R. Kelly and Mob Justice

I was on spring break last week, so I made the mistake of sitting down and watching some TV for the first time since Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s just my ineptitude with a remote, but aside from Ilhan Omar’s anti-Semitism, the only topic that seemed up for discussion was R. Kelly and the charges made against him. (I also made the mistake of watching Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” quixotically expecting a Spike Lee movie to rise above the level of a comic book, but alas, wrong again. More on that fiasco some other time.)

Here’s an obvious point about guilt and innocence when it comes to criminal charges: if you’re going to try someone for a criminal allegation in the court of public opinion–a very big and very dubious if–you have to distinguish clearly between four mutually exclusive things:

  • the case against him,
  • the case in his defense,
  • the set of known facts that don’t easily fit either of the first two categories, and
  • the unknowns.

The least you can do is to try to do justice to the facts in all four categories, rather than fixating on, say, the case against him to the exclusion of everything else. There are complications here about how broadly or narrowly to understand each category, but even if we set those aside, there’s more than enough complexity here to keep a competent journalist busy for awhile.

We seem to be suffering from a serious dearth of competent journalists in this country, because literally nothing that I saw on TV, and little that I’ve seen anywhere else, has managed even to gesture at any of this complexity. As far as TV “coverage” was concerned, all I saw was a widespread fixation on the case against Kelly, tendentiously described and cleverly exploited to feed our insatiable national lust for moral condemnation and reputational destruction. This in a country that right-wing intellectuals keep accusing of “moral relativism.” And before you tell me that, well, Lifetime was never supposed to be a real journalistic source, make sure you forward whatever you have to say to law enforcement in and around Chicago and Detroit, because Lifetime’s “Surviving R. Kelly” is what those agencies are describing as the impetus for their investigations. (This is a relatively balanced account of R. Kelly’s run-ins with the law, as notable for its account of his malfeasances as for law enforcement’s, and as compatible with his guilt as with law enforcement’s being engaged in a vendetta against him.)

I don’t pretend to know whether R. Kelly is guilty or not, but no one–not even Hitler or Stalin–deserves the kind of treatment he’s been getting in our media. Yes, there are times when serious allegations are made of a person, where it’s not possible or feasible or appropriate to put him on trial, but where a moral and/or legal verdict of some kind is a moral imperative–Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, etc. But while I can see the need to pass judgment on A. Hitler in the absence of a trial, I don’t quite see the comparable need in the case of R. Kelly. It’s one thing to reserve judgment about Auschwitz because you haven’t seen footage of what happened there. It’s another thing to wonder about those videos that supposedly keep clinching the case against R. Kelly–except when they don’t.

Particularly galling and pathetic is the widespread belief that Gayle King handled herself like some 21st century version of Veritas and Astraea, the goddesses of truth and justice, in her dreadful CBS interview with Kelly. (This article is typical of the genre.) To describe King’s conduct in that interview as inept, offensive, and incompetent is more obvious than the truth of any of the charges made against Kelly, at least given the publicly available evidence against him as of this writing. If you focused on the content of what was said, rather than the reputations of the speakers, virtually everything that Kelly said made more sense than anything King said. An interviewer who asks her interview subject why he went to McDonald’s after being let out of jail–and insists on a straight answer–is simply in the wrong profession. My advice to her would be to don a fake nose and join a circus: she’d do better as a clown than as a journalist.

King made no pretense of impartiality in her interview with Kelly, or to precision in stating the charges against him, or to adducing any actual evidence against him but rumors and allegations (as Kelly correctly pointed out time and again). Stating and re-stating the allegations against Kelly ad nauseum, she effectively insisted that Kelly either allocute to a series of handwaving quasi-criminal charges against him, or stand condemned for denying them. At this rate, why not just come right out and call him a witch?

I could see how a casual viewer might be fooled by the act. Incriminating “tapes” were mentioned, but in the interests of decorum, never shown. A long string of tearful witnesses was paraded before the cameras, taken on faith, and dismissed without further ado. Adult women supposedly in captivity within Kelly’s home were described as though they were children literally held there and unable to leave; their parents described their adult children as though the children were somehow incompetent to make their own decisions, and as though the parents remained their guardians in perpetuity.

Meanwhile, at least two of these supposedly bound and captive hostages showed up on set to give angry, vehement, self-assured interviews insisting that they weren’t hostages. The blatant WTF quality of the situation seemed lost on King: If they were hostages, they were free to leave right then and there, and free to call 911 right then and there. But they didn’t. So why didn’t they? And if King truly regarded them as hostages, why didn’t she call 911 and have them rescued? King’s response to that prima facie rebuttal of her “case” against Kelly? An embarrassing combination of evasions, interruptions, and awkward silences, followed by the following comment about one of the subjects, made in an interview with Esquire:

But she had a very snippy little arrogant attitude. She started out the gate like that. I was surprised. That’s why I said, “You seem so angry.”

You could with perfect accuracy apply every claim in that passage to King herself.*

On encountering any testimony that contradicted her narrative, King brushed it away as unworthy of consideration. On encountering the reverse, she repeated it as though she were pronouncing judgment on the war criminals at Nuremberg. Granted, I don’t watch very much TV, but I sat there wondering how anyone that stupid could be on prime time, doing what she does for the salary she commands ($5.5 million/year).

That criminal charges have to be made and formally adjudicated; that witnesses for the prosecution lie or get facts wrong; that witnesses for the defense sometime tell the truth; that there’s a world of difference between being a pedophile and being an asshole; that you can’t indict someone for going to McDonald’s after being let out of jail; and best of all, that Kelly had previously been acquitted of the most serious charges made against him in a court of law: all of this seemed lost on King as well, whose hapless but fanatical anti-Kelly juggernaut wasn’t about to be stopped by such piddling facts as these. Unlike the extraordinarily half-assed and unfunny cast of SNL, I wasn’t inclined to make fun of R. Kelly’s supposedly “unhinged” outburst with King, mostly because I didn’t really regard it as all that unhinged in the first place: faced with an interviewer like Gayle King, and tactics like those being employed by law enforcement and the likes of Michael Avenatti, I probably would have had the same reaction as Kelly. After such inanity, what forgiveness?

Call me arrogant, but I regard myself as an expert on willful, belligerent stupidity: I teach college students, after all. But even I wasn’t ready for anything as dumb as the R. Kelly controversy. How is one to react when large swatches of a country descend this far into the epistemic abyss? It’s not a rhetorical question: I’m really asking. How can a country so drenched in falsehood and mendacity so naively assume that criminal charges are true simply because they’re made? I don’t know, but evidently, that’s what a lot of Americans seem to believe: In this demented universe, accusations are truth, acquittals are invitations to double jeopardy, and denials are nothing but rationalizations for hidden crimes. The videotape that no one but Gloria Allred has seen is the key to all forensic mysteries. A semen sample found on the clothing of a 24 year old proves that it got there by coercion. Assiduous analysis of R. Kelly’s song lyrics is the central element of a criminal investigation. Ergo R. Kelly is guilty.

If R. Kelly is guilty–and he may be–there will be plenty of time to hash out the evidence, hash out the charges, try him in a fair and orderly way, pronounce a verdict, and put him away. Contrary to the hysteria produced by people like Gayle King and colleagues, there’s no rush about prosecuting acts that took place between 1998 and 2010, and even if there were, the task of dealing with crime in a rush is a matter for law enforcement, not the media. That said, the claims of law enforcement deserve skepticism–a lot of skepticism. Indeed, if there was such a rush, it’s a question where law enforcement has been for the last decade or so, losing one case to Kelly, AWOL for the rest, and now reliant on Lifetime and Gayle King for the conduct of its criminal investigations. But hey–when you’re dealing with one of the most corrupt and unreliable institutions in America, I guess beggars can’t be choosers. You go with what you have.

It’s worth remembering that in all the legal wrangling between Kelly and law enforcement, law enforcement not only has not prevailed, but has taken a notably extra-legal approach to “enforcing the law”:

There have been close calls for Kelly over the years. For example, the same year Kelly performed at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, he was arrested on an outstanding warrant in Miami. When police searched the singer’s home they discovered about a dozen images of Kelly engaged in sex acts with an underage girl on a digital camera. After much legal wrangling, the charges were dropped due to lack of probable cause for the original search warrant.

That looks pretty bad for Kelly, at least if you assume that law enforcement is being truthful about the evidence. But then, what you think about law enforcement’s truthfulness depends on what law enforcement thought it was doing when it entered and searched Kelly’s home without probable cause–otherwise known as a violation of the Fourth Amendment, and alternatively, as “breaking and entering.” Can you trust the word of a law enforcement officer who violates the law? Maybe, if the violation was minor and inadvertent. But what if it wasn’t? However you slice it, “the close calls” for Kelly are also “close calls” for law enforcement. That’s why Kelly has gone free for so long. Despite the phalanxes of accusers, and the potentially incriminating photos and tapes, it pays to be cautious about a case this tangled.

But–and humor me here–what if Kelly is once again found not guilty? Come to that, what if he really isn’t guilty? Or what if he’s kinda guilty but there’s still a lot of truth to his version of the story–truth that we’re all being encouraged to laugh at and deride, but still turns out to be true, or partly true, or even just approximately true? What are we supposed to do at that point? Acknowledge inwardly that each of us made our little contribution to fucking up his life, to muddying the waters, to fucking up the world–and move on?

That really is a rhetorical question, because I already know the answer to it. If Kelly turns out to be innocent, or even mostly or partly innocent, life will go on for everyone but the victims of this charade. The hustlers will go into hiding. The rumor mongers and purveyors of half truths and half-assed analyses will go quiet. Gayle King will keep collecting her outsize paychecks. Michael Avenatti will find someone else to exploit. SNL will keep being as unfucking funny as it’s been for the last decade or two. But we’ll have taken a few steps down the road to a place where reputation replaces morality, and justice doesn’t matter anymore.

“The penal law is a categorical imperative,” Kant famously wrote in the Metaphysics of Morals,

and woe to him who creeps through the serpent-windings of eudaemonism to discover some advantage that may discharge him from the justice of punishment, or even from the due measure of it…For if justice and righteousness perish, human life would no longer have any value in the world.

Kant being Kant, it all sounds so extreme and over the top. And I guess it is. But then so is the world we live in, just from the reverse direction. The penal law isn’t exactly a categorical imperative, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a circus performance, either. Maybe justice shouldn’t be done though the heavens may fall, but that doesn’t mean it should be trampled on for ad revenue and TV ratings. And while the R. Kelly case doesn’t prove that justice and righteousness have quite perished, the 47 minutes of Gayle King’s interview with him proves that it’s not exactly thriving, either. I never thought I’d feel sympathy for someone accused of R. Kelly’s crimes, but at this point, I do. As one of my students aptly put it, he may be accused, but he’s also undefeated. That’s another way of saying that he so far has a better record than his accusers. They might want to take that to heart, show some respect for our intelligence, and take it down a bit.

I give Kelly’s attorney (his current one, anyway) the last word:

Greenberg said, even if he does see a tape that appears to show Kelly having sex with an underage girl, he would continue to represent him.

“Everybody is entitled to a defense. Everybody is entitled to the presumption of innocence,” he said. “We should all just be taking a step back. Mr. Avenatti doesn’t decide how the case is decided. The prosecutor doesn’t decide how the case is decided. I don’t decide how the case is decided. All of this is ridiculously premature, and let’s see what happens, what the evidence is, and how things play out.”


* Another instance of King’s breathtaking arrogance, and her mind-blowing abandonment of any pretense at impartiality: “What I wanted to say — but I didn’t want to get snippy with her the way that she got snippy with me— was, “Listen, listen, little girl, you don’t even know what you’re saying right now,” she told TIME. “And one of these days you’re going to regret this moment. You’re going to regret this moment, you’re going to regret this time in your life.” But I saw no point in chastising her or, as the young children say, breaking bad with her the way she did with me. I also wanted to say, “Yes, but I am not dating R. Kelly, who is perceived to be a child predator. That’s the difference, and that’s why this is a valid question. Because you’re sitting here at the age of 21 with this guy who is older than your father.” But I decided there’s no point in doing that.

4 thoughts on “R. Kelly and Mob Justice

  1. I wish I had time to say more about how alarming I also found the “documentary” and this chopped up interview that wanted to pass for “journalism” It’s scary that Americans appear to have completely lost sense of the notion that people are “innocent until PROVEN guilty.” These are allegations, accusations, rumors; R. Kelly has not been found GUILTY in a court of law. In fact, in the previous criminal case referred to, the supposed victim and her family refused to testify. I don’t know about you folks, but if it were claimed that I were on a video tape having sex and being peed on, I might not be inclined to testify in court either. I also might not want to talk about it (particularly if I’m a minor or her parents!). Who would want to be caught up in such a fiasco?

    When members of the media take it upon themselves to act as prosecutor, as jury, as judge, is it any wonder that lesser educated or informed Americans are confused (few in the media are using the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” these days, have you noticed? The media is supposed to be REPORTING, not misleading people with an agenda of their own (I’m not clear what the agenda was here, but there clearly was one. I’m cynical enough to believe that it might simply be that such yellow journalism sells). That Americans are unclear about the role of the media vs. the role of courts scares the bejesus out of me. I said to Irfan today that the atmosphere in this country is scary, and it makes me think of what friends of mine who have lived under Communist dictatorships describe. Someone points a finger at you, and you disappear. No one’s disappearing obviously. But, is that what’s next if things continue in this vein? If a guy pisses me off, to get revenge, need I only point my finger at him and say, “He raped me”?! And next thing you know he’s lost his job, his home, all his money in legal fees, perhaps even his freedom, when I just made it all up (because I’m a woman, I ought to be believed?).

    What women like Gayle King don’t get is that she’ll be next. This trend is not going to stop with women accusing men. What’ll happen when women start accusing other women? Where will that go I wonder?

    P.S. The most bizarre thing about Gayle King’s attitude is that she’d probably be the first person to say that women should “always be believed” when they claim to have been assaulted or raped, and yet when two adult women tell her that they are not victims of a crime, SHE doesn’t believe them, and substitutes her opinion for their factual knowledge of their own lives. The notion that anyone should be believed simply because they make an allegation is ridiculous, but the it’s even more ridiculous to NOT believe a supposed victim who is insisting she’s not a victim.

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    • Agreed with just about all of that. When I was in college and grad school, pundits used to complain that the American public was “too relativistic,” and lacked a healthy desire for moral judgmentalism. Here’s the famous book that kicked off the trend:

      Here we are, thirty years later, in an atmosphere of judgmental hysteria. Not exactly the best track record at predicting future trends. But they weren’t right about the world in 1987, either. The truth is that people are judgmental and relativistic in totally ad hoc ways.

      I wish high school and college students were taught the bare basics of criminal procedure. If they were, they’d realize how easy it is to meet the standard of “probable cause”: any credible-sounding allegation satisfies the probable cause standard. An example: a police officer has probable cause that you have been driving under the influence of alcohol if he claims to smell alcohol on your breath and thinks your eyes are “glassy,” even if you pass a roadside breath test. Because who are you going to believe, a Breathalyzer or some cop’s roadside observations? Probable cause is grounds for arrest. Nowadays, people regard an arrest as practically equivalent to a conviction. It’s no surprise that in a world like this, the sheer fact of someone’s having made an accusation would be treated as a proof of guilt.

      This has been going on for some time, but one tipping point would have to have been the Kavanaugh hearings. Even if you found Blasey Ford’s testimony as credible (as I mostly did), the hearings themselves were so ineptly done, and the conclusions people reached about the testimony were so crazy, that I just sat there wondering: what next?

      R. Kelly aside, here’s the answer to that question:

      Colleges that didn’t detect admissions fraud are now telling students involuntarily implicated in the fraud that they were responsible for detecting it! In other words, a scam exposed by teams of prosecutors with subpoenas and warrants should actually have been exposed by a bunch of 17 year old high school students. Why? Because they signed forms attesting to the truth of their applications. You might as well just come out and say that the victim of a fraud is as guilty as the perpetrator, and as responsible as the perpetrator. It’s hard to know how to respond except to shake one’s head.

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    • I think I disagree with a few details of your (Alison’s) response, but not at all with the general worry about the public tendency to believe accusations and with the media’s role in it. I think my disagreements add strength to those points, though, because we don’t have to agree with all of what you say here in order to share deep concerns about how accusations now seem to be treated.

      I disagree in one sense with the claim that “the notion that anyone should be believed simply because they make an accusation is ridiculous.” I take it as a general principle that a person should be believed unless there is some reason to doubt the truth of what he says; in other words, there is, or should be, a presumption of truth. The presumption is defeasible, though, and often easy to defeat; if you have reason to think that I am lying or ignorant of what I’m telling you, then that can be sufficient for you to suspend judgment, and may even make it unreasonable for you to take my word for it. It might seem that it would never be reasonable to believe accusations of misconduct simply because someone makes the accusation, because the accused will deny the allegation, and then we have two conflicting pieces of testimony and no grounds for believing one over the other. In fact, however, in many cases it seems unreasonable to doubt an accusation simply because the accused denies it. To take a real and personal example, you told a story about being mistreated by an airline representative in your piece ‘The Canadian Cunt’; I believed you, and would continue to believe you if the representative denied it, because I have no reason to think that you’re lying or mistaken, and it’s easy to see what the representative’s motive for lying would be. It would seem unreasonable, not only ethically but epistemically, to demand that you provide some sort of independent confirming evidence before I was willing to believe you, and likewise it would seem unreasonable to suspend my judgment simply because the representative contradicted you. So far as I can see, I believe you (rightly) simply because you made the accusation. In principle there could turn out to be some evidence that would make me doubt you, but there is none, and so it would be unreasonable for me to doubt you. In many cases, at least, accusations of rape or sexual assault seem to fit this model; there is no apparent motive for the accuser to lie, no reason to suspect honest error, and obvious motive for the accused to lie. I would not say that women should “always be believed,” but I accept something pretty close to it: women’s accusations of rape and assault should enjoy a presumption of honesty and truth that the accused’s denials should not.

      But of course, when we’re talking about celebrities and the media, motives for false accusations come into play pretty quickly, and it’s not so easy to assess the possibility that accusers are lying, particularly not when our access to them is filtered through sensationalistic media. It is easy for some of us to disregard the possible motives for lying, because we confuse the idea of suspending judgment with concluding that the accuser is lying. It is plainly an epistemic mistake and an act of disrespect to accuse a person of lying simply on the grounds that they could have intelligible motives for doing so, and it can be difficult for many people to preserve emotional clarity in the logically clear distinction between not believing someone and disbelieving her. But accusations of celebrities demand greater scrutiny, at least.

      I’m not so sure that our standards for belief really ought to be so strong as our standards for conviction in a court of law, though. Irfan and I have disagreed about this before, but it seems to me that the legal standard is rightly higher because conviction comes with coercive penalties, but that it is too much to ask of us as belief-forming agents to adhere to standards of reasonable doubt. I can’t write about it in much detail publicly, but in one case a person that I know personally was accused of criminal and legal but unprofessional conduct; there is no good legal case to be made against this person, in part because the accusers refused to co-operate with police and in part because the accusations were of the sort that are nearly impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt and there is clear possible motive for lying. I believe the accusations, however, and I think I am reasonable in so believing (surprise!). But I recognize that one can reasonably doubt it, and nothing that I know or have been told would make me comfortable voting for conviction if I were on a jury. I believe it because on repeatedly considering the evidence available to me, it seems to me very likely to be true. I recognize that I could very well be wrong, however, and for that reason I do not think I would be justified imposing any sort of penalties on the person accused.

      In a case like R. Kelly’s, I think we ought to be free to conclude that he’s guilty even if we not only recognize that he cannot reasonably be convicted in a court of law, but would not be willing to convict him ourselves. In fact I know too little about it to have any opinion whatsoever. But that’s beside the point, because it seems pretty clear that the media narrative, and the general public mode of reception of such narratives, has not led to people making careful, considered judgments; there’s mainly just a lot of prejudicial leaping to conclusions of guilt or innocence depending on who’s doing the judging and their antecedent sympathies and antipathies.

      So I think that we should presume that accusers are telling the truth, and I don’t think we, as members of the general public, are any under obligation to apply legal standards of reasonable doubt to our beliefs about such accusations. But even from my more moderate point of view, the way that accusations of public figures are now routinely treated is worrisome. I would not say that it is more worrisome than the fact that victims of rape and sexual assault often and perhaps even typically have no realistic legal recourse and face tremendous incentives against even trying to seek it, so that perpetrators in many cases face no serious possibility of negative consequences apart from the emerging tendency of people to believe accusations on principle. But it’s worrisome.

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