Tag Archives: Al Franken

Shades Of Gray

Among the many, many things that worry me about America’s contemporary tribalism is a concern about the conduct of our overdue arguments over inclusion and diversity. I worry because those conversations have displayed a tendency to become “either/or”–you are either pure in word and deed or you are a bigot beyond the pale–and as a result, we risk losing our ability to see shades of gray, to distinguish between the genuinely offensive  and the merely tone-deaf.

There is a very significant difference between Harvey Weinstein and Al Franken, to cite just one example, and blurring that distinction actually inhibits efforts to combat misogyny and sexual assaults.

Every so often, I’m reminded of a joke incorporating a cautionary lesson that my mother used to tell. There used to be a radio station on the top floor of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. There also used to be people who were elevator operators  (you incredulous young people can google it). One day, a man entered one of the elevators and the operator asked which floor; the man–stuttering badly–said “t-t-the r-r-radio station.” They were the only two on the elevator, and the man further offered that he was “a-a-applying f-f-for a j-job as an on-air radio an-an-announcer.”

As luck would have it, the same operator had the same passenger about an hour later, and once again they were alone in the elevator. The operator couldn’t resist asking how the interview had gone, and the stutterer replied “T-t-terrible. T-t-they hate Jews.”

The (obvious) moral of the story is that not everyone who dislikes me is an anti-Semite (I clearly have other qualities that can put folks off…) and not every thoughtless or stupid remark signals racism or homophobia. Not every female professor denied tenure was the victim of sexism (although some clearly were). Etcetera.

I thought about the lesson embedded in my mother’s joke recently, when a friend of mine resigned her position after being accused by her co-workers of homophobia. The media account I read didn’t include a description of the incident or incidents that triggered that accusation, but I know that her best friend of many years is an out and proud gay man, and in the years I’ve known her, I’ve never heard her utter a disparaging word about LGBTQ people–or for that matter, about any minority.

These days, such accusations are flourishing and damaging, and although many are well-founded, others are not, and telling the difference is important.

If we are going to root out genuinely toxic and bigoted attitudes, we need to recognize that we all see life through the “lenses” we’ve developed during our unique experiences, and we need to take care that those experiences don’t distort our perspectives. Another friend of mine–herself a member of a minority group–once opined that humanity was a lot like a pecan pie–the nuts are pretty well distributed throughout. Every group–every slice of the human pie– contains exemplars of the group’s most hurtful stereotypes, and every group contains wonderful, caring, talented people.

I’m not saying it is always easy to tell the difference between bigotry and cluelessness. If you are a member of a marginalized group–especially if your own “lens” has been formed by personal experiences of bigotry–a negative reaction (or over-reaction) to a hurtful remark or unfair rejection is very understandable. I’m not counseling silence in such situations, but I am cautioning that painting with a too-broad brush ends up trivializing precisely the behaviors we need to condemn–and can push away people who might otherwise be valuable allies.

We absolutely need to call out bigoted and hurtful behaviors, especially in the workplace. But when we fail to distinguish between truly reprehensible attitudes and behaviors and occasional unthinking reflections of social attitudes that are–thankfully–now being examined and rejected, we retard, rather than encourage, social progress.

We lose the Al Frankens.


Hypocrisy? Look Who’s Talking

I really didn’t want to revisit this issue. But…

I keep seeing headlines like this one from 538.com–“Believe Women or Back the Nominee?” That is an offensive, intellectually dishonest formulation.

It isn’t just 538.com. Pundits on the Left and Right are accusing liberal women who are skeptical of Tara Reade’s accusations against Joe Biden of hypocritical disloyalty to women. Evidently, if you believe the highly credible accusations against Donald Trump, who has been the target of at least 17 complaints of sexual misconduct, but you find the single charge lodged against Biden to be dubious at best, it constitutes prima facia evidence of hypocrisy.

That–to use an inelegant word–is bullshit.

Along with the other inconsistencies and questionable elements of the Tara Reade accusations, there is the undeniable fact that Joe Biden has been repeatedly vetted; most recently when he was under consideration by Obama for Vice President. No investigation has uncovered the slightest hint–let alone an accusation– of sexually inappropriate behavior. (Yes, he’s “handsy”–he likes to hug and touch, and that has made some women uncomfortable, but that is a very different thing.)

In Washington, where there is gossip about everyone, there has never even been any gossip about Biden engaging in inappropriate behavior with women.

Then there is this observation from a commenter to this blog who spent many years in Washington:

I worked in the U.S. Senate in the 60s, and even then, U.S. Senate office building hallways where the abuse was supposed to have happened, are VERY public, well traveled thoroughfares. They have become ever more public over the years. Numerous Senate offices open onto those hallways which are traveled by Capitol Hill police, Senators and staffers, the media, lobbyists, tourists and tour groups, constituents, mail carriers, vendor deliveries, custodians, facilities maintenance personnel, and more. Any Senator wanting to sexually assault someone would do so in their own office (and lock the doors), or a vacant committee room, a storage closet, or a hideaway office to do the deed. The last place they’d pick would be a Senate hallway. This accusation does not have the ring of truth.

Biden has categorically denied the incident ever occurred and has called for a thorough search of Senate archives for the complaint that Reade says she filed. (Her descriptions of the contents of that purported complaint have now changed, too. In contrast to her earlier descriptions of the complaint, she now says it didn’t include any reference to sexual assault.)To date, reporters have been unable to find any record of any complaint.

Given the timing, the multiple inconsistencies– not just in Reade’s account but in the accounts of friends she presumably told (not contemporaneously but a few years after the supposed incident)–and the absence of any remotely similar accusation, it is hardly unreasonable that many women find Reade’s charges unconvincing.

In her daily Letter, Heather Cox Richardson observes that the Trump campaign is using Reade’s story to regain control of the political narrative.

The attempt to get Biden to jump through hoops Trump ignores is classic gaslighting. It keeps Biden on the defensive and makes sure he is reinforcing Trump’s narrative, thus strengthening Trump even as Biden tries to carve out his own campaign. It is precisely what the Trump campaign, abetted by the media, did in 2016.

The pundits and media outlets that are feeding on what several reporters had previously investigated and concluded was a “non-story” are once again allowing themselves to be used. In 2016, it was “her emails.” In 2020 it’s “all women must be uncritically believed.”

Not simply taken seriously, or given the benefit of the doubt, but believed.

Apparently, in order to be “real” feminists, “real” advocates for women, “real” supporters of #MeToo, we must uncritically accept any and all claims made against politicians we admire or support, no matter how dubious. Otherwise, we’re hypocrites.

If I am to be classified as a hypocrite, let me share some admissions-against-interest: I did believe several of the accusations against Bill Clinton but voted for him anyway, because I agreed with most of his policies–just as all those pious “Christians” continue to support Trump despite the porn stars, pussy-grabbing and very credible allegations of rape, because he is “Christianizing” our courts.

I also was–and remain– absolutely enraged by the hubris of the self-appointed, self-aggrandizing “defenders of women” who hounded Al Franken from the Senate. Franken was a longtime, highly effective advocate for women and the behavior he was accused of fell far short of assault.

Bottom line: I simply do not believe that drawing critical distinctions between boorishness and assault, or coming to a negative conclusion about the merits of a suspicious claim makes feminists hypocrites.

Speaking of pots and kettles, real hypocrisy is handing over control of the narrative to a man who lies constantly, refuses to release his tax returns,  fires Inspectors General in order to thwart oversight, and makes everyone who works for him sign a non-disclosure-agreement.

Buy This Book!

I think I may be in love with Al Franken. In fact, I think he’d be a great President! (Of course, next to the one we have, my cat would be a great President–and I don’t have a cat. Still…)

I just finished reading Al Franken: Giant of the Senate. I recommend it highly–and not only for its humor. (But the humor is great.)

The book tells the story of Franken’s improbable voyage from Saturday Night Live (and other venues for less than decorous humor) to the U.S. Senate, and it is more informative than most textbooks if you want to learn about the political process, the operation of the United States Senate, the day to day job description of a Senator, and the pros and cons of a variety of thorny political issues.

As the flyleaf says, “it’s a book about what happens when the nation’s foremost progressive satirist gets a chance to serve in the United States Senate and, defying the expectations of the pundit class, actually turns out to be good at it.” It’s also “a book about our deeply polarized, frequently depressing, occasionally inspiring political culture, written from inside the belly of the beast.”

The book is a testament to democratic decision-making and public service, written by a mensch. (Google it.) Franken’s self-deprecating storytelling, his willingness to credit his staff and his family and even his constituents for his accomplishments, is particularly refreshing at a time when America’s Commander-in-Chief insists on taking personal credit for any event that is even remotely positive, whether he had anything to do with it or not. (Any day now, I fully expect him to take credit for the sun rising in the morning.)

If the real Al Franken is the same person who comes across in this book, he’s a great guy–down to earth, level-headed, self-aware–with a great sense of humor. (Genuine humor, when you think about it, requires a sense of proportion and an appreciation of reality.) Evidently, you can speak truth to power without being an asshole; you can be a committed progressive and still get along with equally committed conservatives; and you can take seriously your obligation to represent the people who live in your state without being a sanctimonious prig.

You can also learn how to be an effective “insider” without getting co-opted by “the system.”

The best thing about this book? It restored my faith in the possibilities of democracy. (Note the word “possibilities.”) Given Franken’s candid reporting on the current state of our nation, democracy is far from being realized, but it does remain a (tantalizing) possibility.

Buy the damn book.