02:28, July 09 187 0 theguardian.com

2019-07-09 02:28:07
#MeToo isn't over yet. Ask Jeffrey Epstein

When convicted child molester Jeffrey Epstein’s plane touched down at Teterboro airport on Saturday, the FBI was waiting.

The southern district of New York had indicted him with conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of dozens of underage girls, and the louche financier was going to the slammer for the moment at least. He’d escaped essentially scot-free from federal charges ten years ago. Why now? #MeToo, the media uniformly speculate, changed even the office of the US Attorney. On 21 June, the famed advice columnist E Jean Carroll publicly accused the president of the United States of rape, from an old encounter in 1996. Why now? #MeToo, she says, finally made her go public. Maybe, as Mark Twain famously said, the widespread reports of its demise were highly exaggerated.

Three decades after an infamous 1986 Newsweek cover story told women they were more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to find a husband after 40, backlash is always with us. In these faster times, articles about #MeToo backlash appeared while the retweets were still warm. “Has this gone too far?” articles asked. “Since #MeToo, the Number of Men Who Are Uncomfortable Mentoring Women Has Tripled,” Fortune reported. Democratic establishment donors declared Al Franken’s nemesis Kirsten Gillibrand a no-fly zone. And in place of women’s advocate Gillibrand, Democrats are polling heavily for the author of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings, the former chairman of the Senate judiciary committee Joe Biden.

So it was not surprising that when famed magazine writer E Jean Carroll rolled out her story of being raped by Donald Trump, the Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times ran it as a book item. As the great New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino put it: there “are many people in this country … who don’t believe that rape is that big of a deal.”

But, no. Instead of taking a lead from the New York Times as liberals did when Bill Clinton was impeached, radicals, including a “regiment of women” on Twitter, landed on the New York Times, and the Sunday talk shows and most of the other major media outlets, like a ton of pink pussy hats. So virulent was the criticism that it even penetrated the public-editor-free precincts of the New York Times, and the executive editor Dean Baquet offered an apology of sorts. In a real gesture toward the high-profile accuser, he assigned his great #MeToo reporter Megan Twohey to interview Carroll and persuade her two contemporaneous confidantes to come forward.

There ensued a tidal wave, if not a tsunami of coverage. E Jean was everywhere – on CNN with Anderson Cooper, on Trumpcast, and, as had been the honorable exception, heavily in the Washington Post. Her rollout was a window into the process by which #MeToo transformed this 76-year-old woman from gagging it down for 23 years, like her generation did, to pointing a finger at the most powerful person in the land.

Asked on NPR if she had been right to push it down and shrug it off all these years, she hemmed and hawed a bit as you could hear her working through her process.

“If you had asked me five weeks ago,” she said, “I would have said it was every woman’s personal decision. But now I’m starting to think the only way sexual violence can be put an end to is by every woman standing up and speaking out. I will put it behind me and I will move on. That was my generation’s way.”

“Do you like your generation’s way better?” host Ilya Matz asked.

Carroll sighed audibly. “Well, we didn’t change anything, did we?” she ruminated. “So we probably did not do the right thing.” Long pause. “But now I think we have a chance to at least put a ding in the culture of sexual violence.”

As the lessons of #MeToo slowly worked on E Jean Carroll, the movement was working in a much more formal way at the United States Department of Justice. In November last year, the Miami Herald revealed the story of how Epstein, a reclusive plutocrat with high-placed friends in both major political parties, had managed to negotiate a potential life sentence for coercing sex with minors down to a year of mostly work release. The easygoing prosecutor in 2007 was the then US Attorney in Miami, Alexander Acosta – the same Acosta who is now Trump’s secretary of labor. Not only did Epstein get off with a slap, unnamed co-conspirators of a man with wide-ranging bold faced names in his book were to be sealed.

And there it rested for ten years until the media turned the spotlight on Harvey Weinstein and Alyssa Milano sent out Tarana Burke’s suggestion that women come forward: #MeToo. In the year after #MeToo, the Miami paper scoured the court records and unearthed the fact that, among other things, Acosta had settled the charges without telling the many, many victims who had come forward, as the law requires. After the Herald articles, a federal judge ruled that the plea agreement was illegal. Rumors have been flying for months about whether Trump’s justice department would reopen the plea agreement.

On Sunday, in a scene right out of the popular Showtime series Billions, the special corruption unit of the US attorney for the southern district of New York announced the arrest of Jeffrey Epstein as he stepped off his private plane from Paris. Some of his crimes are the same acts he got out of in 2007. Autre temps, autre moeurs. Like E Jean Carroll, Epstein’s sexual history plays right into the politics of the moment – he’s friends with Trump.

“I’ve known Jeff for 15 years,” Trump said in 2002. “Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”

As Twitter lit up with the prospect of the now-beleaguered Epstein turning on Trump, Noah Shachtman, the editor-in-chief of the Daily Beast, warned, “I’m seeing lots of folks on the left and the right who seem absolutely sure that Epstein is going to give up their political enemies. Hot tip: he’s just as likely to give up your allies.”

You can’t scare us with threats about Clinton, many on Twitter responded, seeing immediately who his side-eye had in view. Liberals were quiet about Clinton in the hope of getting a better deal from a lousy system, just like E Jean’s women of a certain age had done. But since #MeToo rehabilitated Monica Lewinsky, and reopened the narrative about Clinton’s conduct, their fate is not tied to Clinton anymore.

If #MeToo meant anything, it meant no more gagging it down and no more defending the bad boys – yours, ours or theirs. And if #MeToo is dead, then there is indeed, as the saying goes, a specter haunting the United States. The specter of #MeToo.

  • Linda Hirshman is the author of Reckoning: The Fifty Year Battle Against Sexual Abuse and Harassment (Houghton Mifflin, June 2019)