Peter Bart: Perpetrators And Punishment In The Age Of Anxiety, Twitter & Time’s Up

Mike Richards Andrew Cuomo
(L-R) Mike Richards and Andrew Cuomo AP

First, a reality check: We are living in a state of social and sexual angst, and nothing can be written about it without further raising the tension level. Everyone seems permanently pissed off.

I find myself thus avoiding these topics, but certain mundane questions still nag at me. Who actually takes the time to dredge up decrepit podcasts or idiot tweets? Where do you find them? Every once in a while I dimly remember some faux pas from the past – some involving onetime colleagues – but I try to forget them, not relive them. OK, that might be a character flaw (see below).

Kevin Hart famously compared public apologies to peeling an onion – you keep peeling and crying but no one notices. Hart’s remark was prompted by publication of old tweets that effectively banished him as a potential Oscar host, an experience now re-enacted by Mike Richards, newly expelled from hosting Jeopardy! for past harassment accusations and some really dumb podcasts.

I understand that public figures should be held accountable for past transgressions. I support that objective, even though it also reinforces paranoia among those who argue that every individual has messed up at one time or another. That’s also true of every organization.

I even understand the “existential crisis” threatening the future of the Time’s Up movement (its CEO resigned this week), as reported in Sunday’s New York Times. I also cringe reading about how well-intentioned people stumble into no-win situations.

The aim of the Time’s Up enforcers has been to punish racist and sexist behavior that, in years past, had begun to seem almost normalized. Still some see a perverse historic irony in their process: Not since the Blacklist era have zealots dug so relentlessly into past speeches and associations, searching (at that time) for links between artists and Communist front organizations. Movie careers were capsized by discovery of long-forgotten quotes, with stars like Edward G. Robinson or power players like William Morris Jr forced into retirement.

“Saving men, especially predatory men, is not on the Time’s Up agenda,” explained Shonda Rhimes, a Time’s Up co-founder. The movement, she said, “should not be a receptacle for men trying to cover up their obscene behavior.”

All that makes sense to me, since some of the Time’s Up’s problems weirdly stemmed from an early supporter, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who initially relied on help from a few of the group’s leaders. Cuomo’s defense argument was that his critics misunderstood the “generational and cultural shifts” that affected male behavior.

But isn’t Cuomo’s line a vague and ambiguous rationale for his alleged actions? In reporting on the problems of Time’s Up leaders, I sensed that the New York Times writers themselves radiated a level of discomfort.

The fact that Times was now reporting on the Time’s Up conflicts evidenced its own past cultural shifts. Some years ago I had just started my job as a New York Times reporter when I saw its page one report dealing with the expanding homosexual population in the city. Its key finding: “An overwhelming consensus of opinion in the psychological community now believes the condition of homosexuality could be both prevented and cured,” according to the article.

What? Where did that consensus reside? Not surprisingly, that “report” triggered a firestorm of criticism, its editors cowering. Follow-up pieces refuted the conclusion about “prevention and cure” as both tone deaf and inaccurate. The fact that the newspaper would ever publish a report of this sort reflects, well, a cultural shift. So, again, let’s not plunge into those ambiguities.

I have no idea who finds the time to sift through aged tweets, podcasts or other random effluvia, but in the Blacklist era there was good money to be made from supplying tips about “Commie conspirators.” I knew one of the casualties of the period – Dalton Trumbo, the distinguished writer. He once told me: “Some of us believed dumb things in our youth and, even worse, we wrote about them. At the time we didn’t realize that could prove to be a terminal offense.”

Even today, dumb things continue to prove terminal.

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