So, it seems, men are pigs. Not all men, of course, but evidently a far larger percentage of our male population than I would have imagined just a short time ago. Hopefully, the revelations of the last couple of months will have a lasting impact. The spectacle of powerful men, starting with Harvey Weinstein, paying dearly for their abuses should deter others who might be inclined to engage in similar behavior. A greater willingness of women to speak out against abusers should serve as additional deterrent.
Today I want to address the issue of how to regard men who generally do good in the world of politics whose behavior toward women is unacceptable. It’s too easy to forget that this isn’t a new issue, or if it is, it’s new because we generally evaded it. Remember the three Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King? We eventually learned about and mostly ignored their extra-marital escapades, but did we never consider that the women in these affairs were probably not fully equal, fully respected partners? My old attitude was that I judged a public figure by his public works, which were consequential; his private life, even if unsavory, was not. I don’t think that attitude is tenable any more if we are to seriously commit to full equality for women. Powerful, famous men set examples for the rest of society. The private/public distinction doesn’t work for me the way it used to.
The most immediate cases for consideration are Al Franken and John Conyers. Franken has been a fine senator. He has engaged in some deplorable behavior. But let’s make some distinctions. His offenses aren’t anywhere near in the same class as Harvey Weinstein’s or Roy Moore’s. He has not used a position of power to coerce a woman’s submission. As far as we know, he hasn’t made repetitive inappropriate demands on anyone. He deserves to be censured and embarrassed, but he should remain in the Senate. I’m glad that Michele Goldberg, in a very thoughtful op-ed, has reversed her earlier opinion that he should resign. In any case, it would be a travesty if Moore got to the Senate while Franken felt compelled to leave.
Conyers is a different matter. He has been accused of seeking to coerce sexual favors from employees. I’m an old fan of the venerable Michigan congressman, but if he is guilty as charged, he should resign.
Then there’s Bill Clinton. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand recently opined that Clinton should have resigned over the Monica Lewinsky affair. (Gillibrand later seemed to walk back from that suggestion.) I think that’s wrong. Clinton’s behavior was irresponsible. It was also morally blameworthy: a sexual relationship between the most powerful man in the world and a 23-year old intern is inherently exploitative, even if it was not initiated by the man. But it was a consensual relationship, and, while deplorable, was not an impeachable offense. On the other hand I agree with Michele Goldberg (in another impressively balanced op-ed) that Clinton probably did rape Juanita Broderick. In criminal law, the accused is innocent until proven guilty. In politics, our judgments aren’t constrained by such a high standard. Clinton is very likely one of those men who deserve to be called pigs. So, whatever we think of his politics, he should not have a place of honor in the pantheon of the modern presidency. He certainly should never again be invited to speak at a Democratic national convention.
Very likely, more cases will come to light of powerful men who do good in public but not so good in private. As above, every case will need to be judged in its particularities. It may sound noble to proclaim zero tolerance for sexual abuse, but sexual abuse comes in many forms and gradations of offensiveness. The good that men do has to be weighed against the bad. Sometimes it will be reasonable to let the pig off the hook.