Dear Al Franken

Please. Step down.


It’s been a long few weeks for women (and men) who hold memories of assault and harassment as part of our lived landscapes. It’s been a good, surprising kind of pain, to see predation and abuse met with actual consequences, but those consequences nonetheless demand the excavation of our own scar tissue, all of those itches that so many of us have spent so much effort trying desperately not to scratch, and while satisfying it’s also really fucking exhausting. Trauma retriggered, emotional whiplash, crushing disappointment — it’s all there in every all-too-familiar headline, the story of Weinstein’s hired Mossad agents a caricature of the legal scuffle I endured as a naive nineteen-year-old assaulted by a family member who then hired a bloodhound lawyer who spent months sending me taunts and threats (he would expose the REAL reason I had left Caltech!, he promised, because one-third of college students transfer schools but it is only weaponized and discrediting when a young woman speaks against a prominent man); the pleasant shock of learning that the compact I’d assumed the world had made with Louis C.K., to overlook his sexual misconduct because “genius”, was a contract with limits, that what I’d heard about for years as a member of the comedy community was not as universally known as I’d thought; the less pleasant shock of seeing the photo of another prominent comedian, behaving just like a comedian, groping a sleeping woman on a plane, grinning at the camera.


I like Senator Al Franken — I’m not a Minnesotan so I have no call to vote for him, but if I were, then I would; not only because the near-extinction of the moderate Republican leaves essentially no non-abhorrent alternative to punching a ballot for (D), but because Senator Al Franken seems to take a balanced approach: serious about the issues, unserious about his own role, lacking the self-importance so easily found in politics and politicians.


Comedian Al Franken… I’m kind of meh about that guy. I know, I know, he shaped the glory days of “SNL,” but — well, were the glory days of “SNL” really that glorious, after all? When do we get to stop pretending that Chevy Chase is the peak of comedic brilliance? When do we admit that forcing collaborative efforts like sketch comedy into the white male worldview is creatively limiting and makes for a lot of shitty comedy? 


When do we acknowledge that jokes can be cruel and oppressive as often as they can be funny and liberating?


To look at the photo of you groping Leeann Tweeden, Mr. Franken, is to see a picture of Comedian Al Franken, which you stated as much in your (second) apology — “clearly it was intended as a joke,” you said, and it is clear. “It’s just a joke” is the preferred hiding place of every comedian whose immaturity/thoughtlessness/malice/privilege/ignorance/hate — take your pick, there are plenty of examples for each — occluded their view of their own jokes and the hurt those jokes might cause, often recast as “offense” because that loaded term implies a certain thin-skinned sensitivity, rather than a genuine and justified injury. It’s all part of the game in a comedian’s non-apology, in which said comedian transforms a question of their own values and humaneness into a debate about free speech, because “free speech” is an easier banner to rally one’s self-importance than inclusive comedy, predicated as it is on empathy and humility. 


But groping someone isn’t reducible to free speech; it crosses the boundary behind which comedians, and so many others, hide all their worst impulses. It’s not the worst of the recent assault and harassment allegations, not by a long shot, but it’s still gross and dehumanizing in the way that so many of the ways men treat women are gross and dehumanizing, ways that aren’t always — or ever — legally actionable but that nevertheless slowly chip away at female selfhood, that keep our eyes down and our voices low, that assert a hierarchy we can’t escape even asleep, even in a flak jacket, even at thirty thousand feet. 


The photo was taken almost fifteen years ago, and people change. I have no doubt that Senator Al Franken is a different, and probably better, person than Comedian Al Franken — but that is precisely why Senator Al Franken should resign, rather than allow Comedian Al Franken to continue to write his apologies. Because Senator Al Franken seems to have an understanding of political optics, of the mechanisms of power and privilege, of what it means to stand for others — which can mean, sometimes, standing down.


Mr. Franken, your groping one woman is not as serious as Roy Moore assaulting and harassing multiple minors. It’s not as serious as Trump admitting to grabbing ’em by the pussy; it’s not as serious as anything Bill Clinton has been accused of, or, in the case of Monica Lewinsky, admitted to. But that’s just the point: as long as powerful men can act with impunity, they will, and until we as a society have a mechanism and a model for them to face consequences, they won’t. The question is not whether or not Senator Al Franken deserves to answer for the actions of Comedian Al Franken — the question is whether or not Senator Al Franken wants to set an example by which other powerful men, much worse, might be brought to account. 


Because right now all we have is a group of powerful men pointing fingers at each other, each one trying to deflect attention from their own misdeeds by claiming someone else is worse, and somehow the only individual who seems to have paid any political consequence whatsoever is *Hillary* Clinton, because OF COURSE. I’ve been a woman my whole life, and unfairness ceased to surprise me a long time ago; when I was about nineteen, I think.


Given the partisanship of today’s Washington — and America — I don’t imagine that your stepping down, Mr. Franken, will immediately spur self-reflection on the right, that it might cause Roy Moore to drop out of his campaign or Donald Trump to resign his trophy presidency. I don’t even imagine it will do much to quell the right-wing outrage machine, which has proven itself adept over the decades at manufacturing anger and fear to suit its own needs regardless of reality. I’m not making an instrumentalist argument, at least not in the fashion being widely debated across the Internet, and certainly not in the fashion of the instrumentalist arguments offered in defense of Bill Clinton in the ’90s, recently and succinctly summarized — and deconstructed — by Matt Yglesias.


No, Mr. Franken. First read Rebecca Traister’s excellent essay, about the way sexual harassment and assault harms women along many axes, about how it not only exhausts us but dissuades us from our own ambitions, about how speaking up and finding justice is its own cost. And understand that I am asking not for your punishment, but simply for you to do the right thing. Because the argument I’m putting forth is not one of retribution, but restitution; of taking responsibility for causing harm, rather than making other people — women — responsible for the outcome of your actions.


It takes a lot of ego — a strong sense of self — to run for Congress. Asking to be a Senator is asking for moral responsibility, and to suggest that an ethics committee is suddenly necessary to determine culpability or consequence — at a moment when consequences have finally just materialized for sexual harassment and assault, for the rarest circumstance when there exists incontrovertible photographic proof of the incident, rather than the all-too-easily-disregarded words of a woman — is disingenuous, at the very least, an evasion of moral responsibility as obvious as so many comedians’ claims to free speech. Because just like those claims, that’s not the point: “free speech” and “I will cooperate with an investigation” both dodge the basic adult obligation not to hurt other people. Not, Mr. Franken, because what you did specifically to Leeann Tweeden was so hurtful — though it was — but because, in ceding your agency to rectify the situation, in forcing other people (women) to do the work of making things right, you are continuing to exact a price, continuing to benefit from women’s emotional labor, continuing to build an edifice on our scar tissue.


There’s another choice, and it’s a simple one: Be a goddamn grownup.


Bill Clinton maintained his own personal power by deploying the defenses of the right (“This is a private matter!”), rather than affirming the legitimacy of women’s experiences and participating in the sometimes-hard-and-personally-costly work of dismantling the patriarchy. Roy Moore and Donald Trump are pretty committed to their own irredeemability; they dismissed their own humaneness well before anyone else ever did. But you, Mr. Franken — you actually seem like a decent human being and a good progressive. 


There are plenty of people — including women — arguing that that, in itself, is reason for you to remain in the Senate; that decent humans and good progressives are a rare enough breed that we can’t afford to lose a single one. But the notion of irreplaceability has been used persistently to keep women and people of color from accessing power, because the men wielding it are just too damn good to let go — it’s an idea that protected not only Louis C.K. but Weinstein and Wieseltier, and frankly, it’s a steaming pile of bullshit. There are plenty of people who can tell good jokes, and produce good movies, and nurture good writing without assaulting, harassing, or otherwise discriminating against at least half the world’s population (“at least half” because, let’s be honest, if that’s the way they treat women, they’re probably not super great on their interactions with gay men or non-white men). And the reality is, the world is full of decent human beings and good progressives. 


Minnesota is full of decent human beings and good progressives.


So, if you really want to be a hero, then make a real sacrifice: find a few decent human beings and good progressives who would like to be a senator from Minnesota — especially women, especially women of color — and resign so that they can take your place. Mention them by name. Support their campaigns. Create a whole new template for responding to the failings of masculinity, one that’s generous and stands in genuine solidarity with women, rather than one that lives in defensiveness and self-justification. No, Roy Moore and Donald Trump probably won’t follow your example, but if they’ve become our ethical barometer then we’re all screwed, and the point is, somebody will probably follow your example, or learn from it, and women will be empowered by it, instead of exhausted by the endless demands of speaking out! that only compounds victimhood.


The first time I was assaulted, I reported it. I spoke out, and for that, I was hounded, taunted, and threatened for months.


The second time I was assaulted, I said nothing.


It can’t only be women’s responsibility to speak out, to arbitrate consequences, to manage this entire conversation. Maybe all men can’t get their shit together right away — but you, Mr. Franken? You’re a progressive. You’re a feminist. You believe women, and you believe in women. Prove it. Hold up your end of the bargain, because women have been holding up more than our share of it for years now, and we’re pretty damn tired. 


Women have dragged sexual assault, harassment, and misogyny into the public consciousness once again, and men seem to be taking notice. Notice is nice. But what we need now to move things forward is the hard work of dismantling, of some real heavy lifting. 


I hear men are supposed to be good at that kind of thing.

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