December 04, 2017

The Sickeningly Narrow Focus of Our Outrage

One of the more striking aspects of the ongoing sexual harassment stories is the speed with which individuals are struck down. A new target is acquired and, within a matter of days, the target is eliminated, job and reputation utterly destroyed. I don't offer this observation as a criticism: thus far, the men dispatched in this manner appear to fully deserve their ignominious fates. Yet the warp speed at which these events unfold is breathtaking.

This past weekend, we were first offered this story:
The Metropolitan Opera announced Saturday night that it would open an investigation into its famed conductor, James Levine, based on a 2016 police report in which a man accused Mr. Levine of sexually abusing him three decades ago, beginning when the man was a teenager.

Met officials acknowledged they had been aware of the police report since last year, but said that Mr. Levine had denied the accusation and that they had heard nothing further from the police. They decided to begin an investigation after receiving media inquiries about Mr. Levine’s behavior.

The man’s accusation and the inquiry by the Met, one of the world’s most prestigious opera houses, showed that the national reckoning over claims of sexual misconduct had entered the world of classical music at its very highest echelons.
With regard to the highlighted paragraph, note what prompted the Met to action -- and what did not. The Met knew of the police report "since last year." Levine denied the accusation, and the Met did nothing. Then, "after receiving media inquiries about Mr. Levine's behavior," the Met "decided to begin an investigation."

A year or two ago, the matter might have ended there. The Met's investigation would probably have ended inconclusively, and life would have gone on as before. In the current climate, the fatal blow was delivered in less than 24 hours:
The Metropolitan Opera suspended James Levine, its revered conductor and former music director, on Sunday after three men came forward with accusations that Mr. Levine sexually abused them decades ago, when the men were teenagers.

Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met, announced that the company was suspending its four-decade relationship with Mr. Levine, 74, and canceling his upcoming conducting engagements after learning from The New York Times on Sunday about the accounts of the three men, who described a series of similar sexual encounters beginning in the late 1960s. The Met has also asked an outside law firm to investigate Mr. Levine’s behavior.

“While we await the results of the investigation, based on these news reports the Met has made the decision to act now,” Mr. Gelb said in an interview, adding that the Met’s board supported his actions. “This is a tragedy for anyone whose life has been affected.”
Longtime readers here know that opera is one of the great passions of my life. I do not have close connections with anyone at the Met, but I am on an opera email list along with many people in the business, and I regularly visit sites devoted to opera. Some of those sites offer posts and comments from many people in the opera world and/or who are extremely knowledgeable about it. So I can confirm certain aspects of what many others are saying about these developments.

I myself heard rumors about Levine and his predilection for young boys (usually boys of color) as long ago as the 1980s. In the last day, some commenters have said that they often saw Levine in social settings (at parties and in restaurants, for example) accompanied by young boys. One of these commenters noted that it wasn't simply that Levine's behavior was an "open secret" (yet another "secret" that everyone knew, about which phenomenon more in another post, soon), but that he was so blatantly open about it -- and that he "got away with it" for so long.

The "worst kept secret in the business" isn't the only similarity the Levine case has to some others in recent weeks. Levine's days of glory at the Met were the 1980s and 1990s. He began having major health problems several years ago. As a result, he lost some high profile jobs (one was with the Boston Symphony Orchestra), and his importance at the Met had been steadily diminishing. He was on his way out.

That is: Levine was no longer protected by the immense power he had once wielded, and he was no longer a hugely valuable asset to the Met. From the Met's perspective, all the incentives were now on the side of dumping Levine, particularly in terms of general public relations concerns and with regard to fundraising, a vital issue for the Met and its future. Today, there are no downsides to the Met's cutting all ties to Levine; 20 years ago, the calculations would have been very different.

In this regard, Levine is much like Harvey Weinstein, another man who was on the downward slope of his career, with much of his previous power now dissipated. And in both cases, the sexual abuse and even criminal acts were known to many, many people. One of the questions I wonder about is what other "open secrets" have yet to be identified in the onslaught of coverage about Hollywood, the media, and other businesses. Claims that sexual abuse will no longer be tolerated by the culture at large would be far more convincing if the person accused of such abuse were in the position of a Levine or Weinstein at or near the height of their power -- if the person accused were, say, a Steven Spielberg. I hasten to add that I know nothing whatsoever to suggest that Spielberg has ever been guilty of odious behavior of this kind; I use him only as an example to make the point. It is one thing to take down a man whose career is winding down or almost over, however influential and powerful he might once have been. It is quite another to level accusations at a man who remains one of the most powerful people in his particular field. What are the stories, and who are the people, that we are not hearing about?

Sexual abuse, harassment and violence are deeply embedded in our institutions of power; indeed, they are deeply embedded in our culture. I refer you to an earlier essay of mine, "A Depraved, Violent and Indifferent Culture" for a fuller discussion of this subject. I greatly fear that the current obsession with sexual abuse will fade in the manner of all other "hot topics" which consume our attention for a comparatively very brief period, only to be discarded when another subject pushes it aside. (See my comments last week about how mass surveillance has all but vanished from our national "debate.") I will address these issues further in upcoming posts.

Tragically, and sickeningly, the claims that "we" are now alert to the significance of sexual abuse and will no longer tolerate it are also completely false. Change the identities of the victims and the context in which the abuse occurs, and make the perpetrator the U.S. government itself, and almost no one gives a damn. But the invaluable Jim Bovard thankfully does give a damn:
Americans are rightly outraged over revelations that Congress spent $17 million since 1997 to pay off and muzzle victims of congressional sexual misconduct and other abuses. But the U.S. government has spent vastly more effectively bankrolling far worse sexual atrocities in Afghanistan — in brazen violation of U.S. law.

Since 2002, the U.S. has spent more than $70 billion financing Afghan security forces, including the Afghan military and police. A law sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) prohibits the Pentagon from bankrolling any foreign military units if there is “credible information that the unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.”

The U.S. government has long known that U.S.-funded Afghan units routinely engage in "bacha bazi" — boy play. Afghan military commanders and police kidnap boys and use them as sex slaves. American troops have complained of seeing boys chained to beds and hearing their screams at night. ...

The Pentagon ignored the abuse until a 2015 New York Times expose of American soldiers who were punished for protesting atrocities against young boys. The Times reported that U.S. troops were confounded that “instead of weeding out pedophiles, the American military was arming them in some cases and placing them as the commanders of villages — and doing little when they began abusing children.” ...

After the Times’ report, 93 members of Congress requested that the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) investigate the problem. SIGAR finished and submitted its report early this year. In a brief section in its July 31 quarterly report, SIGAR noted, "Afghan officials remain complicit, especially in the sexual exploitation … of children by Afghan security forces." The Washington Post reported on November 26 that the Pentagon is blocking the release of the SIGAR report, instead releasing “its own report offering a far less authoritative review” of the abuses. ...

Americans would never tolerate federal funds paying for a notorious child rape regime in Cincinnati or Omaha. But your tax dollars are underwriting similar sordid abuses in Kandahar and Kabul. Doctors, teachers, and social workers can be jailed for failing to report child abuse here at home. But, six thousand miles away, U.S. troops risk their career for protesting pederasty.
Bovard has more, and I urge you to read it.

So, "we" will no longer tolerate sexual abuse? Please. The ongoing national paroxysm about sexual harassment and abuse is unjustifiably, illegitimately and sickeningly restricted in its scope. The patient -- our culture itself -- is dying of multiple stab wounds, and "we" have chosen to wipe its runny nose. I do not mean to minimize in any respect the seriousness of the crimes now finally receiving attention that is long overdue and fully merited. I mean the opposite: the problem is far worse, and far more complex, than most people are willing to countenance. And the horrors in Afghanistan -- horrors which only a few brave souls like Bovard will even discuss, and of which most people are not even aware -- are only one example of the panoply of horrors committed by our government, both abroad and at home.

If "we" keep this up, and "we" almost certainly will, this culture will finally be dead for good. And not a moment too soon.