One of my favorite books when I was young was T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, and one of its central themes is the attempt of King Arthur to replace an ethos of “might is right” with something closer to justice. Justice means everyone is equal under the law—and equality means both that everyone has equal value under the law and that everyone is subject to the law. That’s been a foundational concept for the United States, but might is right has never ceased to be how things actually work at least some of the time. In White’s novel, might means in part the capacity for physical violence on the part of individual warriors, armies, tribes, and kingdoms, but the ability of individuals (and corporations and nations) to commit that violence with impunity is another kind of might that matters now.
The great work of investigative journalists in recent years has let us see might, naked and corrupt, doing its best to trample, silence, discredit the less powerful and their rights and with it the idea of right as an ethic independent of power. That these men actually run the media, the government, the financial system says everything about what kind of systems they are. Those systems have toiled to protect them, over and over. Indeed, power is not vested in them but in the individuals and institutions all around them. This makes it essential to look past individual perpetrators to the systems that allow them to commit crimes with impunity.
Maybe one of the reasons rape has so often been portrayed as “a stranger leaps out of the bushes” is so we’ll imagine rapists acting alone. But in so many cases rapists have help in the moment and forever after, and the help is often so powerful, broad, and deep—well, that’s why we call it rape culture, and that’s why changing it means changing the whole culture. Sometimes it’s the family, community, church, campus looking the other way; sometimes it’s the criminal justice system. If Jeffrey Epstein goes to jail for the new round of indictments—which only came about because one investigative journalist, Julie K. Brown of the Miami Herald, did an extraordinary job of digging up what had been buried in his case—a host of people who knew, laughed, looked the other way, allegedly helped him sexually abuse children for years will still be at large, and the circumstances that allow other Epsteins to attack other children will still exist.
Epstein gambled on the differential between his power and voice in the world and theirs and for the most part he won, because the game was rigged by dozens of people around him, even by the legal system that sealed the records, kept the victims and their lawyers from knowing what his plea deal was, and gave him an obscenely inconsequential sentence. What was the punishment for softballing child rape? Well, Alex Acosta, who was the US attorney in charge of the softballed Florida case against Epstein, is now our secretary of labor. US Attorney General William Barr worked for the law firm that defended Epstein.
And one of Epstein’s buddies, who’s been accused of raping a child under Epstein’s control and then threatening her if she spoke up, is president. The plaintiff in the civil suit about that alleged assault dropped the case just before the 2016 election, reportedly because of threats; 60 million Americans chose to vote for a man accused of raping a child in a case that has yet to be thoroughly investigated. Both Trump and Epstein have been furiously defended by former Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, who has also been accused of abusing girls under Epstein’s control. Earlier this year, the Miami Herald’s Julie K. Brown reported, “An attorney for lawyer Alan Dershowitz wrote a letter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on Tuesday, asking whether the media should be excluded from the proceeding because his oral arguments on behalf of his client could contain sensitive information that has been under seal.” Money buys silence.
In so many cases rapists have help in the moment and forever after, and the help is often so powerful, broad, and deep—well, that’s why we call it rape culture.
Dershowitz, along with Clinton independent counsel Kenneth Starr (he who made Monica Lewinsky a household name), defended Epstein in the Florida case. Starr was later fired from a plush job as president at Baylor University, where one victim’s lawsuit alleged that during his reign little was done about fifty-two rapes, including five gang rapes, by thirty-one of the university’s football players. The Chicago Tribune later reported, “Former Baylor University President Ken Starr said Tuesday that he raised money on behalf of a former Baylor football player who was recently acquitted of sexual assault.” That’s what we mean by rape culture; when campus leadership rallies around the high-status males accused of rape, rather than letting the legal system pursue something resembling justice, or standing up for victims.
In 2011, when a refugee worker in a New York City luxury hotel accused International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexually assaulting her, it seemed fresh and meaningful to connect the private abuse of power to the public abuse of power, or rather to show how the implicit might-is-right ethos in the latter was explicit in the former. Now it seems exhaustingly obvious that what’s happening to refugees, to the climate and the biosphere, to the poor under hypercapitalism, is a vicious disregard for their rights and humanity, and that some of the men perpetrating public brutality are monstrous in private is a given.
Monsters rule over us, on behalf of monsters. Now, when I think about what happened with Strauss-Kahn, who was subsequently accused of sexual assault by several other women, and with cases like his, it’s the secondary characters who seem to matter most. These men could not do with they did without a culture—lawyers, journalists, judges, friends—that protected them, valued them, devalued their victims and survivors. They do not act alone, and their might is nothing more or less than the way a system rewards and protects them, which is another definition of rape culture. That is, their impunity is not inherent; it’s something the society grants them and can take away.
The Senate’s Brett Kavanaugh hearing was a referendum on this aspect of rape culture. Christine Blasey Ford told us how she was assaulted and that Kavanaugh was not alone in the room as he attacked her, and then we got to see senators waffle, deny, excuse and ignore, and we learned about the malevolent machismo of prep-school culture and how the great fraternity of the northeastern power elite of the USA operates first and last to protect its own. The law of the land is now handed down to us by a man whose redfaced, self-pitying, rageful lack of self-control was displayed to a watching world and who got the job anyway. And as the American Bar Association put it, “A year after Yale Law professor Amy Chua wrote an op-ed article praising U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh as a mentor to women, her daughter is beginning a clerkship with him.” Meanwhile, Christine Blasey Ford got death threats and had to go into hiding. Countless women in other cases—including dozens who filed civil suits against Epstein—signed nondisclosure agreements that rendered them silent for life, further protecting the perpetrators.
For many serial predators, an elaborate infrastructure let them continue committing crimes with impunity. The Weinstein Company was a device for drawing victims into Harvey Weinstein’s spiderweb, then paying off the victims to silence them, or sending lawyers after them, or in the case of Rose McGowan, former Mossad spies so no one would hear her say what he did. As Ronan Farrow reported in 2017, “Weinstein monitored the progress of the investigations personally. He also enlisted former employees from his film enterprises to join in the effort.… In some cases, the investigative effort was run through Weinstein’s lawyers, including David Boies, a celebrated attorney who represented Al Gore in the 2000 Presidential-election dispute and argued for marriage equality before the U.S. Supreme Court. Boies personally signed the contract directing Black Cube to attempt to uncover information that would stop the publication of a Times story about Weinstein’s abuses, while his firm was also representing the Times, including in a libel case.” It takes a village to silence a victim, and there are a lot of willing villagers.
Like Epstein, the musician R. Kelly reportedly pursued children to sexually exploit them for decades, and money and intimidation silenced past victims and set up future victims. The journalist who spent those decades trying to make someone care enough to do something to stop the crimes, Jim DeRogatis, wrote in the New Yorker when Kelly was indicted, “Taken together, the five-count indictment from the Eastern District of New York and the thirteen-count indictment from the Northern District of Illinois present a harrowing account of a nineteen-year criminal enterprise comprised of ‘managers, bodyguards, drivers, personal assistants and runners’ all designed to ‘promote R. Kelly’s music and the R. Kelly brand and to recruit women and girls to engage in illegal sexual activity with Kelly.’ … For years, many journalists, music critics, radio programmers, concert promoters, and record-company executives ignored or dismissed the allegations against Kelly, especially when he was generating income and scoring hits.”
Monsters rule over us, on behalf of monsters.
Back in 2011, Cyrus Vance, New York City’s attorney general, dropped the charges against Strauss-Kahn on the ground that the victim—who had been extensively attacked by Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers and by journalists eager to discredit an African refugee woman—was not credible, though she later won a settlement in a civil suit with, of course, a nondisclosure agreement that silenced her. The Daily News reported in 2018, “FBI agents are probing the Manhattan district attorney’s office over its handling of high-profile cases that were dropped once lawyers for the well-connected subjects made donations, the Daily News has learned.
Manhattan’s top prosecutor came under fire last year after questions surfaced about his office’s 2015 decision not to go after ex-Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein after model Ambra Battilana accused him of groping her breasts in his Tribeca office. A lawyer hired by Weinstein at the time had given Vance $24,000 and another attorney sent him $10,000 after the decision to spare the powerful producer an arrest.” We read back then that a woman had tried to report on Weinstein’s sexual crimes in the New York Times in 2004, only to have her male editor dismiss the story; we learned this time around that another woman journalist tried to report in 2003 on Epstein’s sexual abuse of a 16-year-old, only to have her Vanity Fair editor, under direction of Graydon Carter, delete that part of her story. In patriarchy, no one can hear you scream.
These stories about the famously rich and powerful are illustrative of how it works, but the system of patriarchy doesn’t only work for them. A perfect specimen of how it used to work and often still does for any privileged male emerged this month in reports about a rape case in New Jersey, one in which an incapacitated 16-year-old girl was allegedly assaulted by a boy who filmed himself raping her and shared the video with the text “when your first time having sex is rape.” The New York Times reported of the judge in the case, “But a family court judge said it wasn’t rape. Instead, he wondered aloud if it was sexual assault, defining rape as something reserved for an attack at gunpoint by strangers. He also said the young man came from a good family, attended an excellent school, had terrific grades and was an Eagle scout. Prosecutors, the judge said, should have explained to the girl and her family that pressing charges would destroy the boy’s life.”
Judge James Troiano said, “He is clearly a candidate for not just college but probably for a good college.” In other words, because he was a privileged boy on the path to being a privileged man, he mattered so much that the victim did not matter at all, and the fact that he’d committed a crime did not matter either, which lays the groundwork for him and others like him to keep committing crimes and victims of those crimes to be told their rights don’t matter.
Truth is whatever the powerful want it to be, which is one of the fundamentals of authoritarianism. Might is right.
Might is right. You see it all over again in the rape charges that columnist E. Jean Carroll made against Trump last month: Senator Lindsay Graham said, “He’s denied it. That’s all I need to hear.” Earlier this year the Washington Post noted, “President Trump’s pitter-patter of exaggerated numbers, unwarranted boasting and outright falsehoods has continued at a remarkable pace. As of June 7, his 869th day in office, the president has made 10,796 false or misleading claims,” and Lindsay Graham knows it, but as with his furious defense of Kavanaugh, he’s chosen an ethic in which anything a powerful man says goes and nothing a woman says matters. Truth is whatever the powerful want it to be, which is one of the fundamentals of authoritarianism. Might is right.
The underlying error in The Once and Future King, as I look back at it, was the assumption that you could have unequal power in the land—knights in armor with weapons and weapons training, versus unarmed women and serfs and servants—and somehow use it to institute equality. Chivalry is dead; it was always rotten. Arthurian romance was never going to be about the redistribution of power and wealth, but democracy is supposed to be, and we understand now in our new age of plutocrats (and the old age of patriarchy) how unlikely it is that people will be equal under the law while they are so unequal in might.
Some of that might is monetary, some of it is the corrupt power structures in the financial, political, and entertainment sectors that gave us Fox’s Roger Ailes and CBS’s Les Moonves and New York state’s Eric Schneiderman and Baylor’s football team so many more monsters who seemed to see the abuse of women as part of their puissance. Some of it—quite a lot of it—is gender. There are lots of good reasons for the courts to prosecute individual cases, but justice will not be done until might is no longer right, and power that includes the power of being heard and valued is distributed equally.
San Francisco writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit is the author of twenty-something books about geography, community, art, politics, hope, and feminism and the author, most recently of Call Them By Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays) and Drowned River: The Death and Rebirth of Glen Canyon on the Colorado.