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Based on a post I wrote here, I wrote a much longer piece about the Weinsteining phenomenon for The American Interest. (Warning: the language is not safe for work and not appropriate for Ricochet. That I used those words there doesn’t mean you can use them here. If you can figure out how to describe the Louis CK imbroglio in family-friendly language, more power to you.)
I was flabbergasted by the response. I had expected nothing but vituperation. I was fully braced for it, and had just decided, “Well, you’ll have an awful week, but it has to be said, so just stay off social media until it all blows over.” I pretty much figured I was Hal:
I was wrong. It seems to be the most widely-read and widely-appreciated article I’ve ever written, at least to judge from the site traffic and the mail I’ve received in response. Even the hate mail seemed a bit wan and pro-forma. The authors’ hearts clearly weren’t really into it.
I don’t know what this means. Vanity would prompt me to think, “I am the greatest writer in the world and I wrote the best article in history, that’s why everyone loved it.” But narcissism is never your friend when you’re trying to figure out why people are doing strange things that you did not expect them to do. That wasn’t the best or the most important thing I’ve ever written. I pretty much dashed it off. I didn’t do any research in the archives or sweat blood over the prose.
Still, I figure a quarter of a million people will have read it by the end of the week.
When last I checked the records at the Bodleian, I discovered that no one–literally not one single soul–had ever checked my doctoral thesis out of the library. I don’t think anyone has ever purchased it, either. I’m pretty sure this is not because my doctoral thesis wasn’t as good as that article. I’d like to think it was quite a bit better, actually. If not, I sure wasted a lot of time.
When something connects with readers this much, it says something about the audience, not the writer. So I’m wondering, hopefully: Perhaps this reaction means we’ve passed peak hysteria? Maybe it means people are truly longing to have a bit of common sense back?
I sure hope so. Because if you were to read all the mail I’ve received since I published that article, you’d weep. Hundreds of letters–most, but not all, from men–expressing sentiments no one in a free society should even have the vocabulary to express.
Some of the people who wrote were quite prominent, but most were, I think, just ordinary guys–guys who are now so scared of women, so broken-hearted, so baffled, that I wish I could just teleport them off our planet to a sane place where women are kind to them and the rules about sex are clear. That seems to be all they want, and it hardly seems an unreasonable demand. From one such letter:
Every rejection, every break-up, every dissolution of a union and you die a little more inside; less of a person, a broken wrecked empty shell of a man; weighed down by so many missed opportunities, so much baggage and misanthropic self-loathing. I had a fiancée once – then she cheated on me and I was never quite right after that. They say you grow with each relationship, but I’d argue the opposite; with each you lose a part of yourself, until nothing more than a torso with a head flopping around on the muddy ground.
Being accused of sexual harassment on the other hand for starting a conversation – or even the paranoid fear of this happening – would be life destroying. I respect women (the best relationships I’ve had have all been FLR); I love women, I hold all of them in such high regard; as an atheist, to be seen positively by a woman is to glimpse the face of God – and it is precisely for that reason that rejection or a negative reaction is so debilitating. It tells the person being rejected they are worthless garbage. Now, however, it also comes with a (possible) side order of accusations of being a harasser.
The price and danger of speaking with a woman has changed from being humiliated in public and having one’s self-esteem wiped out (which as much as I hate it, I have always begrudgingly accepted as the price men must pay in order to date – you want to have a relationship, fine, then be prepared to suffer excruciatingly for it or accept soul crushing loneliness), to now facing vitriolic accusations, extreme pillorying, and possible arrest.
Try to empathise with this fact – the current climate takes a pre-existing instinctive horror, found in nice but shy men, and multiplies it by 10,000 burning suns. It’s days like these I honestly wish I were a gay man. So much easier (based on observing the lives of gay friends). Heterosexual men have the hardest time. Of all the options available to us in life, none are without some kind of judgement by others and a prolonged feeling of agony. It’s honestly no wonder I drink so much.
What can I say? Yes, I did write back to tell him to take women off that pedestal–we’re no substitute for God.
The piece received very little of the criticism I expected. Only a couple of death threats, and these were from readers who were furious at my suggestion that the Trump presidency might be a source of general social anxiety. (I think they might be missing the point, or a bit too deep in their bubble — whether or not you think his presidency should be a source of anxiety, it’s incontrovertible that for many Americans, it is a source of anxiety. Receiving their messages sure didn’t reduce mine.)
One criticism I saw repeatedly is that I failed to appreciate what this was really about: equal opportunity in the workplace. I was referred, for example, to this article by Rebecca Traister, called “This Moment Isn’t (Just) About Sex.”
I read it closely. I genuinely, deeply disagree with her. For example, she writes,
What makes women vulnerable is not their carnal violability, but rather the way that their worth has been understood as fundamentally erotic, ornamental; that they have not been taken seriously as equals; that they have been treated as some ancillary reward that comes with the kinds of power men are taught to reach for and are valued for achieving. How to make clear that the trauma of the smaller trespasses — the boob grabs and unwanted kisses or come-ons from bosses — is not necessarily even about the sexualized act in question; so many of us learned to maneuver around hands-y men without sustaining lasting emotional damage when we were 14.
Rather, it’s about the cruel reminder that these are still the terms on which we are valued, by our colleagues, our bosses, sometimes our competitors, the men we tricked ourselves into thinking might see us as smart, formidable colleagues or rivals, not as the kinds of objects they can just grab and grope and degrade without consequence. It’s not that we’re horrified like some Victorian damsel; it’s that we’re horrified like a woman in 2017 who briefly believed she was equal to her male peers but has just been reminded that she is not, who has suddenly had her comparative powerlessness revealed to her. “I was hunting for a job,” said one of the women who accused Charlie Rose of assault. “And he was hunting for me.”
My response is that there is no contradiction between seeing oneself as smart and formidable and seeing oneself as an object of male attraction. They are not mutually exclusive. It is not a “cruel” thing to be reminded that one is a woman. Depending on the circumstances, it may certainly be awkward. It may require telling someone, “No.” If that doesn’t work, we are then in clear criminal territory, and of course I support laws against rape, or any similar bodily violation, and the enforcement of those laws.
But there is nothing about learning one’s colleagues find you attractive that should negate a woman’s self-esteem. It is entirely possible for a man to see a woman as smart and formidable and therefore desirable. Inherent to Ms. Traister’s argument is something like a Madonna-whore dichotomy–the very form of thought that feminists have long noted and deplored. If your male peers see you sexual, in her view, then they must not respect you.
But this is not so.
Of course it depends what kind of grabbing and groping we’re talking about — in her article she mentions accounts of rape in the workplace, which obviously is not in any kind of ambiguous grey zone, no less the zone I describe in my article. But an unwanted kiss? A hint that an employee may also have “erotic” or “ornamental” attributes in addition to her professional skills? There is no reason for any woman to feel degraded by this, unless she herself is insecure about her value as an employee.
By such logic, I would observe that even though I’ve spent my life thinking and writing about foreign policy, nothing I’ve written about foreign policy has ever made as much of a splash as an article I wrote about sex: I would thus be horrified. But I’m not. I get it. Sex sells. It will always sell. I chose to write about this, and now I’m going to go back to writing about foreign policy, because that’s a more important use of my time.
I do not feel horrified at the discovery that I can become very popular, very quickly, by writing about sex. I don’t think this entails I am only valuable to my readers when I write about sex. I think it entails that as always, sex is on everyone’s mind. And if I can use this fact to direct people’s attention to more important concerns — like Europe and the future of NATO — that’s a bonus, not an insult.
It’s not just men who are afraid. I’ve received many letters from women, too, who are deeply worried about what this will mean for us. They agree with me. The backlash will be terrible for women as a professional class. Any woman with an ounce of sense can see where this inevitably leads: strict sexual segregation. The number of men who have written to me that they now refuse to be alone with a woman unless there are witnesses is chilling. This is a Puritan, reactionary movement, dressed up as feminism.
To be clear, I was unnerved by all the attention that article received, even though it was overwhelmingly positive. But I was unnerved because of what it says about America right now, not because of what it says about me. It doesn’t seem healthy that Americans are thinking so much about this. I’m still at the top of The American Interest’s “trending” list. My article is sitting next to Adam Garfinkle’s reflections on the significance of the US recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He is a wonderful, deeply learned writer. Anything he has to say about Jerusalem is by definition more important than anything I have to say about sexual hysteria and moral panics. But readers are clicking on my article instead of his.
I appreciate that sex sells, but since when does Jerusalem fail to sell? What does this mean about the degree to which we’ve become insular and inward-dwelling?
I’d usually complain that far too much media attention was going toward Jerusalem–as opposed to all the other parts of the world that require attention. Yet it seems to me aberrant that Americans who read The American Interest, which is, after all, a foreign policy journal, would not first click on Adam’s article. His is a lot more important, in the big scheme of things.
Or maybe, as I wrote to Adam, “it’s for the better that the world is so busy being obsessed with sex that it forgets to be obsessed with Jews.”
Anyway, that’s all I want to say about this subject. I’m now going to go back to thinking about Europe and the future of liberal democracy.