Consider Glenn Taylor, who’s enjoying a brief run of notoriety thanks to a video that shows him pushing over a goblin, a big flat stone balanced on a fine edge atop a skinny base, in Goblin Valley State Park in Utah. It took wind and water 20 million years to shape that formation. When Taylor wiggled it off its base and tumbled it, he crowed in triumph, high-fived his son, and flexed for the camera.
A garden-variety jerk, you might think, and not worth the attention he’s getting. But Taylor might actually matter a little bit. He might even be an exemplary figure of our time. Not because he’s a jerk, and certainly not because he is — or was — a Boy Scout leader who failed to Tread Lightly and Leave No Trace. Rather, it’s because he occupies the intersection between an ancient urge and a very up-to-date one.
The ancient urge, felt by everyone at some point in life, is an unreasoning impulse to mark your passage through the world by breaking things and knocking them over. There’s nothing special about Taylor’s spoiling on a whim a bit of nature that many people regard as beautiful, compelling, and even sacred. Children do things like that; so do drunk college students; and so, occasionally, do middle-aged fathers. I’m not saying that it in any way excuses what he did, but I can at least recognize the urge to destroy things as part of being human, even if I also recognize not giving in to that urge as part of being a grown-up human.
Now we come to the up-to-date urge, and this is the part I don’t get. Why did Taylor and his friend Dave Hall record this foolish act and then make that video available online? I can understand that they wanted attention, but how to explain the yen to self-incriminate? There’s a swiftly developing YouTube genre that features drug dealers showing off their wares, guys on parole brandishing guns, bullies beating people up, and various others who go out of their way to make evidence of their wrongdoing available to all.
Can it be that it’s so important to get the footage out there online, so inevitable that anything you do must be rendered electronic and shared in order to have truly happened at all, that if it results in your own suffering then, hey, that’s just the cost of being fully alive in the 21st century? The old-fashioned alternative — just, you know, doing stuff without posting it — is apparently too awful to contemplate. Better to circulate self-incriminating footage and risk the consequences than to let one’s actions go unvideoed and unposted. (A relevant addendum: Taylor’s goblin-toppling video puts the kibosh on his own lawsuit over a 2009 car accident, in which he claims he suffered a disabling back injury.)
There’s one more emblematic aspect of this story. Had Taylor turned to the camera and said, “Look, I just gave in to an idiotic impulse; I’m sorry,” we could cut him a little slack. Had he claimed that his judgment was impaired by obsessive rereading of Matthew 24:2 (“There shall not be left here one stone upon another”), he would at least get points for creativity. But no. In the video, after he topples the stone, he and Hall start talking in a woodenly unpersuasive approximation of legalese about having saved imaginary children from being crushed in the future by this precariously balanced rock. So far, they’ve stuck to this feeble story.
This sort of shabby lawyering recurs in the canon of self-incriminating video. Perhaps the ripest example comes courtesy of Raul Rodriguez, a Texan who objected to his neighbors’ loud party and went over to confront them with flashlight, gun, video recorder, and cellphone. Talking to the 911 operator with the video recorder running, he made a point of repeating legally pregnant phrases, like “I’m in fear for my life,” to support a future self-defense claim. Just before he started shooting, he suffered an attack of honesty that undid all the attempted lawyering. He said, “I’m not losing to these people anymore,” and then he killed his neighbor and wounded two others. He got 40 years.
As for Glenn Taylor, it would be enough to require him and Hall to put the flat stone back where it was and then stand there, holding it in place, for a few weeks until we’re sure the glue’s dry. And here’s the real punishment: don’t allow them to make a video of it.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’