Guilty Until Proven Innocent

(Illustration courtesy Edward Camp)

“…(U)pon the banquet of his funeral they most piously do pounce… And for years afterwards, perhaps, ships shun the place; leaping over it as silly sheep leap over a vacuum…” – Herman Melville

When I was in high school, we were assigned a novel called THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, by Walter Van Tilburg Clark.

It’s about three cowboys who are accused of cattle rustling and murder. While the cowboys insist on their innocence, a vigilante posse is convinced of their guilt. The vigilantes outnumber the cowboys, so they get the upper hand. The cowboys are hanged after a long night of drunken accusations and brutality. After the vigilantes commit their dirty deed and ride home, they’re stunned by what they discover: the cowboys were innocent after all.

The book is fiction, but it was my introduction to several life realities: warped vigilante justice…the concept of “court of public opinion” … the behavioral trait where people will do things in a group which they wouldn’t normally do alone (mob mentality) …and the idea that the majority in a democracy is not necessarily right. I’ve never forgotten the book. If you don’t like to read, you should at least see the movie, starring Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, and Anthony Quinn. It will stay with you.

Clark published THE OX-BOW INCIDENT in 1940. The 1943 movie was nominated for Best Picture. One would think such a powerful story would offer a moral lesson to those who would rush to judgment. But in the late 1940s and 1950s, America underwent the Hollywood blacklist and McCarthy hearings, a demagogic, Cold War smear campaign to hunt down alleged Communists. Careers were permanently destroyed.

In 1950, a slow-witted man in England, Timothy Evans, was tried, convicted, and executed for mass murder, despite later being found innocent. His case contributed to England’s abolishment of the death penalty. The U.S. is now the only Western nation to execute prisoners, despite numerous death row inmates later being exonerated.

Currently, America is in the throes of public figures being accused of sexual misconduct.  The entire reality show is sad and tawdry, a perfect second course to last year’s election. For some people, though, it’s a form of gladiatorial entertainment.

The latest name to fall from grace is author and radio personality Garrison Keillor, accused by an unidentified woman of sexual misconduct.

I usually walk the other way when I see sensational “soft” news like this. While I definitely don’t belittle the problem of sexual misconduct, obviously more widespread than anyone could have imagined, I’m more concerned about things like health care, income inequity, environmental degradation, and gun deaths. I know only a few details in the cases involving Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, John Conyers, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and Al Franken. The reason I’m writing about Keillor is because for many years, off and on, I’ve listened to his live radio show A Prairie Home Companion, one of the best programs on radio.

Another reason is that, whether Keillor’s guilty or innocent, there are some troubling signs.

On November 29, Keillor was suddenly fired by Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), after 42 years of employment, for alleged improper conduct with a woman. The station had hired a law firm back in October to independently investigate allegations. Both the law firm and MPR have been silent about the details. Not so Keillor, who retired from A Prairie Home Companion last year.

“I put my hand on a woman’s bare back,” Keillor explained. “I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness, and her shirt was open and my hand went up it about six inches. She recoiled. I apologized…We continued to be friendly right up until her lawyer called.”

On Facebook, Keillor commented “It’s astonishing that 50 years of hard work can be trashed in a morning by an accusation.”prairie image

MPR didn’t just fire Keillor. Similar to what happened to late football coach Joe Paterno at Penn State University after the child sex abuse scandal, it’s trying to erase all evidence of his presence, including cancelling rebroadcasts of his old shows, removing them from the MPR website, and canceling production and distribution of his syndicated series The Writer’s Almanac.

It’s almost assured that, after MPR’s actions, listenership for A Prairie Home Companion will suffer collateral damage and decline. Keillor’s already been consigned to the Bill Cosby Memorial Landfill, so this won’t be punishing him.  Similar to what happened at Penn State, when NCAA sanctions punished students, alumni, and fans, listeners of A Prairie Home Companion will be punished. The show, now hosted by Chris Thile, may end up dying a slow death.

Additionally, PBS recently pulled an episode featuring Keillor from its “Finding Your Roots” genealogy series.  Venues around the country are also canceling prescheduled shows with Keillor. Berkshire Theatre Group in Massachusetts was one, commenting that it “finds all victimization of people deplorable.”

(Does “all victimization” include Keillor and listeners of A Prairie Home Companion ?)

Just so no one thinks I’m excusing Garrison Keillor and downplaying this woman’s suffering, I’ll emphasize that he may indeed be guilty of more than just sliding his hand across a woman’s back to console her.  In which case he deserves a just punishment.  But he also may be innocent.  No one knows the truth at this point except Keillor and the woman (or women).  Not even MPR.

My problem is MPR fired him without ever consulting him about the allegations (at least, that the public is aware of).  They and others also want to erase any evidence of Keillor.  Though still a far cry, this expunging of history nevertheless has the whiff of Nazism and the dystopian worlds of Kafka and Orwell.

Once more in America in this age of tweet-friendly soundbites, a new term has been coined: “outrage machine.” But if there truly is outrage, how is it possible a man can be elected to the presidency after incontrovertible evidence of misogyny and sexually inappropriate behavior? Are we a nation of hypocrites?

***

If my wife or daughter were the victim of sexual harassment, I’d be at their sides in a heartbeat. At work, I’ve participated in ethics training. A good chunk of this training involves how to associate and how not to associate with employees of the opposite sex.

Some things are obvious. You don’t invite female co-workers to your bachelor pad to watch X-rated actors like “Long Dong Silver,” like one of our Supreme Court justices reputedly did (and I emphasize “reputedly”). You don’t grab them in their private parts, like our sleazeball president advised men to do (and here, I’ll emphasize definitively advised).

But there’s a large grey area (philosophical, not physical). One person’s idea of harassment could be another person’s attempt at being friendly or compassionate. There’s also the dating game. How many times can an employee request a date without it being considered “harassment”? Three times? Twice? Or should it be absolutely forbidden to request social time with an employee of the opposite sex?

Can you compliment someone on their outfit or hair? If she’s feeling depressed, can you put your hand on her shoulder? If so, does the shoulder have to be clothed, or can it be bare? Can you move your hand slightly while it’s on this bare shoulder?

I’m not being facetious, I’m totally sincere. Judging from what’s happened lately, I think we now need to ask ourselves these questions.  How are we going to define sexual misconduct? Should an office manager now be concerned about smiling at a co-worker? Could a friendly smile be construed as a sexually suggestive “leer”?

***

Garrison Keillor’s guilt or innocence isn’t the point of my essay. My point is that, even before all evidence and testimony are in, and despite his denial of sexual misconduct, he’s been hung by the neck in the court of public opinion. The court here includes Minnesota Public Radio; all those who have cancelled his future appearances (some adding editorial spice, like Berkshire Theatre Group); and various journalistic sharks around the country who smell blood.

The Republican Party, dominated by white males, is completely out to lunch regarding the problem of sexual misconduct by public figures.  The Keillor story is the opposite extreme: knee-jerk liberals anxious to judge, convict, execute, and expunge all traces of a man who didn’t even get the opportunity to defend himself.  And I say this as a liberal.

The idea is to discourage and punish sexual misconduct.  You aim for the bullseye. But you don’t pull back on the string until the bow’s ready to snap. Otherwise, you miss the target completely. And you could do a lot of harm in the process.

 

ox-bow incident

15 thoughts on “Guilty Until Proven Innocent

  1. I hear what you’re saying on Keillor, Pete. The rest of those guys, I dunno. They sound like a bunch of entitled (“I’m entitled to women’s bodies because I’m somebody”) d’bags who got what they deserved. But as far as how to act, well, it took me a while to fully learn but over the years I’ve learned. I don’t talk much about what I do but I’m an independent consultant, often working from home. But for the past month, I’ve been working at a company on-site, FOR a woman with plenty of other women. How do (or should) I treat them? You know the answer as well as I do. With respect. No leering, no touching, no sexual suggestions, no dumb “guy” jokes, no staring at breasts. Go out for a drink? Sure. Just don’t drink so much that I lose my inhibitions and get touchy-feely. Because at one time or another I’ve done some of the stupid things and I SO regret it. Not at the level of these guys but just doing and saying inappropriate things. BTW, I recently read an article about how the courts deal with sexual harassment. It has to unwelcome and persistent (or words to that effect.) They’ve let things go that I (and I believe you) would not tolerate. So, Keillor guilty or innocent? I don’t know but I agree the bar needs to be higher than one unproven accusation.

    • All good points, Jim. And like I said when I described being a d.j. years ago, being in front of a microphone or camera can allow you certain keys to the candy store. I’m sure these “gentlemen,” including ugly Garrison, are tempted and solicited all the time. It’s a mark of character when you can still keep your hands to yourself. “Unwelcome and persistent,” eh? I guess that’s as good as we’ll get as far as defining sexual harassment. Almost like that justice’s definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” 🙂

      • Pete, hopefully you can see this ok. It’s an NYT article about what legally constitutes harassment. It’s the one I was trying to quote and maybe got wrong. It’s eye-opening.

        As to tRump, I highly recommend a book I’m currently reading called “Collusion” by Luke Harding. Harding is a reporter for the Guardian and he tracks in some detail Trump’s machinations with Putin and Co. He interviewed Christopher Steele, the ex-spook who wrote the dossier on tRump long before the guy’s name was known. Why Mueller doesn’t just subpoena him is beyond me.

      • I really appreciate the link, Jim. As always, a well-written and eye-opening NYT article. I had no idea the bar was set so high for sexual harassment claims. I’m assuming sexual “misconduct” is different from “harassment,” but maybe not. Also, is the Keillor firing a situation of sexual harassment? Was the woman an employee? Was there sexual contact (not just her bare back)? Were there other women? Right now there’s nothing except Keillor’s brief remarks to the media. That’s why, to me, his public pillaging is so troubling. I read where he may try to salvage his reputation through legal recourse. If so, we’ll probably know a lot more.

        As for the Luke Harding book, I try to stay away from contemporary politics books, but I’ll dig it up next time I’m in Barnes and Noble. Not that I have faith in pussyfooting Democrats against a right-wing juggernaut, but my big hope is a Dem sweep next year, after which Tweety’s reign may come to a merciful end. I don’t think the country can withstand much more of him and his confederacy of dunces.

      • All good questions on Keillor. Let’s see what happens legally. As to the book, yeah as mentioned, if Mueller hasn’t read it, he should. I think Trump’s Deutsch Bank shenanigans are coming up. And the book makes the point that all the attention to Russia deflects away from China where orangeboy has indulged in kickbacks and bribes! It is a very tangled financial picture. As they said in Watergate, follow the money.

  2. Another great article, Pete. I remember reading the Ox Bow Incident at Kiski, and I like how you weave the parallel with the sudden conviction of Keillor in the court of public opinion. I reckon MPR knows a lot more about his transgressions than they’re disclosing, but who knows?

    • Great to hear from you old pal! I’m always careful writing these controversial things, thinking “I wonder how people like Tad will respond to this sentence?” MPR’s energetic actions do make me wonder if they know more. But if so, Keillor would know as well, in which case we’d have gotten a different response from him (if any response). If he’s guilty of harassment, he gets what he deserves. If not, a lot of people will feel like fools. We may never know.

      (BTW, I’ve taken a sabbatical from FB. It may be permanent. Nothing against you or anyone else, as I’ve always enjoyed our repartees, I’m just on a social media diet these days…among other diets!).

      Lastly…long live Stinky Curtiss!

  3. Hi Pete,
    my take – we are currently experiencing another Salem Witch Burning / McCarthy Red Trials period in the country. The mood is to throw the baby out with the bath water.

    The repercussions that a Cosby, Weinstein, Ailey suffer…no problem here.
    My concern is those with lesser transactions.
    A misplaced hand not in contact with a breast, vagina…hmm. That destroys a career ?
    Surely there are terms that can be reached which satisfy the current bloodlust.

    I recently was watching Andrea Mitchell greeting a male guest who she has known for 30 years. He said to her that he was afraid to exchange their usual buss on the cheek because he now thinks it would be considered inappropriate. Andrea acknowledged that we were entering insane territory.

    I have no idea when Common Sense and Justice will return to our society, it can’t return soon enough.

    rob
    ps – good on ya Alabama, you did the Union proud

    • Thanks Rob. Coincidentally, I just saw Andrea Mitchell interview Tom Brokaw on this issue. Brokaw believes, right now, there’s too much subjectivity to get beyond, in regards to what is and isn’t considered sexual misconduct, but that we’re definitely entering the “century of the woman.” I hope this means gender equality, and not a double standard. And yes, great news from out of Alabama. Also, a blistering op-ed in USA Today about our misogynistic Fool on the Hill (I don’t have the link, but you can find it easily).

      • Pete, sad to say but I’m all too familiar with The Donalds misogyny.
        All the Wall Street Journals, NY Times, Washington Posts, USA Today, Matt Taibi / Rolling Stone, Village Voice, editorials are for nought.
        To quote that Canadian musician, we’re pissing into the wind.

        A woman Senator questioning Rod Rosenstein asked today if the FBI would entertain Trumps accusers of “misconduct” as actual violations of law, he grudgingly answered yes.

        This will not, I repeat lead to his demise.

        I believe the more salacious details of the Steele Report.If you don’t think that the Russians did not have his room wired…that will not suffice.

        All we can hope for is that Robert Muller unearths obstruction.
        Ivanka, not Jared, might end up being his Achilles heel.

        One last thing – remember as a kid you read Superman comics?
        They did a Bizarro Superman – every thing right, now wrong. Everything wrong, now right.
        We are currently living in Bizarro USA.

        rob

      • Wow, you’re on top of it much more than me, Rob. But I agree on Bizarro USA. If Jefferson, Lincoln, TR, or FDR were around now, they’d have their heads in their hands.

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