So. I’m working towards an essay, perhaps, on this Historical Moment talking and thinking about our leaders having committed sexual harassment and assault. I have strong feelings about this, in part because of personal shame about my participation in the culture as a young man. I don’t think that experience is or ought to be part of whatever essay I’m working toward, but I bring it up here, and at the top, to say: this isn’t some dispassionate policy matter, and I am not writing about it and can’t write about it as if I am not complicit. My anger is in part at myself.
Now, having started this note like that, I’m going to back away from the personal stuff and bring up a bunch of things that may or may not be connected, but that have been rattling around in my brain. Maybe writing them out and posting them here will help; maybe some Gentle Reader will assist me in separating the wheat from the chaff. Maybe it’ll just lie here, and that’ll be OK, too. After all, the world does not really need an essay, however incisive and persuasive, in which one white man tells other white men about our world. On the other hand, I am aware that as things are, change will happen when white men feel compelled to change. Also, while it is arrogant for us to attempt to lead the change, neither is it OK to leave that task to the people who have already been hurt by the status quo.
Well, then. First, just as a kind of framework for thinking about my thinking, I’m going to bring up something I wrote five years ago in a note about a couple of movies.
[Iron-Jawed Angels and Made in Dagenham] both feature an older accommodationist woman, who provides the final pivot of the plot when she reverses course and supports the more revolutionary lead. In the Alice Paul movie, it’s the great Carrie Chapman Catt; in the machinists’ movie, it’s the great Barbara Castle. In both cases, the moment is clearly a construct of the movie; neither Ms. Catt nor Baroness Castle were quite as accommodationist as they are portrayed. But it’s a great moment in this kind of movie, and I certainly don’t begrudge the movie-makers those moments.
The question that comes to my mind, though, is to wonder if anybody, in watching these moments or similar ones (and there are similar ones in such movies) wants to grow up to be the accommodationist who knows the right moment to stop accommodating. Because I gotta say damn I love and admire those people. Yes, the fighters-from-outside are great, and I admire them whole-heartedly. But it’s the guy who has been getting inch-by-inch progress, all the while telling people that they have to wait for more, and who then finds the moment to go all in—that’s the guy I love. […] When Carrie Chapman Catt finally walks in to the Oval Office and tells Woodrow Wilson that it’s now or never, the answer was now.
That doesn’t just happen in movies, does it?
It feels to me as if this—right now—is the moment for those of us who have been focusing on incremental improvements and half loaves, to stop accommodating and demand radical change. Maybe 1991-1992 was that moment, with the scandals about Ted Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Bob Packwood and Bill Clinton. If it was, we failed to take advantage of it. It’s twenty-five years later. Maybe opportunity really is knocking this time. I appreciate incremental improvements, I think we need to be constantly working on incremental improvements, I think incremental improvements are vastly underrated, and this may be the time for radical change.
OK, another framework: I have been thinking, probably inappropriately, about the Civil War. Mostly, it started by my thinking about Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, which as I have said, is the single greatest speech in the history of the United States. In it, he admits that, while of course we hope for peace and mercy and reconciliation,
Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether”.
That is one of those things that it’s easy to agree with because it didn’t happen. But it is and has to be the basis for understanding what did happen: that wealth was not sunk, and that blood was not paid. Undeserved—what, mercy? Let’s call it mercy, for now. Undeserved mercy allowed us to forget the scale of the guilt. But when we look at what actually happened, at the structure of human misery over so long, I don’t see how we can escape President Lincoln’s conclusion.
And so: it seems to me that if we look at the structure of human misery that we call the patriarchy, I don’t see how we can escape a similar conclusion. If the whole structure collapses, and every humiliation, oppression and vileness, every restriction and false accusation and violent assault, every crushed hope and every broken body is compounded back upon men, so still it must be said: “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”. I have no merit myself that would avert justice, although I do I hope fondly and pray fervently for mercy. But I can’t bring myself to expect it, much less demand it.
And again: the legacy of that unpaid debt, the century and more of still reverberating injustice. I suggested to a friend today that it is time to re-read Why We Can’t Wait. That was rude, probably, but I feel as if we men need to keep in mind what is at stake, and what we as allies (if we are to ally ourselves) are asking for when we ask for any dispensation, or even for patience.
I am speaking in generalities. Let me say this: my instinct is to forgive Al Franken for his abuse and humiliation of a colleague. That instinct is the problem, isn’t it? So many worse things happen, so often, and he is after all a funny guy and a useful legislator. When put up against Our Only President, Senator Franken seems like a good guy, albeit with a few blemishes on his record. Forcing a tongue into someone’s mouth or groping an unconscious person’s body, well, that’s bad, but not as bad as… and surely this here is a learning moment, and in the future we will be able to work with Senator Franken as an advocate and… This is my instinct; that instinct is the problem. That sense that the known perpetrator of an offense can still be trusted, that sense exists because of the culture that has made those offenses commonplace.
Y’all should tell me how terrible this analogy is, but it occurs to me our attitude toward Al Franken is in some small way like knowing that Washington and Jefferson owned human beings. They did! It was part of their culture! They chose to engage in the worst aspects of that culture! It was horrifically wrong! They also did a lot of good things! They also bear responsibility for creating the culture that allowed it. It was socially encouraged in many places, and also socially deplored, and we are shocked but can’t really be surprised. And the goal, I guess, is that at some point our grandchildren will look back on our generation and think those guys, ugh. Right? That’s what we want from our better future, isn’t it? Are we totally comfortable with that, guys? Can we let go of our defensiveness and be willing to be held up as bad examples? Because we are bad examples, either because we’ve done things we ought to be ashamed of or just because we had not somehow put a stop to this horrible culture of ours.
Another: Look, I have known for a long time that these occasional humiliations and assaults take place. I’m not ignorant; I’m not blind. I have lived with the knowledge for twenty-five years. I have not, during those twenty-five years, perpetrated any of the humiliations and assaults myself, I believe—if I am wrong and have done anyone such an injury, please tell me—but I have been swimming in the same tainted water you have. Walking away from Omelas has never really been an option. And yet I live—we all live, somehow holding the knowledge that the culture we are passing along to our children is toxic. Or, really, only literally toxic in comparatively rare cases, it’s the kind of poison that weakens and sickens without killing. Or without always killing, anyway. We could well go along, with incremental improvements, for another few decades. Not ignoring it, striving for the good, but not breaking out into civil war over it. It’s hard to look at Our Only President and remember that twenty-five years ago the President was also prone to abuse of women, and that twenty-five or so years before that, the President was also prone to abuse of women, and that the press wavered only between winking at it and collaborating in it. Things aren’t worse these days just because we know about them more quickly. Radical change is not the only kind of change. Perhaps personal rage and shame are tricking me into a false belief that this is the time for it.
This brings us back to slavery, doesn’t it? Because I feel, a tiny bit, like going John Brown. Now he was a madman and a terrorist, and what’s probably worse, he didn’t actually help the abolitionist cause. And if there had been a way to abolish slavery without years of slaughter, as most of Europe did, then wouldn’t that have been better?
Not that I really think that the radical change that compels men to respect the essential equality of women will really come in the form of years of slaughter. Just that if it did take that form, well, still, I would say, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.