The New Refuge of Scoundrels

Just when observers had concluded the desperate progressive opposition to Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court could not stoop much lower, it most certainly did.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), in the news recently for somehow unknowingly employing a Chinese spy as her gofer and chauffeur for 20 years, passed on information to federal investigators that weeks ago had come to her attention from an unnamed, unidentified, and anonymous female who claimed she was a high school acquaintance of Kavanaugh’s. Apparently, we were to believe that the once-anonymous informant had harbored a long-simmering, but heretofore never-voiced complaint of sexual assault against Kavanaugh, which coincidentally reached a peak of unsustainable resentment at the time of his nomination to the highest court in the land.

After days of gossip and innuendo to the effect that the likely next Supreme Court Justice might just be some sort of pervert, Anonymous finally came forward and identified herself as a victim of a then 17-year-old inebriated Brett Kavanaugh who (she says) sexually manhandled her in 1982 when she was 15. More specifically, the woman now alleges that Kavanaugh and another student at a high-school party entered a room inebriated, pinned her to a bed, and then groped her while she was clothed. Young Kavanaugh then allegedly attempted to take her clothes off her while he and his classmate, Mark Judge, both laughed “maniacally.” She adds that she had sought “medical treatment” for her unspecified injuries.

Anonymous identified herself in the Washington Post on Sunday as Christine Blasey Ford, a registered Democrat, Bernie Sanders supporter, and psychology professor at Palo Alto University, who otherwise had no recollection exactly where or when the supposed assault occurred some 36 years ago. Nor did she offer any clear reason why she had never then, or in the more than three decades since, contacted authorities to report the purported assault, other than claiming in 2012 that the incident then 30 years earlier still troubled her and contributed to her own sense of unease.

Or as Ford explained her sudden self-unmasking over the weekend: “Now I feel like my civic responsibility is outweighing my anguish and terror about retaliation.” A cynic might suggest that anonymity was useful in the 11th-hour smearing of Kavanaugh, but had proved not quite enough to derail his nomination, and so the fallback and default position of identification followed.

Ford was wise finally to come forward, given that the ability of the defendant now to face his accuser is a fundamental tenet of Western jurisprudence, as are canons such as statutes of limitations and hearsay. And just as Kavanaugh has labored for days under terrifying smears of Anonymous’s charges, so, too, will Ford have to prove to the court of public opinion that her narrative is believable, and neither timed nor crafted for the higher progressive objective of destroying a conservative Republican Supreme Court nominee.

Feinstein, in raising these initially anonymous allegations, was trafficking in the world of the English Star Chamber Court, the Inquisition, and the whispers and initial innuendos that prompted the hysteria of the Salem witch trials. Or rather she had a finger in the wind: if the 36-year-old charges created an Anita Hill-like hysteria, Feinstein was to be seen as heroic and on the barricades of the #NeverKavanaugh resistance. But even if her the charge proved absurd, then she could have retreated into something like “Just Sayin’.

So Feinstein saw no downside in releasing the initially anonymous sourced charge just after the formal hearings on Kavanaugh had concluded, in hopes that the smear could not be answered by cross-examining senators, but might gin up pressure on senators nonetheless to change their votes.

When the gambit backfired, Anonymous then—and only then—stepped forward to press her charges. What is left unsaid is that we will no longer have a free country or enjoy civil liberties and the safety of a Bill of Rights, if any American, at any time, can be ruined by an allegation of unproven sexual assault of some 36 years past, when the accused was a 17-year-old teenager, by an accuser who initially trafficked anonymously in such allegations, came forward only as part of a wider, more intensified and collective last-ditch effort to destroy the reputation of the accused, and yet has no clear memory of exactly where she was at 15, or the approximate date, when she claims that she was assaulted, or why she made no such accusation for 30 years—or when she raised the issue some six years ago privately during counseling, why her therapist’s notes of such revelations do not now match her current version of the incident.  

Most would assume that when Blasey Ford wrote in her allegation, “I have received medical treatment regarding the assault,” she would produce proof of a confirmable visit to an emergency room or doctor fairly soon after the alleged attack—not subsequently refer to a couples therapy session 30 years later, during which the therapist took notes that now do not, six additional years later, synchronize with the current allegations.

Bad Faith Publishing at the New York Times
Anonymity has never become more disreputable—and legitimized. An unidentified source is the new American means that is to be justified by noble progressive ends, often in the context of somehow delegitimizing Donald J. Trump and anyone or anything remotely connected to him.

Newspapers rarely print anonymous op-eds. And when they do, the themes are matters of policy or ideology, not self-righteous confessions of stealth and supposedly justified conspiracies against the president in the final weeks before a midterm election. Yet on September 5, the New York Times published an unsigned confessional from one of many supposed “senior officials” who all are said to be members of #TheResistance. These disloyal insiders, we are told, are doing all they can to subvert the operations of the Trump Administration and, in their warped view, see these actions as the embodiment of some kind of patriotism.

Both the Times and the unknown author of the accusations believe that anonymity is justified because of the extraordinary danger that Trump is said to pose to the American commonwealth.

In reality, both parties more cynically assume that anonymity precludes all discussions of verification. What Ben Rhodes once cynically called the “echo chamber” and what President Trump refers to as “fake news” are supposed to have earned our automatic trust. They have not.

We have no idea whether the Times is acting in good faith and publishing verbatim the insider’s account, or whether it solicited the op-ed, or whether the op-ed was edited or massaged by the Times—given that we have no ability to question the author, much less to see any supporting documents or corroborating testimonials. Moreover, the Times just published a fake news account that United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley was ordering extravagant drapes for her office (actually ordered during the Obama Administration). Its veracity continues to erode.

Far more important, the anonymous op-ed makes sweeping, even subversive, assertions that many like the author in the administration may well be breaking federal law by deliberately not carrying out, or indeed actively obstructing, administrative or legal orders. But ascertaining the truth of such charges is not the objective of the Times’s gambit. Instead, speculation, gossip, rumor, and “fear” are—as pundits grow feverish in their claims that the ogre Trump forced professionals of such rare virtue bravely to come forward.

Bob Woodward’s Games of Anonymity
The op-ed appeared conveniently as a would-be force multiplier of advance copy excerpts of Bob Woodward’s new tell-all Fear, circulating among journalists and reviewers. Fear is yet another Woodward exposé that reviewers say makes the identical argument as does Anonymous: so chaotic and disruptive is the landscape within the Trump Administration that the ensuing climate of fear naturally begs for some sort of deep-state intervention (as in the removal of an elected president).

There is no need to rehash four decades of commentary on Woodward’s journalistic methodology of using unnamed sources to “reconstruct” dialogues and conversations, replete with quotation marks. Generations of critics have warned that his muckraking cannot be verified and often cannot be fully accurate or even true.

When both observers and participants question the veracity of Woodward’s scenarios, sometimes the implication follows that, if called to account, he just may release (promises, promises) “tapes” of his sources to validate his dramatic reconstructions of these anonymous interlocutors.

Those quasi-threats are then usually followed by backpedaling: he has promised anonymity to his sources, and so, unfortunately, he cannot follow through on his warnings to substantiate his narrative. It is almost as if the threat to resort to citations, footnotes, or any type of confirmation of his speakers with background information of time and place would be seen as subversive.

We have forgotten how in the last four decades since the appearance of All the President’s Men just how the Woodward method has become institutionalized by the national press. We know the familiar modus operandi: the journalist is contacted by a leaker or indeed trolls for the leak. The “source” demands to remain anonymous. Negotiations follow about the terms of cloaking the informant. The motive of the unnamed source—whether it be patriotic, careerist, self-interested, or venomous—is immaterial.

The journalist is the ventriloquist, his sources puppets. Any observer who reads Woodward sees how the psychodrama further unfolds: should an anonymous source balk, then he must soon realize that some other anonymous sources might offer an alternate—and by definition competing and even more unflattering—narrative.

Sources, then, vie for primacy and likely exaggerate and fabricate, worried that if one does not leak or provide “background” he may become a target rather than the targeted: that is, someone else will first go full-blown Woodward.

At times, more substantial deep-state sources may use Woodward as much as he uses them, feeding him their own narratives and their own sources to substantiate their yarns, albeit of course, anonymously.

All of the above is the best-case scenario. Just as often journalists can invent dialogue and psychodramas, and attribute them to “informed sources,” “a high senior official,” or “sources tell us.” After Journolist, the WikiLeaks /John Podesta trove, the epidemic of fake news, and the “echo chamber,” why should anyone take the new journalists at their word?

Even at best Woodward is a postmodern Thucydides, whose 141 speeches in his magisterial history have sparked 2,400 years of controversy over their veracity. The historian himself, presaging Woodward, confesses that he wrote down what he heard. Fine. But when that effort proved not entirely feasible, Thucydides confesses that he put those words into the mouths of speakers that they should have said:

. . . it was in all cases difficult to carry them [the speeches in the history] word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course, adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.

Woodward says he relies on tapes rather than memory, but his method is as ambiguous as that of the ancient historians who routinely put their own words into the mouths of speakers. The speakers in Woodward’s “histories” usually say what is demanded on them by “the various occasions”—and in accordance with Woodward’s own thematic purposes.

Redaction, Anonymity, and Leaking
Anonymity has also become the impediment to ending the entire Russia-Trump collusion mythology. Almost every document that is so painstakingly obtained from a Justice Department or FBI archive appears so heavily redacted as to be worthless. Miscreants are not identified by name, but instead by letters or numbers. The point of redaction is to disconnect the deep-state messenger from the incriminating message.

How strange, then, that some government leaks to the press are replete with names, and so damn the innocent like Carter Page. Yet at other times official government documents use redaction to protect the identity of the culpable. So the final irony of the new cult of anonymity is that not all anonymity is equal.

The Obama National Security Council and others did their best to unmask and, quite illegally, leak the names of those caught up in surveillance. Either officials in the Justice Department or the FBI or both fed the toady press the names of a number of surveilled Trump campaign personnel.

If an official is willing to offer dirt on the current president, then journalists peddle the gossip and innuendo through the use of anonymity to “protect” a valuable source.

Yet if a name is legally protected from disclosure, but its release might fuel an anti-Trump narrative, then it is usually leaked.

Noble progressive ends justify any means necessary to obtain them—and increasingly anonymity is the preferred method.

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an American military historian, columnist, a former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush. Hanson is also a farmer (growing raisin grapes on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author most recently of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, The Case for Trump and the recently released The Dying Citizen.

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