If you watch a lot of TV or read a newspaper, it’s inescapable that this is the 50th anniversary of the tumultuous year of 1968, the peak year of 1960s social unrest and the so-called counterculture. And if you’ve been getting your daily dose of nostalgia, it’s probably sure to wear some flowers in its hair, with a side of love beads and a soundtrack laced with acid rock. But while an uprising of young people, non-whites and women did win some battles — some of which still echo today — their revolution wasn’t the ultimate victor in the broader political struggle for the soul of America.
The winner was the backlash.
When the fuzztone guitar solos faded out, rising from the ashes of the 1960s were tin soldiers and Nixon coming, followed by the “war on drugs,” Ronald Reagan, mass incarceration, and a renewed veneration of American militarism. Cultural reaction is a powerful thing, yet no one sees it coming until it’s too late. People were still partying in the streets over the election of Barack Obama as the Tea Party rebellion brewed, foreshadowing a right-wing takeover of the government that has undercut everything that historic moment seemed to mean. The power of reaction, of morally flawed hierarchies that will do anything to cling to power when they are under assault, cannot be underestimated.
So if you followed 2017’s remarkable moments in the history of female empowerment — the massive Women’s March, the award-winning journalism that outed powerful abusive men from Hollywood and Silicon Valley to D.C. and Wall Street, and the online movements that rose in tandem — and cheered them on, you probably also should have been looking over your shoulder.
The #MeToo backlash is already here, and it may get even uglier than the hideous creature of your worst imaginings.
It was Karl Marx who said that history repeats itself “first as tragedy, then as farce.” The #MeToo backlash now crawling out from the rubble of last year’s four-alarm fire for the American patriarchy has predictable elements of both.
The inevitable comic relief came Wednesday with news that disgraced TV interviewer Charlie Rose — whose career reached its seeming end when eight women came forward to say he’d groped them or paraded around naked or made lewd phone calls — is promoting a show in which he’d interview other men taken down by the #MeToo movement, presumably mixing half-hearted mea culpas with the ultimate goal of clinging to the public stage and the wealth and power that comes with it. Indeed, many of the men who were dinged last fall — NBC’s Matt Lauer, the comedian Louis C.K. — are already acting as the worst of the storm has passed and are looking to crawl out of the cellar, head-bandaged but still influential and entitled.
How do we keep this from happening?
How many chances do these guys get?
How about a series hosted by a woman whose career was derailed by Charlie Rose’s predation? Interviewing other women who lost jobs, money, experience, time? https://t.co/nKQ8UwKItl
— Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner) April 26, 2018
It’s farce that’s maybe not so farcical, since history suggests their schemes might work — especially when they have powerful allies in the media, in politics, and elsewhere. On the media front, the Washington Post’s often lamentable Richard Cohen spread more seeds last week with a bizarre defense of the patriarchy that started with the graves of male soldiers who died for liberty and then complained about that one time he was passed over for a job by a woman, although “[i]n short order, I was made a columnist, so I didn’t even get a chance to cry.” Funny how one momentary hiccup breeds lifelong resentment for a white male who’s so blind to his daily triumphs of privilege.
The thing is, you’re going to be hearing stuff like this a lot more in 2018 as the backlash builds. And you’re going to hear echoes of the past — as if Harvey Weinstein or the Women’s March had never happened. That’s what happened this week in a Norristown courtroom where lawyers for no-longer-funnyman Bill Cosby — the Patient Zero for today’s #MeToo movement — turned to old-fashioned, 20th-Century style slut-shaming in a pathetic bid to keep a man with a trail of harassment allegations going back to the 1970s from spending his last years behind bars.
But that’s not the tragedy when it comes to the history repeating of the male backlash. That occurred across the border in Canada, with the deadly actions of an acolyte of a frightening underground movement called “incel” — short for the “involuntary celibacy” of young men who, for whatever reason, aren’t having sex, and have lit an internet-soaked bonfire from their anger and despair to fuel a warped fraternity of hatred toward the women they blame. A 25-year-old man-child absorbed so much of that misogyny that he rented a van and drove down a Toronto sidewalk, looking for women to run over. He killed 10 people.
That’s the frightening terrorism of misogyny that we tend to overlook when we focus on the sad follies of the rich and famous like Charlie Rose or Matt Lauer. It’s the ability in the wider society to inspire hate and support for autocratic means to keep the patriarchy in power and keep women in line — electing politicians who owe nothing to gender equality and who spend their testosterone-fueled electoral capital on keeping females out of power and on legislation to control women’s bodies.
The political power of patriarchy protection comes into focus when you consider it in terms of a major study that was just released here in Philadelphia, which analyzes what drove President Trump’s 2016 victory. Penn political science professor Diana C. Mutz found that it wasn’t economic distress but “fear of losing status” that motivated Trump’s base. That refers in good measure to immigration, the population trends likely to make whites a minority of Americans by mid-century, and the rise of foreign powers like China — but it also means old-fashioned contempt for powerful women, which was given the perfect foil when Hillary Clinton emerged as Trump’s opponent.
Anyone who’s attended a Trump rally (and I have) knows that the moment of pure catharsis where everything peaks — the raw equivalent of Orwell’s “two minutes hate” — is not over immigration or, heaven forbid, jobs, but when the crowd chants “Lock her up! Lock her up!” with a strong emphasis on the “her.” Hatred of Hillary — as a surrogate, in some ways, for some broader unspeakable rage — is the glue that hold Trump’s movement together, so much so that an obsession with jailing Clinton still electrifies his supporters, long after the election was decided in Trump’s favor.
You can draw a line between the frenzied anger of a Trump rally to the mayhem that just occurred in Toronto and, sadly, it’s not a very long one. It’s a strain of hatred that bleeds into so many things, into everything from physical assaults to the daily drone of office harassment to politics, where Trump can appoint a steady stream of white male prosecutors and judges and bureaucrats and this patriarchical American government is seen not as an outrage but merely the spoils of victory.
All that said, the #MeToo backlash of 2018 isn’t fated to succeed just because the reactionary counter-revolutions after 1968 and 2008 did. That outcome may well be decided this November, when a record number of female candidates not just for Congress but for key state or local offices are slated to appear on the election ballot. The fact that Charlie Rose and Bill Cosby are even still a thing is a reminder that real progress will only come when, if I may be allowed to quote Aretha and Annie, sisters are doing it for themselves, especially on Capitol Hill. This week is a reminder that the arc of gender justice is incredibly long. November is a rare chance to bend it.