The Times Literary Supplement in a rave review of JoAnn Wypijewski’s provocative new book states: “It is thrilling and cathartic to watch Wypijewski slice through our culture’s flabbiest orthodoxies.” On this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” Wypijewski talks to host Robert Scheer about the “haste to castigate” that has led to shoddy reporting of the true meaning of trials she has covered, ranging from the media frenzy trial of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein to the framing of five teenagers known as the Central Park Five on rape charges, which she offers as a shocking example of a “scandal media” lynching mob.
And it’s not just the media that control narratives, but also prosecutors who wield wildly disproportionate power against even the rich and famous. To the journalist, the two very different cases of the Central Park Five and Weinstein reveal that not only is the presumption of innocence always under threat in a court case, but that there is “no one who [can match] the resources of the state,” making a fair trial nearly impossible.
Throughout her long career as a journalist for Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, and Mother Jones, Wypijewski has not only examined sex scandals, but everything from the Matthew Shepard murder to the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, always incisively formulating the questions that few in media seem to want to ask. Listen to the full conversation between Wypijewski and Scheer as the two journalists tackle some of the most controversial and therefore crucial questions of our time.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
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RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. I always say that, but obviously that’s true, or I wouldn’t be doing these interviews, I just would write some columns. And in this case, it’s JoAnn–I have practiced this name over and over again– Wypijewski. And who’s an extremely well-known writer; I’ve followed her byline–I never knew how to pronounce it, but I’ve followed it for decades. And she’s written for all sorts of publications, Harper’s, The Nation, and what have you. And she is the author of a–you know, you say “provocative,” but this is, in terms of the current mood of the country. The book is called–it’s by Verso, and it’s called What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo. And I do want to say something about the name, because if you’re going to order this book, you should know it’s JoAnn, and it’s spelled W-Y-P-I-J-E-W-S-K-I. And that’s important to mention, because I spent about an hour trying to find it. So it’s Verso. And I think you’re going to want to get this book. I don’t think we’re going to be able to do it justice. It’s very rich, and it really involves a lot of reporting. And I just want to quote from the legendary Times Literary Supplement, which is sort of the–for many people, the leading book review venue in the world. And I bring it up because JoAnn’s book has not yet had, as far as I can see, a serious review in mainstream American media. So let me quote from the Times Literary Supplement:
As JoAnn Wypijewski suggests in her daring essay collection, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo, the impoverishment of our sexual vocabulary is related to the simplicity of our moral lexicon. It is precisely because we are so insensitive to the convolutions of desire that we are so ready to revert to “primitive forms of social discipline” in our confrontations with abusers. To regard lust as a brute appetite, isolated from the social contexts that form and foment it, is to ignore what may explain (and even sometimes excuse) wrongdoing. But as Wypijewski argues, we are often blinded to such social subtleties in our haste to castigate.
“Our haste to castigate.” And I want to ask you, what prompted you to write this book, and what do you see as the main themes?
JW: So the book is subtitled Essays on Sex, Authority and the Mess of Life. And I think that’s pretty well, I think that pretty well defines the book, along with the first five words: “what we don’t talk about.” There are 17 essays in the book; they were all written between the early nineties and 2019. And a lot of them deal with sex scandals, or scandals involving sex, which turn out to be media frenzies. You know, the stories that are part of 24/7 news cycles. And I write about a number of these famous–HIV panic, the Matthew Shepard murder, the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. I write a little bit in a couple of places about the Weinstein case, about #MeToo more broadly; a little bit about the Central Park Five case; I write about Woody Allen, I write about the priest scandal in the Catholic Church, and some smaller stories.
But all of them are in some way, you know, part of this sort of scandal media. And you know, part of that media involves a very standard narrative. And I call it the, you know, the story we all know; and we all know because of its endless repetition. But what do we know? You know, that narrative is typically a terribly simple story. It typically involves tropes, and those tropes are very simple ones–of good and evil, of monsters and innocents. And as such, that typical scandal narrative is really, I think, a kind of CliffsNotes version of reality. And I’m not interested in the CliffsNotes version, you know. I’m interested in the messiness of reality, which is often erased or evaded or avoided. I’m interested in a complex humanity, which I think is another way of saying messiness. So that’s part of what we don’t talk about. Because if you’re talking about good and evil, you’re not talking about complex humanity. And I’m also interested on a political level about what’s beneath the scandal. You know, everything that we as a society consider, quote unquote, normal.
So our dear, late friend Alexander Cockburn had a great definition for accidents. He used to say that accidents are just normalcy raised to the level of drama. Well, I think scandal–I think scandal applies to that same definition. I think it’s actually an excellent definition of scandal, that scandal is just normalcy raised to the level of drama. So in these essays, I excavate normalcy. And I suppose what I hoped to say–you know, these stories were written over time, but when I look at them all together, and when I was putting together the book, you know, there are a few things that I hoped to say through these stories. One, that sex matters, which seems simple enough–except that in our politics especially, in left politics, we kind of tend to see it as a kind of thing over there. You know, separate from the really important things like class and race and gender, and sex is just like–you know, it’s either something about crime, or it’s something dirty, or it’s something pleasurable and wonderful, but it’s not–it’s not something we really need to care about much politically. But I think as it’s among, you know, the most intimate, deepest, and most valued experiences of human life, then sex and how people relate or don’t relate sexually have to be concerns for anyone who cares about humanity, and anyone who cares about politics ought to care about humanity.
So sex matters. Fear matters, and fear–so often when we talk about sex, we’re talking about fear. And I don’t mean only in terms of, you know, sex crime; I mean on other, you know, broader, individual levels–shame, and ignorance, and the power shame holds over persons and over society. And so there’s that fear in terms of how people relate or don’t with one another individually. But there’s also a politics of fear. And that’s the process by which, you know, people are encouraged to be afraid–organized to be afraid, collectively, for the sake of achieving some political end. So there’s the war–you know all these things, the war on crime, the war on drugs, the war on terror, the war on immigrants, the war on sex. So what has that done to society? So fear matters. Sex matters, fear matters.
And finally, another seemingly obvious thing, but I think something that is really not practiced very much, especially when we talk about sex and we talk about scandal: how we think and question and analyze matters. And it matters politically, and it matters personally. So obviously, if people weren’t susceptible to appeals to fear, a politics of fear wouldn’t work. But it has worked for a very long time. Now we’d say, well, Trump–you know, Trump is exercising the politics of fear. But Trump didn’t invent this. It’s a very longstanding practice. And in the title essay, I write about the politics of fear that structures our time. And by that I mean decades, really, since the anti-sixties backlash particularly. How it’s shaped our politics, our rhetoric, our policies how it’s shaped our thoughts, particularly colonized our thoughts, across ideologies. This notion, these kind of steady drumbeats–be afraid, get the bad guy, put him away, keep us safe, support the good guy. You know, it’s very simplistic.
RS: Right, and the good guy, if I could just jump in there–the good guy is really quite selective.
JW: Oh, yeah.
RS: You know, Trump, for example, his behavior before his was president–quite despicable ,if it’s all accurate. However, the same people that want to trash Trump, and really don’t think there’s another side to the story, or you’re innocent until proven guilty. You say in your book: “No criminal defendant has power” when you go up against the resources of the state. And that’s also true of the resources of the media. But the double standard is always there. For instance, you know, Bill Clinton certainly acted in a way in the White House that I guess to date violated norms of appropriate behavior more extreme than Trump did in office, so far.
JW: Oh, come on, Bob. Bill Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office. I mean, really, that was what it was. And so everyone talked about it as some violation of the Oval Office, the sanctum sanctorum–remember they used those terms? I mean, if the Oval Office is some holy place, then why are all these war criminals in there, you know, destroying the world? You know, president after president.
No, I don’t think Bill Clinton did anything wrong with Monica Lewinsky. She flashed her thong. He did something very reckless–very crazy, in the sense that he was sort of–I don’t know whether he wanted to be caught. I think it was the thrill, you know, the thrill of having sex that’s not acceptable, that’s not allowed, that’s quasi-public, where you might get caught. You know, that’s a very old, that’s a very old energizing desire. So I defended Bill Clinton on that ground alone when he was being impeached for lying about sex, something that people do and are encouraged to do every day. But that of course becomes, when you talk about double standards, of course becomes a grave sin as soon as it’s done by a president, you know, who’s supposed to be–what, who lies all the time. I mean, who–[Laughs] It was absurd. The impeachment was absurd. I didn’t include that piece in this book, but I didn’t include a lot of pieces.
But I don’t think the double standard holds there. I think a more interesting double standard is when Donald Trump was, you know, taking to the microphones and the ad pages of the major papers here in New York City in 1989 against the Central Park Five, of the five young men, teenagers really, between the ages of 14 and 16, who were accused and then ultimately tried and convicted of raping a jogger in Central Park. And, you know, Donald Trump put out a big ad, and he said they should get the death penalty. And this got a lot of attention once he became president, or was running for president. But oddly enough, if you lived in New York in 1989 as I did, the clamor for the heads of these boys was so great from the media, from mainstream feminism, from the political class, the liberal political class and across the ideological spectrum, that Trump really didn’t stand out. You know, he was kind of a cameo player. I mean, a vulgar, awful cameo player, the way he’s always been. But everyone was on the same side then. In the revamp, or re-visitation, let’s say, of the Central Park Five case, suddenly the media is absolved. And you know, there are a few bad headlines, but for the most part the media absolved themselves, and then they said it was all Donald Trump, and the actually vile prosecutor and the actually vile police. But the media created the circumstance and the culture of vengeance, which helped stir that pot–more than stir the pot, I mean shake the pot, use whatever term you want. I mean, it was–it was an absolute panic.
RS: Well, it got these people convicted.
JW: It got these people convicted. It forced them into confessions which were accepted–they were in jail for–the 16-year-old was put in jail as an adult, tried as an adult, convicted as an adult. He was in prison for almost 14 years, prison or jail. Violated terribly, injured terribly. Eventually New York City paid them $40 million for wrongful conviction. But there were so many hands in that, and not least was–
RS: Go on a little bit longer about what happened. Because many people outside of New York didn’t follow it that closely, and you have. I do want to put in a plug for your journalism and this connection, and then pick up here. You remind me of [the person who] was my role model in journalism, or my favorite, Murray Kempton.
JW: Oh, wow! [Laughs] That’s a great compliment.
RS: You know, used to write in New York. And what Murray Kempton did, he used to ride around New York on his bicycle, but he would go to the courts–I knew him–and he would go to the courts and sit there for these trials, most often obscure trials, whether it was of the Mafia or if was of some Black kid caught in a robbery or something–and really parse it. You know, everybody forgets that most of these cases, some 95%, are settled because the accused knows they better settle, so they don’t really get their day in court. What you have done in your journalism, and for people listening to this who do not know JoAnn–and I’m going to spell it, W-Y-P-I-J-E-W-S-K-I–know her journalism, it’s a lost art, unfortunately. Because it’s not cost-effective to have a journalist sit in a courtroom–you sat there covering the Harvey Weinstein case for, you know, quite intensively. You looked at all the evidence, you considered all the alternatives. You actually did, you know, the opposite of cable news–
JW: Yes. [Laughs]
RS: –which are these quick, constant things–brainwashing, superficial glances. You actually do your homework all the time. That’s the power of your book, by the way–
JW: Thank you.
RS: –as a model for journalism. You know, and I want to confess here, you called me out. I was talking to you the other day, and I did a podcast with the director and producer of a movie about campus sexual violence and rape, called The Hunting Ground. Is that the right title?
RS: Yeah. And I thought, well, it was a convincing movie. And it raised cases, particularly about a very important Harvard case, where the Harvard Law faculty kind of wanted it, you know, didn’t engage in an investigation and so forth. And then you know, I stopped–this is self-criticism here–I stopped thinking about it. And I didn’t do all that extra homework. And then in 10 minutes on the phone, you straightened me out. Because–I’m being honest about the failures of journalism that we all can fall into. And I had accepted the narrative of that movie, which has been shown on campuses; I’ve shown it in my class, I think, three times. And you pointed out a racial aspect of it that I wasn’t aware of, a question of innocence in terms of the accused in the Harvard case. And that happened in both the Central Park case, and it happened in The Hunting Ground. So why don’t you talk about this idea that you have in your book, which I wrote down–I think it’s on page 34–“No criminal defendant has power in these situations.” So tell us about the defendants in both the Central Park case and the Harvard example from Hunting Ground.
JW: Well, in the case of the Central Park Five, there was–it’s a very famous case, it happened in 1989. A young woman who worked in finance went for a jog in Central Park at night, and in another part not far from there, a bunch of young Black and Latino kids went into the park also. And they, you know, some of them just had fun; some of them created mayhem; some of them actually assaulted some people. In one part of the park, this woman was brutally, brutally assaulted and raped. In the other part of the park where these kids were harassing people who were walking around bikes, you know, they were called–it was said that they were, quote, “wilding.” But the police came, and the kids scattered, and a bunch of them were arrested, and then they were put in a–they were taken downtown and they were questioned. And they were questioned sometimes with their parents who didn’t speak English, sometimes without their parents; they were questioned for hours and hours by police. They were tired, they were hungry, they were scared. They all said they–
RS: And they were young, right?
JW: They were young. One was–well, they were between 14 and 16, so they were boys, you know.
RS: Yeah, I mean–14 and 16.
JW: Right, 14, 15, 16. Yeah. And–the oldest was 16, and there were five of them. And they all confessed. And they had these videotaped confessions, where the kids–you know, they look like Manchurian candidates or something–not–you know, what was it, you know, brainwashing. The whole brainwashing thing from the Korean War, where people were saying things, they’d been tortured into saying things. Well anyway, that’s how these kids looked. They looked spectral and odd, and they all said things that contradicted each other. But you know, they were Black and Latino kids; their parents had no power in the city; and they faced not just the press and the political class and the police, but the, you know, prosecutorial arm of the state. Which, you know, has immense resources–which has immense ability to do investigations, to dig things up, to turn the screws, to elbow you, et cetera, et cetera. And which, of course, has all the power in a trial.
Now, you then take a case like–and I actually am not going to talk about the Harvard case. I’m going to talk about a case that’s more–that seems to be the opposite of that, the Harvey Weinstein case. So Weinstein seems to have all the power in the world, right? He’s rich, he’s famous. Now, of course, he’s despised, but he has a lot of money, and he has a lot of political connections, and–
RS: By the way, you pointed out to me that he was the producer of The Hunting Ground.
[Editor’s Note: Harvey Weinstein’s company was the distributor of “The Hunting Ground,” he was not the producer.]
JW: He was the producer of The Hunting Ground. And I encourage anyone who wants to read really good analyses of The Hunting Ground to look up Emily Yoffe, Y-O-F-F-E, on that film particularly. Because she did a lot of research, and she does a lot of taking apart of that case. But you know, so here are the Central Park Five, no power in the world, and everyone expects, OK, of course they’re railroaded. Then there’s Harvey Weinstein. And Harvey Weinstein, everyone assumes, oh, he’s not railroaded, of course he’s not railroaded because he’s so rich. And this was part of the argument at Harvard this year against Ronald Sullivan, who was supposed to be on Harvey Weinstein’s defense team. And there was a hue and cry at Harvard among students who said he’s defending the bad man, and therefore he is dangerous–Harvey Weinstein is dangerous, and therefore so is Ronald Sullivan; Harvey Weinstein is a monster who threatens and endangers people, and therefore so is his lawyer. This is very, very dangerous thinking. And people always said, well, Harvey can buy his justice. You know, he’s so rich he can buy justice. And he’s got so much power in the criminal system; he can, you know, he can buy a not guilty verdict.
And so what I wanted to say in the prologue to the book, I put these cases together; I talk about the Central Park Five case, and I talk about the Weinstein case, and I talk about another case of a nameless kid who did something really stupid with–and maybe horrible to–a young woman while they were both drunk. But this assumption needs to be exploded that any criminal defendant has power against the system. There’s no one who has the resources of the state, to match the resources of the state. The policing power, the investigatory power. The New York prosecutor’s office, New York DA’s office had unlimited resources to prosecute Harvey Weinstein. And they also had really, you know, the benefit of the doubt, which is exactly opposite what it should be. So in the same way that the–and totally different cases.
I’m not equating, you know, the Central Park Five with Harvey Weinstein. I’m just talking about the figure of the defendant. Anyone who is accused, who’s in the hot seat, whether it’s someone with no power or someone with a great deal of social power. Once they are defendants, they are at the mercy, really, of the state. And they should have their–you know, their thin reed should be the presumption of innocence and the benefit of the doubt. But again and again and again, we deny them the benefit of the doubt. Scandal always denies them the benefit of the doubt. Those five boys in Central Park, who were wrongly accused of rape, they never had the benefit of the doubt. And Harvey Weinstein, he never had the benefit of the doubt.
So if we as a society are going to say–oh, well, you know, some people don’t get the benefit of the doubt. And we decide, oh–so the crowd decides, the media decides, whoever decides–this is very dangerous. And it’s fraudulent to say just because somebody once had tremendous amounts of power, once he’s been convicted in the press he still will probably be able to buy himself justice. You know, he might, but it’s unlikely.
RS: Well, you refer to it–you’re quoting, I forget who, but as “poisoned solidarity.”
JW: That’s a terrific phrase. It’s a terrific phrase by a great anthropologist called Roger Lancaster. And he uses it in a wonderful book called Sex Panic and the Punitive State. And what poisoned solidarity is, is kind of the reverse of what we typically think about as solidarity, where we’re, you know, unified by positive feelings of common good. In poisoned solidarity, there is a mutual identification based on negative energies, negative feelings, the desire to get the bad guy, a desire for vengeance, and feelings of fear. And it merges two things: a kind of thrill of being scared together, and a thrill of trying to stick it to the devil. And poisoned solidarity is really a feature of our time, you know, where we decide that somebody is a public enemy. And the public enemy is most obvious in these sex scandals, because the person who’s accused in a sex scandal is typically spoken of as a demon, as a monster, as depraved, as deviant. This person is beyond rights or humanity, you know. It’s a language that we have all heard repeatedly, and sometimes they’re actually called satanic, these monsters, and sometimes they’re just called monsters or demons.
It’s–and I’m not just using this, you know, colorfully here. Because it’s important to know that in the Harvey Weinstein trial, the prosecution actually began its case in the opening by talking about Harvey Weinstein and the women who accused him in these words: “He was the old lady in the gingerbread house, luring the kids in, missing the oven behind.” So suddenly we’re in the world of Grimms’ Fairy Tales and Hansel and Gretel, and the women are children–they’re “kids”–and he is the old lady in the gingerbread house. So you know, he was called a monster in the course of the trial by the prosecution. He was called disgusting. He was called, you know, just horrible and degraded. He was also called deformed, abnormal, you know, disgusting, scarred, grunting, fat, hairy, stinking. He had to be unmanned, you know, he had to be made subhuman. But afterward, when he was convicted–not on the most serious charges, but still, as the carceral feminists said, a win is a win, and he was sentenced to 23 years in jail, which is effectively a death sentence–the New York Times, you know, here it is, the great august paper–it ran an editorial titled “The Lessons of #MeToo’s Monster.” And this took up a quarter of the editorial page with a graphic image of a silhouette of Harvey Weinstein. And so it’s just this, you know, sort of black image of a face, and where the mouth would have been was a couch, and the couch had legs, and the legs stuck down like vampire fangs.
So this is the language and the evocative imagery that’s used in a criminal trial. This is–you know, this ought to–when people said afterward that, you know, the prosecutors and #MeToo and everyone dragged the law into the 21st century–no. It was dragging the law back into some premodern state, where all we have to do is name the witch and really make him horrible. Now, Harvey Weinstein may have done terrible, terrible things. But from what they presented in court, given how much power they have, it was remarkably thin. And really, it was uncorroborated testimony by two people. There were many other people who came in to say how awful he was, but there were two accusers. And they were–you know, I’m not going to go into it too long on this, but–
RS: No, because it’s a view we don’t–let me just say, it’s a view we don’t hear. And people should be reminded listening to this, you covered this–I believe you covered this for Harper’s.
JW: No, The Nation.
RS: For The Nation. But you were there; you examined the evidence, you went through everything–
JW: Yeah, I was there as a member of the public, which was a really interesting experience. Because there was a media line–and I didn’t get credentials for this–and then there was a public line. And so I stood on the public line every day and talked to people who were just curious about the case. And the difference–and the piece I wrote for The Nation was, you know, a report from the public line, because I talked to a lot of the people who were, you know, just New Yorkers or visitors, international visitors, visitors from around the country who were curious. And you know, we reviewed what we’d just heard. And I had wonderful conversations, and I was struck by the fact that we were never asked by the ranks of media people there–I mean, there were tons and tons and tons of journalists. They took up all of the courtroom except for two rows in the back, and then the public got in. But they never asked–like, if I were–they never asked the public, what did you think? They never asked any of us on the line–so, what do you think? Which is astounding to me. You talk about Murray Kempton–Murray Kempton would sit in those courtrooms, but Murray Kempton would also talk to New Yorkers. You know, he’d also talk to people who were watching. He would look at the evidence, he would listen to what was going on in the court, but he was interested in what was the mood, also, around the courtroom and, you know, in the hallways and in the city.
And you got a very different view from the public line. Because the public line, people were really acting like jurors. They were saying, I don’t know, that’s–we sat all day listening to the most banal emails from, you know, one of the accusers, Jessica Mann, to Harvey Weinstein. And they’re asking for tickets, they’re asking how he is, they’re asking when he’ll be in town, they’re asking–they’re complimenting him, saying she loves him, he has such a cute face, he’s so supportive, he’s so helpful, he always makes her feel wonderful. But really, it went on for hours, and they were all things about what’s going on in her day, what commercial she just got, et cetera, et cetera. And she had said that every one of those emails was carefully, carefully crafted to defend her life, because he was going to kill her. She felt he would kill her or destroy her or kill her father or do something, and so she carefully thought out each word so as to mollify this man who was usually 3,000 miles away from her.
And so, you know, the journalists had one take on this, which was of course how much she was brutalized, even though the emails spoke contemporaneously of a different reality. But on the public line, people were going, oh, wait a minute. How would you–would you really write that to somebody who you say just raped you the day before? Would you stay on in New York to go to his birthday party the next day if he raped you the day before? I mean, there were a lot of, lot of things that average people, thinking like jurors, said wait a minute. You know, he’s got the benefit of the doubt, and this is evidence to the contrary. This creates doubt. But I think the jury was under a tremendous amount of pressure. I think they made–I don’t really know, but I think there was some kind of compromise that was made among them, where they wouldn’t find him guilty of the most serious charges, but they would find him guilty of some things. And the judge, who has typically sentenced first-time offenders, which on the face of it he was, to not very much time for what he was charged with–like average seven to eight years–gave him 23 years.
RS: Let me just jump in here. Because at this moment, people listening to this will wonder, why did you even care? You know, the Central Park accused rapists, attackers–you could say, well, they were poor, they were marginalized Hispanic and Black people in New York who were subject to racism. And you could be sympathetic to, you know, as you point out in your book, 70 million people have a criminal record in the United States, one-third of U.S. adults. You point out that 50% of Black men in the U.S. have this kind of record. And you know, charges of this kind were used against marginalized and vulnerable people beginning–well, not beginning with our history, but certainly one case you mentioned, Emmett Till, accused of leering at a woman. And so you know, but then when you get to the famous people, the Woody Allens and the Dershowitzes and all these other folks, there isn’t a reservoir of sympathy.
But you know, people–it’s really interesting. If the media were so clear that Harvey Weinstein was a monster, and it evidently was revealed to, according to the prosecutors, some large number of people, how could the media have not known that? I mean, there were receptions, there were gatherings. Harvey Weinstein was one of the most important figures in the entertainment world. The same thing could be said about Epstein and the whole scandal with him. You know, Bill Clinton was on his airplane 38 times or something. You know, how–how, if the people on the line–and this is really a Murray Kempton journalism moment. You’re with the people on the line, as Murray Kempton would be quite often. And you’re talking to people who are taking this in, without the bias of having a profession called journalism or law or what have you. And on the other hand, the media–which, you know, many of these people knew Harvey Weinstein. They dined with him, they went to his functions, they spent a lot of time. How come this was–that he was such a monster was such a mystery to them? And you know, we’re going to run out of time, but I want to say something about your journalism, in case anybody is questioning this now. I want to quote, again, from the Times Literary Supplement, which is a marvelous review, by the way, and really gives you your credit, JoAnn–now I’m going to blow it again–Wypijewski. Starts out with a W, the W is a V in Polish, et cetera. So when you’re looking up the book to maybe buy it or certainly read it, remember it’s with a W.
But anyway, in the Times Literary Supplement, they write, quote, “An accomplished journalist and a former editor at The Nation, Wypijewski courts scandal herself. Romps on Harvey Weinstein and Brett Kavanaugh–and a more dubious apologia for a priest accused of molestation–reveal her stake in provocation. But she is too smart to succumb to facile contrarianism–and too compassionate”–this is important–“and too compassionate to ignore the human costs of the tragedies she treats. What We Don’t Talk About“–the book’s title–“is buttressed by moral clarity, and what emerges is a leftism animated by unshakable respect for the dignity of all, even sinners and sex pests.” That strikes an example from Jesus Christ himself. And then he quotes you, I guess: “‘The mess of life demands principled humanity’ because ‘the suspect is one of us, whether ultimately found guilty or not.'”
And what you really argue in your book–and I want to end with one very big case that you witnessed, Abu Ghraib, which is related to this. What your journalism has–and again, if people listening to this have never read Murray Kempton, please–there are a number of books that are still in print, really the great model, I think, for journalism. And what he did is actually, OK, the drama, the–we didn’t have cable then, but whatever the daily news was saying and everything–he said wait a minute, what’s really going on? And that’s what JoAnn Wypijewski does. She says wait, wait, stop for a second–what’s really going on here?
And the book is compelling. Because it forces us–and you know, myself included. When I had bought the line, as I did in Hunting Ground, for example–I promoted it, I showed it to my classes and everything; just a conversation with you, that’s not in this book, disabused me of some of that and made me question. This poisoned solidarity is really a force that’s let loose in our culture. It’s to find the villain, identify, absolve everyone else–everyone else–and that lets everyone off the hook for everything else.
RS: Right? That’s what it is. It’s like villain-washing. Yeah, yeah. So maybe you should talk about that. That’s the challenge. That’s why this book is so important. You have dared–really dared, I admire your courage–and unfortunately it’s rewarded, it seems to me, by silence. We should talk about that. Is your book going to be reviewed? Because it’s basically–among other things, shouldn’t say “basically”–a critique of the American mass media.
JW: Right. And–
RS: So are they going to continue their own mythology by ignoring, you know, a well-sourced book by an eyewitness who goes to the courts, reads the documents? A distinguished journalist–and you’ve written for a number of very important publications over a lifetime; I’ve followed you for years. How can they justify not reviewing this book?
JW: I think that–well, you know, the virus can cover a host of sins. But I think also that, you know, #MeToo has really–and the book is not about #MeToo. But I think “hashtag #MeToo,” we should say, is really sort of very much welded to the mass media. I think the devotees of hashtag #MeToo are very much in the media, and have defined that language and the way we’re supposed to think about it. And it is a kind of politics of righteous purity. And so I think that my book–my book challenges that, and I don’t think that people appreciate that. The title essay, which I wrote and appeared in The Nation in 2018, is–it is very specifically an invitation to think about the politics of belief, and to think about messiness, and faith-based justice, and all that kind of thing. To think about power and vengeance, and the way in which the rhetoric of #MeToo so often has, you know, been rhetoric that has reinforced and sustained a society jacked on punishment, aka, you know, prison America, the power of the police. And to think about sex and the power of desire in people’s lives. And I think that’s not something, you know, that’s not something the media wants to talk about.
What’s interesting and striking to me is that what we would never accept in literature–you know, we would never accept stories of good and evil. We would never accept monsters who are singularly dimensioned, and victims likewise. That is really what journalism is attached to when it comes to sex scandal. You know, and so journalism ought to be more like literature, but it somehow gives itself a pass. I mean, its own reviewers would trash a book that–a novel, for instance, that took the kind of approach that the reporters take, and the editorialists take, with respect to scandal. But they don’t seem to see that contradiction. And so what they always say is things like, well, you know, this isn’t about sex, it’s about power. And they repeat these same old refrains. And you know, whenever someone says it isn’t about sex, of course it’s about sex. And I use the word “authority” because I want to think not just about power in terms of the state, or in terms of men over women, but also of what we authorize as a society. You know, what kinds of politics we authorize; the prison state we consented to, after all. You know, it’s not just Joe Biden and Bill Clinton and the 1994 crime bill, or Ronald Reagan and the 1980s crime bill. So everyone is not washed innocent.
And there is a piece at the end of the book that’s an appreciation of James Baldwin. And he uses a phrase that I think is really, really important, and which strikes me very much as something that I think is the work of a lifetime. He talks about “the habits of thought [that] reinforce and sustain the habits of power,” and he talks about the necessity of separating oneself from those habits of thought. And so that’s, I think, what I’ve tried to do my whole life, and I think that’s what this book tries to do. And I end the book also–I have a little afterword, which gives updates on all these essays, since some of them are older. And I have another Baldwin quote, which is–instead of an epigram, you know, it’s the final quote. And I think people ought to think about that, too, because he says:
One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man…. But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.
I think there’s a lot of people in the media who think of themselves as great innocents, as great, righteous, pure. And I think we should be concerned about that, because it’s an authoritarian idea, really.
RS: Yeah, but what is really at stake here is do you ever put yourself in the shoes of the other person, of the accused.
RS: Yeah, and I want to quote you–I have great respect for Baldwin, but what you said–and it’s quoted in the Times Literary Supplement: “Beneath ‘the veneer of liberation…an enthusiasm for punishment is palpable.’ Bloodlust and scorn for due process are especially alarming in Americans, ‘citizens of the biggest prison state.’ ‘Mercy is the scandal now,'” you observed in what the Times Literary Supplement called “a burst of irreverence.” But when you think about it–and it’s the crimes of the right; the crimes of the left–
RS: –after all, the Moscow purge trials, you could go right down through history. This phrase, “the veneer of liberation”–behind the veneer of liberation–this is what happened in the Bolshevik Revolution. You know, this is what happened in Cuba when Castro had, they had mass trials in the first year. It happens in regimes like in, when we intervened in–we, the U.S. CIA, and a million people were killed in Indonesia, get rid of Sukarno.
And I’m going to end with a startling example of that. You know, the veneer of liberation–behind that, you wrote, “an enthusiasm for punishment is palpable.” You know, and not, you know, a sense of mercy. Well, the whole genius of this rule of law that we always proclaim–of the republic, of the founders–is supposed to be a wariness of governmental power. And certainly in the courts; the British, the English, were very good at using the law and the courts to intimidate people and throw them away and so forth. And you would think the great lesson of the American experience, both of our proclaimed belief in liberty but also our own errors, profound errors–you would think would lead to a caution, certainly on the part of the media, not to jump up and down with this lust for vengeance. You know, as you put it, “an enthusiasm for punishment is palpable.”
But I want to bring up, finally, one example which for me was very powerful in your book that was not mentioned in the Times Literary Supplement–I’m not faulting them; they had a terrific review–was the Abu Ghraib scandal of torture in Iraq. And you, at that time, I think you were writing for Harper’s, is that correct?
RS: Yeah. And so just take me through that, being in the court–this is like Hannah Arendt covering the Eichmann trial or something, you know, where she talked about the banality of evil. And I think your piece in this book on Abu Ghraib–at first I wondered, what is it doing in this book? I thought it was going to be all about the #MeToo movement. And then I was so grateful that it’s included in this book. Because first of all, I think it’s brilliant reporting. You really got to the heart of what Hannah Arendt was talking about, the banality of evil. And the, you know, the good intentions that are proclaimed even when we commit great crimes–“we” being our culture, our people. So just, let’s conclude with the example, the unexpected example of Abu Ghraib.
JW: So the very important thing to understand about the trials, most people were not tried who were involved with Abu Ghraib or with the regimes of torture that we all know were part of, and still are part of U.S. foreign policy and U.S. war-making policy. The people who were tried were all low-level military police. They were tried not for what they did in relationship to their jobs. They were tried for what they did, as the prosecution said, “for fun.” So they were called “deviant”–that word was used all the time; that word is used all the time in every scandal.
RS: What is the word?
JW: “Deviant.” They were deviant. They weren’t just bad applies; they were sickos, they stripped people naked, they put them in pyramids, they forced them to masturbate, they forced them to simulate fellatio. None of this was done along any kind of–as part of any kind of interrogation regimen. And so therefore, they could be tried for that as just sick people who did disgusting things on a few nights in 2004. The people who died in Abu Ghraib, one particular individual who was in the photographs, the famous photographs, he was killed by secret people–agents, probably CIA. He was walked into a bathroom on his own power, he was put in a Palestinian hold, he was found dead–
RS: What is a Palestinian hold?
JW: It’s a form of torture that the Israeli Mossad and other security forces use on Palestinian prisoners. It’s a way of hanging people up by their arms, which is extremely painful. And other things happened to him; obviously we don’t know. But we saw his corpse in pictures where these MPs are smiling wildly along with the corpse while he’s wrapped in ice, as they’re waiting for a way to get him out. This picture was expressly rejected by the judge for being entered into evidence, because the defense had wanted to talk about the larger scheme within which these people were operating, and how the world that they were in, their jobs and the prison and everything about Abu Ghraib was confusing, was horrific, was violent–and somebody died, and we don’t know who. But they were regularly enculturated into this, and very soon they took on those habits, so much so that when they were playing, so-called, with prisoners, they did these terrible sexual things.
But it’s important that they did these sexual things, and that’s why they were tried. That picture–that’s actually a violation of international law; you can’t be photographed with corpses, et cetera. But that was disallowed, because that would have opened the door to the world of Abu Ghraib as it really was. Someone would have asked, well, who killed him? And we couldn’t ask that. No one has ever been tried for–well, someone was tried for that but they didn’t do it, they weren’t there; they got off; they weren’t tried, they had never been in Abu Ghraib. You know, George Bush is at his ranch, painting; Gina Haspel, who ran a torture site for the CIA elsewhere, she’s now head of the CIA. Everyone got a step up. These soldiers went to prison for 10 years or less; their lives were upended. I’m not saying they were good people or they did the right thing, but they were people who’d been IGA checkout–like, you know, that’s what Lynndie England was.
Lynndie England was an–she was a checkout girl at a supermarket. And then suddenly she’s asked to be, you know, go to Iraq, and then she’s put in Abu Ghraib, and then she’s got a boyfriend who’s kind of the ringleader of this. And more charges are levied on her–she’s the youngest, the lowest-ranked–she gets more charges than anyone in the entire scandal, because initially they add all of her photographs she took with her boyfriend that were just sexy photographs, consensual photographs–you know, they called them indecent acts. And so she was facing something like initially 35 years. And to your point earlier, you know, that was to get her to turn on the others. And they thought, well, she’s the weak link; let’s just call her the dirty girl. And basically, that’s what it was: she’s a dirty girl, and then she does these dirty things. But in the entire courtroom, the prosecutor actually said “we don’t torture for fun.” You know, so he didn’t say “we torture for information.” But that was the setting, that was the rhetoric, that was the mentality.
So they were going to string up these individuals, and they, you know, they put them away for a little while. But nobody who had actual power in this circumstance was held to account. And the one person who was tried–I also watched that trial, but I didn’t include it in the book–there was one lieutenant colonel who was in charge of the whole prison, who was tried. And he was found innocent of–not guilty, rather–of almost every charge except one really minor charge which the convening authority, the higher-up in the base, abandoned, vacated. So it’s as if nothing happened to him at all.
So you know, it was really a travesty. And nobody paid attention by then, nobody cared. But we authorized this–that’s the point. We authorized, by our general acceptance of the war, of the torture regime, of–you know, there weren’t–there were demonstrations in the street till 2006. You know, Barack Obama was killing people by drone when he was president, and it was on the front page of the New York Times. And you know, nobody rose up and said, this is appalling–no! Because he wanted to be big and bad, he was getting the bad guys. He’s the good guy. Again, it’s this Manichean idea–
RS: Well, it really goes to the question of whether brutality and violence is built into our culture, and then we have these occasional monsters that we can say, oh, they’re the depraved ones, and the other violence is all done out of good intentions and so forth. We’re going to run out of time for this, but all the more reason to recommend reading the book. And I want to–by the way, there are so many other examples. There’s a really, one of the best analyses I’ve read anywhere of the Matthew Shepard case; it’s just one after another. But in case you think this is all going to be depressing, what makes it actually thrilling, like reading a good detective novel, is the writing and the–I don’t want to say contrarian, but the–
JW: No, please don’t. [Laughs]
RS: I don’t think you are, at all. I think that would really denigrate it, because you’re not looking to just shock people, you’re actually looking for the truth, which is what journalism’s supposed to be about. And I want to quote one last time from the Times Literary Supplement, really probably longtime regarded as the most important book review in the world, at least English-speaking world. And really, a rave review. So if you don’t get any kind of review in the New York Times, you have this to fall back on. But to quote them, the Times Literary Supplement says, “It is thrilling and cathartic to watch Wypijewski slice through our culture’s flabbiest orthodoxies.” And I just think, you know, this book is an inspiration of what journalism should be. You know, it may make you uncomfortable, because it–you know, as in the case of a movie that I thought was terrific, Hunting Ground, I know there are a lot of questions now I would ask about it. And you know, it’s not a comfort-zone book, but it really is a tribute to what journalism should be all about. And you know, yes–longform, in-depth, questioning.
And that’s what this book is about: What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo, but it’s what we don’t talk about when we talk about the U.S. war effort, or when we talk about Central Park and a racially described attack that turned out to be framing innocent people. We don’t talk about the complicity of the mass media and the mass culture in building these myths. And Harvey Weinstein is such a good example, because he was celebrated by the mass media, honored by the Motion Picture Academy, honored for his work, and then suddenly he becomes the subject of a feeding frenzy. That doesn’t let him off the hook, doesn’t exonerate him, but your book points out it goes into all of the–what is the term you use, the poisoning of–
JW: Poisoned solidarity.
RS: Poisoned solidarity. I think that should have been the title.
JW: Well, you know, I just want to give a plug for the mess of life. And so when people say, you know, you’re contrarian or you’re trying to be provocative or–no, I’m saying let’s look at reality. Reality is vexed. People are complicated. Humanity is complicated. We have to think–when you talked about standing in somebody else’s shoes, you know, justice has to begin from the idea “the victim is one of us, the accused is one of us.” So that should force us into a complicated analysis. It should not lend itself to easy accusation, to easy prosecution or determination of guilt. We should be interested in how things happen, why things happen; what are the reasons and causes of things.
That used to be something that the left really cared about. I’m not sure it’s always been something the mass media has cared about; I don’t believe there was some golden age. But I do think that scandal allows us to see our shortcomings, and therefore maybe to rethink. You know, ideally to rethink–like, what if it was my brother? What if it was my husband, my lover, my father? You know, what if it was me? What does it mean when a human being has to be made into a demon? And then how does the demonization of our politics, of our language, of our policies, you know–how does that work out? What is our responsibility when we live in the biggest prison state in the world? I think we have to think about those things.
RS: Much to think about. And I want to add one little footnote on that. Yes, it’s important to put yourself in the shoes of people who are accused. It’s also, if one really cares about the victim and having fewer victims, the quickest way to dishonor the life of the victim, if it was given. And the quickest way to obscure a solution, you know, is this rush to judgment. And this is the biggest insult. I’ve always felt it whenever I covered any cases where, you know, you’re talking about did they get the wrong person. There’s a case right now, somebody on Death Row in San Quentin in California, Kevin Cooper, and now–yes, that original crime was horrible, and there were victims, real people, and they had a right to live. We all know that. You’re not honoring those victims when in the vast majority of cases, the so-called, the accused, doesn’t even get a trial. You don’t care about the facts, you don’t care about what really happened. So you know, yes, crimes occur, and heinous crimes occur, but you’re not going to understand those crimes, and you’re not going to bring justice, if you do this mad media frenzy and you poison the solidarity you feel with victims by just the great story and the sense of your own righteousness. So that’s all the time. I just want to highly urge people to read this book. There’s a lot to think about in it. Do you have a last word, or can I sign off?
JW: Well, I’m–yeah, you can–I just wanted to say that, yeah, just to underscore. When we deny the humanity of the accused, we also deny the humanity of the victim. Because we have to make them into cardboard characters. And so we can’t think about them as complex human beings. And I think that’s a grave disservice, and I think journalism–you know, if journalism isn’t interested in human complexity, in conflict, in all the ways that make people act, keep them from acting, then there’s no solution; there’s no analysis, you know, there’s just a morality play. A morality play isn’t reality, it’s a figment.
RS: Well, you know, those are profound words from someone I actually was a graduate fellow at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, where we–the whole purpose was to get people in government, and covering government, to be more responsible and thoughtful. And you went, actually, there at one point. And it’s sad that someone who got launched on a–you know, young woman from Buffalo, New York–
JW: Yes. [Laughs]
RS: –working-class family, pursues this career of journalism, and at this point, after decades of doing the hard work, of covering the story, you end up with–and this book is really a judgment of the failure of mass media, maybe more powerfully because of its contemporary examples than anything out there. If you really want to be taken to school on what’s wrong with our mass media, and what it’s got to do with our prison-industrial complex, read this book. And hopefully we’ll get more writing from you.
That’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. Our engineer at KCRW, the host at the station is Christopher Ho. Natasha Hakimi Zapata does a lot of work on this and writes the introductions. And Joshua Scheer is the producer of Scheer Intelligence, the “Scheer” in Scheer Intelligence who puts it all together. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. But I have to add, I don’t know if we’d be able to do these shows were it not for generous support from the JWK Foundation in memory of Jean Stein, who was a great, tough, questioning, concerned, humanistic journalist.
RS: And on that note, see you next week.
JW: Thank you.