W. and the Mad Barber of Cranbrook: A Fable

Posted By Peter Vilbig on May 13, 2012 in Culture, LIfe, Politics | 0 comments


Romney’s bullying.

Given that this blog has assiduously avoided anything topical with the secret goal (more or less realized) of making itself invisible to search engines, what on earth might now possess me to add my words to the torrent on Romney’s great haircutting debacle? Only perhaps that I was shocked. As a headline scanner, I had first thought: well, so Romney teased a boy who was gay about his hair. What a jerk. Then I read the story. I suppose there are those who think attacking someone—leading the group in the attack—and cutting his hair is no more than a mild prank. But really holding someone down and taking scissors to him? “Like a pack of wild dogs,” as one participant remembers it. Did you do things like that in high school? I didn’t think so.

Others have pointed out that this incident was not entirely unique. They noted how Romney seems to have taken particular joy in guiding a teacher with poor eyesight into a glass door (Gail Collins in the Times), and still others conclude that his claim not to remember the haircutting attack is perhaps as bad as the event itself (Charles M. Blow, also in the Times, among others).

But I’d like to come at this story from a slightly different angle. Here’s what I propose: I’d like to recall an incident of bullying I observed as a child growing up in Texas at roughly the same time that Romney was attending prep school in Michigan. I’d then like to suggest that this incident was an example of a culture of bullying then present in Texas that seemed as normal and natural to its perpetrators and victims as it did to its audience—and bullying is primitive theater, let’s not forget that. I’d then further like to take a leap and suggest that the Texas I grew up in helped shape the personality of George W. Bush, the Republican figure Romney most resembles, despite their widely variant styles and personalities, and that Bush and Romney both share a propensity for playing the bully.

When Mitt Romney was in high school I was a student in a North Dallas junior high. Every day after lunch several hundred of us were turned loose to roam across a large asphalt playground behind the school gym. There was a boy named Robert Jacobson who played among us (name changed to protect, even after all these years). Robert suffered some unidentified disorder or incapacity—probably undiagnosed, given the times. He walked on his toes and did not connect appropriately with others. He just stood out. His nickname—and it was his only name on the playground—was Twinkletoes. During lunch kids would throw pennies, and Robert would chase them, running in an awkward stiff legged gait, high on his toes, his arms flung out, unbent at the elbows, after the pennies. Day after day. It was only years later that I realized the significance of the pennies: Robert was of course Jewish. And as everyone around me seemed to know, Jews will chase pennies.

So there you have it. A crude anti-Semitism. A vicious mocking game aimed at someone who was defenseless. I’ve pondered over the years how I didn’t understand the meaning of the pennies. I believe some part of me must have known. Yet I knew better than to know. Because another part of me, equally buried, understood only too well the threat of violence and retribution that lay behind the playground game, and recognized my lack of immunity. I was no hero. I witnessed but did nothing.

If you are now thinking that I’m making too much of this story about Robert Jacobson, that I’m reliving a childhood trauma that bears no connection to my stated purpose, I can only tell you that I could unwind many other tales of bullying, taunting, and brutality in those days. Nor is Robert’s story primarily about anti-Semitism—though that topic deserves its own discussion. Vicious as it was, hatred of Jews was only one spice in the toxic brew in which my age-mates and I were steeped in those days. Blacks—especially blacks, let’s remember that—Jews, gays, the retarded, the mentally ill, the politically dissident—all were fair game for hate and reprisal. (And no, of course, it was not only Texas, but it was Texas; and I could unwind another long list of stories about all the kinds of hate I witnessed, felt, learned of, and knew to be average facets of the world I lived in.)

George W. Bush grew up in this world too, in Midland, Texas, a few hundred miles west of the playground where Robert chased his pennies. And of course that doesn’t make him guilty of anything. But this was the same George Bush who built his career around the notion of his being shaped and formed by his Texas boyhood, his values and perceptions of life arising out of his Midland roots. And so when I say that George Bush was immersed in his boyhood in the same culture I was, I’m just saying what he’s saying. Except that I’m adding that I suspect that what he learned in his Texas youth, in addition to all those heroic qualities we heard about endlessly in his political campaigns, was the fondness for reprisal and dominance that are the core of bullying, its thrill of reaching through the boundaries of another’s selfhood and violating it with impunity, its assertion of ownership—of the Other, but also of the cultural landscape itself, territoriality being one of its key features.

Am I right? Was George Bush manufactured as a bully in his West Texas boyhood? No way to prove it. We know of his subsequent actions: how he laughingly mocked Karla Faye Tucker, the woman whose death sentence he refused to commute. We know about his ready resort to violence—and this readiness lies behind all bullying. Of his childhood, no certainty. But what I do know is the milieu in which he operated. I know that it was a common sport among West Texas boys in those days to run down (as in run over and kill) jackrabbits and wild dogs in their cars and trucks on the back roads and ranch lands. (I knew a man in East Texas who would cruise its black tops at night running over possums who had come out to sleep on warm asphalt—running them over at slow speed and then watching in the red glare of his taillights as they writhed.)

Nor am I claiming that George Bush went on those hunts after rabbits and wild dogs in West Texas, or that he was violent in the way that man in East Texas was. I take him at his word—and not in the smarmy way of members of his political party when they comment on Obama’s religious beliefs—when he speaks of compassionate conservatism. It was no false veneer. Liberals mistook him by assuming hypocrisy where something more complicated was going on.

No, I believe George W. Bush believed in his compassionate conservatism without reservation. But I also suspect his views were an elaborate psychic countermeasure against the brutality he grew up with, whose wrongness he must have sensed. For I feel certain, looking at what Bush became, and his fearful reaction after 9/11, his authorizing of torture and his swaggering across the international stage (his administration peopled with the kind of full-on bullies that the doubtful bully often surrounds himself with—the Cheneys and Boltons who would do the real dirty work), that this man’s moral outlook, as he grew up in a Texas whose politics were being shaped by the nascent John Birch Society, in a Texas where racism and anti-Semitism comprised an almost universal lingua franca, was formed through a series of reactions to the violence and bullying he saw around him—that toxic mix of fear and complicity, of signing up because not signing up meant a fall into oblivion, and demurral because some part of every person withdraws, at least at first.

Back to George Romney. So we now know that Romney was definitively an abuser in his childhood. The idea—repeated by that amiable bully Bill O’Reilly, whose whole career has been built on the pleasures viewers receive in seeing the defenseless attacked (c.f. his comments on New Orleans flood victims as they were literally scrambling to survive on rooftops)—is that what happens in childhood should stay in childhood. But of course what happens in childhood doesn’t stay in childhood. It creeps into the land beyond, only perhaps papered over with a civilizing veneer, or sluiced into a socially acceptable direction, unless a kind of conversion experience, built on deep awareness, intervenes. Romney has clearly not experienced such an intervention, about this or any of the other many episodes of bullying and teasing he engaged in. That is the true shame of his silence and denial in his response to the Washington Post story.

Romney is very different from Bush: a real man of business, whereas Bush was always closer to the greeter at the casino, the guy who was content to keep the touts happy and then get teary-eyed and sentimental when the big winners raked it in. Romney by contrast was far closer to the genuine article—in fact not so much a businessman as the financial world’s variant of the old-fashioned industrialist, an occupant of the highest rung of the food chain, who believes himself to be entitled to every bit of it.

Yet both of them are bullies in their own way, and this comes as no surprise. For in this new century, and for a variety of perhaps complicated but also obvious reasons (the electorate’s compensation for feelings of powerlessness, old-fashioned rage at the possibility of displacement and diminishment of privilege) can it really be possible to imagine the Grand Old Party, now transformed into something that would have made those Birchers in the ’60s proud, nominating anyone for president who is not a bully?

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