On the Tara Reade Allegations: It’s Okay Not to Know
In college, I wrote a little-read column called Upon Further Review, its name taken from the announcements referees make when a play has required a second look. Now, some six months later (and in a different newspaper, no less!), it seems a good time to expand on that column’s ethos, to make what is implicit in the title explicit in the text. Today, that column would begin by butchering an old William F. Buckley quote.
It would say: Upon Further Review “stands athwart the hot take, yelling ‘Stop,’ at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
Which is to say that the necessity of the “hot take” — the quick forming of opinions before we have discovered enough relevant information — is a scourge upon opinion journalism and the forming of opinions more generally. It is to say that we have lost the ability to look upon a set of facts and affirm that we just don’t know what to make of them. We may not like that, and we may desperately want to know more. But sometimes it is irresponsible to suggest otherwise.
At worst that’s dithering. At best it’s humility.
Which brings us to Tara Reade’s sexual assault allegations.
Here’s what we know so far. Tara Reade has said that in 1993 Joe Biden cornered her and penetrated her vagina with his fingers. In early April, she filed a police report, but the investigation is inactive, most likely because the statute of limitations has passed. (Filing a false police report is illegal.)
Reade contemporaneously told five people: a friend, a coworker, a neighbor, her brother and her mother. The friend, coworker and neighbor remember this. The brother initially didn’t recall but later confirmed his sister’s account. The mother has passed away but called “Larry King Live” in the 1990s to get advice on the matter.
How odd are her brother’s faulty recollections? It’s unclear. On the one hand you’d think he’d remember his sister telling him a United States Senator sexually assaulted her. On the other hand it was three decades ago. The human memory is notoriously slippery, even with important information.
And then there’s the “Larry King Live” video. It mentions neither sexual assault nor harassment. That could be Reade’s mother protecting her daughter’s privacy. But it could also be a discrepancy in Reade’s account worthy of further investigation.
Worse, few know what to make of “corroborating witnesses” generally. Given the low rates of false sexual assault allegations — as well as the sheer amount of weight rape culture places upon its victims — if an allegation is made, some argue it should be believed outright. The counter argument has three parts: a) that these “witnesses” have witnessed nothing themselves, b) that people tell stories — true, false and otherwise — only to those that are likely to believe them and c) that all types of false allegations are low, not only those having to do with sexual assault.
So let’s file these corroborating witnesses under relevant but not dispositive.
Meanwhile, this has emerged: Reade claims to have told three superiors in Biden’s office about ongoing harassment. None — zero — remember such a conversation. Interviews with Biden’s previous female staffers instead make clear that his office was one of the better workplaces for women in the 1990s.
That last bit proves nothing. But it does establish a pattern of behavior crucial in informing our judgment. (Consider a serial sexual assailant. Showing he assaulted five women doesn’t prove he assaulted a sixth. But it does lend credibility to the sixth woman’s claims.)
Finally, we are left with Reade’s effusive praise of Vladamir Putin. Personally I’d like to dismiss this as a sexist attempt to discredit a woman by calling her “crazy.” But I can’t. Putin successfully interfered in the 2016 election and is attempting to do so again in 2020. Is this that interference?
Possibly. The corroborating witnesses would suggest not, but the stakes being what they are, I’d like something more concrete.
So where does that leave us? Further along than you might think. The patient if imperfect vetting of Reade’s allegations is already a far cry better than it would have been several years ago. Consider that hard won progress. And we know where to look for more information: the National Archives and Biden’s personal records.
In Reade’s case, withholding judgement seems appropriate. For the moment, it’s fine not to know. It’s not fine to stop searching for answers, though, which would be the inevitable result of yet another hot take.