Tuesday, October 5, 2010

No, The New York Times, Michael Vick Doesn't Get to Be a Hero

The New York Times, last Saturday, ran this article on the "renaissance" of Michael Vick:
“I told people I thought he would be a great story and he would do the right things off the field,” said the former Colts coach Tony DungyNBC’s “Football Night in America” analyst, who counseled Vick during and after his incarceration. “But if people had pressed me and asked if I thought he could get back to this level, I would have to say probably not. I would have said he’ll get a certain percentage of the way back, but how could you ever get all the way back?”
A "great story"?  Remember who we're talking about here: Michael Vick, former quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, who orchestrated an enormous interstate dogfighting ring. For five years. Fortunately the article here did mention his involvement with the dogfighting ring, but as these things usually are, it was only mentioned in passing as a low point against which could be juxtaposed a "football renaissance" for Mr. Vick. It has all of the ritual trappings of a religious revival, complete with throngs of adoring disciples:

But just inside the locker room door, at least 50 journalists huddled so tightly last Wednesday that when the player they were waiting for, Michael Vick, surveyed the gathering, he could only shake his head slightly.
“Amazing,” Vick whispered.
And monasticism:
Vick’s studying, though, has been crucial. Members of the Eagles organization said Vick had to be reminded to leave the training facility. The film room has become his sanctuary, and he has learned the Eagles’ offense better than he did Atlanta’s. 
Plus some martyrdom:
“I have been under pressure my whole life,” Vick said. “Pressure to take care of my family and a lot of other things. This is football — it’s pressure. But you’ve also got to make light of the whole situation. That’s what I try to do. There’s always going to be pressure. But it brings the best out of you.” 
I'm not very happy about this situation as a whole. Vick might be a good football player. He might even be a really good football player. But honestly, is the fawning love from sports commentators and even that symbolic bastion of Balance and Truth, The Grey Lady, necessary? Again: the "best" brought out of Vick by that pressure he's been feeling his whole life? Based on that, his "best" includes management of a dogfighting ring, at least three dogs from which had to be euthanized because they were completely incapable of being re-socialized.

Unfortunately, this sort of coverage and cultural acceptance is not unique. There are any number of other examples of apologia or glorification of famous people, even those with the deepest and darkest scars: those that excuse Roman Polanski's raping of a young girl on the basis of his "artistic genius", for example, or Paris Hilton apparently posing for her mugshots now, plus any number of highly publicized celebrity trials after which the celebrity is almost universally let off the hook. If anything, these cases prove that real justice and the legal system very rarely intersect (though ideally they should). So long as the powerful have both the cultural and real, financial capital to turn the United States justice system into a mockery of itself -- where money can buy powerful lawyers, or where wealthy defendants can defer cases endlessly, or where prosecutor's offices and police forces abuse and coerce those without the resources to fight back -- it becomes incumbent on us as a society to be aware of this fact. When Michael Vick's prison sentence becomes a stepping-stone in our discourse to his rebirth, there's a problem that has everything in the world to do with power.

Perhaps this bleeds into a trickier question of the concept of heroism and valorization generally. I'm becoming more and more convinced that heroism is inherently problematic in that it produces a really simplistic discursive representation of people (who tend to be famous and usually rich) that whitewashes the evils they commit for the sake of creating a narrative that paints them as good. Look at the term "flawed hero": the "flaw"-edness of the hero is a deviation from the category, not an inherent part of it. People are way more complicated than this characterization gives them credit for, and in our minds, it generates a very visceral, very emotional reaction when these "heroes" are criticized (see the many, many defenses of Roman Polanski or Mother Teresa -- there are a lot).

So while I don't think that we should instead be counter-categorizing these people as inherently "evil" (because no one and nothing can be inherently anything, différance and all that), Michael Vick's name should never, ever come up in our heads without a giant asterisk. And that's where the New York Times article fails. It turns that asterisk, that complicating factor, into a Herculean trial to be surpassed. And as long as that happens, these people will continue to get away with atrocity.