The case of Ryan Lochte has reminded me of an old children’s book that I used to read growing up. So did the case of Brock Turner. Actually most cases remind me of this book. It was a little on the didactic side, but, well, what children’s book is not? With apologies to Shel Silverstein.
Once there was a Privilege Tree and it loved a little boy.
And the boy played under the shade of its thick canopy, and the tree protected him.
One day the boy was hungry. “Tree,” said the boy, “I am hungry.”
“I know what to do,” the tree said. “Go to the corner store and steal some candy and run back here to me.”
And the boy did. He filled his pockets with candy and ran back to the tree as quickly as he could. The man who owned the store chased after him, but when he saw the boy beneath his tree he shrugged and said, “Boys will be boys.” And there were no consequences, and the tree protected him, and the theft did not go on his permanent record. (For, after all, he was just a boy.)
The boy grew older. “Tree,” said the boy one day, “I am bored.”
“I know what to do,” the tree said. “Pluck one of my branches and carve it into a toy gun and wave it around. That will amuse you.”
And the boy did. And the tree sheltered him under its thick leafy canopy of privilege and everyone who saw him shrugged and said, “Boys will be boys.” And there were no consequences, and the tree protected him, and no one even thought to telephone the police. (For, after all, he was just a boy.)
And the boy grew older still. “Tree,” said the boy, “I must leave for college soon, but I am bored.”
“I have an idea,” said the tree. “Pluck my fruit and ferment it and drink its juices.” And the boy did, and while he was under the influence of this fermented fruit he did something terrible.
He ran to the tree. “Oh no,” the boy said, “what have I done? Do you hear what she is accusing me of? I will surely have to face consequences now.”
“Nonsense,” the tree said, ruffling his hair with its leaves. And from its thick canopy of privilege the tree produced a lawyer and a big pile of paperwork to discredit the boy’s accuser and point out what a shame it would be for the world if the boy’s promising athletic career were to be derailed in any way.
And the judge in the case saw the boy sitting under his tree and shrugged, “Boys will be boys.” (For the judge himself had once been a boy with a Stanford tree of his own.) And there were no consequences, and the tree protected him.
And the boy played beneath the tree and had all kinds of glorious adventures. He rolled up the leaves of the tree and put funny things in them and smoked them, and he drove his car twenty miles above the speed limit, and as long as he took shelter beneath the tree, everyone shrugged and said, “Boys will be boys.” And there were no consequences, for the tree protected him.
“What a wonderful world this is!” the boy cried. “How wonderful I am!” He tore off several of the tree’s leaves and began to write a novel, which was very well received.
And the boy grew older and taller still. He went away to a far-away land and made merry and urinated in a gas station and tried to claim that he had been robbed at gunpoint.
And the boy ran for his tree as fast as he could, but its thick canopy was very far away and without the shelter of the tree everyone could see that he was not a boy but a 32 year-old man and they wondered why they had allowed things to go on for so long.
But when he reached the shade of the big tree he looked so small and pitiful that they shrugged and said, “Boys will be boys.” They apologized to him, and there were no consequences, and the tree protected him.
And many years passed and the boy committed a white-collar crime. And the tree was still there, although it was beginning to rot from within and several people with sharp axes had come and stared at it in a dubious manner. “Boys will be boys,” the tree whispered, “and besides the details of this crime are quite boring and technical.” And the boy faced no consequences — or very few.
And the boy grew very old and so did the tree. One day the boy heard his tree creaking in the wind.
“What is the matter, tree?” the boy asked. “Are you all right?”
“No,” the tree said, and shivered. “I am not. Trees like me should be for children, not grown men. Look.” And the tree pointed, and the boy saw for the first time that there were not many trees like his still standing. “I ought to have been cut down long ago.”
“Cut down?” the boy asked, and for the first time in his life the boy was frightened. “But then what will happen to me if I do something wrong?”
The tree shrugged. “The same thing that happens to everyone else,” it said. And the tree groaned and fell.
And the boy saw that the world was not quite so wonderful when you could not shelter anywhere better than a Reasonable Doubt Shrub (which is nice, but nothing like a Privilege Tree). And the boy saw that it was not he who was wonderful, but his tree, which had protected him for so long, without his realizing it. And the boy, at last, grew up.