We now know what it must have felt like to be a Regency dandy who lived long enough to experience Victorian prudery. For we are living through a revolution in manners not unlike the one that occurred in the second and third quarters of the 19th century. In the space of a generation, libertines became pariahs.
It is a feature of such revolutions that no one can quite say exactly when they begin. Historians of Victorian values seek their origins in the upsurge of evangelical religious feeling on both sides of the Atlantic, often called “the Great Awakening.” In the same way, there is clearly some connection between the feminist movement and the spasm of revulsion against sexual harassment in the workplace that is currently — and belatedly — sweeping the English-speaking world.
And yet it was not a famous feminist who exposed the allegations of rape and sexual assault against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, but the male broadcaster Ronan Farrow. And he cannot have foreseen, when he published his devastating j’accuse in The New Yorker last month, that it would unleash a cascade of accusations fatal to the reputations of such erstwhile darlings of New Yorker readers as the comedian-turned-senator Al Franken, actor Kevin Spacey, comedian Louis C.K., political journalist Mark Halperin, and interviewer Charlie Rose.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Sexual harassment was supposed to be the kind of thing only Republicans did — inveterate sexists such as Donald Trump or alleged molesters of underage schoolgirls such as Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama. How very awkward that the majority of names in the New York Times list of 34 top alleged harassers are men of the left, not the right.
Awkward, but not surprising. For the Weinstein case has proved to be a moment of truth for a liberal elite that for decades has been guilty of the most egregious hypocrisy. The same Weinstein who stands accused of rape today attended the Women’s March back in January. For years, he and his ilk have been signaling their feminist virtue by day and practicing the degradation of women by night. Sadly, they have too often been enabled in their two-faced conduct by feminists who could not quite resist the allure of their power.
The same feminists who defended Bill Clinton’s behavior in the 1990s have spent their lives deriding the values of men such as Vice President Mike Pence, who in 2002 told an interviewer “that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side.” “Is that sexist?” asked Robin Abcarian for the Los Angeles Times. Absolutely, according to Kim Elsesser, a lecturer on gender and psychology at UCLA, though she preferred to call it “gender discrimination.”
We find ourselves in a bewildering dual world. The world of education is patrolled by the gender-studies thought police — witness the departmental interrogation of a teaching assistant at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University, Lindsay Shepherd, who had the temerity to show students a TV clip featuring University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson. This, she was told, was a violation of the university’s “gendered and sexual violence policy” because Peterson is known for “critiquing feminism, critiquing trans rights.” In this world, a mere accusation of sexism can end a career.
Meanwhile, in the world of entertainment, Hollywood continues to churn out movies in which alpha-male heroes routinely enjoy casual sexual encounters with pouting, scantily clad twenty-somethings. Or are we to believe that in the new James Bond film, “Bond 25,” a transgender 007 will issue a heartfelt apology for her character’s 64-year career of sexism and sexual harassment?
In many ways, Bond came to personify the sexual revolution of the 1960s. At least some of the acts of which eminent men today stand accused read like crude imitations of his seduction techniques. In that sense, the sexual revolution is finally devouring its own children, who made the mistake of believing that Pussy Galore was forever.
I’m against sexual harassment. I condemn anyone who abuses their power in the workplace for any kind of gratification. So I am on the side of this revolution in manners. My concern is only that such revolutions have a tendency to overshoot. I wonder: do we risk sliding into a kind of secular sharia, in which all men are presumed to be sexual predators and only severe punishments can prevent routine rape? Will one-to-one work meetings between a male and a female co-worker soon be a thing of the past? What next? A more general segregation of the sexes? How the Islamists must be enjoying all this.
If the feminist revolution in manners has a sacred text, it is Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” with its dystopian vision of an America in which women have no rights, but only reproductive obligations. Few fans of the book appear aware that this vision is much dearer to the hearts of Islamists than to those of evangelical Christians. As a corrective, I recommend Michel Houellebecq’s “Submission”, in which the liberal elite of France embraces sharia law in — yes, that’s right — a spasm of revulsion at its own decadence.Niall Ferguson’s new book is “The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power.”