The Morality Sweepstakes
I have a theory. It is not that the scales have fallen from our eyes about sexual harassment. It’s that the cultural left has run out of game. Without game, it can’t pass off sleazy exploitation as something else. Neo-avant-gardist art, brand-leveraged politics, deconstructionist philosophy, spectacle, fashion, the Lacanian Real - - none of these are any longer up to the task. Transgressive politics are dead. Worse, they’re boring. Even the New York Times’s Andrew Sullivan and Ross Douthat are rooting for the baker, penning their sudden doubts about the rectitude of humiliating devout Christians for sport.
So the up-and-coming phrase in town, ladies and gentlemen, is “situational ethics.” It denotes, I believe, the idea that there is one ultimate truth about women who claim they have been assaulted, progressives have a monopoly in it, and if conservatives aren’t sufficiently obsequious, they are colluding. The values of anyone who dissents are, moreover, disgusting to the exact degree they deviate from progressive verities. What is interesting to note, amid the current jubilee of raucously righteous self-congratulation, is that this idea marks off yet another area of discourse that can’t be contradicted or demurred to. To disagree is to condone. It is, in other words, shorthand for political correctness. It is political correctness, on Viagra.
In a parallel universe in which Harvey Weinstein was a courtly gentleman respectful of women, you could imagine the whole Al Franken in flagrante delicto thing going a different way. You could, for example, imagine some postmodernist theorist arguing that the photograph in which he appears to be grabbing a sleeping Leann Tweden’s breasts is a statement about the demolition of “the female gaze.” Or it is about trespass and agency, or the “hegemonic contingency of raw presence.”
I’m making this up. But then, again, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. (How’s that for a postmodern twist?) Consider Richard Prince, one of the highest-priced artists working today. Hardly a day goes by when news of another record-breaking sale of one of his paintings at Sotheby’s or Christies isn’t delivered by Google Alerts into my inbox. Yet few people talk about how this cultural mascot made his bones, or if they do, it is in heroic terms. In the 1980s, he cheaply licensed a nude picture of Brooke Shields, taken when she was ten years old, by the professional photographer Garry Gross. She stands in a bathtub, her heavily made-up eyes looking with incongruous seductiveness into the camera, her prepubescent body lathered in oil. (I won’t link to it but you can easily find it on the internet.) Prince displayed this shocking artifact of parental ambition gone awry in a storefront gallery in the East Village, below the title Spiritual America. Later, after Prince had become famous for “rephotography,” London’s Tate Modern had to remove the picture from a projected exhibition on orders from Scotland Yard. This year, the picture was exhibited by Oberlin students in an exhibition titled (you can’t make this stuff up) “CAPTURING THE BODY: Ownership and Resistance in Visual Culture.”
Here’s the real fault with moral equivalence. It ignores the structural underpinnings of wrongdoing. All alleged sexual molesters aren’t equal. All publicized incidents aren’t identical. All “lies” do not harm to the same degree, nor harness the same level of credulity and indignation among people with varying histories and experiences. This is a good thing. It is why we have juries. It is why pre-Internet political scientists applauded “cross-cutting cleavages,” countervailing influences on the electorate from a variety of differently situated secondary groups. The elites who are riding the #MeToo momentum seem to forget this. They would impose their own made-up, spuriously universal measure in determining culpability. “Credible” seems to be the latest one in today’s pop-up court of public remonstrance. Absent rules of evidence, what does this mean, anyway? And who but columnists with their own agendas benefit most from perpetuating vague standards they defend in lawyerly manner without fear of rebuttal?
Indubitably, people in power err. They cross lines, they sin, they “act out.” Some feel they are entitled to do it with impunity. Others - - like a partner at one of the corporate world’s top law firms I once worked with - - have phobias and fixations that drive them over and over again to stage idiosyncratic sexual encounters with unwilling or reluctant bystanders. (These repetitious, squalid encounters are the real pornographic fantasy - - not the X-rated ones superannuated spies invent in opposition-research dossiers or Rorschach readings of the president’s tweets à la Elizabeth Warren.) Whether the miscreant is Democrat or Republication makes no difference. The behavior is sordid and inexcusable, at its mildest, outright annoying. Nonetheless, there is an essential difference between the right and the left on this score. Only the left is infatuated with sexual aberration. As the Richard Prince example shows, intentional perversity is the fundamental pursuit of its intellectual system.
Democrats will do anything to win, including campaigning against obscenities that their culture manifestly exalts. Republicans seem to need exculpation, with or without cause. So, moral purity now plays with constituencies of both the right and left. In that vein, some outspoken conservative pundits are gloating over Roy Moore’s defeat. But do they consider the consequences going forward of their disparaging the principles of due process?
Off the bat, one such consequence is that hysteria breeds overregulation. Already Samuel Estreicher, a law professor at New York University, is calling for independent audits by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of potential corporate sexual misconduct. No complainant would need come forward to trigger such audits, which would be at the discretion of the agency. Just what the world needs: another freelancing IRS. If such extra-legal oversight comes to pass, certain conservatives - - we all know who they are - - will have played their part.
Something else we can look forward to: a political discourse monomaniacally focused on sexual vigilantism. As a society, we could’ve used the Weinstein revelations as impetus to examine what lies behind Hollywood’s perfect bodies and decaying tropes. Instead of the #MeToo movement, we could have studied how to build better institutional self-monitoring and “cultures of compliance” so that victims wouldn’t feel as afraid to come forward. (The financial services industry has done it.) We could have probed the role of those who keep quiet about the Office Creep, or are actively and collectively complicit in his depredations. We could have interrogated the mechanisms of memory and ways both men and women use sexuality to advance their ambitions. Who knows, we might even have been able to broach the possibility that women who willingly exploit their sexuality, indeed, make a virtue of their whoring (and then cry foul at slut-shaming), have fundamentally different interests than ones who don’t.
We could have done all of this. We could have actually learned something. Instead we get robotic pronouncements on good and evil.