11 May Eyes On The Prize
“The Joe Biden Thing” hit full force after my last week’s blog had posted—but waiting is not necessarily bad in such circumstances. It offered an opportunity to cool down from volcanic levels, try to think calmly, read and listen to different opinions, and do some research of my own. Here goes.
—Women (and some smart men) are expressing frustration that accusations against Biden are being examined in greater detail and intensity than Donald Trump’s far more numerous, even self-admitted sexual assaults; I heartily agree. Trump hasn’t been asked about these (at least 25) attacks in many months, possibly years. How about the press returning to those stories, in detail?
—Hopefully, others were as irritated as I was by the shock of pundits who gasped that Senators Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and former Georgia State Senator Stacey Abrams all vouched for Biden as being a “decent” man. (Put aside the depressing thought that post-Trump, “decency” is now a major qualification for the presidency.) Why are the pundits shocked? These women are being considered for the Veep nomination. Or have purity standards again been affixed to women when they wouldn’t be to men?
—Don’t we have a right to be outraged that at this point in history our choice boils down to two septuagenarian white straight men both accused of sexual malfeasance (with a third septuagenarian straight pale male, Sanders, bringing up the rear)? No other candidates out there among the cast of thousands competing for the Democratic nomination?
—I share the resentment of many other feminists that, as Jessica Bennett and Lisa Lerer reported in the New York Times, “the burden has been placed on women to defend Biden, and to face accusations of hypocrisy from some on the right . . . women have been expected to discuss the allegation against Mr. Biden. Their male colleagues have not.” Thank you for noting this.
So we might as well start with the hypocrisy accusation:
Democrats/#MeToo/progressives/feminists/ broom-riding witches (pick one, any one) are hypocrites for having defended Bill Clinton and now Joe Biden but denouncing Trump and Brett Kavanaugh. What an ahistoric, fact-free exercise in non-logic that is! An accusation of hypocrisy lobbed by the hard right, including those religious legions who Come To Jesus while ardently backing a thrice-divorced boastfully self-named sexual predator. Hypocrisy!?
And here we must pause to revisit a little herstory…
For good or ill, I’m one of the few (possibly only?) “public feminists” who at the time didn’t believe or defend Bill Clinton; I even publicly took issue with other feminists (including some friends), who backed him on the grounds that his relationship with Lewinsky was “consensual.” My position was anchored by two concepts: context and evidence. Here’s context: Clinton had a history of “womanizing,” but more importantly, when one person holds the most powerful office in the world and the other is a 22-year-old intern, the power differential is an abyss, inherently nullifying any possibility of consent, even if both parties want to delude themselves into believing that consent is present. Context for both parties struck me as imperative, since I also was/am one of many women who spent years fighting the tradition that a survivor’s background was considered relevant in court when she was confronting her rapist, while his context was deemed inadmissible. As for the second concept, it was blatant. Here’s evidence: Those indelible semen stains on her blue dress, linked to Clinton’s DNA.
Remember these two concepts—context and evidence—because they’re relevant today.
Now, once upon a time, long before the glorious #MeToo eruption, there was something called the Women’s Movement—which for almost 50 years had been saying and saying and SAYYYYYING that when women are abused they are punished for coming forward; that women have a right to be listened to respectfully without being traduced, denounced, dismissed, or silenced; and that accusations should be independently investigated, taking into account as much context and evidence as possible. This was not only long before #MeToo, but also long before Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, with the well-meaning zeal of a political convert, summarily decided to change what had been the feminist phrase “Women have a right to be heard” into a sentiment smelling of Robespierre: “All women must be believed.” (Previously, you see, most feminists had striven for and frequently succeeded at rational thinking, often employing the honorable if now quaint concept “nuance.”)
Feminists never said that all women are right all the time and must be believed all the time. Feminism never promulgated the idea that an accusation equals a judgment.
Sadly, our society hasn’t yet devised fair systems for ranking sexual offenses considered as falling short of criminal law. There is no court other than public opinion, and in this social media era to accuse is to condemn. But let’s not confuse a vigilante Twittersphere with feminism.
As for “hypocrisy”? My present position is consistent with my past positions. I found Brett Kavanaugh’s legal stances dangerous and cruel. But I also found context and evidence regarding Dr. Blasey Ford’s accusation: context in the prep school/Ivy League culture under examination, and evidence in the demeanor, authenticity, and specificity of recall exhibited by Dr. Blasey Ford. I found still more evidence in Kavanaugh’s defensive, arrogant testimony, and in his explosive verbal abuse of a sitting U.S. senator, before our eyes. As for Trump, since he’s proudly admitted to the behaviors of which he stands accused, he has provided both context and evidence so convincingly that for once, despite all his other lies, on this I believe him.
In other words, just as context and evidence led me to believe Lewinsky and not Bill Clinton, so did context and evidence lead me to believe Ford and not Kavanaugh. And now, context and evidence lead me to believe Joe Biden. But that does not necessarily mean I don’t believe Tara Reade.
Walk with me awhile. And here, have a stick of gum.
I refuse to go into the tall weeds critiquing Reade or her charges. I believe in her right to come forward, speak her pain, and be taken seriously. Sure, I wish for her own sake she‘d stop saying no apology would be sufficient except that Biden end his candidacy and I wish that she hadn’t waited 21 years until Biden was beating her chosen candidate Sanders, because such statements and the timing together cast a long political shadow across her motives and actions—BUT. I also understand why she and many survivors wait, since I myself did. Sure, I can imagine her as a young, beautiful woman with a self-confessed adoration for Biden because his legislation was championing battered women and she had been one. Sure, I admit confusion over her reported adulation of Sanders and over her written rhapsodies about Vladimir Putin (to me, that’s one helluva weird trio of male idols). Nevertheless, her taste in men, timing, politics, or even her “wait for it, tic-toc” tweeting about the most damaging moment to launch her story—though I grant these make me uneasy—don’t quite qualify as sturdy context. There is no evidence so far, because she isn’t sure when or where she filed a complaint, just that it specified harassment and never mentioned assault. OK, so Tara Reade is no Christine Blasey Ford—but then why should she be? And sure, I can imagine her (and others) mistaking Biden’s lumbering Labrador-puppy-like huggy back-slapping handsiness to be a come-on when actually it’s bad enough that he’s been ignoring women’s and men’s space boundaries for years. (Male politicians call that great retail politics.)
So let’s look at the context regarding him. We already know he’s a blunderbuss and a motormouth. This was the man who pronounced the young Senator Obama “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Oh. My. Gawd. But he apologized and apparently Obama forgave him when choosing him for the vice presidency. During which time, by the way, Biden congratulated President Obama for passing the Affordable Care Act by burbling happily, “This is a big F-ing deal” into an open mic. Remember that one? Listen, Biden in the White House means incomparably better policies, the repair of democracy, foreign relations, environmental justice—and years of gaffes. But after four years of Trump we’re accustomed to gaffes, though Trump’s are different: they aim to destroy. After four more years of Trump, this republic will be renamed the Untied States of America.
Still, I nurse an old grievance with Joe Biden. I’m not over being angry about the Senate’s Hill-Thomas Hearings that gave us 30 years of Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court. I’m still furious at how Biden, then powerful chair of the Judiciary Committee, allowed some committee members to treat Anita Hill. I’m still livid that Biden opted not to call two witnesses—Angela Wright and Rose Jourdain—who’d been brought to Washington by the committee and were waiting nearby to testify in support of Hill’s testimony. Biden, afraid of being called a racist by Thomas and blithely ignoring the fact that Hill was also black, sent those witnesses home, thus throwing Anita under the bus. He compounded this with silence over the passing decades but then, after announcing this candidacy, offered such a late, halfhearted apology (only regarding other committee members’ behavior) that Anita could not accept it. Anita herself—a law professor, remember—in her statement to the New York Times last week noted that allegations against both Biden and Trump should be investigated but that lacking procedures, it “comes down to whether we take allegations of sexual violations seriously enough to insist that public institutions have their procedures in place that protect individuals’ rights to come forward and the rights of those who are accused to defend themselves.” Nor will we see anything approaching such procedures while Trump is in power.
Yes, Biden has a lifetime of largely progressive public service plus eight years of close proximity to the Oval: that adds up to crucial and desperately needed experience in governing. But that doesn’t mean he “gets” women. None of these guys get it. You can chalk it up to their age but that doesn’t excuse young sexist men. At least Biden frankly acknowledges himself as transitional, and committed himself to naming a female VP running mate. But he should have transitioned himself to respond to Reade’s allegations as soon as they surfaced, without waiting for Democratic women to defend him first. Then again, unless I missed some major epiphany, to date not one of the male multitude accused of sexual misconduct—even those who might be innocent!—has made a statement worthy of belief. (A few came close—but missed.) Here’s what Biden could have said—immediately.
I recognize and respect Tara Reade’s courage in telling her story to a world not notable for listening to women. Doing so has cost her dearly, and I will not add to that cost. Acts of violence against women in this country and across the world are chronic and pandemic. Half the population is saturated with that anguish; the other half is dehumanized by inflicting it. It has been the work of my life to try, through such legislation as the Violence Against Women Act, to ensure some measures of safety and freedom for women in a patriarchal culture. Yet as an individual, I have failed. I am a product of my generation and was raised in that patriarchal culture. I understand now that gestures I thought conveyed camaraderie were products of my entitlement as a man, of my having the power and privilege to inflict such gestures, uninvited, without considering they might be unwelcome, even invasive of someone’s space. Realizing that I’ve been guilty of this incursion many times in my life, from people on rope lines to colleagues, is now a source of personal shame. I didn’t know. I didn’t think. But that’s an explanation, not an excuse. Unconscious sexism, like unconscious racism, is convenient: it destroys as effectively as the conscious forms. I do not understand how a man can brag about his own sexually predatory acts, but I do understand how a man can invade a woman’s personal space, thinking it’s a gesture of affection, while managing to ignore her flinch as he does so. I’ve been that man, and I am determined to change. Words can seem hollow so my actions must carry this forward. Consequently, I want to publicly apologize to Tara Reade for my incursions on her physical space. Last, I hope she will understand that as she surely knows, I cannot apologize regarding sexual assault, because I cannot honestly apologize for an act I never committed.”
Even if he wanted to, handlers would never let Biden say it. Yet such a statement, actually meant, would go some steps toward a much-needed healing, although not all women would be satisfied with every word. If you’ve seen one woman you haven’t seen us all; we’re half of humanity, folks.
Which boils down to the following:
1. All women are not all right all the time.
2. Believing Biden didn’t assault Reade doesn’t mean believing Reade hasn’t suffered.
3. Don’t trust anyone who’s incapable of ambivalence.
You just might have guessed by now that I still will vote for Biden and his female running mate in November. Not voting may feel pure but it’s a vote for Trump. Voting for a third-party candidate is a vote for Trump. A write-in name is a vote for Trump. If you’re tempted to commit such insanity then just level with yourself and vote for Trump—who has betrayed us, mortified us, corrupted us, and divided us; now, urging states to choose open-for-business over life itself, he’s killing us.
If we’re dead, or the planet doesn’t make it through the next 50 years because we didn’t do what we need to do in the next four, it won’t matter whether women are listened to.
Hell yes, I wish my candidate was Speaker Nancy Pelosi or former National Security Advisor Susan Rice or someone else among so many qualified women. Our day will come. For now, it’s Biden—and I’ve vowed to vote for anyone, including a gerbil, to free our White House from Donald Trump. Eyes on the prize. Go, gerbil, go!