There are three reasons why I am indifferent to the fate of Harvey Weinstein, a man even his defense lawyer has already stipulated is gross and manipulative. The first reason is that I have opposed the #metoo movement because it was interested only in making angry denunciations of people it regarded as guilty of a number of sex offenses that ranged from the relatively innocuous to outright rape. Well, here, finally, we have someone in the dock and I have confidence that Cy Vance’s office did not bring these charges lightly, though that cannot be said of District Attorney offices throughout the country, especially when the aggrieved parties are African-American. The defendant will have a chance to face his accusers for specific crimes. The jury will have to sort out whether Weinstein’s entreaties were a negotiation to bring about a deal where services were exchanged or whether it was intimidation that constituted sexual contact without consent. I don’t know how the trial will turn out.
There is a second and more profound reason for my indifference, something other than to put aside my distaste for contemplating what may very well be very outrageous conduct, criminal or not. Advocates for one or another side of a policy dispute tend to identify in particular cases of public scandal that leads to a verdict or a Supreme Court finding that is either “yea” or “nay” with the side which they generally support. But what if Michael Brown, of Ferguson, Missouri fame, was just the belligerent individual that some clues indicated he was? That would not mean he deserved the death penalty for filching from a store, but neither would it give credit to those people, like myself, who do indeed think that cops do indeed play fast and loose with the lives of black people. Separate the general from the particular. What if Dreyfuss had been a spy? There are such things as Jewish spies. But that would not have debased the case for French Republicanism over and against the French army’s view of traditional French patriotism. Similarly, if Harvey Weinstein somehow beats the rap, which is always possible, in that juries are unreliable and can get flustered by the flim flam of expertise that is thrown their way, that doesn’t mean women aren’t correct in opposing situations where they are manipulated into unwanted sex and don’t have much recourse in the matter.
Third of all, even if the verdict or decision is clear and decisive, that doesn’t mean that this moment of supposed enlightenment will in fact move things forward in the direction that advocates who backed the winning side had forecast. The vindication of Dreyfuss did not end the overwhelming influence of the French Army over French society. Consider what happened when the Supreme Court decided unanimously that separate but equal schools were unconstitutional. Yes, it was important as one of the events of the Fifties that moved along the Civil Rights Movement which resulted in the passage of two major pieces of legislation, the Equal Accommodations Act and the Voting Rights Act which, taken together, transformed the nature of Southern life. But that is to overlook what was supposed to be the main effect of Brown v. Board of Education, which was to alleviate the inequities that kept black students from performing as well as white students, and the truth is that we have never managed to solve that problem, Black and Hispanic students all around the country continuing to perform significantly more poorly in school than their white and Asian counterparts. The Civil Rights Movement still hasn’t reached underperforming Blacks and Browns.
The same can be said of the scandal/ordeal of Richard Nixon. Yes, a President was unseated and by means outlined in the Constitution, and not by a coup d’etat, and so it was cavalier of Henry Kissinger to say that it was a coup d’etat. But look what happened next. When Impeachment had not been used for a hundred years before Nixon, within a generation, Reagan was subject to an investigation over Iran-Contra that could have led to his Impeachment, but no one had the heart to put the country through that again even if what Reagan had done was a clear violation of the Constitutional stipulation that all monies spent by the Executive had to be raised through acts of Congress, and then, not ten years later, Clinton was impeached for frivolous reasons, just to get back at the Democrats for what they had launched against Nixon. From the historic to the ridiculous.
And so what does a Weinstein conviction foretell? It does not mean that it will become easier to convict sexual malefactors. Weinstein’s defense may cause a number of grounds for impugning a defendant to be no longer feasible, such as simply the fact that he is more powerful in general than the person he assails, which is what some Feminists consider to be the gist of the complaints against men in power. Or it may mean that terms of consent have to be spelled out in advance, which creates havoc for romance, as if relations across class lines was no longer a possible way for men and women to relate to one another. Harvey Weinstein convicted is just Harvey Weinstein convicted.
There are a number of ways to bring about social change in a society rather than an appeal to a fractious public case over which some body, such as New York State Supreme Court judge and jury, or the United States Supreme Court, or the Judges presided over by Athena in the case of Agamemnon’s murder, presides. These include giant infrastructure projects, such as the Erie Canal and the Intercontinental Railway. There are also structural innovations, such as the Federal Reserve System or the National Labor Relations Board. There are demographic changes, such as the importation into this country of more than fifty million foreigners in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, and there are resource changes, such as the discovery of cheap oil made from shale that makes the United States, in the past ten years, energy independant, a situation yet to bear fruit either internally or in foreign affairs. It is like the agency executive who once told me that she thought the only way to bring about social change was to file a lawsuit. Well, that wasn’t the case, and neither is a scandal. Even a much hyped controversial scandal just does not amount to very much. What Feminists are asking for is a profound change in the way men relate to women in that there has been an epidemic of the bad behavior that is always possible in the relation between men and women, and it should take some deep social force to bring about that change, such as the power of women increasing because of their new significance in the workplace, or some such thing that is grander than a high publicity trial. (By the way, I have not known any men who have engaged in such abusive behavior nor any women who have suffered from it, and so I am not at all sure an epidemic is underway. Maybe that is why I am hesitant to believe accusations that are not backed up by evidence, however much that may get filtered through the judicial system.)
I am put in mind of another high publicity case by the impending possibility of the Harvey Weinstein trial being turned into something like that, as the media did with that other “Trial of the Century”, the O. J. Simpson trial, should the media choose to give the Weinstein Trial its full treatment. That is the Scopes Trial, which took place in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. There too something was going to be settled: the conflict between religion and evolution. But nothing got settled in that there is now a Museum of Creationism in Washington, D. C. What both sides, both William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, showed was that both sides had missed the point, which is that the religious experience can absorb into itself an acceptance of Darwinism because it is more protean than being subject to direct disproof, and that secularism can get its way of penetrating into people’s minds even if people continue to believe the old shibboleths.
The same may prove true of a Harvey Weinstein trial. It is meant to settle, “once and for all”, whether women will have to put up with being sexually abused, that rather than the trope of romance seeming to dominate our time. But what it may show instead, to no consequence, is that both sides have missed the point, and so look foolish. Weinstein may have carried on with his illusion of power even while women were cringing in front of him to the point where it was no longer clear whether it was an illusion but the substance of intimidation, and then he is indeed guilty, and it may also be the case that the women he abused must have been very naive to think that making themselves attractive or available enough to gain them some favor with the movie producer might not result in his trying to take advantage of the situation, even if he was the one who made the first move. All that shows is that sex is far more complicated than anyone, at this stage of the game, is willing to allow it to be.