I finally got around to watching the movie Christopher and His Kind. Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical account of his time in Berlin features Gerald Hamilton, who is a character in Wilde Nights & Robber Barons, and I felt that I ought to see it. So it has sat there in my watch list for ages like unfinished homework. It was worth seeing in the end. The story is familiar if you have seen the musical Cabaret. It is more or less the story of the real life inspirations for Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. (Although some of featured friends were reportedly less than thrilled with their literary depictions.)
Watching Christopher led me to re-watching Cabaret, which led me to Youtube videos about the production. In this video Joel Grey, the original MC, discusses his creation of the role and his opinion of Alan Cumming’s interpretation.
What gave me pause for thought in this interview was the part where Grey expresses his frustration that the newer production was said to be more daring and risque than the original.
It reminded me of a quote from Montagu Pyke, the king of early cinema in Britain. (He was a business partner of Maurice Schwabe’s for a time.) Pyke wrote, “If the nineties were ‘naughty’ the Edwardian era was a worthy successor to the nineties. The young moderns think they know how to live today, but I don’t think they could have taught the young men and women of those days anything; rather the contrary. I know of wild midnight parties and scandalous orgies among the best people of several lands, and I hardly think these have their counterpart today.”
It seems there is a constant tendency to view previous generations as more innocent. Yet the decadent, the unsanctioned, the promiscuous and the underground have always existed.
As I wrote in the introduction to my book, “The period in which Maurice Schwabe lived, from 1871-1915, exists in the popular imagination as an innocent age. On closer inspection, that buttoned-up era was a time of rebelliousness, ambition, corruption, religious and sexual experimentation and political machinations.” In other words, it was just like every other era.
.Why is it, then, that the past can seem so, well, sexless?
I have a couple of theories. One is that parents and other adults are authority figures to young people. Generally, they hide their youthful indiscretions from the next generation. They are destined to move from being rebels to being the people the young rebel against. The parent’s generation is bound to be viewed to some degree as old fashioned, dull, moralistic and their time, by extension becomes a more innocent age.
Another possibility is that to be daring you must be shocking. Any art or culture that is successful becomes familiar and by definition what is familiar is not shocking. The counter culture of one time becomes the oldies radio and high school musicals of the next. Two years after the musical Hair caused a stir with its on stage nudity, obscene language and trippy acknowledgement of drug culture, the epitome of family friendly bands, the Cowsills had a hit with the musical’s title song. Cabaret was such a cultural phenomenon that it brought Joel Grey onto the set of The Muppet Show. (By the way, have you seen Jim Henson’s surreal 1965 short film Time Piece?)
As I think about Cabaret, however, it strikes me that there is something unique about it. Its story expresses nostalgia for a less innocent era. The world it depicts is one that might not, in reality, be comfortable to many members of the Broadway audience. Yet the sense that they are bearing witness to a world that is on the verge of being destroyed imbues the Kit Cat Club with nostalgia for a different sort of innocence, the innocence of people who cannot yet see the future we know is coming, innocence of impending disaster. (A bit like when Facebook reminds you of a picture taken with your arms around a bunch of your friends at a party in January 2020.)
There is, in fact, a type of wild and wicked innocence– the innocence that leads a young person to experiment with life, sample the forbidden, with a naive confidence that the cost of any rebelliousness or vice can only be small. “When we mocked grief and held disaster cheap,” as Lord Alfred Douglas, who knew whereof he spoke, put it in a sonnet. (George Bernard Shaw described a particular quality Douglas possessed as “blazing boyishness.” I have always liked that description.) In the 1990s, The Verve Pipe called back to this form of innocence in the song “The Freshmen,” “For the life of me I cannot remember/ What made us think that we were wise and we’d never compromise.”
When Walter Pater’s Renaissance was published in 1873, the Bishop of Oxford attacked it for its neo-paganism and hedonism. Renaissance sparked the imagination of a young Oscar Wilde. Years later, he called it “that book which has had such a strange influence over my life.” The controversial Conclusion had such an impact on Wilde that he commanded it to memory. But there was such a backlash that Pater left it out of the second edition in case it be “misunderstood.” The phrase that particularly piqued Wilde’s youthful imagination was “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”
The flame of the forbidden and the hidden, the wild and the decadent continues to burn in all its luminous glory with each generation. There is always a moral campaign against it. When it gets too strong and temporarily silences those impulses, we are all poorer for it.
It is easy enough to get elected to the House if you can figure out what the voters in a district already want and become that. This seems to be the moral of the story of George Santos, the newly elected Republican House member who has recently been exposed for fabricating most of his biography.
Writing in The Atlantic, former Democratic congressman Steve Israel said that the voters in the district say they value integrity “But they weren’t on the lookout for a huckster politician.” The dirty little secret that hucksters of all stripes exploit is that no one is on the lookout for the huckster. There are not enough hours in the day for us to question and research every biographical claim made by everyone we meet. These days, with hollowed out newsrooms, there are also fewer professionals out there to do that work for us.
Generally, most people who adopt false identities work alone. What was unique about the team of swindlers I wrote about in Wilde Nights and Robber Barons is that they banded together in an organized syndicate. Not all of the card sharps in the group adopted false titles of nobility, a few already had them. But the members of the group encouraged and assisted people like professor’s son Bela Klimm to become Count Adalbert de la Ramee.
The rules of the game were that you did not swindle members of the organization. Loyalty to the group mattered, but when it came to the outside world, true and false, right and wrong were not valued. What mattered was whether the stories they told were effective or ineffective. Member Montague Noel Newton had developed his own philosophy inspired by Darwin’s concept of survival of the fittest. He divided the world into two camps, fools and adventurers. If you were not one, he believed, you were the other.
George Santos appears to have come up with his false biography on his own. Yet he had some reason to believe he would not be punished for it in the culture he inhabited. He was a member of a political party that had become used to making up excuses for a president that changed the path of a hurricane with a sharpie, was clearly not joking when he suggested drinking bleach to cure COVID and described his phone call with President Zalensky as “perfect.” By the time Santos was running in the midterms it had become a litmus test for many in his party to take it as an article of faith that the 2020 election was stolen. Santos was simply a better liar than Herschel Walker, whose clumsy, repeated claims of having worked with law enforcement were mostly laughed off as an odd quirk.
One of the positives about “the good person” is that goodness is portable. That is to say that the good person’s sense of morality is internal and it is thought to be consistent regardless of changing external circumstances. If a nation is engaged in an immoral war, for example, the good person should follow his conscience rather than the will of the crowd even if it seems more honorable in the moment to be a war hero.
Honor is dependent on other people’s praise or scorn. To be honorable is to be aligned with what society considers moral. You can, as the heroes of the Iliad did, engage in all manner of brute violence and slaughter and still be praised for honor.
A member of the group of card sharps, Montague Noel Newton said, “I did not say I was an honest man. I wish to God I could. I said I was honest with my friends.” Honor, in his culture, was to be aligned with his group, to be loyal and committed to his tribe. The question in the Santos case is whether his professional community, his political party, decides that his falsehoods dishonor him enough to be expelled, or whether lying to advance the power of the tribe is the type of group loyalty that keeps him sufficiently “honorable” to stay.
A century before there was the Tinder Swindler, Ana Delvy or Elizabeth Holmes there was Baron von Koenig, and Count Adalbert de la Ramee and Maurice Schwabe. The period in which they operated was considered to be the golden age of the con. These figures, like their modern counterparts, made use of the fact that we are easily seduced by the trappings of success.
To the right is Rudolf Stallmann. Although he hailed from a respectable, upper middle-class family he wanted a life of glamor and adventure and decided that he would claim an aristocratic title. He became Baron von Koenig. He loved the excitement of posing. He was attracted to crime and espionage “like a drug.”
People like Stallmann realized that their marks would play along with the game because they enjoyed the status that came with being associated with gentlemen who were clearly powerful, rich and well-connected. Explanations were rarely needed, but when they were, a bit of confidence and bravado went a long way.
“An atmosphere is created by innuendo and suggestion,” said trickster Montague Noel Newton. “I never say I am a man of means, I just play the part.”
This was true when it came to getting a first class cabin on a ship on credit or when it came to seducing wealthy women– a specialty of Bela Klimm aka Count Adalbert de la Ramee, or selling a dubious business ventures, something at which Maurice Schwabe excelled.
Just as Elizabeth Holmes marketed herself more than the technology her company intended to make, men like Schwabe sold their own personalities and connections. Schwabe and Holmes both relied on “the social proof heuristic,” a fancy way of saying that when you see prominent people investing in something, you assume that it is a project you want to get involved in. Schwabe sought respected military men and people with aristocratic titles (even appropriated ones) to put their names down as investors.
In the Edwardian era, businesses were increasingly impersonal, complex and national– even international– in scope. Without personal relationships, investors relied on cues like persuasive advertisements, or aristocratic names on a slate of investors to assess the trustworthiness of an enterprise. It was hard for the public to even recognize a white-collar criminal. In the cultural imagination a “criminal” came from the “dangerous classes.” A man with a walking stick and a valet was given the benefit of the doubt, even when his financial scheme lost money for its investors. It was easy enough to chalk it up to bad luck.
In the 1937 book The Criminals We Deserve, criminologist Henry Rhodes reflected on the relationship between crime and society. “The criminal and his crimes are social phenomena,” he said. He argued that the “kind of crime committed at any particular stage of social development is an index of the social phase… Show me your crimes, and I will show you the nature of your society.”
Rhodes argued that this sort of crime appears when “The capacity to appreciate and desire better conditions is instilled without there being adequate machinery to satisfy those desires.”
The age in which Schwabe and his conspirators operated was a golden age of the confidence trickster. Perhaps rising inequality has brought us to another age of the imposter. In the Victorian era only a lucky few possessed titles of nobility. Today, when the top 1% of earners own more than the entire middle class, there is a similar temptation to use lies and cunning to claim a place among the elect.
This explains their existence, but not our fascination with them. Why do false barons traveling on ocean liners, scamming heirs to fortunes, seem glamorous to us? What, besides Matt Bomer’s insane good looks, drove audiences to follow the adventures of Neal Caffrey for six seasons? The series Suits, about a college drop out who brazened his way into a job at a top law firm ran for 9. Why did Catch Me if You Can make $352.1 million at the box office?
Incidentally, a recent podcast, Pretend, provides evidence that Frank Abagnale, the man portrayed by Leonardo di Caprio in the film, made up the adventures that his autobiography and the film dramatize. Abagnale could not have posed as a lawyer, doctor and college professor because he was in jail when these events supposedly happened.
Similarly, Maurice Schwabe’s business partner Gerald Hamilton became an anti-hero in his later years. Author Christopher Isherwood based the character of Mr. Norris from his Berlin Stories on Hamilton. Hamilton crafted his own back story. Supposedly he had spent time with Rasputin in Russia and went to prison because of political intrigue with Roger Casement. Hamilton even seemed to suggest there might have been something more between him and Casement. In fact, he never met him. The records show that Hamilton invented a romantic past to cover for his great embarrassment, being sent to jail for “gross indecency” with British soldiers.
The aforementioned Montague Noel Newton also turned his criminality into a relatively lucrative career as a writer and speaker for a time. He published his “Confessions,” which were a mixture of fact and fiction. Many of the stories in it were daring crimes that people in his orbit, but not himself, had carried out.
Hamilton and Newton were not apologetic about their crimes. Modern main-stream entertainment cleanses the story of the criminals it glamorizes by one of two methods. In the biographical films on Anna Delvy and Elizabeth Holmes, the story focuses on how they were ultimately brought to justice. In Suits, White Collar and Catch Me If You Can, the frauds are reformed and using their talents for the good guys or they are using their position to do good in the world.
Dr Tim Holmes, a lecturer in criminology at Bangor University told the BBC, “There’s still the idea that they’re a Robin Hood figure, not a criminal,” he says, adding that many films, like the Ocean’s Eleven adaptations, portray the con artist as “a rogue stealing from someone who deserves it.”
There are many theories as to why we are fascinated by confidence tricksters. The Conversation posits the con “fills us with a mix of surprise at their audacity –and glee and relief that it didn’t happen to us.” I believe it is something else. Confidence tricksters’ refusal to accept normal societal limitations shines a light on how flimsy are the signifiers that separate the rich from the poor, the glamorous from the plain, the envied from the ordinary. By following the stories of those who break the rules, we have an opportunity to imagine revolting against those boundaries ourselves, inventing our own high-status identities, and through cunning, getting away with it.
In writing Wilde Nights & Robber Barons, however, whenever I found myself falling into the trap of admiring the con artists’ audacity, something would come up to remind me of the cost, people whose lives were shattered by their encounters with these criminals. Rudolf Stallmann, for example, was physically abusive to his girlfriend, whose small savings he had taken. After forcing her to support them both by selling sex, Stallmann took on the identity of a baron and abandoned the lady with the statement that it was ridiculous that someone of her lowly station would be engaged to an aristocrat like him. Successful cons have not only cleverness but a lack of conscience.
If you are fascinated by those who put on poses and commit crimes, I invite you to read about where it all began with the confidence tricksters of the last century. Available now. You can order from your favorite local book store. Also available in the UK at Amazon UK in the U.S. via Amazon or get an autographed copy with a special Oscar Wilde bookmark directly from the author.
I want to take a moment for a mini-rant on my new “most hated expression.”
The fact that we’ve created an acronym for it makes us much more likely to use it and that, to choose an “I Love Lucy” word, is lousy.
This phrase is used mostly on Twitter to convey exasperation and utter contempt for someone else’s statement. But it is not usually directed at the writer of a tweet or blog post himself, rather it’s usually used when speaking about someone to an audience of presumably like-minded people. This way the audience can share outraged mockery of the person and/or their statement.
Oh FFS, is this the kind discourse we want to perpetuate?
Years ago, long before I’d written any books, I was walking in London. A stranger came up to me and he said he could see my aura. He said the spirits were talking to him and they had a message for me. They said I should be writing and I wasn’t. They said that “the mystic nature of places” was how I would connect.
Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
My first novel was all about the mystic nature of places. It was about mountains and cathedrals, spaces of such grandeur that they inspire awe. The grand cathedrals, like the mountains, are ancient enough to inspire temporal as well as spatial awe. In their presence you become small and for a moment you are reminded of your proper relationship to the forces of the universe– humility, reverence, wonder, gratitude. There is an interruption. A call to contemplation and silence.
Do you remember the first time you experienced that sense of displacement and wonder? I do. I was a 16 year old exchange student and my host family took me to Notre Dame. I had not toured Europe or seen great stone cathedrals. I was not Catholic. So the power of the space surprised me.
I lived outside Paris in 1985 and 86, before the days of ubiquitous photography. This fading snapshot is the only picture I got. Looking at this picture, I see that there must have been crowds, but I don’t remember them. I remember the negative space, the silence, the sunlight streaming through the rose window, the candles lit for memory. I wondered, “How didn’t I know this? That a building could do this?”
I tried to look back on my old diaries from the period and realized quickly that at 16 I would not have had the language for what I remember feeling. But perhaps I had to be that age to experience the fullness of that moment and to remember it as transformative.
There are utilitarian places–places created to be filled by people who are busy doing things. Then there are places that are created for people to experience. The architecture itself defines the mood and the spirit you are supposed to have inside. The spirit is waiting for you before you enter.
A grand cathedral is different from a mountain. It is the embodiment of history, culture and values. As you stand in your smallness, you realize that you only hold this splendid torch of life for a moment and you have a responsibility to pass the torch, to breathe in all that the walls contain, the years of art and culture, all we have said and painted and sung; our baptisms, weddings, funerals. You are small, but the weight of all of these fleeting moments is huge.
No one knows who first built Notre Dame de Paris. But whoever they are, they are there centuries later.
I must have carried that moment with me when I traveled to Mount Rainier and found myself wondering what a mountain and a church have in common. I must have carried it with me over the years that I made that my main writing exercise.
“Paul knew that there was a value in architecture, in arts, in beautiful things. Why do those things matter? Because they do. The only way to make a convincing argument for architecture is with poetry, and people who don’t care for art are immune to poetic language as well. You either understand it in your soul or you don’t.”
I heard someone today say that he was not feeling emotional about the fire at Notre Dame. He said that he was sure the French would rebuild. I believe that is true. But there is a time to every purpose under heaven. There is a time to rebuild and rise from the ashes and there is a time to mourn what is lost. At this moment it is a time to mourn.
This 1921 news story, which I found posted on a blog called Strange Company, reminded me of something odd that happened this Christmas, which I hadn’t planned on mentioning. Frankly, I’m not sure I come out so great in this tale.
I woke up on Christmas morning and as is my habit when I first get up, I quickly checked my various communications media, my e-mail, Facebook and twitter feeds. I noted with passing interest that the topic of the day seemed to be that the president had made some claim about bringing back the phrase “Merry Christmas” and this inevitably had people declaring which side of the culture wars they were on.
In the comments on one post was something from a man (I assume) with an American flag image for his picture. For whatever reason, before I headed off to enjoy the time with my family, I responded to what I thought was an a-historical appeal to tradition by pointing out that the Puritans had outlawed the practice of Christmas in the early days. Not that it matters, but my point was that we Americans have never been entirely unified in our traditions around Christmas or anything else. (The whole “War on Christmas” thing is not really about history or tradition, but about declaring what segment of society ought to be treated as the default “real Americans” now.)
By now I was enjoying a house full of kids, parents, stockings and sweets. I noticed the notification when I took my phone out to snap a picture of the cousins in their Christmas light necklaces. This elicited three responses with far more capital letters than I thought necessary. The general themes were that America was founded as a Christian nation and that I was an ignorant fool. His replies made it clear that it was not the specific tradition of saying “Merry Christmas” but the notion of America as Christian that was important to him.
There is something about someone condescending to you that is hard to ignore, as much as you ought to. So I responded. I pointed out that I knew a fair amount about history and that I didn’t agree with his premise, but that it was Christmas and that I had family commitments and didn’t want to spend the day arguing about what text should be on the banners in shopping malls. I wished the stranger a “Merry Christmas.” I expected that we would agree to disagree.
The next time I took the phone out there was another condescending response beginning with LOL taunting me that the only reason I was leaving the discussion was that I knew he was right. He was determined to have the last word.
In spite of myself, as the kids tried to plunk out Christmas carols on the piano, I found myself getting aggravated. “Are you arguing that we should have an official state religion?” I wanted to ask.
But I stopped myself. We had driven 14 hours to be with our extended family for Christmas. Christmas is one day a year. Here we were together, and this annoying and senseless debate was intruding. What am I doing? What should I care if some person I don’t know or respect thinks he bested me? It’s Christmas! I should never have commented to begin with. I deleted my original tweet and all the replies and blocked the stranger so there would be no temptation whatsoever to get drawn back in.
Isn’t it ironic (don’t you think?) that someone felt so strongly about keeping the “Merry Christmas” in Christmas that he was willing to spend Christmas day arguing with strangers about it?
I log onto this blog through a page that displays my stats. There are certain old posts of mine that reliably get hits every day. Others randomly pop up from time to time. Yesterday a post of mine from two years ago called “Pluralistic Ignorance” suddenly got some hits.
I think I know why. Pluralistic ignorance is when a large portion of a community holds a particular view, but the individuals do not realize it because no one (or few) have spoken up about it. In my original post I used this example:
You may recall that a few years ago, while I was promoting my novel Angel, I came upon a study that showed that Christian ministers, as a group, believed they were more accepting of gay rights than their congregants. Christian church members, on the other hand, thought that they were more accepting of LGBT rights than their pastors. That is to say, each group wanted to come out as pro-gay rights, but was afraid the other party was not ready to make a change. The ministers were afraid they would alienate their congregations, the congregants were afraid of being out of step with the minister.
Then something happens that causes the dam to break. Someone who in a position to influence tells a story, or some world even happens, that causes people to start talking. “You were bothered by the Confederate flag over the capitol all along? So was I. I thought it was just me.”
We’re in one of those moments with #MeToo. The power of the hashtag was that it blew our pluralistic ignorance all to smash. “You had this happen but didn’t speak up? Me too.”
Silence is at the center of this. The driving force is the acknowledgement that a cultural code of silence has prevailed that has obscured something that we always knew was happening, and always knew was wrong. There were as many reasons for the silence as there were victims from fear of losing a job, to shame, to the expectation that they would not be believed, to the fear that speaking up would lead to more restrictions– not of the perpetrators– but of the woman in the name of safety. It is not that we did not know this was happening. We didn’t realize that everyone else knew and couldn’t find a way to talk about it.
It reminded me of some of the scenes from that film. The Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels character deals with casting that is based on narrow standards of physical beauty, a touchy and dismissive boss who calls her “Tootsie” (hence the title) an amorous co-worker who uses an on screen kiss as an excuse to shove his tongue down her throat and who won’t take no for an answer.
What is interesting about this is that all of the writers on this film, as well as the director, were men. Men had their blind spots, but when they tried to imagine themselves navigating a woman’s world, it becomes clear that they knew that this stuff happened, and knew that it was a problem.
Men as well as women are immersed in our culture. Billy Bush laughed with Donald Trump, not because he agreed with him, but because he didn’t know how not to. Trump was the powerful man in the room, and you got on hi good side by joking like he did. I think we’re starting to see the pluralistic ignorance starting to break among men. “Wow, I felt really uncomfortable when he made that joke about women. You too? I thought it was just me.”
That is thanks to #MeToo.
MeToo was aways about cultural change. It is about the culture of silence. But we are an individualistic culture, and our method of story telling is to focus on individuals rather than communities. Instead of looking at work places and talking about our intersecting relations and how we influence each other, we’re more inclined to identify individual bad actors and make examples of them.
Yet while the different cases are individual and have their own nuances, they are also part of the larger narrative. When we discuss each fallen star’s apology, we are judging it in the context of the larger movement. Is the accused acknowledging the legitimacy of, not only the specific complaint, but #MeToo as a whole? Do they agree that women have not had their voices heard, and that there are imbalances in power that need to be addressed? The apology becomes central, and we spend a lot of time critiquing apologies. “Do you believe the women?” is not just a question about the particular incident, but about all women. Often people invoke it without having actually read the particulars. It is asking what side are you on.
That is why we cheer John Oliver when he shakes his head at Dustin Hoffman asking why his accuser did not speak up forty years. Indeed, Oliver is right. The whole point is that victims of sexual harassment are too intimidated to speak up. The point is to break the silence. We know why the accuser did not speak up. But to Hoffman, it is specific, and not an archetype.
Hoffman allegedly made vulgar jokes to a 17-year-old intern and asked her go give him foot massages. From her account, it seems as though she mentioned her discomfort and that at least some people on the set were aware of it. Even so, it seems as though most of the people on the set interpreted Hoffman’s behavior as normal joking around. Or if they did not, they believed the others on the set did, and therefore said nothing. The director, Volker Schlondorff, wrote an article defending Hoffman.
It’s plain silly. Just watch Christian Blackwood’s wonderful documentary PRIVATE CONVERSATIONS on the making of DOAS to check what a kidder Dustin was on the set, at all time, with everybody. Standard Monday morning question was indeed. “Did you have good sex over the weekend?” A joke, a running gag, everybody laughed at.
Foot massage? Yes indeed, he was 16 hours standing on the set (as me he never sat down), so he was tired and besides there is a line in the play about it: “These arch supports are killing me.” Dustin Hoffman, ever method acting, made it his own. Everybody gave him a foot massage now and then, on the set, amidst the chaos, nothing ambiguous about it.
As to the joke who was going to get Warren Beatty, only a teenager in her unlimited fantasy could take it seriously. Slapping her butt on the way to the car, with driver, stage manager and PAs around, may have happened, but again in a funny way, nothing lecherous about it. He was a clown, it was part of the way we portrayed Willy Loman as well — but he never played the power play. He was teasing the young, nervous interns, mostly to make them feel included on the set, treating them as equals to all the senior technicians. She may have got it wrong, confiding it to her diary then…
This is where the individual vs. community nature of the problem comes into focus. I believe that Hoffman made this intern uncomfortable. I don’t believe she “got it wrong” in her diary.
Yet I am also prepared to believe that Hoffman did not intend to make the intern uncomfortable. He was not trying to wield power over her but to be playful with her. Hewas part of a culture that said slapping a girl on the butt was a way to be funny “nothing lecherous about it.” He was part of a culture that assumed a woman would not “take it seriously.” Others in his sphere signaled to him that making a joke about having sex over the weekend was within bounds. He must have viewed it as his apologist Schlondorff did, “He was teasing the young, nervous interns, mostly to make them feel included on the set…”
Everybody laughed. The fact that “everybody laughed” could mean that, indeed, no one viewed it as a problem. On the other hand, they could have been like Billy Bush on the bus, laughing to build rapport with the stars, even though they were uncomfortable inside. But here’s the thing, he wouldn’t know the difference.
So when John Oliver shakes his head and says “Oh, Dustin” when he asks why his accuser didn’t say anything for 40 years, he is right. We understand what that would have been asking of her.
But Hoffman is also naturally wondering why he didn’t know about this before. If a man is immersed in an environment in which everyone around him is part of a culture of pluralistic ignorance, where everyone is treating this behavior as normal, even fun when they think it is not, how is he supposed to learn and grow and change? Confrontation is not aggression, it is information. The silence didn’t do Hoffman any favors either. It would have been better for everyone had his accuser felt empowered in the moment to say, “I don’t appreciate that.”
Is it fair to assume the worst about the intentions of the accused– not just that the accuser felt degraded but that he meant to degrade her? Or can we give him the benefit of the doubt, that even though she did feel that way, it was not his intent. Is it fair to assume that he would not have changed his behavior if they had been in a world where the intern felt more empowered to voice her discomfort more firmly, and if her rebuke been backed up by others?
As much as I cringe at Schlondorff’s comment that “She had a self-assured playful way herself,” I do believe his conclusion, “If [Hoffman] knew that she would be upset when he was teasing her, he wouldn’t have done it.” At least, I believe it is worth assuming that unless enough new information comes out to change the calculus.
Hoffman, in his apology, wrote “I have the utmost respect for women and feel terrible that anything I might have done could have put her in an uncomfortable situation. I am sorry. It is not reflective of who I am.”
John Oliver took umbrage with the phrase “It is not reflective of who I am.” He wanted him to say “It is not reflective of who I am now.” He wanted him to own it more. He wanted him to go beyond saying “I feel bad about my actions” and accept the identity of “harasser.” I don’t know if that is “who he is” or not. I don’t know him. I assume John Oliver doesn’t either. It could be that this is an isolated incident, or it could be the tip of the iceberg. (An article in Vanity Fair about the making of Kramer vs. Kramer makes him sound… difficult.) In either case, we should broaden our focus to the entire culture that kept the intern from speaking up for so long.
I have a regular feature here that I call “Yucky Framing.” I use that expression to describe a particular kind of argument, where the human side of life is defended in market terms and anything without a dollar value is dismissed as a sentimental abstraction. The New Republic recently ran an article on yucky framing, although Adam Gaffney didn’t actually call it that. The article is a review of a book called The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life by Eli Cook. It traces the history of conceptualizing human life as income producing capital.
It’s a type of argument that many of us—myself included—often make in the policy world to this day, and that we are all very used to hearing: It just makes economic sense. In September in the New Yorker, Sheelah Kolhatkar argued in a piece titled “The Cost of the Opioid Crisis” that President Trump should tackle the opioid crisis not merely because of lives lost, but because of its economic cost to the nation—citing the $78.5 billion figure with which I began this essay. “If Trump were running the U.S. government like a business,” she writes, “as he often claims to be doing, then he would have made tackling an inefficiency of such scale a priority.”
We are accustomed to thinking… that this is how change is wrought in the real world—by convincing policy elites that this or that policy is economically rational. But as the many examples in Cook’s book demonstrate, arguments from economic rationality can obscure as much as they reveal. For if capitalism meant the transformation of land and lives into units of wealth-producing human capital, it also meant the transformation of sickness and death into a currency of wealth-reducing decapitalization. And this poses a question: wealth for whom?
Indeed, wealth for whom is the big question. Can we be expected to ever tackle the problem of poverty if we view debtors as valuable engines of wealth production for banks, and assume that what is good for the bank is by definition a social good?
One of the historical examples in Cook’s book is arguments over slavery.
A central thesis of Cook’s book is that over the nineteenth century, progress was increasingly judged not through “moral statistics” but through “capitalizing ones.” While “moral statistics” take the measure of individual welfare—through figures on, for instance, mental suffering, impoverishment or imprisonment, and disability or death—“capitalizing” statistics measure economic costs, such as the price in dollars of “lost productivity.” Reformers increasingly relied, Cook argues, on the latter to advocate for social change.
Or in my terminology: It was during the 19th Century that people started to use “yucky framing” when they wanted to be taken seriously. They started trying to convince people who had already done the emotional gymnastics to justify the morality of owning other people. Seemingly unmoved by appeals to a sense of right and wrong, abolitionists tried to argue that even if owning humans was not morally horrendous, it didn’t make economic sense anyway.
Capitalizing discourse has gotten stronger as the years have passed. In the extreme, you get episodes like the White House Budget Director unable to come up with any argument in favor of feeding homebound seniors and low-income children because he can’t see how it improves worker productivity, spurs growth or creates jobs.
Similarly, Senator Orrin Hatch finds it difficult to justify continued funding of the CHIP children’s health program, seeing sick children and their families as “people who won’t help themselves.”
We’ve become so accustomed to making the case that arts matter because they spur tourism and economic growth, that philanthropy is good PR, and that not having sick employees increases productivity that the idea of “moral statistics” takes a moment to process.
We tend to think of the pre-19th Century expression from the preamble to the Constitution “promote the general welfare” in economic terms. The word “welfare” itself has come to mean money given to people for to stabilize their financial situation. Of course, the word itself is a synonym for well-being. What would our country look like if moral arguments predominated and if our model of “welfare” was based on maximizing human health and dignity?
Today I was doing research for a speech I am writing for a client, and the theme reminded me of the 2004 DNC speech that launched Barack Obama’s national political career. When I listened to it again, it struck me that Obama used moral rather than “capitalizing” language.
This year, in this election, we are called to reaffirm our values and commitments, to hold them against a hard reality and see how we are measuring up, to the legacy of our forbearers, and the promise of future generations…
For alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga. A belief that we are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief – I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper – that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many,one.
This is who we are, as a nation. This is what we believe. We have a moral responsibility that is larger than our self-interest, and we demonstrate who we are by acting in accordance with those values.
Obama’s success shows that America–at least a large part of the electorate–hungered for a discourse based on a moral, not just a capitalizing foundation.
These are moral claims:
Your factory closed and you are out of work, and you have value.
You’ve been diagnosed with a serious illness, and you have value.
You have been harassed by your boss, and you have value.
You work for wages, not capital, and you have value.
You have dark skin, and you have value.
You can’t afford a lobbyist, and you have value.
Your grandmother and children do nothing to create jobs, and they have value.
Hillary Clinton could not generate Obama levels of enthusiasm. That is, admittedly, an unfairly high bar. Obama had a rare rhetorical gift. Yet, I would argue that as a female candidate she had some additional obstacles. Women are always suspected of being emotional, sentimental and un-serious. A female candidate has to work extra hard to show that she is the one who can be trusted with the 3 AM phone call of a famous Clinton ad. She has to demonstrate her seriousness.
In our culture serious arguments feature capital rather than moral discourse. But it is moral rhetoric that excites the imagination and provides a stirring aspirational message. So Hillary talked about her detailed plan for jobs, where Bill had famously told someone in his audience “I feel your pain.”
These empathetic, moral claims carry a lot of weight with voters. There were elements of the Bernie Sanders and Trump campaigns that spoke to American’s desire for a politics of human dignity rather than humans as units of capital. Trump fans liked that he claimed to be so rich he could not be bought by lobbyists and would “drain the swamp.” Sanders liked the idea that he might reset government to put their interests above those of the “millionaires and billionaires” who viewed them as units of capital. Both Sanders and Trump were effective in associating Clinton with Wall Street and therefore a mindset of capitalization.
How all of this led to the politics we currently have is too complex and multi-faceted for my sociological ability to explain. But perhaps it is time we unlinked the association of capital with seriousness. The things that are difficult to quantify (market externalities the economists call them) are deadly serious to human beings living in this world.
I found myself the other day listening to a podcast by Marc Maron talking about the allegations against his friend Louis CK.
It was fascinating to me to listen to this man trying to empathize and understand what it was like for a woman to be faced with an unwanted and unexpected sexual advance. The only comparable experience he had involved a male teacher who he admired trying to kiss him.
As a woman, until recently, it had never occurred to me just how rarely straight men have the experience of an unwanted sexual advance. “Of course not,” you may say, “because they always want it.” I do not believe this is true, and I think that view is part of the problem.
I remember a while back listening to an interview with Trevor Noah where he was talking about the value of diversity in the writing room of the Daily Show. They were doing a segment on catcalls on the streets of New York. Noah said he thought it would not be a big deal for women. If women on the street whistled at him and called him hot, he imagined it would be kind of nice. But the women on the staff let him know that it is terrible to be walking down the street, minding your own business, and to be catcalled.
Why don’t men get it? I think it comes down that an antiquated notion– one we would do well to be done with– that women are the givers of sex and men the recipients of it.
Let’s get this straight, because I’ve heard a lot of commentary lately that men are just awful by nature and women are virtuous. Poppycock! There are two main reasons why you’re not hearing loads of stories of powerful women groping their underlings. 1. There aren’t enough powerful women with underlings. 2. And this is the focus of this article–We are actively socialized not to initiate. (See my previous article on “making a pass” vs. “throwing oneself.”)
Because we do not usually make the passes, for fear of being seen as sluts, we are much less likely to find ourselves saying, “I thought he was over 18,” or “I thought he gave me signals…” And men, socialized to believe female sexual attention is a gift they should always want, are not nearly as likely to come forward and report to HR “she kissed me and put her hand on my knee…”
Of course, assumptions about male libido, as godawful as they are, pale in comparison to the incredibly creepy cultural ideas about female libido. One of the earliest known postclassical joke books is the 15th-century Facetiae of Poggio, in which we find the following anecdote, presented in the painfully stiff English translation:
A woman who was once asked by a man, why, if the pleasure of cohabitation was equal for both sexes, it was generally the men who pursued and importuned the women rather than vice-versa, replied:
“It is a very wise custom that compels the men to take the initiative. For it is certain that we women are always ready for sex; not so you men, however. And we should therefore be soliciting the men in vain, if they happened to be not in the proper condition for it.”
Somewhat later, in the first season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, we find this bit, described thus in the DVD package for those who don’t want to watch the video:
Larry is drifting off when Cheryl asks him, “Why am I the one that always has to initiate sex?” Larry explains that he’s always available, and all Cheryl has to do is tap him on the shoulder. Otherwise, he tells her, “I’ll just be mauling you all the time.”
In other words, it is the exact same joke, but the genders have been reversed.
A researcher who studied sexual habits in other cultures reports, “the Biwat of Papua New Guinea think women are the sexual aggressors and men are the receivers. They have this saying: ‘Of course the female is the aggressor and aggressive. Has she not a vulva?'”
And, as it turns out, women are the aggressors more often than you might think even in our culture. The BPS Digest calls it one of the 10 most widely believed myths in psychology that men are much more likely to be abusers than women.
A British survey published in 2014 found that over 65 per cent believed it was probably or definitely true that domestic violence is overwhelmingly committed by men. It’s easy to understand why – men are responsible for more violent crime overall, and being bigger and stronger, on average, men are seen as a more obvious threat. Yet official statistics (cited by Scarduzio et al, this year) show that partner violence against men by women is also a major problem. For example, The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey in the US found that one in four men had experienced physical violence, rape, and/or stalking from a partner (compared with one in three women) and that 83 per cent of the violence inflicted on men by partners was done so by women. This is not to diminish the seriousness or scale of the problem of partner abuse by men toward women, but to recognise that there is also a significant, lesser known, issue of women being violent toward men.
But that is not what our culture tells us, not what it reinforces and rewards. I was struck by this sign at a recent protest march to end workplace sexual harassment.
This sign expresses a woman’s right to say “no” and her right to say “yes.” In either case, she is viewed as the recipient of the man’s advance. There is no sign that I can see about her right to make the first move.
Samantha Bee, in her funny PSA on how not to masturbate in front of employees assures men that their dicks are ugly and that no woman actually wants to see one in any context.
And this is totally true, right ladies?
We hear it all the time. Women’s bodies are beautiful. Men’s are disgusting. Then there are the Viagra jokes. They operate on the idea that a man’s desire to have dependable erections in late middle age can only be selfish. It’s selfish because sex is something men get and women give. The jokes don’t work if you envision male sexual function as something that is mutually beneficial to both partners.
Samantha Bee is right, it is easy not to masturbate in front of your employees, and a lot of the behavior we’ve heard lately is reported because it is so disgusting and outrageous. No one wants to be confronted with sex when they’re trying to make a serious business presentation.
But when it’s in the right context, when it is welcome, it feels good to be appreciated for your sexual attractiveness. It is nice to hear that expressed, and to have someone take a risk and go out on a limb to make an overture. In the right context it feels good to be viewed with lust. We all want to be desired.
Put another way: To be sometimes considered as a sexual being is a natural human need. To be always considered as an object of desire is a burden.
Men don’t get enough of that. Women get too much. I think we should correct that. We need to go beyond the right to say yes or no, waiting for advances, and calling out the ones that are inappropriate–we need to start claiming our own desire and making more of the moves ourselves.
I appreciate it when I hear someone like Maron or Noah trying to understand the female point of view. I think a lot more men are trying to empathize these days. I am optimistic that maybe the moment has come when we will stop putting the burden on women to protect ourselves, and start asking men to be responsible in their behavior.
But if some men have trouble imagining what it is like to be in our position, some women also have trouble imagining the real confusion of some of their male friends who would never dream of doing what Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose or Roy Moore are alleged to have done but who are still a bit nervous that some episode from their past might come back to haunt them. The difference between an “unwanted advance” and a “wanted advance” is whether or not it is wanted. There are some cases when it is clear. (She’s 14, she’s your employee and you have to threaten her, you’re considering masturbating in front of someone at work) There are others where it is not so clear. If you’re going on hair twirls and head tilts as a guide, there is some room to make the wrong judgment. This is why I am concerned about the conflation of different types of stories.
Right now there is only one question being asked: “Do you believe the accuser or not?”
In some cases–not all, but some– you can absolutely believe that an accuser is telling the truth, and also ask if there is some possibility of misunderstanding.
Tara Isabella Burton, writing in Vox, used Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure to talk about the long history of the misuse of sexual power. In Measure for Measure, a man named Claudio is arrested for getting his fiance pregnant before they are married. Sex outside of marriage is illegal in Vienna, and while it is widespread, Claudio has been sentenced to death as a scapegoat– to show that the duke is tough on crime. His sister, Isabella, goes to an official called Angelo who tells her that he will spare her brother if she will sleep with him. In her outrage, she goes to her brother.
Isabella is sick and tired of men avoiding responsibility for their actions, and in this scene she lets herself go, telling her brother it’s better someone so shameful will die quickly. “I’ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death,” she cries, “No word to save thee.”…
It’s easy, especially in the post-#MeToo world, to sympathize with Isabella’s plight — plenty of women I know, myself included, respond to each new public accusation of sexual misconduct with joking-but-not-really-joking misandry, or comments about “banning all men.” But what Shakespeare does so well is present us with an Isabella who’s totally right (a lot of the men in Vienna are terrible!) and who also, through her rage, is perpetuating the same uncompromising black-and-white worldview that got Claudio arrested in the first place…
This play serves as an important reminder that, despite some people’s idealized narrative of the “pre-women’s lib” past, people were still grappling with the injustice of sexual misconduct. Shakespeare knew that sexual harassment is made possible by sexual hypocrisy: that harassed women are rarely believed, that women are only allowed to be wives, widows, or virgins, and this is what makes it so easy to make them victims.
Overt sexual harassment is only part of the story. And sexism is not only a problem of men. We all buy into it in big and small ways. Studies show that both men and women–including feminists– have implicit biases that men are associated with leadership and women aren’t. (You can check yourself with this implicit bias test. I came out with a “slight bias” associating men with leadership and women with supporting roles.)
I have to admit that my own two novels reflect these biases. I found it much easier to write about male beauty from the point of view of a male character in my first novel Angel. In my second novel, Identity Theft, I made fun of how the (female) director of the film The Holiday felt it was important that Jude Law’s character be wearing a tie before Cameron Diaz’s character invites him to her bed– if he were of a lower social class it would make her a slut. Nevertheless I gave in to gender expectations in my own writing. The main female character, Candi, fantasizes about a sexual encounter with a rock star. In my initial conception, she had an uninspiring life and lots of stress and she wanted a fun adventure. I came to realize that she was coming across as not “likeable” or “relateable” enough. So I gave her body image issues which provided a socially-sanctioned sympathetic motivation for her sexual desire. She wanted the affair to boost her self-esteem, not to pro-actively go out in search of pleasure.
We do not just need to change how men think about us, we need to change how we think about ourselves.
Sexual harassment allegations continue to dominate the news. I applaud the social movement to change our culture on this issue, but there is something in our national discourse that has been troubling me.
The individual tales of bad behavior are being merged into one story. There is no distinction between transgressions, whether they are isolated or part of a pattern, whether with adults or people under age, whether in a social setting or at work, whether a rebuff was followed by retaliation or not, whether it was decades ago or ongoing, whether the accusation has been carefully vetted or is just something someone posted on social media with a MeToo hashtag. All transgressions are equal, none can be examined deeply without accusations of victim blaming, and the only remedy on offer is firing the perpetrator and permanent ostracization.
The noted scholar Mary Beard wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that she is “conflicted” on the issue of public shamings.
When I say ‘conflicted’ I mean exactly that. Part of me feels that the majority of the allegations that have followed since the Harvey Weinstein cases are probably true, and — in the absence of any real likelihood of criminal prosecutions (even in cases where that would be a technical possibility) — a bit of public naming and shaming might be the best way of changing the culture on this (and, as I said before, changing the culture in ordinary workplaces as much as in celebrity culture).
But another part of me feels that some of these allegations are probably not true (or at least there is another side to them) — and that no newspaper account is ever going to let us judge which those (albeit minority) cases are. And those innocents have no way of putting their side of it (at least a legal trial allows you to do that).
In a recent article in Jezebel, Stassa Edwards argues against appeals to due process or any talk of redemption for the accused. She makes the case that such talk is an attempt to sweep the problem under the rug and to return to a comfortable status quo. Certainly such arguments can be, but they are not by definition, and we should not be so quick to dismiss the idea of giving the accused a fair hearing. We need to be especially careful precisely in cases where emotions and stakes are high.
Edwards argues against a New Yorker piece by Masha Gessen, who she quotes here:
“The affirmative-consent and preponderance-of-the-evidence regimes shift the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused, eliminating the presumption of innocence,” she writes, never pausing to consider that jail, suspension or expulsion from school, or job loss are hardly synonymous, or that their long-term repercussions are the same.
Indeed, jail and losing a job are not the same. But we should not be too quick to minimize the impact of social shaming, loss of career and personal identity.
So “only a job” is not a good excuse to abandon the presumption of innocence. If you were accused of something, you would want an opportunity to respond and be heard whether in court or in the court of public opinion– whether the stakes were jail or losing your job or simply a loss of face, wouldn’t you?
Are we not sophisticated enough to hold these two thoughts at once: that these offenses represent a serious, far-reaching, systemic problem and that we need to be fair to the people who are accused as well as the accusers?
Those who have, at some period in our lives, experienced unwanted sexual advances and want change, should be the most concerned with giving the accused a fair shake. Exaggerating and conflating undermine our own efforts by making us easy to dismiss. Every example of over-zealousness provides an excuse for someone to say the problem doesn’t really exist.
We are a culture that uses celebrities as symbols in our shared mythology, much as we once told tales of the gods. Politicians and film stars are a common point of reference to talk about our dreams, aspirations and values. So the celebrity who transgresses is shunned in order to demonstrate our cultural values. Symbolically, if Louis CK’s actions are forgivable, then so are your wretched boss’s, and therefore we cannot yield.
Nor do we welcome much nuance if it disturbs the important process of myth-making. If individual cases do not quite fit the pattern, they are sometimes made to. Let me give you an example. I believe Anthony Rapp’s accusation against Kevin Spacey. Spacey did not deny it. What upset people so much in that case was Rapp’s age– 14 at the time Spacey allegedly made a move on him.
Since then, many additional accounts of bad behavior have been levied against Spacey, but they have mostly been by adults, although you would be forgiven for not noticing that. To be clear here, I am passing judgment on the accusers or saying their statements are not truthful. I simply wish to make a point about how the various cases have been synthesized in the reporting to create a seamless narrative.
Consider this passage in a USA Today article on another Spacey accuser. I have edited it to remove the name and some identifying information of the accuser:
It was July in New York and [he] was just 27, in his first major job out of college [at a theater where] he was running the fledgling film program. He was in his office one day, phone in hand, when Spacey walked in and sat down at an empty desk.
[He] knew who [Spacey] was. Then 22, Spacey was an up-and-coming actor, playing a minor role in Henry IV Part 1, according to records.
The narrator goes on to report that Spacey groped him and became angry when he was rebuffed.
The article goes on “… he was shocked, then freaked out. Would Spacey get him fired?”
I removed the accuser’s name because I do not want to make this about him or to make it appear I am trying to minimize his experience or call his story into question. That is not my point. Rather, I have some questions on how USA Today chose to relate his story.
If you scanned the article quickly, you’d be forgiven for not noticing a few things. The victim is described as being “just 27.” The word “just” emphasizes his youth, although 27 is an adult in anyone’s book. Spacey’s age does not earn a “just” even though– take note– he was five years younger than the other man. Note also that Spacey is described as an “up-and-coming” actor. This makes him sound notable. This is in contrast to the language used to describe the 27-year-old’s job: his first out of college, a fledgling program.
Other language could have been used to describe an actor who was not-yet-famous and who had only managed to land a “minor role” in a Shakespeare production. You might go so far as to call him a “struggling actor.” In an interview years ago about his career at that time (ironically with Charlie Rose) Spacey said he couldn’t get work and was pleased to get a role as a “spear carrier” because he didn’t want to wait tables.
It is not clear whether the victim’s concerns about being fired were his own. They were not presented in the form of a direct quotation. Was this 27 year old, who ran the film program at the theater really worried that a 22 year-old, then-unknown actor in a minor (easy to recast) role would get him fired? Was that what was on his mind? Or did he simply describe behavior that he found weird and notably aggressive and the reporter speculated on his feelings? Perhaps the writer decided that a story of an awkward and unpleasant sexual advance between two co-workers (in which the person who made the advance arguably had lower status) did not fit the growing narrative of male abuses of power well enough.
These stories get reported under headlines saying that “a new accuser” has appeared. Six out of ten people share news stories having only read the headline, which means most people will naturally assume that the stories that follow are more of the same even if there are important differences. To people who see headlines flashed across their newsfeeds, they are all Anthony Rapps.
A person does not have to be innocent to be a scapegoat. A scapegoat is someone who is made to carry the sins of others, to take on the burden of punishment to absolve an entire group. We use our celebrities this way, as symbols. We have always used them this way. They deserve it, we feel, because they courted fame in the first place. They get to be treated as small gods, and when they fall, they take on the sins of all who shared their transgressions.
But celebrities are just people. They should be held accountable for their actions in proportion to their severity, not in proportion to the severity of the social problem as a whole. Each accuser should be listened to and judged on the basis of her own story, not as a representative of the collective sufferings of women.
Edwards writes “what’s at issue here is civil rights—freedom from discrimination in the form of harassment because of gender or sex.”
She is right. Civil rights is the issue.
We can’t be champions of civil rights without having a concern for fair treatment of both the accused and the accuser.