Claire Berlinski, a freelance journalist working in Paris, has written a thoughtful and well-written piece in The American Interest called The Warlock Hunt, on the recent cataract of sexual harassment accusations currently roiling the political landscape. The first two-thirds of the way, it’s a remarkably honest meditation on the temptation of power: the newly heightened and celebrated power of women to destroy the lives, not of rapists, but of men who disturb women by indicating a sexual interest. It isn’t a matter of molestation: three of the four earlier accusers of candidate Roy Moore merely dated him when they were of legal age, and he was older. Forty years on, they look back and find it… disquieting. And this is reported in ways that result in Moore being widely considered an active pedophile.
Berlinski’s piece is a sober recognition of the fact that you can’t have a functioning society when anyone in it can destroy the livelihood, career and social standing of anyone else in it by claiming to have felt sexually harassed. She is not without sympathy for the genuinely molested, or contempt for their brutalizers. But the author properly reminds us of certain fashions of bygone days, such as the presumption of innocence and the need for evidence, and it’s a salutary reminder. There’s a difference between flirtation and harassment, a smile and rape. Ms. Berlinski rightly fears that stripping the brave new world and workplace of all affection will result in so grievous a lack of social lubrication that the cure will prove worse than the disease, and result in a new puritanism more asphyxiating as the old.
All this is worth saying. But having said it, the piece goes off the rails badly, and it’s worth noting why. Ms. Berlinski writes:
From the Salem Witch trials to the present, moral panics have followed the same pattern. Stanley Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics remains the classic study. To read it is to appreciate that we are seeing something familiar here. The media has identified a folk devil, which it presents in a stereotyped way, exaggerating the scale of the problem. The “moral entrepreneurs,” as Cohen terms them—editors, politicians, key arbiters of respectability—have begun competing to out-do each other in decrying the folk devil. The folk devil symbolizes a real problem. But so vilified has the scapegoat become, in popular imagination, that rational discussion of the real problem is no longer possible.
Cohen argued that moral panics must be understood in their wider socio-historic context. We may understand them, he proposed, as a boundary crisis: At a time of rapid change, they express the public’s uncertainly about the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. The widespread anxiety about unsettling change is resolved by making of certain figures scapegoats—folk devils. They symbolize a larger social unease.
“Why this moral panic, and why now?” she writes. And then goes into a few absurdities. The modern postindustrial economy is uniquely suited to women, she feels. Um — so what? She quotes a female author: “The attributes that are most valuable today—social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus—are, at a minimum, not predominantly male.” I’m not aware of any studies showing that men “can’t sit still and focus.” I am aware of studies that show men are better at multitasking, and that Psychology Today admits flatly (after massive qualifications and groveling) that “the standard deviation for IQ is higher in men than in women.” So it seems that it’s really men who are better fitted. (Which may be why so many more of them currently fit.) But instead of researching this point and addressing it, we move on to the assertion that “Women have castrated men en masse.” Really? I am pleased to have been missed. But wouldn’t that reduce the number of rape accusations? I am told eunuchs don’t party much.
There is the intriguing suggestion that women “…are acting out a desire that has surfaced from the hadopelagic zone of our collective unconscious—a longing to have the old brutes back? That is what Freud would suggest: We are imagining brutes all around us as a form of wish-fulfillment…” Given the fact that the “old brutes” included figures like Goethe, Leonardo, Lincoln, Aquinas, Plato, Buddha, Christ, whereas the new ones are gentlemen scholars like Al Franken and C. K. Lewis, the longing is perhaps not so strange as the author thinks. “No, of course we don’t want the old brutes back,” she concludes. After all, “We are the grown-ups now. We are in charge,” she adds, suddenly the smug dominatrix, but weirdly concluding with a whiney plea to the rape accusers: could they “knock it off? Women, I’m begging you: Please.” I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar — er, beg.
Apparently these grand if loopy explanations fail to convince even her. What then remains? One hardly needs ask: “I’d suggest looking at the obvious. The President of the United States is Donald J. Trump.” This “hapless dotard,” the “unreconstructed slob in the Oval Office,” a “lunatic at the helm,” is “enough to make anyone go berserk.” So if you were imagining that being raped by Harvey Weinstein is what’s inspiring women to accuse Harvey, sorry: it’s the sheer trauma of the election of Donald Trump, who personally is the source of all social anxiety and personal pathology among the American people. (What about the fact that the majority of (white) women voted for him, and nearly one in four non-white women? Forget them–they don’t fit the thesis.)
Witch hunts are nothing new, and neither is false (or true) witness. The simplest explanation of the current accusation craze is simple that, plus herd instinct, expressing itself at exponentially magnified levels through social media. Fortunately the attention span of said media is mercifully brief, and this latest chapter in the battle of the sexes will no doubt soon be eclipsed by kneeling in the National Football League.
But that is why Ms. Berlinski’s turn to Trump is not as silly as sounds. That aversion persists, and persists to a truly national and pathological degree. Trump is the classic case of the “folk devil.” What better describes the past year of howling execration than “The media has identified a folk devil, which it presents in a stereotyped way, exaggerating the scale of the problem.”? The “moral entrepreneurs”—the “editors, politicians, key arbiters of respectability”—have indeed competed to out-do each other in decrying the folk devil, and the competition only grows more intense. “So vilified has the scapegoat become, in popular imagination, that rational discussion of the real problem is no longer possible.”
Ms. Berlinski see the unsustainability of the one form of polarization, but she doesn’t see how ensnarled she is in the other. Her apparent call for restraint on the part of gender paranoia completely collapses when it comes to Trump; she instantly shifts sexual polarization to political polarization, and where Trumpistas are concerned, restraint, evidence, presumption of innocence stops cold: “The law will decide whether the accused are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but I don’t require such arduous proof: I’m already convinced that Roy Moore is a sexual predator…”
So while the first part shows us a noble soul taking the steep ascent up from polarization, the second shows the ignoble descent back to the valleys. This is relevant because of its electoral implications. The past few weeks have shown us both Democrats and Republicans accused of harassment, and two things stand out: one, there are considerably more Democrats than Republicans being accused, and two, the Democrats generally fold while the Republicans generally fight, and fight through. Franken and Conyers are out, and Trump and Moore (according to polls) are in.
What are we likely to see, should this trend continue? A Democratic Party increasingly gutted of male leadership, one whose male leadership is radically timid and/or uber-feminist. That means a loss of seasoned experienced leaders, an even weaker hold on the male demographic, and a further drift to the ideological fringe. It also may mean a coarser, harder, more aggressive Republican Party gaining an even larger share of the male vote purely for the promise of some shelter from death-by-accusation.
A crazier Democratic Party and a larger harder Republican one is not a good trend for either, for both trends conceal the real drivers of the current situation, which is to say, economics–which is to say, class. Gender masks class. Large mass corporations and employers prefer workers who are indistinguishable and interchangeable and isolated, and over time they generate them, giving the job to the worker ant best fit. Gender differentiation and the nuclear family — love — are profound obstacles. The problem is, erasing what is biologically rooted by millennia of travel through evolutionary space is not easy. Technologies like the Pill and gender reassignment surgery help, but the process of reducing individuals to drones remains abrasive. That process, I suggest, has more to do with our current social rancor than how we interpret flirtation. But of course we’d rather give Trump the folk devil another kick instead, and tell ourselves how grown-up we are now as we destroy and demean our political leadership. It’s easier, and more emotionally satisfying.
Well, let the ones that resign go. The hardier souls survive the Darwinism of allegations will become the political future. At the moment it appears to be the likes of Trump and Moore. And if they are unlovable, so be it.