Earlier in the week, we covered the story of Morris Berger, the now-former offensive coordinator for the Grand Valley State University football team. Berger resigned after he told the student newspaper he’d like to have dinner with Hitler, and every media outlet on earth seemed to want to run that as a headline.
During some social media and listserv chatter, various people weighed in on this, including one person who asked the question that seems both fair and yet dangerous to ask:
It was a careless comment, but the coach also made it clear he didn’t favor Hitler’s motivations or goals. And unless the university found evidence that the coach actually supported Nazism, I’m having trouble seeing how this should cost him his job. An assistant coach at a Division II school tries to be honest in a run-of-the-mill interview with a student newspaper and the clumsiness of his statement draws the attention of ESPN, CBS and other national news outlets? Why? Only because the national reports could refer to his comments as the “Hitler statement” and suggest he favored the Nazi leader. So instead of having to apologize, he has to apologize and resign so he won’t be a “distraction.”
My only real answer to that question is that there are individuals out there I would call “third-rail people,” folks for whom speaking about them in any way other than as bad or evil will land you in trouble. The third rail is part of any electrical train (subway, etc.) that carries a high level of current and if you touch it, you almost always die.
I asked the Hivemind to help me put together a list of “third-rail people” as a general public service announcement for folks who might run into media outlets who ask them stuff. To make the list, the person had to be pretty universally known or at least their actions were known. For example, you might not remember John Q. Problemguy by name, but you remember “that one guy who went around lighting homeless people on fire.”
You also had to have no real strong, decent-to-semi-decent supporter group to make the list. (Several people suggested folks like Donald Trump or R. Kelly, and yet we still have people who applaud for the State of the Union address and the Ignition Remix. Thus, they sat this one out.)
So, without further ado, here is your incomplete list of people you should probably avoid telling anyone you’d like to do anything with, other than punch them in the throat:
THE NAZI BUNCH
- Adolf Hitler
- Joseph Goebbels
- Josef Mengele
- Heinrich Himmler
(Once we hit Mengele, I kind of just said “OK, enough Nazis,” for fear of taking over the entire discussion with the Third Reich. However, if you find yourself talking about anything having to do with the Nazis in any positive way, you’re probably going to be in trouble. Leave any level of analysis beyond “They were evil” to scholars who look like they’ve been buried in dusty books since they were 12.)
- Jeffrey Dahmer
- John Wayne Gacy
- Ted Bundy
- Charles Manson
- Charles Starkweather
- Dennis “BTK” Rader
- Richard “The Nightstalker” Ramirez
- Charles Whitman
People who fit the bill as insane serial killers rarely should be considered as people you’d like to know or support in a public fashion. Talking about how great Gacy was as a clown, the complex nature of Rader’s knot work or the amazing accuracy Whitman had with a rifle will only get you in trouble. Even more, if you get the “Name three historical figures with whom you’d like to eat dinner” question, understand that answering with “Jeffrey Dahmer” will almost certainly get you fired/ostracized/kicked off Match.com.
THE “BAD TOUCH” GROUP
- Brock Turner
- Harvey Weinstein
- Jerry Sandusky
- Jared “The Subway Guy” Fogle
- Jeffrey Epstein
Rape, child molestation, unwanted sexual stuff and anything along those lines will lead people to think poorly of an individual. When people become famous for such things, they tend to become “persona non grata” in the world at large, but still don’t reach the “don’t you dare say anything positive” level.
However, when Weinstein managed to get an entire movement (#metoo) rolling against him for such acts, that lands him on the third-rail list. In addition, Turner’s slap on the wrist for raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, coupled with his father’s argument that Turner’s life shouldn’t be ruined “for 20 minutes of action,” jumped up the universal hatred to a third-rail level.
Pedophiles rarely get a “but he was such a good guy” counterpoint, but people like Fogle and Sandusky, who abused multiple children over multiple years make them completely nonredeemable in any discussion of anything. Add in the fact that both men used their charities to seek and groom victims and you have darkness and evil squared. You’re not going to get very far with a “you gotta admire the will power it took to lose all that weight” or a “he was responsible for 10 All-America linebackers and many pro careers” ice breaker.
THE FOREIGN LEADER PACK
- Idi Amin
- Pol Pot
- Osama bin Laden
- Efraín Rios Montt
- Joseph Stalin
Basically, if a person’s name pulls up search terms like “genocide” or “terrorist,” keep them off the list for the dinner party.
THE “RANDOM LOTTERY OF MEANINGLESS TRAGEDY” FOLKS
- George Zimmerman
- Mary Kay LeTourneau
- Bernie Madoff
Zimmerman’s actions that led to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin were horrifying, but he kicked things up a notch with his decision to sign autographs at a gun show after his acquittal. Among the items he signed? Confederate flags and a bag of Skittles.
I had honestly forgotten about LeTourneau, the then-34-year-old school teacher who pled guilty to two counts of child rape for her affair with a 12-year-old student. She ended up marrying him and having children with him. Not like she’s coming up in everyday conversation anymore, but any even half-joke about “going the extra mile in educating students” related to her will get you run out of town on a rail. (Special thanks to my friend, Janna, who reminded me of this and managed to get one female character into this giant sausage party of misery.)
When you run the world’s largest Ponzi scheme, bankrupt the elderly and Robert DeNiro has to play you in a movie, for which there is no role for Joe Pesci, you’re probably not going to be worth talking about positively in polite company.
I’m sure we missed a few, which is why we’re calling this an incomplete list. The point here, other than this was a riff that kind of took on a life of its own, is to undercut the argument that folks in various corners of the world are making now: If Berger hadn’t spoken to the student newspaper, he would have been fine.
Thus, their answer is, “Don’t talk to the media.”
Actually, the answer should be to think better about what you’re saying before you say it. The paper wasn’t trying to get Berger in trouble, and I doubt Berger has a closet full of brown shirts he irons while he whistles “Horst Wessel Lied.” However, a confluence of an off-the-cuff brain fart coupled with a third-rail person distributed across a media channel spelled doom.
We’re hopeful this list will prevent future moments of “duh.”