Herman Cain and the Banality of Sexual Harassment Scandals

What difference does it make if the allegations are true? There are more glaring problems with Cain's platform and presidential bid.

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Here we go again, engaging in yet another round of accusations, speculations, and debate about yet another sexual harassment fracas. Must we? Should we care quite so much or be quite so curious about whether, as head of the National Restaurant Association, Herman Cain harassed female employees? Let's say, simply for the sake of argument, that the charges are true and Cain directed inappropriate "sexually suggestive" remarks or gestures to female subordinates, rendering them "upset and offended," and that complaints by two women were resolved with financial settlements, including the usual gag orders barring the alleged victims from talking about their cases. Would I lose all credibility as a feminist if I said "so what?"

I don't mean, "so what difference does harassment make to women who are targets of it?" I've experienced harassment; I know that rejecting sexual advances can hurt your career, although I also believe that laws should not prohibit merely offending people or making them uncomfortable. I do mean, "so what difference should these charges make in the current presidential campaign?" Cain's allegedly puerile workplace behavior does not make him any more unfit for the presidency than his evident ignorance about foreign policy, his contempt for poor people and the unemployed, or his tax code gimmickry and failure to answer critiques of his 9-9-9 gambit with anything more than nonsensical references to apples and oranges. Of course, Cain is not unskilled: he has an obvious knack for marketing and making money and may have been an effective lobbyist for restaurateurs. But it has long been clear that he is utterly unqualified for the presidency, for reasons having nothing to do with an alleged history of harassment.

But while Cain has come under attack for his tax proposals and incoherence on abortion (which has naturally troubled the radical right), his campaign has been most threatened by the harassment story, which is already spawning stories about the story -- analyses of Cain's inept and inconsistent responses to the allegations, anticipations of responses to his responses by the alleged victims, race baiting and references to the Clarence Thomas debacle. This isn't surprising: only a minority of voters understand the tax code well enough to debate it, or know much more about foreign affairs than Herman Cain, while nearly everyone is able, willing, and eager to talk about sex. But it is discouraging and reflects poorly on popular feminism as well as politics.

Feminism, at its most thoughtless, engendered an overbroad and unduly subjective definition of sexual harassment that includes speech and behaviors ranging from offensive remarks to actual assaults. Feminism, at its most thoughtless, equated every trivial discussion of sexual relations with political discourse and framed every allegation of sexual misconduct as presumptively true. Anti-feminists, reacting in kind, learned quickly to frame every allegation, leveled against right-wingers, as presumptively false. This is an old story, remarkable only in its ability to maintain any prurient appeal.

Herman Cain fancies himself a political original, but he and his defenders are all reading from a very familiar script (although Cain only belatedly discovered it). Naturally he describes himself as the victim of a witch hunt, while Ann Coulter references a high-tech lynching and alleged liberal fears of strong conservative black men. Whatever. Cain's buffoonish candidacy has always been a sideshow, given the very unlikely prospect of its eventual success. Now it's a mere banality.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and spiked-online.com. Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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