That candidates for office served as criminal defense attorneys has long been a smear, enjoyed by their adversaries to tie them to an ignorant public’s belief that defending criminals aligns them with the commission of crime. No matter who is targeted by this slime, it’s a lie, unworthy of acknowledgement and demanding condemnation.
A variation of this theme was hurled at the nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. No, she wasn’t a criminal defense lawyer, but she did something that could play into the hands of the ignorant. She donated $10,000 to FIRE.
Republican megadonor Betsy DeVos has given thousands of dollars to an advocacy group that is seeking to overturn an Obama administration policy that made it easier to discipline college students accused of sexual harassment or assault.
The donations, totaling $10,000, by Donald Trump’s Education secretary pick have prompted criticism from Democrats and women’s groups in the run-up to her confirmation hearing next week.
And the slacktivists have created the hashtag, #dearbetsy,* on twitter to convince each other of how horrifying and exhausting this will be.
The donations are “a red flag,” said Lisa Maatz, the top policy adviser at the American Association of University Women, which advocates for strict enforcement of Title IX, the federal law that governs sex discrimination, harassment and sexual assault on college campuses. “In the absence of an actual record … I think these kinds of donations take on even greater importance, because we have to rely on her contributions to inform us on particular issues.”
The primary focus of FIRE has been free speech on campus, for which its efforts have been above reproach. Not free speech for conservatives. Not free speech for progressives. Not for males. Not for females. Just free speech. For everybody. It’s a principle thing, which is so foreign a concept to partisans that they can neither grasp nor accept it.
One of the things that has made FIRE president Greg Lukianoff’s job harder is that his organization has been cast as conservative because free speech has been used as a political wedge. After all, the censorious ninnies shrieking about “hate speech” hate free speech, and that makes FIRE’s advocacy part of their enemies’ arsenal. Can’t have that in a world where winning your cause and destroying your enemy’s endgame is all that matters.
Secondary to its free speech mission have been the pervasive problems with the campaign to recreate Title IX as the campus version of criminal law, sans due process and guaranteed to punish without regard to guilt. FIRE’s position on this has been fine, as far as supporting the notion that campus crime should be addressed by the legal system, and that procedures depriving accused students of due process are unacceptable. One of its strongest positions is that the burden of proof, preponderance of the evidence, is inadequate to brand anyone a rapist.
These views have not, from a legal perspective, sufficed as far as I’m concerned, but then, I have no constituency and am constrained only by law and logic rather than appealing to popular whims. FIRE hasn’t quite agreed that Title IX authorizes colleges to construct a subconstitutional adjudication system. Or that the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights issued ultra vires “guidance” at the end of a financial gun, going far beyond any lawful authorization. It hasn’t quite agreed with that either.
From a legal perspective, this gives away half the battle, as bureaucratic usurpation of congressional authority in order to socially engineer progressive causes is no better, nor any more lawful, than the opposite. Just because someone has gone ten steps over the line doesn’t mean they get the first five steps for free.
But the attack against FIRE isn’t just because of their principled advocacy, as that lacks the ad hominem hurt necessary to villify Betsy DeVos in the eyes of women. The attack has gone way over the edge.
It’s unclear whether Sofie Karasek, alleging that FIRE has said “sexual assault is not a real problem,” is deliberately deceiving and playing on the ignorance of those incapable of grasping its duplicitousness, or just doesn’t get it herself. What FIRE has said over and over is that every sexual assault is a very serious problem, which is why it’s too serious to be left to college kids and French lit profs to address.
But the second claim, that “FIRE has routinely argued that sexual assault statistics are overblown,” is likely closer to her message than the other, shallow, smear. The statistics, which vary from one in four co-eds is raped in college to one in five is sexually assaulted, according to who’s making what up, are definitively inaccurate.
They were never statistically accurate to serve the purpose to which they’ve been put, and only by mass repetition have they morphed into a core myth. Adding insult to injury, there is the definition problem, that rape is whatever someone feels it is.** But this has never been an issue with FIRE, though it should have been as far as I’m concerned.
Advocacy groups tend to pick their battles, both as a product of limited resources and the concern of alienating their constituency. Sometimes principle, and facts, get sacrificed in the effort to not be “that far” from the median,*** to not challenge a false but deeply believed lie when it feels the battle cannot be won, or that other battles may be lost in the process. It’s what keeps advocacy groups alive, even as it undermines their reason for existing. But I get it, as I’m sure you do too.
Here, the irony is that FIRE is being smeared for exactly what it hasn’t, but should have, done. It has studiously avoided embroiling itself in the deeper mythology, those first five steps, in order to deal with the last five. And still, it’s being smeared.
Whether Betsy DeVos will make a good education secretary or not isn’t the point. That she donated money to The FIRE, however, is a credit to her beliefs and generosity. Lying about it doesn’t impair DeVos’ credibility, but her detractors’. As it should.
*The #dearbetsy campaign will, of course, change nothing, both because no one cares except those for whom it validates their feelings, and because slacktivist campaigns on the twitters are pointless. But this may impact the perception of The FIRE as a conservative group rather than a non-partisan civil rights group.
**Was “Cameron” raped by David Jia at University of Miami? She would certainly say so. Her gender studies champion would definitely say so. No rational person who relies on evidence, however, would agree. So was she raped for statistical purposes? You bet.
***In the effort to create the appearance of reasonableness, positions that are deemed too far from the center are discarded because they come off as radical. The problem is that the median shifts relative to the positions taken by those on the fringe, and as Title IX advocates have successfully pushed further away from any legally or factually cognizable positions, they have manipulated the situation to make accurate critical analysis appear unreasonable.