Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Internet doesn't serve enough crow

If you've been online in the past week or so, have checked out any online news sites, social media sites, or messageboards of any sort, you are no doubt aware of the the name Patrick McLaw. The name is that of a Maryland teacher who also happens to be a self-published author. About ten days ago, this teacher--who had been at Mace's Lane Middle School for a year--was apparently spirited away by armed men in black helicopters in the middle of the night. Why? Apparently for writing a book about a school shooting. That's it, nothing more.

Think I'm overstating things? Well, go back and check your Twitter feed from a few days ago. Look at some of the comments about this incident on Facebook or Google+. Hell, look at the coverage of it in the media. Here's the original story--from WBOC16 in Delmarva--that seems to have ignited the firestorm. From it:
Early last week the school board was alerted that one of its eighth grade language arts teachers at Mace's Lane Middle School had several aliases. Police said that under those names, he wrote two fictional books about the largest school shooting in the country's history set in the future. Now, Patrick McLaw is placed on leave.

Dr. K.S. Voltaer is better known by some in Dorchester County as Patrick McLaw, or even Patrick Beale. Not only was he a teacher at Mace's Lane Middle School in Cambridge, but according to Dorchester Sheriff James Phillips, McLaw is also the author of two books: "The Insurrectionist" and its sequel, "Lillith's Heir."

Those books are what caught the attention of police and school board officials in Dorchester County. "The Insurrectionist" is about two school shootings set in the future, the largest in the country's history.

Phillips said McLaw was taken in for an emergency medical evaluation. The sheriff would not disclose where McLaw is now, but he did say that he is not on the Eastern Shore. The same day that McLaw was taken in for an evaluation, police swept Mace's Lane Middle School for bombs and guns, coming up empty.
The accusation--that the authorities (or "the Man") took this teacher into custody and were holding him at some undisclosed location for simply writing stories, works of fiction, struck a chord. Big time. The tale spread like wildfire through the 'net, passed on breathlessly by all sorts of people from the far left to the far right, many of whom summoned up terms like "thought crime" and "thought police" to describe this horrible situation, this shameful example of the government putting its jackboot down on the neck of Freedom. Hard.

And make no mistake, the tale worked it's way up the food chain, even finding purchase in the upper echelon of thought-provoking journalism. Here it is at The Atlantic. In this piece of questionable journalism, Jeffrey Goldberg (that's right, I'm not redacting all of the names in this tale) opens with the following:
From the Dept. of Insane and Dangerous Overreactions to Fictional Threats:

A 23-year-old teacher at a Cambridge, Maryland, middle school has been placed on leave and—in the words of a local news report—"taken in for an emergency medical evaluation" for publishing, under a pseudonym, a novel about a school shooting.
The title of the piece even compares the actions of the authorities here to the Soviets of the not-so-distant-past. And based on what? Well, the same assumption that was presented as fact in the WBOC piece (which Goldberg actually calls "law enforcement-friendly"), that the teacher was taken in to custody because of what was in a novel he wrote (by the way, that novel was published in 2011).

And of course, the story also found its way to, that bastion of dimwitted activism, in the form of a petition demanding a "full and public apology" to the teacher for the way he was treated. As of now, the petition has 1,963 supporters. Here is the description of the incident given there:
Patrick McLaw, a Maryland teacher recently nominated for First Class Teacher of the Year, has been suspended and banned from school property, has had his home searched, and has been prohibited from traveling, simply because he wrote a science fiction story set 900 years in the future in which there happens to be a school shooting.

This superstitious demonizing of literature strikes at the heart of our most fundamental liberties - the freedom to exercise our imaginations to explore the very things we fear.
Now maybe some of you--reading this--are out of the loop, are wondering why I am mocking these stories and the people who shared them. Well, it turns out that these stories are all wrong, wholly and completely. The teacher was not put on leave and taken into custody for what was in his book at all. Rather, there were other specific issues that lead to these actions. From the LA Times yesterday:
Concerns about McLaw were raised after he sent a four-page letter to officials in Dorchester County. Those concerns brought together authorities from multiple jurisdictions, including health authorities. 
McLaw's attorney, David Moore, tells The Times that his client was taken in for a mental health evaluation. "He is receiving treatment," Moore said.
From MyEasternShoreMD:
The prosecutor explained the sequence of events that led to the Aug. 19 meeting: 
Officials received a harassment complaint Aug. 15 from a teacher in the Delmar school district; two days later, an administrator informed the Delmar police chief of a possible inappropriate relationship between McLaw and a minor, who was not McLaw’s student, Maciarello said. Both complaints remain under investigation; in the latter case, police are trying to determine if the minor was 15 or 16 years old when the relationship began (the age of consent is 16). A subsequent report that McLaw was building models of Wicomico County school buildings also was received, the prosecutor said, and McLaw sent a letter to a Dorchester County school administrator that raised concerns. As a result, Maciarello brought the law enforcement and health officials together to share information and discuss the case. 
Health officials were brought in because of concerns that it was more a “mental health matter,” Maciarello said. “Nobody was overreacting,” the prosecutor said of that meeting. “Everyone was acting calmly,” with safety and due process for McLaw the primary concerns.
Oops. A big oops, in fact. The actions of authorities here were based on a number of things. And some of those things--like an harassment complaint and the potential inappropriate relationship with a student--don't make the teacher look so good. Yet, the authorities in Cambridge clearly believed there was a mental health issue to consider and rather than going public with accusations, they acted in what can only be seen as the best interests of the teacher, a point that the teacher's lawyer seems to recognize and agree with in full. The teacher's secondary career as a novelist is ultimately insignificant here, as is the content of the novels he has published.

So now what? Goldberg--the writer at The Atlantic--has added some updates to his piece, but he's trying desperately to cling to his outrage, even as the initial story he helped to propagate continues to fall apart. And what of all those quasi-activists on the internet, who posted comments and shared stories of outrage and "thought crimes"? Well, by and large, they're just ignoring the story now, have moved on to new targets in their never-ending quests for Cosmic Justice.

And the rest of us--who endeavor to retain a sense of propriety and a minimal level of objectivity when it comes to these kinds of things--are left with no recourse. Because the muckrakers are rarely called to the carpet for their actions in the world of the internet. They can just press on. Note that the dopey petition at is still in place. It has actually gained a couple of supporters in the time it took me to write this piece. And the originator of it doesn't apparently have the balls to close it and issue a mea culpa.

What we really need is a website devoted to eating crow, though I fear it would take up too much space...

Having said all of this, some are probably wondering why I redacted the name of the teacher throughout my piece. Allow me to explain:

What we have here, based on the information available, is someone in crisis. It's possible he may have done some bad things, even illegal things, but that is yet to be determined. He hasn't been charged with any crimes and his representative--his lawyer--seems okay with what has happened. Given all of this, his name doesn't need to be splashed all over the internet. It just doesn't. He's no martyr for any cause and, if he is going through some sort of mental breakdown, he damn well deserves his privacy. It's no one else's business, after all. And frankly, it pisses me off to no end watching one internet busybody after another involve themselves in this guy's life.

Drop it. Drop it right ****ing now. Oh, and have the stones to admit you shot off your mouth before you loaded your brain.

Cheers, all.


  1. As long as the guy is still held involuntarily and incommunacado, and with no publicly disclosed actionable offenses, I think it's still early to cut off what little accountability public attention to his case might lend him.

    The original story was taken straight from the lips of the local sheriff and school officials. Now that the case has become a public issue, the story told by the officials has morphed in the retelling. Perhaps the truth is coming out, or perhaps the narrative told by the local authorities is being fluffed in response to unpleasant publicity.

    There is still vagary, for example, in the way a "possible inappropriate relationship" morphed into a "relationship" four lines down; this all strikes me as an attempt to smeer the non-suspect after the fact of his involuntary incarceration. Meanwhile, in the name of mental health, he is unable to respond to these allegations and no-one even appears to know where he is.

    Maybe there is nothing here, but living in the USA through one official lie after the other at every level of government these many years has inclined me not reflexively to take the authority's word for it when they say "There is nothing to see here."

  2. The guy has a lawyer representing him. And the lawyer seems satisfied with the process.

    Again, this teacher deserves some privacy here, especially if he is having some sort of mental health crisis. By and large imo, the people promulgating this story don't actually a whit about the teacher. They pretend to, but only so they can be outraged. It's ugly stuff.

  3. Welcome to the world of click-bait news headlines...

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