Dirty Hands

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Photo: Andrej Mrevlje

As a man, it is hard to contribute anything to the present debate on sexual harassment without being embarrassed or in fear of saying or doing something wrong. It is a moment for women to try to educate men about them and their struggle for power and equality. It is the time that women’s bodies stop being used as objects, in the same way as it’s time to end the exploitation of and systemic racism toward black Americans. I hope their moment is coming soon too. Looking forward, I am aware that during that future vindication of African Americans, I will again have to be silent because of my cultural background, so deeply rooted in customs established by and enforced for centuries by the white, Catholic world, a narrow world that lacks elements and experiences of other cultures except in their subjugation. So how could I contribute to this contemporary cause? And while, at my very adult age, I can still learn from the woman I live and work with, women I was raised by and with, and who I interact with every day, I cannot do the same with black culture. I came late to a multicultural society, have no African Americans friends I can learn from, and have taken few opportunities to make them. Now, I am asking myself, is what I just wrote racist?

This is the work of fear, ignorance, and then apathy. One way to fight such temptations, to begin with, is reading. Why is men’s pervasive debasement of women possible? Society will have to wrangle with this question, speak despite our fear if we want to continue to live together if we want to reconcile our heinous present with a more humane future. There is and always will be that risk of an embattled and righteous contention transforming into an ideological fight; we get tired and become weak. It is happening now and, unfortunately, even the cataclysmic New York Times Harvey Weinstein story has become a stone overturned nearly into smoothness; we risk a sort of apathetic consensus in our newly surfaced rage. I find the list of the 45 accused men, compiled by the paper, an incorrect generalization, putting all the accused in one category of chauvinism. (Though the Times silently took Glenn Thrush, their own reporter who has been accused of sexual misbehavior, off the list. Read the Vanity Fair story.)

I find Laura Kipnis’ piece, “Kick Against the Pricks”,  refreshing because it offers historical context to the present scandals. Here is one part of it:

But at the beginning, the story seemed plain enough. It turns out that in the tallest skyscrapers and plushest hotels of the most advanced economies, many high-profile men have been acting the part of feudal lords, demanding droit du seigneur from their vassals, the vassals in this case being their female employees and others wishing entry into their fiefdoms. Evidently there’s been a covert system of taxation on female advancement in the work world, with the unluckier among us obligated to render not just the usual fealty demanded by overweening bosses but varying degrees of sexual homage too, from ego-stroking and fluffing (which is gross enough), to being grabbed and groped, to the expectation of silence about full-on rape.

From a political standpoint the exposés about the current extent of sexual harassment look like a significant cultural upheaval: a major victory in the centuries-long fight for women’s equality. This time the battleground is career, and the opponents being slain are the career gatekeepers. A struggle over careers is, to be sure, a bourgeois revolution—I mean this in the historical rather than the disparaging sense. If women’s bodies are still being treated as property, then another Reign of Terror was long overdue. If women are stuck with the task of overthrowing aristocratic privilege a few hundred years late, it’s because this social stratum needs to be liquidated before all genders can achieve civic and economic equality.

As far as the specifically American circumstance, fertile ground for the sexual misconduct of this sort, Harmeet Dhillon, an attorney, offers a short and concise interpretation:  

Why is this seismic shift in our culture happening now, in late 2017? According to TIME, the election of President Trump made women feel powerless, leading to the Women’s March, then to the individuals sharing their stories, culminating in the #MeToo social media movement. It turns out women were not so powerless after all. Indeed, the voices that were suppressed throughout the Clinton and Obama eras — and even while a woman, Hillary Clinton, ran a much-trumpeted historic campaign for President — now feel free, in 2017, to speak their minds, and to tell their stories. And the nation is listening, across the political spectrum.

President Trump’s election and first year in office may have motivated individual women to speak up, but not in the way TIME means. The Women’s March was primarily a political protest, in which conservative women were only welcome if they added to the protest attendance numbers without voicing their distasteful, non-progressive views – silent, complacent, required to subscribe to a version of “sisterhood” that did not reflect their individual and varied experiences. The exclusionary and didactic hypocrisy of mainstream feminism has been on full display this past year, shown for the hollow vessel that it is, promising much but delivering little.

The longer, similar version that aims at Clinton’s court appeared in the Atlantic and closely analyzes contemporary American society. Perhaps the most radical opinion I’ve read so far was written by Stephen Marche in an opinion piece for the New York Times, and reaches all the way down to the roots of psychoanalysis:

For most of history, we’ve taken for granted the implicit brutality of male sexuality. In 1976, the radical feminist and pornography opponent Andrea Dworkin said that the only sex between a man and a woman that could be undertaken without violence was sex with a flaccid penis: “I think that men will have to give up their precious erections,” she wrote. In the third century A.D., it is widely believed, the great Catholic theologian Origen, working on roughly the same principle, castrated himself.

Fear of the male libido has been the subject of myth and of fairy tale from the beginning of literature: What else were the stories of Little Red Riding Hood or Bluebeard’s Castle about? A vampire is an ancient and powerful man with an insatiable hunger for young flesh. Werewolves are men who regularly lose control of their bestial nature. Get the point? There is a line, obviously, between desire and realization, and some cross it and some don’t. But a line is there for every man. And until we collectively confront this reality, the post-Weinstein public discussion — where men and women go from here — will begin from a place of silence and dishonesty.

There are many more pieces worth reading, but let me indicate to you just one more. It’s a great insider piece that concerns Mario Batali, the famous chef, and owner of a chain of high-end Italian restaurants in New York. He went down just a few days ago, and this is a piece written with gusto. It is called Mario Batali and the Appetites of Men and was published by the New Yorker, which has some other good pieces on the current social earthquake.

 As it happens, in the early 90’s in Italy, the biggest corruption scandal decapitated two of the country’s biggest political parties, and many entrepreneurs and celebrities, similar to what is happening now in the U.S. In Italy, after half of the Italian parliament members were investigated, and the prisons were full of the corrupt and famous, the Mani Pulite (the popular name of the group of judges and attorneys that lead the investigation) appealed to the politicians to do something. They could not and did not want to run the country, to replace the politicians. It was an overwhelming situation and the political void brought on the power of Mr. Silvio Berlusconi. The Mani Pulite did not change Italy, despite its role in a one-time reckoning. We know what then happened with Berlusconi.

The situation in the U.S. is different, as an American version of Berlusconi is already in the Oval Office. But what is happening now is only the beginning. The period of the revelation of men’s misconduct and sexual harassment are nowhere near their end, but unlike in Italy, where the corruption scandal was triggered by a group of judges and attorneys, the overturn in America is coming from within the deep anger of the female world. Some of its targets have already been flushed away, righteously, by the vogue, because as we all know the revolution does not save its own children. So, my question is this: how long will this reckoning go on before it can fundamentally change the nature of this society? And do we have the stamina to get there?

Let’s hope Politico is right, and that in 2020 America will vote for the first woman president. That would definitely be a step forward toward a juster and less masculine society.

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