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Saturday, June 13, 2020

The Digital Age: "He stuck his finger in your what?"*

**A line from Support Your Local Sheriff starring James Garner

It's a false dilemma.  It arises from a slovenly use of language.  But a good portion of the nation will thrash around about it rather  than engage in some critical thinking and apply knowledge.  

It is the matter of accusations of sexual harassment or assault.  Women's complaints of sexual harassment in the past were ignored and dismissed.  In the early 1990s, feminists worked hard to establish that when women complained of sexual mistreatment, they should be believed.  The #Me Too movement created the slogan "Believe Women" to promote taking women seriously when they registered a complaint.  However the slogan morphed into "Believe All Women" which somehow was interpreted as "Believe Women Always." 

The Tara Reade accusation against Joe Biden has challenged that slogan.  There is much about her contention that is hard to believe.

If the idea of equality is taken seriously, women should be as free from diminishing and assaulting behavior as men are in regard to their gender.  When they say they have been sexually mistreated, their complaint should be acted upon through the procedures of due process.  But equal treatment also invites an examination of the credibility of the  accusation.  Men sometimes exaggerate and lie.  Women do, too.

As a matter of disclosure,   I was once the president and grievance officer of the faculty union whose job it was to ensure that due process was followed for both the accusers and the accused in sexual discrimination and harassment matters.  FortunateIy, I had few such cases to deal with.  On the campus where I worked, the president asked the college attorney to devise a special set of procedures to handle sexual harassment complaints that would protect the complainants from embarrassment and further harassment.  The process that was devised violated so many principles of due process that the university could have been sued out of existence if it applied them. Administrators fear nothing more than being sued.  So, the procedure  was scrapped.  The school had cases which involved the firing of a couple of horny deans.  And there were some verbal exchanges about which complaints were  registered, but they were matters of people objecting to coarse language, not sexual harassment per se.  There was a case in which a student was angered by a failing grade on a test and she ended up accusing the professor of sexual harassment.  He had been accepted for a better job at a more prestigious university and, fearing that his new job might be in jeopardy, he hired a high-powered law firm to handle the complaint.  The lawyers quickly obtained evidence that the student was acting in retaliation for a failing grade and was lying about the harassment,   and she and the university could not withdraw the complaint fast enough when they realized the matter was headed for court.

What the university and I learned from that incident was that accusations have to be intensely but confidentially examined.  The young professor's family had connections with powerful lawyers and the money to pay for them,  and they were able to gather hard evidence that the accusation was false.  His case demonstrated that accusations were sometimes false and vindictive.   But the young professor's case was unusual in that there was documentation and witnesses for every interaction that he had with the irate student.  For most sexual harassment cases, there is little specific evidence recorded about what actually took place.  They are usually "he said, she said" matters for which no objective evidence can be found.

Tara Reade has made changing, inconsistent contentions.   The circumstances she describes do not fit the incident.  Fellow employees recall that she did not do her job competently.  She describes an incident that took place in a remote, isolated hallway.  All the hallways in the building she refers to are open and bustling.  She claims she was asked to serve drinks at a fundraiser, but that would be against the rules that apply to Senate employees.  And longtime employees on Biden's staff cannot recall any reports made about him, and the accusation is contradictory to the character they know.  Reade has been found to be so mendacious that court cases at which she testified as an expert witness are now under review for possible appeals. Finally, her lawyer withdrew from her case.   Her own account of her experience on Biden's staff contains comments that suggest that she was not considered competent and urged to find another job for that reason.  The tone of her account is typical of a retaliatory tale told for vengeance.

Some enterprising reporters attempted to recreate the incident with Biden as Reade has told it.  Her story is that she was told to deliver a gym  bag to Biden so that he could work out.  When she delivered the bag, according to her story, they were in remote hallway where he grabbed her, tried to kiss her, and vaginally penetrated her with his fingers.   The reporters found no out-of-the-way corridors on the route to the gym, but a hallway well-traveled  by senators and their staffs.  Reade can't remember what happened to the gym bag during the scuffle she portrays.  The press says three people corroborate her story.  They don't corroborate the facts; they corroborate  that she told them that story.  But she told different, conflicting versions to other people.  Joe Biden has emphatically declared that the incident never happened.

Ultimately, the accusation against Joe Biden is a symptom of politics which have sunk to stupidly malicious personal attacks.  Even some Democrats are caught up in the pandemic of malice.  A disappointed Bernie Sanders supporter picked up the Reade story and dismissed Joe Biden on the social media as just another old, white rapist.   Trump's puerile malice is infectious.  The fact that the president tweets false accusations seems to be taken by some people as license for them to do so, also.

When the politicians have been asked about the Reade accusation, they tend to respond that they believe  her, but will vote for Biden.  They dare not say that they have doubts about her story.  They are caught in  the contending ire of misogyny and misandry and the fear of offending opposing bigotries.   The fact is that the stories told by Reade and her corroborators are incoherent.  When asked about the contradictions and inconsistencies, they reply that is the way the story came out for them.  Whatever that is supposed to convey.  

The story has preposterous aspects.  Its reporters are suggesting that both Reade and Biden should be believed.  But before they ask us to believe anything, we should ask them to check the facts and explain the contradictions, inconsistencies, and improbabilities.  That's what reporters are supposed to do.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States