Why We Shouldn’t Let the #MeToo Movement Change HistoryRoundup
tags: Bill Clinton, sex scandals, sexual harassment, MeToo
As if by unspoken assent, we’ve adopted a name for our overdue reckoning with sexual harassment and assault: It’s the “Me Too Moment.” “Me too,” everyone knows, comes from the Twitter hashtag by which women are sharing their experiences with sexual predators of various sorts after the New York Times’ exposé of Harvey Weinstein. But the word “moment” is significant as well. It reminds us that there’s a time factor at work, a historical element. Starting now, it promises, we’re taking a harder line against these offenses than we did in the past.
Most of us take some satisfaction in seeing women emboldened to speak out where they had once been intimidated and seeing justice finally delivered to rank offenders. But for those concerned about history, there’s also a danger in some of the arguments being tossed about. If we’re not attentive to the history implicit in the “Me Too Moment” phrase—the reality that people and the press viewed aberrant sexual behavior differently in other eras—we risk misinterpreting the past. If we expect historical actors to have abided by codes of behavior we set out in 2017, we betray the historical project of understanding why people acted as they did. This concern comes to mind with the deeply confused suggestion, now touted as a form of virtue-signaling, that Bill Clinton should have been removed from office during independent counsel Ken Starr’s jihad-like investigation of his sexual behavior in 1998.
There are a lot of reasons why feminists and other liberals were in fact correct to defend Clinton during the impeachment saga. One is that the charges against him—lying about a consensual if still wildly inappropriate affair—just didn’t rise to the level of impeachment, the way President Richard Nixon’s constitutional crimes in Watergate had. To have countenanced Clinton’s impeachment or resignation would have dramatically lowered the bar for cashiering a president and legitimated the already rampant process of using scandal-mongering as a proxy for electoral politics. A second reason, newly hard to recall in this feverish moment, is that the claims of assault that a few people now regret downplaying were never established as true, and not even Starr saw fit to include them in his referral to Congress.
But perhaps the most profound if subtle reason for rejecting the retrospective support for impeachment or resignation is that it substitutes the norms of 2017 for those of another time. It’s one thing to wish that society overall had taken sexual harassment more seriously in the past (though it was hardly ignored in the 1990s, as some seem to think)—an innocuous though historically meaningless assertion. But it’s another to selectively readjudicate one specific political crisis by the standards of a different historical era—an act that risks distorting our understanding of how and why people acted as they did.
History requires reconstructing the thought processes of historical actors, which are invariably different from our own. The way people acted in the past was shaped by assumptions, conditions and norms, some deeply embedded in their culture. Those norms shift over time, and it can be surprising to see how differently people in other ages thought about any number of problems, including the intersection of sex and politics. The Gilded Age, for example, boasted a rowdy political culture in which the yellow press splashed tales of politicians’ philandering on its front pages, with respectable newspapers like the New York Times often hard on its heels. Today we remember little more from that era than the taunt that greeted presidential candidate Grover Cleveland in 1884—“Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa?”—when he copped to fathering a child with an unwed woman. (He weathered the story, prompting the riposte from his supporters, “Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.” Two years later, at age 49, he married a 21 year-old Frances Folsom in the White House.) Yet debate swirled over how much politicians’ sexual transgressions should be publicly aired and censured. In a famous 1890 law article, Louis Brandeis and his law partner, Samuel Warren called for a “right to privacy” to shield individuals from having their personal lives unduly vetted. ...
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