How do powerful men get away with abusive behavior?

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Hollywood has turned on one of its own, now that it is politically easy and self-serving to do so.

Two years ago, when the board of directors of the Weinstein Company was dealing with sexual harassment settlements, no one was making any noise about it. Harvey Weinstein’s behavior was “one of the biggest open secrets” in Hollywood, said just about everyone. Yet, as Jane Fonda shamefully admitted, the usual voices of compassion said nothing. Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, were more than happy to ignore the obvious as long as the checks kept coming. Her Captain Renault-like response (“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”) rings hollow.

But this Hollywood scandal reveals something common and pervasive in American culture: Powerful men doing harmful things to vulnerable people (in this case, vulnerable women) for their own gratification. How do they get away with it?

As a child I always enjoyed Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In this morality tale the Emperor parades in front of his subjects wearing a “magical” garment that supposedly only the worthy, elite class can see. Those dependent on the Emperor’s blessings and generosity are blinded by their own self-interests. They refuse to acknowledge the “bare” truth right there in plain sight. Only an innocent child, yelling “But he isn’t wearing anything at all,” breaks the powerful, consensual silence.

Powerful men doing harmful things to vulnerable people is nothing new. Now it is most conspicuous at the highest levels of our government, where one imagines himself to be Emperor-like. He cloaks himself in imaginary garment-of-greatness, parades and trumpets his imagined accomplishments but takes no responsibility for real failures. He is surrounded and enabled by those who, like the elite in Hollywood and the self-important ministers in the Danish fable, are blinded by their own interests. No truth, no humiliating betrayal, no utter incompetence or dangerous, world-threatening outrage will make them admit what they can plainly see.

How do powerful men get away with abusive behavior? Silence.

To break this silence would take courage beyond what many of us can claim. But we have leaders, elected officials, whose positions and voices carry weight. Who among them will break their condoning silence? Anderson’s morality tale was written in 1837. The ending, it turns out, is yet to be told.

• James Dreier lives in Iowa City

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