‘Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here,” is the placard that Herman Cain must have read last week when he descended into the Sexual Harassment Inferno, from which he has not yet emerged.
I thought it was only a matter of when, not whether, Gloria Allred, the leftwing billboard lawyer, would show up at a press conference with more “evidence” of Cain’s “serial” transgressions against the meek and defenseless of yesteryear. All the usual Allred landmarks were there: her crass quip, “stimulus package”; the “no-questions” evasion of cross-examination; the long-distant, heretofore-dormant act of harassment some 14 years in the past, whose graphic details were not shared at the time even with close friends, but are now oddly to be disclosed to 300 million.
As of now, Cain has confessed only to expressing admiration for a female worker’s height, as best he can remember that remark and perhaps others some years back. Most establishment conservatives — perhaps mindful of the fates of Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle — don’t necessarily disbelieve Cain but do feel that four or five “victims” are too many and that Cain’s responses are too sloppy. He thus should confess at least to a married roving eye, or perhaps even leave the race — and thereby ensure that a Ross Perot–like tea-party candidate without any political experience won’t blow an otherwise good Republican chance to unseat Barack Obama.
Cain’s supporters bewail the unfairness of it all — the three previous anonymous accusers, the fourth identified when coaxed by Gloria Allred, a fifth, and who knows how many more, who years later suddenly feel pangs of conscience — as they reckon up the relative media uninterest in sex-poodle Al Gore, the serial wenching of Bill Clinton, or Eliot Spitzer’s prostituting — not to mention the fact that the National Enquirer was alone in breaking the John Edwards love-child story. All that is in antithesis to the supposed sex talk of Clarence Thomas, Donna Brazile’s demand for George H. W. Bush to “’fess up” about a supposed affair, or the rumors that were floated about Dan Quayle, who supposedly had danced “extremely close and suggestively” with a Washington lobbyist. As John McCain closed in on Barack Obama in 2008, the media floated rumors of his purported affair with a Washington insider — in contrast to their lack of interest in just how much cocaine Barack Obama had really admitted to using or how exactly he had gone from Occidental to Columbia to Harvard Law School, or how patently untrue were his characterizations of his relationship with Bill Ayers.
Both supporters and detractors agree that Cain should know by now that alleged misdemeanors by Republican frontrunners are always more serious than known transgressions by Democratic rivals. All true — and all irrelevant in the age of liberal indulgence and exemption where noble ends sometimes must justify tawdry means. Yet it is not quite clear whether Cain is supposedly guilty of attempted, fantasized, or foiled womanizing of the sort that Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich have confessed to actualizing. Or is he just a little creepy, in the manner of Al Gore and his masseuses, or the late Strom Thurmond and his wandering hands, or the late Ted Kennedy and his late-hours frolicking?
Note there is no exemption for Cain even though the charges date from over a decade ago, and even though Cain in the interval was given a 30 percent chance of survival from stage-IV metastasized colon cancer. Cain’s opponents in the media (and perhaps in other campaigns) either wish to portray him as a serial harasser and clumsy denier, or to keep him so busy denying that he has no time to campaign — or both. For Cain, who at first seemed blindsided and defensive, the hysteria must seem like yet another round of toxic chemotherapy. Oddly, so far no African American spokesman has stepped forward to “contextualize” the charges in the long history of sexually charged stereotyped slurs about supposedly undisciplined ascendant black males.
Cain, who has not as of yet actually been accused of engaging in sexual intercourse with a female subordinate, finds himself in the “sexual harassment” labyrinth, from which there are few paths out in the present era. The idea of “sexual harassment” started out as a noble enough effort to stop the proverbial casting couch — to stop mostly older men in positions of power from coercing younger women to acquiesce in sex in return for, at worst, keeping their job, or, at best, getting a promotion. One then wonders why Ms. Bialek did not simply lodge just such a complaint against Cain 14 years ago — since his supposed efforts to force himself on her would clearly have been a violation of her person, a criminal assault well beyond sexual harassment.
Somehow the effort to stop clear-cut exploitation eventually morphed to include consensual sexual relationships where power was deemed “asymmetrical,” so that even willing partners were seen as victims. Youth versus age was seen only in terms of administrative authority, not in terms of the erotic power of youthful beauty. In my time as a student and a professor, I saw four or five “asymmetrical” relationships in which much younger attractive graduate students made fools of aging nerdish professors, always to their own career advantage. The younger women in such relationships either dumped the power-brokers when the latter were no longer useful or filed complaints about being harassed if the dividends proved insufficient. The rest of us in the class often whined to each other about unequal treatment; we were complaining not about mistreatment of the woman involved, but of the greater attention she garnered on grounds that had nothing to do with her class performance. In our bureaucratic and mechanistic society, we forget the Greeks’ warning about the destructive and overarching power of youth, for which age and even a position of authority sometimes are no match. In this regard, the conniving and gold-digging Monica Lewinsky was an interesting case: Her subordinate status in an asymmetrical relationship with her putative boss should, in terms of doctrinaire sexual harassment, have made her a victim and the president a predator, irrespective of her eager consent. But such rules simply did not apply, given that Clinton’s agenda was apparently too important to be derailed. And so, in the popular media and liberal circles, Monica was transmogrified from postmodern prey to premodern temptress.
In Phase III of the evolution of sexual harassment, sex was sometimes absent altogether — as we see in many of the latest Cain charges. Mere inference, attitude, or a single word was enough to destroy a career. I have also seen sexual-harassment charges in academia hinge on the strong odor of a male colleague’s cologne, or a supposed overhearing of what was meant to be a private conversation. In both cases, the supposed victims were not required to come forward and be identified. They filed their complaints “to put on notice” a dean or department chairman of “a potential problem” — a fallback position should a publication record not quite earn tenure.
Stranger still, this metamorphosis of liberated women into Victorian-era puritans was accompanied by yet another wild card: Sex was now everywhere. The old probity was gone, whether through blonde bombshells with low-cut dresses on the news, raunchy language and acts on reality TV, or soft porn on mainstream cable packages. Today’s mall is a showcase of trashy overt sexuality among even preteens. It was almost as if the more sexual suggestiveness became ubiquitous, the more we reverted to New England puritanism. The office coffee break with colleagues was now more explicit and yet more prudish than its 1950s counterpart — in the sense that almost no topic was taboo, and yet any careless flippant sexual remark could boomerang as a career-ending offense.
I have no idea what Herman Cain said or did in these long-ago “he said/she said” embarrassments. I imagine that the degree of our knowledge will probably be about as inexact as what a journalist or two alleged at one time about Dwight Eisenhower or the eerie things that Kitty Kelly gossiped — and wrote — about Nancy and Ronald Reagan. Cain is now a target in a way that he was not three months ago, because he is no longer a Huntsman-like non-candidate, but an existential threat to lots of liberal (and some conservative) assumptions. He should expect more charges to come.
Yet Cain also wins greater scrutiny, not exemption, because he is black — or at least a certain sort of black. In addition to his conservatism, his voice, bearing, grammar, and diction, even his showy black cowboy hat, bother liberals in much the same way that Joe Frazier was not Muhammad Ali and Clarence Thomas was not Anita Hill. Black authenticity, as defined by Southern mannerisms and darker complexion, amplified by conservatism or traditionalism, earns liberal unease. Rarely has anyone been so candid in confessing just that unease as were Senators Harry Reid and Joe Biden in their backhanded praise of Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign. I think Reid (“light-skinned,” “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one”) and Biden (“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”) both were trying to say at the time that Barack Obama did not look or sound like someone analogous to Herman Cain.
Yet most Americans are far more concerned with authenticity than with color or diction, and Cain is nothing but authentic. His speech and manner are as genuine as Obama’s are forced and often phony. His everyman persona and appeal to the working classes scare the liberal elite, in much the same way that Sarah Palin’s did. If Cain were to say “corpse-man” or “punish our enemies,” he would be written off as an embarrassment — in liberal parlance, a “minstrel” and “buffoon.” But if he said “corpse-man” with an academic non-accent and a Harvard pedigree, well, that’s a momentary, understandable slip for a gaffe-prone Harry Reid or Joe Biden.
None of this unfairness, as in the case of Sarah Palin, is to suggest that Cain is ready to be president. He may well not be, or should not be, electable. But over the next year, who knows what will have happened? Americans are so sick of the status quo and its technocracy that anything that suggests authenticity, even eccentricity, apparently is preferable to long political résumés. In short, in this present climate — in which the corrective for borrowing $4 trillion under Bush in eight years was to borrow even more under Obama in three — the unimaginable might become the inevitable.
We have already seen Cain derided nonstop as a puppet dancing from his white conservative masters’ strings. He refutes the notions that the Tea Party is racist, that race is essential rather than incidental to one’s character, and that a sizable percentage of African Americans must by supported by a government umbilical cord attached by liberal community organizers and technocrats.
Again, the comparison with Obama is volatile: Cain is authentically African-American and of an age to remember the Jim Crow South; Obama, the son of an elite Kenyan and a white graduate student, came of age as a Hawaiian prep-schooler, whose civil-rights credentials are academic. Cain’s lack of experience and seemingly embarrassing ignorance about the right of return or nuclear China are amplified by his unaffected style, whereas Obama’s similar gaffes (57 states) and buffoonery (inflating tires to preclude drilling for oil) are mitigated by metrosexual cool. After all, we live in an age when Herman Cain, with his black hat, his deep Southern cadences, and his ease among tea-party crowds, is suspect, whereas Barack Obama booms on about “millionaires and billionaires” while golfing, jetting to Martha’s Vineyard, and shaking down demonized corporate-jet owners at $35,000 a pop.
In short, Cain’s ascendance — and ongoing descent — are as fascinating to watch as they will soon be tragic in their denouement.