When Donald Trump said “You can do anything if you’re a star,” he defined the privilege of powerful white men in a way that was so clear that everyone got it. While there were academics who had been stumbling around this point for a while, a combination of bad writing, dubious claims, and the perception of political bias on their part prevented anyone from paying too much attention to them; yet another good reason that post-modern verbosity is to be avoided. But when the senile man-baby let it all hang out in the Access Hollywood tape, he stated the idea in terms so simple a child could understand it. And when a huge mass of white men gave him a resounding cheer, in the form of an electoral victory, we all realized that it wasn’t just a few bad apples. They outed themselves, and they deserve all the political correctness they’re going to get. And they’re going to get a lot of it. The sheer blinkered ineptitude of it all is hilarious.
So the trap was set, and though Harvey Weinstein was the first to step into it, he wasn’t the one who created it. This is not the Weinstein effect, but the Trump effect. Weinstein was just the perfect example of what the trap was set for; like Trump, he is a serial predator, a monster who exploits his power to take advantage of women, and indeed, anyone less powerful than himself. Trump himself should have been caught by the trap, but it really wasn’t complete until he was elected—that was the last straw. It hasn’t caught him…yet, but it has caught others, like Roy Moore and Kevin Spacey. Cosby, of course, had already been caught—and he might be the worst of all.
It has also caught Louis C. K. and, just yesterday, Al Franken. This is where I start to have a doubt about this. It isn’t that they deserve special treatment, but their behaviour and situations are different from the others. This is in large part about the abuse of power, but what is different about C.K. and Franken is that it is not clear that they were aware that they had power, not in the same obvious way that any of the others did. C.K. had a successful career, but in the neurotic fashion of most comedians he may not have equated this with power. Trump, Weinstein, Moore, and Spacey were aware of their power and used it to threaten people’s reputations and livelihoods, and to silence them; anything rather than change. They followed up assaults with lies, threats and legal action. This is their character. This is evil without remorse, a level of viciousness which is not apparent in the case of C. K. or Franken. Of course, Louis C. K. repeated this behaviour. It’s a strange kink, and it was a pattern of gross stupidity. But I don’t yet see evidence of evil.
Franken’s crime is even weaker; the fact that he did these actions on stage and before a camera (and if you look at the picture, he’s not even touching her) indicates that he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. Predators know they’re doing something wrong, they just don’t care. That he did it once indicates that this was not a habit. A lot of comedy is improv, which is funny maybe a third of the time, offensive about half of the time, and stupid most of the time. It’s about turning off your filters and doing whatever comes into your head. The woman in question didn’t get this because she was a radio personality, not a comedian.
In other words, it’s a mistake. We do not condemn people for making mistakes, especially when they recognize them and are willing to make amends. Mistakes are how you learn, and to condemn them is to damn us all to ignorance. While we want to remove people from power who deliberately and repeatedly employ their power to abuse others, we do not want to live in a world where mistakes can ruin your life. If you think otherwise, be careful of what you wish for.
There is one last element in this: presentism, which is the practice of applying current standards to the past. The Trump/Weinstein effect is only a year old, but it has managed to usher in a whole new standard for relations between the sexes. This is progress, but progress comes at a price: the past, and many of the people in it, suddenly becomes a disappointment. It is the job of liberals to advance progress, but it is the job of conservatives to slow it down so everyone can catch up, and to stop the bad ideas of liberals. Our enthusiasm must be held in check. We have just had a major cultural advance, and it can be hard to get our bearings in these circumstances. The question is, did the person accused know that what they were doing was wrong when they did it, or is it wrong in retrospect?
It is not the job of conservatives to defend the obviously guilty. The predators on our list knew that what they were doing was wrong at the time, and so did everyone else. Someone at the mall Moore hung around said everyone knew what he was up to. He was hunting underage girls, which was illegal then as it is now. Trump and Weinstein paid hush money. Louis C. K. said he didn’t want to talk about it, but admitted it all when it came out. He seemed to think at the time that it was okay if he asked the women beforehand and didn't touch them. Franken was caught like a deer in the headlights, and denied nothing. Again, there is an essential difference here. The predators did things in the past that were wrong at the time. The others did things in the past that in retrospect, have only become wrong in the present.
We are walking a line here, and that line divides the space between propriety and puritanism. I first noticed this in university in the early 80’s, when I said that the politics of feminism at the time resembled nothing so much as the anti-sex league of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Sex is a complicated and awkward business, and most people don’t know their way around it, especially the young. People are going to get signals wrong, be too aggressive or too passive, they’re going to get drunk, they’re going to make decisions they later regret. Mistakes will be made, and again, we do not condemn people for making mistakes. The accused must always be innocent until proven guilty, and if there is only one witness for the prosecution, the integrity of that witness is of primary concern. No one can ever be granted to power to ruin another with mere words.
Mistakes will be made, and they must be forgiven. Young men must learn how to avoid these mistakes, but young women must also learn to navigate the terrain and take these mistakes less personally. Deliberate malfeasance, however, must be met with steel, and clarifying the roles of men and women will make the lines more obvious. This won’t be done in a day—or a year, as we have recently tried—but it can be done.