On the first day of 2020, a short clip of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden was shared widely on Twitter, accompanied by the following description: "Biden proclaims the 'European' identity of America: 'Our culture is not imported from some African nation.'"
In the video, Biden is shown at a townhall-style event and makes the following remarks:
"Our culture. Our culture. It's not imported from some African nation or some Asian nation. It's our English jurisprudential culture, our European culture."
The footage, combined with the caption provided by one Twitter account, gave the impression that the former vice president was promulgating a white nationalist talking point by emphasizing the European and English components of U.S. history while appearing to reject the legitimacy or relevance of non-white influences. Indeed, several observers subsequently cited the clip, as posted in that tweet, in accusing Biden of being a "white nationalist" or "white supremacist."
In reality, the clip was edited in a misleading way, and Biden was not, in fact, espousing any white nationalist or white supremacist views. He was making an entirely different, and rather more specific, point about what he presented as the origins and insidious pervasiveness of violence against women, and the toleration of violence against women, in American culture.
In answering a question from an audience member at a Dec. 30 event in Derry, New Hampshire, Biden repeatedly made reference to what he called "changing the culture in the way we treat women in America."
He provided several examples: the English common law origins of the phrase "rule of thumb" (Biden there repeated what is likely an etymological myth); resistance to his efforts to pass legislation that provided women greater protections against gender-based violence; the hostility and vilification faced by survivors of gender-based violence who share their experiences publicly; the victim-blaming faced by women who share their experiences privately, even with trusted friends and family members; the "fightback" of educational institutions, especially the most elite universities, against requirements that they keep careful records of incidents and allegations of rape and sexual assault on campus; and Trump administration cuts to an initiative of men combatting violence against women on campuses.
All of those, Biden claimed, were examples of a "cultural problem" prevalent in the United States, and it was to that culture he referred in summarizing his argument in the following way:
"Folks, this is about changing the culture. Our culture. It's not imported from some African nation or some Asian nation. It's our English jurisprudential culture, our European culture, that says it [violence against women] is alright."
Although the video clip was not doctored, and did not re-order the sequence of Biden's remarks, it's clear from viewing his words in their proper and complete context that he was not advancing a white nationalist argument, or even making a general point about American culture or identity in its broader sense. Rather, Biden was making a very specific point about how violence and mistreatment of women, the toleration of the same, and resistance to efforts to combat such violence, were all ingrained in American culture, including the English and European roots of American culture. The 19-second clip shared widely on Twitter stripped away that crucial context and therefore gave viewers a false impression of what Biden was actually saying.
The video can be viewed on the Facebook page of ABC News, here, beginning around the 39-minute mark. In the interest of providing as much context as possible, a transcript of the question put to Biden, and almost all of his response, can be read below:
Audience member: Could you speak to your work with women and sexual assault, domestic violence, and give us an idea of your vision for that in our country?
Biden: Look, I was raised by a dad -- this is the God's truth, not a joke -- my dad was a gentleman, and he used to say, for real, "The worst sin of all is the abuse of power." And he meant it. The abuse of power. Whether it was economic power, political power, or physical power. And then he'd say -- not a joke -- [to] all my siblings, that the cardinal sin is a man raising his hand to a woman or a child. And so, a lot of people tried to deal with changing the culture in the way we treat women in America. It's about fundamentally changing our culture.
Any of you know what the phrase "Rule of thumb" means? Rule of thumb means...in English common law, meaning not the codified law like we pass in a parliament or pass in a Congress. Common law means adjustment of the courts' decisions from previous decisions, as it matures going down the road. In the late 1300s, in England, so many wives were being beaten to death by their husbands that the court of common law said -- because women were considered to be a chattel, just like the horse or the cows or the animals in the field. For real. And a man was able to "chastize" his wife. But so many were being beaten to death that the court ruled, in the late 1300s, that no man could beat his wife with a rod bigger than the circumference of his thumb. We have a cultural problem. A cultural problem.
So when I got to the United States Senate, I started working on the issue of whether or not we could begin to change the way -- and there was a dirty little secret. Those of you who are older know -- everybody knew somebody whose wife got slapped around. [Mock whisper] But you didn't say anything, that was private, nobody said anything, you didn't interfere. Well my dad taught us, if you see it, you have to say something. So when I got to the Senate, I believed, notwithstanding that it had been tried before, that if we ripped the Band-aid off and exposed exactly what was happening in America, that people would respond. And so, I started to hold hearings about violence against women in America. By the way, I've got to be careful what I say with the little kids in here, but also violence occurs to men, from other men, on occasion. About 2 to 4 % of it happens that way.
And so when I started it, all the women's groups opposed it. They didn't want me doing anything about it. The civil rights groups, they said it was a civil rights issue. I said it was. Because they said if we focused on violence against women, we take our eye off of choice and gender, and we shouldn't do that. But I persisted in writing the legislation, and I couldn't get anywhere until finally, a woman who headed up NOW [the National Organization for Women] called Ellie Smeal, her name was Ellie Smeal, finally said, when I had a meeting of all the groups at my conference table, [inaudible] said "Why are we helping this guy?" Because what I did, when I couldn't get any support, I went to the providers of the women's shelters, the rape crisis shelters, et cetera. I met in Rhode Island, in the capital, with a group of these providers, people who were helping women who were abused -- mostly women, I might add, women helping women -- and I went to the state of Oregon, the same thing. And so I got support from them, and they sort of embarrassed everybody else into getting in and dealing with the problem.
But here's what we found out. I did a thousand hours of public hearings. A thousands hours, according to the Supreme Court when they struck down part of my law which provided a civil rights cause of action, if you couldn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt, you could sue civilly and you could at least take the guys wallet, figuratively speaking. So what happened was, we started to bring witnesses in. But I knew they would be vilified. I knew what would happen. So every witness I'd call, who had been a victim and wanted to testify, I'd go through with them what they were about to undergo. To make sure that they were willing to do it, and they knew they were going to be vilified. Some of you may remember, who are older, there was a woman who was a model in New York City, who was being harassed by her landlord. And when I tell you, you'll remember -- harassed by her landlord, every time she wanted to move from a utility apartment to a one-bedroom, he would hit on her. And so she said she wanted her money back, and she was going to leave. And it was an upscale apartment, in the upper 50s in New York City -- I mean the block, upper 50s.
And she was on location, shooting, you know, as a model, shooting something for whoever the person, magazine she was working for. And she got a phone call, it was the beginning of cell phones then, and it said "I have a one-bedroom apartment, everything's going to be fine, stop at the restaurant bar" -- which was an upscale place on the main floor of this hotel, or this condominium, or apartment complex, I should say. So she stopped in, and he used...he hit on her again. So she got up and walked out of the restaurant. You remember? Her last, her first name is Marla. When she got and walked out, he had hired two goons who took straight razors and slashed her face. Remember that? So she said she wanted to testify. So I said "I've got to talk to you first because I don't want you being villainized here. I asked the following question -- think now about the cultural things we're dealing with here -- I asked her, I said "What did your mother say when she found out?" She said "My mother said 'what were you doing in a bar?'" [Biden asked] "What did your girlfriends say?" [The woman replied] "How short was your skirt? Were you wearing a bra? What did you say to him?" It doesn't matter. No man has a right, under any circumstances, period, unless there's an affirmative 'Yes,' to touch a woman. Period. None.
So when we got elected vice president, the president asked me what I wanted to happen. I said one of the things I want, I want to bring the Violence Against Women Office inside my office, the office of the vice president. Still prosecuted by the Justice Department, but I had two Attorneys General who agreed to give it a higher profile. And let me tell you what else I found out: violence against women dropped precipitously around the country for women over 35 years of age. More people were willing to report, and you had fewer instances, because it's being exposed. But you know what I found out? I was devastated. Never been so disappointed about something, legislatively, that ever happened. I found out that [among] women between the ages of 15 and 25, there was no diminution in attacks on them. None. None. Because I sent a brilliant woman named Cynthia Hogan, who helped me write the legislation, over to the Bureau of Justice statistics, which keeps all these statistics, one in five women going off to college, being raped or abused. Usually in the first three semesters. You know the greatest reason why women drop out of college? Not their grades. Sexual abuse.
You know what else I found out? Because I called in over 140 college presidents to deal with Title IX -- that's, you know, you have to spend as much money on women as men, sports and the rest. I said "What are you doing about this?" Because I found out that -- I started a thing called "It's On Us" because I did what they call a conference call, with 30,000 people on the call...and I said "Tell me what you think I should be doing on your high school campuses or your college campuses to make you safer." And I was stunned and embarrassed [by] the answer I got, because it was self-evident. Over 50% spontaneously said..."Get men involved." So I started this organization called "It's On Us," going around to college campuses all over America, having men take a pledge, [that] if they see it they'll do something about it. And women -- you know, the first person, if a woman is victimized in college, the first person she goes to is her girlfriend. Girlfriends give empathy, but they don't want to get involved. We found out when they reported it to the university, that you'd have people at the university asking "Well what were you wearing? What were you drinking?" [Emphatically] It's irrelevant. It's irrelevant [Applause]...
I called in over 150 presidents of universities...the more prestigious the college, the less they wanted to do. Because all of them, they were supposed to have to report how many incidents occur on their campus. They're supposed to take a survey. All they have to so is take a blind survey at the beginning of school: "How many of you students have in fact been accosted or having something happen?" Blind. They get an idea how bad the problem may or not be on campus. They don't want to do it, you know why? If you're going to Penn or Harvard or Yale or Brown or wherever, and you have to publish how many times someone's been abused, it's like "Woah, I'm not sending my kid there." I'm serious, think about the fightback. But we finally got a lot passed through, with the Secretary of Education, who was a great guy that I worked with, and others, under Title IX. But then along came [Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos, [audience groans] no I'm serious, and ended it. Ended it. Folks, this is about changing the culture. Our culture. It's not imported from some African nation or some Asian nation. It's our English jurisprudential culture, our European culture, that says it's alright...