Everyone’s talking about Joe Biden. In the past week, several women have said that the former vice president and senator, who is mulling a 2020 run, made them uncomfortable with his overly familiar style of touching—his “tactile” style, as he has called it. Others have come to his defense, saying Biden’s warm approach has made them feel more comfortable in awkward situations. In response, Biden released a video promising to do better. “I’ve always tried to make a human connection,” he said. “Social norms have begun to change … and the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset, and I get it, I get it.”
So we asked some of the most interesting women we know what they make of this: Does his behavior bother them, and is it disqualifying for 2020? Here’s what they had to say.
‘He’s a relic from a previous era’
Amanda Marcotte is author of It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments.
Biden’s behavior, as the women who complained about it have said, doesn’t rise to the level of sexual harassment, and as such, it’s not disqualifying on its own. But it is indicative of a larger problem with Biden even considering running in the race, which is that he’s a relic from a previous era, when casual sexism was the norm and white male entitlement was unchallenged. The Democrats have a number of much better candidates who are diverse, progressive, and forward-thinking to choose from, and any of them would make a much better contrast with Trump in the general election.
This character assassination of Biden ‘is underhanded, possibly shameful’
Judith Shulevitz writes about feminism, among other topics, for the New York Times and the Atlantic.
All the op-eds about “creepy” Uncle Joe make me want to call up my now-long-dead rhetoric professor. “What do you call the trope in which a part of a thing stands in for the whole?” I’d ask. “Synecdoche,” he’d say. “And isn’t there a synecdochal fallacy?” Well done, he’d say (or I hope he’d say). The false inference from the property to the essence.
It’s a sly feint, that false inferring. It’s how you glide from Biden’s old-school-pol’s touchy-feeliness to his unsuitability for office, without anyone quite noticing. New York Magazine’s Rebecca Traister made the move first. “The gross physical familiarity and disrespect” for the female politician he touched “is classically, casually—even while non-cataclysmically—symptomatic” of everything that’s wrong with him: Anita Hill, waffling on abortion, even his work on the Violence Against Women Act. You’d think that piece of legislation would weigh in his favor, but no: “Even in that, Biden is That Guy: the paternalistic lawmaker for whom it is perhaps easier to write legislation protecting women than it is to simply listen to, believe, and take [them] seriously.”
Traister’s disingenuousness lurks in that “non-cataclysmically”: Biden’s touching isn’t the problem, it’s what it symbolizes. In the New York Times a few days later, Michelle Goldberg did the same thing. “I don’t necessarily blame him,” she wrote. His “avuncular pawing” isn’t “a #MeToo story.” It just “puts him out of step with the mores of an increasingly progressive Democratic Party.”
Translation: get out of our way, you disgusting old man.
This, my fellow pundits, is underhanded, possibly shameful. Don’t pretend to be having an elevated discussion of public policy when you’re conducting character assassination. You have come to bury Uncle Joe, not review his record. Own up to it.
‘Why can’t they just apologize?’
Debra Dickerson is the author of An American Story and The End of Blackness.
Why can’t they just apologize? No, really … why?
#MeToo is here to stay and it’s demanding restorative justice. We just want you to admit it. And stop it. Condemn it when you see it. So, it’s maddening the way these men—so many of whose offenses are captured on film—continue to weasel word us. Social norms have begun to change. Bummer that no one protected Anita Hill from all those mean senators I was in charge of. His staff are denying the accusations, but staunchly supporting the women’s right to speak. Even though they think those women are lying, apparently, given the denials: insult to injury!
Laying hands on someone without their consent, let alone their participation, was always intrinsically wrong; white, male privilege just forced the rest of us to endure it. It ought to make Biden gnash his teeth to know he’d spent 40 years in public life making women dread his approach. Instead, he seems to feel that he’s been wronged, misunderstood, his good-hearted affection thrown back in his face. That he is just stoically taking one for the team. As we say in North St. Louis, “Ain’t nobody stupid.” This just won’t do.
Since the old-timers don’t seem to get it, here’s my gift to #MeToo perps yet to be unmasked before 2020. Repeat after me: “Boy, how I wish we’d known back then what we know now! It keeps me up at night that I made so many people feel uncomfortable, and I apologize. It won’t happen again, and I’ll work to rectify any of my past behavior that I possibly can. I hope you can forgive me.” That’s it. Problem solved. And no one of Biden’s generation will be going there anytime soon. That said, Biden’s limp-wristed, passive voiced, “mistakes were made” non-apology likely won’t cost him the backing of those already in his camp. He was always the guy who opposed busing when it counted, tortured Hill, opposed gay marriage, ran bankster defense, supported the Iraq War, and on and on. Mainstream Dem positions then, utterly unacceptable to the galvanized young progressives whose support is critical to winning in 2020. Also, I suspect, to middle-aged women like me who had to endure the leers, and gropings, and catcalls in silence for decades lest we be deemed “humorless.” He wasn’t ahead of the times then, and, nearly 80, he isn’t now. This will be just more reason to continue ignoring Biden, his time come and gone. Given the devastation of the environment, the economy and a Trumpian electorate, it’s impossible to see the calcified Bidens (and Clintons) contend with the post-Occupy AOC contingent. Desperate times, desperate measures. Handsy dinosaurs need not apply.
Biden’s touching problem ‘is about as disqualifying a history as I can imagine’
Linda Hirshman is the author of Reckoning: The Epic Battle Against Sexual Abuse and Harassment.
When the Supreme Court looks at sexual harassment at work, it does not ask each woman how she feels about the conduct. It asks how a “reasonable person” would react. Hugging, boob vicinity touching, sniffing, whispering, rubbing, kissing. Joe Biden’s not my boss, but he is considering running to be my ruler, the president. I think the Supreme Court has a good test. How would a reasonable voter, not a family friend like Stephanie Carter or a grieving widow like Jean Carnahan, or even me, Linda Hirshman, feel? She would feel like she didn’t want him to be her ruler.
Because the first rule of a free country is that each person has the right to control access to their physical bodies. We call it life and liberty, but it all comes out of that basic starting gate. Once you have physical security — life, liberty — the pursuit of happiness can make its long awaited appearance. “To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” For too long women did not even have that first protection; they were outside the social contract. So a lifelong practice of violating women’s hard-won status as gatekeepers to their own selves is about as disqualifying a history as I can imagine. If you don’t like this, don’t @ me. Send a note to Monticello.
The Cut essay is ‘an overwrought character attack on a man of high quality who’s out of step’
Gail Sheehy is the author of 17 books, including Hillary’s Choice and a current memoir, DARING: My Passages.
Touching this subject is like touching a live wire at this point. I read the personal “essay” by Lucy Flores in The Cut as an overwrought character attack on a man of high quality who’s out of step with younger women’s new concept of “personal space.” Touching has been the mother’s milk of most successful politicians forever—whether hugging, shoulder-grabbing, back-rubbing, even kissing. The latest Biden attacker calls foul on him for Eskimo kissing.
Yes, Biden should seek out a meeting with a group of prestigious women—maybe suggested by the founder of #MeToo, Tarana Burke—to apologize and discuss what the new rules are. That could educate countless well-meaning men. But only after he’s begun making the difficult passage from his comfort in touching women to their plain disdain at being touched without consent.
But there is a bigger concern here: My fear is that powerful male bosses may become wary of promoting outspoken women for fear of being tarred for touching that was standard not so long ago. Even worse—men who resent new rules on gender equity may find this a convenient argument against those hard-won gains. Pence rules?
‘Assault is a crime. Ickiness is not.’
Danielle Pletka is senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
In this era of identity politics, apparently the mere fact of being a woman is sufficient qualification to comment on a politician’s fitness for office. By lucky coincidence, I have also known (though only professionally) Joe Biden since I joined the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee more than a quarter century ago. Whatever the terms of disapprobation of the moment—“inappropriate touching?” —the notion that Biden is an aged pervert is beyond ridiculous. He is a warm, kind individual who believes he has more charm than he does. Socially, this is his worst sin.
For conservatives, the temptation to sit aside and enjoy the circular firing squad that is the Democratic Party process for nominating a presidential candidate is huge. But there is a larger issue at stake, laid bare in the Kavanaugh hearing and elsewhere. Unsubstantiated and offensive allegations against men by women are not sacrosanct. They are as deserving of scrutiny as any other accusation. More importantly, women are not fragile flowers who cannot withstand the hugs of pre-Beto era men. It is as if we have returned to a pre-feminism era in which the weaker sex must prevail upon society to protect them from lotharios. Assault is a crime. Ickiness is not. Fussing over whether uncle Joe’s kiss was too warm serves mainly to distract us from discussing the real qualifications of those who aspire to the presidency.
‘Social mores have changed and Joe has not’
Molly Jong-Fast is author of The Social Climber’s Handbook: A Novel.
None of what Joe Biden did is nearly as bad as what Trump is accused of but it doesn’t matter, because Democrats shouldn’t have to use the thrice-married adulterer who has multiple sexual assault allegations against him as a moral yardstick.
This weird gray area of inappropriate touching is problematic for Biden because it speaks to a certain inability to adapt to the current climate. Maybe in 1989 he could kiss a women he didn’t know on the back of the head, but in 2019 it’s creepy and overly familiar. Maybe the Lucy Flores touching wasn’t about sex, maybe it was more about power, or about a lack of boundaries, or about a lack of respect. Or maybe it doesn’t matter; social mores have changed and Joe has not.
‘Biden’s behavior is discriminatory’
Soraya Chemaly is author of Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger.
The stories about Biden’s “affectionate behavior” aren’t new and, yes, are disturbing. At best, at this stage, they remind all of us that double standards in the treatment of men and women in public space persist in ways that cause women discomfort and humiliation. At worst, the insistence that this “handsiness” is harmless reflects a deep cultural denial of the number of women who have been harassed, assaulted or molested and live with the consequences of that, for example, hypervigilance and the inability to feel safe in virtually any setting. One in five women have been the victims of rape or attempted rape, according to the CDC. One in three to four live with intimate partner violence; almost all have been sexually harassed and experienced gender harassment in the form of every day discrimination.
At this point, intent is irrelevant. Biden’s behavior is discriminatory in that it creates environments in which women are objectified and supposed to ignore their own instincts, physical responses and dignity. It’s not complicated: Just don’t treat women in ways you wouldn’t treat a man in the same space. We’ll all be fine.
Biden’s excuse ‘might possibly be worse than the crime’
Joanna Weiss is editor-in-chief of Experience, a new online magazine.
The last thing Joe Biden needs, at this moment when millennial and GenX candidates are sucking all of the oxygen in the Democratic primary, is to look like somebody’s grandpa. Yet that’s the impression he gives in that rambling two-minute video, where he unbuttons his shirt collar, turns the folksy-meter to 11, and declares his sudden realization that “the boundaries of respecting personal space have been reset.” It’s one of those excuses that might possibly be worse than the crime. No, Joe, the boundaries haven’t changed; what’s changed is that people at last feel empowered to tell you that you’ve been crossing them for decades.
The #MeToo movement is filled with stories from women who are now about Biden’s age, who for years tolerated behavior that made feel uncomfortable or worse, who never believed they had the choice to call out a powerful man. On the spectrum of that behavior, Biden’s sins rank relatively low. His ignorance that he was sinning at all is a mitigating factor, sort of. The norms of his generation are a defense, kind of. And his excuses might fly with the grandpa set—the voters who feel, as Biden probably does, that social norms are shifting faster than they can possibly hope to accommodate. Those same voters, feeling that same whiplash, might have chosen to pull the lever for Donald Trump in 2016. Maybe Biden is the guy to draw them back. But the potential new Democratic voters—the ones the younger, glibber candidates are trying to draw into politics for the first time—will look at that video and see Grandpa: quaint, oddly charming, and a relic of the past.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine