When a story as well-known to people “in the know” as movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s predatory sexual behavior towards women under his power comes to light, the inevitable questions are “why did it take so long” and “why now?”
Weinstein’s accusers and antagonists were dogged, but they were no less so 10 or 15 or 20 years ago. One obvious answer, suggested by Rebecca Traister in a widely-circulated column and others like Ross Douthat, is that Weinstein has lost enough of his clout in Hollywood that it’s finally safe to call him out (a dynamic that’s hardly unique to Weinstein). Douthat’s masterful 2014 column on the nature of sexual abuse and how it thrives wherever people have unquestioned power and authority remains the gold standard on this issue. (Douthat’s reference then to “Hollywood and the wider culture industry” as “still the great undiscovered country of sexual exploitation, I suspect” seems prescient now). Another is simply that sexual mores have changed. But I think we are missing an important element.
Specifically, there’s one important piece missing from Traister’s column, especially this part, referencing how hard it was to get anyone interested in taking on Harvey Weinstein in 2000:
His behavior toward women was obviously understood to be a bad thing—this was a decade after Anita Hill’s accusations against Clarence Thomas had helped the country to understand that sexual harassment was not just a quirk of the modern workplace, but a professional and economic crime committed against women as a class. But the story felt fuzzier, harder to tell about Harvey: the notion of the “casting couch” still had an almost romantic reverberation, and those who had encountered Weinstein often spoke of the conviction that they would never be believed.
Something has changed. Sources have gone on the record. It’s worth it to wonder why. Perhaps because of shifts in how we understand these kinds of abuses. Recent years have seen scores of women, finding strength and some kind of power in numbers, come forward and tell their stories about Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Donald Trump.
Traister references Clarence Thomas, but she ignores the elephant in the room. In the climate of 1998-2000, “sexual harrassment” meant “Bill Clinton,” the sexual harassment and affair-with-starstruck-young-subordinate story that had transfixed the nation for two years and dug the entire world of liberalism into a defensive crouch against female accusers of powerful liberals, complete with a theory of “compartmentalization” under which a man who did good for the movement could be forgiven his private sins, regardless of the trail of women he’d treated as disposable. The Clinton machine had nationalized the methods of destroying the credibility of women, even liberal women in good standing, who dared to speak out against The Big He. It’s no accident that, in this climate, many of Weinstein’s potential accusers got the message Clinton sent, and that Traister describes – that giving in to such men was a romantic devotion to The Cause (claim your free copy of Leaves of Grass here!) and that the liberal world of Hollywood would consider you a prude if you spoke out.
But now, while the mores of Hollywood may not have changed, the partisan climate had. Stories about Fox and Trump make it fashionable again for liberals to be against this sort of thing. In that sense, Weinstein isn’t totally wrong that right-wingers are behind his downfall, but not the way he thinks. There is finally a bigger target to whom he can be sacrificed.
But in the meantime, those who defended Bill Clinton back in the day should reflect upon what they wrought in the precincts of the culture most attuned to their message, and conservatives apt to defend this sort of thing when Trump or his friends engage in it should remember what they knew twenty years ago. As Douthat rightly concludes:
Caddishness and predation can be a continuum. If you cheat on your wife you may be more likely to harass subordinates. Promiscuity can encourage predatory entitlement. Older rules of moral restraint were broader for a reason. If your culture’s code is libertine, don’t be surprised that worse things than libertinism flourish…You can’t ignore moral character when you make decisions about whom to vote for or work with or support. This was something conservatives used to argue in the Clinton years; under Trump, many have conveniently forgotten it. But it remains true. Yes, sometimes you have to work with a bad person or vote for a bad person or hold a fund-raiser with a bad person for the greater good. But not nearly as often as you think.
(One could add a similar observation about the libertine culture of Hugh Hefner and the sins of Bill Cosby, some of them committed in Hefner’s own Playboy Mansion; Hefner was called to testify in a deposition last spring, long after both men had lost their power in popular culture).
The one big thing conservatives have been right about all along, and that the Left understands in practice but won’t ever admit in words, is this: culture matters. And while the president’s performance of his job is the most important thing about him, his prominence in the culture means the example he sets matters too. Bill Clinton was a sexual predator who took advantatge of the women who worked for him and slimed those who spoke out, and that mattered. The political movement that accepted him as its leader for a decade and a half – and Ted Kennedy, another sexual predator, as its leader for the decade and a half before that – is still cleaning up the mess they left behind.