I'm a newbie in this blogging game. I started because I want to help enact health reform and I support Barack Obama. I'm still learning the ropes. At 45, I'm also an oldster when compared with most other writers and my legions of screaming fans. I hope this posting doesn't come off as the objections of some fastidious uncle.
There is a proper place in the blogosphere for expressing our screaming ids. There is a place for righteous anger directed at the people who have enmeshed our nation in a foolish mismanaged war. There is a place for sharp-edged humor and, yes, ridicule to communicate the occasional needed insight. Since we are living in bad and frustrating times, it is easy to forget that we must sometimes pull back, to behave with decency and civility towards human beings who falter in various ways, and towards those with whom we disagree.
Consider the reaction of HuffPo posters and readers towards two recent stories. The first concerned the arrest of CNN reporter Richard Quest on a drug possession charge. Mr. Quest was apparently snagged for violating a Central Park curfew. He admitted to the officers that he was holding a small amount of methamphetamine, presumably for personal use. Media accounts included gratuitous salacious details that could only be intended to humiliate him while drawing undeserved attention to publicity-seeking police officers and the crass New York Post reporters and editors who gleefully reported it. Lots of people are chuckling. Ribald emails are flying across the internet.
I like a good dirty joke myself, but these aren't funny. As far as I can tell, we are trashing a guy who has some sort of substance use problem, but who didn't drive drunk, didn't abuse a spouse or a child, didn't fight the cops. He didn't get intoxicated and act gross. OK he's a CNN reporter, but he's not holding nuclear codes, making public policy, or driving an 19-wheeler in the next lane. I don't see why his drug problems are anybody's business but his own. Plenty of people who don't hesitate to criticize barbaric drug laws don't seem to understand that.
I've been researching substance abuse interventions and policy for 15 years now. I have talked with many people who are drug dependent or who have misused drugs in various ways. I almost never use the term "drug addict." I just don't know who these people are. I don't like the totalizing label. It creates an unpleasant psychological distance that is both hurtful and counterproductive for public policies and for treatment interventions. Mr. Quest is an interesting and accomplished person. His life is hardly summarized by his arrest the other night. I wish him well. I wish the rest of us would show a little compassion and discretion as he goes through rehab.
Then there are the pies thrown at New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman during his lecture at Brown University. Friedman isn't popular around these parts, because he supported the Iraq war. He deserves criticism for that, it's fair game to make fun of him for his rather molding globalization shtick he delivers all over the place for big lecture fees. He does not deserve to have two creepy guys rush him at the podium and pelt him with pies. He also deserves better than the comments posted by many HuffPo readers reacting to this event. Apparently, if you don't like somebody's politics it's ok to throw things at them.
I watched the YouTube clip. For a moment there, he was genuinely scared. I would have been. Somewhere in the back of his mind -- in the back of every celebrity's mind -- must be the fear that some nutcase will harm him to get attention, impress Jodie Foster, advance some political agenda, or take revenge for some casual comment he made in some interview three years ago. Hitting a lecturer with a pie is a juvenile act of aggression that deprives the audience of the chance to hear Friedman's perspective. It makes more civil people who disagree with Friedman look like jerks, as well.
By the way, it is very uncreative and unfunny. Is this the best that radical Brown students can do? My friend Mark Kleiman in two minutes came up with many ribald and pointed alternative things a truly clever person could have done that don't involve personal aggression.
Most of all, it is an act of cruelty, minor to be sure, designed to humiliate an actual human being. In our TV and celebrity-obsessed culture, we tend to see people like Friedman and Quest through the lens of their celebrity and their political views. In fact, however, they are flesh and blood people like the rest of us. I feel the same way about Idaho Senator Larry Craig. I don't like his Senate record, but I'm glad he resisted being railroaded by his Republican colleagues.
Throughout my career as a public health researcher, I have learned and re-learned that risk-taking for comfort, excitement, or pleasure is a symptom of our common humanity. Like Mr. Quest, many Americans struggle to hide some covert vice. Like Senator Craig, many of us feel powerful drives that brighten our lives but that can also hurt us and those we love. I might add: like Mr. Friedman, some of us have been wrong about something important.
Most of all, I wish the rest of us would show some humanity and class. Commenting on the travesty of President Clinton's impeachment proceedings, Philip Roth wrote that Bill Clinton's White House should have hung a banner saying: "A human being lives here." There is something ugly about the mob mentality a personal scandal or even a pie in the face can unleash. We can do better.