Monday, June 26, 2017

Otto Warmbier: A Casualty Of Excessive Desire To Join A "Secret Society"?

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The tragic end of Univ. of Virginia student Otto Warmbier merits the maximum sympathy from all reasonable citizens.  Otto, 22. would have graduated in May had he not been taken into N. Korean custody in January.  By all accounts the kid was knock out brilliant including pursuing two majors, commerce and economics. Not exactly astrophysics, but still, any serious double major is worthy of respect.  In addition. he did an exchange at the London School of Economics. His minor was in global sustainability.  The planet definitely could have used more brains like his.

But this elicits the question of why such a brain (also salutatorian at his high school in Wyoming, Ohio) could have allowed his future to be so derailed and terminated by a brainless stunt. Did he not know the North Koreans are merciless and fetishistic about their leaders as well as their  images, to the point of worship? Don't just take my word. See via the link below how the North Koreans practically fall all over themselves in adulating their "dear leader" from a  NatGeo documentary (Inside North Korea):

So touching any images of them  far less appropriating one, would be regarded as intolerable as a Vulgarian going into a Church and urinating on a crucifix. Of course in the latter case there'd likely be few consequences other than social, but in the Hermit Kingdom there are monstrous repercussions and totally out of proportion (to Westerners) sanctions - as Otto later learned.

The U.S. media has emphasized the "sham trial" and  overbearing nature of the punishment: 15 years at hard labor,  for stealing a propaganda poster from a hotel (googling assorted videos will bring it up) but other commentators mainly from the UK, Australia,  have not been so generous. And one Univ. of Delaware prof (Kathy Dettwyler)  even went off on Warmbier,  tying him to the sort of entitled, white frat boy culture that believes it can do anything and get away with it. See e.g.

According to Dettwyler on her FB page:

"These are the same kids who cry about their grades because they didn't think they'd really have to read and study the material to get a good grade. ... His parents ultimately are to blame for his growing up thinking he could get away with whatever he wanted. Maybe in the US, where young, white, rich, clueless white males routinely get away with raping women."

Ouch!  But I suspect there is a less antagonistic explanation, that might have everything to do with the needy "joining" psychology  of too many college kids. Especially those who go ga-ga over joining social organizations like frats and even purported secret  societies on campus. Because such joining has the potential to set them apart as "special" relative to their peers. A similar dynamic was plausibly at work with Timothy Piazza, who so desperately wanted to join a UPENN frat  (Beta Theta Pi) that he trusted his life to his would be frat brothers in an alcohol hazing....and lost.

In connection with this there are two questions that fairly cry out for addressing in the Otto Warmbier case:  1) Did Warmbier take the poster as part of a 'deal' made with an organization, church or fraternal entity?  2) If so, why did he allow himself to be manipulated into such a dangerous act by these groups or group?

Well, the second question almost answers itself, given we already saw how desperately Tim Piazza at UPENN wanted to join his frat, and that wasn't even a "secret" organization.  Thus, the answer inheres in forgoing all caution in the desperate need to join to attain a kind of specialness relative to peers. It is not enough to simply be one of the vast, motley pack at a school, or even a large subset.

The top suspect  in Otto Warmbier's joining yen appears to be the UVA's "Z Society" - which like too many crypto-patriot societies (e.g. 'Skull and Bones' at Yale) seems to breed wannabe spooks in droves as well as would -be elder statesmen.. (John Kerry was a member of Skull and Bones like George Bush Sr., and Woodrow Wilson was a member of the "Z Society").  Whatever the reason, joining such secret outfits appears to feed young egos who might fancy themselves - even at age 20 or 22 - among the future Overclass or global elites.

In the case of  Z Society it's evidently been around at UVA since 1892 and if you asked most of the school's students they've never heard of it. Which is a good testament to the group's covert nature and keeping a low profile. Anyway, the word circulating in the foreign press is that young Otto had a Jones to join the group but they required just one major test of singular bravery. So  one Z-member on learning of Warmbier's side trip to North Korea via the "Young Pioneer's" tour, suggested the poster snatch.

At the secret group's suggestion, and understanding the not yet developed risk -averse regions in the brains of most 21-year olds, it is totally believable Otto would have jumped at the opportunity. For a 70-year old like me -  with major risk averse centers in the neocortex now prominent -  the immediate response to such suggestion would be: "Snatch a North Korean poster? Are you fuckin' nuts? Go to hell!"

 Again in much the same way Timothy Piazza at UPENN  would have jumped at the chance to go through an alcohol quaffing "gauntlet" to join his favorite frat . Little knowing at the time he'd end up falling 15 feet and brain- damaged at the bottom of stairs, though a risk-averse older person would have projected that outcome as a distinct possibility.. Along with the possibility that the "brothers"  might not want to involve themselves as being proactive in an accident, so would just hang around for 12 hours without lifting a finger to phone 911 for help.

There's another possibility:according to Warmbier's statement, he wanted the banner with a political slogan on it as a trophy for "a church member, who was the mother of a friend."   Elaborating, Warmbier said he was offered a used car worth $10,000 by a member of the church.

He said the church member told him the slogan would be hung on its wall as a trophy. He also said he was told that if he was detained and didn't return, $200,000 would be paid to his mother in the form of a charitable donation. Warmbier identified the church as the Friendship United Methodist Church, which is in his hometown of Wyoming, Ohio. 

There is no reason, none,  to dispute this account or believe Otto just made it all up on the spot. Shit like this you just can't make up, and after decades of parsing political BS and PR one develops a sixth sense to discriminate fact from fable.  Warmbier's testimony has the ring of truth and besides he had to know that no skewed story he blabbed would save him now.  And the kicker: Warmbier also  then related to reporters in Pyongyang that he was encouraged to do the deed by the UVA's Z Society which he admitted he was trying to join.  Again, maybe he had visions of becoming some future super star elite luminary or statesman. But that is the effect (and hold) most of these college secret "patriot" societies have on wannabe members. It's far more intoxicating than joining a regular frat for sure. 

The question remains of why he'd allow himself to be manipulated or used by either a church or secret society to commit such a reckless act, and in a dangerous rogue nation where  the protections of his home country would be next to useless. Was he not thinking? Did he not care? Or, did the future image of him as a Z Society member trump any immediate reflection (or refusal to act) geared to risk assessment?

Four years ago, UVA Magazine published a piece giving outsiders insight to the secret societies on campus. In the article, UVA's then-protocol and history officer Alexander "Sandy" Gilliam Jr. is quoted saying "nowadays the two ring societies, Z and IMP, probably represent the true undergraduate leadership of the university.  Evidently, Z prides itself on unpublicized leadership and volunteer opportunities.  Perhaps not the stuff of spookery like Skull and Bones, but replete with that exotic aura of secrecy that lures many white, college males into joining regular frats or others with "secret" rituals.

 In 2012, then student body-president Dan Morrison put it this way to UVA Magazine: "The idea that there's something interwoven beneath the surface of the University's history that makes this a better place is very appealing to a lot of students—that there's more here than meets the eye."

True, but it's always been thus. Since the year dot undergrads across the country have sought specialness in whatever venue and those societies and organizations that promoted it often have had to ration memberships.  At Loyola University, ca. 1964-65, the aura of enchantment and mystery surrounded the fraternity called "BEGGARS".  Word had it that members were preordained to become part of New Orleans' elite society - including associated with Mardi Gras Krewes. Every manjack wanted to be part of the special group but certain secret tests had to be passed. Of course, the very mystery surrounding these "tests" lent even further to the Beggars' mystique and yen for so many to be part of it.

So why not Otto Warmbier with Z Society?  In any event, some formidable impetus or compact had to have  been delivered to push him toward this reckless act. Becoming a select member of Z might well have done it. Think of the mystique surrounding it, i.e. members are allowed to reveal themselves only at graduation by wearing a ring bearing the society symbol. BUT they can never divulge any inner workings.  This harkens back to Loyola's  Beggars fraternity (the school's oldest) with members taking a solemn vow to never reveal the secret handshake. (A handshake defined by such ritualistic aspects that once given only another Beggar can recognize it.)

I still recall two Mississippi first year students across the hall (on the 6th floor of Biever Hall Dorm) insisting they had to, HAD to pledge the Beggars. And....if they didn't make it in, weren't accepted, they could as well just pack up and go back home to Jackson. It wasn't worth staying at Loyola. I'm not saying Warmbier felt the same about Z Society but he could have, explaining why he'd resort to such a risky stunt to try and prove his worth and acceptability.

Wayne Cozart, vice president for development at the UVA Alumni Association, said in a 2010 article published on the university website:

"If members of the group are asked about their membership, they must leave the room rather than answer the question (or lie), a turn of events that is quite interesting to watch," 

Wow! And yet more delicious humbug and aura added!  Again, I don't mean to belabor this but there is a certain  subset of male university student - often an under appreciated type (or who believes he is) - who eats this stuff up. He firmly believes it's his ultimate ticket to future success and the good life.  It is quite plausible Otto was amongst this set. And to get in all he needed to do was to pick off a stupid poster.  What's so hard about that? Well, everything in the cosmos to a risk conscious adult!

Consider the mind-blown look on Otto's visage as he was being processed. It showed that only then did he likely realize the full folly of his actions. Also that a frickin' membership in some stupid secret society wasn't worth what it had cost him - 15 years of his life (then).  The etchings of shocked disbelief spoke to that and also likely led him to ask how he could have possibly taken the stupid bait for a stupid act. (We can argue all day about the North Koreans' laws and punishments, but bear in mind many regimes around the world have such fierce laws, sanctions and even little Barbados can toss a tourist into jail if he's caught wearing camouflage pants.)

Again, many will blame the North Koreans for their over the top draconian laws and punishments, but as one Aussie put it who'd also gone on the Young Pioneer tours: "We knew before we got there what you could do and what you couldn't. Also to stay with the guide and not deviate from the norms set by the tour. Any questions, we'd ask."

So why didn't Warmbier ask? Well, because he had to have known it was a major infraction. Indeed, he claimed a church member even told him that if he was detained 200 grand would be donated to his parents. Even if he made this up it revealed his background knowledge of potential consequences.

The inescapable fact appears to be that Warmbier's yearning to be part of a secret group - never mind it was merely "philanthropic" - cost him his life in the end. Just as much as Timothy Piazza's yearning to be part of a UPENN frat  cost him his life when he accepted their hazing gauntlet to indiscriminately down hard liquors over a short time.

The takeaway for up and coming young college males might be to think several hundred times before accepting a challenge or hazing ritual just to get into some prized organization, secret or other. Hey, it may well work out! But as the Tim Piazza and Otto Warmbier cases prove, it may also invite disaster. Do you really want to make that bet? If you do, be sure you know what the odds are in your favor.

Footnote: Prof. Dettwyler has since been terminated in her employment at Univ. of Delaware. See e.g.

So much, again, for the much vaunted "freedom of speech" in this country.  You can exercise it, but beware of the inevitable repercussions, including losing your job.


Bill Hicks said...

"The planet definitely could have used more brains like his."

The rest of your article shows exactly why the planet does NOT need more "brains" who are hustlers and joiners looking to become part of exactly the type of elitist organizations that are slowly devouring America on behalf of the 0.01%. I find Dettwyler's comments to be insensitive on the level of the Sandy Hook deniers and think that as a college professor she has demonstrated sufficient bigotry to warrant her termination, but though I'm very sorry for Warmbeir's family I have a hard time working up much empathy for him.

Copernicus said...

To say that a guy who made a reckless decision "deserved what he got" is for sure harsh and judgmental but NOT the same as saying that 26 people slaughtered in a mass shooting didn't really die - as Alex Jones and Sandy Hook deniers have claimed,. We need to make a distinction. Also, "bigoted" speech would be directed against a historically oppressed minority group (e.g. native Americans, African -Americans etc.) What Dellwyler offered was more prejudiced speech against a culturally dominant subset that - from her (limited) universe of experience, didn't measure up. Last I checked prejudiced speech no matter how offensive to some, is still protected.