Workers Vanguard No. 1126
26 January 2018
No to Trial by Media!
Sex, Scandals and Power
#MeToo Mania and the Democrats’ “Resistance”
Since Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual assault exposé rocked Hollywood last fall, the net for alleged predators has been cast far and wide. What began as the Hollywood casting couch on steroids rapidly metastasized into an array of sexual misconduct allegations which are bringing down male types of all stripes—from Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor to talk-show hosts Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley, from black Democrat John Conyers to bible-thumping racist Roy Moore, from comedian Louis C.K. to music mogul Russell Simmons. A wide range of behavior—including flirtation and innuendo, a vulgar text or a crude joke, not to mention unpleasant sex—is being lumped together with real crimes of coercion and assault. Those called out for sexual impropriety, no matter how trivial, how unproven or how long ago, run the media gantlet, are declared guilty and their careers ruined.
Backers of the liberal #MeToo and #TimesUp movements present this as a reckoning and cathartic response to sexual inequality. There are indeed pervasive crimes against women, but most are not being splashed across Twitter and the press in America today. In factories, the military and prisons, assault and rape are routinely covered up. Poor, black and immigrant women, as well as sex workers, have little recourse against sexual predation. Meanwhile, mum’s the word on urgent questions such as the assault on abortion rights, which have been whittled down to a formality that is inaccessible for the majority, rising costs of health care, and lack of access to childcare. The hype over “inappropriate” peccadilloes minimizes the terror of rape and trivializes sexual abuse, like that suffered by numerous female Olympic gymnasts for decades under their doctor Larry Nassar. Such hype also does nothing to address women’s subordination and oppression, which are built into capitalist society.
The #MeToo campaign is about sex, but it is just as much about power and politics. The Democratic Party is scrambling to cohere the so-called resistance to Donald J. Trump, who is accused of harassment by over a dozen women. To make the whole campaign go down easier, leading Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Kirsten Gillibrand had to wash the party’s hands of its own sexual misconduct gaffe and dump Minnesota Senator Al Franken. It was a political calculation that cost them little, allowing them to posture as defenders of women, a lie the Democrats love to milk for their electoral fortunes.
The fight against the president’s “pussy grabbing” is on the top of the Democratic Party agenda. The biggest demonstrations during last year’s inauguration focused on how Trump’s piggish sexual follies made him “unfit” to rule the bloody American empire. The battle cry of those Women’s Marches, dominated by white petty-bourgeois and bourgeois women in pink pussy hats, was over the fact that a qualified imperialist hawk and Wall Street-backed woman lost to an unabashed misogynist. This year’s Women’s Marches continued to hail Hillary Clinton as their shepherdess with the slogan: “Power to the Polls.”
In good old American puritanical tradition, an anti-sex frenzy has been unleashed that serves to divert attention from the staggering brutalities carried out by the ruling class against working people: anti-immigrant roundups, the sanctioning of white-supremacists, attacks on unions, threats of unleashing the U.S. nuclear arsenal. In a cutting commentary, “The Great American Sex Panic of 2017” (counterpunch.org, 22 November), William Kaufman aptly calls this a “moral panic,” which is “ironically, immoral at its core: repressive and diversionary, an identity-politics orgy of misdirected moral energies that breeds a chilling conformity of word and deed.” He also notes a “bizarre inversion of values.” As imperialist Commander-in-Chief, the male Clinton slaughtered hundreds of thousands abroad and tossed millions of women and children off welfare at home, but he is stigmatized for a blow job. As Secretary of State, the female Clinton helped turn Libya to rubble and grooved on the torture and murder of Qaddafi (which included being sodomized with a weapon), but she is lauded as a symbol of diversity.
As Marxists, we know that anti-woman bigotry and oppression have a material basis in capitalist society, flowing from the patriarchal family, propped up by religious conservatism and state repression, and enshrined in virtually every social institution. Both ruling-class parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, represent this profit-driven system based on class exploitation and push a reactionary social agenda—even if their rhetoric differs based on their constituencies. Eradicating entrenched sexual stereotypes and discrimination requires a socialist revolution to overturn capitalism, an economic system that breeds degradation, repression and violence in everyday life.
Fear, Sexual Loathing and Racist Repression
Founded by black activist Tarana Burke over a decade ago, #MeToo went viral on Twitter post-Weinstein after it was taken up by actress Alyssa Milano. Shortly after, Time magazine declared the “silence breakers” Person of the Year. The Golden Globes were dominated by big money personalities preaching “Time’s Up,” including a much-lauded speech by billionaire Oprah Winfrey, whose name has been bandied about as a potential Democratic presidential nominee.
Shocking as it may be to some, not all women think alike. Fissures are now erupting in the #MeToo milieu. Early on, mainstream feminists like Nation writer Katha Pollitt expressed concern about a conservative backlash, especially as most of the outed harassers were Democrats. In a January 5 New York Times op-ed piece, “Publicly, We Say #MeToo. Privately, We Have Misgivings,” Daphne Merkin, an avid Hillary supporter, worried that the career-ending condemnations and the automatic presumption of guilt could be an entrée to “torching people for the content of their fantasies.” (Too late: people are thrown behind bars for possessing kiddie porn.) Esteemed author Margaret Atwood was virtually tied to a stake for defending due process in her article, “Am I a Bad Feminist?” More recently, a debate is raging over whether a bad date with comedian Aziz Ansari makes him a “sexual predator.”
An open letter signed by actress Catherine Deneuve and a group of 100 French intellectuals and professionals denouncing the wave of purges provoked a full-frontal feminist uproar. The letter objects to neo-Victorianism, which paints women as frail children: “Just like in the good old witch-hunt days, what we are once again witnessing here is puritanism in the name of a so-called greater good, claiming to promote the liberation and protection of women, only to enslave them to a status of eternal victim and reduce them to defenseless preys of male chauvinist demons.” Within hours, supporters of #MeToo condemned the French signatories as “apologists for rape.” No critic is granted immunity. Actor Matt Damon faced a ferocious reaction for his patently obvious statement that rape is distinct from a pat on the butt.
If penalties are instant and draconian against anything deemed offensive, the net effect will be to police all behavior, especially the unconventional (anything kinkier than When Harry Met Sally). Defining inappropriate behavior is as subjective as defining “immoral” behavior. To the extent that codes of decency exist, they are prescribed by religion and regulated by the racist guardians of old-time virtue, the bourgeois rulers.
On the university level, decades-long campaigns against a purported date rape epidemic have increased the in loco parentis powers of the campus administration to enforce “acceptable” conduct. Virtually any encounter, from a drunken hookup to a regrettable romance, can be classified as nonconsensual, leading to punitive consequences according to the campus initiatives implemented under the Obama administration. (For more, see the review of Laura Kipnis’s book Unwanted Advances in “Title IX Witchhunts, Anti-Sex Frenzy and Bourgeois Feminism,” WVNo. 1121, 3 November).
Such is the degree of #MeToo mania that feminist author Laura Kipnis, who opposes anti-sex regimentation on the campuses, is now celebrating the fact that the “floodgates have opened” (New York Review of Books, 21 December). That innocent people will be “caught in the crossfire” is treated as simply irrelevant. Kipnis echoes the view that if a couple of unfortunate schmucks get chased by the mob, they’re collateral damage in the war against patriarchy.
Mass vengeance is no doubt propelled by the fact that most of the falling stars are powerful, rich, white men…so, feminists say, good riddance. But in racist American society, those who will be “caught in the crossfire” have a greater dose of melanin and a lesser dose of prestige, i.e., black and brown people. To say that sex panics, which foment an inflated collective fear against the imaginary predator, have a tendency to legitimize punishment and rip up the presumption of innocence would be a vast understatement. This is potentially a dire threat to the rights of the entire populace.
The cops and courts have regularly used sex to go after any perceived enemies. Comedian Dave Chappelle noted in his recent stand-up “The Bird Revelation” how the FBI’s COINTELPRO spied on the sexual affairs of Martin Luther King to undermine his authority. The toll of the war on sexual “deviants” today has added to the earlier “war on crime” and ongoing “war on drugs”—code words for racist legal persecution that has increased the prison population by 500 percent to some 2.2 million people today, nearly 40 percent of them black. A 2016 University at Albany study found that one in about every 120 black men is a registered sex offender (twice the rate of white men), a branded outcast for life.
Lynchings brought on by rape accusations have a gruesome history in this country built on slave labor. The Tulsa, Oklahoma, race riot in 1921 and the Rosewood, Florida, massacre in 1923 were precipitated by lying rumors of black men assaulting white women. In 1955, young Emmett Till was murdered for an alleged wolf whistle.
In his article, “A City on a Hill (or the Weinstein Effect)” (counterpunch.org, 1 December), playwright John Steppling comments on how race lurks behind the scenes:
“There is something curious and unsettling in not seeing the dangers of a mass enjoyment of punishment. For that is what disturbs me the most. The pleasure of the mob.... Lynchings had vendors and souvenirs. This is not the same, and yet there are similarities. And the manufacturing of the survivor identity (which originated with the Pre School cases) is handed out even if all that was survived was an unwelcome advance. What will be the effect down the road on sexual choices that may be seen as non-mainstream? The public narrative so far is linked with Hollywood. That should provide a moment of cautious hesitation for everyone.”
Steppling recalls the mob hysteria of the 1987-90 McMartin preschool trial—the longest trial in history—in which child witnesses told fantastical tales of animal sacrifices, orgies, satanic ritual abuse occurring in day-care centers. The crusade was part of the reactionary “family values” campaign of the Reagan years, which, among other things, sought to drive women back into the home. As satanic abuse cases swept the country, hundreds of people were wrongfully convicted, losing their freedom, families and reputations. Thirty years ago, the refrain was Believe the Children; today, that catchphrase is being applied to all women.
Working-Class Servitude and Women’s Oppression
If the mob aids the government in deciding what’s acceptable in the bedroom, the consequences will be bad for men and women. As Marxists, we oppose any and all efforts of the state to regulate the manifold consensual expressions of human sexuality. Consensual relations between individuals are purely their own concern, and no one has any business interfering (including when it comes to those in Hollywood who lead very exposed lives). We do not support rules dictating “affirmative consent,” which decree that partners engaging in any sexual contact must get explicit verbal permission for each caress. The guiding principle in any sexual encounter should be effective consent, that is, nothing more than mutual agreement and understanding, regardless of age, gender or sexual preference.
Of course, determining what is truly consensual in this viciously class-divided, racist, sexist, not to mention religious, society is complicated. The attitudes and institutions of the capitalist society in which we live sway interpersonal relationships, and there are often ambiguities. Relationships can also be exploitative and unequal, including marriage. Rape, however, is not on the spectrum of sex. It is a degrading, brutal and horrific act of violence. To treat any bad encounter as rape means to demand legal retribution, or else some form of vigilante justice.
Sexual harassment and discrimination are rife in this anti-woman society, from quid pro quo come-ons to pay inequality. Under pressure to be pretty and pliant for their male superiors, women are subjected to humiliation and intimidation. But the Hollywood of well-heeled entertainers who seek to advance their careers is worlds apart from the situation for working-class women, who are desperate to make ends meet and far more subject to the whims of their bosses.
The capitalist class, with the acquiescence of the union misleaders, has waged a one-sided war on organized labor in order to create a cheaper workforce, with part-time, non-union workers often filling what were once full-time, unionized jobs. The all-too-frequent indifference by union bureaucrats to harassment on the job gives yet another opening to liberal anti-union forces to encourage government policing of the unions in the name of defending women. The unions must champion women’s rights, including free, 24-hour childcare, paid family leave and free abortion on demand as part of quality health care for all. To revitalize labor, the union movement needs a class-struggle leadership that would fight for organizing the unorganized, for equal pay for equal work and for union control of hiring and upgrading, which together would go a long way toward addressing the precarious economic position that makes working-class women vulnerable.
The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements recently started paying lip service to the women at the bottom. Before the Golden Globes, an open letter signed by over a thousand in television, theater and film expressed solidarity with agricultural and factory workers, housekeepers, waitresses and domestic workers. In a patronizing display at the awards ceremony, swanky stars in black Gucci gowns brought activist guests to prove how “woke” they are. Given Hollywood’s long-running romance with the Democratic Party, the political virtue of this sisterhood spectacle is obvious.
Bourgeois women face sexual oppression but not class oppression. For feminists, the most important division in society is that of men against women, not capitalist exploiters against exploited workers. Feminism as an ideology reflects the concerns of professional and petty-bourgeois women who aim to break the glass ceiling and integrate themselves into the upper layers of the American capitalist power structure. The current era of “Lean In” feminism, which promotes success in the realm of corporate and political leadership, speaks directly to white, university-educated and upper-class women.
And these are the same women the ruling class considers to be the “credible” victims of sexual assault. Other women—poor, black, single mothers and immigrants—more often than not find themselves vilified or subjected to greater abuse when they call on the state to protect them. They’re also at risk for defending themselves. See the case of Marissa Alexander, a black woman from Florida who fired a warning shot near her abusive and estranged husband who was threatening her. Though no one was injured, she was sentenced in 2012 to 20 years in prison for aggravated assault. After almost six years of hell, Alexander was finally released from prison one year ago.
Bourgeois Feminism and Anti-Sex Repression
American feminism has always reflected the racist, conservative, puritanical values of this country. (The largest and most influential organization at the turn of the 20th century was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which rallied against alcohol and lust.) Decades ago, feminists made an unholy alliance with the religious right in declaring porn to be the cause of violence against women. In the course of this, they played a role supporting the government censorship drive spurring busts of X-rated video stores and attacks on erotic art. Looking to the state to regulate personal behavior and mete out punishment runs in the blood of feminism—particularly what is dubbed carceral feminism, which demands more policing, prosecution and imprisonment to curb violence against women.
Last December, two New York City feminists petitioned the Metropolitan Museum of Art to either remove or “contextualize” a 1938 work by the Polish-French artist Balthus. The painting, Thérèse Dreaming, depicts a pensive young clothed model sitting with her underwear slightly exposed. The petition, which has gathered over 11,000 additional signatures, refers to the current climate around “sexual assault” and accuses the Met of “supporting voyeurism and the objectification of children.” By that reasoning, every advertisement for young girls’ toys or clothing should be banned. Might as well throw out masterpieces like Alice in Wonderland, which was inspired by the love that author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) had for a prepubescent girl.
Feminist vehicles like Ms. magazine were big players in the witchhunting of day-school teachers as deranged pedophiles, and the subsequent morphing of child abuse into anything that smacks of sexuality involving a person under legal voting age. Not only does this play down the real abuse of children (which occurs mainly inside families), but it criminalizes young people having sex in general. Thus, the hounding of director Roman Polanski, who fled the country to escape criminal charges in 1978 for consensual sex with an experienced 13-year-old girl, has been revived in the wake of the Weinstein scandals. (Deneuve is hated not least for her defense of Polanski.)
There is also a renewed inquisition against Woody Allen over unfounded allegations of abuse of his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow, accusations spearheaded by his vengeful ex-partner, Mia Farrow. Allen has always denied Farrow’s claims, and no legal charges were ever brought against him. As Allen said in 1992, “In the end, the one thing I have been guilty of is falling in love with Mia Farrow’s adult daughter [Soon-Yi Previn] at the end of our years together.” In the minds of maniacal accusers, he must be guilty—because he went on to marry Soon-Yi, who is 35 years younger than he. She was a young adult at the start of her relationship with Allen, and they have been married now since 1997. One might note that Mia Farrow was 21 and Frank Sinatra was 50 when they married. (See “Woody Allen Crucified on ‘Family Values’,” WV No. 558, 4 September 1992.)
The laws defining “sex crimes” today are fundamentally aimed at strengthening the repressive arm of the state and propping up the prison of the family. The struggle for the emancipation of women, including in the workplace, cannot be separated from the struggle for the emancipation of women from the family. The material basis for women’s liberation can only be laid through the victory of workers revolution, which requires the forging of a Leninist vanguard party that will act as the tribune of all the oppressed, mobilizing to combat all social backwardness. As part of constructing an egalitarian socialist society, the family as an institution will be replaced by the socializing of childcare and housework, freeing women to play a full and equal role in social and political life. In a global communist future, anti-woman violence and bigotry, the reactionary constraints of family and religion will be barbaric memories of the past.