Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Following Roy Moore’s defeat in the Alabama Senatorial race, the political Nostradami of both parties are furiously predicting either doom or salvation for the other party. Dems think Doug Jones’ win means the South is up for grabs, and flipping the Senate and maybe even the House is possible. Donks predict that with the toxic Moore off the table, Jones’ win will no more flip the Senate than Scott Brown’s win did for the Republicans in 2010. More interesting is what Moore’s rise and fall tells us about our dysfunctional political culture.
Take the weaponization of sexual harassment and assault charges. A movement that started with Harvey Weinstein, a blatant offender who left enough credible evidence to start a criminal investigation, expanded into an orgy of accusations including clumsy flirting, boorish passes, juvenile gags, and other behaviors that in a workplace might constitute sexual harassment, but would not be subject to legal sanction. The level of subjective interpretations involved in many of these charges confuses the issue even further, and can leave determining “sexual assault” in the eye of the beholder. And of course, false charges are easy to manufacture once we are instructed to believe every accuser before any corroborating evidence is available.
An example of how subjective the standards are for making a serious accusation can be seen in the case of one of the three women who recently accused Trump of sexual impropriety. Here’s NBC’s reporting of one woman’s charge:
[The accuser] said when she competed in Trump’s Miss USA pageant in 2006, Trump came backstage unexpectedly when she and other contestants were wearing nothing but robes and he personally inspected the contestants. “I just felt so gross,” she said. “Just looking me over like I was a piece of meat … “Nobody dreams of being ogled when you’re a little girl wanting to wear a crown,” she added.
As reported, this charge is preposterous. We’re talking about a beauty pageant, not a spelling bee or the Academic Decathlon. These contestants are chosen for their physical beauty, including their sexual allure. I’ve never seen an obese homely woman in one of these pageants. And wouldn’t the accuser have shown more of her body during the swimsuit competition than Trump would’ve seen when she was wearing a robe? And isn’t being “ogled” the whole point of parading around on stage in a bikini? Given the accuser’s standard, every male judge and audience member was guilty of sexual assault.
Or take the fate of New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza, recently fired for “improper sexual contact” with a woman with whom he had a relationship several years ago. That phrase is so opaque and subjective as to be meaningless. As for the accuser, she remains anonymous, and has not offered any specific details. All her lawyer will say is that Lizza’s characterization of the consensual relationship as “respectful” is “hogwash,” again without giving any specific details. So, on the word of an anonymous ex-girlfriend that Lizza perpetrated sexual “misconduct,” he is fired by the New Yorker and CNN, and his career is left in ruins.
Then there is the reality that some women, for whatever reasons, will make false accusations against men, a phenomenon as old as Potiphar’s wife, who in Genesis accused Joseph of attempted rape after he rejected her advances. And lest one thinks this is a sexist slur from the benighted age of patriarchy, in recent years we’ve had several instances of false accusations of sexual assault: the Duke lacrosse team case in 2006, in which three team members were falsely accused of rape; the fabricated story of gang rape at the University of Virginia in 2014 that cost Rolling Stone magazine $1.6 million to settle a defamation claim with the fraternity accused in the story; and the Columbia student known as “mattress girl,” whose story of rape by a fellow student in 2014 has been discredited by exculpating evidence. These are just a few of the more famous cases.
The point is not that charges of violent sexual assault should be dismissed or ignored, any more than any accusation of violent assault should be. Rather, the demand that a woman “must be believed” absent any credible evidence that a crime has taken place is a dangerous standard that leads to public opinion and media ideological prejudices functioning as judge, jury, and executioner.
The case of Ray Moore illustrates the difficulty of adjudicating competing claims. I wouldn’t bet five bucks that Roy Moore is guilty or innocent. There’s simply not enough concrete evidence beyond the claims of the accusers. Some have holes in their stories that cast doubt on their charges, and the timing of the revelations was suspicious. Right before the election, after Moore had defeated Luther Strange in the primary, these charges decades old suddenly surfaced. Those of a conspiratorial bent might think that the Dems wanted Moore to win rather than Strange, who would have been a much stronger candidate in the election. This doesn’t mean Leigh Corfman, or any of the other women are liars. But a fundamental principle of law is cui bono, who benefits. For the rest of us, absent any convincing corroboratory evidence, the more rational and fair course is to leave it up to the voters of Alabama.
The larger issue is one that has always plagued our political discourse, but has become toxic since the rise of Donald Trump. That is the self-righteous, holier-than-thou virtue-signaling that hangs like a miasma over our public commentary. Of course, proven immoral behavior should be called out and condemned. But the problem is a lack of discrimination in deciding what standards should be used in casting judgments on what’s is immoral. A standard that lumps Ryan Lizza in with Harvey Weinstein is too broad to be useful. So too is equating the use of violence or coercion to force sexual favors, with a juvenile prank like Al Franken pretending to grope a sleeping woman’s breasts.
What follows is a debasement of language that camouflages our expansionary definitions of what constitutes a deed so heinous that if it is proven to have happened, the perpetrator must be shunned and exiled. Of all the allegations against Roy Moore, only Leigh Corfman’s charge that he sexually fondled her when she was fourteen would, if true, be enough to question his character and fitness for office. But too many commentators used phrases like “child molester” or “pursued teenage girls” sexually when describing all the other women who accused Moore. These writers seldom reminded readers that the age of consent in Alabama is sixteen, as it is in 32 other states, and that the other accusers were sixteen or older when the alleged incidents occurred. Using such sloppy language is intended to raise the damning specter of “pedophilia,” a word that used to refer to a sexual psychosis that focuses on prepubescent children, but now is applied to pubescent teenagers, as terminal NeverTrumper Bret Stephens did when he tweeted that the GOP is now the “GOPP. Grand Old Pedophile Party” for supporting Moore’s candidacy. Such rhetorical dishonesty suggests that political preferences, not morality, lie behind the commentator’s fulminations.
Finally, the continual shifting of moral standards, and the political expediency that determines when such behavior and charges should be made known and used to exclude a politician, has left a smog of hypocrisy polluting our political culture. Exhibit number one is New York Democrat Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Before calling on Al Franken to resign because “any kind of mistreatment of women in our society isn’t acceptable,” Gillibrand had chastised Bill Clinton for not resigning over the Monica Lewinsky affair twenty years ago. Even an anonymous Democrat strategist couldn’t swallow that inconsistency: “All this reeks of is political opportunism and that’s what defines Kirsten Gillibrand’s career. Why wasn’t she talking about Bill Clinton when he was helping her during her various races for the House and Senate? And would she be talking about Bill Clinton today if Hillary Clinton was president? I think we all know the answer.” Indeed, Gillibrand is widely known to be planning a run for the 2020 Democrat presidential nomination.
Proven deeds, not contested allegations, should factor into a calculation of a candidate’s character and fitness for office. And our moral standards should be consistent and clear, with precise discriminations between crimes and boorish behavior, not double standards that serve political ideology. Nor should we adopt the Caesar’s Wife standard that makes mere suspicion a disqualification. That is to expect that men – and women – should be angels. But as James Madison said, if people were angels we would not need government at all.
But since we are not angels, we cannot make purity a standard for holding public office. We have to balance character against principle, use consistent standards no matter whose partisan ox is gored, and accept that flawed humans necessarily will be governed by other flawed humans. Whether they have lived well is God’s business, but whether they govern well is ours.