The Simpsons is perhaps the greatest educational tool ever devised in Hollywood, teaching impressionable youth about arts, culture, religion and politics with an intelligence and wit that the public school system can’t match.
But what I have grown to most appreciate about the show as an adult is its depressingly accurate portrayal of mob rule.
The residents of Springfield, USA, regularly rise up in their ignorance and impatience against whatever threatens them at the moment, whether it’s the medical system (Osaka flu), snakes (Whacking Day) or even Copernican science (the earth revolves around the sun).
I’ve been thinking about this because the online reaction to former Stanford athlete Brock Turner’s sentence for sexual assault is pretty much a Simpsons mob scene – deeply ignorant and utterly unaware of the terrifying precedent it’s setting.
The one difference might be that this mob vengeance is stoked by demagogues who know exactly what they are doing.
The real-world consequences go beyond the death threats made against Judge Aaron Persky, and refusal of jurors to serve in his courtroom, for using his sentencing authority exactly as the law prescribes it.
Stanford Law Prof. Michele Dauber is playing the role of Pitchforker in Chief by leading a recall campaign against Persky, explicitly attacking the independence of the judiciary because she didn’t like one sentence he handed down.
The probation officer, incidentally, recommended the sentence adopted by Persky, following guidelines that account for the perpetrator’s age, criminal history and intoxication. The officer is a woman.
— Michele Dauber (@mldauber) June 13, 2016
‘A broader inconsistency that plagues the American left’
Who is not demanding the brutalization of Brock Turner and the crucifixion of Persky?
For starters, Turner’s victim. According to the probation officer’s report, she said she wanted Turner to “be sorry and express remorse”:
I want him to know it hurt me, but I don’t want his life to be over. I want him to be punished, but as a human, I just want him to get better. I don’t want him to feel like his life is over and I don’t want him to rot away in jail; he doesn’t need to be behind bars.
Slate writer Mark Joseph Stern, who covers the law and LGBTQ issues, goes after “far too many liberals [who] have abandoned what were, not so long ago, fundamental principles of progressivism” by favoring mob rule over the rule of law:
This willingness to toss due process out the window in sexual assault cases is, unfortunately, indicative of a broader inconsistency that plagues the American left.
If Persky is held accountable by anyone it should be the state ethics commission, Stern says, in an indirect rebuke to Dauber:
Recall efforts compound the problem: They blatantly put pressure on judges to follow public opinion—or mob mentality—rather than maintaining judicial independence. …
[Persky’s recall] would set a clear precedent that liberals should feel empowered to knock judges off the bench when they really disapprove of their rulings. That is an extraordinarily dangerous mindset—one conservatives have exploited for decades.
Stern also takes on the most cherished document in this entire case – the victim’s “impact statement” – saying “it had absolutely no place in the courtroom”:
Victim impact statements introduce a massive amount of emotion into the proceedings, allowing the judge or jury to be swayed by emotional response rather than logical reflection. That, in turn, shifts the focus away from the defendant and toward the victim while injecting arbitrariness into the sentencing process. The defendant’s punishment may well hinge on how emotionally compelling the victim can make his or her statement.
In a succinct and nuanced piece for AllThink, Cathy Young takes on “self-righteous outrage mobs and ideological zealots” such as Dauber while looking honestly at the case record and weighing whether the sentence was severe enough:
The people driving this crusade, such as Dauber, are quite explicit about holding the rights of the accused in extremely low regard. (Several people who attended a recent Stanford seminar on campus rape have told me that Dauber’s demeanor during a talk by attorney Andrew Miltenberg, who represents students accused of sexual misconduct in campus cases, was so openly contemptuous — with conspicuous eye-rolling and grimacing — as to be unprofessional.) Dauber is also a strong proponent of having sexual assault cases handled by campus tribunals, which, despite the light sentence, would have served the victim in this case far worse than the real justice system did.
Young worries that the severe intoxication of Turner’s victim will be used as more evidence that any drinking by an accuser negates her consent – a case made by Lena Dunham in her memoir:
When such accounts are hailed as brave truth-telling about rape, this inevitably trivializes the real thing — including incapacitated rape. Yet even the prosecutor in the Stanford case contributed to muddying the waters, saying that one of the lessons of this case is that “drunk means no.” But if any level of drunkenness (not just unconsciousness or severe disorientation) negates consent, the question some people have raised about double standards — why doesn’t it also negate responsibility for Turner? — are entirely legitimate.
She concludes that “[w]e desperately need clear thinking, not outrage politics.”
I’m not holding my breath. As news anchor Kent Brockman said when Congress failed to evacuate Springfield as a comet hurtled toward the town, “Democracy simply doesn’t work.”
IMAGE: Hans Splinter/Flickr