The poet Mourid Barghouti talks about the political power of narrative order, the way sympathies can be shaped by the sequence of things, the cosmology of things, the omissions as well as the inclusions. Start the story with “Secondly,” leaving the “Firstly” for later, and the Native Americans can be seen as the aggressors; start the story with “Secondly,” and Gandhi becomes the victimizer, King the stubborn threat; “Start your story with ‘Secondly,’” Barghouti writes, “and the world will be turned upside-down.” It is simply a matter of selective vision. Perspective is a powerful thing.
Trump’s tweet, though he probably did not have Barghouti in mind while crafting it, did not merely, as a New York Times headline summed it up, appear “to doubt [the] #MeToo Movement.” It also attempted to undermine the #MeToo movement precisely by Secondly-ing its story. The presidential tweet overlooks the obvious Firstly, which is that “allegations”—plural, so profoundly plural—are their own suggestions of lives “shattered and destroyed.” It takes the common refrain—the he said/she said nature of such allegations; sexual abuse as epistemic ennui—and doubles down: It is framing the matter such that the he is the only party given words, given space, given moral consideration.
With a remarkable economy of words, then, the president is summarizing a lingering cultural paradigm, one whose stubbornness #MeToo, in its current iteration, is attempting to dismantle: an attitude that treats the male point of view as the default point of view. An attitude that prioritizes the experience of the man (who, anyway, probably had his reasons), over the experience of the woman (who, anyway, probably misunderstood). An epidemic myopia—one that has not been concerned enough with its blurred vision to take the trouble to correct the lens.
It is a widespread affliction. The day before Trump tweeted of “a mere allegation,” the New York Times columnist Bret Stephens weighed in on the case of Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen, investigating the state of the claim the auteur’s adoptive daughter made against him decades ago: In 1992, she says, when she was 7 years old, Allen molested her. Stephens’s column Secondlys that story. The op-ed is titled “The Smearing of Woody Allen.” It is framed as a meta-narrative—What We Talk About When We Talk About Woody Allen—and its Secondly sympathies are in this case directed against those who take Farrow’s testimony seriously. “It goes without saying that child molestation is a uniquely evil crime that merits the stiffest penalties,” Stephens writes. “But accusing someone of being a molester without abundant evidence is also odious, particularly in an era in which social-media whispers can become the ruin of careers and even of lives.”
The allegations against Allen are complicated, certainly—and Stephens, cannily, makes that his point. He treats the complication itself as an object lesson not just about Woody Allen, but also about #MeToo: the smearing of Woody Allen, the person. The sanctity of Woody Allen, the idea. The way all of us, according to the transitive properties of American culture, are harmed when #MeToo’s angry gaze is aimed at Woody Allen. Accusing someone of being a molester without abundant evidence is also odious: The “someone” here—Woody Allen, and, by object-lesson implication, the collective of men accused of sexual impropriety, as #MeToo moves forward—is the premise from which everything else proceeds. What happened in 1992 is not the point; what is happening in 2018 is.