Broken intellectual practice: The gentry at the New York Times can't seem to quit Woody Allen.
In this morning's editions, Bret Stephens offers a column bearing this headline: "Smearing Woody Allen." It follows and perhaps responds to last Sunday's column by Nicholas Kristof, "Woody Allen Meets #MeToo."
Three days before that, film critic A. O. Scott offered a 1600-word rumination headlined, "On Second Thought: My Woody Allen Problem." It wasn't entirely clear what particular original thought Scott was citing, but he'd covered some of the same ground on January 3, in this colloquy with fellow film critic Manohla Dargis.
(Scott to Dargis: "Long before I became a film critic, I was a Woody Allen obsessive.")
Meanwhile, the Times has been faithfully reporting revived controversies involving Allen. On February 1, the paper published a 1900-word online digest, "Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Dylan Farrow: A Timeline."
"This timeline is...a guide, not a comprehensive accounting, and will be updated periodically," reporters Deb and Leiderman wrote.
These controversies involve an accusation against Allen dating to 1992. Does the accusation deserve this kind of coverage?
In fairness, the sprawling coverage gives the Times a ton of movie magazine clicks. It lets the newspaper publish giant photos of big (female) movie stars.
Surely, no one will ever imagine that mercantile motives exist at the Times, or that these is a certain "Tiger Beat" flavor to the tastes of the newspaper's lofty subscribers. That said, the question remains:
Does the current amount of coverage make sense? Also, how strong is the reasoning which goes into these recitals concerning the question of guilt?
We'd have to say that the reasoning—the journalistic practice—isn't exceptionally strong. Consider today's column by Stephens:
Does the word "smearing" in the headline suggest that the claim against Allen is false? It seems to us that the word does make that suggestion—yet nowhere in his column does Stephens actually state such a claim.
Did Woody Allen, in 1992, molest his daughter, Dylan Farrow, who was then 7 years old? Like you, we don't know, and we don't know how to find out.
That said, our discourse increasingly turns on matters where the actual truth almost surely can't be known. Increasingly, these are the peculiar grounds on which our alleged discourse is conducted.
What can we take from the way the Times can't quit Woody Allen? We'll offer a few quick thoughts, drawing on certain things anthropologists have told us:
As a species, we so-called humans simply hate to acknowledge lack of knowledge. We hate to admit that we don't and can't know X, Y or Z. Something there is that builds a wall against such simple disclosures.
We're disinclined to admit that we don't know. Our wiring doesn't seem to permit it. There's some famous history here:
At the dawn of the west, The Oracle of Delphi declared that no one was wiser than Socrates. This declaration produced a surprising response.
In a remarkable foundational act, Socrates set out to prove The Oracle wrong. Since he was sure that he himself knew virtually nothing, he felt there surely had to someone wiser than he.
Thus was born the tradition of challenging intellectual authority, a tradition most commonly honored in the breach. But uh-oh!
As Socrates paraded about trying to prove The Oracle wrong, he discovered a foundational fact about our self-impressed species. In Plato's Apology, Socrates explains what happened as he conducted his search for someone wiser than he. Down through the years, college freshmen have doted on this text:
SOCRATES OF ATHENS (399 BC): I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed to him—his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination—and the result was as follows:Uh-oh! As Socrates tried to show these people that they really knew nothing, he persistently triggered their anger. In effect, he had dscovered the three dirty words you can't say on cable TV:
When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me.
So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: "Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is—for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him."
Then I went to another, who had still higher philosophical pretensions, and my conclusion was exactly the same. I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him.
I don't know.
"I don't know!" We humans are very strongly disinclined to say that!
Is man [sic] the rational animal, as has long been bruited? Actually, no! Man [sic] is the animal which never admits it doesn't know! Or so an impressive range of anthropologists have said.
In comment threads about Woody Allen, you'll encounter endless subscribers who can't come to terms with the fact that they don't know what actually happened. They loudly claim or suggest that they've figured it out, when, of course, they haven't.
Meanwhile, in the age of 24-hour blather, producers flock to topics like this, where the truth can never be known. Such topics create the possibility of "discussions" which never end!
So it goes among the gentry, even among players like Kristof. Concerning his recent column, we'll close by quoting this remarkable passage:
KRISTOF (2/1/18): I’m a friend of Dylan [Farrow] and her family, so I’m not an unbiased observer. But over the years I have reviewed the evidence, and on balance it persuades me.Though not unbiased, he's persuaded—on balance! Meanwhile, he cites this recent Outlook essay by Morgan. The essay was an intellectual, academic and journalistic embarrassment, horror show/mess.
Meanwhile, it turns out that Allen’s private notes over the decades are “filled with misogynist and lecherous musings,” showing “an insistent, vivid obsession with young women and girls,” according to Richard Morgan, who sifted through Allen’s 56-box archive and recounted his findings in The Washington Post.
In our view, it was amazing that the Washington Post chose to publish such an embarrassing piece of work. It should be more embarrassing still to see that Kristof, a vaunted Harvard grad, read the piece without being able to see its howling lack of intellectual or journalistic merit.
But so it was when Socrates paraded about in defiance of The Oracle. He kept encountering people who couldn't come to terms with how little they actually knew. In the end, they decided to frogmarch him off to his death.
When anthropologists review the work of our upper-end press corps, they frequently come to us in our dreams and report their findings.
They note the way these lofty beings routinely behave in ways which fly in the face of all known academic or intellectual procedure. Our journalists behaved this way for two years in claiming that Candidate Gore was the world's biggest liar, like Clinton, these anthropologists routinely tell us. Some of these scientists merely laugh. Some sadly shake their heads.
There's a great deal to learn from Kristof's citation of Morgan. For ourselves, we don't know what's true about Allen, but we do know that Morgan's piece was, by any normal standard, a blindingly obvious mess, a journalistic shipwreck.
Somehow, Kristof doesn't know that! And Kristof famously went to Harvard. Modern oracles cite him as one of our wisest men.
Gore was smeared as part of a moral stampede—a stampede involving the press corps' views about Bill Clinton. The topic the Times can't quit today is part of another stampede.
(Please note: As part of the current stampede, all sorts of major stars are let off amazingly easy for their past and current behavior. Even as they chase some down, the gentry defer to others.)
We don't know what Woody Allen did or didn't do. Almost surely, we never will.
Nicholas Kristof doesn't know either. But alas! As it was at the dawn of the west, one of the wisest men in our press corps seems disinclined to see that!
For extra credit only: To what extent can a 7-year-old child develop a strongly-held "false memory?" Setting the current case to the side, does such a thing ever happen at all?
The Times hasn't published such a report. Most likely, it never will.
The New York Times doesn't function that way. Instead, look at this big giant picture of Mariel, when she was just 17!