CONSERVATIVE FRAMES

Over the weekend I had the misfortune of being a fringe participant in a conversation about Michael Vick, and in it I heard a viewpoint which also has appeared in the more militantly animal-conscious corners of the internets. Namely, Mr. Vick should be banned from returning to the NFL where he stands to make a seven-figure salary when a team decides to roll the dice on a talented player with public relations and "character" issues. I see this viewpoint as an example of just how deeply-rooted conservative frames of criminal justice issues have become in this society.

To briefly review the facts, Vick committed some fairly heinous crimes for which he was indicted, convicted, and punished. He served 20 months in Federal prison. One could easily argue that he would have served more if not for his wealth and celebrity, but he also wouldn't have been prosecuted without his wealth and celebrity (as his high profile encourage prosecutors to make an example of him, which is fine with me). He also lost his $120 million contract, lost millions more in endorsements, had several million dollars worth of property seized, had to repay his former employer a substantial portion of the millions he had been paid, and was forced into bankruptcy. All of this sounds fair to me. He has been punished with good cause. But he has been punished.

In pre-1970s America, and in most of the industrialized world today, the purpose of incarceration and punishment is rehabilitation. Vick's words, his actions, and the fact that he hasn't smiled for 2 years indicate to me that he's a person who realizes "Wow. I fucked up. Bad." Without defending or excusing his actions, I can buy the argument that he knew that he was breaking the law but didn't think it was a big deal. Among poor communities, especially in the South, animal fighting and abuse are cultural institutions. He had probably been around it all of his life and, conversely, rarely around people who told him it was vile and unacceptable. He knew it was illegal the same way you know speeding is illegal. After going to Leavenworth, losing millions of dollars, and becoming a social outcast, I am willing to bet that he now understands that he was quite wrong.

Isn't that what a justice system is supposed to be about? We punish people for violating the law – violations for which ignorance is no excuse – and we rehabilitate them. But in post-1980, War on Drugs America, that isn't enough. We want to find some way to punish the guilty for life. We want assurances not only that they were incarcerated but that they were incarcerated in a roach-infested, windowless cell with no lights for 23.5 hours per day, released briefly to be tied to a post and whipped. We think it's neat that people convicted of drug-related offenses are ineligible to receive student loans (thus less likely to go to college, thus far more likely to return to one of the few high-paying careers that require no education: selling drugs). And that leads some of us to think it's not only desirable, not only acceptable, but right that Michael Vick should somehow be punished in perpetuity for his crime.

I could understand a long-term punishment specific to his crime. For instance, it would make sense if the judge forbade him to own dogs or required him to submit to a weekly visit from animal welfare officers if he did so. That would make sense in the same way that habitual drunk drivers are forbidden to drive or pedophiles are not allowed to be around children. However, I fail to see the benefit or logic to denying him the right to be employed in a field unrelated to his crime. The sense that it is Unfair for such a Bad Person to make a high salary doesn't have much of a place in the law. I doubt that Scooter Libby is working for minimum wage right now.

A friend of Vick's, one Clinton Portis, commented when he was first charged, "I don't know if he was fighting dogs or not, but it's his property, it's his dog. If that's what he wants to do, do it. I think people should mind their business." This was widely reported. Another portion of the interview wasn't: "I know a lot of back roads that have the dog fighting if you want to go see it." Among poor, rural, Southern communities (and, according to law enforcement, increasingly among poor, urban, black communities) animal fighting is so pervasive that it simply isn't seen as a serious offense by people who are exposed to it regularly. So when Portis later stated, "At that time I had no idea the love people have for animals, and I didn't consider it when I made those comments" he probably wasn't lying. Hopefully the point that animal abuse is immoral and illegal has been made abundantly clear to Vick, Portis, and the many people who follow their careers – and the last group are the intended audience when a high-profile person is prosecuted for a crime. Now we move on. Guilt has been admitted and punishment has been administered. It serves no constructive purpose to channel the spirit of Reagan and adopt the attitude toward (non-white collar) criminals favored by his worshippers in Orange Counties across America.

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13 Responses to “CONSERVATIVE FRAMES”

  1. Virginia S. Wood, Psy.D. Says:

    There's a line between what's cultural and what's characterological. I suspect Vick's problem is the latter.

    His not smiling doesn't necessarily mean he's developed a conscience: Even stone sociopaths get depressed when they are caught and stopped from doing whatever it is that they do. In that context, "I blew it" is an expression of regret at being caught and convicted, not to mention publicly shamed and bankrupted, rather than genuine remorse over the behavior itself.

    Conscience, if it exists in a person at all, is an innate potential developed over the course of childhood, not something one can acquire as an adult. It is, as you say, developed in a cultural context: Things some of us would feel awful guilt about, others would not lose a minute's sleep over. If our cultural context changes, as you argue that Vick's has, we learn different ways of looking at the same behavior and feel differently about that behavior than we did before. So far, so good.

    Here's the problem: There's dog fighters and then there's dog fighters. Some take pretty good care of their dogs, may even profess to love them, and put them out of their misery humanely when the time comes*. Then there are those, like Vick was reported to be, who seem to get off on directly abusing the animals. I am referring to the stories about electrocuting dogs in puddles of water, for example. This was not necessary: Vick presumably had access to more humane methods (e.g., guns and drugs). Therefore it is likely is that he did it that way precisely because he enjoyed watching them suffer and thinking up new and creative ways to torture them to death was his idea of fun.

    I have, obviously, not done a psychological assessment on Mr. Vick and cannot speak specifically to his character or personality. I am just saying that generally speaking, a person who gets off on hurting things is probably not just engaging in a cultural expression, probably does not have a conscience, and indeed is likely to remain a danger not only to animal animals but to human animals as well because he is not going to suddenly develop a conscience in adulthood.

    *I can hear the shrieks already. What I just wrote does not mean that I think these dogs are being taken care of, that their owners really love them in the sense that we usually use the word, or that anything that happens to these poor animals could even remotely be construed as "humane." I'm just sayin': There are dog fighters in the cultural sense, and then there's the freaks that use fighting as a vehicle for some genuinely scary sadism.

  2. dbsmall Says:

    I'm really tired. That's true. But I think you're suggesting that never acknowledging rehabilitation is "conservative framing".
    Or maybe you're saying conservatives only recognize rehabilitation for white-collar, white-criminal type crimes.

    Either one seems a stretch. And while "stretches" often make the most thought-provoking and entertaining articles, this one didn't get there for me.

    The folks who most rabidly want to see Vick continue to be punished are the animal lovers. And the animal-rights activists don't tend to be conservative.

    It probably has more to do with an American sense of justice through vengeance. All of which could have been ilustrated through the ironic lens:
    1) the guy's high-paying job (at least, the way he played it) involves, often, setting up other human beings to be physically hurt.
    2) wasn't he "spreading the herpes around"?

    So, yeah. Character issues.

    But I do love football. And pit bulls. And I think that, if a team wants to take a chance on Vick, they should be allowed to. But that's not because I'm a political liberal.

  3. jon Says:

    Dude did his crime, served his time, and now can go out and earn a dime.

    Will he be a pariah? Yes. Should he be? Yes. Will any team that takes him be risking a lot of bad PR? Yes. Will it be worth the headaches? Probably, since he's a tremendous talent.

    He's always going to have this around him, just as Ted Kennedy always has that bridge. But even a tainted life can be worth living. I'm for forgiving but not forgetting Vick. There will always be those who will someday say that he's gotten past it all and there will always be those who will remind him of it, so I'm okay with him getting back in the NFL. If he does it again, however…

  4. Jon Says:

    Two Words: Leonard Little. Dude ran over and killed someone while drunk and was back in the NFL soon after that. Its fun to draw lines in the sand over issues that tug at our heartsrings like dogfighting, but the problem with this post is that you don't address what to do with the dozens of people playing in the NFL who have committed crimes (or were accused with alot of circumstancial evidence) worse than Vick's.

  5. J. Dryden Says:

    To continue in jon's vein: Should he be allowed to return to the NFL? Yes, if someone chooses to hire him, knowing his past and the reputation he brings as a person–the game as it exists now is as much about personality as talent, so his rep is a factor along with his talent. Should we continue to support the team that hires him? Yes, if we choose to–or, if we choose, we may boycott said team. The legal system has caught, tried, and punished him; that's the end of the "have-tos" in this situation. After this point, it's all about individual choices, as well it should be. We've moved into the realm of conscience, and God forbid such a thing should be anything other than up to the individual at that point.

    I will just add, as a tangential note, that when, in lecturing, I've needed an example of a person who is "a piece of shit," Vick has been my go-to guy for a long time–but only because I'm then able to illustrate that people like dogs *way* more than they like other people, and the implications that has for us as a species.

  6. D.N. Nation Says:

    "It serves no constructive purpose to channel the spirit of Reagan and adopt the attitude toward (non-white collar) criminals favored by his worshippers in Orange Counties across America."

    PeTA and other various animal rights organizations don't worship Reagan, and yet their stance on Vick is the same as the one you decry. The Vick issue is a little bit more complicated than you're letting on.

  7. Jason Harx Says:

    Keep preaching the truth Ed.

    D.N. Nation, you're missing the point. It's not that PeTA worships Reagan, it's the "punishments can never be too stiff" attitude that sprang up in the 80's that is the real problem. Reagan was just the chief spokesman of that fad.

  8. Kevin Says:

    I hear what you're saying here, and despite my love of dogs I can agree for the most part — except here:

    "He served 20 months in Federal prison. One could easily argue that he would have served more if not for his wealth and celebrity, but he also wouldn’t have been prosecuted without his wealth and celebrity."

    The fact that his celebrity may have made him a bigger target for prosecutors should really have no bearing on anything; like any other underfunded group, prosecutors have to triage their work. The fact that he got caught (and someone else didn't) shouldn't give him any special consideration after the fact. But the possibility that his status may have had some effect on his sentence means quite a bit. If his lawyers managed to leverage his celebrity into a reduced sentence (and I'm not saying they did), then it's perfectly reasonable for people to demand that his punishment continue in some way after he's released from jail. Of course, if this results in vigilante justice, that's a bad thing. But if it results in calls for Michael Vick to maybe not get millions of dollars a year to essentially play a game, well, I can't really bring my liberal heart to care too much.

    What's more: Dog fighting is often precursor and partner to other violent acts. Guys who engage in dogfighting tend to see violence with a less critical eye than the rest of us, just like guys who work in hog rendering plants don't notice the smell after a while. To allow Vick to return to a career with such strong undertones of violence (and, hell, overtones of violence too) may be courting disaster.

  9. jazzbumpa Says:

    Though I believe in rehabilitation and second chances, I also realize that it's not going to work for everyone. That Vick is a pissant is not relevant, but the nature of his crime is. He is a sadistic abuser. I seriously doubt that he can be genuinely rehabbed, because the flaw in his damaged spirit runs too deep.

    Having said that, though, I have no problem with giving him a second chance. If the NFL does it, that's OK by me, and if he ends up cleaning latrines for a living, that's OK, too.

    Ed – I always have a not to pick. While your criticisms of Reagan, drug enforcement, and the criminal justice system are on target, don't delude yourself that the purpose of incarceration and punishment ever was rehabilitation. That is not, and has never been true here or anywhere else. The purpose is revenge, pure and simple. Make that bastard pay! (It doesn't even matter if its the right bastard, 'cuz we is tuff on krime.) Same as it ever was.

  10. jazzbumpa Says:

    Uh – that's NIT, not NOT to pick.

    Lo siento.

  11. Nan Says:

    Great post, although I see that as usual a number of commenters totally missed the point.

    The attitude toward Michael Vick is indeed the conservative-punish-someone-forever-rehabilitation-isn't-an-option-wear a scarlet letter for life attitude that's become pervasive in American society. Doesn't matter what the crime is or who the perpetrator was that convicted criminal can never do enough time or suffer enough to satisfy the adherents of that attitude. Law after law has been passed, from sex offender registration requirements to limitations on the types of jobs people can hold, to make sure punishment for a crime lasts a lifetime. Here in Georgia the legislature passed a law restricting where convicted sex offenders can live with the explicit intent of making it impossible for them to live anywhere in the state. Of course, sex offender is so loosely defined that it includes people who engaged in consensual sex as teenagers, something that is true across most of the country. Similarly, IIRC, a few years ago the U.S. Congress in a misguided attempt to crack down on Medicare fraud make it illegal for anyone who had ever been convicted of a drug charge to work in any field related to medicine, e.g., orderly in a nursing home. They've also made it impossible to people who have been convicted of a drug charge to get a student loan, which in turn makes it that much harder for people to rehabilitate themselves through education.

    I tend to think of Vick as a despicable thug, although I thought that before the dog fighting revelations (he attended VaTech. So did I, and remember well why people joked about the county building a new jail closer to the university so football players would have an easier commute). That said, he served his time, his finances are a shambles, his career is iffy — let the poor illiterate sap (like I said — football player. VaTech. If he can read above a 4th grade level I'd be amazed) try to get on with his life.

  12. Kiki Says:

    J. Dryden – You are right, some people like dogs WAY more than they like other people and I am one of them. And exactly what are the implications for us as a species? Although humans put themselves on the top of every list in terms of superiority, animals are the superior species. The simple fact that they lack the capacity for evil is, in itself, evidence of this.

  13. Prose Hack Says:

    I'm sorry, I generally stay out of this Vick thing because I tend to get overwrought. However, in this case I would like to add a couple of things.

    Disclaimer: I own an American Bulldog, herself personal rescue from some fighting dog people. She was destined to be a bait dog–to have her teeth knocked out, tied to a post, and have the other dogs set on her to get the taste of blood. And I have financially supported BAD RAP, the organization responsible for rescuing and fostering many of the Vick dogs.

    Here's my problem. Vick HAS NOT paid his debt/realized his wrong. He pleaded not guilty to the animal cruelty charges, and did time for "rackateering," not animal cruelty. Until he comes out and repudiates that behavior, I can't say that he's "rehabilitated."

    Also this is not Vick's only issue. He has been in trouble in the past, been "given chances" in that past, and continued on. What makes this time any different? It's not a one-time, busted for pot so no financial aid situation. This is his character.

    Finally, it is the premeditated, planned, and pathological nature of the abuse. He was not engaged in a cultural phenomenon, he wasn't even a businessman culling the unusable animals. It was the absolute horrifying way in which he went about it.

    The details that got to me then and stay with me today involve the swimming pool that was used to kill some of the dogs. Jumper cables were clipped onto the ears of underperforming dogs, then, just like with a car, the cables were connected to the terminals of car batteries before lifting and tossing the shamed dogs into the water. Most of Vick's dogs were small – 40lbs or so – so tossing them in would've been fast and easy work for thick athlete arms. We don't know how many suffered this premeditated murder, but the damage to the pool walls tells a story. The marks indicate that while they were scrambling to escape, they scratched and clawed at the pool liner and tore at the dented aluminum sides in agony.

    I wear some pretty thick skin during our work with dogs, but I can't shake my minds-eye image of a small dog splashing frantically in bloody water … screaming in pain and terror … brown eyes saucer wide and tiny black white-toed feet clawing at anything, desperate to get ahold. This death did not come quickly. The rescuer in me keeps trying to think of a way to go back in time and somehow stop this torture and pull the little dog to safety. I think I'll be looking for ways to pull that dog out for the rest of my life.

    So that's where I'm at. A second chance for Vick?