Romney, "pranks" and the tortureable class

by John MacBeath Watkins

The Washington Post, in a widely discussed bit of reporting, found that as a teenager, Mitt Romney appears to have taken part in a gay-bashing incident.

The report is here, and I'm a big believer in reading original sources, so I recommend you read the story, and if you think journalism should be paid for, even click on some of the Washington Post's ads. Because this is real journalism, where you go out and ask embarrassing questions. I used to do this stuff for a living, and you'd be surprised how hard it is. It's impolite, and frowned on, and just not the done thing, and certain people count on that to keep their secrets. Journalists are hated for doing this sort of thing, and it's their job.

Romney seems to have organized an assault on a student who was "presumed to be gay." I read somewhere that three out of four students in high school and middle school who are gay-bashed are actually straight. So if you're worried about whether the student was actually gay, don't. You see, the way bullies operate, they don't get to beat up everybody. They are supposed to have a reason. So, if you're a little different, a little lonely, a little vulnerable, you're an obvious target, but they need a justification.

In one of my favorite novels, Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene has the head of the secret police menace a vacuum cleaner salesman who has tried to get a little extra money for his daughter by pretending to have secrets to sell to the British, discussing with him the question of who belongs to the "torturable class."

Not everyone can be tortured, even in Batista's Cuba. You have to belong to a group that is considered fair game. It's the same with bullies.

Jamie has mentioned being gay-bashed in spite of being straight. It happened to me, too, and it happens to a lot of straight kids. One result is that there are an awful lot of straights out there who know from personal experience what gay kids go through, although it has to be a lot worse for those who are really gay.

I realized when it was happening that the kids beating me up were probably aware that I wasn't gay. It was just a label that allowed them to engage in a behavior that they liked. I graduated from high school with credit from five different institutions, a thing I have in common with a lot of military brats. It's not bad if the high school is full of brats, they understand. It's when you go to a high school where your classmates went to kindergarten together that this sort of thing happens. You're different, you're part of the torturable class. They just have to find a name for it.

I'm sure it's much worse when you are attacked for who you are. But the motives of the bullies don't really change because of who you are. For bullies like the 18-year-old Mitt Romney, who you are isn't really the issue so much as the fact that you are different, and vulnerable.

Romney seems to have made a calculation that he could get away with pinning down the boy who was "presumed to be gay" without being punished. He was right, he didn't get punished, because at that school, at that time, it was apparently acceptable behavior to assault someone "presumed to be gay."

In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke offered a spirited defense of prejudice. And in the anti-bullying law passed in Michigan recently, the Washington Post reports that:
All they need to do, according to the newly passed legislation, is claim that their bullying was based on “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.”
 Conservatives have gone to the mat to defend the right to bully people as long as you do it based on "a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.." Because, although Burke was arguing in favor of the respect we have for authority based on the accumulated wisdom of our culture, his defense of prejudice had a lot to do with the conservative world view. It has its dark corners, like any world view, and one of them is that the "accumulated wisdom" of the culture may include cruelty to those who don't belong. They may be the wrong color, speak the wrong language, date the wrong people. People like the youthful Mitt Romney respond by saying:
“He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” an incensed Romney told Matthew Friedemann, his close friend in the Stevens Hall dorm, according to Friedemann’s recollection. Mitt, the teenage son of Michigan Gov. George Romney, kept complaining about Lauber’s look, Friedemann recalled.
Because to be different is to be wrong, and a member of the torturable class.

Oh, and let's just clear up one more thing. A "prank" is a humorous incident that is all in good fun. Romney may choose to remember the incident in question as a "prank," but to its victim, all indications are that it seemed more like an assault.