Victim, or Why the White Woman Wins

(Updated with new statistics.)

Look at that fresh new Oscar nominee. Cute? Yes. Leading us all deeper into the moral wilderness? Definitely. I’ll get back to her.

If things go according to plan, the state of Georgia will kill a man this evening around 7. What follows is part of why.

Quick experiment: How many of the victims of the shooting in Arizona can you name?

I can only name one, Gabrielle Giffords, and it must be remembered that she is still alive, while six died in the shooting. The Los Angeles Times told us that “the bullets did not discriminate,” but we did, surely, in our coverage of and reactions to the event.

For instance, you may remember that another of the victims was a federal judge, and that another was the little (white) girl born on September 11. Journalists also scurried to inform us that three of the victims were retirees, and one was a soon-to-be-newlywed.

We are told these things, as we know, because all victims are equal, but some are more equal than others. It is more sad when the little girl who was born on 9/11 is killed than it is when a 52-year-old businessman is killed.  Don’t worry, age catches up; for some reason, the killing of the elderly is also particularly weighty. Watching the documentary Young at Heart and watching an old man die of cancer, you may say, as did my companion at the time, well, old people die. But hear about a grandfather of six getting beaten to death with a tire iron, and again this seems heavier than the twenty-something stabbed in the park.

For this reason, in the spirit of unfuzzying English, I propose that journalists and writers, when covering stories of crime, abuse, and death, use a capital-V Victim to distinguish those whose deaths matter the most.

After all, we do this when distinguishing our particular Mother from the mothers at large, and we capitalize other titles and proper nouns when distinguishing them from the huddled masses. And if we’re really going to engage in this work, which is a good way for us to be more honest with ourselves, we’re going to have to acknowledge that race plays a major part in who gets this V-card, both culturally and personally.

I mentioned that Georgia is set to execute today. Emmanuel Hammond was convicted of killing Julie Love in 1988. Alright. Now, Julie Love was a “27-year-old preschool fitness teacher,” the AJC reports. She was brutally raped and murdered. She looked like this: 

Her killer, Emmanuel Hammond, is a black man (or was, if you’re reading this after 7pm, most likely). It is not true that most of the people executed in this country are black. In fact, most of them are white men. This is to be expected, as, despite what Pat Buchanan might want you to believe, white people are still a large majority of this country’s population. It is true, however, that black men account for a higher percentage of death row inmates than one would expect based on their percentage of the general population.

But, and this is what anti-death-penalty folks don’t really want to get into, if we let our syringe-fingers follow the numbers, we ought to be killing more black guys.

I am not a statistician, although sometimes I wish I were one. And I have only done some very basic research on this, but the numbers are out there. To come up with what I’m going to tell you, I used statistics from Department of Justice and from a very interesting (and incredibly thorough) pro-death penalty website operated by a prosecutor in Indiana.

6,240 people were convicted of murder in 2006. That doesn’t count the murders for which there were no convictions. 46 people were executed in 2006. Yes, they were convicted of crimes in earlier years, but still, look at that. That’s 0.73%. What kind of terrible lottery did those executed criminals win? There are many factors that go into who gets killed and who doesn’t – money being a major one – and the traits of the murdered are right up there.

Among the executed, 26 (56.5%) were white males, and 14 (30.4%) were black males.

According to, whites are about 79.6% of the population (this number seems to overlap some with Hispanics) while blacks are 12.9%. 12.9 goes into 30.4 more than twice, so black men were more than doubly represented according to population data.

That doesn’t sound good unless you want to take into account that the DOJ also reported in 2005 that black men accounted for 52.2% of homicide offenders. So if the punishment tended to fit the crime, shouldn’t we be seeing even more black men executed?

But let’s look at the victims. The most represented demographic in my homemade study, just nudging out the white man, is the white female, who accounted for 19 of the victims of executed convicts in 2006.

Contrary, perhaps, to conventional wisdom, or conventional crime stories, where the victim is generally dressed up to look just like your daughter, 76.5% of homicide victims are men. But female victims accounted for over 45% of the body count for executed killers in 2006. When it comes to the ulimate punishment, women are plainly overrepresented in victimhood.

Then they are underrepresented as criminals. Only one woman was executed in 2006, about 2% of the total, while the DOJ reports that women account for over 11% of homicide offenders.

Maybe the most damning statistic is that in only one case was a white person put to death for killing a person of color. In every single other case, the convicted had killed either a member of his/her race, or a member of a race higher on the old pecking order (a Latino man killing a white man, for example).

Only one case broke this pattern. William Joseph Berkley was executed for the murder of Sophia Martinez. Why? Well to begin with the crime was heinous. Ms. Martinez was raped and shot five times in the head. She was also eighteen years old. There’s also the fact that this happened in Texas, and they’ll kill anybody. Texas killed 464 people from 1976 to 2011, accounting for more than one third of the 1234 who were executed in the entire country. Add to this that Mr. Berkley was German-born, hardly a good old boy. And I would like you to consider the photo circulated in the press.

This we can all recognize as a senior photo. Not only was Ms. Martinez pretty, but she was, presumably, about to graduate high school. On to bigger and better things. Not a waitress at Waffle House. Capital V, please.

One reason for this lack of racial crossover could be that most homicides are intraracial – black on black or white on white crime, 86% for whites and 94% for blacks. But this gets us back to the same point: more killers are black but we execute fewer because they mostly kill black people. We’re not letting them off the hook; we’re looking the other way, because many of those homicides are drug related, and we just don’t care.  

Look, for some reason people tend to get defensive when you tell them they value certain human lives more than others. I don’t know why. It’s only natural. I care more about the assassination of Bobby Kennedy than I do about the death of a drug dealer. Those in public service are (in theory) serving us, and we do not like to see them punished for being our voices, our symbols. This is why Giffords gets attention, and being a white woman helps.

I mean, somebody touches a hair on Emma Stone’s head, you better believe I’m giving that some serious strongly-worded ink.

And it isn’t just race, either. It’s not just that we identify more strongly with those who look like us. It’s almost certainly that we identify more strongly with those we’ve been around, those we’ve had meaningful relationships with. It’s the plot of countless stories involving race relations – honky hates darky; honky develops relationship with driver/hairdresser/long-lost relative/ – oh who am I kidding, Morgan Freeman. It’s always Morgan Freeman. White person meets Morgan Freeman and isn’t as scared anymore. Lovely. White person then would be quite upset to see Morgan Freeman’s picture in newspaper next to “murdered.”

I mean, Mowgli cared mostly about animals and stuff. It’s all relative.

So, okay, think of it not as all of us being racists. Think of it as all of us being products of our environments. Then there’s something we can do about it. Barbara Kingsolver writes “time erases all whiteness” in The Poisonwood Bible, and we can erase the white (or whatever) preference in our psyches, maybe, by strengthening our Morgan Freeman mental muscles.

I’ll do it if you do it. I freely admit I do not consider all people equal in my regard. No one does. But I will take my personal predilections for people like Emma Stone and Robert Kennedy and I will find pictures of the most dissimilar people imaginable. I can already tell you that person will probably be wearing an oversized white t-shirt, because for some reason those just drive me up the wall. And I will spend, I don’t know, maybe twenty seconds a day looking at the picture and saying, “This person has value. This person has value.”

It won’t diminish the value of Ms. Love and Ms. Martinez. There’s no need to care less about them. Empathy is not zero-sum; it cannot be. As Juliet says of love, “The more I give to thee / The more I have, for both are infinite.” If we work enough to care enough about enough of the people in this world who suffer, we may then care enough not to kill even the ones who inflicted the suffering.

Because the only other option is to end the hypocrisy and own up to the fact that some lives, because of race and gender, are worth more. It’s an unspoken secret already – look at Natalee Holloway – and I think we should bring it out in the open, write it into our very language. 

The Coen brothers have remade True Grit. I won’t spoil anything by telling you that there’s a scene in which the precocious young white woman of the film chats with Matt Damon’s lovable Texas Ranger about some fine points of the law. Damon uses the terms malum in se and malum prohibitum. Both describe things that are wrong, or bad. One is bad in and of itself (in se) while another is so only because society has deemed it so by law (prohibitum). Example? Driving without your seatbelt on is malum prohibitum. Rape is malum in se.

Except, as one law website points out, “the distinction is somewhat slippery.” Because circumstances are everything.

“Yes, they deserved to die, and I hope they burn in hell!” Samuel Jackson is all about malum prohibitum. As is pretty much every other vigilante movie – and there are a ton, aren’t there? – including True Grit, where lots of folks die because they done the little white girl wrong. I think this spirit is best captured in True Lies, when Jamie Lee Curtis asks her husband, the huggable Governator, if he ever killed anyone, and he says, in accent, “Yes, but dey were all bad.

We make exceptions for malum in se all the time, or we set up pyramid ranking schemes for bad acts. Killing women is worse, so we punish their murderers more and we punish female offenders less. Killing black people is better, so we cut black intraracial murderers a break. There is victim and Victim, and furthermore since we kill an arbitrary population of our criminals each year, we don’t even consider murder to be a wrong in itself. The death penalty’s application in this country makes our sense of right and wrong appear very fuzzy indeed.

What happens because of all this? The last image of True Grit is of a tombstone and a woman who’s lost an arm.

We all lose in this system. We’re all made less human. Check your watch; check your news. Did it happen? Were you a supporter of the act?

To Palin, With Love

Last week I watched an episode of Friday Night Lights from season four. If you don’t watch it, you might be surprised at how good it is, and it’s free on Netflix, but this is not the point.

Coach Eric Taylor has a kid on his team whose locker is searched in the middle of the day. The police were looking for a gun. They didn’t find one. Coach has a hard time figuring out what to do about the situation, but ends up asking the kid straight up, and privately, if he owns a gun. The kid says no.

Great. Except that later the kid shows up at Coach Taylor’s house to give him the gun, even though we’ve had a scene where we learned about how dangerous the kid’s neighborhood is and all that. So now the gun is on Coach’s kitchen table and his wife asks him what he’s going to do about it.

“It’s going to disappear,” he says, and that ends it. And I thought, how does a gun disappear?

Can you melt guns down and turn them into something else? I got cute and thought I coined the phrase “guns into plowshares,” a play on the Biblical expression to beat swords into plowshares – in other words, to take your weapons and turn them into tools of cultivation.

I decided to run a test Google search, and here is what I found.

Yes, that’s a plowshare made of guns. Here’s some information about it paraphrased from a Washington Post article. The sculpture was made in the 90s by a Mennonite sculptress, Esther Augsburger, and her son Michael. It was inspired by a gun buyback in Washington, D.C., which was funded by Riddick Bowe, boxing heavyweight champ. People could come and turn in a gun and get $100, “no questions asked.”

Another website called this an amnesty program. Amnesty is such a beautiful word, and it’s Amnesty International’s 50th birthday year, so it’s worth noting that the word dates in English from at least the 16th century, and comes from the same Greek word that gives us amnesia. Amnesty has its roots in forgetfulness, in other words. It’s issuing a blanket pardon – and while it can be a frustrating deed (I just watched Jonathan Demme’s The Agronomist, which describes a time in Haiti’s history when those responsible for a military coup were granted amnesty and a cushy exile simply for turning over power that shouldn’t have been theirs to begin with), while it can be frustrating, it can also be a crucial element in moving towards a better future.

Which is harder, to forgive, or to forget? To grant amnesty is to, at least linguistically, not just pardon a past deed, but to forget it. To say you are not going to think of it any more. To say, perhaps, that it never happened. Is that an act of empowerment or a dangerous delusion, a neglecting of the past?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu asks this question in his book No Future Without Forgiveness. In a chapter entitled “Nuremberg or National Amnesia? A Third Way”, he weighs the pros and cons of amnesty, of forgetting. By providing amnesty to those who came forward and testified before South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Tutu and his colleagues were able to bring to light many stories of torture and tragedy, stories which might have remained repressed if those involved were fearing prosecution. So amnesty did its part in bringing about catharsis and healing. But Tutu recognized that there could not simply be a national forgetting. There must also be forgiveness:

To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. What dehumanizes you inexorably dehumanizes me. It gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them.

He uses a word, ubuntu, which he says is difficult to translate: “a person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good…is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished…or treated as if they were less than who they are.”

I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t unusually moved or shocked or disturbed by the shooting in Arizona. I don’t know why, and I won’t analyze it. But I’ve thought about it about as much as the next person, and I had a moment of disgust when the stuff about the crosshairs and Sarah Palin hate rhetoric and all that first bubbled up out of the punditpot. And I thought about trying to collect evidence against her and any other hatemongers and writing about it here to really, you know, nail those people.

Now, at the height of my Bush hatred, I watched Keith Olbermann a couple of times. I couldn’t believe that he existed. He was so angry! He said so many outrageous things! Wow! He’s like a liberal Fox News! I got tired of it pretty quickly. But today on HuffPo I saw a recap of Olbermann’s response to the Arizona shooting. And apparently he says, “we need to put the guns down,” but that we also need “to put the gun metaphors away and permanently.”

The metaphors? Oh my, I just got the fuzzies. In a good way.

You know the first post on this blog was about how a metaphor – that of the jokester shouting fire in a crowded theater – came to obscure the political issue at hand – the freedom to dissent in wartime. So I’m no stranger to the idea that metaphors are no joke.

And as you may have seen, plenty of people, angry with the media for “targeting” Sarah Palin as a source of blame for this shooting – the political map with the crosshairs, or whatever – have “fired” back, digging up an Obama quote from a Philly fundraiser where he says, “if they” meaning the big bad GOP enemy “bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.” And on and on it goes.

Which is another nice thing about what Olbermann does. He apologizes: “Violence, or the threat of violence, has no place in our Democracy, and I apologize for and repudiate any act or any thing in my past that may have even inadvertently encouraged violence. Because for whatever else each of us may be, we all are Americans.”

Okay, I grant you this lacks a certain something. Have you ever been in a fight with your significant other and you said, “I’m sorry for everything,” or “for whatever I did,” or, “if you’re angry at me, I’m sorry.” It’s a little lazy, right? As if you couldn’t be troubled to dig back and find even one example of a faulty action of yours – or at worst it’s disingenuous; you don’t even really believe there are any.

I still have to think it cuts more mustard than Palin’s response, copied from Facebook:

My sincere condolences are offered to the family of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims of today’s tragic shooting in Arizona. 

On behalf of Todd and my family, we all pray for the victims and their families, and for peace and justice.

 – Sarah Palin

I do feel like an opportunity was missed there to say a little something something about the state of debate in the nation, but hey, okay, maybe it’s early yet. And besides that, I want to say that I love Sarah Palin for writing that.

If you’ve had a job, or if you’ve been a human for more than a few hours, you’ve had to interact with people you don’t like. And you’ve almost certainly been subservient to a bunch of them. And you’ve found that you could go home or into your little corner and scream about it or drink it off at happy hour or what have you, or you could start looking at the whole situation differently.

David Foster Wallace talks about this in one of my favorite pieces of writing ever, his commencement address to Kenyon College. Please, please, read it in its entirety, but I want to sample his own words for a bit rather than my clumsy approximation of them:

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Wallace says that the truth of these scenarios you concoct is not the point; the point is your power to choose the way you will think about the things that happen to you. But I want to go one further than that. Because I’ve had his words rattling in my brain for a few years now, I’ve taught the speech a few times, and I’ve worked at it. And it does something to you.

I’m not about to go all Jesus on you, but I am going to introduce C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. In a chapter on charity, he instructs the reader thus: “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”

I owe it to a friend of mine that I apologized to a student when I wasn’t really feeling sorry. And a change started to happen. By telling him I saw it his way, I began to see it that way more and more. So when I had the most frustrating students of my brief career, I was from then on armed with a new empathy. I would say the words first, or perform the action first – “I’m sorry” – and the sentiments would follow. Or in Wallace-terms, if I look at the woman in the checkout counter and imagine her more lovable, I love her more.

It’s a kind of magic, I think. And I can’t help but feel it’s wrapped up in the words themselves; I just think words like forgive and mercy and pardon and amnesty and apology and sorry have a kind of power of their own. They take over when we need them to, they fill in the gap between what we want to feel and what we feel.

So I don’t want to zing Sarah Palin. I want to love her. I want to know more about the way she thinks and see the good in her. Because who am I, after all? What makes me first, best, smartest?

To me, the Tea Party anger, or the conservative pushback in America right now, is happening because people feel passionately about maintaining the status quo, about holding on to what they have or what they want their children to be able to have, and they get very angry when that status is threatened. They get defensive. I’m a defensive person. I get it.

So I think this is a time to put away the gun metaphors, as Olbermann says,  and to pray for peace and justice, as Palin says, if prayer’s your thing. And I think it’s a time to take a leap of faith and start loving the people who think differently than we do. Don’t worry about feeling it yet. Just start out by visualizing one and saying, aloud, I love you, or I forgive you, or I understand you – whatever feels most appropriate. Because I think this is a time for amnesty, even with its troublesome connotations of amnesia. If we want to reform political discourse in this country, we need to pardon past faults, because all are guilty, so that we can move forward and get better.

For further delectation, I recommend the Peace and Civility Pledge by Jim Wallis, friend to Representative Giffords, for his Sojourners blog. A sample pledge point:

4. We pledge that when we disagree, we will do so respectfully, without falsely impugning the other’s motives, attacking the other’s character, or questioning the other’s faith. We will be mindful of our language, being neither arrogant nor boastful in our beliefs as we strive to “be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2).

It’s a worthy piece regardless of one’s spirituality, but if you’re in more of a secular mood, go and listen to what Jon Stewart said about all this, if you haven’t already. Because it made me wonder, as I have often with the guy, where did this man come from and how did he get so wise?

Oh, and it’s a time to find a new place for Guns into Plowshares, because right now apparently it’s in a “fenced-in compound not far from the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant,” and it deserves better. You know, there are critics of gun buybacks; one of the major criticisms, as you might imagine, is that it’s law-abiding folks who turn in their guns while the criminals keep theirs, so it makes things easier for the bad guys. But I think it’s a fight worth losing. I can say that, I guess, because I don’t have kids or don’t live in a bad neighborhood, but still, if I had to choose between being a part, even a law-abiding part, of this nation’s gun problem, or being a victim of gun violence, I’m choosing the victimhood.

Because I know all you good people will make me a martyr and I’ll live forever.

Friend (2)

But seriously. Either Sean Parkers’s right and we’re living more and more in the internet, or my perception’s skewed from living around too many teenagers. And think about this – when’s the last time you had a photo taken of yourself and you didn’t immediately look at it? I know my Amish friends have one answer, but digital photography is part of it too – it’s much easier to make our past into what we want it to be. Just take the photo again.

Please welcome, to get us to some kind of conclusion, our fourth and final Zuckerberg: Facebook Mark. 

Recently I was drafted, via facebook, to join a campaign to get facebook to power itself using alternative energy sources. Greenpeace is behind the movement, and besides having a cute little cartoon version of big bad facebook making all kinds of smog, the activists in charge are trying to get those interested to send Mark Zuckerberg person messages about this. Yes, Virginia, you really can send Zuckerberg a message, Greenpeace assured me. So I bit.

Taking a look at his facebook page was like staring into an abyss. His music “likes” are the following: Green Day, Daft Punk, Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, Nirvana, Rihanna, The Killers, The All-American Rejects, Linkin Park, Shakira, John Mayer, U2, Katy Perry, Ingrid Michaelson, Taylor Swift, Radiohead, LCD Soundsystem.

It’s as if Ryan Seacrest ran a Google search on “how to become 3% edgier.”

Granted, his film likes, while pretty bland, show you more of the man TIME said “decided to film a complete Star Wars parody called The Star Ways Sill-ogy.” And it is interesting to see that he likes “Eliminating Desire” (and for the record, only 858 of facebook’s 550 million are on board with that one). But the man, or rather this public simulacrum (image, representation, with connotation of insubstantialness) of him, feels pretty calculated: “Fortune favors the bold,” plus one quote from Picasso and Einstein each, and, Heaven help us, the Yankees logo. You get the feeling that if you walk into his bedroom you will see a poster of John Lennon with that stupid New York City t-shirt on.

Of course, most everyone’s facebook persona feels calculated, because they are. They’re our chance to invent ourselves the way we want to be seen – facebook has taken the college life and fed it back to itself, and now turned the world into one giant college. And everyone who’s been through college (remember: the parents and old school reporters), they’re all starting to think, Hmmm, I kinda remember some downsides to this. Like other people’s hair in my sink.

Speaking of college, let’s take a moment for the Virginia Tech shooting. I was in college at the time, and I was on facebook, and I read the updates as people I knew at VT or people who knew people started chirping to let everyone know they were okay. And then I saw something that really rubbed me the wrong way. I later rubbed others the wrong way by discussing it, but here it is again:

You remember this? “Today, we are all Hokies.” It’s empathetic. But for me it pushes too far. There are people who were personally affected by that incident, and others who weren’t, but who felt something. But that does not make them a Hokie. In fact, it was that day that I probably least understood what it’s like to be or to feel like a Hokie. Nobody came onto my campus. I understand the sentiment, but if POTYZuck has his way and we’re all eventually friends on facebook, does that mean we’ll all be Iranians when a student protestor gets arrested? We’ll all be gay when someone else kills himself? Does it mean that we’ll live in a blissful state of frienddom, or that we’ll gloss over major differences in the sake of political correctness – dubbing us all “humans” just as we currently smash a spectrum of social interactions into “friend”?

One time while teaching American Literature I asked my students to try to tell me how many people actually died in certain events in American history. A major example of course was September 11 – about 3,000 people. When the kids didn’t do too hot at the numbers game, I had the idea to have us all make a list of everyone we “know.” They would ask me, does so and so go on the list? My friend from 5th grade? And I would say, if someone asked you, “do you know him?”, would you say yes? That was the sole criterion. The classes were fairly small, but still, in no period, after compiling all the lists (I left all duplicate names in), in no period did we equal 3,000. In all of my classes, we all would have lost every single person we knew.

A shorthand version of this experiment is to check your number of friends on Facebook and see how it measures up to that number or a similar one. And in this way, perhaps Facebook, by getting us to think about all the many people we consider “friend” in that context, can get us to realize the limits of our own understanding, instead of falsely extending them.

It’s a limited understanding, too, because we’re not even becoming “friends” with each other’s real selves – we’re just reading and rereading the edited selves that we all put out into the Fworld. We’re kidding ourselves into thinking we’re staying in touch with or making connections with old and new and similar and foreign people, but it’s turning us into Zuckerzombies who see each other’s daydreams as “news” and become forlorn if we post some thought that isn’t “liked.”

Oh and we get thrown into groups against our free will. I mean, yeah, we can leave, but that’s not the point, right? Principles! Actually I was put into a group for which I am thankful. It’s called “That’s So Football Player,” and it’s a real study in sociology. The intent is to highlight the idiocy of the phrase “that’s so gay,” and to show how alternative phrases would be offensive to other people. But it seems as though some of the people behind it then force-enrolled a number of their fuzzy language targets – like, you know, football players – and these draftees kicked back. From the wall:

“screw fags”

“this is gay”

“gay as [f-word]!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

That’s amusing to me, because anyone knows that more than two exclamation points means you’re writing in gay code. I’ve studied this. It’s true.

But my personal favorite is “this phrase doesnt even make sense.. there’s supposed to be an adjective and football player is a noun. fail. haha no homo…”

Bless you, John. You at least gave it some thought. Now here, to illustrate the perils of Facebook non-privacy, I will paste a photo of one of the “Football Player” hate speechers. I got it from the F without being friends with the guy.

He looks like a Tucker Carlson in training, right? Anyway, don’t get me started on facebook activism. Yeah I like how nonprofits can network but we all had the backlash of those “1,000,000” for Darfur groups: clicking can give you some kind of tiny catharsis, and delude you into thinking you’ve actually done something. So Facebook could turn us into a billion people who care about everything and do nothing about all of it.

Okay, I’ll breathe. Facebook is great. I know that. We’re not stupid. For the most part, we understand the difference between genuine communion between two beings and a wall-to-wall (although, how odd is the new “See Friendship” business?) And even if we don’t, even if interaction is changing irrevocably, it’s okay: we’re here at the revolution; we’re a country larger than any except India and China, and I bet we could take them if it came to a fistfight.

But you know, the other day I was in this actual room with this actual friend of mine and I wanted to tell him something that had happened to me, and he said, Yeah, I know, I saw that on Facebook.

And that shit’s annoying, right?

Friend, or Where are we going and why are we in this handbasket? (1)

The other day a friend and I took a short roadtrip. When I came to pick her up, her 5-year-old grandson was disappointed to be losing her company. “My grandma has too many friends,” he said. She replied, “You can never have too many friends.” He retorted “yes you can,” and would have done so indefinitely, I am sure, had she not told him to go wake up his mother.

So who’s right?

This is what Merriam-Webster gives us as etymology for “friend”:
Middle English frend, from Old English frēond; akin to Old High German friunt friend, Old English frēon to love, frēo free. First Known Use: before 12th century
It’s an interesting idea that friend comes from free love, but really we’re here to talk about how this word has or has not been warped by one Mark Zuckerberg and his army of flying monkeys. But to begin we need to know just which Zuckerberg we’re dealing with.
There’s the one TIME chose as Person of the Year (no longer “Man” since 1999), represented by writer Lev Grossman in an accompanying article that teeters dangerously close to puff piece. And there’s the one fictionalized by Aaron Sorkin in The Social Network, which is making hay early in the awards season – Best Picture from the National Board of Review, and 6 Globe nominations. 

To start with the film: leave it to Sorkin and David Fincher to create the perfect movie to tell their version of Facebook’s founding; the film’s music, script and design hit the perfect pitch of slick to make you want to be invited to the party – the driving force behind their Zuckerberg.

The man himself, who rented out theaters to have Facebook employees see the movie, brushes this off.  To Grossman, he explained thus: “The biggest thing they missed is the concept that you would have to want to do something – date someone or get into some final club – in order to be motivated to do something like this. It just like completely misses the actual motivation for what we’re doing, which is, we think it’s an awesome thing to do.”

Why awesome? “The thing that I really care about is making the world more open and connected…Open means having access to more information, right? More transparency, being able to share things and have a voice in the world. And connected is helping people to stay in touch and maintain empathy for each other, and bandwidth.” Grossman goes on to suggest that it’s Zuckerberg’s real life happy little social circles that inspire his wanting to make the world into one big family.

And he does take a brief time out to describe and dismiss a potential third Zuckerberg – the guy who wants to steal all of our information and sell it to the highest bidder. I’ll leave you to read the article to find out why that’s bogus. The TIME piece really is an interesting and well-written analysis of Fbook and the internet of the 21st century. Take this, for instance:

[Facebook] suspends the natural process by which old friends fall away over time, allowing them to build up endlessly, producing the social equivalent of liver failure. On Facebook, there is one kind of relationship: friendship, and you have it with everybody. You’re friends with your spouse, and you’re friends with your plumber.

Too true, right? I just went to “Edit Friends” on my profile (which itself is a real verbal treat), and checked my 51 “A” first name buddies. I have spoken, in person, in the last twelve months, to 18 of them, and many are students.

And don’t act like you’re better than me.

So it isn’t a case of “will the real Mark Zuckerberg please stand up?” The point at issue here is not why was this made, but why are we using it? I think Jesse Eisenberg’s performance in the film highlights this – the movie ends (not a real spoiler, but…) with him refreshing his laptop, waiting to see if someone will accept his friend request. His stare is blank – a characteristic of the real man, but for a different reason: Zuck’s lights go out when he’s not getting useful information out of you – Eisenberg goes eyes-dead at various points in the film, I think to demonstrate that he really doesn’t see a point to any of it. Sorkin’s writing is better than Grossman makes out. Eisenberg gets invited to the party. Big deal. He gets the money. Not the point. But what is it? He gives us no answer because he doesn’t have one. He likes playing with this big shiny toy – it’s “awesome,” as Z-berg said.

Full disclosure (and how tired are you of that trending phrase?): I am a facebookhead. Recently I’ve been amazed by how easy it is to get and spread information about nonprofits, so I can see where POTYear Zuck is coming from. But I also remember first impressions of social networks: listening through the wall as a college roommate looked up a person in his class, seeing if he had given any hints as to relationship status. I remember tagging a friend in a photo, not thinking he would be embarrassed by it, and having him retaliate by tagging multiple ones of me dancing to Whitney Houston. I mean, there was a time that was every Friday, so now you know. You’re welcome.

And all that crap. And I certainly have plenty of memories of cycling through people’s photos and walls and all the rest of it – so I understand Eisenberg’s endgame too, clicking refresh refresh waiting for something real to happen. Clicking and coding and uploading simply because it’s there, and not having any real conception of what it means for the future.

Maybe we’re still leaving that stuff, the philosophical stuff, to our parents (and then they join Facebook, and…the horror). Part of the allure here for people like me has to be the idea that we’re present at the revolution. Zuckerberg, I was surprised to find out, is just a year older than I am. And so when grayhairs in Newsweek come out with articles like “The Secret Cost of Using Facebook,” we dismiss them as we dismissed the people who kept calling it “the” or “a facebook” for two minutes too late. Yeah, I get that I’m being sold ads based on my drunken photos and I get that none of this is ever going to truly disappear, alright. And while we’re at it, I get that what Julian Assange and Wikileaks did probably damaged international relations. I get that this all might be cruising to some very very bad conclusion. But it’s going to be very very bad for everyone.

There’s a part in the film where Sean Parker, the Napster dude, is excitedly talking about how we all take more pictures so that we can all upload more pictures so that we can all scroll through more pictures, and he says that people used to live on farms and in cities, but now they will live in the internet.

We all know where that gets us. And it is not good for Jeff Bridges’ Zen thing, man.

In Part 2, we’ll see what happens when we plug into the grid.