Media obsession with Jon Benet spawns shallow critique

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There's something about lurid crimes that brings out the worst in social commentators. With his August 22 Newsday column, 'Karr: I have fun, I have rights, I have the media,' the usually astute James P. Pinkerton joins such notables as Buckley and Mailer in the long line of writers who have fumbled the subject.

According to Pinkerton, John Mark Karr, the accused killer of JonBenet Ramsey, is the 'logical culmination' of three recent cultural trends: 'First, baby—boomer hedonism. Second, rights—based legal proceduralism. And third, the media's enabling of...  "authentic" behavior.' A rigorous argument could be made on these grounds. But rigor is wasted when straw men will do.

Take the first contention: Karr as a boomer... well, that's a stretch. A generation varies from fifteen years to twenty years. The Boomers, of course, are the post—45 generation. So Karr is, at best, a Boomer only by courtesy. What Pinkerton is offering here is the old blame—it—on—the—Boomers line, beloved of commentators ranging from Buchanan to Brokaw. As a late—Boomer myself, I take a kind of perverse pride in belonging to such a notorious crew, similar to that felt by members of the Mafia or the Hell's Angels.
 
In fact, Karr is not a Boomer product at all, but a return to an older phenomenon. On first seeing his picture, I thought to myself, 'Oswald', and I doubt I was alone in this. The representative killer of the Boomer generation is the sociopath, the smiling mask empty of anything but murderous impulses. Karr is something else — the oversensitive misfit who can't hold a job and survives on fantasies of superiority bolstered by bogus intellectual pretensions. This motif has nothing to do with the Boomers but goes back to Leopold and Loeb if not to De Sade. Attractive though the idea may be, the Boomers can't be blamed for the invention of gratuitous criminality.

Nor can poor old Vladimir Nabokov, Pinkerton's next victim. Pinkerton's comments on Nabokov and Lolita are those of a man who knows only that Nabokov wrote a Dirty Book, based on descriptions by people who haven't read it either. Nabokov's great theme, one he returned to time after time, was obsession. In Glory, it was obsession with military triumph. In The Defense, obsession with the game of chess. In each case, giving in to obsession leads to damnation.

This didn't change when Nabokov turned to sexual obsession with Lolita. When the novel closes, every major character is dead — Lolita's mother, the evil Mephisto figure Quilty, and Lolita herself (during childbirth in chilly Alaska, a note left out of Kubrick's film version) —— with the exception of Humbert Humbert, who is awaiting execution for shooting Quilty. An 'erotic inspiration to pedophiles', in Pinkerton's words? Hardly. If anything, a reading of Lolita would go a long way toward discouraging the kind of behavior it describes — if pedophiles managed to read all the way to the end, which is doubtful. Nabokov was a man of the Victorian age, raised in an Imperial Russia that was more straitlaced than we can easily imagine, and the 'good parts' in Lolita are marvels of discretion.

It's a comfort to point the finger at one element of society or another. It places the event at a safe distance, removes any sense of responsibility, and provides a fine feeling of having done something. But it remains a disservice. The Ramsey murder, like all such, was an irrational act, rooted in the darkest aspects of the human spirit. Such actions are no more based on rational considerations than the howls of Oedipus or the rage of Medea.

If we are ever to learn how to control such events, we have to understand them for what they are. Blaming abstractions like a 'generation,' not to mention innocent third parties like Nabokov, is misdirection. The cause lies somewhere in the faults of the human soul. And that, difficult though it may be, is where we must begin.
 
J. R. Dunn    8 23 06

There's something about lurid crimes that brings out the worst in social commentators. With his August 22 Newsday column, 'Karr: I have fun, I have rights, I have the media,' the usually astute James P. Pinkerton joins such notables as Buckley and Mailer in the long line of writers who have fumbled the subject.

According to Pinkerton, John Mark Karr, the accused killer of JonBenet Ramsey, is the 'logical culmination' of three recent cultural trends: 'First, baby—boomer hedonism. Second, rights—based legal proceduralism. And third, the media's enabling of...  "authentic" behavior.' A rigorous argument could be made on these grounds. But rigor is wasted when straw men will do.

Take the first contention: Karr as a boomer... well, that's a stretch. A generation varies from fifteen years to twenty years. The Boomers, of course, are the post—45 generation. So Karr is, at best, a Boomer only by courtesy. What Pinkerton is offering here is the old blame—it—on—the—Boomers line, beloved of commentators ranging from Buchanan to Brokaw. As a late—Boomer myself, I take a kind of perverse pride in belonging to such a notorious crew, similar to that felt by members of the Mafia or the Hell's Angels.
 
In fact, Karr is not a Boomer product at all, but a return to an older phenomenon. On first seeing his picture, I thought to myself, 'Oswald', and I doubt I was alone in this. The representative killer of the Boomer generation is the sociopath, the smiling mask empty of anything but murderous impulses. Karr is something else — the oversensitive misfit who can't hold a job and survives on fantasies of superiority bolstered by bogus intellectual pretensions. This motif has nothing to do with the Boomers but goes back to Leopold and Loeb if not to De Sade. Attractive though the idea may be, the Boomers can't be blamed for the invention of gratuitous criminality.

Nor can poor old Vladimir Nabokov, Pinkerton's next victim. Pinkerton's comments on Nabokov and Lolita are those of a man who knows only that Nabokov wrote a Dirty Book, based on descriptions by people who haven't read it either. Nabokov's great theme, one he returned to time after time, was obsession. In Glory, it was obsession with military triumph. In The Defense, obsession with the game of chess. In each case, giving in to obsession leads to damnation.

This didn't change when Nabokov turned to sexual obsession with Lolita. When the novel closes, every major character is dead — Lolita's mother, the evil Mephisto figure Quilty, and Lolita herself (during childbirth in chilly Alaska, a note left out of Kubrick's film version) —— with the exception of Humbert Humbert, who is awaiting execution for shooting Quilty. An 'erotic inspiration to pedophiles', in Pinkerton's words? Hardly. If anything, a reading of Lolita would go a long way toward discouraging the kind of behavior it describes — if pedophiles managed to read all the way to the end, which is doubtful. Nabokov was a man of the Victorian age, raised in an Imperial Russia that was more straitlaced than we can easily imagine, and the 'good parts' in Lolita are marvels of discretion.

It's a comfort to point the finger at one element of society or another. It places the event at a safe distance, removes any sense of responsibility, and provides a fine feeling of having done something. But it remains a disservice. The Ramsey murder, like all such, was an irrational act, rooted in the darkest aspects of the human spirit. Such actions are no more based on rational considerations than the howls of Oedipus or the rage of Medea.

If we are ever to learn how to control such events, we have to understand them for what they are. Blaming abstractions like a 'generation,' not to mention innocent third parties like Nabokov, is misdirection. The cause lies somewhere in the faults of the human soul. And that, difficult though it may be, is where we must begin.
 
J. R. Dunn    8 23 06