Along those same lines, I read a bizarre article in the NY Times lambasting someone who had committed a crime and then attempted to start a new life, "An Inmate and a Scholar". Apparently the triggering event for the article was that this convicted felon (whom I won't name, in an effort to avoid connecting it on Google with the term "sociopath") had published a paper in the Columbia Journal of European Law on Turkish nationals and the EU. The NY Times reporter, Alison Leigh Cowan (who seems to specialize in maligning?), does not suggest that this young man plagiarized, falsified, or otherwise misrepresented himself in the paper. Nor does she allege that he has done anything wrong in the recent past (apart from the activities leading to his conviction) so much as she insinuates that his past makes him an inappropriate candidate for a legitimate future as a barrister/scholar.
The facts of our inmate/scholar are basically these: he is the child of a conwoman. He perpetrated a Ponzi scheme at the age of 19. After a confession/conviction ("I did what I did") and serving his time, he was deported (Turkish national). Any money he earns beyond satisfying his basic needs is earmarked to repay his Ponzi scheme victims. In the decade since, he has graduated with honors from prestigious European schools. His applications to these schools were open about his past -- he referenced it in his application essays and his former lawyers wrote letters of recommendation. He did not tell everything to everyone, though, and that is not enough for our intrepid reporter.
Reporter Cowan works hard to suggest that she has caught him red-handed trying to escape from his past. For instance, she mentions that he added a middle name that is not reflected in his American official paperwork -- a clear sign that he is hiding something. She liberally quotes from classmates that found it "shocking" to learn that he an ex-con (shout out to my former classmates who may have found it "shocking" that I had been diagnosed as a sociopath, or to my gay friend's former classmates who might find it "shocking" to find that he is married to a man, or my transgender friend's former classmates who might find it "shocking" to discover that he is no longer a woman.) Despite people's alleged shock at having known an ex-con (?), none of his friends or associates suggested that he ever materially misrepresented himself. And do we have a duty to disclose everything about ourselves to everyone we meet? Cowan goes into great detail about whether or not the inmate/scholar was supposed to check a box on his school applications for certain types of past criminal convictions, but ultimately comes up with nothing, at least in my opinion. (The school defined relevant convictions as "offenses of a violent or sexual nature against a person, or something on the order of drug trafficking," and cautioned prospective students against overdisclosing in violation of the Data Protection Act of 1998). So apart from a general reluctance to expose more about his history than absolutely necessary, that's it for his bad behavior. And as one of his mentors said:
“Here’s a guy who paid a very heavy price and is trying to put his life back together. . . . It’s not that he’s averse to publicity and trying to hide . . . but he’s trying to survive.”
It's hard to read Cowan's article and not wonder what the NY Times found print-worthy about this tale. Although Cowan's reporting style is just-the-facts, it is still manipulatively written to suggest that the inmate/scholar has done something wrong in attempting to move on with his life in the way he has. And in doing so, Cowan joins other journalists (Caleb Hannan, and others) who have chosen to make torrid details of people's personal lives international news. I understand that part of journalism is incidentally ruining people's lives (interestingly, journalism is considered one of the top 10 professions for sociopaths), but there doesn't seem to be anything incidental about this (similar to the Essay Anne Vanderbilt story). Rather, ruining a life seems to be the point of this particular story. And why? This type of public shaming is even more difficult for me to understand than the typical ruin-someone's-life Twitter justice you see against people who violate social norms (possible racism and the too-soon). Is this just blatant journalistic pandering to the desire of the proletariat to be an armchair judge/jury/executioner? Or is Cowan just a Javert type who believes that people shouldn't be able to run from their past?
Why do I care about this story? There is the public shaming thing, of course, but his story speaks to me more personally as well. This guy seems to be a young sociopath figuring things out: his mother was a conwoman, he was a very talented conman, he was described by federal investigators as "brilliant and probably capable of doing anything," and according to the NY Times, his sentencing judge:
did not doubt his desire to reform, but she worried if “in point of fact, he doesn’t yet know how.” His “moral compass,” she said, was simply “not present or not functioning."
So this story struck a personal note with me, as someone who has also had my career prospects ruined, at least to a certain extent. But at least I sort of brought it on myself. This guy just committed a crime and paid for it. He didn't ask to have the media hound him for the sordid details of his past.
But this problem of trying to escape from a past is not isolated to sociopaths, or even to wrongdoers. Everyone makes mistakes of varying degrees or chooses to live a different way, unfettered by constraints from the past. How much should that keep them from having functional adult lives? Some jurisdictions are instituting a right for young people to wipe their digital slates clean, so youthful indiscretions wouldn't unduly limit their life options. But that policy is only viable if no reporter can come along decades later and use that information against you. Should we believe that people are redeemable or not? Apparently most of the inmate/scholar's classmates did, or at least they said that they “judged him only on the present," and found him to be an exceptionally friendly and helpful classmate. Unfortunately, present performance is often not good enough for the Javert types who are looking for their pound of flesh.
See also Anne Perry (especially the comments section of the video clip, which are predictably all over the map).