When a Reckoning Is a Gambit for Redemption

Images via Getty.
Images via Getty.

“I will not waste this reckoning,” Leon Wieseltier, the former literary editor of The New Republic said this week in a statement. Wieseltier’s reckoning came shortly after it was reported that nearly a dozen women had accused him of sexual harassment during his long tenure at the magazine. He went on to offer a “shaken apology,” asked for forgiveness, and offered a few compliments for the “smart and good” women whom he harassed. Both reckoning and apology were prompted when he was fired from a publishing project set to debut later this month. On Tuesday, the investment group Emerson Collective announced that, given the range of allegations leveled against Wieseltier, it was ending its relationship with him and suspending publication of his forthcoming journal.


“Reckoning,” he called his apparently sudden awareness that he had sexually harassed numerous women during his long career, implying that he had been, until now, unaware of his behavior. He added that equipped with this new awareness that he will ostensibly take to heart or, at least, “not waste” his newly found awareness. His “reckoning” seems directly tied to real consequences—namely, damage to his professional and financial prospects—but his language was telling. Wieseltier meant, of course, a personal reckoning. What that means in terms of real action beyond a penitent public statement is unclear, but his language was telling. There’s no doubt that reckoning is a word—an idea—that will likely haunt cultural discourse for awhile, particularly in conversations about sexism. Yet it’s worth making a demand of the concept, or at least of realizations that are personal, as opposed to a larger public reckoning that encompasses the messiness of history and gender and culture.

Though Wieseltier said that he “ashamed to know” he made the women he harassed “feel demeaned and disrespected,” the whole bit felt just as disingenuous as Harvey Weinstein’s “I’m from another era,” apology. Wieseltier has been accused of “unwanted touching, kissing, groping, and other sexual advances.” Others told the New York Times that he regularly commented on their bodies and clothes. It’s astonishing to think that Wieseltier just now realized that he was sexually harassing the women in his office and employ; that it takes some kind of soul search to realize that “sloppily” kissing women “on the mouth, sometimes in front of other staff members” was unwelcome behavior.

But if Wieseltier’s reckoning was a sudden awareness of his own sexual harassment—a habit so well known that women recounted their “Leon stories” to The Atlantic and the Times, and to our colleague Clio Chang at Splinter—then the overdue repercussions were a reckoning of another kind. Wieseltier was one of the men named on the Shitty Media Men document, a list of anonymous allegations that identified and described the abuses of men in the media that briefly circulated last week.

Since the document was shared, at least three men on the list, including Wieseltier, have seen their careers negatively affected; men on the list have been fired or have had freelance contracts severed. Though it’s unclear whether or not Wieseltier’s employment was affected by the list, shortly after it was published, a group of women who used to work at The New Republic began emailing one another to share their “Leon stories” and figure out how to make those stories public. It was when the allegations reached Emerson Collective, an organization helmed by Laurene Powell Jobs, that the group severed their relationship with Wieseltier. Today, it was announced that The Atlantic is also severing ties with Wieseltier.

The Atlantic called Wieseltier’s firing the result of the “Harvey Effect,” a phrase that they don’t define but seems bundled in with this particular moment; that mix of frustration and anger and anxiety that found some expression in the Me Too hashtag on social media. Though the Shitty Media Men list and Me Too raised plenty of good questions about how to share sexual harassment and assault allegations, as well as what action post-expression should look like, it’s increasingly clear that the action is the realization that the whisper network—defined, in many respects, open secrets of men’s abuse and women’s endurance—does not need to be a private, secretive space. Rather, it’s always functioned as a public space or, at least, an alternative public space deemed gossipy and private since it was occupied entirely by women. The wielding of the knowledge that forms the whisper network’s can potentially remake spaces historically defined by men and built for their comfort.


Wieseltier may have had his own “reckoning” but, perhaps, the real reckoning is in the reformation of workplaces and universities of those semi-public spaces where abuse is a “conversation” or a “debate”; spaces where the open secret remains unspoken because it is the tool of women with little room in the public sphere of rational debate. A true reckoning would see those ambiguous concepts as the constructs that they are. It would recognize too that the open secret is invested in the preservation of men’s reputations and the pathologization of women (Think of how often women who make allegations public are coded as unstable, untrustworthy, or unreliable narrators. Men simply need to deny the allegations or have a penitent moment).


Whether or not this is the beginning of a reckoning is impossible to predict, but shortly after the Wieseltier news broke, several women accused influential political journalist Mark Halperin of sexual harassment. The allegations were familiar: non-consensual kissing and groping. The apology was familiar, too. “I now understand from these accounts that my behavior was inappropriate and caused others pain,” Halperin said. “I now understand,” was, apparently, Halperin’s reckoning. More women came forward and both HBO and MSNBC severed their relationships with Halperin. On a smaller scale, Knight Landesman, the publisher of Artforum, resigned on Wednesday after nine women accused him of sexual harassment. The allegations, like those leveled against Halperin and Wieseltier, stretched back over a decade.

There are bound to be more of these stories; more men who, once protected by open secrets and the dismissal of gossip, will have their reputations questioned and their once-certain careers rendered uncertain. There will be more Bill O’Reillys, more Harvey Weinsteins and more Shitty Media Men, though perhaps not on such a grand scale. These revelations come with inevitable news cycles that turn from allegations to conversations about unjust punishment and forgiveness and, more often than not, even redemption. This is a narrative designed to preserve and rehabilitate men’s reputations, designed to provide an easy acknowledgment of “reckoning” or newfound self-awareness without visible changes in the cultures that relegate open secrets to the so-called private sphere, inhabited only by women and their whispers. It’s a method of debate that we should be wary of because it’s designed to prevent real reckonings; designed, indeed, to preserve the culture that produced the narrative in the first place.



So, what percentage of powerful men have recently spent a lot of sleepless nights staring up at their ceiling and praying they weather the storm and their stuff doesn’t come out?