Kathryn Knott is the 24-year-old young woman who, along with companions Philip Williams, 24, and Kevin Harrigan, 26, has been charged with the brutal beating of two young gay men in Philadelphia on September 11, 2014. The three were part of a much larger group of party-goers (accounts have the swarm numbering somewhere between ten and fifteen) who witnesses say surrounded the young men, intimidating them, calling out homophobic slurs and ultimately beating them so badly that they had to be rushed to a hospital. There was so much blood at the scene, one of the policemen said he thought someone had been shot. One of the men still has his jaw wired shut, and suffered multiple broken bones in his face. I think it’s safe to say that these young men, the victims of this crime, will never be the same again; not only are the physical injuries likely to be permanent, but the emotional scares of such trauma are lifelong.
Only these three members of the group have been charged so far, and there is no word yet whether the rest of this swarm will be arrested. The three have been charged with two counts each of aggravated assault, simple assault, conspiracy and reckless endangerment. They have not been charged with a hate crime, despite the number of witnesses who heard homophobic slurs being screamed while the beatings went on. Pennsylvania does not include LGBT attacks in its hate crime laws, something that members of our State legislature have been trying to change for several years. It’s because of our lax laws in this area that many of us here in Philadelphia harbor a hope that the U.S. Attorney will become involved, and will levy hate crime charges at the federal level against these people. This is likely a fear of the attorneys for the trio, since they are relentless in their refutation that this attack was motivated by homophobia. They are claiming that their clients acted in “self defense”, a claim both sadly typical and absolutely despicable. While self-defense is a ludicrous claim, these people did act in defense of a reprehensible system of prejudice and hatred.
The Twitter feed of Kathryn Knott has been widely shared, in the Twittersphere, on Facebook and elsewhere. The comments and photos show a young woman whose homophobic comments are rampant, whose habits of rabid consumerism and entitlement are unapologetic, and whose love of excessive drinking seems out of control.
She is my child. No, I am not her biological mother. I believe that my own beloved children are far and away more decent, loving, caring and responsible young adults. But, don’t we all want to believe that of our children? The reality is that Kathryn Knott is OUR child. She is the poster child of the kind of people born and raised in America. Fired in the kiln of inequality, elitism, prejudice, consumerism and fear, she is just what America’s schools, media and values create. I’m sure she’ll have a book deal shortly. It won’t be long before she’s an anchor on Fox News.
I’m not blaming the schools. I’m an educator who has been tirelessly (well, okay, sometimes I get damned tired) fighting to get rid of the corporatism that’s taken over our system of education. But it is precisely this value system that has found its way into our schools which carries some of the guilt. Many of the dozen or so party-goers who were involved in this crime are graduates of the same Catholic high school, Archbishop Wood, in Bucks County, PA. Many have rushed to condemn the school for what is assumed to be homophobic teaching; the school rushed just as quickly to distance itself from the event, going so far as terminating the employment of one of the young men of the group, who was a part-time coach for the school. They were quick to say – probably through the diocese PR offices – that their values would never endorse such violence and hatred. I call bullshit. Not on the Catholic school separately – but on this school as an example of the kinds of misinformation, half-truths and fear of the “other” that far too many of our schools couch in their curriculum. I can hear the screams as I write this. So let me expand my point: our schools are in disarray, they are far and away one of the best examples of the gap between the haves and have nots in our country. Schools teach little beyond conformity, fear and obedience to power. Educators who valiantly try to do more have a hard time of it.
The “worst” of our schools – often the inner city schools in the poorest neighborhoods – offer little beyond the warehousing of students, exhausted and heart-broken teachers, a paucity of support, programs or hope. Far too often they are part of the school-to-prison pipeline that is big business in America. The “best” of our schools – often the very expensive private schools – are filled with a majority of white, upper-middle-class children – and their concerns have more to do with pure academic achievement and the pipeline to which they belong – that pipeline of moving elite children through their privileged childhoods into elite universities and, ultimately, into their pampered and privileged adulthoods. Aside from a few school programs that provide such children opportunities to “volunteer” or “explore” the lives of the less blessed, there is little discussion about the overall system of inequality that maintains America’s growing number of needy human beings. I am NOT saying that children from more privileged backgrounds don’t work hard, don’t have stress and worry about their futures, or that the parents of such children are horrible, spoiled, wicked people. What I am saying is that there are many children outside that circle of privilege who work hard under much more difficult conditions, whose stresses include dangerous neighborhoods, exposure to crime and misery, homelessness, food insecurity. They will have little chance to see the full flower of success, despite their effort and potential. There are children whose “differences” – whether they are learning differences, physical handicaps, or racial/religious/sexual orientation differences – cause them to be seen and treated as outsiders – often unwanted, reviled outsiders – by those who are in positions of greater privilege. These differences are often carried through life as well, labeling, restricting, intimidating innocent people whose “crime” is simply being who they are, or being born where they were born. Children excluded from the circle of privilege are too often judged and blamed by those inside as being somehow lesser than, deserving of contempt and ridicule.
Our schools don’t do enough to shine a light on the severe damage caused by such inequalities, or on the ways in which we ostracize “others”. There is little discussion about the kind of cruelties that move through social relationships in our communities. And lest anyone think that I am saying that schools have the lion’s share of responsibility in helping our youth understand these things – I am NOT. I am saying that as part of the larger system, our schools are not functioning in a way that includes anywhere near enough learning about diversity, about community, about issues of inequality. Extending that thought is the sad truth that the equality gap makes is fully impossible to have schools which ARE diverse, which provide opportunities equally. The mere fact that our kids have to “learn” about diversity means that our equality issues continue to be systemic and unchanging. So, you have a school like Archbishop Wood, in a primarily white area in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where students are not exposed to a larger world, or to larger truths beyond their own kinds of lives. They live in a bubble. The values taught include the harsh, often ill-informed judgments about those who are different from them – and all you have to do is read some of the speeches of Rick Santorum to know that there is a disturbing amount of classism, as well as homophobia and anti-gay teaching that goes on in Catholic schools, all in the name of religion. And, again, lest anyone think this is Catholic-bashing, I will say that I was raised as an Episcopalian – a denomination proud of its anti-war, progressive stances, which has been all but torn apart in the last decade over issues about ordination of homosexuals in the Episcopal church. Christianity in general does a pretty rotten job here.
Given the age of these three individuals, I would guess (but haven’t yet confirmed) that they have also graduated from college. So, let’s expand this discussion just a bit to include the kind of job universities do these days in teaching more than what is “marketable” or “practical” as measured by a business-only culture. It is unlikely that many of our college-age children are regularly challenged to explore issues of ethics, of courtesy, or of morality in the larger sense -- not in today’s university classroom. The kinds of subjects which require such exploration – largely the Liberal Arts, the Humanities, the Arts, the Social Sciences – are devalued in what Henry Giroux has termed the Neoliberal University. The percentage of students majoring in such studies continues to plummet, while the majority of students jam themselves into classes to study marketing, business, PR, advertising, finance.
What hope is there that their childhood value systems will be challenged, or that their horizons will be broadened by a rigorous, exploratory university experience?
As someone who has dedicated much of my life to teaching at the university level, and who has witnessed corporate dementia taking over what used to be an institution of “higher learning”, I must be excused if I laugh sadly and disdainfully at my own question. Graduates of our universities are not more fully developed humans; too often they are simply more indebted, more frightened, older but no wiser.
I repeat my point, Kathryn Knott and her two male compatriots are products of the typical American schooling system.
What about the media? What values are being hammered into our children from the time they are sitting, watching cartoons in their footy pajamas? Look at the commercials their wide and innocent eyes are absorbing. Look at the shows they are watching. Just look at the kinds of people being venerated and admired: the Kim Kardashian of the day, the Hollywood ‘stars’, the billionaire over-consumers. Where are the decent, heroic, sensible people? Sit and think – really think – about the messages that are filling their immature minds.
Is it any wonder that Kathryn Knott’s Twitter feed is filled with messages about shopping and spending too much (sometimes complete with photos of her purchases), or about drinking too much and being hungover again and again, or complaining about being annoyed and inconvenienced when mom and dad give her a check instead of cash? The narrowness of a life built on consumerism, hedonism and intense dislike of the “other” is not the exception in America. It IS life in America.
Who among us has not absorbed messages of prejudice or fear, messages of consumerism, a value system so skewed that those most successful are often the country’s most outrageous yet celebrated socio- and psychopaths?
Now to the obvious question: what about family, about parents? Shouldn’t they bear the largest portion of responsibility for creating such children? Of course there is family responsibility. But what can American parents give beyond their own rarely examined values? If these young people are in their mid-twenties, that puts most of their parents in their mid-40s, born just before the Reagan revolution, a time when any remnants of our older, more socially conscious values were shredded. Communism “lost” with the breakup of the Soviet Union, and these parents watched, as youths themselves, as capitalism was declared the winner, the ONLY way of life for the world. They watched as Reagan destroyed unions, as Thatcherism burned its way through the UK economic system. In 2014, we see the dire results of their actions. But during the years when those 40-something parents were raising these 20-something children, unfettered-capitalism-all-the-time was the biggest, best and noisiest party in town. Such parents might be suffering a hangover of their own right about now, but it is too late to impact the ways in which their children were raised.
Kathryn Knott is a blonde, blue-eyed poster child for all of it. She is the product of our deeply unequal society, our deeply polarized society – a society kept simultaneously in a constant state of war-readiness and fear, yet encouraged endlessly to “go shopping”. This is the world that Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud and “father of American PR” helped to create. He almost single-handedly helped to turn America from a “needs-based” to a “wants-based” society, working with Madison Avenue to turn active, thinking citizens into passive, mindless consumers. He simultaneously worked with the Pentagon and military-industrial powers to create fear and consent for the many wars of aggression fought to expand American and corporate empire around the world. His methods on both counts are still used today – because they continue to be wildly successful. Americans are terrified, manic mall-shoppers, taking occasional breaks to gulp down our anesthetizing substance of choice whenever we can.
It’s not at all surprising that a night out for such typical young Americans as Kathryn and her friends included new clothes, expensive food, copious alcohol, and some near-ecstatic frenzied violence directed at people who were unlike them. It pretty much sums up the worst of what we are as a society.
Oh, and of course, the aftermath wouldn’t be complete without lawyering up. Enter the expensive attorneys, the endless denial and disavowal of accusations made against the accused, and I predict, a legal defense that attempts to paint these three as “misunderstood”, “innocent”, “normal kids” – kids whose lives are too valuable to be ruined by harsh punishment. They are martyrs to a value system that few can bear to look straight in the eye, which is precisely why it hasn’t been furiously dismantled.
If we steel ourselves and look long and hard, it is impossible to misunderstand just who these young adults are, and what shaped and created them. They are not innocent, but neither are we. The horrifying fact that they are “normal kids” is all the proof we need.