Strongmen and the fate of the American Spring

 

Following the fall of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and his serial sexual assaults, the tsunami of sexual harassment and assault allegations has become a fixed segment on the daily evening news. Like the Arab Spring, every day seems to bring the fresh fall of a powerful man in virtually every industry and sector of society who have been abusing their power over women by harassing them sexually with impunity.

The Arab Spring brought down five Arab ‘strongmen’, dictators who had abused their political power for a long time. The ‘American Spring’ brought down more strongmen, and is still in its first year, the latest being the fall of Senator Al Franken, who as any dictator reluctantly resigned with a great deal of blame.

The #MeToo movement created a historical moment of reckoning, a Tahrir Square moment, which empowered millions of women to come out and revolt against abusive strongmen, telling their stories and demanding changes, exposing men who have been held high on our cultural and political food chain.

There are similarities between those ‘strong men’ toppled in the American Spring uprising and those of the Arab Spring. The New York Times reported in response to the tragic end of ex Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled the country for more than three decades, with a headline that caught my eye;  “Five Strongmen, and the Fate of the Arab Spring.“

“…it is not just a key moment in a country that is wracked by civil war…it is also a reminder of the dashed hopes in the region, seven years after a fruit vendor’s self-immolation in Tunisia touched what became known as the Arab Spring.

The Times’ descriptive narrative of the five fallen Arab dictators can actually shed some light on our strongmen here, which made me look more deeply and examine those toppled by the sexual allegations in the American Spring, which unlike the Arab Spring was limited to the political arena; the American Spring extending into media, politics and entertainment.

Mirroring the Times’ narrative of the fallen Arabs, let us all look at five ‘strongmen’, and the fate of the American Spring:

 

 

Arab Spring

Hosni Mubarak of Egypt

 

According to the New York Times:

“…after nearly 30 years in power, Mr. Mubarak, 89, once symbolized the unassailable Arab Strongman, and his downfall appeared to single a political sea change.

 

 

American Spring

Harvey Weinstein

 

Mr. Weinstein, once symbolized the unassailable Hollywood strongman, his downfall appearing to single a political sea change

Weinstein once said “I’m Harvey Weinstein, you know what I can do.’

 

 

Arab Spring Strongman, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya

 

“A quirky and ruthless leader who considered himself the king of Africa, dresses in Bedouin robs and ruled Libya for more than 40 years.”

 

 

American Spring

Television host Charlie Rose

 

“A quirky ruthless television host who considered himself the king of political talk show, while…known for dressing in an open robe and walking in front of women staff and sexually abusing at least eight women for more than 40 years.”

 

 

Times’ Arab Spring

Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia

 

“Mr. Ben Ali, 81, enjoyed what critics called an obscenely opulent life. It made for a stark contrast with the struggles of ordinary Tunisians, whose despair seemed exemplified by the fate of the fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi.”

 

 

American Spring, strongman Louis C.K.

 

“Mr. Louis C.K., 50, …enjoyed what critics called an obscene, perverse life, it made for a stark contrast with his ordinary fans, whose despair seemed exemplified by the fact that everyone was laughing!”

 

 

Times’ Arab strongman

Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen

 

“Mr. Saleh, considered one of the most cunning autocrats in the Arab world, stepped down in early 2012 after three decades of leading Yemen, the Middle East’s most impoverished country.“

 

 

American Strongman, Television host Matt Lauer

 

“Mr. Lauer, considered one of the most cunning morning TV show hosts, stepped down after two decades of leading NBC’s Today show! “due to “inappropriate sexual behavior,” according to the network.”

 

 

Times’ Arab Strongman, Bashar al-Assad of Syria 

 

“Confounding predictions by Western leaders that he was next in line to fall, President Assad has remained in power through a 2011 uprising that morphed into a civil war, devastated Syria and created a staggering refugee crisis.”

 

 

Former judge and current Alabama Senate candidate, Roy Moore

 

“…Confounding predictions by congressmen that he was next in line to fall, Judge Moore, has remained in power through the 2017 sexual allegations and #MeToo uprising. He is now running for a seat in congress, that morphed into a cultural civil war that devastated Alabama, and created a staggering political crisis.”

 

 

As with the Arab Spring, the falling of the ‘strongmen’ did not topple the system that created those abusive men, nor did it make that much of a change in the corrupt political culture in the Arab world, the counter revolution being back with a purpose, millions of Arabs still longing for the comfort of the strongman leader.

Despite the fall of the ‘strongmen’ in the American Spring, a system remains whereby sexual violence is pervasive and plays a big part in the problem against women and non whites. On the whole, it is one in which masculinity is promoted and male violence is celebrated in our culture, sports, movies, workplace, advertising and the consumer culture.

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One thought on “Strongmen and the fate of the American Spring

  1. to be published in the December Riverside edition of Southside Pride:

    Al: Don’t Resign: 
    You’re good enough.  You’re smart enough.  And doggone it, we love you
    By Ed Felien
    First, let’s look at the facts.
    Leanne Tweeden wrote to Al Franken: “You forcibly kissed me without my consent, grabbed my breasts while I was sleeping and had someone take a photo of you doing it.” Tweeden agreed to rehearse a skit with Franken in which he kisses her. This was a skit and a kiss they performed throughout their 2006 USO tour. She says he put his tongue in her mouth and she felt violated. Al says he doesn’t remember the kiss that way. In either case, she gave her consent to rehearse the kiss as part of the skit, so, it’s not true that he kissed her without her consent.
    In the photo Franken is shown approaching a sleeping Tweeden with his hands about to touch her parachute or flak jacket. It is not clear from the photo whether he actually touches the flat surface of the parachute or flak jacket, but he is certainly not grabbing her breasts. He was probably making an obvious sophomoric joke about reaching to touch her breasts and finding a flak jacket protecting her.
    Yes, of course, it is a stupid sexist joke. It objectifies the victim by making it seem her only worth is as a sexual object.
    Al Franken was acting like a crude burlesque comic.
    But that’s what a USO Tour is like.
    Bob Hope, a former burlesque and vaudeville comic, was the face of the USO for 50 years.  He always toured with a dozen “American Beauties,” whom he would introduce and interview. His job was to entertain the troops who were then all male and very eager to see a woman:
    “Last Christmas in Alaska, I met a GI who was so lonely he was going steady with his tattoo. And his buddies kept asking him if she’s got a sister!”
    “This ship stays at sea a long time. They only go back to port when the chaplain asks to see a chaplain … To give you an idea how long these guys have been at sea, they just made Phyllis Diller their pinup girl.”
    The 2006 USO Tour didn’t have “American Beauties,” it had the Dallas Cheerleaders, Al Franken as the comic headliner and Leanne Tweeden—the Playboy cover girl in August 1996 and Hooters Calendar pinup in 1993 and 1994.  She was invited on the Tour primarily because of her nationally acclaimed secondary sexual characteristic—her breasts. Men get turned on looking at breasts. Breasts remind them of sexual differences and sex, and that reminds them of the thrill of endorphins released into the consciousness at the moment of orgasm. The body acts in predictable ways to ensure preservation of the species.
    The USO shows are crudely sexual, and they reinforce dangerous stereotypes about men and women. The model for the men is a crude comic who finds sexual meaning in everything a female says, and the women are “American Beauties,” Dallas Cheerleaders, Hooters waitresses or Playboy Bunnies. Those were the crude outlines of sexual identity portrayed on the 2006 USO Tour.
    It probably hasn’t changed much since then.
    And that’s a seriously wasted opportunity.
    A warrior in the past meant having a license to kill, plunder and rape.  There were no laws.  Your weapon was the law: Kill all the men!  Rape all the women!
    That’s what conquest meant.
    Unfortunately, that’s what it still means to many men in the military. The Department of Defense says there were more than 19,000 assaults against women by men in the military in 2010. That needs to change.
    The attack on Al Franken has already weakened progressive resistance to Trump and the reactionary Republican Congress. Senator Chuck Grassley has decided to move forward with the nomination of David Stras to the 8th District Court of Appeals. Franken originally objected to the nomination:  “Justice Stras’s professional background and record strongly suggest that, if confirmed, he would embrace the legacy of his role models and reliably rule in favor of powerful corporate interests over working people, and that he would place a high bar before plaintiffs seeking justice at work, at school, and at the ballot box.”
    Normally, if a Senator objects to a judicial appointment from their home state, the committee chair will not hold a hearing on the appointment. Grassley has decided to hold a hearing on Stras, and go against precedent and tradition in this appointment (possibly) because Franken is in too weakened a condition to object.
    That will be a serious loss for all of us.
    Women senators have said they will give Al Franken’s contributions to their campaigns to charity, and they have asked Franken to resign.
    That’s a loss for them and, if they lose their elections, a loss for all of us.
    Franken is one of a small handful of progressive voices in the Senate. He has been a champion for women and minorities.
    His silence is a tremendous loss.
    The intended consequence of this campaign against Franken is to weaken opposition to Roy Moore’s campaign for the U.S. Senate in Alabama. Moore is a publicly acknowledged pedophile. He has been accused by a victim of forcing sexual relations on her when she was 14. He chased after high school girls in the local mall when he was in his 30s. But many Alabama Christian Evangelicals don’t care about that. He’s not a Democrat. They can count on him to be pro-life, to vote against abortion. He won’t support a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. He supports the white patriarchy.
    Conservatives are much more tolerant. It doesn’t matter to them that Trump was going to “grab ‘em by the pussy,” or that Moore is a pedophile. What matters is that Trump and Moore will reaffirm white male supremacy.
    I don’t believe Leanne Tweeden. In her on-air interview with Congresswoman Jackie Speiers she says she had a revelation: “At that moment, I thought to myself, Al Franken did that exact same thing to me.”  She told Tom Arnold she had talked to Sean Hannity about that photo ten years before in 2007.  
    Roger Stone, hours before Tweeden’s on-air interview, tweeted: “It’s Franken’s turn in the barrel.” How did he know before her broadcast what was going to happen unless he helped plan it?
    Evelyn Stice, wrote “I Don’t Believe These Women,” in Write the Fight. She said, “The mere fact that sleazebucket Stone clearly knew what was coming is problematic, problematic enough to throw up a lens through which we need to examine the rest of these accusations.”
    Stice goes on to examine the claims of the other accusers:
    “Accuser 2: Lindsay Menz
    “According to Lindsay Menz, she took a photo with Franken at a Minnesota State Fair in 2010. (Indeed, there is a photo.) While the photo was being taken, she said, Franken’s hand slid down to her butt. Now … it might’ve. As Franken himself said, he didn’t remember the incident but believed women who said his actions made them uncomfortable. It’s worth pointing out that both Menz and her husband voted for Trump. That in itself is not damning, but if you couple it with the fact that, again, Roger Stone knew what was coming for Franken before it was made public … it casts substantial doubt on this story because it makes it sound like it could easily be part of a setup.
    “Let me remind you once again that I am not saying that I believe these women are lying. I believe there is reasonable doubt that they are telling the truth.
    “Accuser 3: Anonymous
    “An anonymous woman told Huffington Post that during a 2007 event, Franken grabbed her butt during a photo op.
    “Given the issues with the other two stories, especially when viewed through the Stone lens, I find anonymous accusations even less compelling than usual.
    “Franken said he didn’t remember this incident and that it was hard to address anonymous reports, which is a reasonable thing to say.
    “Accuser 4: Also Anonymous
    “The second anonymous accuser also said that Franken “cupped her butt.” In addition, she added the titillating detail that he suggested they go to the bathroom together, an accusation Franken categorically denied based on the fact that he’d never said that to anyone.
    “Again, anonymous report, the Stone lens, and in this case, a detail that doesn’t ring true. “This one is a no-go for me.
    “Accuser 5: Stephanie Kemplin
    “Another USO Tour story is told by Stephanie Kemplin, who was a military police officer at the time. She says that when they posed for a photo, Franken reached around and cupped her breast for five or 10 seconds, and that she turned toward him before the photo was taken. (The photo shows Franken with his arm around her back.) This one on its own might be slightly more believable because her sister and a man she was dating at the time have corroborated that she said Franken copped a feel. Still, the thing that hit me on reading this story is the kind of positioning that would have to take place. Franken is a short man, at 5’6″, with, it seems, proportional arms. That he could reach around and hold her breast seems very unlikely. More likely, I think, is him draping an arm over her right shoulder, which could of course have his hand resting on her breast.
    Still, the picture doesn’t show that, nor does she look even a little uncomfortable in the picture. She is leaning in, smiling what seems to be a genuine smile, which doesn’t jibe with her account that she was immediately embarrassed and frozen.
    “Side note: Kemplin is a Republican and Trump voter.
    “Accuser 6: Anonymous
    “An anonymous elected official told Jezebel that in 2006, Franken, who had been touring with his radio show and had taped a show in her town, kissed her, open mouth, on the cheek. Kissed her on the cheek.
    “We need to think about what we define as assault, people. Overly familiar? Perhaps, although entertainers (as Franken was at the time) who meet tens of thousands of people probably define personal space a bit differently than most. Assault? No. Calling a kiss on the cheek assault frankly cheapens the meaning of the term.
    “And again, anonymous.
    “Accuser 7: Anonymous
    “A former congressional aide said that this incident also happened in 2006 after a taping of Franken’s radio show. She said he tried to kiss her and said it was “my right as an entertainer.”
    “Look, I’m just gonna say outright: that’s bullshit. None of the other women said he said anything like that, and if that doesn’t sound like an extra detail thrown in to make a lie sound more convincing (although in reality it has the opposite effect), I don’t know what does. This one I AM going to go beyond simply doubting. I believe is an outright lie. Indeed, Franken called it ‘categorically not true’ and said that the idea he would claim that as his right is ‘preposterous.’ And again, anonymous.
    “Accuser 8: Tina Dupuy
    “Now this one is a little different. I tend to believe Dupuy’s account. She says in 2009, she posed for a photo with Franken, who put his arm around her and squeezed her waist. I believe it both because of the forthright nature of her account and because I have had numerous men do it to me, especially when posing for photos. I have also had women do it to me. It is a natural touch, especially when posing for photographs. But it is not a particularly sexual one. Not every touch is a sexual touch. Again, we need to be careful what we define as assault.
    “Side note: I do not think that Dupuy had anything to do with Stone. I think it’s more likely that she remembered this incident which very well may have made her uncomfortable at the time—because we all have different levels of comfort when it comes to being touched—and wanted to show solidarity with women she assumed were like her. I can’t tell you for certain what makes me think that, only that her story rings true in a way the others do not. She didn’t add any salacious details, and she told it in a straightforward, clear manner. I believe Dupuy. I just don’t believe she was assaulted.”
    It seems the Democratic Senators calling for your resignation are now demanding spotless heroes.
    Well, Al, you’re not spotless, but you’re good enough. Your jokes are corny sometimes.  But they were never meant to harm anyone. 
    You’re smart enough. You know how it works.  And your staff (that you made a special point in thanking in your resignation speech) knows how it works.  The rape victim who was working with you and your staff on a bill to fund training of police to work with victims of sexual assault and trauma asked that you no longer sponsor her legislation.  Doesn’t she still want to use the advance work and research that your staff has already done on this project?  All the work that you have already done for women’s rights and empowerment doesn’t need to be abandoned. 
    And doggone it, we love you, and we need you.  If you don’t want to be Senator any more, “That’s OK.”  But you know how bills are written, how they’re passed into law and how they’re enforced.  We need you to teach us about the process.
    You were doing such a great job on Jeff Sessions that Field Marshall Steve Bannon decided it was time to get Generals Sean Hannity and Roger Stone (close friend to Leanne Tweeden’s radio co-host) to send in someone to blow you up. 
    Everything they do is meant to blow up the system.  You were an easy target—a public performer, a comic, but their intent is to burn down the Reichstag.  They want to de-legitimize democracy so they can justify tyranny, autocracy, the rule of the bully in the schoolyard.
    We need to stand up to them.  And we need to be united.  There are many more of us than there are of them, many more working people than billionaires wanting tax cuts.  They want to divide us, get us fighting among ourselves. 
    Yes, you did some gross and stupid things around women.  So have most other men your age.  For the past few weeks you have made every man your age in America spend some quiet time thinking about what a jerk he’s been with women at some time in his life. 
    Men need to change.
    Let’s do something about it.  Let’s get something through Congress that creates training for police officers dealing with trauma and sexual assault.
    Let’s all of us work on it.
    Together.

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