My girlfriend, Lisa Kauffman, was 29 years old and pregnant with her first son when she decided to build a log cabin one hour outside her hometown of Calgary. She was a model back then– whose wide-eyed gaze, utter lack of guile and halo of cropped, flaxen curls put her in constant demand with designers, advertising executives and top fashion photographers from New York to Paris.
No surprise, those physical features also made Lisa an easy mark to others who could spot her trusting nature. And the contractor she hired to install drywall in her new home was one such individual. His work was as shoddy as he was unscrupulous. But fate saved the day for Lisa when her dad, Eberhard, stopped by the construction site one afternoon.
A contractor himself, Eberhard had grown up in Germany where pride of workmanship meant everything to him. He was exacting, but never belittled his workers. So when he visited Lisa’s home to do a little quality control one afternoon and saw the sub-contractors crooked wall, he simply turned to his peer and quietly asked, “Are you proud of your work?”
With that, the sub-contractor unpacked his tools without a word, tore down the wall and rebuilt it from scratch. He didn’t stop until his workmanship met a professional standard.
Nearly twenty years after first hearing that story, Eberhard’s question came rushing back to me after watching Levi Pettit’s public apology yesterday.
After the University of Oklahoma student was videotaped singing a “hate-filled, racist and homicidal chant,” as characterized by MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, the clip went viral and the repercussions were swift.
Pettit and another student, Parker Rice, were expelled from university. Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the fraternity that counted Pettit as a brother, closed its University of Oklahoma chapter and has since launched a diversity plan. Social media discussions trended toward the insidious nature of racism, while network and cable news programs convened panels to talk about the problem (with the usual rank and file of talking heads miraculously diversified overnight).
Finally, the inevitable press conference came, with Pettit flanked by a dozen men and women of the cloth, politicians and civic leaders as the newly-chastened Dallas-native offered, “Let me start by saying I’m sorry, deeply sorry. I’m so sorry for the pain that I’ve caused and I want you to hear that directly from me. Even though I don’t deserve it I would like to ask for your forgiveness.”
Pettit has my forgiveness. But the optics were not good from my vantage point. They reminded me of any number of political scandals in which elected officials have been outed for marital infidelity before dragging their poor wives into the spotlight when her only sin was proximity to an unfaithful husband. It’s a great distraction for a bloodthirsty public, but utterly unhelpful. Ditto with the all-black coterie, that was assembled for Pettit’s mea culpa, the sole purpose of which was to telegraph a tacit agreement that all had been forgiven in the black community.
I have two problems with such slick orchestrations: 1) it presumes that racism is only offensive to people of color— which it is not, and 2) it presumes that young men like Pettit emerge from a vacuum— which they do not.
Where, I wondered, were Susan and Brody Pettit as their son was being hung out to dry? Shortly after Levi’s expulsion, his parents were quick to release a statement calling their son a “good boy” who made a ”horrible mistake.” So why were they not by his side when he needed them most?
Where was the administration and teaching staff of Highland Park High School, from which Pettit was launched into his college career? Likewise, where was the headmaster of the Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas from whence Rice came? What are their theories on how their now-infamous alums ran off the rails?
Where were the elders of Levitt’s place of worship now that their prodigal son had come home in such spectacular fashion?
And where were Pettit’s friends? His neighbors? His extended family? Those most likely to harbor some of his more narrow beliefs— thus, most likely to grow if willing to reëxamine the genesis of such beliefs.
Most of all, where was the Old Glory when we needed her?
Though I am not one for waving flags and jingoistic sloganeering— if ever there was a time to have rolled out the American flag as backdrop to a breaking news story, that time was yesterday. Because unless Americans are as vested in examining our shadow side– which can breed the kind of cavalier, unconsidered, malignant expression that spewed forth from a bunch of drunken frat boys on a bus ride to nowhere (and can manifest everywhere from who we befriend, to who we hire, to who we shoot first and question later) as we are in celebrating our light side– which breeds the possibility for movement from Selma to the White House– we will never overcome.
The sins of a nation have been heaped upon the shoulders of a young man foolish enough to utter, out loud, what he’s obviously been taught (though, to his credit, he refused to rat out the lyricist when pressed about the origins of the words to a song that will follow him to his grave) while growing up in the United States. Which begs the only question circling in my mind today, “America, are you proud of your work?”
Photo of Lisa Kauffmann for British Vogue by Patrick Demarchalier
American Beauty 911, Todd Monaghan, 2001, 64″ x 84”, oil and egg shells on canvas, Emory University Permanent Collection http://www.tmnorthwood.com/tm.html