A political scandal occurs when a person or set of people who have either power or influence are uncovered to have engaged in pernicious conduct that puts a nation at risk. McCarthyism was an attempt to point out that people in high places had been Communists and that they continued to hold their positions of influence until they were uncovered by McCarthy. Watergate was a scandal because it was uncovered that President Nixon and his men had tried to undermine the American electoral system. Sometimes the evidence of a scandal is unclear, as when McCarthy just flashed sheets of paper proclaiming them to be lists of traitors working in the State Department, and sometimes the details are elaborately spelled out, which happened with the Senate Watergate Committee.
An important observation to make about scandals is that people choose sides on these controversial issues because of their prior predilections and select from the available evidence what will support their point of view. This holds even and especially when the controversy is heavily dependant on very complex information. People who supported the army and the church were sure Dreyfus was a traitor while people who were supporters of the Third Republic or were Parisians intellectuals supported Dreyfus and it took years to clear up what had actually happened. People become obsessed with the details of a scandal; that is one of its distinguishing marks. And so people, for years, rethought what might have happened on the Grassy Knoll in Dallas when J. F. K. was assassinated, because many people thought that there must have been a dark conspiracy behind his death; people knew the details of the evidence in the O. J. Simpson case, even if the jury did not need much time to reach its verdict, because the L. A. police department had such a reputation for racism. So these events are scandals because they always involve the cover up of what is truly outrageous behavior that should mortify its perpetrators and makes spectators righteous with indignation at either those who have propounded a scandal where there is none or have covered up its inner workings.
Another important observation to make about scandals is that the public discourse is usually not advanced by a nation having engaged in one. Finding out the truth of the matter turns out to be a pyrrhic victory. A Republican was elected President in 1980, the Democrats able to turn the Nixon scandal into only one win for the Presidency, and a quarter century after Watergate, there was another Presidential impeachment inquiry about what turned out to be about only a matter of a sexual dalliance, not a threat to the Republic, and now some Democrats seem to be on an impeachment course against Trump simply because he is a disgrace to his office and not because he has engaged in any high crimes and misdemeanors, such charges dismissed by the office of the Special Counsel. And the O. J. trial does not seem to have brought about some large reform in police departments across the country (Los Angeles possibly one of the few that reformed itself in the wake of its scandal). Rather, in the past decade, we have been up to our ears in police scandals having to do with the harassment and death of young African Americans at the hands of the local police, people again becoming obsessed with the details of how Michael Brown met his death in Furgeson, Missouri, and how Eric Garner met his death at the hands of police in Staten Island, New York, again people deciding on general principles which side is to be believed and so, in general, always coming out on the same political side of all scandalous controversies.
It seems hardly possible, as a result, to propound the view that each case must be considered in its own right, according to its own set of facts, rather than what is obviously the case to those who take up one side or the other, though the rush to judgment is, as I say, a recognizable feature of scandals. For example, Michael Brown was a street hustler who had recently purloined an item from a convenience store and then was stopped by a cop who was led to shoot him, perhaps because Brown did indeed stuck his head into the policeman’s vehicle in a threatening way. Now there should not be a death sentence for petty thievery, but Michael Brown is hardly a hero even if the police did overreact and so took a life when the matter could have been settled with a less dire outcome.
The death of Eric Garner, the salesman of single cigarettes, which is a crime in New York, because that means the cigarettes go untaxed, was also a scandal, again because this crime was so petty that it did not deserve the death penalty, but also because it was so clear from the facts on the scene that unnecessary force was applied in Garner’s apprehension and that he died as a result. Garner had not answered a number of summonses to appear in court and so an arrest warrant was issued. I wonder whether another remedy than arresting this obese and unhealthy and belligerant individual was possible. It might have been possible to padlock his grocery store when he wasn’t there and then he might have decided it was necessary to show up in court. As it was, the NYPD was sufficiently worried that something might go wrong that they had a supervisor at the scene of the arrest to see that everything went according to procedure, but that did not stop a zealous officer from applying a chokehold or a police officer sitting on top of Garner and continuing to do so even though Garner said “I can’t breath” a dozen times or so. So different sets of facts lead to different conclusions, even if the dynamics of scandals are that people opt for one or another overall narrative: the police are brutal to people of color or that the police have the thankless job of supervising troublesome people.
It is in this context that I want to take up the case of the Central Park Five, recently brought back to public attention by Ava DuVernay’s fictional retelling of the events in an Amazon miniseries, strange as it may be that a fictional recreation is treated as true enough to the facts that there is a public outcry which led to the head of the sex crimes unit of the NYPD at the time, Linda Fairstein, to be dropped by her publisher and by numerous boards on which she served in spite of her denials about having said the things that were attributed to her, and where the director of the film does not even claim that the quotes were accurate, only that she had captured the essence of what Fairstein was.
But put aside when and whether fictionalized accounts of events should take on a documentary significance, as they did to such effect in “All the President's Men”, a movie which is all most people probably know about Watergate, but that is alright because it was a fair recounting of events and did not try to embellish what were some pretty gripping moments, as when the reporters interviewed the pathetic Donald Segretti and the crestfallen Hugh W. Sloan, Jr.
Let’s look at some evidence in the Central Park Five case. The mothers of the boys were present when their confessions were taped. They could have refused to confess at that point. I surmise that they confessed because they did not want to implicate themselves in the other crimes that occurred in Central Park that night and so they thought they would get off light if they said they had touched the jogger but not penetrated her. Moreover, they did not claim, either in their preliminary hearings or on appeal, that they had been deprived of food or drink. That was made up by DuVernay who says that she was getting to the essence of things. That means she bears no responsibility for the facts of the matter. I disagree. Facts matter.
Was there a miscarriage of justice? Yes, in that the wrong people were convicted of the crime. But the assumption made by those who support the DuVernay retelling is that there must have been some scandal involved in the way the interrogations were carried out in order for a false verdict to be reached. That is to suggest that the judicial system is more perfect than it really is, that only if someone was railroading those held for examination in a crime, would the system go on to convict them. Maybe it is that all the procedures in place at the time were honestly applied and that a conclusion that the five had indeed done the rape seemed justified. No one claimed that the DNA of the boys matched the DNA found on the victim. All the prosecution had was the confessions of the boys and the fact that they had been up to something in the park. The conviction was legitimate even if incorrect, and the City of New York has ponied up a lot of money in the past few years to make things “right” for these victims of the judicial process.
The most interesting thing about the case is not that there was a miscarriage of justice, which I suppose happens all the time, and will last as long as we insist on having trials as the only ways to settle matters of fact, and I do not want to suspend that, however unreliable trials are as ways to settle matters of fact, because they do indeed erect some hedges whereby defendandts can protect themselves, and so do indeed serve the cause of liberty against a tyrannous state. Rather, it is that the discussion of the case is carried out under the emotional pressures inevitable, or all but inevitable, in the consideration of a scandal. It is an outrage to even consider opposing arguments or an appeal to the facts because of how strongly people are invested in their version of what happened during a scandal.
Moreover, as all of the scandals I have cited show, scandals are not a very effective way of bringing about social changes, of making changes in the system so that the same sort of scandal does not get repeated. There are other ways to do that: elections, social movements, legislation, organizational innovations such as the corporation and economic innovations such as the computer, and demographic changes which makes Texas into a purple state. All of these may harness a scandal, but people do not cast their votes because of scandals but because of issues, party loyalties, and the personalities of the candidates. So don’t expect the Central Park Five to make any difference in 2020.