Al Franken and Democratic Remorse

Some democrats are lamenting the ouster of Al Franken and what it portends for the future. Is Mika Brzezinski the face of democratic conscience? Can feminism be fair and evenhanded?

Like democracy, feminism is a word which can mean so many different things to different people. Whose idea of democracy, and established by what means? Likewise, whose idea of feminism?

To some, feminism means equality for women, equal respect for women, equal opportunity for women, equal pay for women, equal choice for women, equal justice for women, and fully valuing women in whatever roles they choose to play. In this version of feminism, men are also winners, because (to whatever extent men’s interests enter into it) men then have mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, doctors, lawyers, colleagues, friends, and partners who are fully living their potential — happier, more fulfilled, and therefore also more able to give to others in every field of endeavor. Looked at in this way, even selfish men have a selfish interest in seeing feminist ideals succeed.

As for less selfish men, I think they embrace this ideal of feminism because deep down they know they can’t be happy unless women are also happy; they know they can’t be happy if any segment of our society is intentionally held back, disadvantaged, or devalued. Some men are (believe it or not) capable of great empathy, and are truly with women and for women in their struggles for equality.

Nevertheless, every difference between groups of people has the potential to divide them and devolve into tribalism. Because (like democracy) feminism is such a vast concept, there are versions of that concept which are less enlightened, and which don’t lead to peaceful coexistence, mutual respect, or shared love and trust between women and men. Some feminism is highly tribal and represents more of a naked power grab than an effort to achieve harmony through equality.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but some extreme feminism says, “You had the power; now we’re taking back the power by any means we can, and we’re going to make you suffer. You’re scared? We want you to be scared.” And as Bari Weiss implied in a New York Times opinion piece, some feminism ascribes to every woman everywhere an absolute unqualifed Truthfulness which (realistically) doesn’t apply to human beings in general, regardless of gender.

Some years ago when serving on a trial jury, I recall how we were all instructed that police, however heroically they may be portrayed in police procedurals, are just human beings like the rest of us. They sometimes lie, and are sometimes motivated by base instincts like greed and hatred.

There is much wrong with our justice system, and our jails are hell-holes. But at least the ideal of justice embodied by our adversarial system is that anyone accused is innocent until proven guilty, that a jury should be a trier of fact, that there should be due process, that the defendant should be fairly represented in the proceedings, and that the jury should not reach a verdict based on prejudice, but on the specifics of the case before it.

If any prosecutor or defense attorney tried to instruct the jury that their moral or legal duty was simply to “believe the women” (just because they are women), they would probably (and rightfully) be admonished by the court.

The demand by women for equality and justice is absolutely right and righteous. But it sails past the target when it demands that women as a tribe or as a gender should have a unique right not granted to any other tribe or gender that whatever they say must be believed — must be accorded unqualifed and unquestioning belief — simply because they are women. Pressing this view (as many are now doing) does result in backlash, because it’s an example of overreaching. It threatens notions of fairness basic to our democracy, and when put into practice, leads to gross injustices to men.

I would think the goal of enlightened feminism is not to turn the tables and create a system which favours women over men, but to create a system which is equally fair to both men and women. I would think the goal of enlightened feminism is not to exacerbate the so-called “war between the sexes,” but to find a way to lasting peace and understanding.

There’s also a very practical point to be made about backlash, which allows me to segue into a video clip from Morning Joe where Mika Brzezinski expresses concern about the manner in which Al Franken was dispatched by his senate colleagues, and what this could portend for women. Going to break (though not shown in the clip), Mika quips: “If I claim that somebody grabbed my butt, could I get him fired right now? Is that the reality?” No evidence or hearing required, was her implication. And I sensed her further implication was that this might lead to fewer women being hired, because they would be viewed as too much of a liability.

The clip is a mixed bag due to the dynamics, with Joe Scarborough interrupting Mika Brzezinski (nothing new there!) to make acerbic comments about some viewers who’ve apparently been hectoring (or even threatening) the two of them.

I don’t have all the answers, but Mika Brzezinski’s view, tempered by conscience, is one which I admire. I’ve seen similar concerns expressed by progressive women who are also mothers of sons, and whose identification with their sons leads them to feel that men are not an opposing tribe, and should not be assumed to be villains. These women are feminists, but they’re also wise enough to know that in any dispute between a man and a woman, gender is no guarantee of truthfulness, and taking sides based solely on gender does not result in any true and lasting benefit for women, but is rather a form of prejudice.

In other posts, I’ve touched upon the concept of a moral panic (here and here). Without revisiting all that, let me clarify that just because something has risen to the level of a moral panic doesn’t mean there is no underlying problem. Sexual abuse of women and girls is a serious problem in society. But when that problem is raised to the level of a moral panic in the media (with accompanying frantic fingerpointing and search for scapegoats), does this help or hinder the ability to make progress on the underlying issue?

I would argue that a moral panic tends to hinder. For one thing, it takes a great deal of psychic energy to sustain a moral panic, so they tend to burn themselves out after awhile. In the aftermath, people may end up being less sensitized to the underlying problem than they were before. This is because during a moral panic a problem is presented dramatically as an immediate and dire threat which will engulf society unless drastic measures are taken. There are communists hiding under every bed, satanists at every preschool, or every congressman is a sexual abuser. This overstatement of the problem leads to harmful overreactions in which some innocent people’s lives are ruined. This in turn leads to remorse, reevaluation, and a recognition that the problem was less severe and the danger less immediate than was claimed by the government, the media, or whoever spurred the moral panic in the first place.

To really put an end to sexual abuse will require gradual changes in society. Overheated rhetoric, frantic fingerpointing, inflated claims, and suspension of due process are counterproductive over time, leading to backlash and reduced sensitivity to the underlying problem (which is a real problem).

Given that feminism is a vast concept, perhaps there exists political feminism, humanistic feminism, even spiritual feminism. In political feminism, individual human beings are sometimes seen as expendable if this advances political objectives. Thus, in the video clip Susan Del Percio refers to Al Franken as “collateral damage.” This is why I tend to prefer spiritual feminism.

I’m sure the last thing most women want is for me to “mansplain” them feminism; but as I’ve written a few posts about the Al Franken matter, I wanted to try and tie things together in this post, which represents my evolving understanding.

Potent quote: “Trust me, Kirsten Gillibrand I want you to run for president, but you gotta keep it real.” –Mika Brzezinski (My translation: Don’t be a headhunter!)

Michael Howard

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

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