Neither Admit nor Deny

Each issue of the Transpartisan Review shares essays and articles written by thought leaders from the transpartisan community.  When we can’t find room in the Review, we share the best of the rest here in our Essays & Articles section.

Essay Contributed by Joshua Goldstein

As a 16-year-old, I appeared before a judge in a Milford, Connecticut courthouse after a traffic accident for which I was clearly at fault.  I think it was a pretty bad one.  I think I was driving in some marijuana-induced fog.  I think I smashed hard into another car.  I was from a wealthy family, so truth and consequences were minimal.

On advice from the well-connected lawyer my parents found for me, I pleaded nolo contendere (Latin for “I do not contest”).   It’s a perfectly respectable legal maneuver that amounts to a backdoor admission of culpability, but without the stigma that goes with a full-bore guilty plea.

Well, it’s sort of an admission of guilt—but not really.  Although the purposeful obfuscation the plea allows is completely legal, in my (more mature) view it is morally suspect and not helpful, at least for a stoned adolescent who needed all the lessons he could get in taking responsibility for his actions.

It is also a personal example of what I call our “neither admit nor deny” culture.  The term comes from the eponymous policy of the Securities and Exchange Commission of “settling cases without requiring admissions of wrongdoing.”  This longstanding practice only recently has been modified.  Under the new approach, the SEC may require an admission of wrongdoing if a defendant’s misconduct was egregious or if the public markets would benefit from an admission.

The big Wall Street firms behind the “Great Recession of 2008” got away with their risky investments in part because the SEC shielded them from having to accept full responsibility for the damage they had done.  (There were almost no criminal prosecutions of the individuals in the firms whose conduct was most flagrant.)  In the meantime, on Main Street, seven million Americans lost their homes.

In all walks of American life, the wealthy (kids and grownups alike) enjoy special dispensations for their sins, while the powerless often receive punishment out of proportion to the severity of their transgressions.  The playing fields of American democracy are nowhere close to level–a point both Trump and Sanders supporters have duly noted, and upon which they remain angrily united.

The buck stops nowhere for those with the right connections and means in our neither admit nor deny culture.

Josh Goldstein is a global advocate for disability inclusion and the former vice president and program manager for Accion’s Center for Financial Inclusion Persons with Disabilities initiative, where he spearheaded the development of the Framework for Disability Inclusion and launched the Fundación Paraguaya.

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