Things we used to say: “There but for the grace of God, go I”
I read today that Rodney King was found dead in his swimming pool. OK, I thought, time for sad reflection on one of the less-proud chapters in American history. But then I made a big mistake: I read the comments.
I should know better. Crikey, how do you un-see these things? His memory is splattered by a storm of invective and racist cruelty. Where’s that planet-destroying asteroid when we need it?
So you think you’re better than Rodney King…
“Good riddance. More trouble than he was worth.” +28
“The man was a career criminal before his beating, and cashed in on failing to stop when ordered by the police. No loss to society at all.” +37
“If he wasn’t a criminal in the first place, he wouldn’t have been running from the Police so he only had himself to blame.” +15
“Crack for 16 years, ok. Sorry, no offense to any one, but the police weren’t beating a man, they were beating a crack head. Now I see why they were acquitted” +2
“GUESS IT TRUE WHAT THEY SAY…BROTHERS CAN’T SWIM!!! IDIOT!!!!!”
“When driving at high speed, high on drugs, and you see blue flashing lights in the rear view mirror, pull over, turn the ignition off, put your interior lights on, put your hands on the steering wheel, and answer the cops with yes/no/sir/. This is called common sense. end of story.” +6
…and lots more about how many people died in the riot, about Reginald Denny, about how Jews didn’t take vengeance when injustice was done to them, and about how he supposedly got rich because he had a swimming pool and various “jokes” comparing him to Whitney Houston.
I was particularly struck by the judgmental take on King. By the recurring theme that if one is obstreperous with the police, then one has no right to complain about a life-threatening beating. By the judgment that drug addiction means you have no civil rights. And by many commenters who indicated the blacks are somehow sub-human. Or that poor people are. In any case, the writers appear to believe that if they were dealt the same cards in life that Rodney King had, they would have made different, better choices.
Admonished by other commenters not to judge what they did not understand, or to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, or not “lest they be judged”, many responded with even greater anger and hatred against King. Against poor people. Against drug users and blacks and people who live in cities and even against anyone who does not hate as they do.
Once upon a time Americans used to say:
“There but for the grace of God, go I.”
The saying is a humble recognition that you are not immune to bad luck. That you are not immune from making bad decisions. That you, too, could become addicted to a drug. That you, too, are affected by the culture in which you were raised. That the moral character on which you pride yourself owes something to good fortune.
But the saying has fallen out of fashion. Now, if your life ends up in bad straits, it’s all and exclusively your own fault. Traceable to Ayn Rand, this philosophy was popularized by Ronald Reagan, who closed mental health facilities and referred to homelessness as a “lifestyle choice”. It is, simply, unbridled hatred of the less fortunate.
Case in point
Rodney King was, as so many opined, “no role model”. He was a troubled, damaged and at times (I think) unwittingly dangerous person. But this actually makes his call for calm and against violence all the more profound. Severely beaten by police, he saw the violence erupting and asked what I believe to be one of the most urgent questions of the twentieth century: “Can’t we all just get along?”
We have at our disposal the alleged moral teachings of every philosopher and every religious founder and almost every religious teacher who has ever lived. If we cannot figure out from this body of work how to live in peace, I suspect the fault does not lie with one badly-injured drug addict.
- The exact wording of his question is in doubt; I have seen it reported in various ways. But the substance is clear enough.
- No deity is required to understand the saying. If you are an atheist, it works just as well with any number of event-branching descriptors. “There, but for the lucky combination of economic background, good inherited genes, good schools, lack of brain injury, and many other things beyond my personal control, go I.”
- Points of fact: King wasn’t on PCP, though he was drunk. The beating was so severe he had permanent brain damage. He unequivocally condemned the riots. He certainly did have trouble getting his life together afterward.
- Although the police were acquitted of criminal wrongdoing under the traditional “Cops Are Almost Never Found Guilty” rule, he was still awarded $3.8m in a civil suit. His lawyers got most of it.
- Earlier entries in the “Things we used to say” series about cliches that made America strong: ”Don’t be a litterbug“, ”Stitch in time saves nine“, “You get what you pay for“, and “If you can’t stand the heat“