Journal of the Plague Year 2020: I Forgive Joe Biden

I’ve talked a lot of smack about Vice President Joe Biden in these pages, mostly because of his mishandling of Anita Hill’s allegations against then-nominee, and later Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Specifically I’ve said that he shielded a man who was clearly unfit for the Supreme Court, and humiliated a Black woman who came forward with serious, believable allegations of sexual harassment.

After watching an extended Pod Save America interview with Biden, I accept his apology, and will support him as the Democratic nominee for President. Here’s why.

My reasons for hating him were simple. He allowed members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to smear Anita Hill publicly with vile, insinuating questions. The apologies of his that I’d read came across as the classic, male “I’m sorry her feelings were hurt,” which ignores the seriousness of the incident, and the impact on women who watched the proceedings and realized, Yup, they’ll crucify you for speaking up. You’ll be humiliated and shamed, and he’ll be elevated to the highest court in the land, and nothing will change. If, as he’s always maintained, he believed her and thought the allegations were important, he didn’t have the savvy or power as committee chair to control the proceedings. Either he didn’t care, or he got owned, and neither is impressive in a Presidential candidate.

Here’s what I needed to see:

Not an apology, but genuine remorse, and understanding of the larger significance of the episode. All too often, men act as if one unlucky woman felt offended or got her feelings hurt. That sucks, but it ignores the bigger problem: Women face harassment every day on the job, and are paid less to do the same work. Sex discrimination is an endemic civil rights issue — one the courts often address — not just a misunderstanding between two employees.

Second, I wanted to hear what he learned about political power and the processes of the Senate. He got rolled by the Republicans on the committee. My favorite President is Lyndon B. Johnson, because he rammed through the Voting Rights Act and broke the Ku Klux Klan. Reader, I’m sick of letting amateurs run the country. We need a president who knows how to acquire and wield political power, and who has intimate knowledge of the workings of government.

Finally, I wanted to see the famous Biden empathy in action. It’s easy to tear up and express your sorrow for someone who looks like you and has experienced a loss you understand. It’s harder to demonstrate that you care about, say, a Black woman who has been demeaned in ways you won’t be, and publicly vilified using terms that will never be applied to you as the white, male Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It’s a simple test, really. Do you want to be President for all Americans, or just the slice of the population that you like and understand?

Joe delivered on all points. I forgive him. I even got a little choked up watching it.

The interview starts with my political crush, Jon Lovett, teasing Biden about seeming to challenge Donald Trump to a fistfight. Biden replied by placing his remark in context. I’d forgotten that he said it in reply to Dear Leader’s “Grab ’em by the pussy” boast. From there, Biden went on to explain that he thinks men have a responsibility to confront and stop abuse. He talked about an initiative he led to encourage bystanders to intervene, and gave several examples. He comes across as a bit old-school and chivalrous, which, frankly, I like.

Feelings aside, I’ve researched and worked on rape and domestic violence for more than 30 years, and one of the most irritating fucking things is the narrow focus on what victims can do — or, better, should have done — to stop rape, domestic violence and harassment. Rapists and abusers choose victims who are in their power. They single out women whom they can fire, or who are physically small, or drunk, or who are little girls. They isolate their victims, and use violence, threats and the element of surprise to stack the deck. What happens in the workplace is more subtle, but the same principle holds. Women get harassed, demeaned and paid less because they don’t have the power, information or resources to defend themselves.

I think of this as the Louis C.K. Principle. A brilliant comedian is sitting around with a junior, female colleague on tour, and just happens to take his cock out and start masturbating. The problem is not that the victim was unprepared, or too sensitive, or didn’t handle it well, or should have known that he always does that. It’s that he whipped his dick out. It’s patently unreasonable to expect her to get his dick back into his pants and make him keep it there.

It’s absurd to think that women can solve rape, harassment, abuse and discrimination without male allies who actively take our part. I feel this particularly strongly because my branch of engineering is 85-90% male. Once you get into management, it’s even worse. I’ve been a team lead for three projects now, and I’ve been the only female engineering lead on all three. I consistently have the lowest pay grade and salary in the room. Is it really reasonable to think that I can solve Women in Engineering in my spare time while I’m planning and executing flight tests? Give me a fucking break.

So, yeah. I really liked that Biden said men have a unique responsibility, not just to refrain from crime, but to protect and support women.

After that, he was asked specifically about the Hill-Thomas hearings. He explained in some detail why he permitted the questions he did, and how the Senate rules don’t shield witnesses from certain lines of inquiry. He didn’t have an easy answer, but he acknowledge that he failed in his duty as chair. I respect that. We’re all learning on the job, often when stakes are high and we’re unprepared.

The interview covers lots of other material — his cancer initiative under Obama, the qualities needed in a National Security Adviser. After an hour, I came away thinking, yeah, he has a solid moral core, and he knows how to govern.

For me, this speaks to the larger question of how public figures redeem mistakes and misdeeds. Powerful people have big opportunities to fuck up. I respect that, and I don’t expect perfection. What I expect is growth, hard work, and genuine concern. People shouldn’t have to suffer permanent banishment, but they should have to put in some work, and be prepared to show it. As a rule of thumb, I’d like to see an abuser or enabler work at least half as hard the the victim has to.

I believe that Biden did. That’s why he has my support in November.

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