David Moats: Democracy requires people to listen to the other side

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in Chicago on Feb. 24, 2020. Photo by Lloyd DeGrane via Wikimedia Commons

Republican efforts to smear Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson by suggesting she was “soft” on child pornography come from an old playbook. 

For decades, sex-related issues — abortion, gay rights — have served to stoke fear and hatred, and now trans rights and the fear of child sexual abuse have become tinder in the firebox of GOP attack politics. 

Child sexual abuse is always with us and must be combatted through vigorous law enforcement and broad awareness within the education, justice, medical, religious and social welfare communities, and within families. It is a serious crime that deserves a serious response.

Paranoia is not a serious response. But politicians who believe they have found a new vehicle for character assassination are amplifying paranoid fever dreams spawned by QAnon, the online font of bizarre conspiracy theories. 

That child sexual abuse is universally abhorred means that anyone who doesn’t buy into the most extreme response to the wildest accusations (Pizza-gate, “grooming”) becomes vulnerable to the charge that he or she is “soft” on child abuse. Republicans are seeking to exploit that vulnerability.

Vermont had a brush with a pre-QAnon spasm of hysteria 16 years ago that might have served as a primer for senators seeking to direct the mob’s anger toward Judge Jackson. I was editorial page editor of the Rutland Herald at the time, and we at the Herald felt the brunt of it.

It happened when Vermont Judge Edward Cashman handed down a lenient sentence for a man convicted of aggravated sexual assault and lewd and lascivious conduct with a girl over a period of four years. Cashman initially sentenced the defendant, Mark Hulett, to 60 days in prison, explaining that he felt compelled to do so because of a peculiarity of Vermont law. 

Inmates in Vermont were eligible for sexual offender treatment only in the latter part of their sentences, and Cashman believed that Hulett required treatment immediately. By sentencing him to 60 days, Cashman guaranteed Hulett would receive the needed treatment, and he also spotlighted the shortcomings of Vermont policy.

As the writer of editorials, I pointed out that Cashman had an important point to make. The crime was serious, but the lack of treatment for offenders in prison was also serious. Eventually, corrections policy was changed to allow for treatment sooner during an inmate’s term, and Hulett received a sentence of three years and lifetime probation. In other words, Cashman’s action got results.

But the machinery of moralistic showboating had taken hold at Fox News, and Cashman’s actions fell afoul of news commentator Bill O’Reilly. The case was made to order for O’Reilly’s brand of ginned-up anger. He labeled Cashman “the worst judge in America,” but that wasn’t all. The Herald’s editorial also came to the attention of Fox News, and O’Reilly labeled the Rutland Herald “the worst newspaper in America.” 

I knew what was coming; at least I had an inkling. Someone from Fox called me to ask if I wanted to appear on O’Reilly’s show, and I declined. The person asked why, and I said because I didn’t like O’Reilly or his show. His practice was not to discuss issues reasonably but to browbeat guests. The Fox person warned me that O’Reilly was going to discuss the Herald anyway; I told them to go for it. 

O’Reilly didn’t just denounce the Herald. He broadcast the paper’s phone number, address and email address. In doing so, he unleashed a wave of hatred that nearly crashed the paper’s website and tied up the phone system for days. What came at us was not enlightened discussion; few callers or writers knew the details of the case. Rather, it was a tsunami of anger and righteous certainty that the callers or writers were right and were justified in calling us scum or worse. 

O’Reilly and Fox knew what they were doing. They were manipulating the public for the purposes of bullying and intimidation and, not incidentally, for ratings. 

Sens. Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz and others who trundled out the “soft-on-porn” insinuation in relation to Judge Jackson meant to stir the pot in the same way — not for ratings but for potential votes. 

Jackson has powerful allies and stood up to the criticism with dignity and grace. Individuals or small businesses that are less prominent, such as struggling newspapers, are more vulnerable.

Politics is about power, and it is a bruising game, even among the best. But politics divorced from democratic values becomes something other than democratic. At a time when democratic values are under siege (literally, in Ukraine), it is important to distinguish between democracy and thuggery or gangsterism. 

Thuggery takes varied forms. Fascism is one form of gangsterism, associated historically with two specific regimes — those of Hitler and Mussolini. The Marxism of Stalin and Mao was just as destructive or worse. 

Vladimir Putin has become a member of their club, and his regime, like others these days, is properly described as authoritarian or autocratic.

The method of Putin and his ilk is to exploit certain “traditional values” in order to trigger hatred in ways that augment their power. The so-called values of authoritarian leaders change with the times: Aryan purity, the glory of Russia, radical Islam, white supremacy, Christian nationalism. Enemies also change: Jews, Muslims, blacks, immigrants, gays, trans people, teachers. 

What authoritarian movements have in common is the conviction of followers that they have the right to shout down their opponents, to bully them, or to kill them. 

In 2006, Vermont had already experienced the kind of hatred that reared its head during the Cashman incident. The virulent tone of the messages to the Herald in 2006 was akin to the hate mail received by Vermont legislators in 2000 as they wrestled with the question of civil unions and marriage equality. 

There was a quality of desperation to the complaints about civil unions, and lately, the same quality of desperation is evident in the language of those seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election or to stoke anger before the election this year. They describe themselves as defenders of democracy but threaten to destroy democracy in order to save it.

Democracy in America has always been a struggle — against the cruelty of the slave power and Jim Crow, against capitalist greed. The key is not to impose a result to counter these anti-democratic tendencies. It is to use democratic methods and values to secure a just result. Bullying others into silence or winning by smear and deception is inherently anti-democratic. 

Democracy requires one to listen to the other side and to allow for the legitimacy of different opinions. It requires respect for the process, not sabotage of the process. Vile accusations may put fair-minded people on the defensive, but reliance on the truth and faith in the ultimate strength of democratic values — and the willingness to defend them — are the best recourse. 

The people of Ukraine are showing the strength inherent in democratic ideals even when pummeled by the armies of a dictator. Judge Jackson showed that, against innuendo and deception, it is possible to stand against demagogues in this country as well.

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David Moats

About David

David Moats, an author and journalist who lives in Salisbury, is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He is editorial page editor emeritus of the Rutland Herald, where he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials on Vermont’s civil union law.

Email: [email protected]

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