MT's essay
#31
The Great Renunciation
What I would like to argue here is this: what is suggested by the media coverage of the Ramsey story and others like it, this escalating dynamic that we have witnessed in the past two decades or so, is what I am going to call the Great Renunciation. What is being renounced, as a necessary part of the reorganization of global political economy, are ways of thinking about the purpose of the making of culture, most potently in broadcasting, that are informed by a concept of public interest and public good.

Those ways of thinking are, necessarily if mischievously, presented by the ideologues of the market as remnants from a time before. Remnants that are deemed to be not just anachronistic, but seen as toxins in a body politic that needs to ‘modernize,’ better to confront the challenges of global capital. It is as if the only way they can validate the present, their present, is to invalidate the past.

It is an ideological tendency brought to the fore by Ronald Reagan’s first Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Mark Fowler, who announced in 1981 that henceforth the public interest would be that in which the public was interested. Those people around the world and in the United States who argued that there were certain profound values that needed to be protected (and I include myself in that number, having spent the best part of two decades studying, writing and lecturing about public service broadcasting all over the planet) were treated as suffering from the affliction of either a rheumy-eyed nostalgia which was no longer relevant or a stubbornness that was, for the financial well-being of the company, dysfunctional. Either way, they had to go.

I can understand the latter argument better than the former. If there is an honest claim that what matters is the bottom line and the profit margin, while I may not agree with that at least I know what it means. The argument that cultural values as traditionally understood are not quite relevant or modern or useful to the society is something that mystifies me. What exactly is it that is no longer relevant? Creativity, diversity, quality, standards, serving a citizenry, balance, intelligence, curiosity, innovation, not pandering to a superficial mass taste, being optimistic that the audience can discover pleasures and understandings that they otherwise might not have known, independence from pressures that dilute and corrupt the process of the creative act, that erode journalistic standards, that diminish insights that the broadcaster can have when allowed to do so? Are these not relevant, are these passé, do we no longer need such things, such commitments?

There is running through the commentaries of the new modernism in cultural production a terrible conceit, an arrogance that avoids, because it has to, what Yeats called the “ancient questions’. It is for this reason that we must in the first instance fess up to the fact that the world has become, again, not just a dangerous place, but in those realms that strut their economic and populist significance, a vulgar reality. We need, indeed, to resurrect the very idea of vulgarity, loutishness, moral and intellectual impoverishment, to acknowledge the sourness and bile, resentment and fears of much of contemporary life. Let’s be honest, do any of us know very many happy and grounded people?

I remember only too well when David Mills and I were negotiating, with Channel Four and then ITV, budgets for our documentaries. The sense one had was that many of the people we were dealing with lived and breathed in terror. Their faces had the shadow of strain of a man who has just been told that he has cancer. It isn’t that they weren’t decent people, or that left to themselves their creativity would not pour forth. It’s just that they functioned in indecent circumstance. They were surrounded by circumstances in which to fail was anathema, where to take a risk was to court failure and where, ironically, the forces of competition made failure all that much more likely.

This is not how it should be. This is not healthy either for the individuals involved or the society they are supposed to serve.

What the ideologues of this new age of consumption have done, and will continue to do with ever greater relish, is to take the stuff of the vulgate and present it as if it were the equivalent of Rilke and Joyce, Greene and Hemingway, Picasso or Dali, the Beatles or Beethoven, Rowling or Tolkien, Hancock or Pynchon, Attenborough or Murrow, Tony Garnett or David Chase, Paddy Chayefsky or Dennis Potter. Well it isn’t, and the suggestion that it is, mouthed by apparently highly intelligent individuals, is simply stupid, so lacking in substance that there has to be an explanation.

And there is: self-interested cynicism, with an IV drip of greed. The emerging ‘culture’ of television is the twin of that other corporate culture in which preen the exquisite, perfectly formed grotesques of Enron and WorldCom, of Global Crossing and Arthur Andersen, the oil companies and their brethren elsewhere in the world of modern capital (I do not by the way subscribe to the chic, tad optimistic, notion of “late-capitalism”; It’s just beginning. I’m with Max Weber: “Not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness.” Weber went mad and looking around one can begin to see why – the madness, as well as the pessimism).

Basic Moral Values
I came to know and think about the culture of broadcasting through the writing of a biography of Hugh Greene, Director General of the BBC from 1960 to 1969. If there was one bone of contention which Greene gnawed away at it was the question of the relationship between the need for creative freedom and a wider social responsibility. He explored the theme brilliantly in a speech in Rome in 1965, in which he spoke of his concern about attempts at censorship of broadcasters

“which works by causing artists and writers not to take risks, not to undertake those adventures of the spirit which must be at the heart of every truly new creative work…historically, the greatest risks have attached to the maintenance of what is right and honourable and true. Truth for ever on the scaffold, wrong for ever on the throne…”

In the same speech, he continues:

“Relevance is the key – relevance to the audience, and to the tide of opinion in society. Outrage is wrong. Shock may be good. Provocation can be healthy and indeed socially imperative. These are issues to which the broadcaster must apply his conscience.”

In the first draft that Charles Curran had prepared for Greene, he had written, “shock may not be good.” Greene literally put a red line though ‘not.’ There was no brighter star in Greene’s firmament than the creative mind, in whatever genre. And there was no greater responsibility that he possessed than to try and find, nurture and protect that mind. And for this the need to be “truly independent” was crucial because without that one could not be truthful, accurate, impartial, creative, one could not court failure and therefore one could not take risks. Truth for him – which involved the truth of journalism as well as the truth of art – was like a constantly endangered species that one needed to breed and then protect, all the better to sustain what he called “basic moral values – truthfulness, justice, freedom, compassion, tolerance.”

I refer back to Greene for two reasons. Those values and commitments – which invoke the “ancient questions” – remain vitally important to the maintenance of a mature, vital, creative, humane (the thing that troubles me most about large amounts of culture today is its lack of common humanity), democratic society. The second reason is to point up how such reasoning has all but disappeared from the landscape of public discourse, which is obsessed with the material, the consumed, the pragmatic, “inward investment,” as if the making of culture was like asking Toyota to build a car plant in Toledo. The generation which now rules the roost seems decidedly uncomfortable in using such language – bad career move maybe, bit old fashioned, so yesterday.

At the heart of that debate about culture in general, and broadcasting in particular are two elemental questions: what actually do we mean by standards, “great” programs, television as an art form but also infused with other, even larger, social, democratic purposes; and if we can assume that whatever the definitional problems, we all do recognize that, as John Donne wrote, “no man can draw a line twixt day and night, tho’ light and dark are tolerably distinguishable,” then what exactly were the arrangements – institutional as well as philosophical – in which such moments of excellence happened?

And can those arrangements live on in a market led world?

Even as one types that last sentence the silliness of the proposition feels all too clear. Of course, there will be moments of great television, and even more of great radio, which seems to me to be a potentially more resilient medium partly because in economic terms it is less important than television. That, however, is not the point, since the real question – given the fact that even deserts have the occasional tree – is what will the overall landscape of television look like: will there be original, edgy long-form documentaries that explore issues of magnitude?; will there be dramas that are literate, that challenge and needle and provoke, that linger in the memory because they made you think?; will there be news worthy of the democratic project, providing for the political life of the society in ways that serve it well, that feeds the needs of the citizen, that pushes and jostles its way onto the stage of public discourse because to ignore it would be foolish and perverse?; will there be children’s programs that are worthy of the colossal importance of raising our children well, of seeing in them the future, rather than a market to be sold to?; will there be comedy that works because of the brilliance of the performer and the fineness of the writing, in no need of a laugh track to simulate humor?; will there be the quirkily original, the eccentric, the lateral thinking and creativity that springs, unbeckoned but welcomed and applauded, from the folds of imagination?; will there be those moments when we watch not alone, but as part of an integrated culture, drawn together through the mysterious alchemies of communication?; will there be refinement, range, diversity, integrity, professionalism, courage, the ability to make mistakes?Will we have a culture of which we can be proud, and about which we will feel no shame? And can we do this within the same universe of social practice as the market, all the while regulated with the lightness of a snowflake?

I hope so, and if we can then fears about what is unfolding will have gladly and delightfully proven to be unwarranted. But then I think of the beast, looming and lurking, threatening, ravenous, uncaring – at least of others – dangerous, America, Britain, the planet as a cultural Jurassic Park, governed by the canny intelligence of velociraptors. There is, then, only one way to deal with the beast: the whip! The lash!
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#32
Bend It Like Rousseau
I want to suggest, then, that the only meaningful question that one should ask about culture is what are, and what will be, the values that inform its practice. Indeed, utterly central to this debate is the conviction that at the heart of the very idea of, for example, public broadcasting, there are certain values which should guide the process of program making and the relationship with the audience which are to all intents and purposes abstract, but which are nonetheless important for that: excellence, standards, quality, truth, impartiality, intelligence and so on. And of course it is obvious, even trite, to observe that these are difficult and abstract and almost beyond language to capture, as if noting that were sufficient grounds for denying their significance. A metaphor: few people understand the physics of applying a specific kind of pressure to a spherical object which then arcs through the ether, but an awful lot of people nevertheless seem to find a kind of majestic beauty in David Beckham’s use of his right foot. Some things, let us be blunt, do not need to be explained, merely recognized and appreciated.

The reason why this question of values is, at least to my way of thinking, absolutely front and center to any debate about culture is that, because of its ubiquity and presumed sense of importance in people’s lives, any such discussion is actually a discussion of what values should prevail within the larger culture and society. It is surely vital to understand and accept that the definition of policies and values for the cultural industries is inevitably and necessarily suggestive of a definition of policies and values for the character of a whole society. They capture the sets of choices and preferences, which color all the imperatives, ambitions and institutions, which constitute, in the most literal sense, a social order. Two hundred years ago when Poland was going through one of its periods of political reform, the leadership called on Rousseau to advise them. As to the economic system, he observed:

“(The choice) to be adopted by Poland depends on the purposes she has in view in reforming her constitution. If your only wish is to become noisy, brilliant and fearsome, and to influence the other peoples of Europe, their example lies before you; devote yourselves to following it . . . Try to make money very necessary, in order to keep the people in a condition of great dependence; and with that end in view, encourage national luxury, and the luxury of spirit which is inseparable from it. In this way, you will create a scheming, ardent, avid, ambitious, servile and knavish people, like all the rest; one goes to the two extremes of opulence and misery, or license and slavery, with nothing in between. I know that men can only be made to act in terms of their own interests; but pecuniary interest is the worst, the basest and most corrupting of all, and even, as I confidently repeat and shall always maintain, the least and weakest in the eyes of those who really know the human heart. In all hearts there is naturally a reserve of grand passions, when greed for gold alone remains, it is because all the rest, which should have been stimulated and developed, have been enervated and stifled.”

There is another, guiding assumption behind the argument I am trying to make here. It is that the most profound values and conceptual commitments that constitute humanity at its best – might I suggest life and liberty, justice and truth, rights both civil and human, democracy, love – by definition have no materiality. There may be material expressions or metaphors – the scales of justice, the voting booth, the statute book, the kiss – but these are only, can only be, the necessary tangibility which allows us to realize, use, benefit from the language of our human imagination. So language is crucial – and I know that is stating the obvious – to our very ability to realize that which the mind has wrought.

It is then a reasonable argument to suggest that insofar as language born from the reflective mind and the play of informed, mature imagination is diminished, then so are those values and philosophical commitments. And there lies my essential concern with how this, and other cultures, are evolving and will continue to evolve: symbolically and concretely. It is a situation which suggests that in pursuing the necessary materiality of the market, where the only value is commodity value, we are inevitably marginalizing the mysterious possibilities of the mind and the heart that have formed the essential elements of that long march of the species to establish a civilized and caring world guided by a potent and powerful moral imagination, and a commitment to values that are none the less vital because they are non-material.

In fact, some of the most powerful visions of the purpose of, for example, broadcasting emerged within unusual and trying circumstances. Consider, for instance, the cultural histories of the occupations of Germany and Japan in the late 1940s and the formulation of Allied policy for broadcasting in the rebuilding of those societies. There one can see powerful testament to the idea of broadcasting as primarily a social rather than an economic process, as something with moral, cultural, intellectual and creative purpose and not just as a source of mild comment and moderate pleasure. The Charters of NHK in Japan and the ARD in Germany, dictated to a great extent by foreign military governments in Japan and Germany, were replete with the public service ideal. If broadcasting was to comment, it should do so with a flourish. If it was to amuse, it should do so with élan. If it was to educate, it should do so with real professionalism. It was simply understood by the American and Allied leadership that the life of the mind of a society was far too precious and important to be left to the vagaries of a commercial system.

It could be argued that such policies were creatures of the moment, as massive destruction demanded enormous reconstruction, of which communications would inevitably be part. But what was required was the restoration not just of highways, buildings, plants, but also of the shattered imaginative lives of whole populations. The architects of postwar Germany and Japan sensed correctly that healthy, diverse cultural institutions were a prerequisite to a functioning liberal democracy. Broadcasting was thus to be used as a key part of the cultural and social regeneration of those societies.

In that lies the real clue to the nature and purpose of great public broadcasting: that it makes best sense when it represents a national and moral optimism within a society, when it suggests – through the diversity and quality of its programs – that we can be better than we are: better served, better amused, better informed, and, thus, better citizens.
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#33
Meanings, pt. 3: public service

Let me return to a period which is widely regarded within the advanced industrial societies as a high water mark of public service broadcasting, the BBC in the early 1960s. A key figure from those years was Sir Arthur fforde (that is the correct, if old-fashioned spelling of his name), in my view quite possibly the greatest of the chairmen of the BBC. In 1963 he published a little booklet called What is Broadcasting About, which was printed privately in an edition of 400. In this at first curious piece he tries to lay out a theological context for what was happening within the BBC, which was then at the height of its creative and social impact on British society, and causing all kinds of heartburn among what used to be called the Establishment.

The Sheer Banality of Contemporary Culture
The book is, on first reading, impenetrably obscure. On second reading what becomes clear is that it is fforde’s attempt to harmonize the BBC’s emergent agnostic and humanistic ethos with a more ancient view of the nature of religious experience. Even as I write that it does feel almost quaint, but there lies within the pages of fforde’s book arguments that are, or should be, central to any contemporary discussion of the role and purpose of broadcasting in an allegedly mature, cultured democracy. He writes:

“By its nature broadcasting must be in a constant and sensitive relationship with the moral condition of society.”

He felt that the moral establishment had failed modern society and that broadcasting was a way in which that failure could be rectified. He added that it

“is of cardinal importance that everyone in a position of responsibility should be ready to set himself or herself the duty of assuring, to those creative members of staff, who must take the daily, hourly, and even instantaneous decisions . . . that measure of freedom, independence and elan without which the arts do not flourish.”

fforde understood that then, just as now, the moral condition of society was undergoing an important change as standards which had for so long, for so many people, been successful route maps, were being redrafted. What concerned him, was not the change per se, but whether the standards which would replace them were worthy, even if they were secular rather than religious? It is a good, always necessary, question.

It goes without saying that it is my firm conviction that it is precisely the absence of such protective layers and imaginative commitments that have nurtured, brought to the surface, the boorishness, sheer banality of contemporary culture, here and elsewhere. That idea of providing a protective layer within which the imaginative spirit might create, lay at the heart of the BBC version of public service broadcasting which increasingly flourished in the post-war years.

Ian Jacob, Director-General of the BBC from 1952 to 1959, refined the notion. In 1958, in an internal document called Basic Propositions, he described public service broadcasting as:

. . . a compound of a system of control, an attitude of mind, and an aim, which if successfully achieved results in a service which cannot be given by any other means. The system of control is full independence, or the maximum degree of independence that Parliament will accord. The attitude of mind is an intelligent one capable of attracting to the service the highest quality of character and intellect. The aim is to give the best and the most comprehensive service of broadcasting to the public that is possible. The motive that underlies the whole operation is a vital factor; it must not be vitiated by political or commercial consideration.

This is one of the best attempts to capture in words a concept and view of broadcasting which remains central to the world of cultural politics. Yet even here the vision, the articulation, is limited. Jacob’s words imply that we understand the nature of public service broadcasting not by defining it, but by recognizing its results, rather as one plots the presence of a hidden planet or a subatomic particle not by “seeing” it, but by measuring the effects of its presence.

The Pilkington Committee, a committee under the chairmanship of Sir Harry Pilkington set up by the British government in 1960 to undertake an inquiry into the future of British broadcasting, said as much when it reported in 1962: “though its standards exist and are recognizable, broadcasting is more nearly an art than an exact science. It deals in tastes and values and is not precisely definable.” The committee added:

“The duty of providing a service of broadcasting, and the responsibility for what is broadcast, are vested in public corporations since the purposes and effects of broadcasting are such that the duty and responsibility should not be left to the ordinary processes of commercial enterprise, and because there are compelling objections to their being undertaken by the State…”

It suggested that the products of these bodies should be a service which fully realizes the purpose of broadcasting, which it later defined as:

“…one which will use the medium with an acute awareness of its power to influence values and moral standards; will respect the public right to choose from amongst the widest possible range of subject matter, purposefully treated; will at the same time be aware of and care about public tastes and attitudes in all their variety; and will constantly be on the watch for and ready to try the new and unusual.”

The Dream of the Mob
The beast that lurks in the shrubbery of these kinds of discussions is that whatever the definitional uncertainties, that great broadcasting can be experienced and recognized but never properly captured by language, means that someone has to decide on what is “good” and “bad,” that there should be a guiding hand, by what has been referred to as “custodians” or the “caretakers” of culture. For much of the history of public broadcasting this idea – so anathema today – was simply taken for granted. Hierarchies of social status and cultural judgment were simply assumed.

A key justification for the custodial role in most societies where public service broadcasting was established was that since the radio frequency used for transmissions was a limited natural resource, someone had to ensure that its use served the public good, and the whole community. The cultural geology of this decision had, however, a deeper level to it, based on 19th Century assumptions about the ways in which the arts and humanities could elevate the human condition.

In fact, one way of looking at the creation of public service broadcasting in the early years of the 20th Century is that it was the relocation of a 19th Century humanistic dream that through culture the fragile structure of civilization could be nurtured and protected. The fear that drove that dream was of “the mob,” the pervasive belief among cultural, religious and political elites that there was indeed a dark side to the human soul that was, when let loose, dangerous and devastating to the flesh as well as the spirit.

And who is to say that they were wrong, nestling as they did between the first great war and a looming second. And let us not forget that John Adams in his dialogue with Jefferson about the nature of democracy made the comment that a “mob is no less a mob because they are with you.” There remained, however, well into the 20th Century, a residual faith, tied to the whole condition of Enlightenment humanism and belief in progress, that popular culture need not be debauched but could in fact transcend itself. Consider these key passages from the Pilkington Report:

“Television does not, and cannot, merely reflect the moral standards of society. It must affect them, either by changing or by reinforcing them…..

Because the range of experience is not finite but constantly growing, and because the growing points are usually most significant, it is on these that challenges to existing assumptions and beliefs are made, where the claims to new knowledge and new awareness are stated. If our society is to respond to the challenges and judge the claims, they must be put before it. All broadcasting, and television especially, must be ready and anxious to experiment, to show the new and unusual, to give a hearing to dissent. Here, broadcasting must be most willing to make mistakes; for if it does not, it will make no discoveries.”

The suggestion here isn’t that public broadcasters are all hoping and dreaming that their programs will transform people from cultural and intellectual slobs into something of which one can more readily approve. But rather that objectively some such argument must be the last line of defense. The language is of standards, quality, excellence, range. The logic is of social enrichment, that in however indefinable a manner this society is “better” for having programs produced from within the framework of those social arguments that pursue a public interest, compared to those programs produced within an environment in which commerce or politics prevail.
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#34
The Consequences of Public Taste
It is interesting and extremely useful, to counterpose these principles, values and ambitions documented over the past several pages with the evolving realities of cultural production as a market, since they entail very different world views. I have long suspected that the potency of the market is its simplicity, in that it doesn’t ask very much of anyone – there is no required effort to engage at some deeper level what it is that is being broadcast. The more purposeful, social and cultural agenda of the European model does demand – as it should – some effort on the part of the audience-qua-citizen. The audience-qua-consumer is easier to feed.

There is, however, another ironic potency in the market model, one that speaks to an inherent tension in the deep commitment to the idea of the collective, “the public,” “the public sphere,” the “cultural sphere.” This inevitably rests uneasily with what is an even more basic principle on which our cultures were, and are, established, the foundational sovereignty of the individual. The fact of this latent tension could be avoided for much of the history of broadcasting, for example, by touting the argument that because the natural resource of the radio spectrum was scarce it had to be carefully controlled so that everyone could benefit. This was a useful fiction. The agenda of the founding figures of public broadcasting was always about nurturing social and cultural good, and maintaining standards that would not be populist. In other words there was always a residual fear of the consequences of untrammeled public taste.

The beauty of the idea of the market, for those who wish to make the case rhetorically, is that it represents the triumph of populism – some of which is intelligent, much of which is corrupted, but it is populism nevertheless. Its potency lies in the fact that it embodies a kind of faux democracy, the individual making his or her own choices from the range of cultural goods made available by the market. It is a difficult argument to oppose since the essential premise of western governance and culture in modernity is that society is constituted of individuals who are rational, informed and sovereign, an admittedly nonsensical but nonetheless potent conceptualization. There is obvious utility in this for proponents of the market, because if one cannot interfere with the right of Everyman as citizen to act as Everyman as consumer then one cannot, by definition, interfere with the market because one would thereby not be interfering with this or that company that markets its wares, but with the very stuff of democratic civilization.

Another charge against the kind of values I have been discussing here rests on a rejection of the very idea of making a judgment about what is good or bad, since this implies a hierarchy of values. In the argot of pseudo-postmodernism this is anathema. In his latest book, Richard Hoggart writes well about the problems of this relativistic perspective:

“It is a growing characteristic of mass communications today – in the press, magazines and much broadcasting – that they show no respect at all for the ‘life of the mind’ (a good and essential phrase), but dismiss such things as elitist and not for people ‘such as us’; not that ‘we’ now think ourselves inferior, but quite the opposite; we are members of the overwhelming majority who are going the way the world is going. This is the dead center of popular and unassailable taste. Chat-show hosts and hostesses display it daily, television ‘personalities’ are pleased to indicate that they have no tastes which in anyway differ from those of their mass audiences, and certainly none which might seem ‘better’ than those of the audiences. The broadsheet newspapers often fall backwards into those postures. Such words, words of evaluation, have fallen out of the populist lexicon. Broadcasting interviewers see themselves as ‘the voice of the common man,’ which is a reductive myth; their common man is all too often an invented vulgarian.”

He points out that the Booker Prize for 2001 was not awarded to a writer that public opinion seemed too favor. When asked why, one of the judges said, “This prize is not meant to be a reflection of public taste. It is a prize for literary quality.” Hoggart concludes:

“At the bottom of the acceptance of relativism as the only belief is, paradoxically, a belief that there is no such thing as belief or conviction. That can do much to remove guilt or even the feeling of being somehow lost, since relativism provides a Dead Sea of common feelings in which we float, all warm and supported. The motto used to promote the soap-opera East Enders, repeatedly shown on television, hammers away with: ‘Everyone’s talking about it.’ ‘So what?’ – is the only self-respecting response.”

It is terribly easy to turn this around and to make the accusation of elitism, made all the more weighty in an age where the very idea of a hierarchy of values is called into question, indeed seen as out of date – useless, of course, we are dealing with the majestic superior ability of a Michael Jordan or a Roger Clemens or a Peyton Manning.

Those who would argue for the market, for giving people only what they want, for abandoning other, larger more principled judgments that see human beings, citizens, as something other than statistics in skins, principles that celebrate excellence as much they reject tat, must persuade us that all is well and cheery, must hope that we never do come to understand the comment made by Hector, in Alan Bennett’s History Boys. He suggests that in the presence of great literature (and I would expand this to all great culture, whether in print, or on the screen at home and in the movie theater) it is as if a hand has reached out and taken our own.

The Foundational Principle of the Republic
There is, however, another important lesson from the events of the past ten years, for me most profoundly reflected in the hate mail (e- and snail-) that I received, particularly after Karr was released. This is far from the first time this has happened and it was probably on no greater scale than the attacks that took place after David Mills and I made the first of our documentaries. The reactions then were incredible, with phone-in campaigns to the Dean’s office, letters to the President of CU, to the then-Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Phil DiStefano, to the Regents, almost all calling for me to be fired. The university was nothing but supportive, for which I was and am grateful. There was even a bizarre attempt by some to get Congress to revoke my green card. It was all very strange and intense, so when Karr happened the flood of attacks was neither unusual nor unexpected. I simply became a useful whipping boy for, well, for what?

I think the answer here is again quite complex. Obviously there were those who hated the position I had taken on the Ramsey case, and the fact that I had been very vocal and public in my belief that John and Patsy were innocent. (That was actually not my position in 1997 and 1998. I didn’t know, because I couldn’t know, what the evidence was so that when we made the first documentary the question of their guilt or innocence was conceptually irrelevant.) To then, in 2002, make a documentary, working with Lou Smit, that laid out the case that an intruder killed JonBenet would inevitably incur further wrath. Clearly, however, what was thrown at those who came out in support of the Ramseys and argued their innocence (one of the lead detectives on the investigation described Lou Smit as a “delusional old man,” a comment that would be offensive if it weren’t so silly), was nothing compared to the intense and unrelenting abuse that the Ramseys and their family had to endure.

However, what perplexed then, as it does now, was, why? Why the fury, the anger, the inability to disagree without hating, a condition which defines not just the narrative around JonBenet, but a vast acreage of public discourse.

Honest disagreement, the ability to engage in rational discourse is the foundational principle of the Republic. On April 13, 1943, the bicentennial of the birth of Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt inaugurated the Jefferson Memorial in Washington and declared:

“Thomas Jefferson believed, as we believe, in Man. He believed, as we believe, that men are capable of their own government, and that no king, no tyrant, no dictator can govern for them as well as they can govern for themselves.” FDR concluded his address by proclaiming Jefferson’s own words that are etched into the memorial, words that are wonderfully and determinedly paradoxical, the very essence of the Enlightenment: “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” In his 1988 biography of Jefferson, The Pursuit of Reason, Noble Cunningham notes that despite Jefferson’s numerous interests and accomplishments, “…certain basic tenets motivated his life and shaped his actions in whatever challenge he faced. Of these, none was stronger than his belief in ‘the sufficiency of reason for the care of human affairs.’ As a man of the Enlightenment who believed in the application of reason to society as well as to nature, Jefferson throughout his life pursued the use of reason as the means by which mankind could obtain a more perfect society… (He believed) that ‘knowledge is power, that knowledge is safety, that knowledge is happiness’…” His faith in the power of reason “nourished his belief in progress, under-girded his political principles, explained his devotion to learning and to educational opportunity for every person, and produced the optimistic outlook that failed him only as he approached the end of a very long life.”

In 1927, in the case Whitney v. California, Justice Louis Brandeis, in what is widely regarded as the most profound articulation of the meaning and importance of the First Amendment, wrote:

“Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the state was to make men free to develop their faculties; and that in its government the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed that freedom to speak as you will and speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones…. “

Brandeis’ vision rests on a basic premise: that there is both a human capacity and an urge to use language to pursue truth. The assumption about the power of language and evolved thought has guided the whole history of our culture, or, perhaps more accurately, it has guided the idea of what our culture should look like: informed citizens, engaged in mature reasoning, arriving at decent and proper ends.

The question now in play is this: in a society whose forms of popular, mediated, mass culture are all but bereft of evolved language, whose education system leaves much to be desired in its failure to nurture the critical thinking capabilities of its students, to what extent can it still claim to continue Jefferson’s “pursuit of reason,” and Brandeis’ “secret of liberty”?In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that we live in a place in time in which there is a great demand, from different corners, for a studied silence. It was clear to me, still is, that there was, to many people’s way of thinking, something unseemly about even suggesting a counter-narrative about the Ramsey case.

There is, unfortunately, nothing remarkable about this. Witness the rigidities of great swaths of people, here and elsewhere, with fundamentalist religious beliefs. Consider what happens when the likes of Daniel Moynihan in the 1960s and Bill Cosby more recently tried to engage a debate about the social ills of the African-American family. And, of course, think through the extraordinary difficulty that was faced by anyone who, in the years after 9/11, wished to challenge the brutish and stupid foreign policy of the Bush administration, underpinned as it was by a public hysteria that sought some kind of psychological relief by clinging desperately to the symbol of the flag and the mother’s milk succour of patriotism.
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#35
Passion and Reason
There is another, related way of thinking about this that also comes out of 18th Century thought. In that time physicians believed that the mind was divided into three main faculties – reason, feeling and will and that, as Norman Dain wrote in his 1964 book, Concepts of Insanity, “sanity prevailed when reason remained master over feelings and will. Violent emotions would overthrow the power of reason.” The essential premise then, as now, is that we are rational. That is why we expect the juror and the citizen to arrive a conclusion in the wake of a clear and rational engagement with the available information and evidence, even though in neither case are they required to explain how they arrive at any given conclusion. However, as Arthur O. Lovejoy notes in Reflections on Human Nature, while “…the philosophers of the Age of Reason believed that although reason should control the other mental faculties, in fact the passions, or emotions, always ruled supreme: reason served primarily to accomplish the aims of the passions.”

This description fits perfectly to what happened in the Ramsey narrative, where many people were driven by intense, even primal passions, all the while using their capacity to reason to cobble together “information” to demonstrate the legitimacy of the visceral hatred of the Ramseys and of anyone who argued the case that an intruder killed JonBenet. On a larger scale, as I write, fully one-third of the public believes that Saddam Hussein was connected to 9/11, and almost half of the public continues to hold to the idea that humans were created in their current form at one moment in time in the past 10,000 years, offering a mountain of “evidence” to support what the scientific community would deem to be an absurd belief. They hold fast to such beliefs, even in the face of their obvious falsity, because not to do so would shatter whatever semblance of emotional calm they still cling to, and still desperately need.

Another issue that perplexed me was that there was something about Patsy that seemed to make a lot of people not just uneasy, but ready and willing to believe that she was capable of killing her child, possibly with the assistance of John, and then making it like someone else was responsible. The obvious question is: why? Yet again, I think the answer taps into a complex of emotional and psychological conditions of how, in this instance, we come to think about crime, and in particular, how we “see” guilt.

What was important here in understanding the narrative that surrounded Patsy was that it was not the presence of any meaningful evidence that suggested her involvement, and indeed what evidence did exist, such as the DNA, pointed away. Rather, there was a loose and vague perception, held by many, as to who she was. There were many facets to the case, the forensics, the theories, the flawed investigation, the small town Gothic atmospherics, but I had long understood that much of the essential energy within that narrative had literally been looking us in the face, Patsy’s face, and the fact that she entered JonBenet in the pageants reflected, for many people, a moral laxity the depth of which was such that she was indeed capable of brutalizing her daughter in a moment of anger and then pretending that it was someone else. It is not an argument that I can even begin to understand, but it is one which was simply assumed by many people. It was almost as if, in pointing the finger at her, there was some kind of emotional relief.

In her 1990 book, The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm takes a fascinating look at the case of Jeffrey MacDonald and the writer Joe McGinnis. MacDonald was serving three life sentences for murdering his wife and two children. McGinnis had come to prominence in the 1960s for his book The Selling of the President, which told in savage detail the way in which advertising had been used by the Nixon campaign. He had subsequently developed a successful writing career, including a book about the MacDonald case, Fatal Vision.

McGinnis had written the book at the suggestion of MacDonald, whose intent was to have McGinnis vindicate him in his claim that he was innocent. Malcolm’s account points to the way in which McGinnis ingratiated himself with MacDonald, leading him to believe that he was a friend who did indeed believe in MacDonald’s innocence. When the book finally appeared it was a portrait of a psychopathic killer, not the ode to a wrongfully convicted friend which MacDonald had been expecting. MacDonald sued and almost won (one juror refused to support MacDonald) prompting Malcolm’s wry comment: “…five of the six jurors were persuaded that a man who was serving three consecutive life sentences for the murder of his wife and two small children was deserving of more sympathy than the writer who had deceived him.”

There is one passage in Malcolm’s book in which she describes a dinner conversation she had with MacDonald’s attorney, Gary Bostwick, and his wife, Janette, a psychotherapist. At one point Janette interjects:

“In my work, a patient will come in and say, ‘This is the truth about me.’ Then, later in the therapy, a significant and entirely opposite truth may emerge – but they’re both true.” In Malcolm’s account, Bostwick responds: “It’s the same with the judicial process…People feel that it’s a search for the truth. But I don’t think that is its function in this society. I’m convinced that its function is cathartic. It’s a means for allowing people to air their differences, to let them feel as if they had a forum. You release tension in the social body in some way, whether or not you come to the truth.”

There is much to agree with in what Bostwick was saying and in explaining what happened to Patsy. It also perhaps helps explain why the media pay an almost obsessive attention to certain cases, not just to formal legal proceedings, but also to the pseudo-trials that take place on television, talk radio and in print media. They do so in part because they are part of that process of societal catharsis, given energy by rumor, gossip and almost obsessive voyeurism and the cruel brew of “certainty,” as to what “happened.” In the end “truth” is not what judgment of guilt and innocence is about, it is all about mood.

The Unreal Made Real
The problem is compounded by the fact that the media, who should properly have been a countervailing force to these tendencies, were themselves complicit in fueling the firestorm in which the Ramseys found themselves engulfed. It has been pointed out by such people as Tom Patterson, the Benjamin C. Bradlee Professor at the Kennedy School of Government, that at some point in the 1970s, the tradition and character of investigative journalism in the American media began to change. At its best that tradition had journalists going to considerable lengths to unearth facts, to dig beneath the surface of a story to reveal hidden truths or, as with the Pentagon Papers, to offer enriched interpretation of information which already exists. As Patterson told the Committee of Concerned Journalists,

“by the late 1970s we find a substitute for careful, deep, investigative reporting – allegations that surface in the news based on claims by sources that are not combined with factual digging on the reporter’s part. The tendency increased in the 1980s, increased again in the 1990s… The use of unnamed and anonymous sources becomes a larger proportion of the total…”

It certainly characterized the coverage of the Ramsey case.

One particular consequence of this is to allow rumor and gossip to flourish and to establish potent, feverish irrationalities and “understandings” of an event in which the unreal is made real, the stupid profound, ignorance knowledge and the bigoted insightful. There is no question that rumor and gossip are part of who we are, and serve as social and emotional utilities in “explaining” the world around us. In the context of crime rumor, gossip and innuendo can become a potent means of establishing a paradigm from within which one sees something “this” way rather than “that.” The only way to step outside of this is to engage the evidence, think through the narrative of the crime, question commonsensical ways of thinking, use critical faculty, in other words to do what most people, most of the time have neither the patience, the resources nor desire to do. What is clear, though, is that in the vortex of rumor and gossip minor personality traits, small eccentric quirks of character can be quickly transformed into hints of some dark underlying condition.

A particularly odious aspect to rumour, gossip and innuendo is that they are rarely if ever presented as such. They can masquerade as “concern” for the victim, a pretentious proffering of “…it pains me to say this but…” The gossip or rumour-monger is not especially concerned with solving a problem, rather drawing a kind of narcissistic sustenance from them, from “knowing” something that others don’t. I was, for example, told by three different people, who were in no way connected, that they knew someone who had been on the chair lift at the Eldora ski area near Boulder with a cop who told them that the Ramseys were about to be arrested, and I was told this in each case with a kind of knowing glee. And gossips thrive on the negative, the controversial and the sensational – qualities which were present in abundance in the Ramsey case, as neither the media nor their public heeded the admonition of Psalm 34: 13-15: “Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech.”

So at one level the lesson was, yet again, that the idea of reasoned discourse is, in this culture as in much of the rest of the world, on life support. What still plagues me, though, is why, how did this come about? Perhaps it was always there, this corrosive hostility to an idea not liked, a person who is different, “the other,” the “alien,” a fear of narratives that are complex, a demand for that which is simple and readily understood. I’m reminded of William James’ comment that “…a great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” Perhaps there is a deep human instinct to manage neurotic anxiety by projecting outward irrational loathing. One way of thinking about how the culture dealt with the case (and one could put many others cases and situations in here) is to see it all as what one might call a “persecution text,” an acting out of something that, however troubling, seems to be deeply human.

There is in fact an extensive literature on this, such as R. I. Moore’s The Formation of a Persecuting Society, Laurie Carlson’s A Fever in Salem, Richard Sugarman’s Rancour Against Time, Rene Girard’s The Scapegoat, Max Scheler’s Ressentiment, Robert Wuthnow’s Meaning and Moral Order, Hugh Trevor Roper’s work on historical patterns in lynchings and a veritable library of works dealing with Salem, perhaps most notably Kai Erikson’s Wayward Puritans.

This is a rich and fascinating literature, but at its core is a relatively simple argument: that anxiety at the individual and collective level, caused by external circumstance, creates a powerful urge to punish – someone, something, somewhere. The emotional physics are: punish – feel better. It doesn’t, of course, except in a momentary sense, work. This would be troubling in and of itself, but it becomes especially so when the mood is used as fodder for entertainment, and therefore boosts in ratings and circulation.

I have long thought that John and Patsy Ramsey were “guilty” well before JonBenet died, that they would both be, but Patsy in particular, the ready object of resentment, a kind of class loathing, but that in this presumption of guilty evil lay emotional utility and significant profit. It has certainly been my experience that much of the public mind in the Ramsey case was defined by unreason and that its suggestible irrationalities reflected a larger condition, and a fearsome thought, that the Age of Reason never really happened except in the fevered, if would-be noble, utopian imaginings of the Founding Fathers.

Remember those comments I used at the beginning, where people expressed their profound, if unfounded belief in Ramsey guilt. In them I had the first whiff of what I’ve been trying to engage here, a sense of a canker in the social and moral order within which we just happen to dwell. It troubled me partly because of that feeling I expressed earlier of the desire for life to be fair and decent and just, a good and caring place of fine principle with a moral culture (of whatever theological or a-theological stripe) that was not of the Fallen. It also troubled me because within the stench of spite and hate lay a very serious question as to who we really are, of who we should properly see in the morning’s mirror.
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#36
Meanings, pt. 4: an awful, dark year

In his essay, “The White Negro,” Norman Mailer references Marxist thought with a level of respect but pointed to its failure in application because, as he put it, “it was an expression of the scientific narcissism we inherited from the 19th century,” motivated by the “rational mania that consciousness could stifle instinct.” I have this awful feeling that he is right, that we are driven not by the profound harmonies and profundities of evolved consciousness, but by base instinct that is primitive, not modern.

The Delicious Occupation of Gossip
In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud writes of this question which Mailer was addressing, that the fundamental instinct of the species is aggression:

“Men are not gentle, friendly creatures wishing for love, who simply defend themselves if they are attacked, but that a powerful measure of desire for aggression has to be reckoned as part of their instinctual endowment. The result is that their neighbour is to them not only a possible helper or sexual object, but also a temptation to them to gratify their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without recompense, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus; who has the courage to dispute it in the face of all the evidence in his own life and in history? This aggressive cruelty usually lies in wait for some provocation, or else it steps into the service of some other purpose, the aim of which might as well have been achieved by milder measures. In circumstances that favour it, when those forces in the mind which ordinarily inhibit it cease to operate, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals men as savage beasts to whom the thought of sparing their own kind is alien. Anyone who calls to mind the atrocities of the early migrations, of the invasion by the Huns or by the so-called Mongols under Ghenghiz Khan and Tamurlane, of the sack of Jerusalem by the pious Crusaders, even indeed the horrors of the last world-war, will have to bow his head humbly before the truth of this view of man.

The existence of this tendency to aggression which we can detect in ourselves and rightly presume to be present in others is the factor that disturbs our relations with our neighbours and makes it necessary for culture to institute its high demands. Civilized society is perpetually menaced with disintegration through this primary hostility of men towards one another. Their interests in their common work would not hold them together; the passions of instinct are stronger than reasoned interests. Culture has to call up every possible reinforcement in order to erect barriers against the aggressive instincts of men and hold their manifestations in check by reaction-formations in men’s minds.”

Nietzsche got there first in his own bleak rendition of the nature of the human condition, the brute forces that drive it and that mangle the Paulinian notion that love will triumph:

“To see others suffer does one good. To make others suffer even more: this is a hard (saying) but an ancient…all too human principle, to which even the apes might subscribe…without cruelty there is no festival: thus the longest and most ancient part of human history teaches…and in punishment there is festival.”

Perhaps it is then simply part of what we are, that we have an inherent disposition to vent, to aggress, to hate, feelings that require that we seek someone or something against which to vent, aggress, hate. However since we also have pretensions to being civilized, caring, human, decent, it is difficult to face up to such a loathsome disposition, so we deal with it by rationalizing it away, justifying with whatever pretext is available.

Peter Gay, in his monumental work, The Cultivation of Hatred; the Bourgeois Experience, Victoria to Freud, pours over the vast, long literatures that have sought to come to grips with this condition. He notes that:

“Aggressive acts, to begin with, are not all primitive pugilism, wanton cruelty, or routine murder. They range across a broad spectrum of verbal and physical expression, from confident self-advertisement to permissible mayhem, from sly malice to sadistic torture. They emerge as words and gestures – less fatal, to be sure, than physical violence, but little less unmistakable…The practice of invidious social comparisons is awash with aggressive impulses. So is the delicious occupation of gossip…”

It is clear, however, that no one will ever admit to arbitrary or instinctive aggression – the project of Modernity has at least been successful in convincing us of the impropriety of such a disposition. We are, after all, the Children of Reason. So how do we go about this business of aggressing, of hating? Why, of course, we find an excuse, a reason. As Gay notes, “Every culture, every class, every century, constructs its distinctive alibis for aggression.” I think that Gay is getting close to a very uncomfortable truth about who we really are, and reminds me of Gandhi’s response when asked his opinion about Western civilization: “…it would be a good idea.”
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#37
Better Angels of Our Nature
As for me and Karr, I suppose one issue I need to deal with is why I did it, why did I spend do much time helping to find him, and why was I willing to put myself through what was, in all honesty, a terrible experience. I say “suppose,” because for much of the time I have been writing this piece I had no intention of addressing these questions. Part of this was to do with a certain stubbornness in refusing to respond to the commentaries that were oh so prissy and righteous, verbal and written exemplars of how it was all so inappropriate, not what a journalist should do, not what they would do. I had this feeling that being lectured by those who covered the case was not unlike being nagged about the dangers of promiscuous sex by a nymphomaniac. It is also a bit rich to hear these critiques from a profession that in the whole saga of covering the Ramsey story were only too ready to share bodily fluids with law enforcement – in at least one case, so it is said, literally.

In the end I have relented and want to take on the issue, in a very particular way. But first let me say something that my friend and colleague Len Ackland was quick to point out to those who asked for his thoughts. I am not, nor have I ever claimed to be, a journalist. I am a media scholar who has spent a lifetime studying journalism, who has done some journalism, numerous opinion pieces here and in the UK and, most notably, working with David Mills on the documentaries, but I have not sought the mantle of “journalist.”

However, even if I were I would still have done what I did, because in the end what is important, vital and necessary is that we define ourselves not as this or that professional but as moral beings, that our humanity should be defined by such and that when we are not guided by moral systems, by an ethical compass, then we let loose not those “better angels of our nature” that so entranced Lincoln but that dark side, that cruel and exploitative instinct that so haunted him. By an ethical compass I mean the literal definition:

“Ethic ‘eth-ik n: the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation; a set of moral principles or values; a theory or system of moral values; the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group.”

I don’t want to be misunderstood here. I’m claiming no high moral ground and recognize that I have vices galore and that, for example, some of the women in my life have decent grounds for a war crimes tribunal. I understood that life is a constant struggle between the competing sides of our nature, and that in fact the whole issue of cultural identity, of the dialogue about what is good and bad in culture is an enlarged version of this agonizing struggle about personal identity, and the vexing question of, is this who I am, is this who I should be?

In this instance, from that first stirring of empathy for the Ramseys to the decision to find Karr, for good or ill, I sought to do the right thing, and I am perplexed that there were those who chose not to see it that way.

“It was truly intimate and very sexual.”
Let me make the point by taking you, the reader, to one moment in time, one place: July 19, 2006, Bangkok, Thailand. On that day I received an email from Daxis, with a Word document attached. Earlier in this piece I wrote of how when he first went to the school where he would be teaching he saw a number of young girls, one of whom in particular he lusted after. On the 19th he wrote a long note about her. Here it is (I have changed the names of the children):

[EDITOR”S NOTE: S&R has received a cease-and-desist request from John Mark Karr in which he alleges that his e-mail to Michael Tracey, subject “About Melanie,” enjoys copyright privilege. We do not believe that we have infringed Karr’s copyright, but are in the process of seeking legal opinion on the subject. While we explore the details of this issue, we have elected to remove the text in question.

However, this communication is and has been widely available online for some time. So while we have removed the text itself from this post for the moment, we see no reason why we shouldn’t link to it. So, we direct our readers here, where the full e-mail is available, as well as the full text of ALL Karr’s e-mails to Michael Tracey. In addition, the reader can listen to the recorded calls and view all relevant public papers concerning this case. The “About Melanie” e-mail begins on page 297 of the PDF.]

He Has His New Target
There was by the time I received this nothing that particularly surprised me, and I have no doubt that he genuinely believed that the child was attracted to him, nor that given the opportunity he would have had sex with her. Note how he talks about his interaction with her, the flirty playfulness, her attraction to him, his declaration of his patience in being willing to wait until she was in his charge in a year. In his fevered imagining she, like JonBenet, would be saying, “I love you Daxis.”

This was his new romance and in his mind it was all consensual and come hell or high water she would be his. When I read this I simply said to Tom Bennett, “ he has his new target.”

The idea that anyone would not wish to stop what was going to happen to the child because of an over-inflated sense of their “professionalism I find disgustingly dangerous. And if there are those who would still say it was all wrong to do what I did, just close your eyes and imagine that it is your five year-old child whose belly button he wants to eat and about whom he expresses his lust.

And how did it feel for me? Dealing with the media was not difficult. I’ve been doing that on and off since 1998. However, there is no doubt that 2006 turned into an awful, dark year. By its end I was exhausted. The idea of teaching in the Fall was dreadful, not because I dislike teaching since ordinarily it is, more often than not, a delightful experience. In all my many years in Colorado I have never bought out of a course or sort relief, even at the busiest times.

Yet over the summer break I went to my Dean, Paul Voakes, and asked if I could buy out of at least one course. As the words left my lips I understood that he would have to say no. He agreed to discuss this with the Provost, Phil DiStephano. I also knew that Phil would have to say no. The reason was simple, since that group of people who hated me and the Ramseys – and the degree of their vitriol is truly splendid to behold – would be watching me like a hawk and at the first sign of special treatment (even though buying out of a course and banking courses is routine) they would be screaming holy hell. I managed to get through the Fall semester, even though I knew I was missing a beat, and in fact found the classroom pleasantly therapeutic.

What I did come to understand was that while being attacked publicly and viciously is never pleasant, I was used to it and could handle it without too much difficulty (my therapist disagrees). The mood of deep despair, anxiety, sadness that descended on me like a thick, cold, clinging fog came from the experience of having to deal with dark intelligence day in day out, for months on end.

I will never forget the Saturday night following the phone conversation in which Daxis had, at great length, described how he killed her. I sat in my study until the sun set. It was dark, and I sat there thinking about what I had just heard, not knowing if it was true or not, but ethically feeling that I had to continue to believe that it might be, and knowing that, true or not, something similar to what he had described had happened to that child, as evidenced in the awful autopsy photos. In my mind’s eye the images of his description ran constantly, like a permanent reel of film, replaying over and over.

I could not get rid of one image in particular, that of his tying the ligatures to her wrists and then hanging her from the window. I don’t know how long I sat there, but there came a point when I could hold it inside no longer and, for the first time in almost a decade of thinking about and talking about the appalling things that were done to JonBenet and to her family, I started to sob. Not just tearing up, not just tears running down my cheeks but a flood and a wail of anguish and sorrow. In that sense Karr may not have killed JonBenet, but he sure as hell came close to destroying me.

He Cries for Understanding and Forgiveness
Patsy Ramsey died in the early hours of June 24th, 2006. The funeral service was on June 29th at the United Methodist Church, Roswell, Georgia. I had flown there with Pete Hofstrom, former number two in the Boulder DA’s office, Bryan Morgan, John’s attorney and Pat Burke, Patsy’s attorney. Lou Smit was there as was Hal Haddon, Morgan’s law partner, and Trip DeMeuth who had, when he was an assistant DA, fought passionately to get other people to take Lou Smit’s “intruder” argument (I refuse to call it a theory anymore). Mary Lacy and her husband were also there, as was Ollie Gray, who for several years had been working with Lou on their own, private investigation of JonBenet’s death.

I think for everyone it was simply important to show a kind of solidarity for this poor woman. The service lasted about 40 minutes and was a celebration of her life, with passing reference to, but no lingering on, that wretched Christmas night almost ten years before. Her sisters were there, wearing large summer hats, a silent, colourful reminder of Patsy’s love for her own hats. After the funeral a long line of cars proceeded on the drive to St. James Episcopal Cemetery in Marietta, where Patsy would be laid to rest alongside her mother Nedra, her step daughter, Beth (John’s child, who had been killed in a car crash in 1992) and but a few paces from JonBenet’s grave. The drive from church to cemetery took about 30 minutes and police and state troopers cleared the roads, closing off side streets, to allow the cortege to proceed unhindered.

As I looked out of the car windows there was a surprising, moving sight. The officers were standing to attention, some saluted, troopers held their hats over their hearts. I don’t think it is too much of an exaggeration to suggest that they were not just paying their respects, they were acknowledging what the rest of us there knew with a passion, that the only thing that Patsy had ever done to JonBenet was love her. There would of course be those who continued to believe in her guilt, even if they no longer cared. And then there are the remnants of the mob that would continue to hate her, but for them hating is what oxygen is to the rest of us.

The press coverage the following day was unusually caring, not dwelling on the accusations against this most maligned of women. The coverage noted that cops were taking video tapes of all the car plates, reporting that they had been told that this was because the case remained open and this was just a precaution. In reality they were looking for Daxis.

In April 2007, I received an email from “Daxis.” It was written in German and apparently asked the question of where deception begins. A few more came as he expressed his desire to talk, again. In July he wrote: “I ache for her, Michael. I feel such confusion. I am so utterly confused about what happened.”

In a later one in July, he asked me if I had seen an interview he had done with Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren. I had, and realized that he was still trying to convince the world that he was responsible for JonBenet’s death. At one point Van Susteren, clearly bewildered by this, asks him if he understood the difference between first and second degree murder, to which he instantly replied, “of course, first implies intent.”

There it was again, what I had spent months listening to – it was an accident, it wasn’t meant to be. I replied, briefly, that at least he was consistent. He replied: “Thank you, Michael. I shall continue to be consistent when it comes to my darling JonBenet. I am glad you saw that interview. I’ve regrets about some of the things I said only to protect myself. For instance, I think of her every day. There is not a time when I am not thinking of her. I wanted to say that so bad but was not afforded such. I look forward to the day when you can respond with more than a sentence or two. Michael, listen to me carefully – nothing has changed. I am the same man you knew me to be. Law enforcement’s worst mistakes cannot change that. We’ll talk about it all more on Friday.” No we won’t, I thought.

John Ramsey today lives with his son Burke in Charlevoix, Michigan. John Mark Karr lives in the Atlanta area and has a fiancé who lives in Las Vegas with her young daughter. He visits regularly the graves of Patsy and JonBenet. In the early summer of 2007 he placed by her grave a large angel holding chimes. He also placed a pot of violets, a small crystal bear and her August birth stone. He sits and cries, and asks, as always, for understanding and forgiveness.
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#38
From Christmas to August: Postscript

Postscript
In November 2007, just as I was finishing a draft of this essay I was talking to a television executive during a visit to London. He asked if there was anything “new” in the Ramsey case.

I told him there wasn’t, unless you include a flurry of stories over the summer about the fact that John Ramsey was dating the mother of Natalie Holloway, a pretty blond college student who had gone missing two years ago while on vacation on the Caribbean island of Aruba. I did, however, offer him two thoughts: JonBenet will be back, there will be an event, maybe an arrest, new information, something, but she is not going away; and that hers, for good or ill, is a story for the ages – mystery, tragedy, metaphor, booster of circulation and ratings, the very gold standard of tabloid journalism.

As I write, E! Network is planning a two-hour special on the 20 most famous unsolved murders in American history. JonBenet is number one. TruTV, formerly Court TV, is also producing a documentary about the case in which they will use psychic investigators. The documentaries that David Mills and I made are regular reruns on cable. Last year Channel Four in the UK and CBS in the US ran documentaries about Daxis and me, and were extremely happy with the ratings. It’s strangely, even weirdly, inevitable.

The question I am often asked is whether the case will ever be solved? The only logical answer, of course, is that there is no way of knowing. It certainly could be solved, assuming that the “foreign” DNA is indeed that of the killer. It is obviously vitally important to bring that person to justice. It would be a great relief to have closure, and to be able to move on because I know that there are many people for whom her murder is ever present.

My head says, who knows? My heart says something different and almost inevitably, as if by some bizarre destiny, it was Karr who offered the appropriate words. On the day of Patsy’s funeral, in his room in Bangkok, he paid what he called a “private tribute to Patricia…” He sang songs, old hymns. One is called “Farther Along…”

“Farther along we’ll know all about it,
Farther along we’ll understand why.
Cheer up my sister, live in the sunshine.
We’ll understand it, all by and by.”
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