Those of you old enough may remember the case of Michael P. Fay. He was a young American who was arrested in Singapore for vandalism. What caught the attention of the nation was the punishment: lashes of a cane. It brought out a lot of protesters, but also a lot of defenders. Child abuse was itself a hot topic at the time, and corporal punishment. I remember in the years preceding that how schools tried to say “It’s okay if your parents hit you, but only if you did something wrong and they don’t hit you too much.”
So a country that took a very hard line had its defenders. I remember Newt Gingrich on Channel One, who was asked about it and while he refused to say that he favored caning he said we needed to have a national conversation about discipline.
At some level, the Michael Fay story ceased being about Fay in particular. Or caning in particular. Rather, it was about everything that we were already preoccupied with. He became a stand-in for the impertinent youth. The young punk who didn’t respect his elders and didn’t respect society’s rules. To people for whom this was a big problem in the US, they were glad to see somebody, somewhere trying to get a handle on things.
Meanwhile, a lot of other people were really quite horrified. One might have expected there to be a global multiculturalist view of different laws and customs, but there was very little of that. The national papers and media treated it as a travesty. It was akin to other stories that came out where Americans were caught with drugs in unforgiving societies. Which, of course, also had its defenders in the US as the national crime fever was just starting to break and people were worried about it.
Everything was connected to everything else.
A little over twenty years later, and Otto Warmbier was arrested in North Korea for allegedly steaming a propaganda poster. An international outcry ensued. Other than an American abroad accused of committing a crime and an outcry and a backlash to the outcry, the stories share little in common. If Singapore is illiberal, it doesn’t compare at all to North Korea. Fay was punished and the whole thing passed. Otto Warmbier was returned to the US broken, and died shortly thereafter.
What is interesting, though, is that while Warmbier had critics, they tended to be from the left. Instead of being an icon of impertinent youth, he became an icon of white privilege. A fraternity bro looked at the same way a lot of people looked at young people in Turkish prisons twenty years ago. Larry Willmore loudly declared that he lacked sympathy for anyone who thought North Korea was “a playground for college pranks,” Salon referred to him as “America’s Biggest Idiot Frat Boy,” while Ebony ran a piece sneering at Warmbier for being addicted to the drug of privilege and Huffington Post also felt the incident was instructive of White Privilege.
To be fair, these things were said a year ago before Warmbier’s torn and tattered self was dropped at our doorstep to die. Conservative and libertarian outlets are having a field day with this, but the critics’ biggest crime is probably not thinking things through and recognizing the gravity of the situation in a news cycle where contemplation is a delay nobody can afford and where it’s too easy for people to get ahead of their humanity.
It’s enough to make me wonder how things would look if something like Fay did happen today and captured our national attention. Would Fay still be the young punk or would he be white privilege? Would people who defended Singapore back then see something different in watching a white boy lashed by foreigners? Would the left, in turn, object to a country objecting to a white boy who broke laws being punished for it? And from the opposite end, would Warmbier have been the young punk or a victim of a totalitarian state? Would North Korea being communist have prevented a reversal? Was it a spark of association that drew the lines that they did and decided what the icons represented, or the considered vantage point of ideology?
Feature Image by Michaela Loheit