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.
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.