A type specimen is, in biology, the first officially named version of an animal or plant that comes to represent in the characteristics of the species in the popular imagination. I have found, over the years, that humans too utter type specimens—reactive statements that embody a worldview or a fallacy or the way the former is stuck full of the latter like a porcupine with quills. Their value is in demonstrating clearly and dramatically how some minds work or how some beliefs act on us or why shit is fucked up and crazy.
On Thursday the 13th a man uttered so perfect a type specimen of misogyny in all its loopily malicious self-delusion that I made a screenshot of it as if to enter it into the biological record. This was a good move because the misogynist in question after fervently defending his tweet eventually deleted it at some point the next day.
It was about the then-anonymous woman who, in a letter to a Democratic senator and congresswoman, said that she had been assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh but successfully fought him off, when they were both high-school students. The man who tweeted was an Ivy League lawyer named Ed Whelan, and he tweeted at 8:46 pm—close to midnight in the nation’s capital, if he was indeed in the town where he works as the head of the right-wing Ethics and Public Policy Center—which is late to be tweeting about politics, and one could speculate on what was going on in his head, but he kind of gives speculation a bad name or maybe a black eye in his tweet. He tweeted this widening gyre of fantasy about his colleague Brett Kavanaugh’s then-anonymous accuser:
“Wonder if accuser will say she was sober at time of alleged incident at drinking party. If drunk, how drunk? Cognitive dysfunction, impaired memory, mistaken identity, all compounded by 35 years? (I am of course not saying her drunkeness would excuse anyone else’s conduct.)”
It is magnificent in its march, addressing in the first sentence not what she said but what she might say if challenged, which is itself a way to challenge her. She will say it; should we believe her? Perhaps this lawyer pictures himself cross-examining her and destroying her in front of a jury. By the second sentence he’s shifted the focus from whether she’d say she was sober to how drunk she was, although there is no basis to think that she was drunk. Then he fills in the ladies and gentlemen of his imaginary jury on all the deleterious effects of drunkenness, including mistaken identity. Maybe this person who accused Kavanaugh confused him with someone else for 35 years! And then by the end of the statement, he’s talking about her drunkenness as though it’s been established. It sounds as though he’s convinced himself, on the basis of his own testimony out of thin air and a deep commitment to ramming Kavanaugh’s nomination through (he’s been supporting the nomination in various public ways; the two men worked in the Bush Jr. administration together).
This is a lot for Whelan to imagine about a woman about whom he then knew nothing beyond the summary of a letter she wrote describing an attack by Kavanaugh at a party. As the New Yorker put it, “She claimed in the letter that Kavanaugh and a classmate of his, both of whom had been drinking, turned up music that was playing in the room to conceal the sound of her protests, and that Kavanaugh covered her mouth with his hand. She was able to free herself.“ The account adds that “the woman said that the memory had been a source of ongoing distress for her, and that she had sought psychological treatment as a result.” Since then Christine Blasey Ford has come forward, telling the Washington Post that “I feel like my civic responsibility is outweighing my anguish and terror about retaliation.” For the record, “She said that each person had one beer but that Kavanaugh and Judge had started drinking earlier and were heavily intoxicated.”
So many things make this tweet about that incident a specimen we could put in the museum of misogyny. The first is an old habit of men of this ilk of asserting that women are not to be believed but men are. There is a long brutal tradition of asserting that men are credible but women are incredible, men are objective, women are subjective, and this guy has just treated us to how a man might argue that, and in doing so he has unwittingly succeeded in demonstrating something else. He has imagined reasons why she might be unreliable and he seems to give them a credence that maybe we shouldn’t give our imaginings.
Perhaps it’s a model of how men convince themselves their fantasies and delusions are fact. That he’s not aware of what he’s doing—not aware of his subjectivity—is part of the problem, not in this case alone but in so many like it. In a follow-up tweet he said, “Amazed to see how many people responding furiously to this tweet seem to deny that drunkenness could impair a person’s cognitive faculties.” He’s defending what he wishes they were asserting, rather than what they are, since there’s a major difference between quibbling about the nature of drunkenness and about whether someone was drunk.“There is a long brutal tradition of asserting that men are credible but women are incredible, men are objective, women are subjective.”
It would have been a more exotic specimen if ones just like it weren’t swarming out of the woodwork (which means, maybe, that they are in the termite family?). The day before this iconic tweet, the New York Times reported on the allegations about Les Moonves, the now former CEO of CBS:
“We are going to stay in this meeting until midnight if we need to until we get an agreement that we stand 100 percent behind our C.E.O., and there will be no change in his status,” said one board member, William Cohen, a former congressman and senator who was defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, according to directors who heard the remarks and other people who were briefed on them.
Another director, Arnold Kopelson, an 83-year-old producer who won a Best Picture Oscar for Platoon, was even stronger in his defense of Mr. Moonves, the directors and others said. “I don’t care if 30 more women come forward and allege this kind of stuff,” Mr. Kopelson said in a meeting soon after the conference call. “Les is our leader and it wouldn’t change my opinion of him.”
These powerful men are asserting that they can have whatever facts they want and make the ones they don’t go away. Indeed, these defenders were organizing meetings behind the back of the female majority shareholder and board member, Shari Redstone, who took the allegations seriously. They don’t care what facts women have, because women’s facts can be gotten rid of, and indeed the whole long arc of justice now crashing down that we call #MeToo has been about whether women may be in possession of facts and whether anyone will bother to hear out those facts or believe them or having believed them allow those facts to have consequences.
We began before the dramatic events that launched this #MeToo era with warm-ups. How many women would it take to outweigh Bill Cosby’s word? Ten? Twenty? Thirty? Sixty? But what it really took to outweigh Cosby was, finally, a media and justice system and society that was willing to hear those women and let their testimony be consequential. Because this is what’s really come to my attention of late: that we are not talking about isolated incidents of men who assault women (and sometimes other men): we are talking about elaborate social systems that cover up and protect those men and punish those women more if they don’t silently accept their punishment.
Take the report Buzzfeed published the same day as the New York Times piece on Moonves’s defenders, that “a former Michigan State University athlete alleged in a new lawsuit that she was drugged, raped, and impregnated by disgraced gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.” She told her coach who told the school’s athletic director and then she told the school’s police; the two women were thwarted; the lawsuit asserts “not only did Defendant Michigan State University have knowledge that Defendant Nassar sexually abused and sexually assaulted minors, but that it would also go to great lengths to conceal this conduct.” We know that Weinstein’s crimes were known to many in his production company, that they required the cooperation of assistants who lured victims in and then left them alone with Weinstein, that they required lawyers and higher-ups in the firm to negotiate nondisclosure agreements and payoffs, that they required the services of spies to go after women who might talk, required an army of accomplices.
Imagine that we were, decades ago, a society that listened to women, and that the careers of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Les Moonves, Roger Ailes, Larry Nassar had been stopped in their tracks. Hundreds of lives would be better, but also the very news and entertainment world we live in might be different, and better. Everything would be different. Women who work at McDonald’s and farmworkers from Florida to California have also been addressing the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault, as have California janitors, who went on a hundred-mile march to Sacramento to bear witness to the chronic injustice they’ve endured. The problem is everywhere. These high-profile cases give us detailed specimens to examine so we can understand the species, and it’s important to recognize how widespread the species is and how it impacts people who clean offices at night as well as those who write TV scripts by day.
For a long time women who had been sexually assaulted had the facts on their side, but the men who assaulted them and their accomplices controlled the narrative, including the business of who would be heard and believed. It’s in that light that Whelan’s tweet unfolds as a perfect type specimen.
I just read Tara Westover’s gripping memoir Educated, and deep into the narrative she hits the point where her family—fundamentalist Mormon, semi-survivalist, utterly patriarchal—insists on denying the reality of her brother’s horrific serial violence and psychological abuse against her and her sister that everyone else in the family has witnessed. The sisters are being asked to destroy their own ability to perceive reality, to distrust their own memory, to surrender the right to decide what is true. The structure of male authority requires the fiction of unbreakable male legitimacy, which requires the denial of what everyone knows. They will be destroyed that a man may be intact, and his right to abuse may be intact, and everyone will be crazy in this system, because they will all be denying what happened. This is the family-scale version of Orwell’s “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” Authoritarianism too begins at home.
She writes about the way her memories of her family became “ominous, indicting… This monster child stalked me for a month before I found a logic to banish her: that I was likely insane. If I was insane, everything could be made to make sense. If I was sane nothing could.” Make sense here means correspond to the official acceptable version of her family story. Testimony from other family members, the dissenting minority, and an outside witness and then another helped her recognize that she was sane and nothing made sense, or rather that it made a different kind of sense than her family would accept. Her book is about making her own independent sense of it all as she emerged into the larger world from a domestic sphere defined by her father’s delusions and fanaticism.
This is the horrible conundrum of our two-faced society: we officially condemn rape and molestation, harassment and abuse, but too many within that “we” have also often insisted that those things did not happen when they did, and this denial is part of the fiction that men are objective, women are subjective, so subjective we must find them crazy, delusional—or maybe drunk at the time and prone to mistaken identity. Westover is one among many who has told us how this system can make women believe this of themselves, even demands it of us.“Convention has it that truth is based on facts and evidence and empirical observation, but it’s often, in all things social and political, determined by who has power.”
TV writer Megan Ganz was extensively harassed by her boss, and in January of this year that boss issued a rare, genuine, extensive apology that included acknowledgment of what he’d done. She said two compelling things about it. One was about “the relief I’d feel just hearing him say these things actually happened. I didn’t dream it. I’m not crazy.” Another was, “it took me years to believe in my talents again,” because she had been given duplicitous messages about whether she was genuinely admired for her ability or that was part of a come-on. In other words if we unpack the trauma often described as the effect of abuse, we find in it an undermining of the victim’s ability to trust her own perception and capacity, a handicapping of the ability to function in any arena whatsoever.
Convention has it that truth is based on facts and evidence and empirical observation, but it’s often, in all things social and political, determined by who has power. “There is no law, only enforcement,” a Black anti-rape activist quipped this weekend. Our society defines truth as a valuable possession to which some people have inherent ownership and others do not, no matter what has transpired and who’s raped or lynched who and what the evidence might show. The novel To Kill a Mockingbird is about whether a black man may own truth and the unsatisfactory answer is that if a white man decides to defend him among white men he can have a small helping. Men with power magnify other men with power, sometimes by commissioning articles by or in defense of men who’ve assaulted women and verbal attacks on those women who were physically attacked or who spoke up for them, as we’ve seen in various New York publications this year.
The New York Review of Books’ editor-in-chief saw fit to give Jian Ghomeshi 7,000 words to weasel around his history of violence and its consequences. Ghomeshi lied about his brutal attacks preemptively, as the stories were breaking four years ago—he issued a Facebook screed saying he was being stigmatized as a member of an oppressed minority, people who practice BDSM. But as actual BDSM practitioners pointed out, consent is fundamental to their love life, and the women who came forward told grim stories of being assaulted suddenly, without warning.
Here are portions of accounts by women from the original Toronto Star report in October of 2014, in a piece that had the kind of impact in Canada that Ronan Farrow’s recent reporting has had in the USA:
… he delivered three sharp punches to the side of her head while she lay on the floor… He began kissing her forcefully and then “put his hands around my neck and choked me…” She alleges Ghomeshi roughly threw her against the wall and kissed and fondled her forcefully. She states that she then performed fellatio on Ghomeshi “just to get out of there.” …Ghomeshi slammed her against a cement wall and she dropped her belongings. When she knelt to pick them up, he choked her from behind and struck her across the head. She says he demanded that she kneel, then hit her repeatedly about the head while she stared up in shock. She asked him about bruising, and he laughed and replied that he knew how to hit her so there wouldn’t be any. He hit her again…
The cover of the Ghomeshi issue of the New York Review of Books is emblazoned “The Fall of Men,” which is a way to frame the rise of women as an unfortunate thing.
Isaac Chotiner of Slate asked NYRB editor Ian Buruma about the charges brought against Ghomeshi, mentioning “punching women against their will.” Buruma replied with a series of sentences whose vagueness suggests something fragile dissolving in a puddle. He said, “Those are the allegations, but as we both know, sexual behavior is a many-faceted business. Take something like biting. Biting can be an aggressive or even criminal act. It can also be construed differently in different circumstances. I am not a judge of exactly what he did.” I am not a judge is supposed to sound reasonable, liberal, but in these sentences it seems to mean, I don’t care what the women said; either I am ignorant (ignorance is strength) or I am indifferent. I don’t want those facts.
In court they were allegations, and in court Ghomeshi’s lawyer ripped into them, because in the legal system we settle not for truth, exactly, but for who can more forcefully argue. Out of court they were stories told by women who were reluctant or fearful to speak up, to journalists who felt they had enough credibility to publish. Many women who did not know each other told stories of the same kind of sudden assault. Ghomeshi lied at the outset; is there a reason to assume that at some point thereafter he became a reliable witness? (It’s worth remembering that perpetrators of sexual and gender abuse routinely lie, as most people accused of crimes do.) As Jeet Heer put it in the New Republic,
The New York Review of Books lets Jian Ghomeshi whitewash his past… Though guaranteed to generate backlash for its personal exculpation marinated in self-pity, the piece’s egotistical approach also obscures the facts of the case.
“Until the lion learns how to write every story will glorify the hunter,” says an African proverb. But what if the lionesses write eloquently but the editors prefer the hunters’ version? Shutting up lionesses is standard, and so is exonerating hunters. Harper’s has a new piece out by a perpetrator, and New York Magazine just published a piece distorting the facts (as described in the custody ruling) of the Woody Allen molestation case and maligning Dylan Farrow all over again. The New York Times reports on how another hunter went after a lioness: “Jeff Fager, who was only the second person in 50 years to oversee 60 Minutes, was fired for sending a text message that threatened the career of a CBS reporter, Jericka Duncan, who was looking into allegations of sexual harassment leveled against him and Mr. Moonves.” Rebecca Traister wrote early in the flood of #MeToo stories last year “we see that the men who have had the power to abuse women’s bodies and psyches throughout their careers are in many cases also the ones in charge of our political and cultural stories.” And those stories were, in both politics and entertainment, centered on men—women in television have described how Moonves shut them out—and on male legitimacy.
Canute the Great, son of Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Norway, Denmark and England, sits, in the famous fable about him, at the edge of the sea and commands the sea to stop: his point is that he’s not actually in charge of the tides, but it might also be read as a story about his being a decent politician who acknowledges the limits of his puissance in the face of the facts. It’s easy to imagine an authoritarian who insists that the sea has obeyed him, or, indeed, a president who insists that 3,000 people did not die in Puerto Rico.
One of the rights that the powerful often assume is the power to dictate reality. As Westover’s family did, as Cosby and Moonves and their supporters did. As Karl Rove did in his famous sneer about the “reality-based community” during the height of the Bush Administration’s power. That was when Kavanaugh was toiling away for the regime that was prone to inventing weapons of mass destruction and imagining that torture could extract useful information from its victims, rather than that torture always tortures the truth too. (In his 2006 judicial hearing, Kavanaugh denied having had anything to do with the torture programs, but some Democrats do not believe him.) The current president is seemingly convinced that through sheer insistence and aggression you can dictate reality, and you cannot regard this as mere delusion, because it often does work for these figures. Ignorance is strength.
Canute is great because he’s not the Emperor whose nonexistent new clothes the courtiers obediently admire. He recognizes that facts are beyond his control. Hans Christian Anderson’s biting fairy tale is about how people go along with the delusions and denials of the powerful, though in his story the emperor is a fool, not a conspirator. But in the case of so many of these men insisting that their colleagues are innocent and their accusers incredible it’s not even new clothes we’re supposed to admire, but old rags.
I don’t know what Kavanaugh did or didn’t do in the early 1980s, but I know that discrediting particular women and constructing narratives in which women are unreliable narrators and men are in charge of the truth are among the emperor’s old rags, and I’d like to make a bonfire of them. Until then, I find it useful to collect type specimens and tell the truth to the best of my ability about this horrible tangle and try to map or machete some paths out of it.
Listen: Paul Holdengraber talks to Rebecca Solnit about how subtly cultural shifts happen, the value of preaching to the choir, and Solnit’s early life in California.