(Illustration courtesy Edward Camp)
When I was in high school, we were assigned a novel called THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, by Walter Van Tilburg Clark.
It’s about three cowboys who are accused of cattle rustling and murder. While the cowboys insist on their innocence, a vigilante posse is convinced of their guilt. The vigilantes outnumber the cowboys, so they get the upper hand. The cowboys are hanged after a long night of drunken accusations and brutality. After the vigilantes commit their dirty deed and ride home, they’re stunned by what they discover: the cowboys were innocent after all.
The book is fiction, but it was my introduction to several life realities: warped vigilante justice…the concept of “court of public opinion” … the behavioral trait where people will do things in a group which they wouldn’t normally do alone (mob mentality) …and the idea that the majority in a democracy is not necessarily right. I’ve never forgotten the book. If you don’t like to read, you should at least see the movie, starring Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, and Anthony Quinn. It will stay with you.
Clark published THE OX-BOW INCIDENT in 1940. The 1943 movie was nominated for Best Picture. One would think such a powerful story would offer a moral lesson to those who would rush to judgment. But in the late 1940s and 1950s, America underwent the Hollywood blacklist and McCarthy hearings, a demagogic, Cold War smear campaign to hunt down alleged Communists. Careers were permanently destroyed.
In 1950, a slow-witted man in England, Timothy Evans, was tried, convicted, and executed for mass murder, despite later being found innocent. His case contributed to England’s abolishment of the death penalty. The U.S. is now the only Western nation to execute prisoners, despite numerous death row inmates later being exonerated.
Currently, America is in the throes of public figures being accused of sexual misconduct. The entire reality show is sad and tawdry, a perfect second course to last year’s election. For some people, though, it’s a form of gladiatorial entertainment.
The latest name to fall from grace is author and radio personality Garrison Keillor, accused by an unidentified woman of sexual misconduct.
I usually walk the other way when I see sensational “soft” news like this. While I definitely don’t belittle the problem of sexual misconduct, obviously more widespread than anyone could have imagined, I’m more concerned about things like health care, income inequity, environmental degradation, and gun deaths. I know only a few details in the cases involving Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, John Conyers, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and Al Franken. The reason I’m writing about Keillor is because for many years, off and on, I’ve listened to his live radio show A Prairie Home Companion, one of the best programs on radio.
Another reason is that, whether Keillor’s guilty or innocent, there are some troubling signs.
On November 29, Keillor was suddenly fired by Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), after 42 years of employment, for alleged improper conduct with a woman. The station had hired a law firm back in October to independently investigate allegations. Both the law firm and MPR have been silent about the details. Not so Keillor, who retired from A Prairie Home Companion last year.
“I put my hand on a woman’s bare back,” Keillor explained. “I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness, and her shirt was open and my hand went up it about six inches. She recoiled. I apologized…We continued to be friendly right up until her lawyer called.”
On Facebook, Keillor commented “It’s astonishing that 50 years of hard work can be trashed in a morning by an accusation.”
MPR didn’t just fire Keillor. Similar to what happened to late football coach Joe Paterno at Penn State University after the child sex abuse scandal, it’s trying to erase all evidence of his presence, including cancelling rebroadcasts of his old shows, removing them from the MPR website, and canceling production and distribution of his syndicated series The Writer’s Almanac.
It’s almost assured that, after MPR’s actions, listenership for A Prairie Home Companion will suffer collateral damage and decline. Keillor’s already been consigned to the Bill Cosby Memorial Landfill, so this won’t be punishing him. Similar to what happened at Penn State, when NCAA sanctions punished students, alumni, and fans, listeners of A Prairie Home Companion will be punished. The show, now hosted by Chris Thile, may end up dying a slow death.
Additionally, PBS recently pulled an episode featuring Keillor from its “Finding Your Roots” genealogy series. Venues around the country are also canceling prescheduled shows with Keillor. Berkshire Theatre Group in Massachusetts was one, commenting that it “finds all victimization of people deplorable.”
(Does “all victimization” include Keillor and listeners of A Prairie Home Companion ?)
Just so no one thinks I’m excusing Garrison Keillor and downplaying this woman’s suffering, I’ll emphasize that he may indeed be guilty of more than just sliding his hand across a woman’s back to console her. In which case he deserves everything he gets. But he also may be innocent. No one knows the truth at this point except Keillor and the woman (or women). Not even MPR.
My problem is MPR fired him without ever consulting him about the allegations (at least, that the public is aware of). They and others also want to erase any evidence of Keillor. Though still a far cry, this expunging of history nevertheless has the whiff of Nazism and the dystopian worlds of Kafka and Orwell.
Once more in America in this age of tweet-friendly soundbites, a new term has been coined: “outrage machine.” But if there truly is outrage, how is it possible a man can be elected to the presidency after incontrovertible evidence of misogyny and sexually inappropriate behavior? Are we a nation of hypocrites?
If my wife or daughter were the victim of sexual harassment, I’d be at their sides in a heartbeat. At work, I’ve participated in ethics training. A good chunk of this training involves how to associate and how not to associate with employees of the opposite sex.
Some things are obvious. You don’t invite female co-workers to your bachelor pad to watch X-rated actors like “Long Dong Silver,” like one of our Supreme Court justices reputedly did (and I emphasize “reputedly”). You don’t grab them in their private parts, like our sleazeball president advised men to do (and here, I’ll emphasize definitively advised).
But there’s a large grey area (philosophical, not physical). One person’s idea of harassment could be another person’s attempt at being friendly or compassionate. There’s also the dating game. How many times can an employee request a date without it being considered “harassment”? Three times? Twice? Or should it be absolutely forbidden to request social time with an employee of the opposite sex?
Can you compliment someone on their outfit or hair? If she’s feeling depressed, can you put your hand on her shoulder? If so, does the shoulder have to be clothed, or can it be bare? Can you move your hand slightly while it’s on this bare shoulder?
I’m not being facetious, I’m totally sincere. Judging from what’s happened lately, I think we now need to ask ourselves these questions. How are we going to define sexual misconduct? Should an office manager now be concerned about smiling at a co-worker? Could a friendly smile be construed as a sexually suggestive “leer”?
Garrison Keillor’s guilt or innocence isn’t the point of my essay. My point is that, even before all evidence and testimony are in, and despite his denial of sexual misconduct, he’s been hung by the neck in the court of public opinion. The court here includes Minnesota Public Radio; all those who have cancelled his future appearances (some adding editorial spice, like Berkshire Theatre Group); and various journalistic sharks around the country who smell blood.
The Republican Party, dominated by white males, is completely out to lunch regarding the problem of sexual misconduct by public figures. The Keillor story is the opposite extreme: knee-jerk liberals anxious to judge, convict, execute, and expunge all traces of a man who didn’t even get the opportunity to defend himself. And I say this as a liberal.
The idea is to discourage and punish sexual misconduct. You aim for the bullseye. But you don’t pull back on the string until the bow’s ready to snap. Otherwise, you miss the target completely. And you could do a lot of harm in the process.