Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Eric Massa: Trial by Combat

cross-posted at Dagblog

After days of mounting sexual harassment revelations, Eric Massa has gone old school. As in 12th-century old school. First he was denying that he had any ethics problems, then he was admitting minor ethics problems, then he was resigning over those totally minor ethics problems, then he went on the attack. Those totally-no-big-deal ethics questions he was quitting Congress over? They were trumped up by the House Democratic leadership! So really, this was a dirty trick over health care! Yeah, that's the ticket.

Limbaugh and Beck run with that story. And although the story makes no sense, for three or four individual reasons, George Stephanopoulos dutifully asked Robert Gibbs about it, as the White House bore the burden of refuting this claim.

Massa's basic tactic hearkens back to Merrie England, before there was a guarantee of a jury trial. In those romantic days, when upper-class criminals were thrown into prison, they could basically start accusing everyone they had grudges against of any felonies that came to mind, and challenge them to trial by combat. And then everyone they accused, on the sole basis of the imprisoned felons' accusations, got thrown into prison too, until the imprisoned felon got a chance to fight them. This didn't get the accusers out of jail themselves. It was done purely out of spite, to hurt people. The felonious accusers did it because they had nothing left to lose, and because they were generally evil.

Massa's ploy, likewise, is not an attempt to stay in office (he's already resigned) but a display of vindictive despair. Nothing can save Massa's political career, but he's going to take some other people down if he can.

The felons back in the twelfth century could get away with this vicious trick because they were dealing with a justice system that made no attempt to verify truth independently. It wasn't just that early medieval courts didn't search for truth in the forensic ways that we have come to expect, it's that the courts didn't believe they could determine truth at all. The trial by combat system works on the assumption that no judge can find out who's telling the truth and who's lying, so you let the two parties fight and say that God has vindicated the winner. There was no looking for evidence, no use of any judge or jury's independent reason. So in the name of impartiality every accusation, no matter how wildly improbable, had to be taken at the same face value, and all of the accused treated alike.

This kind of nonsense was eventually replaced by things like the grand jury system, which attempts to sort valid accusations from flimsy or malicious ones, and generally by the rights, such as habeas corpus and jury trials, that the Magna Carta bequeathed to us in 1215.

Massa's accusations can only thrive in an environment where people refuse to exercise independent judgment in pursuit of the truth. Our current political media environment now largely operates like 12th-century jurisprudence, throwing up its hands, proclaiming moral or logical conclusions outside its charge, and calling whoever wins the brawl the rightful victor. It's a 12th-century world these days. We just live in it.

No comments: