Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Al Franken's Career Died For Your Sins

I started this, then decided to leave it alone, then decided "What the heck?" and now I'm kicking it out of the nest; so to speak.  I'm going to pick and choose a few bits of the Mayer article on Al Franken, just as it interests me to comment on.

From the opening paragraphs, then:

Now Franken was just one more face in a gallery of previously powerful men who had been brought down by the #MeToo movement, and whom no one wanted to hear from again. America had ghosted him.

Which is interesting, and perplexing.  What did Al Franken do?  Why do we despise him now?  What does that do for us?  Make us pure, pay back women for what they have suffered, balance the accounts between male and female, post a warning to others?

Only two years ago, Franken was being talked up as a possible challenger to President Donald Trump in 2020. In Senate hearings, Franken had proved himself to be one of the most effective critics of the Trump Administration. His tough questioning of Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, had led Sessions to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election, and prompted the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel.

As it turns out, Franken’s only role in the 2020 Presidential campaign has been as a figure of controversy. On June 4th, Pete Buttigieg was widely criticized on social media for saying that he would not have pressured Franken to resign—as had virtually all his Democratic rivals who were then in the Senate—without first learning more about the alleged incidents. At the same time, the Presidential candidacy of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has been plagued by questions about her role as the first of three dozen Democratic senators to demand Franken’s resignation. Gillibrand has cast herself as a feminist champion of “zero tolerance” toward sexual impropriety, but Democratic donors sympathetic to Franken have stunted her fund-raising and, Gillibrand says, tried to “intimidate” her “into silence.”
Chutzpah was once defined, I read, as a son shooting his parents, then asking mercy of the courts because he is an orphan.  Sen. Gillibrand thought she was leading a crusade to her credit, but the credit has run out and payment is now demanded.  Such are the risks of being a crusader.  No one is intimidating her into silence (such a victim she plays!); she's just found the parade took a turn at the last intersection, and she's no longer leading it.  Refusing to take responsibility for her actions is not helping her presidential campaign, regardless of what one thinks should, or should not, have happened to Al Franken.

Seven more women followed with accusations against Franken; all of them centered on inappropriate touches or kisses. Half the accusers’ names have still not become public. Although both Franken and Tweeden called for an independent investigation into her charges, none took place. This reticence reflects the cultural moment: in an era when women’s accusations of sexual discrimination and harassment are finally being taken seriously, after years of belittlement and dismissal, some see it as offensive to subject accusers to scrutiny. “Believe Women” has become a credo of the #MeToo movement.

I did not know so many accusers were still private, still not publicly named.  That strikes me was unfair alone:  anonymous accusations are always the least credible.  There is a reason the accused in a court of law must be faced by his accuser.  Anonymous complaints are not worthy of investigation, much less credence.  It may be some of the anonymous accusers of Mr. Franken truly don't want to be publicly identified.  But neither should their anonymous accusations be given any weight.  Most of the articles criticizing Mayer's report, however, use these anonymous accusations as fuel for the fire, because it creates more smoke.  After all, where there are several accusations, there must be guilt, too.

Right?  Curiously, some numbers matter more than other numbers:

A Change.org petition urging Franken to retract his resignation received more than seventy-five thousand signatures. It declared, “There’s a difference between abuse and a mistake.”

But the critics of Mayer's article think the mistake is in not treating Mr. Franken as a pariah, and his accusers as innocent babes.  Ms. Mayer noted on NPR this morning that most of the critics don't seem to have read her article.  I've yet to read a critique of her thesis that really does address the details of the article, and not one that notes counting heads is a two-way street.  I haven't seen any reference to this, either:

Two actresses who had performed the same role as Tweeden on earlier U.S.O. tours with him, Karri Turner and Traylor Portman, immediately recognized that Tweeden was wrong to say that Franken had written the part in order to kiss her. Both women told me that they fully supported the #MeToo movement and could speak only to their own experiences. But Turner confirmed that she had acted in the same skit in 2003. Video footage of her performing it, which can be seen online, shows that the script was altered for Tweeden only by cutting references to “JAG,” a TV show in which Turner starred. In a statement, Turner said that “no woman should have to deal with any type of harassment, ever!” But on her two U.S.O. tours with Franken, she said, “there was nothing inappropriate toward me,” adding, “I only experienced a person that was eager to make soldiers laugh.”

Traylor Portman, who used her maiden name, Traylor Howard, while appearing on the TV show “Monk,” said that she also played the role in Franken’s skit, in 2005. “It’s not accurate for her to say it was written for her,” Portman told me. She had rehearsed the kissing scene with Franken, and hadn’t objected, because “you’re going to practice—that’s what professionals do.” She said that the scene involved “what looked like kissing but wasn’t,” adding, “It’s just for comic relief. I guess you could turn your head, but whatever—it’s nothing. I was in sitcoms. You just play it for laughs.”

Portman went on, “I get the whole #MeToo thing, and a whole lot of horrible stuff has happened, and it needed to change. But that’s not what was happening here.” She added, “Franken is a good man. I remember him talking so sweetly and lovingly about his wife.” Portman recalled, “There were Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders there, and he didn’t pay any special attention to them. He had a good rapport with everyone. He was hilarious. He was just trying to get them to laugh. It was about entertaining people who were risking their lives.” Asked about the allegation that Franken drew “devil horns” on Tweeden’s head shot, Portman said, “It doesn’t sound out of line for him—but please. To get offended by that sounds ridiculous, like fourth grade.”
Now that's long and detailed and nuanced, and it's no wonder it doesn't find it's way into articles critiquing the New Yorker article.  Then again, many an article decrying the defense of Al Franken includes "my #MeToo story," and those are to be taken as read because how dare you?  So what do we do with this story?  If you're aim is to maintain a story where there are heroes and villains, then you must ignore it.  We all have to agree no conduct that is distasteful to someone can be allowed:

Sarah Silverman points out that the photo-op allegations, even if true, are of a different magnitude than the kind of grotesque misconduct that has often been exposed in the #MeToo era. “This isn’t Kavanaugh,” she said. “It isn’t Roy Moore.” In fact, one of Franken’s photo-op accusers told the Huffington Post that she voted for him afterward. 
So no mentions of Sarah Silverman's comments, either.

It's a New Yorker piece, it's a Jane Mayer piece, so of course it's long and detailed and full of information.  The critiques of it are simple and sharp and pointed:  he was wrong, and he should still be punished, not forgiven, not even regarded as having learned his lesson (the only lesson to learn seems to be that someone else has the whip hand now, and how do you like them apples, huh?).  Because here is where we are:

Not long ago, I asked the woman if she thought that Franken had been making a sexual advance or a clumsy thank-you gesture.

“Is there a difference?” she replied. “If someone tries to do something to you unwanted?” From her standpoint, because she was at work—a professional woman deserving respect—his intentions didn’t matter.

Franken has maintained that the woman’s story was the allegation “that killed me.” I asked her if his behavior was bad enough to end his Senate career.

“I didn’t end his Senate career—he did,” she said.
The incident is one where Franken says he was going in for a friendly hug, and she claims he sought an unwanted kiss.  To say we don't know who is telling the truth is not to say that she is a liar.  But is there a difference between an unwanted sexual advance and a clumsy gesture?  Shouldn't there be?  I think of a scene I just saw in a TV show set in late 19th century London:  a man, walking up to the doors of an orphanage, picks up a young girl and carries her in his arms, simply delighting in the child and she in the attention.  In that time period, an innocent act; in ours, grounds for suspecting molestation of the child.  After all, does intent make a difference?  Should it?

I recently asked Gillibrand why she felt that Franken had to go. She said, “We had eight credible allegations, and they had been corroborated, in real time, by the press corps.” She acknowledged that she hadn’t spoken to any accusers, to assess their credibility, but said, “I had been a leader in this space of sexual harassment and assault, and it was weighing on me.” Franken was “entitled to whichever process he wants,” she said. “But he wasn’t entitled to me carrying his water, and defending him with my silence.” She acknowledged that the accusations against Franken “were different” from the kind of rape or molestation charges made against many other #MeToo targets. “But the women who came forward felt it was sexual harassment,” she said. “So it was.”

If that is all #MeToo is about, then it is only about power, and who gets to wield it now.  If Sen. Gillibrand finds she has trouble raising money for her presidential run, then she is finding out power is not a one-way street, either.

Gillibrand told me, “I’d do it again today,” adding, “If a few wealthy donors are angry about that, it’s on them.”
Well, okay then....

If you prefer your "heroes" a little more nuanced and thoughtful, and not so anxious to blame others for their troubles, I would recommend:

The lawyer Debra Katz, who has represented Christine Blasey Ford and other sexual-harassment victims, remains troubled by Franken’s case. She contends, “The allegations levelled against Senator Franken did not warrant his forced expulsion from the Senate, particularly given the context in which most of the behavior occurred, which was in his capacity as a comedian.” She adds, “All offensive behavior should be addressed, but not all offensive behavior warrants the most severe sanction.” Katz sees Franken as a cautionary tale for the #MeToo movement. “To treat all allegations the same is not only inappropriate,” she warns. “It feeds into a backlash narrative that men are vulnerable to even frivolous allegations by women.”
Is the warning, then, to men like Al Franken?  Or is it to the #MeToo movement?  Critics of this article want the former, not the latter; but intentions, as in that last anecdote about Mr. Franken, don't always matter.  It's not that offensive behavior should be ignored; it is how it should be addressed that is the question.  In the same time period as that scene on TV I mentioned, women of a certain status could sue for breach of promise when an engagement was broken off.  Of course, the reason for that is that women who lost an engagement were "damaged goods," so the man who has "spoiled them" needed to compensate them for what was, essential, a commercial tort (breach of contract).  We don't need to return to that level of legal control over our social lives, but we seem determined to assert control over aspects of our lives that are murky in the best of times, and where confusion often reigns.  Is ostracism and loss of property (a job is, in some senses, a property right) the only way to correct behavior that was once acceptable and now is not?  Or is there a more sensible path to progress?

No comments:

Post a Comment