interesting times

It’s Time to Resist the Excesses of #MeToo

Photo: Sarah Morris/Getty Images

A month or so ago, a friend and I mulled over when exactly the backlash to the then-peaking #MeToo moral panic would set in. Mid-January, we guessed, and sure enough here we are.

No, we were not being clairvoyant, just noting certain dynamics. The early exposure of Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and Harvey Weinstein — achieved by meticulous, scrupulous journalists and smart, determined women — quickly extended to more ambiguous and trivial cases. Distinctions among many different types of offenses — from bad behavior at private parties to brutal assault and rape of employees and co-workers — were being instantly lost in the fervor. Punishment was almost always the same — social ostracism and career destruction — whether you were Mark Halperin, who allegedly sexually assaulted women in his workplace, or Al Franken, damned because of mild handsiness and pretending to grope a woman’s breasts as a joke. Any presumption of innocence was regarded as a misogynist dodge, and an anonymous online list of accusations against named men in the media was created and circulated with nary an attempt by its instigators to substantiate a single one. Within a few weeks, the righteous exposure of hideous abuse of power had morphed into a more generalized revolution against the patriarchy.

This kind of mania will always at some point exhaust itself and this kind of zeal will always overstep. In a free society, a pushback was inevitable, and healthy. The extraordinary journalist Masha Gessen led the way, with ruminations on sex panics. (My own discomfort with this is, like Gessen’s, affected by my experience of what similar panics have done routinely to gay men in the past.) Daphne Merkin has noted how our current discourse all but strips women of agency and sex of eros. Dave Chappelle, in his sublime new Netflix special, used comedy to make a similar point: Sexual abuse is real and evil, but if you’re talking to someone on the phone who appears to be masturbating, you can always, you know, hang up. You can also do what a British female journalist did when she felt an unwelcome hand from a powerful government minister appear on her knee. She told him to knock it off, and if he didn’t remove it, she’d punch him in the face. (She later dismissed the incident, which led to the minister’s resignation: “He tried it on, I turned him down. Now move on.”) Then there’s the nascent notion, among many Democrats, that Al Franken’s banishment from the Senate was obviously overkill. Then came the open letter signed last week by a hundred French women, including Catherine Deneuve, who don’t see themselves as helpless, powerless, forever-victims of men. Money quote: “A woman can, in the same day, lead a professional team and enjoy being the sexual object of a man, without being a ‘slut’, nor a cheap accomplice of the patriarchy.” Imagine that: enjoying being the sexual object of a man!

No one is or should be defending abuse of power. It’s foul. I’m glad certain monsters have been toppled. (For the record, I routinely believe the women in specific cases. I believed Anita Hill, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, and Juanita Broaddrick and did so on the record.) But nuance, context, and specifics matter. The Deneuve letter rightly insisted: “Rape is a crime. But insistent or clumsy flirting is not a crime, nor is gallantry a chauvinist aggression.” The manifesto observed the censorious Victorianism about some of the rhetoric, and the public invasion of private matters. But the French signatories also worried about due process: “This expedited justice already has its victims, men prevented from practicing their profession as punishment, forced to resign, etc., while the only thing they did wrong was touching a knee, trying to steal a kiss, or speaking about ‘intimate’ things at a work dinner, or sending messages with sexual connotations to a woman whose feelings were not mutual.” South Park, as usual, was ahead of the curve. Its season finale last month portrayed an office romance between PC Principal and a new character, Strong Woman. And at the mere suggestion of an affair between them, everyone instantly projectile vomits in disgust. What other response could there be to the idea of a relationship between co-workers?

And this week, rumors spread of the impending publication of an essay by Katie Roiphe in Harper’s magazine that might take a similarly skeptical tack. Some believed that Roiphe might even hold the instigator of the legendary Shitty Media Men list accountable, and that this person might thereby be subjected to online abuse. And so a Twitter campaign was launched, in a backlash-backlash, to preemptively stop the publication of an essay no one had actually read. One Twitter activist, Nicole Cliffe, went further: “If you have a piece in the hopper over at @Harpers, ask your editor if the Roiphe piece is happening. If it is, I will pay you cash for what you’d lose by yanking it.” This strikes me as a new development for the social-justice left: They now believe in suppressing free speech — even before they know its content! It also strikes me as ominous for journalism as a whole. When journalists themselves wage campaigns to suppress the writing of other journalists, and intend to destroy a magazine for not toeing their ideological line, you can see how free speech truly is on the line. Why not simplify this and publish a blacklist of writers whose work, based on previous ideological transgressions, cannot and should not be published?

Pretty quickly, others on Left Twitter offered money for other authors to pull their pieces from the issue — and a few writers said they had agreed to do so. Cliffe was admirably blunt about her intent: “If I have my druthers, the March issue of Harper’s will consist of a now-toothless 200-word piece on the list that doesn’t name anyone and a long meditation from the editor on raw water.” Then this Twitter threat: “If Katie Roiphe actually publishes that article she can consider her career over.” Meanwhile the very people who were up in arms about possible online harassment of the list organizers, went online to call Roiphe “pro-rape,” “human scum,” “a ghoul,” a “bitch,” “the definition of basura,” a “bag of garbage,” and “a misogynistic bottom-feeder.” That’s another thing with ideological fanatics: Irony tends to elude them.

And then the final twist Wednesday night: One Moira Donegan outed herself as the creator of the list, and wrote a long essay defending herself.

The essay is, to my mind, eloquent, beautifully written, even moving at times, but baffling. I read it waiting for the moment when she took responsibility for what she did, or apologized to the innocent people she concedes may have been slandered. But it never came. It’s worth recalling here exactly what she and others did. They created an online forum in which anonymous people could make accusations about men whose careers and reputations would potentially be destroyed as a consequence. There was absolutely no attempt to separate out what was true or untrue, what was substantiated and what was not. “Please never name an accuser” she advised upfront in the document. And then: “[P]lease don’t remove highlights or names.” No second thoughts allowed. The doc openly concedes its grave claims should be “taken with a grain of salt.” In her essay, Donegan actually cites this as exonerating evidence, as if reckless disregard for the truth were a positive virtue for a journalist, and not actually a definition of libel.

I’ve read the list — as almost everyone in media has. I felt like taking a shower afterward. It includes charges that have absolutely nothing to do with workplace harassment. Someone is accused of “creepy DMs or texts especially when drunk,” “weird lunch dates,” or “being handsy — at the very least — with women at parties.” One man is accused of “secretly removing condom during sex,” with no claim of workplace misconduct at all. Another is damned for “flirting,” another for taking “credit for ideas of women of color,” another for “multiple employee affairs, inappropriate conversation, in general a huge disgusting sleaze ball.” And this chorus of minor offenses is on the same list as brutal rapes, physical assaults, brazen threats, unspeakable cruelty, violence, and misogyny. But hey, take it all with a grain of salt!

The act of anonymously disseminating serious allegations about people’s sex lives as a means to destroy their careers and livelihoods has long gone by a simple name. It’s called McCarthyism, and the people behind the list engaged in it. Sure, they believed they were doing good — but the McCarthyites, in a similar panic about communism, did as well. They believe they are fighting an insidious, ubiquitous evil — the patriarchy — just as the extreme anti-Communists in the 1950s believed that commies were everywhere and so foul they didn’t deserve a presumption of innocence, or simple human decency. They demand public confessions of the guilty and public support for their cause … or they will cast suspicion on you as well. Sophie Gilbert just berated the men at the Golden Globes for not saying what they were supposed to say. It’s no wonder that today’s McCarthyites also engage in demonizing other writers, like Katie Roiphe, and threatening their livelihoods. And just as McCarthyites believed they had no other option, given the complicity of the entire federal government with communism, so today’s McCarthyites claim that appeals to the police, or the HR department, or to the usual channels, are “fruitless” — because they’re part of the patriarchal system too! These mechanisms, Donegan writes, have “an obligation to presume innocence,” and we can’t have that, can we?

Donegan insists that she was extremely naïve and believed that an online document containing these explosive details — distributed among journalists no less — would be kept “private.” (Did she think this is 1995?) Donegan also argues that “it was intended specifically not to inflict consequences,” and yet the crowd-sourced document that I read ends with the words: “Let it burn y’all” even if those aren’t her words, they seem to speak to an intent of the authors and promoters of the list. She expresses no regret about crowd-sourcing anonymous allegations with the potential to destroy lives — just regret that “I’ve learned that protecting women is a position that comes with few protections itself.” For this, Donegan has been showered with wave after wave of praise on Twitter, with the overall impression that she is being extraordinarily brave.

And maybe she is by finally going public. Getting doxxed by alt-right loons is a horrifying experience no one should have to endure. I’d defend her right to basic respect and decency, as I would anyone’s. But I’ll tell you what’s also brave at the moment: to resist this McCarthyism, to admit complexity, to make distinctions between offenses, to mark a clear boundary between people’s sexual conduct in a workplace and outside of it, to defend due process, to defend sex itself, and privacy, and to rely on careful reporting to expose professional malfeasance. In this nihilist moment when Bannonites and left-feminists want simply to burn it all down, it’s especially vital to keep a fire brigade in good order.

The Trump Boom

I have no idea where the economy is headed this year, but it’s impossible to ignore certain indicators. One of the more striking features is the new strength of working-class wages, as the labor market tightens in the eighth year of growth: “Hiring picked up fastest in construction and mining. Manufacturing, which lost jobs in 2016, expanded last year at a respectable clip, part of a global resurgence,” the New York Times noted. These jobs are for Trump voters — and they may well simply credit their hero for instantly making it happen. He’s a very stable genius, after all, and single-handedly prevented any airplane crashes in his first year in office. The New York Times was also forced to concede that Trump’s “push to dismantle regulations on businesses seems to have emboldened corporations to start putting more money into machines and plants, the kind of spending that drives broad growth … the security industry, for example, where pay is below average, showed a 7 percent increase in hourly earnings in November from a year earlier. Workers in clothing stores and food services — two huge, generally low-paying businesses — saw wages rise by around 4 percent in that period.”

This feels like the late 1990s, and is a function of many trends, including new growth in Europe and in Japan. But the benefits to the Trump base are also surely strengthened by the decline of illegal immigration in 2017 (now reversing), and a chilling of illegal hiring in some industries. They’ve gotten a little more leverage in the job market and it is beginning to pay dividends. Quinnipiac just found that 66 percent of Americans now believe that the economy is excellent or good. The same poll found that most attributed this to Obama, rather than to Trump, but a year into office, many voters, especially those who lean Republican, will inevitably see this as Trump’s economy in 2018, if the going continues to be good. It could buoy him, whether he deserves it or not.

Then yesterday, we see Walmart, easily one of the biggest employers in Trump’s base, announce it will raise wages in response to the just-passed tax bill. How’s that for good PR? The company said “it would increase its starting hourly wage to $11 from $9, and provide one-time cash bonuses of up $1,000 to hourly workers, depending on how long they had been with the company.” Walmart is a bellwether for low-paying industries, and this year could see real increases in the standard of living for the working poor, which is pretty great news. Some of the growth is obviously goosed by deregulation and by higher and higher government borrowing — and is dangerous in the long term — and we can expect ecological disasters and debt crises to emerge in the future. But right now, given our culture’s attention span, it’s obviously a boon for the GOP. I notice, by the way, that Trump’s approval ratings have consistently risen since the tax bill became law. I don’t believe that this is entirely a coincidence. Promises made, promises kept, as his supporters keep telling themselves.

There’s a risk for Trump, of course. Tout a 25,000 Dow as your achievement — and a correction will come back to haunt you. And if you’re in a record string of quarters of growth, it’s surely time to worry that a downturn will arrive sooner rather than later. Trump’s recession could come as he prepares for reelection. In this, he’d be in the pattern of one-term George H.W. Bush, rather than Reagan or Obama. But as I write, there’s enough data to convey the impression that he is, indeed, making the American economy “great again.” as Drudge breathlessly propagandizes day after day. It requires a very short attention span and remarkably low levels of information to buy this entirely — but hey, this is America. We’ve got those two things covered.

Israel’s Troubling Trajectory

The New Year began with a new day dawning in Israel-Palestine. The two-state solution, or any agreement that bears any resemblance to the original division of the land between Jews and Arabs, is dead. This is not a new reality, but the Trump administration’s embrace of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the acquiescence of many leading Sunni Arab states to the same, amounts to an official coroner’s report. In Israel itself, the right wing is triumphant: “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party for the first time has urged the annexation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and the nation’s top legal officers pressed to extend Israeli law into occupied territory.” Jewish settlement on the West Bank continues apace. The silence from America’s liberal Zionists, with a few honorable exceptions, was deafening. Liberal American Jews support a two-state solution in principle, but in practice they have approved every single step that has made such a resolution impossible. At some point, this asymptotic approach will reach its logical conclusion.

But what exactly is that conclusion? In a one-state scenario, Israel cannot continue to be both Jewish and democratic. Its Arabs could outvote its Jews. So what exactly is the goal? The only way for a one-state Jewish democracy to endure is by denying the vote to millions of its citizens on the basis of their race, religion, or location. Sure, you can have “security” measures that create Bantustans or townships on the West Bank, separated from each other, but if that happens, and the inhabitants have no voting rights, there really is no other word for it than apartheid. It isn’t even Jim Crow, which maintained a pretense of separate but equal. This would be separate and unequal, within a democracy itself. I remember when I found the term apartheid as applied to Israel to be a polemical excess. Now it seems simply like an empirical reality.

And that’s why I worry about forced expulsion at some point in my lifetime. Netanyahu last week began deporting African illegal immigrants, without the slightest hesitation. “The government approved a plan today that will give every infiltrator two options: a flight ticket out or jail,” he wrote on Facebook. Removing millions of people who are living in their native land is, of course, a vastly different endeavor. But is it unimaginable? Maybe it’s a gradual process: a policy of immiseration and oppression on the West Bank, combined with serious financial assistance for Palestinians to relocate to Jordan or Egypt. Maybe the Israelis just hope something will turn up. All I know is that the current contradiction will be at some point untenable. In the words of Herb Stein, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” How and when it will stop is an open question. All you can seriously predict is that, for the Palestinian Arabs, it won’t be pretty.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: It’s Time to Resist the Excesses of #MeToo