After playwright Lillian Hellman was blacklisted as a Communist-sympathizer, she later looked back and wrote: “My belief in liberalism was mostly gone.”
In its place, she substituted something she called “decency.”
She recalled in her memoir, “Scoundrel Time,” how life changed for her after she was ostracized. People stopped calling. Of those who still called, some were worried about being seen with her. Hellman had to sell her farm. For the immediate future she would be banned from writing movies.
Hellman would know how Garrison Keillor and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) must feel now.
“It’s astonishing that fifty years of hard work can be trashed in a morning by an accusation,” Keillor wrote in a Facebook post after he was fired by Minnesota Public Radio. “I always believed in hard work and now it feels sort of meaningless. Only a friend can hurt you this badly. I think I have to leave the country in order to walk around in public and not feel accusing glances.”
Keillor co-created and hosted “A Prairie Home Companion,” one of the most popular public radio shows. His unforgivable sin was touching a woman’s bare back. An anonymous woman has been allowed to destroy his career. I’d like to know who this precious, expensive piece of tail is. That’s not sarcasm; that’s how this woman has cast herself. She had her attorney call Keillor, so it appears she might be willing to put a price tag on herself.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune noted that Keillor “seemed more hurt, resigned and defensive than apologetic.” Perhaps he has done nothing to apologize for.
Franken did apologize but to no avail. He was forced to resign, shoved out of the U.S. Senate by his colleagues – primarily a group of female Democrats who demanded his resignation, proving that women politicians can grandstand like men.
Of this group of Democratic female senators, the one I am most familiar with is Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) since I used to live in Washington state. Whenever I see or hear her name, I think “Mom in tennis shoes.” That’s how Murray first drew national attention to herself – with a fashion statement.
Franken’s career-ending sins are a joke considering the context in which most of them were committed: Back when he was a comedian and performing on stage, he kissed and touched women without a formal invitation. He also appeared in a photo pretending to grab the well-covered breasts of a woman who had a history of being photographed topless.
Gail Collins of The New York Times tried to put a positive spin on the senator’s downfall: “Franken was a good politician, and many Democrats hoped he might grow into a presidential candidate. But it was his destiny to serve history in a different way. He was caught up in a rebellion of epic proportion, one that was not just about unwanted groping but a whole new stage in the movement of women into the center of public life.”
Collins is trying to justify a wrong.
In Hellman’s 1934 play, “The Children’s Hour,” two women who run an all-girls boarding school are ruined and lose everything when a malicious student spreads rumors they are lesbian, which was then taboo. It was based on a true court case in Great Britain, and Hellman initially said she wanted to explore the damage that deception can do.
She revived the play two decades later after she was targeted in the anti-Communist purges led by the Sen. Joseph McCarthy. “The Children’s Hour” resonated even more because people were being ruined by lies and political paranoia. It was a time when Americans were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and asked to name names of anyone they suspected of being Communist.
McCarthy had his blacklists. Now we’re chasing names for the sexual harassment whitelist. The media are anxiously waiting to see who the Harvey Weinstein of Wall Street will be. There are probably several who qualify.
Like all frenzies, mistakes will be made.
Do women never lie or exaggerate? Do they never connive? Do they never flirt with a man they don’t really like in hopes of getting some kind of advantage? Why do some of us want to believe that women cannot be as deceptive and calculating as men? Why do we act as protective towards women as we do towards children?
If it’s to make up for all the times women and children were not listened to in the past, creating new inequities now isn’t going to balance the scales.
The hunt for sexual harassers reached a point of absurdity during the takedown of John Hockenberry, former host of WNYC’s radio show, “The Takeaway,” broadcast on many NPR stations.
Hockenberry’s contract wasn’t renewed this past summer, and he was initially given a nice send-off with fans wishing him luck in whatever his next adventure would be. Knocked off his powerful perch as an NPR icon, women he had offended over the years started circling.
Earlier this month Suki Kim, who had written a book about North Korea and appeared as a guest on “The Takeaway” three years ago, wrote an essay for New York Magazine detailing how Hockenberry made her feel violated – although he never touched her.
The nature of these violations? A year after she had appeared on his show, he requested two other meetings to “brainstorm,” where he gushed about her work. That was the sum total of their personal encounters.
But Hockenberry made her feel uncomfortable when he started pursuing her via e-mail with unwanted invitations: “Any interest in a museum and coffee? … Maybe we could try for something outside in the park maybe the Met or something … Let’s do a date… .”
It bothered Kim that Hockenberry was allowed to retire “honorably,” so she set about interviewing women who had worked with him to see if they’d had problems with him. Oh, yes. He kissed a producer to thank her, and he “bullied” three co-hosts who were black women. He even yelled at one of them.
I never liked Hockenberry’s show. His smarmy liberalism infected his work. A classic example: The Oct. 24, 2016 show where Hockenberry announced, “Whites are the bad guys. How do we stop being the bad guy?”
Even so, he didn’t deserve the week-long pile-on where “The Takeaway” allowed the accusers in Kim’s essay to make charges against Hockenberry without being cross-examined with good questions. How, for example, does a man in a wheelchair paralyzed from the chest down (as Hockenberry is), grope and kiss a woman into helplessness? What exactly is bullying? How is telling a black woman not to be the diversity hire bullying? Sounds like good career advice. How is telling a woman to lose weight harassment or bullying – especially in our weight-obsessed culture?
Hockenberry’s co-hosts were all journalists. Aren’t journalists supposed to be tough? Yet they complained that Hockenberry ran them off. He quashed their dreams. Listening to these women tell their stories on air last week it sounded as if they didn’t know that many people – including white men – have their dreams quashed.
The American workplace is a competitive environment that isn’t always conducive to hand-holding, especially if you’re working in a newsroom on deadline.
Let the ladies enjoy their turn in the sun. They’ve got their Time cover story as “Persons of the Year” for breaking a silence they could have broken years ago had they been braver and not needed a lynch mob for backup. They’ll bag a few more big names. There’s money to be made with new apps like AllVoices, created by a female tech executive, which will allow employees to anonymously report harassment or discrimination.
They might want to keep the lesson of Hockenberry in mind: One year he’s blaming white guys for everything that’s gone wrong, and the next year he’s one of those white guys.
In the immediate present, this year’s holiday parties are probably more tepid affairs. A friend told me of a party she went to recently where many guests were political and business leaders, and the usual hugs of greeting were missing. Who wants to take a chance in this climate?
In the past week I have said to various women I know, ranging in age from 37 to 95 years old, “Imagine going through life and NEVER receiving an unwanted touch or kiss.”
Their reactions have all been pretty much the same: Long, blank stares. The 95-year-old, though, offered that her gardener earlier that day might have sexually harassed her when she was out in the yard, walking with two canes.
“He put his arms around me,” she said.
“Maybe he thought you were falling,” her daughter suggested.
Sex – it’s still good for a laugh.
– Pamela Fitzsimmons