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Know When to Fold ‘Em
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Know When to Fold ‘Em

Defenses of Claudine Gay are just more proof that sometimes you should let the ‘other side’ have the win.

Claudine Gay speaks after being named Harvard University president on December 15, 2022. (Photo by Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Hey,

Don’t worry, this “news”letter isn’t about Jeffrey Epstein. But given recent developments, I think the Epstein story could be useful for an uncomfortably plausible thought experiment. Consider the following hypothetical (and it’s just a hypothetical—plucked from the headlines, as they used to say about Law & Order).

Imagine Jeffrey Epstein invited lots of important people to his house, on his plane, and—almost—to his creepy Sex Dungeon Island. (I was going to make a Scooby Doo joke about how he would have gotten away with it, too, if not for those meddling kids. But, ick.) Anyway, let’s assume Epstein hadn’t been thwarted and he and his darkest-timeline version of Fantasy Island were still up and running. More important people came to the island. More gross, illegal, and evil stuff ensued. Oh, and let’s assume that all of the guests were Democrats or famous liberals. 

Let’s say this goes on for a good while until, finally, one of the following scenarios unfolds:

  1. One of Epstein’s former buddies, let’s call him Sam Bankman-Fried, rats him out to the FBI in order to get a plea deal in his own fraud case.  
  2. A conservative activist with famously controversial methods helps spark a conservative news outlet into uncovering the whole thing. 
  3. Matt Gaetz, furious that he couldn’t finagle an invite, finally decides that if he can’t play nobody can. 
  4. A poor housekeeper who had no idea what she signed up for when took a job on the Caribbean private resort contacts the authorities the first moment she can, rejecting all manner of threats and bribes. She is motivated entirely by moral outrage and disgust.

Now, if we were in a seminar on ethics, I might ask you to open your bluebooks and write an essay on the comparative ethics of the four hypothetical whistleblowers. It might be interesting to debate the ethics of Scenario 2 compared to Scenario 4. But honestly, like a lot of academic ethics discussions, I doubt I’d find the debate all that relevant to anything that matters. The housekeeper’s motives are clearly the most laudable.

Now let’s imagine we’re in a seminar at the Columbia Journalism School and I asked you to write a story and headline with the above facts. A headline that would get an F from me?

“Conservatives Find New Weapon to Fight Democrats: Sex Trafficking and Rape.”

This is basically how the Associated Press and Politico covered the Claudine Gay resignation last night.

It’s also how a vast number of progressives have reacted to the story. 

Now, I am the first to concede sex trafficking and rape are way, way, way, way, worse than plagiarism or even mealy-mouthed legalistic equivocations about calls for genocide. But the similarities are instructive. As far as I can tell, nobody has offered a remotely persuasive defense of what Gay did on the merits. Harvard has tried, finding “regrettable” “duplicative language” in what was clearly a slapdash investigation that seems a lot like an attempt at a pretextual exoneration from Aaron Sibarium’s exhaustive reporting for the Washington Free Beacon.

In other words, there’s been a Stakhanovite effort to move the debate to the motives of the accusers. On December 20, the New York Times reported on then-new revelations of plagiarism. Charles Fried, a professor at Harvard Law School, was honest in how he saw the issue.

“It’s part of this extreme right-wing attack on elite institutions,” said Charles Fried, a professor at Harvard Law School and a former solicitor general in the Reagan administration. “The obvious point is to make it look as if there is this ‘woke’ double standard at elite institutions.”

“If it came from some other quarter, I might be granting it some credence,” he said of the accusations. “But not from these people.”

I feel a little sheepish pointing this out to a legendary lawyer and legal professor like Fried, but the law has dealt with these sorts of feelings for centuries. Most star witnesses in mob cases are these people called “mobsters.” Some are even hardened murderers looking to get out of life sentences and into witness protection. Prosecutors would dearly love to have nuns and Boy Scouts as witnesses but, alas, such people are rarely invited into social clubs where pertinent conversations about murder and extortion are conducted. Judges and juries are expected to take motivations into account. They’re also supposed to judge the veracity of questionable witnesses by looking at corroborating facts and evidence. 

You know who else is supposed to do that? Everyone else. Just because you don’t like the messenger doesn’t mean the message is wrong. If Sid Blumenthal, Steve Bannon, or someone else I have unbridled contempt for declared that Bill Clinton or Donald Trump confessed to murdering someone, I’d surely be skeptical because they are inveterate dissemblers and disinformation peddlers. But if they brought incontrovertible evidence to back up their claim, I wouldn’t say the videotape should be ignored. In other words, motives are entirely legitimate considerations for figuring out trustworthiness and the burden of proof. But they don’t erase proof. 

I find it amazing that so many journalists fall for this kind of framing. Mark Felt, aka Deep Throat, was by most accounts a bit of a striving jerk and jobsworth. There’s very little evidence that he spilled the beans to Bob Woodward because he was imbued with an overabundance of patriotism and fidelity to the Constitution. As Max Holland, the author of Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, writes “Felt didn’t help the media for the good of the country, he used the media in service of his own ambition.” 

That doesn’t mean Woodward did anything wrong. In political journalism most sources have some motives that fall outside the category of pure do-goodery. Rival campaigns, disgruntled staffers, strivers-on-the-make, blame-dodgers: These are the lifeblood of most scoops. Good journalists try hard to take the motivations of sources into account, but if the facts back up the source’s claims, they run with it. 

Now, sure, it’s an interesting story that conservatives were out to get Claudine Gay. But it’s not like Chris Rufo has a time machine that allowed him to go back to the 1990s and force her to plagiarize whole paragraphs. Sibarium didn’t make Gay do anything, he revealed what Gay did. You know what would have happened if Gay hadn’t muffed her testimony to Congress? No one would have looked at her scholarship (or “scholarship”). And if Gay had never plagiarized, she’d still be the president of Harvard. 

But enough about journalism. 

It’s no surprise to me that Al Sharpton declared, “This is an attack on every Black woman in this country who’s put a crack in the glass ceiling.” This is the sort of thing Sharpton always says (about left-wing blacks). And given that he became a national figure by leeching off a fake hate crime, it shouldn’t shock anyone that his concern for the facts is less than exacting. 

But he’s hardly alone. Ibram X Kendi insists that Gay was taken out by a “racist mob.” 

“The question to assess whether this was a racist attack isn’t whether Dr. Gay engaged in any misconduct,” Kendi hilariously contends. “The question is whether all these people would have investigated, surveilled, harassed, written about, and attacked her in the same way if the Harvard president in this case would have been White. I. Think. Not.”

Maybe that should read, “I think—not.”

Just in the last six months, the white president of Stanford lost his job when his shoddy academic work was revealed, and the white female president of the University of Pennsylvania was forced out for giving an equally craptacular performance at those congressional hearings alongside Gay. What Kendi doesn’t spell out is his implied position, which is that if the accusations were motivated by racism, that invalidates the accusations. But it seems pretty obvious that’s what he thinks. And that is really stupid. It doesn’t matter if David Duke provided evidence of Gay’s plagiarism—the issue would still be whether she was a plagiarist. The standards at stake here are Harvard’s, not the “accusers’.”

Noah Rothman catalogs more of this desperate effort to make Gay into an innocent victim/martyr at the hands of racists. And while I could bang out another 1,000 words on how all of this is of a piece with the effort to construct self-serving narratives, organizing myths, and vital lies, I think that point is pretty obvious. 

Take the ‘L’. 

Instead, I want to make a more basic point. Sometimes people on your “side” screw up—or worse. This is true not just in politics but in every sphere of human endeavor, from organized religion to social justice movements. You know why? Because the agents of human endeavors are humans. And humans are flawed. 

It is also a natural human reaction to cringe and squirm when someone on your team makes your team look bad. It’s also normal to want to shoot the messenger, particularly when you hate the messenger or think the messengers act in bad faith. Not wanting to give the other team the satisfaction of chalking up a “win” is part of life. I am hardly immune to such feelings. 

I will even defend such feelings. If you have a very low opinion of someone, that low opinion can be a powerful motivator to debunk or dispute allegations. Journalism, academia, the law, and politics depend on these kinds of motivations to call B.S. on revelations that often turn out to be too good—or bad—to be true. 

For instance, I don’t take the word of the Southern Poverty Law Center or Media Matters at face value, ever. My attitude toward them is the product of years of experience. But sometimes the Southern Poverty Law Center or Media Matters is right about bad actors on the right. Refusing to acknowledge that just because you don’t want to give people you don’t like the satisfaction—or because you think your fans expect such refusals—is a slippery slope to hackdom and moral corruption. 

This is also a huge problem at scale. So many of our political debates can be explained by this dynamic. It is not in fact true that Gay’s resignation is a threat to other black women in positions of power. In fact, the way these things usually work suggests the opposite. That the left is so angry about this—wrongly in my opinion—it makes it less likely another prominent black woman will be thrown under the bus anytime soon. And, again, just as it would be unimaginable that Gay would have been ousted absent her own bad conduct—in the 1990s and in her congressional testimony—it’s now even more unimaginable that a female black president of some school would be ousted without any solid reason. It is possible that the left will redouble its longstanding efforts to retaliate by going after someone on the right. But that’s a different subject (and it will be hard to pull off given how conservative-free our elite institutions are). But by all means, go hunting for plagiarists if you want. 

The point here is that the segment of the left circling the wagons around Gay would be much better off in the long run if they just took the loss. If you believe that there’s no trade-off in quality or qualifications when pursuing diversity, the last thing you should do is insist that the standards of excellence are racist only when black people fall short of them. You should express your disappointment in this specific incident, insist it’s a regrettable exception to the rule,  and move on. 

People like Kendi are free to insist that Gay was taken out by a mob. And I’d be the first to concede that there was a mob-like feeding frenzy about Gay’s plagiarism. But there was also a mob-like frenzy on the part of her defenders. And in this contest, the anti-Gay mob had the facts on its side. It’s fine to regret that the mob you don’t like won. But if you let that regret push you into arguing that the facts weren’t facts, mob loyalty is asking too much of you. 

A lot of media bias is fueled by this kind of groupthink. If Fox News makes a big deal about this or that, a lot of media outlets seem to think we shouldn’t give them the satisfaction by treating this or that as a big deal, too. 

Our political culture is so shot-through with a mob mentality and the slippery-slope-panic that fuels mobs it’s often lost on people that these sorts of things often lead to sticky slopes. The lesson the left drew from Al Franken’s resignation from the Senate wasn’t to keep going after misbehaving Democrats, it was to regret the precedent. In the 1980s, some judicial nominations and other appointments were thwarted by an obsession with past pot-smoking. The result was to take pot-smoking off the list of disqualifications. I think it would be regrettable if academia followed through on the effort to take plagiarism off a similar list, but that seems more likely to be than an endless stream of plagiarism-driven defenestrations. 

But that doesn’t mean defenestrating bad apples is necessarily bad. 

Right now, Donald Trump is the runaway frontrunner because a lot of people have convinced themselves that it would be an unbearable concession to “the enemy” to ditch him. When the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago, people like Mike Huckabee insisted that the party should nominate Trump by acclamation just to deny the left or deep state the satisfaction. I can’t tell you how stupid I think this is. Even if you concede—which I emphatically do not—that he’s being railroaded and did nothing wrong, arguing that his victimization requires nominating him for the presidency is tribal nonsense. Richard Jewell, the falsely accused Atlanta Olympics bomber, was treated terribly by the feds. That doesn’t mean the GOP should have nominated him for president. 

In the first Trump impeachment Republicans said, constantly, that removing him from office would “overturn” the 2016 election. No, it would have made Mike Pence president. And, you could argue that the country and the party would have been much better off as a result. Similarly, if Democrats had thrown Clinton out of office in his impeachment, they would have gotten Al Gore as an incumbent president in 2000. And I think the Democrats would have been much better off for that. 

But impeachments are just an extreme version of this groupthink conviction that you can’t give the enemy the satisfaction of a win. Trump would be so much more valuable to Trumpists and the GOP generally as a martyr than as an actual nominee or president. Similarly, Biden could help his party—and arguably the country—if he announced, tomorrow, he wasn’t running (particularly if Democrats could maneuver Kamala Harris out of the way). His presidency would be in vastly better shape if he’d borrowed a page from Bill Clinton and Sister Souljah’d various extremists. Trump would be less frightening to people outside his cult if he were capable of denouncing his whackjob sycophants and boosters for any reason other than a lack of personal loyalty. 

Successful movements, parties, and institutions know when to throw away bad apples. Dumb mobs respond by saying “bad apples are actually good.”

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.