Al Franken, Sexual McCarthyism, and Moral Panics

More on the Al Franken/Leeaan Tweeden blowup, plus film & TV clips exploring moral panics and McCarthyism from different angles.

About ten days ago, Huffington Post contributor David Fagin penned a searing screed decrying the alleged framing of Al Franken by Trump supporters. It seems to have gotten pulled by Fagin or HuffPo. It was pretty over-the-top (perhaps written in haste or anger), but Fagin made some good points about the propagandistic nature of Tweeden’s attack on Franken:

Then, there is the way [Tweeden’s] piece is constructed. Anyone else find it a bit odd she mentions her father, Vietnam, her husband, the Air Force, the troops in the Middle East, and 9/11, all in the first paragraph? If one didn’t know better, one would think she was going for the easy sympathy play and using the military service of her father and husband, as well as the rest of the armed forces overseas, to further ingratiate herself to the reader. Almost like a calling card to other right-wing MAGA’s out there. “My father, brother, husband, cousin, neighbor’s nephew’s dog, and piano teacher’s great grandson are all in the military, so that means you should believe me no matter what.”

Al Franken allegedly kissing a woman during a rehearsal of a skit ten years ago is exactly what Congress should be using tax payer dollars to investigate at this moment in time.

There’s another dimension to the optics here. Leeann Tweeden is a sort of Miss America type. Al Franken is a sort of Woody Allen type. So I thought of this clip from Allen’s 1971 comedy Bananas:

To overthink it would spoil the humor, which is delicious, though not always politically correct. Political correctness will be the death of the American left. Right now Al Franken is being sacrificed on the altar of political correctness by people who should know better. It’s not a pretty thing to watch. Harry Truman once said (or possibly didn’t say), “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

I might not agree with David Fagin on everything, but he tweeted that “#AlFranken is the first victim of sexual McCarthyism.” There’s probably some truth in that. I find myself recalling the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”:

First airing in 1960, its subtext was nothing other than McCarthyism viewed as a moral panic (though the term “moral panic” would not come into widespread use in the social sciences for another decade).

As in much late 50s/early 60s sci-fi, the theme is aliens in our midst, as a metaphor for fear of communist infiltration. In a moral panic, fear of a problem (which may be a real problem) becomes exaggerated to the point of rampant paranoia and a frenzy of finger-pointing — much like the present culture of public accusation. “Look! Under that rock! It’s another sexual abuser! Everybody run, run, run, and grab a few stones while you are running. We shall stone the Canaanite!” Or as the old adage goes: “When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.” (The adage has been quoted by everyone from Herman Wouk to Robert Heinlein to Spider John Koerner.)

This is not to underestimate the importance of taking sane, rational steps to create a culture in which sexual abuse of women and girls is not tolerated. The problem is real. But the present media frenzy is not helpful, and may even be counterproductive in relation to genuine change, since outrage may be a substitute for action, and can lead to outrage fatigue.

I think there are two extremes to be avoided: one where women never talk about sexual abuse, so nothing ever gets done; and the other where every woman has to have a story of abuse in order to be admitted to the sisterhood, and every edition of The View, Good Morning America, or Hannity must have its Leeann Tweeden wannabe rabbiting on about a misplaced kiss in the distant past, in between autographing copies of Playboy.

Of course, in the midst of a moral panic it may do little good to say, “Hey people, check yourselves out.” A moral panic is a form of collective insanity, and one feature of that insanity is the inability to hear voices of calm and reason. It’s a little like this ancient tale about the wise king and the poisoned well, which was reprised in the 1973 film Serpico, about a New York City cop who fights against police corruption and is hated for it. If you don’t drink from the same well as everyone else, they’ll simply say you’re crazy or don’t understand the frightful danger they’re responding to, or the overwhelming need (and greed).

A classic symptom of a moral panic is that the major media, while acting as if they are arbiters of what is reasonable, are actually fuelling or even constructing the moral panic.

A panic differs from a short-lived hoax in which the true facts are quickly brought to bear. Consider the Mercury Theatre’s radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Broadcast in 1938, it was presented in such a way that many casual listeners really believed the Earth was being invaded by Martians:

According to a short article on History.com:

Perhaps as many as a million radio listeners believed that a real Martian invasion was underway. Panic broke out across the country. In New Jersey, terrified civilians jammed highways seeking to escape the alien marauders. People begged police for gas masks to save them from the toxic gas and asked electric companies to turn off the power so that the Martians wouldn’t see their lights. One woman ran into an Indianapolis church where evening services were being held and yelled, “New York has been destroyed! It’s the end of the world! Go home and prepare to die!” [Editor’s note: Similar sentiments were voiced just after the November 2016 presidential election.]

The broadcast may not even rise to the level of a hoax, since those who listened from the outset knew it was only a radio play, and announcements to that effect were inserted at intervals.

What’s different about a moral panic is that it often concerns a perceived problem about which there is limited or sketchy information, and the facts or true dimensions of the problem remain difficult to ascertain. This may lead to an extended period of wild speculation, acts of vigilantism, and harsh social control measures which later turn out to have been uncalled for.

The panic over alleged satanic ritual abuse of children at preschools in the 1980s is a classic example of a moral panic. This New York Times book review of We Believe The Children  includes an excellent summary, and notes:

Elaine Showalter, in “Hystories” (1997), showed how the psychological establishment, and feminists within it, intrigued by trauma theory, so-called multiple personalities and a new belief in recovered memories, was primed to believe outlandish stories of abuse, especially from women. Believing the victim became nonnegotiable — with adult female patients, then with children and even toddlers.

Moral panics tend to occur in cycles, and are not understood by the average participant in them; so in the present phase, hashtags like #MeToo and #BelieveTheWomen are not viewed as problematic by those who fail to study history.

Those remembering The X-Files might have gleaned something of the flavour of moral panics from the episode “Syzygy” (s3e13), which combines analysis of the Satanic Panic phenom with humor. Like “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” it captures the quality of frantic finger-pointing and mob rule in which everyone is suspect, especially those who are different in some way. In “Maple Street,” the first suspect is a stargazer who suffers from insomnia, while in “Syzygy,” the crowd storms the house of a cross-dresser.

From the study of moral panics we observe that the media as a whole is not an impartial body standing apart from the fray and carefully disseminating accurate accounts. The media get caught up in the frenzy, and become a major force in stirring it to fever pitch, perhaps providing moral cover for vigilantes.

If a moral panic is a type of madness of crowds, people in media hardly seem immune to that madness. Some of what they do is no doubt intentional profiteering off a craze, but some is personal surrender to an easy narrative that arouses passion. For all their journalistic training, they are carried away by the same tide as non-media actors. In some cases they are responsible for constructing the moral panic. Indeed, some theorists define moral panics as a media phenomenon:

A moral panic may be defined as an episode, often triggered by alarming media stories and reinforced by reactive laws and public policy, of exaggerated or misdirected public concern, anxiety, fear, or anger over a perceived threat to social order.

To a great degree, moral panics take place in the media. During moral panics, media coverage, rousing public fears over a reputed social problem, also assists appreciably in constructing that problem.

Charles Krinsky, “Introduction: The Moral Panic Concept”

Take the panic over violence between between Mods and Rockers in 1960s Britain:

Interviewed in the video, moral panic theorist Stanley Cohen says: “The media, by their reaction, kept the panic going, and therefore in a sense amplified it.”

In the argot of moral panic theory, Al Franken has been transformed into a “folk devil” by hysterical media coverage. The extent and nature of that coverage, particularly in right-wing media, seems quite out of kilter with the alleged wrongdoing.

Though an incompetent and odious president, Donald Trump has always shown a talent for media manipulation. He helped spur the transformation of Franken into a “folk devil” by referring to him as “Al Frankenstien” [sic] in a tweet.

The “folk devil” spoken of in moral panic theory bears some resemblance to what we might today call a “meme.” Memes and folk devils have little regard for individuals and their differences, tending to act the like the whale which swallowed Jonah. The individual is swallowed by a meme or folk devil characterization, and his or her qualities are conflated with those of a large number of other individuals, many (perhaps most) of whom bear little true relation to one another. Thus Al Franken is conflated with Roy Moore.

In the 1980s there was a panic concerning new religious movements (sometimes redefined pejoratively as “cults”). While most religious and spiritual groups are peace-loving and law-abiding, the events at Jonestown in 1978 (where about 900 people perished) crystallized sentiment against new religious movements, causing virtually any such movement (no matter how pacific) to be conflated with the horror at Jonestown.

Fundraising letters from anti-cult groups in the 80s hypothesized that millions of Americans belonged to purported “cults” without even knowing it, and suggested that the church or temple down the street — the one your neighbour goes to — might be a secret hotbed of cult activity. Like communists and alien invaders, cults were said to possess the power to brainwash innocent youth and turn them into mindless robots hell-bent on destruction.

To be sure they weren’t unwitting members of a “cult,” readers of anti-cult tracts were urged to subject their faith to a “cult checklist” which, being composed by secular rationalists, was sure to test positive for virtually any faith held deeply and actually practiced in real life. Although the panic has died down since the 80s, the prejudice against minority faiths persists, and the notion that faith groups must pass a test devised by secular rationalists is still popularized in some periodicals and on the Internet.

Those spiritual groups which had their roots in Hinduism and Buddhism were often singled out for special vitriol, and the practice of meditation — which has since gained widespread appeal for its benefits — was branded as extremely dangerous, a tool used by “cults” to exercise “destructive mind control.” In retrospect, this seems like the paranoid fantasy of ultra-rationalists who couldn’t cope with the insights that Eastern philosophy and practice bestowed upon the West. Consider by contrast this (more recent) NBC Nightly News report on meditation in the schools:

Returning to the matter nearer at hand: During a moral panic, people who understand the media can manipulate events; so the claim is made that Leeann Tweeden is part of a cynical effort to take down Sen. Al Franken, and does not make a very convincing victim. In my post “Of Senators and Playmates,” I closed with an uncaptioned image of Raquel Welch performing for the troops in a bygone era:

But looked at symbolically, the pic can also represent Leeann Tweeden and the media. She’s a bright shiny object which the media find irresistible. She elicits from them the same mindless drooling and circling reaction you see from the troops in the photo. Someone who understands media can count on that almost Pavlovian response, and orchestrate it in a Machiavellian (or Rimsky-Korsakovian) way.

During a moral panic, satire is one element that can help restore perspective. The above-mentioned David Fagin recently tweeted:

We have nearly reached that point.

As for the more serious implications, in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, writer-narrator Rod Serling closes like so:

The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices to be found only in the minds of men. For the record: prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own — for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.


Sidebar: MST3k Satire on the McCarthy Era

According to one theory, the reason so many people were taken in by the Mercury Theatre’s “War of the Worlds” broadcast is that they tuned in late — having been listening on another network to ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. The latter is not to be confused with Sen. Joe McCarthy, the legendary figure behind the Army-McCarthy hearings which came to be regarded as a “witch hunt” for communists in the 1950s (along with HUAC).

Leveraging this coincidence of names, the MST3k gang did a satire of the McCarthy era based on supposed testimony from a variety of puppets and cartoon characters:

This is hysterically funny if you know a little about a) the real McCarthy and HUAC hearings, and b) the cited puppet/cartoon characters. I’ll stop short of providing a monograph on the subject, but may add a list of characters and links. The sketch appears in Mystery Science Theater 3000 #205, where the main feature is Rocket Attack U.S.A., a low-budget cold war spy drama.

The McCarthy era was one in which many left-leaning writers (some mentioned in the sketch) were blacklisted and couldn’t work. Bringing us full circle, this was the subject of Martin Ritt’s 1976 film The Front (starring Woody Allen), which ended with a cheeky (but funny!) rebuke to the men who interrogated witnesses in a manner so lacking in decency (NSFW):

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Links

The Front – Official Trailer
At The Circus with Topo Gigio

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2 comments on “Al Franken, Sexual McCarthyism, and Moral Panics

  1. Pingback: Leeann Tweeden and Blaming The Victim | Ethics and Spirituality

  2. Pingback: Al Franken and Democratic Remorse | Ethics and Spirituality

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