You Can Still Call Him Al
I have a wide range of thoughts about Al Franken resigning from the Senate. I don't know how much of that people will agree with -- but then I'm not sure of all my own thoughts on it. The one thing I do know is that I find it a very convoluted situation.
For starters, though, I completely understand why he resigned. As I wrote a couple weeks ago, he did some things that were wrong and thoughtless. The initial photograph incident was intended to be a joke -- but it was a bad joke, hurtful, and he deserved criticism. And he wrote a long, thoughtful and understanding apology.
The other incidents were problematic, though all unnamed off-the-record and more difficult to know what was actually done and what the accusations actually were. Were they inappropriate or misunderstandings? I don't know, but the women say they felt uncomfortable, whatever actually occurred, and it's important to accept that.
And I understand too that the Senate should hold itself to a higher standard. And so it's a good thing to send a strong message to the public that any sort of inappropriate sexual behavior won't be tolerated, even by our top elected officials. Perhaps especially by our top elected officials. And Al Franken resigning for that sends a good and important message. And I wouldn't be surprised if knowing that is at least part of why he did resign.
On the other hand --
When all instances of inappropriate sexual behavior get lumped together, that can be problematic. The difference between putting your hand on a woman's rear when taking a picture in contrast to intentionally committing sexual assault and abusing your power as an authority figure is a gulf almost too wide for comparison. The former is wrong, but it is not even remotely why sexual harassment has become such an important issue, nor why Time magazine named the "Silence Breakers" as its Persons of the Year, nor why the MeToo phenomenon was created. The problem when you conflate it all together is that, on the one hand, it lessens the worse crimes (and I mean "crimes" literally, physical attacks that are specifically against the law) by softening them alongside "poor behavior," while on the other hand it egregiously damns poor behavior by connecting it with intentional heinous criminal acts. I suspect all the people sexually abused or sexually attacked or raped by Harvey Weinstein, Brett Ratner, Charlie Rose, Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, Mark Halperin, Steven Seagal, Olympic doctor Larry Nasser, Roy Moore, Donald J. Trump and ALL the others in professions and settings everywhere would, if given a choice between one or the other, look at "putting a hand on my rear" as a trade they'd take any and every day, wrong as it is.
As for the Senate holding itself to a higher standard, honestly I'm not sure if Congress has ever been held to a high standard, at the very least since perhaps 1809. The public hold Congress to a paltry approval of around 18% these days, yet horribly low as that is it doesn't even have anything to do with sexual impropriety, but just general historical worldwide mistrust of politicians, seeing them as lying, hypocritical and selling their vote to the highest-paying bidder. I do like that people think Congress should try to be held to a higher standard -- on everything. I just think if every congressman who had committed even the slightest sexual impropriety resigned tomorrow, Congress would maybe come out of it with a 21% approval. And that only because of the margin of error,
There's another thing. Al Franken admitted his actions, openly apologized for them even when saying his memory of them didn't match those of his un-named accusers, and called for an ethics investigation of himself. And there's something that strikes me as problematic when he is the one who resigns, while a Donald J. Trump calls all 16 of his accusers liars and threatens to sue them all despite their corroborating stories and he remains firmly in office without a single call for resignation from his own party, and a Roy Moore insists he doesn't even know any of the nine women accusing him of child molestation, despite at least two of them having handwritten notes from him, and he not only stands on the verge of winning a seat to the U.S. Senate while being funded by the Republican National Committee. Franken resigning sends an awful message for being honest and open, when that get penalized, and deceit is rewarded.
Finally, there has to be a better way to dole out penalties. We're told that a difficulty with Congress as opposed to the business world is that a company can fire an employee who commits bad acts, but the House and Senate can't fire an elected official. A few thoughts about that --
First, businesses don't just fire an employee who does something wrong. Some just get suspended. Or get demoted. Or transferred. Or have their pay cut. Or get a reprimand. So, there are a great many levels of action to take. And second, the House and Senate actually do have ways of addressing problems short of expulsion or resignation, but never take them up or create them as an option. An elected official who has done something worthy of rebuke, for instance, can have his or her seats on committees removed, weakening the person's effectiveness. A rule could be passed to have their franking privileges removed or reduced (no pun intended, that's its name), meaning the official would then have to pay for his mailings to constituents out of her or her own pocket. A political party could decide they wouldn't provide re-election campaign money to a senator or congressman who transgressed. Any or all of these together would be serious hardships on an elected official. Or any other number of actions that would be serious penalties in a senator or congressman's efforts to be effective and keep their job, which the public back home could decide on -- either at election time or by early recall. The point being there has to be something in the middle ground besides "keep your job" or "resign."
I understand why Al Franken resigned. He acted poorly -- or badly. Yet in some way, by resigning, he may have even done an intentionally respectable thing by taking responsibility. And maybe the punishment did fit the act. (I was going to say, "fit the crime," as the expression goes, except none of it was. in fact, a crime.) Or maybe there was a better middle ground. At the very least, it does present very loudly, clearly and importantly the reality that inappropriate sexual actions can have consequences in the highest of places.
But it's galling that someone did the right thing for very real but lesser acts and lost his job, despite charges from unnamed sources -- and a serial sexual abuser and a child molester, both with public accusers on the record, stay on the national stage, supported by their parties.
I understand that life isn't fair. So be it. It just makes you work harder. But still, you just wish that sometimes it wasn't sick.
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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