Culture

Disempowered

by Elizabeth Spiers Photographed by Matt Collins
Tuesday, October 2, 2018



Bill Cosby is going to prison. Harvey Weinstein may well follow. Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose: fired. Russell Simmons, Peter Martins, Kevin Spacey, Lorin Stein, Leon Wieseltier, Eric Schneiderman, Roy Moore, Al Franken: reputations in tatters. Many, many other powerful figures with less recognizable names: castigated, resigned, terminated.


Anyone comparing this year’s AVENUE Power Elite to the last will notice a stunning turnover in “power” arenas such as politics, media and entertainment, and not for the usual reasons: death, corporate bankruptcies, and the occasional nasty divorce. The men you won’t see this year—and they’re all men—are gone because they are alleged miscreants whose behavior in a professional context resulted in their banishment.


Abuses of power are a fact of life, but in America they are kept in check not by other powerful people, but by the coordinated efforts of people who traditionally don’t have any. Our system of government is predicated upon the notion that the lowliest voter has the same decision-making power regarding the removal of our head of state as the wealthiest and most powerful American citizen. We know that’s not always true, because we still have gerrymandering, bloated super PACs, an electoral college that overweights rural voters, Citizens United, special interest groups and a massive industry designed to distort that equilibrium. But nonetheless, America is still rooted in collective rather than individual power. So, as these men have fallen from power, a path has been cleared for the very people they’ve oppressed to move up. And that’s a very American trajectory.


The system works slowly, but mercifully, Donald Trump appears—in his ability to thus far evade punishment for his own very public sexual assault accusations—to be the exception that not only proves the rule, but which hastened this year’s rush to enforce it. Despite Michael Cohen’s allocution in court, it remains to be seen whether his former client will be held accountable. But others are finally experiencing consequences beyond the wallet-lightening necessary to pay for lawyers, public relations and crisis management professionals, and sealed settlements.


For Cosby, this likely means prison time, certainly the harshest available institutional punishment.



Look into your Magic 8 Ball, Harvey. It’s saying, “Outlook not so good.” And that’s because #MeToo has challenged another quintessentially American verity, the epic narrative of disgrace and redemption. America loves a comeback story, but the perps in question have gone too far for that.


Nothing is certain. The jury’s still out (so to speak) on whether some of the offenders are legally culpable. Or whether they will face any real consequences, especially if the corporate decapitations come at the tail end of an otherwise ostensibly successful career. In cases where the perpetrators are tossed from lofty perches with large sums of money to cushion their fall, it remains to be seen what those consequences are, besides public embarrassment (and maybe personal shame for offenders in possession of anything resembling a conscience). When Roger Ailes was finally forced out of Fox after decades of sexual harassment, he was so far past retirement age it’s hard to argue that his exile exacted any sacrifice beyond tarnishing a legacy already fulsomely spotty for other reasons. Money isn’t everything, of course, but it can certainly subsidize a comfortable exile in East Hampton, and it tends to have an amnesiac effect on the sort of social climber who would look the other way regarding light cannibalism if it meant a good table at the Met Gala.


Matt Lauer has already reemerged in East End society, and it’s safe to assume that others of the accused will manage to assemble some simulacrum of their former lives, in comfortable surroundings where everyone at dinner is appropriately deferential, if not eager to ascribe genius to their every utterance. Some of them will even get cocky and attempt to go on heavily choreographed redemption tours with public apologies and an expectation of being invited back to Davos. Yet, it’s highly unlikely that Matt will ever make a triumphal return to Today.


It seems fair to say that the age of painless rehabilitation for powerful men has passed. So far, early attempts by offenders to insist that they’ve done their time-out and should be allowed to return to the arena have been quashed. The hashtag might go away, but the #MeToo movement won’t.


Even if many avoid legal consequences, it may turn out that exile from professional life is really the punishment that matters, since it will allow those men’s victims to recover, or at least advance themselves.



Still, the idea of permanent bans from the halls of power makes some uncomfortable, particularly if they know or can imagine someone guilty of something similar, or think their crime falls somewhere on the “lesser” end of the spectrum. Harvey Weinstein is wearing handcuffs, and Al Franken is sitting at home discussing tax policy with himself—two qualitatively different consequences—because their offenses were materially different. But when you’re evaluating the colleague who flirts inappropriately at work but has certainly never raped anyone, it’s easy to worry about the spectrum becoming a slippery slope, where the inevitable outcome is that merely questionable behavior results in career ruination. The unlikely extreme is the situation over which we all properly obsess. But Harvey Weinstein aside, life is rarely that black and white. Aziz Ansari? Asia Argento? Where’s the line?


Differences of opinion over appropriate consequences are often generational, especially among women. If women think this sort of behavior is a function of coming of age in a different era, they’re more likely to argue for second chances. There may even be disagreement that there were crimes at all, literal or metaphorical. Sexual impropriety happens all the time, the argument goes, and it’s not always initiated by powerful men. And what’s a little harmless flirting in the workplace?


For younger women, things look different. The number of powerful men who’ve been disempowered is both staggering and still far too low: I lean more toward this view (though at 41, I realize “young” is relative). We are admittedly more absolutist about consequences, in part because we’ve spent more of our careers with high-ranking female executives in the workplace, and it’s hard not to see a man in power who’s abusing it as someone who may be taking a job that should belong to an equally or better qualified woman, a person of color, or a member of any other group that’s been traditionally, systemically disempowered. This isn’t just about bad behavior; it’s about seeing power as a zero-sum game in which predators enjoy it at the expense of others.


None of the cultural shifts we’re experiencing were precipitated by some lightning bolt of enlightenment over abuse of power by powerful (mostly white) men. But somewhere along the lines the liability calculus at large corporations appears to have changed. Historically, if a powerful predator had enough brand equity or was a big enough rainmaker, a company would look the other way when he wanted to install a button under his desk to lock his door from the inside while making vague noises about security. As the Les Moonves-CBS negotiation finally showed, the cost of

having these men in management now outweighs whatever value they’ve added.


The fact is, power is fungible. Even among white men of a certain age, there are talented executives and entertainers available who somehow manage not to prey on vulnerable people. Better yet, talented female executives and people of color who are equally or more competent, capable and entertaining and able to behave like professionals have long been waiting in the wings.



They are the fuel that fed the wildfire that’s still burning. Even as it sometimes rages out of control, in retrospect it seems inevitable. The driving force behind these changes, even in the courts, is people who were seemingly without power: the people who were victimized by these men. One victim coming forward empowered and enabled the next to tell his or her story, and they gave others courage to do the same. There is not only safety in numbers, but also critical mass. And that’s emerged as the most powerful force there is.


Empowerment from below can be excruciatingly slow, but it’s also proving to be devastatingly effective. It took a long time for even the first of Bill Cosby’s 60 accusers to see anything resembling justice. Who knows how long it will take for even one of Donald Trump’s 19 accusers to get a full hearing? But it’s likely to happen because #MeToo has given society a powerful model for holding these men accountable, and is proving it can’t be reversed.


In the meantime, we will live in collective discomfort. Tectonic shifts break things, by definition. At the least consequential level: the speaker list at the next think tank event, the advisory board of a portfolio company, the gala whose cochair is now contemplating what to do about the benefit committee donor facing involuntary early retirement. But these are minor disruptions compared to

what many of these men have broken and disrupted: corporate institutions, social structures, close relationships, families, and the lives of many, many women.


 


This piece was originally published in Avenue’s October 2018 issue.


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