There’s no doubt about it. Ray Rice punched his wife in the same way you’d punch a man in a street fight. He knocked her out. This is a very bad thing to do. He should have gone to jail, but he didn’t. The case of Ray Rice is clear cut and it was captured on video. When we go into a media driven feeding frenzy on these subjects, it is often over a salient and unambiguous case.
For example, “three strikes and you’re out” laws were propelled by cases of sexual sadists who were let out of prison and, predictably, raped, molested and murdered again. Clearly, it was foolish to ever let such people back into society. But in our understandable anger over such errors, we wound up locking people up for life over drug offenses and crimes against property out of our zeal for punishment. These cases cause us to howl for blood and most of the time, when we are howling for blood, we are not at our best.
Should the Ravens have released Rice, and were they justified in doing so? I think so. The main reason for this is that the NFL is largely in the public relations business. Their job is to market their sport and their athletes in the hopes that people worship them and fork over money for tickets, TV packages and merchandise. Maybe we’ll even vote to hand over our school money to billionaires so that they can build new stadiums and raise ticket prices. But we don’t want to give our money to people who knock out women, so the NFL has every reason to sack them.
But let’s pump the breaks a little bit. Americans, especially in “right to work states” already live at the mercy of their employers. Even the flimsy laws that protect workers aren’t really enforceable unless those workers can afford to hire a lawyer.
On the periphery of sporting news this week, a boxer named Peter Quillin turned down a fight in which he would have been paid $1.4 million, more than triple anything he had been paid before. It was life changing money for an athlete who came from poverty and just had his first child. There is a good chance he will never have such an offer again, as this one resulted from Jay-Z’s promotional company splurging on a bid, hoping to break into the sport. In order to avoid the fight, Quillin also had to surrender his middleweight title, which was a nice meal ticket. Many fans, of course, lashed out at Quillin himself. Most astute observers agreed that his powerful handlers had forced Quillin to pass up the jackpot because the match did not coincide with their business interests. Boxing power brokers have no legal basis for treating athletes this way, but they have costlier and superior lawyers. In a non-union sport with no guaranteed contracts, the bosses make all the rules, regardless of what the law says. Sure, you can fight them in court. If you win, you might get enough to pay off your legal fees. If you lose, you’ll be bankrupt and out of work. This sports story reflects the realities of the average American employee far more than the Ray Rice story.
Ray Rice is Ray Rice. His case is his case. But it’s a bit disconcerting to see so much foaming at the mouth about a guy losing his job over something he did in private. Yeah, yeah, in this case, that private wrongdoing affected his ability to do the job. But is that really what is going through people’s heads? Or is it, “I hate what that guy did, so I want every negative consequence possible for him?” If Ray Rice stocked shelves for a living, would it still be up to his employer to play the role of the criminal justice system? My sense is that an awful lot of people would say, “yes.”
These are things we need to be careful about in a society drifting towards fascism. Your boss already has the right to drug test you. To coercively examine your body so as to determine if you are ingesting anything naughty in your free time. They can fire you for things you say on social media. In both cases, there doesn’t have to be a connection to your ability to perform your job. You boss merely needs to disapprove.
Do we really want for bosses to exert this power to an even greater degree? What private wrongdoings should bosses be able to punish their employees for? Man on man or woman on woman assaults? Drunk driving? What if a woman throws a plate or an ashtray at a man? What if a man pushes a woman against a wall? What if you are accused of a crime, but have not been convicted? Should employers actively investigate their employees’ personal lives in these areas, the way they already do with drugs? Maybe they can team up with the police. Whenever the police become involved with you, they can notify your employer and fill them in on the details.
Most instances of criminal wrongdoing are messy. Generally speaking, they don’t involve a millionaire being caught on tape breaking the law in textbook fashion. That’s why we’ve spent centuries developing a criminal justice system to deal with them. That system is still, and always will be, very far from perfection, but it’s probably better than letting employers partially take over the role.
I figure that this flawed criminal justice system, not your boss, should be used for deciding when you’ve broken the law and what your punishment should be, even though the results will sometimes be undesirable. Especially since your boss might honestly believe that abortion is a moral wrong on par with the worst kinds of violence. They might think that opposing a war hinders the cause of our brave troops. They might think anything. And as it stands now, they can probably fire you for any of it. Especially if they are smart enough to wait until you slip up and use that as a pretext.
Our media, and the bosses of America thrive when we are angry and afraid. When we are angry and afraid, we want to hand more power to those at the top so they can punish the people we are angry at or afraid of. And we become obsessed with watching it all unfold through the media.
But throwing more people in jail or attacking someone’s livelihood very rarely results in solving any problems. It just makes those at the top more powerful. When we act to worsen the life of a wrongdoer just to satisfy our thirst for punishment, we often exacerbate the wrongdoing. People with substance abuse problems become more hopeless and lost. Minor criminals become hardened criminals in prison. Abusers become more angry and more abusive. The more we invest in cycles of anger and violence, the more entrenched they become and the more those at the top feed off it. ‘Rehabilitation’ becomes a dirty word. A suggestion that you secretly endorse the wrongdoing. You probably favor rehabilitation because you engage in the same wrongdoing and want to escape righteous retribution when you are finally caught.
It’s a ploy as old as history. A wrongdoer is identified. He is almost never an elite himself. We give the elites more power so that they can drag him through the streets as punishment. We feel like justice has been done and we were a part of it. We might have little power ourselves, but we got to participate in a grand display of power against someone we dislike. We return to our subservient roles, and don’t feel as bad about them as we did the day before.
In other news, Eric Cantor took a seven figure job from a Wall Street firm. He used to be the House Majority Leader, but he was voted out of office by the public. Laugh out loud. He was, of course, always working for Wall Street and always knew they would pay him millions of dollars for services rendered. This is open and legal corruption, but more than that, fascism. At least if we define fascism as Mussolini did: the merging of government and big business into a cooperative mechanism of power that has minimal public influence.
Another component of fascism is that we are encouraged to zealously identify and castigate any wrongdoers in our midst. We are to take great satisfaction as they are turned over to the authorities and punished.
I’m not saying you can’t pay attention to both stories or that you shouldn’t be angry at Ray Rice or that, if you are a Ravens fan, you shouldn’t want him off your team. But let’s put the pieces together. Why are we howling for the blood of Rice, but not Cantor’s? Why is Rice a vastly bigger story in the media? And what is the overall picture here?
I see a culture in which we are constantly worked into a frenzy over a relatively low level sinner du jour. After we forget about Rice, another person out of the 300 million in this country will be found to have done something wrong. Maybe a woman who kills her kid or a celebrity who turns out to be racist. Maybe it will be a black “thug” for Fox Newsies and a homophobe for the MSNBC set. The market will figure out how to push our buttons. We turn to the apparatuses power and beg them to quench our thirst for justice, for them to exert even more power. That impulse is becoming normalized. At the same time, we’re coming to accept that the elites in that system can do wrong on a much larger scale with impunity. Nobody from Wall Street can go to jail, no matter what they do to us. (Maybe if they cheat each other.) Politicians are the employees of corporations in a very open way. We start wars just to make money. But maybe as that unchecked, unaccountable power gains more and more control over us, it can also be used to punish people we really, really don’t like. By participating in such exertions of power, the commoners can taste just enough of it to satisfy themselves. We’re not the first country to move towards this model.