A Nation of Deplorables

On Monday, I will be casting the third presidential ballot of my life.  (Hurray for early voting!)  Incidentally—and I don’t mean to brag—this will be the third consecutive time that I will not be voting for an alleged sexual predator for the highest office in the land.

True:  In an enlightened, democratic society, you’d think that not having a possible rapist on the ballot would go more or less without saying.  On our better days, we Americans possess a sufficient level of moral outrage not to let that kind of crap occur.

But 2016 has just been one of those years, so instead we’re stuck with a man—and I use that word loosely—who feels so entitled to the bodies of American women (by his own tape-recorded admission) that his only response to multiple allegations of sexual misconduct is to ridicule the looks of his alleged victims.  Say what you will about Bill Clinton (and I will), but he at least had the courtesy to refer to his most famous accuser by name.

With this year’s standards for electability and decency being what they are, I can take a modicum of pride in having resisted the would-be allure of a vulgar, sexist thug as leader of the free world.  Personally, I intend to continue my trend of voting for non-rapists—and, for that matter, non-misogynists—for the remainder of my life as a citizen.  As John Oliver might say, it is literally the least I can do.

And yet, historically, this has not necessarily been the case for many American voters.

In 1996, for instance, some 47 million of my countrymen opted to keep Bill Clinton in the White House, which is to say that 47 million Americans voted for a man who, apart from being a confessed adulterer, has long been accused of sexual assault—a charge to which he has yet to speak a single word in his defense.  To be fair, the rape allegation didn’t become widely known until Clinton’s second term in office, but I can’t help but notice that—nearly two decades after the fact—the 42nd president remains among the most beloved men in public life, particularly within the political party that claims to be the protector of vulnerable and mistreated women.

Am I really the only person experiencing cognitive dissonance over this rather glaring moral contradiction?

Look:  We all know that Donald Trump’s recent attacks on Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadilloes are merely a half-assed attempt to divert attention from Trump’s own horrifying attitudes (and actions) toward women.  But this does not mean that Clinton’s transgressions didn’t occur and that he should not be held to the same standards as every other alleged abuser.

If you believe—as I do—that women who level rape charges tend to be telling the truth, and if you agree that what we know we know about Clinton would suggest that such charges could be true in his case, then you must conclude that continuing to hold up this man, uncritically, as a Democratic Party icon is problematic at best and despicable at worst.

So why do we do it?  Because—as Orwell famously said—it takes a great struggle to see what is directly in front of our own eyes.  Because human beings are exceptionally good at convincing themselves of what should be true, rather than what is true.  Because we prefer myth to reality, particularly when facing the latter head-on would completely undermine the power of the former.

Just as most historians refused to accept that Thomas Jefferson fathered six children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, until a DNA test proved it once and for all, admirers of Bill Clinton will continue to reassure themselves that he didn’t rape Juanita Broaddrick in 1978, because, well, that’s just not the sort of thing he would do.  Indeed, he couldn’t have done it, because what would that say about all the good people who’ve unconditionally supported and admired him all through the years?

Well, we know what it would say:  That they are either fools or co-conspirators—irretrievably naïve or irredeemably wicked.  And so the solution to this quandary—as unsatisfying as it is inevitable—is to either ignore the problem altogether or to rationalize it to within an inch of its life.  By and large, that is exactly what the Democratic Party has done.

With Trump, of course, it has become so gratingly obvious that sexual harassment (if not assault) is exactly the sort of thing he would do—not least because he’s said so himself—that all excuses or evasions on his behalf can (and largely have) been dismissed as sheer farce.  At this moment—with at least 10 different women having corroborated Trump’s boasts about placing his hands where they definitely don’t belong—to hear that “no one has more respect for women” than Trump has all the believability of Michael Palin insisting to John Cleese that his parrot is still alive.

Which brings us to what has—among liberals, at least—been a defining question of this whole ordeal:  What the hell is Natwrong with Donald Trump’s supporters?

By Nate Silver’s most recent estimate, Trump will end up garnering 43 percent of the vote, which translates to roughly 55 million people.  From what I can gather, this most bewitching chunk of Americans can be subdivided into three groups:

  1. So-called “traditional” conservatives who are disgusted by Trump’s antics and don’t really want him to win, but have nonetheless accepted him as an ideological bulwark against a President Hillary Clinton.
  2. Lifelong Republicans who have somehow managed to look past Trump’s defects and, being totally fed up with “the system,” are hopeful he can serve as a human Molotov cocktail who will magically—and single-handedly—change the way Washington works.
  3. The basket of deplorables.

Obviously that final group is wholly beyond repair, but can we really say the same about groups one and two?

Almost without exception, liberals have condemned all Trump voters as equally irrational and repulsive for daring to stand behind such an irrational and repulsive candidate.  While it may be easy and cathartic to dismiss half the country as a bunch of racist loony toons, it’s also a way of avoiding the uncomfortable fact that, had your life circumstances been just a little different—and your political opinions rotated just a few degrees to the right—you, too, may have spent the majority of 2016 engulfed in a painful existential dilemma as to what is the right thing to do—about how much nonsense you’re willing to endure to keep your favored political party in charge of the executive branch.

In light of recent history, we might want to think twice about being so sweepingly judgmental.

Again:  Some 20 years ago, 47 million liberals voted for commander-in-chief a man—Bill Clinton—whom they knew full well was a liar and a womanizer, and it was because they told themselves that, on balance, he nonetheless represented the majority of their interests and values.  And yet now, in 2016, most of those same liberals are berating conservatives for engaging in the exact same moral compromise for the exact same reasons.

Pot, meet kettle.

The truth—the whole truth—is that each and every one of us is susceptible, sooner or later, to vote for a morally repugnant presidential candidate, provided his or her election suits our own political purposes.  Whether they realize it or not, a majority of Americans have done—or soon will do—exactly that, and they (read: we) would be well-advised to check their righteous indignation at the door, or at least to temper it enough so as not to appear like such oblivious, whining hypocrites.

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Not Just Cosby

What if Bill Clinton were a rapist?

It’s a thought that no liberal would ever want to consider, and I doubt many conservatives have spent much time with it, either.

We all know that America’s 42nd president is a serial philanderer—after all, we spent a full year forcing him to say so under oath—but we have always been able to console ourselves with the fact that, hey, at least it was consensual.  His relationships with Monica Lewinsky and Gennifer Flowers, however tawdry, were each the work of two willing participants, even if one of them was president of the United States.

True, Paula Jones famously accused Clinton of making unwanted sexual advances toward her while he was governor of Arkansas, but a judge subsequently ruled that she had failed to prove her case, thereby allowing us to safely move on with our lives and go back to admiring Clinton as the political wunderkind and all-around good-old-boy that he is.  No harm, no foul.

Would that it were true.

Unfortunately, in the long, ridiculous saga of Bill Clinton’s sexual adventures with women who are not his wife, there is one woman in particular whose story, if true, would force us to reassess our whole perspective of this man who, 14 years removed from the presidency, is still arguably the most beloved living American politician, both here and abroad.

The woman’s name is Juanita Broaddrick.  In 1998, she asserted on Dateline NBC that in 1978—when she worked at a nursing home and Clinton was Arkansas’s attorney general—Clinton got her alone in a hotel room, held her down on the bed against her will and raped her.

This 1998 interview was the first time Broaddrick publicly accused Clinton of sexual assault, although several friends of hers knew about the alleged incident at the time.  The case never went to trial, and when Broaddrick attempted to sue the president for key documents, the case was thrown out by a judge.

While there was some coverage of this story when it first broke, Broaddrick was largely drowned out by the far juicier bombshell surrounding Monica Lewinsky, which was commanding the nation’s attention at roughly the same time.  As well, it certainly didn’t help that Broaddrick’s account contained inconsistencies that likely would have doomed her had she ever managed to drag the president into court.

And yet, to this day, Broaddrick has never recanted her story, Clinton hasn’t said a word in his defense except through his lawyers, and there is no conclusive evidence that Broaddrick’s allegation is false.  To the contrary, all available public records indicate that both she and Clinton were in the same town at the time of the alleged rape, and that Clinton had no official business on that day.  If there are any documents that would make Broaddrick’s story impossible, the Clinton camp hasn’t bothered to release them.

In summary:  A woman has accused Bill Clinton of rape and we have no definitive reason to doubt her.

The question, then, is why doesn’t anyone care?  Or, for that matter, why doesn’t anyone even know?

In this of all years, you’d think someone might be interested in the fact that one of the most powerful and adored men in politics might—just might—be a sexual predator.

After all, we are still smarting from the seemingly endless procession of women who claim—credibly—to have been sexually assaulted by Bill Cosby, himself formerly the most revered of figures in the worlds of television and stand-up comedy.

As a culture, we have decided that it is no longer fashionable for a rich and powerful man to drug, assault or otherwise prey upon vulnerable women, and that when he is found to have done so, it is our duty to publicly shun him until the wheels of justice begin to churn or, failing that, until he’s dead.

And so I wonder:  Does this principle apply to all rich and powerful men, or just to Bill Cosby?

I understand that being accused of rape by 35 women is not the same as being accused by one.  There are only so many hours in the day for us to pillory America’s most serious sexual criminals, and priority must be given to those whose behavior is outright pathological.

On the other hand, if our underlying premises are that a) rape is bad, and b) rape by the powerful unto the weak is even worse, then by what possible rationale could we continue to pretend Juanita Broaddrick doesn’t exist and her accusation was never made?

Apart from their sheer size, what legitimacy do Cosby’s accusers possess that Clinton’s does not?  Why should we listen to the former but not the latter?  Do we only care about rape victims when they present as a group, rather than as individuals?  Or is it simply that we like Bill Clinton too much to entertain the notion that he might secretly be a monster?

On the whole, I suspect that most of us simply haven’t been aware of this story these past 17 years, just as most of us had no idea about the allegations against Cosby until a fellow comedian, Hannibal Buress, brought them to our attention.  While this fact is, itself, a major concern for anyone who wishes to protect victims of sexual assault, the far more troubling prospect is that a certain number of us were in the know about Clinton and have simply kept quiet.

You tell me:  What allows us to justify our silence in the face of compelling, if circumstantial, evidence?

Sure, we could simply assume that Broaddrick is lying.  That she is crazy, deluded or nursing some kind of grudge against Clinton for God knows what.

Historically, that’s what we’re accustomed to:  Blaming the victim, turning the accusation on its head, brushing off any rumors of impropriety against our political and cultural idols on the grounds that they couldn’t possibly be guilty, because what would that say about us?

We could ask why, if the rape really happened, Broaddrick waited two decades to say so publicly.  Except that, in today’s culture, the question answers itself.  If and when an unsuspecting, private person is sexually mistreated by a respected public figure—someone who, in this case, was the state’s highest-ranking law enforcement official—would she not be right to assume that no one would believe her story, and that her life might be irreparably harmed by the ensuing media ruckus?

In any case, that’s what Broaddrick claimed at the time.  In light of how the Clintons have treated women who we know were telling the truth—calling them liars, stalkers and publicity hounds—it’s hard to argue with her logic.

Really, though, our problem is that we just don’t want it to be true.

We like our heroes as virtuous, two-dimensional demigods.  We don’t want to reckon with the fact that the people we admire are just as complicated as the rest of us, and even though we know, deep down, that they are—of course they are!—we cling to our illusions of perfection for as long as we possibly can.  And when it is suggested that these kings and queens of American culture are not just flawed, but criminally flawed, that’s when we stick our fingers in our ears and sing, “La, la, la, la, la!”

With Clinton, we have just enough reasonable doubt to keep our uneasiness at bay, plodding along as if everything is just fine.  Because, hey, maybe it is.

We had better hope so, for the sake of him, Broaddrick and the country at large.

But should we wake up one day and find that a certified liar and adulterer is also a sexual assailant—nearly two decades after the possibility was first floated—we would have no right to be surprised.

We have turned on backs on Cosby.  Are we prepared to do the same for Clinton?  Or do we need 34 more women to come forward before it dawns on us that something might be wrong?

Pizza Pizzazz

Love brings people together.  But not as much as pizza.

There are several reasons why Ellen DeGeneres’ pizza delivery stunt at Sunday’s Academy Awards was such a big hit.

(If you missed it:  Halfway into the telecast, the host asked if anyone was hungry.  A few segments later, a pizza guy turned up and everyone in the front row chowed down.)

For starters, as widely noted, it playfully underlined the way that Hollywood stars effectively starve themselves in the days leading to big awards shows—and, in many cases, on every other day of the year as well.

Further, it served to puncture the Oscars’ infamously hoity-toity self-importance and provide a moment of cheeky irreverence of which the annual TV ritual is always so desperately in need.

And perhaps most noteworthy of all—thanks to how gamely most of the would-be targets of this bit played along—it brought Hollywood’s most glamorous kings and queens back down to Earth, allowing them a flash of authenticity that came across as endearingly, well, authentic.

Sure, the regal show business life of champagne and caviar may be every bit what it’s cracked up to be, and that old chestnut about how celebrities “are just like you and me” is mostly nonsense.  But when you’re locked in a theater for four hours and the rumbling of your stomach threatens to drown out the orchestra, nothing hits the spot quite like a greasy, gooey pile of tomato sauce and melted cheese.  Vanity be damned!

Such is the democratizing effect of America’s favorite food—a food that, according to a study released this week, is consumed by some 13 percent of Americans on any given day.

We are a country and a culture divided as severely as ever between haves and have-nots—a world in which the lives of the rich and the poor have less and less in common and seemingly exist in separate, alternate universes from each other.

But pretty much everybody loves pizza.  No amount of money or prestige can efface its bubbling, artery-clogging allure.

And why should it?  What is there about pizza to which one could possibly object?  It’s simple to make; it’s extremely cheap (although it can also be expensive, if you prefer); it’s available for takeout or delivery in every town in America; it comes in all shapes, sizes and varieties; it can be eaten elegantly in a fancy restaurant or scarfed on a street corner while you wait for the lights to change; and it can be served hot or cold, for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Because pizza is so manifestly irresistible—so universally beloved and consumed—we become deeply suspicious of those in public view who seem resistant to its natural charms and, when pressed, try just a little too hard to blend in with the crowd.  Can you ever truly trust someone who has to pander on pizza?

Case in point:  Bill de Blasio.  In January, the newly-inaugurated mayor of New York City was caught at Goodfellas Pizzeria in Staten Island eating a slice with a knife and fork—a mortal sin within the five boroughs.

Interrogated by reporters on his way out, de Blasio offered an explanation so labored and elaborate (and clearly untrue) that it only made things worse.  As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote at the time, de Blasio “sounded like a parody of the self-serious New York liberal, convinced he’s right about everything.”

The point isn’t the silverware.  People should be free to transfer their food from their plates to their mouths however they see fit.

The question is:  What kind of a weirdo manages to make eating pizza sound complicated?

In the name of all that is good and holy, if you have to B.S. your way through a pizza party, as though you’ve never attended one before—well, either you’re an alien or a liar.  And if a man is prepared to lie about pizza, what won’t he lie about?

Is this not how our minds work when it comes to our public officials?  We want to know that they are men and women “of the people,” and for whatever crimes they might commit while in office, we are prepared to forgive and forget so long as they prove themselves human and, therefore, relatable.

Back in 1998 during “Monicagate,” for instance, America faced the prospect about its commander-in-chief, “If he’ll lie about sex, he’ll lie about anything.”  Yet the public ultimately gave Bill Clinton a pass, and today he is as popular as ever before.  After all, the only reason Monica Lewinsky was in the Oval Office in the first place was to deliver a pizza.