Accomplished men and women are no more likely to be beyond reproach than anyone else, especially when sex is involved; and when standards of acceptable behavior change, they are no more likely to be ahead of their time.
These obvious points are worth making explicit in light of the surge in credible accusations of sexual harassment and assault that have come to light since The New York Times broke the Harvey Weinstein story in October.
The perpetrators are mainly, but not only, powerful men; the victims are mainly, but not only, less powerful women. No surprise there; that story is as old as patriarchy itself.
And while standards of acceptable male behavior have changed for the better in recent decades – since, say, the heyday of Playboy and Penthouse — most of the charges now being made involve behaviors that would have been considered inappropriate, or even criminal, at any time in living memory. This is an old story too.
Indeed, sexual politics in circumstances where differential power relations are institutionalized — workplaces, schools and universities, religious institutions, and the like – has been part of the national conversation at least since the Ford Administration.
What exposing and shaming high visibility figures in the entertainment industry, journalism, and politics has done is bring widespread attention to that evolving discussion. It has also raised broader questions about sexual inequality and sexual predation, and about the cultural forces that sustain them.
It has empowered women to speak out, individually and collectively, setting far-reaching cultural changes in motion.
As happens in moments such as these, people sometimes lose their sense of proportion. This is not always a bad thing; social movements can benefit from going overboard for a while, especially when they are getting underway and when they portend cultural transformations.
Still, it is worth reflecting on how personal virtue is only one factor that should be taken into account in determining a man’s or a woman’s (in this case, usually a man’s) measure; the nature and extent of their achievements are factors too.
Before the internet made efforts to police the publication of material deemed obscene futile, liberal defenders of the First Amendment waged a long and ultimately successful battle to keep the censors at bay in cases where an otherwise obscene work’s “redeeming social importance” could be demonstrated.
In practice, this often meant its literary or artistic merit. The general idea is broader, however.
As the struggle for sexual equality and against sexual predation intensifies, it is well to keep that standard, broadly construed, in mind.
Needless to say, the views of persons actively engaged in on-going struggles ought generally to take precedence over considerations raised by observers on the sidelines.
There is, however, a danger that, in the heat of the moment, considerations of redeeming social importance will not be accorded due weight. This is especially likely when sex is involved, and when the struggle is taking place in a country in which prevailing cultural attitudes continue to reflect values established by Puritan settlers long ago,
Thus, apart from the heat of moment, there is good reason to think differently about, say, Roy Moore and Roman Polanski, even though both of them molested teenagers.
With all the attention on Moore of late, rightwing pundits have taken to besmirching liberal “elitists” for remarks made long ago about the reasonableness of lightening up on Polanski. They think they are scoring cheap points, but in fact there are significant differences. Among them is the fact that Polanski is a film director whose work plainly does have redeeming social importance, while Moore is a disgrace to the legal profession, the Alabama judiciary, and the human race.
This is why I, for one, have no problem with throwing the book and then some at Moore, even as I think that Polanski deserves better. This is not to sat that he should be welcomed back into the United States, especially now when sexual predation has become Topic A. My point is just that his case is complicated in ways that Moore’s is not.
This is neither the time nor place to explore those complications except in a very general way.
In that spirit, I would venture that W.H. Auden was on to something in 1939 when he wrote, in his homage to William Butler Yeats:
Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet,
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardon him for writing well.
These words, and the thought behind them, are appropriately equivocal. Was Auden making a case for forgiving bad people whose artistic, indeed literary, activities have redeeming social importance? Or was he lamenting the inevitability of doing so? Perhaps both.
Both seems about right.
Kipling was a racist and an unabashed imperialist. Claudel was a fascist and Nazi collaborator.
Their literary achievements were considerable, but compared to Yeats, much less, say, Shakespeare, not all that uncommon. Similarly, their politics was awful, but not extraordinarily so. In their time, there were others as bad or worse, some of whom posterity ranks higher in the literary firmament; Ezra Pound comes immediately to mind, so does Louis-Ferdinand Céline.
It is the same with Polanski; he was an important director, though hardly the greatest of all time; and in the Hollywood Babylon of the late seventies, his transgressions were not nearly as uncommon, nor as likely to invite condemnation, as they would be today.
Obviously, artists, even extraordinarily good ones, and others who have achieved greatness in other ways don’t deserve get-out-of-jail-free cards. But their achievements are not irrelevant either.
In light of what the “me too” campaign has accomplished since the Weinstein story broke, it has come to seem more compelling than it was a few months ago to discount the socially redeeming achievements of sexual predators. However, I would still say that, especially with Trump in the Oval Office, political execrability, when extreme enough, outweighs – dare I say “trumps” – all but the most egregious sexual predation.
Time will pardon Paul Claudel.” Perhaps also Kevin Spacey, and James Levine, and countless others; the list grows with each day’s news. Very likely, it will pardon Polanski as well. But what could pardon miscreants who have never done anything remotely admirable, and who nevertheless aid and abet the spiritual heirs of Kipling and Claudel by advancing what media pundits have taken to calling “the Trump agenda?”
Then there are the politicians. Unlike corporate moguls, and show business and media bigwigs, their work, by its very nature, easily could have redeeming social importance. In practice, however, it seldom does. In America today, members of the political class who are admirable in any respect are rare; and politicians with creditable achievements to boast of are rarer still.
John Conyers is a glaring exception. As a Congressman, he was about as good as it gets. And now he is gone – “retired.” That sexual predation will be part of his legacy is heartbreaking. It is ironic too because Conyers did more for women than most, if not all, of the Democrats who urged him to go.
Obviously, Democrats have decided to present themselves as the party taking the sexual high road. They no doubt think that with a vulgar and lecherous (nominally) Republican buffoon, who boasts of his sexual assaults, for a president, and with the GOP officially backing Roy Moore, there is some percentage in advertising their virtue.
Al Franken is another victim of Democratic self-righteousness. He is no John Conyers, but, all things considered, he is better (less bad) than most, maybe all, the Democrats who forced him to resign.
Needless to say, being better than Chuck Schumer – or any other mainstream Democratic Senator — is not an especially estimable achievement.
Neither is being better than Nancy Pelosi. In 2006, when she became Speaker of the House, she did all she could to stifle efforts of more progressive Democrats, including Conyers, to impeach George W. Bush. Impeachment then could have stopped the Iraq War in its tracks. Pelosi preferred to play it safe for Hillary Clinton – or, as it turned out, Barack Obama – in 2008.
Now she is doing much the same to efforts by House Democrats to draft articles of impeachment against Donald Trump.
But Pelosi and Schumer and the others are less noxious than any Republican; and, inasmuch as Franken has most Democrats beat, he too is about as good as it gets. This hardly makes him a Senatorial equivalent of Conyers in the House; as an unreconstructed Clintonite, he is still part of the problem, not the solution, on matters pertaining to the economy, the empire, and war and peace. But even so!
The “me too” campaign would be less of a mixed blessing if the assault it has unleashed on double standards and hypocrisy took such considerations into account. The “zero tolerance” policy some of its defenders now talk about is not necessarily wise; and, in any case, they don’t exactly practice what they preach.
The worst harasser and assaulter among the current spate of political malefactors is, of course, Donald Trump himself. He has more than twenty credible accusers so far. Why, then, don’t those who called for Conyers and Franken to resign now demand the same of him?
Part of the answer surely is that Democrats like Pelosi think that his being there is good for the Democratic Party — for raising money and getting voters on board. Wiser and braver Democrats think that impeachment would be a more gratifying way to get the Donald out of our lives. They are surely right about that; where he is concerned, all kinds of juicy impeachable offenses abound.
But, on this as on so much else, what Democrats do hardly matters. The “me too” movement is another story; at least for now, it could significantly transform the political landscape. Unfortunately, though, some of its leading figures seem to be pulling their punches. Surely, the self-acknowledged “pussy grabber” deserves a lot more opprobrium from women fed up with patriarchal attitudes than he has so far received.
In what possible universe, after all, could it not be abominable that Conyers and Franken are out, and Trump in?
Whenever questions like that are asked, the stock answer is that elected officials serve at the pleasure of the voters, and that only the voters can “fire” them.
This argument would, of course, apply as much to Conyers and Franken as to Trump. It would be more convincing too if “firing” officials weren’t something that is all but impossible for voters to do.
Most “me too” targets serve at the pleasure of (still unaccused) corporate executives, many of whom have shown themselves lately to be eager to apply swift justice, often without regard to due process, to anyone in their employ whose sexual predations threaten to impugn the reputation of their brands.
To get rid of a president or vice president or a Senator or a member of the House of Representatives who won’t leave voluntarily requires either an election or a long and arduous process; getting rid of (unelected) judges with lifetime appointments is harder still. In marked contrast, the highest flying high flyers in the corporate world can be dispatched in an instant, often without benefit of due process or any process at all.
But none of this explains why, for example, there is so little disapprobation leveled against the likes of Clarence Thomas or, for that matter, Bill Clinton; and why cherished figures from the past – male Kennedys come to mind – are praised by the very people who present themselves as opponents of sexual predation and fighters for sexual equality.
But then American politics stopped making sense a long time ago. Trump has made the situation worse many times over, but he didn’t invent the underlying incoherence; it has been around forever.
In any case, compared to the hypocritical and largely (if not entirely) unsubstantiated bipartisan (but mainly Democratic) blather about Russian interference in the 2016 election; or to a Republican “middle class tax cut” that accelerates the transfer of wealth from the poor and middle classes to the rich; or to Trump’s ludicrous decision to side with unabashed ethnic cleansers by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – a move urged by Trump’s airhead son-in-law and his real estate lawyer, and supported by his ambassador to the United Nations, a woman whose main qualification is an undergraduate accounting major — a few minor inconsistencies on the part of persons fighting for a more egalitarian sexual politics is no big deal.