Friday, October 8, 2010

Blaming it on the devil. Friday, Oct. 8, 2010.

“The devil made me do it!” – Flip Wilson

In 1968 (when part of the world thought the utopian Age of Aquarius was dawning, and the other part thought the world was going straight to hell), Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote the song “Sympathy for the Devil” for the Rolling Stones’ “Beggar’s Banquet” album. The Stones, already under fire for their sexually suggestive lyrics and stage presence, were now accused of nothing less than Satanism.

It didn’t help matters that 18-year-old Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by a Hell’s Angel after pulling out a gun in December 1969 at the Altamont Free Concert. The incident took place while the Stones were performing “Under My Thumb,” but almost overnight the urban legend developed that “Sympathy for the Devil” had been playing. Hunter’s death was blamed on none other than Lucifer himself.

As a Christian and a Rolling Stones fan, I have to stand up for the song’s true meaning. While the song is, in fact, narrated by the Devil (just as C.S. Louis’ “The Screwtape Letters” are narrated by a demon), the song really isn’t about Satanic powers. It’s about human beings and the crimes we have committed throughout history – medieval wars, the Russian Revolution of 1917, World War II, and the assassination of Jack and Bobby Kennedy.

Humankind has done all of these things, but in the song, the Devil wants credit. He claims to have been present at all these atrocities. He’s puffed-up and self-important. "If you meet me, have some courtesy, have some sympathy, and some taste,” he says. “Use all your well-learned politesse, or I'll lay your soul to waste."

What the Devil in the song doesn’t realize is that all of these events would have occurred without his help, because they were committed by human hands. In reality, the Devil is powerless; he depends on human beings to do his dirty work. The listener doesn’t want to have “sympathy” for him, but rather pity.

I don’t believe in Satan as a personification of evil, as a sort of anti-God, or as a creature with horns and a pitchfork that rules over a fiery Hell. When someone commits an evil act and blames it on the temptations of the Devil, I think they are taking the coward’s way out. Like the Devil in “Sympathy,” some people want to believe that someone or something outside of themselves is to blame for their actions. I do not believe mankind is inherently evil, but the evil that does exist is there because we create it.

The strange thing about the evil we create is that it does develop a life of its own. Humans can become so deluded, so confused, so sick that powers outside their control seem to take over. No where is this more true than in the act of suicide. All of my life I have felt in control, except for that morning in the motel room, when I had the distinct feeling that I was watching from outside of myself, like an audience member in a movie theatre.

There might not be an evil man in a red suit, but there are evil powers that can entrap us. All of my life I will be praying that those evil powers never come near me again. And the best way to keep them away is to remember at all times that I am responsible for myself.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

“The Web.” Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010.

“Information on the Internet is subject to the same rules and regulations as conversation at a bar.” -George Lundberg

Two high-profile suicides took place while I was out of town. Rigoberto Ruelas, a dedicated teacher for 14 years; and Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers College, both jumped off bridges to their deaths. But their suicides had something else in common – both had been humiliated by information on the Internet.

I attended high school and college pre-Internet. Back then, as now, no one wanted negative information about themselves getting around. Gossip and bullies existed. We knew how it felt to walk into a room and find out that our privacy had been compromised, or that people had spread bad things around about us.

But that’s where it usually stopped – a room. Unless someone made photocopies of a photo or a page out of a diary and delivered them to hundreds of people by hand, rumors could only spread so far. In a worst-case scenario, we could attend a different school and start over fresh.

Not today. Because of the Internet, literally the entire world had access to a website claiming Ruelas was a bad teacher, and another one showing video of Clementi having sex with another young man. And because of the Internet, these are bells that cannot be unrung. Once something is “out there” in cyberspace, it’s out there.

So it’s a little ironic that the Internet is known as “the Web.” Because in many ways, it’s just like a spider web – grabbing things and holding them, so they can be devoured.

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t see the media, mass or social, as the root of all evil. I don’t believe that a normal person will watch “Saw” or “Pulp Fiction” and choose to torture people as a result. People can blame antisocial behavior on a movie or a TV show (and they do), but plenty of people have blamed violent behavior on the Bible as well – and have for centuries.

At the same time, while it might feel reassuring to be able to blame one thing – the Web – for the death of these two individuals, the truth is much more complex. Los Angeles psychologist Kita Curry said that suicide is rarely the result of a single issue. "There's almost always an underlying (mental) illness associated with suicide," Curry says.

For these people, things build up until there is a tipping point: "People take their lives because suddenly they're going to lose their house or they've been arrested or their wife has left them," Curry said. "But if not for that, it would have been something else. Because the real problem is that they don't have the emotional resources to deal with it. There are others dealing with those same problems and they don't take their lives."

So how much responsibility do people bear when they post negative information about others online? Perhaps these individuals would have become suicidal anyway, because of some other problem. Nobody knows for sure. But there’s a good reason why your mother taught you that if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all. I don’t want to have blood on my hands. Do you?