Last Thursday, after a photograph emerged of Senator Al Franken either groping or pretending to grope a sleeping woman, Leeann Tweeden, with whom he’d been traveling on a 2006 U.S.O. tour, I wrote that he should resign. Almost as soon as it was published I started having second thoughts. I spent all weekend feeling guilty that I’d called for the sacrifice of an otherwise decent man to make a political point.
Then I saw the news that a woman named Lindsay Menz accusedFranken of grabbing her butt while they posed for a photo at the Minnesota State Fair in 2010, when he was a senator, and I read Franken’s lame non-denial: “I feel bad that Ms. Menz came away from our interaction feeling disrespected.”
Yet I am still not sure I made the right call. My thinking last week, when the first accusation emerged, was: cauterize the wound. It doesn’t matter that Franken’s transgression wasn’t on the same level as the abuses that the Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore or Donald Trump have been accused of. That photo — the unconscious woman, the leering grin — is a weight Democrats shouldn’t have to carry, given that they’ve lately been insisting that it’s disqualifying for a candidate to grab a woman sexually against her will. It seemed cruel to expect Democratic women to make Jesuitical arguments that the shadows under Franken’s hands meant he wasn’t really touching Tweeden’s chest. Especially since, with a Democratic governor in Minnesota, the party would maintain control of Franken’s seat.
But even as I made the case for resignation, I was relieved that it seemed as if Franken might stick around, because I adore him as a public figure. It’s easy to condemn morally worthless men like Trump; it’s much harder to figure out what should happen to men who make valuable political and cultural contributions, and whose alleged misdeeds fall far short of criminal. Learning about all the seemingly good guys who do shameful things is what makes this moment, with its frenzied pace of revelations, so painful and confounding.
Personally, I’m torn by competing impulses. I want to see sexual harassment finally taken seriously but fear to participate in a sex panic. My instinct is often to defend men I like, but I don’t want to be an enabler or a sucker. I try not to be a hypocrite, while being aware that the right plays on the media’s desire to seem fair-minded, which is part of what led to wildly excessive coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails during the presidential campaign, among other distortions. It’s not a coincidence that the post-Harvey Weinstein purge of sexual harassers has been largely confined to liberal-leaning fields like Hollywood, media and the Democratic Party. This isn’t because progressive institutions are more sexist than others — I’m confident there’s at least as much sexual abuse in finance as in publishing. Rather, organizations with liberal values have suddenly become extremely responsive to claims of sexism. Feminists, enraged and traumatized by Donald Trump’s election, know they can’t expect accountability from Republicans, but they’ve forced it from people who claim to share their ideals. As a result, it sometimes feels as if liberal institutions are devouring themselves over sex while conservatives, unburdened by the pretense of caring about gender equality, blithely continue their misrule.