Identity Politics, the Double-Edged Sword

Joe Biden isn’t necessarily a bad candidate because he’s an old white guy. He still may be a bad candidate, mind you, just not necessarily because he’s an old white guy. (Photo Credit: Marc Nozell/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Dear discerning members of the left,

What if I told you there is a 37-year-old person of color running for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2020 who believes in health care for all, free public tuition, a $15 minimum wage, supports the Green New Deal, stands by our veterans, promotes intersectionality, advocates for upholding the rights of vulnerable subsets of the population, champions large-scale economic, political, and social reform, and holds rallies attended by thousands of enthusiastic young people across the country? You’d sign up for that candidate in a heartbeat, wouldn’t you?

OK. Now assume the same things about this candidate—only change that instead this individual is a 77-year-old white guy. Are you suddenly less enthused?

In a nutshell, I’ve just described Bernie Sanders’s platform and one of the common criticisms I’ve observed anecdotally in my interactions with various Democratic and left-leaning activist groups. Never mind that Bernie believes in criminal justice reform, demanding the wealthy and large corporations pay their fair share in taxes, empowering Native American tribal nations, expanding Social Security, fair trade and workers’ rights, getting big money of out politics, gun safety, immigration reform, investing in rural America, LGBTQ equality, racial justice, reinvesting in public education and teachers, standing up for the people of Puerto Rico, and Wall Street reform. At the end of the day, he’s just another old white male.

I get it. The U.S. presidency has been a bastion of white male privilege for, well, ever, with Barack Obama being the notable exception to the rule, and after him going right back to Donald J. Trump, who is pretty much the poster boy for this concept. For what it’s worth, I also happen to think the women of the 2020 presidential race haven’t gotten a fair shake thus far next to other candidates, especially Elizabeth Warren. Hell, Kirsten Gillibrand is getting killed in the polls, and beyond what you may believe about the authenticity of her leftward shift since she became a member of the Senate, that her being among the first in her party to call on Al Franken to resign may be a major factor in her low polling numbers seems more than a little plausible. So much for the #MeToo era. Female Democratic Party supporters, try to maintain some semblance of decorum as you throw one of your own under the bus and back over her just to run her over again. Sheesh.

But, yes, it strikes me as counterproductive that so many voters desperate to throw Trump out of office are evidently more concerned about the identity of the person running and whether he or she “can stand up to Trump”—a judgment predicated on hypotheticals, preconceived notions of leadership, and other subjective factors which may lack real credence—than the actual platform on which that candidate is running and what it might mean for the country. Admittedly, it may be a bit early for policy specifics roughly a year-and-a-half from November 2020, though going back to Bernie, he’s got a whole page of positions on key issues on his campaign website, so maybe not. An arguably more productive exercise would be to take these various candidates’ stances, divorce them from the individuals delivering them, and assess them in a blind “taste test,” so to speak. In theory, it shouldn’t matter who’s making the case as long as he or she is making the right case.

Such is why I bristle at the idea Bernie is too old or white or socialist or “not a real Democrat”—whatever that means. If Cory Booker or Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg were pitching the same platform, would we be having the same sort of discussion, looking for other ways to discredit them along demographic lines? Or would we be instead extolling their virtues as a black man, a woman of color, or a highly-educated gay man and veteran?

Though I believe there are other reasons why he’s not an ideal candidate for the Dems—and more than just that some would identify him as the creepy handsy uncle of the Democratic field—I fear 76-year-old Joe Biden, now officially running for president, may suffer from the same treatment. So he’s old and white. Does this mean he can’t do the job? After all, should he prove incapable at a point after getting elected, there’s a whole line of succession after him. Ladies and gents, there are safeguards in place.

This is the double-edged sword of identity politics. On one hand, it allows you to embrace a diverse field of candidates as it relates to ethnicity, gender, geography, religion, sexual orientation, and other identifying characteristics. On the other hand, it can cause you to miss the forest for the trees, getting you caught up in notions of “electability” and whether someone looks or sounds presidential rather than whether they possess the ideals and the vision for the job. This is before we even get to Pres. Trump, who sure doesn’t act or sound presidential but enough people voted for him so he got the position anyhow. If any member of the Democratic Party field isn’t presidential next to him, they’re actively trying not to be.

Of course, this may be much ado about nothing. Biden and Sanders are among the front runners in current polls, so being old white dudes sure doesn’t seem to have hurt them so far. Still, opinions change and polls have been known to be wrong, and once we get deeper into primary season, what amount to trifles now may loom larger if we’re still tearing down candidates irrespective of what they have to offer voters in terms of stated policy specifics or lack thereof. Unless we’re not serious about beating Trump no matter what. We are serious about that, aren’t we?


To paraphrase poet Robert Burns, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Identity politics, for their appeal to diversity, can be elaborated to absurd extremes that work against voters’ best interests. On a similar note, the current climate of concern about Russian hacking and influencing efforts with respect to our elections speaks to a very real concern for Americans across the political spectrum.

When not carrying water for Pres. Donald Trump re the state of immigration policy in this country, recently deposed Department of Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen evidently was concerned enough about Russian meddling to want to bring the issue up with the president, only to be warned against such a move by Mick Mulvaney as Chief of Staff. This is another one of those occurrences that is galling because it goes against what many of us believe is morally correct but, based on what we know and suspect of Trump as his sphere of influence intersects with Russian interests, it is not the least bit surprising.

This preoccupation with meddling, too, however, can be taken a bit too far. Amid the hypersensitivity about Russia compounded by Trump’s upset win in the 2016 election and the findings of the Mueller report coming out in dribs and drabs, though we are more than a year away from the general election, criticism of one Democratic Party candidate on the part of another’s supporters runs those detractors the risk of accusations of engaging in activity that “will help Trump get re-elected” or, worse yet, betrays their identity as Russian agents or bots.

Going back to criticisms of Joe Biden’s candidacy, to refer to him simply as “Creepy” Uncle Joe absent of additional context or insight only seems to invite the defensive, reflexive anti-Russia “J’accuse!” that is characteristic of Democratic loyalists in this zeitgeist. More constructive criticisms, meanwhile, would seem to be found in revisiting Biden’s past actions and legislative hallmarks. Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine, speaks to marks on Biden’s CV in musing that he is “losing his glow.”

Adding to #MeToo-era deliberations on the appropriateness of Biden’s interactions with certain women, Jones highlights other events which do not paint the former U.S. senator in the best light. As has been observed by numerous critics, for one, Biden played a critical role in questioning Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, doing so in a way that “devastated and shamed” a “credible, intelligent woman” and set women back who would’ve otherwise come forward with sexual harassment claims in hostile work environments. To make matters worse, he hasn’t apologized directly to Ms. Hill about his involvement as chair of the Senate committee presiding over the hearing.

There’s also the problem of Biden’s legacy as a principal author of drug crime laws which have helped fuel America’s ongoing mass incarceration problem as they have been elaborated and modified over the years. These laws disproportionately target people of color, with mandatory minimum sentencing and sentencing disparities giving rise to a prison population explosion that feeds an ever-hungry for-profit prison industry. And Jones doesn’t even address the issue raised by Elizabeth Warren and others that Biden has a rather cozy relationship with the health insurance and banking industries as a former legislator from Delaware. If a kickoff fundraiser bankrolled by telecom and health insurance corporate execs is any indication, Biden’s identity as a working-class hero and champion of the “every-man” is more problematic than perhaps many realize.

These are legitimate criticisms of Biden as a seeker of the highest political office in the nation. But are Biden’s steadfast backers and other Democratic Party supporters desperate to unseat Trump willing to listen? Giving little thought to qualms about Biden’s prior questionable actions, those apologists with whom I’ve interacted online have defended his character, his legacy of public service, and his willingness to stand up to Trump, in doing so casting aspersions on my personhood separate from being a Russian operative and lamenting how some people only want to a tear a “good man” down.

To the extent that some naysayers only wish to denigrate candidates as part of some never-ending purity test without offering an alternative or advancing a point of meaningful debate, I agree with such an assessment. Not everyone is a bot or stooge for Vladimir Putin, however. That some people would seek to squelch discussion along these lines says something profound about just how toxic political discourse can become when facts give way to feelings, distrust becomes an all-too-valuable currency, and arguments are “won” or “lost” based on who yells the loudest or who has the most followers on social media.

When we get this far, no amount of rational deliberation will make a difference, and in fact, those armed with logic can fall into the trap of wasting their time and effort on a lost cause. As the Republican Party under Trump has demonstrated time and again, such a pitfall may well be intentional—though the line between cold calculation and overall incompetence may indeed be blurry.

Focusing on the identity of the politician making appeals on policy matters or that of his or her objectors may provide us with some measure of satisfaction. But personality and individual attributes, charming or otherwise, are not substitutes for a well-developed party platform. If the goal is truly to beat Donald Trump next November, maybe we should worry less about who is leading the charge and pay more attention to appealing to what voters want the most.

Joe Biden? Really?

Joe Biden is affable, experienced, and believes in the dignity of a hard-earned paycheck. But does that make him the best choice for Democrats in 2020? (Photo Credit: World Economic Forum/Manuel Lopez/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA-2.0)

According to a recent poll of 455 likely Democratic caucus-goers from the state of Iowa, Joe Biden is their top choice for president in 2020 at 32%. Bernie Sanders comes in second at 19%, followed by Beto O’Rourke at 11%. Elizabeth Warren (8%) and Kamala Harris (5%) round out the top five, assuming you don’t include “Not sure” as part of this ranking.

Observers will point out this is a very early poll. For the sake of an example, Jeb Bush had a comfortable lead at this point in 2014—and we all know how that eventually turned out.

Nevertheless, these poll results hint at what Democratic supporters’ priorities might be leading up to 2020. With Biden leading the pack, political experience and a perceived ability to stand up to Donald Trump appear to be key factors in voters’ decision-making process. In the language of the poll, they prefer a “seasoned hand” to that of a “newcomer.”

As a reaction to Trump, this predilection for the former vice president is understandable. Trump, the outlandish outsider, has demonstrated what damage a neophyte with a questionable temperament for the job can do. That said, is Biden really who the Dems want to represent them in the next presidential election?

If you ask Frank Bruni, New York Times columnist, the answer is heck, no. Bruni, despite liking Biden, urges him not to run for president. Here’s Bruni’s opening salvo from a recent column:

You’d agree, wouldn’t you, that Consideration No. 1 in choosing a Democratic nominee in 2020 is making sure that the person is best positioned to defeat Donald Trump? That nothing else comes close? Then what would you say if I told you that we should put our chips on a man who failed miserably at two previous campaigns for the nomination, the first one back in 1988, a year before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was born? And that when he applied the lessons from that debacle to his second bid two decades later, he did no better, placing fifth in the Iowa caucuses, getting fewer than 1 percent of the state’s delegates, and folding his tent before even the New Hampshire primary?

And that he spent nearly 45 years in Washington, a proper noun that’s a dirty word in presidential politics? And that his record includes laws and episodes that are reviled — rightly — by the female and black voters so integral to the Democratic Party? And that, on Election Day, he would be 77, which is 31 years older than Bill Clinton was in 1992, 30 years older than Barack Obama was in 2008, and a complete contradiction of the party’s success over the past half-century with relatively youthful candidates?

You’d tell me that I was of unsound mind. Well, Joe Biden’s boosters are.

But tell us how you really feel, Frank. In analyzing the general election prospects of a man who sounds a lot like he’s about to run for president, Bruni is critical of the pitch Biden is making for a Democratic Party nomination. Which, at this point, mostly amounts to him touting his qualifications. Hillary Clinton is supremely qualified for the top political office in the country based on her experience. Donald Trump is, well, not. But it was Trump who won the 2016 election. In this political climate, experience might not be all that it’s cracked up to be.

This is not to say that Biden isn’t a great guy at heart. As Bruni feels, he’s a devoted political servant and family man, as well as someone with the inner strength and the requisite knowledge to match his aspired role. He’s “real.” 

Still, there are some not-so-savory elements of Biden’s political career. Though he has since apologized for not being able to “do more for” her—Biden has been criticized for his part in questioning Anita Hill during the 1991 confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas. His questions have been characterized as reflecting a remarkable tone-deafness, and while he avers he always believed Hill’s testimony, his demeanor at the time suggests otherwise.

As Bruni underscores, Biden also merits scrutiny/criticism for his ties to the banking industry and support of a 2005 bill that made it more difficult for consumers to win protection under bankruptcy, as well as his role in drafting a 1994 crime bill that some analysts and activist groups allege did damage to communities of color and helped fuel America’s mass incarceration problem.

On the latter, Biden has repeatedly defended the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The victims of institutional racism and the war on drugs, however, might take issue with this badge of honor.

Plus, and with all due respect, he’s an old white dude. This isn’t necessarily a disqualifying factor; look at how popular Bernie Sanders is with young people. Still, as a D.C. insider who doesn’t signal a move of the Democratic Party in a new, progressive direction, he’s a questionable choice in their bid to unseat Trump from the Oval Office. 

Bruni closes with these thoughts on Biden’s prospective candidacy:

He has said that he’ll decide in the next month or two whether to run — whether he’s willing to spend that much time away from his grandchildren. For their sake, I hope he stays on the sidelines. For our sake, too.

As a Bernie supporter from last election, I’m definitely biased in his favor relative to Biden. But when ol’ Amtrak Joe would seem to be a poor choice next to others in the field with less experience, too, I tend to agree with Mr. Bruni.


In deference to Joe Biden and responding to Frank Bruni’s dismissal of his earlier runs, while his past presidential campaigns have fizzled out, Biden stands a better chance now that he has more name recognition having served as vice president. Assuming Hillary Clinton doesn’t run in 2020—and that’s no guarantee, mind you—he’s got name recognition and probably would have the backing of establishment Democrats should he survive the nomination process.

I also don’t think Biden’s age is the problem that some make it out to be. Sure, people may see young progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as the future of the Democratic Party, and deservedly so. (If you think like Matthew Yglesias, you might be ready to usher her into the White House, but let’s wait until she actually is of age and has served a day in the House of Representatives, shall we?)

In the meantime, the Dems have an election to win and it’s not as if people like Biden and Bernie Sanders have serious physical or mental health concerns that would prevent them from serving. Age is just a number, and what matters most are a person’s ideals and capability for the office, not their gender, race, religion, or any other identifying characteristic.

Saying Biden is recognizable and competent enough to be president of the United States is not an endorsement, though. In a piece from 2017 reacting to a blog post Biden wrote for his namesake institute at the University of Delaware about choosing a future that “puts work first,” Bill Scher, writing for POLITICO, discusses Biden’s platform being essentially a rejection of populism, whether the kind exploited by Donald Trump and his ilk in their pitch to Republican voters or the sort championed by Bernie Sanders as a means of saving the Democratic Party, well, from itself.

Scher’s piece is a lengthy one, and merits a full read, if nothing else, for its dissection of Biden’s views on universal basic income, Silicon Valley executives, corporations, and the “dignity” of one’s work. His closing remarks, however, do nicely sum up Biden’s strengths and his potential weaknesses ahead of a probable presidential run:

With all this in mind, there’s one major question left that Biden has to consider before he runs: Does he have a shot? He’s an old white man at a time when many Democratic voters are hungry for fresh faces. However, he’s also a commanding presence who would likely enter a field overcrowded with rookies stepping on one another’s populist toes. And he’s just as comfortable talking about the old days at the local auto show as he is embracing multiculturalism. He can seamlessly shift from celebrating the American worker to confronting the scourge of domestic violence (as he touts one of his big Senate legacies, the Violence Against Women Act) to the importance of LGBT rights (and reminding how he publicly nudged President Obama on gay marriage.)

If nothing else, Biden has a path. It’s a path that diverges from left-wing and right-wing populism; a path that seeks partnership between workers and corporations, unity across racial and gender lines, and reverence for higher education and the idea that you can work your way to a better life if given the right tools.

But walking that path will require a few more signature policy ideas, and a whole lot of Scranton charm. If anyone can make everyone believe he’s on their side—and in turn, erase many of the divides wracking the American electorate—it may well be the fast-talkin’, back-slappin’, gaffe-makin’ God-love-him Uncle Joe.

Biden is indeed someone with working class appeal, whether or not you buy into the authenticity of his image. This aspect of Amtrak Joe’s character is undoubtedly why Barack Obama chose him as his running mate. At a time when the backing of working-class whites, traditionally a bastion of Democratic Party support, is far from a guarantee with job losses affecting the manufacturing sector and union membership on the apparent decline, Biden’s ability to connect on a personal level with voters in crucial swing states is not to be undersold.

All the same, Biden, at least at present, lacks a big idea that can inspire across voting blocs. Repugnant as many of us may find it, Trump rode the vision of a wall at the Mexican border to electoral victory—and appears prepared to shut down the federal government over this issue, still insisting to anyone who will listen that Mexico will pay for it. Simply put, Biden will need more, on top of a credible, complete platform amid a crowded Democratic field.

Accordingly, and to bring Bruni’s objections back into the mix, Joe Biden is a risky proposition for Democrats leading up to 2020, with or without a signature policy proposal and especially if he keeps touting 90s-era crime legislation that critics increasingly see as problematic as views evolve and conflicts between groups persist. Even as he has his share of admirers, it may be better for his legacy, the Democratic Party, and all of us if he passes on a 2020 presidential bid.

“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.

Harvey Weinstein, Sexual Harassment, and Our Patriarchal Capitalist Society

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In light of the mountain of allegations against him, Harvey Weinstein seems all but guilty of sexual impropriety involving actresses and other women in his life. However, Weinstein is just one of countless predators who have victimized women across professions, and women’s rights are still regularly under attack, suggesting his antics are just the tip of the iceberg. (Photo Credit: PA Images)

The ongoing scandal concerning film producer Harvey Weinstein as a decades-old serial sexual predator is a mind-boggling one. Not merely because of Weinstein’s high profile, mind you—if anything, that would seem to make it more likely, in that film producers and other men in positions of power have leveraged or have tried to leverage their stature over women for centuries and longer. The growing list of names of women who have come forward to tell their tales of horrifying, demeaning encounters, and potentially criminal ones at that, with Weinstein, meanwhile, is alarming. For us, the average media consumers, regarding the breadth of the scandal both in terms of the number of women alleged to have been victimized by Harvey Weinstein and the period over which his alleged offenses transpired, the obvious question is: how is this all just coming to light? How did the press and other parties involved not know about Weinstein’s misdeeds? As I’m sure many of us realize, much of Weinstein’s abusive behavior probably was known, just not talked about. Money and influence afford the holder many things in our society, and discretion is among the most valued of them, particularly those up to no good.

As tends to be the case, there will be those commenting on the Harvey Weinstein situation who see the mounting allegations against the disgraced now-former studio executive as something of a “witch hunt” or who otherwise would question the veracity of the statements made by these women after the fact. First of all, we would be naïve to think that more of these incidents weren’t reported to authorities. Whether or not these accounts could or even would be prosecuted at the time, though, is another story. Furthermore, whereas some allegations of rape or sexual assault by women against a more famous male individual might be seen as a “money grab”—which doesn’t mean that these claims should necessarily be dismissed in either the Court of Public Opinion or the judicial system, mind you—what apparent need is there for stars like Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow to come forward? Money? Fame? These actresses don’t need either. Likely the worst you could say of these women is that they’re promoting some feminist agenda, and that arguably is not just advisable, but necessary with the likes of President Pussygrabber in the Oval Office as perhaps an unsettling sign of present-day attitudes toward women.

Outside of the realm of Hollywood, many—if not most—women are apt to know a “Harvey Weinstein” in their lives, likely one in a past or current workplace, at that. This is to say that the allegations against Weinstein are not some sort of isolated incident, but indicative of a corporate and patriarchal culture that marginalizes women and is built on their commodification and subjugation. Belen Fernandez, for one, writing for Al Jazeera English, urges readers to “face it: we have an epidemic of sexual harassment.” As Fernandez insists, the Harvey Weinstein scandal (Weinstein-gate?) is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg when it comes to instances of males in a position of power intimidating women physically or professionally as a means of trying to coerce them into behavior they almost certainly would object to under different circumstances. Going back to the milieu of the film and television industries, Fernandez invokes the anecdotal observations of Molly Ringwald, who wrote about her own experiences with sexual harassment in a piece entitled “All the Other Harvey Weinsteins” for The New Yorker. Here is Ringwald’s critical ending passage alluded to in the Al Jazeera piece:

I could go on about other instances in which I have felt demeaned or exploited, but I fear it would get very repetitive. Then again, that’s part of the point. I never talked about these things publicly because, as a woman, it has always felt like I may as well have been talking about the weather. Stories like these have never been taken seriously. Women are shamed, told they are uptight, nasty, bitter, can’t take a joke, are too sensitive. And the men? Well, if they’re lucky, they might get elected President.

My hope is that Hollywood makes itself an example and decides to enact real change, change that would allow women of all ages and ethnicities the freedom to tell their stories—to write them and direct them and trust that people care. I hope that young women will one day no longer feel that they have to work twice as hard for less money and recognition, backward and in heels. It’s time. Women have resounded their cri de coeur. Listen.

It’s perhaps strange looking at the problem of sexual assault and harassment in Hollywood from an historic perspective, wondering how tropes like the infamous “casting couch” came to be. Then again, perhaps not. As Belen Fernandez outlines, sexual harassment is a problem irrespective of industry or academic pursuit. Citing numerous studies both recent and comparatively antiquated, Fernandez underscores how even in the STEM fields, for example, instances of reported sexual harassment are “alarmingly widespread,” as they are in the medical field or medical studies. Anita Hill, herself once a subject of scrutiny for her high-profile accusation of sexual harassment against then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas, goes as far as to report 45% of employees in the United States are targets of sexual harassment, the majority of them sadly and unsurprisingly female. (As Fernandez mentions, possibly somewhat wryly, Thomas was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice despite Hill’s accusations, evidence that “justice” on this front merits qualification.) And then there’s the U.S. military, which, if you’ve been paying attention to the news in the slightest over the years, you understand serves as a metaphorical hotbed for sexual harassment and sexual assault. Fernandez points to the fact a record number of sexual assault cases were reported in 2016 among our Armed Forces. While the Pentagon regards this as proof the system works, those of us not speaking on behalf of the nation’s military are left to be skeptical, if not patently incredulous. Indeed, this area is one of any number of areas by which the United States military forces merit more scrutiny—and not less, as the White House would insist.

As Belen Fernandez and others see it, all of the above is symptomatic of a larger societal structure that values moneyed white males above all others. It is a patriarchy, moreover, that has not only subjugated women, but has subjugated other groups which more readily value women as equals, namely Native Americans. Fernandez, in particular, cites the work of the late, great Howard Zinn in informing this view. From the article, and by proxy, A People’s History of the United States:

Earlier societies—in America and elsewhere—in which property was held in common and families were extensive and complicated, with aunts and uncles and grandmothers and grandfathers all living together, seemed to treat women more as equals than did the white societies that later overran them, bring “civilisation” and private property.

Those references to “civilization” and “private property” are a cue for Fernandez to wax philosophical about the corporatized nature of America. As she sees this matter, since capitalism is primed to divide and exploit people, a significant culture change will need to be effected before this sexual harassment “epidemic” is cured:

Given that capitalism itself has no place for human equality—predicated as it is on divisions between exploiters and exploited—it seems that the current question of how to fix the sexual harassment epidemic in the U.S. will require some extensive out-of-the-box thinking. Enough with the patriarchy. It’s time to get civilised.

The answer, or at least a good start, would be empowering women to seek leadership roles and lead by example, thereby inspiring women across generations and industries to seek their own opportunities to lead and help change a culture so often defined by the metaphor of the “glass ceiling.” Then again, the durability of this repressive culture is such that while the fight for equality and to curb sexual harassment in the workplace is a worthy one, such achievements are easier said than accomplished. Extending the conversation to matters of access to abortion and contraceptives, child care, and spaces safe from emotional, physical, and sexual violence, too, this fight is one that will certainly take time and effort to wage.


In the dawning of the magnitude of Harvey Weinstein’s misdeeds, use of the #MeToo hashtag by victims of sexual harassment and sexual violence to share their experiences has exploded, and this much is not to be undersold. Some see the revelations about Weinstein as a potential watershed moment, that recognition of the unspeakable treatment of women at the hands of men, particularly those close to the women affected, as well as the power of female voices, is beginning to occur. To be sure, it would seem that we have made progress in this area, and specifically concerning the exposure of high-profile sexual predators, the fairly recent downfalls of Bill Cosby and Bill O’Reilly, to name a few, suggest the bad behavior of their ilk eventually will catch up to them. As heartening as these shows of strength are, however, and while the visibility of females’ victimization is important, when, say, someone like Donald Trump in this day and age can brag about taking advantage of women and otherwise berate or demean them en route to the presidency speaks volumes about how much more is needed on the road to real progress.

Jia Tolentino, staff writer for The New Yorker, explores the weight of the burden faced by female victims of sexual harassment and assault alongside the deeply-ingrained systemic sexism inherent across American institutions. Her insights begin with recalling the incident that led to the revelations in news media about Harvey Weinstein’s character: that of Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, who reported to the NYPD Special Victims Unit back in 2015 about being unwillingly groped by Weinstein and later wore a wire in a sting operation of sorts that produced disturbing audio in the vein of Pres. Trump’s off-handed “pussygrabber” comments from his taped conversation with Billy Bush, then of Access Hollywood fame, circa 2005.

Battilana Gutierrez, for her trouble, has had her character questioned if not assassinated by the likes of the New York Post and the Daily Mail—no great beacons of journalism, mind you, but widely circulated and salacious enough to warrant reading. This is no strange occurrence in the world of reporting sexual crimes, whether in the world of producing million-dollar films or the supposedly safe spaces of college and university campuses across the country. Especially when someone of prominence like Harvey Weinstein is accused of sexual impropriety, there is a tendency to call the history of the accuser into question, yet another iteration of the time-honored practice of slut-shaming. Realistically, though, anything beyond the facts of the case at hand involving Weinstein and Battilana Gutierrez is superfluous. Whether she’s a saint or the “she-devil” the tabloids make her out to be, the merits of the available evidence are what matter. Besides, are we supposed to throw out the allegations of every woman who has pointed a finger at Weinstein? After a certain point, trying to prove the contrary seemingly borders on the absurd.

This is not the point of Tolentino’s exercise, however. Beyond the individual complications that surround a woman’s reputation and threaten her very professional livelihood, Tolentino’s concern is the welfare of all women, and despite the goodwill created by #MeToo and the apparent increased accountability for predators like Harvey Weinstein, there is room for concern, if not outright trepidation. Tolentino writes:

Nevertheless, the hunger for and possibility of solidarity among women beckons. In the past week, women have been posting their experiences of assault and harassment on social media with the hashtag #MeToo. We might listen to and lament the horrific stories being shared, and also wonder: Whom, exactly, are we reminding that women are treated as second class? Meanwhile, symbolic advancement often obscures real losses. The recent cultural gains of popular feminism were won just when male politicians were rolling back reproductive rights across the country. The overdue rush of sympathy for women’s ordinary encumbrances comes shortly after the Department of Education reversed Obama-era guidelines on college sexual-assault investigations, and Congress allowed the Children’s Health Insurance Program to expire. On October 3rd, the House passed a ban on abortion after twenty weeks. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that “virtually all” Republicans in the Senate support the legislation.

Being heard is one kind of power, and being free is another. We have undervalued women’s speech for so long that we run the risk of overburdening it. Speech, right now, is just the flag that marks the battle. The gains won by women are limited to those who can demand them. Individual takedowns and #MeToo stories will likely affect the workings of circles that pay lip service to the cause of gender equality, but they do not yet threaten the structural impunity of powerful men as a group.

To put Jia Tolentino’s assertions another way, it is one thing to have a voice and to preach to the proverbial choir, but quite another to have the power to bring about positive change. And this doesn’t even address the unique challenges faced by different segments of the female population, whether based on age, race, sexual orientation, or other identifying characteristic. Systemic bias is not something that can be overcome overnight thanks to a hashtag campaign; in fact, activist Tarana Davis had the idea to create a grassroots “Me Too” movement back in 2006, before Alyssa Milano and her Tweets even broached the subject, illustrating just how difficult it can be to sustain the momentum needed for meaningful and substantive progress. When influence is concentrated in the hands of a few males at the top of the patriarchal hierarchy, penetrating the associated power disparity is essential to achieving authentic gender equality.


The term “toxic masculinity” is used to describe the kind of social environment that not only is created by the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, but aids and abets them, as well as perpetuates the conditions by which future generations will breed new sexists and sexual predators. Wikipedia defines toxic masculinity as such:

The concept of toxic masculinity is used in the social sciences to describe traditional norms of behavior among men in contemporary American and European society that are associated with detrimental social and psychological effects. Such “toxic” masculine norms include dominance, devaluation of women, extreme self-reliance, and the suppression of emotions.

Conformity with certain traits viewed as traditionally male, such as misogyny, homophobia, and violence, can be considered “toxic” due to harmful effects on others in society, while related traits, including self-reliance and the stifling of emotions, are correlated with harm to men themselves through psychological problems such as depression, increased stress, and substance abuse. Other traditionally masculine traits such as devotion to work, pride in excelling at sports, and providing for one’s family, are not considered to be toxic.

Some may argue this definition is too expansive or vague, but nonetheless, it is apparent from this conceptual understanding that there are issues beyond just Harvey Weinstein, or sexual violence for that matter. On one hand, basic human decency tells us that the unfair treatment of women is wrong and the institutions that lead to their systemic oppression must be reformed, if not dismantled. On the other hand, meanwhile, various societal cues only reinforce the value attributed to the domineering “alpha” male. Seemingly every month, a new hyper-masculine superhero movie is in theaters, in which our male protagonist conquers evil, saves the day, and gets the girl, and in which he could give f**k-all about his feelings, the treatment of women, or the structural integrity of surrounding buildings. Is this the ideal of manhood? With leaders like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in place around the world, you get the sense that many of us, male and female, believe this is so. For those of us without a suit of armor or a high office, where does that leave us in the grand scheme of things?

Jia Tolentino, in her closing remarks, hits the nail on the head regarding from where recognition of the scope of the problems in the forms of sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual exploitation will need to come for Western culture to realize substantive gains:

This type of problem always narrows to an unavoidable point. The exploitation of power does not stop once we consolidate the narrative of exploitation. A genuine challenge to the hierarchy of power will have to come from those who have it.

As with the Black Lives Matter/blue lives matter/all lives matter dynamic, while we seek not to discount the energy, passion, and importance of grassroots activist movements, from all sides, there must be an understanding that this is a human issue above being a black or female or [INSERT QUALIFIER HERE] issue. On both counts, Tolentino points to lines being drawn in a “predictable” manner, thus requiring men everywhere to be as courageous in defense of (and like) the more vocal women they know, on top of the untold numbers of female (and male) victims of harassment and assault suffering in silence. Belen Fernandez, too, believes it’s time for us to get civilized. Amen to that, sister.