Sunday, March 24, 2013

We Have Failed You

I will thank Melissa Harris-Perry for lighting a fire under me, to get me back to this blog, because of her message to the 16-year-old victim of rape in Steubenville, who has just seen justice done and seen two young boys shown that hubris and arrogance are not effective shields against law and justice.

You may peruse the video for yourself, and unless you are heartless, it will move you. The one sentence from the whole thing that got to me most was:

“I am sorry we have failed you.”
This simple sentence says more than just about anything, because this shameful and deplorable incident does not merely affect the town of Steubenville, OH, but has repercussions that rippled outward to consume our nation, and possibly the world. For this was not simply a tale of a young girl being drunk and being taken advantage of, which might have disappeared into the fog of youth in decades past. No, this was a moment of degradation broadcast for the world to see, brought to light by those forces of the Internet that seek to goad our society into actually righting wrongs as opposed to our continually claiming that we are a nation that stands on the principles of truth and justice while we turn a blind eye.

The "we" in that sentence is not some ephemeral construct, but the living, breathing condensation of a nation built around the concept of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To allow for those things, our nation is built on law, law crafted out of thousands of years of law and governance and spirituality that have imbued every person on Earth at one time or another with a sense of what counts as "right" and "wrong." Of course, those concepts are not static - as little as one hundred-fifty years ago, the idea that white American landowners could own black slaves was considered not just "right" but couched as  one of the "inalienable" rights oft mentioned. We moved our morality further from that particular stance through the auspices of blood.

I digress.

So, what Melissa Harris-Perry was getting at was, that We -- all of us -- failed this young girl. The failure extended far beyond the confines of the former manufacturing town; it could be said to rest on the dinner table in every American home, inside every public or private classroom, on every news broadcast, within every movie theater... it pervades every corner of our society, a clinging, seeping miasma of privilege and patriarchy that seeks to continue to control us as it has over a thousand generations. Though we no longer wrapped in the ignorance of the Middle Ages or those centuries previous, the faint echo of them continues to wash over us, causing us to live in a bubble of hypocrisy, where we proclaim the freedom of the individual even as we seek to deny it to many and denigrate them for trying to take it as their own, as is their due.

Individual responsibility is the clarion call that rings the rafters of our nation, only to have it fall upon deaf ears when young-and-talented boys engaged in popular sports ply debauchery at the expense of a young girl who is helpless to defend herself. Or when bankers seek to peddle dreams wrapped in tissue paper, then sit back as the world around them collapses, secure in their fortifications of wealth. Or when we will not take the logical precautions that might keep citizens from being gunned down in the streets by maniacs who find it all too easy to arm themselves like combat soldiers. Or when we continue to allow our nation to be so steeped in want, need, and hunger while some simply toss away the plenty they are given.

No, the failure is pervasive, and nowhere does it crystallize more than in the rape of this young woman, because it is horrid enough that it should happen, that these young men should be surrounded by a local culture that tells them that who they are gives them the right to do what they want, but that even when justice is finally served, some in that same community would seek to continue to pummel this girl further, to heap degradation upon depredation. What does that say of us, that some cannot so easily see that the rape of a girl, or a woman, or a man, or anyone of any stripe, is solely the province of the victim?

It says that the values we pretend to abide by, the beliefs we claim to live by, and the words we take as gospel are mere phantoms, not at all a part of our moral fiber. You may wave a holy book above your head, expound upon the righteousness of documents over two hundred years old, but at the end of the day, they are worth nothing if you do not understand, but more importantly, practice, what they say. Our society is a contradiction, saying that we as individuals have rights, but we owe a greater debt to all of us as a whole, but that seeming contradiction is not so, when we consider that while our energies individually can sustain only ourselves, it is by combining them, that we accomplish much more than any individual can hope to. Look around you, and see the belts of copper that drive electricity to the far corners of our nation, the ribbons of steel and asphalt that move our goods and ourselves, the invisible waves that blanket our globe and allow us contact with anyone, anywhere, at any time.

Where we have the right to be an individual, we have a responsibility to our fellow citizens. Our individual rights and freedoms are ours as long as we do not intend or attempt to impose them on others. We do not ask everyone to believe the same thing, but we do ask everyone to understand that there are some things that move beyond the realm of individual belief and are best for everyone. Our law is just such a thing, seeking to apply the same level of justice to every person, no matter who they are. Our law says that your right to be yourself is protected; it does not say you may violate the rights of another with impunity.

So yes, We failed. We failed this girl because we have let our society wander from the path that built it, a path that said you would reap what you sowed, a path that said that together we would create a nation of liberty and law. We have let too many in this nation pervert it, weaken laws, weaken public discourse, put their interests above those of the nation. We failed this girl because we allowed hubris to be substituted for judgement, arrogance to be substituted for rights. We failed this girl... and we cannot allow ourselves to fail her, or anyone else, again.