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The Great American Sex Panic of 2017

by

I confess to being troubled rather than elated by the daily rumble of idols falling to accusations of “sexual misconduct,” the morbid masscult fixation that conceals private titillation, knowing smirks, and sadistic lip-smacking behind a public mask of solemn reproof.

Weinstein and Trump and Roy Moore and Bill Clinton are vile pigs and creeps, no doubt; I have always detested the smug neoliberal performance-art strut of Al Franken and the careerist-toady journalism of Glenn Thrush and Charlie Rose, the latest dominoes to tumble amid the barrage of public accusations of “inappropriate” advances or touching.

But the boundary between cultural tolerance/intolerance blurs and shifts with each passing revelation, as the litany of sins, ancient or recent, cardinal or venal, snowballs into an avalanche of aggrieved, undifferentiated accusation—a stampeding herd of “Me-Tooists.” Successive waves of long-forgotten gropes and slurps now overwhelm the news channel chyrons, leaving us with the sense that no greater crime against humanity is possible than an unsolicited horndog lunge of the hand or tongue, some of them from twenty or thirty years past but divulged only in the past few weeks.

Let’s be honest—these “shocking” revelations about Franken—that he tried to tongue-kiss a woman one time in a rehearsal and mock-grabbed her somnolent breasts in a silly frat-house pose or that maybe his hand strayed too far toward a woman’s derriere as he obliged her with a photo at a state fair five years ago—would have elicited nothing more than a public yawn just a few weeks or months ago in the BW (Before Weinstein) era; in fact, these two women, seemingly unperturbed enough to leave these incidents unreported for five or six years, would likely not have thought to join the solemn procession of the violated on national TV if not for the stampede effect of each successive cri de coeur.

But is it an advance in collective ethical consciousness when the public reservoir of shock and indignation is so easily churned up and tapped out over erotic peccadillos? And here I must of course distinguish between outright rape—always a viscerally sickening crime against human dignity— or implied or explicit threats to a woman worker’s livelihood over sexual “favors” on the one hand, and on the other the impetuous volcanic eruptions of erotic passion that inevitably leave one or both partners discomfited or embarrassed or forlorn by unexpected or unwelcome overtures, tactile or verbal. As the left blogger Michael J. Smith points out, “Not all acts are equally grave—an off-color joke is not as bad as a grope, and a grope is not as bad as a rape.” Then what interest of sanity or reason is served by this reckless lumping together of flicks of the tongue and forcible rapes into the single broad-brush term “sexual misconduct,” as though there is no important difference between an oafish pat or crude remark at an office party and a gang rape? This would be like applying the term “communist” alike to advocates of single payer healthcare and campaigners for one-party centralized control of the entire economy—oh wait, we have seen precisely that: during the McCarthy era. Now then . . . is all this beginning to have a familiar ring to it?

And not merely deeds but words have fallen under scrutiny: on Sunday Jeffrey Tambor joined the ranks of the accused, walking the plank by quitting his acclaimed Amazon series Transparent in the wake of two allegations of the use of “lewd” language in front of his assistant and a fellow actor. So the stain of ostracism has now spread from conduct to mere speech.

Alarmingly, the Pecksniffian word lewd has enjoyed a recent rehabilitation among the corporate-media “news” networks, cogs in giant infotainment conglomerates whose cash flow depends precisely on mass dissemination of HD depictions of explicit sexual “lewdness” and violence that their news departments then deplore when evidenced in real life. “Lewd” enjoyed a boomlet during the presidential campaign when the pro-Clinton newsies and talking-head strategists were professing daily bouts of horror at the revelations of the Donald’s coarse frat-boy talk on Access Hollywood. This seems to have been the first time this word had gained any traction since seventeenth-century Salem and Victorian England. This battalion of elite lewdness police are the same Ivy League graduates who in college probably considered Henry Miller a genius, not in spite of, but because of, his portrayal of raw lust in language that makes Trump’s private palaver or Tambor’s japes seem tepid and repressed by comparison. (It’s not impossible that some of these same people consider Quentin Tarantino, cinematic maestro of the vile obscenities of language and violence, a great auteur as well.) The whole spectacle is at once comical and nauseating.

And it indeed looks as though huge swaths of the world’s art and literature, from Pindar to Botticelli to Shakespeare to Joyce to Updike, will soon fall to the axe of the lewdness police. Let’s say that a college English professor, in a unit on American Transcendentalism, assigns the Whitman poem “I Sing the Body Electric,” and reads the poem aloud to his students, including the following passage:

This is the female form,

A divine nimbus exhales from it from head to foot,

It attracts with fierce undeniable attraction,

I am drawn by its breath as if I were no more than a helpless vapor, all falls aside but myself and it,

Books, art, religion, time, the visible and solid earth, and what was expected of heaven or fear’d of hell, are now consumed,

Mad filaments, ungovernable shoots play out of it, the response likewise ungovernable,

Hair, bosom, hips, bend of legs, negligent falling hands all diffused, mine too diffused,

Ebb stung by the flow and flow stung by the ebb, love-flesh swelling and deliciously aching,

Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous, quivering jelly of love, white-blow and delirious juice,

Bridegroom night of love working surely and softly into the prostrate dawn,

Undulating into the willing and yielding day,

Lost in the cleave of the clasping and sweet-flesh’d day.

What if just one woman student were to wilt in distress at the sound of “quivering jelly of love” and then report the professor for imposing “lewd” and disturbing language on his students? Would he be hauled before the Ethics Committee? Stripped of tenure? Forced to resign? You find this preposterous? Then consider the following report from The Atlantic on the alarming trend of bowdlerizing the great canon of Western literature because of potentially offensive erotic content:

Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. . . . A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses. . . . Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.

Two terms have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance. Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless. . . . Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response. For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.

And this virus of censorious American PC puritanism has leapt across the Atlantic to inhibit even the teaching of Shakespeare—yes, Shakespeare—at British universities, as reported just last month in the The Independent:

Academics have criticised “trigger warnings” after Cambridge University students were warned about “potentially distressing topics” in plays by Shakespeare. English literature undergraduates were apparently cautioned that a lecture focusing on Titus Andronicus and The Comedy of Errors would include “discussions of sexual violence” and “sexual assault.” According to The Telegraph, the trigger warnings were posted in the English Faculty’s “Notes on Lectures” document which is circulated to students at the university. Academics have expressed concern that colleges trying to protect young adults from certain issues may render them incapable of dealing with real life when they graduate. Supporters of trigger warnings say they serve to help students who may be upset if a text reminds them of a personal traumatic experience.

However, critics such as Mary Beard, a Professor of Classics at Cambridge, say allowing students to avoid learning about traumatic episodes of history and literature is “fundamentally dishonest.” Beard said previously: “We have to encourage students to be able to face that, even when they find they’re awkward and difficult for all kinds of good reasons.” David Crilly, artistic director at The Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, said: “If a student of English Literature doesn’t know that Titus Andronicus contains scenes of violence they shouldn’t be on the course.”

But voices of sanity such as Beard’s and Crilly’s may be fighting a noble but lost cause against the PC cultural vigilantes, clamoring for the blood of the next prominent stumbler into errant sexual expression, in the lecture hall or office or rehearsal hall or bar. But if we may be allowed to descend from the High Courts of Sexual Inquisition to the land of the living—that is, the merely fallible, sex-tormented mortals who actually make up the human race—who hasn’t lived through anguished or comical moments, either as predator or prey or both at once, in the throes of the temporary madness of desire? And did such impulsive leaps of lust or passion strike anyone as a cause for ritual mass tongue-lashing and tongue-clucking and compulsive daily confessionals and public media crucifixions in the BW era, except perhaps among the most severe of anti-sex feminists like Andrea Dworkin, who considered every heterosexual act of intercourse to be a form of rape? Did anyone but reactionary blue-noses think about suppressing or avoiding the works of Henry Miller? Or D. H Lawrence? Or even Al Goldstein? Yet now even Shakespeare finds himself on the PC Index. Among the sexual-politics contingents of early second-wave feminists, there were, to be sure, literary eviscerations and cultural firestorms, but nothing like the current pell-mell instant media arraignment for crimes against humanity warranting public investigations, tribunals, denunciations and career death sentences. It all smacks of the hellfire zeal of a religious persecution, a jarring devolution of establishment liberals into old-fashioned American sexual head hunters and cultural bluenoses in the tradition of their forebears in Salem and the fundamentalist South.

Betraying a fundamentally elitist impulse to manage and control, the PC inquisitors instinctively recoil from the unruly tempests of human sexuality—the source of desire, the driving torrent of all passion and pleasure, the wellspring of life itself—that at times deafens and blinds and exalts all of us. With the soul of an accountant and the temperament of the professional manager, the PC inquisitors seeks to confine the Dionysian chaos of Eros within the strictures of a bureaucratic handbook of procedure and etiquette, as though a sexual impulse or encounter were a banking transaction or a court proceeding. Thus do the neoliberal elites conduct this front in their incessant war on nature, including the unruly source of nature itself: behold the dismaying spectacle of these joyless, bloodless mortals doing futile battle with the god Eros. The vigilantes cannot win this battle, of course, but they can inflict needless damage on reputations, careers, on our entire cultural heritage in enforcing their groupthink compendium of trigger warnings, speech codes, and rules of order.

Something surpassingly strange is at work here—a wrong-headed authoritarian ire over the spasmodic misfires of the human comedy combined with some primal meltdown of a besieged and increasingly desperate ruling class and its longstanding winking sexual hypocrisies. It is a moral panic that is, ironically, immoral at its core: repressive and diversionary, an identity-politics orgy of misdirected moral energies that breeds a chilling conformity of word and deed and, in so doing, cripples the critical faculties and independence of spirit needed to challenge the status quo the PC monitors profess to abhor. In reality, their speech and conduct codes foster a spirit of regimentation rather than rebellion, thereby shoring up the power of the repressive elites that are leading the human race to social, economic, and ecological disaster.

So this is not just a moral panic—but a bizarre inversion of values in which Bill Clinton can murder 500,000 Iraqi children, throw millions of poor women and their children off welfare, and instigate the global rule of transnational corporations with NAFTA, but he is not impeached or stigmatized for any of those atrocities but rather for a workplace blowjob; in which Hillary Clinton can lead the charge for the destruction of Libya, reducing that country to primeval rubble, and is not only not fired or ostracized but is rewarded with the Democrats’ presidential nomination and lauded by corporate feminists as a champion of “inclusiveness”; in which Barack Obama pushed fraudulent health-care reform that leaves a barbaric 27 million people with zero coverage and millions more with crippling premiums and deductibles that render their “coverage” all but unusable, thus sentencing tens of thousands of people to death every year because they cannot afford timely medical care, and dropped 26,171 pounds of bombs in 2016 alone, and yet he is not only not reviled and abominated as a con artist but is worshipped as an icon of enlightened governance; in which the entire ruling elite and its associates in the corporate media are chronically underplaying—indeed, scarcely mentioning—the gravity of the climate change crisis, which would merely spell the end of the human species within a hundred years, yet no copycat 24/7 umbrage or five-alarm indignation on the part of anyone in those elite circles or their acolytes over this unprecedented planetary emergency.

Hence the long-buried, freshly unearthed ego bruises of the privileged identity-politics crowd eclipse mass murder and ecocide on the outrage meters of this country’s opinion shapers.  The same solemn cohort—mostly white and middle-class, many of them ardent McResistance DNC partisans (or, in the case of Leean Tweeden, Franken’s tongue-kiss accuser, a movement conservative who twice voted for George W. Bush)—is so easily roused to near-apoplexy about a naughty lunge of the hand or tongue yet discreetly ignores or openly cheers on unparalleled crimes against humanity: endless debilitating wars against nameless enemies abroad, the toxic mercenary corruption and annihilation of democracy, staggering political/social inequality (the top one percent of the world’s population now owns half of the world’s wealth), and ecocide everywhere—committed and abetted with impunity by the PC brigades’ culture heroes like the Clintons and Obama and their cohorts in the media and the corporate/political elites.

So yes—prosecute the rapists and pedophiles and let them suffer in jail. But you will excuse me if I stand aside from the stampede of outrage about Al Franken’s wayward tongue or even Donald Trump’s juvenile frat-house boasts while the world teeters on the brink. The scale of values of this country’s liberal elites, and the issues that fuel and exhaust their capacity for outrage, border on moral dementia. Their vaunted “values” lead us not to virtue and to spiritual renewal, but to the nauseating sanctimony of the custodians of a charnel house—to the abyss.

More articles by:

William Kaufman is a writer and editor who lives in New York City. He can be reached at kman484@earthlink.net.

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