POP STUFF: SHAME ON WHO?
RollingStone India|December 2021
‘IN SPITE OF HAVING CIVIL RIGHTS LAWS AROUND HARASSMENT, IF WE DON’T ACTUALLY TALK ABOUT IT IN NUMBERS, NOTHING HAPPENS’
SOLEIL NATHWANI
Hard-nosed, fast-walking, brassy New Yorkers have a reputation built on resilience. Whenever there is a crisis in the city or state, New York invariably rises to the challenge – a trait that has endowed it with a reputation for being tough as nails. I remember feeling the dread in my downtown office building as plumes of smoke filled the sky on 9/11, walking down forty-eight flights and navigating chaos to get home. I recall working at a hedge fund in the midst of the financial crisis and watching the markets collapse. I can still conjure the moment the lights came on in my apartment after five dark, powerless days during Hurricane Sandy. But New York never felt scarier or exhibited more toughness than when it became the epicenter of the pandemic in the Spring of 2020 and New Yorkers were locked in, masked and surrounded by an unending wail of ambulance sirens. During this period of collective trauma, effective state governance was key and the former Governor of the state, Andrew Cuomo, who recently resigned in disgrace, became something of a national hero, the most trusted Democratic voice during a public health crisis in which the White House was flailing and someone who, by virtue of measured, data-driven, empathetic daily briefings, projected safety and imbued his pandemic motto New York Tough with the heft needed to see New Yorkers through.

Months after the first peak of the pandemic, by November of 2020, the Governor’s voice had become such a powerful symbol that The International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences announced that it would be awarding Andrew Cuomo an Emmy award for his daily coronavirus briefings. Cuomo, fresh from his success, wrote a book about his heroics entitled American Crisis: Leadership Lessons From the Covid-19 Pandemic which publishing companies vied for in a frenzied battle. Cuomo’s subsequent downfall then has been of Shakespearean proportions: a precipitous fall from grace following a nursing home scandal (the state administration was accused of deliberately obscuring the number of nursing home deaths during the pandemic) and more pertinently, his resignation in August of this year, accompanied by a non-apology of sorts, in the wake of sexual harassment allegations from eleven women.

A look back through Cuomo’s career makes his departure from the Governor’s mansion seem like a comeuppance of sorts for a leader who hailed from a political dynasty and never really escaped the shadow of his ‘philosopher king’ father Mario Cuomo (respected, the three-term liberal governor of New York from 1983 to 1994), mainly because of the younger Cuomo’s reputation for being a ruthless, political operator who barked back at perceived enemies and ruled in a domineering style. Andrew Cuomo, it seems, managed through intimidation and was harsh on those he considered vulnerable. Various looks back into his tenure have revealed instances of berating officials, threatening to fire people or end their careers, and managing by an instinct to punch first and never explain. And yet New Yorkers elected Cuomo three times and credited his heavy-handed approach for being effective in bringing about very concrete advances – a rise in the minimum wage, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and a variety of criminal justice reforms.

And so, New York’s latest crisis, one which it shows signs of reemergence from, with freshly bustling streets and a new and notably first, female Governor in Kathy Hochul, has got me thinking about true toughness and resilience. New York Tough, the erstwhile Governor’s rousing pandemic slogan was in retrospect an irony-laden, double-edged sword, elevating the perceived strength of a leader who had a penchant for bullying to achieve his ends. Ends that included allegedly harassing women who worked for him and ultimately denying he ever crossed a line with anyone, rather than, ‘I didn’t realize the extent to which the line had been redrawn’ and that there were, ‘generational and cultural shifts that I just didn’t fully appreciate’. Yet Cuomo was very much in his seat of power in the wake of the reporting on Weinstein, Epstein, and a host of other scandals, an environment that, unless you had been in a cave, would make the argument that you were unaware of the shifting culture, moot. It was after the MeToo reckoning that seven of his eleven accusers claim his inappropriate behavior took place and in August 2019 that the Governor himself signed laws strengthening protections against workplace harassment. Perhaps, the power of the office warped Cuomo’s perception of decency.

Powerful people, particularly men, sexually harassing subordinates, very frequently women, is old news (of course, no one is immune to this though the statistics are particularly high for certain vulnerable groups such as younger women, Black women, transgender individuals, and others). In the wake of MeToo, a different man seemed to be knocked off his perch every day after strings of allegations made it impossible to keep those very people, who had seemed untouchable, in power. Matt Lauer once the handsome, comforting face of American morning television via The Today Show was fired, after twenty-five years at network NBC, following a complaint of inappropriate sexual behavior. It turned out there had been numerous such instances, including one where he purportedly summoned a female employee to his office, dropped his pants, and then reprimanded her for not engaging in a sexual act. Celebrity chef Mario Batali had to step away from his restaurant operations after several allegations of sexual misconduct. Comedian Louis C.K. was canceled after multiple instances of masturbating in front of women. Famed hotelier Andre Balzas’ hotels lost their shine after he was accused of groping several women. Veteran journalist and 60 Minutes correspondent Charlie Rose was fired from CBS and PBS after tens of women came forward with allegations of sexual misbehavior.

Repercussions or resolution in these cases of harassment, be it firings or statements that range from denial to semi-apology, to contrition, fall into large, grey areas as compared to trials and potential criminal prosecutions for rape or sexual abuse as with Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby or Jeffrey Epstein, but the one surety is that accusers name the same things that initially held them back. They were accusing men who wielded immensely. power in a society that provided those men protection, men who people were more likely to believe, and men who had exhibited bullying or entitled behavior, from whom they feared retaliation. Cuomo was a case in point – a larger-than-life figure, coming off a moment of being revered for his leadership, who was part of one of the most powerful families in New York politics and who supposedly had a pattern of using intimidation tactics. What set the Cuomo episode apart was the scope of the investigation undertaken to look at the allegations by the State Attorney General of New York, the public disclosure of the findings, and the subsequent pressure on Governor Cuomo to resign, from officials up to the President. Whilst a larger discussion about vetting harassment claims before discrediting the accused in such situations is crucial, the investigation is a vindication that the behavior that women have long been encouraged, even taught, to sweep under the rug, is deeply troubling and worthy of censure. It offers hope that we have entered a time where women’s voices matter in the face of entrenched power.

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