Politics, culture, ideology and sex, not necessarily in that order.
I have to admit, there have been moments when I have doubted Emma Sulkowicz’s story about being raped by her Columbia classmate Paul Nungesser. Not at first—she seemed perfectly credible to me when I spoke to her last year, for a Nation story about campus sexual assault. But then, in December, Ariel Kaminer’s New York Times article about Nungesser came out. “He has gotten used to former friends crossing the street to avoid him,” Kaminer wrote. “He has even gotten used to being denounced as a rapist on fliers and in a rally in the university’s quadrangle.” I couldn’t help but imagine how horrifying it would be to face such ostracization if you were innocent, and to wonder if he possibly could be.
A few months after Kaminer’s story, Cathy Young published a piece in the Daily Beast quoting friendly Facebook messages that Sulkowicz sent to Nungesser just days after the alleged assault. I know that rape victims can behave in ways that, from the outside, seem strange and counterintuitive. I know that they can try to appease their attackers, and that it can take a while for those raped by intimates to admit to themselves what happened. Yet those messages seemed so insouciant and confident. When Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” came out, about the sexual brutalization of a University of Virginia student named Jackie, I’d felt a flicker of skepticism. If frat boys were really going to lure a young women into a premeditated gang rape as some sort of initiation, wouldn’t they do it somewhere secluded, not at a crowded party? Then I’d suppressed it, worrying that perhaps I was in denial about the true scope of rape culture.
When that story was discredited, one lesson seemed to be not to put aside doubt for political reasons. Perhaps, it occurred to me, much as I wanted to believe Sulkowicz, I should heed the unease I’d felt reading about Nungesser. I didn’t think Sulkowicz was a liar. I wondered, though, if over time she had transformed an ambiguous sexual encounter into something more definitively horrific.
Now that another woman has come forward to write about her alleged assault by Nungesser, I look back on my own thought process and see how doubt can be as reflexive as credulity. I see how easy it is for victims’ stories to be undermined, how simple it is to make a woman—any woman—seem a little bit crazy and prone to exaggeration. The piece, published in Jezebel in response to posters plastered around Columbia calling Sulkowicz a “Pretty Little Liar,” sheds new light on the case and shows how successful Nungesser has been at creating a counter-narrative to Sulkowicz’s. “Every time I read another version of this narrative—that Nungesser merely ‘picked the wrong friends,’ that the complaints against him were a calculated vendetta—my stomach flopped,” writes the anonymous author. “Don’t forget: before he appealed away the conviction, Paul Nungesser was found responsible for sexually assaulting a woman at Columbia. And I’m writing this because that woman was me.”
Of course, we already knew there had been other accusations: Nungesser has faced repeated investigations and disciplinary hearings, though he’s ultimately always escaped any finding of guilt. An ex-girlfriend accused him of “intimate partner violence,” including non-consensual sex, but the university dropped the case against him after she stopped answering e-mails. The author of the Jezebel piece says Nungesser followed her into a room at a party, closed the door behind them, and grabbed her, refusing to listen to her protestations; she ultimately pushed him off her and rushed out. She brought a complaint, which was initially successful; after a hearing, he was put on disciplinary probation. But he appealed, and when she declined to participate further, the judgment was overturned. Then, just last month, Nungesser faced yet another tribunal for sexually assaulting a male victim known pseudonymously as Adam, who lived in his dorm. Again, Nungesser was vindicated.
Viewed from one angle, of course, the multiple accusations confirm one another. But for Nungesser’s defenders, the fact that he was repeatedly cleared, even under evidentiary standards far more lax than those in a court of law, suggests that he was the victim of collusion by students who wanted to see him punished one way or another. The fact that two accusers ultimately declined to follow through strengthens this story.
Young, one of Nungesser’s most dogged media allies, describes the scenario this way in a recent Reason piece: “If Nungesser is innocent, it is entirely plausible that Sulkowicz and [his ex-girlfriend], who met at a party and discussed their history with him shortly before they filed charges, may have genuinely goaded each other into the conviction that he abused them…. It is also entirely plausible that [the Jezebel writer] and Adam either reinterpreted their past encounters with him, or even fabricated stories in the sincere belief that they were helping eject a rapist from the house and supporting his victims. The problem is…a campus culture that fetishizes trauma and turns ‘survivorship’ into a cult.”
The Jezebel author, however, doesn’t sound like a cult member. She sounds like someone who values her privacy and scrupulously followed the rules when she decided to press forward with her charges. “When I filed the complaint against Paul, I didn’t know it would turn into a national event. It was over a year before Emma started carrying that weight, months before what happened at Columbia helped sparked a national dialogue about rape on college campus,” she writes. “I was just trying to do the right thing.”
She explains how even after going through a “horrible and draining” trial, she was initially willing to fight it again when Nungesser appealed, despite having graduated and just started her first full-time job. “I tried to follow through with the process, until I started feeling frustrated beyond belief with Columbia’s incompetence: they kept doing things like calling me in the middle of the day at work to talk about a sexual assault,” she writes. “Eventually, I withdrew from the process. Why should I trust a system that had given my assailant another chance? Without any of my previous testimony allowed to be used at the trial, he won. I wasn’t surprised.” Since then, she’s tried to avoid publicity, to “decline interviews and stay small and quiet,” she writes.
It is sad that she realizes that having been “small and quiet” will bolster her credibility. But she is right. Sexual-assault victims are in a double bind. If they try to remain anonymous and put the incident behind them, their attackers escape with impunity. If they demand that the world recognize what happened, they’re tarred as liars, drama queens, or hysterics. There will be something in their past, something in their behavior that can be used to call whatever they say into question. The inevitable vagaries of real life, the way it always resists conforming to pat dramatic convention, will be used against them.
“If you’re reading this and doubting Emma—if you’re reading this and doubting me—please ask yourself why I’m taking the time to write this,” writes the Jezebel author. “Ask yourself why I filed a complaint against someone I had considered a friendly acquaintance (before my assault). Ask yourself why four unrelated people have taken the time and energy to come forward and file complaints against him. Read Jon Krakauer’s Missoula. Get outside what happened on Columbia’s campus. Try to realize that our stories are everywhere, on every campus, and we’re not all activists like Emma or unreliable sources like Jackie. Some of us are quiet about our stories even if we’re completely sure.”
Absent physical evidence, the rest of us can’t be completely sure of anything. But for me, at least, it’s sobering to see, even in myself, who gets the benefit of the doubt, and what I should expect if I should ever need it.
Read Next: Michelle Goldberg on what happens when you slash funding for public universities
For a movement that so often disdains identity politics, conservatives sure love to deploy them. In 2008, Sarah Palin’s vice presidential nomination was a risible, tone-deaf attempt to capture women voters disappointed by Hillary Clinton’s primary loss. After Barack Obama became president, the GOP attempted to shed its overwhelmingly white image by putting the clownish Michael Steele in charge of the party. And now, Carly Fiorina is counting on conservatives’ desire to counter excitement over Clinton’s renewed ascendency with a lady candidate of their own.
Fiorina, a failed CEO who has never held any sort of elective office and rarely even voted before her entrance into politics, is clearly not going to be the Republican nominee for president. She probably knows that—my guess is that she’s running for vice president, and, failing that, a Fox News gig. It’s a clever move for a political opportunist, because there’s a vacancy on the right for a female anti-feminist. With so-called women’s issues poised to play an unprecedented role in the upcoming election, Republicans need someone who can troll Hillary Clinton without seeming sexist. Michele Bachmann and Palin aren’t in politics anymore, and anyway, they’ve turned themselves into national jokes. Fiorina is stepping into the breach.
Indeed, Fiorina is explicitly pitching herself as a distaff human shield. “”If Hillary Clinton were to face a female nominee, there are a whole set of things that she won’t be able to talk about,” she told reporters a few weeks ago. “She won’t be able to talk about being the first woman president. She won’t be able to talk about a war on women without being challenged. She won’t be able to play the gender card.” (As Amanda Marcotte pointed out at Slate, she’s essentially promising to stop the playing of said card by playing it first.)
Because women are not, as a gender, deeply stupid, this probably won’t work, just as it didn’t work during Fiorina’s failed campaign against Senator Barbara Boxer in 2010. (A campaign in which she was caught on an open mic snarking about Boxer’s hair). Fiorina, after all, is as bad as any of the male candidates on issues of unique concern to women. She’s implacably anti-abortion: “Liberals believe that flies are worth protecting, but the life of an unborn child is not,” she told the Iowa Freedom Summit earlier this year. She opposes raising the federal minimum wage—an issue of especial salience to women, who make up the majority of minimum-wage workers—and is against equal pay laws.
The question, then, isn’t whether Fiorina will appeal to women, but whether Republicans are blinkered enough to think that she will. If there is a Fiorina boomlet, it will suggest that the GOP has learned very little in the last eight years about why women reject it, and is thus at a disadvantage going in to 2016. A couple of weeks ago, John Fund wrote a National Review piece headlined, “Fiorina Has Hillary Defenders Worried.” It’s hard to believe that Republicans actually believe this, but then again, they did put Palin on a presidential ticket, so fingers crossed.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly identified the former head of the RNC as Michael Brown, not Michael Steele. The piece has been corrected.
Read Next: Michelle Goldberg on the Clinton scandal rabbit hole
The phrase “Clinton rules” has two very distinct meanings. Bill and Hillary Clinton’s enemies use it to mean that the couple flout rules that apply to everyone else. (See, for example, the recent anti-Clinton Wall Street Journal editorial “The Clinton Rules.”) In the early years of the blogosphere, however, liberals used “Clinton rules” as shorthand for the way journalists regularly abandoned ordinary standards of evidence to breathlessly pursue Clinton pseudo-scandals, often cooked up by right-wing operatives. As the Daily Howler wrote in 2007, “Under ‘the Clinton rules of journalism,’ you can say any goddamn thing you want—as long as you say it about the Clintons.”
Both versions of ‘Clinton rules’ describe real phenomena, and with any given Clinton story, it can be extremely difficult to figure out which Clinton rules are at work. Things are easier if you start off with a strong stance on the couple, always assuming the worst of either the Clintons or of anyone who criticizes them. But if you believe, as I do, that the Clintons have been demonized and persecuted to a preposterous degree and that they have cut ethical corners, if you delight in the idea of a female president but dread the return of the Clinton circus, it’s not easy to sort out who the real wrongdoers are in each new Clinton investigation. You find yourself plunged into rabbit holes, arguing about minutia, wishing for some sort of ideological heuristic to make sense of it all.
Take today’s New York Times investigation, “Cash Flowed to Clinton Foundation as Russians Pressed for Control of Uranium Company.” The story implies—but does not clearly allege—that money funneled to the Clinton Foundation greased the wheels for a deal that left Rosatom, the Russian atomic energy agency, in charge of 20 percent of American uranium reserves. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was part of a committee of cabinet officials that had the power to accept or reject the deal.
The origin of the piece is suspicious. On Monday, Times reporter Amy Chozick wrote about a forthcoming book, Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, by the right-winger Peter Schweizer. (Among Schweizer’s other books is Makers and Takers: Why conservatives work harder, feel happier, have closer families, take fewer drugs, give more generously, value honesty more, are less materialistic and envious, whine less…and even hug their children more than liberals.) According to Chozick, Clinton Cash is potentially more threatening to the Clintons than other right-wing hit jobs, “both because of its focused reporting and because major news organizations including The Times, The Washington Post and Fox News have exclusive agreements with the author to pursue the story lines found in the book.”
This last line caught many up short. Why on earth would The New York Times enter into an “exclusive agreement” with a right-wing hack like Schweizer? After all, there’s nothing to stop the paper from following up on Schweizer’s reporting on its own. Why make a deal with him? What did it entail? Chozick didn’t say, and a piece today by Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s public editor, only clarified things a bit. “Any agreement limiting journalistic inquiry is unacceptable; the wording in the original story certainly suggested that,” wrote Sullivan. “I believe…that such a thing didn’t happen here; that, rather, The Times merely pursued the angle it was most interested in, with no restrictions. But I still don’t like the way it looked.” Indeed, it looks terrible—a clear example of the second sort of Clinton rules.
The uranium piece is the first fruit of this exclusive agreement, which is reason to approach it skeptically. Yet when you read it, it appears pretty damning. Maybe, you might start thinking, the Clintons really have bent the rules in shocking ways.
The story begins in 2005 in Kazakhstan, where the mining magnate Frank Giustra, a generous Clinton donor, is negotiating a deal for stakes in three mines controlled by the state-run uranium agency. There is a strong suggestion that Bill Clinton made the deal happen:
The two men had flown aboard Mr. Giustra’s private jet to Almaty, Kazakhstan, where they dined with the authoritarian president, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev. Mr. Clinton handed the Kazakh president a propaganda coup when he expressed support for Mr. Nazarbayev’s bid to head an international elections monitoring group, undercutting American foreign policy and criticism of Kazakhstan’s poor human rights record by, among others, his wife, then a senator. Within days of the visit, Mr. Giustra’s fledgling company, UrAsia Energy Ltd., signed a preliminary deal giving it stakes in three uranium mines controlled by the state-run uranium agency Kazatomprom.
After that, Giustra’s company, UrAsia, merged with the South African concern Uranium One. The new company was then gradually taken over by Russia’s Rosatom. “[S]hortly after the Russians announced their intention to acquire a majority stake in Uranium One, Mr. Clinton received $500,000 for a Moscow speech from a Russian investment bank with links to the Kremlin that was promoting Uranium One stock,” the story says.
Even if no quid pro quo is substantiated, it all sounds pretty sketchy. But not so fast! There are reasons to doubt that the Times account is entirely accurate. Take that 2005 trip to Kazakhstan by Clinton and Giustra. The Times first reported on it in 2008, but shortly after, Forbes writer Robert Lenzer found that the two men had not in fact traveled together, citing the flight manifest of Giustra’s plane to prove it. “Clinton arrived in Kazakhstan late in the afternoon Sept. 6, 2005, on billionaire Ron Burkle’s plane, four days after Giustra,” wrote Lenzer. “By then Giustra was well on the road to finalizing a memorandum of understanding to acquire a 30% interest in the Kharassan project for $75 million; the state owned the other 70%.”
From the Times story, there’s no way to tell whether the paper is simply repeating an old mistake, or whether Forbes’s debunking has itself been debunked. It’s hard to imagine that the Times could have been so sloppy about facts that have already been aired. But Clinton rules—the second kind—mean there’s a lower standard where attacks on the Clintons are concerned.
So if the Times is building on the work of a right-wing smear merchant, and is in fact wrong about Clinton traveling with Giustra, does that mean we can dismiss the piece? Well, not unless someone in the Clinton camp can explain away this paragraph:
As the Russians gradually assumed control of Uranium One in three separate transactions from 2009 to 2013, Canadian records show, a flow of cash made its way to the Clinton Foundation. Uranium One’s chairman used his family foundation to make four donations totaling $2.35 million. Those contributions were not publicly disclosed by the Clintons, despite an agreement Mrs. Clinton had struck with the Obama White House to publicly identify all donors. Other people with ties to the company made donations as well.
Beneath all the allegations about influence-peddling, this is the single clearest charge in the whole Times story. There is, as of yet, no evidence that Bill Clinton intervened with Kazakhstan’s dictator on behalf of Giustra. And there is no evidence that Hillary Clinton did anything inappropriate as secretary of state to enable Russia to take over the company that Giustra helped build. But this failure of disclosure by the Clinton Foundation is itself a minor scandal, whether or not Hillary Clinton bears any direct responsibility for it. For now, the broader story remains murky, but here, at least, is one rule that seems to have clearly been broken.
Read Next: Michelle Goldberg on Hillary Clinton’s feminist family values
Hillary Clinton’s campaign announcement on Sunday may mark the moment that the Democrats officially became the party of family values. Throughout the late 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s, conservatives were remarkably successful at pummeling Democrats as foes of ordinary parents and their children. Progressives occasionally tried to argue that families are protected by economic justice and a stronger social safety net, not abortion bans and anti-gay demagoguery, but while this happens to be true, it often failed to resonate. Too many Americans blamed feminism and the sexual revolution—and, by extension, the left—for social and economic upheavals that had left them reeling. Ozzie and Harriet’s America was always a brief, half-imaginary historical anomaly, but a lot of people longed for it, and the right was able to weaponize that longing.
For a long time, Democrats flailed about trying to respond. Indeed, some of Bill Clinton’s most depressing acts of triangulation—firing Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders for her remarks on masturbation, signing the Defense of Marriage Act, ending Aid to Families With Dependent Children—involved trying to conform to a Republican definition of wholesomeness.
Now, though, we have finally moved past that. The surprisingly moving video announcing Hillary Clinton’s bid for the presidency shows that Democrats have finally found an authentic version of pro-family politics. Titled “Getting Started,” it features ordinary families preparing for milestones—a woman moving so her daughter can be in a better school district for kindergarten, a couple getting ready for a baby, a stay-at-home mom about to return to work, two men engaged to be married. “Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion,” Clinton says.
The campaign announcement suggests that this will be a very different sort of Clinton campaign than we saw in 2008, one that emphasizes gender and so-called women’s issues instead of running from them. And whatever you think of Clinton, it’s a triumph of feminism—or, at least, a certain kind of feminism—that issues like family leave and childcare are about to be at the center of a presidential contest.
There is both historical irony and historical continuity in Hillary Clinton emerging as the standard-bearer for a family-focused progressivism. It’s ironic because throughout the 1990s, Clinton was demonized as a cookie-hating enemy of home and hearth. “When Bill and Hillary Clinton talk about family values, they are not talking about either families or values,” said Pat Robertson at the 1992 Republican National Convention. “They are talking about a radical plan to destroy the traditional family.”
At that convention, Republicans went out of their way to laud Marilyn Quayle, the vice president’s wife, for being what the Times called the “Un-Hillary,” a woman who’d given up her own legal career to serve her family. “Marguerite Sullivan, Mrs. Quayle’s chief of staff, was asked to draw distinctions between her boss and Mrs. Clinton,” said the Times. “’Marilyn Quayle is absolutely committed to her family,’ she replied. ‘She makes time for the children; she’s always home for dinner at 7 P.M.’”
In reality, however, Clinton was never any sort of family-scorning radical feminist. Indeed, however chameleon-like her public persona, concern for mothers and children has been a constant of her career, from her early work with the Children’s Defense Fund to her book It Takes a Village to her work in the State Department on maternal mortality. Contrary to the right’s caricature, Clinton’s feminism always had a distinctly maternalist bent.
And now her campaign will, too. This is a sign that her team has changed. Gone, thankfully, is the odious Mark Penn, who advised Clinton in 2008 that voters see presidents as father figures and did “not want someone who would be the first mama, especially in this kind of world.” More than that, though, it’s a sign that the country has changed. The rapid public embrace of gay marriage has turned it from a Republican wedge issue into a Democratic one, casting conservatives as the scowling enemies of loving couples who want to join the most bourgeois of all institutions. The rise of female breadwinners, and of women in the workforce more generally, has eroded the idea that “family” means a working father and a stay-at-home mother; family values thus no longer signifies retrograde social arrangements. Today, it’s more obvious than ever that it’s liberals who are fighting for women (and men) to be able to make time for their children and get home for dinner at a decent hour. It’s encouraging that Clinton is making this her banner, because it’s long been her cause.
On Sunday night, the Columbia Journalism School released the results of its forensic investigation into “A Rape on Campus,” Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s discredited Rolling Stone story about a gang rape at the University of Virginia. At more than 12,000 words, the report is longer than the article that sparked it. Two of its three authors, J-School Dean Steve Coll and Dean of Academic Affairs Sheila Coronel, elaborated on it at an hour-long press conference on Monday afternoon. After all this, it’s still not clear whether Jackie, the woman at the center of the Rolling Stone story, is a complete fabulist or a true rape victim who confused and exaggerated some elements of her story. What is clear, though, is that Rolling Stone is throwing her under a bus to cover up its own journalistic malpractice.
The day’s most surprising revelation is that nobody will lose his or her job in this whole fiasco. On the one hand, there’s something to be said for loyalty, for not robbing people of their livelihoods over a single screw-up, even one as sustained as this. As Coll pointed out, there is no evidence that Erdely deliberately lied or invented anything, as in the case of infamous journalistic malefactors like Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair. Nevertheless, she and her editors failed to perform the most elementary due diligence, and as a result, they’ve exacerbated the routine skepticism faced by rape victims. The vast majority of women who say they’ve been raped are telling the truth, but because of Rolling Stone, they are even less likely than they were before to be believed. The magazine has done rapists everywhere a big favor.
Yet Rolling Stone still seems to think its problem was being too nice. “[T]he editors and Erdely have concluded that their main fault was to be too accommodating of Jackie because she described herself as the survivor of a terrible sexual assault,” says the report. But the investigation doesn’t bear this out. As Coll, Coronel and Kravitz write, the “explanation that Rolling Stone failed because it deferred to a victim cannot adequately account for what went wrong. Erdely’s reporting records and interviews with participants make clear that the magazine did not pursue important reporting paths even when Jackie had made no request that they refrain. The editors made judgments about attribution, fact-checking and verification that greatly increased their risks of error but had little or nothing to do with protecting Jackie’s position.”
In fact, Rolling Stone’s chief error lay in not trying harder to talk to the three friends whom Jackie spoke to on the night in question. In the original Rolling Stone story, they are presented under pseudonyms and shown acting with shocking callousness in the wake of the attack: “The three friends launched into a heated discussion about the social price of reporting Jackie’s rape, while Jackie stood behind them, mute in her bloody dress.” The trio, Ryan Duffin, Kathryn Hendley and Alex Stock, later came forward to correct the record, saying that Rolling Stone’s story was wrong in most of its particulars, and that Erdely had never even attempted to contact them to get their versions. Further, the Columbia report finds that “Jackie never requested—then or later—that Rolling Stone refrain from contacting Ryan, Kathryn or Alex independently.” She bears no responsibility for Erdely’s failure here.
Even after Columbia’s extensive review, it’s not clear what if anything really happened to Jackie. Duffin told the AP that on the night of the alleged assault, he got a call from Jackie and went to meet her outside a dorm building. When he arrived, she “was shaking and ‘it looked like she had been crying,’ Duffin said. ‘Her lip was quivering, her eyes were darting around. And right then, I put two and two together. I knew she had been on this date and people don’t usually look like that after a date.’ Jackie eventually told Duffin and Stock her version of what happened that night: that she was forced to perform oral sex on five men at the frat house.”
Columbia’s report has very little to say about whether this story is credible, beyond noting that the police have found no evidence that Jackie was attacked. It could be that Jackie was indeed raped, but then exaggerated the scope of it. Or it could be that she made the whole thing up. “The police interviewed seventy people and they say what happened to Jackie that night is a mystery,” Coronel said at the press conference. The Columbia investigators, Coll said, haven’t gotten any closer to the truth.
In either case, though, Jackie is likely a young woman with serious emotional scars. And even if she lied to Erdely and to her friends on campus, Rolling Stone is to blame for thrusting her into the national spotlight. “This failure was not the subject or the source’s fault,” said Coll. “It was the product of a failed methodology.” Nevertheless, it looks like Jackie is the only one who is going to pay any sort of price.
Read Next: Michelle Goldberg on Trevor Noah’s tweets
It is a depressing but inevitable contemporary ritual: A person achieves some new level of success and visibility, and their Twitter feed is immediately picked over for discrediting morsels. Yesterday came the surprise announcement that the mixed-race South African comedian Trevor Noah would succeed Jon Stewart as host of "The Daily Show." Naturally, then, today he's facing a backlash over his terrible tweets.
His tweets, it should be said, are indeed pretty bad. At first, I rolled my eyes to see that he was being accused of anti-Semitism for tweeting, “South Africans know how to recycle like israel knows how to be peaceful.” (This might be unfair to South Africans.) Others seem, at first, to be legitimately anti-Jewish: “Behind every successful Rap Billionaire is a double as rich Jewish man. #BeatsByDreidel.” It turns out, though, that Noah’s mother is half-Jewish, which puts the jokes in a different light, since everyone knows that you can say things about your own people that you can’t say about others. (That, after all, is the reason he mostly gets away with his jokes about black Americans.)
Noah’s sexist squibs, though, are harder to dismiss. “’Oh yeah the weekend. People are gonna get drunk & think that I'm sexy!’ - fat chicks everywhere,” said one. “Originally when men proposed they went down on one knee so if the woman said no they were in the perfect uppercut position,” said another. “In Thailand hookers are so cheap, even cheaper than food. Tough choice between Big Mac and Quarter Pounder Deluxe,” said a third. There is a particular sting in seeing Stewart being replaced by a misogynist when so many hoped his job would go to a woman.
Still, I find myself hoping that Comedy Central doesn’t get scared and ditch Noah. Partly, this is because he’s often really funny, with an international perspective that might make "The Daily Show" a little less provincial. At a time when many of us are getting weary of the bullshit minutia of American politics—Stewart’s basic fodder—widening the lens to the rest of the world can make the satirical news format feel fresh again, as John Oliver is demonstrating at HBO.
More than that, though, these Twitter trials have a chilling effect on creativity. At the end of his new book about social media witch-hunts, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” Jon Ronson quotes a journalist friend who says he’s stopped posting anything potentially controversial online. “I suddenly feel with social media like I’m tiptoeing around an unpredictable, angry, unbalanced parent who might strike out at any moment,” he says. “It’s horrible.” It really is—more horrible than Noah’s tweets. We desperately need a new set of social norms in which people aren’t defined by their dumbest tossed-off remarks, frozen in amber as their very worst selves.
That said, Comedy Central should respond to all "The Daily Show" fans who are disappointed by Noah’s retrograde attitude towards women. The single best way to do that would be to get a lot more women into the writers’ room, where much of the show is shaped. In the upcoming presidential campaign, the presence of Hillary Clinton will almost certainly lead to a new explosion of misogyny in our politics, just as Barack Obama’s presidency made the right more shameless in its racism. We’re going to need women there to make sure that "The Daily Show" pillories sexism rather than participates in it.
Read Next: Michelle Goldberg on Purvi Patel's 20-year prison sentence
Indiana’s law allowing discrimination against gay people is not the only reason that the state deserves our opprobrium. It’s also about to become the first state to imprison a woman for what it says is the death of a baby born after an attempted abortion.
On Monday, 33-year-old Purvi Patel, an unmarried woman from a conservative Hindu family who bought abortion drugs online, was sentenced to twenty years in prison for the crimes of feticide and neglect of a dependent. It was not the first time that feticide laws, passed under the guise of protecting pregnant women from attack, have been turned against pregnant women themselves. Indiana, after all, was also the state that jailed Bei Bei Shuai, an immigrant who tried to commit suicide by poisoning herself while pregnant, and whose baby later died. But the Patel case is still a disturbing landmark. “Yes, the feticide laws in other states have been used to arrest and sometimes punish the pregnant women herself,” says Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which advised Patel’s defense. “This is the first time it’s being used to punish what they say is an attempted self-abortion.”
Some of the facts in the case are murky. Prosecutors contend that towards the end of her second trimester, Patel took the drugs she’d bought online, but ended up giving birth to a live fetus that she abandoned in a dumpster. As Slate reported, however, the test that the forensic pathologist used to determine that the baby was born alive—the so-called “lung float test”—is widely considered unreliable. Further, the inclusion of feticide charges suggests that the crime lay as much in what Patel was accused of doing while she was pregnant as in what she did afterwards. Killing a live baby, after all, isn’t feticide—it’s homicide.
Indiana strengthened its feticide law in 2009, after a pregnant woman who was shot during a bank robbery lost the twins she was carrying. Under the statute, feticide applies in cases where a “person…knowingly or intentionally terminates a human pregnancy with an intention other than to produce a live birth or to remove a dead fetus.” There is an exemption for legal abortion, but no explicit one for self-abortion. Reproductive rights activists like Paltrow have long contended that such laws, championed by conservatives, are a sneaky way of eroding abortion rights, and the Patel case shows that they are right. We’ve reached a point where desperate women who end their pregnancies before viability are going to prison.
Anti-abortion activists often deny that this is what they want. “Women Shouldn’t Face Prison Time For Abortion; They’re Victims Too,” is the headline of a 2012 column on LifeNews.com. The author, Calvin Freiburger, argues that pro-choice concerns about jailing women are a red herring, and that the anti-abortion movement has “largely reached consensus that punishment for abortion should rest predominantly with the one who performs the act: the abortionist.” Eventually, he allows, once pro-choice “indoctrination” has been uprooted so that the evil of abortion is more widely understood, “a future generation might decide that abortion-seeking women should be presumed to fully understand what they’re destroying, and they may choose to punish them accordingly. But that’s not where we are today. Pro-lifers recognize how the abortion movement victimizes mother and child alike, so we’re dedicated to saving both.”
Well, Patel, whose conviction will certainly be appealed, could use some saving. If this isn’t how the promoters of feticide laws intended them to be used, now would be a good time for them to say so.
Read Next: Michelle Goldberg on the Laura Kipnis melodrama
Last Monday, about thirty Northwestern anti-rape activists marched to their school’s administrative center carrying mattresses and pillows. The event was a deliberate echo of the performance art project of Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz, who is lugging a mattress everywhere she goes on campus for a year to draw attention to the university’s failure to expel her alleged rapist. At Northwestern, the target of the protest was not a person accused of assault, but the provocative feminist film professor Laura Kipnis. Her offense was penning a February essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, titled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” which argues against her school’s ban on sex between professors and students, and more broadly against the growing obsession with trauma and vulnerability among feminists on campus.
“If this is feminism, it’s feminism hijacked by melodrama,” she writes. “The melodramatic imagination’s obsession with helpless victims and powerful predators is what’s shaping the conversation of the moment, to the detriment of those whose interests are supposedly being protected, namely students. The result? Students’ sense of vulnerability is skyrocketing.”
Including, apparently, their vulnerability to articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education. As the protesters wrote on a Facebook page for their event, they wanted the administration to do something about “the violence expressed by Kipnis’ message.” Their petition called for “swift, official condemnation of the sentiments expressed by Professor Kipnis in her inflammatory article,” and demanded “that in the future, this sort of response comes automatically.” (University President Morton Schapiro told The Daily Northwestern, a student newspaper, that he would consider it, and the students will soon be meeting with the school’s Vice President for Student Affairs to further press their case.) Jazz Stephens, one of the march’s organizers, described Kipnis’s ideas as “terrifying.” Another student told The Daily Northwestern that she was considering bringing a formal complaint because she believes that Kipnis was mocking her concerns about being triggered in a film class, concerns she’d confided privately. “I would like to see some sort of repercussions just so she understands the effect something like this has on her students and her class,” said the student, who Kipnis hadn’t named.
Kipnis could hardly have invented a response that so neatly proved her argument. Not the argument about prohibiting student-teacher sex—there’s still a good case to be made for that. Certainly, Kipnis is right that some undergrads enjoy flaunting their erotic power, but such power is fleeting and ultimately no match for the institutional authority wielded by professors. Yet the reaction to Kipnis—the demands for official censure, the claims of emotional injury—demonstrated how correct she is about the broader climate. “The new codes sweeping American campuses aren’t just a striking abridgment of everyone’s freedom, they’re also intellectually embarrassing,” she wrote. “Sexual paranoia reigns; students are trauma cases waiting to happen.”
This atmosphere is intellectually stifling. “Every professor’s affected by the current climate, unless they’re oblivious,” Kipnis told me via e-mail. “I got many dozens of emails from professors (and administrators and deans and one ex college president) describing how fearful they are of speaking honestly or dissenting on any of these issues. Someone on my campus—tenured—wrote me about literally lying awake at night worrying about causing trauma to a student, becoming a national story, losing her job, and not being able to support her kid. It seemed completely probable to her that a triggered student could take down a tenured professor with a snowball of social media.”
What’s going on is as much a culture clash as an ideological divide. In some ways, the present moment recalls the feminist sex wars of the 1980s and early 1990s. It was the anti-porn feminist Catherine MacKinnon, after all, who best elaborated a theory of speech as violence. Yet MacKinnon’s broader ideas about porn and prostitution are utterly out of fashion. In many young feminist circles, criticism of sex work is dismissed as slut shaming or whorephobia. Lots of elite campuses have BDSM clubs. Just a couple of years ago, Slutwalks were all the rage. On the surface, it seems that feminists like Kipnis—author, among other things, of a sympathetic 1996 book about porn titled Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America—have triumphed over the bluestockings. Yet surrounding all this sexual bravado is a constricting earnestness that renders insouciant provocateurs like Kipnis anathema.
Kipnis is a cheeky, deliberately hyperbolic writer, as even her critics understand on some level. (Bona fide sexual harassers, she writes in the Chronicle, should be “chemically castrated, stripped of their property, and hung up by their thumbs in the nearest public square.” No one has demanded that she be reprimanded for supporting torture.) There are some things, though, that you can’t joke about. “[T]he climate of sanctimony about student vulnerability has grown too thick to penetrate; no one dares question it lest you’re labeled antifeminist,” Kipnis writes. “Or worse, a sex criminal.”
It’s easy to sympathize with the young feminists’ desire to combine maximal sexual freedom with maximal sexual safety. Yet there are contradictions between a feminism that emphasizes women’s erotic agency and desire to have sex on equal terms with men, and a feminism that stresses their erotic vulnerability and need to be shielded from even the subtlest forms of coercion. The politics of liberation are an uneasy fit with the politics of protection. A rigid new set of taboos has emerged to paper over this tension, often expressed in a therapeutic language of trauma and triggers that everyone is obliged to at least pretend to take seriously.
“It’s the infantilization of women fused with identity politics, so that being vulnerable, a potential victim—or survivor, in the new parlance—becomes a form of identity,” Kipnis told me. “I wrote a chapter on the politics of vulnerability in The Female Thing from 2006, and since then it strikes me that vulnerability has an ever more aggressive edge to it, which is part of what makes the sexual culture of the moment so incoherent.”
Northwestern junior Erik Baker, a member of Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault and one of the organizers of the anti-Kipnis march, naturally disputes the notion that the students are prigs. “She definitely paints this very overtly condescending picture of this new generation that has their feathers ruffled by her pushing the envelope,” Baker told me. In fact, he argues, millennials love satire and political humor. “We’re the Colbert generation. It’s not that we don’t have senses of humor or senses of wanting to push the envelope,” he says. “We just think that publicly belittling sexual assault survivors is in poor taste.”
All the same, Baker can’t quite contain his incredulity at Kipnis’s flippant approach to matters that he considers extremely grave. “She seems to think that it’s very silly,” he says about her attitude towards trigger warnings. “It’s not even like, Oh man, I really want to protect these students and make sure they’re safe, but I think the pedagogical value is…” he trails off. “She doesn’t even perceive how trigger warnings would work to make the classroom more safe, or to help students navigate the material in a way that would be better for them psychologically.” He’s right. She doesn’t. And therein lies a generational chasm.
Read Next: Michelle Goldberg on CPAC
I am not going to pretend to know enough about National Archives and Records Administration regulations to have a worthwhile opinion about whether Hillary Clinton violated them by relying on a private e-mail address while secretary of state. (Most of the people talking about it on cable TV, or writing their own hot takes, probably don’t either.) Right now, it looks like Clinton went out of her way to keep her correspondence secret when it was supposed to be public. But it’s also true that a lot of Clinton scandals turn out, upon closer inspection, to be bullshit. (See, for example, Benghazi, or Whitewater.) Worse, they tend to be bullshit that serves as a pretext for more bullshit, as each new uproar is said to “feed into the narrative” set in motion by the previous ones.
Yet at a certain point it stops mattering whether coverage of Clinton is as unfair as her defenders say it is. If she‘s going to be the Democratic candidate, part of her job is not to leave herself open to this sort of thing. If she wasn’t actively skirting the law by not using a State Department e-mail address, she was being sloppy. By not keeping her official e-mails separate from her private ones, she gives Republicans a pretext to subpoena them all. At the very least, there’s going to be a drawn-out fight over access to them. Should she be forced to turn them over, her genuinely private e-mails as well as her public ones will be used against her. Imagine what Republicans would be able to do with a trove of private correspondence that Clinton never thought they’d get to see.
The whole mess underscores the immense danger for the Democrats of holding a coronation rather than a primary. Even if the front-runner were as low-drama as Obama, the party, the country and even the candidate would benefit from a genuine debate about everything from foreign policy to the financial industry. And Clinton is not low-drama. She and her husband live at the center of a constantly unfolding political soap opera with endlessly proliferating subplots. Even if they’re not always treated fairly, they also seem to pathologically court trouble. See, for example, recent stories about foreign governments making donations to the Clinton Foundation during Clinton’s State Department tenure. One of those, The Washington Post reported, “violated [the foundation’s] ethics agreement with the Obama administration.”
Maybe there’s nothing more there, or anywhere, waiting to come out. But without other credible Democrats building the infrastructures they’d need to run, there’s no plan B if something explodes. Democrats are betting the future of the country on the Clintons’ ability to avoid crippling scandal. Maybe that wager will ultimately make sense, but there’s no reason to go all in so soon.
Read Next: Michelle Goldberg on why the disturbingly sane voices at CPAC should scare you
I’ve been covering the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, on and off for more than a decade. I’ve seen it in full jingoistic flower early in George W. Bush’s administration, when attendees could buy bumper stickers than said “No Muslims = No Terrorists” and hurl beanbags at toy trolls holding signs that said “The Homosexual Agenda” or “The Liberal Media.” I’ve seen it during moments of despair, when conservatives realized that Republican leaders wouldn’t enact the entirety of their kamikaze agenda. But I have rarely seen it as slick and sunny as this year, and that scares me.
CPAC, for those lucky enough to be unacquainted, is the most important right-wing conference of the year, regularly drawing leading Republican politicians and aspirants. This year, all the likely Republican presidential candidates are here, including Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Chris Christie and Rick Santorum. Perhaps because of that, there seems to have been a real effort to tone down the outrageousness. Poor Ann Coulter, once a reliable CPAC bomb-thrower, is nowhere on the program. There’s a conspicuous absence of Hillary Clinton nutcrackers and other Instagram-ready right-wing kitsch. Even Sarah Palin, who spoke Thursday night, was shockingly lucid and reasonable, devoting her remarks to the plight of veterans suffering overlong deployments, PTSD and backlogs at the VA.
Sure, there were moments of craziness—this is CPAC, after all. Scott Walker made headlines for saying, apropos of ISIS, “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.” Donald Trump appeared before a jam-packed room and said some Donald Trumpish things. But the organizers seem to have made a concerted effort not to embarrass the Republican Party. They still don’t let the Log Cabin Republicans sponsor events, but there was little anti-gay rhetoric—even Ted Cruz framed his stance on gay marriage as a states rights issue rather than saying anything about one man and one woman.
This is bad news. One of the essential weaknesses of the GOP is the gap between their extremist base and the broader electorate. Their candidates have to feed red meat to the former without repelling the latter. When they fail, whether with Palin in 2008 or Todd Akin in 2012, they lose. As long as they can put a patina of reasonableness over their reaction, they have a chance.
Read Next: Scott Keyes on how Scott Walker built a career on sending Wisconsin inmates to private prisons.