TO ACCUSE OR NOT TO ACCUSE? PART 2: How We Got Here

Another day and another one bites the dust.

This time it’s Charlie Rose, morning TV anchor and talk show host for the smart set.  Several women who worked for him have come forward to report what was apparently another “open secret” – that this “toxic bachelor” liked to employ young women as his assistants and then would try to seduce them after blurring their boundaries between work and life.  That is, serving the needs of the show would eventually mean serving the needs of Charlie.  But now there is no show – no morning show, no talk show, nothing.  And the bloom is definitely off this rose.

(There goes another dream – being interviewed around that circular table! Though honestly I gave up that one 10 years ago, when he interrupted the dying Harold Pinter one too many times, and I swore I’d never watch him again. And I didn’t.)

Scrolling down the various articles about this latest downfall, I read the comments that readers left.  “It’s a witch hunt, a goddamn witch hunt!” was a frequently repeated refrain, especially by men of a certain age.  Women tended to be either angry or sad about how many “liberal” men turn out to have abused their female employees.  Though honestly, the majority of comments seem to have been left by lonely men of various ages, with a somewhat bitter edge to many of their comments.

Many of them ask the question: where is all this going?

A better question might be: how the hell did we get here?

Anita Hill and Kerry Washington. While “Confirmation” is an entertaining movie, it doesn’t come close to capturing the shock of the real thing.

“WHO PUT A PUBIC HAIR ON MY COKE CAN?”

It’s all part of a 36 year cycle that began in 1991 with the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

The hearings were already a strangely public display of partisan conflict – definitely foreshadowing the current dilemma we find ourselves in – when Professor Anita Hill was introduced as a witness against Clarence Thomas.  She had worked for Thomas at the US Department of Education and then at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and she testified that he had sexually harassed her on numerous occasions, often using bizarrely pornographic images in his harrangues, including the immortal sentence quoted above in all caps.  The televised spectacle pitting an attractive and educated black woman against an educated and nominated black man whose white church-going wife was clutching her rosary beads just a few seats away was almost more than the psyche of the country could handle.  It sent out bolts of crazily repressed sexual angst into the atmosphere that came to an equally crazy fruition three years later with the arrest of O.J. Simpson for killing his white wife and the Jewish waiter returning her sunglasses.  A different case, yes, but once again with the racial and sexual component, with the violent imagery of the Thomas-Hill conflict now blooming into actual violence.

But to get back to the main question.  David Mamet’s play Oleanna – written in response to the hearings – took that issue of male/female conflict and sexual harassment/abuse, and he dramatized its complexities in such a way that the play itself became a lightning rod for discussing the issue.  (The next play to have such a massive public impact, capturing that lightning in a well-made bottle, was Tony Kushner’s Angels in America a few years later.  I don’t believe there’s been a single play of such magnitude since, unless one includes the entirety of August Wilson’s 10-play cycle.)

Certainly the issue itself of male/female power plays had existed for centuries – the Trojan War itself could be seen in those terms, with the Greeks’ abduction of Helen of Troy, she being “the face that launched a thousand ships.”  Shakespeare had written a great play of sexual abuse of power, Measure for Measure, in the 17th Century, and August Strindberg had dramatized the psychic war for dominance between men and women 300 years later in such plays as The Father and Miss Julie.   But I believe that it wasn’t until Mamet’s play in 1992 – his last good play, by the way – that the issues of workplace harassment and sexual abuse of power were really brought together and crystalized for the American public.  (And oh what a great time Mamet had talking about it on the Charlie Rose Show – not that he could get many words in between Charlie’s sycophantic paeans of praise.)

“I DID NOT HAVE SEXUAL RELATIONS WITH THAT WOMAN”

It was only five years later that these two issues of workplace harassment and sexual abuse of power exploded into public consciousness again with President Clinton’s sex scandal with intern Monica Lewinsky while wife Hillary was just a few rooms away in the White House.  Again, no matter how well any movie or TV series might dramatize these events, the shock of these revelations from the highest seat of power could never really be captured.  It was the tawdriness of this melodrama that boggled the mind, as captured in pedantic and smelly detail by The Starr Report.   And again, the issue of sexual harassment was all over the news, seemingly discussed everywhere, with a particular concentration on the corporate environment and the frequency with which powerful men used their positions to force women who worked for them into sexual subjugation.  Attention started being paid to the fact of “the glass ceiling,” and how few women were being given the chance to lead.  But Hillary Clinton stood by her man, Bill survived (barely) the impeachment proceedings against him, and then George W. Bush was elected, signalling a return to a shaky status quo.

The Obama years looked like they were going to be about revolutionizing the system from within, which included reevaluating gender stereotypes and the inequities of workplace politics.  And some of that did go on.  More women than ever were appointed to positions of consequence within the administration, and the passage of health care reform was a major step in establishing the equality between the sexes – as well as between the classes and the races.  That is, if everyone’s health was of equal value under the law, then, to some extent, so was everyone’s importance as human beings.

“CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?”

Of course, Obama was primarily elected to save the country’s financial system, which was brought to the brink of collapse in 2008 by the machinations of the banking industry and the white men who ran it.  And he did that – largely by bailing out the failing institutions, who then went right back to doing what they had done before, without a single investment banker being arrested for almost destroying the world.  As the patchwork solutions held up in the short term, the Obama years became about Acceptance.  Accepting people in their differences, in their quirks, in their excesses.  The prevailing ethos of the Obama years had been voiced many years before, in 1992 – that year again! – by another black man, Rodney King, with the words that supply the heading for this section.  And we did get along, and nothing fundamentally changed, and that was not necessarily a good thing.  It’s possible that if this society had completely hit rock bottom that we might have had to make some major changes in how we viewed each other, how we depended on each other.  Or it could have been much worse, who knows?  As it is, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer and the improving technology enabled the greedy element of this society to globalize their assets while creating a permanent underclass largely consisting of the people who built this country in the first place.  An underclass who, ironically, did the bidding of the super-rich by electing Donald J. Trump as president.  This so-called populist champion is actually there to roll back all of Obama’s social reforms and consolidate a ruling class among the wealthy elite.

“YOU CAN DO ANYTHING YOU WANT.  YOU CAN GRAB THEM BY THE PUSSY.”

I certainly see this recent spate of sexual harassment and abuse allegations – as well as the @ME TOO movement – deriving directly from the now-infamous Trump Access Hollywood tape, in which he uttered the immortal words quoted above.   That tape aired only 11 days before the election, and its impact was muted shortly thereafter by the specious claim by FBI Director Comey that he was re-opening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.  But its impact was and is huge – huuuuuuuge – spurring women everywhere into taking forceful action against such abusers, often with the help of men who were also outraged by the election of a man who boasted about being an abuser himself.

The scales had actually started to tip in Obama’s second term, when the revelation of systemic abuse of students at elite prep schools brought a renewed understanding of the prevelance of such crimes at even the most sacred American institutions.

That is, if it could happen at Choate and Andover and Horace Mann – where I was among the victims who came forward into the public spotlight – then it could happen anywhere.  And anyone could be the perpetrator, even the most beloved TV dad of all time, Bill Cosby, Dr Cliff Huxtable.  These public recognitions of the validity of sexual abuse claims by victims who were too traumatized and powerless to speak their pain in the past were key events in clearing the way for other victims to come forward now.

Does this mean that all claims of sexual abuse are necessarily true?

And is there any acceptable definition of what constitutes sexual abuse – or is it simply anything that makes the “victim” feel uncomfortable or disrespected?

Well, I could tell you, but we’ve come to this lovely full circle from Clarence Thomas to Cosby, and you wouldn’t want me to mess that up, would you?

 

 

 

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