The Franken Challenge
From the moment the Weinstein scandal broke, followed shortly by a host of others, I expected that someone I have admired, identified with, or liked would soon be identified as a sexual predator. I anticipated that would be a test for me of my convictions and determination to confront sexual violence everywhere. In a sense I was waiting for the Al Franken shoe to drop—and it did. This provides the painful but essential opportunity to respond to sexual violence from one of our own. This is not the time to make excuses, but at the same time it is important that we not overreact either just to show how fair and even handed we are. So how should progressives respond to the Franken revelations?
It seems obvious that we should hold him to the exact same standard we wish to hold the Roy Moores and Donald Trumps of our world—neither less nor more stringent. There are big differences between Moore and Franken, to be sure. Franken immediately admitted what happened, agreed to cooperate with an ethics investigation, and apologized (although in a kind of half-baked way). Moore and Trump denied the obvious truth of the accusations, blamed the media, tried to silence their victims and were vicious in their denigration and threats towards them. A differential response therefore seems appropriate.
But still, what Franken did is pretty revolting. The most awful part of his actions, it seems to me, was the widespread publication of the picture that shows him reaching for Leeann Tweedon’s breasts while she slept. Tweedon did not even know the picture existed until after it was widely published. This is incredibly misogynist, bullying and obnoxious behavior. And as I write this and not surprisingly (people seldom predate only once), another woman has come forward with a report of groping.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that I think Franken should immediately resign—although I believe that will be the ultimate outcome. I think the Senate ethics (is that an oxymoron?) process should play out so we can see what else it turns up, give the Senate the chance to make some clear statements about its own ethical standards, and make sure that the consequences are powerful, appropriate, fair, generalizable, and thoughtful—not reactive, self-righteous or unsustainable. And I think this could be an opportunity to deal with this issue without falling into the polarization that is characteristic of so much of our public discourse. Letting the Senate investigation go forward just might force representatives of both parties to have a genuine discussion about this issue—knowing full well that both parties will have to deal with it in future. Of course, it is hard to do this when the President has committed far worse actions than Franken has—but then so has Bill Clinton.
Perhaps it is naïve to think they can do this—but I would like to see them try. This is a time when there is a tremendous opportunity to move our cultural standards about sexual abuse forward. If we can do so without letting our response be overrun by our political preferences, and if we remember that only the famous are being outed right now and they are only the tip of the iceberg, than something important can happen. If not, I am afraid the potential for genuine change will quickly dissipate.