Learning Curve = 0

Steve Schwenk, late of wishing violent death upon the child of a New York Times reporter and then being shocked, shocked when that wish was publicized in the New York Times with his name attached to it, has posted an open letter to Daniel Okrent, the NYT’s public editor, who is the one who outed Schwenk in his column.

I don’t think much of it, and reading it I think less of Schwenk than I did before. Schwenk gripes about how horrible this whole ordeal has been for him and his family and about how awfully he’s been abused by the Times when it published his name and the comment. But other than agreeing that what he wrote (“I hope your kid gets his head blown off in a Republican war”) was “shocking and uncivil,” I don’t see Schwenk actually being sorry for what he wrote.

Oh, true enough, he regrets it, for various reasons: He’s gotten a number of harassing phone calls, he’s been exposed to national ridicule, and now anytime anyone Googles him, they’re going to see his brief spike into national prominence, and for a not very nice reason. But as Schwenk formulates it, it’s all about what’s being done to him, and nothing about the outrageous comment which provoked the response.

For example, look how Schwenk formulates the Google complaint:

What won’t go away for years, if ever, are the results of the Google search of my name every prospective employer, professional colleague, new friend or potential spouse is likely to conduct in the future. When you search my name now, you learn right away that the Public Editor of the New York Times called me a coward and a despicable person incapable of consideration of others. As Mr. Nagourney well knows, Google is brutal and unforgiving. It forgets nothing. And everybody uses it. And when people see in their search results that it is the esteemed New York Times that has branded me an inconsiderate coward, they are, ironically, likely to believe it to be true without any second thought.

What Schwenk conveniently glosses over here is that the Google-accessible chunk of text in which he is called a coward will also include Mr. Schwenk’s actual quote. I suggest that future Googlers of Mr. Schwenk will be rather more convinced that he is a coward because he wished for the death of someone’s child from the safe remove of 2,200 miles and e-mail delivery than the fact that Daniel Okrent, for better or worse, called him on the fact.

Yes, yes, I know, Schwenk says that it’s out of context. But let me ask, and not for the first time: In what context can hoping someone’s child gets his head blown off in a war be seen as anything other than cruel and monstrous? I’m racking by brain for that sort of redeeming context, and you know, I’m coming up with squat.

I’d also like to draw attention to this bit from Mr. Schwenk’s letter:

In sending my angry e-mail to Mr. Nagourney, I never intended to cause him harm, and did not cause him harm.

Simply and baldly put: Steve Schwenk is a liar. Mr. Schwenk is apparently a parent, since he details how his children have been frightened by the aftermath of his outing in the Times. I find it utterly inconceivable that a parent — particularly one who is now trotting out his own children to bolster his claims of persecution — can wish another parent’s child dead without recognizing the extreme power of that statement. This isn’t your usual, garden variety “you’re an asshole” sort of invective. It’s the sort of language you use when you want to hit someone hard in their soft spots. You don’t say something like that about someone’s kid as part of a general suite of heated conversation. No, placing an image of a child’s death in the mind of a parent takes malice aforethought.

Within the scope of Schwenk’s ability to hurt Mr. Nagourney, the reporter whose child for whom he hoped for death, he went out of his way to do so. Some of the people jumping to Schwenk’s defense (none here, thank God), have suggested that this kind of comment is “a mildly heated email to a Times reporter.” Well, I call “bullshit” on that, and on Mr. Schwenk. You don’t wish someone’s kid gets their head blown off and then try to say that you weren’t trying to hurt them. If Schwenk is not a liar, and he genuinely didn’t know hoping for Nagourney’s kid to die might not come back to haunt him, then he is so unfathomably stupid as to beggar description. But as I said, since he’s canny enough to trot out his own kids to make his case, I don’t think Schwenk can claim stupidity.

Here’s the clincher for me that Schwenk doesn’t really think he’s done anything wrong:

Let me close by pledging that, henceforth, I shall write all of my e-mails as though they will be published in the New York Times. I shall write them with the care, consideration and respect for civil discourse that one would expect from the public editor of the nation’s leading newspaper. I will write them as though I am writing a respected column that will be read by people around the world, and that will be captured in Google forever. My parting request to you, Mr. Okrent, should your choose not to do the honorable thing and resign, is that you pledge to never again write a column for the New York Times as though you are writing a private, angry and hostile e-mail to an audience of one.

In other words, “I’ll never write another e-mail wishing another parent’s kid dead because I don’t want to be embarrassed again.” Not “I’ll never write another e-mail wishing another parent’s kid dead because it’s a horrible thing to do, and I was wrong for doing it.”

What a schmuck.

Look, if I were Adam Nagourney, I would have dropped Schwenk’s e-mail into the trash like it deserved to be trashed. If I were Daniel Okrent, I wouldn’t have published Schwenk’s name. If I were Okrent’s editor, I would have strongly suggested he not put Schwenk’s name in the article. Outing Schwenk is far from the New York Times’ greatest moment. Schwenk should have been ignored, not held up for ridicule.

Having said that, in light of Schwenk’s self-pitying refusal to acknowledge his sentiment was wrong, I again discover I have not a thimbleful of sympathy for him for the predicament in which he finds himself. It’s nice he regrets sending that e-mailed sentiment to Mr. Nagourney. Would that he regretted it not for what airing the sentiment is doing to him, but for what sending the sentiment says about his soul.

Here’s what I hope for Mr. Schwenk’s children: That they grow up bright and beautiful and happy, and so very far away from the sort of death their father wished upon the child of another parent.

30 thoughts on “Learning Curve = 0

  1. I commented on this below, but since you’ve followed up your post, I’ll follow up my comment:

    Obviously, I’m not a fan of what Mr. Schwenk wrote, nor do I frankly care all that much what the NYT prints or doesn’t print. My opinion of Mr. Schwenk didn’t matter yesterday, and it won’t matter tomorrow.

    What bugs me here is this point, from Mr. Schwenk’s letter:

    “You identified me both by name and by city of residence, even after I pleaded with your assistant and Mr. Nagourney not to.”

    I can think of a thousand reasons why someone would send a letter to a newspaper and ask that their name be withheld. Some of those reasons reflect cowardice, others reflect conflicts of interest, legal issues, self-protection from friends, spouses, employers, affiliated groups, etc.

    I don’t think it’s in the NYT’s best interests to make judgement calls about whether the reason is good one or not. IMHO, if he asked that his name be withheld, it should have been withheld.

  2. Brian Greenberg:

    “IMHO, if he asked that his name be withheld, it should have been withheld.”

    I’m inclined to agree, although I can think of some perfectly legitimate journalistic reasons why one wouldn’t give Schwenk anonymity, not excluding the fact if the Time got its hands on another e-mail it determined had news value, it probably wouldn’t extend anonymity to that sender either; it would simply confirm the sender did indeed send the e-mail — as they did here. Lots of people in newspaper stories would prefer that they weren’t in them; Schwenk is just one of the most recent.

    However, I don’t really want to deflect this into “what the Times did wrong” territory. Plenty of other people are focusing on that.

  3. I haven’t the slightest idea what Mr. Schwenk thinks or thought, but I suspect that he never actually imagined the Nagourney progeny’s violent death, nor even imagined Mr. Nagourney imagining that death. I suspect he didn’t, on a basic level, think of Mr. Nagourney as a person, with independence of action, with a life, with an imagination, and with children who are actual children. I don’t think he in fact sat down and thought ‘It would be a good thing for the little Nagourneys to die’; I think he was just looking for a hurtful thing to say and found it, without thinking about the person being hurt.
    That said, could the idea that he never really wanted the deaths he said he wanted excuse him? After all, nobody is (I hope) accusing him of trying to hurt the offspring of the journalist, just of writing what he did in fact write, which was awful in exactly the way he intended it to be awful, and which will, it turns out, go down in (ephemeral) history as an awful example of awful behavior.
    Can I add a couple of pieces of advice for those who, like Mr. Schwenk, get angry and get tempted to write emails whilst angry? Be what you wish to seem—if you don’t want people to know you do awful things, don’t do them. And also, pretend to be what you want to be—if you want to be a grown-up, capable of political discourse beyond schoolyard taunts, try acting like one and see if it gets to be a habit.

                ,
    -V.

  4. Vardibidian writes:

    “I haven’t the slightest idea what Mr. Schwenk thinks or thought, but I suspect that he never actually imagined the Nagourney progeny’s violent death, nor even imagined Mr. Nagourney imagining that death.”

    That would dump him into the “monstrously stupid” territory, I think. Adult human beings should be able to realize when they are communicating with other adult human beings, regardless of the medium of communication.

  5. Steve Schwenk wrote:

    “Naming me in your column the way you did served only one purpose, and that was to harm me. It served no other purpose whatsoever, certainly none of any journalistic import.”

    I dunno. I think that we can learn a lot from his blunder.

  6. I find it ironically delicious that previously the relative protective anonymity of the internet has been turned against Schwenk, and used to forever expose him for what he is.

    This is deterrence, and I love it. What, actions have consequence?!?!? WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME?!??! Boo hoo, Mr. Schwenk.

  7. Come to think of it, there’s an interesting bit of irony at work here. Schwenk and Nagourney have their e-mail exchange, at this point only they know anything’s happened, Nagrouney brings in Okrent, Okrent writes his column.. Now Schwenk has a problem, but it’s pretty limited in scope, the NYT site requires subscription and unless I’ve missed it the actual NYT article isn’t on Google as a result. Along comes Atrios, who’s OPPOSED to Schwenk’s name being published, and next thing you know the entire matter has transited into the blogosphere, Schwenk’s name is plastered all over the net with copious quotes from NYT, endless reams of commentary and global exposure to every possible person who might be tempted to give Schwenk grief. Bit of a whoops there really :). It’d be tragic if he hand’t worked so hard to earn it :P.

  8. I don’t know, John. The nature of the internet, it seems to me, encourages sending messages off as a matter of brain ventilation (if you’ll allow me) without really thinking about the person reading them. I know I’ve started dozens of really nasty emails/blogposts; fortunately, I cancel them before I hit send or submit.

                ,
    -V.

  9. Vardibidian says:

    “I know I’ve started dozens of really nasty emails/blogposts; fortunately, I cancel them before I hit send or submit.”

    As have we all, of course. But as you note, you stop before you click “send” — the ol’ superego kicks in like it should.

    God knows I’m the last person to suggest that people always engage brain before publishing a snit. But I guess I have a hard time imagining one doesn’t look at “I hope your kid gets his head blown off in a Republican war” and realize right off the bat it’s probably not best to send that along.

  10. John, I’ve been laughing a bit over this episode, specifically for the reason you recently composed a sentence that looks very much like the following:

    “If John Kerry cannot beat George W. Bush in this election, he should be taken out and beaten to death with his own shoes.”

    Now I’m very much aware of the manner in which you intended that remark. But still, it’s rather funny to me. And yes, that’s funny Ha Ha. But I promise: I’m not laughing at you.

  11. John, for the most part I agree with you here, but I would like to point out that there is a difference between expressing a wish about someone’s children privately to the parent and actually, directly frightening those children. Presumably the adult is better equipped to handle it, especially if that adult is a public figure.

  12. Agreed there is a difference. My point is that Mr. Schwenk recognizes that his kids are out of bounds, as well they should be. He should have realized Mr. Nagourney’s is out of bounds as well.

    I don’t know how much being a public figure ameliorates someone expressing a death wish for your kid. That’s not about being a public figure, it’s about being a parent.

  13. I’m still trying to figure out if it is irony or some other term that I can’t quite pin down that the NYT revealed the name of someone who wrote a hateful email of little substance and yet also has a reporter who is being held in contempt of court (albeit pending a higher court’s review) for failing to name someone who actually released the name of a CIA agent that directly endangered that agent and that agent’s contacts.

  14. Who in the world doesn’t enjoy it when some hot head shoots off his mouth and it comes back to bite him?

    Sometimes we just gotta have karma.

    And who isn’t absolutely sick of the faux, not-an-apology apology?

    “You are an a-hole!”

    “Apologize!”

    “Okay, I’m sorry you are an a-hole.”

  15. Thank you for the comments on my letter to Mr. Okrent.

    I am sending Mr. Nagourney an apology. And I also take responsibility for my conduct here:

    http://www.robertsilvey.com/notes/2004/10/an_editorial_fa.html

    But the letter you are commenting on was not written to Mr. Nagourney, it was written to Mr. Okrent. Mr. Okrent is the one who distorted my e-mail and called me names and made me out to be a monster in front of the entire country. I never sent him an e-mail, or anything else. I owe him no apology. Quite the contrary.

    Furthermore, Mr. Nagourney does not have any children. None. He is not married.

    Unfortunately, I will not be able to return to post follow-up comments, but I wanted to set the record straight. Thanks again for your comments and observations.

  16. Quoting Steve Schwenk to Daniel Okrent, “One last point, and it’s an important one. In sending my angry e-mail to Mr. Nagourney, I never intended to cause him harm, and did not cause him harm. The same is not true of you and your column in Sunday’s New York Times. Naming me in your column the way you did served only one purpose, and that was to harm me. It served no other purpose whatsoever, certainly none of any journalistic import. Intentionally causing me harm like that was not only grossly unfair, it was hateful and vicious. It was an abuse of your position and power. The damage you have inflicted upon me and my family is real, will last for years and is so wildly disproportionate to the offense at hand that it is outrageous.” I suppose the mosquito I caught feeding on my arm may have had the same view in its low order way, as I smashed it.

  17. Steve Schwenk wrote:

    “But the letter you are commenting on was not written to Mr. Nagourney, it was written to Mr. Okrent. Mr. Okrent is the one who distorted my e-mail and called me names and made me out to be a monster in front of the entire country.”

    Well, and again: Explain to me in what context hoping someone’s child get dead is acceptable. What you don’t seem to *get* is that whatever valid points you may or may not have made in your e-mail almost certainly exist separately from this bit of invective. Saying you hope someone’s head gets blown off is not legitimate criticism of reporting.

    You know, Trent Lott once made a speech, one line of which suggested the US would have been better off if a segregationist candidate had been elected as President. It cost him his job as Senate majority leader. No doubt he feels his words were distorted as well, and wonders why the press did not focus on the other, more positive 99% of his speech.

    I agree wholeheartedly that your apology goes to Mr. Nagourney and not Mr. Okrent, and I am glad to see you are making it to him.

    “Furthermore, Mr. Nagourney does not have any children. None. He is not married.”

    Aside from the obvious truth that one need not be married to have children, if Mr. Nagourney in fact has no children, did you know this little nugget *before* you wished for the violent death of his child? If you did not, and I suspect you didn’t, then it does not excuse your behavior in the slightest.

  18. Kafka, that’s bullshit. And considering your proper sentence-structure and well thought-out post, I think you know it too. Compare:

    “If John Kerry can’t win this election, he should be beaten to death with his own shoes.”

    “I hope your kid gets his head blown off in a Republican war.”

    Anyone who insists that those two comments are even within the same vein as each other is either an idiot, or a filthy filthy liar. :P

  19. The civilized way to express the thought Mr. Schwenk was reaching for is to say, “I only hope your children’s heads DON’T get blown off in a Republican war.”

    I assume that was the point Mr. Schwenk was trying to make: he’s saying that it’s easy to be a chickenhawk, and support the war from the comfort of the chair in front of one’s own computer. But it’s much harder to have to watch the boxy, government-fleet car park in front of your house, and have the man in dress uniform come out of the car and walk up YOUR driveway and ring YOUR doorbell. And, later, to watch the flag-draped coffin being lowered into the ground….

    That IS the point Mr. Schwenk was trying to make.

  20. Mitch is correct.

    “but I would like to point out that there is a difference between expressing a wish about someone’s children privately to the parent and actually, directly frightening those children”

    The fact that the latter is much, much worse does not make the former OK. Important political tip: don’t threaten, belittle or attach people’s children. It’s just fucking stupid.

  21. What I thought was interesting was Schwenk’s comment about how he would now compose all emails as though they were to appear in the New York Times. While a good way of monitoring civility, it is especially important if you are planning on SENDING the email to the New York Times.

  22. I’m surprised to find, Steve Schwenk, a SF Attorney acting with such reckless disregard for the sanctity of the family. This is HYPOCRITICAL INTOLERANCE at it’s worst. May you have a long life so you can harvest your good deeds. As President Bush says “you can run but you can’t hide” Nothing like a little sunshine to flush out unsavory creatures from their dark dens.

  23. Boy, what a bunch of sanctimonious windbags you all are. And calling me a liar is simply over the top. You are the liar, sir. Nagourney is not a parent. He has no kids. He is gay and is thus unlikely to ever be a parent. So all of your tear jerking hyperventialting is for naught.

    There is only one reason why right wingers are so up in arms about this. It’s because I told the truth. This is a “Republican War,” and far too many kids have gotten their heads blown off in this disaster already, thanks to an incompetent and dishonest administration/president.

  24. Steve Schwenk:

    “Nagourney is not a parent. He has no kids. He is gay and is thus unlikely to ever be a parent. So all of your tear jerking hyperventialting is for naught.”

    Aside from the fact that a lot of gay people are parents, once again, you’ve not answered the question of whether you knew this before you wished for the death of his child. If not, your actions are still entirely inexcusable. And may I add that I doubt you did know he had no children when you wrote the letter, since why would you wish dead people who do not exist? No, sir, I believe you acted badly. I believe you are still acting badly by trying to excuse your actions on a technicality.

    “There is only one reason why right wingers are so up in arms about this. It’s because I told the truth.”

    I’m not a right-winger. I’m up in arms for one reason: Because I think you’re an asshole.

  25. You think I’m an asshole? And you feel the need to proclaim that to the world? Whatever turns you on, John. Bravo to you. If I knew you, I’d venture an opinion myself, but of course, I don’t.

    Based on this quote, however, I’d have to say you’re a bit of a fool:

    However, from now to the end of time you won’t hear me say that the man [George W. Bush] never did anything right. He did, and what he did right has a pretty big thing. And were I ever to meet him, I would say to him: Fine job with Saddam. You did well.

    No, it’s not painful in the least to say that. What would have been painful would have been to have to say, well, you screwed up on the Saddam thing, too. Because the implications of that — for our troops, for our country, and for the planet in general — would have been immeasurably bad. I can live with Dubya having done a good job with Saddam. Happily.

    I’m still not voting him. Not even close. But I’m not going to let that get in the way of recognizing the fact he’s done something good for the world.

    If it were your kids doing the dying in Iraq, I doubt very much we’d be reading such sentimental, feel-good nonesense on your blog.

  26. Steve Schwenk:

    “If it were your kids doing the dying in Iraq, I doubt very much we’d be reading such sentimental, feel-good nonsense on your blog.”

    You’ve improved your rhetoric, Steve — you managed not to wish my kid dead! Good on you.

    I thought then and continue to think removing Saddam for power was a good thing. I would have preferred it more had it been done in 1991, but one can’t have everything. Sadly, there’s been very little since about our presence in Iraq that I’m happy about, but that’s a discussion for another time.

    “You think I’m an asshole? And you feel the need to proclaim that to the world?”

    Well, Steve. Isn’t it obvious?

  27. Let me get this straight, John. You are “Happy” that Bush invaded Iraq and strongly support the mission and outcome. And you think I’m an asshole.

    Well, given the judgment you emply to arrive at the first conclusion, the latter conclusion follows as a matter of simple logic. And I am not at all offended. In fact, I shall wear it as a badge of honor. Thanks for clearing that up.

    And BTW, I’m very impressed with your use of a two-syllable profanity. You professional writers, us peons don’t stand a chance against you, do we?

    p.s. When do i get to see your private e-mails since you feel at liberty to freely quote mine … ad nauseam? One can only imagine the lofty and flowery rhetoric they contain given what you write here in full public view. Whatever…

  28. Steve Schwenk writes:

    “Let me get this straight, John. You are ‘Happy’ that Bush invaded Iraq and strongly support the mission and outcome. Amd you think I’m an asshole.”

    Actually, what I wrote is that I am happy that we took down Saddam. This is a thing independent of whether I am happy with the overall execution of the war there (I’m not) or with what looks to be the eventual outcome (I don’t expect I’ll be).

    Also, independent of that, I think you’re an asshole. Really, Steve, I don’t know how many more times I have to say it until it sinks in: You’re asshole. You’re an asshole. You’re an asshole.

    Your conflation of two separate things (my opinion of removing Saddam from power; my opinion of your asshole-osity) and attempt to associate them in some sort of logical way is further example of your inability to think or reason well; however, this is not particularly surprising at this point. In my experience with you, you’ve never reasoned well, which is, of course, a salient point in the entry above.

    “I’m very impressed with your use of a two-syllable profanity.”

    Well, Mr. Schwenk. When a word fits, one uses it, doesn’t one.

    Rhetoric class: I have a degree in the Philosophy of Language from the University of Chicago, Mr. Schwenk. I know rhetoric perfectly well, which is why I know you’re not particularly good at it. Mind you, one doesn’t actually need a course in rhetoric to punch holes in your reasoning; I know syphillitic monkeys that could do it.

    As for the “badge of honor” thing: Well, okay, man. If you want to be proud of being a asshole with poor arguing skills, then I celebrate your choice. Go forth, Mr. Schwenk, and spread your poorly-argued assholery all across our great land. A grateful nation salutes you.

    As for your “private e-mail” request — well, now. As I recall, you have at least one e-mail of mine that I sent to you. Feel free to air it as you will. If you want to see any other the others I’ve sent over time, then I suppose you’ll have to ask the recipients if they’ll show them to you, since when one sends an e-mail to someone, one surrenders the ability to control its further propogation, a point of fact which you still clearly have not learned. What e-mail is in my control, of course, you have no chance of seeing.

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