The allegations of sexual misconduct by men in power condemn not just the perpetrators, but the culture that protects and profits from them. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
The year of silence breaking
They were a gifted gang. Wealthy and world famous. Their millions were fraudulently, but cleverly, acquired. The cheating was varied, often escaping detection. But the existence of their swindling was kept secret not merely through ingenuity, but a network of sycophancy, bribery and intimidation. Perhaps “secret” is too strong. Among rivals and reporters, there were whispers. Suspicions. But fear and self-interest kept the game alive.
This wasn’t the Gambino crime family. It was the United States Postal Service cycling team, led by Lance Armstrong – a man who became so famous that writing about him became profitable itself. Fame creates parasitic economies. For journalists, the cycling beat was the Armstrong beat, and money was to be had in propagating his legend. People wanted to believe. Willed credulity bolstered the Armstrong myth as surely as drugs bolstered his performance. After all, this was a gifted but not extraordinary cyclist with the wrong body-type who returned from cancer to become an unparalleled champion. The story always stank.
When the mask was ripped away, it revealed a thug and inveterate liar. It is all there in the voluminous US Anti-Doping Agency’s report and its attached affidavits. The global icon sat atop something resembling an organised crime family – a domineering cult figure who serially perjured and threatened to destroy his friends.
Today, Armstrong would have us believe that he is simply a repentant cheat – as Harvey Weinstein would have us believe that he is merely a chastened dinosaur or sex-addict – but his contrition is as manicured as his mansion’s garden. Armstrong insisted to Oprah that he was embarked upon a grave self-reckoning, even as he hedged and obscured. The egos of his former teammates, turned confessors, seemed battered. Armstrong’s didn’t. Their testimonies were made sad and inarticulate with shame. Armstrong’s wasn’t. Here was the difference between the mob boss and his underlings – only one of them could indefinitely defy shame.
So it is with Weinstein. With each fresh revelation a profile emerges not of a serial lecher, but a Sicilian don. A man sufficiently perverse, wealthy and conniving that he employed a private army to conceal his crimes.
The website for Black Cube has a homepage that declares the company to be: “A select group of veterans from the Israeli elite intelligence units that specialises in tailored solutions to complex business and litigation challenges.” In other words, ex-spies who dig dirt. In an extraordinary article published last month, The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow revealed that Harvey Weinstein had employed the company to surveil his alleged victims. While its website suggests a company improving corporate transparency, Farrow’s report suggested a band of mercenaries.
On Weinstein’s orders, Black Cube staff assumed false identities and personally insinuated themselves into the lives of his alleged victims, while running interference on the journalists investigating the abuses. They were also tasked with investigating the personal lives of victims and reporters. Israeli spy craft was employed to intimately manipulate alleged sexual assault victims. In the case of actress Rose McGowan, a near-friendship was forged with a woman posing as a female rights advocate – and all the while she was feeding intelligence back to her client. What paranoia and disorientation results from learning of this deception?
With Lance Armstrong, journalists both disgraced and honoured themselves. There were those who went along – and those, such as David Walsh, who did not. So it is with Weinstein. Journalists formed a part of his protective clique, but also played a major role in dismantling it. In Farrow’s article he describes the countervailing force of an unnamed freelance journalist – another corrupt patron of the Weinstein Protection Network.
If one thing gives me pause, it’s how exotic the Harvey Weinstein story is. It is – dare I say it – cinematic. Hollywood, spies, wiretaps and corrupt tabloids. We are appalled but enthralled. This does not lessen the injuries or diminish the courage of whistleblowers. The global attention enhances both. Nor does it make exotic the numbingly common abuse of power at the heart of it. But the tsunami that found its origin in Weinstein has swept over the more – and I use the term sceptically – glamorous industries. Movies, television, journalism. I have to wonder if it will touch the “duller” industries, or the most common institution of them all: the family.
The metastasising allegations of abuse, harassment and statutory rape against Kevin Spacey have also enthralled. Writing this, I overheard a couple describe their “obsession” with the story. Later, a friend told me how he distinguished the “Spacey story” from the Weinstein one: the mogul was largely invisible for the movie fan; Spacey was someone with whom he had spent many enchanted hours.
I can understand this, I suppose. One element is the attraction to watching a crystal shatter. Another is my unfortunate familiarity with charming abusers. None of the Spacey allegations have been before a court. But there is a bleak multitude, yielded by many decades and countries. The initial allegation that he had carried a 14-year-old boy to a bed and expectantly fell upon him was received by the accused not with indignant denial but apologetic forgetfulness and his coming out. That allegation was just the beginning. A torrent followed. Beside a statement that the actor was receiving unspecified “treatment”, Camp Spacey has since been quiet.
“The less you know about me, the easier it is to convince you that I am that character on the screen,” Spacey once said. “It allows an audience to come into a movie theatre and believe that I am that person.”
These words now suggest a different illusion: that we might know our idols. That we might infer decency from their charisma, charities, politics. We can’t. Distantly I had long accepted the authority of the journalist Charlie Rose, which I felt flowed not from insight – he was often a sycophantic interviewer – but an uncomplicated decency. I regarded him as effortlessly genial, an attentive listener. His presence suggested an elegantly restrained ego, perfect for fixing his curiosity on his subject. But we now learn of his impulsive rages, delicate ego, and serial need to expose his penis to younger, discomforted women. This is far from an exhaustive inventory. Now Rose is gone, and so too Matt Lauer, a decades-long fixture of American morning talk shows. The New York Times and The New Yorker, both crucial to the unmasking of Harvey Weinstein, have both recently sacked or suspended high-profile reporters for sexual misconduct.
A celebrity’s past comments will be excavated following their disgrace. Examined for clues, hypocrisy, the surface bubbles of a bad conscience. In the case of comic Louis CK, though, it’s not a matter of parsing prior statements for hints, but treating his very art as a long act of confession. In his stand-up CK affected – or seemed to affect – a man bewildered and shamed by his own libido. It was an enduring theme of his comedy: no matter man’s pretensions to civilised achievement, his dick was always waiting to cheapen him. We were but horny Jobs, CK suggested, distinguished from our biblical counterpart by having within us our vast and humiliating power. “Some things I’m sick of, like, the constant, perverted, sexual thoughts,” he said in a 2011 routine. “I’m so tired of those. It makes me into an idiot … It’s a dumb part of life that I’m sick of. It’s all day, too … It’s really a male problem – not being able to control their constant sexual impulses. Women try to compete … But you’re a tourist in sexual perversion. I’m a prisoner there.”
It was assumed by his fans that CK was engaging a common method of comedy – telling truths via grotesque exaggeration – and that his distressed self-awareness was enlightened. As he returned obsessively to themes of perversion and sexual exploitation, and transformed his shame into theatre, many thought he was serving a common good. Post-Weinstein, we see the grotesqueness but little exaggeration.
Slate critic Dana Stevens concluded a personal piece on the comic with: “I’m not sure if this way of framing the fall of Louis CK – that I once found him both hilarious and hot, and when I think of that from now on, I will always feel dirty, compromised, and gross – is appropriate or ladylike or even professional. I know I’m supposed to assume the proper critical distance and evaluate his latest movie as a work of art, then ponder abstractly what the proper relation between a life and an artistic legacy should be. But like a lot of women right now, I’m sort of past caring how I sound. I haven’t noticed a lot of men suppressing what might generously be called their impulse for self-expression.”
As I write, Doug Jones is claiming victory in the Alabaman senate race. A Democrat, he becomes the first elected by the deeply conservative state in 25 years. This is less significant than the fact that he has narrowly vanquished his opponent, Roy Moore, a former judge against whom multiple allegations of child sexual abuse were made. By election day, nine women had alleged that Moore had sexually assaulted or harassed them – all but two were under-age at the time of the alleged offences. The youngest was just 14.
As Moore rode horseback to his local voting booth this week, a journalist asked him what he would bring to the senate. “The constitution and God,” he replied. But Moore has long been unable or unwilling to reconcile his faith with the law. He had been twice suspended as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. Once for refusing to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from his court, and again for refusing to acknowledge the legality of same-sex marriage.
The election of Jones rejects Donald Trump’s bald endorsement of his opponent, and leaves a mere single-seat majority in the senate. But Americans are still left with the fact that nearly half of Alabama’s voters preferred a likely child molester to a Democrat. Or try this interpretation: half of Alabama’s voters preferred a man who, through his opposition to abortion, would seek to protect the unborn child despite having been a serial threat to those who have left the womb. In this, there is a delirious hypocrisy. But what is the cognitive threshold for hypocrisy? What if you have discounted the allegations as lies? In the 620,000-plus votes cast for Moore, we can surely find traces of the logical fallacy that President Trump has aggressively encouraged: that any critical news is, automatically, false news.
This is a bleak response. A sunnier one is that a huge electoral bias evaporated because of a popular assessment of Roy Moore’s character. That assessment also, narrowly, rejected implacable partisanship, logical fallacy and the defence of historic child abuse as merely a passing fashion.
Which leaves Moore’s great defender, the president of the United States of America. A year after his election, allegations of his sexual misconduct have been revived. This week on the Today show, three women who have previously accused Trump of sexual assault and harassment told reporter Megyn Kelly of the retaliation they faced after making these allegations public last year. They spoke of bitter astonishment at why their on-the-record allegations, combined with the infamous recording of Trump boasting about imperiously assaulting women, had failed to prevent his elevation to the most powerful office in the world.
After the spectacular falls of so many men this year – including two Democratic senators – Trump seemed inoculated against the charges. “It was heartbreaking last year,” Samantha Holvey, a former competitor in the Trump-run Miss America pageant, said. “We’re private citizens and for us to put ourselves out there to try and show America who this man is and how he views women, and for them to say, ‘Meh, we don’t care’ – it hurt.”
Another alleged victim, Rachel Crooks, said in a press conference this week: “In an objective setting, without question, a person with this record would have entered the graveyard of political aspirations never to return, yet here we are with that man as president.”
While Trump has denied all allegations, there are calls – from his alleged victims and a growing number of Democrats – for a congressional inquiry.
So dramatically have these scandals multiplied, that the original Harvey Weinstein revelations seem as though they happened in the distant past. Stories of his malice appear ceaseless. In a long piece in The New York Times this week, actor Salma Hayek recounted the serial harassment and threats she experienced from this prodigious abuser. It is a difficult read, if much harder to write. “Harvey Weinstein was a passionate cinephile, a risk taker, a patron of talent in film, a loving father and a monster,” Hayek opened. “For years, he was my monster.”
Hayek describes, in great detail, years of harassment and psychological abuse. Years of belittlement, deceit and volcanic rage. “I don’t think he hated anything more than the word ‘no’.” It was a word Hayek had nervously but courageously deployed, many times. “No to letting him watch me take a shower. No to letting him give me a massage. No to letting a naked friend of his give me a massage. No to letting him give me oral sex. No to my getting naked with another woman… And with every refusal came Harvey’s Machiavellian rage.”
The rage was sinister. Hayek writes that at one point the producer told her he could have her killed. “Don’t think I can’t.”
At last count, three separate police forces were investigating the ex-mogul.
There has not been the same conflagration of scandal here in Australia. One reason, perhaps, is that our defamation laws are more restrictive than those of the United States. But this has not prevented an awesome number of complaints of vile behaviour being made against former TV gardening show host Don Burke. There are now hundreds of accusations, from groping and harassment to bullying and intimidation. He has been described as a predator and a creep. Former Network Nine boss Sam Chisholm called him a “grub”. Another ex-Nine CEO, David Leckie, said: “He’s a horrible, horrible, horrible man. He’s a dreadful, dreadful piece of work… he was a really dirty old man.”
The harshness of these comments is not exculpatory. Quite the opposite. If both men found Burke to be reprehensible – considered him to be a bizarrely lecherous bully – then they were obliged to act upon that assessment. But during the 1990s, when Burke was an influential figure at the broadcaster, it seems little was done. Too big, too powerful.
For a man who once boasted of his precocious absorption of Heidegger and Augustine as a child, Burke’s rhetorical gifts were less than convincing in his interview with A Current Affair’s Tracy Grimshaw. Burke suggested he was the victim of a “witch-hunt”, prosecuted by grudge-bearers and people with a “victim mentality”. Elsewhere, Burke admitted he could be difficult – not perverse – which was merely a symptom of his “perfectionism”. Then he diagnosed himself with Asperger’s syndrome.
Last week, Time magazine’s Person of the Year was given to “The Silence Breakers” – the men and women who went public with their stories of abuse and harassment. It is a watershed moment, and one of the stories of the year. But it begs repeating that the vast majority of sexual assaults are unreported. We will see just how this might change in a post-Weinstein world.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 16, 2017 as "The year of silence breaking".
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