worked in a legal aid clinic, gotta say this news makes me happy. This does set an example: if you complete your legal punishment, you can pursue the best career possible. That’s a message everyone should take to heart. I’ve worked with people who were guilty-guilty as sin- but who had cleaned up, flown straight for a decade, and still couldn’t get a job. That’s not right. For my money, punishment should end when the law says it does, like it did here. For those who say there’s a double standard, that’s true, but it’s not the NFL or Eagles in the wrong, it’s the rest of the country.

Also, I don’t buy the “demonstrated immorality” argument some people have advanced. We judge people for their acts, not what’s inside. Vick was punished for his acts. The road of “well he’s thinking. . .” ends at the Ministry of Truth. The point about recidivism when he gets rich again, however, is well-taken.

All that said, as an Eagles fan, not really sure what they’ll do with the man. But, I, at least will be eager to find out. (Though I don’t mind people giving up their tickets. If demand plummets I might be able to afford a seat.)

The sense of restraint has to come from a respect for law, and in some ways this makes me way, way, way more conservative than anyone alive today. The only way to get it back is to put the building blocks in place for a class of statesmen in both parties: without statesmen, we cannot trust that the law and its application and enforcement are shaped properly. We are certainly displaying a contempt for law and the government that wields it in not even remotely trusting its judgment right now: we trust absolutely what the tabloids say. Re: statesmen – people like Mitt Romney and even Hillary Clinton will do at the moment, but they have to be looked at as professional politicians, not people who are really working to understand issues and the people involved. This is not going to happen immediately, because the key to statesmen isn’t so much them as us: we’re the ones who have to know that it is possible to be perfectly justified in something and still go to excess. We’re the ones who have to not watch the same sports show 8 million times and either get sick of it or adopt their viewpoint completely. We’re the ones who have to accept democracy as a responsibility, for all rights are really responsibilities.

One reason why I push literature so much is that if you guys see what making every word count does for a poem, things like “Yes we can!” not only fall on deaf ears but actually get sickening. And it doesn’t hurt that people like Shakespeare and Dickinson don’t reduce politics to how they respond to celebrities, but think of it in terms of what can be accomplished (i.e. security, freedom), and what the limits of a given order are (i.e. what can be said plainly, what not?). When we talk about what people bring to their moral attitudes and how they think they should treat each other, we are talking about politics, and not in some broad sense: you can see that exactly now that things are showing a sign or two of breaking apart, where people think it is appropriate to bring guns to visits by the President of the United States.

8 Comments

  1. Well, preach on, Brother! I’m right with you on this one, even though my mind is too much a scrambled mess to say much about it. Something about public outrage and maybe witch hunts… But I do really love what you have quoted here: “For my money, punishment should end when the law says it does, like it did here.”

    And especially: “For those who say there’s a double standard, that’s true, but it’s not the NFL or Eagles in the wrong, it’s the rest of the country.”

    We really suck at identifying victims and villains- When one party is treated justly and you’re not the person recieving fair treatment is the bad guy?? This extends into so many areas and, again, I won’t even try to give more examples- they’ll be completely incoherent. And so we’re stuck- not even being able to properly identify our problems leaves us light years away from solving them.

  2. Ashok–

    This was a very good piece! I have a couple of questions for you, though:

    We’re media-obsessed, and getting our thoughts directly from the television/media feed. Vick was on American TV all the time, there was no way to avoid this story or the spin on it, i.e. “he’s the worst person ever.”

    What is the movement doing wrong that people prefer tabloids to, say, your blog? How many conservatives would you say actually know about places like Claremont? What could places like Claremont, Heritage, etc. be doing differently?

    The sense of restraint has to come from a respect for law, and in some ways this makes me way, way, way more conservative than anyone alive today.

    That is an extremely interesting statement, though I’m not sure I understand exactly what you mean. I think I get it: law gets its power from tradition, and our tendency toward amendments, referendum, judicial fiat, executive orders, etc. really do cheapen what we call law — make us feel we can do, well, whatever. Our excesses are in a way the modern Kansas-Nebraska bill? Is this on the right track?

  3. @ thag – I’ll start with the latter: it looks like we’ve become very cavalier towards law when we discuss Vick and the fact he did 18 months of prison time, 23 total when you factor in house arrest, doesn’t even enter people’s skulls at all.

    I think one thing we’re doing wrong is letting the issue of law be entirely that of “policy,” and policy is now “everyone gets something for nothing,” on both the Right and Left. So I dunno how you read Kansas-Nebraska, but in terms of the eventual “no one expected this war to be this bloody” – i.e. people are playing with concepts way over their heads and don’t have a clue what to reasonably expect, yeah, I’ll say that we suffer from a milder version of a problem Americans faced a while ago.

    In terms of people preferring tabloids to Rethink, *ahem*, I read a TON of celeb trash and click on links that aren’t exactly SFW, and I’m putting this really mildly. I think the bigger issue is that we think we have all the right questions; we don’t know what it means to search for good questions. A really good question re: the Vick situation is what a healthy respect for animals involves, but you never hear that come up. I think one thing conservatives can do is raise serious questions and not pretend they have answers, or that everything magically fits together and moral certainty is assured. Instead the whole movement is on the defensive, and critical of the junk produced by the media and the academy, and guess what? That’s the same narrative over and over, and without a truly noble cause.

    And yes, asking serious questions and obedience to the law do conflict ultimately. But that’s called “being human.”

  4. You pack so much into so few lines Ashok. Some responding thoughts, in no particular order:

    We agree on Vick. A common conversation I have with folks has to do with crime and punishment. Specifically the concept of “prison justice.” It is customary for people to wish prison rape or torture upon certain recently convicted media-criminal-du-jours. These comments are common enough, and generally acceptable enough, to almost be throw-away lines or simple small talk. People are caught off guard when I respond that such talk is cowardly and disruptive to social order. If we want someone tortured or raped as punishment for a crime then we should have the guts enough to sentence them such punishment, and accept our responsibility for taking part in such abominable undertakings.

    On the other hand, I am intrigued by your statements on respect for the law. How much respect should be afforded for something inherently so imperfect, and perhaps specifically so imperfect in respect to cases that get people up in arms? The theme in your comments seems to be a condemnation of a lack of seriousness in thinking rather than a lack of respect for the law in general. I think you may expect too much from too many. It is very difficult to be a careful thinker; it leads to a life of uncertainty and frustration. In my opinion, the vast majority of people want a large print menu of pre-cooked ideas to choose from, and the media is all too willing serve ’em up McDonalds style.

  5. He is NOT the worst person in the world, close to it, but not the worst. We have people out there killing their entire families…so rethink that please. Although, I think he is close to it, he has SERVED his time.

    Part of having a free country is that when a sentence of punishment is complete, life goes on. If someone is willing to hire him, that is between him and the employer. This young man seems very sincere in his repentance.

    I am sure that in his regret, Michael Vick has seen that it is only one step to be the worst person in the world! Let hope he will never harm another living creature.

  6. Interesting. Yes, I think we are on the same page w. my Kansas-Nebraska reference. I guess what I really meant to say was that (as Harry Jaffa put it — I know you’re a little wary of him but I love him) it seems like a question of whether the people shape the order or the order shapes the ppl — it’s not that different than Book I of Republic, when it comes down to it. And yeah, of course it must be said this is a milder problem..

    I think it will be the young people who change the conservative movement, personally. This is a rather disturbing time, but it is also a time when leaders are made and ideas are formed.

  7. @thag, “This is a rather disturbing time, but it is also a time when leaders are made and ideas are formed.”

    Could not agree more. I personally see people stopping to evaluate their freedom.

    I am positive that private companies are stopping to evaluate what is “the right thing” they should do, and go back to the drawing board on services to offer, and how they shall conduct business.

    Innovation happens and true conservative constitution loving people are stepping up, that is for sure.

  8. Good post. Stories like Michael Vick’s are why I only dip into the news cycle every few days. Over-saturation is terrible.

    You talk briefly about professional politicians and the role of the statesman. I’m curious if you’ve put any thought into the qualities of a good statesman.

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