It’s been a long time coming.
Back in the 1990s, I moonlighted as a journalist at the Jamaica Gleaner, writing a weekly foreign affairs column and sitting on the paper’s editorial advisory committee. This gave me a ringside seat at all the dramas unfolding in global politics. Late in the decade, when US President Bill Clinton was embroiled in an impeachment process over his affair with an intern, that meant we spent a lot of time talking about the sexual peccadilloes of the high and mighty.
When the Clinton scandal broke, I parted company with almost all my progressive friends. I believed, and still do, that Clinton should have either resigned, or been forced out of office by Congressional Democrats.
But mine was, to put it mildly, a minority opinion. The progressive narrative about Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky rapidly took shape: it was a private matter between consenting adults, and the only people objecting to it were prudes jealous of a middle-aged man’s prowess. Yet I had observed a pattern in Clinton’s behaviour. Seldom were the targets of his ‘affections’ women that might be remotely equal in power to him, whether he was a state attorney general or President of the union. Over and over, they tended to be women whose power next to his was all but nil, and who often came from the working class.
For that made it possible for them to be isolated and stamped out in the event they dared go public with a complaint. It was always easy to destroy their reputations and make them look like fools. The few who went public became running-gags on late-night comedy shows; the rest, no doubt, were scared into silence. ‘Drag a $100 bill through a trailer park,’ said the arch-Clintonite James Carville, deriding one of his boss’s accusers, ‘there’s no telling what you’ll find.’ As if coming from a trailer-park somehow made you a lesser person.
Which, I suspected, was the point. At some stage in the evolution of American liberalism, the sexual revolution replaced the industrial one as the acid-test for progressive values. If you objected to the old dog’s behaviour, you were behind the times. But the under-examined subtext to Clintonian liberalism was an aristocratic view of social class. Clinton’s boomer-generation replaced a concern with class oppression, with one that targeted sexual repression.
Because class, to the New Democrats he led, was so passé. In the brave new world their variety of neoliberal globalisation was creating, everyone could rise on the tide being swollen by the opportunities new technology was yielding. Lose your job in a coal-mine? Learn to code, and get rich! ‘What you earn is what you learn’ was one of Clinton’s mantras during his term of office. Silicon Valley, a vital partner to the New Democrats, was going to lead the way into this new age of endless prosperity.
The flipside of this logic, though, was that if you remained poor amid all this new opportunity, it was your own fault. If you opted to remain in some slack-jawed Appalachian hoping the mine one day re-opened, well, you got what you deserved. Those who had prospered in this new era had earned the right to travel the world, pontificating at TED conferences and hob-nobbing at Davos. Those who opted to stay behind – why, they should practically have been thankful that the great men reached out to touch them.
Lèse-majesté. That’s what it was to object to the advances of those who had demonstrated their worth. It was a subtle form of class warfare, perpetrated by the educated middle class that was to be the backbone of the New Left. Abetted by late-night comedians and liberal intellectuals, it gleefully belittled the ‘white trash’ of the working class being pulverised by the neoliberal globalisation enriching this new base of the Democratic Party.
In the wake of the Great Crash of 2008, we’re re-evaluating this neoliberal catechism. In the wake of the Weinstein revolution, meanwhile, the left is re-visiting its defence of Bill Clinton. It was never about sex, many now admit. It was always about power, its abuse, and the devastation of women’s – and, let’s not forget, some men’s – lives for the indulgence of a powerful elite.
But let not Clinton become a sacrificial lamb. I won’t be satisifed if I see some of the people who once demonised his victims stop at a ‘he was wrong’ statement, as if he can take all their sins on some cross they’re finally building for him. Let every so-called progressive who rallied to his defence also issue their own mea culpa – an apology to those he victimised, and to the pool of prospective victims his economic economic policies created. Let liberals finally say: yes, we abandoned you, we failed you, we derided you, and you have every right to despise us.
Then, and only then, let the left then rebuild its shattered relationship with those it was meant to represent.
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