I first discovered Garrison Keillor at a used bookstore in 2014, when I bought his novel Lake Wobegon Days; a story which I had been drawn to primarily because of how big a sucker I am for American nostalgia. While the trend among elites in the United States — especially intellectual elites — has been to declare nostalgia for America’s past ignorant, misguided, and even harmful, I have always found these declarations to be sanctimonious, self-flagellating, and frankly more than a tad bit annoying. Cultural nostalgia, for me, is not about glossing over a civilization’s injustices, but about finding and momentarily amplifying a civilization’s redeeming aspects (a role, by the way, which nostalgia also plays when it comes to our personal histories). Thus, when reading Lake Wobegon Days — Keillor’s tales of a fictional small Minnesota town and its quirky inhabitants — I felt like the aging author had bottled in a really wonderful way the charms and eccentricities of a nation as it was decades ago, while at the same time steering clear of the sunshine-and-roses territory of Propagandaville.
But it was the second work of Keillor’s that I read, his nonfiction Homegrown Democrat, which proved to have the greatest impact, convincing me to ditch my naive and juvenile libertarianism for a practical and caring liberalism that stressed a balance between heart and mind. It was not this book alone, mind you. My transition from libertarianism to liberalism was more of a journey than just one book or thinker. But nevertheless, Homegrown Democrat was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” It was a book that was able to present a set of political ideas not as a set of political ideas, but as a deeply personal reminiscence of community and citizenship. It was democracy as a story told by a village elder near a fire, rather than a lecture delivered by an overly-polished plastic hack.
In short, while Garrison Keillor isn’t necessarily one I would consider an “intellectual influence,” his work has always managed to bring a smile to my face, as it no doubt has done for millions of other people. He is a warm old man with a tender voice who — up until recently — had found his life’s purpose in public radio broadcasting and in writing. He was the face of a kind, humble, rural liberalism; a liberalism, I should add, that is far too rare in American political discourse today.
A sense of dread set in, then, when I first saw the headline of an article delivering the news of Garrison Keillor’s firing from Minnesota Public Radio for “sexual misconduct.” So many men once believed by the general public to be professional and decent have, in recent weeks, been exposed as predatory sleazeballs, and while a few of the exposed didn’t shock me in the slightest (Roy Moore, Bill O’Reilly), quite a few did (Al Franken, Matt Lauer), and thus I was fully prepared to find the worst when it came to the dismissal of one of my admired authors. Yet as I began to read the article on Keillor’s firing, a giant red flag sprang up almost immediately: MPR was not making public why they had fired Keillor, save that they had done so for “sexual misconduct,” which left only the explanation given by Keillor himself.
“I put my hand on a woman’s bare back,” he told Minneapolis’ Star-Tribune, “I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness and her shirt was open and my hand went up it about six inches. She recoiled. I apologized. I sent her an email of apology later and she replied that she had forgiven me and not to think about it. We were friends. We continued to be friendly right up until her lawyer called… If I had a dollar for every woman who asked to take a selfie with me and who slipped an arm around me and let it drift down below the beltline, I’d have at least a hundred dollars. So this is poetic irony of a high order.”
It was in the aftermath of this statement where the kind, humble, rural liberal was met with scorn by liberals of the condescending urban know-it-all variety.
In a case study of missing the point, Alicia Eler, author of The Selfie Generation, penned an op-ed for Harpers Bazaar (titled “No, Garrison Keillor, Women Who Take Selfies Aren’t ‘Asking For It’”) that twisted the radio host’s defense to the extent of borderline libel: “In this instance, Keillor implies that the women taking selfies with him are bad, not just because they’re taking his time and hoping to be seen with a famous person, but also that they were all using the selfie to get into his pants. This loops back into the idea that ‘she asked for it’ — one of the ways that predators rationalize their behavior.”
No, dimwit. Keillor wasn’t maligning women who take selfies, nor was he boasting that women everywhere were trying to make him their Prairie Home Companion. He was simply arguing that sometimes a hand falls on a person in a place we don’t intend for it to, and thus he was deserving of the same benefit of the doubt that he gave to his female fans. Selfies were not the focus of his statement, and anyone with an above-third grade level of reading comprehension could see that.
But a righteously indignant Eler continued, “In framing the narrative of women selfie-ing with him as a bad thing — as anti-selfie — Keillor is suggesting that he is a victim of the women who want to capture a selfie with him, implying that they are self-involved, whereas he is simply a helpless bystander who, in agreeing to pose for the selfie, is selfless.”
I genuinely wonder how some people even manage to dress themselves in the morning. But while the Harpers Bazaar article contained an abundance of cluelessness and self-promotion (“Garrison Keillor hates selfies! Buy my book about selfies!”), an article in TIME written by Nora McInerny wins the Gold Medal for snobbery and opportunism. “Garrison Keillor Thinks In The Past & Belongs In The Past” the headline dictates, and the tone of its contents is no less aggressive:
“I’m not impressed that MPR terminated Garrison Keillor’s contracts. Believing women is a pretty baseline expectation for me, and giving anyone a round of applause for being decent sets the bar lower than it already is. And reading the comments on any of these stories, you realize that bar is already dangerously low. People are decrying MPR for firing Garrison Keillor because they assume that where there’s smoke, there’s a vast feminist conspiracy trying to prevent men from ever touching women again, and heaping huge financial rewards on women who come forward… There are plenty of voices in Minnesota and beyond waiting for their airtime. I was one of them… That’s the news from our Minnesota. Where our children will learn better, our women are heard, and men like you can stop talking. It’s been 50 years, dude. Let the rest of us have a turn.”
In this op-ed, two very cynical — and I daresay, evil — feelings from McInerny are conveyed: 1) “I believe you’re guilty-because-accused, not because there’s been any evidence proving your guilt” (which I’ll discuss shortly), and 2) “It’s my turn to have a radio show and the popularity of yours has prevented that from happening. Now that you’re out of the way, I can finally shine.”
It has been a month since news of Keillor’s dismissal from MPR broke, and still no detailed explanation from the public radio station has been given for why the action was taken. But that isn’t to say that other actions haven’t been taken in the meantime. MPR has ended distribution of Keillor’s broadcasts and rebroadcasts, the station has changed the name of Keillor’s radio program, and it has separated itself from Keillor’s website and online catalogs. For anyone looking at the history of MPR, then, it will appear as if Keillor never worked for them in the first place. There will literally be a 50-year empty space in the radio station’s record of its past. Such a possibility is particularly eery to anyone who’s ever watched a documentary on the Soviet Union or has ever read 1984. Garrison Keillor is now a “non-person.” He’s gone into the Memory Hole.
The impact of the social movement #MeToo has been an overwhelmingly positive one. Harvey Weinstein doesn’t just need to go to prison, he needs to be put under a prison. As is the case with other powerful men who have committed similar acts. Sexual assault and harassment must be stopped, not because women are fragile and in need of protection by a paternalistic society and workplace, but simply because human beings are of equal intrinsic value and deserve respect.
Having said this, a troubling dictum has emerged in popular culture that threatens to ruin the lives of thousands. A rosy way of expressing this troubling dictum is “Believe women,” or more broadly, “Believe the victims.” But there’s no mystery to what this dictum really means: a man should automatically be thought guilty if ever accused of sexual assault or harassment. Presumption of innocence until proven guilt is now not only discouraged, but loudly derided as a concept that contributes to “rape culture” (another radical — and deeply flawed — concept that would require a separate article entirely).
One defense of assuming guilt is “Why would a woman lie about harassment or assault?” This is irritating for two reasons: 1) It presents women as saintly creatures, come down from heaven above, who would never ever have the desire to lie about abuse for any social or material benefit whatsoever (though this actually happens frequently in child custody cases, and despite the fact that several false rape allegations have made headlines in the past decade: The Rolling Stone/UVA case, the Duke Lacrosse case, and the Columbia University/“Mattress Girl” case to name just a few), and 2) It suggests that if no clear motive for lying about an incident can be immediately discerned, then automatic belief should be chosen over neutral investigation.
Another defense of assuming guilt of the alleged perpetrator is that the approach isn’t meant to be applied to the legal system, only applied in a social context. And what reassurance that is! Don’t worry men. If you ever find yourself among the 2-10% of persons falsely accused of rape, you can sleep easy knowing that even if a court of law finds you not guilty, society will loathe and ostracize you regardless. But this doesn’t matter to mainstream feminist writers and activists. In fact, they’re ecstatic about the possibility of innocent men being concerned and worried.
Emily Lindin, a columnist for Teen Vogue, tweeted: “Sorry. If some innocent men’s reputations have to take a hit in the process of undoing the patriarchy, that is a price I am absolutely willing to pay.”
Guardian writer Jessica Valenti — a reliable, ever-present voice for all things horrendous and authoritarian — stated in a series of tweets on her account: “I keep hearing that men are afraid about the sexual harassment reckoning. Scared that innocent people (them) will get implicated. Women are afraid, for good reason, every day. So I don’t care even a little if men are feeling uncomfortable or scared right now. Better men are afraid than women are hurt. Deal with it. Honestly, I think part of the problem is for too long men haven’t been afraid enough. In short: Make Men Afraid Again.”
With such flagrant disdain for American males on open display during the peak of #MeToo’s popularity, it amazes me how we’re still expected to believe the empty promise that modern/intersectional feminism “is for men too.”
The effect of the moral panic against the American male — and I believe an intentional effect — is an environment at the workplace (and outside of it) where young men will be afraid to approach women, and where young women will be trained to view any and all flirtatious gestures as “harassment.”
The counter to this is that men should not make flirtatious gestures if those gestures are unwanted… but pray tell how a man is supposed to know a flirtatious gesture is unwanted until after the fact? Many angry feminist crusaders would thunder that men should instinctively know when a woman is interested in them and when she is not. But at that point you’re effectively punishing social awkwardness, not predatory behavior.
Others will say that if a woman is interested in you, she will make it known, and if she doesn’t make it known then she shouldn’t be approached. Because apparently women are incapable of shyness, insecurity, and wondering whether or not a man is in fact interested in them. This type of response seems to suggest that while women should take an active approach to their romantic and sexual satisfaction, men should only take an apathetic approach to their own.
Marian Call, the singer/songwriter, would rather see an end to flirting period — especially in the workplace: “Dudes” she tweeted, “Are you aware how happy women would be if strangers and coworkers never flirted with us again, like ever, this is the world we want.” Never mind the fact that women flirt at work too (and with strangers, in case Marian Call has never been to a bar), and that 18% of couples under 35 meet in the workplace according to a 2015 Mic survey. In fact, in a 2013 Psychology Today survey of employees of all ages, between 40-47% reported that they were involved in a workplace romance, and another 20% said they were receptive to one. The respondents must have all been men.
To be quite frank, the conversation on harassment shouldn’t be about policing casual, awkward, or even uncomfortable interactions between the sexes, it should be about recognizing and dealing with real predators in our midst. This, however, will not happen, because policing the interactions of women and men reinforces the notion that rape is a “culture,” while attempting to recognize the specific behavioral patterns and profiles of predators would convey that harassment and assault are criminal activities committed by individuals.
Again, none of this is to say that #MeToo is not an important social movement. But if it wants to stay important, best to distance itself from the nutballs early; nutballs who seek to turn #MeToo into a cultural frenzy that indicts American men in general instead of specific toxic individuals.
For instance Niobe Way, a psychology professor at New York University, who argued in an interview with NPR that boys needed to be re-socialized because “We essentially raise boys in a culture that asks them to disconnect from their core humanity”.
Or Damon Young, an editor at The Root, who wrote “We are all complicit. We are all agents of patriarchy, and we’ve benefitted from it. We are all active contributors to rape culture. All of us. No one is exempt. We all have investments in and take deposits out of the same bank. And we all need to accept and reconcile ourselves with the fact that, generally speaking, we are trash.”
Ijeoma Oluo, a feminist writer and (embarrassingly, shamefully) a soon-recipient of the American Humanist Association’s Feminist Humanist Award, believes “The society is doing everything it can to create rapists, to enable rapists, and to protect rapists. This society is broken, abusive, patriarchal (and white supremacist, ableist, hetero-cisnormative) trash. Not just in little pockets. Not just in dark alleys and frat parties. It’s fucking rotten through and through and has been for-abso-fucking-lutely-ever.”
The result of this diabolical lunacy is obvious: women should be idolized, men should be pathologized. If #MeToo is going to be anything besides a brief flicker that doesn’t survive the next year (as was the case with #banbossy in 2014 and #oscarssowhite in 2016), it needs to remove its crayon-eating, window-licking, radical elements right now. Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and Kevin Spacey no more represent all men than the escaped asylum patients Jessica Valenti, Emily Lindin, Marian Call, and Ijeoma Oluo represent all women (though they think they do).
To conclude, I admit that I do not know if Garrison Keillor’s account is the whole story, or even if it’s true at all. There could be so much more to why he was fired from MPR. Garrison Keillor could, in fact, be a major scumbag. But I don’t know because MPR won’t tell me or the rest of the public, which is bound to raise suspicion. If Keillor’s only offense was accidentally touching a woman’s bare back, then he should be reinstated immediately and receive an apology. Something along the lines of “I’m sorry Garrison that we’re spineless wormy cowards who dropped you like a hot potato at the first whiff of controversy, despite you devoting 50 years of your life to us. Here’s a million dollars.”
More broadly, the ruining of men’s social lives and careers based on accusations alone is dangerous, and I can’t believe I actually have to make this point. Innocent-until-proven-guilty is a way of ensuring innocent people don’t find themselves punished for a crime they didn’t commit (has anyone ever read To Kill A Mockingbird?), and socially speaking, perhaps people should similarly withhold judgement about alleged victim and perpetrator until facts come to light. If you think this is “rape apologism,” bite me.
As far as sexual harassment in the workplace is concerned, do we really need to perfectly define and separate into black-and-white moral boxes every single human interaction and dynamic like puritans? Of course not. While “common sense” is — by the very nature of the term — easier to sense than to articulate, any decent person with half a brain can still exercise it on the job: High five? Okay. Back rub? Not okay. Asking a coworker on a date? Okay. Asking a coworker to lick your toes? You get the idea.
Race Hochdorf is the author of A Letter To The Left: What Liberals Get Wrong About Terrorism, The Economy, Equality, & Social Justice.