Do We Really Need Al Franken?

Al Franken’s alleged groping of several women may not be the same level of purported offense as that of Donald Trump or Roy Moore. That doesn’t mean we can’t hold him to a minimum standard of conduct, however, and it certainly doesn’t mean we “need him back” in any capacity. (Photo Credit: Lorie Shaull/CC BY-SA 4.0)

As concerns the intersection of politics and the #MeToo movement, perhaps no figure encapsulates its potential divisiveness and difficult contemplations like Al Franken.

It’s been over a year-and-a-half since Franken resigned from his post as U.S. Senator from the state of Minnesota, but his case is one that media figures and political junkies alike feel the need to relitigate. Jane Mayer’s recent essay for The New Yorker is the latest high-profile entry in people’s meditations on whether he should’ve resigned.

Mayer considers a lot of angles in her examination of this subject matter: the precipitousness of his fall from grace after once being considered a possible challenger to Donald Trump in 2020, the regret he and numerous former colleagues feel, contrasts with Joe Biden’s and Donald Trump’s records, the evolution of accuser Leeann Tweeden’s account of sexual misconduct, the nature of U.S.O. shows like the one Franken did with Tweeden and the content of the skit prompting her accusations, character witness accounts on his behalf, proposed logical faults taken with Tweeden’s characterizations of the incident and ruminations on her credibility, FOX News personalities’ personal ax to grind with Franken, that allegations against Roy Moore were fresh in the minds of many, Franken’s physical awkwardness, allegations from other accusers, concerns about lack of due process, the role Kirsten Gillibrand and other Democratic colleagues played in calling for his resignation, the notion that not all accounts of abuse are made equal. In this regard, Mayer’s piece seems reasonably well considered.

This effort to reclaim Franken’s image is arguably not without its problems, however. On one hand, Tweeden’s failure or refusal to acknowledge the context in which the U.S.O. skit was performed and its content (there is a scene of a breast exam in the skit, to which the infamous photo of Franken and Tweeden presumably refers) are curious omissions. Acknowledging this wouldn’t make her accusations any less valid.

On the other hand, we might rightly object at various points in Mayer’s analysis. For one, comparisons to Biden and Trump are whataboutism, pure and simple. We’re talking about Franken here. Their supposed misdeeds are irrelevant to the deliberation at hand. Certain aspects of Tweeden’s life which apparently go to her believability are also of questionable application. Tweeden may have fabricated or embellished whether or not she could’ve gotten into Harvard in the past. She is a noted conservative who has professed admiration for Trump and has appeared on Sean Hannity’s show to talk about birtherism, and she may have a personal animus against the liberal Franken, whose political star was on the rise prior to the events which led to his resignation.

None of this means she is necessarily lying about being assaulted or interpreting Franken’s actions in this way, though, nor do the motivations of any of his accusers or the people who called for his resignation. Gillibrand, who continues to be lambasted for being among the first to publicly call for Franken’s resignation, points out that she didn’t end his Senate career—he did. He could’ve opted to soldier on despite the allegations against him and regardless of the strain it put on Gillibrand and Co.

Jeet Heer, national-affairs correspondent at The Nation, addresses Mayer’s article and notions that Franken was “railroaded” or otherwise was a victim of circumstances, as she might make it seem. Like Mayer, Heer alludes to Franken as a sort of “ghost” haunting the Democratic Party with claims he was all but forced out without consideration of due process.

Heer concedes that Tweeden’s account of unwanted touching and kissing “has all the earmarks of a politically motivated smear.” The problem: there are still seven other accusers. Mayer’s juxtaposition of this alongside Franken’s physical “obtuseness” makes for a strange defense. All his accusers are women and their allegations are of a sexual nature. It’s more than just his being a “hugger.”

There’s also the matter of Franken’s defenders weighing his actions against the Harvey Weinsteins and Strom Thurmonds of the world. Again, in contrast to partisan relativism, Heer speaks to “setting a minimum standard of respect,” regardless of political affiliation or likability. For that matter, all the people jumping at the chance to exonerate Franken or come to his defense because of what they “know” about him is not a guarantee. What they think they know may be dependent on their limited interactions with him or what he allows others to see. I’m not saying the reverse can’t be true, mind you, but human beings are, well, complicated.

As Heer cites Rebecca Traister, New York magazine writer-at-large, if Franken took a leave of absence to re-examine the effect his conduct might have had on women in his life and later came back to speak to women’s rights and the responsibility of men in the #MeToo era, he might still be serving the people of Minnesota in an official capacity today. It was his silence and the conviction he’d be given ample time and a thorough investigation into his affairs that was his undoing—fair or unfair.

Heer takes this a step further in closing by saying that Franken’s playing the victim betrays his lack of understanding of the whole situation and creates a barrier to any real sense of redemption in the future. He writes:

If we want #MeToo to be effective, we need to be careful to distinguish between major criminals and petty transgressors. We also need to figure out how to reintegrate figures like Franken into society. But you can’t have forgiveness without contrition. To this day, Franken sees himself as a victim. Until that changes, there can be no healing.

In his resignation speech back in 2018, Franken was anything but contrite. Instead, he insisted that he knows who he really is and considered it an irony that he was leaving office while Trump, who once bragged about groping women, is president and Moore, who has preyed on young women, has political aspirations. His parting remarks, draped in comparisons to the worst the GOP has to offer, offered sentiments of “no regrets.” It bears wondering whether his accusers could or would say the same, even assuming the small magnitude of his purported offenses.


A big question I have in relation to Jane Mayer’s essay and why The New Yorker felt the need to publish it is: why now? Why are we reconsidering Al Franken’s fall with everything going on with the 2020 presidential race looming, the Trump administration, and any number of crises facing the country and the world today?

Part of the answer would seem to lie with the notion we need someone like Franken in American political discourse. Last year, Bill Maher, in a brave act of defending another white male like himself, expressed the belief that we need a comedian like Franken to ridicule Donald Trump and take down other “rightwing blowhards.” In doing so, he assailed the credibility of Leeann Tweeden, minimized the charges of Franken’s other accusers, and shot back at “purists” who overreact only to suffer from buyer’s remorse later on.

More recently, Pete Buttigieg, when asked during a town hall whether he would’ve called for Franken’s ouster, replied that he “would not have applied that pressure at that time before we knew more.” It probably helps that Buttigieg has raised funds alongside big-bucks Democratic donor Susie Tompkins Buell, who previously endorsed Kamala Harris despite the fact she was one of the first Senate Democrats to advocate for Franken’s resignation and who has made public positions on the end of Franken’s tenure somewhat of a sticking point. Evidently, the goal is to beat Trump by any means necessary—even it means compromising our moral standards.

To the extent that Franken could add to the discussion on resisting Trump, his absence is regrettable. Are his talents so unique that a void like his in American politics can’t be filled, however? This much seems dubious. To say that Franken was one of the more interesting members of the Senate isn’t saying much. For the integral role Congress plays in shaping the American experience, it is filled with boring people and uninspired ideas. This reality doesn’t obviate the public’s responsibility to hold these public servants accountable and to actively participate in issue advocacy, mind you. Then again, even if this doesn’t excuse voters tuning out, you can sort of understand why they do.

If the Democrats are that desperate to have Franken back because he is the only one who can stand up to Trump or the only one who possesses the requisite skill to ridicule him to the point it rattles him, however, it would seem there are bigger problems within the Democratic Party. It’s along the lines of needing Jon Stewart back as a voice of empathy, reason, and wit in late-night television. Do I miss him? Of course. But if we can’t find others who can approach his level of thoughtful criticism and oddball humor, we might be in more trouble than we know.

One of the lessons of the #MeToo era with which people still appear to be grappling is that men who abuse their fame or position of influence are infinitely replaceable. (The label of “abuser” does not apply to Stewart, to be clear; I invoked him simply as an illustration of my earlier point.) Louis C.K., while clearly talented, is not the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to stand-up comedy. Nor is Kevin Spacey God’s gift to acting. Without wanting to seem cruel, life goes on. If we can’t meet the need for artists, politicians, producers, writers, and other professionals without sanctioning their alleged violations of boundaries, we’ve clearly failed as a society. No amount of good deeds, intelligence, leadership skills, or talent should supersede another’s right to his or her bodily autonomy and physical safety.

Will Al Franken ever return to the limelight, and with that, U.S. politics? Who knows? In the event he doesn’t, it may be ultimately be unfair to him, though the number of credible accusations against him suggests otherwise. Maybe it’s that he doesn’t feel he needs to apologize because he did nothing wrong. Regardless, though some of us may want him back, that doesn’t signify a need. Yes, we should talk about how and whether to weigh the offenses in each case. Yes, we should discuss how to handle less-than-perfect accusers. But we can do so looking forward rather than back.

On Sex Work, Morality, and Truth

Pete Buttigieg is among those on the left who, in deriding Donald Trump as a “porn star president,” takes a jab at an industry in sex work that has been disproportionately stigmatized and which sees its professionals face certain risks and a lack of concern for their rights and trustworthiness. (Photo Credit: Marc Nozell/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

At a recent CNN town hall, Democratic hopeful Pete Buttigieg took specific issue with Vice President Mike Pence’s support of Donald Trump. Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana (Pence’s home state) and openly gay (ahem, not Pence’s favorite distinction), criticized Pence for his support for Trump in an apparent abandonment of his principles as a Christian. As Buttigieg put it, “How could he allow himself to become the cheerleader of the porn star presidency? Is it that he stopped believing in scripture when he started believing in Donald Trump?”

As far as the post-event dissection and sound bite accumulation went, this was Buttigieg’s quote of the night. For what it’s worth, the pointed criticism of Pence and the religious right is well taken. Prior to the rise of Trump, white evangelicals were most likely to insist on a candidate’s morality as an important quality. Now, however, they downplay Trump’s moral and other deficiencies of character, in this respect acting more white than evangelical. For some, it may be unconscious, but either way, religious conservatives see an ally in a president who appears to exemplify the so-called “prosperity gospel” and who would uphold their brand of “religious freedom.”

Mayor Buttigieg, though, is not a member of the religious right. He is a Democrat and Episcopalian whose mere sexual orientation would make him a target of conservative Christians’ scorn. His attack of Trump’s “porn star presidency” is a double-edged sword that strikes not only at Mike Pence’s hypocrisy and that of his ilk but also at adult entertainers and their choice of vocation. Within his comments are an implicit criticism of porn stars—or at least a failure to defend them. Trump is a bad person. He consorts with porn stars. By association, if you associate with him or them, you are a bad person.

The unnamed allusion to Trump’s extramarital liaison with Stephanie Clifford a.k.a. Stormy Daniels is not the first knock on the woman who alleges she slept with Trump and was paid off in advance of the 2016 presidential election for her silence. Rudy Giuliani—or the crazy person masquerading as Rudy Giuliani for the purposes of defending Donald Trump—expressed to a national audience the belief that Daniels has no credibility because she is a porn star. Translation: Stormy Daniels is a lying whore who can’t be trusted because all porn stars are lying whores. Michael Avenatti’s detractors on the right have leveled similar criticisms of Daniels’s then-lawyer on guilt-by-association principles. He represents porn stars, ipso facto, he is a lying scumbag.

Irrespective of what you think of their personalities—Avenatti, in particular, strikes me as an obnoxious attention-seeker—their choice of vocation or client shouldn’t have a bearing on their believability. As is oft said, love the sinner; hate the sin. In this instance, however, even on the left, there are those who condemn the sinner and sin. Trump is a “porn star president.” Lost in the discussion of his and Pence’s and Daniels’s and Avenatti’s morality is the more relevant issue of whether Donald Trump specifically directed a payoff to Stormy Daniels and whether that constituted a breach of campaign finance law. It shouldn’t matter whether Daniels is a porn star or prostitute or any other similar type of professional. It’s Trump’s conduct with which we should be primarily concerned.

Unfortunately, this bilateral takedown of adult entertainers and other sex workers is emblematic of our larger discomfort with sex work as a function of our discomfort with, well, sex. Sex is enjoyable. It’s the reason most of us are here, barring in vitro fertilization or the like. Talking about it, though, for many of us can be an, er, icky prospect, necessitating the use of double entendre or other euphemistic language. And showing our appreciation of its splendor? Oh, no. Especially for women, that’s not very “lady-like.” Too much sex and you risk getting branded as a “slut.” Worse yet if you’re a prostitute. Then you’re a criminal and deserve to be admonished. So much for the world’s oldest profession.

I watch porn. (Mom, if you’re reading this, apologies.) I’m not without my reservations. There are the usual complaints. The costumes tend to be tacky. Lo, the cut-rate nurse uniforms. The dialogue is often stilted. The acting is frequently subpar. And is there nothing that doesn’t get a porn parody? Who asks for a Rugrats porn parody anyway? Who finds that sexy?

Even when these things are improved upon—and I do think the production value of today’s adult entertainment is largely superior to the XXX offerings of yesteryear—there are troubling aspects of the presentation and of the industry as a whole. The plots—which often barely qualify as such and for some reason usually revolve around sex with stepfamily—can be steeped in misogyny, involving coercion or trickery of the female participant(s) as pivotal “plot” points.

Even when the content is geared to be more “female friendly,” the on-screen enjoyment is often reserved for wealthy characters who enjoy lavish accommodations on the count of being highly-paid hard-working individuals. It’s luxury porn on top of being actual porn. There are also concerns off camera about suicides of numerous high-profile stars and the ever-present worry about transmission of sexually-transmitted infections in a world where condom use is infrequent. And we haven’t yet gotten to the problem of monetization for production companies and actors/actresses alike.

So yeah, the adult entertainment industry has its issues—and I’m sure I’ve missed a few. Still, I’m not sure why there seems to be such a disdain or disregard for the people involved, the type which prompts left-leaning comedians like Chelsea Handler to equate porn stars with abusers, child molesters, and Russian hackers. I get that its objectors may see porn as exploitative and the performers as lacking talent. But why the hate? Because they love sex and like getting paid for it? Even within the context of the on-film productions, there seems to be an inherent condemnation of the young women in these situations modeled on real life. These whores will do anything for money! They can’t control themselves when they see what he’s packing down there! We condemn them for their vices while absconding to our bedrooms, gratifying our pleasures. To the extent that these scenes are a reflection of us and our society is disconcerting.

Morality also appears to cloud our collective judgment when it comes to our demonization of escorts, prostitutes, et cetera and advocacy for their rights. A presumption in this regard is that the sex worker has agency over her or his circumstances—and that may be a big presumption to make. There are arguments by some feminists and others that sex work is an oppressive form of labor, especially as it relates to exploitation by “pimps.” Speaking of exploitation, there are serious concerns about human and sex trafficking that would subvert that necessary agency and constitute a serious crime. In many cases, there are quantifiable risks to the sex worker, including drug use, poverty, rape, sexually-transmitted infections, and violence.

These issues notwithstanding, the stigma of sex work lingers. As with adult entertainers, prostitutes who get involved with this line of work for the money or sex are demeaned as unskilled opportunists, and as for the risks they face, the consensus response seems to be an effective shrug of the shoulders. They chose this lifestyle. If they don’t like it, they should get an education and a real job. This comes to a head when discussing sex workers’ desire for safety and protection against burdensome regulations as well as freedom of movement, available health services, and other rights that mere status as a human being should confer. In practice, this is not always the reality.

Meera Senthilingam, a CNN Health and Wellness editor, penned an article which appeared on CNN in February concerning “what sex workers really want.” In the opinion of one sex worker interviewed for the piece, seeing as they pay the same taxes, sex workers should be afforded the same rights as other service professionals who are allowed to work from home. There is also the problem for some prostitutes when law enforcement gets involved. In places where the legality of the practice is null or vague and dependent on who solicits who, the presence of police may actually be a deterrent to would-be customers.

This assumes, by the by, that the police aren’t the ones abusing, exploiting, or harassing sex workers, and as with the agency of sex workers mentioned earlier, this is quite an assumption to make. As with any profession, there are bad actors, and for a population in sex workers already susceptible to violence and other health and safety concerns, it puts practitioners in a bind, to put it mildly. It begs the question: who will watch the watchers when it comes to safeguarding their liberties as citizens?

The above deliberations are worth talking about. Whether it’s because of a deprecating attitude regarding sex work, a discomfort in approaching such matters, or both, however, even those on the left who usually are keen on standing up for individuals’ agency over their bodies and protecting their inalienable rights appear loath to mention sex workers specifically. Chalk it up to social mores or personal morality, but in 2019, America and the world at large is evidently lagging on this topic.


You might ask why we are worried about the feelings and opinions and rights of someone like Stormy Daniels. The woman didn’t even vote, for crying out loud! What do she and her contemporaries have to contribute to the larger discussion about Donald Trump and American politics? To be honest, I’m not totally sure, but if we dismiss her as an opportunist and a slut from the jump, what chance do we have to listen and know with an open mind?

In front of an audience of 500 women or so at The Wing, a work and community space designed for women in Washington, D.C., Daniels recently said she believes Michael Cohen to be true in his testimony to lawmakers. Cohen, like Daniels, has had his credibility attacked reflexively by Republican supporters of the president, and while she may not possess a great deal of affection for the man—she referred to Cohen as “dumber than herpes”—she thinks he is honest and that, like her, he came forward because he’s tired of “being bullied” and “being called a liar and a rat.”

Sure, this is just one person’s opinion, but it comes from someone who alleges to know Trump intimately—in more than one sense of the word. In this respect, her thoughts have at least much value as a shameless defender of Trump like Sean Hannity. Instead, though, she’s a porn star to be derided alongside the president, Mike Pence, and even child molesters and wife beaters. Thanks for the insight, but we’d rather scoff at you from atop our high horses. Don’t call us; we’ll call you.

Whether it’s within the context of #MeToo or of simply acknowledging the dignity of sex workers as human beings, the left has a problematic relationship with those storytellers it considers to be problematic or unsavory. Daniels has stressed she is a not a victim with regard to #MeToo. Cohen, set to spend three years in federal prison, is sure as heck not a victim.

Through all the deals they’ve struck and monies they’ve received, this doesn’t mean they’re utterly irredeemable. And their past actions and vocations have no bearing on the veracity of what they say about Trump. To allow our social and moral misgivings to stand in the way of our better judgment is to fall prey to the same kind of prejudices that have characterized conservatism of late. You know, when its practitioners actually heed their conscience or the teachings of scripture.

“A Tale of Two Countries,” Or, the 2019 State of the Union Address

Donald Trump preached unity in the 2019 State of the Union and shared an agenda based on a vision of America. Unfortunately, it’s a vision for an America which doesn’t exist coming from a man who actively divides his constituents. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0)

President Donald Trump finally got to deliver his State of the Union address with the recent partial government shutdown in the rear-view mirror (although we could totally have another one in the near future if we don’t figure out how to decouple the subject of a border wall from funding federal agencies, so yay?). The good news is the president stopped short of calling for a state of emergency to advance construction of a border wall. The bad news is Trump had a national platform by which to spew his rhetoric at the American people.

Before we get to the veracity of what Trump said or lack thereof, let’s first address what the man spoke about. Trump’s agenda, at least in principle, was devoted to the areas where members of both parties can find consensus. These major topics included promoting fair trade and other policies which help American jobs/workers, rebuilding our infrastructure, reducing the price of health care (including prescription drugs), creating a more modern and secure immigration system, and advancing foreign policy goals that align with American interests.

On the economy, it was jobs, jobs, jobs! Wages are rising! Unemployment is declining! Regulations are going away! Companies are coming back! And it’s all because of me! So let’s stop all these needless investigations into my affairs. You don’t want THE AMERICAN PEOPLE to suffer on account of me, do you? Trump also addressed tariffs and the USMCA, but rather than calling out countries like China for abuse of workers’ rights or currency manipulation or anything like that, he expressed respect for Xi Jinping and instead laid blame at the feet of past leaders and lawmakers. As always, thanks, Obama.

On immigration, well, you probably know the story by now. Immigrants enrich our society in many ways—except when they don’t, taking away jobs, lowering wages, bringing drugs and violent crime, encouraging the trafficking of human beings, and taxing our public services. ICE is a bunch of heroes, gosh darn it! And we need that wall!

On infrastructure, Trump indicated we need both parties to work together and that he is “eager” to work with Congress on new, cutting-edge investments that the country requires to keep pace in a rapidly developing world. That’s it. Not a lot of what these infrastructural improvements would look like or how we’d go about funding them. But, huzzah, infrastructure!

On lowering drug prices/health care, Congress, wouldja put something together already? Sheesh? Also, HIV and AIDS—why are they still a thing? Let’s cut that out. Cancer? You’re next. Really, we need to recognize that all life is precious. Looking at you, Democrats, and your whole insistence on women’s right to choose. #NotMyAbortions

Lastly, on foreign policy, Trump extolled the virtues of our Armed Forces and thus explained why we need to shower them with money on an annual basis. Also, NATO was being very mean to us but now its members are going to spend more on defense. Also also, Russia is being a doo-doo head and that’s why we pulled out of the INF Treaty. Also also also, Kim Jong-un and I are BFFs and we’re going to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula. Also also also also, Guaidó > Maduro and socialism never works. Also 5x, Israel is super cool, the Holocaust was bad, ISIS is defeated, and did I mention we love our troops?

In conclusion, America is awesome and greatness awaits us. So ladies and gents, let’s not screw the pooch on this one and work together. Because if we fail, it will because you all couldn’t figure out how to rise above our differences. #NotMyFault


Depending on your political views, it may not surprise you to know that several of President Trump’s remarks were characterized as either “false” or “misleading” by fact-checkers. Among Trump’s misrepresentations, according to The New York Times:

  • Our economy isn’t growing twice as fast today as when Trump took office, and in fact, American economic growth in 2018 fell short of that of even Greece. Greece!
  • Trump claimed his administration has cut more regulations than any other administration in U.S. history, but according to experts, these rollbacks aren’t at the level of the Carter and Reagan administrations.
  • Job creation during Trump’s tenure isn’t some miraculous, near-impossible feat. It’s roughly on par with the state of affairs during the Obama administration and down from job creation in the 1990s. Also, more people are working in the United States than ever before because more people live here. Unless he wants to take credit for helping populate America too.
  • On immigration, phew, where do we start? El Paso was never one of America’s most dangerous cities. San Diego’s border fencing “did not have a discernible impact” on lower border apprehension rates, according to the Congressional Research Service. In addition, the idea that “large, organized caravans” of migrants are on their way to the U.S. is exaggerated.
  • Not only has the USMCA not been approved by Congress yet, but it might not bring as many manufacturing jobs back to America—or for that matter, the North American continent—as anticipated.
  • On Nicolás Maduro and Venezuela, it’s not so much that Maduro is a socialist as much as he’s a dictator whose rule has been marked by corruption, deficiency in the rule of law, and the circumvention of democracy. But keep parroting conservative talking points.
  • Trump claimed we’d be at war with North Korea if he hadn’t been elected. Bullshit. Especially in the incipient stages of his presidency, Trump notably egged on Kim Jong-un, referring to him as “Little Rocket Man.” Back the trolley up there, Mr. President.
  • On abortion, more misleading remarks. Trump suggested New York’s Reproductive Health Act allows abortions until shortly before birth, but rather, the law permits abortions after 24 weeks in cases where the fetus is not viable or the mother’s health would be imperiled.
  • Trump also invoked Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s comments about discussing abortion with physicians up until birth and end-of-life care in instances where a child wouldn’t live, though Trump treated them as tantamount to advocating for babies’ execution after birth. Sadly, Northam’s ongoing controversy involving whether or not he appeared dressed in blackface or a Ku Klux Klan costume in a college yearbook photo was not part of Trump’s deceptive commentary. That’s on you, Ralph, and I wish you would resign already.

The State of the Union address, especially under Pres. Donald Trump, is a bizarre bit of theater. Here is a function outlined in the Constitution and adapted by means of tradition that makes for much pomp and circumstance amid the formal procedures and recognitions which occur within, presided over by a president who consistently flouts convention and other semblances of decorum. The Trump presidency has been one marked by chaos and one which encourages division within the electorate. The very date of the address was postponed by a shutdown characterized by partisan gridlock—which went curiously unmentioned during Trump’s speech—and was a bone of contention between the president and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. To have members of Congress from both parties smiling and clapping for him seems rather jarring.

It’s particularly jarring to witness this spectacle and the parade of “Lenny Skutniks” that presidents trot out in the name of bolstering their credibility (Trump called upon World War II veterans, a minister who had her non-violent drug offense commuted by Trump, another former inmate who sold drugs and has since reformed, the family of victims of a undocumented immigrant’s violence, an immigrant-turned-ICE special agent, a cancer survivor, the father of someone lost in the attack on the USS Cole, a SWAT officer on the scene at last year’s synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, and a Holocaust survivor) when the Democrats offered an official rebuttal, as is custom.

Stacey Abrams, who came within two percentage points of winning the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election and might’ve won if not for then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s shenanigans, delivered the Dems’ response. She assailed the Republican Party for crafting an immigration plan that tears families apart and puts children in cages, for working to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, for failing to take action on climate change, for rigging elections and judiciaries, and for repeatedly attacking the rights of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community, among other things. Abrams closed her speech with these thoughts:

Even as I am very disappointed by the president’s approach to our problems—I still don’t want him to fail. But we need him to tell the truth, and to respect his duties and the extraordinary diversity that defines America.

Our progress has always found refuge in the basic instinct of the American experiment—to do right by our people. And with a renewed commitment to social and economic justice, we will create a stronger America, together. Because America wins by fighting for our shared values against all enemies: foreign and domestic. That is who we are—and when we do so, never wavering—the state of our union will always be strong.

Abrams’s sentiments may seem a bit schmaltzy at points, but alongside Trump’s rhetoric since he began his presidential campaign, she is much better equipped to talk about the state of the union and bipartisan solutions than our Commander-in-Chief. And while this message serves an obvious partisan purpose, criticism of Trump’s divisiveness is deserved, notably in light of his numerous falsehoods and distortions.

That’s what makes this all so disorienting. Donald Trump speaks to solving problems which may or may not exist, leaving existing problems unaddressed and creating phantoms where bogeymen are needed. As senator Richard Blumenthal wrote on Twitter, Trump’s State of the Union speech was a “tale of two countries.”

To entertain the absurdities of his presidency with any degree of normalcy, applauding him and dignifying his comments with formality and a primetime audience, is therefore to acknowledge two different speeches: the one that the president gave and the one that Americans actually deserved. It creates a sort of cognitive dissonance that requires some degree of mental gymnastics to try to sort out. Is Trump the uniter and Democrats the dividers? Was it all a farce, his plea for unity and his presidential tone an exercise in cynicism? Or was it just an unofficial rally for his base and potential voters heading into 2020? Does anything he say truly matter? Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? The questions abound, as do the anxiety, probable headaches, and possible additional Queen references.

I’m not sure what the answer is here, if there is only one. I chose not to watch the live broadcast and to read a transcript, view photos, and watch video clips after the fact. I would’ve liked to see more lawmakers do the same, though I suppose Nancy Pelosi did get in some epic eye-rolls. Maybe we should do away with the whole spectacle altogether.

At least as far as Trump is concerned, he’s already made his true feelings known via social media countless times over. Why bother with the charade when we can just read a written report or his tweets instead? If nothing else, it would save time.

We Don’t Need You Back, Kevin Spaceys of the World

Kevin Spacey may be a fine actor, but we don’t need his ilk in Hollywood. Rather than accepting admitted abusers back into the limelight, we should strive to find new talent, especially as it concerns women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups. (Photo Credit: Richard Cooper/CC-BY-SA-3.0)

In advance of Christmas, Kevin Spacey released a video entitled “Let Me Be Frank” on his YouTube channel. Beyond it being strange enough news that Kevin Spacey has a YouTube channel in the first place, the three-minute clip was deeply weird.

In the video, Spacey, speaking in the manner of his persona Frank Underwood from House of Cards, directly addresses the viewer, as he did in character within the context of the show. His remarks are as follows:

I know what you want. Oh, sure, they may have tried to separate us, but what he have is too strong, it’s too powerful. I mean, after all, we shared everything, you and I. I told you my deepest, darkest secrets. I showed you exactly what people are capable of. I shocked you with my honesty, but mostly I challenged you and made you think. And you trusted me—even though you knew you shouldn’t.

So we’re not done no matter what anyone says. And besides, I know what you want: you want me back.

Of course, some believed everything and have just been waiting with bated breath to hear me confess it—they’re just dying to have me declare that everything said is true, that I got what I deserved. Wouldn’t that be easy—if it was all so simple? Only you and I both know it’s never that simple—not in politics and not in life.

But you wouldn’t believe the worst without evidence, would you? You wouldn’t rush to judgment without facts, would you? Did you? No, not you. You’re smarter than that.

Anyway, all this presumption made for such an unsatisfying ending, and to think it could’ve been such a memorable send-off. I mean, if you and I have learned nothing else these past years, it’s that in life and art, nothing should be off the table. We weren’t afraid—not of what we said, not of what we did, and we’re still not afraid.

Because I can promise you this: if I didn’t pay the price for the things we both know I did do, I’m certainly not going to pay the price for the things I didn’t do. Oh, of course, they’re going to say I’m being disrespectful, not playing by the rules—like I ever played by anyone’s rules before. I never did—and you loved it.

Anyhow, despite all the poppycock, the animosity, the headlines, the impeachment without a trial, despite everything—despite even my own death—I feel surprisingly good. And my confidence grows each day that, soon enough, you will know the full truth.

Oh, wait a minute. Now that I think of it, you never actually saw me die, did you? Conclusions can be so deceiving.

Miss me?

In his indirectness, his comments are questionable in their true application. Is Spacey talking about another season of House of Cards involving him despite the apparent end of the series without him? Or, more probably, is he speaking through Underwood in a thinly-veiled set of allusions to his accused sexual misconduct, taking a shot at the producers of the show and its perceived dip in quality in its final eight episodes?

Whatever Spacey’s motivations, the conflation of his character’s darkness with his own seeming defense of his real-life behavior is an odd one. It’s like Ted Cruz making jokes about himself being the Zodiac Killer as if to make him more likable. Who associates himself with a soulless politician who will stop at nothing in his bid for power so as to make his suspected sexual misconduct and pedophilia more palatable? Who does that?

Apparently, Kevin Spacey does, and what’s more, he may be partially right about people wanting him back. Back in November, Sophie Gilbert, staff writer at The Atlantic, penned an article about the notion that, for all the attention of #MeToo and Time’s Up to holding men in power accountable for their actions, not only has the comeuppance for many offenders been short-lived, but a disparity in on-screen and off-screen representation for women remains.

In the case of Kevin Spacey, mentioned specifically in Gilbert’s piece, the weight of his legal troubles may be enough to deep-six his career as we have known it. But for others? Charlie Rose? James Franco? Louis C.K.? Matt Lauer? Despite admissions of guilt or multiple accusations of wrongdoing, these men are either working on comebacks or continue to find work. Hell, even Roman Polanski keeps directing films.

As for women being creators, directors, and the like as well as garnering screen time, Gilbert notes that these opportunities declined in the year preceding her column’s publication, citing statistics from Women and Hollywood, an advocacy group. And this is on top of the belief held by some that, owing to how pervasive sexual harassment and other forms of misconduct are alleged to be in Hollywood (and other industries), if the punishments were truly indicative of the crimes, so to speak, a lot more dudes would be losing their jobs.

Gilbert closes her piece on a bit of a sobering note detailing the “paradox” of the #MeToo/Time’s Up movements:

Since the Weinstein allegations were first published, the entertainment industry has taken measurable steps to help fight instances of abuse, harassment, and predatory behavior. It’s committed time and money to helping women and men who’ve been harassed receive the emotional and legal support they need. A handful of high-level executives accused of harassment and abuse (Amazon Studios’s Roy Price, CBS’s Les Moonves) have been replaced.

At the same time, though, studio heads and producers have been relatively quick to welcome back actors, directors, and writers who’ve been accused of harassment and assault, particularly when their status makes them seem irreplaceable. It’s a dual-edged message: Don’t abuse your power, but if you do, you’ll still have a career.

Part of the confusion comes down to the fact that these men are seen as invaluable because the stories they tell are still understood to have disproportionate worth. When the slate of new fall TV shows is filled with father-and-son buddy-cop stories and prison-break narratives and not one but two gentle, empathetic examinations of male grief, it’s harder to imagine how women writers and directors might step up to occupy a sudden void. When television and film are fixated on helping audiences find sympathy for troubled, selfish, cruel, brilliant men, it’s easier to believe that the troubled, brilliant men in real life also deserve empathy, forgiveness, and second chances.

And so the tangible achievements one year into the #MeToo movement need to be considered hand in hand with the fact that the stories being told haven’t changed much at all, and neither have the people telling them. A true reckoning with structural disparities in the entertainment industry will demand something else as well: acknowledging that women’s voices and women’s stories are not only worth believing, but also worth hearing. At every level.

For Gilbert, the slow and incomplete taking to task of men who abuse their fame and power is inextricably linked to societal attitudes that place men, their feelings, and their drive for success above those of women. Moving outside the purview of Hollywood—though, noting his courtroom shenanigans, perhaps with the same performative flair—that Brett Kavanaugh could even be defended as a viable Supreme Court candidate who was being “attacked” as part of a “witch hunt” is beyond absurd.

And yet, GOP senators did it with a straight face, eventually casting their votes in favor of his confirmation. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. If this pudding doesn’t prove Gilbert’s point, I’m not sure what does.


Returning to Kevin Spacey’s insistence that we’re eagerly anticipating his return and my suggestion that he may be, in part, right, it’s worth noting that some Internet commentators have expressed dismay that they may not be able to see him act more in the future or have advanced the thought “we haven’t heard his side of the story.”

As Spacey will have his day in court, we undoubtedly will, or at least will have the testimony of his accuser(s) cross-examined. There would seem to be ample time for “his side” to be made public. Theoretically speaking, the truth should set him free.

I admittedly think Spacey is a fine actor. His award wins and nominations, as far as I know or am concerned, were well deserved. Owing to his talent, people indeed may want him acting again. But do we need him and his ilk in Hollywood? I submit no.

Perhaps I am underestimating the gifts that certain creative minds at the peak of their craft bestow upon their audiences. My supposition, however, is that individuals like Spacey are eminently replaceable. Literally. His scenes in the film All the Money in the World were re-shot with Christopher Plummer in his place, an effort that earned Plummer an Academy Award nomination. If a two-time Academy Award winner like Spacey can be replaced, why not others accused of misconduct? Are we that deficient on acting and other artistic ability?

Spacey’s attitude and that of critics of the #MeToo movement exist in stark contrast to comments made by actor Idris Elba on the subject. In an interview for an article in the British newspaper The Times, Elba opined that #MeToo is “only difficult if you’re a man with something to hide.” He received a lot of adulation on social media from prominent women in entertainment. Less so in conservative circles, but as is often heard on The Sopranos, eh, whaddya gonna do?

It shouldn’t take Shonda Rhimes’s enthusiastic agreement, though, to convince us of the veracity of Elba’s statement—woman or man, famous or not. Protests of #MeToo and Time’s Up as “witch hunts” continue the trend of Donald Trump—who is certainly not above reproach given his remarks about women over the years and multiple alleged instances of sexual misconduct—and others robbing this phrase of its significance. Moreover, that Elba is the conduit for these thoughts conveys the sense that we can yet have performers of a high caliber grace our screens and maintain a clear conscience about whether the rights of women and survivors in general can be respected.

As for women having more speaking time on screen and having more chances to direct, edit, produce, serve as lead photographer, and write, this also should not be the obstacle it presently is. If Black Panther, a movie with a predominantly black cast and black director, or Crazy Rich Asians, a movie with an all-Asian cast directed by an Asian, can do exceedingly well commercially, why can’t we have more creative works in which women play central roles, behind and in front of the lens? Ocean’s 8, for example, as derivative as it is, was a box-office success. If the story is a compelling one, the ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation or any similar identifying characteristic of the people involved shouldn’t matter. Shouldn’t we raise our expectations?

Kevin Spacey’s “Let Me Be Frank” video has amassed more than 9.5 million views on YouTube since first being uploaded as of this writing. I viewed it only to transcribe what he said. Others, I hope, only watched it because of a similar need to report on its contents or because, like seeing a flaming car wreck on the side of the road, they couldn’t help but look away.

If they viewed it because they wanted to see more of Spacey and think his talent outweighs his alleged misdeeds, however, I would consider that supremely disappointing. We don’t need the Kevin Spaceys of the world back, and we’ll be all the better for that realization.

The UDHR Is 70. America Needs to Do Better in Following It.

This language from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights echoes that of the Declaration of Independence. And yet, America still struggles with upholding these global principles. (Photo Credit: Jordan Lewin/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0)

On the U.S. version of The Office, tasked with picking a health care plan for Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, Dwight Schrute, assistant to the regional manager, prided himself on slashing benefits “to the bone” in an effort to save the company money. He rationalized his decision-making with the following thought: “In the wild, there is no health care. In the wild, health care is, ‘Ow, I hurt my leg. I can’t run. A lion eats me and I’m dead’.”

Dwight Schrute is, of course, a fictional character, and his attitude is an extreme one. Nevertheless, his mentality reflecting the notion that health care is no guarantee and the idea he needs to select a plan for his Scranton office at all are indicative of a very real issue facing Americans to this day. If health care is a right, why does it feel more like a jungle out here?

In commemoration of the 70th anniversary of its signing, Tom Gjelten, NPR’s Religion and Belief correspondent, penned a piece concerning the “boundlessly idealistic” Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UDHR, across its 30 articles, elaborates the central premise that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

To this point, the Declaration speaks against discrimination based on any identifying characteristic. It opposes slavery, torture, and unfair treatment at the hands of law enforcement and the courts. It asserts that all persons have the right to a nationality and to seek asylum from persecution. They also possess the right to marry, the right to their property, freedom of expression/thought and religion, and freedom to peaceably assemble and participate in government. Other stated liberties include the right to work for equal pay, the right to leisure, the right to health, the right to education, and the right to appreciate culture.

What is striking to Gjelten and others is how the UDHR is designed to be applicable across cultures, political systems, and religions. It is truly meant as a universal set of standards, one with secular appeal. That is, it is a human document, not a God-given list of commandments.

Then again, in some contexts, this last point might be a bone of contention. As Gjelten explains, Saudi Arabia abstained from the original unanimous United Nations Assembly vote because of issues with the Declaration’s views on family, marriage, and religious freedom, in particular the idea that one can freely change religions, which can be considered a crime. In general, some of the strongest objections to the language of the UDHR have come from the Islamic world, though this does not imply that Islamic law and these rights are incompatible.

There were others who abstained from the vote in 1948 as well, though. The Soviet Union and its bloc states were part of the eight abstentions, presumably because of the stipulation about people’s right to freely expatriate. South Africa, a country then predicated on racial segregation, was also part of the eight. Even some American conservatives at the time had their qualms about the UDHR’s wording, convinced the sentiments about economic rights sounded too socialist. Actually, that probably hasn’t changed all that much. In certain circles, socialism is indeed a dirty word.

The thrust of Gjelten’s piece is more than just admiration for the Declaration’s principles and the work of Eleanor Roosevelt as chair of the UN commission responsible for drafting the document, though, deserved as that admiration is. 70 years after the fact, America’s commitment to upholding its articles is not above reproach. Furthermore, in an era when a growing sense of nationalism and resistance to “globalism” pervades politics here and abroad, the UDHR’s spirit of universality and international fraternity is seriously put to the test.

Gjelten cites two areas in which the country “still falls short” as a subset of the “struggles for civil and political rights that were yet to come” subsequent to the UDHR’s approval vote. One is equal pay for equal work, a topic which deserves its own separate analysis and, as such, I’m not about to litigate it at length here. Suffice it to say, however, that I—alongside many others—believe the gender gap is very real. It also disproportionately affects women of color, occurs across occupations and industries, and is frequently mediated by employer practices that rely on prior salary history as well as policies enforced in individual states designed to specifically disenfranchise female earners. Do with these thoughts as you will.

The other area in which the U.S. has fallen short, as alluded to earlier, is universal health care. Article 25 of the Declaration states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”

As a fact sheet on the right to health from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the World Health Organization elaborates, the right to health includes access to health care and hospitals, but it’s more than that. It includes safe drinking water, food, and adequate sanitation. It includes adequate housing and nutrition. It includes gender equality, healthy environmental and working conditions, and health-related education and information.

But yes—it does include the “right to a system of health protection providing equality of opportunity for everyone to enjoy the highest attainable level of health.” It doesn’t say this is a privilege only for those who can afford it.

This is an essential point in the health care “debate.” Should health care be a right for all? While you’re entitled to your opinion, Mr. or Ms. Schrute, if you say no, it’s hard to know how to continue the conversation beyond that. This applies both for naysayers on the left and on the right. Don’t hide behind the idea “we can’t afford it.” Don’t hide behind the Affordable Care Act, which is no guarantee to survive given repeated attempts to sabotage it. If you believe health care is a human right, let’s work backward from there. I mean, all these other countries have some form of single-payer health care. Why shouldn’t we—and don’t tell me it’s because we spend too much on our iPhones


Tom Gjelten’s piece is more concerned with the history behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its formation. Like any good historian, though, he’s got a mind for the Declaration’s larger implications and its potential impact in the years and decades to come. Getting back to that whole growing nationalism thing, Gjelten notes how playing identity politics often draws strength from ethnic or religious conflict.

To be clear, this trend in increasing strife between different groups isn’t just an American phenomenon. Around the world, political leaders have risen to power by aggressively promoting division and/or appealing to a sense of national pride through brutality and curtailing human rights. Rodrigo Duterte. Xi Jinping. Narendra Modi. Viktor Orban. Vladimir Putin. Mohammed bin Salman. The list goes on. There will be more to come, too. Jair Bolsonaro was recently elected president in Brazil. His mindset carries with it a promise for a regressive shift in his country’s politics.

Still, even if we’re not the only ones coping with societal change, if America is truly the greatest country in the world, we should be setting the best example in terms of adherence to the UDHR’s principles. Meanwhile, even before Trump, our country’s commitment to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has been uneven.

Criminal sentencing/policing disparities and states’ insistence on use of the death penalty. The lack of a universal health care infrastructure. Failure to protect the rights of vulnerable populations, including women/girls, people with disabilities, and the LGBT+ community. War crimes overseas and at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay. Surveillance of global communications. And since Trump has taken office, our performance on these fronts has only gotten worse, notably in categories like foreign policy, the rights of non-citizens, and safeguarding First Amendment rights. If this is “America First” and “making America great again,” there’s a piece of the puzzle missing.

A lot of this may sound a bit too SJW for some. We should all respect one another’s rights. Everyone should be afforded the same opportunities to succeed. Let’s all hold hands and sing songs together around the campfire. I get it. There are practical considerations which complicate implementing solutions to global ills as well. Agencies and nations have to be willing to work together to achieve common goals, and who pays what is always a bother. On the latter note, I tend to think some cases are overstated or represented in a misleading way by politicians and the media. Cue the myriad “Bernie/AOC doesn’t know what he’s/she’s talking about” articles. Let’s all move closer to the center because it has worked so well for us until now.

The thing is that many of the principles covered by the UDHR reflect policy directions voters want and can agree on. When Republicans came to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, they were unsuccessful in part because of the public outcry in support of the ACA. Turns out people like being able to afford health care—who knew? Regarding equal pay for equal work, that shortfall for working women is one that whole families could use if given a fairer salary or wage. Not to mention it’s, you know, the morally right thing to do.

Though we may be susceptible to the words of political figures that would keep us at odds with each other (and secretly may even like it that way), we must continually put the onus on our elected officials to authentically represent all the people within their jurisdiction. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a good place to start. As suggested before, let’s consider the change we hope to see before capitulating or saying “no” outright. A more equal America is one which will benefit all its inhabitants—from top to bottom and over the long term. 

“Why Should We Believe Her?” Why Not?

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Brett Kavanaugh, during his Senate confirmation hearing in 2004. He can maintain his innocence amid multiple accusations of sexual misconduct while we view his accusers as credible. It’s not a zero-sum game. (Image Credit: CSPAN)

Note: This piece was written and published prior to Julie Swetnick’s allegations being made public.

As the drama surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court drags on, it unfortunately is difficult to say what has been the most disheartening aspect of this process. Certainly, for people who have lamented the partisan rancor of American politics in recent memory, calls to delay or speed up proceedings have done little to assuage their concerns. On a personal note, I consider anything that makes Mitch McConnell more relevant than he usually is a net loss as well, but that is for each of us to decide.

In all seriousness, though, probably the worst aspect of this whole affair is that it has dredged up so many awful attitudes on the subject of sexual assault, rape, and accountability for males in the #MeToo era. For those previously living under a rock, Kavanaugh has been accused by two women of some form of egregious sexual behavior, with Deborah Ramirez, board member and volunteer at Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence and Yale University graduate, joining Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a psychologist and professor of statistics at Palo Alto University, as an accuser. Since coming out to allege Kavanaugh of trying to force himself on her as a teenager, Blasey Ford and her family have been subject to death threats and have been forced to hire private security. For his part, Kavanaugh and his family have received threats too.

Then again, maybe the pain of hearing and reading the callous disbelief of some observers is worth exposing their misguided and outmoded ways of thinking. Still, that the tenor of arguments outside the purview of Congress and Washington, D.C. echoes that of lawmakers who divide reflexively along party lines is disturbing. In reality, regardless of whether or not Kavanaugh gets the job, the believability of Blasey Ford and other survivors should not be a partisan issue.

That opinions along gender lines might similarly be divided is likewise unsettling, albeit somewhat understandable. There’s a probable generational component, too, as well as other ways by which responses may be separated. As a white cisgender male young adult, my perspective may be indicative of this identity, so feel free to keep this context in mind as you weigh my thoughts.

With that said, let’s address some of the comments one is liable to hear leading up to a prospective vote on Brett Kavanaugh’s candidacy to be a Supreme Court Justice.

“Boys will be boys.”

Ah, yes. The old “boys will be boys” line. While keeping in mind the notion that Kavanaugh was reportedly in high school when he is alleged to have made an unwanted advance on Christine Blasey, or in college when a second instance of alleged unsolicited sexual behavior occurred with Deborah Ramirez, his relative youth or hormones doesn’t excuse the way he acted—it merely provides context. Especially considering that there is no accompanying sentiment that “girls should be girls,” if young women are expected to behave as ladies, young men should be able to comport themselves as gentlemen. Particularly if they belong to the “superior” sex, and sarcastic eye-rolls are warranted in this instance.

What’s alarming to me is how I’ve heard women defend Kavanaugh’s behavior along these lines, more so on the side of supporters of the Republican Party, and yet even so. “I mean, what hot-blooded male hasn’t acted like that?” Well, I haven’t, for one, and neither have the men who make consensual sexual acts a priority. Even if we’re grading Kavanaugh personally on a curve because “things were different then,” it’s 2018 and he will be adjudicating matters according to today’s standards. Right here and now, “boys will be boys” needs to be retired.

“They were drinking/drunk.”

Right. We know that alcohol consumption can lower inhibitions. It can make us do things we wouldn’t normally do and would be wise in avoiding, such as throwing table tennis balls in plastic cups and drinking out of them regardless of where those balls have been or, say, eating at White Castle. Nevertheless, getting inebriated does not obviate an individual’s obligation to behave responsibly, nor it does comprise consent to be violated in any way. This is akin to the notion that females dressed in a certain way are “asking for it.” It’s victim-blaming, and it’s not an acceptable defense for sexual assault or rape. End of story.

The other main reason for invoking alcohol is to cast aspersions on the veracity of the accuser’s account. Deborah Ramirez was drinking at the time of the alleged incident, and as such, there are “gaps” in her memory. This notwithstanding, she maintains she is confident enough in what she does remember about Kavanaugh’s conduct and that it warrants scrutiny. That should be enough, and if what Ramirez is saying is accurate, it makes Kavanaugh’s behavior seem that much more appalling that he would try to take advantage of the situation.

“If it really happened, she/he would’ve gone to the authorities.”

Sigh. There is any number of reasons why victims of sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment, or rape might be reluctant to file a police report or even tell people close to them about it. They might feel a sense of shame surrounding what happened, despite deserving no blame. They might be in denial or aim to minimize the gravity of it. They might be afraid of potential repercussions or simply fear they won’t be believed, especially if drugged or under the influence of alcohol. They already might suffer from low self-esteem and somehow think they deserve to be mistreated. They might feel a sense of helplessness or hopelessness about the situation. They might not even recognize what happened to them constitutes one of the above. Perhaps worst of all, they might already have been a victim, fundamentally altering their approach to future such situations.

In short, there’s plenty of legitimate reasons why an unsolicited sexual advance or encounter might go unreported. Noting this, we should afford victims understanding and the chance to come forward with their recollections when they are ready. Besides, this is before we get to the instances of victims who do come forward and still aren’t taken at their word.

“They’re just doing this to get their 15 minutes of fame.”

Yes—all that fame. Besides Anita Hill and famous victims of Harvey Weinstein et al., how many of these people who report an assault or rape do you know offhand? I’m guessing not many. Sure—we know Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez right now. Will we remember them 10 years down the road? Five, even?

As is their misfortune, if they are remembered by the masses, they likely won’t be known for being compassionate, intelligent, proud women with college degrees and inspired careers. They’ll instead probably be known simply as accusers, their names forever tied to the man who allegedly victimized them. Depending on the audience, they also stand to be vilified for trying to bring a “good man” down, and as noted, there’s the matter of death threats and potential professional repercussions. For the supposed benefits, these accusers have that much more to lose. Courageous? Yes. Glorious? No.

“This is all just part of a Democratic smear campaign.”

You can question the timing of these revelations and whether there is any political dimension to them. Blasey Ford and Ramirez are either registered Democrats or have donated to liberal/progressive groups, though they aver that this did not factor into their decision to come forward. At the end of the day, however, if the allegations are true, does any of this matter? So what if these accounts come to light less than two months before the midterm elections? There’s never a “good” time to disclose such inconvenient truths.

Nor does it matter that these events happened years, decades ago. Regardless of whether or not the accused can still be found guilty in a court of law, victims may still live with the pain and shame of their encounter. If left untreated, these wounds will not heal. That’s not something we should encourage in the name of political expediency.

After all, in speaking of timing and political expediency, how are we to regard Kavanaugh’s letter signed by 65 women who knew him when he attended high school and attest to his honorable behavior and treatment of women with respect? How were these women found and contacted so quickly to produce this document? And what does this prove? If we can view Blasey’s and Ramirez’s past conduct through a critical lens, we can view this attempt to sway the minds of ranking congressional members similarly. Just because Brett Kavanaugh didn’t disrespect these women doesn’t mean he didn’t hurt others.


Ever since the likes of Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein were being brought down by accusers nowhere near as powerful or famous as they are, many observers have had a tough time reconciling apparently conflicting principles. One is that purported victims of sexual assault and other crimes should be believed, regardless of gender. Since women are disproportionately victims in this regard, this means implicitly believing women. The other principle is presumption of innocence. Until we know all “the facts,” Brett Kavanaugh shouldn’t be labeled a sexual predator.

While noting that this is more akin to a job interview than a trial for Kavanaugh and while the court of public opinion increasingly seems to eschew the need for a preponderance of evidence before assigning guilt, we would do well to remain open to the idea that both sides of the story could be true. Brett Kavanaugh claims he is innocent. That is his version of the truth. Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez claim otherwise. That is their version of the truth. Not being in the room with them, we can’t know for sure. But without subscribing to an agenda, we can choose which of these is the best answer, so to speak. Assuming these parties testify, that is what the Senate Judicial Committee will be tasked with.

Whomever we personally believe, the important thing is that these claims be investigated. With all due respect to Kavanaugh and his family, as well as the aims of Mitch McConnell and Chuck Grassley, the veracity of the accusations supersedes their feelings. “Judge Kavanaugh’s reputation might suffer.” So? What of his accusers? If recent history is any indication, Kavanaugh might not receive enough votes to be confirmed, but it’s unlikely he will suffer serious adverse effects to his livelihood as a result of these proceedings.

For instance, for his supposed fall from grace, Louis C.K. was able to do a surprise comedy routine less than a year since he admitted wrongdoing. For men like him, it’s evidently a question of when he will come back, not if he should. For the women who were his victims, they can’t come back to prominence—and there’s a good chance they gave up on comedy because of how they were treated by him. For every James Franco starring in The Deuce, there’s an Ally Sheedy who cites Franco as a reason not to ask her why she left the television/film business. That sounds messed up to me.

As for McConnell and his Republican brethren, I have little to no sympathy for their wanting to get Brett Kavanaugh confirmed despite multiple claims of misconduct and after refusing to hear Merrick Garland’s nomination by Barack Obama following the death of Antonin Scalia. If you want a nominee for Supreme Court Justice voted on with less controversy, you and your GOP mates should do a better job of vetting one. Pick again. We’ll wait. It’s not our problem if you can’t afford to.

In the end, those of us who believe Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and all purported victims of sexual assault until given a reason to doubt them do so because we simply have no reason to doubt them in the first place. If Brett Kavanaugh is innocent and telling the truth, he will likely be confirmed (and may be anyway, for that matter), and we lose nothing. It is those who reflexively question the accusers and hack away at their credibility that risk inexorable damage to their own. For their sake, I hope they like their odds.

Is the Susan Collins Crowdfunding Effort a Good Thing?

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A crowdfunding page will donate money to Sen. Susan Collins’s opponent’s campaign in 2020 if she votes to confirm Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court Justice. It isn’t as pure as a warning she’ll be voted out. It’s not a bribe or threat either, though, and given the perceived importance of this nomination, it’s understandable. (Photo Credit: Stuart Isett/Fortune Most Powerful Women/Flickr/CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Money in politics. Time and time again, it’s high up on voters’ lists of priorities on what needs to change to improve the political landscape in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere.

Of course, what people likely envision when meditating on this subject is PACs and super PACs and “dark money” contributions and donations from millionaires, billionaires, and others with the kind of serious capital that makes financially supporting a political candidate no big thing. For the right-wing conspiracists among us, cue the George Soros train of thought about him being Satan, or a disciple of Satan, or somehow getting Satan to work for him. As long as the Devil is involved somehow.

Recently, a crowdfunding effort related to the increasingly contentious confirmation process for Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh made national news because of just how problematic Kavanaugh’s nomination is, as well as because of its unusual format.

A campaign on CrowdPAC targeting Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) will charge the accounts of pledged donors in the event Collins votes “yes” on Kavanaugh’s confirmation. The donations, which total upwards of $1 million, would go to her opponent’s campaign in the election for her seat in the Senate. According to Collins, this is essentially a “bribe” to get her to act in a certain way.

Does this crowdfunding campaign aimed at Collins’s vote and her re-election prospects in 2020 constitute a quid pro quo tantamount to a bribe? Furthermore, is this kind of voter participation a sign of democracy at work or a sad commentary on the state of politics today? As it tends to be the case, the answers depend on who you ask, but let’s consider one particular set of viewpoints.

First, there’s the matter of whether the CrowdPAC initiative is a bribe. Deborah Hellman, professor of law at the University of Virginia, and Stuart Green, professor of law at Rutgers University, co-authored a piece for The Atlantic dwelling on these issues. As the duo argues, Collins’s case doesn’t quite “follow the script” of a bribe per federal bribery law.

For one, voters are not trying to offer Collins herself money, but rather her opponent, such that even if she accepts the offer, so to speak, she won’t receive any money for doing so. In this sense, it’s clearly not a bribe. There’s also the notion that rather than this being a “bribe,” it could be considered a “threat.” Legally speaking, however, a yes-vote wouldn’t cost the senator anything. Sure, it might encourage the admonishment of pro-choice groups and other progressive-minded individuals, but it’s not as if Collins stands to lose money or her life if she fails to comply.

Accordingly, the case that the CrowdPAC campaign is a flagrant violation of bribery or other campaign finance-related law may not be a strong one. Still, there’s a larger conversation to be had about the implications of campaigns of this nature for participatory democracy, notwithstanding that Susan Collins might yet see a material consequence by having to raise money to offset the $1 million+ her opponent would receive. As Hellman and Green have it, this points to a “conundrum at the heart of our law and politics”:

Bribery laws are designed to keep money from influencing political decisions. Yet Supreme Court cases holding that political giving and spending are forms of political speech are designed to let that happen. How can we prohibit the use of money as a form of political expression at the same time that we validate it?

The whole point of bribery law, as traditionally understood, was to prevent citizens using money to achieve ends that ought to be achieved through voting, and politicians from being “bought.” In a healthy democracy, Maine citizens would threaten a Kavanaugh-supporting Collins with electoral consequences, not monetary ones. In our democracy, it’s commonplace for voters to express their views at least as much with their credit cards as with their ballots, and routine for politicians to respond by adopting positions that follow the money.

The suggestion of a broken political system is no big revelation. You have probably felt the same way, if not experienced the inherent flaws of “politics as usual” first-hand. Nevertheless, our esteemed professors of law have a point about what constitutes true participation. While we might donate to campaigns or express our views on candidates via social media, these contributions do not necessarily translate to votes.

For example, despite fervent support, Bernie Sanders was facing an uphill battle to upend Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primary. That is, for all Bernie’s fanatics’ devotion, and whether registered Dems were thinking pragmatically or had some other reason for voting the way they did, “Hill-Dawg” was the clear winner at the polls.

As Hellman and Green put forth, there may be some virtue in a crowdfunding effort designed to influence a senator’s vote, at least relative to the “plutocrat” model that takes us further away from the “one-person-one-vote principle on which our democracy is based.”

Even so, they argue, it’s a “cold comfort,” for even if Collins’s CrowdPAC case is not a literal bribe, it still feels like bribery. In other words, when political donations and spending is considered a way to participate in the voting process, and when campaigns to influence opinions involve fighting money in politics with more money, “it will always be difficult, even in principle, to distinguish a campaign contribution from a bribe.”

At the minimum, we’d be inclined to agree that Hellman and Green aren’t wrong. For all the enthusiasm with which opponents of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination might greet over a million dollars in donations to this cause, these considerations should temper that zeal.


About that nomination, though. Much as people might agree that the two-party system is messed up in theory and then voted strategically for Hillary Clinton to block Donald Trump in practice, we might concede that we need to get money out of politics in theory and then throw our own hard-won dollars at one politician to defeat someone we like less in practice. In both cases, there is a perceived exigency that would supersede our utmost ideals. We are willing to sacrifice what is best for what is politically expedient or feasible.

With Brett Kavanaugh, the perceived exigency is related to Republicans’ attempts to jam him through the confirmation process before the November midterms. Kavanaugh’s positions on the scope of executive authority (highly relevant in the era of President Trump) and on abortion (social conservatives have long sought to overturn Roe v. Wade) have activists and others justifiably concerned. This is before we get to reservations about Kavanaugh’s alleged perjury during his confirmation hearing as well as concerns about his character related to accusations of sexual assault. When members of the GOP are mulling the need for a delay alongside Democrats, after all, it raises an eyebrow or two.

It is within this context that we are left to consider whether the ends justify the means in attempts to sway Susan Collins’s vote. As Ady Barkan, activist and someone dying from the ravages of ALS, believes, Kavanaugh’s nomination is a threat to health care for millions of Americans, notably those with pre-existing conditions, a threat to women’s right to choose, and a threat to organized labor.

In this respect, the issue of his nomination isn’t just a passing concern—as Barkan and others would aver, it’s a matter of life and death. Thus, for all the supposed “hysteria” of the left over Kavanaugh, it’s worth noting that they treat this whole affair with due seriousness. By this token, 3,000 wire hangers sent to Sen. Collins’s office isn’t an instance of trolling, but a metaphor for the danger to social progress Brett Kavanaugh represents.

There is hope that Senate Democrats hold the line on delaying a confirmation vote and to voting “no” on Kavanaugh when the vote comes. At the very least, they should offer resistance to Republican attempts to push him through and try to create a conservative majority in the Supreme Court. Conceivably, the delay and repeated calls to oppose Kavanaugh could convince “swing vote” GOP senators like Susan Collins to move away from a party-line vote. Of course, Dems in red states facing re-election are on the fence about their nomination vote, so there are electoral “realities” to keep in mind.

After a certain point, though, and if voters are willing to sacrifice their money and principles to the cause, these swing vote senators should contemplate what their principles are regarding the Brett Kavanaugh vote. They may dismiss crowdfunding efforts like Ady Barkan’s as bribery or coercion, but their commitment to their stated values is not above reproach either.