Barbershop: Politician Accountability In #MeToo Era

Apr 6, 2019
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is considering another run for president, came out with an apology this week after a number of women shared stories of physical interactions they had with him that they considered awkward or inappropriate. In a video on Twitter, Biden said he understands that social norms around physical boundaries have changed over the years and that, quote, "he gets it." But does he? Yesterday, during a speech, Biden seemed to joke about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: I just want you to know I had permission to hug Lonnie. I mean...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK, so Lonnie was a man, a union official. But still - what, if anything, does this say about Biden? What do our reactions to it say about us? And let's be clear that he is by no means the only public official whose past behavior with women has raised questions and allegations - everything from creepiness and ickiness (ph) to sexual harassment to rape. So that's why we're bringing this conversation to the Barbershop - because this is where we talk to interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. And today, we've invited in Paul Butler, professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. He joins us from our studios in New York.

Paul, welcome back.

PAUL BUTLER: What's up, Michel? Woof, woof, woof.

EMMA COLEMAN JORDAN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: It's good to hear from you. Emma Coleman Jordan is with us. She was part of Anita Hill's legal team when professor Hill was subpoenaed to testify about now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Professor Coleman Jordan is also a law professor at Georgetown. She's here with us in D.C.

Welcome to you as well. Thank you for coming.

COLEMAN JORDAN: Hey, Michel.

MARTIN: And finally, Monica Hesse is with us. She's a Washington Post columnist, and she specifically writes about gender and society.

Monica, welcome back to you as well.

MONICA HESSE: Oh, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, I'm going to say again what I've said before when we've discussed an issue like this. None of you was asked to represent anybody but your own thoughts and yourself. So I'm just going to start by asking each of you, what strikes each of you about this moment in particular? Monica, I'll start with you.

HESSE: I think that what strikes me in particular is just that this instance with Joe Biden seems like the instance that makes people's heads explode - people who really thought that they had it figured out, they knew who was bad and who was good and who was appropriate and who was inappropriate. The really nuanced conversations we're having about Joe Biden are really messing with people's minds, which I think is an amazing thing because it means that we're finally getting beyond black and white and really getting into the nuances of gray that we needed to be in all along.

MARTIN: Professor Coleman Jordan, what about you?

COLEMAN JORDAN: What Biden, I think, lacks is an understanding of what subordination means. What does it mean for a man to take privileges, even slight privileges, or to go beyond what a woman feels comfortable with? And I think we see that with the joking. But, Michel, you know that Biden has more to account for than rubbing shoulders and smelling hair.

MARTIN: OK. Well, why don't you hold that thought for a minute. Let me bring Paul in, and then we'll get back to that. So, Paul Butler, what about you? What strikes you about this particular moment? It doesn't have to be just about Joe Biden.

But the fact it's - this week is a week - and I'm going to bring all this in together - is that the Virginia lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax, who's been - two women have said that he assaulted them, sexually assaulted them a number of years ago last week at this time issued a statement saying that he's passed a polygraph test. And then now, President Trump has announced that he wants to appoint Herman Cain to the Federal Reserve - a person who dropped out of the presidential race a couple of years ago because there were serious allegations raised about sexual harassment when he was in an executive position. So, taking all that together, what's striking you about this current moment?

BUTLER: So Joe Biden is accused of being handsy and not respecting personal space. And it's interesting to think about how this is gendered. Is it that Biden doesn't do it to men? Or is it that some women experience it differently than most men would? I'm also interested in how it might be raced. Like, black people will say, man, get out my face. I don't know if non-blacks say that. So there might be cultural norms around how close you can get to somebody.

The charges against Justin Fairfax are much more serious. Sexual violence and harassment have affected my family, my friends, my students, so I've seen the great harm it can do. At the same time, I'm an African-American man, so stories about false accusations are in my blood. So I understand also that just because somebody said something happened doesn't mean it actually happened.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting that, like, going back to what Monica said at the beginning - that this is the - the Joe Biden piece seems to have brought out all the kinds of complications and nuances that a lot of people wanted to talk about anyway. That's the kind of thing that I'm seeing in this.

Like, for example, Politico put together a roundup of nine women and just asked them, kind of like I'm asking you all, what should we make of this? And their comments were wildly ranging. I mean, some of the people said, look - this is absolutely disqualifying, and he should take a seat. Another person said, look - you know, #MeToo's here to stay. It's demanding restorative justice. We just want you to admit it and stop it and condemn it when you see it. Another person said this is a distraction from what - the real qualifications. So then the question becomes, what are real qualifications that we should be talking about?

And I also think, like what Paul was saying, one of the things that we seem to be talking about here are things that fall outside the boundaries of what the law can deal with in the present moment. Like with Justin Fairfax, these allegations were made a long time ago - or rather, the allegations are behavior that was made a long time ago. So what do you do about that? So now that these are outside the boundaries of what the law can presently deal with, what should happen? So I guess - maybe Monica, I started with you in the last time, so why don't you take the next question? What kind of conversation should we be having about these things?

HESSE: What I think is fascinating is when we talk about this woman was offended by it, and this woman wasn't, is that we have this expectation that if we go to a panel of five women, and we say, is this OK, and three of them say, sure, it's fine - that that means OK, it's fine. We have a consensus. But that's not what it means at all.

I think what this moment is teaching us is not about we need hard and fast rules that everyone has to obey. What this situation is teaching us is that different people have different boundaries. Different people have different levels of comfort with touching. Giving one woman a shoulder rub might be fine with her. It might be horrifying to three other women.

So I think that what we're looking for from Joe Biden in particular is the emotional intelligence that he recognizes that and that he recognizes that as a society, it's a matter of learning to interact with the situation, learning to interact with the individual and learning that consent isn't something that you get once and then you never need to get it again. You need to get it in every situation with every woman.

MARTIN: Emma Coleman Jordan, as I mentioned, you were a member of Anita Hill's legal team when she was subpoenaed to testify, and I know you have some thoughts about Joe Biden.

COLEMAN JORDAN: Well, my thought about Joe Biden...

MARTIN: And just to clarify for people who don't remember, he was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee at the time that this - Clarence Thomas was a nominee for the Supreme Court.

COLEMAN JORDAN: Well, he was chair of the Judiciary Committee when the Democrats were in the majority, and so, he had a lot of power. And for me what is troubling is - and disqualifying, actually - is the way he used that power in that situation. He's now saying that he's terribly sorry about what happened to Anita Hill. He's sorry he didn't apologize to her. Well, many years have passed, and he's had many opportunities to do that. He didn't. He allowed that hearing to be projected, shaped in a way that favored Clarence Thomas. The order of the witnesses, excluding some witnesses and making it appear that she was just someone there to advance a feminist agenda against a black man.

So I heard what Paul said, and I think that's something that both black women and men have within our psyche - the history of lynching and the false accusations that have been made against black men. But that doesn't mean that either Clarence Thomas or Justin Fairfax can use that history as a shield against conduct which is conduct they engaged in.

MARTIN: Can I ask you this about - professor Coleman Jordan? Is that - in the case of Justin Fairfax, as I mentioned, he's issued a - he said that he took a polygraph last week, and that says that his - the behavior that he engaged in was consensual in each case. One of the things that fascinates me is that the two complaining witnesses in this case, the two women who say that he assaulted them, and on different occasions but many years ago - both want a public hearing on this.

And that's exactly the kind of thing that you and Anita Hill's legal team objected to because there were no rules. And I was just curious about whether you think - I know - you know, is this - is that the right way to go forward here in the Justin Fairfax case? Should they have a public hearing? If not, what should they do?

COLEMAN JORDAN: Well, couple of things. One, the women certainly do have the opportunity, and they should be listened to in terms of what they're comfortable with. Vanessa Tyson, Meredith Watson - they should say if they want a public hearing. If they say they do...

MARTIN: They do.

COLEMAN JORDAN: They do. And they would be entitled to that.

MARTIN: Well, what do you say about that? I mean, that's - this is - I think this is kind of the crux of the question with a lot of these issues now, even on this continuum of just what should happen now. And talk about the Justin Fairfax case. What, in your view, should happen now?

BUTLER: So I think that survivors who come forward should be treated with dignity and respect. And this will sound controversial, though it shouldn't. I think people who are accused should be treated with dignity and respect and with a presumption of innocence, which means that there should be a fair process to determine what happened.

And so in this case, I think both sides should agree on what that process should be. I've prosecuted sexual assault cases. There's rarely eyewitnesses. It's he said she said. There's usually not other kinds of forensic evidence. So a process would be hearing the stories of both parties, subjecting them to cross-examination and then having some neutral party try to figure out what happened.

MARTIN: And finally, let me just ask - there's time to give everybody just a final sort of round here. Where do you want to see this conversation go? Because I think everybody in all of our workplaces - we're all dealing with this. I think most people who don't work alone (laughter) by themselves all day are probably thinking about this in some kind of way.

So Monica Hesse was saying that she feels obviously there's some uncomfortable moments and really deeply painful moments for many, many people. But it's also exciting, she was saying, because many people were having the opportunity to speak about these issues in a way that they could not before and have it be discussed. Do you feel similarly? Is it a net positive or a net negative that all this stuff is out there, even if it's uncomfortable?

COLEMAN JORDAN: Yes, I do. Because what has happened with the #MeToo movement is that we have established a community of concern around the women who've experienced these assaults, sexual violations. It gives them solidarity, authority. And it gives them an opportunity to be reinforced in their understanding of what happened to them. And it's reshaping the bounds of normality.

MARTIN: OK. Paul, what about you? What are your thoughts about this? Are we in a - is this a net positive or net negative?

BUTLER: It's a net positive for sure. A woman in my family had her very promising careers done in by sexual harassment. And man, I wish that this moment had been around for her. You know, I'm also thinking of a poem by Ntozake Shange where she says, the suspect is always black. So I come from a kind of suspect class, which also makes me demand a due process and equal justice under the law for everybody, including the person who is accused. And so I think we're reckoning with all of that now. So I think this difficult moment is going to get us to a better place.

MARTIN: And, Monica, final thought from you?

HESSE: You know, I was talking with someone the other day, a gentleman who I think is echoing what I'm hearing a lot - from men in particular, but some women too - who just wanted to sort of throw his hands up in the air and say, this is impossible. We don't know how to behave. I guess you'd rather we just didn't - we never touched anyone, and we never had any human contact because it's impossible for these norms to change the way you want them to. And I asked him, do you go around wearing a top hat, tipping it off, saying, good day, madam and kissing women on the hand? And he sort of laughed and said no. And that's because we don't live 100 years ago. And the way that we have interact with people have changed since then.

So I think that the nature of human norms is that they're meant to be changed. They're meant to progress. They only progress when we have these conversations. So I think that it's painful. It's messy. It's confusing. It makes some of us feel like bad people. I think that's the necessary path. It's the only way to move forward.

MARTIN: That's Monica Hesse of The Washington Post. Emma Coleman Jordan, a former member of Anita Hill's legal team, is a professor at Georgetown University's law center, as is Paul Butler, who's also a professor at Georgetown and a professor of criminal law and also the author of a number of books.

Thank you all so much for talking with us today.

HESSE: Thank you.

COLEMAN JORDAN: Thank you.

BUTLER: Woof, woof. Woof.

(SOUNDBITE OF KANYE WEST SONG, "I WONDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.