Thursday, September 27, 2018

National Crucible

“Trump Asks Why Kavanaugh Accuser Didn’t Just Immediately Request Hush Money”
 —Headline in The Onion, September 21
Sixty-five years ago Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible premiered on Broadway. Recounting the story of the Salem witch trials of 1692-93, it tells the following story. Several young women alarm the community with their strange behavior. Under persistent questioning, they eventually accuse several townspeople of consorting with the devil. In the resulting hysteria, citizens are arrested, put on trial and, despite their protestations of innocence, convicted and hanged. The play was a thinly veiled allegory of the campaign to root out Communist influence in American society in the 1940s and 1950s. Thus, among his other literary contributions, Miller popularized the term “witch hunt” in the political sense.

Six decades later there is again hysteria across the land. As in the 1950s, the hunt is on to find people secretly working with Russians and against America’s interest. The difference now is that, instead of the political right hunting Russians under every bed, it is now the political left raising the alarm over Russian bots lurking in our social media accounts and controlling the commander in chief in some kind of Manchurian Candidate-style plot. We keep waiting for Special Counsel Robert Mueller to give us the definitive word on what exactly went on between the Trump campaign and the Russians, but so far we have only the hysterical speculations of politicians and commentators. People have been indicted, but so far only for infractions unrelated to the election or for so-called process crimes, that is, transgressions arising from not cooperating fully with the investigation itself.

Some people think that the #MeToo movement is a wave of hysteria. Personally, I think that any concerted campaign that roots out people abusing their authority or preying on the vulnerable is a good thing. If the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby are convicted in a fair trial, by all means punish them to the full extent of the law. On the other hand, there are instances of calling out alleged perpetrators that have an air of the French Revolution or the Chinese Cultural Revolution about them. For example, the allegations made against actor Aziz Ansari by a 23-year-old anonymous woman sounded like nothing more than a bad date. The accusation by Jimmy Bennett against fellow actor Asia Argento (who played his mother in a movie) sounds like an audacious attempt to cash in on the fact that he was 17 when they had sex. Of course, I don’t know the real truth of any of these situations. It’s not as though I was in the room when any of these things happened. Should I even try to have an opinion?

That brings us to the current circus which is the confirmation hearings of President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. What are we to make of it? On one hand, it is not actually necessary for me to have an opinion on it because it is the Senate that will be voting, not me. On the other hand, being a serious citizen requires me to have some sort of opinion. It comes down to whom one believes about things that happened decades ago and whether one believes those alleged events should be disqualifying. But since there is no objective way for any of us to know what the truth is in this situation, the question is really, who should get the benefit of the doubt? It does not help that the last-minute allegations against Brett Kavanaugh are such that they can not be objectively proved or disproved. You hear some people say that, in cases of alleged assault or rape, the woman should always be believed. That policy would certainly simplify things, but unfortunately one of the people currently saying this is Hillary Clinton, who vilified the multiple women who made accusations against her husband. And what about the accusations made by Tawana Brawley and Crystal Gail Mangum (of the Duke lacrosse case), which were eventually proven false? No matter how prevalent male criminal behavior may be, it makes absolutely no sense to consider a person more credible purely because of her gender.

My fear in all of this is that the progress made by the #MeToo movement will be undone by by one party’s blatant wielding of it as a political weapon. Donald Trump’s behavior towards women was well documented by the time he became a serious candidate for president. He had earned no benefit of the doubt, but I certainly took notice when multiple women made public accusations against him, all on the same day and each one located in a state about to hold a primary vote. Nor has it escaped my attention that the allegations against Kavanaugh, who had heretofore appeared to be nothing but squeaky clean after six separate FBI background checks, began to be doled out by activist Democratic lawyers, one after another at a point in the process when there would be little time to adequately vet them. Trump may well have won the presidency because enough voters decided that women’s accusations against him were politically and/or monetarily motivated and so could be discounted. The danger for Democrats—and for everyone—is that the allegations against Kavanaugh will look like such a blatant and callous partisan smear that it will undermine the credibility of the #MeToo movement in general.

When I think back on The Crucible, I am struck by the coincidental parallel of it chronicling the downfall of a basically good man because of overwrought testimony from various women who were egged on to condemn him. Of course, that does not mean the same is happening to Judge Kavanaugh. Besides, The Crucible was written by a man. But I am also reminded of another seminal literary work, one which was written by a woman. In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson is accused by Mayella Ewell of rape. Though we are given plenty of reason to doubt her story, it turns out to be an instance where the jury chooses to believe the woman. Tom Robinson is convicted and ultimately dies in a vain attempt to escape.

In that case, as in the cases of Trump and Kavanaugh, people end up choosing to believe what they need to believe.