I’m about to recount an almost entirely inconsequential political incident, the strange case of John F. Roth, mayor of Mahwah, a small, affluent town in northeastern New Jersey. But while the incident is almost entirely inconsequential, I’d say that precisely one feature has broad significance. Let’s see if you and I agree on what it is.
About a month ago, John F. Roth, the mayor of Mahwah, went to a party at the home of a Mahwah Township employee. You’re not going to believe this, but alcohol was served at this party. Yes, alcohol. And–hold on to your hats here–but Roth actually consumed some of this alcohol. I wouldn’t lie about something like this. Having done so, he managed to get drunk. He must have realized that he was drunk, because instead of driving home–like a normal person–he decided to walk into a bedroom or guestroom of the house, take off his pants, and fall asleep on a bed. He was later discovered pants-less in that very bed. A call was placed to his wife, who arrived to retrieve him. Retrieved, I gather that he went home to sleep it off, very possibly pants-less, in his own bed.
Such is the fact pattern of the case before us. Let us proceed now to analysis.
I have to confess to a certain debility in discussing this incident inasmuch as: I don’t drink alcohol. So it could be that I’m missing something essential to the story, something known only to those who do drink. But on the face of it, this strikes me as an embarrassing but otherwise morally and politically inconsequential happening.
Let’s look on the bright side. For one thing, Roth didn’t make the mistake of drinking and driving–an act that one philosopher has likened to playing Russian roulette with a car. For another, he didn’t break anything. For a third, he didn’t throw up all over the bedspread. In this respect, he did better than a lot of drunk people, and a lot better than the average undergraduate. Low but solid ground.
On the negative side, and there is one, he did take off his pants and fall asleep uninvited in somebody’s bed. In all likelihood, the bed probably had to be remade as a result. And worst of all, he embarrassed and inconvenienced his wife. Not a “good look,” as they say. Embarrassing, yes. Conduct unbecoming of the mayor of a New Jersey town? Possibly. But surely weak tea by the standards of the median drunk person.
OK. Now let’s take a look at how the upright people of Mahwah, New Jersey reacted to this event. From the newspaper account I linked to above:
Word of the incident spread through town hall when an anonymous letter, addressed to Roth, was delivered Jan. 27 to department heads and council members detailing the incident and alleging a hostile work place. Roth said the letter caused “embarrassment and hurt that is beyond description” for his family.
“It also brought embarrassment on the township, its employees and the town council causing unnecessary and unneeded distraction from the positive work we’ve been doing together,” Roth said.
In addition to the letter, Roth said, “several anonymous calls were made to the township alleging additional serious wrongdoings, including inappropriate touching of a female employee at the party.”
Pause a minute and take that in. We’ve gone, in the blink of an eye, from drunk guy in bed to possible sexual assault. It sounds pretty serious. In fact, it sounds like battery. If the accused is to be believed–and why not?–we need to get the cops at Roth’s address, brandishing a warrant, busting down the door and…
A personnel investigation was immediately launched, conducted by Labor Attorney Raymond Wiss, for which employees were interviewed. A report detailing the investigation’s findings was delivered to the Township Business Administrator Quentin Wiest earlier this week.
That report is not a public document, according to Township Attorney Brian Campion.
Although, Roth said the investigation cleared him of wrongdoing.
“The findings of the investigation, as explained to me, were that no crimes had been committed, no laws were broken, no assault or inappropriate touching occurred, no property was damaged and no complaints have been filed with the township by any party,” Roth said. “While, I’m relieved to learn the findings, as mayor, I acknowledge that my actions that evening were wrong. They reflected poor judgement … and put my host and the employees attending in an uncomfortable position.”
OK, forget the warrant. And maybe leave the door alone. False alarm! Holster your weapons! Hold your fire!
I forgot: I’m supposed to be giving you a legal case analysis. So let’s see: a drunk guy falls asleep in a bed in his host’s house with his pants off. Naturally, this gives rise to a whispering campaign alleging sexual misconduct–exactly the kind of accusation that doesn’t show up in statistics of false accusation, by the way, because not only were the police not called, but the legal document discussing the matter is proprietary. What sounds like a police matter is handled by a labor attorney. A “report” is written up, but unlike, say, a police incident report, the public is not allowed to read it, leaving the accused to summarize it instead. Yeah, that totally makes sense.
A guy who obviously can’t play the guitar to save his life, but may well be a viable candidate for law school. Though I can’t vouch for his sobriety, no laws were broken in making this video.
Because the accused is an interested party, people are left to infer that he’s misrepresenting the document in his own favor. Because they can’t read it, the document becomes a Rorschach blot on which any crackpot can confabulate his own pet theory. The document (apparently) clears Roth of legally actionable wrongdoing, but through crack detective work–and undoubtedly, sky-high legal fees–one indubitable finding emerges: viz., that it reflects poor judgment to get drunk, take off your pants, and fall asleep in someone else’s house. Who knew?
That’s all kind of messed up, but it’s not really the “broader implication” I had in mind. So far, what I’ve described is just the standard-issue shenanigans of the legal profession: inflate a non-incident into something that seems serious enough to get the labor lawyers involved, then turn the meter on and collect. Characteristically, nothing as crass as legal fees makes its way into news stories about this incident. It’s as though if anything untoward is involved, it’s got to be sexual.
The broader issue I have in mind isn’t sexual. It involves a completely different dimension of this case.
The report recommended that the mayor get immediate counseling on township policies and anti-discrimination laws and seek an evaluation regarding alcohol consumption and the impact it might have on his behavior. The council does not have the authority to force Roth to listen to those recommendations, Campion said.
“Immediate counseling.” That’s funny. I thought that the vaunted labor lawyer’s report found that Roth hadn’t violated any policies. So what’s the point of counseling someone on policies he didn’t violate?
But hey–let’s not be so nitpicky. After all, it’s Roth who said that no policies were violated. What if some had been violated? What if Roth is misrepresenting this report we can’t read?
I guess that leads to a different question: what’s the point in counseling someone on township policies and anti-discrimination laws? No one is alleging that Roth is illiterate, after all. And no one is alleging that he doesn’t understand the wrongness of his action. Honestly, as a counselor in training myself, I don’t really see the connection between what Roth did and discrimination. My outsider’s understanding is that intoxication diminishes the capacity for discrimination. But what do I know? Maybe I need counseling.
I have more than a passing interest in substance abuse counseling, by the way, so I was arrested, so to speak, by the recommendation that Roth seek an evaluation regarding alcohol consumption. To my knowledge, DSM-5 has so far not been updated to suggest that a single incident of drunkenness requires substance abuse counseling. Neither by the way, does it suggest that labor lawyers have the slightest bit of expertise in deciding when such counseling is indicated. But again, I disclaim any great expertise on this subject. It could be that I need to do a couple of shots and take my pants off before I really get it. Because I’m completely sober right now with my pants on, and I don’t.
The real issue here is not that some mayor got drunk and took his pants off in somebody’s house. It’s that when a mayor gets drunk and takes his pants off in someone’s house, everyone thinks it natural to call in the labor lawyers, who in turn think it natural to make referrals to psychological counselors. What it is that the counselors are supposed to do is anyone’s guess. Why this is a matter for psychological counseling at all: also obscure. What expertise labor lawyers have in determining when psychological counseling is indicated: total mystery. As for the explanation for why counselors would prostitute themselves in this way for labor lawyers? Priceless. It’s called “an endless revenue stream.” Also known as rent seeking.
The irony of this whole episode is that the incident shows nearly the opposite of what it’s widely been taken to show. At first, superficial glance, the lesson seems to be that John Roth is an irresponsible man and terrible mayor. At second glance, however, the deeper lesson is one about the legal profession’s dysfunctional relationship with the counseling profession.
The dynamic seems to work as follows: Some inconsequential event happens. People decide that it’s in fact a deeply consequential event. The lawyers whiz in, making mountains out of molehills, and charging appropriately mountainous fees; having done so, they refer these mountains over to counselors, in the hopes that the counselors will, under the majesty of the law, turn them back into the molehills they always were. Incredibly enough, the mountains-that-were-always-molehills-to-begin-with conveniently become the molehills-that-were-never-mountains-in-the-first-place. Amazing what the mental health sciences can do nowadays.
It’s a neat conjuring trick: two sets of “professionals” get paid to do a whole lot of nothing while pointing their scolding fingers at a whole lot of nothing. They then make out like bandits, at our expense. If we were a less idiotically moralistic and more skeptical society, we’d see right through the charade. It is, I’d say, about as obvious as a drunk guy with his pants down. Well, obvious to some at any rate. Clearly not obvious to the people distracted by other things–like the drunk guy with his pants down.