Infrequently, readers call me. It happens, but normally they just e-mail me. (Which is fine—I cherish your e-mails, I honestly do—except it adds to the sorry state of that catastrophically unkempt container known as my Inbox. Personified, my Inbox is a dorm room inhabited by two college-age males decorated indiscriminately with pizza boxes, suit jackets, and broken glass that's been underfoot for a distressingly long amount of time. My Inbox is Harry Dean Stanton after a cross-country bus trip spent drinking Old Crow on the long seat near the bathroom. It's messy in there. (One last sub-digression: Just this morning, someone asked me what I did for a living, and instead of telling him I'm an editor, or I'm the head of a powerful brand that's a regional tentacle in the global liberal media cabal, I said: "I send e-mails. I read them, I write them, I ignore them, they haunt me." E-mail is a form of oppression people. Wake up!))
The last call I received from a reader was in May, from a woman who lived in Cold Spring. Her name escapes me, but as I recall it had a marvelous ethnic solidity to it, like Astrid Calcavecchio. As the woman was of a certain age—her quavering timbre and formal diction gave her away—allow me to refer her as Mrs. Calcavecchio.
Mrs. Calcavecchio wanted me to know that she was a longtime reader and how much she loved the magazine. She especially enjoyed our wonderful covers and our arts coverage. Then Mrs. Calcavecchio pivoted. She asked if I was aware of a piece on Cold Spring that had run in the May issue. I assured Mrs. Calcavecchio that, as editor, I am aware of all the content in the magazine and that, despite rumors that all I do is drink champagne and eat bonbons, I personally edit its content. "So, you knowingly allowed Roger Ailes to be libeled in your pages?" Mrs. Calcavecchio asked.
(Some context: The piece in question was a profile of Cold Spring and the surrounding communities that ran in our Community Pages section, written by Brian PJ Cronin. The alleged libel referred to by Mrs. Calcavecchio is the parenthetical matter in the following sentence: "Then one day in 2008, Roger Ailes, then chief of Fox News (now a disgraced sexual predator), moved to town and bought the local newspaper, the Putnam County News and Recorder." For the record: "now a disgraced sexual predator" was my addition to Brian's prose.)
I asked Mrs. Calcavecchio if she knew about the cascade of allegations from women, who reported unwanted groping and demands for sex by Ailes, that led to his ouster at Fox News in 2016. "These are only allegations," she responded. "You report them as if they are true. Roger Ailes has never been convicted of anything. That's libel."
As libel is defined as a false statement that is damaging to a person's reputation, I suggested to Mrs. Calcavecchio that it would be impossible to libel Ailes, who had no part of his reputation left undamaged. Further, I pointed out that, like in the case of Bill Cosby, the sheer number of women who came forward alleging sexual misconduct or assault was enough to convince me. Mrs. Calcavecchio and I then debated the finer points of defamation for a few moments before she got to the point she wanted to make all along. "Chronogram is such a nice arts magazine," Mrs. Calcavecchio said. "I don't know why you need to write nasty things in it. You should stick to arts coverage." She ended by telling me that Chronogram had just lost a reader.
This conversation came back to me in light of the ongoing revelations of sexual harassment, misconduct, assault, and predation women suffer at the hands of powerful men abusing their power. Every day, another man, or two, or 20, are exposed for their trangressions. It's as if the harshest critiques of second-wave feminism were not only true but the default mode of male behavior. As Susan Brownmiller wrote in her 1975 manifesto Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape: "Man's discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times, along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe." How do we argue against that, given all we know about Bill O'Reilly and Louis CK and Donald Trump and Kevin Spacey and Mark Halperin and Charlie Rose and countless others? As Robin Abcarian wrote in the Los Angeles Times: "Will the last powerful man in America who has not been accused of sexual harassment please turn off the lights?"
The working title of this column was "Men Are Gross," a phrase I've repeated ad nauseam since the Weinstein story broke. Dudes not only sexually assault women (and other men), we also beat up our domestic partners and shoot dozens of people from hotel windows and kill whole congregations of churchgoers. And it seems like the more scrutiny we come under, the worse we fare.
And yet, as the feminist I live with pointed out to me, saying that men are gross is a copout. It lets us off the hook for our behavior via our biology. It also implies that men can't change, and it's impossible to shift the culture of toxic work environments into ones that are empowering to all. Which I refuse to believe is true. So, thanks for that insight, Lee Anne. And guys: By no means are all of us to blame for the misdeeds of the lords of misrule who continue to tumble from high perches. But those of us who do enjoy power should be very conscious of how we wield it. And get the hell out of the way and let some ladies through.