If you are surprised by the news that Harvey Weinstein of Miramax fame, a man well-known for profane tirades and physical altercations and scrounging M&Ms off movie theater floors, is also the sort of charmer who loafs around seminude while asking subordinates for “back” massages, then you can be surprised by just about anything: the sun rising in the east, the fact that movie stars employ plastic surgeons, the news that “The Artist” didn’t actually deserve to win Best Picture.
Weinstein’s response to The New York Times’ impressive investigatory work was to issue a statement promising to spend even more lavishly on liberal causes. Like a knight promising a crusade against the Saracens as penance for raping and pillaging at home, the mogul’s assumption seemed to be that the right political commitment can cover over piggishness and vice.
Does it? Probably not; at the very least, he faces an extended period of exile. But Weinstein is older now and not as influential as in his heyday. The whole “forgive me, I’m a liberal” thing won’t protect him now, but it was part of his carapace for decades, during which time everyone who mattered clamored for his friendship and fundraising prowess despite all the stories there to hear.
Maybe his overdue exposure shows that the world has changed, and progressive industries are finally feminist enough to put their old goats out to pasture.
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But it might just show that a certain kind of powerful liberal creep only gets his comeuppance when he’s weakened or old or in the grave. The awfulness of Ted Kennedy, at Chappaquiddick and after hours in D.C., can be acknowledged only now that he’s no longer a liberal lion in the Senate. The possibility that Bill Clinton might be not just an adulterer but also a rapist can be entertained now that he’s no longer protecting abortion from the White House. The sins of Woody Allen … well, I’m sure Hollywood will start ostracizing him any day now.
A week ago, I wrote a harsh obituary for Hugh Hefner, which noted that he represented a certain style of liberalism — progressive and yet chauvinist, liberationist and exploitative — that perdures in our society to this day. Some readers were skeptical: Didn’t Hef’s feminist critics win the fight for liberalism, while his Playboy philosophy became something of a joke?
The answer is yes, at the level of ideological commitment — but not so much in practice. In the real life of liberalism, Hefnerism endures as the effective philosophy of many liberal men, for whom sexual individualism justifies using women because, hey, we’re all cool consenting adults here, and caddishness blurs into predation when power differentials permit. Meanwhile, feminism struggles to find norms that check this kind of behavior, swinging between a facile sex-positivity and illiberal attempts to police the hookup scene.
Here it would be nice to say that cultural conservatism offers an alternative, one that welcomes female advancement while retaining useful ideas about sexual difference and restraint. I might have argued as much once. But in the age of Donald Trump and Bill O’Reilly, “pro-life” hypocrites in Congress and the “alt-right” online cesspool, the right is its own sort of cautionary tale.
So I’ll say something more modest: If liberals want to restrain the ogres in their midst, a few conservative ideas might be helpful.
If your culture’s code is libertine, don’t be surprised that worse things than libertinism flourish.
First: Some modest limits on how men and women interact professionally are useful checks on predation. Many liberals were horrified by the revelation that for a time Mike Pence avoided one-on-one meetings with women not his wife. But one can find the Pence rules too sweeping and still recognize that life is easier for women if their male bosses don’t feel entitled to see them anywhere, anytime. It would not usher in the Republic of Gilead if it were understood that inviting your female subordinate to your hotel room, Weinstein-style, crosses a line in a way that a restaurant lunch does not.
Second: Consent alone is not a sufficient guide to ethics. Caddishness and predation can be a continuum. If you cheat on your wife, you may be more likely to harass subordinates. Promiscuity can encourage predatory entitlement. Older rules of moral restraint were broader for a reason. If your culture’s code is libertine, don’t be surprised that worse things than libertinism flourish.
Third: You can’t ignore moral character when you make decisions about whom to vote for or work with or support. This was something conservatives used to argue in the Clinton years; under Trump, many have conveniently forgotten it. But it remains true. Yes, sometimes you have to work with a bad person or vote for a bad person or hold a fundraiser with a bad person for the greater good. But not nearly as often as you think.
The truth is that while not everyone knew exactly how Harvey Weinstein treated women, everyone knew what kind of man he was. The women he harassed didn’t have the power to restrain him, but plenty of powerful people did.
They didn’t use it. They should have. But Hollywood and human nature being what they are, they will have plenty of opportunities to do better.
Follow Mr. Douthat on Twitter @DouthatNYT.