Two progressive icons in the Capitol have recently announced their resignations. Sen. Al Franken, under pressure from the Senate Democratic conference, announces his resignation in the wake of the resignation of Rep. John Conyers under pressure from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The consequences of sexual misconduct are taking a big toll beyond the progressive bastions of entertainment and media.
Scandalous revelations about sexual harassment (and worse) proliferate. What might this mean, both for society and politics? As Elizabeth Drew recently wrote in the New Republic, in an extraordinarily trenchant essay entitled “Sex and Power in Washington”:
It doesn’t look as if the current upheaval about sexual predation will wind down anytime soon. More targets are being examined by reporters, and Capitol Hill is like a volcano about to explode. The problem has been rife there as long as anyone can remember (and probably before then, as well). Congress clearly has to change its rules for dealing with charges of sexual aggression, which make it nearly impossible for a female plaintiff to win and which pays some of them off secretly with taxpayers’ money. Media and other corporations have to reconsider their guidelines. And the punishment should fit the crime—which in the current frenzy may not always be the case.
But anyone who thinks that the matter of sexual aggression, in the arena of politics and the press that cover it, will go away doesn’t understand the male libido and the temptations provided in these particular professions. One possible positive sign is that, for the younger generations in the workplace, the presence of females isn’t novel, which leads to more respect for them. Latter-day Savonarolas pronouncing “zero tolerance” in Washington aren’t living in the real world.
It used to be that two of the three items one simply did not discuss in polite company were sex and politics. (The third was religion. It’s the only remaining taboo.) Sex and politics — often conjoined — now dominate the conversations, both national and personal. What’s up with that?
Slightly over a quarter century ago, Prof. Elaine Showalter, then chairperson of the Princeton English department, wrote a prophetic, in fact what may be the defining, book pertinent to this very topic: Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle. Showalter is a rara avis, an academic populist. Showalter: “I’ve always really loved popular culture, but it wasn’t something serious intellectuals were supposed to be concerned about.… I would like to be able to bring my background and my skills to subjects that do reach a wide audience.”
As it happens, Showalter, with Sexual Anarchy, was well ahead of her time. She wrote well before the crescendo of the sexual anarchy now besetting us. She remains to this day a vital and unique voice in the culture. But for my money, her magnum opus is Sexual Anarchy. It is essential to understanding, and perhaps even resolving, our current predicament. Follow along.
Sexual Anarchy is a study of the changing of the mores and the culture at the end of the 19th century. It is not, however, a backward-looking work. It delves into the roots of what I have here previously called a Cultural Revolution that is not just ongoing but intensifying. It does so more discerningly than any other work I have encountered. I hold it as a prophetic work, one that is urgent to consult at this historical, and possibly historic, juncture. Showalter:
The 1880s and 1890s, in the words of the novelist George Gissing, were decades of “sexual anarchy,” when all the laws that governed sexual identity and behavior seemed to be breaking down. As Karl Miller notes, “Men became women. Women became men. Gender and country were put in doubt. The single life was found to harbor two sexes and two nations.” During this period both the words “feminism” and “homosexuality” first came into use, as New Women and male aesthetes redefined the meanings of femininity and masculinity. There were fears that emancipated women would bear children outside of marriage in the free union, or worse, that they would not have children at all. In the wake of Ibsen, women’s oppression became the theme of successful plays by Arthur Pinero, Oscar Wilde, Harley Granville-Barker, and George Bernard Shaw, and novels by Thomas Hardy, George Meredith, and George Moore.
With the rise of matters surrounding “T” — “Transgender” — to the top of the charts, what could be more relevant than reflecting on the era where “Men became women. Women became men. Gender and country were put in doubt” first arose?
The fin de siècle was also a period of sexual scandals. In England, they ranged from the trial and acquittal of the notorious brothel-keeper Jeffries in 1884, and the sensational journalistic series on child prostitution of W.T. Stead, “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” in 1885, to the exposé of the Cleveland Street male brothel in 1889. All of these scandals changed the level of public awareness about sexuality and engendered a fierce response in social purity campaigns, a renewed sense of public moral concern, and demands, often successful, for restrictive legislation and censorship. They were occasions when gender roles were “publicly, even spectacularly, encoded and enforced.” Especially there was a call to reaffirm the importance of the family as the bulwark against sexual decadence.
2017 has become — and almost certainly 2018 will be — “a period of sexual scandals.” Will there be a comparable reaction? Or will we see something along the counsel of William Butler Yeats, in The Second Coming,
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.…
Is there a chthonic psychic driver?
As the political historian Carole Pateman has observed, women have traditionally been perceived as figures of disorder, “potential disrupters of masculine boundary systems of all sorts.” Women’s social or cultural marginality seems to place them on the borderlines of the symbolic order, both the “frontiers between men and chaos,” and dangerously part of chaos itself, inhabitants of a mysterious and frightening wild zone outside of patriarchal culture.”
What is the social impact?
[M]any men found their part of the equation as difficult to sustain as women did theirs, and the source of much anxiety. Opportunities to succeed at home and in the Empire were not always abundant; the stresses of maintaining an external mask of confidence and strength led to nervous disorders, such as neurasthenia; suppressing “feminine” feelings of nurturance and affection created problems for many men as well. What was most alarming to the fin de siècle was that sexuality and sex roles might no longer be contained within the neat and permanent borderlines of gender categories.
What was the social order that gave rise to the sexual anarchy of the late 19th century, and what elements of it echo down to the 21st century?
Clubland operated as a lifetime training ground for men wishing to exclude women. Aggressively and urbanely heterosexual, even rakish, in their discourse, the clubs were the stronghold and headquarters of opposition to women’s suffrage and practiced an “intermittent and localized misogyny.” A boy accustomed to intense male friendships and anti-feminist assumptions in the atmosphere of public schools was “fully equipped to play his part in keeping women out” when he reached the university; and “the Oxford college was itself a small club” where the social and intellectual habits of public school could be continued. The London gentlemen could spend his entire life moving through “a maze of clubs,” athletic, political, and social; and professions from medicine and the law to “the best club of all — the House of Commons,” also imitated the structure of Clubland. Finally, the exclusion of women was not restricted to the upper and middle classes. Women were generally not permitted in public houses, and in 1897 only one of the 512 groups in the Working Men’s Clubs and Institute Union admitted women as members.
How men there were “even rakish, in their discourse” foreshadows the Access Hollywood tape which, as it happens, recounts an unsuccessful attempted seduction. Yet “rakish” indeed was that discourse.
Did the mainstream reaction of the late 19th century serve to defuse the challenge to conventional mores? Or to intensify it?
Following the pioneering work of Michael Foucalt, many historians of sexuality now argue that male homosexuality and the male homosexual role are “inventions” of the late nineteenth century.
[F]in-de-siècle efforts to define and control homosexuality, and to bound it off from masculinity in general, were not successful, and may have had the effect of strengthening homosexual bonds. As Jeffrey Weeks explained, “it seems likely that new forms of legal regulation, whatever the vagaries in application, had the effect of bringing home to many the fact of their difference and thus creating a new community of knowledge, if not of life and feeling, among many men with homosexual leanings. Foucalt maintained that this paradoxical effect is inevitable because the official definition, marginalization, and control of a particular group such as homosexuals always creates a “reverse discourse.”
Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” These extracts give the gist of Showalter’s analysis, and offers the possibility of a transformational grammar with which to discuss — and even think about — the situation and the scandals that now beset us.
What might this all this mean for the political future? Two of my friends and sometime colleagues, Frank Cannon and Maggie Gallagher, recently published a magisterial essay in First Things headlined “Culture Is Downstream of Politics”:
Walk into any room full of Christian conservative donors, and someone will say, “Politics is downstream of culture.” Every head in the room will nod. Nothing is more entrenched as conventional wisdom among Christian conservatives. Like most truisms, this one is only partly true. As people change their beliefs about what is true and good, politics changes as well. But putting culture above politics as a distinct sphere is profoundly mistaken, for politics is part of culture.
Politics allows the American people to give public form to what they believe to be true, good, and important; it is also the main way Americans decide which views are “within the pale” and which are beyond it. Elites of the left dominate most other domains: the mainstream media, the academy, the arts, Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and increasingly the Chamber of Commerce and corporate suites. When an idea or issue drops out of politics, therefore, progressives can easily stigmatize it as outside the mainstream, extremist, and intolerable, effectively ending conversation. But election results feed back into culture.
What comes next? The authors observe:
Our research shows that between 2007 and 2014, conservative organizations dedicated to changing public policy on life, marriage, and religious liberty spent just under $75 million in direct political spending. By contrast, the leading gay-rights political organization, Human Rights Campaign, recently pledged to spend $26 million in 2018 on direct political action. Emily’s List, one of the largest pro-abortion PACs, spent $36 million in 2016 and is likely to spend as much or more in the upcoming electoral cycle. In other words, only two organizations on the left will spend in one year almost as much on direct political action as all socially conservative organizations combined spent between 2007 and 2014. Comprehensive data for 2015 and 2016 are not yet available. But the preliminary data suggest political spending by social conservatives is falling, not rising.
The authors demand that “This must change.” It is not at all clear those who have the power to change it are listening to them. That said, Foucalt’s observation about “reverse discourse” and Showalter’s about “paradoxical effect” may come to their rescue. Indeed, the electorate’s conjuring of Donald Trump might be a manifestation of just these phenomena.
Confrontation with sexual harassment (and worse) is awkward and, often, painful. That said, culture, as Gallagher and Cannon point out, being downstream from politics such confrontation is both inevitable and necessary.
By that confrontation, we may develop the vocabulary to address directly, rather than obliquely, by proxy, or by the Jabberwocky that too often passes for political discourse, the core issues too long ignored or finessed. By just such a confrontation we yet may emerge from anarchy into an organic and humane — which is to say, conservative — social and political order.
Ignoring the warning of the prophet Hosea, the elite culture has sown the wind. It is now reaping the whirlwind. Franken and Conyers are leaving. They have been, to steal a phrase from Rhiannon, by Fleetwood Mac (perhaps not immaterially, Bill Clinton’s signature band), taken by the wind. Their departures help set the stage to address the deep forces of the Cultural Revolution of which elite sexual misconduct is but one symptom.
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