As I say, nothing much will happen in Washington until Mueller winds up his investigation, probably with a report to Congress saying that Trump is beholden to the Russians because of all the money he owes to them or has laundered for them, but until then the cable networks and other news outlets are in a frenzy about sexual harassment, the most significant victim of that frenzy so far being Al Franken, who was forced to resign from the Senate, which did not grant him the expedited ethics hearing that I presume he wanted, but came to judgment on the basis of accusations by six women, at least three of whom remain anonymous. Put aside the hypocrisy of the women Senators who said they were shocked to find themselves forced to insist on his resignation in spite of the fact that he was a friend of theirs. That is not the way a friend behaves, sticking in the knife along with everyone else, rather than trying to find a plausible explanation for bad behavior. They were never his friends, just political colleagues never overmuch concerned with personal loyalty. Let us turn instead to the nature of this frenzy, which is a form of McCarthyism, this time from the left rather than from the right.
McCarthyism was a frenzy rather than a social movement because it was just the expression of a set of feelings rather than an attempt to change society through legislation. It consisted of anger against an enemy in our midst that was generalized to include anyone remotely tainted with the unholy attribute that motivated its scorn. In the case of McCarthyism, that scorn was directed at those who had demonstrated Communist sympathies back in the Thirties as well as those who were, at the time, the Forties and early Fifties, still engaged with Communist causes. A kind of instant amnesia had set in that allowed people to forget that the Soviets had been our allies against Hitler and that times had changed so much, the Soviets now our absolute enemies. There was no attempt to engage in due process but there was an attempt, rather, to intimidate witnesses by threatening their employment or freedom if they did not cooperate with various investigating committees, those committees less interested in finding out the truth than in having witnesses tell them what the committees already knew, which were the names of people as yet not revealed in public to be Communist sympathizers. Such cooperation would be taken as a sign that the witness was “cooperating”, which meant that they had converted from being a Communist sympathizer to being something new: an ex-Communist. Careers and lives were ruined in the process because being considered a Communist sympathizer rather than an ex-Communist was, at the time, the worst possible thing to be.
The frenzy died out quickly enough once McCarthy started attacking the United States Army, at which point Eisenhower turned against him. McCarthy was censured by the Senate and died a few years later from alcoholism. The frenzy never became a social movement because there were only a few kooks, like those in the John Birch Society, to pick up the cudgels, and because there was no organizational network or cultural ethos to carry on McCarthyite principles, nor had there ever been any legislative agenda for McCarthy, who claimed there were great numbers of Communists in the State Department but never introduced any legislation which would help ferret them out or that would aid in the overall work of putting an end to the enormous Communist conspiracy he claimed existed in our midst.
The current frenzy about sexual harassment is like that. Its object of ire are men who violate sexual propriety by making unwanted advances upon women, and it is felt that this is behavior of very long standing and very widespread and that today’s new norms about what men can get away with are to be regarded as having always been the appropriate standard of behavior, though Feminists disagree about whether this is the way their own menfolk carry on. Something is to be done about this long standing oppression in our midst, but there is also a remarkable lack of clarity about what constitutes sexual harassment, which stretches from rape and underage sex to pinching a behind or even, as some have suggested, calling a female colleague “sweetie”, which would seem to me to be, at worst, a case of gender prejudice rather than a case of sexual harassment, even though the waitress at my diner calls me “sweetie” and I see that as a sign of affection extended to an old man as a courtesy rather than as sexually tinged, although maybe the argument is that only women are subject to sexual harassment.
Moreover, I have no one call for a redesign of laws about sexual harassment to make them more “fair” for women. Most ideas about that matter run into easy objections. Getting rid of statutes of limitations would not do away with the reason there are such statutes in the first place: as time goes on, it is harder and harder to gather evidence to convict someone or to exonerate someone. Harsher penalties might be suitable for rapists, but what of people who have sex in their teens with someone just below the age of consent? And most of the cases in the current media never reach a level of criminal trial. What Al Franken did is not criminal even if you consider it tasteless and not even Harvey Weinstein has been charged with a crime. Isn’t that peculiar, or is it that the district attorneys in Los Angeles and New York are just hopelessly biased against women?
Most of all, and what makes the current frenzy most like McCarthyism, is the lack of due process. Under McCarthyism, people were dragged in front of committees to be humiliated or deprived of their occupation through back channel blacklists, or just fired by universities for their affiliations. In the present case, there is not even the appearance of due process, of any sort of hearing. Accusations are enough, and they can be of very different quality, the cases tried in the court of public opinion. If charges are not knocked down in a few days, that is enough. The Roy Moore accusers are deemed plausible, as they are, but there has been no widespread coverage of what those who defend him say are the holes in the main accuser’s story. Now, all this is past the statute of limitations or, as in the case of Al Franken, do not rise to the level of criminal activity, so how is a determination to be made? In the case of Roy Moore, voters can consult whatever standards they want, whether it is the cut of his hair or his stand on abortion, to determine whether to vote for him, but what about Al Franken? Was it the fact that a sixth accuser came forward? Is six the magic number? Was it that there was a possibly deliberately posed photo of him reaching towards a woman’s breast? That was enough to get him out of the seat to which he had been elected? Women Senators ran to judgment and their male colleagues could not but support them. All this does not lead me to think we need more women in the Senate, as I did when I thought they would be a progressive force. Kirsten Gillibrand, you just lost my vote. Mika Brzezinski may say that she is troubled by all this, by women now wielding a machine gun indiscriminately. Well, why then does she not call for Franken to change his mind and stay in the Senate and insist on a hearing? That way he would be able to face his accusers and have them questioned. But, as we learned with Anita Hill, whose supporters insisted on getting a Senate hearing, the rules of such encounters are even more convoluted and restricted than they are in criminal or civil trials. I don’t think, given the present atmosphere, that Franken would get a fair day in court. After all, Franken has not donned the mantle of the ex-Communist because he did not apologize for his behavior in his resignation speech. He has denied his accusers the pleasure of engaging in the abject apology of the sort conducted in a Chinese Cultural Revolution self correction session.
The frenzy will come to an end because, as I say, it is only a frenzy that takes up space because nothing else is going on. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem is a nothing burger in that the peace process and the two state solution have been dead for years and no Sunni state in the area wants any trouble with Israel. The tax bill, even if it does pass, can be reversed when the Democrats take over again. Women politicians will look back at the frenzy with no apologies but perhaps a bit of sheepishness at some of the more extreme statements and judgments, it all just another sad moment in the battle of the sexes that has gone on since Adam and Eve and David and Bathsheba, the only cost to the culture a return to a bit more prudishness about how men and women deal with one another, something we thought, in the early days of the sexual revolution, in the Sixties and the Seventies, that had eased up, and deservedly so.