Having the Courage to Love Like Grown-Ups (thoughts from a former Franken staffer)

Emily Flesch is a third year law student at Mitchell Hamline.  I asked her to write something after the news broke on Thursday.

“For many of us, living under the Trump administration has cast everything into sharper relief: It’s as if we’ve all been given fancy polarized sunglasses with which to more clearly see the fault lines of the patriarchy. It’s no longer possible to ignore what was there all along.” – Lauren Duca,  https://www.teenvogue.com/story/sexism-remembered-and-forgotten

The goggles our class has been exploring this semester are difficult to wear, which is a hallmark of the privilege of the wearer, as we are forced to see what has been obvious all along to those without privilege. The other defining feature of these goggles is that, as Duca notes, above, once you have had them on, it is impossible not to see through them.  And with our gender goggles on, the landscape is pretty grim. Here, as Lindy West describes:

“Not only are women expected to weather sexual violence, intimate partner violence, workplace discrimination, institutional subordination, the expectation of free domestic labor, the blame for our own victimization, and all the subtler, invisible cuts that undermine us daily, we are not even allowed to be angry about it. Close your eyes and think of America. We are expected to keep quiet about the men who prey upon us, as though their predation was our choice, not theirs.https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/08/opinion/anger-women-weinstein-assault.html?_r=0

So I have spent these last several weeks shocked, but not surprised at the men being named for their predatory behavior. My experiences, and the experiences of countless other women (and men) have made it clear that even (and especially) the people we love, respect, trust, and admire are capable of horrific acts. If this post-Weinstein “reckoning” is to have any meaning, we must steel ourselves to hold accountable even (and especially) the people that we love, respect, trust, and admire.

This brings me to Senator Al Franken.

I first met Al at his book signing when I was 15. Yes, I was the weird kind of kid who read political satire. Neither of my parents was especially political, but I had always been fascinated by how our government works and the business of politics.

My dad drove me, and I remember waiting in the line. I remember meeting Al and I remember his smile. I remember what I said to him – that I hoped he decided to run for Senate. If he did, I promised I would work for him.

A few years later, Al officially announced his senate run. I made good on my promise and joined Team Franken as an intern. It was a dream come true for this nerd. I went to my first political convention, where I helped Al win the DFL endorsement. I got to introduce Al at an event in Duluth. Together, we told the story of meeting at the book signing. I loved talking with voters about the issues. Working on Al’s campaign is one of things I am most proud to have done.

When Al was finally elected as our Senator (by only 312 votes), I knew that my work had mattered. And I truly believed that Al was going to make a difference in Washington, not just for Minnesotans, but for all of us. I believed him when he told us that his crass jokes from SNL were “just jokes.” I believed him when he promised he was going to work hard and take his job as a Senator seriously.

Over his first two terms, I have continued to be impressed. His work on behalf of veterans, on behalf of women, on behalf of consumers, and on the judiciary committee has exceeded even my expectations. Senator Al Franken, I have told people many times over the years, is the one politician that I truly believe in 100%.

And then, the photograph of him groping Leeann Tweeden.

“He needs to resign,” I texted my parents, after the story broke. My father responded, “I don’t think there is a man our age who hasn’t acted inappropriately at some point.”  And that, I explained, is precisely the problem.  Look through your goggles, people!

The road forks now, in terms of what should come next. There is a political reality, and there is that reality that has existed in the shadows, without the benefit of the polarized sunglasses, for too long.  Hovering over both realities is this discussion of nuance, of degrees. Of whether what Al did was better than many, and worse than some.  I am not sure that it matters.

The political reality as I see it is that we cannot afford not to hold Al accountable. Any leniency will be used against us from the right, who, so far, has failed to hold credible allegations of child molestation against Roy Moore, and has elected Donald “grab them by the pussy” Trump as our president. Any wavering here will not be understood as the product of weighing the facts and circumstances and reaching a reasoned conclusion. It will be a cudgel to beat us with, and shield to hide behind the next time a Republican is accused of sexual misconduct.

The other reality, the “shadow realm” that is being dragged, flailing and screaming into the light, is the one illuminated by our “power vision” goggles,  In this reality too, Al, and the rest of us, must be held accountable. Not in an angry, vengeful way, but because we recognize that as humans, we hurt each other. Because we want to be better. Because we understand that we are all in this together.  And because we love the ugly and deeply flawed Democratic experiment that is America.

I have been thinking a lot about ‘love’ this semester.  For a long time, my concept of love in a political and social sense was informed by none other than Senator Al Franken. He wrote in Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: “Grown-up love means actually understanding what you love, taking the good with the bad, and helping your loved one grow. Love takes attention and work.” This framing of love has become one of the bedrock principles of my personal political ethos. But today, it falls short.

I love Al Franken. Not like a child, or a former staffer, or a constituent. I love him like a grown-up. But I am over just “taking the good with the bad.” And I am over “helping your loved one grow.” Women have been doing that since the dawn of time. We are not the only grown-ups in the room. Al is a grown-up too. It is time for him, and the rest of the men whose names we have heard, and whose names we have yet to hear, to do their own work — the hard work of taking responsibility for their bad behavior, of understanding the pain and hurt they have caused, and of accepting whatever consequences follow.

We have a foundational problem in this country, with racism, with sexism, with violence, and poverty and capitalism and war. We have a problem in the White House, at the highest levels of our government, and we have a problem in our states, our cities, and our small communities.

Loving America — ourselves and our society — means doing the difficult work of admitting that problem in all its complexity: it means being uncomfortable, being proximate, and owning our own complicity. To me, that means summoning the personal and political will to hold ourselves and each other accountable. It means there are no free passes.  It means wondering, constantly and publicly, how things would be different if the status quo were to really shift, foundationally:  where woman-identified voices, and the voices of people of color were truly elevated in our society, instead of relegated to the margins.

What if there had been more female voices in politics to inspire the younger version of myself, into whose campaigns I could have invested my time, my energy, my idealism? An oft-cited statistic is that women need to be asked an average of seven times to run for public office before agreeing. To all my woman-identified friends, consider this ask Number One: please run for office. I promise, when you do, I will come work for you.