Of all of the dismaying and disgusting details of the Harvey Weinstein saga, none is more depressing than this: It has so few heroes.
There is a storybook villain, Weinstein, whose repulsive face turns out to be the spitting image of his putrescent soul. There are victims, so many of them, typically up-and-comers in an industry where he had the power to make or wreck their careers, or bully or buy their silence, or, if some allegations are to be believed, rape them.
But mostly there are enablers, both those who facilitated his predations and those who found it expedient to look the other way.
The enablers were of all sorts. Corporate board members who declined to investigate allegations of his sexual behavior and now claim the news comes as “an utter surprise.” Assistants who acted as “honeypots,” joining meetings between Weinstein and his intended victims to give them a sense of security – and then leaving the predator to his prey. Reporters who paid him tribute with awards, did his bidding with fawning coverage, or went after his enemies with hit pieces. A lavishly paid Italian studio executive whose real job, according to former Times reporter Sharon Waxman, was “to take care of Weinstein’s women needs.” (A lawyer for the executive reportedly denies the allegation.)
And then there was the rest of Hollywood.
Weinstein’s depredations were an open film industry secret, the subject of an onstage joke by Seth MacFarlane at the 2013 Oscar nomination announcement. Everyone laughed because everyone got it. Some of his victims, such as Gwyneth Paltrow, became Hollywood powers in their own right but never publicly rang an alarm until this week. The actor Ben Affleck, who owes his start to Weinstein, is an overnight laughingstock because he acts surprised by the producer’s behavior. He won’t be the only celebrity doing his best Claude Rains “shocked, shocked” impression.
Even some of the ostensibly good guys in this saga cannot be let off lightly. In The New Yorker, Ronan Farrow reports that Irwin Reiter, a top Weinstein Co. executive, sought to console one of the office assistants harassed by Weinstein by saying the “mistreatment of women” was a long-standing company issue and that “if you were my daughter he would not have made out so well.” But Reiter never went public.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that an industry built around pretended characters and scenarios could have pretended for so long that nothing was amiss. Perhaps it should be no surprise, either, that its concept of ethics is every bit as ersatz and inconstant as most everything else in Tinseltown.
The outrage over Weinstein also has a whiff of opportunism. In recent years, notes New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister, Weinstein has “lost power in the movie industry” and is no longer “the indie mogul who could make or break an actor’s Oscar chances.” Lame horses get shot.
It’s in this context that one can mount a defense of sorts for Weinstein, who inhabited a moral universe that did nothing but cheer his golden touch and wink at (or look away from) his transgressions – right until the moment that it became politically inconvenient to do so. Conservatives are trying to make hay of the fact that Weinstein donated lavishly to Democratic politicians, backed progressive causes and distributed films such as “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary about campus sexual assault.
But the important truth about Weinstein isn’t his moral hypocrisy: In movies as in politics, hypocrisy isn’t just an accepted fact of life but also an essential part of the job.
The important truth is that he was just another libidinous cad in a libertine culture that long ago dispensed with most notions of personal restraint and gentlemanly behavior. “I came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different,” Weinstein wrote in his mea culpa to The Times last week. “That was the culture then.”
That line was roundly mocked, but it contains its truth. Like those other libidinous cads – Bill Clinton and Donald Trump – Weinstein benefited from a culture that often celebrated, constantly depicted, sometimes enabled, seldom confronted, and all-too frequently forgave the behavior they so often indulged in.
Hyenas cannot help their own nature. But the work of a morally sentient society is to prevent them from taking over the savanna. Our society, by contrast, festooned Weinstein with honors, endowed him with riches, and enabled him to feast on his victims without serious consequence for the better part of 30 years. The old saw that all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing was never truer than it was in Weinstein’s case.
It may be that Weinstein’s epic downfall will scare straight other sexual miscreants, or at least those who tolerate their behavior and are liable for its consequences. Don’t count on it. Our belated indictment of him now does too much to acquit his many accomplices, and too little to transform a culture that never gave him a reason to change.