‘The truth may be puzzling,” wrote Carl Sagan. “It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true.”
And the hecklers shouted, “Idiot!”
Such, at least, was the reaction of Jezebel’s Anna Merlan to the news that two free-thinking writers had begun to ask whether an explosive Rolling Stone article that purported to reveal a hideous gang-rape at the University of Virginia was, in fact, entirely true. Having initially failed to “question the incident itself,” Reason’s Robby Soave wrote on Monday, he had come to find “some of the details . . . perplexing on subsequent re-reads.” “I’ll be following any and all developments in this case,” Soave promised, “and am eager to see this particular story either confirmed as true or exposed as a hoax.” A week or so earlier, a former George editor named Richard Bradley had noted for the record that “nothing in this story is impossible,” but contended nonetheless that he had serious questions. “To believe it beyond a doubt, without a question mark — as virtually all the people who’ve read the article seem to — requires a lot of leaps of faith,” Bradley submitted. In both cases, the men explained why they were suspicious and vowed to look more deeply into the case. In both cases, the pair were dismissed as rubeish and misogynistic dilettantes who, in Merlan’s words, have “no idea what they’re talking about.”
The dismissals have been misplaced, for a brief review of the questions that Soave and Bradley asked reveals that they are no way “idiotic,” nor are they indicative of a lack of care for women, of “trutherism,” or of a penchant for conspiracy theory. Rather, Soave and Bradley have asked vital questions — questions that everybody who is interested in the case should find engrossing. As we now know, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author of the Rolling Stone piece, relied entirely upon a single source for the story of Jackie’s rape — a serious breach of journalistic protocol. And who was that source? Well, she was the alleged victim in the case. Moreover, Erdely’s “fact checking” was limited in its scope to the testimony of those who got their information from . . . the victim herself. “I spoke to, you know, virtually, all of her friends to find out what she had told them at various points,” Erdely told Slate. In other words, then, Erdely asked other people if her source had told them what she told her. Meanwhile, for a variety of wholly unacceptable reasons, Erdely seems to have made no effort whatsoever to get any input from the accused. This, suffice it to say, is extremely problematic. Really, if we want to berate somebody for idiocy here, shouldn’t it be the author?
Now, this is not to say that Erdely is lying or that she set out to deceive her audience. On the contrary: She may well genuinely believe that her source is reliable. Perhaps she is. But, as far as we can know, it is as possible that the story is entirely true as it is that it is half true as it is that the whole thing was entirely made up. As Erdely herself admits, “What exactly happened, you know, I wasn’t in that room. I don’t know and I do tell it from her point of view.” Here, one might well ask, “And why do you do that?” Clearly, only a handful of people can know for sure what happened, and thus far Erdely has asked only one of those people for her account. For the zetetic among us to acknowledge that this is both unprofessional and bewildering does not suggest foolishness or obstinacy or sinister motivation on their parts so much as it reflects a capacity for basic reasoning and for the responsible filtering of evidence.
Alas, the skeptics stand accused. Reacting angrily to a leery piece in The New Republic, the lawyer and writer Rachel Sklar submitted that it was “Gross to see @tnr join the @reason drumbeat of so-called ‘journalistic skepticism’ about the @UVA story.” “Rapists,” Sklar added, the dissenters have “got your back.” Later, Sklar went so far as to admit that she automatically “[assumes] women who speak of their own experiences are credible” and to contend that “so-called skepticism is just ‘we can’t trust the ‘she said’ without the ‘he said!’” The doubters, Sklar concluded, are ultimately teaching a class in “Rape denial 101.”
In some quarters of the Internet, this approach was rather popular. The Daily Beast’s Sally Kohn wanted to know when Jonah Goldberg “last demanded that reporting on a burglary be independently corroborated by other outlets? Or a murder?” (One would hope Goldberg’s answer would be “always,” and that his question for Kohn would be, “and what exactly do you do?”) For asking questions of his own, meanwhile, the Washington Examiner’s Byron York was asked, “Why is it that only people on the right are trying to discredit a story about rape?” (Quick answer: Pieces in Slate, The New Republic, and the Washington Post have raised similar questions.)
That a matter such as this would be considered “political” in some way is worrying, for, regardless of their party registration and broader Weltanschauung, observers have only two choices here: 1) They can take the view that anybody who refuses to uncritically accept the explosive claims of a woman he doesn’t know must be sympathetic to rapists, or 2) they can retain their critical faculties and recognize that the truth matters and that it is incumbent upon us to get this right, whatever the broader issues at play. Of course it would be horrendous if Erdely’s story were true and nobody believed it. But it would be equally grotesque if it were revealed that Erdely had been taken in by a hoax and that UVA, Phi Kappa Psi, and the heretofore anonymous array of accused parties have in consequence been grossly libeled and maligned. Unless one believes that there is nothing evil about false and malicious accusations — or that it doesn’t matter whether or not this story is true provided that it affords reformers an opportunity to sell their wares — one has a responsibility to accept that there is more than one potentially deleterious outcome here and that right-thinking people have little choice but to say “I don’t know” when they are genuinely incapable of knowing. Oddly enough, Mother Jones’s Nick Baumann is correct when he snarkily advises the “Dudes” in his timeline that “if you don’t have any evidence except your feelings, maybe you should think twice before questioning a rape survivor’s story,” but he has omitted a few crucial words from his missive. Those words? “And maybe you should think twice about believing it unthinkingly, too.”
Alas, as “narrative” begins to eclipse the truth, such caveats are less frequently to be seen. It was only a couple of months ago that Vox’s Ezra Klein effectively called for the nation’s college campuses to disregard the due-process rights of accused rapists in the interest of bringing about social changes of which he approves and, in doing so, inadvertently revealed that he was quite happy to see a few innocent people sent to the gallows if their ruination served a broader purpose. As Anna Merlan makes clear in her post, she too is irritated by the prospect of details’ delaying the burning of witches. The enmity that has been hurled at Robby Soave and his fellow agnostics, she concedes in an honest moment, is in large part the result of his having derailed the “ongoing and much-needed public conversation about the way rape and sexual assault claims are dealt with on college campuses.” Translation for the naïve: “Stop asking for details, villagers, we’re busy saving your souls.”
It is precisely this instinct that informs the plague of fake “hate crimes” that has infected the modern college campus. Last year, noting a racism hoax at Oberlin College, I wrote that:
The method by which the architects of fake hate crimes elect to raise awareness is functionally indistinguishable from that of the show trial. As dictators of all stripes justify their behavior on the grounds that the message is more important than are the facts of the case — or, for that matter, than is the sacred innocence of the falsely accused — so the perpetrators of “hate crime” hoaxes have their own elevated ideologies, into whose service real lives must be pressed. Objective truth is just a casualty of the plan — an inconvenience that must be ruthlessly subjugated to the narrative. It would presumably come as an unpleasant surprise to these miscreants that their behavior carries the very whiff of totalitarian mania that they believe themselves to be denouncing. But it does.
Indeed, just this week, National Review’s Katherine Timpf quoted a student at the University of Chicago who proudly and openly expressed this sentiment as a justification for his mendacity. Having been caught faking a rape threat, freshman Derek Caquelin claimed that:
“I made the wrong decision after being harassed about the problems I have tried to discuss not being real and wanted to show you all they are real,” he said.
And it doesn’t seem like Perez is too upset about it. He told the school’s student newspaper, the Chicago Maroon: “Someone felt they had to show something extreme to get people to care. Think about that. This is not a justification. But think about what the weight of apathy can force people to do.”
“Think about that”? Yes, do. And then, in the name of all that is liberal and good, reject it with extreme prejudice. If the rape that Sabrina Rubin Erdely is reporting as true happened as she described it, nothing short of apoplectic rage and a series of extraordinarily harsh prison sentences will cut it. Heads will have to roll. Investigations will have to be ordered. And, yes, the alleged victim ought to forfeit her preferences and help the authorities find those responsible and bring them to justice. If it is untrue, however, an entirely different set of questions will need to be asked: Chief among them, what is it about the problem of rape that has led us to this place?
Inquiring minds want to know which of these roads we should be going down, what — if anything — the incident tells us about the country, and how it intersects with other problems that are deserving of our attention. Disinterested minds will wait for the facts before rushing to judgments. And the closed minds — well, they think you’re a damned idiot for asking questions in the first place.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.