Does civilization ever come back?
Do you reckon the reckoning?
The Atlantic’s “Bill Clinton: A Reckoning,” Slate’s “It’s Astonishing That It Took So Long for the Bill Clinton Moment of Reckoning to Arrive,” and National Review’s “Kennedy, Clinton, Weinstein: A Convenient Reckoning” all resurrect the arcaic term in response to the ancient practice of men abusing power to satiate sexual desires.
Clinton’s appetites did not kill his presidency. But they led to his impeachment and, long after that fact, they now lead to this belated reckoning. Yes, it takes slow types 19 years to reckon the need for a reckoning, a word which, voracious readers probably noticed, now appears in magazines with a frequency on par with “the,” “is,” and, well, “and.”
The spike in usage stems, ironically, from Leon Wieseltier, the former New Republic editor who, because of creepy but not rapey behavior with younger females (these days one must specify and not assume the sex of the victims, as the example of Kevin Spacey, a proud gay man addressing his sexuality “honestly and openly,” instructs), became one of the first casualties of the recent purge of men behaving badly.
A chastened Wieseltier, a much more talented writer than those writing about him, promised: “I will not waste this reckoning.” Those conducting the Two Minutes Hate against the 65-year-old literary critic and longtime bane of barbers pay homage to him, or perhaps attempt to pay back his violations with one of their own, by borrowing that peculiar term from his apology.
Not all men receiving retribution via the reckoning appear guilty of the same sins — Al Franken is not Harvey Weinstein and Garrison Keillor is not Bill Clinton — but they all got caught up in the reckoning nonetheless. And that’s the thing with village-square stonings, pitchforks-and-torches mobs, and 17th-century-style witch hunts: they do not, generally, discriminate. They lust to fulfill an even more primal urge than the one that motivates the sinners they pursue: blood.
The mob surely gets it right sometimes. But due process, statutes of limitations, and proportionality do not, generally, rank high on its priorities. The death penalty, at least for careers, seems as the only approved penalty. Just ask Billy Bush.
One reckons that most caught up in the reckoning deserved the reckoning. Hassling underlings for sex, as Matt Lauer belatedly learned, leads to the loss of a $20 million job in a just world. And if Harvey Weinstein is guilty of 10 percent of what his accusers charge him with, then he deserves a lengthy stay in the penitentiary. But what happens when the mob gets it wrong? Speak up against the reckoning at the risk of a reckoning.
The results of the mania surrounding sexual harassment and abuse likely change both the workplace and dating culture, for good and ill. Instead of underlings fearing to offend lascivious bigshots, the bigshots now fear offending underlings. The people working the best jobs must operate on their best behavior — or else. Is that such a bad thing? And what of a dude making a spontaneous pass on a crush? Whether one looks like Harvey Weinstein or Brad Pitt may determine whether the response involves the police or fireworks. Must Gloria Allred chaperone our dates and Antioch College-style consent forms preface each escalation of physical intimacy? Every abolition of the Bad Old World ushers in a Brave New World.
Reckoning peaks on Google’s Ngram at .000800% shortly before 1820. It ended the 20th century below .000200%. If reckoning were a stock, one might have, at least around the time of Enron’s demise, reckoned it Enron. But the word began a comeback shortly after the energy company experienced its collapse. This culminated with its recent popularity among those calling into account powerful males abusing their positions in the pursuit of sexual kicks and conquests.
The Online Eytymology Dictionary describes “reckon” as “formerly” in “literary use” but notes that it (sadly?) “came to be associated with U.S. Southern dialect and was regarded as provincial or vulgar.” Reckoning strikes as reckon’s wealthier, pretentious cousin who rose from Deliveranceville to make it in Williamsburg, Russian Hill, Harvard Square, and other fashionable urban enclaves. But like Hannibal Lecter sensing the remnants of Clarice Starling’s rural accent, we grasp, even if we appreciate the related terms’ different meanings, reckoning’s “provincial or vulgar” roots. And these “provincial or vulgar” roots color the national obsession with the sexual behavior of others. One faintly hears the dueling banjos play whenever #MeToo appears. There is something primitive in the sophisticates’ pursuit of justice, which makes “reckoning” a sort of verbal signal clueing in observers to the backwards means utilized toward progressive ends.
Or maybe the ends result in a more traditional approach to courting, if you can call Charlie Rose cavorting nude in front of employees that. Certainly behaving as a gentleman generally provides an inoculation to charges of untoward behavior.
Alas, when authorities, be they at NBC News, the New Republic, or Prairie Home Companion, fail to enforce rules, the outraged folks who fill the vacuum to enforce the rules do so with as much regard to norms as the cowards and shirkers in authority who ignored their enforcement in the first place. When the powerful fail to behave in a civilized manner, civilization goes out the window — until it flies back in again.
Leon Wieseltier in 2014 (YouTube screenshot)