The Wieseltier Moment -- a Tipping Point
By Robert Kuttner | Oct 25, 2017
With the ouster of Leon Wieseltier for a long, sordid history of hitting on young women who worked in junior positions at The New Republic where he was literary editor for three decades, the women’s movement has achieved a goal that has eluded it for centuries. Powerful men, famous or not, are no longer exempt from being held accountable. Masses of women are willing to tell their stories. Boards of directors are compelled to act.
It was one thing for celebrity offenders to fall from grace—Cosby, Weinstein, et al. Leon Wieseltier is not a major celebrity, except perhaps in his own eyes. He’s a literary intellectual, who was about to launch a new quarterly magazine called Idea, underwritten by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs.
Wieseltier, with the appropriate literary flourish, issued an abject mea culpa:
For my offenses against some of my colleagues in the past I offer a shaken apology and ask for their forgiveness. The women with whom I worked are smart and good people. I am ashamed to know that I made any of them feel demeaned and disrespected. I assure them that I will not waste this reckoning.
Presumably he was aware of these serial offenses and shames before they went public? Maybe not.
It wasn’t enough to save his neck. When the litany of complaints surfaced, his benefactor Powell Jobs not only fired Wieseltier but killed the magazine.
When most regular people outside literary circles read the stories, their reaction was …. Leon who? But if Wieseltier can be held accountable, so will many thousands of others.
All over America today, men who held positions of power that they abused sexually two or ten or 20 years ago, are feeling just sick. You never know which former underling will decide to speak up, and whose heads will roll.
That includes college professors, executives of middling enterprises, managers of fast-food joints, directors of nonprofits—anyone and everyone. It’s about time.
This is an epochal tipping point. There will be a long overdue reckoning, and then maybe—maybe—men in positions of power will stop doing this, or at least think very hard about the risks. And women—all women—will feel, and be, newly empowered.
Virtue is said to be its own reward. In this case, virtue is also conducive to sound sleep for men who did not abuse their positions of power for sexual favors or coercions.
In social revolutions, change comes very slowly, and then abruptly. But the deeper change will be behavioral. Consensual hanky-panky will not end, but when there is an imbalance of power there is no such thing as consensual.
Wieseltier’s public shaming will be the first of many such falls from grace of non-celebrity offenders. And more men will behave more decently, or at least more prudently.