AUTHOR'S NOTE: For those who want to see Sen. Franken remain in office at least until the Ethics Committee process has run its course, there's a "We support Al Franken" petition at change.org with over 60,000 signatures as of December 8.
"Another woman says Franken tried to forcibly kiss her"
That was the headline on a Politico story dated 9:08 a.m. on December 6. The story had no element of alleged touching, making the use of "forcibly" an example of yellow journalism. The accuser, Franken's seventh, said Franken tried to kiss her as she was leaving a radio studio in 2006. She was then a "Democratic congressional aide," according to Politico, which withheld her name. Franken told Politico, "This allegation is categorically not true... I look forward to fully cooperating with the ongoing [Senate] ethics committee investigation."
The story could have ended there, reasonably enough. Within hours, however, around 11 a.m., Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, posted a lengthy piece on her Facebook page with the headline, "Senator Franken Should Step Aside." This is more than the seventh accuser has asked for. Gillibrand does not explain why she is making this call now, nor does she refer to the seventh accuser or Politico. There is no suggestion of collusion, but with Politico pushing the story, a stampede of Democrats rushed to join Gillibrand's call. In two separate stories, Politico highlighted this next-to-last paragraph of Gillibrand's much longer statement (which was not even alluded to, much less quoted):
"While Senator Franken is entitled to have the Ethics Committee conclude its review, I believe it would be better for our country if he sent a clear message that any kind of mistreatment of women in our society isn't acceptable by stepping aside to let someone else serve."
This excerpt from Senator Gillibrand's post seems designed to appear reasonable, even statesmanlike (by day's end it had 5.1K Likes and 864 Shares). Her full post is far more nuanced and at some variance from this, her conclusion on the matter. Surely even she must understand that this conclusion is an act of cowardice rooted in hypocrisy, perhaps masked by an unprincipled sense of political expedience. Belying her own headline, she offers lip service to Franken's right to due process of law (in this case what is likely to be something of a circus of a Senate Ethics Committee investigation, deliberation, and judgment). But then she says he should forego any due process of law, suggesting he's somehow undeserving of every citizen's right, a not so subtle rendition of Red Queen justice: sentence first, verdict afterwards.
Before breaking down the Gillibrand gesture, let's be clear: This is not a defense of Al Franken, nor is it a final judgment on him. For now it is enough to acknowledge, Gillibrand says on Facebook, that such "behavior towards women is unacceptable." Franken's behavior, as sketched in allegations and admissions, is enough for a probable cause finding that Franken has been an Inappropriate Man. The full dimensions of his behavior have yet to be determined, nor has there been any considered decision as to how best to respond to Inappropriate Men everywhere. This piece is a defense of due process, a call for proportionality in judging, and most of all a defense of honest, calm deliberation of a cultural sex-storm that has long needed open and decent airing.
Gillebrand renders judgment prematurely, sort of an obstruction of justice
In effect, Gillibrand justifies scuttling due process for some higher good. Gillibrand writes, "I believe it would be better for our country" to have this just go away, essentially to sweep it under the rug, effectively a cover-up. She argues that this would send "a clear message that any kind of mistreatment of women in our society isn't acceptable," which is wishful thinking hiding an unwillingness to consider the reality of a country with a sexual predator as President and another sexual predator on the verge of being elected in Alabama. Those are much clearer messages than any Franken resignation could ever be.
Gillibrand's approach to Franken is a form of scapegoating in a Democratic Party that has yet to come to meaningful terms with Bill Clinton's sexual predation. That, too, is a clear message. Gillibrand would have us believe it's better for the country to have Franken be a sacrificial lamb, rather than our struggling to come to serious terms with the full range, depth, and history of a culture that allows Inappropriate Men everywhere to feel entitled to their inappropriateness, thanks in part to the clear messages of predatory presidential scofflaws.
"Gillibrand argues that Franken's stepping aside would send a clear message, but she must know that's sophistry, given all the others who have stepped aside over the years for infractions far worse than Inappropriate Man, and still the 'message' has not been received."
So what could Gillibrand have said if she wished to truly lead, if she wished to be truly just, if she wished to be and not just seem to be "presidential"? She could have said something like: Whether Al Franken resigns or not is a matter of conscience for him to decide. The allegations against him to date do not come close to the charges against others, charges which are going unaddressed. Franken's is a tough case, balancing inappropriate behavior that he has apologized for against a career in which, both in show business and the Senate, he has been a strong advocate and actor for women's rights.
What would be the real message of pillorying a man of such mixed degrees? The country will be better served, I think, by thoughtful deliberation -- insofar as that is possible -- by proceeding with the due process provided by the Senate Ethics Committee and coming to a considered, proportional judgment that is more nuanced than a ritual auto da fe. The country has long needed to consider the way it has lived, the behavior it tolerates from some and not from others, the honesty with which it approaches and embraces sexual issues.
This case with Inappropriate Man is an opportunity to have such a conversation, an opportunity to consider ambiguity and nuance, an opportunity to try to find some proportionality in assessing behavior, rather than a one-size-fits-all sexual guillotine applied at the first whisper of accusation. This is a conversation intended to promote rationality, sanity, and understanding, this is about tolerance, not bigotry, this is about turning away from the way we are and trying once again to find our better angels.
Gillibrand knows better, even as she seeks to rid the world of that troublesome Franken. As she also writes in the same anti-Franken Facebook post:
"But this moment of reckoning about our friends and colleagues who have been accused of sexual misconduct is necessary, and it is painful. We must not lose sight that this watershed moment is bigger than any one industry, any one party, or any one person.
"The pervasiveness of sexual harassment and the experience women face every day across America within the existing power structure of society has finally come out of the shadows. It is a moment that we as a country cannot afford to ignore."
Unwanted sexual attention is unacceptable, but it is not monochromatic. Or is a missed kiss really equivalent to forced sodomy rape? Surely not, but the trickier problem is how and where to draw lines. And having drawn the lines, is it then only a question of punishment and retribution? Is there no middle ground? Is there no opportunity for real atonement? This is not about contrition (which can be easily faked) or forgiveness (who is the forgiver?), it's about actual atonement. So which, hypothetically, serves justice better: Franken gone and soon forgotten? Or Franken in the Senate, accepting whatever guilt and responsibility he deserves, and carrying on publicly in full support of the articulated values of Gillibrand and others? Assuming he would perform that way (as yet uncertain), who would lose? He's up for re-election in 2020. Can we not trust our processes to make some progress sorting this out? Or have we come to believe we live in an America where there is no difference between Minnesota and Alabama?
Gillibrand sensibly writes: "We have to rise to the occasion, and not shrink away from it, even when it's hard, especially when it's hard. That is what this larger moment is about." But then she goes on to pre-judge the Franken case and call for the metaphorical guillotine. But to do what? Except for Franken's immediate banishment, she has no serious answer. Maybe there is none. Or maybe the answer is the process of searching for an answer. Gillibrand expresses the confusion neatly and ungrammatically: