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Stop Blaming Women For The Bad Behavior Of Men Like Al Franken

It was late fall 2017 when the Democratic Party was rocked by allegations of sexual misconduct against Al Franken, a well-liked senator who owed much of his fame to a long stint on Saturday Night Live. Franken stood accused of unwanted touching.

Before long, eight women had come forward with startlingly similar accounts of unwelcome groping during photo opportunities, or overly familiar kisses on the mouth in comedy sketches or other public appearances.

Very quickly, calls for Franken’s resignation began to mount. Sexual misconduct was, it seems, rightfully not to be tolerated in the Democratic Caucus.

Pressure mounted from within the Democratic ranks, with numerous powerful members of the party calling for his resignation. In early December, Franken resigned, recognizing that he couldn’t fulfil his duties as a senator while simultaneously being the subject of an ethics investigation.

Franken’s speech admitted no wrongdoing and indeed painted a picture of a man victimized by a #MeToo culture gone awry. Opening his statement of resignation by referencing the #MeToo movement itself as a moment of cultural reckoning in America, where we were “finally beginning to listen to women about the ways in which men’s actions affect them,” he went on to flatly deny some of the allegations, while tacitly admitting to others either by apologizing for them, or characterizing them as misunderstandings of his intentions.

Despite best efforts by many to move on from this episode, Franken’s resignation has hung like a specter over this early part of the primary season. One presidential hopeful, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, has borne the brunt of this, repeatedly hearing calls to walk back her strong stance on the Franken affair.

The latest effort to blame Gillibrand came this week, when on Monday, Jane Mayer, a staff writer at the New Yorker, promoted her in-depth feature, The Case of Al Franken, that she summed up by a single tweet: Al Franken “got railroaded”.

Mayer’s article centres on one key question: why was due process not afforded to Senator Franken prior to his resignation?

As Forward opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon has pointed out, the article and the quotes from Franken and his supporters in it is rife with tropes used to dismiss accusation of sexual harassment and assault: the accuser willingly participated in “ribald” skits, the incident caught on camera lasted “a split second”, there was a “context of goofing around”.

Indeed, the article even goes as far as to quote Franken admitting that perhaps he had acted with impropriety, but he didn’t realize he was doing it at the time, as well as explanations for his behaviour from friends and colleagues – mostly women, of course – that run the gamut from “he never did it to me” to “he’s socially awkward,” and of course, “he’s just friendly.”

At one point, a defeated Franken reveals that a single allegation – by a congressional staffer who reported an incident where Franken tried to kiss her in 2006 while she was on the job – “killed” his Senate career.

The woman who dodged that fateful kiss punches back: “I didn’t end his Senate career—he did,” she says.

The article then turns to the role that presidential hopeful, Senator Kirstin Gillibrand played in this, highlighting her friendship with Franken (she was his squash partner), while reminding us that she was the first to call for his resignation, and that she did it without first speaking to him directly.

Never mind that Gillibrand was among a legion of other Democratic Senators who called on Franken to resign – including fellow senators and presidential hopefuls Michael Bennett, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. In fact, of the senators in contention for the presidential nomination, only Amy Klobuchar did not call for his resignation, but still issued a statement after it had been tendered that it was the “right decision”.

Indeed, Mayer’s article even alleges that on the day Franken stepped down, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told him to tender his resignation by 5pm, or Schumer would instruct the entire Democratic caucus to demand it.

Despite this, the blame for Franken’s downfall is placed squarely at Gillibrand’s feet, with a full seven paragraphs dedicated to her role in the matter, contrasted to a mere one for Schumer – who Franken himself blames, saying “Look, the Leader is called the Leader for a reason.”

Here we are, once again deliberating not Franken’s actions, but the role of women – his accusers, his caucus-mates, his friends – in the whole affair.

In this era of “Believe Women”, the Franken case continues to be demand a large amount of airtime. What is it about this episode that draws respected journalists – notably here, Jane Mayer, who reported together with Ronan Farrow on the allegations by Christine Blasey Ford against Justice Brett Kavanaugh – to pen such lengthy apologias?

Is it that the allegations against Franken were “merely” of groping, and not more aggressive sexual assault?

Or perhaps it’s that, in these hyper-partisan times, numerous members of the GOP or its nominees, right up to the President, have so far been seemingly immune to allegations of sexual misconduct?

Do we doubt the honesty of the eight women? Seven of them are Democrats. The eighth, the lone conservative of the bunch, appears in a photograph, asleep, with Franken’s hands on her breasts, his head turned and grinning at the camera.

Whatever it is that keeps us going back to adjudicate this case, clearly the idea that Franken was denied “due process” underlies many of the issues.

But what does “due process” mean in the case of the resignation of a senator?

As legal historian and and co-founder of nonpartisan policy institute, All Women’s Progress, Mia Brett, notes, “Your coworkers urging you to resign [from your job] is not denying you due process.”

And indeed, due process, in the form of an Ethics Committee investigation, was not denied to Franken. Rather, Franken resigned because he, and other members of the Democratic Party, recognized that a drawn out Ethics Committee investigation would be bad for him, and by extension, for the Party at large.

The job of an elected representative is a job like few others. Senators are charged with steering the country – not only to uphold its laws, but to shape them. They become the voices of their constituents and one hopes that they are driven by the values on which they campaigned, and can be trusted to be not only pragmatic politickers, but also operate with a strong moral compass.

Due process or not, it is clear that Senator Franken was no longer in a position to be this person for his constituents.

In his resignation speech, Franken acknowledged that he would not be able to fulfill his duties as elected representative for his constituents while undergoing an Ethics Committee investigation. “This decision is not about me,” he said. “It’s about the people of Minnesota. And it’s become clear that I can’t both pursue the Ethics Committee process and, at the same time, remain an effective Senator for them.”

A pragmatic decision, to be sure, even if made under duress.

Holding elected office is a privilege that few among us will ever have. It is certainly not an entitlement.

At a town hall hosted by MSNBC in March, Gillibrand was once again put on the spot to answer for her role in Franken’s resignation.

“The truth is we miss [Franken] and people loved him,” she said. “But he had eight credible allegations against him of sexual harassment for groping, two of them since he was a senator, and the eighth one was a congressional staffer.”

Responding to comments from others in the Primary race this past spring, she again highlighted the number of allegations, “Eight credible allegations of sexual harassment, two since he was elected senator, and one from a congressional staffer. That is not too high a standard, regardless of how the Republican Party handles this behavior, and worse.”

Given that it seems clear – by photographic evidence, and even by Franken’s own insistence that he was just “goofing around” – that Franken did, indeed, touch women in ways that they allege were unwelcome, the fact that we are still blaming Gillibrand for his resignation, rather than holding Franken to task for behaviour he has admitted to, speaks volumes about our times.

For followers of #MeToo, none of this will come as a surprise.

Despite Mayer’s article which paints a very sympathetic image of Franken as a man suffering under the consequences of his actions, Franken’s own words say something different.

“Franken feels deeply sorry that he made women uncomfortable, and is still trying to understand and learn from what he did wrong,” Mayer writes. “But he told me that ‘differentiating different kinds of behavior is important.’ He also argued, ‘The idea that anybody who accuses someone of something is always right—that’s not the case. That isn’t reality.’”

He is sorry for making women uncomfortable, but also, he doesn’t understand what he did, and finally, he did not do it, the accusations are false.

This is not a man who was denied due process. This is a man who was able to avoid it, even if the end of his political career has been emotionally painful for him. His loss? Power and prestige.

It is a long road to 2020, and the writing is on the wall that sexual harassment and assault will be a major topic of this political season. From Donald Trump to Brett Kavanaugh and Jeffrey Epstein and beyond, it is clear that we will be talking about sexual misconduct often.

It is high time that we examine our relationship to tropes and how they play out when we talk about the men accused. We are overdue to think about the excuses we make when we choose not to believe (mostly) women who accuse these men of impropriety.

Let’s not continue to dog Gillibrand with accusations of ruining Senator Franken’s career.

Let’s instead turn our attention to working to end the structures and culture that makes sexual harassment so pervasive – and indeed creates such grey zones where Franken can simultaneously admit to and deny any wrongdoing.

This can be the legacy of the Franken scandal.

Tema Smith is the Director of Community Engagement at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. You can find her tweets about Jewish community, race and identity @temasmith.

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