Like most people, I cannot know for sure what actually happened between Joe Biden and Tara Reade many, many moons ago, or, for that matter, what may have once transpired between Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford. No one knows for sure but the individuals (and/or eyewitnesses) themselves, and memories of long-ago encounters may not be sharp — or may become vivid in one person’s recollection and utterly vague in another’s. If I were asked to detail an incident that happened a quarter-century ago, absent serious trauma, I’d be completely stumped. There’s a reason for statutes of limitation. And a reason that in a liberal society an individual is deemed innocent until proven guilty.
Nonetheless, I tend to believe women on these matters as a starting point. They have to endure all sorts of exposure and embarrassment for coming forward, and their claims should always be treated respectfully, compassionately, and fairly. It’s been a serious gain for civilized life that women are not routinely ignored or universally trashed for protesting against their assaulters and harassers. Some trust for all women is vital.
But just as vital in a liberal society is verification. I believe strongly in due process, especially with grave allegations of sexual assault. Revolutionaries, like those behind the Shitty Media Men list, don’t care if an individual is unfairly accused because, well, in the grand scheme of things, the ends justify the means. In an otherwise admirable attempt to protect women, their respect for liberalism and its frustrating procedures for establishing guilt or innocence was notable by its absence. In fact, it is liberalism that they see as an impediment to their cause, because it is, to them, a mere mask for oppression.
The problem with defending due process in a case like Biden’s with respect to Tara Reade is that Biden himself, when it comes to allegations of sexual abuse and harassment, doesn’t believe in it. Perhaps in part to atone for his shabby treatment of Anita Hill, Biden was especially prominent in the Obama administration’s overhaul of Title IX treatment of claims of sexual discrimination and harassment on campus. You can listen to Biden’s strident speeches and rhetoric on this question and find not a single smidgen of concern with the rights of the accused. Men in college were to be regarded as guilty before being proven innocent, and stripped of basic rights in their self-defense.
Harvard Law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen noted the consequences of Biden’s crusade in The New Yorker last year. “In recent years,” she wrote, “it has become commonplace to deny accused students access to the complaint, the evidence, the identities of witnesses, or the investigative report, and to forbid them from questioning complainants or witnesses … According to K.C. Johnson, a professor at Brooklyn College and an expert on Title IX lawsuits, more than four hundred students accused of sexual misconduct since 2011 have sued their schools under federal or state laws — in many cases, for sex discrimination under Title IX. While many of the lawsuits are still ongoing, nearly half of the students who have sued have won favorable court rulings or have settled with the schools.”
On Friday’s Morning Joe, Biden 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. He 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.”
Particularly a court of law? A court cannot even inquire what a woman said in a disputed sexual encounter? Couldn’t that be extremely relevant to the question of consent? Or ask if she were drinking? It may be extremely salient that she had been drinking — because it could prove rape, if she were incapacitated and unable to consent and sex took place. But Biden’s conviction that young men on campus should be legally handicapped in defending themselves from charges of sexual abuse occluded any sense of basic fairness. In 2013, the Obama administration codified new rules for treating claims on sexual harassment and assault, which, according to the civil liberties group, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, abandoned “objective” or “reasonable person” standard, in order to protect young women from young men.
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.
Biden is now claiming simply that he never did what Tara Reade said he did. Let’s posit that he didn’t. Too bad. If he were to attempt to defend himself, by his own campus logic, he would be barred any knowledge of what he was precisely accused of, even the identity of his accuser; he would be unable to see the results of any investigation; and his own claims of innocence would be rejected if the woman merely subjectively felt as if she were being abused, regardless of his own intent. Likewise, he could be deemed guilty even if he were completely innocent. As Ezra Klein, a thoroughly mainstream liberal, has explained, the broader fact of sexual abuse on campus required a few broken eggs to make the liberated omelette. In discussing a new “affirmative consent model” in California, Ezra famously wrote:
Critics worry that colleges will fill with cases in which campus boards convict young men (and, occasionally, young women) of sexual assault for genuinely ambiguous situations. Sadly, that’s necessary for the law’s success. It’s those cases — particularly the ones that feel genuinely unclear and maybe even unfair, the ones that become lore in frats and cautionary tales that fathers e-mail to their sons — that will convince men that they better Be Pretty Damn Sure.
Now apply this standard to Biden. By Biden’s own standards, he’s guilty as charged. Reade claims Biden never got affirmative consent from her, 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. If you’re using sexual assault as a way to judge a candidacy, Trump’s open record of boasting about it, and the long, long list of women he’s abused and assaulted is surely dispositive. But supporting Biden does mean I’ll be voting for a hypocrite who wants to ruin others’ young lives for what he has routinely and with impunity done. I can live with that, I suppose. And it won’t, of course, be the first time. Or, in all likelihood, the last.
The Official Epidemic Toll — and the Real One
The most reliable statistics we have relate to death. Dead bodies exist and have to be accounted for, even if how or why they die might be open to debate or questioning. That’s why murder statistics are the most reliable in matters of crime. Of all crimes, they’re the most definitively provable. And it’s also why, it seems to me, that the number of COVID-19 deaths are best determined by excess mortality over the usual range. Counting confirmed cases as the only provable coronavirus statistic for deaths is far weaker in comparison. It counts only those who have gotten to a hospital, or had the extremely rare privilege in America of having access to testing. It ignores, as it has to, any other unproven COVID-19 fatalities, especially among the elderly at home or in assisted-care facilities.
That’s why the total death counts right now are so startling. In New York City, for example, the official tally for coronavirus fatalities as of April 30 was 12,287 confirmed deaths; but the total number of excess deaths by that date suggests that 5,300 or more should be added to the count. Some of this may be attributed to secondary effects: people reluctant to go to the hospital in a time of plague or some other unknown vagary. But common sense suggests that most deaths above and beyond the normal average should be associated with COVID-19. In New York, that means adjusting the figure upward by 43 percent.
In Britain, the official count of deaths has been made up entirely of those who had been tested positive in hospital and who had perished, and, as of April 17, was 20,904. But the total excess deaths figure, which includes deaths at home or in nursing homes, was much higher, at 31,500. Again, this is not a trivial adjustment, it’s a substantive one. In some countries, such as Spain, the discrepancy can be huge: The official count as of April 12 was around 17,000, and excess deaths were at 25,400.
The confirmed deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. between March 1 and April 4 was 8,128. According to a Washington Post study, there were, in the same time period, 15,400 excess deaths. Again, this is not a small adjustment. It’s close to double the official confirmed number. A similar Financial Times study found the global excess deaths in March and most of April were “a total of 122,000 deaths above normal levels, compared with 77,000 from the official numbers.” Again, that’s a 60 percent difference. Huge.
The current estimate of a little over 62,700 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. may, in due course, come in at more like 100,000 at this time. This matters, it seems to me, if we are to get a real sense of where we are, and when we might think of mitigating the near-total shutdown of the country right now. Now imagine a more severe second wave, like the one in the fall of 1918. Suddenly, the magnitude of this epidemic becomes clearer. And Anthony Fauci’s estimate in late March of somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths by the end of this nightmare seems somewhat, well, hopeful.
Being Phyllis Schlafly
I finally got around to watching Mrs. America, Hulu’s dramatization of the life and career of Phyllis Schlafly, arguably the most important conservative activist of the late 20th century. I’m not enough of a film expert to know for sure, but it strikes me as a breakthrough for Hollywood. I’ve never seen a movie or Netflix-type series that treats a right-wing firebrand as anything other than a reactionary, self-hating caricature, and that’s especially true of conservative women. But Cate Blanchett’s performance and Mrs. America’s script presents Schlafly in her many manifestations: mother, wife, organizer, polemicist, lawyer, media star, and activist. It doesn’t condescend, doesn’t demonize and, as the series has gone by, I’ve even found myself rooting for Schlafly as the underdog in an epic battle to stymie the utopian overreach of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Yes, there are some veiled swipes, as Christine Rosen points out in Commentary, such as an absurd scene in which Schlafly parades around in a bathing suit at a Republican fundraiser. But I can’t share Rosen’s view that the writers “use Schlafly’s activism as a way to convict her for what they see as her internalized misogyny, racism, and narcissism, and to praise feminism by contrast.” Really? Blanchett’s Schlafly is a brilliant evocation of a woman with agency, skill, fierce intelligence, and extraordinary willpower. And her balance between her home life, motherhood, happy marriage, and her professional activist ambitions presents, at least to my eyes, a woman who had already banished any sense of female inferiority or deference or submission from her psyche, and was making a sustained and prescient argument about the differences between the sexes as well as their equality. In this, it seems to me, Schlafly was way ahead of her time, not behind it.
And the show’s depiction of the pro-ERA feminists is pretty damning. Rose Byrne’s Gloria Steinem comes off as a vacillating, shallow, vain egomaniac; Tracey Ullman’s Betty Friedan strongly suggests that her feminist anger came out of crushed romantic dreams; Bella Abzug is only slightly more appealing — but largely because her pragmatism seems so sane in comparison with the antics of her fellows. A true standout is Uzo Aduba’s portrayal of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for president. Her integrity, tenacity, and charm come through. And what the series gets so right about left-wing identitarianism is how riddled it often is with jealousy, personal rivalry, and internal spats. There are some scenes — like a Ms. magazine party at the Guggenheim — that seem like they could have been written by Tom Wolfe. The intersection, if you’ll forgive my using that word, of glamour and elite left-wing politics is pretty damning of both.
The feminists completely underestimated Schlafly, because their vain self-regard could not believe that any serious pushback against the ERA could be rooted in real arguments about the difference between the sexes rather than their interchangeability. They regarded the Schlafly brigades as tools of the patriarchy, dumb, poorly read and educated, displaying privilege rather than different ideas. And it may be, as the creator of the series, Dahvi Waller, told the New York Times’ critical gender-theory newsletter, In Her Words, that she intended to show Schlafly as someone who “built a gilded cage and got locked inside it.” But that isn’t what I gleaned from Blanchett’s brilliant performance.
What I get from that is Schlafly’s determination to keep the option of a gilded cage while also defending the right of any woman to break out of it, if they so choose. Schlafly’s version of feminism is, in fact, less a reactionary one than a truly prescient one. She was the first feminist (though she would reject that label) to depict traditional home and family life as something not to be despised, as long as women had the choice to abandon it. That “pro-choice” position is more contemporary than the 1970s feminist movement’s condescension to the homemaker.
Yes, the series shows how the anti-feminist movement overlapped in the South with racial segregationism (which is important to note); but it also shows how allergic many early feminists were to lesbians, and how keen they were to distance themselves from homosexuality. The flaws are on both sides. But the very structure of the story — which is essentially one of an unlikely underdog who persists and eventually triumphs — had me rooting for Schlafly. And Blanchett’s performance is so strong, so nuanced, so empathetic that it breaks the mold. This is the first time I’ve seen a conservative woman portrayed as human, complicated, vulnerable, and also extraordinarily courageous. It gives me hope that one day, the culture will honor the black conservative and the gay one as well — and not demonize them as evil reactionaries or wipe them from history.
See you next Friday.