I don’t know if anyone else here is old enough to recall either version of The Ox Bow Incident, the brilliant, classic 1940 novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark…
…which was made into William Wellman’s classic-redux 1943 movie starring Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews. The book and film are the definitive study of the lynch mob mentality. They also constitute a useful lens for viewing the recent brouhaha (Brouhaha? Hahahaha….) which recently erupted over some anonymous lowlife’s calculated release of Josh Hader’s racist, homophobic and misogynistic teenaged tweets.
Now, I can understand how, in this Pox Trumpicana, folks have become oversensitive, even hysterical, about the encouragement overt or tacit of such noxious attitudes and comments. Rabble biases we might have thought we’d driven back to their barstools have re-emerged like rhetorical Freddy Kruegers. We’re beginning to appreciate just how hard to kill such manifestations of ignorance really are, and it’s unsettling. Perhaps it’s only natural that any mention, however trivial, of bigotry or misogyny should inflame our sense of political correctitude and inspire us to overreact. Nevertheless, it’s times like these which ought to make us more circumspect, not less. When our dendrites are frayed, we’re all the more susceptible to the scapegoating mentality. If the springback of gutter attitudes has taught us anything, it’s that these emotional diseases were never eradicated; they just spun cocoons of resentment around themselves and crouched in the shadows, waiting for a pandering demagogue like Trump to let them out of their cages. So, we should have realized by now that gutter sensibilities can’t be bludgeoned into submission. They certainly can’t be scapegoated into withdrawing back into the sewers of American culture. And trying to make a scapegoat out of a dumb teenager who had yet to grow up smells a lot like a lynching.
In singling out a Chinese laborer as one of its main victims, Clark’s novel was also a lucid indictment of the widespread lynchings of Americans of color, especially (but not only) in the beaten and still smarting former Confederate states. The herding of Japanese-Americans into concentration camps was only two years away. In its representation of the faces and body language of the mob, the movie poster does a good job of depicting the irrational, paranoid, xenophobia-fueled hatred the lynch mentality burns like Sterno :
Coincidentally, I recently came across an old copy of the Classics Illustrated (remember them, or am I also one of the few here old enough to remember them as well?) edition of the novel in a used book and comic collector’s store:
Fifteen cents. Dear Buddha. Anyway, those of us who have labored in the vineyard of the humanities in academia used to think of these comics as “the poor man’s Cliffs Notes.” Not me. I read the CI version when I was maybe twelve years old. Its exposure of the psychological mechanics of the mob mentality made quite an impression on me. I finally got to read Clark’s masterpiece in its original splendor maybe eight or nine years later, and watched the VHS edition of the film not long after that. I have always respected this wonderful series of comic books because I believe they brought a lot more kids to great literature than generations of clueless grade school teachers who might otherwise have befouled their aesthetic sensibility beyond reclamation. Maybe if we still had them, the response to Hader’s youthful indiscretions wouldn’t have been so over the top.
And they told the story well. The Classics Illustrated version of the novel pulled no punches despite its unavoidable abridgment. It alerted me to how easily human emotions, not to mention ideologies – which are really no more than emotions frozen into patterns like water in a snowflake and posed as ideas – can run orf the rails without a lot of encouragement.
I’ve been reading the tug-and-shove going on between sports journalists, bloggers and fans about L’affaire Hader, about, I mean, his tweetrolites revealed during that irrepressible American exercise in ballot stuffing known as the All Star Game. The now 24-years-old Brewers reliever was promptly pilloried in the square like Quasimodo. This entire teapot tempest reminded me, without having to dig much for it, of the hysterical run-up to the lynching of Clark’s innocent victims.
Some of the responses stinking most pungently of sanctimony came from Hardball Talk’s correspondents Bill Baer and Ashley Varela. I don’t frequent HBT anymore so I don’t know much about Varela. I wound up over there because of something another correspondent here wrote about Paper Lions and I went looking for it. Instead I was, frankly, surprised at the viciousness of Baer’s response. Hader should be suspended for something he wrote eight years ago. An example (the word Baer wanted but couldn’t summon up the honesty to use was, of course, “scapegoat”) should be made of him. He dismissed Hader’s youth as though DNA evidence had solved a cold case mass murder instead of disclosing a handful of musty tweets.
In fact, if any one jaundiced attitude has prevailed amongst the so-called ladies and gentlemen of the press, it is something along the lines of his youthfulness being irrelevant, his bigoted “inner self” having been preserved in aspic and standing orf the ravages of time and maturity like Rodan’s eggs. In other words, there’s no way Josh Hader grew up. With their preternatural second sight the keyboard jockeys of the spawrts press or the semi-literate windbags of the spawrts tork dystopiae have peered into this young man’s soul and found it as unchanged and unchanging as a black diamond. That twittering fool was the “real” Josh Hader, you see, even though there’s no evidence that he kept up his tweeting cannonade of alt-right imbecilities after his seventeenth year. He’s still the earwig in the rose despite his teammates of all colors and dispositions getting along with him just fine, thank you. His Latina sports businesswoman girlfriend supports him unflinchingly. There’s not a hint of the Harvey Weinstein or Mario Battali about him, apparently.
Of course there have been a number of gestures towards John Rocker, notwithstanding Rocker made his moronic comments in the full carrion flower of adulthood instead of as a callow teenager and has gone right on making them, cashing in on them, to the present day. It’s a limping comparison, but that seems to be the quality of “thought” we ought to expect from our spawrts jernalists these days.
The response of MLB was predictable: “sensitivity training.” It’s a feelgood option canted towards public relations. ST always struck me as about as efficacious as Middle Dynasty Egyptian trepanning. Or maybe it’s more akin to waterboarding, but gently (pardon the extenuated metaphor; the spectacle of Dick Cheney administering a sensitivity class pickles my imagination). A day with your sensitivity trainer will yield the new, empathetic you like some latterday Eliza Doolittle. Who knows? Who, exactly, are they subjecting to this fad-psychological waste of time – the current Josh Hader, who seems to be in no need of it, or the 17-year old Josh Hader lurking intact within the contemporaneous adult like a homunculus? What, after all, is the statute of limitations on teenage nincompoopery?
Another favorite kvetch: at 17, Hader “should have known” what he was doing was wrong. Should he have? Does everyone mature at the same rate? Please give me a break. What was his social circle like? Was he going to a seminary or a local public school? I would love to be able to look back with some of these judgmental crock-artists at the kinds of TOOTBLANS they were at Hader’s age.
So, we were maybe inching past this cultural crisis akin to nothing less drastic than the panic inspired by the Hen of Leeds (speaking of Rodan, coincidentally) when Hader took the mound for the Brewers yesterday. The enthusiastic ovation that greeted his appearance seemed to re-inflame the spawrts moralists as if someone had given their hemorrhoids a lime juice enema. Rather than maybe encourage some of these keyboard flamers to re-think, or at least re-examine, their vested positions, the support for Hader voiced by the Milwaukee fans merely catalyzed an even more virulent cycle of journalistic rage and condemnation. I read a few who claimed, more or less, that the fans were “encouraging” his misanthropy, never mind he’d apologized already. “This will encourage him to avoid taking responsibility for his…eh…crimes,” they roared, never mind he had called himself “ignorant” and “stupid” (his own words) as a kid, and also submitted – wisely, given the Something-Wicked-this-way-Comes carnival atmosphere surrounding him – to the indignity of MLB’s nonsensical sensitivity program.
Anyone who’s been following my baseball blogs here or in other venues for the past decade and change knows that with a few exceptions I find sportswriters a generally self-serving and ignorant bunch. I can recall few other episodes that so confirmed my low opinion of them as their fumbling attempts to come to terms with L’affaire Hader. That is, if in fact they were “trying to come to terms” with the matter at all, and frankly most of them weren’t. Not even a little bit.