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An ongoing discussion about conservatism in New Jersey.
The Clementi Case and Conservative Identity
Peter C. Hansen  (February 23, 2012, 5:07 am)

The New Yorker has published a truly first-rate exploration of the Clementi case, in which a gay Rutgers freshman leapt to his death from the George Washington Bridge after being exposed online by his roommate, Dharun Ravi. The author of the article, Ian Parker, has brought forward a trove of new facts, and his many insights and perceptions are unfailingly deft. The case is a morbidly fascinating one for many reasons. It is also sad, puzzling and enraging.

Because this case lies along the modern fault line of homosexuality, there has been a popular tendency to attach simple labels, motives and causes (both forensic and political) to the events of the case. Mr. Parker's article dispels these for any careful reader. If anything, Mr. Parker exposes the horrors of late-adolescent life in the age of smart phones and Twitter – self-discovery in front of an unblinking webcam. The events of the case are almost entirely known because they were almost entirely documented in real time by the actors themselves. Theirs was, and is, a world so devoted to electronic communication that the two figures taken in by police – Mr. Ravi and Molly Wei – actually texted about being questioned by police while Ms. Wei was being questioned.

In Mr. Parker's story, the ubiquitous communications technology used by everyone in the case gives the sickening impression of a loaded gun in a child's home – a seemingly quiet bit of machinery, sitting on a desk, that with a sudden blast has fearsome and irreversible effects. None of the actors seemed to realize its full power, and it took just one foolish and aggressive kid (Mr. Ravi) to thoughtlessly train it on someone near him and fire away. The dystopic scene of Mr. Clementi searching his room for hidden webcams gives any reader of Orwell's 1984 a shudder. (For the reason why, see here, at 7:05, the Italian dub not obscuring the brutal arrest of the nude Winston and Julia after the state reveals its surveillance.)

Even more depressing are the repeated scenes of the two roommates talking with others – and indirectly with each other – electronically, while sitting next to each other in a polite silence that covers up mutual loathing and suspicion. After reading such paragraphs, it seems that there has never been an American generation so pitiable in their exposed isolation as the Millennials. What makes their spectacle even stranger and sadder for older folks (by this I mean even 30-40 year olds) is that the Millennials seem largely content with their lot, and to live an almost cybernetic existence in the public eye. Andre Gregory may have had it right in 1981 when in My Dinner with Andre he recounted what then seemed a rather paranoiac rant:

[H]e said to me: "Where are you from?" And I said: "New York." He said: "Ah, New York! Yes, that's a very interesting place. Do you know a lot of New Yorkers who keep talking about the fact that they want to leave but never do?" And I said: "Oh, yes!" And he said: "Why do you think they don't leave?" I gave him different banal theories. He said: "Oh, I don't think it's that way at all." He said: "I think that New York is the new model for the new concentration camp, where the camp has been built by the inmates themselves, and the inmates are the guards, and they have this pride in this thing they've built, they've built their own prison. And so they exist in a state of schizophrenia, where they are both guards and prisoners. And as a result they no longer have, having been lobotomized, the capacity to leave the prison they've made, or to even see it as a prison.

Any fair observer must consider the unnerving reality of the Millennials' democratically proliferated 1984 when assigning guilt and meaning in the Clementi case.

There is of course a great deal of the "ever thus" quality in the Clementi case. Mr. Ravi is confirmed by Mr. Parker's trove of facts as a vicious, surreptitious lout. Ms. Wei, meanwhile, seems somewhat less culpable than before. She seems instead to have been caught up in Mr. Ravi's actions as a conflicted but prurient observer. Various side players appear, some sympathetic and some not. Stripped of electronica, the case seems all too familiar as quintessential high-school jerkery brought to Rutgers in the fall of freshman year. It is "bullying" not in the sense of a schoolyard shakedown. It is far more like that found at the start of Revenge of the Nerds or Tokyo Drift, where aggressive jocks publicly assault their perceived inferiors to aggrandize themselves.

A similarly strong undercurrent of sexual anxiety runs through Mr. Ravi's actions. As Mr. Parker makes clear through the words of Mr. Ravi and his friends, Mr. Ravi is an alpha male only in his own mind. He seems instead little more than a boastful brat who has never been known to land a girlfriend. Mr. Parker cleverly suggests that Mr. Ravi was threatened not so much by Mr. Clementi's homosexuality as by the fact that Mr. Clementi had, within weeks of starting college, unapologetically taken an older male lover that he had apparently found online. Mr. Clementi, in other words, was frighteningly more "adult" than Mr. Ravi, which contradicted Mr. Ravi's (ill-founded) preconception of him as a poor, technologically illiterate dork.

Mr. Clementi for his part comes off as a classically tragic figure. Not because he was a gay victim – he was certainly that, but Mr. Parker dispels the notion that Mr. Clementi was ashamed, helpless and without recourse. Mr. Clementi is tragic because, despite having every means of communication and institutional support at his disposal, he ultimately chose not to reach out when it mattered most. Here the sad irony of the Millennial age is most clearly revealed. Despite being continuously tied into his hometown's support network by text and phone from the moment of his arrival, and being starkly honest about what he was doing, as well as upfront with responsive campus authorities, Mr. Clementi could not bring himself to communicate his most personal feelings and seek a lifeline. He instead undertook a long journey to the George Washington Bridge, where he posted a short goodbye to his Facebook page before jumping to his death. His instinct to maintain his privacy, even under layers of self-disclosure, had led to his undoing.

Into this world of electronically enhanced, oppressive liberation, with its maze of half-formed personalities and Winston Smith levels of subterfuge, have charged the forces of the culture war. Mr. Clementi has inevitably, and understandably, become a rather abstracted symbol of gay victimization, one of a modern line of martyrs that includes the brutally murdered Matthew Shepard. Mr. Clementi, whom Mr. Parker reveals as an enigma with unknown if guessable personal motives for suicide, has been used to promote a hyper-detailed NJ anti-bullying law, a proposed federal anti-harassment law for universities, and gay marriage.

In a blog post from October 2, 2010, when the news of Mr. Clementi's suicide had only recently broken, Dan Savage threw the net quite wide to identify "accomplices," including "'Christian' churches and hate groups that warp some young minds and torment others, politicians on the right and left who exploit and perpetuate anti-gay prejudice, perhaps even Tyler's own family." In identifying an alleged "coverup," Mr. Savage equated Gov. Christie's opposition to gay marriage (despite the governor's horror at Mr. Clementi's situation) as sending a "harmful message" to the classmates of gay children. Mr. Savage inferred that the governor's religiously inspired opposition to redefining marriage amounted to support for anti-gay bigotry, which "kills, and increasingly ... kills kids – children who are vulnerable and alone and being bullied emotionally, physically, and spiritually."

Mr. Savage's imputation of the worst motives to those who did not accept his maximalist demands was of course totally off-base. There is a world of difference between inciting child-murder and a polite refusal to re-engineer a fundamental social institution. Mr. Savage's charge nevertheless carries a strong emotional appeal to some, particularly on the Left. Mr. Savage ties Gov. Christie's social conservatism directly to Mr. Ravi's acts by calling it a "harmful message." Mr. Savage thus implies that Mr. Ravi acted on "conservative" values, and that Gov. Christie would ratify those acts. Mr. Savage likewise implicitly posits that Mr. Ravi is either a conservative himself, or at least a fellow-traveler willing to enforce "conservative" norms. It is an interesting charge, and it goes straight to the heart of the present culture war. Is it, however, really true? Is Mr. Ravi a conservative? Put another way, can his acts be ascribed to a "conservative" mindset?

In a word, no.

To begin with, let us consider the notion of "conservative" from the perspective of race and nationality. In the traditional Leftist model of "conservative" oppression, it is the established white who oppresses the non-white immigrant. The presumption behind this viewpoint is that the established white is part of a cossetted and privileged class. Does this view actually hold water in the Clementi case? Was Mr. Clementi protected from Mr. Ravi by his race?

Mr. Clementi would certainly appear to fit the profile of an established white, and thus of someone in a position of relative power under the Leftist paradigm of race-oppression. He came from a middle-class NJ family. Mr. Parker describes Mr. Clementi as having the "tastes and manners of a teen-ager from an earlier era. He contributed to online discussions about musicals and opera, gardening, and the care of African dwarf frogs." He asked an online question about how to broil lobster tails with olive oil and rosemary. His uncle remarked to Mr. Parker that he had once watched Mr. Clementi play the violin while riding a unicycle. Mr. Clementi was a churchgoer, and his mother is an active Christian. When Mr. Clementi got to Rutgers, he tried out for the second-rung orchestra but was offered a place in the more prestigious Rutgers Symphony alongside doctoral students. He had been encouraged to apply to Juilliard, and a music director had secured him free violin lessons. The day he committed suicide, he joined in a rehearsal of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.

In true Jersey style, Mr. Clementi was no shrinking violet as far as ethnic comments were concerned. When Mr. Clementi's friend suggested that he had been the victim of a hate crime, Mr. Clementi electronically laughed, stating that "white people never get hated." After meeting Mr. Ravi for the first time, Mr. Clementi wrote to his friend (a Chinese-American girl) that Mr. Ravi's parents looked "sooo Indian first gen americanish," and that they "defs owna dunkin" (i.e. must own a Dunkin' Donuts). Mr. Clementi had extensive text conversations with his friend about how to pronounce Mr. Ravi's first name. Had Mr. Ravi discovered these early conversations, he could have complained to the university. As a white male with esoteric and upscale tastes, Mr. Clementi could easily have been made into a public example of retrograde, and thus putatively "conservative," attitudes by the university's more vigorously sensitive offices.

Let us now turn to Mr. Ravi. A native of Tamil Nadu in southern India, he is not a U.S. citizen. He arrived at age six and was apparently never naturalized. His immigrant parents moved first to Woodbridge, and then on to Plainsboro. As a minority and non-citizen with high test scores but a 2.88 GPA, Mr. Ravi would be presumed a victim of discrimination under the traditional Leftist model of oppression. It would further be assumed that he would be discouraged from rising and challenging the traditional racial hierarchy. (It is in this context that Mr. Clementi's "Dunkin' Donuts" comment would be invoked as evidence of Mr. Clementi's exclusion of Mr. Ravi as a low-status "Other.") Mr. Ravi's actions against Mr. Clementi would meanwhile be explained as a way of lashing out against the oppressor. The fact that Mr. Ravi's listed friends appear to have been almost exclusively Asian would bolster this racial-solidarity thesis.

The reality of the situation was of course altogether different. It was not Mr. Clementi, but Mr. Ravi, who saw himself at the top of the pecking order. Mr. Ravi felt free to disparage Mr. Clementi as poor. (He wasn't.) Mr. Ravi even suggested on the same basis that Mr. Clementi's white, working-class lover was a thief. Until Mr. Clementi registered a complaint under the university's rules, Mr. Ravi and his friends felt perfectly free to ridicule and harass him at will, without the slightest fear of racist blowback. Of course, no white administrators or students told Mr. Ravi to back off from bothering their fellow white. (Such an act would be bizarrely absurd, at least in NJ.) There is in fact no evidence whatever of racial animus on anybody's part. The only racially tinged statements were made (innocently) by Mr. Clementi.

Mr. Ravi's acts can hardly be described as "conservative" in terms of upholding traditional structures of racial power. An established, middle-class white citizen was, after all, victimized by a non-white, non-citizen. To the extent that Mr. Ravi's actions could be described as "conservative" in the context of race, it was because he acted in a color-blind fashion. It must ironically be counted as progress that Mr. Ravi felt free to be an equal-opportunity jerk. At the same time, his actions put the lie to the myth of the privileged white student, at least at Rutgers.

The more urgent claim is of course not that Mr. Ravi is a racist, but that he is a homophobe. The Leftist oppression model posits that Mr. Ravi acted in a "conservative" fashion by upholding heteronormative standards and shaming Mr. Clementi. The model must change gears to fit this thesis. The assumed definition of the dominant community can no longer be based on race, but rather on sexual identification. This change makes it possible for Mr. Ravi, a non-white, non-citizen, to be welcomed as a member of the posited supreme club. He obtains his alpha status through his willingness to enforce sexual orthodoxy against the aberrant Mr. Clementi. Particularly in Mr. Savage's view, Mr. Ravi's "conservative" enforcer role is tied to the upholding of traditional Christian standards of sexual behavior.

Once again, we splash into hogwash. There is no evidence that Mr. Ravi is a Christian, or that he is aware of traditional Christian standards of sexual behavior (let alone those of any other religion). He certainly evinced no such understanding, or any intent to judge Mr. Clementi by such standards. It is therefore hardly possible for Mr. Ravi to stand in for a "conservative" Christianity. It is likewise impossible to claim that "conservative" Christians would have acted as Mr. Ravi did. However Christian standards might judge Mr. Clementi's acts, they certainly do not condone unilateral private action to punish the alleged wrongdoer by titillating friends and acquaintances with naughty images. As but one example of actual Christian organizational action, the traditionalist group Focus on the Family honored Mr. Clementi while admonishing people to "always treat ... person[s with whom you morally disagree] with respect, dignity and compassion. Focus on the Family is presumably better aware of Christian standards, and more vigorous in their application and enforcement, than is Mr. Ravi.

As for the notion that Mr. Ravi represented a domineering, "macho" culture, the evidence is wholly to the contrary. To begin with, Mr. Ravi appears never seems to have attracted a girlfriend. Moreover, despite constant displays of aggressive jockish behavior, he was hardly admired by the people he knew. One friend, Mr. Tam, put it thus: "He’s so much of a jerk that it may seem like he’s a homophobe but he’s not." It is true that Mr. Ravi and his friends tossed around homophobic slurs, including against each other and even sometimes against themselves. These incidents, however, seem to have been similar to Mr. Clementi's anti-Indian comments – just banter without any real animus or focused malice. If anything, this banter revealed an overactive sexual anxiety on the part of Mr. Ravi and his friends as to what would happen if they were "wanted." Mr. Parker notes that Mr. Ravi's language when discussing gays, while certainly homophobic, was "more restrained" than that of his friends. Mr. Ravi seemed focused instead on being sexually acceptable himself. Far from joining an alpha male pack (except, perhaps, while carousing), Mr. Ravi comes off more as a member of the Night at the Roxbury team. A much more popular freshman at Rutgers was Tyler Picone, an openly gay student who magnanimously defended Mr. Ravi against the heaviest onslaught of opprobrium, saying that "Ravi had probably wanted people [simply] to be amused by his actions – to 'think of him as this bro.'"

In light of the facts, Mr. Ravi seems more like an insecure jerk who acted out of a sense of personal sexual inadequacy rather than any need to uphold a "conservative" social order. There is in any event no evidence that Rutgers is run (or has been overrun) by a mob of flagrantly heterosexual alpha males, let alone one bent on suppressing man-on-man sex acts. The Rutgers hierarchy instead moved instantly and properly to enforce the rules against Mr. Ravi when Mr. Clementi complained of privacy violations. This was entirely consistent with "conservative" values, not least the core principle of letting people live their private lives with minimal interference. Mr. Ravi was not a "conservative" being restrained by a "liberal" administration. He was simply a jerk who acted in a manner unacceptable to any reasonable social order.

Even many of Mr. Ravi's friends declined to follow his lead in spying on Mr. Clementi. Of those that did egg him on, they seem to be more or less clones of Mr. Ravi. To draw larger conclusions about society from this group of misfit dinguses is impossible. Observing their attitudes is akin to noticing that anti-Semitism is widespread among U.S. Nazis. That may be true, but it doesn't tell us anything about the opinions of everybody else.

Having therefore eliminated any reasonable racial, religious, social or administrative basis for deeming Mr. Ravi's acts "conservative," we come finally to the core of the issue: Was Mr. Ravi a "conservative" simply because he was a jerk? Put another way, is his macho loutishness an inimitably "conservative" trait? Mr. Savage, among many others, have made this connection. From such a viewpoint, "conservative" is simply a descriptor of people who are, or appear likely to be, threatening, loutish males. The underlying assumption is that such barbarians dominated human history until roughly 1968, and that they must be restrained lest they return society to a traditional and "conservative" order resembling something like a Conan novel, or at least a kind of eternal Mad Men episode.

Here again, a proper basis is utterly lacking. A lout seeks to dominate and dispose of others completely and at will. Such a person has no place in a "conservative" society of ordered liberty. The "conservative" ethos is one in which the legal equality of persons is sacrosanct, and the individual pursuit of happiness is guaranteed to all. Of course, it is undeniable that the American system in the past allowed for zones of discretion by men to govern others at will, including wives and slaves. These concessions to a pre-constitutional society gradually shrank and disappeared, however, as the originally declared ideals, norms and rules of the constitutional system expanded to fill in the gaps. The "conservative" ideology is founded on this essentially perfected system. While conservatives may draw ideas and wisdom from pre-constitutional sources, these must be filtered through and consistent with the constitutional order. A threatening, domineering lout is therefore no hero or representative of the "conservative" movement. To the contrary, he is as alien to it as would be a caveman with a club on his Neanderthal shoulder.

In all events, as someone acting out allegedly "conservative" male traits, Mr. Ravi was hardly a paragon of self-assertion. Mr. Ravi knew that Mr. Clementi was gay before he moved in, yet his entire strategy for sharing a 16-by-11 room with him was to move his closet so as to make it into a semi-private "cubby" where he could change. Mr. Clementi, who knew that Mr. Ravi knew that he was gay, called Mr. Ravi's changing of clothes "the most awk [sic] thing you’ve ever seen." Mr. Ravi never confronted Mr. Clementi about his activities or proclivities, or Mr. Ravi's concerns about them. He instead snuck around and appealed to people's prurient interests in Mr. Clementi's sexual contacts. This was not a course of action based solely on homophobia. Mr. Parker observes that "one can imagine female partners ... whose age, appearance, or sexual tastes might also have inspired Ravi to write a sarcastic tweet." In all events, sarcastic tweets are hardly the mark of a domineering alpha male enforcing a personal code of dominance and submission. They are simply the snipings of a marginal jerk.

So, after all is said and done, we have in Mr. Ravi a malefactor whose acts can in no reasonable way be deemed "conservative." His actions instead clearly violated any conception of a modern, civilized order, including a constitutionally "conservative" one. He stands in the light of justice simply as an individual, and is accountable as an individual for his inexcusable actions. Whatever happens to him as a result of his trial, Mr. Ravi is likely to be remembered as someone who acted without charity, without compassion, and without regard for the Golden Rule. Mr. Ravi's tale is also a cautionary one. It is the story of an immature and callous young man who played games with terrifying tools, and harmed someone terribly as a result. Such ingrained foolishness cannot be legislated out of existence. It must be fought on the field of ethics, every day and step by step, in families, social groups and the media. That is where the memory of Mr. Clementi will find its fullest and most enduring meaning.