Let’s be clear: I believe Tara Reade. I believed Anita Hill, too. Remember the buttons? I wore one. What’s the constant here? Joe Biden, then the bumbling head of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
Long before Reade, before the reports of the rubbing and the sniffing, I interviewed an adviser to Hill, who said she’d tried to warn Biden of what was happening in the Thomas hearings — how unchecked Republicans were smearing an upright woman’s character. But “the United States Senate was still very much a boys’ club” back then, the adviser told me, and there was no getting through to him. Democratic primary voters knew all about Biden’s membership in that boys’ club when there was still time to pick someone else. Alas.
So what’s a girl to do now? Discounting Reade’s accusation and, one after another, denigrating her corroborating witnesses, calling for endless new evidence, avowing that you “hear” her, is nonsense. We are now up to four corroborating witnesses — including one contemporary corroborating witness, unearthed by Rich McHugh, who was Ronan Farrow’s producer at NBC News during the Harvey Weinstein MeToo reporting — and one “Larry King Live” tape.
So stop playing gotcha with the female supporters of Biden or the MeToo movement, making them lie to the camera — or perhaps to themselves — about doubting her to justify their votes.
I’ll take one for the team. I believe Reade, and I’ll vote for Biden this fall.
I won’t say it will be easy. I have been writing on and agitating for women’s equality since “The Feminine Mystique” came out in 1963. I know how supposedly “liberal” men abused the sexual revolution in every imaginable way. I am unimpressed by their lip service to feminism, their Harvard degrees or their donations to feminist causes.
In 1998, I was one of a few establishment feminists to argue on behalf of Monica Lewinsky, when the unofficial representative of the movement, Gloria Steinem, threw her under the bus in the pages of the New York Times to protect Bill Clinton. I maintained my position until, two decades and a MeToo movement later, Steinem issued a nonapology for the essay. So I hate, hate, hate to say the following.
Suck it up and make the utilitarian bargain.
All major Democratic Party figures have indicated they’re not budging on the presumptive nominee, and the transaction costs of replacing him would be suicidal. Barring some miracle, it’s going to be Biden.
So what is the greatest good or the greatest harm? Biden, and the Democrats he may carry with him into government, are likely to do more good for women and the nation than his competition, the worst president in the history of the Republic. Compared with the good Biden can do, the cost of dismissing Tara Reade — and, worse, weakening the voices of future survivors — is worth it. And don’t call me an amoral realist. Utilitarianism is not a moral abdication; it is a moral stance.
Utilitarianism arose from the Industrial Revolution, a time of terrible economic inequality and abuse. It was intended to make a moral claim for the equality of all creatures who can feel pain and experience pleasure.
Weigh it: Don’t a few extra cents for each worker matter more than the marginal dollar for the boss? Weigh it: Won’t the good for all the Americans who will benefit from replacing Donald Trump with Joe Biden, including the masses of women who will get some crumbs, count for more than the harm done to the victims of abuse?
Utilitarian morality requires that I turn my face away from the people I propose to sell out: Monica Lewinsky, Tara Reade. This is agonizingly hard for me to do. Pretending not to believe the complainants — which is what is taking place with Reade — or that they’re loose nobodies, which is what much of the media did to Lewinsky, is just an escape from the hard work of moral analysis.
And it adds to the harm. How is feminism advanced by casting a reasonably credible complainant as a liar? Better to just own up to what you are doing: sacrificing Reade for the good of the many.
Contemplating the act makes me feel a little like Gloria Steinem, circa 1998. I was so sure I’d never do what she did, and I still think saving Clinton for two years at the cost to Lewinsky was a terrible move. Denigrating Lewinsky denied all women’s vulnerability to powerful men, and replacing Clinton with another Democratic centrist, Al Gore, would have been a perfectly acceptable outcome. But it also makes me remember why Steinem did it.
The other side at the time, embodied by the special counsel Kenneth Starr, was so awful. Starr’s censorious Republican Party seemed to pose much more of a threat to women’s interests than Clinton’s libertinism did.
Today, the Trump-Pence ticket looks even worse. Trump, credibly accused of rape and a confessed grabber of women’s genitalia, and Pence, who will not dine alone with a woman other than his wife (whom he calls “Mother”), combine both Starr’s and Clinton’s belief systems, offering voters in one ticket the full spectrum of misogyny. Biden, that relic of the good-old-boy Senate years, seems positively benign by comparison.
But even that probably would not be enough to make me abandon the claims of justice and vote for him in face of credible accusations of sexual assault. Fortunately for my sanity, there’s more.
Once again, philosophy offers an answer to my quest for justice. Philosophers for at least three centuries have known that there can be no call to justice in a situation of extreme scarcity. David Hume, who originated the analysis, suggested that nobody can be expected to behave justly when trying to survive a shipwreck. The great modern philosopher John Rawls called moderate scarcity, or the absence of extreme scarcity, one of the “circumstances of justice.”
The Trump administration, and the Republican Party that he represents, are unassailably the political equivalent of Hume’s shipwreck. Offering only hatred, rejecting facts, refusing accountability, they represent the wreckage of the American ship of state. We knew that before 70,000 Americans died of COVID-19 in a spectacle of villainy and incompetence, but when you are faced with a distasteful moral choice, it can be useful to be reminded of the immensity of the stakes in making that choice.
It may not be just, but I’m swimming away from Trump’s sinking ship as hard as I can. If I have to, I’ll vote for Biden. I hope I’m not going to drown anyway.
Linda Hirshman is the author, most recently, of “Reckoning: The Epic Battle Against Sexual Abuse and Harassment.” She wrote this article for the New York Times.