I don’t cover politics, or the White House, or media. But I have written about assaults against women, including the Brett Kavanaugh accusations, and clearly I’d achieved some kind of lady-arbiter status in the mind of a reader who emailed me Wednesday.
He demanded I write a column “condemning” CNN correspondent Jim Acosta for “assaulting the young woman.” It would be, the reader insisted, the “fair-minded” thing to do.
So I did what everyone else was doing and replayed the footage, Zapruder-style, from the chaotic briefing earlier that day. In it, a White House staffer reached for Acosta’s microphone. Acosta’s gesticulating arm simultaneously descended. Of course this wasn’t assault. This was a forearm already on a downward trajectory; this was Newton’s First Law.
“Do you genuinely, in your heart, believe it was assault?” I wrote back.
By then, the White House had revoked Acosta’s credentials for, as Sarah Sanders tweeted, “placing his hands” on a “young woman just trying to do her job as a White House intern.”
By then, of course, it was clear we weren’t talking about Acosta at all. We were talking about the fact that for a dispiriting number of people, including in the White House, assault is merely an abstract concept to be strategically wielded. As if the game isn’t to hope nobody abuses women but to hope your political opponents abuse a lot of them.
The people who want to label Wednesday’s news conference as an assault are only revealing how profoundly they do not understand assault. Or, less charitably, they don’t believe it should be taken seriously when it seriously happens. It should only be taken seriously when it can be used to score points.
Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation against Kavanaugh? That, apparently, wasn’t about a terrible thing that allegedly happened to a scared teenage girl. That was about a conspiracy designed to bring down the president’s Supreme Court nominee.
The dozen-plus women who accused President Trump of sexual misconduct? Those weren’t about a wealthy mogul allegedly treating women like playthings. Those, apparently, were about a conspiracy designed to make sure that man didn’t become president.
Do you remember when a Breitbart News reporter, Michelle Fields, was grabbed so hard by Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski that she had bruises on her arm? I’m not sure I’d classify the incident as an assault — but Trump’s response was first to call it “made up” and, later, when video proof emerged, to claim Fields had been grabbing him.
On Wednesday, it seemed as if Sanders was vaguely aware that assaulting and harassing women is currently frowned upon, and that “believing women” is in vogue, and so she created a Mad Libs tweet that would evoke as many key triggers as possible. She also shared a video of the encounter that had been doctored — sped up to make it look like the arm contact was intentional and eliminating Acosta’s “Pardon me, ma’am.”
Note, in Sanders’s statement, the use of “placing his hands,” which implies intentional, palms-down touching. Note “intern,” which reinforces the idea of a power imbalance. Note “trying to do her job,” which calls back to the thousands of women in the #MeToo movement who have shared stories about the times when their hard-fought careers were hindered by harassment.
Read the tweet, and you might get the impression Acosta was following a teenager around with his hands duct-taped to her butt. Watch the video, though, and — well, if this is “assault,” I personally assaulted three people on my crowded commute home last night.
(In fairness, I also didn’t quite get it when some liberals blew a gasket over a video clip of Kavanaugh nudging his wife aside — shoving! they cried — so he could hug his daughters at his swearing-in. I know married couples who elbow each other more vigorously in an attempt to reach the microwave. Still: I have somewhat higher expectations for the White House press secretary than for random goofballs on Twitter.)
Last week, pro-Trump conspiracy theorists Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman called a news conference, announcing they were in contact with a woman who said she’d been raped by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. The smear job quickly unraveled into a confederacy of dunces: The woman didn’t exist. Other women came forward to say they’d been offered money to tell false tales about Mueller.
They thought a roomful of journalists and the good people of America would take a convoluted rape allegation at face value. They thought nobody would do a reverse Google image search on the fake investigative firm’s fake employees, or bother to dial its phone number (which turned out to belong to Wohl’s mom). And they thought they could find women happy to ruin a man’s life for a few dollars, because allegations are all part of a gotcha game, right?
All they ended up revealing was that journalists employ standards and logic before repeating allegations against men. And that supporters of the #MeToo movement fear false allegations as much as anyone, because they understand how quickly progress would be wiped away by even one high-profile lie.
I wish the Jim Acosta example wasn’t a Jim Acosta example — one that makes it look like I’m only interested in defending journalists, or in defending people who ask the president critical questions.
Because the larger point has nothing to do with who brushed whose arm away and who took away whose White House access.
The larger point is that violence against women shouldn’t be a thing you get to gin up using doctored video. It’s not a thing you get to dismiss when it’s inconvenient.
Violence against women isn’t a point-scoring gift for politicians. Astonishingly enough, violence against women is a thing that happens to women.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more, visit wapo.st/hesse.