In the 1980s and 1990s, a sex panic of unprecedented scale and destruction swept the United States and several other places. In over a dozen cases, day care workers were accused of ritual sexual abuse of young children. Often, these accusations included references to Satanic worship and other outlandish details that should have raised red flags at the time. Reading about them now, as you can in this Wikipedia article, it’s almost impossible to believe that many of these accusations became criminal cases. As a reporter for the New York Times would later say, many of these charges were “wildly implausible.” To pick one example, a day care worker was accused of bringing in a parrot that pecked children on their genitals. Others involved claims that the accused literally flew, or built networks of secret tunnels to underground lairs. Many other accusations were just as fanciful and hard to believe.
And yet not only were these accusations believed, in many cases they resulted in arrest, prosecution, and conviction. It wasn’t just that children, who are notoriously susceptible to adult suggestion and have been shown again and again to be unreliable witnesses, made the accusations. It’s that those accusations were believed without any appropriate skepticism by parents, police officers, jurors, and judges. Dozens of people were prosecuted; hundreds of lives were ruined. People collectively served dozens of years in prison for crimes they were totally innocent of. The human cost was immense. And it all happened within the last 30 years or so.
Looking back now, two things strike me: one, how crazy it is that this hysteria, and the resulting injustice, even happened. And two, that almost nobody ever talks about it. Many people of even my own age, in the mid-30s, seem unaware it happened at all. Younger people appear to be even more ignorant. Yet it strikes me as an absolute perfect historical example for why we maintain rights of the accused in our judicial system, and for why we should operate with caution and care as public citizens when any crime is alleged. Because we know that our justice system routinely produces unjust outcomes, and because we know that our public deliberations on guilt or innocence are often misguided, and have real destructive consequences for the wrongfully accused. Ask the surviving family members of Richard Jewell if the public’s perception of guilt or innocence makes a difference. Or ask the Central Park Five, whose wrongful rape convictions were undoubtedly provoked by public outrage and public certainty.
Today, Gawker ran a piece about a sexual assault accusation against the late British Prime Minister
David Edward Heath. Someone in the comments compared this accusation to those against Bill Cosby. I find that troubling: Cosby’s accusations come from far more people and, at this point, seem to me to have far more evidence in their support. So I said so. I didn’t make the case that the accused was innocent. I merely expressed the possibility that he may have been innocent. The response was about what you might expect from the vague 21st century progressivism that is the default in Gawker’s comments:
“Demanding independent corroboration of sexual assault charges is utter bullshit. By law, New York City wouldn’t prosecute rape up through the late 1960s unless there was a witness to corroborate the victim’s story. Guess how often rape got prosecuted then. Get stuffed, you pompous, clueless, sex-crime-enabling windbag.”
To be clear, I never said that every rape accusation needs to have a corroborating witness to be proven true; that’s not a standard I believe in, and I didn’t say anything like that. I did say that this accusation does not seem to have nearly as much corroboration as those against Cosby, where literally dozens of women have come forward to offer remarkably consistent and detailed accusations. That doesn’t mean Heath was innocent; he very well may have been guilty. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the facts demonstrate that he was guilty, and if he was, he deserves all the posthumous condemnation people will bring to bear. I just don’t think the evidence is as compelling as in the Cosby case. (If anything, that attitude seems insulting to Cosby’s many accusers.) It also means that I think a rush to judgment in cases of alleged sexual abuse is a bad idea, as history should teach us. But even the most mundane calls for avoiding a rush to judgment — not just due process in a court room, but fairness outside of one, given the immense damage these accusations can do to someone’s reputation — now results in immediate, angry condemnation. And, inevitably, the enforcement mechanism that people bring to bear in this debate:
“Y’know, it’s fascinating how often I see you worrying about accused rapists’ lives being hypothetically ruined by internet commenters who don’t want to give them the benefit of the doubt. This is doubtless unfair of me and will cause steam to come out of your ears, but your tireless efforts to save accused rapists from nonexistent problems makes me think you’re taking such accusations a little too personally.”
In other words, if you make the case for due process and basic fairness for those accused of sex crimes, you must be a rapist. For the record, you can review my actual output and find that I don’t actually make this case nearly as often as the commenter suggests, but the point remains the same: if you suggest that we shouldn’t operate under a blanket presumption of guilt when accusations of sex crimes are made, you deserved to be accused in similar terms.
The commenters at Gawker are not, I’m sorry to say, out of step with many young progressives today. Many of the vaguely leftish young people I interact with now deride any reference to due process or rights of the accused, when it comes to sex crimes, as inherently evil, conservative, and misogynist. Indeed, the topic of rights of the accused for those who face allegations of sex crimes is now frequently dismissed with eye-rolling and the blanket assumption of bad faith, as if maintaining rights central to a free society is similar to conspiracy mongering about chemtrails.
This would be weird enough, but it becomes even more bizarre when you consider that we are in a moment of unprecedented attention for criminal justice reform. #BlackLivesMatter is one example of a broad, increasingly bipartisan, cross-ideological reckoning in this country with the sorry state of our criminal justice system. Distrust of cops and prosecutors is rampant, and not just among the left-wing anymore. Indeed, that distrust is frequently found among Gawker’s commenters… in every case except for allegations of sex crimes. Most of the time, the progressive street writ large tends to be skeptical of accusations of crimes, and of our ability to secure justice through the criminal courts. But for reasons I can’t understand, when it comes to issues of sexual violence, that skepticism disappears. More than disappears: the conventional progressive wisdom has become that anything other thank blanket presumption of guilt is actively offensive and misogynist. You can read arguments from people like Zerlina Maxwell and Jessica Valenti if you think that’s an exaggeration. Gawker’s commenters have certainly taken that argument to heart. Many of them were certain, for example, of Conor Oberst’s guilt, and of the guilt of the fraternity at the heart of the Rolling Stone University of Virginia story. Not just certain, but actively, aggressively accusatory of anyone who wasn’t.
I’m sorry to say that they’re all the same cops. It’s all the same system. We don’t magically get a better, more just, less racist, more competent, less corrupt criminal justice system when the accusations in question are for sex crimes. That’s not at all an argument against sexual assault prosecutions. It’s simply a call for a similar, natural skepticism — not towards victims, but of the system. And not just the criminal justice system, but our broad public determinations of whether someone is guilty or innocent, determinations that have profound and lifelong consequences for those who find themselves on the wrong end. Victims don’t fail. But we fail, frequently, as the producers of collective judgment.
Acknowledging that failure, acknowledging our own imperfection and weakness, does not at all amount to denial of the fact that false rape claims are very rare, which I believe, or a refusal to treat sexual violence as especially heinous, which I do, or a lack of empathy and respect for those making accusations, both of which I feel. It doesn’t mean that we can’t make adult judgments about cases like that of Cosby, where the evidence is great, the corroboration compelling, and the conclusion obvious. It just compels us to slow down. That’s all.
This has to be repeated to everyone in younger generations, because I genuinely think that many of them simply don’t know this: it is the left that has traditionally defended the notion of due process in the court room and fairness outside of it. It’s the left that has traditionally said to slow down and to get the facts right. It’s the left that has expressed skepticism about the ability of groups of people to arrive at wise and judicious decisions about who is guilty and who isn’t. The speed with which that’s changed, and how little we’ve actually discussed that change, is remarkable.
The broad coalition of the left wing has to come to some sort of understanding about these issues. Perhaps the decision will be that, to be a member of the left, you simply must believe all accusations of sexual violence by default. Maybe that’s what’s going to happen. But we have to actually acknowledge that this is already the general standard among so many young progressive types today, and we have to talk very seriously about what the long-term consequences of that condition are. We also have to ask ourselves how that can possibly not result in inequality and misconduct, given what we know about policing in this country. I would suggest, though I’m not entirely impartial on this, that we must be able to have this discussion without routinely accusing those who argue against a rush to judgment of hating women, apologizing for rape, or being likely rapists themselves.
Ultimately, this question is not merely about the left’s stance towards our police state. It’s about the left’s relationship to certainty. For a long time, I’ve pointed out that the idiom of the left is not just strong belief in the superiority of our values but utter certitude in our superior grasp of the facts. We don’t merely argue that our side is correct, anymore; we argue that anyone who has not already realized that our side is correct is a buffoon, if not actively evil. On Twitter, the default left-wing critique is that of open-mouthed disbelief that people do not already believe what we think they should believe. I think, in the long run, this belief in the totalizing, frictionless perfection of our ideology leads to a very dark place indeed. I ask instead that we remember that doubt has always been a left-wing value.
When I bring up cases like the Satanic day care abuse hysteria with those who express utter certainty about guilt or innocence, I often perceive them to be thinking: that was other people. I’m me. And I know everything about good and evil.
I suggest you read the Times piece I linked to above. It’s about Peggy McMartin Buckley, one of the accused in the Satanic day care hysteria. She spent years in jail and was on trial for far longer. Her reputation was ruined. Her career was ruined. Her life was ruined. To many leftists, Buckley’s case seems to represent success: her accusers were believed by default, and in the long run, she was acquitted. We as a political movement have to ask ourselves if Peggy McMartin Buckley is the kind of collateral damage we can live with. But first we have to acknowledge that those are the stakes.