The fallibility of feelings

by Emrys Westacott

A recent article by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, “The Case of Al Franken,”[1]should disturb anyone who places a high value on fairness and rationality. Franken, who first became famous as a comedian, was elected to the US senate from Minnesota in 2008 and soon became a leading and effective advocate of liberal causes. But he resigned from the senate in January, 2018 after being accused of sexual misconduct during his time as a comic actor and writer.

Franken was effectively forced to resign by his fellow Democrats in the senate. At the time, the Me Too movement had recently surged, and feminists everywhere had vociferously criticized Donald Trump’s blatant sexism as well as the revealed sexual misconduct of well-known men like Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, and Louis C.K.. Franken’s colleagues, several of whom expressed profound regret over his resignation afterwards, appear to have believed that if they even acceded to his immediate request for a hearing before a Senate Ethics Committee, they would be open to charges of inconsistency and hypocrisy.

As Mayer’s article makes clear, Franken was largely stitched up by some of his enemies in the right-wing media. A proper hearing would have revealed, for instance, that:

  • His main accuser, Leeann Tweeden, was a close friend of the extreme right-wing talk show host Sean Hannity.
  • Many of her claims were demonstrably false (e.g. that he wrote a kissing scene especially so that he could kiss her; and that after he had kissed her once in that skit, she never let him near her again)
  • The release of Tweeden’s accusation was carefully plotted, with no attempt to fact check any of her claims or discuss them with Franken.
  • Alleged accusations by other women were either not corroborated or were extraordinarily thin (e.g. one woman said she once thought that Franken was planning to kiss her, and that made her feel “uneasy.”

The rush to judgement, the denial of any sort of due process, and the willingness to place perceived short-term political concerns ahead of principles of justice are all deeply disappointing in this case. But to my mind, the most disturbing item in Mayer’s article is a statement made by New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a friend of Franken who, nevertheless, called for his resignation. Referring to Franken’s accusers, Gillibrand said, “the women who came forward felt it was sexual harassment. So it was.” Read more »