Sexual Sins: Are Contrition and Redemption Possible?

Becky O'Malley
Friday December 22, 2017 - 01:11:00 PM

Let’s start with three words: perspective, proportionality, process. We’ll get back to them.

In 1964, a few of us in Ann Arbor who’d met through our participation in the civil rights movement became concerned about what was going on in Southeast Asia. The president, Michigan’s senators and our local congressman were all Democrats, and the Democratic party was the strongest supporter of the main local civil rights issue, attempts to pass a fair housing law, so it seemed to make sense to enlist the party’s help in questioning the developing war in Vietnam, a place many of us had never even heard of.

The Democrats in Michigan in those days were dominated by industrial unions, particularly the United Auto Workers, and these unions by that time were right there with us when it counted for civil rights. But it was another story when it came to the growing anti-war movement.

Within the UAW, Millie Jeffrey, the first female department head in the Union, was a strong advocate both for civil rights and for stopping the growth of what was to be called the Vietnam War. But most of her fellow UAW leaders in 1964 were leary of opposing policies backed by “their” Democratic administration.

A notable exception was the UAW’s main man in Congress, elected from Detroit in 1964 with union backing, a young lawyer named John Conyers.

Congressman John Conyers was an early and stalwart participant in the anti-war movement, both in public and behind the scenes, in a position where he could easily have faced primary opposition within the Democratic party if he annoyed the union moguls. He took a chance and stood up for what he thought was right.

It goes without saying that as an African-American he was also a strong civil rights advocate. He hired the fabled Rosa Parks as an aide, dispatching her to tell schoolchildren all over the Detroit area about her history in The Movement, including my daughters.

And yes, though I never met him myself, John Conyers was also rumored to be devastatingly attractive to women, and also strongly attracted by them, to a fault. That’s right, that John Conyers. And here’s where we get to the perspective part of the story.

Does occasional lewd, lascivious or perhaps just flirtatious behavior, even with yes, some unwelcome touching, which is all that John Conyers has been accused of to my knowledge, cancel out a long and distinguished career of fighting for important causes?

Maybe, maybe not. Perspective. 

Let’s think now about proportionality. As far as I’ve been able to determine, the very most Garrison Keillor has been accused of is patting a woman’s back, bared by a blouse which seems to have been riding up.  

And for this he’s supposed to become, in Orwellian Newspeak, an Unperson? To lose access to his back shows and his place in the spotlight? 

A long time ago, perhaps 35 years ago, my closest neighbor and dear friend died of breast cancer in her forties, on today’s date, the winter solstice, the longest darkness of the year. I was constrained to attend a semi-compulsory office party instead of dealing with my grief. When I got home that night I switched on the radio out of habit, and there was Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, which was and is roundly ridiculed by my smart-mouth friends for being corny. Maybe it was, but the show routinely featured classical music as an integral part of popular programming, and I appreciated that. On this dark night they had a choir that sang what I remember as the “Comfort Ye” part of Handel’s Messiah, and it did comfort me. 

We’re talking here about a man who has spent most of his life making his listeners feel better, with a heavy though sugar-coated dose of progressive politics thrown in for free.  

But as they say in that model of English jurisprudence, the trial of the Knave of Hearts in Wonderland: It’s “sentence first—verdict afterwards". Off with his head! said the Red Queen. 

Whatever happened to proportionality, letting the punishment fit the crime? 

And for that matter, consider process. How about due process for Al Franken? 

Yes, I realize that using those two words marks me as being one of those old-fashioned civil libertarians, apparently now almost as unstylish as listening to the Prairie Home Companion. 

But I’m here to report that most of my own women friends and relatives, each and every one of whom would count herself a feminist, are mad as hell about the kangaroo court proceedings which seem to have coerced Al Franken into resigning before the Ethics Committee had a chance to investigate the charges against him.  

Critics of the rush-to-judgment mentality that I’ve talked to about this include one woman over 80 and another who’s 17. They’re reluctant to make a public fuss, but lately some contrarians among them have started speaking up about what they dislike, often invoking memories of Joe McCarthy. 

None of them admires the principal self-designated leader of the Dump Al crusade. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a sometime Blue Dog Democrat who’s defended cigarette corporation Phillip Morris in criminal and civil cases as an attorney. She talks of Zero Tolerance trumping Due Process—an idea that didn’t work well in the war on drugs and doesn’t belong in this discussion either. 

I’m no fan of the kind of rough, vulgar, profane “humor” which characterizes Saturday Night Live and other late-night comedy shows. It seems obvious that Al Franken, who came from that world, has thought that being bawdy is just part of life, which for me it’s not. But that doesn’t negate his serious contributions to public discourse since he’s been in the Senate, and he’s still needed there. 

Women need to be alert to the world of difference on a continuum which includes dirty words, off-color jokes, unwanted hugs, seized kisses, furtive pinches on the behind, indecent exposure, and, on the other side of a line, statutory and forcible rape. It does a serious disservice to real rape victims (not all of them “survivors”) to minimize the enormity of what happened to them. 

It’s bad for women who experience one of those lesser forms of disrespect to portray them as powerless. Almost all such alleged offenses with the exception of rape can often be disposed of with a simple “Cut it out!”, perhaps accompanied by a slap. Young women should be taught that they most often have the power to resist. 

If there’s economic retribution against complainants, there are whistleblower laws which can be invoked to protect them. But it’s wrong to insist that every accused perpetrator should be summarily judged guilty at the moment of accusation. This just in: even some women lie on occasion. 

This is the time of year when even the irreligious tend to connect with their religious roots. My own tradition is very conscious of the existence of sin (another old-fashioned word), which is probably why it offers ample opportunity for sinners to confess and reform. These three men, possibly sinners all, should be given that chance, because they have done a lot of good, and will do more if permitted to. 

John Conyers is entitled, at 88, to retire in peace regardless of what he did in his randy 50s.  

It looks like Garrison Keillor will take legal action against the weak-as-water Minnesota Public Radio organization which dumped him on the basis of a single claim. That might produce eventual justice, whether he’s innocent or guilty.  

But Al Franken should be encouraged not to resign on January 2, his announced date. Contrition can be followed by redemption. He’s a smart and even thoughtful man in this period of his life, and the U.S. Senate lacks those. We still need his work for the public good. 

There’s a petition circulating to ask Franken to stay on, at least through an Ethics Committee investigation. It can be found at Change.org. You might consider signing it.