Paralysis of ruling elite
The linkage between a frozen constitution, democratic decline and sexual rigidity is subtle yet powerful, argues Daniel Lazare
Although he is in his 60s, Jeffrey Toobin still enjoys masturbation. Even if it is in the middle of an important business call, one of America’s most famous journalists apparently cannot resist. But last October he made a big mistake: he forgot to turn his Zoom video off! Masha Gessen, a fellow writer at the New Yorker and a participant in the same fatal call, said he could be seen “lowering and raising his computer camera, exposing and touching his penis, and motioning an air-kiss to someone other than his colleagues”, as The New York Times put it.1 CNN suspended him, so he could deal “with a personal issue”, while The New Yorker, where he had worked for 27 years, fired him outright.
But now Toobin is easing his way back into the limelight. The process began last week with a grovelling six-minute TV apology that was even more embarrassing than the original act. “This was deeply moronic and indefensible,” he told CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota on June 10. He continued:
I have tried, and I’m trying now, to say how sorry I am, sincerely, in all seriousness. Above all, I am sorry to my wife and to my family, but I’m also sorry to the people on the Zoom call. I’m sorry to my former colleagues on The New Yorker, I’m sorry to my current - fortunately, still - colleagues at CNN, and I’m sorry to the people who read my work and thought I was a better person than this.
A better person than what - someone who in effect forgets to close the bedroom door?
Toobin’s bizarre rehabilitation says something about the American mood and the growing stridency among liberals and feminists, as the Biden administration - the focus of so much hope and longing - hits a stone wall on Capitol Hill. It is one of those moments when all the worst characteristics of the United States - the hypocrisy, the prudery, the greed, the sheer dysfunctionality - comes together in one shining package.
Toobin is presumably unknown in Britain, but he is an ubiquitous presence in the US - or, at least, was prior to his Siberian exile. He is a Harvard Law School graduate, the author of five best-selling books, has one of the best-known bylines at The New Yorker, and is a star legal commentator on the CNN TV network.
Politically, he is the very model of corporate orthodoxy - articulate, self-confident, and never deviating from the official line by more than an inch. In 2013, he denounced Edward Snowden - the man who exposed massive cyber-espionage by the US National Security Administration - as “a grandiose narcissist who belongs in prison”.2 In response to complaints that the #MeToo movement was unfairly targeting white men, he snorted: “Every night I cry myself to sleep over the fate of white men in America. White men have no power, white men - I mean, it’s such garbage.”3
This is standard liberal dogma: state secrets must be protected and “white men” - workers and capitalists alike - must give up their “privileges”, so that America can become even “more perfect” (to quote the US constitution) than it already is. Toobin cheered on special prosecutor Robert Mueller and his Russiagate investigation at a time when relentless Trump-bashing was sending CNN’s ratings through the roof. But, when Mueller concluded that he “did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia”, Toobin assured viewers that a finding of no collusion did not necessarily mean that no collusion had occurred. As he put it, “There’s a world of difference between ‘no evidence’ and not enough evidence to bring an actual case.”4 So Trump was still in bed with Vladimir Putin even if there wasn’t enough material at hand to warrant so much as an indictment.
This is what top Democrats like House intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff were saying at the time, so Toobin was faithfully toeing the party line. And, when Trump used the word ‘lynching’ to describe the Democratic outcry over his decision to withhold an arms shipment from Ukraine’s neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, Toobin denounced him as a racist, which was in keeping with the Democratic line as well. “There are thousands of people, virtually all African-Americans, who were lynched,” he said piously. “It’s just grotesque that the president in his self-absorption and ignorance, tremendous ignorance of American history, would invoke lynching there.”5
Actually, the OED defines lynching as the “action of subjecting a person to a verbal or physical attack; the publication of an attack on a person, vilification”, so Trump’s non-racial use of the term was hardly incorrect. But certain words are taboo in Toobin’s world, and this was one of them.
So the man is a prig who spews neoliberal nonsense in order to ingratiate himself with his corporate masters and powerful Democrats - which hardly makes him unique. But then Toobin fell victim to the same hysteria that he and other Democrats had used against Trump. This is what was so important about last October’s Zoom call. It was not just any call, but a call with the magazine that had helped rev up the new censoriousness to unprecedented heights.
The story begins with Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, when thousands of angry women descended on Washington in knitted pink “pussyhats” in response to the new president’s infamous 2005 comment that “when you’re a star … you can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” The New Yorker, dutifully outraged, followed up a few months later with an exposé by Ronan Farrow (son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen), accusing Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of engaging in years of sexual harassment and assault.6
#MeToo allegations exploded from coast to coast. The New Yorker turned up the volume yet again in September 2018, when California psychologist Christine Blasey Ford accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her at a high-school party in 1982. Over the next four days, it published a half-dozen articles or more on its website, all seething with righteous indignation. Gessen called Ford’s testimony “credible and moving”, another writer assailed the “patriarchy” for “its politics of resentment”, while a third attacked Republicans for their “sexism, misogyny and privilege”, because they thought she was less than 100% credible. Yet another staffer said of Ford: “Her story is strikingly similar to many other stories that have emerged amid the #MeToo movement’s frank accounting of sexual assaults, containing, as it does, alcohol, a party, physical force ...” If the #MeToo movement was beyond criticism, then Ford was as well.
Toobin also ridiculed anyone who dared disagree. “This is sickening to watch,” he said of Ford’s critics. “I’m sorry. I just find this excruciating. I mean, someone thinks this woman is lying?”7 He added: “I think the country is a lot more sexist and racist than some of us acknowledge”8 - the entire country, that is, rather than any one particular class.
In fact, what Ford had to say about Kavanaugh was no more convincing than what liberals had to say about Russian collusion, the other cause célèbre of the Trump years. Ford was certain that the future nominee had attacked her when she was just 15. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter” of Kavanaugh and his pals, she testified, quoting the title of a song. But she was uncertain about nearly everything else: the location of the house in which the incident occurred, how she got there, how she travelled the half-dozen miles back home, etc. In response to her statement that she left immediately after the attack, Leland Keyser, the high-school chum who accompanied her to the party, commented: “It would be impossible for me to be the only girl at a get-together with three guys, have her leave, and then not figure out how she’s getting home. I just really didn’t have confidence in the story.”
Other high-school classmates discussed in a group chat how to pressure Keyser, a recovered alcoholic, into backing Ford’s account. “Maybe one of you guys who are friends with her can have a heart to heart. I don’t care, frankly, how fucked up her life is,” one texted. Another suggested publicising Keyser's “addictive tendencies”, adding: “Perhaps it makes sense to let everyone in the public know what her condition is.”9
That is called ‘suborning perjury’ in some quarters, yet CNN and The New Yorker did not care - what mattered was the Democratic bourgeois-feminist agenda. It goes without saying that ultra-sensational attacks like these have nothing to do with serious political analysis of the US Supreme Court and the antiquated 18th century constitutional structure behind it. Supreme Court justices sit for life, they spend their days scrutinising the entrails of a dead document, and their decisions affect every last aspect of daily existence. Yet they are accountable to no-one. Of this, Toobin and The New Yorker said not a word. Their only concern was with filling the court with glorious liberal heroes like the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as if that would render the court any less undemocratic.
Once Toobin ran afoul of the sex police, the attitude at top corporate levels was one of gravest possible concern. “Please be assured that we take such matters seriously and that we are looking into it,” New Yorker editor David Remnick declared in announcing his suspension. “We are committed to fostering an environment where everyone feels respected and upholds our standards of conduct,” a corporate official said a few weeks later when Conde Nast, the magazine’s parent company, announced that it was letting Toobin go.
Respect - that is what capitalism is all about, isn’t it? But, when CNN - unwilling to lose such a valuable property - signalled that it was time for him to return to work, the new priggery could not let go.
“Have you ever thought about what it must have been like to be on the receiving end of that Zoom call?” CNN’s Camerota asked. NBC News, CNN’s arch rival, sniffed that by describing his act as a mistake, Toobin was
able to avoid having to justify his deliberate choices that were calculated on the permissibility and success of risk. Time and again, what is apparent is that people who look like Toobin - white and male and heterosexual and cisgender - are more able to take risks not afforded to others.10
TV journalist Megin Kelly tweeted: “There is not a woman alive who could have done anything close to what Jeffrey Toobin did (not that one would) and kept her job. What a disgusting, incestuous boys’ club. So damned tired of it.”11
But Toobin did not intentionally ‘dis’ anyone, since it is clear he thought his camera was off - an all-to-easy error for Zoom users to make. As to what it was like to be on the receiving end, surely the mature and responsible journalists Toobin works with have put up with worse. In arguing that Toobin got off lightly because he is male, what is Megyn Kelly suggesting - that he should hang by the neck until dead?
“Despite what may be presented as sincerity and remorse,” added a Pennsylvania-based group known as the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, “in many ways these public-facing apologies don’t focus on harmful behaviours and their impact, and instead focus on humanising the person who has caused harm.” Even though Toobin’s inadvertent self-exposure was in no sense an act of violence, his apology evidently makes him more guilty rather than less.
What stands out about such remarks is the utter absence of anything resembling a sense of humour. Instead of giggling, snickering or elbowing one another in the ribs - all of which would be perfectly healthy under the circumstances - the approach is grim and unforgiving. Sigmund Freud described laughter as “a relaxation of tension” and “a release from constraint” and added: “Humour is not resigned; it is rebellious.”12
If so, then what the Toobin affair shows is that tensions are mounting in the liberal establishment - even as it grows more resigned to its fate and more intolerant of anyone who dares rebel. It is no surprise, given that Biden’s ‘new New Deal’ is essentially dead on Capitol Hill, thanks to the Senate filibuster, that America’s longest war is facing disaster in Afghanistan, and that US power in general is on the wane.
The linkage between a frozen constitution, democratic decline and sexual rigidity is subtle yet powerful. The American ruling elite is increasingly paralysed in the face of a growing imperial crisis, so all it can do is pick on Jeffrey Toobin instead.
See Freud’s Jokes and their relation to the unconscious (1905) and Humour (1928).↩︎