Harvey Weinstein. Photo: Getty
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The Harvey Weinstein allegations are monstrous. But it’s not just monsters who harass women

How many men have read the news this last week and reassured themselves – come on, I'm not as bad as that guy?

It was initially very hard to say anything bad about Harvey Weinstein. He was protected by battalions of lawyers and his formidable status as a Hollywood power-broker. In those circumstances, a kind of collective delusion took over. That’s just what Harvey does. You don’t have to do what he wants; just don’t say explicitly “no”. And the flippant response, somehow recasting these frightened, coerced women as ungrateful and insufficiently ambitious: hey, I would do a lot more than that to become a movie star! 

It is now very easy to say something bad about Harvey Weinstein. The trickle of stories has become a torrent; he’s left his company, which is now dissolving; his brother has virtually disowned him; and a lot of actors are putting all that practice they got making Gracious Loser Face at the Oscars into showing how shocked – shocked! – they are to hear these rumours for the very absolutely completely first time ever. 

But if Weinstein is now the bogeyman – the pure embodiment of a particular kind of evil – that brings its own dangers. One of the bleakest things I’ve read recently was the news that group therapy sessions in prisons for sexual offenders may increase reoffending. When you put a bunch of rapists together, the message that some take away is this: oh, I’m not so deviant after all. And anyway, that guy is worse. “Group treatment may ‘normalise’ individuals’ behaviour: when stories are shared, their behaviour may not be seen as wrong or different,” the Ministry of Justice report found.

The response to the Weinstein coverage has borne this out. Over the last week, my phone has lit up with female journalists silently screaming: have you seen him decrying Weinstein? The hypocrite! 

In private, there has been a cathartic outpouring of Bastards We Have Known. The colleague who texted a friend of mine, Ros Urwin of the Standard, promising that “before I die, I will kiss every freckle on your lips”. The man who told my colleague Amelia Tait that she'd have to have sex to get ahead. The sub-editor who stalked a junior member of his team, turning up outside restaurants she was at with her boyfriend. The magazine journalist who developed an obsession with a female colleague and put her on late shifts to ruin her social life. The arts journalist who would take out new colleagues for a “welcome drink” at his London club – where they’d discover he had a room booked upstairs. The guy who put his hands down a colleague’s trousers at the Christmas party. More than one man in journalism, feeling spurned, has taken to ringing his love interest’s doorbell late at night. 

A few things to note: no, I’m not naming names. These aren’t my stories to tell, and I don’t have proof – not the kind that would satisfy a libel lawyer. But I believe the women involved, as the alternative explanation is that there is a great wave of fantasists working in the British media, and all their lies independently converge on the same set of tropes. An older man with more power, a younger, newer colleague who is unsure of the rules of the workplace, or even just the rules of the new world of journalism she (or sometimes he) has just entered. Sexual harassment is about status, in the same way rape is about power. Now I’m in my 30s, it’s tempting to think the problem is solved, rather than merely diminished from a generation ago, when a newspaper editor could point to his secretary and say “I’d like to put my knob in you”. Then I talk to younger women and see that it’s not. I’ve just graduated from the target group. 

Second, most of the harassers I’ve heard about are still working in journalism. Forget Woody Allen’s preposterous warning against witch-hunts, unless witch-hunts involve discreetly paying off the witch or quietly moving the person who has been turned into a frog to another part of the building. The consequences are limited.

Third, this behaviour poisons everything it touches. In environments where a predator reigns, women are divided into the harassed and the ignored. “In so many cases, men who sexually harass women struggle to register the existence of those other women, the useless ones,” wrote journalist Marie Le Conte recently. “Some days you’re the tits, some days you’re the ghost; you really can’t win.”

I hope that social media campaigns like “#MeToo”– where women share their own experiences – can expose the sheer size of the problem. But it frustrates me that these conversations dwell so heavily on women’s actions and reactions without asking the hard questions of men. True bravery would be a wave of guys acknowledging their own record of shitty jokes, casual sexism, disbelief and apathy, even if only among themselves. #MeToo indeed.

Let’s focus on the real question: why did all these guys do it? I would lay blame on a culture where the script of “romance” often involves a pursuit, with an unwilling target eventually melted by the force of a man’s ardour. I’d blame a culture of entitlement, where some men think that they are owed women’s attention. I’d blame male-dominated office cultures, where a few loud arseholes can set the entire tone, and industries run by powerful men, and run on an endless supply of powerless women.

And I blame the Weinstein problem: the fact that many harassers see harassment as limited to grotesque abuses of power, whereas their own actions can be excused as merely a case of misread signals, inept attempts at seduction, harmless flirting. They hear the Weinstein stories and think: Oh, I’m not so deviant after all. And anyway, that guy is worse.

To give an example from my own life. Before university, I worked in a load of random, low-paid jobs. In one of them, the teenage me was alone in a vast room with my fiftysomething boss when he joked about a task only taking 15 minutes. “Mind you,” he added. “Fifteen minutes. That’s enough to get you pregnant.” That I can remember that single sentence now, half a lifetime later, might give you some idea of how profoundly uncomfortable it was, like the ground slipping suddenly beneath my feet. What comes next? A grab, a tussle, my surrender to get it over with? Or nothing at all, just a lingering feeling of disquiet, and my shame at joining the grisly pantomime that this was all good fun?  

This is why women “can’t take a joke”. It’s because we don’t know, can never know, if it is just a joke, or if the joke is just the first sign of something else – a warning sign we will later curse ourselves for ignoring. You know that twitchy quality that rabbits have? It’s because they know they are prey. Young women know they are too.

Yet funnily enough, I already know the response some will have to my story: chill out, snowflake, it’s not FGM, is it? Yes, on the creepy Richter scale, one tone-deaf comment is barely a tremor. But why do some people feel obliged to defend what is at best, unprofessional behaviour? Do they get equally exercised about the right to be repeatedly late, to miss crucial meetings, to turn up smelling of whisky? No, they don’t. So what principle are they really defending here? 

They want to preserve the status quo, the rules of the world as it is, where they know what they can and can’t get away with, where the line is drawn, where the ground doesn't suddenly shift under their feet in a fleeting exchange between two people. Wouldn’t it be terrible, they say, if you couldn’t go to dinner with a member of the opposite sex without being on your guard? Yes, reply women, that would be terrible. Oh no, wait, wrong tense – it is.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions

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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.