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.

cain in yellow-body.jpg

Reuters

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.

Presented by

Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Video

Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy."

Video

The Joy of Running in a Beautiful Place

A love letter to California's Marin Headlands

Video

'I Didn't Even Know What I Was Going Through'

A 17-year-old describes his struggles with depression.

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

More in Politics

From This Author

Just In