Seatbelts, Cigarettes and Sexual Abuse – What our history should teach us

Juda Engelmayer for Respvblica

There is something to be said about the different ideals from one generation to the next, and it is not a simple matter to readily dismiss.  The fight today over whether Christopher Columbus should be honored is just one example.  Before we knew what we now know, Columbus was the person responsible for our American society today. Without him, many, if not all of us non-indigenous people may have never come to these shores.  If not him, someone else would likely have paved this path; consequently, making our history and hence, our present, different from what we know.

In the early 20th century, people did not know any differently, and even for those who may have thought it, it was not “conventional” thinking.  Just as Smoking was accepted and even feted behavior for a time, as we know from books, old news stories, past advertisements and classical movies, today we scoff at smokers and remand them to the far sides of building overhangs in the pouring rain, trying to stay warm while dragging intoxicating fumes.

There was a time when we did not consider seat belts, and even allowed our kids to play in the cavernous back seats of our cars while we rode down the streets and highways. Few thought of it as dangerous, if they even thought of it at all.  My wife and I just watched Beaches again, and I was little disturbed at scene (albeit it was not so disturbing in 1988) where the characters C. C. Bloom (Bette Midler) and Hillary Whitney (Barbara Hershey) were heading out to the beach house (hence, the title “Beaches”) in Whitney’s BMW convertible while Whitney’s young daughter Victoria was standing in the back seat as they all broke out in song.  It was supposed to be a sweet scene of togetherness, but I saw a kid standing in an open convertible as they were moving at least 55 MPH.

My father was a features editor at the big media company, United Features Syndicate, in the Seventies and early Eighties, and I used to visit him in the then Pan Am Building, above Grand Central Terminal.  The work environment was what you expected back then – male dominance with female assistants.  There were female editors and writers, even comic artists too, but predominantly, it was a man’s world. Whether it was right or wrong was less important than it just was.  Today, we would not stand for it, but yesterday, it was a fact whether we agreed or not.  The same as cigarettes and seat belts – we evolve, hopefully get smarter so we can correct the imperfections of yesterday.

Now here is where I know to expect pushback.  Recently, in the #metoo age, post the “shock” of hearing about Harvey Weinstein’s ravenous behavior, some women have now called out the 93-year-old wheelchair bound, former President George Herbert Walker Bush for inappropriately touching them while taking pictures. On the one hand, no one should be touched anywhere or anyway they do not wish to be.  That is clear.  On the other hand, as his spokesperson said:

“At age 93, President Bush has been confined to a wheelchair for roughly five years, so his arm falls on the lower waist of people with whom he takes pictures… To try to put people at ease, the president routinely tells the same joke — and on occasion, he has patted women’s rears in what he intended to be a good-natured manner. Some have seen it as innocent; others clearly view it as inappropriate. To anyone he has offended, President Bush apologizes most sincerely.”

While not a litmus test, Bush Sr. is not known for aggressive sexual conduct toward women, nor is he one of those Oval Office occupants who fostered a reputation as a womanizer.  His actions should not be condoned, but we cannot forget that he is 93 years old.  Not to say that an old person should be permitted to do anything, but I call attention to his age to examine his tutelage. Bush Sr. was a child in Hollywood’s early days when painful stories of the abuse Hollywood’s “it girl” Clara Bow suffered went largely ignored. He was a teenager as he read about Joan Crawford’s torrid relationships and love affairs, and her alleged insatiable sexual appetite, much of which could only adorn pages of such media as The Star and National Enquirer today. Bush must have read Bette Davis’ comments that Crawford, “slept with every star at MGM… of both sexes,” to advance her career.

Bush Sr. grew up in the early 20th century, when women who were employed in manufacturing and clerical positions faced physical and verbal assaults from male supervisors, and were advised to simply quit their jobs if they could not handle the sexual overtures.  Bush grew up in an age where a woman who complained about sexual abuse quickly learned that predatory behavior was dismissed as trivial and harmless.

It is not politically correct today to say this, but all sexual abuse is not the same.  I want to believe that had Bush Sr. thought his actions were tantamount to more primitive cruelty and violence, even rape, he would not have done it at all.  Yet, from his life’s experiences, it was, as his spokesperson said, “good-natured.”

None of this is meant to excuse anyone’s bad behavior, but it is meant to put some of it into context.  Bush’s generation grew up with a very different set of rules and socially accepted behavior than those my parents were taught, which was vastly different from the ones of my generation, and certainty not as progressive as the ones our children live by.  Their children will also have more distinct social norms from what we know now.

We should encourage more people to come forward and root out sexual abuse, child abuse and other demeaning and demoralizing acts by the powerful over the powerless.  Yet, we should also be wise enough to distinguish that which is predacious from imprudent.  Everyone has some kind of #metoo moment in their lives, where someone, somewhere, at some point, did something that made them uncomfortable. The same ability to discern right from wrong, that distinguishes human beings from animals, gives us the faculty to also determine what merits being sent up the flagpole.

My kids learned from Disney’s The Incredibles, “When everyone’s super, no one is!”

From that we can infer that if everyone cries foul, the public’s tolerance for what is indeed foul will only increase, and someone’s real pain will be diminished, and justice could become elusive.

A different time… George HW Bush

1 Comment

Leave a Reply