Misconceptions about the new Title IX regulations

May 25, 2020 • 1:30 pm

Much as I despise Trump and most of his administration, I’m not going to damn everything that administration does simply because we have an incompetent infant as President. And there are few good things. One of them was to revamp the Title IX regulations, which under Obama had been changed so that students accused of sexual misconduct in universities had few rights. Procedures and hearings were manifestly unfair and weighted toward the accuser, with the result that many colleges are having to pay big bucks when they’re found in real courts to have acted unfairly.

The Trump (really the DeVos) regulations made things more equitable (see here, here, here, and here).  A poll in 2018 showed that the bulk of WEIT readers favored the police handling the cases first, and only then should colleges take up the issue (presumably colleges wouldn’t adjudicate cases in which the police could find no reason to charge somebody with sexual misconduct). Here are the poll results:

This article (this time a new one!) from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), links to the new Title IX regulations . If you don’t know, those regulations are part of the Educational Amendment Act of 1972, stipulating that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

You can read the new regulations (pdf here), but there are 2033 pages in the document! They’re shortly to become law but are now in draft form. Fortunately, FIRE has read them so you don’t have to, and discusses what they do and do not say. Click on the screenshot:

FIRE then dispels five misconceptions about these new regulations, which seem a marked improvement in the Obama administration’s policies, and more likely to ensure justice in college accusations of sexual misconduct.

Here are the five misconceptions. FIRE’s take is indented, while my own comments are flush left.

1.) The regulations mandate that sexual harassment cases be treated differently from racial harassment cases.

This is false; all cases must now be adjudicated the same way. The standard used is the Supreme Court’s interpretation of harassment, which involves both a subjective and an objective standard:

The new regulations’ definition of hostile environment harassment tracks the Davis standard: “Unwelcome conduct determined by a reasonable person to be so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the recipient’s education program or activity.”

Note that a simple claim that “I felt I was harassed” is not sufficient here; conduct must meet a standard that meets what a reasonable person sees as constituting harassment. Note that this is similar to some colleges’ abrogation of the First Amendment when a student feels offended or attacked. That, too, is not enough: to violate the First amendment, speech considered harassing has to be judged by more than the recipient, but by an objective standard. To me that seems eminently reasonable.

Further, currently most colleges do have a literal double standard for sexual versus racial harassment:

. . . most colleges maintain a bifurcated system where sexual misconduct cases are dealt with differently from all other cases, including racial harassment cases. Some schools, inclined to require “clear and convincing evidence” for a responsible finding, have been using a higher standard of evidence for non-sex-related cases than for sex-related cases since 2011. ED’s rescission of this 2011 mandate and finalization of the new regulations gives institutions a path (and ED has encouraged institutions) to use the same standard for both types of cases.

“Clear and convincing evidence” is a 75% or higher probability of guilt, though the Obama-era standard for sexual misconduct was “preponderance of the evidence”—that is, only a greater than 50% probability of guilt. Both of these are far less stringent that legal criminal conviction, which requires “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

This need no longer be the case (see below). Finally, many colleges allow live hearings for cases not involving sexual misconduct, but not for those involving sexual misconduct. The accused weren’t allowed to confront the accuser, ask questions, or even have a lawyer. That, too is changes, as it should be.

2.) The regulations raise the standard of evidence for campus disciplinary cases.

Again, a misconception. Institutions can choose to use either a preponderance of evidence standard or a “clear and convincing evidence standard”, but they must use the same standard for all complaints of sexual harassment, including those against faculty or employees.  I myself would prefer at least a “clear and convincing evidence” standard if you’re engaged in proceedings that could result in someone being suspended from college, so in this case the Title IX regulations don’t go quite far enough for me. And judging by the poll above, probably not far enough for the readers.

3.) The regulations gut Title IX protections. 

Critics of the regulations claim that they “gut[] Title IX protections for students.” To the contrary, as my colleague Joe Cohn explained in a post earlier this month, the regulations require that schools provide new and important safeguards, options, and tools to both complainants and respondents, and they bring the focus of the regulations back to the original purpose of Title IX — ensuring equal access to education.

Right now, too many institutions aim for whatever result is worst for the respondent, not whatever result is best for the complainant. They are concerned with punishing students who they deem guilty, but they are not necessarily asking what complainants feel would be most helpful for them to continue their education. That serves no one.

Safeguards like the opportunity to question witnesses aren’t just useful for respondents; they can be used by complainants and their representatives to demonstrate to fact-finders the truth of their complaints, too. With more information shared in advance of the hearing, complainants will be better able to prepare for it. And with a guarantee of impartial fact-finders and public training materials, complainants can have more confidence that their cases will be handled fairly — or more recourse if they aren’t.

This reminds me of my experience in the courts as an expert witness in DNA cases, when the prosecution often seemed hell-bent on getting a conviction, even if, as they did in some of my cases, they deliberately tried to confuse the jury or to cast doubt on manifestly true statements. Their desire often seemed to me not to ensure that justice was done (which is their explicit mission), but to find someone guilty. The way Title IX has been used by colleges often resembles that tactic.

4.) “But my school already provides a fair disciplinary procedure!” 

We’ve spoken with many administrators who think that they already provide procedural safeguards like notice of charges and an opportunity to be heard. But these administrators’ institutions often do not actually guarantee these safeguards; instead, they maintain policies that allow an administrator to grant those safeguards or to omit them, at their discretion. This is problematic on several levels. First, it means that one student (indeed, a complainant or respondent) may be treated better or worse based on an administrator’s personal feelings about them or their case. Such a result cannot stand. Second, it means that many students will, in practice, be denied these procedural safeguards, effectively depriving them of a meaningful opportunity to present their cases.

The new regulations require that the “procedural safeguards” be spelled out clearly and specifically. That is surely an improvement.


  1. Institutions can’t handle this right now.

Critics of the regulations have argued that now was the wrong time to finalize these regulations. Subsequent headlines described the regulations as “quietly” enacted, as if there hasn’t been constant discussion of their imminence for nearly 18 months among those with an interest.

The regulations were proposed in November 2018. Over 120,000 comments were submitted, and ED had to read and prepare a response to them all. (Hence, also, the length of the supplementary information.) When that was finished, organizations opposing the regulations reportedly (according to a college administrator who also opposes the regulations) implemented a strategy to delay their release for months more. Then COVID-19 hit. Institutions had over a year before then to plan for policy revisions. And without the delay strategy, the regulations may have, indeed, been finalized before this pandemic reached the United States, or at least before it changed the landscape for schools nationwide.

In the end, if FIRE’s analysis be true, the new regulations make the system more fair, ensuring that justice is more likely to be done. They do not, as some assert, go easy on rapists, harassers, or sexual predators. And even those accused of rape deserve a fair hearing, whether it be in courts or in colleges.

FIRE says “read the document yourself”.  I haven’t, as it’s so long, and even FIRE argues that the new regulations aren’t perfect. Nor are they for me: as I said, I’d use a “clear and convincing evidence” standard. But they do seem a marked improvement over the Obama-era “Dear colleague” standards, guaranteeing that both accuser and the accused have rights and procedures that are protected.  Trump, of course, didn’t have anything to do with these changes, so if you disagree with them, you can’t pin it on him. But even a blind pig can find an acorn, and even an abysmal administration can occasionally get things right.

The New York Times finds troubling flaws in Ronan Farrow’s reporting

May 18, 2020 • 10:30 am

Now this story really knocked me for a loop, largely because I previously had no doubts about the quality of Ronan Farrow’s reporting—except, perhaps, his excessive credulity about the supposed sexual predation of Woody Allen on Ronan’s sister Dylan Farrow. (Ronan think that Woody is guilty for sure.) But perhaps that credulity underlies my other surprise, for in this New York Times article by Ben Smith, Farrow is taken to the woodshed for sloppy reporting, reporting so flawed that in fact it actually got Harvey Weinstein off on one charge of rape. Smith also casts doubts on several of Farrow’s other claims—important ones.

Click to read the story.

Farrow, the son of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow (some say his father was Frank Sinatra), became famous for his reporting on thee #MeToo movement, his book Catch and Kill, and his bringing down of two powerful figures as sexual predators: Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer. Nobody, least of all Ben Smith, the Times‘s media columnist, is alleging that Farrow actually made up the facts he reports. And nobody is saying that, by casting doubt on Farrow’s reportorial tactics, Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer are more likely to be innocent. The other evidence against them, including that adduced by Farrow, is too strong. What we have here is a journalistic spanking by Smith, calling Farrow out for being too eager to check his facts and, most important, to seek corroboration for his accusations. Also, Farrow seems to have a penchant for conspiracy theories. In short, Smith says this:

Mr. Farrow may now be the most famous investigative reporter in America, a rare celebrity-journalist who followed the opposite path of most in the profession: He began as a boy-wonder talk show host and worked his way downward to the coal face of hard investigative reporting. The child of the actress Mia Farrow and the director Woody Allen, he has delivered stories of stunning and lasting impact, especially his revelations about powerful men who preyed on young women in the worlds of Hollywood, television and politics, which won him a Pulitzer Prize.

I’ve been watching Mr. Farrow’s astonishing rise over the past few years, marveling at his ability to shine a light on some of the defining stories of our time, especially the sexual misconduct of the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, which culminated with Mr. Weinstein’s conviction in February just before the pandemic took hold. But some aspects of his work made me wonder if Mr. Farrow didn’t, at times, fly a little too close to the sun.

Because if you scratch at Mr. Farrow’s reporting in The New Yorker and in his 2019 best seller, “Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators,” you start to see some shakiness at its foundation. He delivers narratives that are irresistibly cinematic — with unmistakable heroes and villains — and often omits the complicating facts and inconvenient details that may make them less dramatic. At times, he does not always follow the typical journalistic imperatives of corroboration and rigorous disclosure, or he suggests conspiracies that are tantalizing but he cannot prove.

Here’s what Smith accuses Farrow of:

1.) The first Farrow-reported accusation against Weinstein was by Lucia Evans, a college student who claimed that Weinstein lured her to his room with promises of acting jobs, and then raped her.  Although Evans said she told friends about the story, there was ultimately no corroboration of this. In fact, Evans told a police detective that her sexual encounter was consensual.  The case went to trial, but when the judge learned about the contradictory accounts of the plaintiff, the judge dismissed the case. Weinstein could have in fact raped her, but Farrow didn’t mention the holes in Evans’s story; at any rate, we know that Weinstein was convicted on other charges.

2.) An accusation of sexual assault by Matt Lauer in Catch and Kill could not be corroborated. And Farrow doesn’t mention this absence, just asserting, without details, that “he was confident that the conversation took place as described.”

In fact, when asked about the holes in these and other accounts by Farrow, both his publishers and the New Yorker, which published early pieces that turned into Catch and Kill, don’t offer rebuttals, but merely assert that they consider Farrow’s reporting solid.

3.) Farrow, says Smith, has a weakness for conspiracy theories. One, in the subtitle of Catch and Kill (“Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators”), is that NBC News wouldn’t report on the allegations against Weinstein because Weinstein said that if they did, he’d get the National Enquirer to expose NBC star Matt Lauer’s own sexual predation. According to the Times report, this isn’t true.

4.) Farrow’s other “conspiracy” involves Hillary Clinton, whom Farrow accuses of trying to quash his reporting to protect Mr. Weinstein, with whom she had a professional relationship. In fact, at the time Clinton was about to start a documentary film with Weinstein, and her people wanted to know if damaging information was going to emerge about Weinstein. This was not a conspiracy, but the Clinton camp’s attempt to protect Hillary’s reputation from being sullied by collaboration with a sexual predator. (Indeed, Clinton was predictably excoriated after Farrow’s claim of conspiracy.)

The long article has other accusations as well, and several venues, including the New Yorker, famous for its fact checking, come off looking pretty lame for not checking Farrow’s reporting. The story was just too big and juicy to sully with niggling inconsistencies, I guess.

Smith ends his piece with another swipe at Farrow’s credibility, which may seem trivial but is nevertheless a bit distressing:

Mr. Farrow has a big following on social media, too, and some of the same tendencies that undermine his reporting show up there. In January, when jurors were being selected for the Weinstein trial, they were asked what they had read about Mr. Weinstein to see if they could serve impartially. Mr. Farrow tweeted that a “source involved in Weinstein trial tells me close to 50 potential jurors have been sent home because they said they’d read Catch and Kill.”

Mr. Farrow was not in the courtroom that day, and he told me last week that his source stands by that figure. But the court reporter, Randy Berkowitz, told me that he recalled laughing with lawyers and court staff the day after about Mr. Farrow’s tweet, which he said was seen as “ridiculous.”

And Jan Ransom, a reporter who covered the trial for the Times, was there. The actual number of potential jurors who read the book, according to Ms. Ransom’s reporting? Two.

I reiterate that this is not a demolition of Farrow’s reporting, but a pretty stringent critique of his failure to adhere to journalistic standards, particularly the importance of fact-checking and corroboration.

Photo: A.J. Chavar for NPR


Tara Reade vs. Joe Biden: What’s the truth?

May 12, 2020 • 9:15 am

I haven’t found much about the author of this piece: Clifford MacArthur. He appears to have written just this one article on Medium (click on screenshot to read it). Nevertheless, if his assertions are correct, Tara Reade, who’s accused Joe Biden of sexual misconduct, is an outright liar. And MacArthur has a theory, which is his, about why she’s lied.

You’ve probably heard a bit about this case on the news, though the facts seem confusing.  Reade, an employee of Biden, originally said that he inappropriately rubbed her on the shoulders and neck in 1993. Then, over time, the story became more serious: this year she said that Biden actually cornered her and digitally penetrated her vagina, which is, legally, rape. Her changing story (there has been more than one change) is made less credible by the contradictions in her story, the failure of anyone to corroborate her accusations, her record of praising Biden, her history of duplicity in other venues, and at least enough evidence to suggest that her altered story was concocted because Reade was a Bernie Sanders fan and wanted to sink Biden to get her candidate nominated.

Now one can find plausible reasons why her story might be true and yet become more serious over time, and also that in the interim she could praise Biden.  Sexual assault victims sometimes don’t want to come forward immediately.  But what doesn’t hold here are the repeated changes in her story, her continuing practice (according to MacArthur) of lying, even up till now, and her apparent fabrication of details.

Altogether, MacArthur makes a pretty good case that Biden is innocent of sexual assault, even though we know he has a tendency to be “handsy”.

MacArthur wrote this piece because he was peeved that, according to the mainstream media (especially on the Right), they have bought Reade’s story, or at least found it a he said/she said affair despite numerous holes in Reade’s accusations. Apparently The Young Turks are also advocating for Reade’s account, and I believe they were big Sanders supporters as well.

Here’s MacArthur’s rational for putting together and analyzing all the data:

The mainstream media, for its part, has been focused on “reaction pieces” rather than direct coverage. What are the consequences of the story? What does it mean for #MeToo? What does it mean for the Democratic Party? How should Biden respond? There is little interest in verifying the story itself. For the most part, the media has reported Reade’s account uncritically. CNN and POLITICO, like the political extremists on social media, are motivated to sensationalize the story and present it as true.

Missing from all this coverage is an answer to the most important question: Is the story true? Did Joe Biden sexually assault a staffer in 1993? The public deserves to make an informed decision based on all the available evidence. Analyzing Reade’s statements, as well as her past and present behavior, reveals a pattern of lies and deception.

Indeed it does, and one reason I believe MacArthur’s account is that he documents most of his claims with evidence. Further, since he’s accusing Reade of lying in an attempt to damage her character and debunk her accusations, what he’s saying would be libelous if it’s false.

Here are the eight reasons, some with data, for MacArthur’s conclusion:

1.) Reade’s story has changed continuously, right up to the present (e.g., it changed between January and March, when she had already made her allegations of assault).

2.) The story is also self-contradictory. For instance, Reade has claimed since last year that she left Biden’s employ voluntarily to work in the California governor’s race, then that she left to protest American imperialism, that she voluntarily resigned because of bullying in the workplace, and, finally, that Biden fired her.

3.) There appear to be arrant lies on the part of Reade. For instance, Reade has repeatedly claimed that she filed a complaint against Biden with Senate Personnel, which should be in the National Archives. Nobody remembers that claim and there’s no record of it in the Archives. Also, Reade claims she told five people about her story, but four of them deny it, and the fifth, who says she agrees, refuses to go on the record about it.

4.) Reade appears to have fabricated “evidence”. This is a bit complicated, but involves Reade’s claim that her mother called the Larry King Show in 1993 to talk about Biden’s assault. There was a call from mom to King, but it didn’t say that, and so Reade apparently changed what she said: that the call involved sexual harassment and retaliation. It didn’t.

5.) Reade has apparently lied repeatedly about other matters over the years, and tried to scam at least one charity. She has also fabricated details of her biography, for example claiming that she qualified for the Junior Olympic in ski racing. She didn’t.

6.) Reade says she repeatedly complained about Biden, both formally and informally. Nobody seems to remember those complaints.

7.) Reade has a political motive for trying to bring down Biden.  Apparently, in 2018, Reade became a big admirer of Putin, joining those who claimed that “Russiagate” had been a big hoax designed to excuse Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 election. Many of these people were convinced that the Democrats were supposedly trying to rig the nomination in favor of Biden and against Bernie Sanders. In March, Reade started broadcasting on social media that she hoped her accusations would promote Sanders and destroy Biden’s chances.

8.) Reade has a personal motive for trying to bring down Biden. This is really a variant of #7, but with a twist. Reade seems to have been miffed at being called a Russian dupe, and was using her accusations to quash those who called her that. One excerpt:

Reade’s obsession went beyond mere tweets. When she went to Time’s Up with her sexual assault allegation, they put her in touch with several lawyers. Salon interviewed those lawyers, and they all told the same story: Reade didn’t care about pursuing a case against Biden, she wanted the lawyers to stop people from calling her a Russian agent on Twitter. Salon contacted Reade herself and she confirmed that was her goal.

In the end, MacArthur says “this is not a story of sexual assault, but of anger and revenge.”  His “Conclusions” section at the end sums up his case, even if you don’t want to read the longish piece, and I’ll let you read that for yourself.

What bothers me about how Biden has been treated here is that he’s been very conciliatory towards Reade while denying her claims. He hasn’t attacked her or explicitly impugned her credibility. Yet many women have called for Biden to apologize, almost admitting that he committed sexual assault. But, if you assume he’s innocent of Reade’s claims—which I think he is—he couldn’t have responded in a more civil way. As MacArthur says, the slogan “Believe All Women” should not mean we take their accounts at face value, or continue to publicize them if they can’t be verified. Rather, it means that their claims should be taken seriously and not dismissed, and then those claims investigated and judges. In the case of Reade, if MacArthur’s account be true, we can use Hitchens’s razor: “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”



Sullivan: According to his own standards, Biden’s guilty

May 1, 2020 • 1:15 pm

Many of you have read about Tara Reade’s claim that Joe Biden assaulted her 27 years ago. Although her story has varied over time, her most serious claims do allege true sexual assault—digital penetration, which the Department of Justice considers rape. As far as I know about the evidence, it’s not sufficient to convict Biden in a court of law—evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt.” But Andrew Sullivan’s point in the first part of his latest column (the other two parts are about the pandemic death toll and a new documentary about Phylis Schlafly) is that according to Biden’s own standards as promulgated in Obama’s Title IX regulations, he’s guilty as hell, or would be found so in a college “trial.”

Click on the screenshot to read the article:

This is a little bit misleading, as Sullivan sees “Biden’s own standards”, as noted above, as those he promulgated in the revision of Title IX, not the standards of American courts. But before we get to that, remember that the Title IX regulations revised by the Obama administration—Sullivan thinks Biden pushed them hard as a form of penitence for his behavior during the Clarence Thomas hearings—weakened the standard of guilt for sexual misconduct in colleges to a “preponderance of evidence” (i.e., more than 50% probability of guilt) instead of the court standards of “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt” or “clear and convincing evidence” (> 75% probability of guilt). This means that colleges could expel you and ruin your life using standards far more lax than the courts.

There were other bizarre stipulations of the Obama procedure that reduced protection for the accused. These included the prohibition of the accused getting to face and have the accuser cross-examined, the tendency to make the finder of fact (the investigator) the same person who judged the case, the prohibition of legal representation for the accused in hearings, and so on. Jeannie Suk Gerson, a professor at Harvard Law School, summarized the unfair Obama stipulations in a 2019 New Yorker article, adding how, under Trump, Betsy DeVos changed them for the better. (I think this is one of the few good things to come out of the Trump Administration.)  One of the legacies of the Obama-era regulations is that those found “guilty” in college Star Chambers have often sued the colleges, and have won at least half the time, costing universities large amounts of dosh. And there will be more such suits.

So are Biden’s own standards those that he pushed under Obama, or those of American courts? If the former, he’s surely guilty, if the latter, surely not. But Biden made one comment suggesting that courts themselves should adhere to Title IX standards. Sullivan remarks:

[Biden] brushed aside most legal defenses against sexual harassment. In a speech at the University of Pittsburgh in 2016, for example, Biden righteously claimed that it was an outrage that any woman claiming sexual assault should have to answer questions like “Were you drinking?” or “What did you say?” “These are questions that angered me then and anger me now.” He went on: “No one, particularly a court of law, has a right to ask any of those questions.”

That implies that his Title IX standards should be used in court as well. That would be a disaster for the American judicial system, changing all the standards of evidence and even its standard of guilt.

At any rate, Sullivan goes hard after Biden for this claimed hypocrisy:

On Friday’s Morning JoeBiden laid out a simple process for judging him: Listen respectfully to Tara Reade, and then check for facts that prove or disprove her specific claim. The objective truth, Biden argued, is what matters. I agree with him. But this was emphatically not the standard Biden favored when judging men in college. If Biden were a student, under Biden rules, Reade could file a claim of assault, and Biden would have no right to know the specifics, the evidence provided, who was charging him, who was a witness, and no right to question the accuser. Apply the Biden standard for Biden, have woke college administrators decide the issue in private, and he’s toast.

Under Biden, Title IX actually became a force for sex discrimination — as long as it was against men. Emily Yoffe has done extraordinary work exposing the injustices of the Obama-Biden sexual-harassment regime on campus, which have mercifully been pared back since. But she has also highlighted Biden’s own zeal in the cause.

Do read the Yoffe pieces!

Sullivan doesn’t let up (and remember that he, like me, is going to vote for Biden):

In 2014, the Obama administration issued another guidance for colleges which expanded what “sexual violence” could include, citing “a range of behaviors that are unwanted by the recipient and include remarks about physical appearance; persistent sexual advances that are undesired by the recipient; unwanted touching; and unwanted oral, anal, or vaginal penetration or attempted penetration.” By that standard, ignoring the Reade allegation entirely, Joe Biden has been practicing “sexual violence” for decades: constantly touching women without their prior consent, ruffling and smelling their hair, making comments about their attractiveness, coming up from behind to touch their back or neck. You can see him do it on tape, on countless occasions. He did not stop in 2014, to abide by the standards he was all too willing to impose on college kids. A vice-president could do these things with impunity; a college sophomore could have his life ruined for an inept remark.

. . .By Biden’s own standards, he’s guilty as charged. He never got affirmative consent from Reade, and she feels and believes he assaulted her. He never got affirmative consent for countless handsy moves over the decades that unsettled some of the recipients of such affection. End of story. By Biden’s own logic, it is irrelevant that he didn’t mean to harm or discomfit anyone, that Reade’s story may have changed over time, that she might have mixed motives, that she has a record of erratic behavior, a bizarre love for Vladimir Putin, and a stated preference for Bernie Sanders, who was Biden’s chief rival. It’s irrelevant that she appeared to tweet that she would wait to launch her accusations against Biden until the timing was right. And her cause has been championed by the Bernie brigade. The many red flags and question marks in her case are largely irrelevant under Biden’s own campus standards.

It seems to me that Biden has a simple choice here. He can either renounce his previous astonishingly broad and illiberal view of “sexual violence” and argue for more nuance and due process so that a case like Reade versus Biden isn’t a slam dunk in advance; or he should follow his own rules and withdraw from the presidential race. He will, of course, do neither.

I’ll vote for him anyway, because Trump.

Because. . . . Trump’s record of sexual misconduct is far more damning than Biden’s. But that’s a hell of a way to vote: choosing the lesser of two predators. In the end, though, I’m not convinced that Biden is guilty of assaulting Reade. The allegations are unsettling, but they’re old, not very substantiated, and I’d rather not ruin the country by voting for a predatory Republican narcissist over a “handsy” Democrat.

Sullivan is right to point out the double standard that Biden is using now versus what he pushed on American colleges. But I think he’s being too hard on Biden by saying that voting for Biden means he, Sullivan, would “be voting for a hypocrite who wants to ruin others’ young lives for what he has routinely and with impunity done.” That all depends on whether you think that the American courts should adhere to Biden’s own Title IX standards. I happen to think the reverse—that American colleges and universities should adhere to the American courts’ standards. And under those standards, you must consider Biden as innocent until proven guilty. You don’t have to vote for him, of course, but that would be a vote for someone far worse.

UPDATE: Reader Barry pointed me to an article in USA Today by a former Federal prosecutor, detailing why he thinks Reade’s claim against Biden is very, very weak.

h/t: Simon


Should schools ban the works of those accused of sexual harassment?

October 8, 2019 • 9:30 am

I suppose we should have seen this coming—especially after the novel Huckleberry Finn has been repeatedly removed from secondary-school courses for use of the “n word” and the book’s depiction of Jim—but it’s becoming more pervasive. And now this movement to remove works of art from classroom teaching, as recounted in the New York Times article below, is centered not on racism but on sexual harassment and abuse. That is, college professors are now removing from their syllabi works by men who have been accused of sexual malfeasance. I say “accused” because most of the authors and artists cited haven’t been proven to be sexual harassers, which in my view means that they should be considered innocent until proven guilty. (Some, like Roman Polanski, however, are clearly guilty.)

But these days an accusation is equivalent to a conviction, and so people like Woody Allen and Neil deGrasse Tyson are the subjects of discussions about banning, even though neither has been convincingly (to me) shown to be sexual harassers. (I’ve read a lot about the Woody Allen accusations and counter-accusations, and I still have no firm judgment about whether or not he was a pedophile).

There are thus several questions here. Should those accused of sexual malfeasance, but not proven to be guilty, still be removed from syllabi? And what about those who committed other crimes, like murder or assault (William Burroughs, after all, shot his wife in an ill-conceived William Tell incident, and Norman Mailer stabbed his wife, nearly killing her)? Why is it just sexual harassment, and not other crimes, that mandate removal from syllabi? Or should we stop teaching anyone accused of a serious crime?

Finally, as you might have guessed, I don’t think that even conviction for a crime makes a cut-and-dried case for removing someone from a syllabus. I find it hard to fathom a coherent argument for that, save the misguided one that teaching that work somehow ‘normalizes’ a crime or abusive behavior.

If you’re worried about that normalization, though, I consider it perfectly fine to read a work of art and then have a discussion about the artist’s personal life, and whether that affects one’s evaluation of the work. It might even be good to read a work cognizant of how it was colored by the artist’s life or ideology; but remember that calling attention to such things is sociology and social justice rather than literature, painting, cinema, and so on.

In my view, works of art can often stand on their own without any biographical addenda, and be valuable and teachable even if the artist was a bad person—as so many of them were. I find it hard, in fact, to downgrade a work of art if I know the artist was guilty of any crime or was accused of sexual harassment. (It goes without saying that sexual harassment or assault is inexcusable and execrable, but we are talking about the value of art.)

At any rate, read the article (click on screenshot below). I’ll give a few excerpts (indented; my own comments are flush left):

Here’s the kind of banning that has taken place:

Two years after the #MeToo movement exploded from a social media phenomenon to a national reckoning over harassment and gender discrimination, toppling powerful figures in nearly every industry, many continue to grapple with how to treat the work of men accused of sexual abuse. The issue is especially thorny in high school and college classrooms, where young people can form deep attachments to the writers and artists whose works help shape their worldviews.

Questions have swirled on campus about what to do with certain cultural mainstays: Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” Chuck Close’s “Big Self-Portrait,” even Neil deGrasse Tyson’s books on astrophysics. Should they be canceled — banished from public engagement like some of their creators? Or should they continue to be studied, only with frank discussions about abuse and harassment?

One might consider studying the works without “frank discussions about abuse and harassment”. Seriously, when reading the physics books of Neil deGrasse Tyson, do we need to drag in the accusations of sexual malfeasance against him—accusations that were not substantiated by several investigations? What would be the purpose of that in a physics class? Remember, Tyson was exonerated. And even if he wasn’t, do we need to ban him? Does that provide the optimal outcome: taking his contributions to science education away from the public?

There’s more:

Savanah Lyon, a theater major at the University of California, San Diego, who graduated in June, racked up more than 20,000 signatures on a petition last year calling on her school to cancel its longstanding “The Films of Woody Allen” course, after allegations that the filmmaker assaulted his adopted daughter. (Mr. Allen has consistently denied the claims.)

For Ms. Lyon, the question of whether to stop studying the works seemed a no-brainer. But the school’s academic senate rejected the petition in a statement, citing concerns about free speech.

Canceling a course because its materials are controversial or seen as morally problematic, the senate said, “would undermine both the value of free inquiry and the associated rights of faculty to engage in such inquiry by choosing their course content.”

Ms. Lyon was unmoved. “When you teach works like Woody Allen’s you’re normalizing and romanticizing the culture of abuse he was part of,” she said, noting the parallels between accusations against Mr. Allen and the relationships his characters have with younger women in films like “Manhattan.” “It’s not censorship to be selective when you choose the art you teach.”

Note that the putative cancellation is based on unproven allegations. On what grounds do we cancel a course on Allen’s films, then? Because an allegation is the same as a conviction? The UCSD Senate did the right thing; have a look at their statement at the link.

As for Savanah Lyon, she is trying to ban works of art because she assumes without evidence that Allen is guilty. Teaching his films is not “normalizing and romanticizing the culture of abuse he was part of”, since there’s no proof he was part of the “culture of abuse.”  In Manhattan, Woody Allen dates a 17-year-old, which, though not age-appropriate, is legal (below 17, sex is considered statutory rape). You can talk about whether such relationships are appropriate, and I have no objection to that, but I do object to banning the movie because it shows legal relationships with age differences.

Here’s another case:

Nadia Celis, an associate professor of literature at Bowdoin College, had her “Teaching the Caribbean” class upended when the author Junot Díaz was accused of harassment and unwanted sexual contact with at least two women last year. M.I.T., where Mr. Díaz teaches, cleared him of misconduct after an investigation found no evidence of his wrongdoing, but the accusations prompted intense debate in the literary world.

News reports of the allegations spread the same week Professor Celis’s class was discussing Mr. Díaz’s novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” She had planned for her students to discuss the novel’s themes, including toxic masculinity and abuse of power. Suddenly, she said, it seemed those subjects had come to life.

Her students were disheartened. Professor Celis had previously brought Mr. Díaz to campus to address students on navigating professional success as a man of color. Now she felt torn about using his most famous book — and still has not made up her mind about whether to assign it this year.

“I’m convinced that teaching the mind of male domination is important,” Professor Celis said. “But now I’m teaching against the book.”

Again, we have not just an accusation, but an accusation that was overturned by an investigation. That’s apparently not enough to keep your book from being removed from class.

As for Roman Polanski, yes, he admitted he was guilty of statutory rape, and then fled America to avoid jail. Should we then ban Chinatown and The Pianist from film classes? Not in my book.

David Foster Wallace has also been removed from the class syllabus of Amy Hungerford, dean of humanities at Yale, for accusations of abusive behavior toward women. There are allegations against him, of course, but I’m not aware that were substantiated in an investigation. And, at any rate, Wallace was a lifelong depressive who, after repeated hospitalizations, drug treatments, and electroshock therapy, killed himself. He wasn’t “normal” by any means.

In the end, I find myself agreeing with two professors quoted at the end of the article:

Nadia Celis, an associate professor of literature at Bowdoin College, had her “Teaching the Caribbean” class upended when the author Junot Díaz was accused of harassment and unwanted sexual contact with at least two women last year. M.I.T., where Mr. Díaz teaches, cleared him of misconduct after an investigation found no evidence of his wrongdoing, but the accusations prompted intense debate in the literary world.

News reports of the allegations spread the same week Professor Celis’s class was discussing Mr. Díaz’s novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” She had planned for her students to discuss the novel’s themes, including toxic masculinity and abuse of power. Suddenly, she said, it seemed those subjects had come to life.

Her students were disheartened. Professor Celis had previously brought Mr. Díaz to campus to address students on navigating professional success as a man of color. Now she felt torn about using his most famous book — and still has not made up her mind about whether to assign it this year.

“I’m convinced that teaching the mind of male domination is important,” Professor Celis said. “But now I’m teaching against the book.”

And so my answer to the NYT article’s title question is a qualified “Yes!”


Terry Gross interviews Jane Mayer, who wrote the NYer article defending Al Franken

July 26, 2019 • 10:15 am

UPDATE: In today’s New York Times, David Leonhardt agrees with Mayer’s conclusions, but also links to a number of journalists who have diverging opinions about Franken (click on screenshot below). Several, for example, think that Franken should have resigned without going through an Ethics Committee procedure. Read his piece, and the links, and decide for yourself.


The other day I highlighted a new New Yorker article by staff writer Jane Mayer about the accusations that Al Franken had sexually harassed LeAnn Tweeden and 7 other women. As you know, those accusations ended Franken’s stint as a U.S. Senator; he was forced out by Senate Democrats without an investigation, apparently because Democrats needed to look credible on the issue of sexual misconduct since they were accusing Republicans (like Roy Moore) of it.

Now we have an NPR interview in which Terry Gross interviews Mayer for 42 minutes, as well as playing clips of interviews and statements by both Franken and Tweeden (these interviews, which don’t appear in the New Yorker piece, are the most interesting, revealing, and exculpatory—to Franken—part of the NPR piece). The interview with Franken, which took place several years before Tweeden’s accusations, makes it pretty clear that he was not sexually harassing her in the famous picture shown below, but re-enacting a skit he’d performed on a USO tour many times. Mayer highlights the weakness (indeed, outright falsity) of Tweeden’s accusations, and how readily the press bought them without doing any checking or exercising due diligence.

Here’s the picture that ended Franken’s career as a politician. He’s sorry he behaved this way, noting that a sleeping person can’t give consent, but the pose is part of the skit that Franken had played in many times.

But what about the seven other women who accused Franken of sexual harassement? After all, one person might be wrong, or dissimulating, but seven?

Well, Mayer addressses them all more clearly than she did in her New Yorker piece. Two of them accused Franken of trying to kiss them on the mouth without permission, four accused him of touching them in ways that made them uncomfortable when they were taking a picture with Franken, and one person said that at a fundraiser Franken touched her inappropriately. Each of these instances lasted 3-5 seconds, and all were uncorroborated.

Following up on these accusations, Mayer concludes that Franken was a slob, but someone who was always posing for pictures, and was a hugger and lip-kisser of the type we see in the entertainment world. It seems likely that Franken was simply oblivious to how his behavior was perceived, but it’s also clear that he wasn’t guilty of sexual harassment, and that his expulsion from the Senate without an Ethics Committee investigation was unfair.

Click on the screenshot to hear the interview (there’s also a transcript, but it omits the interviews); when you get to the site, click the arrow at the upper-left of the screen:


At the end Gross asks Mayer the question that’s on everyone’s mind:

GROSS: So Jane, you’ve reported so many sexual harassment and sexual assault stories, dating back to the Clarence Thomas hearings. What’s the moral of the story regarding the Al Franken case? Where does that fit in in the #MeToo movement in your judgment?

MAYER: I talked to a number of incredibly smart feminists about how they saw it, and they’re quoted in this story trying to evaluate it, too. And I end the story with a quote from Debra Katz, who was the lawyer for Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Justice Kavanaugh of having sexually misbehaved towards her many years ago.

And so Debbie Katz, in this story, says she feels it’s a kind of a cautionary tale, that the #MeToo movement – which she is a tremendous supporter of, as am I – needs to make sure that there is some kind of due process. You need to make sure that there is proportionality in terms of, you know, being able to distinguish different gradations of bad behavior. Not everybody is Harvey Weinstein, but there may be other kinds of misconduct that also need to be addressed, but in different ways. And nobody is saying you need to put up with sexual misconduct, but there are just different levels of it.

And then, finally, you know, I think what she’s saying is that if you confuse less serious charges with serious ones, you feed a backlash against the whole movement that could hurt the movement. And there are number of women who are really strong feminists who worry about that in this story.

What was lacking here was due process, and that rush to judgment was what did Franken in. I for one think that the Democrats should have gone through with an Ethics Committee investigation rather than railroad the man out of office.

h/t: j.j.

Should Al Franken have left the Senate?

July 23, 2019 • 1:30 pm

There’s little doubt that had Al Franken not left the Senate because he was accused of sexual harassment, he would now be one of the top-polling Democratic candidates for President. In fact, I might have favored him over any of the other candidates. But there’s no chance of that: he’s gone and the accusations against him have rendered him political Kryptonite.

But article below by New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer, which just appeared in the magazine, makes a good case that Franken was not guilty of harassment; if anything, it suggests he was a “huggy” type devoted to his wife and family, and was blindsided by the accusations. And now he regrets resigning. Before your hackles go up because you think he was a predator, please read the article.  If you buy its thesis, you’ll also no longer see Kirsten Gillibrand, who led the call for Franken to resign, as a viable candidate for President, either.

GBJames called my attention to this piece (I no longer subscribe to the New Yorker, but this is free online; click on the screenshot). He also said this, which I quote with permission:

I’m pretty angry about how this went down and I can understand why Senator Gillibrand is having trouble getting much support.
Read on:

Some of the points include Franken’s regrets that he resigned under pressure rather than have a Senate Ethics Committee investigation of the accusations:

When I asked him if he truly regretted his decision to resign, he said, “Oh, yeah. Absolutely.” He wishes that he had appeared before a Senate Ethics Committee hearing, as he had requested, allowing him to marshal facts that countered the narrative aired in the press. It is extremely rare for a senator to resign under pressure. No senator has been expelled since the Civil War, and in modern times only three have resigned under the threat of expulsion: Harrison Williams, in 1982, Bob Packwood, in 1995, and John Ensign, in 2011. Williams resigned after he was convicted of bribery and conspiracy; Packwood faced numerous sexual-assault accusations; Ensign was accused of making illegal payoffs to hide an affair.

A remarkable number of Franken’s Senate colleagues have regrets about their own roles in his fall. Seven current and former U.S. senators who demanded Franken’s resignation in 2017 told me that they’d been wrong to do so. Such admissions are unusual in an institution whose members rarely concede mistakes. Patrick Leahy, the veteran Democrat from Vermont, said that his decision to seek Franken’s resignation without first getting all the facts was “one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made” in forty-five years in the Senate. Heidi Heitkamp, the former senator from North Dakota, told me, “If there’s one decision I’ve made that I would take back, it’s the decision to call for his resignation. It was made in the heat of the moment, without concern for exactly what this was.”

Other points that Mayer makes in her article (note: I am not saying she proves these contentions, but I will say that she makes a strong case that Franken was unfairly demonized).

  • Leean Tweeden probably fabricated her claim that Franken forced a kiss on her on stage or harassed her to kiss him. The famous photograph that did Franken in—his hands hovering over a sleeping Tweeden’s breasts—was actually one part of a USO skit (granted, not a particularly tasteful one) that Franken did on stage (he was on a USO tour when the photo was taken). (Franken admitted that the photo could be seen as “crossing a line,” since Tweeden didn’t give consent.


  • Tweeden had lied about other matters. She claimed in her bio, for instance that she turned down an offer of admission to Harvard to do modeling. That apparently didn’t happen.  She also told palpable untruths about her interactions with Franken.


  • A lot of the negative publicity about Franken originated with right-wing media like Sean Hannity—people delighted that they had a chance to take down a popular Democrat.


  • Franken was, however, “physically obtuse” and “clumsy”, and someone who kissed female acquaintances on the mouth as either a geeky or showbiz thing. He was appalled to find that that could be misinterpreted.


  • Franken was “not sufficiently contrite” in his apology.
  • Senate Democrats, many of whom now regret their behavior, were under pressure from the media and women’s groups to explain why they were “castigating Roy Moore but not Al Franken,” and felt they had to ditch Franken to win in Alabama.


  • Gillebrand and six other female Senators met with Chuck Schumer to tell him they wanted Franken’s resignation. Schumer apparently told Franken he had to resign, and Gillibrand also demanded his resignation This bit is particularly disturbing:

Gillibrand then went on Facebook and posted her demand that Franken resign: “Enough is enough. The women who have come forward are brave and I believe them. While it’s true that his behavior is not the same as the criminal conduct alleged against Roy Moore, or Harvey Weinstein, or President Trump, it is still unquestionably wrong, and should not be tolerated.”

Minutes later, at a previously scheduled press conference, Gillibrand added insult to injury: she reiterated her call for Franken to resign while also trumpeting her sponsorship of a new bill that banned mandatory arbitration of sexual-harassment claims. She didn’t mention that Franken had originated the legislation—and had given it to Gillibrand to sponsor, out of concern that it might be imperilled by his scandal.

  • But what about the other seven accusers? That is perhaps the most serious issue to confront, for each independent accusation adds more weight to Tweeden’s initial one.  Gillibrand says there were eight credible allegations, all corraborated by the press corps. That isn’t true; Gillibrand hadn’t spoken to any accusers, and the press was unable to corroborate any of the allegations discussed. Mayer, however, doesn’t go into all of the allegations in detail, some of which appear to have been attempted friendly kisses that were rebuffed rather than sexual assaults. The article describes one friendly kiss that constituted one of the accusations that brought Franken down:

Not long ago, I asked the woman if she thought that Franken had been making a sexual advance or a clumsy thank-you gesture.

“Is there a difference?” she replied. “If someone tries to do something to you unwanted?” From her standpoint, because she was at work—a professional woman deserving respect—his intentions didn’t matter.

Franken has maintained that the woman’s story was the allegation “that killed me.” I asked her if his behavior was bad enough to end his Senate career.

“I didn’t end his Senate career—he did,” she said.

Franken was stricken when I related her comments to him. “Look,” he said. “This has really affected my family. I loved being in the Senate. I loved my staff—we had fun and we got good things done, big and small, and they all meant something to me.” He started to cry. “For her to say that, it’s just so callous. It’s just so wrong.” Rubbing his eyes beneath his glasses, he said, “I ended my career by saying ‘Thanks’ to her—that’s what she’s saying.”

Was Franken a sexual predator? The article suggests that he was not,—not in the least. Was he guilty of trying to kiss women in a way that was misinterpreted? Almost certainly. Should he have resigned from the Senate rather than face an ethics investigation? I don’t think so. But the #MeToo climate was so strong at the time that he was doomed from the moment that The Picture appeared. And although some women, like Gillibrand, have no regrets about forcing Franken from the Senate, others are troubled. The article ends like this.

The lawyer Debra Katz, who has represented Christine Blasey Ford and other sexual-harassment victims, remains troubled by Franken’s case. She contends, “The allegations levelled against Senator Franken did not warrant his forced expulsion from the Senate, particularly given the context in which most of the behavior occurred, which was in his capacity as a comedian.” She adds, “All offensive behavior should be addressed, but not all offensive behavior warrants the most severe sanction.” Katz sees Franken as a cautionary tale for the #MeToo movement. “To treat all allegations the same is not only inappropriate,” she warns. “It feeds into a backlash narrative that men are vulnerable to even frivolous allegations by women.”

I, at least, felt sorry for Franken, for he feels blindsided and unfairly treated, and even became clinically depressed. He’s dropped out of sight and no longer can fulfill his mission to drop the comedy and be a good Senator. If you think he’s guilty, you’ll feel no pity for him and will say he’s gotten his just deserts. But read the article before you decide.

Tarring Steve Pinker and others with Jeffrey Epstein

July 12, 2019 • 1:35 pm

Several times this week I’ve seen people of low character go after Steve Pinker because of his supposed association with accused sexual predator and child-sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. (Note: my own view is that there’s overwhelming evidence that Epstein is guilty and, after a fair trial, deserves to go to jail for decades.)

But that’s not enough. I see articles where, on no evidence at all, scientists and atheists are tarred because they either knew Epstein or associated with him. This innuendo is meant to imply that those people knew about Epstein’s crimes and either ignored them or, perhaps, even participated in them. In other words, they’re complicit. I could reproduce several examples, but I suspect readers have already seen them, and I’m not going to highlight and send traffic to miscreants involved in slander or character assassination.

But this kind of stuff disturbed me so much—since Pinker is a friend whose character I respect—that I wrote to him, asking what was up with him and Epstein. Did he know the man, and under what circumstances? Didn’t he ever suspect that there was sexual predation going on? I told Steve that he didn’t have to answer if he didn’t want to, but that I was concerned, and that if he did respond, I wouldn’t publish anything he said without his permission.

Steve did email me, and when I read what he wrote I asked permission to publish what he said. I didn’t think he would say “yes”, but he did—as I would if I were so slandered—so here you have Pinker’s own response to the slurs against him. His words are indented.

I’m happy to share my encounters with Epstein.

The annoying irony is that I could never stand the guy, never took research funding from him, and always tried to keep my distance. Friends and colleagues described him to me as a quantitative genius and a scientific sophisticate, and they invited me to salons and coffee klatches at which he held court. But I found him to be a kibitzer and a dilettante — he would abruptly change the subject ADD style, dismiss an observation with an adolescent wisecrack, and privilege his own intuitions over systematic data. I think the dislike was mutual—according to a friend, he “voted me off the island,” presumably because he was sick of me trying to keep the conversation on track and correcting him when he shot off his mouth on topics he knew nothing about. But Epstein had insinuated himself with so many people I intersected with (Alan Dershowitz, Martin Nowak, John Brockman, Steve Kosslyn, Lawrence Krauss) and so many institutions he helped fund (Harvard’s Program in Evolutionary Dynamics, ASU’s Origins Project, even Harvard Hillel) that I often ended up at the same place with him. (Most of these gatherings were prior to the revelation of his sex crimes, such as the 2002 plane trip to TED with Dawkins, Dennett, the Brockmans, and others, but Krauss’s Origins Project Meeting came after he served his sentence.) Since I was often the most recognizable person in the room, someone would snap a picture; some of them resurfaced this past week, circulated by people who disagree with me on various topics and apparently believe that the photos are effective arguments.

In the interests of full disclosure, there was another connection. Alan Dershowitz and I are friends and colleagues, and we taught a course together at Harvard. He often asks me questions about syntax and semantics of laws, most recently the impeachment statute. While he was representing Epstein, he asked me about the natural interpretation of one of the relevant laws, and I offered my opinion; this was cited in a court document. I did it as a favor to a friend and colleague, not as a paid expert witness, but I now regret that I did so. And needless to say I find Epstein’s behavior reprehensible.

Since some of the social-media snark insinuates that I downplay sexual exploitation, it may be worth adding that I have a paper trail of abhorrence of violence against women, have celebrated efforts to stamp it out, and have tried to make my own small contribution to this effort.

My review of the history of rape and battering in The Better Angels of Our Nature begins:

“Rape is one of the prime atrocities in the human repertoire. It combines pain, degradation, terror, trauma, the seizure of a woman’s means of perpetuating life, and an intrusion into the makeup of her progeny. It is also one of the commonest of atrocities.”

The lengthy section lauds feminist writers like Susan Brownmiller who first documented the prevalence of rape and the historic indifference to it, and who called for concerted measures to eliminate it. I then refute the cynical assumption that those measures are idealistic or utopian, that nothing can be done to combat violence against women until some distant day in the future in which the patriarchy is finally dismantled or human nature changes. On the contrary, I show that this campaign has achieved considerable success: rates of sexual assault and domestic violence against women have dropped dramatically since data were first kept by Bureau of Justice Statistics, and societal tolerance has plummeted as well. (I updated the data In Enlightenment Now.) As far as I know I’m the only writer who has documented and celebrated actual progress in reducing violence against women, and argued that this progress shows that the effort is not futile and should embolden us to press for greater reductions still.

Given my longstanding distaste for everything Epstein, it’s galling to be publicly associated with him based on some photos and mutual associates, but I suppose this is one of the dubious perquisites of fame (by academic standards).  And it’s a particular hazard in the era of social media — last year I was featured in a New York Times op-ed by Jesse Singal called “Social Media Is Making Us Dumber. Here’s Exhibit A”; this year I appear to be Exhibit B.

There you have it. If people are going to tar Pinker by flaunting his association with Epstein, then Pinker deserves a reply. This is his reply, and any further discussion should take it into account.

Note: At Steve’s request I’ve made two small emendations for clarity.

Two pieces on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the new allegations against him

June 4, 2019 • 10:45 am

It is curious that the accusations of sexual misconduct committed by Martin Luther King, Jr., recently published in Standpoint by his biographer, the distinguished civil rights historian David Garrow, have largely been ignored by the mainstream press. I think it’s because the press doesn’t know how to respond to accusations of rape-enabling and abuse of women by someone as distinguished as Dr. King—someone who did more than anyone else to bring civil rights to African Americans in the last century. Given the cognitive dissonance among the Authoritarian Left when two of their values collide (another example is feminism vs. Islamic misogyny), I wondered if King would be given more of a pass than others because of his accomplishments. Although the accusations against King are still under legal seal until 2027, many have been deemed guilty by allegations as unsubstantiated as those against Dr. King.

My own take so far is to adopt a wait-and-see attitude, hoping I’m around when the evidence is unsealed, and to recognize that earlier evidence already showed King to be a serial philanderer. He was imperfect—maybe criminally so—but his legacy, his actions, and his writings still mark him as one of the most accomplished figures in American history. But so was Thomas Jefferson, who held slaves. Even now, at my alma mater The College of William and Mary, Jefferson’s statue is regularly being defaced. Lately we’ve seen the demonization of people like Dr. Seuss as well as Gandhi, whose statues have been taken down in South Africa. Somehow people haven’t yet come to terms with how we regard historical figures who have done bad things by modern lights. But clearly such judgments must balance good versus bad, recognize the complex nature of humans, and should have nothing to do with someone’s race.

The New York Times has finally come to grips with the accusations about King, but only in an op-ed by one person, Barbara Ransby. [Note added in proof: they just published another piece on King that I haven’t yet read.] Ransby is a professor of history, gender and women’s studies and African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is the author of “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement,” “Eslanda” and “Making All Black Lives Matter.” You can read her piece below:

The piece is not really a defense of King so much as an attack on those who accept, even tentatively, that King might have been a far worse sexual predator than we know. We can rule out many on the Right who seem to glorify in these revelations, as they really don’t like what King did. But Ransby, while properly pointing out that the evidence isn’t dispositive, attacks the FBI for its attempt to depose and terrorize King (true, but it’s still possible that the transcripts are right), and even Garrow for publishing unverified information. She gives more credibility to the testimony of Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford, as they were recounting their own stories rather than digging out someone else’s, as did Garrow.  And Garrow, who has impeccable credentials and no a priori animus against King, is criticized for wanting public attention,  for seeming to “want his own Me first spotlight by getting out in front of an unsubstantiated story” by telling the stories of women who can’t tell the stories themselves. That’s a bit unfair: many of the women are dead and even Garrow thinks that we need to wait before revising our judgment of King as a man (see below). Her subheading implies that Garrow is a “historical peeping Tom”.

Finally, Ransby brings in “resurgent white nationalism” to buttress King’s historical legacy, which stands untarnished to all rational people, and the racist way in which King’s “black sexuality” was described by the FBI. Probably true, but again irrelevant to the questions about his character. After all, it was King who talked about judging a man by “the content of his character.”

To be fair, Ransby does say, and I agree, that we need to wait until 2027 before we begin the painful process of evaluation:

If in 2027 when the full F.B.I. tapes are released there is credible and corroborated evidence that a sexual assault occurred and Dr. King was somehow involved, we will have to confront that relevant and reprehensible information head-on. But we are not there.

Indeed, but Ransby’s piece still looks a bit tendentious. King’s historical accomplishments are secure, though the man was imperfect and may have even been a malefactor, but neither she nor Garrow know the truth, and there’s no need to discredit Garrow and the FBI (which of course did do pretty awful things) in advance of the tapes’ release.

Politico has what I see as the most reasoned take about this whole issue, more so than Ransby’s piece (click on screenshot):

An excerpt of their piece (my emphasis):

The reports are full of erotic details and include revealing handwritten marginalia. But to the uninitiated, the written reports that Garrow cites are hard to interpret. They can’t be checked against the original surveillance tapes, which remain sealed, according to a judge’s order, until 2027. It’s hard to tell from a glance who precisely authored them, for what purpose they were drafted or what information they’re based on. It is Garrow’s decades of expertise in reviewing and analyzing FBI materials about King that gives these startling revelations their weight. Garrow has explained that while not all FBI claims are to be believed, these sorts of summaries of surveillance intercepts are unlikely to have been fabricated or manipulated.

And Garrow’s overall assessment is measured. Nowhere does he renounce the esteem for King that can be seen in his three important books on the minister’s life. Rather, he proposes that the possibility King tolerated or abetted a rape “poses so fundamental a challenge to his historical stature as to require the most complete and extensive historical review possible.” Garrow concludes with a call to preserve the recordings on which the FBI reports are based, so that we can learn more when they’re scheduled to be opened eight years from now.

. . .the Washington Post’s “Retropolis” blog, which declares Garrow’s article to be “irresponsible.” The thrust of the article is to insinuate that the FBI reports aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, and so Garrow shouldn’t have published them. But while the Post piece quotes some respected historians (including friends of mine) rightly noting that the FBI documents may not be entirely reliable—not least because of Hoover’s vendetta against King—it avoids the obvious, if painful, corollary that they may well be accurate to a significant degree. We should at least allow the possibility that the accusations are true.

That’s why it’s a mistake to discount Garrow’s article wholesale. Any historian who came across a new cache of documents related to a longstanding area of research would feel compelled to explore it—and, if those materials shed new light on the subject, to publish them.

. . .King’s greatness is such that he has weathered these disclosures. The rape charges are of course graver, but they don’t negate the historic achievements for which he has long been properly celebrated.

Even if the ugliest charges against King are bolstered by additional evidence, that doesn’t mean we should talk about renaming Martin Luther King Day, tearing down statues of him, or stripping him of his Nobel Prize. In recent years, we’ve had altogether too much wrecking-ball history—history that takes public or private flaws or failings as reason to cast extraordinary men and women out of our political or artistic pantheons. Historians know that even the most admirable figures from our past were flawed, mortal beings—bad parents or bad spouses, capable of violence or cruelty, beholden to sexist or racist ideas, venal or megalomaniac, dishonest or predatory. Awareness of these qualities doesn’t mean despising figures once held up as heroes. Rather, it gives us a more complete and nuanced picture of the people who shaped our world.

Garrow acted responsibly, I think. He put the tentative evidence out there, alerting historians to what he found and what needs to be examined in eight years. He is a reporter, neither an accuser nor a jury.

Until we know the real evidence, we should neither discount nor accept wholesale Garrow’s claims. And we should balance King’s private behavior against his accomplishments as a leader. But that standard should go for everyone, including Thomas Jefferson and Mahatma Gandhi.

h/t: cesar

A new portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. by one of his biographers paints him as a rape accomplice and abuser of women

May 30, 2019 • 10:35 am

Along with Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of my heroes. Both men, using their labor, their writing, their dedication, and especially their devotion to nonviolent civil disobedience, effected enormous social change. Gandhi helped get the British to “quit India”; King helped lead the civil rights struggles of the sixties that ended legal segregation. (King was of course influenced by Gandhi.)

And yes, both men were imperfect. Gandhi had some bizarre ideas about sex, neglected his wife, and thought India could support itself from the handloom industry. We all know of King’s marital infidelities, which were taped by the nefarious J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, with the recordings sent to King’s wife Coretta Scott King.

But not until now has the full extent of King’s serial infidelities become clear, and—far worse—his usage of woman as sexual objects and, worst of all, at least one case of rape which he egged on. Four days ago the Times of London published excerpts of an upcoming article by King’s biographer, but I haven’t read the article below because it’s behind a paywall.

The Times piece presages an article by  David Garrow, who is far from being a detractor of King. Garrow is a distinguished historian of both King and the civil rights movement, and here are his bona fides from Wikipedia:

He wrote the book Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986), which won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. He also wrote Liberty and Sexuality (1994), a history of the legal struggles over abortion and reproductive rights in the U.S. prior to the Roe v. Wade decision, Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama (2017), and other works.

Garrow writes frequently on the history of the United States Supreme Court and the history of the Civil Rights Movement, and regularly contributes articles on these subjects to non-academic publications including The New York TimesThe NationThe Financial Times, and The New Republic.

Garrow was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He graduated magna cum laude from Wesleyan University in 1975 before receiving his Ph.D. from Duke University in 1981.

Garrow served as a senior adviser for Eyes on the Prize, the award-winning PBS television history of the Civil Rights Movement covering the years 1954–1965. He has taught at Duke University (Instructor of History; 1978–1979), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Assistant Professor of History; 1980–1984), the City College of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center (Associate and full Professor of History; 1984–1991), The Cooper Union (Visiting Distinguished Professor of History; 1992–1993), the College of William and Mary (James Pinckney Harrison Visiting Professor of History; 1994–1995), American University (Distinguished Historian in Residence; 1995–1996) and the Emory University School of Law (Presidential Distinguished Professor; 1997–2005). From 2005 to 2011, Garrow was a senior research fellow at Homerton College, Cambridge. From 2011 until 2018 he served as Professor of Law and History and John E. Murray Faculty Scholar at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

I read Bearing the Cross many years ago, and loved it; it well deserved the Pulitzer, and it, too, was no hit job on King.  It did, as I recall, mention King’s infidelities, but we knew of them already, and they seemed limited, appearing to be a form of consensual adulterous sex that, while casting him as a bit of a hypocrite, didn’t seem to greatly tarnish his image as a civil rights leader.

But Garrow has now spent many hours listening to newly released FBI tapes and documents bearing on King’s life, and has a very dark tale to tell. Rod Dreher published some excerpts in The American Conservative last week (click on screenshot below), but I wanted to hold off until Garrow’s own article came out. You can read Dreher’s excerpts by clicking on the screenshot below, but there’s no substitute for the Standpoint piece below that, which was apparently rejected by several venues. As the American Spectator notes:

The UK’s Guardian commissioned David Garrow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Martin Luther King, to write an article detailing his shocking discoveries about the civil rights leader’s behind-closed-doors behavior, before pulling out with a kill fee. “Garrow had similar experiences with the Atlantic magazine and with the Washington Post — both of which he had written for before,” Michael Mosbacher writes at Standpoint, which publishes the controversial article on Thursday. “Conservative magazines in the US also felt the story was too risky to run. The same response came from a web magazine whose raison d’être is to fight for free speech. When Standpoint decided to publish it, the longest essay we have ever run, I approached a prominent British historian to write an article putting the revelations into context. The response: ‘No way! I’ll try to think of someone else who has the guts to drink from that particular poisoned chalice.’”

How can such a story be too risky to run in venues that wrote piece after piece about Harvey Weinstein? Well, we know: King is an American hero. But he misused his power just as Harvey Weinstein did. At a time when the personal lives of historical figures are being reassessed, King seemed untouchable, and shame on The Guardian, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post for not running this story: a story put together by King’s distinguished biographer.

Well, Garrow’s article was published only three hours ago in the UK magazine Standpoint, which is free online (click on screenshot):

It’s horrible—King’s behavior, that is. I will give only a few excerpts:

Newly-released documents reveal the full extent of the FBI’s surveillance of the civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King in the mid-1960s. They expose in graphic detail the FBI’s intense focus on King’s extensive extramarital sexual relationships with dozens of women, and also his presence in a Washington hotel room when a friend, a Baptist minister, allegedly raped one of his “parishioners”, while King “looked on, laughed and offered advice”. The FBI’s tape recording of that criminal assault still exists today, resting under court seal in a National Archives vault.

The FBI, of course, loved this stuff, and they come off as nefarious and disgusting. But we knew that:

The FBI documents also reveal how its Director, J. Edgar Hoover, authorised top Bureau officials to send Dr King a tape-recording of his sexual activities along with an anonymous message encouraging him to take his own life.

The complete transcripts and surviving recordings are not due to be released until 2027 but when they are made fully available a painful historical reckoning concerning King’s personal conduct seems inevitable.

This information comes from transmitters planted in King’s hotel rooms by the FBI:

Staying in one of the two targeted rooms was King’s friend Logan Kearse, the pastor of Baltimore’s Cornerstone Baptist Church and, like King, the holder of a PhD from the Boston University School of Theology. Kearse “had brought to Washington several women ‘parishioners’ of his church”, a newly-released summary document from Sullivan’s personal file on King relates, and Kearse invited King and his friends to come and meet the women. “The group met in his room and discussed which women among the parishioners would be suitable for natural or unnatural sex acts. When one of the women protested that she did not approve of this, the Baptist minister immediately and forcibly raped her,” the typed summary states, parenthetically citing a specific FBI document (100-3-116-762) as its source. “King looked on, laughed and offered advice,” Sullivan or one of his deputies then added in handwriting.

And shades of Donald Trump:

At the Willard Hotel, King and his friends’ activities resumed the following evening as approximately 12 individuals “participated in a sex orgy” which the prudish Sullivan felt included “acts of degeneracy and depravity . . . When one of the women shied away from engaging in an unnatural act, King and several of the men discussed how she was to be taught and initiated in this respect. King told her that to perform such an act would help your soul.” Sometime later, in language that would reflect just how narrow Sullivan’s mindset was, “King announced that he preferred to perform unnatural acts on women and that he had started the ‘International Association for the Advancement of Pussy Eaters’.” Anyone familiar with King’s often-bawdy sense of humour would not doubt that quotation.

There is intimation of tax fraud, and evidence of prostitution. This is the last excerpt I can put up because reading them almost makes me weep. And believe me, there are a lot more such stories.

[FBI] Agent William H. Been had heard rumours that King had patronised a local prostitute and decided that given King’s “position as a God-fearing man of the cloth . . . perhaps a casual inquiry made to the prostitute in question might shed an interesting side light to King’s extra-curricular activities”. At 3 a.m. on May 16 Been met Gail LaRue, a married 28-year-old who had left four children from a prior marriage in Sheridan, Wyoming. Gail explained that at 2 a.m. on April 27, a hotel bellman had asked her to go to the New Frontier Hotel and see the well-known black gospel musician Clara Ward, whose Clara Ward Singers were performing there. In the lobby, Ward handed Gail $100 and told her: “I have a couple of friends in town that would like to meet you and have you take care of them.” Ward said “she was paying Gail . . . because these two men did not believe in paying a girl for her service and for Gail to keep quiet about receiving any money.”

Clara took Gail to the bar at the Sands Hotel and made a call on the house phone. Martin Luther King then appeared in the bar and took both women to his room, where all three began drinking. King phoned one of his colleagues and told him to “get your damned ass down here because I have a beautiful white broad here”. Then “both the Rev King and Clara Ward stripped naked and told Gail to do the same.” With Gail seated in a chair, “King went down on his knees and started nibbling on her right breast, while Clara Ward did the same with her left breast. Gail then stated, ‘I guess the Reverend got tired of that and put his head down between my legs and started nibbling on “that”.’ After a while he got up and told Clara Ward to try some of it, so Clara went down on Gail for a while. Gail stated, ‘I think Clara Ward is queer’.”

Then King had intercourse with Gail while Clara watched. “After what Gail stated seemed like hours, King rolled off and had another drink, then climbed back on for a second go around.” After King paused again, his friend showed up, had a drink, and had intercourse with Gail “while both Clara Ward and the Rev King watched the action from a close-by position”, with Clara sometimes stroking Gail as well. “Gail then stated that she was getting scared as they were pretty drunk and all using filthy language and at last she told Clara Ward she would have to go.” Clara informed King, who “then whispered in Gail’s ear, ‘I would like to try you sometime again if I could get you away from Clara’.”

Here is Garrow’s conclusion:

King’s far-from monogamous lifestyle, like his binge-drinking, may fit albeit uncomfortably within his existing life story, but the suggestion—actually more than one—that he either actively tolerated or personally employed violence against any woman, even while drunk, poses so fundamental a challenge to his historical stature as to require the most complete and extensive historical review possible.

There’s no doubt that the FBI comes off badly, with its obsession about King and his sex life and his attempts to get him to kill himself, but we’ve long known that J. Edgar Hoover was a reprehensible human being: an arrogant dictator who wielded absolute power for decades, using it to destroy whom he considered the enemies of America.

The big question, of course, is not whether King was a bad person: he clearly was a horrible person in many ways, even a criminal, but also did enormous good in advancing civil rights. He was a mixed person, but far more mixed than any of us suspected or that any of us would like.

What happens now? Perhaps the Left will treat him differently from, say Harvey Weinstein, because King was such a force for good, but he did exactly what Weinstein did: used his power to seduce, degrade, and even rape women. Garrow is clearly disturbed as well. But will statues of King be taken down now? If not, why not?

What we face is a need to revise our assessment of a man now dead, not of his leadership of the civil rights movement. I weep for his victims, and I weep for his family, now subject to a revelation that he was an odious sexual predator. I cannot see overlooking the latter because of the good he did. If what Garrow wrote is true—and I have every expectation that it is—it will be interesting to see what happens now. Nobody can accuse Garrow of confecting rumors to destroy King’s reputation.

Should Garrow have ignored this story? No, of course not: in fact, he is the best person to tell it. And he has an obligation, as King’s biographer, to paint a full picture of the man.  How sad that this picture is now marred in a way most of us never suspected. As someone said, “We live in interesting times,” but in this case I wish the times weren’t so interesting—that King was as upright a man in private as he was in public. But he was human, with all of our flaws, and some of his flaws are both reprehensible and criminal. He’ll never look the same to anyone, including admirers like me.

I am eager to hear readers’ take on this: how do you think we should look at King now?

h/t: cesar