News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Pedophiles, Innocence, Historicality

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Pedophiles, Innocence, Historicality

The recent media frenzy and hilarious, if shocking, denouement of the media coverage of the purported capture of JonBenet Ramsey’s killer John Mark Karr will play itself out in various accusations against the Boulder prosecutor for overplaying or mismanaging the accusations against the man.

I must admit that I was struck by the pedophile's demeanor and aloofness. In answering the media’s questions about the murder, he was very nonchalant and obviously short on details about his complicity in the crime. Even with the minimal facts during the first few days, combined with his demeanor, it seemed to me at least (as well as others) that this man was a fantasist whose grasp of reality was questionable. ...

Those on the political left have already noted how this story generated so much press that one google produced over 10 million hits--for a story that was just more than one week old! The political Right jumped on the story as another indication of moral corruption in American society. The middle-of-the-roaders tried to keep some perspective and focused on the Ramseys and the false accusations that surrounded them for many years.

It certainly does seem to be some form of irony that a story that started with false suspicions against the family of the slain girl ended in false accusations of a man who perhaps is an opportunist seeking publicity (or a free ride back from Thailand) at best, or at worst a fantasist whose world is so wound up with the death of a young innocent whom he lusted for that he appears to actually believe he did commit the crime.

Many will criticize–rightly I believe--the press for its prurient interest and its playing into the infantilized imaginations of the American TV viewer and news consumer. That's a pretty blunt way of saying something that can probably be put in a more nuanced way, but I think that the media's overblown sense of what is news has become so tabloidized that it simply leaves one almost dumbfounded by the press’ lack of moral responsibility, not to mention the unbalanced sense of priorities which the press sees that the public needs to know.

What many political leftists and liberals have noted is that the Karr story knocked coverage of important events in Iraq and Iran not only out of the headlines but to the back pages. While the policy wonks were up to date on these issues, during the last week the average American never would have known that last month was the deadliest for civilians in the Iraq civil war, not to mention that there is a civil war in Iraq.

On top of this, very few average Americans would have guessed--if they were interested--that the Bush administration is making more than farting noises towards Iran. There's a steady drumbeat of leaks and so-called back-stories about the Iranian “threat” in the media that it's hard not to believe that war with Iran is "inevitable"--inevitable, of course, because the neocons and the Pentagon have played the media game so well that by the time many people wake up to the issue, it will be a "done deal."

I will leave for another time the issue of the culpability of the media in all of this. There's plenty in the media and the counter-media that deals with this subject. The press loves to beat this phantom all the time--the phantom that arises from a public that is immersed in not only what some have called the narcissism of American culture but deeper issues that relate to how Americans understand themselves as historical beings.

I want to look at what I’ll call the historical aspect of this story and its related non-happenings, i.e., Iraq and Iran coverage. The surface aspect of what I will call the historical void in the American consciousness is that the media themselves contribute to denying the public a historical context on everyday political and cultural events. Dwelling on the immediate, up-to-the minute story, refusing to or incapable of providing historical context, they cater to a short-attention span mentality that simply denies that there is anything beyond the NOW.

But there’s more to why the American public seems to want to know about the pedophile Karr and his fantasies. This story, ostensibly about the past, pushed the present and future concerns about Iraq further out of public consciousness. A story about a lurid past event takes the place of a story of the present lurid reality of thousands of Iraqis dying as a direct result of US actions, i.e., invasion and destruction of the socio-political structures of Iraqi civil society.

The Karr-Benet story—a small-town crime with terrible and horrific details--fills the void of our recent past. The allure of the story resides perhaps in something human that relates to sin and guilt. The psychic threat that past sins (crimes) that are unresolved or unsolved come back to haunt us. The anxiety about a child killed horribly and profanely echoes in the public consciousness because it contains elements of guilt, sex, protection of one’s children, and innocence. Individual anxieties of members of the public who cannot resolve their own separate responses to these issues come into play.

The historical aspect of this crime shows how Americans relate to the past. The unsolved crime--an unresolved act of moral outrage--is repeated over and over in various forms in American culture. The presence of fictional and documentary TV shows about "cold cases" points to this phenomenon. These recent shows follow on the footsteps of shows like Unsolved Mysteries and the X-Files. They are augmented by shows that figure into the shows the added elements of the paranormal in fictional or non-fictional form.

In these stories of crimes that go unsolved and that contain these sexual depravities, the American public looks to a past crime whose character outrages the moral and ethical balance of individual and society alike. The crimes themselves point further and further into the past, echoing in the hollow chamber of a history that is either empty of sacred presence or pointing to a realm beyond this hollow sphere where the crimes will or should find final answer.

Such notions as crime and innocence resonate in the American conscience because Americans are uniquely situated to deny their history. That history is one of revolution, which as Hannah suggests in On Revolution involves an original crime, the revolutionary act. Arendt writes:

[W]hatever brotherhood human beings may be capable of has grown out of fratricide, whatever political organization men may have achieved has its origin in crime. The conviction, In the beginning was a crime–for which the phrase “state of nature” is only a theoretically purified paraphrase–has carried through the centuries no less self-evident plausibility for the state of human affairs than the first sentence of St. John, “In the beginning was the Word,” has possessed for the affairs of salvation.
We live in a society that prides itself on cutting away from history, making a new start and building our lives from zero. We pride ourselves on the notion that we need nothing but our own self-awareness and the absence of preconceptions and accretions from the past to guide us in meeting the challenges of the present and hopefully the future.

These assumptions work at the personal and social level in various guises. At the personal level, they perhaps do not work as well, since life calls forth the need to account not only for our present actions but those we have done in the past. This past is not simply our own, moreover--the things we do or have done since we were born–but they also include the actions of my parents, my family, my town, and ultimately my country. Unless and until this history is dealt with in a way that sufficiently accounts for them, the future will not be what it is but will be instead the past resurrecting itself as ghosts of past actions.

In this context of unresolved crime, we seek innocence, the innocence of our childhoods. We wish to be pure and unsullied by the past, reforming ourselves according to the present and for the future. We seek an innocence that we can never regain but only infantilize ourselves and shelter ourselves in a fantasy of reshaping the present in an ersatz innocence built from either denying the past or seeking an innocence in a time and place before history.

In his magisterial study of history and Machiavelli’s discovery and investigation of what it means for humans to live in history, in a world where humans have no recourse to supernatural realities but instead must work out their destinies and fates within time, JGA Pocock writes:
It was seen as the essence of modernity [by Rousseau, among others] that one inhabited a world of fictions in which self and other were creations of the partial encounters between humans in a world of exchanges. It may well be that we have ourselves reached a condition where the knowledge of fictiveness is unsatisfying to the point of being intolerable; in doubting whether the oligarchy of politicians who oblige us to choose between them represent us in any way worth speaking of, we doubt whether we have selves left to be represented. The global economy finds an ally in that postmodernism which informs us that self and society are alike fictitious and that our only choice is which fiction to buy next. – Pocock, p. 582
Condemned to living in history, we deny the present atrocities and crimes that occur in faraway lands by fantastically reliving and repeating the atrocity of our own innocence that is slain and profaned in the form of children whom we do not know.

We seek a solution and resolution that never comes except in further fantasy. We are captured by our inability to live in the present except by repeating the past that haunts us with these unsolved mysteries, these crimes that make us alive in their heinous violation of moral and ethical blamelessness. They seek the shock of shame because we have none and because its absence only makes us more aware of our lost innocence.

We become the spectators of our own present, hoping to watch it unfold in some apocalypse that will finally provide the key to why our innocence was lost and bring to us that purity and innocence that we lost seemingly so unfairly. So we watch--like voyeurs at the altar of history--the future come to us in the form that the past has given, atrocity on atrocity, crime on crime. We are spectators of a past that we do not want, a present we cannot accept because it is haunted by the past, and a future that will bring only more of the same haunted innocence we neither have nor will ever regain.

Helpless before the future because we have not dealt with the past, the future inevitability is left to men who have no compunction about exploiting our ghosts in the name of their own lost innocence.

It seems that at these moments, it is germane to repeat what has almost become a cliché, Santayana’s remark that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. There is , no doubt much truth to his observation. Yet, as Kierkegaard would remind us, it is not so much that we remember but how we remember the past. That is, we can remember it by seeking its source in some Platonic super-real world beyond this one or we can begin to live the past in the present as prelude to the future, seeking not so much resolution as openness to the possibility for knowing not only ourselves but also those we inhabit history with.

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{to be revised}

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