By: Jared Marcel Pollen
Social movements, like revolutions, tend to follow a similar cycle in the process of rewiring certain beliefs and norms of behavior. This was perhaps best diagramed by Crane Brinton in his book The Anatomy of Revolution (1938), a study of the English, American, French and Russian revolutions, respectively––and how all of these revolutions (with the American being the perennial outlier) echoed one another in their stages of development. The same pattern can be mapped onto intellectual life during any period of cultural change; for moments of cultural upheaval are themselves soft revolutions, in a way, smaller in the order of magnitude than revolutions that demand a renovation of state power. This cycle goes as follows: right-to-centre, centre-to-left, left-to-far left, back to centre, back to right. Or, put differently: exposure of tyranny, modest demands, modest demands not good enough, rise of the radical left, reign of terror, reaction to the terror. What happens after that can vary.
We’ll come back to that in a bit though. At the moment, the #MeToo movement has reached its first anniversary: the Harvey Weinstein exposé turned one-year-old this past weekend, Bill Cosby has been through a court of law and will see the inside of a jail cell in this life, and the Preminger-esque drama that was the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh has come to a close (we’ll return to that soon as well). Even as we are living in this, the second year of his highness, Donald J. Trump the first, the #MeToo phenomenon has been arguably the most journalistically exhausted subject in the Anglosphere, with scarcely a side of its episodic saga gone unexamined. (I say this because at the moment I am living in central Europe, and talk of it here has been, so far as I can tell, peripheral.) Thus, one’s proverbial two cents feel even less asked for than usual, but a few things are still discoverable, and need to be pointed out.
In relation to the cycle sketched above, the #MeToo movement continues to tarry (one hopes for not much longer) in the Terror phase. If you think that sounds hyperbolic, or unduly harsh, try to come up with another word that describes a) the vigilance with which accusers are rooted out and brought forward, b) the limpid motivation to destroy careers and eliminate transgressors from public life, and c) the fear (however unfounded) that men may have about their pasts and their behavior in the future. This is not to say there can’t be legitimate and just censure of sexual assault and misconduct during the Terror phase. The Kavanaugh case is certainly one of them. One more disclaimer (just in case): I support the #MeToo movement and believe it is long overdue. The reason I add this disclaimer is precisely that a feature of the Terror is the way in which even a modicum of criticism is perceived as opposition or treachery––the discourse at this point having all the nuance of a cudgel.
If #MeToo has followed the revolutionary cycle, then the first two phases (exposure of tyranny and modest demands) were short-lived. Signs of unthinking started to appear as early as December 2017, when Matt Damon reasonably suggested there is, “a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation,” and that both, while reproachable, should not be conflated. The response to this was what you would expect: You don’t respect women’s pain. What gives you, a man, the right to say that? You simply can’t understand what it’s like to be a woman. Really? Seriously? Seriously?
Months before though, the “Shitty Media Men” (á la Red Channels) had already been created and accumulating names until it finally reached critical mass in January this year when Katie Roiphe’s piece in Harper’s planned to expose Moira Donegan as its creator. This was arguably the movement’s nadir, during which we once again saw arguments for the suppression of speech, with critics claiming that Harper’s outing Donegan would be a disastrous betrayal of the struggle and would put her safety at risk. The open letter penned by Catherine Deneuve and signed by some hundred other French celebrities appeared a few days later and was met with equal accusation of turncoatery. The letter revived an old argument familiar within feminist circles; that the puritanical strain within #MeToo threatens to denature the female Eros and turn all women into cringing, sexless victims-in-waiting. It also asserted, “Rape is a crime. But trying to pick up someone, however persistently or clumsily, is not — nor is gallantry an attack of machismo,” and underscored some distinctions that would have been useful in the Aziz Ansari case, which would appear just a few days later. The fallout of the Ansari account (in which there certainly was no gallantry) was as much concerned with Ansari’s behavior as it was with the hypocrisy of his public image as a feminist. By then it was simply a matter of setting your watch and waiting for the moment when the hypocrisy from within the #MeToo camp would emerge. And we received it late this summer when Asia Argento and Avital Ronell were accused of misconduct nearly in the same week.
Whether these accusations are true or not (this critic believes in due process and the presumption of innocence upon which our justice system is based) is not the concern here, but rather the excess, opportunism, hypocrisy and paranoia that accumulates inside of any movement that continuously seeks a moral highground, and how such highground often makes us dumb to the dialectical process by which change occurs, mainly through the intersection of ironies. One of the paradoxes of social change is the way it is almost always accompanied by a nagging dissatisfaction. As the big hurdles of old are cleared away, smaller and previously obscured hurdles begin to appear (not unlike the paradox of knowledge, where a new discovery proliferates a whole field of ignorance previously unexplored) and demand to be taken up in order for progressivism to sustain its forward motion. It is precisely because these hurdles are smaller that the disputes become pettier, and are amplified by our own sense of postmodernity, which begs us to ask: it’s 2018, how is this still a problem?
I’m not saying the #MeToo movement is petty. What it is, is new. As is the whole project of normalizing the relations between the sexes, which lurches and shambles along, not only imperfect, but messy and deeply flawed, a project that really began in its modern incarnation with feminism’s second wave. The code of conduct in this world is in many cases still unclear. Like how men and women ought to act and dress in the workplace. Jordan Peterson rightly pointed out in his interview with VICE that a woman should ask herself why she’s wearing lipstick and heels to the office. Because I want to look nice. Look nice for who, and for what reason? And is flirtation at the office, which is an industrial by-product of boredom and routine also forbidden, given how frequently couples meet at their place of work? Half a century is not much time to rearrange the collective consciousness. And it is in the long decadent stage of any social movement that extra thinking and honesty about ironies is required.
Which brings us to Brett Kavanaugh, a real and decisive case at a rather exhausted time in the #MeToo saga. Kavanaugh will now be a decisive member/voter on the Supreme Court for the next quarter century. It is a huge blow for the #MeToo movement, the fallout of which has not yet revealed itself. Perhaps most importantly, the confirmation of Kavanaugh illuminates the limits of soft power, and the imbalance in the Left and Liberal agenda alike. In the last fifty years, American culture has moved eminently Leftward, while American politicians (Democrat and Republican both) have moved unresistingly to the Right; partly because the Left has been obsessively preoccupied with visibility in the culture war, ignoring the trenchwork of hard politics, like flipping a district, or institutionalizing an interest group in congress the way the Tea Party did.
A friend of mine recently remarked that the Left has a “Hollywood problem.” And he’s right. We can call ourselves “woke” and pat ourselves on the back now that we have Wonder Woman and a Ghostbusters remake with a female cast; but on November 8th, 2016, 53% of white women decided they preferred a Trump administration over a Clinton one, a fact that still astounds me. And to those relativists, who said there would be no difference between the two presidencies––what do you say now? This November, that 53% will have the opportunity to recover their conscience and elect a bulwark against the Trump presidency, but it will be too little too late.
The last stage in the cycle of revolution is Thermidor––the swing back to the right and the consolidation of reactionary power. In so far as this can be said about the Trump phenomenon in general, Thermidors typically don’t apply to social justice movements in a democratic society, though they do have their reactionaries. The history of feminism has shown that these reactionaries regain little ground historically, and are left lingering on the lunatic fringe, where America’s white supremacists and “involuntary celibates” now live. As it moves onward, one of the jobs of the #MeToo movement––which has yet to seriously address questions of restitution and reacceptance for its pariahs––should be to make sure this fringe stays as thinly populated as possible.
Jared Marcel Pollen was born in Canada. He studied politics and literature at the University of Windsor and received his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in NY. His work has appeared in The Millions, 3:AM Magazine, Salo Press and Potluck Magazine, among others. He is also the author of the forthcoming collection of short stories, The Unified Field of Loneliness, available in July from Crowsnest Books. He currently lives in Prague.
Image: Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Asia Argento, and Brett Kavanaugh in the style of Boris Kustodiev’s painting, The Bolshevik, 1920 (The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow), by deepart.io.