The rules of modern political journalism are that everything that occurs in a candidate’s life* is fair game for a thorough examination, and everything is imbued with some deeper meaning that reveals some key, fundamental truth about how the candidate will perform as president, and indeed the policies that president will pursue.
(This isn’t true, as I’ll argue below, and I didn’t write those rules. But the world of political journalism still operates by those rules, whether or not we like them.)
We’ve seen this approach applied to the president:
Obama’s old girlfriends?
The dramatic arc went from the unlikely world that created him — taking him, me, and the reader literally around the globe — to his even unlikelier rise. His story is and was unique, and yet I saw it as a way to explore in detail the larger theme of identity. The essence of this book is a search for home and identity . . . In retrospect it becomes apparent that New York was crucial to Obama. If he had not quite found his place yet, he was learning in which directions not to go and how to avoid turns that would lead him off the path and into traps from which it would be hard to escape.
The geopolitical views of his absent father?
It may seem incredible to suggest that the anticolonial ideology of Barack Obama Sr. is espoused by his son, the President of the United States. That is what I am saying.
Obama’s culinary selections as a child?
If President Obama is telling dog-eating jokes, then it can only mean one thing for the Asian American community: Obama is openly declaring his Asian American-ness.
(That’s from the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund.)
So undoubtedly, the tale of Mitt Romney being a prep-school bully is going to unleash a tsunami of the anecdote’s “deeper lessons” and “disturbing implications” and “revealing glimpses of hidden psychology” and so on for days, mostly from commentators who would look at a comparable anecdote about Obama and probably shrug. Lost in many of these arguments will be the idea that people change, and that perhaps the childhood, teen years, or even young-adult years of a person in their 50s or 60s aren’t the most illuminating or revealing factors in who they are today. Almost every smart adult can point to at least one extraordinarily stupid, careless, or cruel thing they did in their younger years.
My guess is that much of this commentary will focus on bullying, and how Mitt Romney supposedly never lost his bullying tendencies — never mind that he’s one of the most polite, even-tempered, and careful and cerebral figures in modern politics — and how a President Romney would bully Congress, the American people, and the world.
Inevitably, commentators will draw upon their personal experiences with bullying. I’m struck by how few people say that they weren’t bullied at all during their childhood and teen years. But just as it is mathematically impossible for everyone who was “always the last one picked for sports” to be the actual one, most people’s childhood anecdotes add up to teeming crowds of bullying victims but few bullies to be found. If almost everyone was bullied to one degree or another, the one’s experience as a bullying victim probably shouldn’t be cited as some sort of special knowledge or insight, a gnostic revelation into the mindset of others.
Nick Gillespie wrote about the perception of a “bullying crisis” in the Wall Street Journal last month:
As the parent now of two school-age boys, I also worry that my own kids will have to deal with such ugly and destructive behavior. And I welcome the common-sense anti-bullying strategies relayed in “Stop Bullying”: Talk to your friends, your parents and your teachers. Recognize that you’re not the problem. Don’t be a silent witness to bullying.
But is America really in the midst of a “bullying crisis,” as so many now claim? I don’t see it. I also suspect that our fears about the ubiquity of bullying are just the latest in a long line of well-intentioned yet hyperbolic alarms about how awful it is to be a kid today.
I have no interest in defending the bullies who dominate sandboxes, extort lunch money and use Twitter to taunt their classmates. But there is no growing crisis. Childhood and adolescence in America have never been less brutal. Even as the country’s overprotective parents whip themselves up into a moral panic about kid-on-kid cruelty, the numbers don’t point to any explosion of abuse. As for the rising wave of laws and regulations designed to combat meanness among students, they are likely to lump together minor slights with major offenses. The antibullying movement is already conflating serious cases of gay-bashing and vicious harassment with things like . . . a kid named Cheese having a tough time in grade school . . .
When it comes to bullying numbers, long-term trends are less clear. The makers of “Bully” say that “over 13 million American kids will be bullied this year,” and estimates of the percentage of students who are bullied in a given year range from 20% to 70%. NCES changed the way it tabulated bullying incidents in 2005 and cautions against using earlier data. Its biennial reports find that 28% of students ages 12-18 reported being bullied in 2005; that percentage rose to 32% in 2007, before dropping back to 28% in 2009 (the most recent year for which data are available). Such numbers strongly suggest that there is no epidemic afoot (though one wonders if the new anti-bullying laws and media campaigns might lead to more reports going forward).
The most common bullying behaviors reported include being “made fun of, called names, or insulted” (reported by about 19% of victims in 2009) and being made the “subject of rumors” (16%). Nine percent of victims reported being “pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on,” and 6% reported being “threatened with harm.” Though it may not be surprising that bullying mostly happens during the school day, it is stunning to learn that the most common locations for bullying are inside classrooms, in hallways and stairwells, and on playgrounds — areas ostensibly patrolled by teachers and administrators.
None of this is to be celebrated, of course, but it hardly paints a picture of contemporary American childhood as an unrestrained Hobbesian nightmare. Before more of our schools’ money, time and personnel are diverted away from education in the name of this supposed crisis, we should make an effort to distinguish between the serious abuse suffered by the kids in “Bully” and the sort of lower-level harassment with which the Aaron Cheeses of the world have to deal.
Of course, someone will read all this and insist it’s a defense of bullying or something. The knee-jerk accusation of insensitivity or support of cruel violent behavior is aggressive, coercive, abusive . . . if only we had a term for that sort of thing.
* Sometimes your ancestors are fair game, like when NBC News reports in prime time, “In fact, Mitt’s great-grandfather, Miles Park Romney, led that first expedition to escape not persecution but prosecution for polygamy, what Mormons called ‘plural marriage.’” As I’ve said before, if the Obama campaign wants to make the 2012 race about which candidate was closer to a polygamist ancestor . . . we can play that game.
UPDATE: So if we want to make this election about teenage bullying… as Talk of the Times, Adam Baldwin and Moe Lane point out, we can do that:
“I’m not her boyfriend!” I shouted. I ran up to Coretta and gave her a slight shove; she staggered back and looked up at me, but still said nothing. “Leave me alone!” I shouted again. And suddenly Coretta was running, faster and faster, until she disappeared from sight. Appreciative laughs rose around me. Then the bell rang, and the teachers appeared to round us back to class.
Insert “War on Women” jokes here.