To disabuse readers of the notion that, with all this talk of deadliness and air freshener, he might be joking, Keillor appended another line to his column: “No kidding.”
The trouble with the addition is that Keillor is often kidding—or, at any rate, hiding behind a curtain of impish irony—when he talks about harassment. During an appearance at the National Press Club in 1994, Keillor declared that “a world in which there is no sexual harassment at all is a world in which there will not be any flirtation.” And on Wednesday, in an email to his hometown paper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Keillor joked about the turn of events that would seem to include the unceremonious termination of his career: “Getting fired is a real distinction in broadcasting,” he wrote, “and I’ve waited fifty years for the honor. All of my heroes got fired. I only wish it could’ve been for something more heroic.” He added: “If I had a dollar for every woman who asked to take a selfie with me and who slipped an arm around me and let it drift down below the beltline, I’d have at least a hundred dollars. So this is poetic irony of a high order.”
Folksy. Jokey. At once self-effacing and self-aggrandizing. It’s a statement very much in line with the tone of A Prairie Home Companion, which Keillor created in 1974 and which has long been distributed to local stations across the land. (In 2006, the show was made into a feature film directed by Robert Altman and starring, among many others, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Tommy Lee Jones, and Keillor himself.) Prairie has been, over the course of decades, alternately beloved and detested, and often for the same reason: The show purported, with its combination of banjo-heavy musical interludes and old-timey radio plays, to represent a particular strain of Americana—hardy, hearty, wholesome, twangy, white. It did all this purporting winkily (this was nostalgia of a distinctly postmodern strain), but there it was nonetheless, yore meeting lore, the Midwest packaged as a metaphor for America itself: ice skates and Jell-o molds, ordered corn fields and sparkling lakes, a social world lubricated by friendly gossip and easy pleasantries.
Keillor’s show, in all that, suggested one of the cultural legacies of the American frontier (with the genocides, inequities, and other tragedies, of course, cheerfully cut from the air). Conquest, without the inconvenient ickiness. America as a (charming, uncomplicated) ideal. The fictional Lake Wobegon—the pun is indicative of the show’s general brand of humor—is a place where, as Keillor’s cheeky refrain made clear each episode, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
On Wednesday, though, Keillor ended up starring in another kind of story of the American frontier. Via an allegation whose details have yet to emerge in full—Keillor told the Associated Press, with typical puckishness, that it involves “a story that I think is more interesting and more complicated than the version MPR heard”—Keillor did come to serve as a representative of an American cultural ideal. He became one of the many men who have fallen to the “Weinstein effect.” That effect is its own kind of landscape, its own kind of frontier—a version of manifest destiny in which expansion is not geographical but ideological, and in which justice, rather than justification, is the guiding ethic. The new American landscape is a cultural space that is cognizant of power differentials and mutual respect. It is one that strives for equality. And it is one that takes for granted the conviction that belittling those who are less powerful—all the women are strong—will have, finally, meaningful consequences.