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?

 

 

 


TO ACCUSE OR NOT TO ACCUSE? Some Things to Think About. And Some Names. Part 1

Accusations of sexual abuse or sexual misconduct are all the rage right now, with new revelations coming at us faster than we're able to absorb and consider them.

But why now?  And what does it all really mean?  And what are we supposed to think - or do - about it?

I mean, all these offenders, and then all the confessions/accusations of The Me-Too posters - where is this taking us?

King of the Douchebags

On the one hand, of course, are the hardcore predators and repeat offenders - Bill Cosby, Bill O'Reilly, Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey.  (Many would like to add Donald Trump's name to that list; I'll discuss that later on.) These are men who clearly took advantage of their positions to violate the rights of the less powerful by using them sexually and abusing their individual rights, perhaps in ways that constitute serious crimes.  There's no doubt that the downfall of these men is a positive thing, both for the inviduals involved and for society in general.  They represent the most noxious element of celebrity culture, the way certain men have been able to insulate themselves with their power from taking responsibility for their actions.  The rumors about all these men abounded for years, but still they paid no price.  Now they finally have.  I certainly welcome more disclosures of this type that would rid politics, the entertainment industry and every other aspect of American life of these vultures who prey on the vulnerability of others.

Brett Ratner and James Toback hanging out

James Toback and Brett Ratner?  Sure, that's probably right.  Toback is a 300 pound filmmaker/douchebag whose manipulations stink of old school misogyny.  I remember hearing all the stories of him hanging out in supermarkets on New York's upper West Side, waving his scripts around in the air and promising roles to any lady who would blow him; very classy, dude.  How could any woman resist that?  Alec Baldwin has been his recent enabler, for reasons I don't pretend to understand.  Brett Ratner is also out of step with the times and, it seems, fatally drawn to that misogynistic storyline.  But I believe he has genuine talent and still has real passion for moviemaking.  I found him engaging when I saw him speak at a festival.  Maybe it was all bullshit, who knows, but I wouldn't count him out yet.

Agent Adam Venit of WME, as accused by actor Terry Crews?  Absolutely.  I think this is really important, because it spotlights something that happens so much, 85% of the time to young women, the rest to young men - it happened frequently to me when I was a young actor, something I will talk about in Part 2 - but almost never to a 6'3" 240 pound black man like Terry Crews.  The fact that it did this time - and the fact that Adam Venit is certainly one of the stupidest people on earth, because he put his hands on a man who played pro football and who could have literally done to Venit what Venit was already figuratively doing - that is, put Venit's head up his ass - well, thank God this is something that is finally being talked about!  We've all seen it happen, at pretty much every big party we've been to where drinks are being served.  As the party goes on, men's hands slip down from touching the shoulder, then the middle of the back, then the small of the back, and then the butt.  Almost always accompanied by that shit-eating smile, in which the man is saying, there's more where that came from.  Except the young person being touched never asked for it, was never interested, and now the party is ruined for them as they're filled with confusion and trepidation about how to react and what to say.  Well, Terry Crews is standing up for all of you, and I applaud him with all my heart for doing so.  If only we could clone him and have him stand guard at these parties, then maybe these young people - our daughters and sons - could enjoy themselves without constantly being molested.

Louis CK?  See, here's where we start entering a gray area for me.  Here's a comedian whose act is comprised in large part of a catalogue of his darkly-comic misdeeds and angst.  So a comedian who jokes in the bluntest ways possible about masturbation - his constant need to do it, and the great pleasure  he derives from it - is outed by female comics for having masturbated in front of them.  This is bad, it's wrong, not just the act but his evasiveness over the years about whether it happened, and his lack of empathy for the women upon whom he inflicted this violation.  But it's just not surprising.  I can understand and even share the anger that these women felt in this famous comedian forcing them to watch him pleasure himself - he was indeed taking advantage of his fame to do something that these women in no way asked for or wanted to see.  But he didn't touch them or continue to try humiliating them after that.  So personally I believe he deserves censure, but I don't understand why his career has to be over.  Why he's so toxic that he can't be given another chance at some point.  He's not a friend, and he's not my favorite comic, but I think there's more to him than just his fucked-up behavior.  Witness the Sarah Baker-starring episode in Louie about the Fat Girl comic who kept asking Louie out.  And a really impressive body of work, most of which works against putting himself on any celebrity pedestal.  If anything, he comes across in his work as pathetic.  Which is a pretty accurate description of anyone who would compel women who are his friends to watch him jerk off.

Then we have been given this really bizarre political tandem of Roy Moore and Al Franken - two men who couldn't be more different than each other, who literally have nothing in common except that suddenly the latter man becomes the name shouted out when the former is accused.  But this is simply a "false equivalency," as both Bill Maher and Alan Blumenfeld (my friend and unofficial rabbi) have called it.  What after all did Franken do?  While he was on a USO tour as a comedian, not a senator, he had a silly photo taken of himself about to grope his fellow USO traveler, model Leeann Tweeden. The optics may not be great, but it's just the kind of juvenile thing that performers do to while away the long and tedious hours of travel between stops.  Her claims that the photo and an overly-aggressive kiss that Franken gave her in rehearsal have been haunting her for the last 10 years are hard to take on face value, since Leeann Tweeden has put herself in many other situations that would seem more likely to haunt her.  By which I mean all the nude and semi-nude modeling that she did, and all the other ways she chose to make a living from her body.  Now I'm not trying to shame how she made her money, and I understand that she feels like she had control over those situations, while an aggressive kiss during a rehearsal of a written sketch comedy scene is just soooo horrifying.

A Democratic Congresswoman holds up a photo of 4 of Moore's accusers

But even at the worst possible interpretation, it still doesn't compare in any way with dating girls under 17 when you are a 30-something District Attorney in a small town in Alabama.  It just doesn't, no way, no how.  (The idea that any senator should even consider resigning for such an inconsequential reason is deeply offensive.)  Al Franken had no power over Leeann Tweeden, obviously, she certainly had no reason to be in awe of him, nor could he have done anything for her career.  According to the women who have come forward, Roy Moore used his stature as a district attorney to "dazzle" them when they were young girls, then used it to intimidate them into silence after their encounter.   Still and all, if Moore had simply apologized for his misdeeds of 35 years ago, saying that he made mistakes as a young man, then I'm not sure these acts would have all that much relevance.  The fact that he keeps doubling down in his denials makes it evident that he is unqualified to run for high office.  While Al Franken's sincere contrition shows the opposite.

There have been many strange allegations and finger-pointing, but I think the strangest have to be events surrounding the actor Richard Dreyfuss, star of such '70s classic films as Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  First Dreyfuss sends out a proud tweet, standing behind his son Harry's claim that Kevin Spacey traumatized him by groping his genitals - and, basically, daring him to tell anyone, which at first Harry didn't have the nerve to do.  And then, the very next day, Richard Dreyfuss himself was accused of sexual abuse by Jessica Teich, a writer he had worked with 30 years earlier.  Honestly, both accusations sound highly credible, which sort of sums up how complicated this web of conflicting stories and revolving truths has become.   Dreyfuss's immediate response was to say, "At the height of my fame in the late 1970s, I became an asshole," but he refused to admit that her specific charges were true.  Nevertheless, Dreyfuss contributed what may be the best characterization of our current phase.

"There is a sea-change happening right now, which we can look upon as a problem or an opportunity... I hope this is the beginning of a larger conversation we can have as a culture."