Liberalism, Conservatism, Skepticism

Andrew Sullivan —  Dec 7 2014 @ 8:27pm

Thanks to the Washington Post, Tom Maguire and Hanna Rosin, we have a glimpse of what might have actually happened to UVA’s “Jackie”:

A group of Jackie’s close friends, who are advocates at U-Va. for sex-assault awareness, said they believe that something traumatic happened to her, but they also have come to doubt her account. A student who came to Jackie’s aid the night of the alleged attack said in an interview late Friday night that she did not appear physically injured at the time but was visibly shaken and told him and two other friends that she had been at a fraternity party and had been forced to have oral sex with a group of men. They offered to get her help and she said she just wanted to return to her dorm, said the student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

That’s a horrific story, if it pans out. The failure of the school to investigate more assiduously remains salient. The climate for young women on a campus where many readily believed the gang-rape-broken-glass-“grab it by its leg” version does not cease to be a pressing issue. The truth could be damning enough.

So why did an inflammatory, lurid, and apparently fallacious story get into print – with only one source and no corroboration – breaking most basic journalistic rules in a serious publication? Rich Bradley is surely right: it was a too-good-to-check story that echoed what many truly wanted to hear. It managed to suggest that the “rape culture” we are now told is endemic is even worse than you could possibly imagine, and ignored in plain sight. It implicated individuals in various stigmatized groups (among many journalists and activists) – i.e. the dreaded evil trifecta of “white”, “men” and “Southern”. Its details – from the shattered glass and the beer bottle sodomy – had an irresistible allure. Questioning it was like questioning whether Saddam Hussein actually did have WMDs – it seems as if you are excusing an evil figure, or being terminally naïve, or minimizing the danger. We believe what we want to believe – and, in our public debates, we also keep searching for the perfect anecdote or fact or story to refute our opponents for good and all.

Both sides do this. Republicans couldn’t accept the already-damning and uncontested facts about Benghazi – that the danger to the consulate was under-estimated, security was lax, and people died as a consequence. They had to make the story fit a bigger narrative – of treachery and betrayal at the highest levels, a story that could dispatch Obama and Clinton in one news cycle swoop. And so they have made an ass of themselves as much as Rolling Stone has. I’ve done this too – in 2002 and 2003, when I simply did not see what was in front of my nose on Iraq. So I don’t think that the lesson of this latest embarrassment is that we do not have a grave problem of campus rape; or that anything more than a tiny fraction of those claiming rape are fraudulent. I think the lesson is to be more skeptical of things you want to believe than of almost anything else.

This is difficult, especially when you believe you are in the vanguard of social justice – and the ends can justify the means. It is much easier, for example, to believe that the vicious murder of Matthew Shepard vindicates a worldview where every straight man is a gay-basher until proven otherwise, and that the hatred of gays is close-to-pathological in its fury. It is much harder to absorb a still-terrible but much more complicated story of a horrible mixture of homophobia, the meth subculture and petty criminality.

This is why liberalism matters as much as progressivism, which is on my mind a little as the demise of TNR has sunk in. For many, TNR’s legacy of airing internal dissent, its controversial questioning of progressive shibboleths, its inclusion of some conservatives in its ranks, its constant sallies against liberals as well as conservatives, and its airing of taboo subjects, make it a risibly racist/sexist/homophobic/classist institution that deserves to die. I dissent. What it long represented was the spirit of liberalism in the American tradition – a spirit of fearless inquiry, serious argument, and a concern for the truth. That TNR failed in some of these attempts does not damn it. Not to try to confront feelings with reason, or ideology with fact is a far worse inclination. In fact, as so many instant hysterical and self-serving stories flicker across our screens and phones, we need TNR’s beleaguered liberal spirit as badly as we always did. We need it among publications on the right as well as the left. In these polarized, self-cocooning days of Facebook “likes” and doxxing, of intensifying groupthink and moral posturing, of Twitter lynch-mobs and instant fads, we need  more voices willing to question their own “side”, more turds in more punchbowls, more writers willing to be open to facts that undermine their own ideology, to express skepticism precisely in those areas where dogmatism is creeping in.

We try to do that every day here at the Dish – because, in part, I was trained and influenced and formed by some of the best minds in this great liberal tradition in American letters, and because I have tried to learn from my own errors. It isn’t easy and it isn’t fool-proof. But that tradition must not die; or, sooner rather than later, our democracy will.

(Thumbnail image cropped from a photo by Bob Mical)