The teen-bandit saga: It's hard to turn away

To some, our fascination with Colton Harris-Moore signals the decline of Western culture. To others, it's simply escapism.
To some, our fascination with Colton Harris-Moore signals the decline of Western culture. To others, it's simply escapism.

The Colton Harris-Moore saga is flypaper. It insinuates itself, an umbrella-drink version of Bonnie and Clyde.

After his capture on Sunday in the Bahamas, the Camano Island fugitive foregrounded the news. Don't turn away: The Northwest's teen bandit will quickly muscle past bulletins on Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning.

At the same time that Harris-Moore was collared by police, the White House's David Axelrod was on CNN backpedaling on the Obama Administration's promise to close Guantanamo Bay by the end of 2010.

You won't find news about Guantanamo Bay or Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani on Page One of this morning's Seattle Times. Killjoy topics, we know, alienate readers.

Is Harris-Moore, like Lindsay Lohan, who headlined ABC's once-venerable "Nightline" last Tuesday, emblematic of the decline of Western culture?

Well, maybe just a little bit.

Or it could just be a sign of Preston Sturges Syndrome. In Sturges's 1941 film, "Sullivan's Travels," Joel McCrea plays John L. Sullivan, a movie producer who longs to create a socially relevant film that captures the Steinbeckian dignity of the struggling masses. What does McCrea learn after traveling in the shoes of the shekel-less? People seek comedy and spectacle in hard times, not droll morality tales.

Fluff stories cheapen the public sphere. All the while, we shouldn't fret over escapist schmaltz. According to one scholar, in fact, culture is independent of the more serious, critical issue of human rights.

In June, Jack Donnelly, the Andrew Mellon Professor at the University of Denver, lectured at the University of Washington's Tacoma and Seattle campuses (a visit sponsored in part by the UW's Law, Societies, and Justice program and the new Center for Human Rights). Donnelly's core message is that social structure, not culture, is decisive to the exercise of human rights. The link between human dignity and human rights, something Westerners take for granted, is a relatively recent phenomenon, he argues.

It's an elegant thesis, catholic in scope, that rings true because there's something to rattle everyone. The pre-modern West and the pre-modern East were both inegalitarian (oh no, the fallacy of moral equivalence)! The "Asian values" excuse for sidestepping human rights is invalid (oh no, cultural imperialism)!

Let's hope that Donnelly is right: It means that at least for now we can have our "Barefoot Bandit" and human rights too.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson is the former editorial-page editor of the Everett Herald. Follow him on Twitter @phardinjackson