The Ultimate Aphrodisiac

American liberals have caught a lot of flak this season—some of it deserved—for the rigid purity tests they’ve imposed on the men and women auditioning to be the next president of the United States.

As irritating as this moral posturing tends to be, please indulge me one small litmus test of my own:  In November 2020, I will not vote for any candidate who has been credibly accused of rape.

Admittedly, this doesn’t seem like a terribly lot to ask of the would-be most powerful person on Earth—the man or woman who is supposed to be a role model for America’s children and grownups alike.

However, recent history would suggest otherwise.

If polls are to be believed, there is a certain chunk of the American electorate—somewhere north of 40 percent, at minimum—that does not consider accusations of sexual assault to be a deal-breaker for a future (or sitting) commander-in-chief.  This was first demonstrated two decades ago by the continued sky-high approval ratings for Bill Clinton following the rape allegation leveled by Juanita Broaddrick in 1999, and later confirmed by the election of the current chief executive, Donald Trump, whose penchant for grabbing women’s nether regions uninvited was exposed by the candidate himself (via “Access Hollywood”) in October 2016 and by more than a dozen women at regular intervals ever since.

It’s worth noting—in case it wasn’t obvious—that this implicit condoning of felonious, predatory sexual behavior by America’s head of state is not a one-party problem.  Liberals and conservatives have both been complicit, and both are guilty of gross hypocrisy on the matter.  For most Americans, it would seem, the morality of sexual violence by politicians is largely a function of time:  When the opposing party is in power, rape is bad.  When one’s own party is in power, rape is negotiable.

At the moment, of course, it’s Republicans who have disgraced themselves on the question of whether sexual assault is a good idea, thanks—most recently—to the disturbing revelations by E. Jean Carroll in New York Magazine.

In case you missed it, Carroll has claimed that Trump forced himself on her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in the mid-1990s, which she tried—unsuccessfully—to resist.  While Carroll herself insists the encounter did not amount to rape and does not want to be viewed as a helpless victim, it is extremely difficult to read the details of her account and reach any other conclusion.

This bombshell initially landed on June 21 and, following a weekend of radio silence, was picked up by a handful of news organizations, which gave it enough oxygen to force the president to deny the incident ever occurred, adding—as only he can—“[Carroll] is not my type.”

In the weeks since, the whole nasty business has all but evaporated from the public consciousness, replaced by newer, flashier headlines on other subjects.  As with so much else, the prospect that the president once committed a violent sexual assault ended up being a three-day story, at most.  Ultimately, the public shrugged and moved on to other things.

It begs the question:  Why?

Are our attention spans so short that serious allegations of rape simply don’t register like they used to?  Are we so fatigued and fatalistic about this president’s long history of indiscretions that we have given up differentiating one from another?  Nearly two years into #MeToo, do we not believe E. Jean Carroll is telling the truth, or that her memory is faulty?

Or is it possible that we actually like the idea of a president who is effectively above the law?  Who can do whatever he wants and get off scot-free?  Who is exempt from all the usual rules of ethics and common decency?  Who can rape somebody on Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes?

We don’t admit this out loud, of course.  We use euphemisms like “He’s politically incorrect,” or “He tells it like it is,” or my personal favorite, “He’s not a politician.”

Whichever option is closest to the truth, the underlying rationalization is that any level of unscrupulousness and corruption by the Dear Leader is tolerable so long as he ultimately gives his constituents what they want. 

Trump, for his part, has long been described as a purely transactional figure—someone for whom the ends always justify the means and the notion of right and wrong is a foreign concept.  Less remarked upon—but no less important—is that the general public is transactional as well, and is prepared to forgive any number of shortcomings in service of a greater good.

Hence Trump’s consistently stratospheric approval ratings among Republicans.  After all, if you voted for him on the grounds that he would cut your taxes, appoint conservative judges and make refugees’ lives a living hell, why wouldn’t you be happy with the way this presidency has panned out thus far?

The left can crow all it wants about what a sordid ethical compromise Trump’s base has made, but Democrats’ moral superiority is only as good as the next president of their own party.  Liberals were perfectly happy to excuse every one of Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadillos while he was in power and carrying out their agenda (such as it was).  While they have had a radical change of heart in recent years, I cannot help but wonder if they would feel differently if The Man From Hope were still in the Oval Office today.

Henry Kissinger famously said, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” and it turns out that applies not only to those exercising power, but also to the many millions of beneficiaries of it.  It’s a pretty ugly sight when roughly half the nation consciously accepts a credibly accused rapist as the instrument of their political ends, but then one reason we have elections is to correct course, as America stands to do on November 3, 2020.  While there’s more to the presidency than not being a sexual criminal, it’s a perfectly decent place to start.

Perhaps electing a woman would do the trick.

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Et Tu, Neil?

I could’ve gone my entire life without knowing Neil deGrasse Tyson has been accused of committing rape in the early 1980s, and of other sexual improprieties in the years since.  There are few public figures in America whom I hold in higher esteem or affection than the director of the Hayden Planetarium and astrophysicist extraordinaire, so the possibility that he is a sexual predator is almost too much to bear.  Indeed, when I first heard the disconcerting stories a few weeks ago, my instinct was to assume they weren’t true—based not on the evidence, mind you, as on the fact that a world in which Neil deGrasse Tyson is a bad person is one not entirely worth living in.

I exaggerate, but only just.  The fact is, supporting #MeToo is easy when it comes to obvious scumbags like Harvey Weinstein or Donald Trump.  But when the alleged offender is someone you always assumed was one of the good guys—in this case, the guy who taught you almost everything you know about astrophysics, and always with an enthusiasm you wish you’d encountered more in high school—well, that’s when the hemming and hawing begins.

Briefly—and in reverse chronological order—the charges against Tyson are as follows:  First, that earlier this year he made unwanted sexual advances toward an assistant in his apartment.  Second, that in 2010 he made similar—in this case, drunken—advances toward a different woman at a Christmas party.  Third, that in 2009 he reached under a different woman’s dress during a social event at a science conference, ostensibly in search of a tattoo of the planet Pluto.  And forth, that in 1984, he drugged and raped a classmate at the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a graduate student at the time.

Tyson has denied the rape charge—as one does—writing in a lengthy Facebook post that he and his accuser had been “intimate” on a few occasions and then went their separate ways, and that nothing even approaching sexual assault ever occurred.  No surprise there—in the absence of direct physical evidence, no man so accused would comport himself any differently.

More interesting was Tyson’s response to the more recent charges, which was to confirm that they’re true—albeit with qualifiers and clarifications.  He affirmed, for example, that one evening he hosted an assistant for wine and cheese at his apartment, at one point telling her, “If I hug you, I might just want more,” and that shortly thereafter, the woman “came into my office and told me she was creeped out” by the encounter and “viewed the invite as an attempt to seduce her.”

As to the reaching-under-the-dress incident, Tyson explained that he was admiring a tattoo of the solar system across the arm of the woman in question, which led to “a search under the covered part of her shoulder of [her] sleeveless dress.”  Tyson continued, “While I don’t explicitly remember searching for Pluto at the top of her shoulder, it is surely something I would have done in that situation.  As we all know, I have professional history with the demotion of Pluto, which had occurred officially just three years earlier.  So whether people include it or not in their tattoos is of great interest to me.”

I don’t know about you, but to me this explanation makes absolutely perfect sense.  Having followed Tyson’s career for many years, I find it utterly believable that he would become so giddy over a colleague’s planetary tattoos that he would inadvertently grope her arm just to get a closer look—presumably while launching into an impromptu lecture about, say, the moons of Saturn or the Mars rover.  That’s who Neil deGrasse Tyson is:  A born showman and educator with a childlike infatuation with all things astrophysics.

Of course, this by itself neither substitutes for nor excuses a grown-up infatuation with human flesh, and if a woman claims to have been made uncomfortable by this encounter, it’s not my place to tell her she wasn’t.  Unwanted physical contact is exactly that—unwanted—and being a world-renowned public intellectual does not exempt one from behaving responsibly at all times—not least because of the inherent power differential that comes with the fame and fortune that Tyson has long enjoyed.

To a degree, Tyson has assumed responsibility for the incidents I’ve just described, writing that he apologized profusely” to his assistant the moment she informed him of her concerns, and that, with regards to the woman with the tattoo, “I’m deeply sorry to have made her feel that way.  Had I been told of her discomfort in the moment, I would have offered this same apology eagerly, and on the spot.”

Perhaps more to the point, Tyson has copped to the morally suspect position in which he now finds himself, writing, “I’m the accused, so why believe anything I say?  Why believe me at all?  That brings us back to the value of an independent investigation, which FOX/NatGeo (the networks on which Cosmos and StarTalk air) announced that they will conduct.  I welcome this.”

I don’t doubt it.  Would that more of the men ensnarled by #MeToo possessed the self-awareness and restraint to get out of their own way in this fashion—rather than, say, immediately painting themselves as the true victims and their accusers as lying opportunists and/or deranged stalkers.

As accused sexual predators go, Tyson has carried himself about as well as could reasonably be expected.  Should the pending investigation find the worst allegations unfoundedand the lesser ones as mere misunderstandingsI would feel entirely comfortable resuming my full-bore fandom of his work.

And should the rape allegation prove credible, and the accuser worth believing?  Well, we’ll always have Cosmos.

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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.

Dear White People

Up to now, I haven’t written anything about—or, really, even thought anything about—the situation surrounding Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who has refused to stand during the National Anthem in protest of America’s many sins against African-Americans.

I have ignored this story for three excellent reasons.  First, until last week, I had no idea who Colin Kaepernick is.  Second, although I like football in general, I’ve found the NFL to be an increasingly evil organization and, therefore, have tried my best to pretend it doesn’t exist.  Third—and most importantly—I really couldn’t give less of a Schlitz about what any athlete thinks about current affairs—just as I don’t heed the political opinions of actors, musicians or most public officials.

When you get right down to it, there are maybe 15 people in America whose views on controversial subjects I truly respect, and not a single one of them has a day job in the NFL.  I have been informed by knowledgeable sources that Colin Kaepernick is not a terribly high-ranking player, but what would it matter if he were?  So far as I know, there is no proven correlation between athleticism and any greater wisdom, and in any case, why would you turn to your sports heroes to tell you how to think about anything other than sports?

Mind you, this doesn’t mean that athletes shouldn’t express themselves about issues they care about.  Olympic swimmers notwithstanding, there is little evidence that professional athletes are any less intelligent than the average American, and if they decide to use their platform to say what they really think, who are we, their fellow citizens, to stop them?  If a crooked, racist reality TV host gets to run his mouth just because he happens to be running for president, why wouldn’t we extend the same courtesy to a football player whose only crime is not scoring enough touchdowns?

Kaepernick’s real problem is that he is employed by an inherently fascistic organization.  The NFL is prepared to forgive stars who commit rape, murder and domestic assault, but it absolutely draws the line with players who dare to think for themselves and express unpopular ideas—especially when those ideas conflict with the utopian fantasies that many Americans have apparently bought into about the country in which they live.

One of those fantasies, of course, is that racism is over and black people should just shut the hell up about it.  For some reason—and in the face of 400 years’ of evidence—white people just can’t abide the notion that they are a privileged species whose success—collectively and individually—has rested (and still rests) on the backs of black people.  They don’t get how “redlining” deprived multiple generations of black families of the sort of wealth that white families take for granted, or how racist drug policies have ruined the lives of countless young black men and women for engaging in behavior that white kids indulge in with impunity.

So when white NFL fans go red in the face and demand that Kaepernick stop making a spectacle of himself and just play football, I wonder about the enormous guilt that must be eating them up inside.  About how profoundly unequipped they are to be confronted with uncomfortable truths about the country that has given them so much by virtue of their being white.  They don’t want to hear that they have benefited from a rigged society from the moment they were born, and so they resent anyone who gives it to them straight—especially when that person is 100 times more successful than they are.

The problem, in other words, is not Colin Kaepernick.  The problem is the army of coaches, fans and executives who are so insecure and close-minded that they can’t tolerate even a single dissenting voice in their carefully-scripted, hyper-patriotic bubble.  Again, rapists and murderers are fine, but saying an unkind word about police officers is an outrage.

It’s fascinating, in moments like this, to observe just how many Americans don’t really believe in free speech.  How the right to express oneself apparently only applies when it doesn’t make other people queasy.  How, when a rich and famous person says something we don’t like, we are temperamentally incapable of just letting it go or (God forbid) engaging the argument.

Nope.  In America, even professional sports leagues have become “safe spaces” where unwelcome thoughts are shunned and their speakers reprimanded for opening their mouths at all, as if being an athlete means that you can no longer be a citizen.  The problem, you see, isn’t racism—it’s the people with the temerity to identify racism.  The problem isn’t crooked cops—it’s the people who dare to suggest that some cops are crooked and are protected by a crooked system.

Such is the essence of a totalitarian state:  Solving a problem by pretending it doesn’t exist, while smiting those who dare to suggest otherwise.  While America, as a whole, is in no immediate danger of becoming such a place, it’s a little scary how many of us seem to wish that we were.

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?

Loving the Sinner

We have faced the question many times before:  Is it possible to appreciate a work of art knowing that its creator did a terrible thing?

Do the flaws of an artist detract from the greatness of his art?  When a person is found to have committed the most unforgivable crimes, should his work be publicly shunned along with him, or are we permitted—ethically and/or intellectually—to separate one from the other?

Generally speaking, I have long found that reconciliation is indeed possible, and probably necessary most of the time.  While circumstances vary, we just might need to accept that all humans are flawed and the search for great achievements will inevitably be fraught with some unsavory characters.

To wit:  I can marvel at Ty Cobb’s near-superhuman baseball playing abilities while acknowledging that Cobb was a racist buffoon.  I can admire Thomas Jefferson’s sentiments about freedom and equality knowing how violently and deliberately he violated those principles all through his life.  I’m not especially taken by the paintings of Adolph Hitler, but if I was, I wouldn’t allow the evils of their creator to prevent me from saying so.

Art is art, for better and for worse, and it ought to be considered on its own merits.

However, even if we take all of this to be true—and many people firmly do not—we are left with several essential unresolved issues.  Not least among these is the question of what to do with such undesirables while they’re still walking among us, and whether we ought to avoid going out of our way to honor them for their creative pursuits, both as a culture and in our own minds.

Which brings us to Woody Allen.

As many are now aware, the 78-year-old movie director stands accused of sexually assaulting the seven-year-old adopted daughter of Allen and his then-partner, Mia Farrow.

Dylan Farrow, the alleged victim, first leveled this charge of rape in 1992, and the whole nasty business was resurrected this past weekend when she submitted an open letter restating her case to the New York Times, apparently inspired by Allen’s receiving a life achievement award at last month’s Golden Globes.

Allen has never been formally prosecuted for the crime in question, let alone found guilty.  He has always denied the alleged incident ever occurred; Farrow has always maintained that it did.  There is no definitive evidence either way.  Unless and until further details come to light, it’s a good old “he said, she said” situation.  Considering that the would-be prosecutor now says the statute of limitations has elapsed, it will likely remain as such.

Officially, this is all old news.  However, I must admit that, until very recently, I was completely oblivious to the whole bloody thing.  I knew all about Allen’s unusual marriage to Soon-Yi Previn—some scandals are simply unavoidable—but somehow the Dylan Farrow accusation eluded me.  I’d like to think this cultural blind spot was simply a consequence of my general policy of not caring about the private lives of public figures, but I now suspect I was subconsciously suppressing any urge to seek out information about Allen that would reduce his standing in the cinematic hierarchy in my head.

You see, my admiration for Woody Allen as a filmmaker is not casual.  I was introduced to his best works at a fairly young age.  I can probably quote Annie Hall by heart.  On some days, his Hannah and Her Sisters is my favorite of all movies, and I could happily watch it every week for the remainder of my natural life.

Yet I am inclined to believe Dylan Farrow is telling the truth, which means I worship at the cinematic alter of a rapist.  What is more, a rapist who is still alive and making movies, and so every time I buy a ticket, some of that money goes directly into Allen’s pocket.

Under these circumstances, the obvious moral thing to do would be to take Farrow’s advice and turn my back on Allen with some sort of one-person boycott.  Stop watching his films, stop singing his praises, stop acting like his alleged personal behavior is not utterly abhorrent and can be somehow brushed aside.

And yet, at least on the first two points, I can’t.  Or rather, I won’t.

The films of Woody Allen mean too much to me.  I could not do without them any more than I could Thomas Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence” or the music of rock ‘n’ rollers whose abuses of women and drugs were as bottomless as they were repugnant.

As is so often the case, I must perform a cop-out and simply live with the contradiction, accepting the ugly possibility that the provider of some of my life’s greatest pleasures is also responsible for inflicting on others the most unimaginable pain.

Blurred Meaning

Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” featuring T.I. and Pharrell Williams, has officially been crowned the song of the summer, with its catchy beat and breezy vocals wafting across FM radio dials from coast to coast.

Having been taken in by the tune’s easy charms myself, I was rather alarmed to realize—belatedly, I admit—that the lyrics of “Blurred Lines” would seem to apologize for, if not outright glorify, sexual assault.

The charge against the song in general—we’ll consider specifics in a moment—is that it amounts to a man declaring his intention to have his way with a woman without pausing to consider whether she is truly on board.  That this man views this woman as little more than the object of his uncommonly animalistic sexual faculties, of which he holds such a high opinion that, in his mind, no woman could possibly object to being given a closer look.  Even if she doesn’t ask for one.

In short, critics argue that “Blurred Lines” perpetuates the “rape culture” that has so frighteningly poisoned the American landscape for the last many years—a milieu that asserts (more or less) that men cannot be held responsible for the natural hormonal instincts that lead them to penetrate a woman without her permission.

Having now given “Blurred Lines” a more careful reading, I do not see why this must be so.

The basis of the outrage is the assumption that the woman in question has not given her consent.  That when the male narrator utters the stubborn refrain, “I know you want it,” the implication is that, in fact, she might not—rather, he is projecting his own desires unto her.  That she has implied “no,” but he has inferred “yes.”

But we don’t know that such a scenario has occurred in “Blurred Lines.”  To borrow an old SAT phrase, the meaning is not clear from the text.

We are told early on, “OK now he was close / tried to domesticate you / but you’re an animal / baby it’s in your nature.”  And later:  “The way you grab me / must wanna get nasty.”  To this, the narrator vows, “Just let me liberate you / you don’t need no papers / that man is not your maker.”  And:  “Nothing like your last guy / he too square for you / he don’t smack that ass and pull your hair like that.”

Now then.

Is it not possible that the reason for the man’s impression of this woman as “an animal” who “must wanna get nasty” is because, at some point during their courtship, she told him exactly that?  Might we entertain the notion that she ended her previous relationship precisely because her partner was “too square” for her and that she wants someone who will pull her hair and so forth?

In other words, rather than projecting things he doesn’t actually know, might the narrator of this song merely be reporting the facts and setting the scene?  Could it be that the woman is not only consenting, but insisting?

While my own experience on this front is regrettably limited, I have read my fair share of Dan Savage’s advice columns and have become sufficiently persuaded by the proposition that certain women, like certain men, are quite keen on rough sex.

What is more, that if 21st century feminism means anything, it means the freedom for women to assert and express their sexual selves as abundantly as their partners and the laws of physics allow.  Could not “Blurred Lines” be an endorsement of this modern, egalitarian sensibility from the viewpoint of a man who sees it as a win-win?

Against this admittedly optimistic interpretation, there are works such as “Project Unbreakable,” a chilling public awareness campaign, begun in 2011, featuring a collection of photographs of women who have been raped, each holding a sign with a direct quotation from the man who raped her.  In a blog post titled, “From the Mouths of Rapists,” novelist Sezin Koehler compiles a sampling of these images whose quotations are identical to (or nearly so) lines from Thicke’s song.

And so the point is made that, whether intended or accidental, “Blurred Lines” promulgates a strikingly casual attitude toward sex that, viewed through the prism of today’s rape culture, is careless at best and reprehensible at worst.

While I maintain that the precise nature of the song’s relationship is ambiguous, perhaps that is the strongest argument against it:  In real life scenarios, the nature of consent cannot be ambiguous under any circumstances, and a pop song has no business making light of this fact.

That such a song is the most commercially successful track of 2013 so far?  Well, the moral of that story is very ambiguous, indeed.