The Critical Mass

What’s the matter with Alabama?

The two of us had arrived early at a downtown Rochester hotel, and the room reserved for the breakfast meeting with a handful of invited guests was locked. We stood in front of the door as a hotel employee wandered off to find a key.

“You look really tired,” I said.

He admitted that the week’s travel schedule had been pretty rough.

“Well, let’s sit while we wait,” I said.

So Al Franken and I sat down. On the floor.

This was in April of 2006. Franken was in town for a live broadcast of Air America’s The Al Franken Show at The Little Theater. I thanked Franken for his help on a story I had written some years earlier about the comedian A. Whitney Brown. The two had worked together on Saturday Night Live, and Brown had told me that Franken was very supportive of his battles with drug and alcohol addiction. I called Franken’s New York City office and left a message, asking if he’d comment. My expectations were low; Franken was a busy man, many people wanted a piece of his time. But to my surprise, Franken called me back.

Sitting there on the hotel hallway floor, Franken said he’d returned my call because Brown was his friend. Then we talked a little about the rumors that Franken was considering a run for the U.S. Senate seat from Minnesota, rumors he had neither confirmed nor denied. He then went on for a few minutes about what he’d hope to accomplish as a senator.

I said something like, “You know, you’ve pretty much admitted right here that you’re going to run.” He just smiled.

A few hours later, 300 people in the theater and a large group standing outside, hoping to get in, heard Franken dedicate his entire show to voices from Rochester. This was in the midst of the George W. Bush presidency, and there was plenty to talk about. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter and Mayor Robert Duffy were there. Eric Massa, a Navy veteran running for a seat in the 29th Congressional district. David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning financial writer. Rochester Institute of Technology professor Robert Manning, discussing predatory lending practices. And Dr. Mark Noble of the University of Rochester, explaining the importance of stem-cell research.

Ten months later, Franken officially announced he was running for the Senate. He won by the slimmest of margins, and was re-elected six years later. This despite ridicule from some folks that a guy who’d been catapulted onto the national stage because of his career in television wasn’t qualified for the job. Yet it happened, just as we’ve since seen that even a fellow who is famous for shouting “You’re fired!” at TV reality-show apprentices can some day be president.

So now we see Franken as one of the prominent names in this astounding wave of powerful men being accused of sexually assaulting women. And I am dismayed, not only because my two brief interactions with Franken were so positive, but because I like what he’s done in the senate since then. He’s taken the job seriously, and worked hard on behalf of issues that are important to me.

I look at all of this news through several lenses. Virtually all of these men come from the worlds of media, entertainment and politics. And almost all of the accusations against the media and entertainment figures had resulted in firings, resignations and the end of careers: Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Garrison Keillor, Russell Simmons, Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin…

But politicians such as Franken, John Conyers, Roy Moore and Donald Trump – George H.W. Bush even! – have not retreated into the weeds.

Here’s another lens to use when examining this news: Democrats and progressive-leaning figures on that list – with the exception of Conyers – are apologizing for their actions. Whether you think the apologies go far enough is debatable, but those men are at least taking some responsibility for their actions. Republicans and conservatives have chosen a different tactic. They are denying, denigrating the women accusers and attacking the media for reporting the story.

Perspective seems important, but I can’t decide where we should be standing when looking at sexual harassment and assault. Is Franken equal to Moore? Is Weinstein equal to Keillor? As someone who’s never been sexually harassed or assaulted, I wonder if I even have the right to express an opinion on the issue.

A few days ago, My Friend Bill passed along this essay by a progressive activist, G. K. Potter, “A Survivor’s Defense of Al Franken.” I don’t know the details of her experience, but Potter does identify herself as a sexual-assault survivor. You can read her entire essay here, but these are some of the words that caught me:

I’m sick of my traumas and the traumas of other survivors being exploited for political gain and emotional satisfaction on both the left and the right. Physically. Sick.

Potter charges Leeann Tweeden, the women who first accused Franken of assault – several others have since stepped forward – of taking “the traumas of the women and children that have been the true victims of sexual violence and used them for her own personal gains and the political goals of the Republican Party.” She writes:

Al Franken’s tasteless joke didn’t make her fear for her life. It didn’t make her burn the clothes she was wearing that night. It didn’t make her scrub herself clean in the shower until her skin tore off. This joke didn’t keep her up shaking and puking and sobbing on the floor of a shower as she bled down a drainpipe. It didn’t send her to the clinic for STD tests.

Al Franken’s joke didn’t crush her notion of who she was or how she could walk in this world. This joke didn’t give her PTSD or depression or any of the lasting forms of struggle that true rape and assault victims must face minute by minute. It hasn’t informed every relationship she’s had since.

Potter points out that the USO tours that Franken and Tweeden were a part of are highly sexualized shows meant to entertain the mostly male members of the armed services. They have been since World War II, and on into the Bob Hope years, which we used to watch on television back home. Which makes me wonder: Should the U.S. government be subsidizing such attitudes as we read news reports of rampant sexual assault in our military?

And Potter then returns to the idea that this is political:

It clearly cannot be denied that sexual violence exists on both sides of the political aisle, but it is the Republican Party that has perfected the technique of weaponizing and exploiting these traumas for their own personal gain.  

The idea that Franken is not the same as Moore resonates with me. But so too does the idea that no level of sexual harassment and assault is tolerable.

Here’s another aspect of the debate that I’m seeing. This isn’t a new problem. Powerful men exploiting women has been happening for centuries. Yet this new wave of outrage – led by women – appears to be resonating with the country. Can we find a way to focus this outrage as well on other issues that Americans are clearly in favor of? Gun control, health care that’s readily accessible to all as it is in European countries, and closing the vast disparity between the rich and the poor?

What drives a corporation such as NBC to dump Matt Lauer, or Netflix to cancel Kevin Spacey’s television show, is the fear that associating with them will hurt their product. It’s economic populism that might work.

Everywhere except Alabama, where the accused pedophile Moore may win a senate seat because, as Trump says, that’s better than losing it to a Democrat.

What’s the matter with Alabama?

Do you still believe these issues aren’t about politics?

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