Before we get our hands dirty, let’s establish an argument that you’re either going to love or hate:
1. A person who commits sexual harassment doesn’t belong in the U.S. Senate.
2. If Republicans refuse to hold their own sexual harassers accountable, and the rest of the country is powerless to do anything about it, that doesn’t mean Democrats should give a free pass to their own culprits. Principles are formed from an inherent sense of what is right and wrong, and the upholding of those principles should not depend on how well others adhere to them. An example: If murder was legalized one day each year, Purge-style, I would still choose not to murder anyone on that day, because I believe murder is fundamentally wrong. It wouldn’t matter to me that the government said it was okay, or that other people were doing it. By that same logic, Democrats need to do what’s right and continue holding their own people to higher standards of conduct.
If you fundamentally disagree with this premise, you should probably stop reading now, because my friend, you are going to hate the rest of this article.
Al Franken announced his intention to resign yesterday, and in his speech—after failing to apologize, and going on to imply that the allegations against him were either untrue or distorted—he made an attempt to play the martyr:
“I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party.”
This is a double standard, not irony, but we get what he means. Nevertheless, the above argument applies—the abhorrent behavior of the Republicans does not excuse or justify abhorrent behavior by Democrats, even if that behavior isn’t quite as egregious. A serial groper does not belong in the Senate, and that doesn’t change because Alabama might elect a serial molester.
Apparently Charles Pierce at Esquire does not agree. In an article titled “I Don’t Think the Moral High Ground Exists Anymore,” he attempts to persuade us that, essentially, the lack of morality on the political right means the left should cast aside their own standards for some nebulous idea of political gain. It’s an embarrassing, peevish piece that Pierce undoubtedly sees as stoic realpolitik, but is actually a long-winded and inconsistent apologia which, followed to its logical end, would end in the abandonment of women who have been assaulted by the likes of Al Franken.
Unfortunately, this has become a rather pervasive argument on the left, so it’s worth taking it point by point. Pierce’s words are in bold, my comments follow.
I was going to let Dahlia Lithwick’s angry, lucid account in Slate of the end of Al Franken’s senatorial career speak for me, since Lithwick said everything I felt about this tawdry episode, and probably better than I could. Especially this part:
“Is this the principled solution? By every metric I can think of, it’s correct. But it’s also wrong. It’s wrong because we no longer inhabit a closed ethical system, in which morality and norm preservation are their own rewards. We live in a broken and corroded system in which unilateral disarmament is going to destroy the very things we want to preserve.”
As you see, Pierce stands on the shoulders of giants in formulating his thesis, so let’s start right here, with the idea that “we no longer inhabit a system in which morality and norm preservation are their own rewards.” That’s not Pierce’s line, but it’s a perfect encapsulation anyway, and it reveals the shallowness underlying the argument.
Here’s the truth: Morality has never been its own reward. Never! It’s always been tough to make the moral choice, and we live in a world where it’s not very profitable to do so. Forging a society that takes care of its people has been the enduring struggle of our national experiment, and as the current state of wealth inequality and crumbling public services demonstrates, we fail all the time. The way to succeed is by seizing the ethical initiative and holding on for dear life. The reward comes much later, after a lot of hard work. Relinquishing those standards, with the idea that maintaining a sense of decency will cede important ground to the indecent others, is so backward and counter-intuitive that it’s almost painful to spell it out.
It just proves that capital-L Liberals like Charlie Pierce and Dahlia Lithwick will never tire of the notion that the only way to beat Republicans is to become more like them. It doesn’t matter to them how often that strategy has been exposed as an utter failure, most recently (and most dramatically) in November 2016.
The great irony here, as I wrote yesterday, is that getting rid of Franken is the smart strategy! Not just in the sense that Democrats won’t sound like raging hypocrites when they attack Roy Moore and Donald Trump, though that’s also true. But getting rid of Franken is actually the safest way to preserve his Minnesota Senate seat, which just shows that there’s no end to the ways in which pundits like Pierce are depressingly, persistently wrong.
It seemed fitting that Franken invoked the name of his mentor, the late Senator Paul Wellstone, in his valedictory address on Thursday, because it was his account of the indecent political hijacking of Wellstone’s memorial service by the flying monkeys of the right that first made me think that Franken was more than simply a gifted satirist. Very important people in American politics, and in the elite American political media, most of whom still have their jobs today, lied about what went on at that service. They did so deliberately, and for cheap political advantage.
Yeah, yeah, Republicans suck. You know who else does? Al Franken. He gropes women. He forces his tongue down their throats. He’s a bad guy.
I know they lied about it because my wife and I watched the whole thing on CSPAN and the conservative accounts of it did not match the reality of the service in any way. In his first book, Franken ran all these lying liars to ground and left them there.
Good job by Al Franken for showing how the Republicans suck. Bad job for groping women and force-kissing them, which makes him unfit for public office.
These two things, I must point out once again, do not cancel each other out.
His speech was a good one, somber and hard to listen to. It was apologetic without being maudlin, and it did not give up an inch of ground more than was necessary.
THE MAN IS GUILTY OF MULTIPLE INCIDENTS OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT. JESUS CHRIST.
This is where Pierce’s essay starts to get really maddening—he talks about Franken like Mark Antony talked about Julius Caesar, like he’s some poor saint that was wronged by malicious actors.
Who gives a shit about his speech, or whether it was somber or maudlin? The guy groped women! Words are just words. Apologies, in these cases, don’t matter. They are meaningless theater.
As a side note, it’s pretty hilarious that Pierce described the piece as “apologetic.” Not only do the words “apologize,” “sorry,” or even “regret” not appear once in the speech, but here are a few excerpts detailing his thoughts about the accusers:
Then the conversation turned to me. Over the last few weeks, a number of women have come forward to talk about how they felt my actions had affected them. I was shocked. I was upset…some of the allegations against me are simply not true. Others I remember very differently… am proud that during my time in the Senate, I have used my power to be a champion of women. And that I have earned a reputation as someone who respects the women I work alongside every day. I know there is a different picture of me painted over the last few weeks, but I know who I really am. Serving in the United States Senate has been the great honor of my life. I know in my heart that nothing I have done as a senator, nothing has brought dishonor on this institution. I am confident that the ethics committee would agree.
I guess, to Pierce, saying “these women are lying!” is the same as being apologetic.
There was no confession, no lachrymose contrition, which I think is a good thing.
“It is good when men call women liars.”
Look, there’s a very slight chance that Franken is innocent. I think it’s extremely doubtful because of the sheer number of women who have come forward (and I’d bet anything that more are coming), but I have to issue that disclaimer because I personally wasn’t there for the groping or forced kissing incidents. (Well, okay, there was that pesky photograph.) Nevertheless, allowing for that extremely small possibility doesn’t preclude finding Pierce’s “let’s sweep this under the rug for political expediency!” argument any less disgusting.
It also did not shy away from making the obvious point that is hanging over the entire system of government at the moment, one that the Republicans are desperately trying to wish away.
Yes, yes, again with the irrelevant “irony” of Republicans supporting their own deviants, which to Pierce means we should get rid of principles altogether because that will somehow help us defeat Republicans and usher in the utopia. When I raged about this on Twitter earlier this morning, Paste’s Roger Sollenberger had what I thought was the perfect response to this absurd line of thinking:
(Alas, he failed to mention that a man credibly accused of sexual harassment under oath has been sitting silently on the Supreme Court for more than two decades, but, hey, it was a tough speech for a man to give.)
Poor Al Franken. I’m with Pierce—he deserves all our sympathy here. What a brave speech! It can’t be easy to grope women for decades and then totally avoid taking responsibility when the truth comes out. I hope those women feel ashamed for getting groped by him and forcing a courageous American to resign.
The problem is where do the Democrats go now, although I’m fairly sure Senator Kirsten Gillibrand will be heading to Iowa.
Can anyone point me to a reading of this sentence that doesn’t expose it as resoundingly sexist? Because to me, it looks an awful lot like Pierce is calling Gillibrand an ambitious bitch for having the audacity to suggest that a serial groper should maybe resign from office.
Is it time (again) to tug their forelocks over Bill Clinton? Maybe they could dig up Teddy Kennedy and hold their own Cadaver Synod, expelling him from the Senate posthumously? LBJ would be next, then Jack, then finally Thomas Jefferson.
Yes, because holding a sitting U.S. Senator accountable for sexual harassment is the same as burning the bones of Thomas Jefferson
(For what it’s worth, I’m totally okay with revisiting the awful, immoral behavior of historical men. Maybe I’m crazy, but I don’t believe Bill Clinton should get a pass on harassing and potentially assaulting women simply because his crimes were committed in the past.)
Ah, but now, we are told, they have The Moral High Ground, as though you needed to throw one of your own overboard in order to have the moral standing to oppose seating an alleged child molester in the Senate, or to remind people that the president* copped to sexual assault on tape.
Actually, you do. If excuse sexual harassment in your own party, you will be accused of hypocrisy when you try to hold another party to account. That’s the way hypocrisy works. And by the way—since I know you’re going there—you’ll sound like an absolute idiot when you say, “but Franken’s sexual harassment wasn’t as bad!”
There is no commonly accepted Moral High Ground left to occupy anymore, and to pretend one exists is to live in a masturbatory fantasyland. It’s like lining yourself up behind Miss Manners in a political debate against Machiavelli.
Again, we see the core argument: The Republicans are bad, so let’s stop trying to be good!
This probably feels like a satisfying thing for someone like Pierce to say, and he’s not alone. But the idea that this will somehow work for Democrats is preposterous. There’s one way for the party to succeed, and that’s by convincing the American people that our policies are better for them, will give them a better life, and that we’re coming at things from an ethical, earnest standpoint. There has been great cause to doubt that for the past few decades, which is why Republicans have made mincemeat of Democrats for so long. Fundamentally, the political left has to engender trust—the kind that has gone missing from progressive policy.
Or, you know, we could follow Pierce’s plan. Which seems to be:
1. Ignore sexual harassment
2. Fight dirty!
But hey, maybe that’s just purity politics on my end. Maybe I’m just a sucker and a crazy idealist for requiring that my senators meet a bare minimum of decency. Maybe we should burn it to the ground, and trust that the American people will be able to blink through the smoke, sort through the ashes, and distinguish the “good guys” from the villains.
It could work! Or, it could signal to the public that the “both-siders” who claim each party is equally corrupt are absolutely right. That would erase any distinction between the two…in which case, we can do a fun instant replay of the last two decades and watch the whole system rot under its own weight.
Until the Democrats are willing to think asymmetrically about the very real political danger posed by the president* and his party, the danger will grow until it becomes uncontrollable, and that point is coming very soon, I fear.
Wait, Trump and the Republicans pose a political danger? My God. And here we were just sitting on our hands for a year, complacently thinking everything was fine and doing nothing.
To Pierce, the activism and awakening of the political left, and the attendant victories this past election day, are nothing. We have not truly begun the #Resistance until we let the guy who forces his tongue down women’s throats stay in the Senate.
By the time the Democrats admit to themselves that their political opposition has moved so far beyond shame that it can’t even see Richard Nixon any more, the damage wrought to our political institutions may be beyond repair.
Hard LOL at the idea that this is news to anyone, and that fighting them has to include a disgraced pervert like Franken.
Oh, and just a reminder, out there touring a book right now are veteran conservative ratfckers Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie. Lewandowski grabbed a female reporter on the campaign trail and Bossie once invaded a hospital room and berated the mother of a young woman who’d committed suicide.
Yup, Republicans sure are bad. So is Al Franken.
You look across a political landscape like the one that the last few decades have created, and the Moral High Ground looks like the lichen-mottled ruins of a dead civilization.
To you, Charlie, I’m sure it does, because it seems like you never believed in a moral high ground to begin with.