Updated, 3:30 p.m.: Mark Oppenheimer has issued an apology through Tablet for his article concerning Harvey Weinstein and Philip Roth, discussed below. Read his comments here.
Harvey Weinstein can be said, definitively, to be several things: Formerly one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, a Jew, and unemployed. He can be very substantively alleged to be certain other things: A serial committer of sexual assault and harassment, a man with serious anger management problems, and a believer in the deeply misguided idea that good liberal credentials can and should serve to negate any allegation that he repeatedly, grossly traumatized women.
Here’s what he’s not: A character in a Philip Roth novel.
That’s exactly the idea, however, posed by Tablet’s editor-at-large Mark Oppenheimer yesterday in an article titled “The Specifically Jewy Perviness of Harvey Weinstein.”
“Harvey did something unique—no less odious, but different,” Oppenheimer wrote. “Harvey performed. As we now are hearing (whether we want to or not), he allegedly made a woman watch as he masturbated into a potted plant. And if you want to understand this bizarre behavior, don’t look to Roger Ailes, or David Vitter, or Paul Crouch — look to Philip Roth.”
Really? Yes. As Oppenheimer points out, the alleged victims of Weinstein who have so far spoken out — either to The New York Times, in its exposé of last week, or in the wake of that article’s publication (Oppenheimer published his article before The New Yorker revealed a new set of allegations, in an article published today) — are, with one exception, not Jewish. This fact, he argues, shows that Weinstein’s egregious behavior was a result of a deep insecurity stemming from his status as a Jewish outsider. Thus, his alleged sexual crimes make him a real-life, walking, talking Alexander Portnoy, “a grown man whose emotional and sexual life is still all one big performance piece.”
Like Portnoy, Oppenheimer writes, who “fantasized about attaining a mythical shiksa goddess,” Weinstein “fantasized of fame and fortune.” No Jewish man from Queens (Weinstein) or Newark (Portnoy) could dream of power without imagining it took the form of dominating an unwilling woman; Weinstein, Oppenheimer commented, “harassed women not necessarily to use them as instruments of his pleasure, but to use them as instruments of his power.”
The latter point is accurate, and well-expressed by pretty much every prominent feminist theorist, in addition to Philip Roth. But Oppenheimer’s analysis of Weinstein’s behavior in context of Roth’s once-scandalous fiction about the repressions involved in a specific type of Jewish American masculinity is profoundly wrongheaded.
First, of course, Alexander Portnoy is a deliberately crafted character. Harvey Weinstein is not. Alexander Portnoy could safely commit sexual offenses that could exemplify the perversity of men treating women as objects, because Alexander Portnoy was fictional, and as such, could harm no real women. Harvey Weinstein is a real living human, and his alleged sexual offenses were committed against real living women. Interpreting those actions as an interesting living enactment of the ideas in a novel negates their maliciousness, their abusiveness, and the devastating consequences for their alleged victims.
It also entirely erases the women who Weinstein is accused of harassing, assaulting, and according to The New Yorker’s story of today, raping. Oppenheimer’s analysis touches on the ways in which the behavior of which Weinstein stands accused might reflect a set of cultural conundrums. There is no similar story that can be told about his alleged victims. The argument that the women allegedly hurt by Weinstein are participating in a nuanced cultural tradition that explores women’s exploitation and trauma at the hands of men — “Titus Andronicus!” “The Scarlet Letter!” “The Bluest Eye!” — is not only stupid, it’s a way of refusing to acknowledge their very real pain and trauma. Yes, Portnoy objectified his lover when he referred to her as “The Monkey.” But again, she was fictional, so he did not leave her to deal with a life’s worth of psychological, physical and professional repercussions. Weinstein, with his alleged victims, did.
Oppenheimer repeats his negation of Weinstein’s alleged victims by positioning Weinstein’s alleged crimes as being those particular to the insecure, misbehaving Jew. The non-Jewish women who Weinstein allegedly assaulted likely did not care that he was Jewish; they likely cared, a great deal, that he had assaulted them. The non-Jewish women who Weinstein allegedly assaulted likely did not care if he was participating in a performative tradition of confused male Jewish ego; they likely cared, a great deal, that he had assaulted them. The non-Jewish women who Weinstein allegedly assaulted likely did not care if he picked them for their non-Jewishness; they likely cared, a great deal, that he had assaulted them.
To interpret Weinstein’s alleged crimes as a cultural text to be parsed and interpreted just like a novel is to treat them as victimless. Does it matter if Weinstein had, in Oppenheimer’s words, a “revenge-tinged fantasy of having risen above his outer-borough, bridge-and-tunnel Semitic origins?” Only if you hold his psychology, and what it may or may not say about the plight of the white Jewish American man, to be more significant than the actual harm he is said to have to done to actual women.