In the Maze

Must history have losers?

Lola Rose Thompson, Everyone Pretending To Be Fine And Dandy Until They Can’t. 2016, watercolor on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

One of the purposes of this section is to provide a testimony of a moment — to recognize and record, as C. L. R. James said — the questions and debates that preoccupy us. But sometimes life furnishes situations that cannot be approached intellectually. None of the usual keys fits the lock. An intellectual situation grades into an emotional situation and becomes untouchable. How do you write a history of the present, then? Sublimate, sublimate — until that stops getting you anywhere.

Two years ago, in January 2016, I wrote to my coeditors with a proposal for an Intellectual Situation about what I felt was an impending male backlash. One colleague asked, “What backlash?” Another worried it was too close to the bone. In the end I abandoned the essay because I couldn’t find a way in. I couldn’t figure it out.

What was happening was that the men I knew were beginning to feel persecuted as a class. They remarked on it obliquely, with jokes that didn’t quite sound like jokes, in emails or in offhand remarks at parties. Irritation and annoyance were souring into something worse. Men said they felt like they were living in Soviet Russia. The culture was being hijacked by college students, humorless young people who knew nothing of real life, its paradoxes and disappointments. Soon intellectuals would not be able to sneeze without being sent to the gulag.

Women, too, felt the pressure. “Your generation is so moral,” a celebrated novelist said to an editor my age. Another friend, a journalist in her fifties, described the heat she got from online feminists for expressing skepticism toward safe spaces. “I’m conservative now,” she said, meaning to the kids. But the most persistent and least logical complaint came from men — men I knew and men in the media. They could not speak. And yet they were speaking. Near the end of 2014, I remember, the right to free speech under the First Amendment had been recast in popular discourse as the right to free speech without consequence, without reaction.

The examples in the press could be innocent and sinister. A Princeton undergraduate, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, could not argue he was not privileged in Time magazine without facing ridicule on Twitter. A tech executive could hardly make a joke without being fired, a young tech executive told me. “Take Mahbod Moghadam,” he said. Moghadam was one of the founders of Genius, and had been dismissed for his annotations of the shooter Elliot Rodger’s manifesto. (“This is an artful sentence, beautifully written” he wrote. Of Rodger’s sister, he added, “Maddy will go on to attend USC and turn into a spoiled hottie.”) Once, on my way to work, I heard a story on NPR about a Pennsylvania man named Anthony Elonis who was taking a First Amendment case to the Supreme Court. He was defending his right to make jokes about murdering his ex-wife on Facebook, in the form of non-rhyming, rhythmless rap lyrics. “I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, / soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts,” he posted. When she filed a restraining order, Elonis posted again. “I’ve got enough explosives / to take care of the state police and the sheriff’s department.” Posts about shooting up an elementary school and slitting the throat of a female FBI agent followed. When he was convicted for transmitting intent to injure another person across state lines, via the internet, he argued he was just doing what Eminem did on his albums: joking. Venting, creatively. Under the First Amendment, the government had to prove he had “subjective intent.” His initial forty-four month prison sentence was overturned by the Supreme Court but was ultimately reinstated by an appeals court. I learned later that he had been fired from his job for multiple sexual harassment complaints, just after his wife left him.

How did I feel about all this? Too many ways to say. The aggregate effect of white male resentment across culture disturbed me, as did the confusion of freedom of speech with freedom to ridicule, threaten, harass, and abuse. When it came to the more benign expressions of resentment, in the academy and in the fiefdoms of high culture, I was less sure. On the one hand, I was a person of my generation and generally thought the students to be right. Show me a teenager who isn’t a fundamentalist, I thought; what matters is they’re pushing for progress. The theorist Sara Ahmed’s diagnosis of teachers’ reactions to sensitive students as “a moral panic about moral panics” struck me as right. (Her defense of trigger warnings and safe spaces in “Against Students” remains one of the best I know: trigger warnings are “a partial and necessarily inadequate measure to enable some people to stay in the room so that ‘difficult issues’ can be discussed” and safe spaces, a “technique for dealing with the consequences of histories that are not over. . . . We have safe spaces so we can talk about racism not so we can avoid talking about racism!”) I also agreed with my colleague Elizabeth Gumport when she observed, speaking to a man in mind but also to me, “It’s not that you can’t speak. It’s that other people can hear you. And they’re telling you what you’re saying is crazy.”

“It’s not that you can’t speak. It’s that other people can hear you. And they’re telling you what you’re saying is crazy.”


Still, I had sympathy for what I recognized in some peers as professional anxiety and fear. The way they had learned to live in the world — to write novels, to make art, to teach, to argue about ideas, to conduct themselves in sexual and romantic relationships — no longer fit the time in which they were living. Especially the men. Their novels, art, teaching methods, ideas, and relationship paradigms were all being condemned as unenlightened or violent. Many of these condemnations issued from social media, where they multiplied and took on the character of a mounting threat: a mob at the gate. But repudiations of the old ways were also turning up in outlets that mattered to them: in reviews, on teaching evaluations, on hiring committees. Authors and artists whose work was celebrated as “thoughtful” or “political” not eight years ago were now being singled out as chauvinists and bigots. One might expect this in old age, but to be cast out as a political dinosaur by 52, by 40, by 36? They hadn’t even peaked! And with the political right — the actual right — getting away with murder, theft, and exploitation worldwide . . . ? That, at least, was how I gathered they felt. Sometimes I thought they were right. Sometimes I thought they needed to grow up.

The outlet of choice for this cultural moment within my extended circle was Facebook. More and more adults were gathering there, particularly academics, and reactions to campus scandals ruled my feed. A mild vertigo attends my memory of this time, which I think of, now, as The Long 2016. It began at least two years prior. There were reactions to Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance, to Laura Kipnis’s essay in the Chronicle Review, to Kenneth Goldsmith’s Michael Brown poem, to Joe Scanlan’s Donelle Woolford character in the Whitney Biennial, to Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out as trans, to Rachel Dolezal’s getting outed as white, to the Yale Halloween letter, to Michael Derrick Hudson writing under the name Yi-Fen Chou to get into a Best American Poetry anthology, to the phenomenon of Hollywood whitewashing, to sexual abuse allegations against Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes. Meanwhile, in the background, headline after headline about police murders of black people and the upcoming presidential election. Many of these Facebook reactions were “bad” — meaning, in my personal shorthand, in bad faith (willful misunderstanding of the issue at hand), a bad look (unflattering to he or she who thought it brave to defend a dominant, conservative belief), or bad politics (reactionary). Yet even the bad takes augured something good. A shift was taking place in the elite institutions. The good that came of it didn’t have to trickle down further for me to find value in it. This was my corner of the world. I thought it ought to be better.

The question was at whose expense. It was easy enough to say, “white men,” harder to say which ones and how. Class — often the most important dimension — tended to be absent from the calculus. It may once have been a mark of a first-rate intelligence to hold two opposing ideas in mind, but it was now a political necessity to hold three, at least. And what of the difference between the cultural elite and the power elite, the Harold Blooms and the Koch Brothers of the world? While we debated who should be the first to move over, pipe down, or give back, we seemed to understand that the most obvious candidates were beyond our reach. What good would it do, for us, to say that Donald Trump had a bigger “problem” with black voters than Bernie Sanders did, or that Donald Trump would be kinder to Wall Street than Hillary Clinton would? To do so would be to allow a lesser man to set the standard for acceptable behavior. We would tend to our own precincts, hold our own to account.

This may have been bad strategy, in retrospect. Perhaps we lost track of the real enemy. Still, I understand why we pursued it. It’s easy to forget how few people anticipated what was coming, and had we not attempted to achieve some kind of equality within our ranks, the finger of blame would have pointed infinitely outward, cueing infinite paralysis. Shouldn’t that domino, further down the line, be the first to fall? Yes, but we’d played this game before. Women of color couldn’t be asked to wait for the white male capitalist class to fall before addressing the blight of racism or sexism on their lives — nor, for that matter, could men of color or white women. It was not solidarity to sweep internal issues under the rug until the real enemy’s defeat. Nor was achieving a state of purity before doing politics. But a middle ground was possible. Feminism and antiracism shouldn’t have to wait.

Only they would have to wait. By summer 2016, Trump, the echt white-male-resentment and “free-speech” candidate, had proven all kinds of discriminatory speech acceptable by voicing it and nevertheless winning the Republican nomination. A low bar, to be sure, but even his party was horrified when the Access Hollywood tape leaked a month before voting day. Trump’s remarks crossed a boundary his apologists didn’t expect: the GOP’s standing benevolent-patriarch attitude toward white women and sex. How depressing it would be, I remember thinking, to muster a win on so pathetic a norm as the purity of white femininity. But I was desperate. I’d take just about anything.

And then, despite the outrage, we didn’t win. Although it matters that Trump won the election unfairly, it shouldn’t have even been close. Perhaps I’d forgotten what country we lived in, what world. Sexual harassment was by and large accepted as an unfortunate consequence of male biology, and joking or bragging about sexual harassment was a comparably minor offense. Months later, I walked down the street in Manhattan and saw a row of the artist Marilyn Minter’s posters wheat-pasted to a wooden construction fence. Gold letters on black read DONALD J. TRUMP above a two-tone image of his smiling face, and across the bottom, THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. In between was a prose poem of Trump’s words captured on the hot mic, iterated across the span of wall:

I did try and fuck her. She was married.

I moved on her like a bitch,

But I couldn’t get there.

And she was married.

You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful.

I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss.

I don’t even wait.

And when you’re a star they let you do it.

You can do anything . . .

Grab them by the pussy.

You can do anything.

You can do anything was the refrain of my childhood. I was a daughter of the Title-IX generation, a lucky girl in a decade when lucky girls of lucky parents were encouraged to play sports, be leaders, wear pants, believe themselves good at math, and aspire to become the first female President of the United States. The culture validated this norm. Politicians and advertisers loved girls. Girls, before they became women, could do anything. (Women were too old to save, an unspoken rule behind all kinds of policy. Need an abortion? Better to keep the kid, who has not yet been ground down by life.) But if girls were taught to be winners, boys were not taught to be losers. On the contrary, to lose was a man’s worst fate — especially if he was straight — because winning meant access to sex (a belief held most firmly by the involuntarily celibate). Even then I understood that someone’s gain was bound to be perceived as someone else’s loss, and over time, I learned not to be too brazen. I maintained a prudent fear of the falling class. Even when men weren’t dangerous, they weren’t defenseless. Some still had the resources to bring you down, should you be unlucky enough to be crossed by one.

Combine male fragility with white fragility and the perennial fear of falling and you end up with something lethal, potentially. Plenty of men make it through life just fine, but a wealthy white man with a stockpile of arms and a persecution complex is a truly terrifying figure. Elliot Rodger, Stephen Paddock: both these men had money. This is not to say that men punishing women for their pain is a rich thing or a white thing or even a gun thing. It occurs across cultures, eras, and classes, and the experience of being on the receiving end of it varies accordingly. As Houria Bouteldja writes in “We, Indigenous Women”:

In Europe, prisons are brimming with black people and Arabs. Racial profiling almost only concerns men, who are the police’s main target . It is in our eyes that they are diminished. And yet they try desperately to reconquer us, often through violence. In a society that is castrating, patriarchal, and racist (or subjected to imperialism), to live is to live with virility. “The cops are killing the men and the men are killing the women. I’m talking about rape. I’m talking about murder,” says Audre Lorde. A decolonial feminism must take into account this masculine, indigenous “gender trouble” because the oppression of men reflects directly on us. Yes, we are subjected with full force to the humiliation that is done to them. Male castration, a consequence of racism, is a humiliation for which men make us pay a steep price.

Women pay the price for other humiliations as well. The indignity of downward mobility, real or perceived, is a painful one to suffer, and a man takes it out where he can (Silvia Federici: “The more the man serves and is bossed around, the more he bosses around”). Whatever else it may be, sexual harassment in the “workplace context” is a check on a person’s autonomy, a threat to one’s means of self-support. It can feel like being put in place, chastised, challenged, or dared. Sure, you can do anything, it says. But don’t forget that I can still do this. The dare comes from winners and losers alike. Either you accept it and pay one price or you don’t and pay another. All of it always feels bad.

I imagine that some people feel good about bringing perpetrators to justice, such as it is under the system we have. But I imagine just as many do not want to be responsible for their offender’s punishment. They might say: Please don’t make it my decision whether you lose your job, are shunned by your peers, or get sent to prison. Prison, unemployment, and social exile are not what I want for men. I’m not here to be the police. I don’t want to be responsible for you.

There are many obstacles to honesty in conversations about sexual assault. Loyalty and pity, fear of judgment or retaliation, feelings of complicity or ambivalence — all are good enough reasons not to talk. Alleging sexual misconduct also tends to involve turning one’s life upside down and shaking out the contents for public scrutiny. It’s rarely done for fun.

When victims do want to talk, however, the litigiousness of men proves an obstacle to honesty. It is not unusual for women who speak too liberally about men to be threatened with legal action. Of all the striking things in Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker articles about Harvey Weinstein’s sex crimes, what struck me most were the allusions to Weinstein’s lawyers. “He drags your name through the mud, and he’ll come after you hard with his legal team,” said one woman who asked not to be named. Another chose to pull her allegation from the record. “I’m so sorry,” she told Farrow. “The legal angle is coming at me and I have no recourse.”

In the weeks after Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey first reported the story in the New York Times, as colleagues and strangers on the internet moved to identify the Weinsteins within their own industries, I felt uneasy. Behind every brave outing I saw a legal liability. I suppose that’s what happens when you know enough men with money. Such men are minor kings among us, men with lawyer-soldiers at their employ who can curtail certain kinds of talk. While I do believe in false allegations, and I do believe that women can be bullies, it’s hard, sometimes, not to be cynical about the defense. Some men love free speech almost as much as they love libel lawyers.

“Smart or reckless or both??” I texted my friends when I first saw the Google spreadsheet, titled “Shitty Media Men,” that compiled the names, affiliations, and alleged misconduct of men in my field: writers and editors of books, magazines, newspapers, and websites. The document had been started anonymously, and though intended for circulation among women only, it was visible (and editable) to anyone with the link. I saw the names of men I knew and men I didn’t, stories I’d heard before and a few I hadn’t. “The List,” as it came to be called, didn’t upset me, but neither did it give me comfort. Mostly I worried about retaliation: the contributors getting sued or worse. “Reckless,” a friend texted back. “Not sure how but definitely reckless.”

By then I was once again preoccupied by backlash. The day the Weinstein story broke in the Times and five days before Farrow’s first article, an investigative piece on BuzzFeed had described the range of people who’d sustained an email correspondence with Milo Yiannopoulos, the former Breitbart editor who’d once been the face of the company. In addition to the usual alt-right characters, there were “accomplished people in predominantly liberal industries — entertainment, tech, academia, fashion, and media — who resented what they felt was a censorious coastal cultural orthodoxy.” Named among them were two writers I knew, both men, who according to the article had tipped off Milo for stories. One of them was a Facebook friend. He vehemently denied the allegations and said he hadn’t written the emails provided by BuzzFeed as proof. The other, as far as I know, said nothing. He was the managing editor of Vice’s feminist vertical (he once profiled Ann Coulter) who emailed Yiannopoulos with the request, “Please mock this fat feminist,” linking to a story by Lindy West.

The article had made me feel naive. These were the people I’d given the benefit of the doubt, the professional acquaintances who adopted such strong anti-identitarian poses that I often couldn’t discern their true sympathies. I figured that like the liberal professionals in the throes of a moral panic about moral panics, they shared the goal of collective liberation but disagreed about how to reach it, and in their disagreement came off as more resistant to change than they were. But what if some of them were not just acting like reactionaries? What if they didn’t share the goal?

In the case of Milo’s pen pals, their connection to the right was far from abstract: they talked, griped, shared notes. The lesson was that if someone sounds like an enemy and acts like an enemy, he may in fact be an enemy. I wasn’t sure what this meant for the men on the List. These were men I’d known to say “woke” in a funny voice, to make intellectual arguments against the redistributive efforts within their control — who they published or how they assigned. They lamented the intrusion of politics on quality art and warned of the perils of hysteria, witch hunts, and sex panics. To prove myself worthy of their confidence I tried not to leap to conclusions. But the allegations against men like this were damning: rape, attempted rape, sexual assault, choking, punching, physical intimidation, and stalking; “verbal intimidation of female colleagues”; “sexual harassment, inappropriate comments and pranks (especially to young women).” Even if half of it was false, I knew at least some of it to be true. At some point it’s irresponsible not to connect what a man says with what he does. In the days following the BuzzFeed article, “Who Goes Nazi,” Dorothy Thompson’s famous Harper’s piece from 1941, sprang to the collective mind:

It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times — in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis.

None of the men I had in mind were Nazis. None resembled the men who’d marched through Charlottesville with tiki torches shouting, “You will not replace us!” But there was another spin on the game, and this was the one that worried me: Who in a showdown would accept the subjugation of women as a necessary political concession? Who would make peace with patriarchy if it meant a nominal win, or defend the accused for the sake of stability? The answer was more men than I’d been prepared to believe. I’d have to work harder not to alienate them, if only to make it harder for them to sell me out.

And so I talked to men. Men on the List, men not on the List, men secretly half-disappointed that they’d been left off the List, mistaking it for some kind of virility ranking. In the past I’d argued that it shouldn’t be women’s job to educate men about sexism, and I sympathized with the women who said so now. But reality isn’t always how it should be.

Perhaps it was just time for my shift. People take turns in the effort to explain collective pain, and I’d tapped out plenty of times before, pleading exhaustion, depression, and rage. The fact that I had the emotional reserves to discuss harassment at all implied that it was my responsibility to do so. (“It is the responsibility of the oppressed to teach the oppressors their mistakes,” Audre Lorde wrote in 1980 — “a constant drain of energy.”) This is not to say I was good at it: I overestimated the length of my fuse, listening, talking, reasoning, feeling more or less levelheaded — then abruptly shutting down or crying. It was nevertheless more than some friends could muster. From each according to her ability, et cetera.

If my approach was too much about men, my defense is that the situation was about men from the beginning. The shared experience of sexism is not the same thing as feminism, even if the recognition of shared experience is where some people’s feminism begins. It was to be expected that the discussion turned to men’s fates and feelings. How could guilty men be rehabilitated or justly punished? Under what circumstances could we continue to appreciate their art? As think pieces pondered these questions, other men leapt at the opportunity to make their political enemies’ sexual crimes an argument for the superiority of their side. It might have been funny if it weren’t so expected, so dark. When a friend and former colleague mentioned the “male-feminist” journalist who had choked her at the foot of his stairs, right-wing outlets rushed to “amplify” her voice. The pro-Trump website Gateway Pundit quoted her without permission; the Men’s Rights activist and alt-right personality Mike Cernovich retweeted the blog post to his 379,000 followers; Breitbart followed up with its own story. “My therapist said that I should sign every tweet with ‘also the alt right sucks’ so they can’t use my tweets in any more articles,” she joked.

Leftist men celebrated the fall of liberal male hypocrites, liberals the fall of conservative ones, conservatives and alt-rightists the fall of the liberals and leftists. Happiest were the antisemites, who applauded the feminist takedown of powerful Jewish men. It seemed not to occur to them — or maybe just not to matter? — that any person, any woman, had suffered. Outrage for the victims was just another weapon in an eternal battle between men. I remembered the emergency panel Trump assembled in response to the Access Hollywood tape with Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, and Paula Jones — women who had accused Bill Clinton of harassment or rape. A fourth woman, Kathy Shelton, had been raped by a man Hillary Clinton defended in court as a young lawyer. As the adage goes: in the game of patriarchy, women aren’t the other team, they’re the ball.

All this posturing made optimism difficult and clarity imperative. Patiently, my peers and I explained to men that we understood the difference between a touch and a grope, a bad time and rape, and mass online feminist retribution and a right-wing conspiracy (how credulous did they think we were?). Meanwhile, we wrung as much change as we could from this news peg. We called meetings, revised workplace policies, resumed difficult conversations we’d have preferred not to. As we learned during the Long 2016, the self-evident harm of sexual assault is not self-evident at all: no automatic mechanism delivers justice the moment “awareness” is “raised.” Donald Trump remains the President. Social media, the staging ground for much of this reckoning, remains easy to manipulate. Our enemies pose as allies, and our allies act like enemies, suspicious that our gain will be their loss.

Must history have losers? The record suggests yes. Redistribution is a tricky business. Even simple metaphors for making the world more equitable — leveling a playing field, shifting the balance — can correspond to complex or labor-intensive processes. What freedoms might one have to surrender in order for others to be free? And how to figure it when those freedoms are not symmetrical? A little more power for you might mean a lot less power for me in practice, an exchange that will not feel fair in the short term even if it is in the long term. There is a reason, presumably, that we call it an ethical calculus and not an ethical algebra.

Some things are zero sum — perhaps more things than one cares to admit. To say that feminism is good for boys, that diversity makes a stronger team, or that collective liberation promises a greater, deeper freedom than the individual freedoms we know is comforting and true enough. But just as true, and significantly less consoling, is the guarantee that some will find the world less comfortable in the process of making it habitable for others. It would be easier to give up some privileges if it weren’t so traumatic to lose, as it is in our ruthlessly competitive and frequently undemocratic country. Changing the rules of the game might begin with revising what it means to win. I once heard a story about a friend who’d said, offhand at a book group, that he’d throw women under the bus if it meant achieving social democracy in the United States. The story was meant to be chilling — this from a friend? — but it made me laugh. As if you could do it without us, I thought, we who do all the work on the group project. I wondered what his idea of social democracy was.

As for how men might think about their role in a habitable future — or how anyone might, from a position of having something to lose — a visual metaphor may be useful. Imagine walking through a maze, for years and years, to find that your path has dead-ended near the exit. There’s an illusion of proximity, of closeness to the goal: you can see the light through the brush, hear the traffic just outside. It’s difficult, in that moment, to accept that you’re not in fact close — that you can’t jump the hedge, and that to turn around would not be to regress but to proceed. You turn around not because it is morally superior or because it will get you into heaven, but because it is your best and only option. Perhaps redistribution is like that. To attempt it is not to guarantee that the future will be better than the past, only to admit that it can be.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

More from Issue 30

More by this Author