In the three weeks since the New York Times broke the story of a child’s rape there, the events in Cleveland, Texas, have morphed into a category-five media storm. The Times piece, which echoed and amplified currents of victim-blaming in the town, generated a tide of criticism. Yet beneath the outrage was a parable of modern media. Aside from the familiar and incendiary themes it contained, the Times article seemed an object lesson in what happens when cash-strapped newspapers parachute a reporter into a complex situation hoping for coverage on the cheap. In-depth coverage requires resources and the time to do the deliberate, painstaking gathering of facts that were in short supply in James McKinley’s article. “The New York Times,” as one friend put it, “can no longer afford nuance.”
Add to that equation the fact that Twitter-orchestrated protests, web petitions and Facebook posts pushed the Times to apologize (or at least come close to it), and our understanding of the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl becomes yet another front in the battles between old and new media. Even the way the assault became public knowledge—digital images traded around on cellphones—seems to be part of the narrative of modern technology and information.
Yet for all this modernity, the most troubling aspect of the ongoing fallout from Cleveland is the way it resurrects themes of race, sexual violence and provincialism long interred in American history. Some weeks ago I taught students in my civil rights history class about the plague of lynching, which claimed the lives of more than 3,000 African-Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Beyond the horror of the organized murder of black citizens, students were most troubled by the recreational nature of it all: the images of smiling white citizens, fathers and sons, upstanding Christians gathered in fellowship around the smoldering ruin of a black body—all preserved on postcards.
If you asked any of these people in the abstract if it is right to hang a person, set him on fire and then riddle the body with bullets, they would likely have called those actions illegal and sinful. But there is an asterisk: unless that person was black; unless he had demanded his wages, or been to slow to vacate a sidewalk when a white person walked by, or been “unpopular” (these are all actual reasons cited for lynching). These are actions of people who have been given a moral escape clause, an asterisk in which upstanding Christians can sate the demonic appetites of their collective id. Thus an act of abomination becomes a moment worthy of commemorating with a photograph.
I thought about that discussion of lynching again as news spread that the alleged perpetrators were so utterly secure in the righteousness of their act that some of them snapped pictures or recorded footage on their cell phones. We have, in 2011, reached a point when the public display of charred human remains is no longer acceptable. But the response of some of the citizens of Cleveland, Texas, to this horrific assault has brought us face to face with a kind of gender Jim Crow. Here the asterisk is not failure to conform to racial etiquette but the lax adherence to an equally stringent gender code, one where “innocent” is a relative concept and rape, like lynching, can be elevated nearly to the level of civic responsibility.