The Privilege of Self-Destruction

Rich people get to have new identities.

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Gather around Internets, I am going to tell you the story of my greatest regret.

I was studying in Thailand in the northern city of Chiang Mai. Like many spoiled, middle-class children I came to the region with the justification that I was exposing myself to other culture’s, but really I was going there for the sake of going there — for the prestige of saying I was well traveled.

One night I went clubbing with a group of girls I did not know very well and proceeded to bar hop. We went from club to club, and we got progressively drunker and drunker until finally, it occurred to me that I did not know where I was.

I don’t remember a whole lot from that night due to, in a self-destructive fashion, drinking my own weight in whiskey, but I do remember hailing a Red Songthaew (the equivalent of a taxi), and telling the girls we should leave.

These women told me that they didn’t want to come with me, and instead we're going to lie on the sidewalk and take a nap. I told the most coherent one that that was dumb, and they should come with me instead.

She responded that they “do this sort of thing all the time”, and proceeded to lie on the sidewalk and go to sleep.

I left them there.

Many bad things could have happened to these spoiled white women on the dingy sidewalk of a country in which they did not speak the language, and I left them there, and, at the time, I didn’t really care.

Days later I stumbled into these girls at a party.

“I thought you died” I remember joking.

We all laughed, and laughed, and laughed some more.

The privilege to blow up your life, and stitch it back together (largely free of consequences) is a time-honored tradition of the well-to-do. The powerful burn everything around them in their teens and early 20s, and then become calm-mannered “professionals” in their 30s and 40s.

To them, this metamorphosis from out-of-control young person to elderly enforcer of the status quo is the most natural thing in the world.

Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh is infamously remembered for the scandal surrounding his nomination. He has been accused by Christine Blasey Ford (and others) of sexual assault, and the Republican party’s decision to push through his nomination remains controversial.

By all accounts, Kavanaugh was an avid drinker and sexist in high school. His high school yearbook is littered with drinking references like being the treasurer of the Keg City Club or the Malibu Fan Club. It also has a running gag where Kavanaugh and his friend insinuate sleeping with a female student who attended a nearby Catholic school.

His heavy drinking in high school is a reality the Supreme Court Justice validated personally. During a Senate Judicial Committee hearing to gauge the validity of these allegations (but really to put forth the optics of caring about this issue) Kavanaugh waxed poetically about how much he drank during high school:

Drinking too much, Kavanaugh argued to America, was and remains completely normal. Men just act wild sometimes in their youth, and that’s something we “need” to accept — implications of sexual assault be damned.

The conservative establishment largely agreed with the idea that Kavanaugh was simply “sowing his oats” in high school. As more accusers came forward, their support for him increased. While the justification conservatives gave for this rallying was that Democrats were putting on an act of political theater, occasionally the facade slipped:

Those were the words of Representative Steve King of Iowa. A man, who like many powerful men, certainly has one or two raped skeleton's buried in his closet. Kavanaugh’s drunken youth, King seems to argue, is a privilege not just afforded to this particular Supreme Court Justice, but the right of all powerful men.

After Kavanaugh moved past that “iffy” time in his life, the powerful want us to pretend like that youthful destruction never happened, and it has consequences beyond mere the composition of the Supreme Court. The insulation of the powerful appears to stunt their empathy. In the words of Daisy Grewal in the Scientific American:

In the case of Kavanaugh, stunted empathy translates into discriminatory policies that hurt less privileged Americans. He is a justice that will be more critical of abortion, overturning the death penalty, providing birth control, enforcing environmental regulations, and a host of other positions that should frighten any progressives out there. Kavanaugh asks for us to forgive him, and then turns around to deny less fortunate Americans that same luxury.

This amnesia is how the cult of self-destruction works. You do a lot of shitty things in your youth, but through perceived hard work and maybe even God (but never therapy and support networks) you “get better,” and then, you get to rule the world.

And sometimes that is meant quite literally.

Take 43rd president of the United States of America, George W. Bush as a chilling example. The Texan trust fund baby was a drunken mess during his wayward years. In a biography about the former president released in 2017 (and based on in-person interviews), Bush reflected on his total lack of awareness by claiming that during his youth he:

Bush came from a wealthy family, oil money specifically, and it allowed him to maintain a destructive lifestyle with little consequences. His drinking led to him being arrested for drunk driving in his early 30s and almost being arrested for disorderly conduct in his 20s (these charges were later dropped, because money).

None of these incidents led to a longterm marring of his record — criminal or social. If anything, his future branding as the “President you could have a beer with” only came to help his political ambitions.

Outside conspiracy theories, we have no evidence that Geroge W. Bush committed sexual assault during his time as an irresponsible youth (though the way he has romanticized the hunt for women certainly leaves me with doubts). We can see, though, that he was a hot mess who was only able to recover from alcoholism due to a robust and often unacknowledged support network.

People without money don’t just have charges dropped when they break the law.

Eventually, Bush “decided” to not be an alcoholic (probably because his daddy told him to). For many, this would the beginning of a long, and never-ending journey.

For Bush Jr., it is a before-and-after story. He sobered up through determination and religion. He specifically accredits a meeting with evangelist Billy Graham as well as a regular commitment to Bible study. This story is a fiction that undercuts the reality of addiction and recovery (as well as Bush’s own privileges), but it does fit into the same narrative of self-destruction that we see again and again.

Bush was a mess in his 20s through 40s, and then, from his perspective, he got better through willpower. His refusal to acknowledge the privileges that, with little consequences, let him both implode and recover proved disastrous for America.

George W. Bush ’s term as president is one of cutting the very social safety net programs that would have helped less fortunate Americans receive the sort of recovery that he was entitled to as a young man. These “reforms” include a failed attempt to privatize social security and a seemingly ineffective method of waiving federal regulations so states could implement welfare more “efficiently” (that’s conservative dog-whistling for cutting welfare altogether).

He also got us into the longest-running war in U.S. history under a pretext that was arguably a lie, but hey, at least you can drink a beer with him.

I have so far only listed conservative white men as examples. While it's true that they are the most common perpetrators, the privilege of self-destruction exists at any intersection where people have enough privilege to insulate themselves from the full effects of their actions.

Democrats implode too. The 73rd Governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, received the ire of conservatives and Democrats alike when it was revealed that he performed blackface as a 20-year-old.

On Northam's page in his colleges' yearbook, there is a photo of a man in blackface standing next to a person in a full KKK costume. Northam has denied the allegations (after briefly acknowledging them), but he has admitted to dressing in blackface before.

Specifically, Northam has admitted to darkening his skin to moonwalk like Michael Jackson in a contest in the early 1980s. Northam won the contest, and in a bizarre twist, briefly appeared willing to demonstrate to reporters his moonwalking dance moves at a press conference. It appears he might have done so too, if not for his wife saying it would be inappropriate.

From my perspective, it doesn’t look and sound like Ralph Northam is regretful for doing blackface in the 1980s. It seems like he has fond memory’s winning that Michael Jackson contest. He had his “fun,” and years later, he is governor. As of writing this, it doesn’t look like he intends to resign from that position.

This is not to say that privileged people never face consequences. Clearly, the rich and powerful do occasionally go to jail, get injured, and face social shaming.

Consequences do occur, it’s just that they are never as intense as they would be for marginalized people in the same position.

George W. Bush never faced jail time. He became president.

Brett Kavanaugh is on the Supreme court.

Ralph Northam got to be governor.

The sanctity of self-destruction is the certainty that there is a life to get back to after it implodes.

Powerful people, through both their actions and words, believe that this careening towards and then away from the abyss is a right of passage for which they should not be held accountable.

What happens when they are, though?

Once caught, there is an impulse for the powerful to ask for forgiveness. Kavanaugh apologized for his conduct at the hearing (though not his assault) and Northam issued an almost immediate apology.

To an extent, this call for forgiveness is natural and healthy. We should allow for growth and forgiveness. We ideally don’t want to live in a world where people are so afraid of consequences that they never come forward to address past wrongs.

We should also be wary about how we punish people. Personally, I don’t truly feel comfortable sending anyone (with a few exceptions) to our broken prison system.

But it’s interesting where the powerful’s demands for forgiveness begin and end.

The simple reality is that many people don’t get second chances.

Kalief Browder didn’t get a second chance after being thrown in Rikers Island for stealing a backpack.

Sandra Bland didn’t get a second chance after being arrested for failing to “properly signal a lane change.”

All the people whose lives have been cut down by police shootings will not get second chances either.

If the powerful indeed want a world where everyone gets redemption (a world I want to live in, too), then where are their cries of outrage during these moments of cruelty? Why do we only have these conversations about the unfairness of institutions when it affects the privileged?

I am reminded of the recent FBI raid of political operative Roger Stone who was taken into custody by over a dozen agents for obstruction, making false statements, and witness tampering. The conservative establishment has been quick to decry these actions as overkill, but as many commentators have noted, his arrest was standard procedure.

While their criticisms of FBI tactics are arguably valid, I have yet to see that outrage from conservatives extend to the many less privileged people that are targeted by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. In the words of Jane Coaston:

And there's the rub.

It would be one thing if these people learned from their time being hot messes, and developed actual empathy for the marginalized, but they largely don’t seem to care about our society’s institutional failings. They turn around and become the enforcers of same the status quo that refuses to give the Kaliefs and Sandras of the world second chances.

The powerful self-destruct and then pretend like that destruction never happened — or worse, pretend like it is something above criticism. They only allow their past to be viewed in retrospect, and never, do they seem to want to reflect on how that history might inform their present.

Circling back to governor Northam again, while he wants us to forgive these past actions, it's not entirely clear that he has learned from them. Northam’s family owned slaves. His great-great-grandfather, James Northam, was among the Eastern Shore’s slave owners. Ralph Northam didn’t learn about this history until he made his gubernatorial bid in 2017, and it is apparent he has not reflected on it deeply. As he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Except ignoring race is not the same thing as not being racist. It only blinds you from addressing your flaws, and Northam is so concerned with not being called a racist, or not being viewed as a bad person, that he’s missing the point. We don’t care about his notions of good and evil. We care that he holds himself accountable to his actions and doesn’t wall off his past into “me” and “no longer me.”

It’s all you, dude — both the racist and non-racist parts.

I would rather have a governor be aware of their history than ignorant of it.

I would rather have someone imperfectly trying to grow than a fabricated past, present, and future.

Yet, we see this same defense mechanism of denial resurface again and again with people in power.

Not too long ago, actor Liam Neeson told a story about how he wanted to beat up a black person (any black person) after one allegedly raped his friend.

The fact that he has decided to tell this story during Black History Month of all times while promoting a revenge film called Cold Pursuit, speaks to how not over it he is with all of this.

Again, Liam Neeson is still racist. I have yet to meet a white person (myself included) who doesn’t perpetuate some form of racism, even if its sublimated behind a fake smile. It’s unrealistic to expect someone to undo decades of racist indoctrination after a single visit from a priest (or even a hundred), but that’s the story these powerful people want to tell.

It is a tale of false modesty. “I used to be a relatable hot mess,” these stories go, “But I am so much better now. I am not even racist, or sexist anymore.”

These admissions are an attempt by the teller to reframe their past from that of a flawed character into a hero who has triumphed permanently over their demons. They were imperfect. They imploded, but now they are better: stuck in a perpetual state of “not that bad.”

It’s one thing when this reframing is done to you by a grateful public, but when you do it yourself, it is the height of manipulation.

It is not an admission of change.

It is an assertion of willful denial.

I can forgive most anybody if they learn from their mistakes and change, but they have to actually change to deserve forgiveness from me. They can’t just be hot messes during their meandering years and then discard that self-destructive history like it means nothing. When we are talking about a position as important as Governor, Supreme Court Justice, or President, I have to see proof that they have learned from that history as well.

Otherwise, their calls for empathy seem limited to preserving their own power. They do not seem interested in holding the system accountable for its failings, and if I had to guess, will abandon the marginalized at the first possible opportunity.

This should concern us all.

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I write about pop culture, politics, and every in between.

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