This letter raises the question as to whether what Roy Moore, Donald Trump and Al Franken have done are morally equivalent. I will argue punishments meted out for sexual harassment should be nuanced. As Ruth Marcus writing in the
Washington Post has suggested, not all crimes deserve capital punishment and we must be careful about “overcorrecting.”
Let us start with a partial list of those accused of intimidation and/or sexual harassment. The number following the name indicates the number of accusers. Harvey Weinstein (80 plus), Ben Affleck (2); George H.W. Bush (7); Mark Halperin (12); Dustin Hoffman (2); Al Franken (4); Glenn Thrush of the New York Times (4); Charlie Rose (8); John Conyers (4); Donald Trump (10-14 including Ivana Trump who accused him of rape but later retracted the charge).
Questions: Should the number of accusers matter? How do we guarantee that the punishment fits the crime? What are the range of punishments e.g; suspension, loss of job, expulsion, censure etc.? Is being in a position of “power” the one element common to all the perpetrators?
As the floodgates open, we can expect to see more and more women coming forth with allegations. In numbers there is strength and it takes courage to speak out.
In differentiating Franken from Moore and Trump, the most obvious difference is that Moore and Trump deny all the charges while Franken admitted his guilt, apologized profusely and was forgiven by Leeann Tweeden, his first accuser. It is instructive to look at his statement.
“The first thing I want to do is apologize: to Leanne, to everyone who was part of that tour, to everyone who has worked for me, to everyone I represent, and to everyone who counts on me to be an ally and supporter and champion of women…I respect women. I don’t respect men who don’t. And the fact that my own actions have given people good reason to doubt that makes me feel ashamed.”
What is he talking about? What makes him a “champion of women? Let the record show that in 2014, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards campaigned for him in Minnesota.
In February 2010, Franken was the keynote speaker at a fundraising luncheon held by
NARAL, an abortion rights group. The Center for Responsive Politics reported that Franken raised over $81,000 from women’s groups for his re-election campaign, and he is regarded as a friend at Emily’s List, an organization that supports women candidates.
It will be interesting to see what these groups will say now. His record is clear. He has been a consistent friend of women and their causes while at the same time, his behavior was admittedly sexist. Saying one thing and doing another is a textbook definition of schizophrenia. How do we explain this contradiction?
I believe the answer is a culture which took a “boys will be boys” attitude toward what was reprehensible behavior.
It was common for men in power to think that they were “entitled” (think Trump) to sexual favors. And so men of the cloth, employers, and government officials got away with this despicable behavior.
If there was anyone who helped create this culture and whose lifestyle exemplified it, it was High Hefner. Playboy, with its centerfold and provocative photos exemplified the objectification of women. The same can be said of the Playboy mansion in Chicago and the clubs in major cities.
Yet, his marketing genius led to his getting some of the most profound thinkers of the day to write for the magazine. “Hef” glorified the urban male who was sophisticated, and intellectual but also sexist. This was the zeitgeist and culture in which millions of American boys grew up.
There are additional differences between the Trump, Moore, and Franken cases. The first two have called their accusers “liars,” while Franken called for an Ethics Committee investigation. Should the timing of the occurrence be considered?
Franken’s initial assault occurred when he was a comedian, not a sitting U.S. senator. I raise these questions not as an “apologia” for miscreant behavior, but in order to shed light on an extremely complex situation.
From an historic point of view, Franken’s dilemma is not new.
In 1995, Sen. Bob Packwood faced expulsion from the Senate and decided to resign. He first came to the Senate in 1962 and for a Republican amassed a very liberal voting record including introducing the first abortion bill in the upper chamber.
He was lauded by Planned Parenthood, and the National Women’s Political Caucus. He voted against the nomination of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court based on their anti-abortion positions.
This is another example of someone clearly in the women’s corner on issues, but whose personal behavior belied their beliefs.
The case of Clarence Thomas is different. A law professor, Anita Hill, testified that when working for Thomas at the Department of Education and at the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission she was subjected to lurid details about pornographic films including women having sex with animals.
Today’s cases may not be this explicit, but it’s the unwanted nature of the behavior that they all share. Sadly, Thomas was believed, the senate confirmed him, and he is now one of the most conservative voices on the bench.
This is a time of reckoning in our nation’s history. All can agree that we must create a safe workplace environment and that there must be zero tolerance for sexual misconduct.
But I would argue that one’s past record, especially for elected politicians, should be part of the deliberation. It’s been argued that we must judge Washington and Jefferson, both slave owners, in the context of their times.
Can we not do the same for the Al Frankens of the world?
Dr. Hal Sobel