We have been coddling white men’s hurt feelings and it’s literally costing us American lives.
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Just when I thought pandemic life had run out of thrills, I read on Twitter last month that New Yorker staff writer Jeffrey Toobin had been suspended—and ultimately fired—for masturbating in front of his co-workers during an election simulation conference call on Zoom. A better woman might have shaken her head in reproach and returned to her work, and good for her. I plunged headfirst into the story, delighted to have something to think about other than elections and Covid-19 aerosol transmission. As details emerged suggesting the incident had been accidental—kids, if you insist on toggling between a Zoom meeting and video sex, it’s critically important to keep your windows straight—I even felt the tiniest twinge of empathy. As the Bible says, let she who has never almost mistakenly sexted her dentist’s receptionist instead of her lover cast the first stone. I quickly assigned Toobin a slot on my mental #MeToo spectrum: worse than Aziz Ansari, not as bad as Louis C.K. But even if accidental, his behavior showed gruesome judgment and negligence, the kind you don’t just bounce back from. Both his suspension and eventual firing were no-brainers.
Or so they seemed to me, at least. Toobin’s white-guy peers in media were far less sanguine about the harm Jeffrey Toobin’s workplace wank might have caused … to Jeffrey Toobin. When news of the suspension first broke, German Lopez of Vox tweeted (then deleted) that Toobin had only been caught “doing what everybody does.” The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf cited technological error and “pandemic circumstances” as major contributors and declared that the American public “should react w/empathy, politeness, & forgiveness, like we would want to be treated.” And the New York Daily News’ Jonathan Zimmerman managed to one-up Friedersdorf by saying that anyone who took issue with Toobin’s behavior was really just a prude about masturbation in general. “You might say that he shouldn’t have been pleasuring himself during a work call,” Zimmerman wrote, “but that’s his business rather than yours.”
When The New Yorker fired Toobin a few weeks later, there was more outrage at the pity party: Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter lamented that a man who “did nothing to hurt anyone outside of yourself and your family” had lost his job, and The Intercept’s Ryan Grim declared it a sign that “worker protections are such shit in this country.” (The workers who were forced to watch Toobin masturbate might argue that his firing protected them quite well, thank you, but maybe they don’t count in Grim’s eyes.) It was around this point that I began to lose it a little bit. Oh, I’m accustomed to men circling the wagons when one of their own is accused of sexual misconduct. But generally they say something like “He never offered me a promotion in exchange for sex, so I have to assume Tammy’s allegation is false,” or “You have to understand, 2009 was a very different era with very different cultural norms.” The Toobin defenses are based on the underlying assumption that duh, of course he was jerking off during a business meeting, and if you’ve got an issue with that you’re a nosy Puritan who doesn’t believe in labor protections. Even worse: Per Friedersdorf, you’re not treating Jeffrey Toobin how he wants to be treated. Toobin’s peers went beyond mere himpathy, philosopher Kate Manne’s term for the disproportionate sympathy we have for powerful men over women they have abused. “It’s like they’re pitching an actual FIT,” I texted a friend who was also following the meltdown. Which is when something clicked in my brain and it all started to make sense.
Some say 2020 will be remembered as the year of a vicious pandemic, or of the most consequential election in American history. They’re thinking too small: 2020 is clearly the Year of the Mantrum, a.k.a. what happens when a man with the emotional skills of a toddler doesn’t get his way. The mantrum is hardly a new phenomenon; I have little trouble imagining a Neanderthal man getting huffy if his fire was not sufficiently praised as the biggest and brightest. But this is the year the mantrum completed its evolution from embarrassing private act into public spectacle with national consequences. We’ve been on our way here at least since the 2016 election, but the more immediate trigger was Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearings. If a man could spend a solid chunk of a job interview sobbing “I like beer!” and still get the gig, maybe one takeaway for other men was that dignity and self-regulation needn’t be requirements for them, either. Especially not when they’re being treated unfairly, i.e., in any way other than how they want to be treated. (Well, it’s a takeaway for white men, anyway. Given the uproar over Colin Kaepernick’s calm, silent protests, it’s safe to assume a man of color in Kavanaugh’s position would not be extended the same behavioral leeway.)
Brett Kavanaugh pitched a fit on national television because he did not want to talk about a serious criminal allegation, and as a consequence was entrusted with staggering power—for life—over every person in America. We are all to some degree Kavanaugh’s hostages now, just as we are hostages to his unmasked, Covid-denying brethren in spittle and self-pity. I’m guessing most of us are not exactly thrilled to be wearing masks in public these days, because they are a fucking drag. But we understand the science and are grateful that masks enable some semblance of a public life while we wait for vaccine deployment. So we put them on, sigh longingly for lipstick to become relevant again (or maybe that’s just me), and go about our business. Where we have to dodge a bunch of defiantly unmasked white people ranting about oppression and mind-control conspiracies and encroaching communism. And worse, who do so in public spaces unmasked, potentially endangering fellow citizens on top of annoying us.
Mask denial is an all-genders fad, but throughout the pandemic men have taken it a step further, holding heavily armed rallies in the name of “liberating” their states from basic public-health policy. Watching footage of fully armed, unmasked men in hunter’s camouflage enter the Michigan statehouse, I imagined how it would feel to be a legislator or assistant or custodian on the scene, knowing I could be shot or infected. When 14 members of the Michigan Militia, including some who attended the statehouse rally, were arrested for conspiring to kidnap and “try” Governor Gretchen Whitmer for treason over her Covid policies, I imagined every Democratic governor in America wondering if they could also become targets for local militias, which may sound official but are essentially just clubs for men seeking to externalize and distance their most uncomfortable emotions.
I have yet to see any of these men suggest alternative policies that would balance virus mitigation with the liberation they demand. Whitmer’s would-be kidnappers also had plans to take over the statehouse and execute numerous public officials on television, or alternatively to lock the doors from the outside and set the building on fire, killing everyone inside. These self-styled defenders of the Constitution didn’t bother to think beyond mass murder, because they are not serious people, or if they are, it’s only about their own fury at being inconvenienced and their inalienable right to express that fury via a mantrum. And all for what? The right to shop for Tostitos infectiously? Okay, it’s easy to mock such a hapless crew. But it’s also horrifying that adult men disgruntled by temporary, emergency public-health measures would react not by rolling their eyes or grumbling on the internet, but by making plans to slaughter scores of people.
Slaughter part aside, all of this takes me back to school days, when one boy’s bad behavior could result in the whole class losing a privilege or doing extra homework. Even at age 8, it pissed me off that one jackass could get Friday Funday cancelled for all of us. Bide your time, my mother told me in so many words when I complained to her. Study hard and someday you’ll leave boys like that far behind. And it worked. I studied and worked and raised my hand for opportunity and built a life where I control my own destiny, a life where the nifty men are invited to hang around but whiners and apologists and “it’s a scary time for men” dudes don’t get to hold me back.
Or so I thought. Now that the mantrum is airborne and could make me gravely ill, I’m not so sure. And I’m also having doubts about my grown-up freedom now that the mantrum could disenfranchise me. You didn’t think I would forget the loser of the presidential election, did you? Three weeks later, he’s still shrieking that he won, and by a landslide. While our ICUs have filled up with people who can’t breathe—many of them already from the most vulnerable groups in our country—the loser has used the powers of his office to file over 40 unsuccessful lawsuits attempting to maintain power by tossing out millions of legal votes. He has excoriated the Pennsylvania GOP, on tape, for refusing to “overturn the election” for him. Over Thanksgiving weekend, he responded to a reporter’s perfectly reasonable question with “You’re just a lightweight. I’m the president of the United States. Don’t ever talk to the president that way.”
None of this freakouttery is working, fortunately, because the loser is wildly incompetent and for once his stupidity is working to our advantage. On January 20, 2021, we will have a new president. Ignore the loser, some advise in the meantime. Don’t give him the attention he wants. Which also harkens back to advice we give girls about boys who mock them or pull their hair. It’s just that in this case, what we’re calling a tantrum is also, well, not to be dramatic, but technically I believe it’s an attempted coup? And trying to ignore an attempted coup is exhausting, it turns out.
I want things too, you know. I want all my own sins to be met with “politeness and forgiveness.” I want to run up an enormous bill at Nordstrom and have Nordstrom smile fondly and say, “Hey girl, your money’s no good here in these pandemic circumstances.” I want to set my masks on fire and then bury the ashes 20 feet underground, just to be sure they don’t somehow reconstitute and reenter my life. Maybe I would like to file 40 frivolous lawsuits. Maybe I would like to masturbate during a Zoom meeting. Maybe I would like to write my own fate, or at least untie it from men’s worst impulses. Maybe I would like the hostage-taking to stop.
But will it stop? I’m not optimistic. Trump is going away, or at least his id will no longer be driving policy and setting the tone for American life. But the inchoate male rage he has normalized is coming from all corners. It’s the mask hysterics and the subset of Bernie Sanders’s base who decided seemingly overnight that Elizabeth Warren was a hyper-capitalist snake in the grass. It’s the militias and the leftish journalists who think firing a man who forced his colleagues to look at his erection means the U.S. lacks labor protections. It’s Glenn Greenwald storming out of The Intercept because his editors had the temerity to edit him and characterizing himself as a victim of censorship who was “forced out.” It’s the full-throated defense by Greenwald and Ryan Grim (him again) of Aaron Coleman, the 20-year-old Democratic Representative-Elect to the Kansas House who admitted to harassment and sexual blackmail of multiple teenage girls and who demonstrably has learned nothing from his crimes.
By tying their tantrums to politics, men on both the right and left have both infused their fits with faux-grandeur and armored themselves against criticism. One line in support of Coleman was that at least he was a Democrat; wouldn’t women prefer an unrepentantly abusive teenage leftist to a Republican who might take away their abortion rights? It’s easy to take hostages when the stakes for your hostages—such as, oh, basic bodily autonomy—are higher than anything you will ever face, and when you hold the megaphone that shapes the story. And many of us, men included, learned decades ago to placate an abusive father or school bully or creepy boss for self-protection. To this day, my muscle memory can take over, leading me to tolerate or excuse a mantrum without even knowing I’m doing it. Or sometimes I know full well what I’m doing, but my plate’s full enough that day without squaring off against a man in the throes of self-pity. So I ignore. Or I deflect. Or, God forgive me, occasionally I soothe. And I know I’m not the only one.
Before the mantrum’s zeitgeist moment becomes a permanent feature in public life, it may be time for women to do the everyday labor of calling it out as the hijacking it is. En masse, perhaps we can make a dent. But just as only men really have the power to end rape culture, I suspect it will take an army of genuinely adult men to model grown-up behavior for their little brothers, teach them to process uncomfortable emotions, and hold them accountable for all of it. Ironically, you know who didn’t throw a tantrum when things got rough? Jeffrey freaking Toobin. He made two brief apologetic public statements and exited the scene. Maybe there’s a lesson in that.
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