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[politics|culture] Romney, bullying, and me

Yesterday, in Link Salad, I posted this:

Romney Apologizes For Bullying In Prep School, Says He Didn’t Know Victim Was Gay — I can and do say a lot of negative things about Romney, but I’m not sure very many of us could stand up to being accountable as mature adults for what we did in high school. (Via my Aunt M.)

That stirred some passionate comments on both instances of my blog:

[info]twilight2000: Sorry – but Bullshit. You can argue the average teen shit maybe, but he’s being described as a bully and a terror by more than one school mate. You get to be guilty for assaulting kids and terrorizing them.

[info]jere7my: He was also eighteen at the time, and a legal adult. There are a lot of people sitting in jail for things they did at eighteen that weren’t half as bad. (Of course, most of them aren’t wealthy and white.)

[info]chessdev: Agreed. Additionally, it only took 40 years AND a Presidential campaign for him to see the light… and we should commend his coming forward (when this was going to surface anyway most likely?)

[info]jimvanpelt: Like your other commentors here, I’m less likely to give Romney a pass on this one. As Frank Wu said in his blog today, “Would you want the bully of your sixth grade class elected President?” I’m a firm believer in character change and redemption, so it’s entirely possible that he’s moved a long way from those days, but, since I already don’t like or trust him, I’ll keep this story as another data point.

[info]elfs: [Excerpted from a long, thoughtful comment] When people his own staff called to cover for him instead described him as “evil” and prone to “Lord of the Flies moments,” no, really, you’re looking at a man’s character.

Stephen A. Watkins: [Excerpted from a long, thoughtful comment] As someone who was bullied for being wrongly perceived as gay when I was younger… I disagree with the idea that adults oughtn’t be held accountable for the nasty things they do when they are in high school. And his “apology” was a total non-apology.

Cora Buhlert: [Excerpted from a long, thoughtful comment] Pinning a fellow student to the ground to forcibly cut his hair goes way beyond a simply prank – that qualifies as assault IMO. Besides, Romney was 18 at the time, i.e. of an age where he should have known better, and not 12 or 14.

For whatever it’s worth, let me establish my own scrap of cultural authority on this question by saying that from a very early age through about age 14, I was the target of some pretty intense and difficult bullying. I was the new kid in school almost every year, exceptionally socially awkward even by the standards of my peer group, had a big mouth, and was almost always literally the slowest, clumsiest kid in the class. I’m not talking about name calling, either. Among many other things, I was forced to drink urine, stripped and stuffed in a trash barrel, battered with school desks and then buried in a mound of them, routinely threatened and robbed of my lunch (or lunch money), and so forth.

This being the 1970s, the most common response from my parents and teachers was, “What did you do to antagonize him?” I cannot remember a single instance of accountability for any of the boys who tortured me, even when their actions were witnessed by adults. At times, I was punished at school as an instigator. Often the bullies were star athletes picking on the slow weak kid, safely cloaked in the athletic privilege that begins to pervade even in upper grade school. There was an attitude that boys will be boys, and I just needed to toughen up and build my character. And besides, I had a big mouth, so I probably had it coming.

So, yeah, bullying is an intensely emotional issue for me, with a lot of triggers.

And quite frankly, I’d be amazed of any of the kids who did that stuff to me even remember it today. The experience of the bully is very different from the experience of the victim. The intense, emotional humiliation of being on the receiving end of that treatment can scar for life. For most of the bullies, it was an amusing way to pass a lunch break or a playground recess. Their actions had no great significance to them. In the battlefields of childhood, bullying is asymmetrical warfare.

What does this story mean? That Mitt Romney is arrogant, entitled and self-involved? That he unthinkingly uses his social power for his own amusement and benefit? I can’t believe anyone in America is surprised by this. And for a conservative electorate that values heteronormative masculinity above almost all other traits (c.f. George W. Bush’s “flight suit” moment), I suspect this story is validating and comforting. After all, here was candidate Romney in his youth fighting for what’s right and putting the wrong people in their place.

All that being said, I still hold to my original comment. How many of us could stand up to being accountable as mature adults for what we did in high school? I have many reasons to oppose Romney’s candidacy, rooted in common sense, in patriotism, in my understanding and experience of what Republican governance means to this country. That he was a childhood bully is a feature of Candidate Romney, not a bug. I don’t endorse or agree with that, but in the end, how different is his behavior at 18 from his behavior at Bain Capital, or even today? How different is the behavior of the GOP as measured by its platforms and legislation?

This is who he is. This is who the Republican party is, bullying the poor and the gay and women and little brown people the world over. And millions of my fellow Americans approve.

That’s the depressing aspect of this story to my way of thinking.

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