Out on a Limb: Sexual Harassment, Race, and the Unsinkable Mr. Trump

Mixed feelings on sexual harassment in the news stories of the day. It’s good to see those who routinely harass getting caught and going down in greater numbers. But I do worry about a loss of perspective. If there are 50 million married couples in the US, and you asked how many started with (a) venturing a kiss in the hopes that it would be reciprocal, or (b) asking permission for a kiss, I’m guessing that at least 49 million would say (a). By today’s standards, that means 49 million marriages started with an act of sexual harrassment. Similarly, by the standards of California’s “yes means yes” law, I believe every sex act I’ve ever had would be a rape, since I never explicitly asked or received a verbal permission. In fact, since I align with 1960s feminists (who proclaim for women equal strength and agency with men) more than with current feminists (who more often risk infantilizing women for political gain), I’d have to say every sex act was a mutual rape, since I also did not explicitly say “yes, it’s OK” before the act. This is what I mean by a loss of perspective. I am not sure of my position because tides and definitions change so quickly on the topic, so I’m open to feedback. It’s been too long, anyway, since we’ve allowed each other to air out unfinished thoughts openly in the public sphere without triggering the hegemonic machinery of shame and condemnation. So for all those who would like to see a little more tolerance and openness, maybe even a little more play and freewheeling chaos, in the greater communal idea exchange, I’ll go out on that limb.

Now to turn from sexual harassment to “rape culture,” here too it’s good to see rapists nailed as often as we can nail them, and forcible rape should be “one strike you’re out” with no hope of parole. But blaming it on “rape culture” gives me pause. I didn’t grow up thinking rape was OK until someone taught me otherwise. I think most men are horrified by the thought of rape without having to be “taught” that it is wrong. Those who need to be “taught” that harming innocent people is wrong may already be hopeless. This doesn’t mean I’m against educating people – and boys in particular – about where the line is or how certain behaviors make women feel – but keep it in perspective. Blaming “rape culture” or Western culture in general is like blaming black culture when a black man commits a crime or Islamic culture when an Islamic terrorist strikes. Broadening the blame so widely takes the focus off of the criminal, and elides all laws and social forces aligned to punish rapists and other criminals without broad-brushing the rest of the group with guilt by association. And there’s also the problem of blurring categories. It seems in the media that “rape culture” is a vague umbrella under which crude jokers and clumsy suitors are more or less lumped in with brutal rapists, which may not be the best way to focus the efforts of a wide range of people.  I sympathize with the goal of calling attention to and clamping down on sexual assault, but I’m not yet convinced that the broad brush of “rape culture” is the right tool.

While I’m out on that precarious limb, I fear a similar loss of perspective on race. Per the Black Lives Matter focus on cops and black suspects, I am glad there’s a watchdog to insure an investigation when a suspect is killed. Given our history, it makes sense to have a watchdog group with a particular eye on black suspects who are killed. A demand that an investigation take place, and evidence be gathered and presented in court, is totally fair. A demand for a guilty verdict before a trial takes place seems a bridge too far, but it seems a bridge many routinely cross nowadays.  I’m reluctant to use an individual criminal case as a venue to redress social problems. I have friends both liberal and conservative who seem more eager than I am to take sides up front based on preconceived notions about race relations. But even if those preconceived notions are correct, not every white cop is a racist and not every young black man is a thug. With individual lives at stake, specific cases should not be prejudged on political grounds. At least that seems a good general rule. As political currents shift, grand juries and juries of peers seem a safer long-term bet than guilt assigned and convictions demanded before investigations take place.

Tiptoeing still further out on my limb, I will say that I think in the wake of Trump’s election, some of my liberal brothers and sisters have generally taken their eye off the ball on how to address persistent racial inequality. I think this stems from a misreading of Trump’s supporters. Sure, the hard-core racists who never vote Democrat voted Trump, but my theory (coming from a conservative part of the country where probably 40% of my friends and family voted Trump) is that most people who voted for Trump did so because (a) they always vote Republican regardless of the name of the ballot, or (b) they were sick of Democrats and Republicans and political correctness, and Trump seemed to them an outsider who would cut through the crap. In the case of the white working class, they were sick of being told by liberals that they were racist, sexist dolts who were overloaded with unearned privileges. I think voting for Trump was a mistake, but one that is explicable without appeal to racist, sexist xenophobia.

Once Trump votes were marked as a simple indicator of widespread racism and misogyny, the damage was done to the liberal mindset. In facing persistent racial inequities, focus on schools and economic opportunity in specific areas seems to have shifted to a focus on a vast conspiracy of white supremacists. In a word, liberals went back to fighting the battle of the 1960s. As unpopular as it sounds, white people’s hatred and prejudice against black people is not the biggest inhibitor to racial equity today. Although there is some of that, and it has perhaps been hardened in recent years by an unfortunate backlash against a relentlessly race-conscious identity politics, there are still few actual white supremacists. The big national call for a white supremacist gathering in Tennessee a few weeks ago brought in a total of 300 people from around the country. These knuckleheads have been increasingly marginalized since the 60s. As Charles Barkley said, if ignored, these 300 idiots gathered from around the country could talk stupid to each other for a couple of hours and then go home with no one ever noticing. Our new crop of liberals raised on identity politics, though, have vastly enhanced the prestige of those 300 idiots, telling them that America in general is a white supremacist nation that has their back. I fear that today’s liberals are rapidly reversing the gains in consciousness we made in the wake of the 1960s Civil Rights and hippie movements. By the end of the 70s, I’d say very few white people I knew really thought whites were genetically superior to blacks, and even those few would not admit it in public. Yes, there are still inequities that need to be addressed, yes there are still pockets of racial prejudice, but overall we’d gone a very long way toward marginalizing KKK thinking. (As Professor Cornel West once said on a talk show appearance while seated next to some klan members, “The KKK doesn’t represent white people; they represent morons.”) Sadly, the new liberal idea that everyone is a white supremacist moves in the other direction, giving those few KKK idiots an enormous microphone. The unpopular truth is that most corporate entities are eager to recruit women and minorities, if for no other reason than the edge it gives them when seeking big government contracts and major clients. The major obstacle for these corporate entities is finding enough women or minorities who have been well-prepared for board seats or top-level positions. We need to work on getting women and minorities well-educated from the ground level, well-prepared professionally – schools, mentoring, and economic conditions on the streets – this will serve better than marching against the till recently quite marginalized idiots of the KKK.

So let’s take the spotlight off the idiots, and off of the supposedly entrenched demographic differences that falsely present us as enemies, and see each other anew. Obama, in 2008, probably gave the best speech since Martin Luther King on the issue of race:

“I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for of children and our grandchildren. This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people.”

It’s hard to tell whether Obama is schooling prospective Trump voters or identity politics liberals in this appeal, but let’s hope it’s a little of both. We need to stop the nonsense, see the good in each other, and get to work. Forget about all the theoretical divisiveness and do what it takes to make this school or that neighborhood better with an eye not on the past but on the immediate future.

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19 thoughts on “Out on a Limb: Sexual Harassment, Race, and the Unsinkable Mr. Trump

  1. Unfortunately, the current state of affairs in the U.S. and elsewhere discourages, and perhaps has always discouraged, the kind of open and critical thinking (and risk-taking) you put in upon your precarious perch. When one can no longer discern the very tree, going out on a limb is right out of the question.

    Long observation of our species suggests that irrationality and complacence spike wildly during times of peace and prosperity. But once our political and economic security breaks down, rationality and vigilance return like the prodigal son to keep us from wreaking extinction on ourselves.

    How many more times shall we tempt fate? Until our rationality and vigilance are overwhelmed.

    FROM MYTHOLOGY by Zbigniew Herbert

    First there was a god of night and tempest, a black idol without eyes, before whom they leaped, naked and smeared with blood. Later on, in the times of the republic, there were many gods with wives, children, creaking beds, and harmlessly exploding thunderbolts. At the end only superstitious neurotics carried in their pockets little statues of salt, representing the god of irony. There was no greater god at that time.

    Then came the barbarians. They too valued highly the little god of irony. They would crush it under their heels and add it to their dishes.

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    • Wow! That Z. Herbert quote is very nice. Never heard of it or him before. Thx! You may be right that such open expression has always been discouraged by the Establishment, but I do believe the 1960s counterculture liberals pushed hard for a non-restrictive (break all restraints), radically integrationist (everyone share everything openly, regardless of race), and non-puritanical (celebrated all forms of robust sexuality, so long as no one is forcing anyone) vision. I choose these 3 criteria because they show how, by 1960s standards, today’s liberal’s are “pseudo-liberal” at best, “reactionary” at worst — i.e., they are restrictive (policing speech and every false move), segregationist (cultural appropriation and do-not-cross lines and “you can’t know my truth” because you’re not my color), and puritanical (every hint of male heterosexual desire is suspect). Restrictive + segregationist + puritanical … we may be in for a new puritanical age more repressive than the old one. The problem for us old hippies is not that we have become less liberal but that the word “liberal” has come to mean something that looks reactionary to us. Time to load up the old record player with that prescient song by The Who, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

      Liked by 2 people

      • I agree with you mostly. Remember, though, the 1960’s proto-Renaissance was possible (and also fleeting) because most adults in the West were still observant and accepting of reality, even if some of them were trying to keep it hidden. Today, we have utterly lost that foundation. Fools now rush in with little if any thought, research or debate, and parrot their proud and unwavering “beliefs” in complete nonsense passed via Facebook and Twitter feeds (among many others) with no vetting or consideration whatsoever. Thanks to tribal partisanship, caveat emptor is now a full-blown anachronism.

        And fools, once cultivated, get fooled again and again and again… it’s their very nature. We need more thinkers and doers and negotiators, but the talent pool seems to be smaller than ever. Feudalism beckons the superstitious.

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  2. I certainly hope Trump isn’t unsinkable although most things unsinkable are similarly full of gas. There’s a huge difference between trolling teenage girls and high jinx on a USO jaunt but things have gone viral and soon there will be no ability to see the fire through the smoke; the smoke will be all we see. Okay – peace.

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    • Trump’s approval ratings are very low. He lost the popular vote, and other than some core believers, even many who voted for him think of him as “less bad” than the alternative. He would be quite sinkable if Democrats did not go so far out of their way to alienate people who might otherwise be Democratic voters. (And thanks for the felicitous extension of my metaphor 🙂 .)

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  3. There is a lot to unpack in your missive. We all agree that sexual assault is real and a problem (Other than the evangelical ministers who have commented recently on the Roy Moore allegations—-well at least one saw it as a problem when he commented that it is women who are the real predators!). I have seen and have had to deal with these issues too often in my practice. I worry, however, that the opening of the flood gates and all the revelations in the last year has allowed for a desensitizing of much of the public. I see this at lunches and meeting I attend where my more conservative friends/clients easily brush it off. (It can’t be happening this often they say). And it has become politicized as Trump’s recent responses to Moore and Franken demonstrate. Maybe it is a cultural paradigm shift but, pessimist that I am, I doubt it. We saw a rise in sexual harassment claims after the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings and nothing changed. Here we are again.

    As to your identity politics refrain I watched Biden and Kasich last night in a forum on political division and was struck by, perhaps, something beneath (causation?) the identity politics refrain. Both talked about how each party now only appeals to its base voters. For democrats, like it or not, the race, xenophobic. misogynist card (what you call identity politics) plays to its core base. For Republicans the fear of all those very same things, with direct appeals or code words, plays to its core base. Because of gerrymandering only 40 or so seats in Congress are actually contested by both parties. The rest are solidly Democrat or solidly Republican and the only challenges come for Democrats, on their left, and for Republicans, on their right. So each candidate protects their flank by pandering to that core which is either further left or further right. In doing so they continually promote the things mentioned above and anyone in the middle or trying to reach across the aisle is drowned out.

    To show you how silly it can get Biden told the story of how he and McCain often sat together during senate debates. After being seen on TV sitting together in 1997 during a particular debate Biden was told by his democratic caucus that it did not look good for him to sit with McCain. McCain was told the same by the Republican caucus and asked not to do so. When it gets that petty and tribal its hard to see how you get past it going forward.

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  4. My husband who is a Republican and Trump supporter works with Syrian refugees. My friends tell me that Trump people are racist, etc slime that emerged from the primordial sludge. When I told them about my husband, they told me to divorce him, that I had better morals than that. I got new friends. It is pervasive how people have shut themselves off from each other. Meanwhile, my husband goes to work to resettle refugees and aid the countries like Jordan who have the majority of refugees.

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    • I am not a Trump supporter but I am with you on this. The absolute hatred for people who disagree is out of control. I was very disappointed with my liberal friends who cut off all Trump voters. I still drink beer with my Trump voter friends. We talk about things. We disagree. We laugh. We don’t hate each other.

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  5. Unfortunately too many of us have constructed gated communities of the intellect where people only associate with those who agree with them and only read what confirms what they already believe (or want to believe). Kudos to your husband for his work and to you for supporting him. But I concede it can be difficult to break out of those communities. It has been for me to try to extend a hand: When I am at a lunch and a Christian client (Trump supporter) tells me he prayed for 8 years for someone to assassinate Obama. Or when I walked into a restaurant with a client who is a Trump supporter who, seeing many African Americans there, said “This place is to dark to eat at.” Or the wife of a friend (she is a Trump supporter) who was outraged that I led a group of white folks to a black church after the Charlottesville incidents and told her husband he could not go. Or the retried military guy I know (Trump supporter) who refers to Obama’s daughters as the “little Negrets.” Or the Trump supporter, another lawyer, who won’t go to a black or foreign doctor because he fears they got out of medical school because of affirmative action. All we can do is try to redirect and connect with the folks on the other side who do not have these tendencies. And for those who do have the tendencies show our own humanity which one hopes will humble them and change their hearts. But I confess I mostly fail at it. When in doubt I listen to the Youngbloods’ song about coming together.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes to all. Per Neptune’s Dolphin comments, there’s plenty enough vitriol and on both sides. But we can still find people to reach across to, if we can forget all our training in political belligerence on one side or the other. This is especially tough now, with the media and university cultures both so heavily invested in political belligerence. Where to start? “Drop out, turn on, and tune into the Youngbloods” sounds as good a place as any.

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  6. I live in rural America and the young people I know were Bernie supporters and felt Hilary and the Democrats shafted Bernie and voted Trump. Most of the other folks I know voted Trump because they had enough of Hilary. I agree with your statement Liberals are reversing the gains in the 60s Civil Rights and hippie movements. I also the flagrant bias news reporting is doing a lot of damage also. In this area the Brown case didn’t help the cause either, then couple that with the BLM protests and blocking highways it was a big set back for civil rights. Many of my friends that didn’t have a prejudice bone in their body are very disappointed and starting to believe the die hard bigots. You mentioned the hippie movement, now we knew how to protest I am telling you. When one protests they can’t expect to gain supporters to help them in their fight if they are trampling on the rights of innocent people. One of my favorite essays by Emerson is Politics”. Glad you liked my blog cause it led me to here. We don’t agree on everything but I like your style. Look forward to reading more of your work.

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    • Thanks for that report from the trenches, Doubledacres. We need to hear from people like you at least as much as we need to hear what they’re saying on the news. Thanks for reminding me, also, that I need to go back and read Emerson. It’s been too long 🙂

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  7. Neither can one man save our country, nor bring it down. It will take a village and a lot of disinfectant to clean up our international image and our own national identity. Sometimes you have to hit bottom to know which direction is up…I, for one, can see clearly now…

    Liked by 1 person

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