What if your favorite uncle, whom you have always regarded as funny, warm, loving, and virtuous, if a little odd, were accused of sexual harassment or assault? This is what it feels like to learn of Al Franken’s assault on Leann Tweeden in 2006. I feel nauseated, embarrassed, disappointed, and confused. I have liked Al Franken for a long time, ever since his Stuart Smalley bits on Saturday Night Live. It wasn’t until I listened to his recent memoir, Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, that I learned more about him and liked him even better. He’s a little too sarcastic and biting for me sometimes, but after hearing his stories of how he became a Democrat and what motivated him to run for office, his family’s emotional journeys and how things work in the Senate, I came to see him as a respectable public servant with the interests of his constituents and all Americans at heart. I have recommended his book to many of my friends. I have regarded him as a champion for all things progressive, including women’s rights and equality.
And now all of that is thrown in the blender with allegations that I assume are true.
How do I reconcile this? How does a person, whom I still believe respects women at his core, behave like this? Ever? Do I throw away everything about him that I believed was virtuous, everything he has said and written that I agree with, his decades-long marriage, and relabel him as a misogynist because of this one revelation? Do I assume that because now we know of one, there must be dozens of others?
I am forced to compare my response to allegations against him to that of allegations against Roy Moore. I don’t know anything about Roy Moore, but he’s an ultra-conservative Republican (I am a heavily left-leaning independent), so if he goes down for sexual assault, I’m not that bothered, and I’m judgmental of people who defend him. I must concede that neither party can claim moral superiority. Just this week at least three articles examined the precedent set by Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades from which he plainly escaped a rightful accounting; the precedent his (and Hillary’s) dismissal of all allegations set for everything we see now, and why he should have resigned after admitting his abuse of power. And today Nate Silver laid out an excellent case for Al Franken to resign now. I agree that that would be the epitome of Walking the Talk, aside from not having committed the groping in the first place.
My inner conflict now churns on two levels. First, I must decide what I now think and feel about Al Franken, whether I can still trust him, and how I will interpret any of his words or actions hereafter. I feel betrayed, and the positivity needle in my mind has how swung a few degrees more toward cynicism, which I hate. Second, I must examine my immediate reactions when such allegations are made against my political opponents. I think we can agree that there are some cases of flagrant misogyny, based on years of evidence of poor principles and lack of respect in multiples realms of a person’s life, and we are not concerned with their political leanings—assholes are assholes regardless of party. But if and when a reputable conservative were to be accused, would I give him the same benefit of the doubt that I wanted to give Al Franken today? Shouldn’t I try harder to be both objective and compassionate, and rise above my political biases? Is it appropriate to say we all make mistakes, and that we should give people a chance to prove that they now know better? If I am willing to say that for Franken today (and I’m not sure I am), will I be willing to say it for, say, Jeff Flake tomorrow?
We all need to decide for ourselves how much we are willing to abide by the standards to which we hold others. It’s easy until we find ourselves in hot water. So do we lower our standards or rise to the occasion? Perfectionism and shame loom heavy when we aspire to live a virtuous life, and we can also become arrogant and judgmental. Then again, looseness with integrity is no way to lead, either. I wonder what I would do if I were in Al Franken’s shoes tonight.