for whom the rules bend

David Carr died last night. The outpouring of genuine, deep grief from many of his peers and friends has been deeply moving. I don’t know what it’s like to have known or worked for him, but public sadness of this depth is impossible to fake. It seems clear that the Times and journalism have lost a remarkable man.

I’m going to make an observation now that will surely be taken by some as an insult to that very bout of public mourning. It isn’t; I personally have no reason at all to question the popular narrative of Carr’s life and death. I simply want to point out: one of the crimes that Carr was guilty of, during his years as an addict, was serial domestic violence. That’s a matter of public record, of his own recording. And I will further say that this is one of those crimes that is usually treated, by the amorphous but powerful group that polices norms online, as unforgivable. For most public people, having repeatedly beaten women would be the end of their good reputation, no matter if it was under the influence of drugs and alcohol, no matter how many years ago it happened in the past. More, many of the people who would enforce that damage to reputation are the same who mourn Carr now. Again, some people will assume I’m saying that Carr’s reputation should be similarly damaged. I’m not. I’m just observing a discrepancy, and asking: what makes this person, in this time, exempt from the usual rules?

When Weev was revealed to be a white supremacist, I was shocked to find that he had supporters who knew about his history of anti-Semitism and casual racism among the very vocal denizens of Twitter who enforce online shaming norms. (Molly Crabapple was a prominent one, who has since walked it back after very vocal criticisms.) To this day, there are people who take part in Twitter shaming who have a soft spot for him. How is this permitted? Amber Lee Frost and a group of women sympathetic to her were dragged through the mud, their reputations subject to the most brutal assault, for linking to a public tweet. Weev is a literal Nazi, not a “that guy’s  such a Nazi” Nazi but a giant swastika chest tattoo Nazi, and yet people can get away with defending him to this day. Why? What are the rules? How long ago does a bad deed have to happen before support for that person is no longer met with a shame spiral? Could, say, Roman Polanski point out that he was under the influence of drugs himself, and seek retribution? Why, or why not? Some people’s reputations follow them. Some don’t. Dr. Dre beat a female reporter nearly to death for doing her job, and has never expressed contrition. Yet as far as I can tell, he’s a beloved pop culture figure. Why? What are the rules?

Carr himself asked a version of this question.

“If I said I was a fat thug who beat up women and sold bad coke, would you like my story? What if instead I wrote that I was a recovered addict who obtained sole custody of my twin girls, got us off welfare and raised them by myself, even though I had a little touch of cancer? Now we’re talking. Both are equally true, but as a member of a self-interpreting species, one that fights to keep disharmony at a remove, I’m inclined to mention my tenderhearted attentions as a single parent before I get around to the fact that I hit their mother when we were together. We tell ourselves that we lie to protect others, but the self usually comes out looking damn good in the process.”

I am against the online shaming phenomenon for a variety of reasons — because I think it’s bad politics, because I think it’s ineffective, because I think it’s a performance that pleases those taking part in it without threatening establishment power, because it is inhumane. But this is the deepest reason: its fundamental fickleness, its singular hypocrisy, the way that these explosions of shame so conveniently map onto the contours of self-interest, popularity, and momentary  convenience. David Carr was a complicated man, one who like all of us had good and bad things about him. I’m not interested in prosecuting the case of whether he was a good or bad man. I am interested in prosecuting the integrity of those who think they always have the right to do so.