Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Lies

In case you somehow missed it, the recent downfall of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein has set into motion a maelstrom of accusations of sexual misconduct against men in positions of power, especially in the fields of entertainment, politics, and journalism. At the start of this writing, the latest man to fall is journalist and TV personality Charlie Rose. I have little doubt that before I finish this piece, there will be others.

The public reaction to these revelations has been inconsistent to say the least, ranging from disappointment and disgust, to outright denial and counter accusations of the accusers. In one particularly disturbing case, that of Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore, the suspect's alleged crimes have been generally accepted, yet have been overlooked by many voters and officials in his state, including the governor. Apparently to them, voting for a child molester is more appealing than voting for a Democrat.

Of course not all sexual predators and their crimes are created equal. Some are accused of committing the most heinous violations of decency, not to mention the law, namely child molestation and rape, while others are accused of lesser, but still serious indiscretions of predatory behavior. Yet public reaction to these men and their acts, seems to be determined more by who they are and what they stand for, rather than what they supposedly did.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that folks on the left, those who claim at least to champion women's rights, would be less than forgiving of sexual predators, including the ones whom they support in the case of politicians, or are fans of in the case of entertainers. It's unlikely for example that the careers of liberal darlings such as actor Kevin Spacey or comedian Louis C.K. will ever recover after the darker sides of those individuals were publicly revealed. By contrast, Donald Trump was elected president, despite his infamous comments bragging about abusing women, and over a dozen accusations against him of the very same. It should be noted that the current president has denied all charges against him and claimed that his recorded comments were simply manly braggadocio, not at all uncommon "locker room talk" as he called it. Roy Moore also denies the allegations against him. By contrast, both Spacey and C.K..admitted their wrongdoings, at least to an extent. 

While the actor and the comedian's careers look to be toast, at least for the moment, the jury of public opinion is still out on Senator Al Franken whose feet are planted firmly in both the political and entertainment worlds. Franken who is one of the most outspoken U.S. senators against the current administration, was accused of making unwanted sexual advances against a fellow performer, Leean Tweeden, who was traveling with him on a USO tour to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2006. What his accuser described in detail, if accurate, would constitute assault, a serious crime. She also produced a photograph taken aboard a military plane showing Franken grabbing at her breasts while she was asleep, his head turned to the camera bearing a lascivious grin.

After the accusations were made, unlike Trump and Moore, Franken immediately apologised saying that while his memory of the events did not exactly jibe with those of his accuser, he still made egregious mistakes for which he was ashamed. He then called for an official ethics inquiry into the events in question. Surprisingly Tweeden said that would not be necessary. Interestingly enough, an inquiry would require testimony under oath. You can read into that whatever you like.

The president, who probably would be best not to weigh into the sexual escapades of others so as not to appear as the pot calling the kettle black, nevertheless tweeted about Franken's problems:

The Al Frankenstien picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words. Where do his hands go in pictures 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 while she sleeps?

From that comment, and the comments of right wing pundits, it would appear that it is not the word of the accuser that matters, notice Trump did not mention the alleged assault, he mentions only what appears in the photograph, and what he imagined to have taken place after the picture was taken. In other words, Roy Moore (and Trump) may have had dozens of women make allegations against them, but what they didn't have, was a photograph depicting their indiscretions. You can deny accusations to your heart's content, but you cannot deny what is depicted in a photograph.

But having spent nearly half a century directly involved in the medium of photography, I can tell you most assuredly this: because of the verisimilitude of the photographic image, photography can lie like no other medium. Several years ago I wrote a post about the most controversial photograph taken in New York City on September 11, 2001. There is nothing fake about the photograph, it is a straight image presented without any undue editing or alteration. The picture depicts five young adults sitting along the bank of the East River in Brooklyn, engaged in what appears to be casual conversation, as smoke billows from the site of where the World Trade Center stood just hours before. The photograph wasn't published until five years after the event. Upon its publication, viewers were aghast at the seeming indifference to the tragedy unfolding right before their eyes in the attitudes of the people depicted in the photograph. An intrepid reporter for Slate Magazine tracked down two of the people in the picture and discovered that while their gestures did not replicate the faces of disbelief and terror of the people photographed in lower Manhattan on that terrible day, they were anything but indifferent to the situation that was going on around them. The interpretation of the picture by both the photographer who snapped the photo then moved on without talking to his subjects, and the assumptions of writers who used the picture to illustrate the seeming lack of empathy in the American psyche, got it completely wrong. You can read my post about that photograph here.

Now it would be a fallacy to claim that the photograph of a leering Al Franken appearing to grab a women's boobs while she slept, is anything less than creepy, inappropriate, and demeaning to women. But if we are going to take the word of a photograph over the testimony of women as the president suggests, it would stand to reason that we might question the word of the accuser as to what was actually going on in the photograph. Could it be for example, as someone who was present at the event has suggested, that Tweeden was actually in on the gag and not really asleep? From the photograph alone, we simply can't tell.

Where folks on the right seem to always question the motives of women who charge men of sexually assaulting them, especially if the accused happen to be right wing politicians, folks on the left seem to always, and I mean always believe the women without question. This article that appeared on the website Medium, written by S. Novi, suggests both sides are wrongheaded, that we need to take a critical approach in evaluating the credence of such claims. The writer suggests that yes, it is indeed conceivable that a woman may bring false charges against a man.

She goes on to suggest that the charges against Franken are a setup. In her piece provocatively enough titled Al Franken: The Obvious Setup and Liberals Took the Bait, Novi points out that Franken's accuser is under the employ of Fox Network, and a frequent guest of Fox News's Sean Hannity, the commentator who serves as the personal mouthpiece for Donald Trump. Then there was Republican strategist Roger Stone spilling the beans about Al Franken's "time in a barrel." Stone tweeted the following, twelve hours before Leean Tweeden came forward with her allegations:

Franken next in long list of Democrats to be accused of `grabby’ behavior.”

This is all purely circumstantial of course; working for an ultra right wing media outlet and perhaps having a motive for making up the charges against a notable left wing adversary, does not mean in the least that the accuser was not assaulted by Al Franken. Nor does Roger Stone's remarkable clairvoyance. Nor do the photographs that surfaced of Tweeden on that same USO trip, grabbing the butt of a country singer as he performed on stage, or catching a GI unawares and kissing him passionately. These are photographs, and as we have seen, photographs can be interpreted any way you like. Leeann Tweeden's actions in those photographs as many Franken apologists would have you believe, have absolutely nothing to do with her charges against Franken. No means no period, and if Franken did indeed kiss her without her consent during a rehearsal and in the process stick his tongue down her throat as she alleges, he is guilty of a crime, and should probably be removed from the Senate.

But as the right keeps pointing out, one of Roy Moore's accusers was a woman who worked for Hillary Clinton and had a clear motive for making salacious charges against the candidate on the eve of an election. Yes I thought that was a bit suspicious at first. In that same vein, a certain thread of incredulity runs through my mind about the charges against Al Franken.

However in the Roy Moore case, my suspicions were put to rest after several other woman of varying backgrounds and political bents come out and accused Moore as well, not to mention practically the entire town of Gadsden, Alabama where Moore while in his thirties, served as a prosecutor.  It was no secret in town that Roy Moore liked to frequent the local shopping mall to prey on teenage girls.

I will not go as far as Ms. Novi in suggesting that Tweeden's charges against Al Franken are an obvious setup. We'll never know for sure what happened of course, it could all come down to the word of one person over another. Franken admits to at least a certain amount of impropriety and has expressed contrition, which in my book is the basic requirement for forgiveness. He knows his base at least as well as Donald Trump knows his and may end up throwing himself at the mercy of that base in deciding his fate. For all his shortcomings, Al Franken's base knows that as a U.S. senator, he is a tireless worker on behalf of women's rights as well as other issues desperately important to them.

Franken also may have gotten the last laugh, as having come clean and knowing exactly what happened during that trip, he can honestly testify before an inquiry under oath without fear of perjuring himself.

Who knows if the same can be said for his accuser.

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