#Metoo, of course. Women are not going nuts for no reason. We’re fed up with feeling prickles down our spine as we walk alone on dimly lit streets. Fed up with thinking, “If he feels entitled to send me that message, what might he feel entitled to do to if he knew where I lived?” Fed up with strangers who smack their lips and murmur obscenities at us. Fed up with thinking, “No, I don’t want to go to his hotel room to discuss closing the contract. I’ll have to tell him my husband’s waiting for me to call. ‘My husband? Oh, yes, he’s pathologically jealous, bless his heart, and a bit of a gun nut…’” My husband is perfect in every way but one—he doesn’t exist—but he has served me so well over the years that I’m willing to overlook his ontological defects. I shouldn’t need him, but I do.
I’ve been fortunate. My encounters with law enforcement have been contrary to reputation: The police have taken me seriously, once arresting a stalker when he failed to heed a warning to cease and desist. But too many women have been murdered because they could not persuade the police to take them seriously. That stalker doubtless believes he was “unjustly accused” and “his life destroyed” by a hysterical woman. He’s full of it. I’ll bet he did the same thing to many women before me. Sexual predation tends to be a lifelong pattern.
Among us, it seems, lives a class of men who call to mind Caligula and Elagabalus not only in their depravity, but in their grotesque sense of impunity. Our debauched emperors, whether enthroned in Hollywood, media front offices, or the halls of Congress, truly imagined their victims had no choice but to shut up, take it, and stay silent forever. Many of these men are so physically disgusting, too—the thought of them forcing themselves on young women fills me with heaving disgust. Enough already.
All true; yet something is troubling me. Recently I saw a friend—a man—pilloried on Facebook for asking if #metoo is going too far. “No,” said his female interlocutors. “Women have endured far too many years of harassment, humiliation, and injustice. We’ll tell you when it’s gone too far.” But I’m part of that “we,” and I say it is going too far. Mass hysteria has set in. It has become a classic moral panic, one that is ultimately as dangerous to women as to men.
If you are reading this, it means I have found an outlet that has not just fired an editor for sexual harassment. This article circulated from publication to publication, like old-fashioned samizdat, and was rejected repeatedly with a sotto voce, “Don’t tell anyone. I agree with you. But no.” Friends have urged me not to publish it under my own name, vividly describing the mob that will tear me from limb to limb and leave the dingoes to pick over my flesh. It says something, doesn’t it, that I’ve been more hesitant to speak about this than I’ve been of getting on the wrong side of the mafia, al-Qaeda, or the Kremlin?
But speak I must. It now takes only one accusation to destroy a man’s life. Just one for him to be tried and sentenced in the court of public opinion, overnight costing him his livelihood and social respectability. We are on a frenzied extrajudicial warlock hunt that does not pause to parse the difference between rape and stupidity. The punishment for sexual harassment is so grave that clearly this crime—like any other serious crime—requires an unambiguous definition. We have nothing of the sort.
In recent weeks, one after another prominent voice, many of them political voices, have been silenced by sexual harassment charges. Not one of these cases has yet been adjudicated in a court of law. Leon Wieseltier, David Corn, Mark Halperin, Michael Oreskes, Al Franken, Ken Baker, Rick Najera, Andy Signore, Jeff Hoover, Matt Lauer, even Garrison Keillor—all have received the professional death sentence. Some of the charges sound deadly serious. But others—as reported anyway—make no sense. I can’t say whether the charges against these men are true; I wasn’t under the bed. But even if true, some have been accused of offenses that aren’t offensive, or offenses that are only mildly so—and do not warrant total professional and personal destruction.
The things men and women naturally do—flirt, play, lewdly joke, desire, seduce, tease—now become harassment only by virtue of the words that follow the description of the act, one of the generic form: “I froze. I was terrified.” It doesn’t matter how the man felt about it. The onus to understand the interaction and its emotional subtleties falls entirely on him. But why? Perhaps she should have understood his behavior to be harmless—clumsy, sweet but misdirected, maladroit, or tacky—but lacking in malice sufficient to cost him such arduous punishment?
In recent weeks, I’ve acquired new powers. I have cast my mind over the ways I could use them. I could now, on a whim, destroy the career of an Oxford don who at a drunken Christmas party danced with me, grabbed a handful of my bum, and slurred, “I’ve been dying to do this to Berlinski all term!” That is precisely what happened. I am telling the truth. I will be believed—as I should be.
But here is the thing. I did not freeze, nor was I terrified. I was amused and flattered and thought little of it. I knew full well he’d been dying to do that. Our tutorials—which took place one-on-one, with no chaperones—were livelier intellectually for that sublimated undercurrent. He was an Oxford don and so had power over me, sensu stricto. I was a 20-year-old undergraduate. But I also had power over him—power sufficient to cause a venerable don to make a perfect fool of himself at a Christmas party. Unsurprisingly, I loved having that power. But now I have too much power. I have the power to destroy someone whose tutorials were invaluable to me and shaped my entire intellectual life much for the better. This is a power I do not want and should not have.
Over the course of my academic and professional career, many men who in some way held a position of power over me have made lewd jokes in my presence, or reminisced drunkenly of past lovers, or confessed sexual fantasies. They have hugged me, flirted with me, on occasion propositioned me. For the most part, this male attention has amused me and given me reason to look forward to otherwise dreary days at work. I dread the day I lose my power over men, which I have used to coax them to confide to me on the record secrets they would never have vouchsafed to a male journalist. I did not feel “demeaned” by the realization that some men esteemed my cleavage more than my talent; I felt damned lucky to have enough talent to exploit my cleavage.
But what if I now feel differently? What if—perhaps moved by the testimony of the many women who have come forward in recent weeks—I were to realize that the ambient sexual culture I meekly accepted as “amusing” was in fact repulsive and loathsome? What if I now realize it did me great emotional damage, harm so profound that only now do I recognize it?
Apparently, some women feel precisely this way. Natalie Portman, for example, has re-examined her life in light of the recent news:
When I heard everything coming out, I was like, wow, I’m so lucky that I haven’t had this. And then, on reflection, I was like, okay, definitely never been assaulted, definitely not, but I’ve had discrimination or harassment on almost everything I’ve ever worked on in some way,” she said during Sunday’s candid talk at Vulture Festival L.A. The more she reexamined her experiences, other incidents come into sharp relief. “I went from thinking I don’t have a story to thinking, Oh wait, I have 100 stories. And I think a lot of people are having these reckonings with themselves, of things that we just took for granted as like, this is part of the process.
If I were suddenly to feel as Ms. Portman now feels, I could destroy them all—just by naming names and truthfully describing a flirtation or moment of impropriety. All of the interchanges I’m replaying in my mind would meet the highly elastic contemporary definition of “harassment,” a category vague enough to compass all the typical flirtation that brings joy and amusement to so many of our lives, all the vulgar humor that says, “We’re among friends, we may speak frankly.” It becomes harassment only by virtue of three words: “I felt demeaned.”
Do not mistake me for a rape apologist. Harvey Weinstein stands credibly accused of rape. He must face a real trial and grave punishment if convicted, not “therapy and counselling.” Tariq Ramadan, likewise. No civilized society tolerates rape. Many of the men whose professional reputations have recently been destroyed sure sound like they had it coming. 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 and so is Bill Clinton. Neither my certainty nor anyone else’s should be allowed to displace the law. I may be convinced, but I might also be mistaken.
These reservations aside, I am gratified that at last we all agree that a rapist—or a serial groper of random women’s genitals—should be behind bars, not the Resolute Desk. It was outrageous and unjust that we ever thought otherwise.
Revolutions against real injustice have a tendency, however, to descend into paroxysms of vengeance that descend upon guilty and innocent alike. We’re getting too close. Hysteria is in the air. The over-broad definition of “sexual harassment” is a well-known warning sign. The over-broad language of the Law of Suspects portended the descent of the French Revolution into the Terror. This revolution risks going the way revolutions so often do, and the consequences will not just be awful for men. They will be awful for women.
Harvey Weinstein must burn, we all agree. But there is a universe of difference between the charges against Weinstein and those that cost Michael Oreskes his career at NPR. It is hard to tell from the press accounts, but initial reports suggested he was fired because his accusers—both anonymous—say he kissed them. Twenty years ago. In another place of business. Since then, other reports have surfaced of what NPR calls “subtler transgressions.”
They are subtle to the point of near-invisibility. It seems Michael Oreskes liked to kiss women. Now, it is an embarrassing faux-pas to kiss a woman who does not wish to be kissed, but it happens all the time. Kissing a woman is an early stage of courtship. It is one way that men ask the question, “Would you like more?” Courtship is not a phenomenon so minor to our behavioral repertoire that we can readily expunge it from the workplace. It is central to human life. Men and women are attracted to each other; the human race could not perpetuate itself otherwise; and anyone who imagines they will cease to be attracted to each other—or act as if they were not—in the workplace, or any other place, is delusional. Anyone who imagines it is easy for a man to figure out whether a woman might like to be kissed is insane. The difficulty of ascertaining whether one’s passions are reciprocated is the theme of 90 percent of human literature and every romantic comedy or pop song ever written.
Romance involves the most complex of human emotions, desire the most powerful of human drives. It is so easy to read the signals wrong. Every honest man will tell you that at times he has misread these signals, and so will every honest woman. The insistence that an unwanted kiss is always about power, not courtship, simply isn’t a serious theory of the case—not when the punishment for this crime is so grave. Men, too, are entitled to the benefit of the doubt, and even to a presumption of innocence.
We now have, in effect, a crime that comes with a swift and draconian penalty, but no proper definition. It seems to be “sexual behavior” or “behavior that might be sexual,” committed through word, deed, or even facial expression; followed by a negative description of the woman’s emotions. Obviously this is inadequate. Human beings, male and female, are subject to human failings, including the tendency to lie, to be vengeful, to abuse power, or simply to misunderstand one another. It is hard to define sexual harassment precisely, because all of these human frailties are often involved. But we must nonetheless reason out together a definition that makes sense. Mass hysteria and making demons of men will get us nowhere we should want to go.
Finding a consensus is tricky because our social standards are rapidly changing. We appear now to be converging upon new rules for interaction between men and women—for example, “Never kiss a woman without explicitly asking her consent beforehand.” Such a rule is now the law on college campuses in some states. Whether we think the rule good or ridiculous, we can certainly agree that it is new. Those in doubt can may consult pre-2017 television and cinema, where men routinely kiss women without asking permission. Grandfathering or statutes of limitations can’t possibly be irrelevant to this, and only this, category of wrongdoing. This is not how we view any other crime. It has only recently become mandatory for Americans to purchase health insurance. Would we condemn a man for failing to purchase health insurance in 1985?
Several cases recently in the headlines are simply baffling. They do not involve the workplace—or vast discrepancies in power—at all. Perhaps there is more to the story, but from what I’ve read, the improprieties committed by the UK’s (now former) Defense Secretary Michael Fallon amount to this: He kissed a journalist—not his employee, and not someone over whom he had power, but another adult in another profession—fifteen years ago. What transmogrified Fallon’s kiss to a crime that cost him his career were these words, and only these words: “I felt humiliated, ashamed.” Had the object of his affection said, “I felt flattered,” there would be no offense.
Fallon apparently also touched another woman on the knee. Fifteen years ago. The latter incident has been reported thus:
“I calmly and politely explained to him that, if he did it again, I would punch him in the face. He withdrew his hand and that was the end of the matter.” Julia said she did not feel like she was a victim of a sexual assault, and found the incident nothing more than “mildly amusing.”
The facts as described are nothing like sexual assault. Any woman alive could tell similar stories. Many of us find such incidents, precisely as Julia said, “mildly amusing.”
There is apparently a “list” of women prepared to make similar accusations against Fallon. Secret lists are inherently sinister tools. The words “I have here in my hand a list … ” are never a salubrious portent.
Mother Jones’ editor David Corn, it seems, offered unwanted backrubs. So what? From the prose in Politico you’d think he ravished Tess of the d’Urbervilles. The accused, we are to understand, “came up behind [his accuser] and put his hands and arms around [her] body in a way that felt sexual and domineering.” He gave her a hug, in other words; but it felt to her sexual and domineering. There is no reliable way to know if a hug will feel sexual and domineering to a woman or whether she will find this disagreeable, let alone how she will feel about it twenty years from now. So the lesson to men is clear: Never hug women at work, period. But this is insane. The project of eradicating physical affection from the workplace is cruel to men and women alike, and if it is successful, we will all go nuts.
Nor does it make sense to hold all men to the same standards. Some of the accused have made entire careers out of their lewdness and exhibitionism. After revering them for decades for precisely those qualities, we are overnight scandalized to learn they are lewd and exhibitionistic. Take Louis CK. There’s an almost preternatural emotional obtuseness at work here: Did no one notice that in his stand-up routines he speaks incessantly of suicide, masturbation, self-loathing, masturbation, self-hatred, masturbation—and this is all he ever speaks of? If we’re determined to worship a comedian whose work clearly emerges from a profoundly exhibitionistic instinct and self-loathing of the deepest sort, how can we be so astonished to discover it’s not just an act? I grew up around performing artists, so perhaps my view is jaundiced. But yeah, I could have told you: Stay out of his hotel room.
My point isn’t that it’s no big deal to whack off in front of your lady friends. It’s disgusting. What Louis CK did is not as banal as offering a woman a backrub or touching her knee. But it’s exactly what you’d expect from him if you’d ever watched his routines. If the man has a delusional view of the appeal to women of watching a self-loathing man whack off, shouldn’t it be relevant to our moral assessment that we, the American public, are the ones who nourished this delusion with applause, laughter, money, and massive crowds at Madison Square Garden screaming his name? How can we suddenly be so censorious upon discovering that he took his onstage act to its logical extension in his hotel room? What makes the reaction to this all the weirder is that the women in question were comedians. Didn’t they see the potential? This is gold! It’s going to bring the house down. Sure, tell the whole world and humiliate the hell out of him—obviously he had that coming. But “outraged and shocked?” Grim faces and utter solemnity? Seriously?
The comedians, by their own account, screamed and laughed—and only later revealed they were “outraged.” They say that they shrieked with laughter because they were traumatized. But if you can’t understand why someone like Louis CK might have genuinely understood their laughter as “consent,” your emotional acumen is deficient. He says he asked first, and that they said yes, and that’s why he thought it was okay. Plausible? Of course. Really true? Who knows. But either way, I wouldn’t be surprised if now he hangs himself, because obviously, it isn’t all just an act. I expect everyone to be shocked, shocked, when he does.
In any case, none of us gets to watch Louis CK again—or Kevin Spacey, for that matter. They’re literally going to airbrush Spacey out of All The Money, like water commissar Nikolai Yezhov in that photo of the Moscow Canal. Comrade Spacey has been vaporized. He’s an unperson. Long live Comrade Ogilvy. Isn’t anyone a bit spooked by this?
Nor for the life of me can I make sense of the allegations against Leon Wieseltier. “The only problem with that dress is that it’s not tight enough,” he is reported to have said to a woman who worked for him. A lewd comment, to be sure. The daily banter of men and women the world around is full of lewd comments. At times, we have learned from The Atlantic, Wieseltier drank too much and made passes at his co-workers. That’s not a wildly rare occurrence.
Above all, this is Leon Wieseltier—a man legendary for babbling on publicly about his sexual appetites. He has always been known as a megalomaniacal asshole. Didn’t this occur to anyone at the Emerson Collective before they hired him? If they were surprised to learn that Leon was an asshole, they must have missed this Vanity Fair profile, written in 1995. He seems to have become a better man since then. At least he no longer spends the day snorting coke off of his interns’ rear ends.
Even if every allegation against him is true, do they warrant his total professional destruction? Wieseltier’s a windbag, but I would still have read any journal he edited with interest. I’m sorry I won’t have the chance.
We just can’t hold people like Louis CK and Leon Wieseltier to the same standards of probity and decorum we would—in a highly imaginary alternate universe—hold the President or a Senator from Alabama. Americans love these people precisely because they’re outrageous, lewd, and willing publicly to violate sexual and social norms. Why wouldn’t you expect Louis CK, in a hotel room, to be Louis CK, only more so? What do people imagine John Belushi was like in his hotel room? He was like John Belushi, only more so. That’s why he was found dead in his hotel room, having taken “being John Belushi” to its logical conclusion.
For that matter, isn’t anyone else a bit spooked by the ritual tenor of the confessions that always follow? The most profound mystery of the Moscow Trials was the eagerness of the victims to confess. What prompted them to say things like this?
I once more repeat that I admit that I am guilty of treason to the socialist fatherland, the most heinous of possible crimes, of the organization of kulak uprisings … as will be clear to everybody, that there were many specific things which I could not have known, and which I actually did not know, but that this does not relieve me of responsibility. … I am kneeling before the country, before the Party, before the whole people. The monstrousness of my crimes is immeasurable especially in the new stage of the struggle of the U.S.S.R. May this trial be the last severe lesson, and may the great might of the U.S.S.R. become clear to all.
Torture, of course, forced many of these confessions. But something more profound was at work. As Lavrentiy Beria said, “Show me the man and I’ll show you the crime.” Every man, in his soul, feels guilty. The confessions we are seeing now have been dredged from the same place in men’s souls.
They are all confessing in the same dazed, rote, mechanical way. It’s always the same statement: “I have come to realize that it does not matter that, at the time, I may have perceived my words as playful. It does not matter that, at the time, I may have felt that we were flirting. It does not matter that, at the time, I may have felt what I said was okay. The only thing that matters is how I made these three women feel,” said Representative Steve Lebsock. Now that is a remarkable thing to say. Why doesn’t it matter what he thought what was happening? Why would we accept as remotely rational the idea that the only thing that matters is how the women felt? The confession continues in the same vein: “It is hard for me to express how shocked I am to realize the depth of the pain I have caused and my journey now is to come to terms with my demons and I’ve brought on a team of therapists and I will be entering counselling and reflecting carefully on issues of gender inequality, power, and privilege in our society and—”
For God’s sake, why are these men all humiliating themselves? It’s not like confessing will bring forgiveness. They must all know, like Bukharin, that no matter what they say, the ritual of confession will be followed by the ritual of liquidation. If they said, “You’ve all lost your fucking minds, stop sniffing my underwear and leave me the fuck alone,” they’d meet exactly the same fate. Why didn’t Bukharin say, “To hell with you. You may kill me, but you will not make me grovel?” I used to wonder, but now I see. Am I the only one who finds these canned, rote, mechanical, brainwashed apologies deeply creepy? Isn’t anyone else put in mind of the Cultural Revolution’s Struggle Sessions, where the accused were dragged before crowds to condemn themselves and plead for forgiveness? This very form of ritual public humiliation, aimed at eliminating all traces of reactionary thinking, now awaits anyone accused of providing an unwanted backrub.
We are a culture historically disposed to moral panics and sexual hysterias. Not long ago we firmly convinced ourselves that our children were being ritually raped by Satanists. In recent years, especially, we have become prone to replacing complex thought with shallow slogans. We live in times of extremism, and black-and-white thinking. We should have the self-awareness to suspect that the events of recent weeks may not be an aspect of our growing enlightenment, but rather our growing enamorment with extremism.
We should certainly realize by now that a moral panic mixed with an internet mob is a menace. When the mob descends on a target of prominence, it’s as good as a death sentence, socially and professionally. None of us lead lives so faultless that we cannot be targeted this way. “Show me the man, and I’ll show you the crime.”
Your computer can be hacked. Do you want to live in the kind of paranoid society where everyone wonders—Who’s next? To whom is it safe to speak freely? What would this joke sound like in a deposition? Do you think only the men who have done something truly foul are at risk? Don’t kid yourself. Once this starts, it doesn’t stop. The Perp Walk awaits us all.
Given the events of recent weeks, we can be certain of this: From now on, men with any instinct for self-preservation will cease to speak of anything personal, anything sexual, in our presence. They will make no bawdy jokes when we are listening. They will adopt in our presence great deference to our exquisite sensitivity and frailty. Many women seem positively joyful at this prospect. The Revolution has at last been achieved! But how could this be the world we want? Isn’t this the world we escaped?
Who could blame a man who does not enjoy the company of women under these circumstances, who would just rather not have women in the workplace at all? This is a world in which the Mike Pence rule—“Never be alone with a woman”—seems eminently sensible. Such a world is not good for women, however—as many women were quick to point out when we learned of the Mike Pence rule. Our success and advancement relies upon the personal and informal relationships we have with our colleagues and supervisors. But who, in this climate, could blame a venerable Oxford don for refusing to take the risk of teaching a young woman, one-on-one, with no witnesses? Mine was the first generation of women allowed the privilege of unchaperoned tutorials with Balliol’s dons. Will mine also be the last? Like so many revolutions, the sexual revolution risks coming full circle, returning us right where we started—fainting at bawdy jokes, demanding the return of ancient standards of chivalry, so delicate and virginal that a man’s hand on our knee causes us trauma. Women have long been victims, but now we are in so many respects victims no longer. We have more status, prestige, power, and personal freedom than ever before. Why would we want to speak and act as though we were overwhelmingly victims, as we actually used to be?
Women, I’m begging you: Think this through. We are fostering a climate in which men legitimately fear us, where their entire professional and personal lives can be casually destroyed by “secret lists” compiled by accusers they cannot confront, by rumors on the internet, by thrilled, breathless reporting denouncing one after another of them as a pig, often based only on the allegation that they did something all-too-human and none-too-criminal like making a lewd joke. Why would we even want men to be subject to such strenuous, arduous taboos against the display of their sexuality? These taboos, note carefully, resemble in non-trivial ways those that have long oppressed women. In a world with such arduous taboos about male purity and chastity, surely, it is rational for men to have as little to do with women as possible. What’s in this for us?
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? I’m not sure, to be honest. I can hazard a few speculations. We’ve in the past thirty years experienced a massive restructuring of gender roles. When Hanna Rosin wrote her 2010 Atlantic essay, “The End of Men,” she was not exaggerating. “What if,” she asked, “the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than to men?” What if? Because it seems very much that it is. “The postindustrial economy is indifferent to men’s size and strength,” she wrote. “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.” America’s future, Rosin argued, belongs to women. “Once you open your eyes to this possibility, the evidence is all around you.” And it is.
Let us put this in the crudest of Freudian terms. Women have castrated men en masse. Perhaps this panic is happening now because our emotions about this achievement are ambivalent. Perhaps our ambivalence is so taboo that we cannot admit it to ourselves, no less discuss it rationally. Is it possible that we 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, a tidy achievement that simultaneously allows us to express our ambivalence by shrieking at them in horror.
The problem with Freudian interpretations, as Popper observed, is that they’re unfalsifiable. They’re not science. But they’re tempting. Certainly, something weird is going on here. It is taking place in the aftermath of the most extraordinary period of liberation and achievement women have ever enjoyed. No, of course we don’t want the old brutes back. But perhaps we miss something about that world. Wouldn’t it be comforting, for example, at a time like this, to believe what women used to believe—that responsible men were in charge of the ship of state, and especially our nuclear weapons?
Moral panics have a context. They emerge at times of general anxiety. Scholars of the Salem witch trials point to Indian attacks, the political reverberations from the English Civil War, crop failures, and smallpox outbreaks. Residents of colonial Massachusetts filtered these apprehensions through the prism of their Calvinist theology. If their moral panic was prompted by the anxieties of their era and adapted to the theology of their times, why should we be any different?
I’m not sure what, precisely, is now driving us over the edge. But I’d suggest looking at the obvious. The President of the United States is Donald J. Trump. Our country is not what we thought it was. We’re a fading superpower in a world of enemies. The people now running the United States cannot remotely persuade us, even for five minutes, that they know what they’re doing and are capable of keeping us safe. Who among us doesn’t feel profound anxiety about this? Daddy-the-President turns out to be a hapless dotard. Women who had hopefully imagined rough men standing ready to do violence on our behalf so we could sleep peacefully in our beds at night have discovered instead—psychologically speaking—that Daddy is dead.
That’s enough to make anyone go berserk. Perhaps this realization is powering some of the hysteria we’re now seeing about sexual harassment. Rapid social and technological change, a lunatic at the helm, no one knows what tomorrow will bring—we’re primed for a moral panic par excellence. That it has something to do with men and male beastliness is an adaptation to the theology of our era: American culture has been obsessed with gender—the rarer and odder the better—for at least the past decade. What’s more, we really do have an unreconstructed slob in the Oval Office, one who is genuinely offensive to women. Some of the anger directed at these poor groveling schmucks is surely—really—meant for him.
No woman in her right mind would say, “I want the old world back.” We know what that meant for women. Nor would we even consciously think it. But perhaps, instead, we are fantasizing that the old world has come back, rather than confronting something a great deal more frightening: It’s never coming back. We are the grown-ups now. We are in charge.
Maybe it doesn’t matter where the sources of the present moral panic lie. But could we at least get enough of a grip to realize that it is a moral panic—and knock it off? Women, I’m begging you: Please.