Friday, November 17, 2017

Al Franken, Don Willett, and 'jokes'

The day before yesterday's news broke about Al Franken and Leeann Tweeden, Franken -- in his role as Senate Judiciary Committee member -- was grilling Fifth Circuit Justice nominee Don Willett about his Tweets.  Specifically one Tweet.

You can catch up on the frontstory at this Chron link, where the following is excerpted:

"Do you think it demonstrates good judgment for a man in his late 40s, a sitting Supreme Court justice, to publicly demean and humiliate a 17-year-old girl on Twitter?" asked Minnesota Democrat Al Franken.

"I believe that every child is a gift," Willett answered. "Every child is a blessing... I would never demean or disparage anyone."

Willett, a prolific social media user with more than 104,000 Twitter followers, labored to explain the Tweet. "Go away, A-Rod," he said, was a reference to New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez – nick-named A-Rod – who had just accepted a year-long suspension from Major League Baseball for using steroids.

"It was an A-Rod tweet, not a transgender tweet," Willett said.

Franken questioned why it was accompanied by a Fox News article about Cordova-Goff.

"I think it was a ham-handed attempt at levity, and at comedy," Willett said, acknowledging Franken's pre-Senate career on Saturday Night Live. "Your comedy never falls flat, but mine does, admittedly."

"I don't get the joke," Franken pressed. "Sometimes, when you don't get a joke, it's because it wasn't a joke."

"It was intended as one," Willett said, a smile frozen on his face.

Bold emphasis mine, and the quote from Franken is cringeworthy in light of yesterday' developments regarding Franken's own ... let's call it 'no longer appropriate in this national tipping point moment' sense of humor.

David Sims at The Atlantic explains this.  Again, if you need the stage set, go there.

I was just kidding is often a defense offered onstage by stand-up comedians who have, in some way, pushed past performance into something more threatening or upsetting. When Daniel Tosh heckled an audience member with a menacing monologue about how it’d be “funny” if she “got raped by, like, five guys right now,” he claimed afterwards that he was trying to weaponize the “awful things in the world” by making jokes about them. The joy of comedy, after all, is that you can make light of anything, right? But that defense falls flat when a “joke” is targeted to harass, degrade, or even assault a particular person or group—in such cases, “comedy” becomes an excuse to abuse an imbalanced power dynamic. Franken, with all his years in the comedy community, could lay claim to knowing what was funny and what wasn’t, and could plausibly pressure Tweeden into kissing him as a form of unnecessary “rehearsal.”


It was meant to be funny has been used as the defense for supposedly ironic racism that more often than not feels like button-pressing that’s meant to be emptily offensive. It’s been used to justify “telling it like it is” in ways that work to silence women. And, of course, it’s been used since time immemorial as cover for “goosing” (or whatever other euphemism you might think of) and grabbing people without their consent. Perhaps Franken’s defense could fall into this category—that he was mocking such casual sexism, that he was just pretending to be a thoughtless pig, perhaps for the benefit of giggling onlookers.

Toxic masculinity was referenced in this space just a few days ago, and I suspect there will be plenty more opportunities to rehash and revisit that in the future.  I'm no Franken supporter; he's been losing me for some time with his votes authorizing war funding and his unlimited support of the state of Israel, and more recently last year when he became a super delegate for Hillary Clinton from a state that went 61% for Bernie Sanders, though he didn't say what he was accused by Berniecrats of saying.  In terms of degree of egregiousness of sexual harassment violations, Al Franken ≠ Donald Trump ≠ Roy Moore, but that's not stopping any conservatives from trending a topic overnight.

Likewise, Democrats who attack Tweeden or employ the ' just joking' defense are nothing but blind partisan hypocritical tribalists.  (Some people there get it; most don't.)

So to summarize: Franken did something bad; Tweeden felt empowered by other women sharing their stories to come out with her complaint after more than ten years of suffering in silence about it; Franken quickly apologized, twice, and called for an ethics investigation; Tweeden accepted his apology and called the partisan diatribes "disgusting".  You can watch it all here.

That ought to be the end of it, except for ... you know.

Trump has stayed silent about Moore but has let fly on his medium of choice about Franken.  Some talking head on CNN said last night that "we have a moral leadership vacuum" in the White House.  That's spot on.  One of the things Barack Obama got right, consistently, was when he said in response to some national tragedy: "That's not who we are."

You will never hear Trump say anything remotely like that.

Franken should not resign.  If he does, then he better be holding the door for Roy Moore and Donald Trump to walk out ahead of him.  We'll take that deal, Mr. President.

Update: This take from DocPhD at First Draft is pretty solid.

What so many people are awkwardly groping for is some sort of “sex crime conversion chart” in which one boob-grab equals two ass-pats or one photo equals three teen accusers and one signed yearbook or something. We have finally started coming to the necessary conclusion that shitty behavior is shitty behavior, but people with myriad agendas want to create a hierarchy out of these behaviors, as if hierarchy itself weren’t the reason these messes exist in the first place.

It doesn’t work that way because it’s not about sex. It’s about power.


Harry Hamid said...

"That's not who we are" could never come out of Trump's mouth even if he agreed with the sentiment because he never says "we." Saying "we" would take precious attention of of himself. There's no "we" in "me me me."

Franken... I used to listen to Air America. My biggest problem with him was that he simply wasn't very funny. He appeared to be doing comedy a lot, but I didn't laugh.

Gadfly said...

What Harry said. "Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey" seemed halfway funny, but mainly because it seemed to be more and more an (unintentional?) parody of Franken himself.

Time for "Deep Gropes" now?