Selective, self-interested outrage over civil rights abuses

Those who have been following the recent sexual abuse cases may have heard of the Shitty Media Men online spreadsheet that allowed people to anonymously post their experiences and name their harassers. Harper’s teased an upcoming article by Katie Roiphe that promised to reveal the name of the person who created the list but Moira Donegan she decided to out herself before it appeared and explained why she did it, saying that until then the ‘whisper networks’ that warned people to avoid certain people in power only reached the few who were well-connected.

In the beginning, I only wanted to create a place for women to share their stories of harassment and assault without being needlessly discredited or judged. The hope was to create an alternate avenue to report this kind of behavior and warn others without fear of retaliation. Too often, for someone looking to report an incident or to make habitual behavior stop, all the available options are bad ones. The police are notoriously inept at handling sexual-assault cases. Human-resources departments, in offices that have them, are tasked not with protecting employees but with shielding the company from liability — meaning that in the frequent occasion that the offender is a member of management and the victim is not, HR’s priorities lie with the accused. When a reporting channel has enforcement power, like an HR department or the police, it also has an obligation to presume innocence. In contrast, the value of the spreadsheet was that it had no enforcement mechanisms: Without legal authority or professional power, it offered an impartial, rather than adversarial, tool to those who used it. It was intended specifically not to inflict consequences, not to be a weapon — and yet, once it became public, many people immediately saw it as exactly that.

The spreadsheet was intended to circumvent all of this. Anonymous, it would protect its users from retaliation: No one could be fired, harassed, or publicly smeared for telling her story when that story was not attached to her name. Open-sourced, it would theoretically be accessible to women who didn’t have the professional or social cachet required for admittance into whisper networks. The spreadsheet did not ask how women responded to men’s inappropriate behavior; it did not ask what you were wearing or whether you’d had anything to drink. Instead, the spreadsheet made a presumption that is still seen as radical: That it is men, not women, who are responsible for men’s sexual misconduct.

There were pitfalls. The document was indeed vulnerable to false accusations, a concern I took seriously. I added a disclaimer to the top of the spreadsheet: “This document is only a collection of misconduct allegations and rumors. Take everything with a grain of salt.” I sympathize with the desire to be careful, even as all available information suggests that false allegations are rare. The spreadsheet only had the power to inform women of allegations that were being made and to trust them to judge the quality of that information for themselves and to make their own choices accordingly. This, too, is still seen as radical: the idea that women are skeptical, that we can think and judge and choose for ourselves what to believe and what not to.

Nevertheless, when I first shared the spreadsheet among my women friends and colleagues, it took on the intense sincerity of our most intimate conversations. Women began to anonymously add their stories of sexual assault; many of the accounts posted there were violent, detailed, and difficult to read. Women recounted being beaten, drugged, and raped. Women recounted being followed into bathrooms or threatened with weapons. Many, many women recounted being groped at work, or shown a colleague’s penis. Watching the cells populate, it rapidly became clear that many of us had weathered more than we had been willing to admit to one another. There was the sense that the capacity for honesty, long suppressed, had finally been unleashed. This solidarity was thrilling, but the stories were devastating. I realized that the behavior of a few men I had wanted women to be warned about was far more common that I had ever imagined. This is what shocked me about the spreadsheet: the realization of how badly it was needed, how much more common the experience of sexual harassment or assault is than the opportunity to speak about it. I am still trying to grapple with this realization.

Her article makes for sober reading but the existence of the spreadsheet provoked such a media storm that Donegan quickly took it down.

Roiphe’s article has now appeared and Glenn Greenwald says that what is noteworthy about it is how it reveals once again how most Americans only get upset when their own civil rights are violated and don’t give a damn when the rights of the poor or people of color or otherwise marginalized groups are violated routinely.

The objections voiced by Roiphe to this list are ones that have been expressed by many genuine supporters of the #MeToo movement: namely, the accusations it contains are unvetted and unverified; anyone can add accusations on the list while remaining completely anonymous; and because the list purportedly was intended never to be published (a claim Roiphe questions), those accused of misconduct may never know that they’ve been accused and, in all events, have no ability to challenge or dispute the accusations made against them, ones which could nonetheless severely harm their reputations or even destroy their careers. Roiphe’s objection to the list is, in essence, one of due process: It enables people to be punished with no evidence of guilt, no guarantor of reliability, nor any meaningful opportunity to contest the accusations.

In her attempt to induce readers to feel anger over this media list, Roiphe tries to imagine a hypothetical analogue that would be self-evidently infuriating and thus, invites readers to feel the same way about this list.

He links to a passage in her article and highlights this sentence where Roiphe imagines what she thinks is a hypothetical scenario that would outrage civil libertarians.

“If we think of how we would feel about a secretly circulating, anonymously crowd-sourced list of Muslims who might blow up planes, the strangeness of the document snaps into focus.”

Greenwald says that to be able to write such a sentence reveals how oblivious people like Roiphe are about anything that does not enter their elite little bubbles.

As amazing, or at least as horrifying, as it is, Roiphe seems completely unaware that the hypothetical list of dangerous “Muslims who might blow up planes” that she asks readers to fantasize exists does, in fact, already exist. It’s called the “no-fly list.” It’s a list compiled by the government in total secrecy, of people (almost entirely Muslims) who the government, with no notice or evidence or process, has decided are too dangerous to board airplanes. In other words, it’s “a secretly circulating, anonymously crowd-sourced list of Muslims who might blow up planes.”

Contrary to Roiphe’s implied claim that the existence of such a list would provoke the intense level of rage and fury she wishes were directed at the Shitty Media Men list, the no-fly list has existed for years and barely anyone has cared.

Roiphe ignored these controversies because, it seems, the victims of these anonymous, due-process-free lists were just black Muslims. She’s become incensed with due process deprivations only now when those being punished — to a far lesser extent than those on the no-fly list — are her white media friends and those who look like her and come from similar backgrounds. Her “hypothetical” example that, in fact, has existed for years reveals that she literally had no idea about these far more extreme rights abuses, and her belief that such a list would provoke rage if it were aimed at Muslims — when the actual list provoked widespread indifference among Americans (including her) — demonstrates how insular and self-absorbed media elites are when deciding which rights infringements bother them and which do not.

Civil libertarians have long been warning that the FISA courts were a joke because they pretty much rubber-stamp any government surveillance request that came before them but people like Devin Nunes and Paul Ryan defended them, saying that they served as a sober restraint on government excesses. But now that the courts approved surveillance on Trump’s associates, they too have suddenly become critics of the courts and defenders of civil liberties.

He says that Democrats are also guilty of this unprincipled self-interest.

That’s the dynamic that caused the former ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Jane Harman, to spend years vigorously defending warrantless NSA spying under George W. Bush, only to turn into an overnight privacy fanatic when she learned that her own conversations, in which she was plotting with a suspected agent of the Israeli government, had been eavesdropped on by the FBI. It’s why Jonathan Chait writes tens of thousands of words railing against “PC culture” and “the intolerant left” when his friend Hanna Rosin, a professional writer, is criticized, but stays almost entirely silent when far more severe and pervasive censorship — aimed at Israel critics — takes root on American campuses and other institutions. It’s why Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein spent decades as one of the most devoted CIA and NSA loyalists — until she learned she had been spied on by the CIA during her torture investigation, when she suddenly discovered the need for safeguards and privacy protections. As the consistent rights crusader Radley Balko put it recently:

Pearl clutching over alleged misleading info on the Page warrant applications reminds me of gasps over the no-knock raid on Manafort. When the political class gets the tiniest taste of injustices inflicted on regular people daily, they make themselves into Mandelas.

Not only did people like Devin Nunes and Paul Ryan never care about any of those abuses — far worse, they actively supported and empowered those abuses. Indeed, just three weeks ago, Nunes and Ryan joined with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, to increase the domestic spying powers of the Trump FBI and NSA while blocking all reforms and safeguards. That’s because — unlike consistent defenders of free speech (ACLU and FIRE) and consistent defenders of privacy and due process (Russ Feingold and Justin Amash), these charlatans are more than happy for these abuses to occur as long as those subjected to them are Muslim-Americans or people who, for whatever reasons, are powerless in Washington.

Greenwald concludes:

[P]eople like Roiphe, Nunes, and the rest are not really animated by any principles that can endure or find general application. They’re just motivated by personalized grievance on behalf of themselves and their socioeconomic cohorts. As a result, these episodes produce little beyond special pleading, petulant self-victimization, and the perpetuation of a framework that holds that only elites truly deserve due process rights and core civil liberties protections.

That about sums it up.


  1. says

    the perpetuation of a framework that holds that only elites truly deserve due process rights and core civil liberties protections.

    When the whole Nunes memo thing started, I was pointing out to people on Facebook that the NSA spies on everyone and the FBI has always been fond of warrantless wiretaps, too. Maybe the problem is not that some political asshole was spied on, maybe the problem is that we’re all spied on. But, as Hammurabbi didn’t quite say: it only matters when it’s your ox that got gored.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *