The Left is cannibalistic. It eats its own.
-- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (The New Yorker Radio Hour, January 26, 2018)
No women were harmed in the making of this picture.
-- Nancy Crocker
My accomplished friend Nancy, an author, actor, activist, feminist and for the last two and half decades a Minnesotan, has met Al Franken several times and reports that he is like a smart teddy bear, nothing creepy about him. She joins other women who give him good report. Eight of his Senate staffers say that "he treated us with the utmost respect." Thirty-six women who worked with him on Saturday Night Live praise him as "a dedicated and devoted family man, a wonderful comedic performer, and an honorable public servant," from whom "not one of us ever experienced any inappropriate behavior."*
He stands accused of actions that, taken as true and interpreted in the darkest way, do not amount to rape, power play for sexual favors, cruising of shopping malls to "date" minors, self-exposure or quid pro quo. I still say he "stands" because he was denied a process that might move the accusations forward toward penalty, restoration or exoneration. His supporters from SNL call such actions "stupid and foolish," and he himself agrees, but no one says he invaded the bodies of children, or ruined anyone's career, or fired anyone for refusing sexual favors. He is not a Weinstein, a Spacey, an Ailes or a Nassar.
I've never met Al Franken and I don't know his personal life, but for decades I've seen his work and can't avoid certain conclusions. My gaydar is suspect but my nerdar is superb. Al Franken is a nerd. Like me, only more accomplished. He is a nerd who grew into his nerdity and through strenuous effort acquired dignity; who also did some "stupid and foolish" things along the way; and who in Nancy's estimation could be elected governor of Minnesota today.
I should say what a nerd is. (If you don't see yourself in this description then you aren't a nerd in my book). A nerd is a boy who lives in his own world and doesn't play the game because he can't. In the classroom he may have all the answers but pays a price if he offers them. On the playground, his worthlessness is proclaimed in every choosing of sides for kickball -- he is the last boy or maybe the last person chosen; and in the corners, in the intervals between one class and another, there may be a game of keep-away with his coke-bottle glasses; he is pushed, knocked, insulted with words of gender-loaded insult for which he lacks skills of deflection. These bankruptcies in a cruel market drive him further into a private world of books and fantasies, a world he cannot share.
As a nerd grows into youth the terror of the playground recedes, replaced by terrors of the courtship market. Unable to toss a three-pointer or to locate a tiny ball at the end of a bat, lacking practice in the role of physical attraction, unskilled in small talk and banter, the nerd relinquishes fear of bullies for the fear of women. Every roll of the eyes, every sigh and look over the shoulder toward someone else, takes him back to the kickball field.
Boo hoo you say. We all have our problems.
These are the problems of nerds. And we are legion.
Many nerds are saved. Their lives are saved by a chess club, or a school play, or a math club, or band practice, or a gifted teacher, or a secret society of lost boys who locate each other with nascent nerdar. Finding a ground of adequacy, they begin a hard lifetime of integration between their private natures and the corrupting games of the world.
A few nerds never climb out of the pit. Their shame turns to anger, and their anger to monstrosity: Weinstein and Nassar might be nerds gone rotten. Or Ted Kaczynski. A few nerds turn their anger on themselves, and do not survive.
But most of us survive, and without becoming monsters. We commence the long work of integrating interior with exterior, arriving late in the world lacking a decade of practice, eternal sophomores impersonating adults, fools in search of our authority. Showbiz teaches that you can't learn a role without rehearsing it. We try stuff, and some of it is really stupid. Or we don't try stuff, which is just as stupid. Both our trying and our not trying can hurt people.
The scripts offered to us are, after all, stupid. As I grew up, manhood was Clark Gable carrying Vivien Leigh up the staircase in spite of her protests; it was Rosanno Brazzi stripping Katherine Hepburn naked with his gaze; it was Cary Grant telling David Niven he should "fight for" Loretta Young; it was Humphrey Bogart mansplaining to Ingrid Bergman that their love didn't amount to a hill of beans and she should go with the other guy. A little dab of Brylcream would do me, and I would enter the stage with my high "confidence" flying, assuming the mastery of women, ready to pursue and assert my rights and never let go, never take no for an answer. As I noticed myself not doing these things, I didn't think it was a sign of virtue; I thought it meant I was a hideous botch of male personhood.
Now I am an old man, still climbing out of that pit. It takes time, and risk, and errors of commission and omission, to learn there is another way to approach the majority of the human race. So simple it's incomprehensible: women are people, and should be listened to. It takes a while to learn what listening is. It takes a while to learn that there are some who will listen back. It takes a while to learn that when two people listen to each other a number of beautiful things can happen: camaraderie, encouragement, companionship, emotional support, flirtation and crush, or in a very few instances romance, though romance is not required for these other modes to be gorgeous.
What makes me sad, in the furor about the bad date that someone had with Aziz Ansari, is that a sour assumption drives the story -- that the evening is pointless unless they f*!@. Even if two people are falling in love -- as those awkward protagonists clearly were not -- who is there now to model the simple value of getting to know someone by listening, the not always but sometime extravagant joy of delay, the rising of desire as one explores the mind and heart of a person whose very presence makes your heart race and dazzles your brain and puts a lump in your throat? Though I am old, you don't have to be old to lament the death of antici -- pation, the flattening of romance into a plumbing emergency.
These protagonists seem sad and awkward, and the incident appears foolish and stupid. And we awkward men, not monsters but flawed and yet doing our best, will not go through a lifetime without having done something stupid and foolish. We are not mind-readers. We were not raised in the radiant world yet to come, but in an older world of toxins now being exposed. So as the current wave breaks over us all, new-brooming some monsters but also some persons of good intent who are growing into a role never written before, and meanwhile placing the same seal of ill repute on all alike, I have two requests.
First, I hope there will be a spirit of education. That means, for women I know or will come to know in the future, that if I do something that makes you feel violated, in the name of god tell me so, here and now. In a better world I would already know, but I am formed by this world and I do not yet know. Tell me. Offending you is the last thing I want. If we talk this out, I might learn that, either for you particularly or for all in general, I should change my behavior. It's even possible you might learn it wasn't what you thought it was. In either case, there is no good letting this virus multiply.
Second, I hope that before we eat many more of our own there will arise a spirit of compassion, expressed toward all but particularly toward the awkward. I've just written the archeology of my kind of man, the grounds of pain and ignorance out of which my errors arise. But no one comes to adulthood, to this or that social scene or workplace, without blind spots and tendencies to folly. There are criminals and there are monsters; but for the rest, let those who have never done anything foolish and stupid cast the first stones.
*"Former Franken Female Staffers Speak Out," Ed O'Keefe, Washington Post, November 17, 2017. "36 Women from Saturday Night Live Sign Letter of Support for Sen. Al Franken," Raisa Bruner, Time, November 21, 2017.
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