The outrageous escapades of Brittany Covington, Jordan Hill, Tanishia Covington, Tesfaye Cooper, perpetrated at the expense of Austin Hillbourn, are fairly well documented by now although the outrage developed in the media at a grudgingly slow pace. If you don’t know what I mean, consider the headline from the January 6th New York Times: “Beating of a Teenager Highlights a Crime That Often Goes Unpunished.” The lead paragraph decries a group of “young people” who “kidnapped, bound, beat, slashed, gagged, humiliated and threatened to kill a teenager with mental disabilities over nearly three days.”
The “paper of record” didn’t reveal the principals’ races until the third paragraph (that is, after many readers moved on to the next story) or that racism had anything to do with the crime.
The facts are now notorious. A quartet of Trump-bashing African-American kids forcibly escorted Hillbourn to a literal bashing, his own, seeing the schizophrenic eighteen-year-old, whose actual politics were likely as much a mystery to them as to you or me, as a living, visible symbol of everything they hated, simply due to his skin color.
Other than their transformation of the real crime into a matter of distressing teen violence, the reporters for the Gray Lady (NYTimes) went on to identify what they regarded as the really bizarre feature in the horrible business: the assailants’ filming of the crime and posting of it on Facebook.
Far be it from me to disagree on the strangeness of that aspect of the deed—I mean from a psychological viewpoint. To do something cruel and, at the same time, to want others to, as it were, read all about it is exceedingly peculiar.
Now, psychological factors aside, there is positively nothing novel in the inclination, even the obsession, of people to film with monotonous regularity events in their own lives. The recent and very entertaining Netflix miniseries “The Crown” about Queen Elizabeth II shows the princess receiving the gift of a camera for what people quaintly used to call home movies—that is, when home life was the norm for royalty and commoner alike—to take on her honeymoon, which she dutifully uses.
In the broader world as the decades rolled by, countless others (one embarrassing uncle in my family) did the same, recording for the pleasure or boredom of their posterity the significant and insignificant events of daily life. The resulting films ended up largely forgotten, stored in boxes and eventually discarded or copied to newer media to be ignored and stored again in their new format.
In the age of YouTube, Instagram, and, yes, Facebook, the ease of chronicling the lives of one’s own circle is easy to appreciate. But with the now decades-old dominance of an egotistic ethos has grown the perverse urge to confer on oneself a celebrity that was once the possession of the few. The idea that one can become famous with a few simple clicks of a mouse only compounds the temptation; it’s a new cult of self that has produced, what else, the “selfie.”
That “I” am the hero of my own film is, to be sure, not anything new. We’re all in the business of seeing the world as a drama of self. In a healthy age, we imagine ourselves as heroes on our own movie set. But what if, in an increasingly selfish age where moral distinctions have been whittled down or wholly erased from daily life, people decide that glamor resides in wickedness and its attendant crimes of theft, mayhem, and murder? To be the star of “Robin Hood is one thing”; to head the cast of “Night of the Hunter” is quite another.
To our quartet of teenaged Chicago monsters, Facebook publication was an obvious move, and their racism coupled with their indifference to decency and moral strictures yielded the video that has horrified so many. Amid the unvarnished thuggery was a virulent racism of a kind usually associated exclusively (in Hollywood, at least) with the Jim-Crow South; more troubling was their assumption that no one could object to what they were doing. The video snippets paint an ugly picture of their understanding of the world, but this was their movie, and the dialogue, however improvised, provided some insight into their twisted notions of public spiritedness:
F___ Donald Trump, nigga! F___ white people, boy! F___ white people, boy!
This nigga right here—he represents Trump. His ass deserve it. His ass from Europe. 400 years done stopped two years ago. If he sit in the sun all day, he will perish. If he sit in the sun all day, he gonna die. His ass a parasite. He a bug. Literally. He don’t belong on this earth. Goof-ass white man.
Pretty raw stuff, but it might have come, albeit considerably sanitized, from any number of indignant Hollywood Leftists: in Lena Dunham’s yearning for the disappearance of white males, Joss Whedon’s monotonous YouTube screeds, or Meryl Streep’s bully pulpiteering at the Golden Globes. True, they would not have prescribed open violence, but they seem careless of the fact that their sanctimonious cries for political chaos might goad the less scrupulous to commit villainous acts.
In a world enamored with self in which moral indifference is more the rule than the exception, dark dreams emerging in small-scale “reality” cinema provide a shocking view of what our society is headed. Are the rich and famous of tinsel town, the professionals of cinema, really disturbed? The answer may lie in the sad fact that at the Golden Globe awards, held three days after the revelation of the crime in Chicago, all the moral posturing was aimed at Donald Trump. But the real question is, how disturbed are the rest of us?