Tag Archives: feminism

Are Men Victims Now?

In an increasingly unequal society, it’s very soothing for the winners to hear that they’re the “real” victims.


In the film “How to Murder Your Wife“, Jack Lemmon’s character is innocent — in reality his wife isn’t dead at all — but as his trial progresses the evidence against him becomes so convincing that he decides to try a risky strategy: Confess, and make a closing argument that appeals to the self-interest of his all-male jury. Think how great it would be if women knew we could kill them!

If one man – just one man – can stick his wife in the goop from the gloppitta-gloppitta machine, and get away with it! Whoa-ho-ho, boy, we’ve got it made. We have got it made. All of us.

The men vote to acquit. (Then Lemmon’s wife turns up and there is a happy ending.)

In 1965, that was comedy: Men feel henpecked, so the fantasy of regaining respect by making women fear for their lives has enough appeal to be worth joking about.

Forty-three years later, the closing argument in the Brett Kavanaugh nomination was a strangely inverted version of Lemmon’s: If just one woman can stop a man from going to the Supreme Court by accusing him of sexual assault, then we’re finished. All of us.

President Trump made the argument like this:

I say that it’s a very scary time for young men in America when you can be guilty of something that you may not be guilty of. This is a very difficult time. What’s happening here has much more to do than even the appointment of a Supreme Court Justice.

Asked what his message for young women was, Trump said “Women are doing great.”

He was echoing something his son, Don Jr., had said in an interview with Britain’s Daily Mail TV: He’s more afraid for his sons than his daughters:

I’ve got boys, and I’ve got girls. And when I see what’s going on right now, it’s scary.

Glenn Beck warned:

If the Democrats cram this down, I believe Americans will rise up at the polls, as we don’t want this to happen to our sons, brothers, husbands fathers.

“This”, apparently, is to pay some tangible price because a woman makes a false accusation against you. Many people making this argument don’t even claim that Christine Blasey Ford is lying about Kavanaugh. Even if she’s telling the truth, they say, she has little in the way of supporting evidence. And if just one woman can make a man pay a price purely on the strength of her testimony … then we’re finished, all of us.

The reverse-handmaid dystopia. Something strange is going on here, and it speaks to the roots of the conservative mindset: There is a fantasy dystopia that they can imagine we might be moving towards, and the fear of that dystopia outweighs reams and reams of actual injustice in the here and now.

In the dystopia, the reverse-Handmaid’s-Tale world, any woman can inflict dire consequences on any man just by making up an accusation against him. She will be believed and he won’t, so he’ll be “guilty until proven innocent“, as Mitch McConnell puts it. Every man will be forced to live in fear that a false accusation will suddenly “ruin his life“.

There are a number of weird things about this thought process:

  • Women live in fear now. Not fear of some imagined future damage to their reputations or career prospects, but of actual physical attacks that are happening every day.
  • False accusations already can be made against anyone for almost anything; sexual assault is not special in that way. So Hillary Clinton supposedly murdered Vince Foster and was also involved in a child sex ring hidden under a pizza restaurant. Barrack Obama, according to then-citizen Donald Trump, was a Kenyan Muslim who ascended to the presidency by fraud. Somehow, these well known recent examples of false accusations don’t cause us all to live in terror.
  • Black men actually lived in such a dystopia for centuries: If a white woman accused him of sexual impropriety (which could be little more than a lecherous glance), just about any black man could be lynched.

But the weirdest thing is the idea that society will suddenly flip from one extreme to the other, without ever occupying the reasonable ground in between. Right now, a woman’s report of sexual assault is often disbelieved, and is rarely seen as sufficient reason to impose any consequences at all on the reported attacker. It’s not just that you can go to the Supreme Court if one (or three) women accuse you, you can be elected president if more than a dozen women accuse you. If your rapist is viewed as a promising young white man from a good family, even a conviction might only result in a light sentence.

Perversely, the fact that women’s accounts of sexual assault so rarely lead to any serious consequences (except negative ones for the woman) is precisely the reason to believe them: Christine Blasey Ford went into the Kavanaugh hearings expecting to achieve nothing and knowing that her own life would be disrupted. That’s the typical situation these days. By far, the most likely explanation of why she would put herself through this ordeal is that Kavanaugh actually assaulted her.

False accusations are not impossible, but they are not common. False-accusation worriers still bring up the Duke lacrosse team case. But that was a dozen years ago. That’s still the standard example because false accusations that lead to punishments are so rare.

What’s the reasonable middle? If we ever got to a point where men could be jailed just on one woman’s say-so, the situation I just described wouldn’t hold any more: Women would have motive to make stories up, just as Mike Flynn’s son was motivated to promote false stories about PizzaGate, or Donald Trump Jr. to make false claims about Anderson Cooper.

Ideally, we could get to a point where sexual-assault accusations could be treated like other accusations: Absurd ones could be discounted, but plausible ones would be investigated, with the investigation becoming more serious as lighter investigations failed to disprove them. Different levels of plausibility would lead to different consequences: Proof beyond reasonable doubt would continue to be the standard for taking away someone’s liberty, but lesser standards would hold for lesser consequences.

That’s how things are now for non-sexual charges. Suppose your colleagues at work believe you’ve been stealing money out of their desks. If they have proof beyond reasonable doubt, you might go to jail. If they don’t, but a preponderance of evidence points to your guilt, your boss might agree with them and fire you. If your guilt or innocence is hard to determine, you might keep your job, but when a better job opens up that requires more trust, you might miss out.

As long as Donald Trump is president and Brett Kavanaugh has a lifetime appointment to our highest court, we’re not in that reasonable middle. We’re clearly not treating sexual assault charges like other charges.

Other conservative fantasies that overpower actual events. The male-threatening dystopia follows a common pattern on the right: a particularly worrisome fantasy or unique example often outweighs far more common real events.

So the fantasy that men will hang around in women’s bathrooms falsely claiming to be transsexual, and then assault women there — has that ever actually happened? But on the right, that imagined horror outweighs the actual problems of transsexuals, like the middle school student in Stafford County, Virginia who was left on the bleachers during an active-shooter drill and eventually told to sit in the hall between the boys’ and girls’ locker rooms, because school officials couldn’t decide which one she should shelter in. (In essence, the school practiced letting the shooter kill her.) That happened last week, not a dozen years ago.

If you want to discuss limits on the size of gun magazines (which would save actual lives, because mass shooters are most commonly stopped when they have to reload), you’ll be met with fantasies of home invasions in which ten bullets (or any finite number) just aren’t enough. Even the most reasonable and toothless gun control proposal will invoke fantasies of a tyrannical government herding its disarmed populace into concentration camps. (Strangely, this doesn’t happen in Japan, or in any other democratic country with very few civilian guns.)

The reversal of victimhood. The person who best expressed what this is all about this week was Trevor Noah of The Daily Show.

“Trump’s most powerful tool,” Noah says, is that he knows how to wield victimhood. He knows how to offer victimhood to people who have the least claim to it.”

If you belong to a privileged group, quite possibly at some level you feel guilty about that. Or maybe you just feel vulnerable to the charge that you don’t deserve what you have, or that other people who deserve more actually have less. Although you try not to think about it, you may vaguely wonder if somewhere innocent people are being mistreated in your name.

So it’s very powerful when a demagogue like Trump can tell you that you are “the real victim”. He allows you to project your guilty feelings onto someone else, and instead to claim the moral righteousness of victimhood. Noah explains:

It’s not that we have to be feeling sorry for women, but women are the victims and that’s what we’re trying to fix. But Trump has managed to turn that, and he’s turned it with everybody. He goes: “The real victims in this story is not the kids in the cages, it’s you. It’s you who … they’re coming to take your place. The real victim isn’t the refugee from Syria, it’s you, who’s going to get blown up by a terrorist bomb.”

… People felt, because of Trump, like they were losing their country. They felt like America was losing. And feeling is oftentimes more powerful than what is actually happening.

So we wind up in the situation I described years ago in “The Distress of the Privileged“: Whites think they are the real victims of racism. Christians think their religious freedom is under attack, and needs the government’s defense. Anglos are being victimized by Hispanic immigrants who do our dirty work for almost no money. Rich people are being “punished” by taxes — even taxes far lower than rich people used to pay.

And men can still, with a great deal of impunity, harass women. It’s embarrassing when they start to complain about it, but that embarrassment doesn’t make us the victims. Dr. Blasey Ford has her memories, both of being attacked decades ago, and of being vilified in front of a cheering crowd by the President of the United States. Meanwhile, Justice Kavanaugh has the job he has wanted all his life. He is not the victim.

We live a nation that is becoming increasingly unequal, that is ever-more-harshly divided between winners and losers. If you are a winner with any semblance of a conscience, you probably are uneasy about that, whether you think about it consciously or not. It’s very soothing to be told that the situation is exactly the reverse of how it appears, that you, the winner, are the “real” victim.

It’s soothing, but it’s false. And the more we indulge in this kind of thinking, the more unjust our society will be.

Two Ways Brett Kavanaugh Could Be a Hero

What might Brett Kavanaugh do
if he really were the man his supporters claim he is?


[The bulk of this article was written before a second accuser came forward. At this moment, it’s still not clear how her account will affect the process.]

The most insightful piece on the Kavanaugh nomination I have seen so far was written by Benjamin Wittes and appeared at The Atlantic. Wittes claims to know something about Kavanaugh.

I have known Brett Kavanaugh for a long time—in many different contexts. I am fond of him personally. I think the world of him intellectually. I don’t believe he lied in his Senate testimony. I don’t believe he’s itching to get on the Supreme Court to protect Donald Trump from Robert Mueller. I’m much less afraid of conservative judges than are many of my liberal friends. As recently as a few days ago, I was cheerfully vouching for Kavanaugh’s character.

But then Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her when she was 15 and he was 17. That allegation, Wittes says, is “credible” and “deserves to be taken seriously”. Kavanaugh’s supporters claim that there’s no good way to respond to an accusation like this and complain that the unanswerability of the charge makes it unfair. But Wittes takes that claim and goes somewhere else with it:

The circumstances in which he should fight this out are, in my view, extremely limited. I would advise him against letting Senate Republicans ram his nomination through in a fashion that will forever attach an asterisk to his service on the Supreme Court. Assuming she is not impugning him maliciously, Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, deserves better than that. The Court deserves better than that. And Kavanaugh himself, if he is telling the truth about his conduct in high school, deserves better than to be confirmed under circumstances which tens of millions of people will regard, with good reason, as tainted.

The real burden of proof. Given how long ago the attempted rape is supposed to have happened and the haziness of the details, it shouldn’t be hard for Kavanaugh and his defenders to create reasonable doubt. But that’s not enough in this situation: It’s Kavanaugh who should bear the burden of proof.

The question before us, after all, is not whether to punish Kavanaugh or whether to assign liability to him. It’s whether to bestow on him an immense honor that comes with great power. Kavanaugh is applying for a much-coveted job. And the burden of convincing in such situations always lies with the applicant. The standard for elevation to the nation’s highest court is not that the nominee established a “reasonable doubt” that the serious allegations against him were true.

In other words: It makes sense to let ten guilty people go free rather than send one innocent person to prison. But if we’re talking about positions of high power, I would rather turn down ten innocent people than elevate one guilty one.

Of course, there’s a very real possibility that Kavanaugh might prevail simply because the Republicans have the political power to confirm him. That would get him onto the Court, but would be

a disaster for anyone who believes in apolitical courts. And it is not what Kavanaugh should want. Clearing one’s name sufficiently to convince only senators who are already ideologically aligned is not, in fact, clearing one’s name. It’s winning. And while winning may be the highest value for Trump, it isn’t actually the highest value—particularly for a justice.

A scorched-earth campaign to impugn Blasey Ford’s credibility would leave a similar taint on the Court and on Kavanaugh’s reputation.

I would never say that no attack on Ford’s credibility could be appropriate; if Kavanaugh can produce some hypothetical emails in which she hatched the plot to bring him down, he certainly gets to use those. But an attack on Ford’s credibility that is not devastating and complete will only worsen Kavanaugh’s problem—and such an attack should worsen it.

Who pays the price? And so Wittes reaches the same point many of Kavanaugh’s defenders do: There’s no good way for him to respond to the accusation against him. But rather than rage at the injustice of that and focus their ire on Blasey Ford or Diane Feinstein or Democrats in general, Wittes calls on Kavanaugh to do what’s best for the country: withdraw.

Getting out does not mean admitting that Ford’s account of his behavior is accurate, something Kavanaugh should certainly not do if her account is not accurate. It means only acknowledging that there is no way to defend against it in a fashion that is both persuasive and honorable in the context of seeking elevation to a job that requires a certain moral viability. It means acknowledging that whatever the truth may be, Kavanaugh cannot carry his burden of proof given the constraints upon him.

It means accepting that it is better to continue serving as a D.C. Circuit judge than to play the sort of undignified games that Republicans are playing on his behalf.

There would be heroism in that path. I am reminded of the ending of Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, when Quentin gets banished from the magical kingdom he has just saved. “I am the hero,” he protests, “and the hero gets the reward.”

But Ember, the god who is banishing him, disagrees: “No, Quentin. The hero pays the price.”

If his Republican support in the Senate holds firm, Kavanaugh can get the reward of a seat on the Supreme Court. But there is a price to be paid in this situation, and if Kavanaugh doesn’t pay it the nation does, in the form of a diminished Supreme Court whose moral authority will always be questionable when it rules on issues of women’s and victims’ rights. There’s nothing heroic about that.

The second heroic path. Wittes argues that Kavanaugh should withdraw even if he is innocent. But there is a second heroic path available if he is guilty, or if he honestly doesn’t remember Blasey Ford or anything about the night in question: Tell the truth.

Many of Kavanaugh’s supporters have been skipping past his denials and arguing for forgiveness: He’s not the same man today that he was at 17. What he did then shouldn’t disqualify him.

That, I think, is a discussion the nation needs to have: What is forgivable? How long should a youthful mistake hang over someone who has lived an admirable life since? How admirable does that life need to be? Does some other kind of restitution need to be made?

But if we were to have that discussion, it shouldn’t just apply to Kavanaugh, or to people on one side or the other of the partisan divide. It should apply, for example, to immigrants who are deportable for something they did decades ago, but have done good work, lived good lives, and been a credit to their communities in the years since. It should apply to people serving long prison sentences for non-violent drug crimes, some of which were committed when they were not much older than Kavanaugh was. You can’t expect forgiveness for the people on your side while you apply eye-for-eye justice to those you disagree with or disapprove of.

Even if we want to have that discussion, though, we can’t as long as Kavanaugh insists on his complete innocence. It’s unreasonable to expect to reap the benefits of forgiveness while simultaneously painting your accusers as liars. (That principle would also apply to President Trump.)

Imagine if Kavanaugh went before the Senate Judiciary Committee and told the nation, “Here’s how I remember that night.” What if he told his story without lawyerly caveats, but just as a human being trying to get a difficult memory off his chest? Or maybe he could say, “I don’t remember the event Dr. Blasey Ford describes. But I went to a hard-drinking school, and things may have happened that I don’t remember. I feel terrible that she has had to carry such a memory all these years, and I am ashamed to think that I could have been the cause of it.”

After all the Bill Cosbys and Harvey Weinsteins we have seen, what a breath of fresh air that would be.

Who shoulders the risk? If Kavanaugh did throw himself on the nation’s mercy, what would happen then? I don’t think anyone knows. And that’s what makes the path heroic: Heroes take risks; they don’t push risks off on others. Blasey Ford took a risk by coming forward, and she has been paying for that decision. Kavanaugh could take much of that burden off of her. It wouldn’t make sense to threaten or abuse her any more, if Kavanaugh himself were taking her account seriously.

Instead, he would shoulder the risk of public judgment. Blasey Ford, the Senate, and the country as a whole would have to face squarely the issues of forgiveness and the passage of time, rather than consider them only as a Plan B for those who doubt Kavanaugh’s denials. That honest public debate would be a step in the direction of healing the wounds that the #MeToo movement has revealed. However it came out — whether Kavanaugh ascended to the Supreme Court, remained where he is, or left public life entirely — it would be a service to the nation.

We keep hearing from Republicans, Evangelicals, and Kavanaugh’s other defenders what a fine man he is. He has a chance to prove them right. But you don’t get to be a hero just by claiming the reward. You have to pay the price.

A Teaching Moment on Sexual Assault

“It’s only been a week,” Liz Plank tweeted. “But we’ve all aged a year.”

Despite how ugly it’s been, though, the last ten days of the presidential campaign does have one redeeming feature: Sexual assault is being discussed in a setting where the whole country is listening.

I’m not naive enough to think that everyone is going to “get it” now and take a more enlightened attitude. (As someone once told me, “I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you.”) But men who are open to understanding the topic better might be paying attention now. Women who had repressed thinking about it, or comparing experiences with other women, might now be having those thoughts and conversations. Teens and even younger boys and girls might be learning that things they had come to accept as normal, or even OK, are really not.

I believe the country as a whole is getting a powerful lesson about four things:

  • how ubiquitous sexual assault is,
  • the myths so many of us believe about it,
  • why women often don’t tell anyone about it,
  • the tactics men use to get away with it.

#notokay. Twitter is famous for insults and snark, but the most powerful hashtags are the ones that gather testimony. Shortly after Trump’s Access Hollywood tape came out, author Kelly Oxford tweeted:

Women: tweet me your first assaults. they aren’t just stats. I’ll go first: Old man on city bus grabs my “pussy” and smiles at me, I’m 12.

Last I checked, that had been re-tweeted more than 13 thousand times. Oxford reported that over the next weekend tweets came in at the rate of 50 per minute. On October 9, her Twitter feed got more than 20 million views.

Eventually she created the hashtag #notokay to move the discussion off her personal feed and open it to more than just first-assault stories.

This is something that pre-internet journalism couldn’t do. A 20th-century reporter could uncover one paradigmic story, or at most a handful of them, and tell those stories in a way that invited readers to identify or empathize, maybe adding a statistical claim that X% of women have had similar experiences. But there was no way to capture the sheer avalanche of testimony. Scrolling down the responses to Oxford’s original tweet, I was struck by their unity-in-diversity. The settings are infinitely varied: a bus, up against a door at granny’s, a couch at home, a bedroom at an aunt’s house, a Halloween party, a friend’s apartment, at work, at the supermarket. The perpetrators are strangers, neighbors, colleagues, bosses, cousins, uncles, teachers. Each tweet has its own unique details, yet pounds the same theme like a hammer.

And the hammer doesn’t stop. A TV news segment or a newspaper feature has to end, so you can leave with a feeling of being done. But a viral tweet defeats you; at some point you just decide to quit reading, knowing that there’s more and will always be more.

Liz Plank took that insight one step further and raised this question:

Trying to find ONE woman who has never experienced a man sexually touching her without their consent.

Scrolling through that hashtag, I still haven’t found the “I’m the one” tweet.

Myths. The typical folk explanation of sexual assault is simple: A man’s libido overcomes his impulse control. From there it’s a short trip to a long list of standard excuses and explanations:

  • virility. I just have such a strong sex drive, sometimes I’m overwhelmed by it.
  • it’s a compliment. You’re just so sexy, how could I stop myself?
  • it’s your fault. Your skirt is so short; your jeans are so tight; your neckline is so low. When you just put it all out there like that, what do you think is going to happen?
  • it’s inevitable. Boys will be boys. You can’t expect us to control ourselves all the time. (Or, as Trump put it on Twitter: “26,000 unreported sexual assaults in the military – only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?”)

and so on.

This is worse than just “objectification” of women, because we would never tolerate similar thinking about actual objects: If your drive for acquisition overcomes your impulse control, you’re a thief, period. The strength of your greed does you no credit; you’re not complimenting the wealth of the people you steal from; it’s not their fault for having such nice stuff or displaying it so attractively; and we don’t give in to the inevitability of theft whenever valuable objects are visible to people who might desire them. When it comes to object-lust, self-control is the price of staying in civilization; if you can’t muster it, we’ll lock you away.

But beyond moral considerations, that libido vs. control frame loses its explanatory power when you pay attention to women’s stories, or to the complexity of the male psyche. All women (or very nearly all) get victimized, not just the sexy, popular, or flirtatious ones. Sometimes it’s specifically the unpopular women, the ones no one is looking out for, who get assaulted. Sometimes it’s girls too young to understand what they’re supposedly “asking for”. Sometimes men are seeking dominance rather than pleasure. Sometimes it’s about asserting control over a woman whose self-assurance seems threatening. Sometimes it’s part of a man’s internal process that has nothing to do with the victim at all: Maybe assaulting a stranger is a man’s way of taking revenge on his spouse, or on the women who won’t go out with him. Maybe he’s been humiliated by his boss and wants to humiliate someone else to feel less helpless.

Another myth is that all men do it, or would if they were brave enough. At the very least, they wish they could do it and envy the men who do; so when they get together and trade “locker room talk”, they brag about real or imagined assaults the way Trump did with Billy Bush.

I remember believing something similar in junior high. (Maybe the worst thing Trump has done to me personally is make me remember junior high.) To see up a girl’s skirt or down her blouse, or to touch her somewhere we weren’t supposed to — it was a game: They defended the “goal” while we tried to “score”. To put it in a childish terms, it was like Yogi Bear trying to steal picnic baskets while the ranger tried to stop him. But imagine being an older Yogi, looking back at what once had seemed like youthful highjinks and realizing: “Oh my God, I was a bear. People must have been terrified.”

The earlier we can get that message to boys and young men, the better. And in some cases we are.

One afternoon, while reporting for a book on girls’ sexual experience, I sat in on a health class at a progressive Bay Area high school. Toward the end of the session, a blond boy wearing a school athletic jersey raised his hand. “You know that baseball metaphor for sex?” he asked. “Well, in baseball there’s a winner and a loser. So who is supposed to be the ‘loser’ in sex?”

Fortunately, this week many admired and imitated athletes came forward to say that the Trump/Bush conversation is not normal locker-room banter. Like LeBron James:

What is locker room talk to me? It’s not what that guy said. We don’t disrespect women in no shape or fashion in our locker room. That never comes up. Obviously, I got a mother-in-law, a wife, a mom and a daughter and those conversations just don’t go on in our locker room. What that guy was saying, I don’t know what that is. That’s trash talk.

Even Trump’s friend Tom Brady walked away from a microphone rather than defend him on this.

Why don’t they tell? One of Trump’s main defenses against his accusers has been: Why didn’t they say anything at the time? If these incidents have been happening for decades, why is this all coming out only now, just a few weeks before the election?

In particular, he wondered about People magazine writer Natasha Stoynoff whose account of being shoved up against a wall and forcibly kissed by Trump while she was at Mar-a-Lago to interview Donald and Melania about their first anniversary seemed (to me) particularly compelling. He challenged her at a rally Thursday in Ohio:

I ask her a simple question. Why wasn’t it part of the story that appeared 12 years ago? Why didn’t they make it part of the story … if she had added that, it would have been the headline.

Picture what Trump is assuming: If Stoynoff had made such a claim against Trump, with no witnesses or physical evidence, her editors would have simply believed her, and would have been willing to put their magazine behind her in a battle against a famously litigious billionaire. Weigh the likelihood of that scenario against the explanation Stoynoff had already published before Trump spoke:

Back in my Manhattan office the next day, I went to a colleague and told her everything.

“We need to go to the managing editor,” she said, “And we should kill this story, it’s a lie. Tell me what you want to do.”

But, like many women, I was ashamed and blamed myself for his transgression. I minimized it (“It’s not like he raped me…”); I doubted my recollection and my reaction. I was afraid that a famous, powerful, wealthy man could and would discredit and destroy me, especially if I got his coveted PEOPLE feature killed.

“I just want to forget it ever happened,” I insisted. The happy anniversary story hit newsstands a week later and Donald left me a voicemail at work, thanking me.

“I think you’re terrific,” he said. “The article was great and you’re great.”

Yeah, I thought. I’m great because I kept my mouth shut.

Notice that the idea of making the assault part of the story never comes up; it’s not even suggested by Stoynoff’s colleague.

Liz Plank created the hashtag #WhyWomenDontReport, which is another assemblage of testimony like this:

Because I was a medical student and he was the attending surgeon

Because he was my landlord. Because I was 21 and feared homelessness. Because my father told me to figure it out myself.

Because it was easier to pretend it didn’t happen than to face the police, the courts and my perpertrator.

But maybe the best explanation of why women don’t report sexual assault is watching Trump trash the ones who reported on him, which Plank wrote about in “Donald Trump is giving us a master class in #WhyWomenDontReport“.

While I was on set Wednesday night with Chris Hayes, [Trump spokesperson A.J. Delgado] said, “If somebody actually did that, Chris, any reasonable woman would have come forward and said something at the time.”

Any reasonable woman?

Was it reasonable for Jessica Leeds to come forward about her sexual assault only to have Lou Dobbs tweet her personal phone number and address, exposing her private information to his hundreds of thousands of followers? Was it reasonable for Natasha Stoynoff to come forward about her sexual assault only to have Donald Trump suggest she was too ugly for him to be interested in sexually assault her?

Trump said his accusers are “doing [it] probably for a little fame. They get some free fame. It’s a total set-up.” But who exactly wants this kind of fame? Are any women out there watching Jessica Leeds or Natasha Stoynoff and thinking “I wish people would pay attention to me like that”?

And that brings us to men’s tactics.

Tactics. Between the debate Sunday and the first wave of new accusers coming forward Wednesday, Liz Plank used Trump’s debate performance as an example of the tactics of abusive men. She listed

  1. Humiliation. Trump’s pre-debate press conference with women who have accused Bill Clinton wasn’t about seeking justice for them. It was about humiliating Hillary Clinton.
  2. Deflection. Trump minimized his behavior as “locker room talk”, and quickly segued to “ISIS chopping off heads”.
  3. Intimidation. He threatened to put Clinton in jail, and loomed behind her “in a way that almost made me feel unsafe for her”.
  4. Gaslighting. In other words: creating an entire alternate reality to make victims question their own perceptions and memories. For example, Trump asserted that it was Clinton, not him, who owes President Obama an apology for the birther movement. “So if you feel like you’re going insane during this election, that’s Donald Trump gas lighting you over and over and over.”

What we’ve seen since just bears this out. He’s been heaping humiliation on the women who have accused him. (They’re “horrible, horrible liars” who he obviously couldn’t have assaulted because they aren’t attractive enough.) He’s been deflecting his own guilt onto Bill Clinton (whose accusers should be believed even though Trump’s shouldn’t). He’s threatened completely ridiculous lawsuits against The New York Times and People for publishing women’s accounts of his misconduct. And (completely without evidence) he has gaslighted the nation by putting forward a theory that makes him the victim of a conspiracy involving the global financial elite and the entire corporate media. (He’s not a sleazeball who abuses women, he’s a messianic hero who suffers these outrageous attacks in order to save the common people. He’s not blowing an election Republicans might have won, he’s going to be defrauded at the polls.)

But the important thing to remember for the future is that this is not an isolated incident and Trump is not a unique character. Lots and lots of men do this kind of thing. They do it to anybody. They do it because they can. They have a standard list of excuses for doing it. They have tactics for getting women to shut up about it and men not to believe the women who don’t shut up.

The thing to remember the next time you hear something like this is that you’ve heard it before. It’s all part of the pattern.

Sexism and the Clinton Candidacy

Open misogyny, like open racism, has become a fringe position in America. But even people who believe they don’t have a sexist bone in their bodies are still influenced by it.


I’m a guy, and I’m voting for Hillary Clinton. Lots of us are.

Naturally, I also know men who aren’t voting for her. But you know what I haven’t heard? Not one of the anti-Clinton men I know personally — not even in a wink-and-nod, just-between-us guys sort of way — says that it’s because she’s a woman, or that women in general have no business being president.

Of course, it’s also true that if you go looking for that opinion, you can find it. (Samantha Bee even found a woman who thinks women shouldn’t be in charge.) And if you want to rile yourself, it’s not hard at all to dredge up comments on Facebook and other social media calling the former Senator, First Lady, and Secretary of State a bitch, a cunt, or some other misogynistic name. If you visit the vendors outside a Trump rally, you can even get a misogynistic epithet on a t-shirt or bumper sticker.

But still, open misogyny has become a fringe position. In a 2015 Gallup survey, 92% of Americans said they could vote for a woman for president. Maybe that’s only because admitting otherwise has become uncool, but there are also more specific signs of progress. Just two election-cycles ago, during Clinton’s first presidential run, whether a woman could be commander-in-chief still came up from time to time. In this cycle, though, she has managed to turn that issue around, contrasting her own experience and gravity against Donald Trump’s impulsiveness. In a recent Fox News poll, voters trusted Clinton more than Trump on “making decisions about using nuclear weapons” by a 56%-34% margin.

So hurray! Sexism is over in American politics and we can stop talking about it.

Well, not exactly.

The racism parallel. Eight years ago, after we elected our first black president, a lot of people convinced themselves that racism was over. And if we’re talking about open KKK-style racism, they were almost right. Few people in 2008 or 2012 said they wouldn’t vote for Obama because he’s black. Using the N-word against him in public, openly calling for white supremacy — you can still find that if you look, but it’s a fringe position.

And yet, the last eight years have been a lesson in just how pervasive the more subtle forms of racism are. If few white Americans would admit — even to other whites — that they didn’t want a black president, many many white people have seemed to hunger for some non-racial reason to dislike or mistrust Barack Obama.

And so, based no credible evidence whatsoever, a large segment of the American public have decided that he isn’t really an American, and so isn’t eligible to be president at all. Another large segment (with considerable overlap, I imagine) has convinced themselves that Obama’s whole religious history is a fraud, that he is secretly a Muslim, and is probably rooting for the jihadi terrorists (the same ones that he’s been killing with raids and drone strikes).

Others look at his family through jaundiced eyes. To them, Michelle — a beautiful, elegant woman by any standard — resembles a gorilla. When Sasha and Malia wear typical teen-age-girl clothes they get admonished to “dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar“. The luxurious White House lifestyle, never an issue when white families lived there, suddenly looks uppity; and the cost of keeping the First Family safe on vacations — again, never an issue for the Bushes, Clintons, or Reagans — has been a point of resentment.

Whenever Obama acts like the President of the United States and accepts the deference that is due his office — like when a Marine holds an umbrella for him, or he puts his feet up on a White House desk — it just looks wrong. Sure, white presidents have been doing the same things for decades without irritating anybody, but this is different because … because … well it just is.

And the aura of respect that has sheltered even our most unpopular presidents from direct abuse in formal settings? That vanished as soon as a black man took control of the White House. Undoubtedly, Joe Wilson was not the first congressman to think a president had said something dubious in a State of the Union address. But none of the previous doubters had judged it appropriate to yell “You lie!”.

Summing up, a lot of Americans might say to President Obama: “I don’t hate you because you’re black. I hate you because so many of the things you do look wrong to me.” But if you take a step back and look at comparable situations from previous administrations, it’s hard to escape the realization that what is really wrong in Obama’s actions is that he’s black when he does them.

It’s not that blackness is bad per se — that would be the Jim-Crow-style racism we’ve almost all outgrown. It’s that for many Americans, blackness-in-power invokes a harsher standard of judgment that makes “This black president is bad” an almost inevitable conclusion.

Back to Hillary. So I think we should bring some skepticism to the idea that Hillary Clinton’s high unfavorable ratings are simply a fair public reaction to things she has said or done.

As with Obama and racism, not everybody who opposes Clinton is a sexist or dislikes her for gender-related reasons. But even if you can list apparently good reasons for not liking her, you need to consider the possibility that the things she says or does seem as bad as they do because Clinton is a woman when she does them.

Like racism, sexism may no longer dictate the views of most Americans, but it still has a strong influence.

Appearance. The most obvious way that Clinton is treated differently from male candidates is with regard to her appearance. Prior to Clinton’s acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention, one of the most googled questions was what she would wear. A white pantsuit was the answer, a decision deemed worthy of historical analysis in The Atlantic.

For a man, of course, the question has a standard answer: a dark suit with a light-colored shirt and a red or blue tie. If a man wears that, he can count on everybody to forget what he’s wearing and concentrate on what he’s saying. But there is no standard choice for women, because no woman has ever been in this situation before. Whatever she wears, it just doesn’t look presidential. I mean, would Abe Lincoln wear a white pantsuit?

For contrast, look at the two men Clinton has run against — Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Both men have unusual hair. Both take some ribbing for it, but it’s really not a big deal. (Clinton could never have turned a bad-hair day into a t-shirt, as Bernie did.) I doubt that either of their campaigns wasted a single minute of meeting time discussing “What are we going to do about his hair?”

Ditto for wardrobe. Trump wears expensively tailored suits, while Bernie sometimes looks like he slept in his. Both choices are OK and raise no issues. But every fashion choice a female candidate makes is fraught. Does she look too “frumpy“? Or is she too vain? Does she worry too much about her appearance, or spend too much on her clothes? (Both Clinton and Sarah Palin got skewered on that one.) It’s fine for Mitch McConnell to get increasingly jowly as he ages, but could Nancy Pelosi get away with that? And if she takes action to avoid facial sagging, that’s an issue too.

Clinton’s voice is another perpetual problem: It’s too shrill and she shouts too much. But Trump and Sanders also shout a lot without anybody making an issue of it. Bernie’s gravelly voice is far from what they’re looking for in broadcasting school, but somehow it makes him more authentic, like Bob Dylan.

Sex and marriage. There’s also a moral double standard. As we all remember from high school, someone who has a lot of sex is a stud if male, and a slut if female. That double standard hasn’t gone away.

Imagine, for example, if Clinton had a marital history like Trump’s. Picture her standing on the convention stage with a much-younger male model for a husband, waving to the crowd while surrounded by the children she conceived with three different fathers, all still alive. It’s an absurd vision, because no such woman could be elected to any office whatsoever.

Oratory. The big fear leading up to Hillary’s acceptance speech was whether she could match the great speeches of the previous nights’ speakers: Michelle Obama, Bernie Sanders, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and the ultimate master of the convention speech, Barack Obama.

By all accounts, she didn’t. It was a good speech that made her case and did her credit, but she didn’t even attempt to lift our spirits like Obama did in 2004, 2008, and 2012.

But consider this: Is an Obama-level speech even possible for a woman candidate in 2016? Would we know how to listen to it and recognize its greatness?

I don’t think we would. I’m not even sure that I would. We’re well trained to hear certain kinds of ideas from men, and respond in a certain way to them. Hearing the same speech from a woman would be a different experience entirely. For example, Joe Biden basically gave a Knute Rockne halftime pep talk. Could a woman have pulled that off?

“But what about Michelle?” you might ask. “She’s a woman and her convention speech was magnificent.” Indeed it was, but it was rooted in her experience as a wife and mother. She was not a candidate, and was not asking us to give her power. If she had been, say, running for the open Senate seat in Illinois, we might have heard her speech very differently.

The rogue’s gallery. The example of Bernie’s “authentic” voice points to an even more subtle pattern that is frequently overlooked: Just as there are negative stereotypes (like slut or ball-buster) for women, there are endearing stereotypes that make excuses for the flaws of men. As a result, if a man needs us to cut him some slack, it doesn’t seem like that big a stretch.

As Franklin Roosevelt is supposed said about a Central American dictator: “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” That line has been repeated about a number of American politicians since, including Richard Nixon. It’s a compliment of sorts: This guy may be immoral, but he’s going to do immoral things for us.

Trump’s long history as a con-man generates a similar excuse: Yes, he cheats people, but that’s why we need him: so that he can cheat the Chinese and the Mexicans on our behalf. Trump claimed that dubious virtue in his acceptance speech:

Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it. I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens.

Lyndon Johnson was known as a wheeler-dealer, a stereotype that makes a virtue out of a man’s ability to bribe and threaten. If he can wheel and deal his way to Medicare and the Voting Rights Act, so much the better.

A standard character in our movies and TV shows is the charming rogue: Indiana Jones, Rhett Butler, Serenity‘s Captain Mal. He’s a rebel, a rule-breaker. He may be annoying at times and completely unreliable, but you keep forgiving him because it’s just so entertaining to watch him wriggle in and out of trouble. Trump and Bill Clinton both benefit from this stereotype, and in some circles so does Ted Cruz. (“Shut down the government? That scamp! What will he pull off next?”)

Female leaders don’t have any of those forgiving loopholes available to them. When the FBI announced that Hillary’s email mistakes were not indictable crimes, her supporters sighed with relief and her critics seethed with anger. (“Lock her up!”) Literally no one was charmed by her skill as a escape artist. (“She’s so smart! They’ll never nail her.”) If she were a man, though, many would be.

Clinton has been known to lie or mislead when she’s accused of something, behavior which (as the NYT’s Nicholas Kristof pointed out Sunday) is pretty standard for an American politician. And yet, a fairly small set of examples is enough to support an image of exceptional untrustworthiness.

Meanwhile, it is virtually impossible to hold a conversation with Donald Trump — on any subject — without hearing him lie. (Kristof: “In March, Politico chronicled a week of Trump remarks and found on average one misstatement every five minutes.”) The result: Slightly more voters describe Trump as “honest and trustworthy” than say the same of Clinton.

This is a pattern we should recognize from racial discrimination: We insist on high standards from our leaders, except when we don’t. Members of privileged groups — whites, men — can wrangle exceptions. Only the non-privileged — blacks, women — are actually held to those standards.

“But I just don’t like her.” Any woman running for office has to thread a very narrow needle: She has to look good without appearing vain, to sound strong but not bossy, project as friendly but not soft, and have years of experience without seeming old and stale. (Donald Trump can have no track record in government and be an outsider. A comparable woman would just be unqualified.) For a lot of Americans — even the 92% who told Gallup they could imagine voting for a woman — there might not be an eye in that needle at all.

Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford’s Clayman Institute, writes:

High-achieving women experience social backlash because their very success – and specifically the behaviors that created that success – violates our expectations about how women are supposed to behave. Women are expected to be nice, warm, friendly, and nurturing. Thus, if a woman acts assertively or competitively, if she pushes her team to perform, if she exhibits decisive and forceful leadership, she is deviating from the social script that dictates how she “should” behave. By violating beliefs about what women are like, successful women elicit pushback from others for being insufficiently feminine and too masculine.

Michael Arnovitz looked at the long-term graph of Clinton’s favorability and noted:

What I see is that the public view of Hillary Clinton does not seem to be correlated to “scandals” or issues of character or whether she murdered Vince Foster. No, the one thing that seems to most negatively and consistently affect public perception of Hillary is any attempt by her to seek power. Once she actually has that power her polls go up again. But whenever she asks for it her numbers drop like a manhole cover. … Most of the people who hate Hillary when she’s running for office end up liking her just fine once she’s won.

I’ve heard a number of people, even a few women, tell me that they wish the first woman nominee had been someone different. To which I respond: How different could she be and still have gotten here?

“But I’m not sexist! I’m voting for Jill Stein.” As every Green voter knows in his or her heart, Jill Stein is not going to be our next president. So the disorientation and the fear-of-the-unknown that Clinton evokes simply does not rise for anyone considering Stein.

Likewise, Stein hasn’t run the decades-long gauntlet (with its corresponding decades of unfair criticism and invented scandals) that puts a woman in position to be a major party nominee. If she had, I suspect she would seem like damaged goods too.

We’ve seen something similar to the Stein option with the Republicans and race. Herman Cain in 2011 and Ben Carson in 2015 both had moments in the sun, as Republicans waved their signs and said, “See! I’m against Obama, but I’m not racist.” Strangely, though, both candidacies had faded long before the first primaries. So no one ever had to cast a vote that had a serious chance of putting Cain or Carson into power. Similarly this November, no one will cast a vote that has a serious chance of putting Stein into power either.

A woman as a message-carrier? A woman as the symbol of an impossible dream? We’re all fine with that. But the prospect of giving a woman real power is something else.

Can we compensate? Obviously, it would make no more sense to vote for Clinton because she’s a woman than to vote against her for that reason. So what am I asking you to do?

Here’s my point: It is a very human reaction to instinctively recoil from something you’ve never seen before, to imagine that there’s something wrong with it, and then to go looking for reasons you can use to justify that pre-rational feeling of wrongness. I strongly suspect that lots of people who hate Hillary Clinton (and even a few who are going to hold their noses and vote for her out of disgust with Trump) have done that, or have been influenced by opinion-makers who do that.

Which is not to say that everyone who isn’t whole-hearted supporting Hillary is reacting out of sexism. She’s an American politician who has views, plans, and a record, none of which are perfect. No candidate — even great presidents who were white men — gets 100% of the vote.

But think about what you would like to have told those 2012 voters who were convinced that Barack Obama was a Kenyan-born terrorist-sympathizing fake Christian who hates America and wants to undermine our culture and society. Not that those wouldn’t be good reasons to vote against him, but why do you believe them? Could the thinking process that led you to those beliefs have been influenced by the subtle racism that infects almost everything in our society?

Our society is similarly infected with subtle sexism. Those things you believe about Hillary that make her uniquely objectionable, or so repellant that the difference between her and Trump seems too insignificant to take seriously, why do you believe them?

Could sexism have played a role in forming those beliefs? Think it through again.

The Liberal-on-Liberal Debate Over Political Correctness

A fascinating argument was touched off when Jonathan Chait, a writer I usually like, posted “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say: how the language police are perverting liberalism” on the New York magazine site.

Chait began by recounting an incident that really is objectionable: A Muslim man at the University of Michigan wrote a column for the campus conservative newspaper of the sort that campus conservatives think is clever, a spoof of someone from a marginalized group looking for things to be offended by. Not my cup of tea (or probably Chait’s either, for that matter) but what upset Chait was the reaction: Four people littered the steps of the student’s apartment building with copies of his column written over with insulting and hostile messages.

Up to that point, Chait was on firm ground; that kind of intimidation isn’t an appropriate response. But from there he segued into a stream of conservative tropes:

Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate. Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia, which gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size. Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach. And since social media is also now the milieu that hosts most political debate, the new p.c. has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.

Naturally, conservative writers loved watching liberals argue about this. The Federalist‘s Robert Tracinski wrote:

I have observed several times before that the actual essence of the Obama era’s “post-racial” politics is: white people calling other white people racist. The true icons of racial politics in our era are not a fiery Jeremiah Wright or Jesse Jackson or even Al Sharpton, taking the white man to task for keep black folk down. No, it is the average Obama voter—a left-leaning, college-educated white person like, well, like Jonathan Chait, who uses his support for Obama and the Democrats’ agenda as evidence of his enlightenment, which in his mind makes him superior to Obama’s critics, who must be motivated by insidious, secret racism. … So you can see Chait’s dismay at seeing good white “liberals” have their Not Racist credentials challenged by those who are farther out on the left. Don’t they know how the system is supposed to work?

Because that whole “racism” thing is such a scam in the post-Jim-Crow era, when we all have equal opportunities and are treated the same wherever we go.

I thought about writing my own Chait-response article, but other liberals — mostly people Jonathan Korman linked to on Facebook (thanks!) — have been doing a better job than the first ideas that occurred to me, so I’ll mostly just link to them and decide at the end whether I have anything worth adding.

My problem with Chait is simple: As long as we’re not talking vandalism or violence or physical intimidation — and we’re not, in almost all of the cases he mentions other than that first one — saying that somebody’s view is “bigoted and illegitimate” is just as much an exercise of free speech as whatever that person said in the first place.

But wait, Belle Waring said it better:

People like Chait also don’t merely want to be allowed to say whatever they wish about whomever they wish for the sake of debate itself. Because he can already say whatever he damn well pleases! Look at him go! What he wants is the right to both say things which are offensive to some people and remain a liberal in good standing once he has said them. This is a stupid right which no one should have. … Chait wants to say offensive things and not be criticized.

And for Chait to write off such objections as “political correctness” … doesn’t that label represent the same kind of de-legitimization he is objecting to? But Vox‘s Amanda Taub has that covered:

First things first: there’s no such thing as “political correctness.” The term’s in wide use, certainly, but has no actual fixed or specific meaning. What defines it is not what it describes but how it’s used: as a way to dismiss a concern or demand as a frivolous grievance rather than a real issue.

Chait identifies a long list of disputes that he describes as examples of “p.c.” demands that are hurting mainstream liberalism. But calling these concerns “political correctness” is another way of saying that they aren’t important enough to be addressed on their merits. And all that really means is that they’re not important to Jonathan Chait.

Because it’s up to white men (like me and Chait) to decide whether your concerns deserve attention, or if you’re just being too sensitive. We’ll let you know what we decide, but until then try to keep the noise down so that you don’t disturb the neighbors.

Anti-war activist Fredrik deBoer offered a more nuanced opinion: Chait may be full of it, but that doesn’t mean there’s no problem in left-wing discourse. He described a series of situations where he’s seen left-wing groups chase away potential young recruits by coming down way too hard on them the first time they say something that offends a marginalized group — which is bound to happen, because marginalized groups have been marginalized; if you don’t belong to the group, you probably have never been taught how to consider their point of view, and you won’t figure it out until you go through a certain amount of well-intentioned trial and error. In the long run, might it be more productive to point out and correct those errors in a nicer way?

I don’t want these kids to be more like Jon Chait. I sure as hell don’t want them to be less left-wing. I want them to be more left-wing. I want a left that can win, and there’s no way I can have that when the actually-existing left sheds potential allies at an impossible rate. But the prohibition against ever telling anyone to be friendlier and more forgiving is so powerful and calcified it’s a permanent feature of today’s progressivism. And I’m left as this sad old 33 year old teacher who no longer has the slightest fucking idea what to say to the many brilliant, passionate young people whose only crime is not already being perfect.

An interesting detail: In deBoer’s examples, the people coming down hard on the newcomers are themselves from privileged backgrounds, which suggests that a cycle-of-abuse thing might be going on: I got hazed when I joined the movement, so I’ll be damned if I let you get away with anything.

Like deBoer, Julian What’s-He-Doing-At-the-Cato-Institute Sanchez starts with an accurate critique of Chait:

For people accustomed to seeing their opinions greeted with everything from dismissive condescension to harassment and death threats, a successful writer complaining from a perch at New York magazine about his friends being “bludgeoned… into despondent silence”—because people are mean on social media—simply sounded whiny.  Chait also moves a bit too seamlessly from real, honest-to-God censorship by public institutions to more informal social pressure in a way that makes it sound like he’s conflating them—claiming that criticism is somehow tantamount to censorship or repression.

But then he goes deeper. Every movement, Sanchez says, needs to watch out for a certain discussion-constraining dynamic: When the group’s extreme fringe takes its good ideas too far, it’s a thankless job for anyone within the movement to say, “Hey, wait a minute.” So instead, that criticism winds up being made by opponents, who just want to shut the group down. And once that starts happening, any insider who raises a similar point is siding with the enemy, and implicitly endorsing the whole ream of bogus criticisms enemies raise.

When teetotalers are the only ones willing to say “maybe you’ve had one too many,” because your friends are worried about sounding like abstemious scolds, the advice is a lot easier to dismiss. Which is fine until it’s time to drive home.

You see this dynamic, in fact, with the response to Chait’s essay: Progressives who think maybe he’s kinda-sorta got a point quickly move on, ceding the field to those who want to revoke his ally card and conservatives eager to welcome him, at least for the next ten seconds, to “their” side. … And this makes it still easier to conclude that nothing interesting or valuable is lost by any self-censorship that may be occurring. We know what the counterargument looks like, after all: It’s the garbage those assholes are spouting. Discourse gets increasingly polarized and, in the process, stupider. Which, again, seems like a bad outcome even if you don’t particularly care whether Jon Chait gets his feelings hurt.


So, do I have anything to add to that? Maybe I’ll just kibbitz a little to resolve the apparent contradiction between two people I think are both right: Taub saying PC doesn’t exist and Waring talking about it as a real thing that has positive value.

Let’s start with the definition I gave in “A Conservative-to-English Lexicon“:

Political correctness. The bizarre liberal belief that whites, men, straights, Christians, the rich, and other Americans in positions of privilege should treat less privileged people with respect, even though such people have no power to force them to.

Removing the snark: political correctness is the attempt to extend to powerless people the same kind of courtesy that powerful people can take for granted.

Just as an example, suppose you work for a large corporation and somehow find yourself talking to the Big Boss. Maybe you’re on an elevator together or standing in line next to him at the cafeteria, hard as that is to imagine. Naturally, the wheels in your head are spinning as you try to imagine his point of view, so that nothing you say or do will accidentally offend him. But if you were in a similar situation with a janitor or some other person of low rank, you probably wouldn’t work your empathy nearly so hard.

Maybe you should. Or maybe you should at least work your empathy harder than most of us usually do.

Extend that to groups. When you belong to a powerful group — say, men or whites or straights or something similarly normative in our culture — you can take for granted that nearly everyone you run into has a general appreciation of your point of view and knows better than to piss you off in obvious ways. Members of marginalized groups can’t assume that. They’re constantly being jostled or hassled or put on the spot; occasionally by haters, but more often by ordinary folks who can’t be bothered to think too hard about them. PC is the attempt to raise the overall level of consideration to the level that powerful groups take for granted.

That, I think, is the PC that Waring sees value in.

Taub, on the other hand, is talking not about PC as it would be defined by its practitioners, but about the undefined negative label that gets thrown around by critics. And she’s right: The most common usage of “political correctness” in the media is to label some issue as beneath my concern, because the people being offended or victimized or insulted aren’t people I care about, and aren’t powerful enough to make me care.

I think maybe I should add that usage to the Lexicon.

Is Ray Rice’s Video a Game-Changer?

The reality of domestic abuse gets harder to deny.


Star NFL running back Ray Rice’s assault on his then-fiancée/now-wife is old news. He was arrested in February, and plea-bargained from criminal charges down to court-supervised counseling. (Emily Bazelon explains: “when a victim refuses to cooperate with the prosecution, the calculus for prosecutors shifts away from trial and conviction.”) Way back then, TMZ released a video showing Rice dragging the unconscious mother-of-his-daughter out of an elevator in an Atlantic City casino.

The NFL suspended him for two games, a punishment that raised a furor in light of the season-long suspension of receiver Josh Gordon for “substance abuse”, presumably marijuana. The NFL claimed it was bound by its previous policies, which it changed so that any future domestic violence incident would draw at least a six-game suspension. (But abusers keep playing while their cases work through the legal system.)

The Rice family.

None of that is new. But this week TMZ released a video of what happened inside the elevator. In it, we see Rice throw the punch that knocked Janay Palmer out. In an abstract sense, the new video didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know: We knew he knocked her out, we just hadn’t seen him do it. It shouldn’t have changed anything.

But it did. Almost immediately, the Baltimore Ravens released Rice, who otherwise would have been their main ball-carrier when his original suspension ended next week. The NFL then made his suspension “indefinite”, and New England Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft speculated that Rice would never play in the NFL again.

One of the most striking reactions came from ESPN analyst and former player Mark Schlereth, who nearly dissolved into tears as he imagined a player in his own locker room, someone he would have identified with and felt loyal to, doing such a thing. It’s worth watching.

[The video] put a face to domestic violence. I’m not saying Ray Rice’s face, I’m saying the act of domestic violence. Because it was so shocking. And as the father of two daughters, and the [grand]father of a granddaughter, it was frightening for me to see that. The violence that occurred, the callous nature with which that violence occurred … I guess I had never really gone through that mentally before, to really understand what that looks like. And that put it together for me, of how vicious in nature this is.

I’m sure a lot of women are shaking their heads in a well-duh sort of way: You discovered that domestic abuse is callous and vicious? Your Nobel Prize is in the mail, Mark.

But if Schlereth is typical of a larger group of men — and I believe he is — then the Rice video may be a tipping point in the public discussion of domestic violence. Until now, when men have heard accounts of domestic violence, a lot of us have at some level empathized with the abuser, as if he might be like us on a really bad day. Just as an ordinary man might snap in the middle of an argument and say something he doesn’t mean and later regrets, or maybe act out physically by slamming a door or punching a wall, maybe an abuser does something reflexive that — unintentionally, almost accidentally — results in physical harm.

That’s obviously not what happens in this video. Rice just decks his fiancée. Yeah, they are tussling physically, but the much larger and stronger Rice could easily have fended off Palmer’s blows or held her wrists and waited for her to calm down. Instead, he knocks her out, then looks down at her limp body as if he’s seen all this before.

Witnessing that reality could significantly change the way men listen to accounts of domestic violence. Like Schlereth, many men had “never really gone through it mentally before”, and now they have. Now they understand viscerally that this isn’t something any man might have done on a sufficiently bad day. The man in this video doesn’t deserve a single ounce of our sympathy.

Related short notes

Not to say that there aren’t still some men who will make excuses for Ray Rice. And even some women.


Meanwhile, women have been writing about Janay Palmer, who is now Janay Rice. An anonymous writer on The Frisky wrote “Why I Married My Abuser“.

when I saw the footage of ex-Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée Janay Palmer, I wasn’t surprised that she was now his wife. It isn’t — as many of the commenters on the original TMZ video have said — “all about the money,” or “she doesn’t care about taking a punch,” and it’s especially not that “she is telling all women it’s okay for your man to beat you.”

… It’s beyond silly to say that any woman who is getting smacked around thinks it’s acceptable to be smacked around. No one knows better than a woman who is being abused that it is wrong. Not leaving isn’t the same as consent. I stayed because I was traumatized and isolated. I believed that Hank really loved me and that no man with less passion/ anger (those words were conflated for me) would ever love me like him.

There’s a whole Twitter feed of stories like this: #WhyIStayed. And a companion: #WhyILeft. As with #YesAllWomen, it’s not abstract argument, it’s people telling their stories. The sheer accumulation of them is hard to explain away.


The NFL and the Ravens came out looking really bad — more interested in managing a PR problem than anything else. They claim they didn’t see the inside-the-elevator video until it became public, but that seems doubtful. Schlereth certainly didn’t buy it:

A Rice souvenir repurposed.

Protecting the shield means that we’re supposed to honor and understand the privilege of playing in the league, not supposed to cover up our mistakes and accept those. And that’s where the NFL in my mind is really letting me down, and let every guy who plays in this league down. Because I can’t imagine saying “No, we don’t have access to that video” and you saying, “OK, well, that’s good enough for me. We’ll move forward.” That’s unacceptable.

And besides, what the video changed is the depth of the public anger, not our factual understanding of what happened.


Jon Stewart’s reaction is also worth watching.


If you’re looking for a male hero in this story, I propose this girl’s Dad.

How Threatening is the Hobby Lobby Decision?

The Court’s five male Catholic justices outvoted its three Jews and lone female Catholic. Is that a problem?


It is easy to be confused by the commentary on the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling that Hobby Lobby and Conestoga are exempt from the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act. The ruling, say some, is narrow; it will affect only a handful of business-owners in a more-or-less identical situation, and their female workers’ coverage will not suffer. No, say others, the consequences of the ruling are sweeping; it puts all workers’ health coverage at the mercy of whatever religions their employers’ corporations decide to adopt, and could have further consequences unrelated to healthcare.

Each of those views is right in its way. Justice Alito’s majority opinion emphasizes its limitations; cases that seem analogous, he says several times, may turn out differently. An important point in Alito’s argument is that the government might easily achieve its purpose — covering contraceptive care for women whose employers have religious objections — by pushing the small expense of the coverage back on the insurance companies, as it already does for some religious organizations like churches, hospitals, and colleges. Such a simple fix is probably unavailable if companies object to covering vaccines or blood transfusions, much less seeking exemptions from civil rights laws.

But Justice Ginsberg was not comforted by Alito’s assurances of what may or might happen. Analogous cases may turn out differently, but they might not. Countless numbers of them will work their way through the system for years to come, creating unnecessary chaos as lower courts explore the consequences of Alito’s new interpretations of religious liberty and corporate law.

And who knows? The Court has committed itself to nothing, so maybe those cases will lead to new sweeping rulings by the Court’s increasingly activist conservative (and male Catholic) majority. The government’s “easy” fix to the contraception mandate is itself challenged in a case that the Court will probably hear next year; immediately after the Hobby Lobby ruling, the Court issued an emergency order demonstrating that it takes that case seriously.

What does the ruling say? Here’s the full opinion of the Court — Alito’s 49-page ruling and Ginsberg’s 35-page dissent, plus a few paragraphs from other justices. Law professor Eugene Volokh summarized Alito’s ruling in 900 words, and Ezra Klein got it down to three sentences:

  1. A federal law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was written to protect individuals’ religious freedoms — and on Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that, under RFRA, corporations count as people: their religious freedoms also get protection.

  2. The requirement to cover contraception violated RFRA because it mandated that businesses “engage in conduct that seriously violates their sincere religious belief that life begins at conception.”

  3. If the federal government wanted to increase access to birth control — which they argued was the point of this requirement — the Court thinks it could do it in ways that didn’t violate religious freedom, like taking on the task of distributing contraceptives itself.

Alito clearly thinks (or wants us to think) that his ruling is narrowly targeted:

This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates, e.g., for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs. Nor does it provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice.

But Ginsberg’s dissent begins:

In a decision of startling breadth, the Court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.

And later she explains:

Although the Court attempts to cabin its language to closely held corporations, its logic extends to corporations of any size, public or private. Little doubt that RFRA claims will proliferate, for the Court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood—combined with its other errors in construing RFRA—invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faith.

Ginsberg sees four dangerous new principles in Alito’s ruling:

  • Originally, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 was meant to restore an interpretation of the First Amendment’s free-exercise clause that the Supreme Court backed away from in 1990. Alito has cut the RFRA loose from history of First Amendment interpretation, giving future Courts broad license to expand the notion of religious liberty.
  • Alito has granted RFRA rights to for-profit corporations, extending the legal fiction of corporate personhood into a previously unexplored realm, and blowing away the long-observed distinction between for-profit corporations and specifically religious organizations (like churches) created to serve their members.
  • The meaning of a “substantial burden” on religious liberty has been significantly weakened and made subjective.
  • The “corporate veil” — the legal separation between corporations and their shareholders — has been turned into a one-way gate. The rights of the shareholders now flow through to the corporation, but the debts, crimes, and responsibilities of the corporation still don’t flow back to the shareholders.

Let’s take those one by one.

The RFRA goes beyond any previous history of First Amendment interpretation.

For decades, the Court applied what it called the Sherbert test to First Amendment, religious-liberty-infringement cases: A law could require a person to violate his/her religion — say, by working on the Sabbath — only if the law was the least restrictive way to achieve a compelling government interest. But in 1990 it backed away from that principle in the Smith decision: If a law had a larger purpose and didn’t specifically target a religion, it didn’t have to be quite so accommodating.

Congress then passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to reinstate the Sherbert Test by statute. That’s what the law says and that’s how it has been interpreted. But you can’t justify the Hobby Lobby decision from the pre-Smith precedents, because you run into the 1982 Lee decision, concerning whether an Amish employer had to pay Social Security taxes:

Congress and the courts have been sensitive to the needs flowing from the Free Exercise Clause, but every person cannot be shielded from all the burdens incident to exercising every aspect of the right to practice religious beliefs. When followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity. Granting an exemption from social security taxes to an employer operates to impose the employer’s religious faith on the employees.

Alito doesn’t answer Lee, he just blows it away:

By enacting RFRA, Congress went far beyond what this Court has held is constitutionally required.

In other words, in spite of its name the RFRA doesn’t “restore” anything; it’s a revolutionary assertion of new religious rights unrelated to the First Amendment. How far do those new rights go? Alito doesn’t say. A more detailed analysis of this issue is in Slate. Daily Kos’ Armando has an interesting response: If the RFRA really does mean what Alito claims, then the RFRA itself is an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

The RFRA extends to for-profit corporations.

The RFRA uses the word person and doesn’t define it, so Alito argues that the definition must come from the Dictionary Act of 1871, which says

the words ‘person’ and ‘whoever’ include corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals.

Worship of Mammon

(If the Dictionary Act rings a bell in your head, here’s where you’ve heard of it before: The way the Defense of Marriage Act affected thousands of laws in one swoop was by amending the Dictionary Act’s definition of marriage.) But Ginsberg points out that the Dictionary Act “controls only where context does not indicate otherwise.” Since “the exercise of religion is characteristic of natural persons, not artificial legal entities” the context of a law concerning the exercise of religion already excludes corporations.

Alito wants to claim his ruling only applies to “closely-held corporations”, but that’s not what the Dictionary Act says. If Bank of America wants to admit that it worships Mammon — a religion at least as old and popular as Christianity — it can claim free-exercise rights.

Alito’s reasoning has already had one very unintended consequence: A Guantanamo detainee was previously denied protection of the RFRA, because a court decided that the meaning of “person” in his case was not the Dictionary Act definition. Now that the Supreme Court has gone on record saying the “person” in the RFRA has the Dictionary Act meaning, he is claiming his case should be re-considered.

The meaning of “substantial burden” was weakened.

ObamaCare didn’t require the owners of Hobby Lobby to use, manufacture, distribute, or even necessarily buy contraceptives. They were merely required to provide health insurance that would cover contraceptives if the employees decided to use them. If Hobby Lobby employees agreed with the owners’ scruples, no violation of those scruples would take place.

Ginsberg did not find this burden “substantial”.

It is doubtful that Congress, when it specified that burdens must be “substantial,” had in mind a linkage thus interrupted by independent decisionmakers (the woman and her health counselor) standing between the challenged government action and the religious exercise claimed to be infringed.

But Alito did:

The belief of the Hahns and Greens implicates a difficult and important question of religion and moral philosophy, namely, the circumstances under which it is immoral for a person to perform an act that is innocent in itself but that has the effect of enabling or facilitating the commission of an immoral act by another. It is not for the Court to say that the religious beliefs of the plaintiffs are mistaken or unreasonable.

But surely any clever person can find a link of some sort between whatever they don’t want to do and the commission of some act they consider immoral by someone else. Alito is encouraging Christians to develop hyper-sensitive consciences that will then allow them to control or mistreat others in the name of religious liberty, a pattern I described last summer in “Religious ‘Freedom’ Means Christian Passive-Aggressive Domination“.

I focus on Christians here for a very good reason: Given that this principle will produce complete anarchy if generally applied, it won’t be generally applied. Contrary to Alito’s assertion, judges will have to decide whether the chains of moral logic people assert are reasonable or not. For example, elsewhere in his opinion he brushes off the objection that corporations will claim religious benefits to increase their profits:

To qualify for RFRA’s protection, an asserted belief must be “sincere”; a corporation’s pretextual assertion of a religious belief in order to obtain an exemption for financial reasons would fail.

But how would it fail, if “it is not for the Court to say” whether asserted religious beliefs are unreasonable? If Randism is repackaged as a free-market-worshipping religion, won’t any regulation infringe on it? Who could claim that Koch Industries is “insincere” in its Randism?

In practice, a belief will seem reasonable if a judge agrees with it. That’s what happened in this case: Five male Catholic judges ruled that Catholic moral principles trump women’s rights. Three Jews and a female Catholic disagreed.

The nature of corporations was re-imagined.

Ginsberg:

By incorporating a business, however, an individual separates herself from the entity and escapes personal responsibility for the entity’s obligations. One might ask why the separation should hold only when it serves the interest of those who control the corporation.

Alito brushes away this separateness:

A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends. An established body of law specifies the rights and obligations of the people (including shareholders, officers, and employees) who are associated with a corporation in one way or another. When rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people.

Alito waves his hand at employees, but his ruling only applies to owners, i.e., rich people. So in Alito’s reading of corporate law, corporations protect rich people’s rights while shielding them from responsibilities. It is a way to write inequality into the law.

friend-of-the-court brief written by “forty-four law professors whose research and teaching focus primarily on corporate and securities law and criminal law as applied to corporations” says Alito’s “established body of law” doesn’t work the way he says, and that making it work that way will open “a Pandora’s box”.

The first principle of corporate law is that for-profit corporations are entities that possess legal interests and a legal identity of their own—one separate and distinct from their shareholders. … [T]he most compelling reasons for a small business to incorporate is so that its shareholders can acquire the protection of the corporate veil. … Allowing a corporation, through either shareholder vote or board resolution, to take on and assert the religious beliefs of its shareholders in order to avoid having to comply with a generally-applicable law with a secular purpose is fundamentally at odds with the entire concept of incorporation. Creating such an unprecedented and idiosyncratic tear in the corporate veil would also carry with it unintended consequences, many of which are not easily foreseen.

The brief spells out some of the foreseeable consequences: battles between shareholders (perhaps spilling into court) about a corporation’s religious identity, weakening of the shareholders’ shielding against the debts and/or crimes of the corporation, corporations whose religious identities exempt them from certain laws might obtain advantages over their competitors, minority shareholders might sue a management that refused to take on an advantageous religious identity (because it failed to maximize profit), and many more. They conclude:

Rather than open up such a Pandora’s box, the Court should simply follow well-established principles of corporate law and hold that a corporation cannot, through the expedient of a shareholder vote or a board resolution, take on the religious identity of its shareholders.

Conclusion: The Box is Open.

More cases are already in the pipeline, cases that object to all forms of contraception, not just the four Hobby Lobby’s owners view as abortion-causing. One objects to paying for “related education and counseling”, so even seeing your doctor to discuss contraceptive options might be out. Religious employers are already asking to be exempt from rules about hiring gays and lesbians. Photographers and bakers want to be free to reject same-sex marriage clients. Beyond that, who can say what plans are being hatched in religious-right think tanks or corporate law offices?

The Court did not endorse these claims in advance, but it laid out sweeping new principles and did not provide any tests to limit them.

 

#YesAllWomen and the Continuum of Aggression

Men look at Elliot Rodger and say, “I would never do something like that.” Women look at his victims and say, “That could totally happen to me.”


Last week the Isla Vista murders — and Elliot Rodger’s bizarre rants justifying his revenge on the female gender because women wouldn’t have sex with him — were recent enough that I hadn’t processed them. I described my snap reaction as feeling “slimed”. Letting Rodger’s thoughts into my head just made me feel dirty, polluted, unclean. And I wrote, “I can’t imagine how women feel about it.”

This week women told the world how they feel about it. (They were already starting to tell the world last Monday, but I hadn’t discovered it yet.) I have read only a tiny fraction of what has been tweeted with the #YesAllWomen hashtag, but it has been eye-opening.

The struggle for meaning. Every striking news event starts a debate about what it means, or if it even means anything. For a lot of men, Isla Vista didn’t mean much: Crazy people do crazy things. Shit happens.

For others, it restarted the eternal gun-control debate, which always ends in the same place: Yes, a large majority of Americans want at least minor restrictions on guns, and no, it’s not going to happen, because America really isn’t a democracy any more. A victim’s father channeled the majority’s frustration in an interview with Anderson Cooper: “I don’t want to hear that you’re sorry about my son’s death,” he said to any politicians who might be planning to make a condolence call. “I don’t care if you’re sorry about my son’s death. You go back to Congress and you do something, and you come back to me and tell me you’ve done something. Then I’ll be interested in talking to you.”

Bizarre exception, or part of a pattern? To a lot of women, though, Isla Vista looked very different. Rather than a bizarre random event, it seemed like the extreme edge of the male aggression they experience constantly: They get grabbed or groped; men yell obscenities at them or make unwanted “flattering” comments about their bodies; they are harassed online; men demand their attention and refuse to go away; when women try to walk away, men grab their wrists or stand in the doorway or follow them as stalkers; men get angry and abusive when their uninvited advances are rejected; and on and on and on.

And while the exact statistics on rape are hotly debated — the difference depends in large part on how forcefully a woman has to say “no” before you count it — I have a lot of confidence in this qualitative statement: Just about every woman knows somebody who has been raped. (If you don’t believe me, ask some.) Whatever the definition is and whatever percentage that leads to, rape is not a monsters-in-the-closet phobia; it’s the well-founded fear that what happened to her (and maybe also to her and her and her) could happen to me.

So while men look at Elliot Rodger and say, “I would never do something like that”, women look at his victims and say, “That could totally happen to me.” Men divide the world into murderers and non-murderers, observing that the murderer pool is very small. Women look at murder as the extreme edge of a continuum of aggression, disrespect, and threat that affects them every day.

#YesAllWomen. And that is what I see as the point of #YesAllWomen: encouraging women to express and men to feel the oppressive weight of that continuum. #YesAllWomen is at its best when women simply tell their stories, one after another. Read enough stories and the bigger reality starts to break through: The meaning of Isla Vista isn’t that shit happens, it’s that the same kinds of shit keep happening day after day all over the country. And when there’s an widespread pattern like that, sooner or later it’s going to break out into something really horrific.*

The brilliance of #YesAllWomen is in its framing: It sidesteps the objection “Not all men are like that.” True or not, that objection misses the point. Whether or not feminist terms like misogyny or rape culture unfairly tar some good men is a minor issue compared to the environment of danger all women have to live in. Let’s not drop the larger issue to discuss the smaller one.**

And let’s not fall into the trap of interpreting every problem in the forest as the fault of individual trees. Laurie Penny explains:

of course not all men hate women. But culture hates women, so men who grow up in a sexist culture have a tendency to do and say sexist things, often without meaning to. … You can be the gentlest, sweetest man in the world yet still benefit from sexism. That’s how oppression works. Thousands of otherwise decent people are persuaded to go along with an unfair system because it’s less hassle that way. … I do not believe the majority of men are too stupid to understand this distinction

[And before we leave the gun-control issue entirely, can we discuss how the two issues interact? Think about the open-carry demonstrations in Texas or Georgia’s new guns-everywhere law. Now picture a woman you care about having a drink after work with some friends, and being accosted by a strange man who won’t go away. Now picture him armed. And no, NRA spokesmen, picturing a second gun in your sister/daughter/friend’s purse doesn’t fix the situation.]

The game. Men, by and large, have not handled our side of this discussion well, attempting either to disown the problem or to mansplain what women should do to fix it.*** But a few men have had intelligent things to say. I thought the Daily Beast piece by self-described nerd Arthur Chu was particularly on point:

[T]he overall problem is one of a culture where instead of seeing women as, you know, people, protagonists of their own stories just like we are of ours, men are taught that women are things to “earn,” to “win.” That if we try hard enough and persist long enough, we’ll get the girl in the end. Like life is a video game and women, like money and status, are just part of the reward we get for doing well.

The game metaphor explains a lot about what was wrong with Rodger’s point of view, and how it relates to a problem in the larger culture. Elliot Rodger’s complaint wasn’t that he couldn’t find his soulmate or that his genes might fail in the Darwinian struggle for immortality. It wasn’t even about pleasure, really, because you don’t need a partner for that. The essence of Rodger’s complaint was that he couldn’t level up — no matter how long he played or how hard he tried — in the multi-player game of sex.

To grasp the full dysfunction of that game, you need to understand who the players are: men. Rodger wasn’t playing with or even against women when he went out looking for sex. He was playing against other men to gain status. Women are just NPCs — non-player characters. Figuring out what to say or do to get their attention or their phone numbers or to get them into bed is like solving the gatekeeper’s riddle or finding the catch that opens the door to the secret passage.

Rodger’s virginity wasn’t just a lack of experience, comparable to someone who has never seen the ocean or been to Paris or tasted champagne. It was his state of being. He was a newby, a beginner, a loser. And it wasn’t fair. He had put so much of his time and effort and passion into the game; he deserved to get something out.

Chu explains the error:

other people’s bodies and other people’s love are not something that can be taken nor even something that can be earned—they can be given freely, by choice, or not.

We need to get that. Really, really grok that, if our half of the species ever going to be worth a damn. Not getting that means that there will always be some percent of us who will be rapists, and abusers, and killers.

What will we pass on? Phrasing the game metaphor in computer terms makes it sound like a new problem of the internet generation, but it’s not.**** Computer games are just a good way of describing an attitude that has been around since Achilles and Agamemnon argued over a slave girl: that women are just tokens in a competition among men. In junior high in the 70s, my friends and I talked about “getting to second base”, and today commercials sell Viagra and Grecian Formula to older men by telling us we can “get back in the game”. We all know what game they’re talking about.

As long as that attitude gets passed down from one generation of men to the next, there’s going to be an aggression-against-women problem. Because that’s how men play: You sneak some vaseline onto the ball, hide an ace up your sleeve, take that performance-enhancing drug, or push away a defender when the refs aren’t looking. If you can get away with it, it’s part of the game. So if it raises your score to grab some body part otherwise denied you, or to intimidate women into submission, take advantage of their unconsciousness, drug them, or even kidnap and imprison them, someone’s going to do it.

No one ever asks a boy whether he wants to play this game. At some point in your adolescence, you just find yourself in the middle of it, being told that you are losing and advised on how to win. There are competing visions that (for most men, I believe) eventually win out as they mature: the search for companionship, or looking for an ally to help you face life’s challenges. In those visions, women can be “protagonists of their own stories” rather than NPCs. But no one ever tells you there is a choice of visions and lays out the consequences.

If we did discuss these competing visions openly with boys, I don’t think the game metaphor would stand up to conscious scrutiny. Few men would openly defend the idea that women exist to be tokens of our competition, and even most teens already have enough empathy and experience for it to ring false. But the game attitude survives because we don’t bring it out into the light and discuss it.

Changing that dynamic would be a fine response to #YesAllWomen.


* I shake my head at the people who want to make an either/or out of whether the blame for Isla Vista belongs to a misogynistic culture or to Rodger’s personal insanity. Growing up, I had the chance to observe a paranoid relative. She went crazy during the McCarthy red scare, so the Communists were after her. If she’d broken with reality a few years earlier it might have been the Nazis; a few years later, the Mafia. Maybe people go crazy because their brains malfunction, but how they go crazy is shaped by their culture.


** One of the prerogatives of any form of privilege is that your concerns move to the top of the agenda, even if they are comparatively minor. Privileged classes of all sorts take this prerogative for granted and have a hard time seeing it as an injustice. So it is here: Men who feel smeared by a term like rape culture tend to think the conversation should immediately shift to their hurt feelings. It shouldn’t. To the extent that this objection is justified, it can wait. Let’s talk about it later. (Privileged classes aren’t used to hearing that response, but under-privileged classes hear it all the time.)

An important reason it should wait, in addition to its comparative insignificance, is that when a man fully grasps the continuum of aggression, it’s hard to claim that he’s never played any role in perpetuating it. (I know I can’t make that claim.) But by changing the subject to their own victimization, men avoid that realization.


*** Most advice about how to avoid rape — how to dress, places to avoid, not leaving your drink unattended — is really about making sure the rapist picks someone else. It’s like, “You don’t have to swim faster than the shark, you just have to swim faster than your sister.” It’s got zero impact on the overall rape problem.


**** And the attitude behind it is not even unique to men. In the pre-war chapters of Gone With the Wind, Scarlett is playing her own version of the game. While she wants to wind up with Ashley eventually, in the meantime she wants every eligible man in Georgia to be her suitor, and she “wins” whenever a bride realizes that she has married one of Scarlett’s cast-offs.

But there’s one important difference between the male and female versions of the game: Men who tire of Scarlett’s game can get on their horses and ride away, and in the end, it’s up to Rhett to decide whether or not he gives a damn. Women would like to have those options in the male version of the game.

The Sifted Bookshelf: Angry White Men

They may not feel powerful, but they do feel entitled to feel powerful.


One of the privileges that still comes with being white or male is that you get to be an individual. When you do something unusually good or bad, the media doesn’t take you as a representative of all whites or all men. You’re just you; you did something; it’s news.

So nobody remarked on George W. Bush being the United States’ 43rd consecutive white male president, but 2008 buzzed with speculation that the 44th might be black or female. For example, pundits questioned whether a woman could be tough enough to be commander-in-chief of the military, but nobody has ever successfully made an issue of whether a man can be compassionate enough to be nurse-in-chief of Medicare, or understand small children well enough to be teacher-in-chief of Head Start.

Nobody ever asked why a white man had killed President Kennedy or tried to kill President Reagan. The gunmen had names; their stories were presumed to be personal. When Bernie Madoff conned his investors out of billions, nobody asked “What makes a white man do something like that?” or “What should be done about the white male swindler problem?”

Sikh temple shooter.

Even when the perpetrators themselves frame whiteness or masculinity as an issue, the media tends not to pick it up. Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 69 people at a camp for liberal youth in Norway, saw himself as a crusader against a Muslim takeover of Europe. His manifesto advocated a restoration of European “monoculturalism” and “patriarchy”. Wade Michael Page, killer of six in the Sikh Temple shooting in Wisconsin, was acting on his long-held white supremacist views. In each case, this motivation was spun mostly as a symptom of personal instability, and not of a dangerous cancer in the white community.

Mad as hell.

The upshot is that although we are surrounded by angry white men — on talk radio, on the internet, on the highways, in the workplace, in the NRA and the Tea Party, in the “men’s rights” movement, and in countless acts of domestic violence or public mayhem from Columbine to Sandy Hook — we aren’t having a national discussion about the anger problem of whites or men or white men. That’s because we don’t see them as “white men”; we see them as individuals whose stories reflect unique psychological, political, or social issues. (By contrast, consider how little Michelle Obama has to do to evoke the angry-black-woman stereotype.)

Enter Michael Kimmel and his book Angry White Men.

Chapter by chapter, Kimmel calls attention to angry white men wherever they are found: the loudest voices on the radio, the school shooters, the anti-feminist men’s-rights movement and its Dad’s-rights subculture, the wife beaters, the workers who go postal, and the white supremacists. He asks and answers the question you seldom hear: What makes white men so angry?

What links all these different groups … is a single core experience: what I call aggrieved entitlement.

Aggrieved entitlement is the belief that you have been cheated out of status and power that should have been part of your birthright. (It’s a close relative of what I have called privileged distress: the feeling that advantages you never consciously acknowledged are slipping away from you.) White men are angry, Kimmel claims, because

They may not feel powerful, but they do feel entitled to feel powerful.

How it was supposed to be.

High standards and failure. White men also feel judged (and judge themselves) according to the standards of fathers and grandfathers who received the full white-male birthright, who didn’t have to compete with other races on an almost-level playing field, and who could count on subservient wives, mothers, daughters, and Girls Friday at the office to rally behind their leadership rather than outshine them or make demands.

You want a recipe for anger? Here it is: I’m a failure and it’s not my fault.

The seldom-examined setting for white male anger is failure, or at least failure according to the standards of another era. Dad and/or Grandpa supported a family on one job, and when he got home he commanded respect from his family. His marriage lasted, and his kids were not being raised by a resentful ex-wife on the other side of the country. When Dad or Grandpa was young, he was comfortable in his masculinity. He hunted deer and lettered in football. Girls waited by the phone for him to call, and when he paid for dinner they knew they owed him something.

It’s not that way any more, and it’s not my fault. Don’t look at me like that.

The rich and powerful speak for me.

The visible spokesmen for angry white men may be millionaires like Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump. But such success is what their listeners wish they had, not what they do have or will ever have. Kimmel observes:

It’s largely the downwardly mobile middle and lower middle classes who form the backbone of the Tea Party, of the listeners of outrage radio, of the neo-Nazis and white supremacists— in many cases literally the sons of those very farmers and workers who’ve lost the family farms or shuttered for good the businesses that had been family owned and operated for generations.

Violence. This sense of being cheated out of what was promised — and being judged as if it had been delivered — interacts badly with another part of the traditional male identity: Men have the privilege/right/duty to make things right by violence.

I don’t want to be violent, but I can be.

That is the plot of just about every action movie with a male hero: A man who would rather be left alone to live his life and take care of his family is confronted with an injustice that can only end if he becomes violent and defeats it. If he successfully wields violence he is a hero. If he remains peaceful he is a wimp.

And so, while many women also feel cheated and judged unfairly, they tend not to snap in a violent way. Kimmel observes that all the recent rampage school shooters (other than the Korean Virginia Tech shooter, whose race evoked a discussion, and another Korean shooter since Kimmel finished writing) have been white males, mostly from rural and suburban areas. Kimmel imagines what would happen if they’d all been, say, inner-city black girls

Can you picture the national debate, the headlines, the hand-wringing? There is no doubt we’d be having a national debate about inner-city poor black girls. The entire focus would be on race, class, and gender. The media would doubtless invent a new term for their behavior, as with wilding two decades ago.

Likewise,

In my research, I could find no cases of working women coming into their workplaces, packing assault weapons, and opening fire, seemingly indiscriminately.

The explanation is simple: When a man feels disrespected — on the job, in his school, in his family — the disrespect threatens not just his personal identity, but his identity as a man. (The archetypal Man is entitled to respect; if you are not being respected, you are failing as a man.) The obvious response is to re-assert manhood through violence, simultaneously righting the scales both socially and psychologically.

The Real and the True. One point I made in “The Distress of the Privileged” was that the “distress” part of privileged distress is very real: If you have convinced yourself that you don’t have any unfair advantages, and then those advantages start to go away, it feels like persecution. You’re not making it up; there are real events you can point to.

Kimmel covers this ground by distinguishing between what is “real” and what is “true”.

White men’s anger is “real”— that is, it is experienced deeply and sincerely. But it is not “true”— that is, it doesn’t provide an accurate analysis of their situation.

And what is most likely to be untrue is the object of the anger. When your well-paid factory job is shipped overseas and you can’t find another one, the villain isn’t the teen-age Chinese girl who does your old job for fifty cents an hour. If you can’t support a family on your income, the villain isn’t your working wife or her reasonable demand that you share the housewife duties she doesn’t have time for any more. If the value of your house crashes, the villain isn’t the black family that got talked into a sub-prime mortgage it couldn’t afford. If you judge yourself by the standards of another era, the villains are not the people whose fair competition keeps you from meeting those standards.

The collapsing pyramid. Patriarchy and racism are both systems of dominance that are coming apart. The white men who feel the change first are the ones just one step up from the bottom: Their step collapses, throwing them in with the “lesser” blacks and women, and the pyramid resettles on top of them. The white men higher up the pyramid want the victims of this collapse to identify with them and with the pyramid that gives them their status: What’s wrong isn’t that the pyramid itself is unfair — as you now can clearly see, being at the bottom of it. What’s wrong, they want you to believe, is that the pyramid is collapsing. You should defend the pyramid, blame the other bottom-dwellers for your loss of status, and maybe one day your one-step-up can be restored.

They know that’s not going to happen; they’re just counting on you not figuring it out. The Masters of the Universe are not going to bring your job back from China. Wal-Mart is not going to make room for your family shop to re-open. Bank of America is not going to forgive your underwater mortgage. Agri-business is not going to rescue your family farm.

The rich white men are not going to rebuild the lower step of the pyramid, no matter how much power they get. And nobody is making room for you on the upper levels.

If you have to blame someone, blame the people who promised you something they couldn’t (or decided not to) deliver. They sold you a bill of goods. Don’t buy another bill of goods from them.

But the best solution of all would be to get past the anger, forget about how things were supposed to be, and just start dealing with the situation as it is. Like a lot of people you never expected to have anything in common with, you find yourself at the bottom of the pyramid. It’s an unfair pyramid.

Let’s bring it down.

Pots, Kettles, and Projections from the Religious Right

Unlike Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a slut or Newt Gingrich labeling Barack Obama “the Food Stamp President“, I don’t think Stephen Baskerville was trolling when he delivered the annual mandatory-attendance Faith and Reason Lecture ten days ago at Patrick Henry College. On the contrary, I think this was one of those among-the-faithful communications that Alternet’s Amanda Marcotte says the rest of us should be paying more attention to.

Several other writers — at first former PHC students like QueerPHC and David Sessions, then others — have already picked out the outrageous highlights of Baskerville’s speech: gays are responsible for the rise Nazism, prisons are overcrowded because feminists “invented crimes” to control men, sex education is “government-sponsored pornography”, the welfare state caused the financial crisis, and on and on. It’s hard to read more than a paragraph of Baskerville’s text without finding something objectionable.

But I want to back up a step, look at the speech as a whole, and consider what it tells us about the extreme Christianist* mindset. Religious-Right writings are often unintentionally revealing, because of a unique dogmatic quirk: To look at their own worldview as if it were one belief system among many is to commit the sin of relativism.

Self-awareness. People of all religions and philosophies find it hard to “see ourselves as others see us”, but most of us at least pay lip service to the idea that we should. On the Religious Right, though, it’s not just hard to look at your faith from the outside, it’s wrong. (Something similar happens on the political Right with “American exceptionalism”; it’s not just difficult for Americans to see the United States as a nation among other nations, it’s a mistake that should be rejected out of hand.)

This dogmatic quirk has a predictable result: Religious Right speakers and authors have a profound lack of self-awareness. When anybody else would stop and think, “Whoa. What did I just hear come out of my mouth?” Christianist extremists like Stephen Baskerville reject that self-criticism as the voice of the Devil and say “Get thee behind me, Satan.”

That lack of self-awareness is exacerbated when Christianists segregate themselves behind the walls of an institution in which “our Christian faith precedes and informs all that we at Patrick Henry College study, teach, and learn.” Now imagine being a voice of authority in such a place, where those who disagree with you are not just mistaken, they are a corrupting influence on the entire community. What kind of unchecked nonsense would get into your head?

Projection. People who lack self-awareness are prone to what psychologists call projection — their repressed self-criticism doesn’t just evaporate, it comes out as criticism of others. Projection is why liars don’t trust anybody and gossips believe everyone is talking about them. Projection is why puritans imagine that everyone else is obsessed with sex, and ideologues see themselves beset by everyone else’s ideology.

That’s what’s going on in this speech,”Politicizing Potiphar’s Wife: Today’s New Ideology“. Baskerville is pointing to what he sees as an important problem in American society today: Ideologues are politicizing sex and the family.

Where, oh where, might he look to see such a phenomenon?

The setting. As you read the speech, keep in mind that Baskerville isn’t one of those unfortunate professors who had an ill-considered ramble recorded on somebody’s iPhone and posted to the world.

Patrick Henry College is the intellectual center of the evangelical Christian home-schooling movement**. It’s the subject of Hanna Rosin’s book God’s Harvard: a Christian College on a mission to save America. The school’s purpose is to take home-schooled evangelicals and groom them for positions in politics and government. It was a disproportionate source of Bush administration interns.

The Faith and Reason Lecture highlights an annual day-long festival and student attendance is mandatory. The PHC web site quotes its provost:

To me, the Faith & Reason festival exemplifies what Patrick Henry College is all about: committed Christians pursuing the highest level of academic scholarship.

David Sessions recalls that the original Faith and Reason lecture in 2005 was pre-screened by the college president and presented only after numerous changes. So he finds it “difficult to imagine” that Baskerville’s speech was not endorsed by the administration.

Ideology. The “ideologies” Baskerville warns his students against are feminism (renamed “sexual radicalism” or “sexualityism”) and Islamism. He never defines ideology, but he explicitly denies that Christianity can be an ideology.

One obvious reason why Christian faith is not an ideology is because of its unique and highly qualified relationship with the state; Christianity does not augment state power but limits it. Yet equally plausible is that Christianity is not an ideology because it has a unique theology of resentment. All true ideologies channel grievances into government power, with the ultimate aim of settling scores against politically defined criminals. Christianity alone offers a theology of forgiveness that neutralizes resentment and channels its sources into service for others and for God.

I’m sure that women forced to have unwanted vaginal probes or scientists who have to fight for their right to teach science in public schools will be comforted to learn that Christianity does not augment state power. LIkewise, I’m sure people who knew and loved Dr. George Tiller appreciate the Religious Right’s forgiving nature. And all you have to do is finish reading Baskerville’s speech to find a litany of Christianist resentment and grievance, a topic I have written about at length elsewhere. You will search in vain to find any hint of Baskerville neutralizing his resentment or channeling it into service — he can’t neutralize his own resentment and grievance because that only exists in other people.

Having defended against self-awareness, he goes on to express clear insight into resentment:

resentment is simply the form of pride that is directed at those possessing power that we feel we deserve.

Just so, Stephen. Just so.

Ending disagreement. Since Baskerville doesn’t define ideology, the only way to know what he means is to watch how he uses it. We’ve already seen that Christianity isn’t an ideology. Further “Ideology is a defining feature of modernity” that didn’t exist until it was invented, along with other modern notions like political parties, the left-right spectrum, and progress.

What he’s actually pointing to is ideological conflict: two or more ideologies co-existing in the same society. That really is a feature of modernity. Christianity by itself doesn’t lead to ideological conflict, but a Christianist society that lets Islam or feminism into the public square does have ideological conflict. If only we could get back to a society where Christianity is the only ideology and all other views are aberrations, then we could ignore the existence of ideology altogether. That seems to be his goal.

My argument is not that we must win the ideological wars but that we should be endeavouring to put the ideological genie back into the bottle.

Freedom is slavery. Slavery is freedom. Baskerville admiringly quotes Puritan minister John Geree from 1641:

There is a service which is freedom, the service of Christ; and there is a freedom which is servitude, the freedom to sin. There is a liberty which is bondage and … a bondage which is liberty.

This Orwellian principle explains how PHC can advocate repressive policies against women, gays, and non-Christians under the college slogan “for Christ and for Liberty”. Forcing others to live by Religious Right principles “liberates” them from the bondage of sin. Conversely,

sin enslaves and license destroys freedom.

The frame here is addiction: When your child is addicted to heroin, you may be justified in locking him up until he finishes going through withdrawal. (He may thank you later, once the craving is gone.) If you apply that model to, say, homosexuality, you are justified in packing your kid off to an ex-gay camp to be deprogrammed.

In the larger world, Christianists picture themselves in the parental role and see the rest of us as addicted to sin. This frame justifies them in seizing whatever power they need to make us behave, all in the name of “liberty”.

This view has become part of the conservative mainstream. In the 2012 campaign, for example, Rick Santorum redefined the Declaration of Independence’s inalienable rights as “God gave us rights to life and to freedom to pursue His will. [my emphasis] That’s what the moral foundation of our country is.” So gays, feminists, and Muslims can be enemies of freedom, but by definition true Christians cannot.

Tactics for seizing power. Once you put aside the dodge that Baskerville is talking about other people, his criticisms are right on target.

What Gottschalk has stumbled upon is our own homegrown version of Stalinism: the process by which triumphant radicals first challenge and then commandeer both traditional values and the instruments of state repression for their own purposes as they trade ideological purity for power.

Quite right, Prof. Baskerville: America does have a movement that justifies its quest for power by commandeering “traditional values”.

The new ideology uses sexuality — and also its products, children — as instruments to acquire political power. … If one wishes to enact measures that intrude into the private lives of adults, the way to neutralize opposition is to present it as being “for the children.”

Indeed. Christianist attempts to prevent gays and lesbians from marrying the people they love are typically framed as a defense of children. Similarly, the government must intrude into what you read or see on TV or on the internet to protect children.

Baskerville understands that other people’s obsessive focus on sex is bad for society.

It is unhealthy for any society to have its civic life so dominated by sex as ours has now become. When sex becomes a society’s political currency, the public agenda comes to be controlled by those willing to use sexuality as a weapon to acquire power.

A good example of this would be how Republicans used ban-gay-marriage ballot proposals to boost evangelical turnout in key swing states in 2004.

The Hungarian Stalinist Matyas Rakosi coined the term “salami tactics” to describe how determined, disciplined, and organized activists can seize power by wheedling their way into key institutions, such as the police, justice system, penal apparatus, and military.

Baskerville could be describing the mission of Patrick Henry College itself.

The Vision of Patrick Henry College is to aid in the transformation of American society by training Christian students to serve God and mankind with a passion for righteousness, justice, and mercy, through careers of public service and cultural influence.

Later in the speech, Baskerville applies a military analogy to PHC.

This “university” is tiny, but so was the army of Gideon.

And the Bolsheviks. Don’t forget the Bolsheviks.

Grievances. If your plan is to “channel grievances into government power”, then you have to be able to manufacture grievances.

Here too, we also see the familiar pattern of radical ideologies creating the very evils they then re-package as grievances, and which then serve to rationalize further “empowerment”.

Who manufactures more grievances than the Religious Right, with its imaginary War on Christmas and its belief that its religious freedom has been violated whenever it is not allowed to rule over everyone else?

Invented crimes. Baskerville spends a great deal of time talking about “new crimes” that come from looking at the world through a feminist lens: He puts scare quotes around “rape”, “harassment”, “child abuse”, “stalking”, and “bullying”. (I won’t detail this because Libby Anne already has.)

But he ignores new crimes like fetal homicide, which have been foisted upon us by the Religious Right, or the proposal that Virginia women report their miscarriages to the police within 24 hours. Failure to report could lead to a year in prison.

Not hypocrisy. The temptation is to label this kind of double-standard-keeping as hypocrisy. But it’s stranger than that: The Religious Right isn’t hypocritical, it is just profoundly lacking in self-awareness. They really have no idea that the criticisms they aim outward apply more accurately to themselves.

And how would they? In order to see how their criticisms apply to their own actions, they’d have to consider their worldview as one among many. And to them, that’s relativism. It’s just wrong.


* I use Christianist in the same sense that the mainstream media uses Islamist. I am not talking about all Christians, but specifically about those who believe that their particular version of Christianity should control the government, and especially those who are working to achieve that goal.

** It’s not my intention to smear home-schooling in general. I know more than one home-schooling household personally and I have participated in a few of their projects. Parents might home-school to deal with special needs, to be more involved in their children’s lives, to nurture special talents, to escape bullying, or for many other benign or admirable reasons.

But Christian home-schooling often has an additional goal: “protecting” children from learning about evolution, homosexuality, or feminism, or hearing any cogent criticism of a fundamentalist worldview. The more radical a Christianist group is, the more likely it is to advocate home-schooling.

A report by the National Center for Education Statistics said 1.5 million American children were being home-schooled in 2007 (up from 1.1 million in 2003), with 72% of parents citing “religious or moral instruction” as a reason. Not all of those folks are radical Christian supremacists, but given growth and whatnot we still might be talking about a million kids.