This time of year, back-to-school time, used to evoke fresh notebooks and clean slates, unsharpened pencils and new beginnings.
These days, it brings reruns of the same old story and evokes a familiar dread.
It’s the season of “Access Hollywood” and Harvey Weinstein, of Brett Kavanaugh-The-Trial and Brett Kavanaugh-Possible-Impeachment-Sequel. It’s the season Antonio Brown surges onto the field as a New England Patriot just days after being accused of rape.
It’s the season that has demonstrated, four years running, how little America thinks of women.
First, there was Donald Trump’s pussy-grabbing, dismissed as locker room talk, and the dawning realization that the guy who bragged about getting away with it was going to get away with that, too. The following fall brought Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s horror show, teaching us an entire industry could be complicit in enabling a powerful man and crushing women, even the women we envy.
A year later, we got a chance to watch these lessons play out in real time. In the fall of 2018, when allegations of sexual misconduct emerged against Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh, our government institutions were paralyzed by the intrusion. Many people defaulted to the assumption that the men seeking power belong in it, because how scary is it if that power structure shifts? What then?
A Supreme Court appointment could be dashed over a mere accusation! We fretted over this for a couple of weeks until he was confirmed.
Now, Kavanaugh is back in the news because a new book by New York Times reporters revealed the FBI never chased down the individuals who might have corroborated claims of his bad behavior. The FBI was in a rush, after all, and hadn’t he already been vetted? Wouldn’t we have heard something before now if there was something to hear?
The latest stories show it hasn’t gotten any easier for us to confront these challenges to power. The willingness to put one’s head in the sand and accept the word of an entitled man to protect a brand is just as instinctive today as it was four years ago. Individuals and institutions alike are still willing to turn a blind eye if they’re winning.
MIT was happy to accept millions from Epstein, a convicted pedophile, as long as no one found out about it. (News flash: We did.) The New England Patriots benefited from Brown’s dazzling performance on Sunday, dodging pesky questions about a woman’s claims that he had sexually assaulted her three times. (Addressing it would have been awkward, what with team owner Robert Kraft still mired in his own sex scandal in Florida.) So, carry on, ladies. Nothing to see here.
That is not to say that any one of these men is guilty (except Epstein, who was convicted and whose crimes continue to unspool in garish detail). It’s wrong and counterproductive to convict any man on our worst assumptions. But haven’t we learned yet how corrosive and diminishing it is to reflexively ignore women’s voices, to assume the worst of them?
The US Senate last year did not have to declare Kavanaugh guilty to conduct a full investigation before declaring him innocent. The Patriots do not need to declare Brown a rapist before saying they won’t tolerate it if he is, and declaring the actions and language ascribed to him as abhorrent.
MIT did not need to own the crimes of Jeffrey Epstein; he was the sexual predator. It merely needed to admit that it took Epstein’s money while hoping that no one would notice. Instead, it covered up the details, which dribbled out over time.
The New York Times bobbled the handling of the latest book’s revelations about Kavanaugh, giving President Trump and other critics an opening to delegitimize them. That’s unfortunate, because it landed at the same time as another book by New York Times reporters who broke the story about Weinstein, and that provides a master class tutorial on news gathering, objectivity, and doggedness.
Like all the women who told the #MeToo stories they prompted, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey put themselves on the line to tell a truth the world might learn from.
How disappointing that it hasn’t.