Saturday, March 31, 2018

Willful blindness on sexual abuse

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Female farm workers demonstrating against sexual abuse

by Frank Brenner

The following post is a continuation of a previous one, “Some thoughts on Weinstein”. This one is a critique of the positions of the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) and its leader David North. There is a third part to follow which will discuss due process and consent, among other issues related to #MeToo.

By now we've had #MeToo and the backlash against it and some backlash against the backlash. For me the essential problem with #MeToo is that it has created a climate where there's no distinction between being a prick and a predator. A clumsy come-on or even an inadvertent gesture can now lead to accusations of assault, which can have devastating consequences for the accused. It can also end up demonizing half the human race. As I'll get to in a later installment, though, there is a lot of complexity lurking behind these simple, sensible statements. The messiness of the debate over #MeToo ultimately comes out of the messiness of human sexuality, compounded by the constraints of a fundamentally inhuman society.

But before that it's necessary to draw a distinction between criticism of #MeToo that is legitimate and criticism that isn't. In the latter category I would put criticism that serves to downplay or marginalize the social scourge of sexual abuse. And that's precisely what it seems to me the WSWS is guilty of. They have little or nothing to say about sexual abuse (including as it applies to working class women) but they have a lot to say in defense of powerful or prominent men who've been accused of such abuse. If you read the WSWS, every revelation that has come out of #MeToo is false, reactionary, a witch-hunt. But that is nonsense. The exposure of powerful figures like Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Bill O'Reilly and Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn as sexual predators makes the world a better place for women, albeit only slightly so. Actually, David North bridles at the term 'predator', which he denounces as a modern-day version of the Puritans' Scarlet Letter. Does that mean it shouldn't apply to Weinstein or Moore or O'Reilly? Or Bill Cosby … or Donald Trump? It's true that some of the accusations that have come out of #MeToo are probably false or exaggerated, but that doesn't warrant a blanket dismissal of all accusations. When someone is falsely accused of murder, that is a travesty of justice, but it is even more of a travesty to ignore the murder itself. If you read the WSWS on this issue, the latter is just the sort of travesty they commit.

A few facts: The Center for Disease Control finds that 1 in 5 women (compared to 1 in 71 men) will experience rape or attempted rape at least once in their lifetimes. In 2015 there were 90,000 rapes reported to police, but as is widely known, rape is a greatly under-reported crime. The National Crime Victimization Survey, which tries to measure incidents which went unreported, estimated that in the same year the real figure was over 400,000. These are appalling figures, and even if we reduce them by as much as half to account for any murkiness in the definition of rape, that would make it 1 in 10 women who will experience rape or attempted rape at some point in their lives, and those are still appalling figures. It doesn't mean that women live in a permanent state of fear, but it does mean that for a great many women, probably most, there is always a worry at the back of their minds. And you see evidence of that in everyday situations. As for instance: is there a woman anywhere who doesn't think twice about walking down a street alone at night?

This social reality is a blank page on the WSWS. The website has no section concerning sexual harassment or assault or indeed anything relating to the rights of women, and to the extent that these issues are ever raised, they are only done so in passing. You never see any programmatic demands or meetings or campaigns where these issues are highlighted.

A case in point is the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal. The WSWS didn't devote a single article to this story. It is, according to Wikipedia, “one of the biggest sexual abuse scandals in sports history.” It involved, at last count, 265 girls and young women who were molested by Nassar, who worked as the chief team doctor for USA Gymnastics as well as for Michigan State University. Nassar was tied in to a network of gym owners, coaches and staff involved in the abuse of female athletes, mostly children, that went on for two decades. You would think that anyone concerned about the rights of women – to say nothing of a supposedly Marxist publication (and, one might add, a publication based in Michigan where this story played out) – would want to cover this story in some depth, examine how perpetrators like Nassar were allowed to operate for so long, how authorities ignored or covered up his crimes, and what this says about the whole culture of high performance athletics and especially the exploitability (sexually, commercially and for national prestige) of young female bodies. The WSWS looked at none of this. The one mention of the story is a paragraph in an article on the winter Olympics in Korea.

The WSWS does have plenty of sympathy, but typically for the alleged perpetrators, figures like Weinstein, actor Kevin Spacey and conductor James Levine, among others. Some of this is understandable: there is indeed an element of tragedy in the downfall of these talented men. But surely that has to be balanced by some sympathy for their alleged victims. If the accusations were patently false that would be one thing, but that isn't the case with these men: there are multiple accusers who recount similar stories, and each of these men had an 'everybody knew' reputation. Whether any of these accusations ever stand up in court is another matter (which I'll get to later) but legal justice isn't always – and shouldn't necessarily be – the final arbiter in such matters. Does anyone seriously believe that Nicole Simpson wasn't murdered by her husband?

Kevin Spacey is a good example here. The WSWS was quick to come to his defense and denounce the accusations against him as a witch-hunt. Their reaction to the initial accuser, a young actor, was to try to discredit him: “On Sunday, actor Anthony Rapp, for reasons best known to himself, accused Spacey of making sexual advances to him some thirty years ago when was 14 and Spacey was 26.” For reasons best known to himself?? Rapp may or may not be telling the truth but the fact that he waited a long time to make the accusation is anything but unusual. If the WSWS paid any attention to this issue, they would know that it is  common for victims of sexual abuse to stay silent for long periods of time, especially if the experience was traumatic (which is likely the case if you're 14) and/or they feel their stories won't be believed.

Since that initial accusation, 15 more people have come forward to accuse Spacey of assaulting them sexually (groping seems to be a common complaint, though there is at least one accusation of attempted rape). This includes eight people who worked with him on the tv series House of Cards. It also includes another person who claims to have had a sexual relationship with Spacey when he was 14 and Spacey was 24. In addition, there are 20 people associated with the Old Vic theater company who signed statements alleging sexual misconduct by Spacey during his 11 years as artistic director, with three of these people having contacted police. These are a lot of accusations over a long stretch of time, and involving different groups Spacey was associated with, which at least gives the accusations plausibility. And yet so far as I can tell these further accusations have gone unreported on the WSWS.

Which isn't to say that it's wrong to be sympathetic to Spacey. His erasure from the Ridley Scott movie All the Money in the World is chilling and brings to mind victimizations in witch-hunts like McCarthyism. But the analogy between #MeToo and McCarthyism (made repeatedly on the WSWS) is a superficial one. Scott reshot Spacey's scenes in the film (replacing him with Christopher Plummer) for  mercenary reasons – because he didn't want the scandal surrounding Spacey to sink the film and jeopardize the investments of his producers. There wasn't anything directly political about Scott's action, as reprehensible as it was; indeed, this kind of cold-blooded financial calculation is standard practice in Hollywood. In the case of McCarthyism, the witch-hunt was totally political, the purpose being to purge left-wing activists and left-wing culture from the US political scene. Those activists had abused no one; on the contrary, what they were being victimized for was something admirable, their resistance to an oppressive social system. There is nothing admirable about what Spacey is alleged to have done, and even if the accusations against him are only partly true, he bears responsibility for what's befallen him, and his victims deserve more sympathy than he does.

Demonstration in support of the Hollywood Ten victims of McCarthyism

Nor is #MeToo as a movement comparable to McCarthyism. It is true that at times there has been a lynch-mob atmosphere on social media connected to #MeToo, but that is hardly unique to #MeToo. On the contrary, it seems an endemic feature (at least in our times) of platforms like Twitter, Reddit and Facebook, which all too often become a breeding ground for trolling and social aggression. It's also true that in the welter of voices that have become associated with #MeToo, there are establishment celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and strident purveyors of identity politics, whose political agendas go from cynical to sinister. But much of this is what you would expect from an upsurge of spontaneous outrage over sexual abuse and decades of frustration over the failure to do much about it by official society, an upsurge that is inevitably going to be very confused given the absence of a broad-based radicalization in the working class. When it came to McCarthyism, there wasn't anything grassroots (or confused) about it, it was a full-throated political witch-hunt by powerful elites in the government and mass media. (The WSWS tries to make out that #MeToo is a conspiracy concocted by the New York Times and the Democrats, but they offer no evidence to back this up. Given their willful blindness to the scope of sexual abuse, it makes sense from their point of view to explain away #MeToo as a conspiracy, but this says more about North and company than it does about #MeToo.)

If we look deeper at the WSWS coverage of #MeToo, two aspects emerge about their attitude to sexual abuse: first that it isn't really about sex and second that it isn't such a big problem.

The first aspect is evident in their initial article on Weinstein: “The real key to Weinstein’s behavior, assuming the accusations to be true, is wealth. The scandal is not about Weinstein personally and his psychological make-up. His is a widespread form of abuse. The common denominator is that the abuse is carried out by those with money and power. It is not about over-active hormones, but a brutal expression of the type of pressure placed upon people: if you want to keep your job, this is what you must do …The right of certain people to act like this, and get away with it, is bestowed upon them by money.”

The claim here is that the Weinstein scandal isn't about sex but about “money and power.” Why should this be either/or? Why can't it be about money and power AND ALSO about sex? After all Weinstein isn't a Bernie Madoff or some crooked congressman. Take away the sex in Weinstein’s case and there is no scandal at all.

There is also the claim that what Weinstein allegedly did “is a widespread form of abuse”. Just how widespread we are told in a later paragraph: “But this sort of extortion of sexual favors is not simply part of Hollywood, it’s part of the American business and corporate culture as a whole, part of the brutality of social relations in the US. How would the New York Times or any major enterprise hold up under scrutiny? Sexual assault or coercion is vastly under-reported in factories (where today union officials have joined supervisors as the guilty parties) and other work places, in the US armed forces, in the vast gulag of local, state and federal jails and prisons, among low-paid and immigrant workers and in all the countless situations in America where the weak find themselves at the mercy of the powerful.”

This is pretty unequivocal: sexual abuse is rampant in America. And it is “vastly under-reported” – including by the WSWS itself, one might add!

But there is also something askew about this analysis. It paints a simplistic picture of abuse as being committed solely by the powerful against the weak. While this is a major part of the story, it leaves out the sad reality that abuse crosses class lines and that, for example in domestic abuse, it is often the weak abusing the weak, which is to say, working class men abusing their wives. (Or similarly the powerful abusing the powerful in the case of wealthy couples, and let's not leave the middle class out of this either.) And this is true not only of domestic abuse. When a woman or a girl is harassed while walking down a street, it's isn't always – or even most often – by someone in a three-piece suit driving a Mercedes.
But a less simplistic picture would make it difficult to write off sexual abuse as being just a manifestation of “money and power”. It would force us to consider that sexual relationships are themselves political, which is to say (not always but all too often) relationships of exploitation and oppression. It would also force us to have some theoretical framework for understanding human sexuality. But this sort of analysis is something the WSWS does NOT want to consider. Names like Freud, Wilhelm Reich, Walter Benjamin, Marcuse, Lacan, Jameson, Žižek play no role in its theoretical work. Indeed, any mention of such ideas is anathema to North and his acolytes, who consider them a subjectivist deviation from their rigidly mechanical conception of Marxism. Sexual relationships are never neat and it is absurd to imagine they are containable by crude categories like “money and power.” An atrophied version of Marxism that is suspicious of any theoretical innovation past 1940 and dismissive of subjective realities like emotions and mass psychology is going to have nothing fruitful to say about sexuality. Instead it's going to try to change the channel, as it were, whenever possible.
So not surprisingly a few weeks later we find the same writer, David Walsh, the WSWS point man on the Weinstein story, presenting a markedly different picture of sexual abuse. “The sexual misconduct campaign is dishonest in so many ways. There is the ludicrous pretense, for example, that Hollywood or the entertainment industry generally is the measure of sexual and workplace relations in America. In the 2014 General Social Survey, a random sample of Americans was asked, 'In the last 12 months, were you sexually harassed by anyone while you were on the job?' In response, 3.6 percent of women said yes, a decrease from 6.1 percent in 2002. Not a conclusive statistic by any means, but not an indication of the 'state of siege' described by the various columnists and pundits.”
Gone is the panorama of rampant sexual abuse in factories, prisons, the armed forces, among immigrants etc. Instead it's just a problem amplified out of all proportion by a privileged few in Hollywood who presume to think of themselves as “the measure of sexual and workplace relations in America.” And then we get a statistic thrown in that Walsh admits isn't conclusive and is based on a random study. But it's conclusive enough for Walsh to dismiss 'state of siege' talk as exaggerated. And of course, a phrase like 'state of siege' is hyperbole. But what is ALSO being dismissed is the widespread nature of sexual abuse that Walsh himself was insisting on only a few weeks earlier. That isn't hyperbole; on the contrary, it's a reality afflicting a great many women in factories, offices, retail, restaurants, farms – in other words, working class women. The British union federation, the TUC, reports that half of the working women in the UK report having had to deal with harassment, in the US the number is closer to three-quarters. When you downplay the extent of harassment, it is the plight of these women that you are brushing aside.
This willful blindness to sexual abuse is also evident in North's major pronouncement on #MeToo. While he excoriates #MeToo at length as a reactionary witch-hunt, he says next to nothing about his own views on sexual abuse; indeed, the term sexual abuse isn't even mentioned until the last couple of paragraphs. The closest we come to any theorizing on the subject is the following:
“The 'Me Too' movement is pitched to the lowest level of social awareness, even on the question upon which it is most focused: sex. Throughout the 20th century, there was a persistent effort to demystify sex, to remove the tyrannical weight of religious prejudice in the evaluation of sexual behavior. Even aberrant and violent sexual behavior came to be viewed as a social and psychological phenomenon that required scientific study and medical treatment. Remorseless and inhumane punishment serves no end other than the bitter desire for revenge.
From the get-go this gets off on the wrong foot: #MeToo isn't focused on sex but on sexual abuse, a rather crucial distinction. And so, the vague generalizations about the demystifying of sex (by who? one wonders since Freud is a complete blank on the WSWS) miss the point. Or more accurately they leave out the most relevant part of the story: it wasn't just that sex was demystified in the last century, it was also that the ugly reality of sexual abuse was brought into the light of day.
I'm old enough to remember a time when 'beating up your wife' was still considered a joke, and not just in bars or locker rooms but also in polite society and even the halls of Congress. (Actually, it still seems to be popular among Republican politicians, as in Ted Cruz attempting a lame joke at a conservative convention: “No, I have not stopped beating my wife.” Apparently cracking jokes like this shows how tough you are in standing up to political correctness.) Up to the Fifties and even the Sixties and Seventies wife beating was considered a private matter, a secret to be kept from anyone outside the family. If there was any controversy about it, it wasn't about whether to do it but to what extent. A man was the king of his castle, and he had a right to use force to discipline not only his children but also his wife, who as a woman was considered overly emotional and hence essentially childish. You can see this treated in a comic vein in tv sitcoms from the Fifties like I Love Lucy. Whenever the title character gets into trouble, her husband Ricky takes her across his knee and spanks her, to the raucous approval of the laugh track. Or there was The Honeymooners where bus driver Ralph Kramden was repeatedly threatening to whack his wife Alice so hard she'd go “to the moon”, a punch line in a quite literal sense.
This ugly reality was also evident in the legal system's treatment of rape in this era. If a man threatened to use force in order to have sex with a woman, that was insufficient grounds for a rape charge. You needed to show that he had threatened to kill her or inflict grave bodily injury. More striking still is the then-prevailing legal definition of consent, as discussed here by liberal philosopher and legal scholar Martha Nussbaum:
“Usually the woman had to show that she had resisted, even in the face of force or the threat of force, because only this was taken to give evidence of non-consent. Some states made resistance a formal statutory requirement, but more often it was read into statutes as a requirement implicit in the notions of force and/or non-consent. The old requirement was that the victim resist 'to the utmost'; more recently, this was replaced by terms such as 'reasonable resistance' or 'earnest resistance' ... A woman who did not resist physically, or who succumbed to lesser threats [i.e. lesser than the threat of death or grave bodily injury] was treated as consenting, and the man's conduct was not criminal at all.” And Nussbaum quotes from a 1973 New York state appellate court decision overturning a rape conviction: “Rape is not committed unless the woman opposes the man to the utmost limit of her power. The resistance must be genuine and active. It is difficult to conclude that the complainant here waged a valiant struggle to uphold her honor.”
Today we recognize such attitudes as blatant misogyny, but they were prevalent not only in legal circles but in society at large until late into the 20th century, and indeed haven't entirely disappeared even now. Perhaps the best-known pushback by feminists against this misogyny is the 'No Means No' slogan. Though it's often been criticized for oversimplifying the problem (since sexual encounters can be fraught with ambiguities so that sometimes No doesn't really mean No), the impulse behind that slogan is an understandable reaction to a widespread social injustice. This misogyny misshaped what men expected from sexual encounters with women, and it distorted women's expectations as well. As Nussbaum writes:
“Women who had been raped, however violent and non-consensual the incident, felt shamed and sullied and frequently did not even consider turning to the law for help. Often guilt about their own sexual desires, or about having consented to kissing or petting, made women feel that they had 'asked for it,' even when the rape involved violence and substantial physical damage. In addition, women who had consented to intercourse but who had not consented to acts of violence within intercourse also felt it impossible to complain because the reigning view was that a woman who said yes to intercourse had no right to complain about any abuse that ensued. Such a woman would surely have been treated with mockery and abuse by the police had she complained.”
I recently came across an 'asked for it' story when I was looking up the Wikipedia entry for Loretta Young, an A-list Hollywood movie star from the Thirties and Forties who eventually crossed over into tv. Though Young was a devout Catholic, it was widely known in Hollywood that she'd had a child out of wedlock (as they used to say) by Clark Gable. The two had starred together in a 1935 movie (based on Jack London's Call of the Wild) and it was assumed that they'd had the usual off-screen romance. Young made up an elaborate cover story to hide the pregnancy and after the birth she pretended she'd adopted the baby, a true-life melodrama that a good many women had to live through (often, needless to say, with far less money and support than a movie star). But near the end of her life (she died in 2000), Young revealed that though she had flirted with Gable on set, the sex hadn't been consensual. What provoked her to make this claim was learning what the term 'date rape' meant; she suddenly had words to explain the incident with Gable. According to the Wiki entry, Young “had previously always believed that a woman's job was to fend off men's amorous advances and had felt the fact that Gable had been able to force himself on her was thus a moral failing on her part.” Of course we'll never know for sure what happened since Gable isn't around to tell his side of the story. But the fact that Young herself believed almost to the end of her life that she'd 'asked for it' by not doing enough to fend Gable off rings very true. And it speaks to the experience of a great many women who endured date rape without ever realizing that's what it was.
Needless to say, experiences like date rape or terms like misogyny appear nowhere in North's piece or in any of the WSWS coverage of #MeToo. So that when, at the very end of his article, North declares that sexual abuse is a “class issue”, what could be an insight is really obfuscation. To say that the fight against sexual abuse is a class issue SHOULD MEAN that's it's an issue to be championed by the working class and its revolutionary vanguard. It SHOULD MEAN that this fight plays an important role in the agitation and propaganda of that vanguard because it's about defending the democratic rights of all women, including half the working class. But for North it doesn't mean any of that. Labelling sexual abuse as a class issue is just licence for him to forget about it entirely.
There are important class issues pertaining to #MeToo, specifically the complaints of organizations and activists who work with working class women that #MeToo is focused far too much on the relatively privileged women in Hollywood and not enough on those in low wage jobs. But this criticism is only credible if it is based on solidarity with victims of sexual abuse, the very thing lacking on the WSWS. Moreover, the message coming from working women is the polar opposite of the WSWS line: they don't want to renounce #MeToo, they want to it to EXPAND. Hence headlines like: “Will Women in Low-Wage Jobs Get Their #MeToo Moment?” or “The #MeToo Moment: Blue Collar Women Ask, 'What About Us?'”
And there are some reports of working women being galvanized into action. In November a coalition representing 700,000 female farm workers issued an open letter expressing solidarity with the victims of Weinstein et al. This was in the lead-up to a march in Los Angeles to “Take Back the Workplace”.  There was also a piece from National Public Radio also in February, titled “Low Wage Workers Say #MeToo Movement Is A Chance For Change”, that picked up on the recent resignation of Steve Wynn as head of his hotel and casino empire (and also as finance chair of the Republican party) after multiple accusations of sexual abuse by workers in his facilities. It also mentions the resignations of celebrity chefs Steve Besh and Mario Batali after similar allegations by women who worked for them. Restaurant, retail, domestic work and agriculture are all areas where sexual harassment is rampant, and the report quotes a number of women workers in these areas who feel that “this is our shot to make a change.”
It may be that those hopes don't pan out, but Marxists should strongly support the struggles of these women while doing everything possible to make apparent the link between sexual abuse and social inequality. In that regard (though you would never know it from reading the WSWS) there is actually a long tradition of socialists championing the rights of women that goes back to Charles Fourier and continues with Engels (The Origin of the Family etc.), August Bebel (Women and Socialism) and the unprecedented expansion of women's rights in the first years of Soviet power. While in our time it's necessary for Marxists to resist the tide of identity politics, that doesn't mean that all feminism has to be bourgeois feminism. For Marxists to ignore a widespread social reality like sexual abuse is not only shameful but it also cedes the issue to bourgeois feminism, and that serves to strengthen identity politics rather than undermine it. The gist of identity politics is to separate women's issues from class issues, but the sectarian politics of the WSWS does the same in reverse. A 21st century Marxism would work to bring the two together.
A few words more, this time about some criticism North directed at Alex Steiner and myself in a comments section of a WSWS article on #MeToo. Alex will address the philosophical issues in a separate post, but here I want to make a couple of points. North claims that we have broken with our past views that led us to join the Trotskyist movement in the 1970s. We would contend that the opposite is true – it is North and his organization that have broken from the revolutionary traditions of Trotskyism. Of course Trotsky is venerated on the WSWS, but this proves little: Marx and Lenin were revered in Stalin's Soviet Union, even as every principle they stood for was trampled on. North's organization practices a brand of Trotskyism that Trotsky himself would have found unrecognizable: no Transitional Program, no defense of unions from government attack, no upholding the right of nations to self-determination, instinctive hostility to any mass movement of the working class, a virulent sectarianism that brands everyone else on the left as 'pseudo-left', and a cult-like internal regime where political disagreements are suppressed and every resolution is passed 'unanimously'. Here it's worth making a more general point about the relationship between tradition and revolutionary practice. North makes a big deal about upholding tradition, it features prominently in his lectures and writings. But his kind of 'orthodoxy' often ends up betraying the traditions it claims to uphold. This is because there is a dialectical relationship between tradition and practice in revolutionary politics, which 'orthodoxy' is blind to. In the career of the great revolutionary Marxists there always came a crucial moment where it was necessary for them to break with tradition, a break understood as superseding the tradition rather than renouncing it. Lenin and the Second International, Trotsky and the Third, are classic examples. Probably the best-known counter-examples of an undialectical orthodoxy are Kautsky and Plekhanov. The latter in particular is someone North reveres. As the fate of both these men proves, the road to reaction can be paved with even the best of traditions.

David North's main statement on #MeToo is here: His remarks on Steiner and myself are in the comments section of this article: 
Martha Nussbaum's book is Sex and Social Justice (1999, Oxford UP). Quotes are from pp. 138-9 & 141.
BuzzFeed did a feature story in 2015 on the Loretta Young/Clark Gable relationship:  
The story about female farm workers and #MeToo was posted on the Time magazine website:


Anonymous said...

While thumbing through the WSWS, I more often than not find myself falling into the trap of "either-or" thinking, which I try to resist to my utomost, of course. Glady, your articles are among one of the correctives. Thank you. The self-styled "orthodox" Marxists should not shun away from and should be more honest and serious about the issue of sex.

Anonymous said...

You will never see this level of analysis on the WSWS. You will probably be called a "pseudo-Marxist" for writing it! Everything over there is black and white, good and bad. Every event in the world is evidence that we are on the precipice of world war or on the eve of a worldwide revolution--of course when those events never come they don't own up to their childish analysis. Of course there's the obstinacy of North but they are flooded with younger writers now who have followed his lead in worldview but, unfortunately, they write worth a tinker's curse. The level of writing has fallen off greatly and the childish sarcasm throughout much of their output is hard to read. It's interesting that they boast of their increasing influence and growing membership when the qualitative leadership of the ICFI is perhaps at its lowest it's ever been.