During the 1970’s Norman Lear’s most famous and important show All in the Family aired two episodes about rape. The more famous of the two (“Edith’s 50 Birthday”) was an hourlong episode where Edith Bunker was almost raped, but managed to flee at the last moment. The less famous (and less heralded) of the two episodes, “Gloria the Victim” aired 5 years earlier. Archie and Edith’s daughter Gloria was also nearly sexually assaulted after she walked by a construction site. When Gloria goes to the police, an investigator shreds her credibility and her reputation, basically calling her a slut who would let this happen. The investigator was doing this to show Gloria how a defense attorney will tear her apart on the stand and to prepare her for the ramifications of reporting her near-assault to the police. In the end, Gloria decides not to press charges. Edith’s decision to go to the police at the end of “Edith’s 50 Birthday” was a way for All in the Family to correct what to happened to Gloria–perhaps not intentionally although the show does tie the episodes together. “Gloria the Victim” showed how society revictimized woman who come forward with sexual abuse claims by calling their character into question. It was that mentality–the woman secretly wanted to be assaulted–that feminists have been trying to combat for decades.
I imagine that most people would be horrified if what happened to Gloria or Edith happened to them (or their mothers, daughters, wives, or sisters.) Since that time, an entire generation of women have been taught, properly, that “No Means No.” Rapes happen too frequently (and date rape more than any other kind), but our society appears to have decided that have no tolerance for rapists. More often than before we want to give the victim the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, there are examples of this mentality in the extreme. The quintessential example was the Duke University lacrosse scandal. The media (The New York Times in particular) and Duke determined that these young men were guilty before trial. Therefore, in the court of public opinion, they were guilty. It turned out that the young men who were charged, and whose lives could have been forever ruined, were not only innocent, but Mike Nifong the district attorney engaged in deliberate and pernicious misconduct (including withholding evidence): to benefit his political career. Although he paid for his sins and the charges were dropped, the damage was done to all parties involved.
I bring up All in the Family and the Duke lacrosse case because the same vilification is happening all over again in the curious case of Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. Assange was accused of rape. Maybe he did it, maybe he did not. The point of a trial is for both sides to have their day in court and for an unbiased fact-finder to determine the truth. If we doubt the efficacy and fairness of a trial, the criminal justice system will crumble.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I despise WikiLeaks. I am baffled by the position that WikiLeaks is protected by the First Amendment (an ironic claim given that Assange is Australian and the site is not based in the United States.) Wikileaks is neither speech nor press; it is a black market of illegally-distributed restricted information, and Assange is its proprietor. Assange has become something of a cult leader (complete with unquestioning followers), but freedom of religion is not at issue here. Having said that, while I hate the site, I do not offer an opinion on its legality (black market comparisons aside.) More importantly for the purposes of this post, I make no judgment about whether Assange or his accuser is telling the truth; it is not my place.
What fascinates and horrifies me is the public reaction, particularly the reaction of the political left. When the Duke lacrosse scandal came out, the strongest accusations came from the left (not universally, but in general yes.) The left wanted to see the lacrosse players punished because they were white, lacrosse-playing, frat boys, and the accuser was a poor, African-American woman.* There are still people who, even after the case fell apart, attempted to justify their witch hunt and argue that the lacrosse players should have been punished.**
The pendulum has swung back. Assange’s defenders are like the investigator in All in the Family. Without a trial, they already assume that Assange’s accuser is lying or working on behalf of the American government to destroy Assange. Certainly that is the image Assange wants to put forward, but he obviously would–and should. I have no sympathy though for the behavior of his supporters.
Why do so many people automatically believe Assange’s innocence? Cult of personality aside, the unacknowledged truth is that the political left hates the American government every bit as much as the political right does. The difference is that the left needs the government more. The goals of the left, which are more compassionate than the goals of the right, require large scale federal intervention. But the left also intensely believes that the federal government is trying to erode civil rights and civil liberties.*** To the left, George W. Bush personified those fears– and he played his part as their pantomime villain to perfection. Barack Obama’s election was supposed to roll back the Bush Administration’s perceived attacks on civil rights and civil liberties. The Obama Administration has done a little (very little), but not nearly enough to satisfy a left that is only satisfied with total victory (inevitably it is very rarely satisfied.)
By defending Assange and WikiLeaks, a site designed for humiliation and destabilization, the left is striking back at the government they so fear and resent (and are disappointed in.) WikiLeaks is the equivalent of a child’s temper tantrum, but on a potentially devastating scale. The left dresses its fury at the federal government in First Amendment and freedom of information clothing so as not to admit that deep down they are just like the Tea Party–a group that was created entirely out of and fed by paranoia. Assange is to the left what Glenn Beck is to the right: someone who can stir baseless fears and enflame needless passions. The only difference is that Assange traffics in stolen truths whereas Beck spreads cynical fabrications and outright lies.
Rather than admit that Assange may have done something reprehensible, the left perceives him (and therefore themselves) as the victim. As a result, all of the maxims that the left built with regard to potential rape victims (such as not accusing them) are being tossed aside. The unthinking defense of Assange only underscores how much the Duke lacrosse case was less about the woman and more about the racial and socioeconomic overtones of the situation.
The reaction to the Assange case is a return to the “Gloria the Victim” societal mentality that Norman Lear railed against and tried to fix. Assange’s defenders are trying to shred his accuser’s integrity without letting her present her case. In doing so they are throwing out their ethics for politics.
*Universities are hotbeds of faux-social justice issues taken up by all-too-often misguided and ignorant teenagers who think they know everything. At Duke the problems were particularly pronounced because of the tension between the university and the surrounding town.
**Conversely, how many of those same people were angered when Roman Polanski, not just a rapist but a child rapist, was arrested because the crime (for which he was never punished) happened so long before? And for what? Because he was a film director. The idea of excusing horrible people of crime because they make subjectively–or even objectively–great art is noxious at best. Hollywood and the self-proclaimed intelligentsia severely misjudged the public reaction to Polanski, and for once I had in the judgment of Americans.
***The American Civil Liberties Union is an outgrowth of the left’s fear of the government. The political right looks at the ACLU as defenders of terrorists, murderers, and flag-burners; that however, is an unfair caricature, and it lacks an understanding of the ACLU’s mission. The ACLU does not defend horrible criminals because it wants to; it does so because it wants to ensure that the government exert a power it does not and should not have. In such cases (especially criminal cases) there are very rarely sympathetic facts. The truth though is that the facts of the cases, and even the individuals involved, mean very little to the ACLU, although they would not admit that; the ACLU cares about the legal principals behind the facts and individuals involved. True conservatives, the kind who want to limit federal power should be sympathetic to the ACLU. They are not however for two reasons (1) conservatives see the people the ACLU defends rather than principles, and therefore cannot see how they would be affected; and (2) true conservatism has largely been replaced by a new political ideology which believes in federal government expansion, just not when Democrats are in charge.