Thursday, August 13, 2009

Dogs Are Colorblind

My dog.

So my city's football team has signed Michael Vick. Not really being an Eagles fan, I'm less than outraged, but as a Philadelphian, I am disappointed. When the local 11 o'clock news said that Vick was currently staying at the Four Seasons at Center City, I felt a twinge of disgust that the monster was in my town. And I imagine that when I see him step on the field in an Eagles uniform, I'll be fairly nauseated, and when he makes his first decent play and our fans cheer, I'll be embarrassed to be a Philadelphian. I want to note at the outset that I'm actually quite sympathetic to the view that the league itself has no business meting out punishment to Vick. If the Commissioner wanted to ban VIck outright because of the repuational damage he could do to the league, I would find that a perfectly defensible business decision, just as I don't think anyone would complain if, say, the major news networks colluded to effectively ban an anchor who was widely known to enjoy killing kittens, but to hand out these suspensions for off-field conduct strikes me, somehow, as absurd, like the league's creating this pseudo-judicial system that parallels the real one. That said, I've also felt from the outset that whichever team eventually signed him would be doing a pretty despicable thing, and want to briefly combat claims that (a) Vick deserved this second chance, (b) that the outcry against Vick is largely born out of racism and as such is illegitimate, and (c), that since dogfighting is fairly popular among people of Vick's race and socioeconomic background, Vick is somehow less culpable because he was just "looking to keep it real," trying "to remain connected to [his] people," and couldn't necessarily have known better because dogfighting was the norm in the community in which he was raised.

First, let's recall what Vick actually did. Vick was not merely guilty of hosting and funding a dogfighting operation (that is to say, hosting and funding an operation where dogs were forced to bite each other to death, brutally killed when they lose fights, tied to poles and raped when they didn't feel like breeding), or even of just being an active participant in his kennel. As Vick himself specifically admitted and as his closest friends testified, he personally shot, hung, electrocuted, drowned, and beat dogs to death, and hid the bodies afterwards. And crucially, because killing dogs is a state crime but isn't a federal one (whereas dogfighting is), and the hard evidence that Vick personally killed dogs wasn't there, though Vick did admit to doing so as part of his plea bargain, Vick never served a day for these crimes, though they did play a small role as aggravating factors in his sentencing.

Moreover, Vick consistently lied about his wrongdoing, first denying that any dogfighting went on at his mansion at all, then admitting that it did but claiming that he didn't know and expressing great remorse that he hadn't been more careful, then pleading innocent, then pleading guilty once his co-defendants did, then lying in his guilty plea about whether he actually killed dogs in an attempt to save what was left of his public image, then admitting that he did after he failed polygraph tests. He then wrote a note to the judge pleading for leniency, claiming that "all the dogs were in good health and I've always made sure of the continuous upkeep of all my dogs and animals," "I grew up loving animals and still to this day I have Paso Fino horses, parrots, fish tanks and lizards," and that he "was not the bad person...I've been made out to be," but rather "a very humble, soft spoken, and caring guy. Also kinda shy." He also "PROMISE[d] that I will never again use a single dollar that I have earned for anything but to help people," and made much of the fact that every Thanksgiving he gave out turkeys, arguing that "there's someone out there who needs me" and his turkeys and that the judge shouldn't imprison him and deny the poor of Atlanta his charitable services. Today in his press conference he spoke in terms of 'mistakes' and 'bad judgement,' which is a pretty ridiculously milquetoast way to describe hanging three dogs from a tree because they're losing you dogfighting bets. (If Vick wasn't actually a sadistic nut and just got lured into dogfighting for cultural reasons, why, pray tell, couldn't he have paid some hanger-on to surreptitiously drop off the dogs he had no use for at the SPCA? You know, just like he gave someone a hundred bucks to bury his dogs on his land after he hung them.) His latest bullshit apology is coming Sunday in the form of a 60 Minutes interview, where Vick explains:

It's wrong, man…I feel, you know, some tremendous hurt behind what happened. And, you know, I should have took the initiative to stop it all…I didn't-- I didn't step up. I wasn't a leader.

He didn't step up. Of course, this makes it sound as if all Vick is guilty of is failing to stand up to his crazed dog-killing weedcarriers, when in reality Vick did take all sorts of initiative - to brutally kill dogs, and to do so in rather inexpedient ways which suggest, as witnesses testified, that he was getting sick pleasure out of the whole thing. So no, Vick is not contrite, and yes, he committed numerous atrocities. If the case against him had been weaker, if the friends he repeatedly tried to pin it on hadn't had the decency to plead guilty, who could doubt that this "humble, soft spoken and caring guy" would have spent the last two years continuing to lead his fun-filled life of casual drug use, dogfights, strip clubs, and giving groupies herpes? To claim that it's not only okay for a team to give Vick a second chance, but that Vick actually deserves that second chance, is to claim that serving the time suggested by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines - time given to Vick solely for the federal dogfighting conspiracy charge and not for his hanging, drowning, electrocuting, and slamming dogs against concrete until they died of a broken back, acts for which he's actually gone totally unpunished - is equivalent to moral absolution. To sign him now, just two years after he entered a plea of innocent, after he's showed so little contrition, is really to suggest that he has fairly little to be contrite about, to tell kids that it's okay to root for a serial dog killer. Personally I'm more repulsed by this signing than I would be if Vick were a serial killer of people, in much the same way that I suspect most people are more repulsed by infanticides than garden-variety murders. But even if you don't feel quite as strongly as I do, how anyone could welcome this news is beyond me. Even if Vick had served time for the truly atrocious crimes he committed, the fact that there's little if any reason to believe that it ever dawned on him that what he did was horribly wrong - not just really bad for his career - would make it very difficult to support this move.

But, say many, the outrage over Vick's crimes is really all about race. People latched onto the Vick case because Vick was "a [once[ poor, black other who suddenly represented the things people don't like about poor black people." To which I say, yes, in part, and so what? For starters, just because some people hate a person, policy, type of music, whatever for bigoted reasons doesn't mean that others aren't right to hate that person or thing for non-bigoted reasons. Racism doesn't end the conversation. For instance, I have no doubt that the commentators who chalk up the anger over Obama's healthcare proposals to race are right about some of the people who hate Obama's healthcare proposals. (Though of course, white Presidents haven't had much luck reforming healthcare either, so we should have serious doubts about the extent to which race is driving the unpopularity of this intiative.) But that doesn't make Obama's proposals good proposals. I have no doubt that many of the Republicans who wish Michael Steele had never been born do so, in part, because the guy's black. But it's also true that Michael Steele's a moron. Lastly, no one can deny that a ton of the hate spewed over Sarah Palin was appallingly sexist, and it's very likely the case that if Sarah Palin were a man her choice wouldn't have crippled McCain and might have been a pretty minor issue, just as Dan Quayle's choice was in spite of his being just as big an idiot. But if anything, I'm grateful that people opposed Palin for sexist reasons. Without that sexism, she probably wouldn't have gotten the harsh scrutiny she so richly deserved, and just might have been elected Vice President.

So even if it were true that things would've been very different for Vick if he were white, even if it were the case that a federal investigation never would've happened if he were white, I'd say that (a) he'd still deserve everything he got, and more, and (b) it's lucky for us that he wasn't white - indeed, lucky for us that whites in America do get particularly outraged about crimes committed by poor and formerly poor black men. Lucky because, had he been white and had no one cared about his crimes because, you know, we're just this big ole nation of bigots who only get upset over dogs getting electrocuted to death with jumper cables if the people doing the electrocuting are of color, we never would've had a national conversation about the evils of dogfighting and animal cruelty, and Vick's dogs never would've been rescued. To those who are so concerned about the role Vick's race played in his punishment and the public reaction to his offenses, I'd ask, what do you think somebody who gets kicks out of hanging, drowning, and frialating his own dogs deserves as far as jail time, public scorn, and damage to his career? Particularly when that somebody's career is essentially being the public face of whichever city he works in, and particularly when society is done zero harm, zilch, when potential employers refuse to avail themselves of his services. It isn't like the guy's a gifted neurosurgeon, or a schoolteacher, or even a farmer. Nobody benefits from Michael Vick getting a job in the NFL except the few people who live off of him, and given his past track record of choice in friends and discretionary spending, I don't think this is a person whose crew you want to sponsor.

But, we're told, Vick's crime is typical among poor southern blacks, particularly typical in the community where Vick grew up. Reportedly so, although I'm less certain that drowning, frying, and hanging the dogs who lose is so typical among people of Vick's background. But even if we assume that an inability to distinguish between dogs and insects is endemic among poor black men, I don't see where that gets you. Lots of deplorable behaviors were endemic to poor southern white men of a certain period in our nation's history, and we don't go around excusing them. Still less would we say of, say, a poor early twentieth-century Alabaman who went off to Harvard, got rich in the railroad business, but still came home periodically to enthusiastically participate in lynchings that he was just trying to keep it real and remain connected to the community he came from. We might explain his behavior in that way, but we'd also note that the community he was trying so hard to stay connected to had some pretty sick and twisted values. Part of the reason that white outrage over Vick does seem suspiciously racial is that whites are legitimately concerned that blacks seem to take animal cruelty a great deal less seriously than we do. Whether it's Vick, Vick's friends, the community of black dogfighting enthusiasts in which he was supposedly brought up, the many black athletes and commentators who leapt to his defense two years ago, or the black men and women on the street on last night's local news who all were somewhere between mildly pleased and disturbingly ecstatic that a dog-killer was joining our city's football team, there are a great many blacks who just don't seem to think that drowning your family pet is that big a deal. In closing, then, you can't have it both ways. If you want to excuse or explain away Vick's crimes with race, go ahead; it probably is hard to know what's right and wrong when you're brought up by people who can't tell the difference, and it probably is hard to turn your back on the pathologies of your people. But don't then cry racism when Vick is used as a vehicle to voice white displeasures with poor black culture in general. One or the other is at fault. In fact, both are.

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