An Ethics Quiz Returns With A New Context And An Ancient Conundrum, And The Answer, My Friends, Is Still Blowin’ In The Wind…

The Ethics Quiz from 2013, “Peter’s Problem,” that I have re-posted in its entirety below has come circling around like boomerang, in a different context. Then, singer activist Peter Yarrow of Peter,Paul and Mary fame was being attacked by the political Right, which argued that his participation in a political campaign event for a Democratic Congressional candidate was proof of that candidate’s poor judgment. Yarrow, as we were told by PBS when it raised fund by showing Peter,Paul and Mary concerts, had answered a knock on his hotel room door naked when  two teenage sisters, 14 and 17, stopped by in 1969 to seek an autograph. The 14-year old got a lot more than his signature. Yarrow was eventually charged with taking indecent liberties with a minor, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three months in jail. President Jimmy Carter pardoned him in 1981.

Lat week, Yarrow’ s past (he was 31 then; he’s 81 now)  caused one of his appearances to be cancelled, but this time it wasn’t those Puritanical conservatives complaining about Yarrow’s “if it feels good, do it” sexual misconduct (which most of Yarrow’s younger fans in the Peace and Love Era didn’t think was misconduct at all), but the Left’s #MeToo furies.

Yes, Peter Yarrow and his critics have boarded the Harvey Weinstein Ethics Train Wreck.

Since that rollicking night in 1969 , Peter Yarrow has solidified his folk singing and progressive activist status without further public blemishes, and having him associated with an event has usually been regarded as a positive, not a negative, feature when progressives and their causes are involved. John Kerry had him sing at his wedding. Bill Clinton featured him at an Inauguration. He has collected lifetime achievement awards like little Jackie Paper collected painted wings and giant rings.

Last week, however, the Colorscape Chenango Arts Festival, which had  had described Yarrow in its advance publicity for his participation in its annual  September festival as  one of “America’s longtime favorite musicians and performers,”  canceled his appearance, saying in a statement…

“Some members of our community expressed concern, and after further investigation and careful consideration the decision was made to remove Yarrow from the music schedule.”

In the 2013 post, , I criticized Yarrow’s apologetic statement at the time, which was tainted by rationalizations. His statement last week was much better:

“I fully support the current movements demanding equal rights for all and refusing to allow continued abuse and injury — most particularly of a sexual nature, of which I am, with great sorrow, guilty,” he said. “I do not seek to minimize or excuse what I have done and I cannot adequately express my apologies and sorrow for the pain and injury I have caused in this regard. However, beyond any of my words and feelings expressed, I will walk the walk, do all I can to make amends, and dedicate myself to helping bring more justice and peace to the world.”

Although the question I raised in 2013 was specifically about the fairness and justice of continuing to punish a former child sex abuser after he had served his sentence, expressed contrition,  and many years have passed, the same underlying ethical conundrum clouds Yarrow’s plight today. Should there never be societal forgiveness for some crimes or conduct, no matter what kind of life the individual has lived in the intervening decades?  Have we rejected the concept of redemption? Should punishment for some deeds continue forever? Once trust is forfeited, can nothing rebuild it?

Regarding the larger issues in Yarrow’s case, it is relevant that Yarrow is an artist, not a lawyer, public servant or another variety of professional whose value to society depends on character and trust. The standards to be applied should be materially different. I also have taken the position in other posts —and I will not budge on this— that social justice warriors of the Left like Yarrow  must be held to the exact standards they have been proclaiming since Harvey Weinstein’s fall and #MeToo’s rise.

Here. lightly edited,  is the post from October 5, 2013….

Shelly Stow, an occasional commenter here who blogs provocatively at With Justice For All about the harassment and persecution of former sex offenders, raised the topic of today’s Ethics Quiz. She  posted about the plight of Peter Yarrow, the Peter in Peter, Paul and Mary, now, thanks to cruel mortality, just Peter and Paul. I was not aware of this, but in 1970, when he was 30 and a rather significant star, he had sexual relations with a 14-year-old girl. Shelly is wrong to call this “consensual,” for 14 is statutory rape territory. The law declares that a 14-year girl is a child and not capable of meaningful consent, and fans of  Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and Kaitlyn Hunt notwithstanding, it is quite right. He pleaded guilty to something less than rape, and served a three-month sentence; he is also, as a result, a registered sex offender. President Jimmy Carter pardoned him in 1981.

Yarrow, as Sixties folk singers tend to be, is a social activist, and is politically active as well. Not for the first time, his child molesting past became an issue recently when he  agreed to sing at a campaign event for Martha Robertson, a Democrat running for Congress in New York against incumbent Republican Tom Reed. A spokesman for the RNC told the media,

“It is absolutely deplorable that Martha Robertson would kick off her congressional campaign by having a convicted sex offender headline her fundraiser. If Robertson’s judgment is so bad that she would even entertain the idea of raising money with a man who molested a 14-year-old girl, she has no business representing the people of the 23rd District of New York in Congress.”

He also said Robertson should cancel the fundraiser and return any money she raised with Yarrow’s support.

Shelly writes,

“What is wrong with this scenario? Our criminal justice system is comprised of one part punishment and one part rehabilitation. The purpose of the punishment is to bring about rehabilitation. Sometimes it works like it is supposed to. Mr. Yarrow committed a crime in 1969. That is over 40 years ago. He served his court ordered punishment, and in light of the fact that there has been no re-offense in over 40 years, I think we are safe in declaring him rehabilitated. Everything worked just like it is supposed to. What then is the problem? Is rehabilitation not good enough for some? Is there some other standard of measure needed?”

This launches the Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz for this weekend, which I will phrase this way:

Is it unfair for Peter Yarrow to still face criticism, suspicion and condemnation based on his crime of 40 years ago, for which he has been both punished and pardoned?

For this one, I am not at all certain of the answer, and will be very interested in your responses, not that I am not always.

Here are some of the considerations that have me, to paraphrase the title of one of the hit pop songs Mr. Yarrow helped to write, “Torn Between Two Answers.

1. Yarrow, by any standard, has used his fame and celebrity to support and further admirable, mostly progressive causes, in a wide range of missions that include combating school violence, helping victims of Agent Orange, supporting hospices, freeing Soviet Jewry, promoting colonoscopies, and more. He was recognized for Congress for his work in human rights.

2. Subsequent good acts do not erase past bad ones. Nor does a Presidential pardon mean that criminal acts never happened.

3. Yarrow has acknowledged and presumably apologized for his conduct, presumably more than once.

4. I really hate the apology attributed to him in which he said, “It was an era of real indiscretion and mistakes by categorically male performers. I was one of them. I got nailed. I was wrong. I’m sorry for it.” Yechhh. In order, Yarrow points out that everybody was doing it, the granddaddy of rationalizations, trivializes child rape as “an indiscretion,” seems to suggest that sexual molestation goes with the territory of being a “categorically male performer,” whatever that means, and notes that he was “nailed,” a.k.a. “caught.” before he gets to being wrong and sorry. Lousy apology, at least a 7 on the Apology Scale, and maybe a dastardly 9.

5. The main thrust of Shelly’s blog, which I support, is to oppose paranoid and mean-spirited restrictions on the rights of registered sex offenders, as well as not lumping all offenses, from urinating in public (“indecent exposure”) to forcible child rape in the vague category of “registered sex offenders.”

6. I do not believe that anyone has the right to claim that past crimes must be permanently out-of-bounds when assessing their character.

  • Exhibit #1: Nathan Leopold, the thrill killer (along with Richard Loeb) who had his sentence commuted and devoted the latter part of his life to philanthropy. He was still a cold-blooded murderer, and I would not have voted for any candidate who trumpeted having his support. (Full Disclosure: In this I admit to being influenced by my father, who detested Leopold and, regardless of his admiration of Clarence Darrow’s famous plea for mercy that successful saved Leopold and Loeb from the electric chair, was adamant that Leopold should have been executed.)
  • Exhibit #2: Anne Perry, the best selling novelist who, as a confused teen, helped murder her friend’s mother. I’m glad she has turned her life around, but Perry is a multi-millionaire author with a new name whose readers, most of them anyway, are unaware of her crime. The friend’s mother is still dead, the victim of a premeditated slaughter, and all in all, Perry got off easy. No, I will not read her books, on principle. Is there nothing she can do to erase this old, old crime, then? No, not in MY book.
  • Exhibit #3: Ted Kennedy, who used his money, celebrity and influence to avoid criminal penalties for, at very least, negligent homicide, and quite possibly murder, and lived out the rest of his life as a privileged, powerful and admired U.S. Senator while  his young victim rotted in her premature grave. That is not justice.

7. Sex with a 14-year-old folk song groupie is a far cry from murder, and significantly less heinous than forcible rape. That’s not a Rationalization #22 statement, just a fact. There should be a hierarchy of forgivable and unforgivable crimes, unless our standard is that no serious offense can ever be forgiven.

8. Nobody is saying that Yarrow isn’t free to support whomever he wants to. Critics are arguing that a candidate for high office should not be trumpeting the support of celebrities who sexually molested a child, even once. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable standard. Do you?

9. While Yarrow’s subsequent good works do not erase his past crime, they do enhance, or should, our assessment of his current character.

Still,  I would ask Shelly these questions:

Would she argue that Yarrow’s past should be irrelevant if he took a job as the coach of a teenage girls swimming team?

Would it be fair to raise such a conviction if Yarrow were himself running for elective office?

If Yarrow were vocally supporting Hunt, who was just sentenced, or Polanski, would Shelly still think his own statutory crime would be aunfair topic?

Would she consider him to be a valuable ally in an anti-child sex abuse campaign?


Sources:With Justice For All, Buffalo News



21 thoughts on “An Ethics Quiz Returns With A New Context And An Ancient Conundrum, And The Answer, My Friends, Is Still Blowin’ In The Wind…

  1. I’m going to guess more entertainers have had sex with underage girls than there were slave owners in the United States. If Wilt the Stilt had sex with two thousand women, what percentage were underage?

  2. Just a question.

    When Peter was pardonned by Carter, was his name also removed from the sex offender register?

  3. How is what Yarrow did different from female teachers having sex with underage male students?

    How is the girl in question any less lucky than underage boys who have sex with their female teachers?

  4. I enjoy Yarrow and his associates’ music. I detest his politics. I did not know of the crime he committed in 1969, until today. He fulfilled his debt to society; though it was shortened by Jimmy Carter. After 50 years, there is no indication of his returning or ever having returned to his sexual criminal behavior. His most recent apology appears sincere.

    Yes. Peter Yarrow deserves to be allowed to pursue his (legal) happiness and let others benefit from it, too, if he so chooses.

  5. I can see why this issue causes one to go back and forth on what is fair and what isn’t. Here’s my take:
    Criticism is fair, but it should not be gratuitous and it should be muted. If the topic comes up (as it will everywhere now) I would take the viewpoint that, yes, he did a serious wrong, but he has been punished and he has worked to atone for that. (The danger, of course, is that as soon as I were to say something like that, there would be a #metoo allegation, or a stream of them.
    Suspicion is fair. He has said the kind of thing he did (not really clear what that was) was common everywhere, which implies his “taking indecent liberties” (gotta love that term) was not a one-time thing. So, a bit of caution in case he really is a hebephile or ephebophile.
    Condemnation of what he did is fair; condemnation of him now, probably not. People are redeemable and he seems to have been redeemed.

  6. The pivot of this post seems to be around the notion of redemption. How is that defined, what precedent serves as a cultural bedrock to provide a belief in redemption. If I have paid my legal debt to society, have I redeemed necessarily my freedom in the hearts of the offended? Do I show a receipt to a greivence monger for the purchase of my freedom, like a freed slave showing proper papers expecting them to be honored. When the crime is publicized, the knowledge that it has happened causes some present pain. Who bears the cost and justice of that pain? How can we have redemption? Without someone bearing the cost of the pain for us? What model in life does our culture have wherein we see someone bearing the cost of our harm on our behalf, which is what the liberal furies of the #metoo must do?

    • Just to be clear, you have to get to page four for the punchline, & it might take a second to realize what it is.

  7. Is it unfair for Peter Yarrow to still face criticism, suspicion and condemnation based on his crime of 40 years ago, for which he has been both punished and pardoned?

    The question is simply this: Do we believe sex offenders can be redeemed, or not? If we do, it is unfair. Otherwise, I suppose it is fair.

    I would argue that society has answered this question with it’s requirements that people convicted of sex crimes register for various lengths of time: 15, 25, and lifetime depending upon the severity of their offense.

    When we pass laws that continue to punish offenders under the rubric of public safety for that long after they’ve served their sentence, I think we can safely say public opprobrium for him/her could arguably be unlimited.

    Regardless of “fairness,” society has signaled that sex crimes are effectively irredeemable, and people who commit them cannot ever be trusted again, regardless of the quality of life they’ve lived since their offense.

    As with every rule, there are exceptions — Martin Luther King, Bill Clinton, and Sen. Bob Mendez (D-NJ) among a few others. Apparently, having the right combination of correct politics and not actually having a sex crime conviction can help produce forgiveness from the #MeToo mob. But Yarrow has only one of the two, so he’s dissipated for life. Likewise Bret Kavanaugh.

    I personally reject the social opprobrium in the case of sex offenders who have gone on to lead exemplary lives. I believe in forgiveness, and that redemption is possible.

    Alas, I am in the minority, perhaps significantly.

  8. ” I believe in forgiveness, and that redemption is possible.
    Alas, I am in the minority, perhaps significantly..”.

    Actually, I am very much in agreement with you. However, like you, I believe that puts us squarely in the minority. And I don’t think we should be. If a punishment is delineated, then when that punishment is done, it should be done. There should be no “Oh, by the way…” at the end.

  9. If there is no true recovery from a bad act, no ability to return to what might be what one would call a normal life, what is the incentive for the offender to honestly participate in programs and activities to change his behavior and/or atone for the offense? Since they will be considered a pariah forever and denied even the basic necessities (housing, as with people on the list being barred from neighborhoods by mobs) they might as well continue their behavior… until someone actually kills them. And starts a new round but with new participants.

    Not a “wiping of the slate clean”, but a level of acceptance back into proper society (whatever that is) as dictated by the offender’s continued good behavior. Passage of time is a significant ingredient in this recipe. Redemption is an earned commodity, not an issued one.

    Confession: I never, until now, knew the last name of Peter even though I was around when PP&M hit the musical scene, let along of his crime.

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