Conservatives love to look down on people who receive certain kinds of government aid, the kinds of assistance “those people” (the poor, the vulnerable, minorities) get, like food stamps or Medicaid. Conservatives portray such benefits as lavish, but they are a pittance relative to need and compared with what other groups get or what the government spends on the care and feeding of the military-industrial-intelligence complex.
For conservatives, things like Medicaid and food stamps amount to theft, an illegitimate transfer of resources from the deserving to the undeserving. Conservatives call them “entitlements,” a word they have demonized with a vengeance. If the government pays for the medical care of an infant whose parents can’t afford it, that is an entitlement. Imagine that: children are entitled to health care. I don’t know, maybe conservatives think such children should have picked better parents, meaning richer ones, and the penalty for failing in that is death.
In any case, anything to avoid another entitlement. But for those who think this way, it is not an entitlement when big corporations and rich individuals get truly colossal benefits from the government through tax breaks and lucrative contracts.
In the real world of twenty-first century America, the people who are really entitled and who act like they know it are not “those people” at all. They are the powerful and rich, and they are overwhelmingly white and male. They are used to admonishing, punishing, or firing subordinates, and they see themselves as entitled to do these things. This leads many to acquire the habit of power, and they carry that habit into areas which, even in this unequal and unjust society, are increasingly considered off-limits to such exercises of arbitrary, unilateral control.
Sex, for example. Abuse of power, arbitrary and unfair uses of power are standard operating procedure in the hierarchical world of business in the U.S., in which employees have almost no rights or power. The power addicts think, if I can fire my apprentices or anyone who works for me “at will” or make or break a film career on a whim, why can’t I wield my power to touch an actress’s genitals or demand oral sex from a subordinate at will? Is copping a feel worse than ruining somebody’s career for no reason other than because you can and because you just don’t like him or her?
I have always gotten away with it before, Harvey Weinstein thought, Trump thought, all the others thought. Indeed, Trump has gotten away with it, so far. Weinstein and many others have not. Are the moral values of conservatives so much more debased than Hollywood’s?
What is clear is that those with the habit of power are going to have a harder time getting away with it when it comes to sex from now on. Unanimity in denial breeds silence and impunity. But if one individual breaks rank, the floodgates will open unless overwhelming power and punishment are wielded to close to them again. That is what the social psychology studies show and what has been repeated many times throughout history.
With the Weinstein scandal, a dam burst, and the flood has now reached even Capitol Hill, although the women affected there are willing to tell the tales but not to name names. Lingering fear? Compassion?
But it is not only in Denmark, Hollywood, and D.C. where something is rotten in the toxic wake of the Weinstein scandal. Members of the Florida legislature, starting with the powerful GOP Appropriations Committee Chair, Republican Senator Jack Latvala, who intended to run for governor, have been accused of inappropriate sexual conduct by lobbyists or subordinates.
Whether the current scandal definitively breaks the back of the habit of power in the sexual arena is yet to be seen. Even if it does, however, those with unchecked power will continue to abuse subordinates in areas other than sex, like pay and benefits. Because they can.
It’s not a cliché if it’s true, and it still is: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
A Tragic Postscript
As I was finalizing this column, news that I could not ignore broke. On Sunday (Nov. 5), there was yet one more mass gun murder in the United States. At least 26 people lost their lives. This time, it took place in a church in a small town in Texas, a setting that could not be more different than libertine Las Vegas, site of the last horrific slaughter. After the Las Vegas massacre, about which I wrote here, Republicans from the president on down responded by spouting the same horse manure they have used every time a mass shooting occurs. “Time for mourning and empathy, not time to politicize a tragedy. We will talk about gun policy later.” The mañana argument for maintaining an insane gun policy has worked so far. At least one progressive I know was taken in by this cynical spin and hit me with the standard GOP spiel almost word for word.
The reason Republicans and the gun lobby don’t want to talk about gun control in the aftermath of a mass shooting has nothing to do with respect for victims. It has to do with the fact that that’s precisely the moment when their gun-loving laws and views are exposed for what they are: a social pathology that sows murder and mayhem. Let’s not be taken-in by the crocodile tears, the fake compassion, the sophistry. This is exactly the time not just to talk but to act decisively to enact the strictest gun policies that will withstand the scrutiny of this right-wing-dominated Supreme Court.