Commentary Magazine

The Lies We Tell in the Name of Greater Truths

AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen

When the nation’s attention is captured by an episode of blatant racial hatred or primitive bigotry and that episode turns out to be a hoax—an unfortunate phenomenon that occurs with exhausting regularity—the hoaxers have a habit of appealing to a particular excuse. They were just “raising awareness” of an issue of grave public concern that is surely happening somewhere, just not necessarily to them. Be it fabricated assaults on white moviegoers at “Black Panther” screenings or contrived incidents of anti-gay bigotry on college campuses; whether it’s white racism at the U.S. Air Force Academy or on a bus in Albany, New York or amid the ashes of a predominantly black church in Mississippi; the hoaxer’s intention is clear to authorities. In the words of the prosecutors who charged a man with spray-painting “Heil Trump” on the side of the Episcopal Church where he played the organ, the goal is “to mobilize a movement.”

Racial antagonism, bigotry, and other egregious offenses against civic decency are real and capable of creating a climate of anxiety. For the most committed activists, though, the relative infrequency of incidents of violence and harassment arising from prejudice is an obstacle to fomenting a sense of urgency.

The sordid impulse to advance a noble cause upon the back of malicious falsehoods extends beyond rank-and-file activists and now appears to involve “experts,” a title that would suggest they should know better. The Thomson Reuters Foundation recently surveyed about 550 specialists in the field of women’s issues and found that the United States now ranks among the top 10 most dangerous nations on earth for women. When it comes to the world’s worst havens for sexual assault, sexual coercion, human trafficking, or basic harassment, the U.S. joins such disreputable locals as India, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, and Nigeria. Presumably, the authors of this rebuke thought it would embarrass the United States, but the only shame here belongs to these “experts.”

The intellectual perversion on display is evident in the first paragraph of America’s “country summary,” which ranks the U.S. alongside Syria as the third worst country on the globe when it comes to incidents of state-supported sexual violence. That category includes “rape as a weapon of war,” domestic rape or rape by strangers, “the lack of access to justice in rape cases,” or “sexual harassment” and “coercion” as a form of public corruption. Syria is a nation in the midst of a genocidal civil war in which civilians are slaughtered en masse, and whole cities are starved into submission. It was, at one point, overrun by radical Islamic mobs and proxy militias loyal to states like Iran (a violent and abusive theocracy which, by the way, didn’t make this top 10 list). In 2013, as Syria was beginning to come apart, the Brookings Institution noted that women escaping into neighboring countries related harrowing stories of rape at the hands of soldiers and militia groups—violence that was almost surely designed to exacerbate the displacement crisis. Only the most blinkered fanatic could convince himself that the U.S. was on par with war-torn Syria, and hundreds of them convinced Thomson Reuters to deem them “experts.”

Iran isn’t the only nation where rape is used as a tool of state-sponsored deterrence that didn’t make this contemptible list. North Korea, a state in which women in the military are raped on the bags of rice that serve as their beds, where they are mercilessly drilled to the point that they stop having periods, and where proper feminine hygiene is all but impossible, didn’t rank. Nor did Egypt, where an estimated nine out of every ten women between 15 and 49 have undergone some form of genital mutilation, and where that procedure was legal as recently as 2008. Indonesia bans Valentine’s Day, mandates the wearing of headscarves, tests the virginity of female military recruits, and has a 30 percent gender pay gap. The OECD estimates that South Korea has one of the world ’s largest gender-based income disparities because traditional cultural biases ensure that women over the age of 25 find securing full-time employment all but impossible. The United Nations Development Program estimates that Latin America and the Caribbean is “the most violent region in the world against women” outside conflict zones. And so on, and so on.

You get the sense that the Thomson Reuters Foundation was a little self-conscious about the results of their survey because, as they confess, it was “taken after the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment went viral.” In other words, their “experts” might have been really angry and wanted to make a statement, but that is an admission of corruption. The misconduct that was made public in the long-overdue #MeToo moment was cultural; not state-sponsored. Indeed, the illegality of the abusive behaviors exposed by victims was long ago established. The collective outing of these abusers and the encouragement their accusers received from the commanding heights of culture and journalism is indicative of America’s civic sophistication. Robust civil society that is capable of resisting the influence of the powerful and well-connected is a feature of life in the United States that you won’t find in places like Yemen or Somalia.

Just as the Economist wanted to make a statement about Donald Trump when it downgraded America’s democracy from “full” to “flawed,” basing that decision on flimsy premises and naïve readings of superficial legal characteristics, this survey’s respondents began with a conclusion about America’s anti-women bigotry and worked backwards to support it. That makes them like the perpetrators of racial hoaxes who discredit themselves in the effort to impugn their adversaries. The “experts” surveyed by Thomson Reuters wanted to make a statement about American culture. They wanted to expose the subcutaneous misogyny and prejudice in America. And they convinced themselves that, in order to popularize that greater truth, they had to lie.

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