KEVIN LEININGER: New sex scandals should prompt reassessment of old morality, but probably won’t

Former Saturday Night Live comedian and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken has apologized for groping Leann Tweeden as she slept during a USO tour years ago. (AP photo)
Kevin Leininger

When the 91-year–old founder of Playboy Magazine died in September, the New York Times explored his cultural impact in a story headlined “Hugh Hefner, a force for good? Discuss.” The paper evidently was struggling with the dichotomy of a man who “rebranded the objectification of women as both intellectual and cute” while backing such progressive causes as the equal-rights amendment and abortion rights.

Subsequent sexual-harassment allegations involving numerous high-profile entertainers, politicians and media figures made the tension between personal character and partisan expediency even more obvious as people on both sides of the political spectrum have embarrassed themselves by appearing to excuse bad behavior for the good of the cause.

Let’s be clear: There is nothing particularly unusual about voting for a personally unpleasant candidate on the basis of political philosophy. Donald Trump, Bill Clinton and others have been elected by voters who considered the opponent’s beliefs more objectionable than their preferred candidates’ obvious character flaws. But for all the soul-searching by people who now admit Clinton’s accusers should not have been dismissed as self-serving trailer trash, many others continue to judge actions not by their intrinsic morality but by the politics of the person committing them.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called on fellow Democrat and Michigan Rep. John Conyers to resign following allegations of sexual harassment, but a week ago she was far more supportive of the man she called an “icon” of women’s rights. Sen. Al Franken has also been accused of harassment, but Huffpost contributor G.S. Potter said the Los Angeles journalist who first accused the Minnesota Democrat of unwanted groping was simply trying to use “the traumas of the women and children that have been the true victims of sexual violence” for personal or political gain.

In Alabama, meanwhile, some have come close to suggesting Christians have a duty to vote for Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore despite allegations of sexual misconduct with minors. “You know (Moore’s) family, his character, his principles, his heritage and his commitment to God and the importance of righteousness to secure a future and a hope for our nation,” wrote Rev. Rusty Lee Thomas, national director of Operation Save America.

Most of us have done things we’re not proud of — I certainly have — and should guard against hypocrisy and sanctimony when criticizing or questioning other people’s character or motives. But we should be equally careful not to engage in selective morality. An action is not rendered more or less appropriate, or the target more or less worthy of protection, by virtue of the politics of the people involved.

The fact that so many people apparently were aware of problems but did nothing to expose them until the dam had already broken illustrates a certain degree of fear but also a willingness to excuse alleged perpetrators who would otherwise be considered “good people.” If the almost-daily new reports cause would-be sexual abusers to behave or would-be victims to resist or come forward more quickly, that is a good thing.

It is always important to guard against mob justice, however, and distinctions must not be minimized. There are important gradations between inappropriate jokes, unwanted touching, creepy behavior, on-the-the job sexual harassment and outright rape, just as allegations are not proof. Has homespun Public Radio commentator Garrison Keillor really been fired for doing nothing more serious than putting his hand on a woman’s bare back, as he insists? As in all the other allegations, the facts should be allowed to speak for themselves.

Perhaps the most obvious lesson from all of this is the one many seem most eager to ignore, and it takes things full circle back to Hefner. Sexual misconduct obviously predates Playboy’s debut in 1953, but the sexual revolution Hefner exploited and fostered inarguably made it more socially acceptable and, therefore, more public. Old moral standards intended to protect the virtue of “ladies” became obsolete remnants of Victorian sexism, along with the expectation males behave as “gentlemen.” But efforts to impose good behavior from the outside are inevitably less effective than self-control.

The irony is that champions of the new morality are most oblivious to its meaning. Hefner had no choice but to champion abortion; having become rich and famous by turning the girl next door into a naked, airbrushed centerfold, he could hardly hide from the inevitable consequences. Now, at last, it seems neither can anyone else.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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