Bret Stephens’ Mob Mentality

The New York Times’ conservative columnist wants due process, except when he doesn’t.

Bret Stephens.
Bret Stephens. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

“Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation. Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused - life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?” This was President Trump’s tweeted response after White House staffers David Sorensen and Rob Porter resigned over domestic-abuse allegations last week. Of course, if the 19 women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct are lying, as the president and the White House have repeatedly claimed, his election to the presidency would stand as a rather powerful counterexample to the idea that the falsely accused are getting a raw deal today. This is the kind of flight from coherence we’ve come to expect from the president and his supporters. Counterexamples, counterarguments, history, and common sense don’t hold a candle to the bold, repeated assertions and hyperbole of the reactionary mindset, widely taken now to be a kind of virus in the body politic—exclusively taking in, we tell ourselves, the less educated, the racist, the stupid, the misguided, and the disingenuous.

In short, the kind of people, it was said late last year, who lent their unwavering support to Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore after he was accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct against them when they were teens. One accused Moore of fondling her at the age of 14. The defenses and outright denials of this conduct by a remarkable number of Republican voters and pundits were taken as further evidence of how unhinged a large swath of the nonestablishment right had become. With characteristic wit, the New York Times’ conservative columnist Bret Stephens tweeted in early December that the GOP could now be called the “GOPP. Grand Old Pedophile Party.”

In a Conversation column with Gail Collins, Stephens decried the moral bankruptcy of Moore’s supporters. ”Roy Moore is what Republicans get—and what they deserve—when they abandon mainstream Republicanism for populism, and when they renounce the idea that good moral character is a requirement of high political office,” he wrote. “Did you notice the Rev. Franklin Graham defending Moore by saying his accusers are ‘guilty of doing much worse’? For him, it’s all about putting a Christianist in the Senate, even if that Christianist molests teenagers.” On Dec. 28, Stephens tweeted to Breitbart’s Joel Pollak that he and the publication owed apologies “to the victims of Roy Moore’s predations” for their efforts to discredit them.

Absent from this material is any doubt on Stephens’ part that Moore was in fact guilty of all that he had been accused of, despite the lack of anything like formal due process to adjudicate the claims against him. To Stephens, and every reasonable person in America, Moore was an obvious and unrepentant pedophile. Case closed.

On Friday, three months to the day after the first allegation against Roy Moore appeared in the Washington Post, Bret Stephens published a piece titled “The Smearing of Woody Allen.” It was framed as a response to Allen’s adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, asking in the pages of the Los Angeles Times in December why the #MeToo movement had thus far spared Allen, who she has accused of assaulting her at the age of 7. “An in-depth, contemporaneous and independent investigation into the allegations, conducted over several months by the Yale–New Haven Hospital in 1992 and 1993, noted that there were ‘important inconsistencies in Dylan’s statements,’ and that ‘her descriptions of the details surrounding the alleged events were unusual and were inconsistent,’ ” Stephens wrote, citing the hospital’s “expert opinion that Dylan was not sexually abused by Mr. Allen.” Stephens went on to write that young children “are imaginative and suggestible and innocently prone to making things up” and noted also that “[n]obody else has come forward in 25 years with a fresh accusation of assault against him.” The latter observation immediately preceded one of the most remarkable paragraphs the New York Times has published in recent memory: “If Allen is in fact a pedophile, he appears to have acted on his evil fantasies exactly once,” Stephens wrote. “Compare that to Larry Nassar’s 265 identified victims.”

On its face, this seems like simple and impressively brazen whataboutism. In the discussions on social media that followed the piece, some have suggested that Stephens was trying to say that there was more evidence in Nassar’s case to indict him than there is in Allen’s. In any case, certain facts advanced by Stephens’ critics, including Pod Save America co-host Jon Lovett, seem relevant. As a correction appended to the bottom of Stephens’ piece now notes, there were two other investigations of the allegations against Allen that Stephens failed to mention—an investigation by the New York State Department of Social Services and an investigation by the Connecticut State Police. The Department of Social Services concurred with Yale–New Haven that there was insufficient evidence that Farrow had been abused. But Frank Maco, the Connecticut state prosecutor who commissioned the Yale–New Haven inquiry, said in 1993 that he believed that there was, in fact, probable cause to prosecute Allen, although he had declined to do so out of concern about the impact a trial would have had on Farrow. Stephens ignored a number of other relevant facts about the Yale–New Haven investigation—its independence has been challenged over the years, including in a 1993 custody ruling in which the judge questioned the conclusiveness of Yale–New Haven’s findings, stated that Allen had attacked Dylan’s mother, Mia, for manipulating her against him “without the support of any significant credible evidence,” and said that Allen’s behavior with Dylan, generally speaking, had been “grossly inappropriate, and that measures must be taken to protect her.”

There was no mention in Stephens’ piece either of the fact that a babysitter had sworn in court that she had seen Allen with his face in Dylan’s lap on the day of the alleged assault, a day that, as a tutor working at the Farrow house had testified, Dylan had not been wearing underpants under her dress. Stephens’ piece also curiously neglects to consider Allen’s body of work. As David Klion, writing in Jewish Currents, and Ira Madison III, writing at the Daily Beast, have noted recently, relationships between middle-aged men and much younger women feature heavily. Most infamously, in the film Manhattan, a comedy writer, played by a 43-year-old Allen, dates a 17-year-old girl played by Mariel Hemingway, who has claimed she shared her first kiss with Allen at 16 while filming a scene. Stephens additionally makes only a brief passing reference to Allen’s affair with, in his words, “Mia Farrow’s adopted, barely adult daughter, Soon-Yi Previn,” who is now Allen’s wife.

These facts, while not constituting definitive proof of Allen’s guilt, would have been important to reckon with seriously given that they’ve lent plausibility to Dylan’s allegation in the minds of many. Stephens responded to them on social media with a revealing petulance. To argue simply that there is insufficient evidence against Woody Allen is one thing. To claim, as Stephens did after publication, that those who disagree are participating in an illegitimate and irresponsible “verdict first, trial never Twitter mob” is quite another.

This characterization of the growing criticism of Allen could have applied just as easily to the public reactions to allegations against Roy Moore, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, or Charlie Rose, none of whom were subjected to what we conventionally call “due process” or a trial before public judgements were rendered against them by people including Bret Stephens. It is not clear, given this, what Stephens means when he writes that Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey have been proven “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” or when he calls for “the presumption of innocence” on Allen’s behalf in his column. These are terms of legal parlance invoked as though they can confer an easy formality on situations that haven’t yet been settled in any court but the court of public opinion. Conventionally, the latter term has meant that one suspected of wrongdoing should be considered innocent until they’re actually sanctioned by legal authorities, whether they’ve been accused by one, 10, or 100 people. Again, Stephens—perhaps possessed of a more exquisite conscience than the rest of us—has been willing to surrender that presumption in other instances.

The difficulty here, already recognized by a number of commenters who have praised or consider themselves part of the #MeToo movement, is that the public opprobrium he characterizes as mob justice is in fact the only plausible recourse for a large swath of cases of sexual misconduct—cases in which allegations are brought years after the fact or claims from the accuser and the accused are the only evidence available for assessment. It is unlikely that Woody Allen will ever be tried for Farrow’s accusation. So former and current colleagues, sponsors of his films, and ordinary people who consume his art render their judgments on his character on the basis of the facts available to them, including several that, again, Stephens could not be bothered to examine. If there are reasons why this process of public-opinion formation should be considered more untoward and moblike than the processes that routinely reduce the esteem of other public figures for any number of reasons, Stephens has done a poor job of articulating them. Moreover, the fact that there have been more accusers in other #MeToo cases doesn’t change the fact that the forces at work against Allen—namely journalism and social media—are the very same forces that, again, have felled others that Stephens has seen fit to condemn. If there’s something inherently rotten about the process by which people have made up their minds about Allen, then there’s something inherently rotten about the whole enterprise. Stephens, if he believes this, should say so and apologize, perhaps, for The Smearing of Roy Moore. Alternatively, he ought to consider developing an evidentiary standard to ascertain the kinds of cases activists should put stock in. Of course, this falls outside the purview of what the Times has chiefly hired him to do, which is perform martyrdom and reassure the powers that be at the Times of their own open-mindedness.

A clunky but reasonably descriptive phrase for what Stephens does is reactionary contrarianism. This particular strain of contrarianism is a political project against cultural liberalism that, as the president’s tweet in defense of Sorensen and Porter demonstrates, has a deep resonance with other dark undercurrents of the current political moment. The paranoia of believing that there are everywhere radical bogeymen and agents of totalitarianism and the idea that there exists a vast, toxic, and tremendously influential swamp populated by the far left, liberals in the press, college students, feminists, and so on are evidently shared not only by Roy Moore supporters and unrepentant Trumpists but certain self-appointed voices of reason in the cultural right and center. One of the most Trumpian moments of the new year was Katie Roiphe’s claiming on a national television program last week that people with her critical views of #MeToo are being silenced. The thought police were evidently asleep at the switch. If #MeToo critics ever go to the trouble of holding rallies, complaints about the censorship of crowd size numbers will inevitably follow. In New York magazine on Friday, Andrew Sullivan deployed the phrase cultural Marxism to describe the #MeToo movement and political correctness on campus. The alt-right does the same, although in Sullivan’s defense, they’re referencing an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory only about half the time.

This isn’t to say, of course, that the far right and columnists like Stephens are morally equivalent or advancing the exact same ideology. It seems possible, though, that Bari Weiss could have a second career hawking tinfoil headgear and dubious multivitamins on YouTube if she wanted it. On Bill Maher’s show Friday, she was still advancing the hysterical fiction that a substantial proportion of #MeToo’s activists believe that Aziz Ansari’s alleged actions are ethically equivalent to the actions of Harvey Weinstein. Earlier this month, the comedian Amy Schumer was asked about Ansari and said of his alleged misconduct, “It’s not a crime, but it’s not cool.” This would have been a career-ending blunder if it were the case, as Weiss and others have routinely claimed, that anyone who doesn’t condemn all imperfect men in the severest of terms is sent into cultural exile. Schumer, at last check, seems to be alive, well, and prosperous. But the witch hunt against witch-hunters continues, and critics of political correctness and #MeToo, in a frenzy of wild accusations, will be casting extremists and invented opponents as representative of the cultural left for the foreseeable future.

“The tragedy of the mob,” Stephens tweeted on Saturday, “is that those in them rarely think of themselves as part of a mob.” How right he is.