You know when you interact with an artificial intelligence program and it produces language that resembles how humans talk, but feels detached from reality in some fundamental way?
This is how people within the politics–media apparatus sound talking about Joe Biden right now.
Biden supporters have been reviewing “photographic documentation” of a 2014 campaign event where Lucy Flores, a former candidate, said the former vice president kissed her, which made her uncomfortable. Presidential candidates have talked about whether they “believe” Flores. “Who Is Lucy Flores, the Woman Accusing Joe Biden of Kissing Her?” asked a New York Times headline over the weekend. Reporters write in the passive voice — “the appropriateness of Biden’s physical behavior toward women is now being questioned” — like scrutiny emerges from the ocean. In an email subject-lined “A Note on Recent Coverage,” Biden’s spokesperson described Stephanie Carter and Sen. Chris Coons as “reclaiming” her and his daughter’s stories, respectively, from false internet narratives about how they’d been made uncomfortable by Biden.
It’s like people are trapped in some AI simulation of how a #MeToo story works, and must play out the program. This orbits but never touches the core issue here:
Everybody already knows what they think about Joe Biden putting his hands on people, because we’ve all seen this happen in public. We’ve seen Biden kiss people at public events! We’ve all had years to think about it! Does anyone need a photograph of Lucy Flores and Joe Biden to know that, at some point, somewhere, over the last 40 years, someone might have been uncomfortable because the situation wasn’t quite right?
But the current system still isn’t ready to handle a well-known, gray-area subject like this. As she said on TV over the weekend, Flores didn’t consider it sexual harassment, she just was uncomfortable, and we all know what she means.
Because Biden’s behavior is so well known, and falls somewhere on a bell curve between “disqualifying” and “perfect,” this one actually comes back around to what you, the individual reader, think. Is the way Biden comports himself bad? Bad but minor? Overblown? A natural thing for an effusive politician? Depends on the situation? You already know your own heart on this subject, which makes any story written from a neutral perspective (“some Democrats are saying it’s a problem; others are not”) weirdly hollow at the core, and distant from the actual core issue of social mores (“is this a problem, and if so how much of one?”) that reported coverage can’t quite answer.
Presidential politics can flatten your personality and career into a singular theme, and it’s tough to know beforehand which it will be. People now talk about the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill hearings, not the Robert Bork ones. They talk again about Biden voting for the Iraq War, not becoming a dove after the vote, like they did when he might oppose hawkish Hillary Clinton in 2016. And now people are talking about Biden always grabbing people like he’s Richard Dawson hosting Family Feud in 1978, not being the guy behind the Violence Against Women Act, like they did when he was vice president. Times change! And as Biden waits and waits to decide whether he’s running for president, people fill that void with signs that he just doesn’t fit anymore.
So rather than unearthing a dark scandal of process questions, Flores basically kicked the door in on a deferred debate.