Content Warning: This article discusses the ongoing political, cultural, and social crisis surrounding the Tara Reade story. Out of necessity to adequately address the severity of our failing of Reade, discussion of sexual violence follows.
Let’s talk about Tara Reade. Or maybe not Tara Reade precisely. She has been discussed enough, disparaged enough, rendered into a symbol of the internal conflict between the piecemeal American “left” for long enough. I want to say nothing new about her aside from the fact that I believe what she has to say. I believe her story, and I do not want to transform the life she has lived and the terror she has seen, both at the hands of men in power and those who seek to protect them, into some sort of unholy symbol of resistance. Tara Reade spoke her truth. Now is the time to shift our attention from an interrogation of her to an interrogation of Joe Biden, who I do want to transform into an unholy symbol of hypocrisy. Not necessarily his. But everyone else’s.
I have very little to generatively contribute to the national conversation aside from my continuing astoundment at the ways in which liberal discourses contort themselves so completely as to ensure that they are entirely nonsense. The smug superiority of liberalism in this country is so frustrating, as it seems to be void of any degree of self-awareness but treats itself as the source and keeper of all knowledge and nuance. I have said for quite a while that my own distaste is often pointed at hypocrisy. I hold those who are terrible but know they are terrible in far higher esteem than those who are morally deprived but imagine themselves to be moral paragons.
That said, the point at hand. Believe women. That is what we are told. In the Kavanaugh debacle, those terrifying weeks when it seemed that maybe some sort of moral clarity would prevail and America might acknowledge that men in power have always, despite their assumption of a position of moral, ethical, and intellectual superiority, abused those beneath and around them, I had some degree of hope. That hope of course was crushed quickly, but the primary target of my vitriol was the ruling regime. Democrats postured themselves as the institutional party of belief of women, of support of the abused, the party that spoke truth to power. Of course historically the Democratic party has seriously failed women, but I thought at the time that maybe, despite my qualms with the Democratic party establishment, in the post 2018 world we had moved toward a social where one of our parties might have at least made abusing women totally disqualifying for the assumption of power. Whoops.
We have a credible (yes! credible! I stand by that!) accusation of violence committed by a politician against a woman, and liberals refuse to accept that maybe, just maybe, such an accusation is even possible. Democrats, in all their posturing, seem to believe they are the party of women. The problem with a political system centered on a binary is that this 1 vs 1 contest become sublimated to map onto a number of other binaries our liberal social system holds dear. Democrat/Republican becomes woman/man, secular/religious, honest/deceitful, modern/illiberal, diverse/homogenous, young/old, et cetera.
The feminization of the democratic party, in which it begins to view itself as the legitimate party of women, feminism, and anti-patriarchy ensures that the party and its most ardent supporters naturally preclude from consideration any assertion that maybe, just maybe, their leaders, icons, and heroes are not great for women. It becomes, under this absurd logic, an absurd idea that maybe Biden is in any way comparable to Kavanaugh. They are on opposite sides of the political spectrum (or rather, the established and acceptable political window), right? Therefore one, in this totalizing and inane view, cannot even be likened to the other. They are practically divorced from one another, this despite the fact that they are both rich, entitled, privileged, and powerful.
You’d think that in a political world so intent on the deification of rigid binaries the Democratic party might also assume the position of poor, humble, marginalized and meek. But of course not. Joe Biden is morally and aesthetically removed from Kavanaugh only in the sense that he is not a Republican, and therefore not on the wrong side of those binaries the liberal establishment values. These distinctions take onto them such an nonsensical ontological centrality that they foreclose any possibility of those mired within them of thinking with any genuine nuance, clarity or character.
Believe Biden. That’s what they’re saying now. He has addressed the concerns (not really) of the Reade “scandal,” so far as it is imagined as a scandal within the standard American political parlance. By that I mean he has ignored the story, asked the New York Times to avoid talking about it or his past trouble with boundaries, even when they did not constitute sexual assault, and has functionally politiked his way into pretending moral responsibility, accountability, and healing does not matter. Part of what makes his denial believable, according to the Democratic establishment that is relying on him to lead the charge to victory in November, is his life-long commitment to women’s rights.
Senator Gillibrand, who admirably and rightly was the face of the internal senate campaign to hold Senator Al Franken accountable, said recently: “I stand by Vice President Biden. He’s devoted his life to supporting women.” The past support Biden has shown for women within the established politics of the Democratic party precludes him, unconditionally, from doing wrong, from behaving like those who abuse women but don’t also wear a supposedly feminist face, like Kavanaugh. Of course what makes Biden distinct from Franken is the fact that Franken wasn’t the head of the party. Biden has become not just a democratic politician, but a stand-in for the party itself. He has become a symbol of the party that supposedly believes women, so how could he ever, as a powerful, rich man who has been in politics since before the advent of second wave feminist politics, abuse that power? Impossible!
Let’s not forget that Biden has not always been a friend to women. Women as an abstract category that people can “support” makes absolutely no sense. Women are three and a half billion people with some shared experiences based on the condition of their gender within the modern, liberal world, but who have radically distinct experiences at the intersection of their other manifold identities. What of the women wasting away in America’s inflated prison industrial complex? What of the women in Iraq, who, if not dead themselves, are suffering at the loss of their daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, husbands, lovers, brothers, sisters, friends, and all the other kinds of loved ones? What of black mothers in America, whose children have been targeted by the violent apparatus Biden had a strong hand in constructing? What of Anita Hill? What of my own mother, who died from a lack of access to healthcare caused directly by the broken bankruptcy system Biden upheld throughout his tenure? What of my sister, who must live every single day for the rest of her life with the absurd and preventable loss of the woman who raised her? Maybe Biden has supported women throughout his career more than Trump or Kavanaugh of McConnell or whoever else you want to manufacture as a foil so as to absolve him of any real responsibility for the material harm he has caused. Is that enough? Is that enough for you?
Because the liberal establishment cannot imagine itself to have such a glaring flaw, they naturally absolve themselves of responsibility. They turn to conspiracy that denies any complex consideration of the aggrieved’s position. Is Tara Reade a Russian plant? How come she didn’t come out with this earlier? Yesterday I had a conversation with a friend who said that according to some top lawyers Tara Reade wouldn’t be a legitimate witness. As if the legal system in this country is somehow a gold standard and has the capacity to intimately understand the absolute insanity that goes into experiencing and processing assault. Why didn’t she say anything earlier? Why didn’t she speak out?
I did not realize or process the severity of my assault for ten years. Ten years. And I was not assaulted by one of the most powerful people on earth. I was not a woman who, should she speak out, would be treated like a threat for having been threatened. The reality of the situation is that the violent intimacies of assault are hard to handle, hard to process, and hard to articulate. Memory and processing of assault is not a linear process. You suddenly find yourself in a field of possible realities, possible explanations, possible fears. You suddenly do not know your own body; you suddenly do not know where you stand in relation to it, its pasts, its presents, its futures. Everything is dark, and muddled. To live through that pain, that confusion, the self-doubt and self-blame and fear and anger and sadness for twenty some odd years of your life, all caused by someone who, should you say anything, could destroy you, is unimaginable. It precludes standard empathy because of the sheer extremity of its horror. And now no one is even willing to try the impossible task, it seems.
What is more likely? That someone assaulted by one of the most powerful people on earth said nothing for decades because of the real, visceral, material and psychological torment of the most heinous of possible crimes? Or she’s a Russian plant hired by Vladimir Putin to undermine American democracy? Blue checkmark twitter, an absolute minefield of terrible takes occupied solely by mediocre people paid to pretend they are not, has become a Sherlock Holmes stan chatboard. Conspiracy after conspiracy emerges so as to defend Biden. The point of it being, supposedly, that this accusation threatens to help reelect Trump, the most dangerous man in the history of America. I think part of the problem here, again, is the construction of these absolutes and the binaries that tag along with them. Trump BAD. Not Trump GOOD. Simplistic and absolutely based.
Trump is an evil man. I don’t think that’s a controversial statement. My problem is that Trump comes to represent an aberration in American political life and history that he is absolutely not. Trump is not the first populist president. He is not the first to stoke racial animus. He is not the first to threaten warfare with little respect to international norms. He is not the first to lock children in cages. Perhaps he is the first to do so with literally zero tact. But he is not the first to use the office of the presidency to advance reprehensible aims. The problem is that Trump is also a rapist. So this idea of “bad president” gets attached to this idea of rapist. And they should! Rapists should not be president. They should not be in charge of dictating policy. But the inevitable consequence of this rigid binary construction is that the anti-Trump must not be a rapist. S/he cannot be. And now that we have nominated and selected our anti-Trump, we refuse to accept the possibility that someone who stands up to him and views, his conduct, character, and policy might also be a sexual abuser. The moral paradox forces confusion, and eventually rejection, of the very idea that someone vying to not be the abuser in chief might also be an abuser in chief.
People are complex beings. No single person exists as a paragon of virtue. Why can we not accept that? Biden is potentially an abuser. All signs indicate that he very likely is. Even if you reject Tara Reade, how can we say that it is impossible to imagine a person who has spent their life and career in a patriarchal, violent institution of power doing anything patriarchal or violent? How can we say Biden is an upstanding moral citizen when he has actively and perniciously participated in America’s ongoing regime of violence?
Outside blue checkmark twitter, I have seen and spoken to a number of people who have resigned themselves to the reality of the situation, which is that Biden is probably not the best guy on earth. But what choice do they have? It’s realistically between him and Trump. And they’re right. They’re absolutely right.
The problem is that our social and political institutions so limit the ability of anyone who views the situation with any degree of nuance to actually do anything impactful. Anyone who takes in the information given to them and contextualizes it to draw the conclusion that yes, someone who is not Trump can also be bad, must resign themselves to the powers that be. I, in all likelihood, will vote for Biden. I will not like it. In fact, I will hate it. But what choice do I have? Trump is a radicalized version of Biden, in a sense, who accelerates and makes more violent, more glaring, more extreme the state violence that has always been sanctioned in this country. The Supreme Court, an institution that has for decades, both on its liberal and conservative wing, made terrible decisions that have negatively affected the lives of the people living in this country (I’m looking at you, Castle Rock v. Gonzales— ahem, 7-2) is up for grabs. At least sometimes liberal institutions like SCOTUS do the right thing.
But just because I have resigned myself, at least partly, to the political reality of the situation does not mean I cannot hold the party accountable, does not mean I cannot rightly express moral reproach. I hate this situation. I will not defend violence. I will continue to the best of my ability to demand accountability and healing. Do I want Biden to go away forever and be condemned by all of society?
No. That sort of thinking is unhelpful. All I crave is an acknowledgement, by him and by those in power, that even those who imagine themselves as the defenders of the weak are all potential perpetrators. I want Tara Reade to be heard. To be acknowledged. To be cared for. To heal. And maybe that would require Biden stepping down. Maybe it would require he put in the work, the effort, to acknowledge, to heal, to repent.
But really all I want is healing. I think of Tarana Burke’s comment on the situation. She writes “survivors deserve more than being used as a political football by disinterested parties. And a culture of acknowledging harm can’t exist if we continue to view sexual violence as a catastrophic outlier rather than an embedded toxic element of our culture.” This is exactly the point. The culture is pervasive, hegemonic, totalizing. It does not follow the neat boundaries of red/blue, Trump/Biden, or even man/woman. What more can we, should we, demand than respect, empathy, and acknowledgement. How can we demand these things when the liberal institutions of this country purposefully deny that they themselves must be held accountable?