‘And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.” Who could suppress at least a smirk of pleasure at the news of Senator Al Franken’s being caught up in the sexual-harassment scandals that have been breaking ever since Harvey Weinstein crashed the world? The fact that Franken’s molestation was caught on camera — that there is a picture that can accompany every single news story and Twitter meme for years to come — makes it even better. All that is now needed for instant Internet gratification is to take that photo of Franken mugging as he grabs the breasts of his sleeping co-star and stick it alongside a screen-grab of any of his earlier denunciations of poor sexual etiquette.
Because Franken is a high-handed moralizer of the Left, some Republicans and conservatives are happy to run with this, condemning Franken for it and another incident in which he attempted to kiss his co-star. There are even calls for an Ethics Committee investigation into the Minnesota senator.
Yet conservatives, like everyone else, should pause before playing this game. As with other cases in which enemies of the Right have been floored by this flood — a journalist from Vice and much of Hollywood spring to mind — we should be careful about embedding the new etiquette that such campaigns push us toward.
Of course the Left have been at it for years. We all know of people who think that rape is not rape if it is committed by a leftist, whereas even mild flirting is rape when it is committed by a conservative. We all know people who didn’t want to condemn Bill Clinton’s relationship with an intern who are now willing to talk eagerly about a “serial abuser” in the Oval Office. All of us can list plenty of examples of this. And we all know why they do it, too: because they want to win, and they are willing to seize any opportunity to get closer to that goal.
But conservatives should be careful about joining this. Every time the definition of rape, abuse, or molestation is brought down another notch and this new low-water mark is agreed on across the political spectrum, the prospect for a different type of harm increases. If we agree for short-term political pleasure that Franken is guilty of serious sexual molestation for an unfunny photograph taken years ago and for a sloppy and unwanted pass at a woman, then two things are certain to happen.
The first is that the difference between bad manners and rape will become blurred yet further. We live in an era when already a knee-touch can cause resignations. Are we sure that unwanted advances must now always be deemed a resigning matter? It was the late British Conservative MP Alan Clark who once, when taken to task for making allegedly unwanted approaches toward women, replied, “How do I know they’re unwanted until I make them?” Of course Senator Franken is a married man, and plenty of us may agree to look down on a married man who does such a thing. But are we absolutely certain that we want to make it into something that requires an ethics investigation and total career destruction?
There are many reasons to be mad at Al Franken. But it doesn’t seem wise to allow irritation at him to help fuel a movement intent on making our society madder still.
Second, this opportunistic process risks embedding the now-prevailing narrative of third-wave feminism, which is that men are all rapists or proto-rapists and that women in our society tread a constant and violent minefield their entire lives when dealing with the male sex. This narrative — which for many young men and women is making relationships too complex to be worth having — needs to be pushed back against, not enforced. And certainly this is how new rules become enforced: by people of every imaginable background agreeing, out of different motivations, that something that few of them actually believe is in fact abhorrent is a matter for the law.
There are many reasons to be mad at Al Franken. But it doesn’t seem wise to allow irritation at him to help fuel a movement intent on making our society madder still. As he must himself by now have realized, it is rarely worth pursuing a short-term pleasure when it is likely to lead to so much long-term pain.