If there's one thing on which there is no partisan divide, it's sexual abuse of children. Yet the revelation of child abuse in the Duggar family, which has starred in The Learning Channel's reality show "19 Kids and Counting," has met with a sharply polarized response.
In the left-of-center media and their audiences, the news that eldest Duggar son Josh, now 27 and a conservative activist, molested several young girls when he was 14 and 15 was received with a mix of horror and barely disguised gloating. On the right, there have been complaints of double standards; many invoked last year's controversy over TV star Lena Dunham's disclosure of what some considered sexual abuse of her younger sister, brushed off by most of the media as normal child play. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin weighed in on Twitter to express disgust with "radical liberals in the media" and call Dunham a "pedophile."
Palin's histrionics aside, the charges of hypocrisy are not without merit. There is little doubt that the response to the Duggar scandal is related to politics. Josh Duggar was, until his current troubles, a lobbyist for the anti-same-sex-marriage Family Research Council; his mother, Michelle Duggar, has campaigned against transgender rights legislation. More generally, the family's traditionalist lifestyle has made them icons of the religious right and put them at odds with the prevailing cultural ethos.
Josh Duggar's offenses are admittedly not the same as Lena Dunham's. Duggar repeatedly fondled younger sisters (over their clothes) as a teen; Dunham recalls an incident of inspecting her 3-year-old sister's private parts at 7. But Dunham's memoir contains other creepy passages about her later interaction with her kid sister, including a mention of touching herself sexually with the younger girl sleeping next to her. Even leaving gender out of the equation, it's likely that similar disclosures about one of the Duggar (or Palin) girls would have been treated as much more tawdry and compromising.
And, to reverse the hypothetical, what if Josh Duggar had been the son of prominent liberal activists? Would his parents have been as roundly vilified for handling the situation through counseling and supervision and only reporting it to the police a year later? Would the media have been as eager to report on someone's sealed juvenile record, or to disclose the identities of sexual abuse victims?
A liberal commentator who is troubled by his fellow liberals' conduct is Steven I. Weiss, managing editor at The Jewish Channel and a reporter who has investigated child sexual-abuse cases. He has expressed his unease with reactions to the Duggar scandal on Twitter.
"It seems clear to me that a bright red line -- of being opposed to the release of identifying information about juvenile delinquents and minors who are victims of sexual assault -- has been crossed," he wrote to me in an email. He notes that protecting privacy in such cases has been a longtime liberal concern; yet now that the minors involved are political opponents, we've seen this principle disregarded." Like Weiss, I have little affection for the Duggars' cultural values. Given their rhetoric branding gay and transgender people as a menace to children, I can understand the impulse to treat revelations of Josh Duggar's behavior as poetic justice. But we shouldn't be fighting the demonization of gays by demonizing a young man as pedophile because of something he did as an underage boy, or by undermining protections for juvenile defendants.
One can question the Duggars' decision-making -- including their decision to parade their family life on reality TV, with the media's complicity. But none of their sins exempt us from treating them fairly.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.