Harvey, #MeToo, and Me

Even before the #MeToo moment arrived on social media yesterday I was reading Marie Howe’s poem “Sixth Grade” a few times per week. It starts with her telling the story of a day when a gang of boys tied her and her friend to a garage door with a clothesline and mock-raped them both with the dried leg of a deer. It ends when she finally gets through to a boy she knew, her brother’s friend, who happens to be named Charlie:

“…And then more softly, and looking directly at him, I said, Charlie.

“And he said Stop. And they said What? And he said Stop it.
And they did, quickly untying the ropes, weirdly quiet,
Mary Lou still weeping. And Charlie? Already gone.”

So little effort on men’s part makes such a big difference in stopping sexual harassment, and yet we feel somehow like it’s a grand sacrifice worthy of hand-wringing. We can forgive Charlie from Howe’s poem for slinking away, since the repercussions among sixth-graders in the 1960s may have been real, but among adults 50 years later, what are we really sacrificing?

I speak with some authority on the subject, since I’ve been a sexual harasser myself. I hesitate to say so this week, since #MeToo has been lumping all kinds of sexual harassment together, and the differences do matter, but that’s the nature of moments like this. We didn’t speak up when it was easy to; now we’re going to be embarrassed into it when it’s hard.

Over the years female coworkers have had to remind me when my sexual jokes have gone too far, something I can own up to. Now that I’m a supervisor, and older, I try to make up for it by being a good mentor to the younger women, taking complaints seriously, and proactively establishing a workplace vocabulary that’s  all good vibes and yet manages to feel more free-spirit than apparatchik-speak. One detail from the Weinstein scandal that spoke to me was Gwyneth Paltrow saying she recalled thinking, “I thought you were my Uncle Harvey.” Once you say anything about how you want to create “a family,” and once they call you uncle, abusing that trust in any way, big or small, makes you a real asshole.

I have a harder time forgiving myself for how mean I was as a sixth- and seventh-grader. One girl in particular, I used to intimidate, to the great amusement of my male friends. Like Groucho and Harpo, I had a chaotic sense of humor that was marred by spasms of outright cruelty. In retrospect we were intimidated by her, whose only crime was being the prettiest, most mature-looking girl in a room full of horny 12- and 13-year-olds. It’s all fun and games till you consider that she’s a human also.

I remember seeing her again a few years later. We must have been around 16, at an adult party I was attending with my parents, she with her 18-year-old boyfriend, smoking cigarettes around the pool table (the good old days!). I tried to be friendly and got completely frosted out, as in, it wasn’t yet time to forgive and forget.

I should add that I was on the receiving end of a serious bout of harassment when I was in college, and I try being philosophical about that too. I have zero interest in bringing it up and bothering some old closet case about it. On the other hand, I haven’t exactly checked on his well-being lately either.

It hurt yesterday, reading accounts of harassment my friends went through as kids. I would just add that many of the “perps” were kids too. I was by any other measure a “good kid,” but somewhere there’s a story in which I am that scumbag who harasses. I wasn’t as good at algebra as Harvey Weinstein was at producing films, but I could do the simple math: I read my history book cover to cover by October, and wrote book reports that would have passed in high school, and I wasn’t about to get into any serious trouble.

harvey-weinstein-meryl-streepMy only other word of caution is about the Puritan impulse that’s always close at hand on the American Left. “There was a type of man whom the Puritans never tired of denouncing,” as Edmund Morgan wrote in The Puritan Family: an upstanding family man, a successful farmer and conscientious citizen, who was nonetheless on his way to Hell. As if the purity of one’s heart is the true measure of a person, not the net sum of one’s actions.

Harvey Weinstein’s accomplishments, like Elliot Spitzer’s, make his fall all the more spectacular, but I see them as mitigating, evidence for the defense. Rutgers, my alma mater, should absolutely keep the money Weinstein gave to establish a chair in honor of Gloria Steinem. If the Devil dropped a solar-powered water purifier in Puerto Rico this week, I’d say “Hook that thing up.” Weinstein’s done, he’s not going to corrupt an academic department from his house in East Hampton, but I digress.

I’m not surprised that so few men spoke up with much more than a polite “like” button yesterday. To say “I support you” is to risk seeming like you’re glossing over your own complicity with sexual harassment, but to say “I’m guilty” requires a story, and, like I did, reminding friends that the differences of degree matter:

Weinstein’s asking an actress to sleep with him or else lose her job is harassment, and so is telling a blow job joke at the wrong table at a holiday party. One of them should get you run out of town. One should get you a “What the hell were you thinking?” talking-to. And those of us who rely on, or have relied on, that wiggle room owe it to our communities to take the lead when serious harassment happens. We should, like Scott Rosenberg, speak up when the time is right. There is no jury with the power to say we’re good or bad people. There’s just, always, the question of what to do now. Speaking up last year would have been more courageous than this year, but this year is better than next.

Years ago Kevin Smith described Harvey Weinstein as a “true vulgarian,” as is Kevin Smith, one reason I’ve never been a fan. While writing an arts feature about a film exhibitor in Minneapolis around 2000, my subject told me, “The Weinstein brothers are less ethical than Bob Guccione,” and I thought it was hyperbole. I can’t say I’m surprised now, but the big story here isn’t the “monster” or “ogre” – a word I’ve seen more in the past week than I had in the past decade.

The big story is the list of debonair guys and civilized ladies, all the aesthetes who went along because they were too protective of their own good fortune to ask any uncomfortable questions. The more of us that speak plainly about everyday harassment, and get in the habit of calling each other out and accepting guilt and moving on, the more we’ll see that it’s all kinds of decent, upstanding people who commit the petty offenses that create a sexual hierarchy. And the more likely we’ll get around to saying, “What about the boss?” And like Charlie from the poem, a single word from our mouths can stop it. Let’s just try not wait to be embarrassed into it.

 

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