In “Did Rolling Stone Hurt the Quest for Justice?” Mr. Blow says we shouldn’t let one false report distract from the larger search for truth. Bobo is sure he knows “What Candidates Need.” He says in our next president, we need someone with a portion of Abraham Lincoln’s gifts — someone who is philosophically grounded, emotionally mature and tactically cunning. Here’s Mr. Blow:
This week the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism issued its damning report about the journalistic lapses by Rolling Stone magazine when it published a salacious, and now-discredited, story about a supposed gang rape at a University of Virginia frat house.
The report blasted the magazine for failing to engage in “basic, even routine journalistic practice” to verify the veracity of the story. This only amplified the finger pointing of those who believe the issue of college rape is an overhyped fallacy or an ideological instrument, and the hand-wringing among activists who fear real damage to a real issue.
Last year, Kevin D. Williamson wrote in National Review under the headline “The Rape Epidemic Is a Fiction” that the issue of sexual assault on college campuses was “bound up in a broader feminist Kulturkampf only tangentially related to the very real problem of sexual violence against women.” He cited what he called the “thoroughly debunked claim that one in five women will be sexually assaulted in her college years,” a claim repeated by President Obama, as part of his evidence.
However, it should be noted that the Washington Post Fact Checker has refused to rule on the reliability of that claim, saying only that: “Readers should be aware that this oft-cited statistic comes from a Web-based survey of two large universities, making it problematic to suggest that it is representative of the experience of all college women.”
The Fact Checker went on to say: “As an interesting article from the University of Minnesota-Duluth newspaper makes clear, sexual violence is too rarely reported. So the White House should be applauded for calling attention to this issue.”
A Fox News host last month even suggested that the Rolling Stone story was evidence that “there is a war happening on boys on these college campuses.”
On the other side, the author of the Rolling Stone article acknowledged the effect her story may have on sexual assault victims, writing in a statement: “I hope that my mistakes in reporting this story do not silence the voices of victims that need to be heard.”
Sexual assault on college campuses is not the only issue to be caught in the cultural crossfire when some of the facts of a well-publicized case unravel. The same could be said of the Michael Brown/Darren Wilson case in Ferguson. Protests born in the wake of Brown’s killing by Wilson frequently invoked the phrase “hands up, don’t shoot,” a reference to the posture that some witnesses said was held by Brown when he was shot. The Department of Justice found little evidence to support that narrative.
Sheriff David Clarke of Milwaukee went on Fox News to declare a “war on our nation’s finest, the American police officer” based on a “false narrative out of Ferguson, Mo., this ‘hands up, don’t shoot.’ ” He continued, “We know now for a fact that that never happened.”
Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post wrote a much-talked-about column with a headline “ ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ Was Built On a Lie.” Yet Capehart was careful to make this caveat: “Yet this does not diminish the importance of the real issues unearthed in Ferguson by Brown’s death. Nor does it discredit what has become the larger ‘Black Lives Matter.’ ”
Cases like these raise the questions: What happens when one particular case is shown to have flaws although the overall condition that it illustrated holds true? How much damage is done when ammunition is given to deniers? How do you balance an impulse toward immediate empathy with the patience necessary for a reservation of judgment until a proper investigation can be performed?
Is there an ultimately unhealthy need to identify a “catalyst case” that will shock the conscience and lay waste to civic apathy, a case that will arrest the sensibilities of the weary and dispassionate and move them to action? I would argue that the integrity of truth and the honor of righteousness know no era. They don’t need to win the moment because they will always win the ages.
And therefore, these cases stand as cautionary markers that we can never be so eager to have our convictions confirmed that deliberation is abandoned and our truth-detectors are disarmed. That goes for those in the media as well as the public. Sometimes justice dictates a glacial fortitude, even in a modern period of instant gratification.
In these cases, the error must be acknowledged and absorbed without distorting the mission. One measure of the merits of a movement and a cause are their resilience in the face of tumult, their ability to take a blow and scamper back to their feet, to stay homed in on the beacon of light even after the darkness falls.
Remember what Malcolm X said: “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against.” When you are in honest pursuit of justice, the truth will never hurt you.
Now here’s Bobo:
I have two presidential election traditions. I begin covering each campaign by reading a book about Abraham Lincoln, and I end each election night, usually after midnight, at the statue of the Lincoln Memorial.
I begin by reading a book about Lincoln not because it’s fair to hold any of the candidates to the Lincoln standard, but because he gets you thinking about what sorts of things we should be looking for in a presidential candidate. Any candidate worthy of support should at least have in rudiments what Lincoln had in fullness: a fundamental vision, a golden temperament and a shrewd strategy for how to cope with the political realities of the moment.
Lincoln developed his fundamental vision in a way that seems to refute our contemporary educational practices. Today we pile on years of education. We assign hundreds of books over the years. We cluster our students on campuses with people with similar grades and test scores.
Lincoln had very little formal education. He was not cloistered on a campus but spent his formative years in daily contact with an astounding array of characters. If his social experience was wide, his literary experience was narrow. He read fewer books over his entire formative life than many contemporary students do in a single year. In literary terms, he preferred depth to breadth; grasp to reach. He intensely read Shakespeare, the King James Bible, “The Pilgrim’s Progress” and Parson Weems’s “The Life of Washington.”
This education gave him a moral vision that emerged from life, not from reading.
He saw America as a land where ambitious poor boys and girls like himself could transform themselves through hard, morally improving work. He believed in a government that built canals and railroads and banks to stoke the fires of industry. He believed slavery was wrong in part because people should be free to control their own labor. He believed in a providence that was active but unknowable.
This Whiggish vision was his north star. He could bob and weave as politics demanded, but his incremental means always pointed to the same transformational end. Any presidential candidate needs that sort of consistent animating vision — an image of an Ideal America baked so deeply into his or her bones as to be unconscious, useful as a compass when the distractions of Washington life come in a flurry.
Lincoln’s temperament surpasses all explanation. His early experience of depression and suffering gave him a radical self-honesty. He had the double-minded personality that we need in all our leaders. He was involved in a bloody civil war, but he was an exceptionally poor hater. He was deeply engaged, but also able to step back; a passionate advocate, but also able to see his enemy’s point of view; aware of his own power, but aware of when he was helpless in the hands of fate; extremely self-confident but extremely humble. Candidates who don’t have a contradictory temperament have no way to check themselves and are thus dangerous.
Lincoln’s skills as a political tactician seem like the least of his gifts, but are among his greatest. It’s easy to be a true believer, or to govern or campaign with your pedal to the metal all the time. It’s much harder to know when to tap on the brake and when to step on the gas.
We study Lincoln’s tactical phase shifts in the Grand Strategy class I help with at Yale. There’s never enough time to cover them all.
Most of Lincoln’s efforts were designed to tamp down passion for the sake of sustainable, incremental progress. Others would have delivered a heroic first Inaugural Address, but Lincoln made his a dry legal brief. Others would have stuffed the Emancipation Proclamation with ringing exclamations, but Lincoln’s draft is as dull as possible. Others wanted an immediate end to slavery. Lincoln tried to end it through unromantic, gradual economic means. He hoped that if he limited the demand for slaves (by halting the spread of slavery and by paying people not to keep them) he could drive down the price and render the whole enterprise unprofitable.
This year, Lincoln’s strategic restraint is the most necessary of his traits. We live in a partisan time, with movements who treat trimmers, compromisers and incrementalists harshly. But, to pass legislation, the next president will have to perpetually disappoint the fervent and devise a legislative strategy that can consistently get a House majority and 60 Senate votes.
We will not get a Lincoln. A person with his face could not survive the TV age. A person with his capacity for introspection could not survive the 24/7 self-branding campaign environment. But we do need someone with a portion of his gifts — someone who is philosophically grounded, emotionally mature and tactically cunning.
Well, at least we can find the closest possible approximation.