Two unexplained key words: Do you believe it? Do you believe that Brett Kavanaugh assaulted Christine Blasey Ford—then Christine Blasey, age 15—in the manner Blasey Ford has described?
As of last Sunday morning, it seemed fairly clear that several callers to C-Span's Washington Journal didn't believe Blasey Ford. What did they think of Blasey Ford, and of her allegations?
Allen from Ohio said, "She's not credible. Not credible at all." He based his assessment on his experiences with "professors and people with Ph.D.'s," who "can be a little goofy."
Philip from North Carolina had a somewhat similar view. "I don't believe her. She just doesn't have credibility," Philip said. "Maybe she believes that was Kavanaugh, but it wasn't." Full stop!
The very next caller, Sarah from Texas, didn't believe Blasey Ford either. "To come on TV and act like she did, I think she's a disgrace to the women," Sarah from Texas said. "And I believe that Kavanaugh is telling the truth."
Allen, Philip and Sarah directly said that they don't believe Blasey Ford, or that they do believe Kavanaugh. Others denigrated Blasey Ford without explicitly saying that they don't believe her account.
According to Jim from Delaware, Blasey Ford had been "drawn out of the woodwork" as part of "this, the whole conspiracy to keep Kavanaugh or anybody that is nominated by Trump off the court." Howard from Florida hotly complained that Blasey Ford, and one of her lawyers, had attended last year's women's march—and that the lawyer had made an incriminating statement in a speech at that march.
(Note: Blasey Ford didn't attend the march. We find no report that the lawyer attended, or of the lawyer's alleged statement.)
Carol from New York wanted an investigation of Blasey Fork's "drinking habits" and "drinking background." She speculated that Blasey Ford may have been too drunk to identify her attacker on the night of the alleged attack.
Jacqueline from Philadelphia complained that, if she herself had a doctorate, "I don't think I would be speaking in that teeny-tiny voice. I noticed that right away."
(Note: In fairness, Carol also said she wasn't sure that she liked Kavanaugh's crying. Also in fairness, a full investigation of Blasey Ford's claims probably would include an attempt to determine how much she drank on the evening in question, though it isn't obvious how such a thing could be determined.)
We listened to the first dozen calls to Sunday's Washington Journal. By that time, 7:30 AM Eastern, several analysts had gone catatonic. Skillfully, we turned the TV off and addressed their needs.
At any rate, quite a few callers seemed fairly sure that Blasey Ford's account was inaccurate, though none of these callers were asked to explain the basis for their apparent certainty. As a general matter, C-Span offers an open, welcoming forum for callers. Each caller is allowed to state his or her views, full stop.
Under this system, factual claims go unchallenged, even if they're inflammatory or prejudicial or almost surely false. Statements of belief, including so-called true belief, go unchallenged too.
On what basis did these callers believe that Blasey Ford's account was wrong? No one was asked to say, and the logic of the callers' presentations often came live and direct from la-la land. That said, this happens whenever C-Span opens its lines for viewer calls.
Here as elsewhere, these open phone segments tend to draw the curtain back concerning our ballyhooed human nature. That said, these callers are "regular people"—Joe and Josephine Sixpacks. They don't possess the special skills of our high journalistic class.
That said: Long before last Sunday's forum, we were struck by a pair of statements by a major national journalist.
The analysts woke us on Tuesday, September 18 to report an emergency sighting. Possibly behaving a bit like those unschooled C-Span callers, Michelle Goldberg had started her column in that day's New York Times with a somewhat puzzling statement—a statement anchored by a somewhat puzzling word:
GOLDBERG (9/18/18): Obviously, I believe Christine Blasey Ford, the psychology professor who says that Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school while his friend Mark Judge watched and, at moments, egged him on. I believe her when she says that Kavanaugh, who she says was drunk, held her down, covered her mouth when she tried to scream, and ground against her while attempting to pull her clothes off. I believe her when she says this incident haunted her all her life.Blasey Ford's name had appeared in the Times on Monday, September 17 for the very first time. One day later, Goldberg was saying who she believed—and she began with an unexplained word.
Goldberg didn't say that she was inclined to believe Blasey Ford. She didn't say that she believed Blasey Ford at that point on balance. She didn't even say she believed Blasey Ford, full stop, and leave her statement at that.
Instead, she said she believed Blasey Ford's account—and she started with the word "obviously." She never explained where that word had come from. Nor had her editor required an explanation.
Later in her column, Goldberg said that Kavanaugh had been "credibly accused of attempted rape." As things have turned out, we'd say that statement turned out to be perfectly accurate. But "credible" isn't the same thing as "true." How did "credible" get us to "obviously" at roughly the speed of light?
Goldberg didn't explain. Two days later, she wrote on the topic again. Again, an unexplained word:
GOLDBERG (9/20/18): Whether you believe Blasey or not—I absolutely do—something happened when she was 15 that damaged her. A friend from her teenage years told The New York Times how, after the alleged attack, the formerly outgoing, popular girl “fell off the face of the earth socially.” Much later, The Wall Street Journal reported, she told another friend that she needed more than one door in her bedroom to avoid feeling trapped. She sought therapy for what she experienced, and reportedly confided in her husband and in at least one friend well before Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination.Now, Goldberg "absolutely" believed Blasey Ford. She based this assessment on at least one reported fact which seems to have turned out to be mistaken. A more important claim was attributed to Blasey Ford's husband. It bore the key qualifier, "reportedly."
Our analysts went catatonic as they listened to those C-Span callers this Sunday. Several of the analysts even cursed sacred Aristotle, the mental giant who memorably said 1) that all matter was made of four elements plus the heavenly aether, and 2) that we humans are "the rational animal"—or at least, so he's said to have said.
That "rational animal" characterization is part of the western canon. That said, to what extent are we humans defined by our "rational" nature?
It's easy to be hard on the follies of C-Span's less than perfectly rational callers, especially those who hail from the other tribe. It may be harder to see the problems when they strike a bit closer to home, and when they strike at authority figures in the academy or in the upper-end "press."
It may be hard to see the problem when our team leaps to true belief. To see the way this may help our oligarchs tighten their grip on the world.
Coming next: "Incredibly credible," a raft of pundits said