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Posts published in “Day: September 21, 2018”

The personal factor


Hang around political people long enough, and you’ll become struck by how personal much of it is. Personal relationships matter a lot in places high and low.

In places like a state legislature interpersonal relationships can sometimes swamp all other considerations, leading to results even many constituents can puzzle over. So how do we figure out when something is personal and when it’s a matter of real difference over public policy?

Take a look at the Ada County Highway District, which recently has seen a squabble on its commission, and try to tease it out.

The debate goes back to midsummer and a proposal before the commission to allow a vote (on the November ballot) on whether to raise car registration fees. Of the five commission members, two - Jim Hansen and Kent Goldthorpe - voted against the idea, and three - Sara Baker, Paul Woods and Rebecca Arnold - were in favor. The measure will appear on the local ballot.

A couple of weeks later, Hansen sent an email to Goldthorpe and Woods, saying he might be persuaded to support the ballot issue if the commission supported some transit ideas he was proposing. Because that discussion involved business before the commission and because the communication involved a majority of the commission (three of the five members), Hansen violated the open meetings law. Goldthorpe in turn sent the mail to other commission members as well, compounding the situation, though he said he did that because he interpreted the Hansen note as a matter of district politics, not debate of formal board action.

The violation still seems clear enough; now, what to do about it? The state attorney general’s office was contacted for an opinion, and Deputy AG Paul Panther promptly delivered one. Yes, the law was violated, he said, but Hansen (and Goldthorpe) could resolve - “cure” - the problem simply by admitting publicly to the communication.  Both of them did that.

He did not recommend further action: “Our office is vested with the public’s trust ... These responsibilities are not served by pursuing a civil action against public officers who have admitted their mistakes and who have sought as individuals to remedy any potential injury caused by their improper conduct.”

That might have seemed like the end of the matter. It was not.

The commission’s president, Sara Baker, sent an angry letter back to Panther. She called on the attorney general’s office to “prosecute [Hansen] to the fullest extent” and “make an example of Commissioner Hansen.” (She gave Goldthorpe a pass because, she indicated, his motives were better than Hansen’s.) The commission voted 2-1 (since Hansen and Goldthorpe both abstained) to send that letter to Panther. In effect, that official commission statement represented the view of less than half of the commission, but Baker pushed it through, as such, anyway.

Panther again declined to take further action.

When we get into the subject of motivations, we wander onto tricky territory because we never can delve inside a person’s mind and conclusively determine what they’re thinking, and why.

But it doesn’t seem a far reach in this case to see at work something more than simple concern for the open meetings law, something more personal. And some of the elements involved with it - the insistence on punishment and making an example, of pushing through a minority opinion masked as that of a majority - may offer some of the indicators worth our watching in other places as well.

‘I believe her’


Once again, as this is written, people are divided into those who "believe her" and those who ...

And again we have a failure to communicate.

The he said/she said in this most recent case is that of Brett Kavanaugh, the nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Christine Blasey Ford, who has said he sexually assaulted her years ago when both were teenagers. He has denied it.

What to do about this is the subject of a heated political fight, of course. But the language framing is significant and central: To say that "I believe her" is to take a side, as was the case in many other instances especially in recent years but going back decades through Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill and before that.

The language is problematic because it comes as a reaction to an atmosphere of dismissal.

For we know not how long many, many women have found faced a stone wall when raising a complaint about a sexual/social problem - harassment, assault, rape. Too many have reported not being taken seriously, having their charges dismissed out of hand. The evidence of that reality, and of the hiding and shielding of vast numbers of truly criminal cases, is far too sweeping to be rejected any more. The rejection of mass numbers of cases, a rejection of so many women fearing responses ranging from disbelief to harassment to terrorizing, long has been one of the bigger social ills in American society (and in many other places). It merits decisive correction.

Does that mean every accusation automatically should be taken as hard fact? There lies a problem, because while the strong probability is that the great majority of these accusations point to a real (and criminal) event, not every single one does. And, as one meme suggested, the accuser should not be deemed to be a liar until proven truthful.

Maybe we should re-describe this a bit.

I believe the sun will rise in the morning because it always has (in my lifetime and long before) and because there's a sound empirical explanation for why it will. If someone told me they had witnessed a bank robbery earlier in the day, I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand - the description could be correct - but it could be mistaken. Or maybe (for reasons I can't even fathom) the person telling the story just made it up. Not likely, but possible. This is why we don't ordinarily convict in criminal cases based on one person's say-so alone.

So what does it mean, in cases like Kavanaugh-Ford, to say "I believe" the accusation?

What we might say instead is something a little more nuanced, albeit a little less (in some quarters) satisfying. In Kavanaugh-Ford, there is no (as typically there is not) any digital or other conclusive external evidence of what happened; all we know and all we are likely to know comes through the lenses of the two people involved, and possibly one additional witness.

That does not make it an insoluble situation. Ford has produced records from years ago, long predating the Kavanaugh nomination, in which she described the event in similar terms to a therapist, and other people who knew her says she spoke of it long ago. She took and passed a lie detector test (an indicator of willingness to confirm forthrightness, however valid the usefulness of the test may be). Her description was clear and specific and evidently consistent. His account seems marred by some possible inconsistencies and lack of clarity. This doesn't add up to a perfectly certain result, but it does bend the needle of probability more in her direction than in his.

Accusation should not amount to conviction, in the case of sexual assault any more than it does in murder. But that doesn't mean the accusation, if the basic facts and context hold together, shouldn't be taken seriously and acted upon.

Do I take Ford's contention seriously - seriously enough to at least throw strong doubt in the wisdom of a confirmation to a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court?

Yes, certainly. Barring additional information to the contrary, it clearly meets that test.