Brett Kavanaugh: Through A Shotglass Darkly 2

UPDATE 2 In Part 1, I began exploring the issues raised by the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. I keep writing on these issues in the hope of finding the right tone, persuading those with an open mind how we can make progress, so that women are satisfied their voices are being heard and changes being made, and men are satisfied they’re not being unfairly targeted. No one in either camp has asked me to be a negotiator, but as an essayist I’m free to offer suggestions and look for things we can all agree on.

The idea strikes me with some force that women could spread the word among themselves, and help to educate the next generation, that if you’re sexually assaulted you need to report it promptly to the proper authorities, such as the police or a rape crisis center. You need to be interviewed immediately.

There may be many reasons why women don’t report sexual assault, or wait years to do so, and even then don’t report it to a body having some legal authority to act, but rather to the media (including social media) or to a partisan political figure. But such failure to report in timely fashion or to the proper authorities poses serious problems for the complainant, for the accused, for investigators, and for society at large.

Sexual assault is a serious crime. The main way to ensure that it is taken seriously is to report it promptly to the appropriate authorities. However difficult this may be, it’s one way to make a major dent in the incidence of such crime — a way that most people (both women and men) can agree upon, because it’s consistent with principles of fairness and due process.

There’s a lot of shoddy thinking coming from extreme camps on both sides — that is, from man-haters among women and woman-haters among men. Solutions will be found mainly by people in the middle — by women and men who love and respect each other, who share a sense of outrage at sexual violence, and who want to see a society where women and girls feel safe from such violence.

The very existence of sexual violence is something which drives a wedge between men and women, causing them to retreat into their separate camps. So, lessening actual (undisputed) incidents of sexual violence should be a major goal. Obviously, for men this means not engaging in sexual violence! For women, it means making use of social control mechanisms meant to curb sexual violence, (again) through prompt reporting.

This is not to suggest that the available mechanisms are perfect. They are not. Still, many police departments have revised their procedures so that a woman with a sexual assault complaint can speak to a female officer who has training in this field, and will treat the complainant with sensitivity.

Sexual assault is not pleasant, and neither is speaking about it with strangers; but filing complaints and seeing the process through is one sure-fire way to reduce the incidence of sexual assault. If women who are victims of sexual assault make a point of reporting it promptly, those men who still haven’t gotten the message that sexual assault is wrong and illegal will find themselves being prosecuted for it. This will send a strong message of deterrence.

At the same time that women need to up the statistics for reporting clear incidents of sexual assault, I think they also need to be very clear about what isn’t sexual assault. Bad dates are not sexual assault. Clumsy (but utterly nonviolent) attempts at courtship are not sexual assault. Consensual sex about which you later feel regret or have recriminations is not sexual assault, even if decades later you feel you’re a completely different person who would not consent today, and should not have consented at the time.

There are gray areas having to do with relationship dynamics, the consensual use of drugs and alcohol, and parties at which both men and women know in advance what type of activities to expect. But my main point here is that there are many clear instances of sexual assault which go unreported. Focusing on creating a culture where women and girls know they need to report such instances promptly is a positive step we can all agree on.

There’s a backlash against certain excesses of #MeToo. This backlash is felt by people who value rationality and due process, and don’t feel that everything can be upended on the basis of the raw emotion of the moment, and the demands which raw emotion makes.

Some women have implied that names, dates and places don’t matter, only the feeling that abuse happened. In what sense is this true or not true? It may be true emotionally, but it’s obviously not true legally. That’s why one of the best things we can do is encourage women to file complaints promptly so that they’re interviewed by someone who will get names, dates and places which can be used as evidence in a court of law.

Why is this important? There’s an underlying problem in society of sexual abuse of women and girls. But there are also cycles in which this problem escalates into a moral panic, with frantic finger-pointing and abandonment of due process. The periods of moral panic lead to backlash and are actually counterproductive to the larger goal of ending sexual abuse. So are false reports, which do happen.

To understand these issues we need to study their history, at a minimum going back to the 1990s and the whole repressed memory movement. This was spawned in part by books like Courage To Heal, which said in essence that if you feel abused or have certain psychological symptoms, then you probably were abused. You have to rifle through your past, locate an abuser, and ultimately name and confront him. This psychological fad led to a high incidence of false claims based on feelings rather than facts. “Abuse survivor” became a ready-made identity with its own culture, support system, and a sign on the door saying Join us, sister!

People who lived through that era understand the dangers of moral panics and psychological fads. People who temper emotion with intellect recognize the parallels between the current period and that period in the 90s when it became a social, political, and therapeutic necessity to “come out” as an “abuse survivor.” To respawn that era will not be of genuine benefit to women.

We can help curb sexual assault by making sure women and girls know they need to report it promptly to police and provide details. Unfortunately, Christine Blasey Ford is a polarizing figure because her type of claim is one which many people find troubling. It conforms to a particular M.O. where there’s an above average incidence of false, inflated, or confabulated claims — sometimes sincerely conveyed, but still inaccurate. Factors which can make claims of sexual assault appear less credible include:

– Not reported until years after the alleged event.

– Never reported to police, but only to the media or to a partisan political figure in connection with advocacy on a hot-button issue.

– Place/date/time absent from report.

– No corroboration.

– Therapists and/or attorneys involved in shaping client’s account of past events.

It may be statistically true that some women who are genuine victims of sexual assault don’t report it until years later. Unfortunately, this tends to create a non-falsifiable proposition. In addition, the long delay makes it difficult to gather evidence and arrive at a true reckoning.

Some advocacy groups and media personalities are making the emotional demand that complaints which are problematic for the above reasons must be believed unquestioningly. This is an example of overreaching, and leads to backlash. Sadly, there are plenty of provable examples of sexual assault which are reported contemporaneously, with checkable details and no obvious political overtones. These make a much better rallying cry for activists than Christine Blasey Ford’s more problematic account.

At the time of the UVA rape hoax which was published (and later retracted) by Rolling Stone, I remember reading a message from a father who loved his daughters very much. He felt he needed to explain to them that just because you feel something doesn’t make it true. Feelings are important, but they’re not true north indicators. If daily life tends to trivialize our feelings, therapy culture can sometimes go to the opposite extreme, placing feelings on a pedestal. There needs to be a good balance between emotion and rationality.

Placing one’s feelings on a pedestal or assuming they are paramount in any situation is not always a sign of emotional health. It can be a sign of immaturity, narcissism, and self-indulgence. Not all therapy is good therapy. In some types of bad therapy, clients are conditioned to obsess on feelings, rather than handle the natural ebb and flow of feelings in a mature way, and temper feelings with facts and intellect. The combination of survivor-oriented therapy with victim-oriented politics can make for a witches’ brew.

I certainly don’t mean to come on like Joe Rational here. I can see the weaknesses of excessive rationalism. Back in the 1960s, U.S. foreign policy “experts” sat around smoking pipes, asking each other “How much napalm should we order this week? How many Vietnamese villages filled with women and children do we want to incinerate?” This was based on a “logical” foreign policy doctrine called the “domino theory.” There was no empathy for the living, breathing human beings who were being targeted. The same might be said of the Trump administration’s family separation policies, which are a “logical” way to discourage people from crossing the border, but are cruel and inhumane. (What’s next, strafing them with Agent Orange?)

Excessive rationality can excuse grave injustice happening right under its nose. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, this includes the harassment of religious and spiritual minorities by so-called “deprogrammers” and “exit counselors” who likewise feel a false sense of entitlement to impose their (largely secular) world view on populations with whom they disagree. There is some overlap here, because various types of operatives with a social, political, or personal agenda tend to use atrocity stories as an emotional fulcrum to leverage their objectives. But where the atrocity stories are false, atypical, or delivered in a demagogic manner, we should rightly cry foul.

To sum up: An objective which reasonable men and women can agree upon is to reduce incidents of sexual assault by encouraging prompt reporting, followed by thorough investigation of timely claims. That’s not the only thing which can be done, but it’s a high percentage move. By cooperating on that, we could forge alliances which would eventually make it easier to tackle thornier issues.

The nature of our world is that people often have to fight for their rights — to organize and make demands. The demands of Dr. Martin Luther King’s movement, based on Gandhian non-violence, were eminently reasonable: the right to vote, and equal access to education. It’s so important when going up against a “system” which can be unfair and unreasonable not to mirror that unfairness and unreasonableness. An end to sexual violence against women and girls is an absolutely reasonable demand and something worth fighting for. But I don’t think it can be accomplished by upending the justice system to the point where accusation equals guilt. To quote Cathy Young from a Slate.com article written at the time of the UVA rape hoax:

Rape is a repugnant crime — and one for which the evidence often relies on one person’s word against another’s. Moreover, in the not-so-distant past, the belief that women routinely make up rape charges often led to appalling treatment of victims. However, in challenging what author and law professor Susan Estrich has called “the myth of the lying woman,” feminists have been creating their own counter-myth: that of the woman who never lies.

A de facto presumption of guilt in alleged sexual offenses is as dangerous as a presumption of guilt in any crime, and for the same reasons: It upends the foundations on which our system of justice rests and creates a risk of ruining innocent lives.

Our focus on getting justice for women who are sexually assaulted is necessary and right. We are still far from the day when every woman who makes a rape accusation gets a proper police investigation and a fair hearing. But seeking justice for female victims should make us more sensitive, not less, to justice for unfairly accused men. In practical terms, that means finding ways to show support for victims of sexual violence without equating accusation and guilt, and recognizing that the wrongly accused are real victims too.

— Cathy Young

As for the Kavanaugh nomination itself, I’m very disappointed he seems to have squeaked through. There was enough to disqualify him without the sexual allegations, and in retrospect it may be that the Democrats erred by focusing on those allegations, which came to dominate the hearings.

When Mitch McConnell flatly refused to give Barack Obama’s eminently reasonable Supreme Court pick Merrick Garland so much as a hearing, this took politicization of the Court to a new level. It was perhaps inevitable that a later Republican pick would run into a political buzz saw powered by the injustice of the Garland snub. The Republicans also erred by presenting Kavanaugh as an abstinent choir boy.

The lesson for Democrats is to continue to work toward a more just, compassionate, and inclusive society, while not pandering to victim feminism, identity politics, and not practicing the politics of personal destruction.

The lesson for the Trump administration? Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Breaking: Run on chemical mace at Supreme Court gift shop. RBG buys five cans…

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Brett Kavanaugh: Through A Shotglass Darkly

I’ve been tempted to weigh in on the Brett Kavanaugh spectacle, but have largely restrained myself, being content to revisit my previous postings on essentially the same issues. In the present tribal atmosphere, it can be difficult to speak a word of sense on these issues and not be pumelled by one side or another.

I am not a conservative and am not responsible for what conservatives say — so their (often woman-hating) rants don’t interest me much as a point of rebuttal. I am a liberal (though not a knee-jerk one), so I find myself more incensed at what my fellow liberals say when it’s not informed by careful analysis and amounts to little more than pandering or meme proliferation.

To state what should be obvious, there’s a massive political overlay to the human drama between Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and accuser Christine Blasey Ford. The fact that it’s become a political dogfight further complicates an already complicated matter: namely, how to deal with an incident which allegedly took place 36 years ago?

The more hysterical the atmosphere becomes, the more cool, detached, and even non-empathetic I become, as if recoiling from the shout-my-rape-story-in-an-elevator mentality which seems to have taken over.

In a society, a marriage, or even the individual human psyche, there is perhaps an ideal balance between reason and emotion. I am pro feminist, and support the goal of creating a society where women have equal opportunity, equal rights, equal choice, and can thrive and prosper in whatever roles they choose for themselves. I would even agree that tempering rationalism with more feminine emotion can be a good thing. Rationalism often explains away injustice, while emotion feels it and responds to it in a dynamic way. That is very good! We need a more compassionate society where we identify with each other’s pain, and respond to it with caring.

I was very moved by Rachel Maddow’s spontaneous response to incoming reports about the Trump administration’s family separation policies, which I also oppose. Props to Rachel for being a thinking, feeling, caring human being!

That being said, I can see the downside of emotionalism when taken to greater extremes, to the point where it threatens to overthrow reason. Emotions can be choreographed and orchestrated, raised to fever pitch and used to justify wholesale attacks on individuals and groups. That’s what happens in a moral panic.

Having seen moral panics before and having studied them, I tend to stand back from the fray and stubbornly refuse to endorse political slogans like “believe the women.” I think “believe the women” is as unworthy a slogan as “believe the men,” “believe the transgender people, “believe the Albanians,” “believe the Rastafarians,” or “believe the Evangelicals.” As human beings, we are simply not that trustworthy. Membership in a certain demographic fails to remedy this problem.

During a moral panic, partisans employ so-called “atrocity stories” to construct a political narrative which seems to justify their policies or actions. Take the case of Donald Trump and his VOICE program, which (I kid you not) stands for Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement. (For a satirical look at the VOICE acronym, see here.)

Statistics suggest that immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born Americans. But in creating VOICE as a platform for highlighting atrocity stories concerning immigrant crime as told by “survivors,” Trump is trying to manipulate the emotions of the public, to the point where they’ll support his often irrational and draconian policies targeting immigrants. This includes kidnapping immigrant children and whisking them off to remote locations in the dead of night. (See CNN video.)

Trump’s use of VOICE constitutes base demagoguery, and bears the fallacy of seeking to define a phenomenon solely through anecdotes which are not representative and don’t lead to sound public policy. Unfortunately, the left does this also.

“I’m a rape victim, so Christine Blasey Ford MUST be telling the truth!” is a cry heard often, or at least a variation on it: “Such-and-such victims’ rights group says that x percentage of women are victims of sexual assault, therefore Christine Blasey Ford MUST be one of them!”

Our justice system stinks, but at least during a trial some effort is made to avoid these particular fallacies and stick to the facts of the case, not blur the facts by bringing in someone else’s experience which is understandably meaningful to them, but has no bearing on the instant matter. If trying a defendant for an alleged street mugging, a prosecutor is not allowed call witnesses who were victims of other unrelated street muggings, just to work the jury into an emotional lather where they’re more likely to convict.

Identity politics is a problem on the left, as is its close cousin: presumed victimhood. Yes, racism exists, sexism exists, homophobia exists, religious intolerance exists. These are real problems, but so is a victim mentality and all the baggage (both political and psychological) which gets dragged in with it. We on the left need the courage to cry b.s. whenever people retreat into victim mode when challenged on the accuracy of their accounts or the clarity of their thinking. (The politically correct response is that when asking alleged victims to speak accurately and think clearly, we are “revictimizing” them.)

The rise of victimhood as an identity choice or by-product of bad therapy has led to the acceptance of a host of memes which excuse or even glorify the would-be victim. This flies in the face of the oft-repeated platitude that women who “come forward” have “everything to lose and nothing to gain.” In truth, they walk into a ready-made identity with numerous rewards, including attention, sympathy, and even monetary rewards down the line. In some nether regions of the vast feminist universe (which I generally support) victim feminism remains the rage, and “coming out” as an “abuse survivor” is more or less de rigueur in those circles — how you get your ticket punched.

It’s politically taboo to talk about this, but we’ve all met people who are constantly in victim mode, and show not the least interest in putting negative experiences behind them. Indeed, this is the symptom pattern for people who have been exposed to a certain type of bad therapy (hopefully rare). In this type of therapy, people are persuaded to focus obsessively on an incident from their past, to bring it into the present, and to turn it into their entire raison d’être for being, their all-consuming passion.

I’m embarrassed to say this because it’s so politically incorrect, but I admit that when listening to Christine Blasey Ford testify, my first reaction was “Here is someone who’s operating 100% in victim mode, and has been doing so for many years.” Is this a result of bad therapy? The kind of therapy which fails to help the client live joyfully in the present, but instead keeps them reliving (and obsessing over) an incident from their past?

I have no idea what happened 36 years ago. Dr. Ford’s story could be, quite simply, the truth. Brett Kavanaugh may have sexually assaulted her. Or he may not have. Or the truth may lie somewhere in the uncomfortable gray zone whose boundaries we are still actively negotiating, having to do with what goes on at teen drinking parties, and what participants of both genders expect from the experience going in.

Sexual assault is NEVER okay, even at a teenage drinking party. It’s a crime. Waiting 36 years to report an alleged instance of sexual assault is not a crime, but it is ethically questionable, especially when the first report to anything resembling a judicatory body comes on the eve of a political dogfight, and is sprung (to mix animal metaphors) like a rabbit out of a hat. No politics involved? Really?

The memes surrounding victimhood create what’s called a non-falsifiable proposition. Victims of sexual assault supposedly don’t report it. Non-victims of sexual assault also don’t report it. But if someone doesn’t report it for 36 years, that’s somehow interpreted as corroborating evidence, because that’s said to be what victims do. A little crazy, no?

Speaking of corroboration, hearsay is not corroboration! Suppose, for the sake of argument, that I make a false claim. If I make that false claim to ten people, those ten people do not corroborate the underlying claim. They only confirm that at some point in time, I began making that claim. This says little about the truth or falsity of the claim itself.

The Kavanaugh confirmation fight raises many troubling issues. The only easy answers come from demagogues on both the left and right. I don’t support his confirmation, but then I never did. His conservative views and prior judicial decisions were enough to disqualify him in my mind. And now, since his eccentric performance on September 27, he may also be considered unsuitable by reason of temperament, having appeared alternatively mawkish or rude and belligerent to questioners.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Al Franken and Democratic Remorse

Some democrats are lamenting the ouster of Al Franken and what it portends for the future. Is Mika Brzezinski the face of democratic conscience? Can feminism be fair and evenhanded?

Like democracy, feminism is a word which can mean so many different things to different people. Whose idea of democracy, and established by what means? Likewise, whose idea of feminism?

To some, feminism means equality for women, equal respect for women, equal opportunity for women, equal pay for women, equal choice for women, equal justice for women, and fully valuing women in whatever roles they choose to play. In this version of feminism, men are also winners, because (to whatever extent men’s interests enter into it) men then have mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, doctors, lawyers, colleagues, friends, and partners who are fully living their potential — happier, more fulfilled, and therefore also more able to give to others in every field of endeavor. Looked at in this way, even selfish men have a selfish interest in seeing feminist ideals succeed.

As for less selfish men, I think they embrace this ideal of feminism because deep down they know they can’t be happy unless women are also happy; they know they can’t be happy if any segment of our society is intentionally held back, disadvantaged, or devalued. Some men are (believe it or not) capable of great empathy, and are truly with women and for women in their struggles for equality.

Nevertheless, every difference between groups of people has the potential to divide them and devolve into tribalism. Because (like democracy) feminism is such a vast concept, there are versions of that concept which are less enlightened, and which don’t lead to peaceful coexistence, mutual respect, or shared love and trust between women and men. Some feminism is highly tribal and represents more of a naked power grab than an effort to achieve harmony through equality.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but some extreme feminism says, “You had the power; now we’re taking back the power by any means we can, and we’re going to make you suffer. You’re scared? We want you to be scared.” And as Bari Weiss implied in a New York Times opinion piece, some feminism ascribes to every woman everywhere an absolute unqualifed Truthfulness which (realistically) doesn’t apply to human beings in general, regardless of gender.

Some years ago when serving on a trial jury, I recall how we were all instructed that police, however heroically they may be portrayed in police procedurals, are just human beings like the rest of us. They sometimes lie, and are sometimes motivated by base instincts like greed and hatred.

There is much wrong with our justice system, and our jails are hell-holes. But at least the ideal of justice embodied by our adversarial system is that anyone accused is innocent until proven guilty, that a jury should be a trier of fact, that there should be due process, that the defendant should be fairly represented in the proceedings, and that the jury should not reach a verdict based on prejudice, but on the specifics of the case before it.

If any prosecutor or defense attorney tried to instruct the jury that their moral or legal duty was simply to “believe the women” (just because they are women), they would probably (and rightfully) be admonished by the court.

The demand by women for equality and justice is absolutely right and righteous. But it sails past the target when it demands that women as a tribe or as a gender should have a unique right not granted to any other tribe or gender that whatever they say must be believed — must be accorded unqualifed and unquestioning belief — simply because they are women. Pressing this view (as many are now doing) does result in backlash, because it’s an example of overreaching. It threatens notions of fairness basic to our democracy, and when put into practice, leads to gross injustices to men.

I would think the goal of enlightened feminism is not to turn the tables and create a system which favours women over men, but to create a system which is equally fair to both men and women. I would think the goal of enlightened feminism is not to exacerbate the so-called “war between the sexes,” but to find a way to lasting peace and understanding.

There’s also a very practical point to be made about backlash, which allows me to segue into a video clip from Morning Joe where Mika Brzezinski expresses concern about the manner in which Al Franken was dispatched by his senate colleagues, and what this could portend for women. Going to break (though not shown in the clip), Mika quips: “If I claim that somebody grabbed my butt, could I get him fired right now? Is that the reality?” No evidence or hearing required, was her implication. And I sensed her further implication was that this might lead to fewer women being hired, because they would be viewed as too much of a liability.

The clip is a mixed bag due to the dynamics, with Joe Scarborough interrupting Mika Brzezinski (nothing new there!) to make acerbic comments about some viewers who’ve apparently been hectoring (or even threatening) the two of them.

I don’t have all the answers, but Mika Brzezinski’s view, tempered by conscience, is one which I admire. I’ve seen similar concerns expressed by progressive women who are also mothers of sons, and whose identification with their sons leads them to feel that men are not an opposing tribe, and should not be assumed to be villains. These women are feminists, but they’re also wise enough to know that in any dispute between a man and a woman, gender is no guarantee of truthfulness, and taking sides based solely on gender does not result in any true and lasting benefit for women, but is rather a form of prejudice.

In other posts, I’ve touched upon the concept of a moral panic (here and here). Without revisiting all that, let me clarify that just because something has risen to the level of a moral panic doesn’t mean there is no underlying problem. Sexual abuse of women and girls is a serious problem in society. But when that problem is raised to the level of a moral panic in the media (with accompanying frantic fingerpointing and search for scapegoats), does this help or hinder the ability to make progress on the underlying issue?

I would argue that a moral panic tends to hinder. For one thing, it takes a great deal of psychic energy to sustain a moral panic, so they tend to burn themselves out after awhile. In the aftermath, people may end up being less sensitized to the underlying problem than they were before. This is because during a moral panic a problem is presented dramatically as an immediate and dire threat which will engulf society unless drastic measures are taken. There are communists hiding under every bed, satanists at every preschool, or every congressman is a sexual abuser. This overstatement of the problem leads to harmful overreactions in which some innocent people’s lives are ruined. This in turn leads to remorse, reevaluation, and a recognition that the problem was less severe and the danger less immediate than was claimed by the government, the media, or whoever spurred the moral panic in the first place.

To really put an end to sexual abuse will require gradual changes in society. Overheated rhetoric, frantic fingerpointing, inflated claims, and suspension of due process are counterproductive over time, leading to backlash and reduced sensitivity to the underlying problem (which is a real problem).

Given that feminism is a vast concept, perhaps there exists political feminism, humanistic feminism, even spiritual feminism. In political feminism, individual human beings are sometimes seen as expendable if this advances political objectives. Thus, in the video clip Susan Del Percio refers to Al Franken as “collateral damage.” This is why I tend to prefer spiritual feminism.

I’m sure the last thing most women want is for me to “mansplain” them feminism; but as I’ve written a few posts about the Al Franken matter, I wanted to try and tie things together in this post, which represents my evolving understanding.

Potent quote: “Trust me, Kirsten Gillibrand I want you to run for president, but you gotta keep it real.” –Mika Brzezinski (My translation: Don’t be a headhunter!)

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Al Franken, Sexual McCarthyism, and Moral Panics

More on the Al Franken/Leeaan Tweeden blowup, plus film & TV clips exploring moral panics and McCarthyism from different angles.

About ten days ago, Huffington Post contributor David Fagin penned a searing screed decrying the alleged framing of Al Franken by Trump supporters. It seems to have gotten pulled by Fagin or HuffPo. It was pretty over-the-top (perhaps written in haste or anger), but Fagin made some good points about the propagandistic nature of Tweeden’s attack on Franken:

Then, there is the way [Tweeden’s] piece is constructed. Anyone else find it a bit odd she mentions her father, Vietnam, her husband, the Air Force, the troops in the Middle East, and 9/11, all in the first paragraph? If one didn’t know better, one would think she was going for the easy sympathy play and using the military service of her father and husband, as well as the rest of the armed forces overseas, to further ingratiate herself to the reader. Almost like a calling card to other right-wing MAGA’s out there. “My father, brother, husband, cousin, neighbor’s nephew’s dog, and piano teacher’s great grandson are all in the military, so that means you should believe me no matter what.”

Al Franken allegedly kissing a woman during a rehearsal of a skit ten years ago is exactly what Congress should be using tax payer dollars to investigate at this moment in time.

There’s another dimension to the optics here. Leeann Tweeden is a sort of Miss America type. Al Franken is a sort of Woody Allen type. So I thought of this clip from Allen’s 1971 comedy Bananas:

To overthink it would spoil the humor, which is delicious, though not always politically correct. Political correctness will be the death of the American left. Right now Al Franken is being sacrificed on the altar of political correctness by people who should know better. It’s not a pretty thing to watch. Harry Truman once said (or possibly didn’t say), “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

I might not agree with David Fagin on everything, but he tweeted that “#AlFranken is the first victim of sexual McCarthyism.” There’s probably some truth in that. I find myself recalling the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”:

First airing in 1960, its subtext was nothing other than McCarthyism viewed as a moral panic (though the term “moral panic” would not come into widespread use in the social sciences for another decade).

As in much late 50s/early 60s sci-fi, the theme is aliens in our midst, as a metaphor for fear of communist infiltration. In a moral panic, fear of a problem (which may be a real problem) becomes exaggerated to the point of rampant paranoia and a frenzy of finger-pointing — much like the present culture of public accusation. “Look! Under that rock! It’s another sexual abuser! Everybody run, run, run, and grab a few stones while you are running. We shall stone the Canaanite!” Or as the old adage goes: “When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.” (The adage has been quoted by everyone from Herman Wouk to Robert Heinlein to Spider John Koerner.)

This is not to underestimate the importance of taking sane, rational steps to create a culture in which sexual abuse of women and girls is not tolerated. The problem is real. But the present media frenzy is not helpful, and may even be counterproductive in relation to genuine change, since outrage may be a substitute for action, and can lead to outrage fatigue.

I think there are two extremes to be avoided: one where women never talk about sexual abuse, so nothing ever gets done; and the other where every woman has to have a story of abuse in order to be admitted to the sisterhood, and every edition of The View, Good Morning America, or Hannity must have its Leeann Tweeden wannabe rabbiting on about a misplaced kiss in the distant past, in between autographing copies of Playboy.

Of course, in the midst of a moral panic it may do little good to say, “Hey people, check yourselves out.” A moral panic is a form of collective insanity, and one feature of that insanity is the inability to hear voices of calm and reason. It’s a little like this ancient tale about the wise king and the poisoned well, which was reprised in the 1973 film Serpico, about a New York City cop who fights against police corruption and is hated for it. If you don’t drink from the same well as everyone else, they’ll simply say you’re crazy or don’t understand the frightful danger they’re responding to, or the overwhelming need (and greed).

A classic symptom of a moral panic is that the major media, while acting as if they are arbiters of what is reasonable, are actually fuelling or even constructing the moral panic.

A panic differs from a short-lived hoax in which the true facts are quickly brought to bear. Consider the Mercury Theatre’s radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Broadcast in 1938, it was presented in such a way that many casual listeners really believed the Earth was being invaded by Martians:

According to a short article on History.com:

Perhaps as many as a million radio listeners believed that a real Martian invasion was underway. Panic broke out across the country. In New Jersey, terrified civilians jammed highways seeking to escape the alien marauders. People begged police for gas masks to save them from the toxic gas and asked electric companies to turn off the power so that the Martians wouldn’t see their lights. One woman ran into an Indianapolis church where evening services were being held and yelled, “New York has been destroyed! It’s the end of the world! Go home and prepare to die!” [Editor’s note: Similar sentiments were voiced just after the November 2016 presidential election.]

The broadcast may not even rise to the level of a hoax, since those who listened from the outset knew it was only a radio play, and announcements to that effect were inserted at intervals.

What’s different about a moral panic is that it often concerns a perceived problem about which there is limited or sketchy information, and the facts or true dimensions of the problem remain difficult to ascertain. This may lead to an extended period of wild speculation, acts of vigilantism, and harsh social control measures which later turn out to have been uncalled for.

The panic over alleged satanic ritual abuse of children at preschools in the 1980s is a classic example of a moral panic. This New York Times book review of We Believe The Children  includes an excellent summary, and notes:

Elaine Showalter, in “Hystories” (1997), showed how the psychological establishment, and feminists within it, intrigued by trauma theory, so-called multiple personalities and a new belief in recovered memories, was primed to believe outlandish stories of abuse, especially from women. Believing the victim became nonnegotiable — with adult female patients, then with children and even toddlers.

Moral panics tend to occur in cycles, and are not understood by the average participant in them; so in the present phase, hashtags like #MeToo and #BelieveTheWomen are not viewed as problematic by those who fail to study history.

Those remembering The X-Files might have gleaned something of the flavour of moral panics from the episode “Syzygy” (s3e13), which combines analysis of the Satanic Panic phenom with humor. Like “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” it captures the quality of frantic finger-pointing and mob rule in which everyone is suspect, especially those who are different in some way. In “Maple Street,” the first suspect is a stargazer who suffers from insomnia, while in “Syzygy,” the crowd storms the house of a cross-dresser.

From the study of moral panics we observe that the media as a whole is not an impartial body standing apart from the fray and carefully disseminating accurate accounts. The media get caught up in the frenzy, and become a major force in stirring it to fever pitch, perhaps providing moral cover for vigilantes.

If a moral panic is a type of madness of crowds, people in media hardly seem immune to that madness. Some of what they do is no doubt intentional profiteering off a craze, but some is personal surrender to an easy narrative that arouses passion. For all their journalistic training, they are carried away by the same tide as non-media actors. In some cases they are responsible for constructing the moral panic. Indeed, some theorists define moral panics as a media phenomenon:

A moral panic may be defined as an episode, often triggered by alarming media stories and reinforced by reactive laws and public policy, of exaggerated or misdirected public concern, anxiety, fear, or anger over a perceived threat to social order.

To a great degree, moral panics take place in the media. During moral panics, media coverage, rousing public fears over a reputed social problem, also assists appreciably in constructing that problem.

Charles Krinsky, “Introduction: The Moral Panic Concept”

Take the panic over violence between between Mods and Rockers in 1960s Britain:

Interviewed in the video, moral panic theorist Stanley Cohen says: “The media, by their reaction, kept the panic going, and therefore in a sense amplified it.”

In the argot of moral panic theory, Al Franken has been transformed into a “folk devil” by hysterical media coverage. The extent and nature of that coverage, particularly in right-wing media, seems quite out of kilter with the alleged wrongdoing.

Though an incompetent and odious president, Donald Trump has always shown a talent for media manipulation. He helped spur the transformation of Franken into a “folk devil” by referring to him as “Al Frankenstien” [sic] in a tweet.

The “folk devil” spoken of in moral panic theory bears some resemblance to what we might today call a “meme.” Memes and folk devils have little regard for individuals and their differences, tending to act the like the whale which swallowed Jonah. The individual is swallowed by a meme or folk devil characterization, and his or her qualities are conflated with those of a large number of other individuals, many (perhaps most) of whom bear little true relation to one another. Thus Al Franken is conflated with Roy Moore.

In the 1980s there was a panic concerning new religious movements (sometimes redefined pejoratively as “cults”). While most religious and spiritual groups are peace-loving and law-abiding, the events at Jonestown in 1978 (where about 900 people perished) crystallized sentiment against new religious movements, causing virtually any such movement (no matter how pacific) to be conflated with the horror at Jonestown.

Fundraising letters from anti-cult groups in the 80s hypothesized that millions of Americans belonged to purported “cults” without even knowing it, and suggested that the church or temple down the street — the one your neighbour goes to — might be a secret hotbed of cult activity. Like communists and alien invaders, cults were said to possess the power to brainwash innocent youth and turn them into mindless robots hell-bent on destruction.

To be sure they weren’t unwitting members of a “cult,” readers of anti-cult tracts were urged to subject their faith to a “cult checklist” which, being composed by secular rationalists, was sure to test positive for virtually any faith held deeply and actually practiced in real life. Although the panic has died down since the 80s, the prejudice against minority faiths persists, and the notion that faith groups must pass a test devised by secular rationalists is still popularized in some periodicals and on the Internet.

Those spiritual groups which had their roots in Hinduism and Buddhism were often singled out for special vitriol, and the practice of meditation — which has since gained widespread appeal for its benefits — was branded as extremely dangerous, a tool used by “cults” to exercise “destructive mind control.” In retrospect, this seems like the paranoid fantasy of ultra-rationalists who couldn’t cope with the insights that Eastern philosophy and practice bestowed upon the West. Consider by contrast this (more recent) NBC Nightly News report on meditation in the schools:

Returning to the matter nearer at hand: During a moral panic, people who understand the media can manipulate events; so the claim is made that Leeann Tweeden is part of a cynical effort to take down Sen. Al Franken, and does not make a very convincing victim. In my post “Of Senators and Playmates,” I closed with an uncaptioned image of Raquel Welch performing for the troops in a bygone era:

But looked at symbolically, the pic can also represent Leeann Tweeden and the media. She’s a bright shiny object which the media find irresistible. She elicits from them the same mindless drooling and circling reaction you see from the troops in the photo. Someone who understands media can count on that almost Pavlovian response, and orchestrate it in a Machiavellian (or Rimsky-Korsakovian) way.

During a moral panic, satire is one element that can help restore perspective. The above-mentioned David Fagin recently tweeted:

We have nearly reached that point.

As for the more serious implications, in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, writer-narrator Rod Serling closes like so:

The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices to be found only in the minds of men. For the record: prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own — for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.


Sidebar: MST3k Satire on the McCarthy Era

According to one theory, the reason so many people were taken in by the Mercury Theatre’s “War of the Worlds” broadcast is that they tuned in late — having been listening on another network to ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. The latter is not to be confused with Sen. Joe McCarthy, the legendary figure behind the Army-McCarthy hearings which came to be regarded as a “witch hunt” for communists in the 1950s (along with HUAC).

Leveraging this coincidence of names, the MST3k gang did a satire of the McCarthy era based on supposed testimony from a variety of puppets and cartoon characters:

This is hysterically funny if you know a little about a) the real McCarthy and HUAC hearings, and b) the cited puppet/cartoon characters. I’ll stop short of providing a monograph on the subject, but may add a list of characters and links. The sketch appears in Mystery Science Theater 3000 #205, where the main feature is Rocket Attack U.S.A., a low-budget cold war spy drama.

The McCarthy era was one in which many left-leaning writers (some mentioned in the sketch) were blacklisted and couldn’t work. Bringing us full circle, this was the subject of Martin Ritt’s 1976 film The Front (starring Woody Allen), which ended with a cheeky (but funny!) rebuke to the men who interrogated witnesses in a manner so lacking in decency (NSFW):

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Links

The Front – Official Trailer
At The Circus with Topo Gigio

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Leeann Tweeden and Blaming The Victim

UPDATED! When Leeann Tweeden launched her publicity campaign against Al Franken, appearing on a number of TV shows which have viewership in the millions, I began looking into her background. This culminated in my writing “Of Senators and Playmates.” Why is this not an example of “slut-shaming” or “blaming the victim?” Why shouldn’t we simply accept Tweeden’s claims at face value?

Feminists advance many arguments, many of which I agree with. One argument is that by subjecting Leeann Tweeden to scrutiny, we’re creating an environment in which “victims” will be afraid to come forward. This argument needs to be carefully examined. It’s a good argument in theory, and there are many situations to which it’s properly applied. This isn’t one of them. Here’s why:

Unless we want to surrender to a mob mentality, the only way we can properly adjudicate claims of improper sexual behaviour is through some form of due process. From the point of view of due process and fairness, the hardest claims to evaluate are those which are made years after the alleged event, and which emerge in connection with some type of publicity campaign, partisan attack, or therapy fad.

The #MeToo movement is a very mixed bag. At its best it embodies the courage of women who have been long silent to tell their stories — stories which need telling. But at its worst, it’s a reenactment of the whole Courage To Heal debacle, which resulted in many false accusations and destroyed many innocent people’s lives. Paraphrasing George Santayana, those who fail to study this debacle are doomed to repeat it. It seems to be a generational thing: People who don’t know what happened in the 90s are blindly and blithely repeating it circa 2017.

The issues are subtle and complex, but to get at the crux of them I commend to the reader these two pieces appearing on Salon.com:

The lie that tore my family apart
Interview with Meredith Maran

The nature of movements like Courage To Heal is that they tend to create a me-too mentality. It’s politically taboo to say this, but it must be said for the sake of honesty: During a period of moral panic, some women wholeheartedly embrace victim feminism, but their claims of abuse are either woven out of whole cloth, or exaggerated to the point that they barely resemble real world events.

Some feminists are smart enough and honest enough to recognize that false or inflated claims are counterproductive to the larger goal of ending sexual abuse, and lead to a backlash in which women’s complaints in this area are less believed. (If you don’t believe in backlash, just consider who we have as president.)

Other feminists stubbornly cling to the belief that “women never lie” about a thing like that, and that there are “no rewards” for “coming forward.” In truth there are many rewards, including attention, sympathy, and being part of the latest social/political fad. Again, it’s politically taboo to say this, but presenting oneself as a victim is a status symbol in some feminist circles, and becomes a part of social identity formation. That’s one of the points being made by Meredith Maran.

This was a major issue in the UVA rape hoax, where a woman named Jackie drifted into a survivors group, and appeared to adopt a borrowed scenario from a book she had been given about campus rape. This interview conducted by Ronan Farrow with Liz Seccuro, a genuine survivor of a UVA campus rape 34 years ago, gets at the underlying issues:

Liz Seccuro: Anonymous people, blog commenters, my friends, and my family all called me, or commented, or wrote to me and said, “This is your story.” I can’t comprehend how someone would co-opt someone else’s pain and story for this.

Ronan Farrow: Do you think there’s a chance that that’s what happened, that Jackie co-opted your story?

Liz Seccuro: I think, as I said it’s been suggested to me so many times that I have to allow it to be a possibility.

Ronan Farrow: I understand the crisis management center [at UVA] gave out your book to survivors.

Liz Seccuro: Yes.

Ronan Farrow: Do you think that Jackie perhaps believed that your story was hers?

Liz Seccuro: I think that somebody who has now told this story so many times, and stuck by her story even after being discredited, I believe that that person would have some mental issues, and would believe that.

Ronan Farrow: If this is true, if by some happenstance Jackie co-opted your story (to use your words), what’s your message to her?

Liz Seccuro: Well I think right now, my message to her is to get some help and to understand — and I’m not ruling out that nothing happened to her. I think something traumatic has happened to her in her life, and I think she needs to get some help to address that. It’s very easy to become enamoured with the survivor community and dive into that. But unless you’re willing to talk to the police and to file a complaint, you can’t level these sort of allegations. It was hard for me, and we had evidence. You can’t make these sort of allegations that live on forever, because look at the mess we’re in now.

MSNBC interview with Liz Seccuro

My intention is not to “weaponize” false reports, but simply to point out that during a moral panic, it’s hard to evaluate reports at face value because those making false reports can seem sincere and well-intentioned. During a panic, we’re told to believe the women (or children, or whomever) unquestioningly. But later, after the panic has died down, we realize the truth in what Cathy Young wrote on Slate.com: “A de facto presumption of guilt in alleged sexual offenses is as dangerous as a presumption of guilt in any crime, and for the same reasons: It upends the foundations on which our system of justice rests and creates a risk of ruining innocent lives.” Mere numbers of reports are not dispositive. Bari Weiss writes:

I think that “believing all women” can rapidly be transmogrified into an ideological orthodoxy that will not serve women at all.

If the past few weeks have shown us the unique horrors some women have faced, the answer to it can’t be a stringent new solidarity that further limits the definition of womanhood and lumps our highly diverse experiences together simply based on our gender. I don’t think that helps women. Or men.

I believe that the “believe all women” vision of feminism unintentionally fetishizes women. Women are no longer human and flawed. They are Truth personified. They are above reproach.

I believe that it’s condescending to think that women and their claims can’t stand up to interrogation and can’t handle skepticism. I believe that facts serve feminists far better than faith. That due process is better than mob rule.

– Bari Weiss, The Limits of ‘Believe All Women,’  The New York Times

There’s an important distinction between anti-feminists who want to downplay the very real problem of sexual abuse, and feminists (some, victims themselves) who want to minimize false claims and maintain a reasonable perspective (thereby avoiding backlash). Charlotte Vale Allen, a genuine abuse survivor and the author of Daddy’s Girl writes:

A woman I’ve known for over thirty years who’s always been searching for her ‘gift,’ for the career move that will finally bring her happiness has now got memories that fill her with purpose. After falling out of touch for a decade, she telephoned to say, in essence, ‘Guess what? Me too!’ But in the very new tones of tremendous self-importance. This woman who’d never been able to find something to do in life that would bring her any satisfaction was now positively brimming with it. With the help of her therapist, she’d at last found her calling–as a victim! She had ludicrous, unbelievable tales to tell of satanic abuse–in the heart of one of Toronto’s oldest, wealthiest areas. Right! … What is going on? It’s as if some sort of collective lunacy has taken hold of people–the patients and therapists, both lockstepped in a march toward finding a past history of abuse at all costs. Victimhood as a desirable status is anathema to me[.]”

Having been aware of this quote for over a decade, when I hear there’s a new social media movement with hashtag #MeToo, I think “Uh-oh. Here we go again.”

During such a period, we need to be especially careful to separate reasonable claims timely made and backed up by evidence, from claims made in connection with publicity campaigns, partisan attacks, or faddism — whether social, political, therapeutic, even journalistic.

During a moral panic, the mere accusation or act of finger-pointing is enough to destroy someone’s life, or at least their career. Alarmists say the problem of abuse is so serious that we need to forget about due process and fairness, and simply burn at the stake (or flame in the media) anyone who’s even accused, no matter how partisan the attack or how flimsy the evidence. Historically, such people are called “reactionaries.” Their opinion flies in the face of American ideals of justice.

During a moral panic, the notion is floated that if we don’t immediately flay anyone who has been accused, some evildoers might escape punishment. This is true, but it has always been true. In a just society, we only punish those who are proven guilty. We can do no more and still be a just society. Otherwise, we would become like our Dear Leader, who advocates that police slam the heads of suspects into squad cars.

Teen Vogue columnist Emily Lindin tweeted, “I’m actually not at all concerned about innocent men losing their jobs over false sexual assault/harassment allegations … If some innocent men’s reputations have to take a hit in the process of undoing the patriarchy, that is a price I am absolutely willing to pay.” This is tribalism at its worst and not a view informed by conscience.

Spiritual insight suggests that those whom we cannot punish (because there is no proof) are still subject to the Law of Karma. If they have done wrong, they will eventually pay the price. In our human justice, then, we should not be excessively bloodthirsty or vengeful, nor adopt polices which would punish the innocent along with the guilty, or make it impossible for men and women to coexist peacefully and lovingly.

During a moral panic, numbers replace substance. This is something I understood from a piece by barrister Barbara Hewson on Spiked-Online.com:

Unlike a train crash or a disaster like Thalidomide (where the damage is obvious), an acute problem with historic abuse claims is the absence of direct evidence, apart from the claimant’s unsupported word. An uncritical approach to claimants, then, is going to make it easier for those who are either mistaken or malicious to make false allegations.

A further problem is the general acceptance of the notion of ‘corroboration by volume,’ where claims of sexual abuse are involved. This means that the greater the volume of claims, the more they are seen as mutually supporting. So weak claims reinforce strong ones, and vice versa. Indeed, a mass of weak claims is also taken as compelling. So there is little incentive to weed out weak claims.

Back in 1924, the then Lord Chief Justice warned of the danger of this approach:

‘The risk, the danger, the logical fallacy is indeed quite manifest to those who are in the habit of thinking about such matters. It is so easy to derive from a series of unsatisfactory accusations, if there are enough of them, an accusation which at least appears satisfactory. It is so easy to collect from a mass of ingredients, not one of which is sufficient, a totality which will appear to contain what is missing.’

If this is a problem in the courts, it is ten times worse in the media, where we are now treating #MeToo tweets as evidence of crimes, rather than evidence of social affinity. But in the midst of a moral panic it may do no good to say “Hey people, check yourselves out.” The popular mania is too strong, so people of sense and sensibility tend to withdraw from public life.

After the panic has died down, the crowd may return to business as usual, because they regret the excessive blaming and public shaming which occurred in the panic phase. That’s why some feminists are trying to tone down the sort of rhetoric which would brand a single stolen kiss among friends as an incident of sexual assault, or would demand that we uncritically accept any allegation which is floated, or insist that women are the only ones ever targeted for unwelcome advances in the workplace.

One portion of the (earlier) quote from Barbara Hewson perhaps requires clarification. We understand how someone could make a “malicious” claim, but how could someone simply be “mistaken” about an “historic abuse claim” dating back a number of years? A couple of points here:

– First, there are those people (we’ve all met them) for whom feelings, emotions, and beliefs are the only reality (or at least the primary reality). Such people rewrite history to correspond to their changing emotions, belief systems — even political views. When their view turns negative, past events are rewritten accordingly.

– Second, people may substantially change their identities over time. They sometimes judge past events according to the person who they are now, rather than the original social context in which those events occurred. Who was Al Franken in 2006? Who was Leeann Tweeden? He was a comedian and she was a pinup girl. They were both putting on a USO tour which was raunchy and sexual. Eleven years later, Franken is a U.S. senator and Tweeden is an anchor for talk radio (though she continues to sell autographed copies of Playboy). A kiss, if it occurred in 2006, might not have been far out of place in the original social context, though it would be out of place today.

– Third, there are numerous external influence factors which can cause people to change their story, or to bring up a past incident out of the blue as an alleged incident of sexual assault, when they didn’t view it that way at the time. Psychologist Tana Dineen calls such people “synthetic victims”:

Synthetic victims are the people who become persuaded that they have been sexually harassed and often they appear to be truly suffering the psychological consequences. … [They include] the person who describes a scene to a co-worker, a spouse or maybe to a psychologist or even a lawyer and is provided with encouragement to think about it differently, perhaps as an incident of harassment or assault.

Memories change; reactions change; feelings change AND stories change. Relatively trivial events can become dramatic; they can be moulded, edited and modified to fit the sexual harassment script which people can easily find in pop psychology books, women’s magazines and on talk shows and now even on the Internet. As Mordecai Richler puts it in his most recent book Barney’s Version, these are people who “are tinkering with memory, fine-tuning reality.”

Scrupulously investigate any sexual harassment report that lands on your desk, looking not only for corroborating evidence, but, also, for possible contamination by the Psychology Industry. This contamination can take place, not only directly in psychotherapy but indirectly through pop psychology books, self-help manuals, media reports, support groups, comments made by family or co-workers, and even information posted on the Internet [e.g. #MeToo movement].

— Tana Dineen, from “Are We Manufacturing Victims?” (comment added)

– Fourth, especially when the claim is made as part of a publicity campaign with partisan overtones, we can’t rule out the possibility that someone’s willingness to “rethink” a past event was influenced by career, politics, or money. This borders on the knowingly malicious, but some people are not honest — even with themselves. When adopting a new narrative becomes advantageous to them (and is perhaps suggested by political operatives), they find the new narrative irresistible and embrace it as if true. It’s not quite lying, but very close to it. They convince themselves that it is true because it serves their narrow interests of the moment, and a cause which they view favourably.

Returning to my original point: Leeann Tweeden is not a “victim” — she’s a complainant, but not a complainant in any forum providing due process. She’s a complainant in the three-ring circus of the media, and her complaint seems designed to jet-propel her career, gain publicity for the talk radio station which employs her, and take down Sen. Al Franken. Under those circumstances, it is appropriate to look into her background, to take note of her hypocrisy and her faux feminism. She’s anti-feminist on Hannity (and in posing nude for Playboy), but now claims to be part of the #MeToo movement. Give me a large personal break!

If you’re a victim of inappropriate sexual behavior, it’s important that you file a timely complaint with some body having adjudicatory authority. If you wait ten years, your only option will be to prostitute yourself in the media, as Leeann Tweeden is doing now. That she does so with great gusto is not a credit to her character.


Sidebar: Fish-lips shaming

While researching this article, I read Mark Peters’ piece on Slate.com about slut-shaming and a host of other types of shaming which have lately emerged. I was also struggling to explain why it’s a problem that in addition to being about an event ten years ago, Leeann Tweeden’s publicity campaign against Al Franken concerns a single kiss. Going over the details, I remembered that in trying to paint as ugly a picture of Franken as possible, Tweeden also accused him of having “fish lips.” Is this not a case of “fish-lips shaming,” and should not our silver-scaled brethren from the undersea kingdom feel slighted? Perhaps they should sue Tweeden for emotional distress and, ahem– loss of aquarium.

Fish-lips shaming is not an entirely new phenomenon. It is an adaptation or corruption of dog-lips shaming. If you’re a fan of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (as I certainly am), you know that Lucy Van Pelt is the original and most sadistic of dog-lips shamers, mercilessly deriding Snoopy for his Creator-bestowed smackers:

Fish-lips shaming may also be viewed as a variation on liver-lips shaming, which was a popular type of black-on-black rankout when I was growing up, maybe around grade 6 or 7.

Not to leave out the third main non-vegetarian alternative to hamburger: Had Al Franken not tried to kiss Leeann Tweeden on the 2006 USO tour (or so she says), he might have had to endure taunts of “Chicken-lips!” from enlisted men. (Chicken lips may also be an ingredient in some types of head cheese, in which case they deserve shaming!)

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Better Reporting on Religious and Ethnic Minorities

Tips for journalists on overcoming false balance, rejecting hate material, and making sense of moral panics

Introduction

As someone who’s been familiar with Sri Chinmoy and the Peace Run for three decades, I’ve noticed that press coverage varies widely in reliability and accuracy. Here are some tips for journalists covering religious and ethnic minorities. These tips also apply to Sri Chinmoy, the Peace Run, and related entities (some of which are secular, but are inspired by spiritual beliefs).

Note: Many people would to be quick to point out differences between “religious” and “spiritual” — with “religious” perhaps connoting dogma and ritual, and “spiritual” suggesting a personal quest for meaning. Yet, there is a continuum between the two, and in this article the terms are used somewhat interchangeably.

Near the end, I include a list of resources which I find helpful in understanding Sri Chinmoy and the Peace Run.

The problem of false balance

I greatly respect journalists and journalism, and know there are practical reasons why some journalists don’t get a story quite right. There are time pressures, and difficulties making sense of an unfamiliar subject. Particularly if the story is considered low priority, there’s always the temptation to simply cut-and-paste material from the Internet, or to invoke a familiar meme rather than doing careful research. There’s also the problem of “false balance.” Rem Rieder writes:

No matter what the news media’s many critics believe, most journalists endeavor to be fair, to give both sides rather than choose sides. In that effort, there’s a tendency to print what someone says, print what the other side says and call it a day.

The trouble is, there isn’t always equal merit on both sides. So, in instances where one side is largely fact-based, and the other is spouting obvious nonsense, treating both sides equally isn’t balanced. It’s misleading.

Often journalists are reluctant to state the conclusions that stem from their reporting, out of the concern that they will appear partisan or biased. But just laying out both positions without going further in an effort to establish the truth can create [false balance]. And that doesn’t do much good for the readers and the viewers.

Journalism isn’t stenography. It’s not treating everything the same when it’s not the same. It’s about giving citizens information about public affairs that is as accurate as possible.

— Rem Rieder, “The danger of false balance in journalism,” USA Today

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