Wayne O'Leary

The Franken Travesty

Totally immersed in the nationwide mania over sexual harassment, the Democratic party has temporarily taken leave of its senses. Rather than focusing on the critical public concerns that came out of 2016 and activated their base (corporate power, economic inequality, inadequate health coverage, access to education, environmental degradation, stagnant wages), Democrats have decided this year’s upcoming congressional election should be the occasion to once again revisit social-identity politics — the strategy proven so spectacularly unsuccessful in recent voting cycles.

Spurred on by the grim, sanctimonious matriarchy that used to be its Senate caucus, the loyal opposition to Donald Trump and his Republicans evidently intends to fight the next election on the suddenly all-important terrain of gender issues — namely, the question of which party is most in favor of protecting women’s rights. All other considerations have been placed on the back burner for the foreseeable future.

Democrats, National Committee Chairman Tom Perez has decreed, will “stand up for women” by ruthlessly culling their male membership to eradicate “inappropriate behavior” — a form of political unilateral disarmament, given that Republicans have no announced plans to similarly purge their ranks. By unceremoniously banishing Sen. Al Franken and Congressman John Conyers Jr., Democrats think they have seized “the moral high ground” from the GOP in the urgent struggle over gender equity.

Leading them to feminism’s mountaintop will be New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the Carrie Nation of the anti-harassment movement, prowling the halls of Congress hatchet in hand, ready to expose evil men and their nefarious ways. She wants to run for president in 2020, and this will be her ticket to ride, much as anti-Communism was for Richard Nixon two generations ago.

Gillibrand is the foremost advocate of “zero tolerance,” the dictum that defines any random or incidental male-female physical contact, if uninvited or unreciprocated, as “inappropriate touching,” a punishable offense equivalent to outright rape. She was the first to call for Franken’s prompt resignation over charges of sexual impropriety, demanding an immediate “moment of reckoning” calculated to short-circuit any extensive Senate Ethics Committee investigation liable to weigh proportionality, consider a mere reprimand, or perhaps exonerate the Minnesota senator, on the rather subjective grounds that “enough is enough.” Over half of the Democratic caucus members, seeking to preemptively cover their backsides, joined her in a shameful rush to judgment that turned into an embarrassing stampede.

A former Gillibrand colleague and current supporter, ex-Sen. Barbara Boxer (D, Calif.), went so far as to quantify the process of establishing culpably inappropriate male behavior. A few negative allegations (say, two or three), said Boxer, might be tolerated by star-chamber judges, but an unspecified larger number would pass a threshold and constitute guilt; Al Franken evidently exceeded the magic number. That multiple allegations might include false charges or copycat accusations appears beside the point, since as everyone knows, men lie about sex, whereas women never do.

Which brings us to the original complainant in the Franken case, media personality Leeann Tweeden. Tweeden was the subject of the infamous mock-groping photograph from a 2006 USO tour that first implicated Franken. The photo was in bad taste; the senator-to-be (who was then a radio personality) shouldn’t have posed for it. Nevertheless, it falls into the time-honored show-business tradition of low comedy. Entertainers like Bob Hope could probably have related far worse incidents from USO tours of the past; these risqué extravaganzas are nothing like “The Lawrence Welk Show.”

As for Tweeden herself, her prior career choices — Hooters girl and nude Playboy model — have not tended toward the innocently wholesome. More to the point, as an active Republican, she has been a regular on conservative Fox Network panel shows, appearing on “Hannity” and “Red Eye with Greg Gutfeld,” the latter a melding of racy comedy with right-wing commentary.

None of these revelations, in and of themselves, discredit Tweeden’s allegations against Franken (albeit 11 years after the fact), but as feminists like to say in reference to accused male offenders, they suggest a pattern of behavior. Most troubling, there are now reports surfacing to the effect that GOP operative Roger Stone may have been behind Tweeden’s politically timely “outing” of the senator, with whom she maintained friendly relations long after her purported traumatization. All of this points to the need for a deeper investigation, which was never allowed.

In a word, Al Franken was railroaded, whipsawed by partisan Republicans who feared his interrogation skills loosed against testifying members of the administration and by cynical Democrats anxious to burnish their party’s politically correct bona fides by sacrificing one of their own. Of the two, the hypocritical actions of the Democrats, who gathered around “their friend” Franken for goodbye hugs after knifing him, were the worst. “Al,” they seemed to be saying, “we need a moral contrast to the Roy Moore-tainted GOP, so take one for the team and throw yourself under the bus.”

The fevered madness that claimed Al Franken and will certainly claim others has to unfortunately run its course. There are obviously prominent men (Harvey Weinstein, for one) deserving of punishment, probably jail time, but many others (Garrison Keillor jumps to mind) who will undeservedly have their reputations sullied or their careers destroyed by rumors, exaggerations, lies, and innuendos, often from anonymous sources — by what H. L. Mencken, in reference to the celebrated Fatty Arbuckle bogus-rape case of the 1920s, called “legal lynching.” Complicit in the reverse harassment are large portions of the media, regrettably including public institutions like PBS and NPR, whose biased or intimidated managements are prone to uncritically accept the claims of female accusers while keeping their identities confidential.

There’s a term for this, of course; it’s called McCarthyism. As perfected by its namesake, Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the anti-Communist crusader of the early 1950s, it consists of unsubstantiated allegations, denial of due process, arbitrary dismissal from employment, blacklisting, public hounding of the accused, and a retrospective search for possible incidents of culpability extending far into the past. In the process, a climate of fear and mistrust is created, and the innocent are swept away with the guilty.

If there’s any redeeming feature, it’s this: The French Revolution, whose extreme utopianism gave way to a dictatorial Reign of Terror, ended with a reflexive reaction called Thermidor, in which the guillotiners became the guillotined. An inevitable Thermidor of the sexual-harassment hysteria is likely not far off.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, Febuary 2, 2018


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