George Pell, Harvey Weinstein, Michael Jackson. We remember the names of those who sicken us, but we give the institutions that enabled them a free pass. Why?
It’s tough to not get caught up in the shock and outrage as yet another high profile person is found guilty of historical sex offenses. Like many others, I joined my work colleagues glued to the television, almost incredulous as the George Pell verdict was read out. The jury of his peers stretched beyond those in the room and we were ready to condemn him. A respected member of our society had seemingly betrayed us all.
We rightly should be disgusted at the news reports about Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nassar, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, et al. One hopes there never comes a time of “trauma fatigue” or basic numbing to what we’re hearing. Because these stories aren’t small in number and these crimes of abuse will happen again.
We judge these men, sentence them to prison, and then wait for the next one, lurching from one heartbreaking tale of a destroyed life to the next. In the midst of all of this, there is no thought for the environment that allowed these men to become who they are, as if in some far-off hellscape beyond our reach there is a factory that churns out predators disguised as people we can place trust and faith in. We’re quick to view these men as a few bad apples, when they’re more like the fruit born from a tree with a rotten core. Our rage, fervent and just, is misplaced. John Dalberg-Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” As more and more of these stories emerge from the dark recesses of time, the through-line is always the same: a person in a position of immense power takes advantage of a person in a position of little or no power.
The far more harrowing truth is that these men worked in institutions built by us, and operated with the impunity that comes from being powerful and being backed by institutions with great power.
Pell will serve his six years, but a new Archbishop will arise in his place. Hopefully this person isn’t another bad apple just brought to a new market. Hopefully the word “reassigned” is absent from their official record. The church may scrub Pell’s name from the record books, no doubt a heavy insult to a man who once devoted his life to the cross. The institution, however, will endure. A constant reminder that we’re only willing to accept the “few bad apples” storyline, and that we’re not yet ready or willing to address societal power imbalances.
It’s hard to imagine what it would take to extricate ourselves from these power dynamics. But maybe our reluctance is an act of self preservation.
Harvey Weinstein’s film empire is no more. Rescued from bankruptcy proceedings and re-branded, the purchase profits went to paying off the creditors and investors with what was left going to the victims of Weinstein’s atrocities. In step with a despairingly common trend, creditors and shareholders were paid first. Indeed you can destroy someone’s life, but the real crime is touching their wallet.
Weinstein himself made no money from the sale. Nor did his business partner/brother Bob.
Although only speculation surrounds Bob Weinstein and how much he did/did not know, he is free to resume business as usual. Many of the Weinstein Brothers’ former employees, some more explicitly involved than others, have been offered jobs in the new film venture. I wonder what the salary figure is that buys a clear conscience?
In the wake of the new documentary surrounding two boys’ time at Neverland Ranch, many radio stations have banned Michael Jackson’s music. To everyone who wishes it so, it will be like he never existed. Like we never worshiped him, spent our hard-earned money on his albums and tickets, and believed in him. But that’s all. If some news outlets are to be believed, very shortly we will finally have clarity on another famous musician, perpetually dogged by rumors of impropriety. And on and on it goes.
It’s hard to imagine what it would take, or what society would look like, were we to extricate ourselves from the cult of celebrity, from the churches and houses of worship that so follow the headlines of victims of abuse, to fully and completely negate these power dynamics. But maybe this isn’t a case of “too big to fail.” Maybe our reluctance to enact meaningful change and reform within these institutions is an act of self-preservation. The “few bad apples” storyline is convenient in its ability to allow us to shed ourselves of the culpability that comes with the acceptance that we placed faith and value in these institutions, these businesses, and these industries, willfully ignoring the dogged rumors because we didn’t want to believe we could be wrong.
It seems as though the easy answer is to toss out the CDs and DVDs, tell our colleagues with a knowing look, we “always knew.”
Self-preservation is always easier than disentangling ourselves from powerful institutions that take advantage of our naiveté and prey on us all.