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Michael Vick, Animal Cruelty, and Misplaced Perceptions

Like most of you I’ve been following the Michael Vick story and like most of you I am utterly disgusted by the stories that are now surfacing about the details surrounding his involvement in dogfighting.  I hope the judge “throws the book” at Vick and lands him in jail for at least a couple of years if not the maximum sentence of five years.  Needless to say, it looks like his professional football career is over along with any chances of redemption in the public mind.  Perhaps I am mistaken on this last point, but this story seems to have hit a nerve with the general public.  Animal cruelty – especially the abuse of dogs – is unacceptable.  I am having difficulty coming to terms with some of the details of torture that involve the drowning and hanging of animals that underperformed.  At times I think this should be the standard for Vick on the playing field.  And yet I am concerned that our perceptions of Vick are misplaced.

Most of the media attention and the discussions that I’ve taken part in have been about our expectations of Vick, the surprise and confusion involved in someone of his stature engaged in such behavior, and the consequences of that behavior.  I’ve heard little about the behavior itself or the broader issue of animal cruelty and the practice of dogfighting.  Last night my wife and I talked over dinner about why we are so obsessed or troubled that it is Michael Vick rather than some nameless “Joe”.  The problem, it seems to me, is with our expectations of Vick.  For most people Vick’s failure seems to be that he failed to engage in the kind of behavior fitting for a “public role-model.”  This misses the point entirely.  Questions about whether Vick can rehabilitate his career or salvage some of his reputation are all geared to our society’s need to see sports figures and other public personalities as role-models.  This story has nothing to do with that.  If this was a story about Vick using inappropriate language or striking someone in public than we could have the silly discussion about pubic responsibility.

This story goes beyond that.  Suggesting that Vick failed his fans or engaged in behavior inappropriate for someone in his position fails to acknowledge that we are talking about a disturbed individual.  Our tendency to inquire about how a wealthy, talented, and successful athlete could take part in all of this suggests that we are not addressing the psychological deficiencies that characterize people who carry out this type of violence.  In other words, there is no reason to be more upset or troubled by the fact that the perpetrator of these heinous acts is a celebrity rather than…[complete sentence with image of typical dogfighter].

One of the most important things we learn at an early age is the ability to empathize or sympathize with others.  This involves imagining the thoughts and feelings of others as if they are your own.  Such a skill is important in the moral development of the child.   Most people learn to extend this act of psychological identification beyond our own species to include culturally sanctioned species such as dogs, cats, etc.  While that extension is culturally relative it is present in most societies.  Regardless of the specifics, the species in question that are usually included exhibit traits that humans identify with, including the ability to experience pain.  Our outrage over the Vick story is in part a function of our ability to imagine what those animals went through and the apparent indifference of the perpetrators involved.  I like to think that our moral character can be quickly checked by the way we treat the most dependent within our communities, including our domesticated friends.  Apparently Michael Vick never learned how to empathize and that is unfortunate.

Ultimately this story’s moral import has nothing to do with Vick’s celebrity stature though the public awareness of dogfighting and related crimes is clearly dependent on it.  While I am not a member of PETA or any other animal rights organization they do spend a great deal of time addressing these issues.  Unfortunately, it takes a high-profile personality to bring it to the attention of most of us.

The Civil War Sesquicentennial: Potential Problems

The other day I commented on the recent meeting I attended as an adviser to the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the Civil Commission.  Everyone on the committee is extremely optimistic and excited about both on-going and future projects.  During the meeting a few of the Commission members submitted written reports outlining the broad goals of the commission.  Ervin Jordan, who is an archivist and historian at the University of Virginia, submitted a very thoughtful report that included potential problems that will have to be addressed at some point. 

The most important issue that Jordan cites should come as no surprise.  As I’ve commented before the Commission hopes to be as inclusive as possible in commemorating the Civil War era and that will mean acknowledging, among other things, the importance of race, including the centrality of emancipation and the contributions of black Americans to securing their freedom through their service in the Union army.  While the Commission is committed to this goal of inclusiveness it may be difficult recruiting or convincing African Americans to take part in various events.  And the reason for this, which Jordan cites, is that many black Americans view the symbols of the Confederacy through the prism of "Massive Resistance".  Simply put, they consider those symbols to be offensive.  I am not making a normative claim as to how people ought to interpret those symbols, but simply reporting that the black community does in fact subscribe to this view.  And anyone who understands the history of symbols such as the Confederate flag should be able to sympathize with this view.  I heard the very same thing during my interviews of NPS personnel.  As long as those symbols are present on the battlefields it will be difficult to attract the attention of the black community or convince them that those symbols are not being used to reinforce an interpretation designed to exclude or minimize their claims to the past.  This is, of course, very difficult given that reenactors and others use the Confederate flag for historical purposes. 

I don’t know what the solution is or if there is one at all.

Jordan also raised a few other concerns.  Most importantly he speculates that there may be very little enthusiasm for the Sesquicentennial across the board.  Visitorship is down at places such as Monticello, the Smithsonian, and the Civil War Library and Museum in Philadelphia.  We’ve also heard recently that the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar is not meeting the levels they expected and the Museum of the Confederacy continues to deal with declining numbers.  It should also be pointed out that the First World War Centennial will overlap the sesquicentennial by two years (2014-2018).  I mentioned in my last post that the federal government has yet to create a Civil War Commission, but it is likely that they will devote significant energy to planning events for First World War commemorations – the planning of which will surely not generate the same kind of political tensions that the Civil War engenders.  Jordan speculates that the federal government will use the opportunity to "reinvigorate homeland patriotism in the Global War on Terrorism" which would not be surprising given the effort to use the Centennial as a way to unify the nation during the Cold War.

It is much to early to speculate as to how the Sesquicentennial will play out both here in Virginia and elsewhere.  As mentioned before the Virginia Commission has taken the lead in planning for the event, but it will also need to consider what it will mean for someone to have participated in the Sesquicentennial.  Perhaps we should move away from numbers alltogether and focus on projects such as James I. Robertson’s proposal that every community in Virginia transcribe their 1860 census report.  It’s a brilliant idea because it is worthwhile as a historical endeavor, it brings people together around local history and it has the potential to attract significant interest without its success necessarily depending on it. 

No one should expect that any amount of planning will shift the general public’s attention away from "To Catch a Predator" to questions of history.  Those days may be over for good assuming it was ever true. 

“Should I Stay or Should I Go?”

LevinOver the past few weeks I’ve been debating whether or not to attend my 20th high school reunion, which is scheduled for November.  I really have no idea as to what to do.  My memories of high school are overall positive and the occasion would give me an opportunity to catch up with a few close friends that I haven’t seen in years.  On the other hand I have no urge to take part in a reunion; nor is there any curiosity as to how people’s lives have turned out.  Finally – and this is my worst fear in considering attending – I have no interest in conversations that take the form of "pissing contests."  Perhaps I’ve seen too many Hollywood movies that take place around reunions. 

Still, I am willing to leave open the possibility that my attendance would be worthwhile for some other reason.  So are there any reasons to attend?  By the way, how about that mug shot?  It looks like something you might find on the Post Office wall.

A Positive Sign: USCTs in the Public Mind

Yesterday I was perusing through the newspaper, Virginia’s Civil War, which is published by Civil War Traveler’s Don Pierce.  On p. 15 there is a short article about United States Colored Troops and the service of black Americans in the Civil War.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that the author made the correct distinction between black service in the Union as opposed to Confederate Army.  The author notes that both the Richmond and Petersburg National Battlefield Parks include exhibits that highlight the service of USCTs and it lists other sites where black Union soldiers saw action.  Here is how the author characterizes the service of blacks in the Army of Northern Virginia:

Thousands of blacks certainly traveled with the Confederate armies as well–as cooks, teamsters and personal servants.  For most of the war, it was the official policy of the Confederate government not to enlist blacks as combat soldiers, although, a handful may have served in that role.  However, blacks were preparing for entry into the Confederate army in March 1865.  Witnesses saw black Confederate recruits on Richmond’s Capitol Square

Those black Confederates may have been the ones captured during Lee’s Retreat to Appomattox.  A total of 36 blacks were surrendered with the Confederate army at Appomattox.  All were listed as cooks, teamsters, musicians and other non-soldier roles.

The passage reflects speculation more than conviction, which is both accurate and honest given how little we know about the ways in which Confederates and slaves/free blacks operated in the army.  It is encouraging to see such an important distinction being made in a popular publication.