The Whisper Network

“I wish to argue that none of you possibly have enough evidence to jump to this conclusion, but experience has taught me that only guarantees it to be the case.”

-Vaarsuvius, Order of the Stick #1106

I had almost thought the issue of powerful men getting taken down by a history of sexual harassment was starting to lose currency. But last week the big news was that Today show lead anchor Matt Lauer was “suddenly” fired after NBC News recieved a detailed complaint, NBC News chairman Andrew Lack saying “While it is the first complaint about his behavior in the over 20 years he’s been at NBC News, we were also presented with reason to believe this may not have been an isolated incident.” As it turned out, both Variety and the New York Times had been investigating an extensive history of misbehavior on Lauer’s part.  Less publicized that week was the news that hip-hop mogul and producer Russell Simmons was stepping down from his companies after he was accused of sexual assault.

This phenomenon is in fact so widespread and happening so fast that a lot of observers are worried about it. For one thing, the idea that we should believe all women who accuse men of abuse is getting challenged. Professional feminist Lena Dunham defended a writer from her show Girls after he was accused of rape by actress Aurora Perrineau, saying he was one of the just “3% of assault cases that are misrepresented every year.” More relevant to politics, Minnesota Democratic Senator Al Franken was accused of groping one woman on a USO tour, and then another. Now it’s up to six. Not only that, veteran Congressman John Conyers (D.-Michigan) was accused of a long history of improper sexual behavior. Yet another Congressman, Ruben Kihuen (D.-Nevada) was just accused of repeated sexual advances and improper touching by an aide.  But it wasn’t until fairly recently that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called upon Conyers to resign. (Perhaps for that reason, she was a lot quicker to go after Kihuen.)

So what? The story now is, we “believe all women” unless the accused is a friend of ours? Or if it’s politically inconvenient?

To their credit, a lot of liberals are saying politics be damned, such men need to be out of Congress, even if they’re Democrats. But it’s not that simple. Conyers’ seat (in the Detroit area) is safe, and in any case he’s very old and may need to retire anyway. However, if Kihuen resigns, the Governor of Nevada (who would appoint his replacement) is a Republican. And Franken has been a serious asset to the Democrats in the Senate, and even if Minnesota’s Democratic governor replaced him, that party needs all the seats it can get.

Not that Republicans are any more pure. As more documented stories of Roy Moore’s predilection for younger girls came up in Alabama, that just increased the desire of Alabama Republicans to get him elected Senator. But that’s what they are. All that matters to them is winning. “Conservatives” would vote for Bill Clinton himself if he said he was a Republican. But as I keep telling Republicans, they kinda did.

In large part, a lot of liberals are worried that there’s going to be some sort of right-wing backlash once somebody gets the idea that they can make a false claim. When Rolling Stone published a “searing expose'” on a gang rape at the University of Virginia campus, the story turned out to be unverifiable and was later retracted.  This critically undermined Rolling Stone’s journalistic reputation (to the extent that it had one) and set back feminist attempts to target “rape culture.”

More recently, Bari Weiss in the New York Times worried that the current ascendancy of #metoo feminism is going to set up its own downfall, citing the Teen Vogue writer Emily Linden who had to shut down her Twitter account after posting ““If some innocent men’s reputations have to take a hit in the process of undoing the patriarchy, that is a price I am absolutely willing to pay.” Weiss says that while she sympathizes with that attitude, “I think that ‘believing all women’ can rapidly be transmogrified into an ideological orthodoxy that will not serve women at all. ”

There is of course a danger of backlash with all the sexual harassment stories, but the reason that hasn’t happened yet in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein case is because when an individual is accused of sexual abuse, it’s not just one case that can’t be verified. There always turns out to be more behind it.

When Anthony Rapp made his accusation against Kevin Spacey, at the time I thought it was just an isolated case of Spacey being drunk quite a few years ago. (Though it still reflected badly on him that he would let himself get so out of control.) But according to producers on House of Cards, Spacey had been engaging in harassment fairly recently, and often enough to where it was brought up as a problem. When an accusation gets in the news, it stays in the news if it turns out to be a pattern.

There is now actually a term for how this works. Feminists Valerie Aurora and Leigh Blackwood came up with an observation they call “the Al Capone Theory.” The basis is that Al Capone had a major organized crime ring going with alcohol smuggling, but the Federal government couldn’t get him on those grounds, but they could trace his income and prosecute him for tax evasion on his assets. Aurora and Blackwood said: “We noticed a similar pattern in reports of sexual harassment and assault: often people who engage in sexually predatory behavior also faked expense reports, plagiarized writing, or stole credit for other people’s work.” In other words, even where (say) sexual harassment is hard to prove or prosecute, it may be possible to prosecute an offender for other more easily-established criminal offenses – because the kind of person who engages in sexual harassment is the kind of person who is likely to commit other crimes. “Ask around about the person who gets handsy with the receptionist, or makes sex jokes when they get drunk, and you’ll often find out that they also violated the company expense policy, or exaggerated on their résumé, or took credit for a colleague’s project.” Whether companies know the “Al Capone Theory” term or not, they are becoming more cognizant of this pattern in order to guard against it, given that such personality types can cost money for reasons other than public harrassment suits.

More directly, a lot of these sexual harassment cases gain traction because they’re not isolated incidents. When the first accusations came out against Harvey Weinstein, they destroyed his reputation, but they couldn’t be prosecuted because they were past the statute of limitations for assault. But recently the NYPD announced that it has at least one rape case that is recent enough to investigate.

The approach taken by the authors of the Al Capone Theory points towards a critical standard that addresses the serious possibility of treating men unfairly. One of the concerns of men is that the “whisper network” has the potential to destroy men over isolated, consensual encounters when there is no legal standard such as presumption of innocence. But one thing that’s overlooked with that position is that the abuses themselves are a case where men (usually men) are taking advantage of grey areas in the law and in company human resources policies, and in the reaction of the culture to women’s claims. Until recently, when women did try to work within the system, their claims were disregarded by superiors, for example in the case of Lauer. The Variety article said: “Several women told Variety they complained to executives at the network about Lauer’s behavior, which fell on deaf ears given the lucrative advertising surrounding ‘Today.’ NBC declined to comment. For most of Lauer’s tenure at ‘Today,’ the morning news show was No. 1 in the ratings, and executives were eager to keep him happy.” Whereas the standard that Aurora and Blackwood are endorsing obliges companies to review a person’s overall performance record to corroborate accusations of bad behavior, including accusations against women.

It seems as though liberals in the media and politics are taking a look at where politics have gone and then taking a look at the “sophisticated” culture they did so much to enable, at least when Bill Clinton was president. And whether they admit it or not, they’re making a connection.

Consider that however self-conscious and hypocritical liberals might seem about sexual harassment, they are at least taking a look in the mirror and cleaning up their own house.

But then consider that Donald Trump is still president.

And that Roy Moore, at least initially, was leading in the polls after the Washington Post story came out.

And it seems to me that “conservatives” are looking at self-flagellating liberals, and they’ve decided that if it looks embarrassing or hypocritical to develop a conscience too late, then clearly the best course of action is to never develop a conscience at all.

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