The Joe Biden Issue

The Joe Biden issue doesn’t seem to go away, stoked by both Trump and cable news, which can’t deal with the serious issue of whether the current President is fit for office. Zelinka Maxwell says on MSNBC that she wants a nuanced discussion of changing views of what is unwelcome touching, which is the term now used for the most modest intrusion on the personal space of females. She says there is a difference between kissing babies and kissing the back of the head of an adult woman. But what seems so  obvious to her does not seem so obvious to me, and the men on her panel were not willing to engage the issue, to in fact engage in a nuanced discussion. Like kissing babies, planting a kiss on the head of a woman one is obviously trying to give emotional support, there being a lot of people around who can see that it is not a sexual overture, is innocuous, and hardly worthy of discussion, people in my generation doing it all the time as a way to create solidarity with colleagues. Why should one not think that most women would not regard this as non-threatening, only those in the media jumping on the bandwagon to score points for their side in the ever roiling sex wars of our times?

Nancy Pelosi, who seems to me the wise grandmother of government, always saying the nuanced thing, said that Biden had to respect the changing standards with regard to touching. That, in fact is just what he did in the video he released yesterday. I, for one, would not have gone that far, but I am not running for President. I would have said that it is a loss rather than progress to set up more prudish standards for men touching women because it means men and women will be less easy with one another when the goal of the first few generations of feminism was to make men and women more equal, whether in pay and rank, or in personal relations, where both men and women could speak freely in mixed company and where the only limit on sexual conduct was the consent of the parties, there being no double standard whereby what was pleasurable for men was shameful for women. Back then, men and women had separate dormitories and otherwise supervised places to meet. Do we want to go back to chaperones or should we insist that people in positions of power can’t flirt with their subordinates? Monica Lewinsky, I remind you, was not an innocent party. She was sexually experienced, and with older men, and she was the one who flirted with Bill Clinton, who gave in to his own worst inclinations. Yes, he was more powerful, but he had no power over her. She did not care that much about keeping her job; she cared about adding his scalp to her trophies.

Here is why it was better back in the old days before “norms” about touching changed. My wife had a young woman as an employee who at an even younger age had worked at the U. S. Capitol. She was standing on a porch of the Capitol on 9-11 along with Joe Biden, a senior Senator at the time, waiting for something to happen, perhaps for the fourth unaccounted for plane to crash into them, when Biden gave her a hug and said “We will get through this.” Is it better that in a similar situation today that young woman would have had to do without the comfort of an avuncular hug by a well known public figure in a public place just because some (few) women are uptight? I think not. And what is this stuff about changing norms anyway?  A Harvard professor of sociology announces on PBS that the norms on unwanted touching have changed. How does he know? He should understand the concept of norm well enough to know that it is not a matter of professional opinion to decide or a fact established by scientific polling. It is something everybody just knows in their bones whether or not it is a correct assessment of facts, and so is ever elusive. It is not written out anywhere. So that professor is legislating a new norm by announcing it as having come about. Why should it be accepted? I didn’t get a chance to vote on it.

Remember when Joe Biden made a gaffe in an early primary debate in 2008 and said that Barack Obama was “clean” when he meant to say “clean cut”. It was not an attempt to say that Obama was well scrubbed, unlike other African Americans. At that time, the other candidates in the field, all men, said that Joe Biden should not be misread. He had been an early and long standing advocate of civil rights. Nancy Pelosi, who seems to me the wise grandmother of government, always saying the nuanced thing, said that Biden had to respect the changing standards with regard to touching. That, in fact is just what he did in his video. That should be the end of it. Well, what is the response of female candidates for President to the present Biden remark? Far from being the more moral sex, they just played political games. Kamala Harris she said she believed the four women who accused Biden of unwanted touching. The question is not whether it happened but whether it amounts to much and by saying she believes them Harris’s rhetoric raises the issue to be one of sexual harassment just as in all those other cases brought forward by the me too movement where the question is whether to believe the accuser without getting corroborating evidence. So now a kiss on the head is an assault.

Amy Klobuchar just left Joe out there to hang in the wind, saying he would have to find a way to handle this and not making any remarks in defense of his character, something that Valerie Jarrett, who is not running for anything, was able to do yesterday morning on “Morning Joe”. Kirsten Gillibrand did much the same as Klobucher, saying that Biden would have to decide whether he should remain in the race. Elizabeth Warren also took the tack of saying she believed Biden’s accuser, as if that were the point, and saying it was up to him to decide if he should decline to make a run. It is easy to knock the ball into the other court rather than to say the whole controversy is beyond the pale, a matter of cultural change that is fresh upon us and so to be negotiated rather than of a crime for which the punishment has to be self inflicted. So much for the supposedly more nuanced discussion of women about personal matters. The men four campaigns ago were far more generous than the women this year or maybe it is that improper touching is now a more serious issue than racism then was.

Another story. Some years ago, David Dinkins was running for reelection. He was the first African American mayor of New York and so I was partial to him and had voted for him the first time. His record as Mayor was mixed. He had not well managed the Crown Heights riots and, to my mind, had appointed too many political hacks as commissioners, though it could be argued that it was about time that African Americans got their fair share of the spoils. His opponent was Rudy Giuliani who I did not like because he made white collar criminals go through a perp walk in handcuffs and I didn’t know if I could bring myself to vote for a Republican but I thought he was right in wanting a mayor to have control over the school system, a commissioner replacing the Board of Education. Then, in the last days of the campaign, Dinkins said that anyone who voted against his reelection was a racist. That settled it for me. I voted for Giuliani. Well, now I am in a similar position. The female candidates in the Democratic primary have thrown Biden over the side. It is a declaration of gender war and so I have to choose sides and so I will side with my maligned sex and I will not vote for any of the female candidates even though I think that, in general, people should be judged on their individual merits, not on an ascription, whether that is age, gender, or race. This is a big step for me, but this is a big moment, and I deeply hope that I am wrong about that.