Shame, Shame, Shame!

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” is a line all of us have heard at one time or another in our lives.  The words have a powerful effect, no matter how much we hate to admit it. When said with a dash of harshness, that’s not harsh enough to provoke rebellion, these words can break us down, make us feel foolish, bad, and ashamed.  Whether we are guilty or not, they can also touch such a sensitive core that makes us feel like children, again, being scolded by our grandmother.  We don’t like feeling this way, no one does, and we all know this when we use it on others.

Reveal to Justine Sacco, Lindsey Stone, Jonah Lehrer, and the cast of others that have been recently experienced worldwide shaming, via the internet, the basic plot of the 1973 version of the Wicker Man, and how it involves (spoiler alert) villagers sacrificing a man, by burning him alive, to provide for the coming harvest, and they may tell you that they would not be able to sit through such a movie.  The correlation may not be perfect, but if you replace the harvest with social order and couple it with the proverbial act of condemning someone for the purpose of advancing a social order, those that have been regarded as sacrificial by social media, may experience such a wicked case of déjà vu that they may physically shudder during the final scenes of that movie.

stocksOne of the first images that comes to mind when one hears about a group sacrificing a human for the common good is this Wicker Man image of a relatively primitive culture sacrificing one of their own to appease their gods or nature.  We think of people dressed like pilgrims, we think of chanting, mind control, and individuals being shamed by the shameless.  We think of arcane and severe moral codes, and the extreme manner in which they handled those that strayed from the collective ideal.

Members of those cultures might still stand by the idea that some of these ritualistic practices were necessary.  They might concede that the whole idea of sacrificing humans for the purpose of yielding a better harvest was ill-conceived, especially if they were being grilled by a lawyer on their agricultural records, but burning people at the stake, hangings, and putting people in stocks, however, were punishments they provided to the truly guilty, they might say.  And these were necessary, they might argue, to keep their relatively fragile communities in line.  They might argue that such over-the-top displays of punishments were necessary to burn images into the mind of what could happen to those that are tempted to stray from the moral path.  They might suggest that based on the fact that our law enforcement is so much more comprehensive nowadays, we cannot understand the omnipresent fear they had of chaos looming around the corner, and the use of shame and over the top punishments were the only measures they could conceive to keep it at bay.

We may never cede these finer points to them, in lieu of the punishments they exacted, but as evidenced by the cases of the four individuals listed in the second paragraph, the greater need for symbolic, town hall-style shaming has not died.  Our punishments may no longer involve a literal sacrifice, as it did in that bygone era, but the need to shame an emblematic figure remains for those of us that feel a call to order is justified to do whatever it takes to keep total chaos at bay.

The conundrum we experience when trying to identify with how our ancestors acted is easier to grasp when we convince ourselves that these actions were limited to the leadership of those communities.  We can still identify with a suspect politician, an inept town council, and a couple of corrupt and immoral judges, but when we learn that most of the villagers involved themselves in the group’s agreed upon extremes, we can only shake our head in dismay.

Writers from that era, and beyond, describe the blood lust that occurred among the spectators in the form of shouts for someone’s head, and the celebratory shouts of “Huzzah!” that occurred immediately after the guillotine exacted its bloody form of justice on the alleged perpetrator.  How could they all cheer this on?  How could so many people be so inhumane?

Some would argue that the very idea that we read history from a distance –believing that the human being has advanced so far beyond such archaic practices that it’s tough for us now to grasp their motivations– while engaging in similar, but different behaviors, is what makes the study of group thought so fascinating.

In his promotional interview with, for the book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, author Jon Ronson details the Twitter treatment he wrote about in that book, directed at a publicist named Justine Sacco.  Justine Sacco took an eleven hour plane trip to Africa.  Before boarding the plane, Justine sent out a number of tweets to her 170 Twitter followers. Among those tweets was a now infamous one:

“Going to Africa.  Hope I don’t get AIDS.  Just kidding.  I’m White!”

No matter how one chooses to characterize this tweet, it’s tough to say that it’s the most inflammatory tweet ever put out on Twitter. For varying reasons, millions of people latched onto this statement and took this relatively unknown tweeter from 170 followers to the number one worldwide trend on Twitter, all while Ms. Sacco remained oblivious, in the air, en route to Africa.  She received everything from death threats, people wishing that she would get AIDS as retribution for her heartlessness, and the varying degrees of near lustful excitement that began mounting among those villagers gathering around the intangible town square, imagining the look on her face when the lowering, technological guillotine finally became apparent to her when she landed, so they could all shout “Huzzah!” in unison.

“I’m dying to go home but everybody at this bar is so into #hasjustinelandedyet. Can’t leave til it’s over,” was a tweet Mr. Ronson found soon after the publication of his book to illustrate the excitement that had been building among those that couldn’t wait for Ms. Sacco to land and discover that the life she lived prior to that tweet was now over. 

Shaming in the Modern Era

Before purchasing RonsonSo You’ve Been Shamed book, one might be tempted to think that it is little more than a detailed list of those, like Ms. Sacco, that have committed purported transgressions.  The fact that it is not, is illustrated by the decision Mr. Ronson made to focus on incidents that would’ve been considered inconsequential were it not for the varying reactions observers had to them.

Ms. Sacco, for example, wasn’t inferring that she hoped that more black people contract AIDS, or that she hoped that the AIDS virus would continue to attack black people almost exclusively.  One could say, reading her tweet literally, that she may have been intending to speak out against the infection for being racially biased.  Perhaps it is the confusion regarding who, exactly, Ms. Sacco was condemning that led so many to fill in the blanks for their own purpose.  Whatever the case was, they did fill in those blanks, and the pack mentality did frame that single tweet in a manner that encouraged tweeters, 24-7 news programs, and all of the other venues around the world to heap scorn and shame on her in a manner that could leave no observer with the belief that shaming is dead.

It could also be guessed that Ms. Sacco was attempting to provide her followers poignant humor.  Her tweet was, presumably, her attempt to garner empathy for sufferers of a disease that appeared unnaturally selective, and that she was probably attempting to spearhead some form of awareness among her 170 Twitter followers without sufficient regard for how it could be misinterpreted by those that would choose to misinterpret her tweet for the purpose of spearheading a movement to garner empathy for sufferers of a disease that appeared unnaturally selective. Those that responded on Twitter not only appeared to relish the opportunity to champion a cause, for greater definition among their peers, but to technologically burn whomever they had to to get there.

And while we can only guess that most of the offended had to know that Ms. Sacco wasn’t intentionally infringing on their ideological issue, the opportunities to prove one’s bona fides on an issue don’t come along very often, and when they do they’re often limited to coffee shop and office water cooler conversations with two-to-four people.  And those two-to-four people, are often forced to soft-peddle their outrage, because they will have to work around, or otherwise be around, the target of their condemnation in the aftermath.  Ms. Sacco, on the other hand, was an intangible victim that most of those in the intangible town square would never meet, so they didn’t have to worry about her feelings, and her tweet provided them the perfect venue to establish their bona fides on a worldwide stage.

“If we were in one of those Salem town squares witnessing a witch burning,” one of Ms. Sacco’s Twitter shamers might argue, “We would be shouting at the throng gathered around the witch, calling for them to be burned, and not the alleged witch.  We’re not shaming with the sort of moral certitude of those people of a bygone era, we’re shaming the shamers here.  It’s different!”  They might also argue that their goal, in shaming the Justine Saccos of the world, is to not only to redirect shame back on the shamers, but to effectively eradicate the whole practice of shaming … unless it’s directed at those that continue to shame others.

On this revised act of shaming, the interviewer of Jon Ronson, Laura Miller, provided the following summation:

“If you are a journalist or a commentator on Twitter or even just aspiring to that role, you have to build this fortress of ideology.  You have to get it exactly right, and when you do it becomes a hammer you can use against your rivals.  If you even admit that you could have possibly been wrong, that undermines both your armor and your weapon.  It’s not just something you got mad about on social media; it’s your validity as a commentator on society that’s at stake.”

If that’s true, then no one angrily wished death and disease on Justine Sacco, but they felt a need to sound more brutal than any that had tweeted before them to establish their bona fides on the issue.  They weren’t angrier than any of the previous tweeters, they were just late to the dog pile, and they felt a need to jump harder on top of the pile to generate as much impact as those on the bottom had with their initial hits.  The idea of the target’s guilt, and the severity of her guilt, kind of got lost in all of the mayhem.  Each jumper became progressively concerned about the impact their hit would make, and how it would define them, until they felt validated by the proverbial screams of the subject at the bottom of the pile.


If you’ve reached a point, in this conversation, where you’ve recognize the different, but similar shame tactics employed by the primitive and advanced societies, you’ve probably reached a point where you’ve recognized the correlation, and you’re shaking your head at both parties.  In his book, however, author Jon Ronson cautions us against doing so.  It’s not about them, the central theme of his book suggests, it’s about you, him, and us.  In one interview, he stated that he thought of pounding that point home by simply calling the book “Us”, but that he feared some may infer that meant that he was specifically referring to the United States, or the U.S.

The subjects of shame, and the shamers that exacted their definition of justice on them, he appears to be saying, are but anecdotal evidence of the greater human need to shame. It’s endemic to the human being, to us, and while the issues may change and evolve, and the roles may reverse over time to adapt to the social mores of the day, the art of shaming remains as prevalent among the modern man as it did during a B.C. stoning.

The elephant in the room that Mr. Ronson did not discuss in his book is the idea that the viciousness the modern day shamed person experiences may have something to do with the vacuous hole created by the attempt to eradicate shame from our culture.  Our grandmothers taught us this very effective tool, as I wrote.  They used it to try and keep us on the straight and narrow, and they did it to keep us from embarrassing ourselves.  When we witnessed our childhood friends engaging in the very same behavior that we had been shamed into avoiding –thus displaying the fact that they hadn’t been properly shamed against such behavior– we stepped in to fill the void.  We shamed them in the manner our grandmother had, using –as kids often will– the same words our grandmother had.  We then felt better about ourselves in the shadow of their shame.

As adults in a modern, enlightened era, we learned that we are no longer to use the tool of shame.  The lessons that our grandmother taught us, we’re now being told, were either half-right, or so baked in puritanical, traditional lines of thought that they no longer apply.  Ours is an advanced, “do what you feel” generation that struggles to believe that there is no right and wrong, unless someone gets hurt.  The benefit, we hope, is that if we eradicate judgment and shame from our society, we can also be liberated from it.  Yet, there is a relative line in the sand where attempting to avoid judgment and shaming will eventually, and incidentally, encourage that activity.

We all know that this activity will eventually lead to internal decay and rot for the individual, and eventually the culture, and we know that some judgment and some shaming is necessary to keep the framework intact.  It’s a super-secret part of us that knows this, and the need to shame and judge gnaws at us in a manner we may never knew existed, until that perfect, agreed upon, transgression arises.  When it finally happens that we find someone that it’s safe to shame, it fills that need, and that pressurized need that we’ve hidden so far back in the recesses of our minds in a quest to acquiesce to the new ways of thinking that the act of shaming explodes on that person, regardless of their degree of guilt.

Those of us that have learned some of the particulars of the Salem Witch Trials believe that early on in the situation there may have been a need for greater order.  The fear of chaos probably prompted them to believe some of the accused actually were witches, looking to infiltrate their youth with evil.  As we all know, it eventually began spiraling out of control to a point that people began randomly accusing others of being witches over property disputes and congregational feuds.  One can also guess that many accusers leveled their accusations for the purpose of attaining some form of superiority over the accused that they could not attain otherwise.  Those citizens of colonial Massachusetts eventually learned their lessons from the entire episode, and some would say their lesson is our lesson as of yet unlearned, as accusations of racism, and anti-patriotism, are leveled at those that may have been guilty of nothing more than a poorly worded joke, or participating in an ill-advised photograph, as in the case of Lindsey Stone.  Our era is different though.  The lessons of the self-righteous, puritanical man do not apply to today, and we don’t need to know the whole story before we make that leap to a defense of the social order that provides us the characterization we desire in the dog pile?

The Great Credit Card Swindle: Manipulation or Self-Infliction?

Although it’s never explicitly stated in Jon Ronson’s Who Killed Richard Cullen? report for the Guardian, this reader can’t help but think that the central character of this report, a British citizen named Richard Cullen, was ultimately a victim of his own hand. Author, Jon Ronson, does state that Richard Cullen made some decisions in the process that led to his demise, but for the most part Ronson characterizes the events that led Mr. Cullen to take his own life as that which nobody forced Mr. Cullen to do, but everyone did.

Richard Cullen

Mr. Richard Cullen decided to play what Mr. Ronson characterizes as a “peculiarly modern British” game of paying off debt via a credit card. This game involves using one “unbelievable good deal” offered by a credit card company to pay off a debt, followed by another decision to roll that credit card’s debt over to another “unbelievable good deal” from another credit card company, until the victim of this game, in this case Mr. Cullen, ends up accumulating twenty-two credit cards, with twenty-two different compounding interest rates.

If anyone reads the reads through the list of Richard Cullen’s actions with the belief that the man attempted to enrich himself by playing this game, they are mistaken. Mr. Richard Cullen’s goal was to pay off a debt that arose as a result of a health crisis his wife experienced. Mr. Richard Cullen believed he could play the credit card game to the point of being debt free. If anyone reads the characterizations of Mr. Cullen’s actions with the belief that the Cullens were at a point of total desperation when they signed up for their first credit card, that doesn’t appear to be the case either. Mr. Cullen, it appears, simply decided that rolling debt through the “unbelievable good deals” that credit cards offer was a more advantageous way of cancelling debt. It would prove to be a series of fateful decisions that eventually led to Richard Cullen conceding defeat in this game, by taking his own life.

Was Mr. Cullen a victim of targeted marketing? Mr. Ronson’s meticulous research makes the case that Richard Cullen most likely was. Ronson’s research shows that that targeting involved deregulation of the industry, reported to allow members of the lower class greater access to credit, thus allowing credit card companies to give more loans to a greater number of people. This eventuated in a series of unintended consequences through government action that led to a group called list-brokers –aided by a complicated, computer algorithm called Mosaic– to provide lists of people considered “prime targets” to credit card companies for eventual lending. Mr. Ronson’s report does touch on the actions of government officials attempting to be wonderful without gauging the consequences, but Mr. Ronson focuses most of his piece’s content on the credit card institutions that took advantage of the lack of foresight by the government officials, and he backs up his thesis with an admirable amount of research into the process. The glaring omission in the piece is the amount of blame that we, the readers, should direct at the victim of this convoluted game: Richard Cullen. If, for no other reason, than to learn a lesson from it.

This approach might be viewed as a cold-hearted approach by the reporter, and it may have angered the Cullen family, that Ronson might have endeared himself to in the process of reporting on this story, but the greater lesson of what Richard Cullen tried to do, needs to be taught. How many of us are susceptible to “no interest (for a specified amount of time)” marketing campaigns, and how many of us are susceptible to their “one time only” campaigns? The lesson of Richard Cullen needs exposure, so that it makes a mark on those that learn the details of it.

Mr. Ronson describes Richard Cullen’s plight as beginning with a health crisis, his wife’s.

“There had been no splurging,” Richard Cullen said. “No secret vices.” Richard Cullen just tied himself up in knots, using each card to pay off the interest and the charges on the others. The fog of late payment fees crept up and eventually engulfed him.

Jon Ronson

One curious line in Mr. Ronson’s report states that, “Right now, nobody knows how Richard Cullen’s strategy fell apart.” At various points in the report, we learn that Mr. Cullen presumably went to a credit card company to help his wife pay off the $4,000 dollar health care bill, at 0% interest, and he proposed to her that he would “switch (her debt) to another one after six months.” He then took six weeks off work, during this period, to care for his wife, and he began “signing up for credit cards” to “cleverly roll the debts over from account to account.” This reader would suggest, having never attempted to play this game with credit cards, that the strategy fell apart right there, at the beginning.

Right there, at the very beginning, someone wiser than Richard Cullen should’ve stepped in and said something along the lines of: “Have you ever viewed the annualized corporate profits of these credit card companies? They don’t produce an actual product, yet their profits dwarf most of the blue chip companies that do. How do you think they accomplish this? How does the beautiful city of Las Vegas manage to build a big, brand new building almost annually? Have you ever heard the line: ‘There’s a sucker born every minute?’ Did you laugh at that line? Did you think of all those poor saps that don’t have the wherewithal to spot the scheme, and did you ever consider the idea that they might talking about people like you, and the “perfect” and “brilliant” strategies you have to beat the system?”

The point of the statement “Right now, nobody knows how Richard Cullen’s strategy fell apart” also has something to do with the idea that no one knows the specifics of what Richard was attempting to do, because as his wife, Wendy states, “He wasn’t a man who talked a great deal, and he never, ever discussed finances with me.” To answer the question of specifics, this reader would suggest that Mr. Ronson might want to troll through the man’s receipts and financial records to find the point where Mr. Cullen’s strategy fell apart. Mr. Ronson does appear to answer this question by prefacing it with the words “Right now.” Critical analysis leads this reader to wonder if these words permit Mr. Ronson a work around that allows him to avoid the discussion of Richard Cullen’s role in his own undoing. The implicit follow up, this skeptical reader reads, is that “In the future, we may know, but “Right now” we don’t, so let’s get to the point of this article.” The answer, the reader would assume, is in the accounting. Mr. Ronson decides, instead, to move to the question of marketing arms of the credit card companies providing alluring tag lines to the unsuspecting, a question Ronson appears to believe is answered by the following line from Richard’s wife:

“He (Richard) said he didn’t seek out all of the 22 credit cards he had somehow ended up acquiring between 1998 and 2004. On many occasions they just arrived through the letterbox.” 

The question this quote prompts is how many people receive credit card offers in the mail, and how many respond? It’s entirely possible that the demographics of the Cullen home led them to being targets of the credit card industry, but how many in that area, my area, and your area are targets? How many of those same people respond? As they say of internet fraud and phishing schemes, those that swindle only need a success rate of one in one-hundred to be successful.

The Credit Card Addiction

As Tommy Lasorda once said of drug addicts, and I’m paraphrasing, “It seems to me that they make a decision to continue doing what they do every single time they do it. I don’t see them as victims.”

Without knowing the specifics of what happened to Richard Cullen, it would seem to me that he had many opportunities to correct the course at various points along the way. The decisions he made along the way led to him falling prey to the very human conceit of mental prowess, regarding a belief in his ability to master an otherwise unmanageable game. When future mailings arrived in the letterbox, in other words, Richard Cullen should’ve not only thrown these away, but he should’ve stomped on them and burned them in a ceremonial manner. He decided, instead to sign up for another one without asking the vital question: “What’s the catch?”

Those three words “What’s the catch?” seemed fatally absent from Mr. Cullen’s vocabulary throughout the chain of events that led to his demise, and those three words are not the province of highly educated, upper class types. These words seem, more often, to be the province of the lower class, and uneducated types that attempt to mentally out-duel one another with their “gotcha” games. It seems indigenous to those that attempt to display their street smarts by engaging in the “What’s the catch?” line before the other has entirely finished their presentation. At the same time, however, some of us fall prey to the conceit that we know how to play the game so well that it might prove to be our undoing when we encounter the organizers of said game, because we have a strategy, or we fall prey to the belief that we have spotted a loophole.

One victim can feel for the plight of another victim, amassing a debt $4,000 dollars (Mr. Ronson uses the British Pound), some could even see that as such a manageable debt that they go beyond that, and most would also admit that it’s entirely feasible that that debt could compound greatly with interest. Most would admit that at some point, before amassing a $130,000 debt that Mr. Cullen was eventually left with, that they would humble themselves, at some point in the process, and sit down with someone that “really knows what they were talking about” to discover how truly complicated the business of credit cards is. For most, this humbling part of the process occurs quite early on, and in this part of the process, I am quite sure that most readers would have nothing but empathy for the dire straits that Mr. Richard Cullen found himself in.

There have to be very few that wouldn’t empathize with the crushing realization that Richard Cullen must have realized when he couldn’t afford to pay one, simple health care bill at the age of sixty-five (the age of Richard Cullen on the day of his death). The crushing realization probably had something to do with the idea that life hadn’t worked out the way Mr. Cullen thought it would. Most of us figure that we’ll have a pretty decent hold on what our parents did right, and what they did wrong, and all of the twists and turns life offers us to a point where when we’re sixty-five we should be living fairly comfortably. Some might feed into the notion that we’ll be rich beyond our wildest dreams, but few of us considered that we’d still be living the 9-to-5, paycheck to paycheck, type of lifestyle that forced us to cut back and called upon to sacrifice. We don’t know Mr. Cullen’s financial status, but we can assume that Richard didn’t want his wife to feel guilty about forcing the family to cut back further and sacrifice more. We can also assume that Richard Cullen was frustrated that he was unable to flip a switch and make it right. We can assume that this had something to do with the idea that his life had not turned out the way he thought it would. He might have thought that he found a loophole in the credit card game, and that his creative ingenuity would prove that he wasn’t a poor provider for his family.

The ultimate moment of vulnerability arrived, for Richard Cullen, when the envelopes with red boxes and “Date Due” letters were on his left and the promises of other 0% lending letters were on his right. Most people can find themselves amassing debt at this point. Almost all of us fall for these marketing campaigns to one degree or another. We may not even employ the “What’s the catch?” mentality initially, but there is a point where this mentality does eventually kick in. There is a point where everything our parents should’ve taught us should’ve wedged itself in the scenario. There should’ve been some sort of rationale that told us we’ve reached a point where enough is enough.

Jon Ronson informs us that the Cullen family’s attempt to reconcile the chain of events that led to Richard Cullen’s suicide, recalled for Mr. Ronson a song from Bob Dylan:

“I remember an old Bob Dylan song Who Killed Davy Moore? in which a boxer dies in the ring. In the song, the crowd says it wasn’t their fault (“It’s too bad he died that night, but we just like to see a fight”). The gambler says it wasn’t his fault (“I didn’t commit no ugly sin, anyway, I put money on him to win”). The opponent says it wasn’t his fault (“I hit him, yes, it’s true, but that’s what I am paid to do”). In the song, nobody killed Davy Moore and everybody did.”

Mr. Ronson’s Who Killed Richard Cullen piece is a well-researched, in depth, and well-written condemnation of the credit card industry, and I highly encourage anyone that has thoughts of signing up for a credit card –for whatever reason– to read it. His final, and most thorough condemnation arrives when he finds that the Cullens were conspicuously targeted because they lived in an area that the computer program Mosaic found contained individuals that would need money. The computer program targeted people that own their home (an important aspect in the program should the need to seize property arise), coupled with the idea that the people in this area probably might not be smart enough to read the small print and spot the pitfalls. Mr. Ronson also finds the man most responsible for the deregulation that freed up the credit card industry to allow lower class individuals the same access to credit that the other classes had. Mr. Ronson also found that man, a Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach –the vice chair-man of Goldman Sachs International, a former director of the Bank of England, and once the head of Margaret Thatcher’s Domestic Policy Unit– and had that man admit that he was in favor of breaking up the “classic cartel” that was the banking industry of December 1970. At that time, he says, it was “very much a middle-class preserve and I believed that the democratization of credit had to be a good thing. Everyone in principle should have access to credit.

“The only way in which to make banking a competitive industry is to remove all obstacles to potential new entrants into the industry,” he says. It was, by all accounts, a key factor in the subsequent deregulation of UK banking.

He concludes by saying, “I don’t think anyone would have foreseen how innovative and aggressive and competitive the financial services would become in their techniques,” he says. “The whole lot of them are to blame.” He pauses. “I’m not advocating a return to the status quo. But the pendulum has swung much too far.”

The result, he states, was:

“The pendulum has swung much too far” in the other direction to a point where (a report Ronson found that Griffiths later wrote stated). “The sheer scale of consumer debt [1 trillion pounds] has made millions of households extremely vulnerable to shocks to the economy … such as oil price rises, acts of terrorism and wars … Debt is a time-bomb for the 15 million people who struggle with repayments.”

When an argument, such as the one Mr. Ronson presents in this report, is such a thorough, and convincing, condemnation of one side, I can’t help but think pink. There’s an old joke that involves an instructor telling a listener to avoid thinking pink, because the instructor knows that will be the first thing the listener thinks of when instructed to do otherwise. Mr. Ronson concentrates on the data that relieves Mr. Cullen of blame in this situation. This makes for a compelling story, and it bolsters Mr. Ronson’s apparent desire to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” His expose calls for structural changes to the integrity of the system, and this reader doesn’t doubt Mr. Ronson’s sincerity. This reader was, however, unable to avoid thinking pink. When Ronson writes that “no one is to blame and everyone is”, I can’t help but think at the core of all this one man is, with his active attempt to manage debt by accruing more debt. I can’t stop thinking that Mr. Cullen’s decisions, at various points along the way, led to his undoing.

The “There but for the grace of God go I” line pops into my head throughout this story, for I know that my ego is probably as substantial as Mr. Cullen’s probably was. I also know what a blow it would be to my ego to admit that I cannot play this game as well as the average joe on the street, and to have to admit that my attempt to master this game has put my family in a worse position would be a crushing blow. As smart as I think I am, however, I attempt to maintain an understanding of my vulnerabilities. I know, for example, when I enter the turf of the salesman that they have home field advantage, and they can probably convince me to buy something I do not need. I attempt to keep in mind the lessons my dad and grandma told me that as smart, as strong, and as good looking as I think I am, there’s always someone better, and my undoing will occur soon after I forget that. If Mr. Cullen didn’t have mentors as confrontational I have some sympathy for him, but I would expect that a man of sixty-five-years has encountered a generous amount of obnoxious people willing to inform him that he’s not as smart as he thinks he is. Either he chose not to listen, adjust, or he wanted to prove these people wrong about him. Whatever the case is, we can only guess that Mr. Cullen thought he was smart enough, or crafty enough to master a game that people smarter than him created, and it proved to be his undoing. 


A Review of Lost at Sea

Journalists are not your friend

Let me start off by saying, I am not a fan of the music of rap duo Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, otherwise known as Insane Clown Posse (ICP), and other than the occasional, “This is the type of music they play … ” cuts I’ve heard in news clips, I’ve never listened to them.  I have no alliance to them, in other words, but I harbor no ill will for them either.  I know that they exist in the universe, they make music, they wear makeup, and their rap songs are violent.  Other than that, I don’t care about the theme of their material, I don’t care that they “outed” themselves as evangelical spiritualists,  and I don’t care that their fans (Juggalos and Juggalettes) stated that “They felt deeply betrayed and outraged” by the revelation of the rap duo’s spiritual nature.  I am not overtly religious, but I do not condemn organized religion in the manner I once did … in my youth.  I also don’t have any particular allegiance to fellow writer, Jon Ronson, either.  I say this to let you know that I do not have a dog in this fight.  I don’t have an ideological stake in one side appearing better at the end of this article, and I don’t see my side being represented by either party involved in this interview.

ICP-604x471What bothers me most about Mr. Jon Ronson’s interview of the ICP, presented in the form of an Have You Ever Stood Next to an Elephant essay, in Mr. Ronson’s Lost at Sea collection of essays, is the sense of trust the rap duo ICP display with Mr. Ronson.  I don’t care that that level of trust Jon Ronson attained from these two produced an entertaining article.  All the power to him for doing so, but I am not a member of the Jerry Springer contingent that enjoys watching people make fools of themselves.  Had I been present at this interview, I may have laughed a little, but at some point I would’ve said, “All right, all right!  Enough!”  I would’ve then turned to one of these two rappers and said, “This man is not your friend.  He is a journalist devoted to exposing the truth, your version of the truth, or the truth, as he sees it.”

I see this level of trust, displayed by religious people, in a number of journalistic enterprises, and I always want to ask the subjects of these interviews if they’ve read a newspaper in the last twenty years; if they’ve listened to the radio; and if they have cable.  If you have, I would say, why would you think this man is going to give you a fair shake?  Why wouldn’t you walk into the interview with less than a healthy dose of skepticism?  Why would you, after witnessing the last twenty years of journalists ripping and tearing at the heart of religion like starved hyena, not approach every question the ask you as if it were a trap?  I understand that you appreciate the opportunity this journalist is offering you to “get your message out”, but if you were paying attention you’d know that 9.8357 times out of 10 the only reason a journalist is going to agree to sit down with you, or seek you out for an interview, is that you said something stupid, dumb, or just plain wacky that feeds into their narrative that all religious people are stupid, dumb, or just plain wacky.  The latter may be hard for you to swallow, and it may be untrue as far as you’re concerned, but you should approach this interview with that mindset.

I don’t know what Mr. Ronson did to gain the level of trust he attained with the rap duo ICP.  I don’t know if he is blessed with such a pleasant demeanor that he disarms the subjects of his interviews, if he was in any way duplicitous with the ICP, or if the rap duo was so excited about getting their message out, in The Guardian, that they didn’t pay enough attention to how they were being presented.  I do suspect, however, that the rap duo may have fallen prey to the very human conceit of believing that they have such a command of the issue that they could control the debate that they would be having with a journalist, even if that journalist may be approaching the subject matter from an adversarial position.

As pieces of this type go, Jon Ronson was not as adversarial as some have been, but there are moments when Mr. Ronson characterizes this rap duo as … less than fluent.  In one particular section, Ronson writes that Violent J says: “Huh?” to a relatively innocuous, leading question that Mr. Ronson asks of him.  The author clarifies his question.  Violent J comes back with yet another “Huh?” that the author suggests is due to the fact that Violent J is mystified.  This is then followed by Ronson writing that: “There’s a silence.”  After this presumed “mystified” silence, Violent J proceeds to answer the question.  Whether or not, Violent J actually said “Huh?” on those two occasions, or spent a moment in silence gathering his thoughts, is not the point as far as I’m concerned.  The point –that should be remembered by those religious people, excited by the prospect of being interviewed in such a prestigious publication– is that Mr. Ronson considered it germane to include those three reactions.  The point, as it see is that the writer chose to include those three reactions to help him frame the interview for his readers, and presumably his colleagues and friends, so that they could laugh about it later.  The point is, also, that the editors at The Guardian considered them so germane to their writer’s point, and their writer’s framing, that they allowed it to be printed in that manner.  The point is that we’ve all read interviews with rock stars, and movie stars, and can all guess –based on the totality of what we’ve seen concerning the knowledge base of rock stars and movie stars– that these stats have a loose, half-baked grasp on the geopolitical issues they claim expertise in.  We can also guess that some, if not a majority, of those interviews are littered with “Huhs?” and spells of silence that are deleted from the final piece prior to publication.  For some reason, and I think those reasons are obvious, ICP were not extended this professional courtesy.

The point is not that Jon Ronson misrepresented the rap duo from ICP.  We don’t know what happened in that interview, an interview that occurred backstage at an ICP show.  We don’t know how long that interview lasted, or why Ronson decided to include what he did.  There are only three people that know exactly how that interview went down (unless there were others in the room of course), and only they know whether or not the rappers Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, of ICP, were properly represented.  And if it is the case that this is how these two wanted to be represented, then it appears that Mr. Ronson was more than happy to oblige.

Why would Mr. Ronson allow these two to represent themselves so poorly?  If you asked him, I’m sure he would say something along the lines of: “I’m a reporter, and this is what I do …Report the facts and all … I report you decide,” and he might say the latter with tongue firmly planted in cheek.  A truer motive might also be that Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope further a narrative that Mr. Ronson has of religious people in general, a point that as I wrote answers the question of why he would decide to participate in this interview in the first place.  Would Mr. Ronson enjoy a “Why do you not want to meet (with) scientists?  Because (science is a way of) explaining things to people” debate with a C.S. Lewis type of rational advocate for religion?  Mr. Ronson very well may enjoy such debates in his private life, but he probably knows that such a heady debate might only find a home in a scholarly journal.

A rational, religious figure, like C.S. Lewis, might argue that while Mr. Ronson may not agree with the explanations religious leaders offer, they are, just like science, “explaining things to people”. Mr. Ronson might then reply with a Richard Dawkins-type reply: “Just because science hasn’t advanced to the degree that it can explain everything, doesn’t mean that we should fill all those gaps with some form of divine intervention.”  The C.S. Lewis type thinker could then talk about how the highly regarded physicist Albert Einstein believed in “a supernatural creative intelligence”.  To this, Ronson could say that Einstein was dealing with a level of science even less advanced than ours, and he may have had such an ego about his abilities that if he couldn’t explain it, then no one could, and therefore we must fill the gaps of what I, Albert Einstein, cannot explain with the mysteries of a supernatural power.  To this, the C.S. Lewis type of rational, religious thinker would remind Ronson that physicist Max Born commented that: “(I do) not think religious belief a sign of stupidity, not unbelief a sign of intelligence.”  While I am sure that this debate would be far more intelligent than the one I craft for example, enthusiasts eager for substantial debates of this nature, would view it in the manner sports enthusiasts viewed the epic battles between Michael Jordan’s Bulls versus Patrick Ewing’s Knicks, battles that resulted in blood, sweat and tears being shed before a game seven victor could be declared.  For reasons that are endemic to the argument that journalists (and their readers presumably) prefer, we get a preordained pickup game with the Washington Generals in which the journalist is allowed to dazzle the audience with their wordplay, and their Keats quotes, in a debate where the victor is so obvious that it’s an afterthought.

Instead of Michael Jordan skimming the inbound line to throw up a shot that Patrick Ewing barely misses, or John Starks throwing down “The Dunk” on Jordan, we get a Generals’ guard chasing Curly Neal around in a circle:

“Have you ever stood next to an elephant, my friend?” asks Violent J. “A f—— elephant is a miracle. If people can’t see a f—— miracle in a f—— elephant, then life must suck for them, because an elephant is a f—— miracle. So is a giraffe.”

We also read:

“Nobody can explain magnets,”  “Gravity’s cool, but not as cool as magnets,” and “Fog, to me, is awesome.”  

Finally, we receive the culmination of why Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope prefer the idea of describing natural events as miracles, as opposed to the science explanations:

“Well,” Violent J says, “science is… we don’t really… that’s like…” He pauses. Then he waves his hands as if to say, “OK, an analogy”: “If you’re trying to f— a girl, but her mom’s home, f— her mom! You understand? You want to f— the girl, but her mom’s home? F— the mom. See?  Now, you don’t really feel that way,” Violent J says. “You don’t really hate her mom. But for this moment when you’re trying to f— this girl, f— her! And that’s what we mean when we say f— scientists. Sometimes they kill all the cool mysteries away. When I was a kid, they couldn’t tell you how pyramids were made…”

“Like Stonehenge and Easter Island,” says Shaggy. “Nobody knows how that s— got there. But since then, scientists go, ‘I’ve got an explanation for that.’ It’s like, f— you! I like to believe it was something out of this world.”

It makes for great theater, as I said, for those the love bearded ladies, wolf boys, and illustrated men, but if any of you laughers are religious, you should know that Jon Ronson, and his colleagues in journalism, are not laughing with you in such pieces.  They’re laughing at you.  You, the religious person, may deem these explanations, and this summation on science, as ridiculous as anyone else, but journalists don’t know that.  They may consider the ICP a bit of an outlier, but they know that for something to be truly funny it has to have a germ of truth in it, and I’m guessing that most of them find Jon Ronson’s piece hilarious.  They are not your friends.

If you are, by and large a religious person, and you are open about it, so open that you hope to encourage others to be religious, you will be considered “the other side” by most journalists, and they will do whatever they have to to characterize you as “that side” for their readers.  And you will learn, no matter how nice that interviewer appears to be on the surface, that most modern journalists are on that side, and they will do whatever they have to do to score points on you.

There are myths and miracles at the core of every belief system that, if held up to the harsh light of a scholar or an investigative reporter, could easily be passed off as lies,” Lawrence Wright writes in the epilogue of his book Going Clear.

They could also be passed off as ridiculous, as this essay proves, and while most religious people may agree that Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope’s version of the Christian belief system is ridiculous, the greater import of Jon Ronson’s narrative appears to be that all religion is this ridiculous, but that the ICP version of it is just a slight exaggeration.

As I wrote, I don’t care that ICP were skewered by Mr. Ronson, and I don’t care that he took a few hours out of his day to attempt to skewer religion, insofar as I’m getting used to it.  What bothers me is the confusion that the members of ICP felt when the members of the music media pounced on them after their announcement.  This confusion is, as I see it, an exaggeration of the fact that most religious people are shocked to find out how anti-religious the media, as a whole, have become.  Soon after the announcement, Blender magazine listed them as the worst band in music history; and that “the worst musical moment from the worst band ever, is The Wraith: Shangri-La, the album that climaxes with Thy Unveiling” (the song where they reveal that they have been Christians all along).   They received negative responses to Thy Unveiling that spanned from science bloggers, college professors, and even Saturday Night Live.

When Mr. Ronson asked ICP if they anticipated such a reaction, Violent J said:

 “No, I figured most people would say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know Insane Clown Posse could be deep like that.”

Deep is, of course, a relative measure, and I’m going to guess that most that read the lyrics to this song are going to agree that depth is a relative measure, but I still can’t get over Violent J’s surprise.  When my religious friends express similar surprise, I ask them if they’re paying attention.  I ask them if they have cable, if they’ve ever read the newspaper, and when they say they do, I ask them how they can still shocked by it all.  If you had been paying any attention at all, I reply, you would know know that even mainstream religious views have been the subject to public scorn, and while I’m sure you regard your views as mainstream, you should know what all religious people paying attention to the current climate of the society should know: journalists are not your friend.

If a journalist asks you if you’d like to be interviewed for a major publication, go ahead and assume that they’re not going on a fact-finding mission that will help their readers learn the essence of your religion.  They want kooky ideas, medieval practices, a Svengali-like leader to herd the sheep, racist tendencies, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, and any vestige of hatred that you may harbor to entertain their readers in a manner that characterizes your ideas and practices as those of the “other side”.  Even if you don’t harbor such hatred for your fellow man, and you haven’t said anything stupid that you know of, you should wonder why this journalist is so eager to interview you, and why they’re being so nice to you.  You should be skeptical of every question they ask you; treat every “friendly” story they share with you as a way of making you talk; and you should regard every smile as a duplicitous method of disarming you, even if it’s simply a pleasant smile from a relatively pleasant man.  You should wonder why a journalist, from a major publication, appears to be on the border of being your friend.  You should wonder why he just wants you to tell your side, why he just wants you to talk, and why he thinks the things you say are so funny.  I know you think you’re funny, but everyone does, and everyone enjoys making other people laugh, but in this particular case you’re probably not half as funny as he’s leading you to believe.  And he’s probably not laughing with you, he’s laughing at you, because he’s not your friend.