It’s fall and there’s something foul in the air. Something is making my skin crawl. Matt Lauer, Louis CK, Jian Ghomeshi, John Hockenberry are like zombies rising from their graves, bad men not content to stay down.
My colleague in calling out all the bad men wrote about Jian Ghomeshi’s icky New York Review of Books cover story earlier this week, and since then, Ian Buruma, the publication’s editor, has left his job. Ghomeshi’s story was published at about the same time as “Exile,” an essay in Harper’s by former radio host John Hockenberry, who left his job right before harassment allegations against him were published. Both Ghomeshi’s and Hockenberry’s essays are filled with so much self aggrandizement it’s hard to tell which is worse, but I’ve read them both several times and though Ghomeshi’s begins and ends with gross anecdotes of flirting with women, I regret to inform you that Hockenberry describes a penis as “always so vulnerable no matter how hard.” I know. It’s terrible. It’s truly terrible.
Harper’s president and publisher Rick MacArthur is also facing some heat. MacArthur appeared on Canadian radio show The Current on Tuesday and defended Hockenberry’s 7,000-word piece in stunning fashion. The interview is so wild that I’ve had to refrain myself from delivering a full point-by-point here. First MacArthur implies that the accusations against Hockenberry are false because MacArthur uses a wheelchair and “it’s hard to get out of your wheelchair and attack somebody.”
MacArthur nonstop insists that Hockenberry’s story is complex and meaningful while also managing to insult and mansplain to host Anna Maria Tremonti. MacArthur tells Tremonti that Hockenberry’s story explores what he sees as a widespread “inability” in this #MeToo moment to distinguish between “Harvey Weinstein, who is physically aggressive, an accused rapist and somebody like Hockenberry, who showed bad judgment, he says, and made awkward passes.” (These “awkward passes” included forcibly kissing a co-worker at her desk, kissing another coworker and telling her he loved her, asking a coworker if she wanted to get a hotel room, and touching coworkers inappropriately.)
“Men like Hockenberry and their apologists don’t see sexual harassment as harmful or frightening and their tiring conflation of romance and harassment proves it.”
MacArthur tells Tremonti the essay is “a complicated mix of atonement, regret, and an attempt to explore sexual relations between men and women in the modern age.” And there we go again: the sphere of “sexual relations between men and women in the modern age” and “boss who kisses co-workers” don’t overlap. Men like Hockenberry and their apologists don’t see sexual harassment as harmful or frightening and their tiring conflation of romance and harassment proves it.
What so many of these bad men and their apologists seem to be unwilling to accept (I say seem because I think it’s an intentional part of their rhetorical strategy) is that romance does not belong in the workplace. Sexual harassment is a big fucking deal because it’s a civil rights violation. Sexual harassment forces women to leave their jobs or careers, as so many of Hockenberry’s co-workers did. It leaves victims doubting their professional worth for a lifetime. It’s a spectacular failure of imagination for Hockenberry and MacArthur to seem so unable to grasp how unacceptable and scary sexual harassment in the workplace truly is. Like so much of the Bad Man Apologia™, Hockenberry’s essay and MacArthur’s argument downplay the severity of sexual harassment by conflating it with some kind of teenage romantic fumblings. Hockenberry writes,
“Despite acknowledgment by my accusers that I am no rapist or sex offender, the unarguable discomfort and anguish of my co-workers have thrown me into a category in which society at large chooses, for whatever reason, not to distinguish between the charge and act of rape and some improper, failed, and awkward attempts at courtship.”
And this is supposed to be an interesting and meaningful sentiment?
MacArthur further defended the story by saying, “The women in the office are very supportive of this piece,” but (big surprise) that doesn’t seem to be true. Hasan Altaf, an editor who recently left Harper’s to join The Paris Review but was on staff when the piece was assigned, told HuffPost, “None of the women on the editorial staff, and none of the men on the editorial staff, either, were okay with the piece.” He added that Hockenberry’s essay was “assigned without anyone on the editorial staff being involved in the discussions or knowing about it before the contract was signed.”
What’s scary isn’t only that the bad men are out there, itching to come back, but that there are lots of other people ready to offer them a helping hand. And then go to bat for them, normalizing and minimizing their unethical and criminal behavior. People like MacArthur who think Hockenberry’s redemption arc is interesting, complex, and important. More important, in fact, than the lives, thoughts, and words of the women he hurt along the way.