Some years ago, while writing a magazine profile of The Chronicle of Higher Education’s message-board community, where professors gather to complain about their students and, unsurprisingly, to give and take political offense, I came across a post in which an academician deflected a charge of misogyny (he had, among other things, stated that women who decline to stand up to bullies will “continue to get bullied”) by revealing himself to be “an out bigendered and bisexual African American male.”
Call it the Jim McGreevey defense.
McGreevey, careful readers will remember, was the New Jersey governor who resigned in 2004 to head off an extortion scheme by his ex-lover. Rather than acknowledge this obvious reality, however, McGreevey chose to raise a cloud of postmodern dust thick enough to block the sun. “My truth,” the governor declared, “is that I am a gay American,” and while one recoils even now from that poisonous “my,” one has to give the man points for originality.
Kevin Spacey, on the other hand, is simply a hack.
Spacey, who spent Sunday evening in a public-relations scramble worthy of a House of Cards episode, actually began his response to actor Anthony Rapp’s allegations reasonably enough. Faced with a 30-year-old complaint about an evening of heavy drinking (where were you on a random, intoxicated night in 1986?), Spacey expressed horror at what he is accused of doing and communicated his sympathy for “the feelings [Rapp] describes having carried with him all these years.” He “didn’t deny having done it,” as National Review’s critic-at-large Kyle Smith astutely writes, but how, in this political moment, could he have denied anything without bringing upon himself even greater condemnation?
Recall, for example, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign tweet that “survivor[s] of sexual assault . . . have the right to be believed” [emphasis added]. Or consider Jia Tolentino’s recent claim, on The New Yorker’s website, that hearing “in person” an unknown stranger’s allegation against a “close friend” of hers — a friend on whose innocence she would “stake my credibility” — would lead her to “believe” that charge, even though it exists now only on a murky, crowdsourced spreadsheet in language that is “identical to [a complaint against another individual] further up, as if it had been copied and pasted.” Given such an environment — in which to disbelieve even an obviously fake accusation is an unthinkable sin — what could Spacey do but whimper, like Parsons to Winston Smith, that the Party would never arrest an innocent man?
No, Spacey’s mistake came in the next paragraph of his tweet, in which, like McGreevey, he attempted to wrap himself in the victim’s cloak. For the actor, this move took the form of an admission that he has “had relationships with both men and women,” that he “choose[s] now to live as a gay man,” and that he “want[s] to deal with this” — note the slipperiness of the pronoun — “honestly and openly.” What “this” is, exactly — Rapp’s accusation or Spacey’s sexuality — is not clear, and that fogginess is, of course, exactly the point. In the artificial reality of Spacey’s design (or the design of whoever wrote his tweet for him), Spacey’s alleged criminality is inextricable from his supposed closeted suffering. Both qualify, in the actor’s ham-fisted, pop-psychological diction, as “behavior” that needs to be “examin[ed].” The one mitigates the other.
To their immense credit, GLAAD was having none of this, declaring in a pair of tweets that “this isn’t a coming out story about Spacey” and that focusing on the actor’s sexuality was “what NOT to do when reporting on Anthony Rapp’s allegations.” (Note to the reader: You know you’ve come out badly when GLAAD isn’t with you.) The Daily Beast went further still, pronouncing that, “beyond altering the narrative, Spacey’s statement grossly conflates pedophilia and homosexuality.”
Yet Spacey’s confession was more than mere deflection or narrative-changing, and I doubt very much whether the actor thought of it in those terms at all. Rather, his statement sprang from a cultural phenomenon so widespread that it is very nearly in the water we drink and the air we breathe: the notion that we are defined first and foremost by what we suffer, and that suffering of a rare enough quality puts our actions beyond the reach of moral judgment. Such thinking can be seen today in both “Lives Matter” movements, “Black” and “White,” and in university shout-down after university shout-down — can be seen, in other words, where actual suffering exists, albeit at varying levels of severity. Spacey’s gambit failed not because it was craven and insincere (though it was certainly both) but because being a phenomenally rich homosexual movie star in 2017 simply isn’t that bad a life.
For those whose lives are bad, however, the Spacey Doctrine, like its cousin the McGreevey Defense, can be downright deadly. Like many of the worst sins, it pairs self-righteousness with a sense of entitlement. It forecloses the possibility of redemption by providing those who invoke it with a seemingly unanswerable justification for misdeeds. Worse still, it impugns by association the character of all who suffer quietly and with a measure of dignity. When Mark Twain declared, famously, that if “dynamite is the only remedy” for the condition of Russian peasants in the late 19th century, “then thank God for dynamite,” he was debasing not only himself but untold millions of Russians.
Happily, the American public seems increasingly uninterested in such machinations, a welcome development given the extent of our current trend of accusation. At the very moment I learned of the Spacey story, reports were simultaneously breaking that Adam Sandler “repeatedly touched actress Claire Foy’s knee during an interview” and that Peyton Manning, who probably ought not to have exposed his rear end to teammates when a female athletic trainer was in the room, is “definitely a predator.” One shudders to imagine the childhood trauma, the hidden pain, responsible for such behavior.
Might we, as a society, agree to leave it unexplored just this once?
— Graham Hillard teaches English and creative writing at Trevecca Nazarene University.