Is the #MeToo movement devouring Neil deGrasse Tyson?
“Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children”, so said Jacques Mallet du Pan in his 1793 essay “Considérations sur la nature de la Révolution de France, et sur les causes qui en prolongent la durée.” Once lit in indignation, the fire of a revolution can burn in places we do not expect, even if the cause that lit the flame is righteous and justified. Just over a year after actress Ashley Judd accused Harvey Weinstein in an explosive New York Times article and Alyssa Milano tweeted “Me too” to millions of followers, are we in a position to assess whether or not the #MeToo movement has reached this point of historical self-immolation?
Such is the question that millions of fans are grappling with as yet another beloved icon now has the spectre of a career hari kiri hanging over him. With the publication of a new article in Patheos and a subsequent article published in Buzzfeed, the famed astrophysicist and science educator Neil deGrasse Tyson stands accused by several women of inappropriate behavior. And an older, more serious accusation against Tyson – that he raped a fellow student while in graduate school at UT Austin – has been given exposure that it had not managed to acquire before. Now under investigation by the company FOX/NatGeo (the network hosting his two shows StarTalk and Cosmos), an investigation Tyson says he welcomes, yet another beloved public figure with an impeccable reputation until recently hangs in the balance. Tyson leans over, bent over at the scaffold with a guillotine hoisted, as tense onlookers wonder if we are witnessing the fully justified end of a career of one of the most prominent science educators of our time.
Is this an example of the revolution devouring its children? Tyson after all has been known to wow the hearts of feminists at times, and certainly doesn’t seem like the Harvey Weinstein monster that #meToo rightfully rose up to combat. And in the case of three of the four charges, it does indeed seem a bit difficult at first to even come close to equating Tyson with the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, or Eric Schneiderman.
The first accusation laid out in the new Patheos piece occurred in 2009 during a conference photo-op. Dr. Katelyn N. Allers of Bucknell University was showing an extended tattoo of the planets of the solar system going from her shoulders down her back, a tattoo that intrigued Tyson for reasons wholesome, otherwise, or both. Trying to find Pluto, which he had played a hand in demoting as a planet just several years earlier, Tyson “looked for Pluto, and followed the tattoo into [her] dress.”
Certainly not good behavior on the part of Tyson, but at first glance one might observe a child devoured here. For as the article notes –
Dr. Allers said her experience was public and didn’t rise to the level of assault, but that it did show Tyson was capable of some “creepy behavior.”
“My experience with him is he’s not someone who has great respect for female bodily autonomy,” she told me in a phone interview.”
If the #MeToo movement coalesced as a movement to fight against sexual assault, what might this have to do with it exactly? Not great public behavior on the part of Tyson for certain, but should it be equated with more serious behaviors the movement has rightfully found objectionable?
The second prominent incident involves Ashley Watson, who used to work as an assistant to Tyson while he shot for the show Cosmos. One night Tyson invited her up to his apartment for wine and cheese, where in her view he tried to not-so-subtly proposition her for sex. Watson would subsequently resign her position, angry at Tyson for his behavior.
“Tyson invited her up to his apartment to “unwind” over a bottle of wine, she recalled. She felt uncomfortable as he gazed into her eyes and held her wrist to feel her “spirit connection.” They spent two hours together, as he made sexual references to song lyrics and described his need for physical release. As she was leaving, he took her by the shoulders and said, “I want to hug you so bad right now, but I know that if I do, I’ll just want more.”
Tyson gives a different account of the evening, but says, regardless of his differing interpretation of events, that once informed of how she felt about it he apologized profusely.
Afterwards, she came into my office to told me she was creeped out by the wine & cheese evening. She viewed the invite as an attempt to seduce her, even though she sat across the wine & cheese table from me, and all conversation had been in the same vein as all other conversations we ever had.
Further, I never touched her until I shook her hand upon departure. On that occasion, I had offered a special handshake, one I learned from a Native elder on reservation land at the edge of the Grand Canyon. You extend your thumb forward during the handshake to feel the other person’s vital spirit energy — the pulse. I’ve never forgotten that handshake, and I save it in appreciation of people with whom I’ve developed new friendships.
At that last meeting in my office, I apologized profusely. She accepted the apology. And I assured her that had I known she was uncomfortable, I would have apologized on the spot, ended the evening, and possibly reminded her of the other social gathering that she could attend. She nonetheless declared it her last day, with only a few days left of production.
I note that her final gesture to me was the offer of a hug, which I accepted as a parting friend.
A third incident involved an apparently drunk Tyson making inappropriate jokes to a woman at a party and suggesting they go to his office together alone.
None of this behavior on the part of Tyson is laudable, to say the least. I will admit in my own personal view the idea that his invitation to Watson was merely among friends seems difficult to believe, and it would be hard for anyone to argue convincingly that trying to bed a subordinate – or even the potential perception of trying to bed a subordinate – is anything but foolish, regardless of how respectfully it is executed. But I find it hard to equate perhaps an awkward, maybe even legitimately creepy wine and cheese gathering where the party saying ‘no thanks’ simply went home to a Hollywood run by a megalomaniac who would not stop till he had his way, with people’s careers and livelihoods hanging irrevocably in the balance.degras
A similar situation?
The question doesn’t seem to be whether or not such behavior is acceptable, but whether such behavior merits not only a public condemnation, but also the termination of one’s professional life. It is a situation eerily reminiscient of what is becoming a bit of a ‘Remember the Alamo’ cry among Democrats who perceive a darker side to to the movement – the fate of Al Franken, the former Senator from Minnesota, forced to resign after several women came forward claiming he tried to forcibly kiss them, along with accusations of groping.
“Since the matter wasn’t settled, progressives argue, Franken deserved a full investigation before Democrats determined his fate. The Ethics Committee started an initial inquiry, but they never completed their work because Franken agreed to leave before they could.
In hindsight, a set of Democrats felt hustled. Gillibrand, who led the charge against Franken, is widely assumed to be setting up a run for the presidency in 2020. She forced her colleagues’ hands in a deft public maneuver that made it hard for them not to go along with her. Some Democrats have since name-checked her with a tinge of resentment. Other liberals openly called her the type of names aggressive women who want to run for president get called. Michael Tomasky at the Daily Beast compared her to the Queen of Hearts, Lewis Carroll’s unhinged monarch who screams, “Off with their heads!”
Even a number of senators who pressured Franken to leave have regrets. Maybe they were too hasty. “I think we acted prematurely, before we had all the facts,” an anonymous senator told Politico. “In retrospect, I think we acted too fast.”
Sen. Joe Manchin went further: “What they did to Al was atrocious, the Democrats,” the West Virginia Democrat said on a Politico podcast.”
Gillibrand faces intense pressure from major Democrats and Democratic funders as the result of her stance on the issue, including from Democrat megadonor George Soros himself. It is almost at times as if Franken was made the sacrificial lamb to win a wider war, and that taking down people like him or Tyson is exactly that child-consuming moment, when the revolution has gone too far.
It is a sign of our times just how boorish, tawdry, or even fully consensual but obviously unwise behavior that doesn’t rise to the level of assault is conflated as such, which is a new chapter in our cultural history. We forget that simpler times were not so far back in the past. It was less than a decade ago when merely cheating with fully consensual partners and no accusations of assault was a scandal, as Tiger Woods learned the hard way. And with a zeitgeist that has since been drenched in a view of the world defined almost totally by power relations, even Monica Lewinsky herself has changed her own view of her own affair with Bill Clinton. In 2014, Lewinsky herself wrote
“Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship. Any “abuse” came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position.”
Just four years later, she writes:
I now see how problematic it was that the two of us even got to a place where there was a question of consent. Instead, the road that led there was littered with inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege. Now, at 44, I’m beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern. I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot.
How could a woman possibly be under the illusion of having agency for all of these years only to discover now that she did not all along? This again is a contradiction that has the skeptics of the Tyson accusations declaring this to be what perhaps one could describe as ‘Al Franken syndrome’, – a true case of moral panic against men who may be imperfect, but aren’t even close to sexual monsters who must be shown the occupational afterlife.
A serious accusation
It would be remiss of this author to not address the other, much more serious accusation in the mix. Tchiya Amet El Maat, who attended Graduate school at UT Austin with Tyson back in the early 80s, claims that Tyson gave her a drug-laced drink and then raped her. This is where even skeptics of Tyson’s guilt must at least reflect and listen. The original account most certainly does seem an odd telling, in a rambling style on a website dedicated to New Age spirituality, the calling Amet found after leaving science. And there are certain contradictions in her story. For one, she both claims to remember him on top of her but also claims that the next thing she remembers being seeing Tyson the hallway the next day instead. And perhaps most mysteriously she claims that he was on the phone with wife while handing her the tainted drink, when this incident took place in 1984 and Tyson did not meet his wife until 1985. But that a memory is hazy or fragmented or one’s views on medicine and living are unusual does not in any way mean the incident didn’t necessarily take place, It is a he-said, she-said situation, and while it’s difficult for us to parse it out precisely, that doesn’t mean that we can dismiss the accusations out of hand, either.
So if these 3 newer accusations shed needed light on arguably the more serious accusation they have still played an important role. But how fair is it, and how dangerous is it, for Al Franken and Harvey Weinstein to be thrown in the same boat, metaphorically speaking? Are we not simply encouraging the side of this that is a true moral panic, and relegating simply awkward or bad behavior to the same as that of real predators?
I for one do not think Tyson should lose his livelihood over this, and I do think it’s not fair to equate the other three accusations as the same. But it is nonetheless good that these accusations have come to light and are being discussed, for the truth is that most of the sexual discomfort women experience doesn’t come from men who possess true evil at the level of a Harvey Weinstein. It comes from ordinary guys, many of them very good people overall, that often can’t or willfully don’t pick up on certain signals that women may be trying to tell them. And in this realm, quite frankly most men have been, to varying degrees, guilty – myself included. I have misread signals and accidentally made people feel uncomfortable, I have exchanged a gesture mistakenly thinking it was welcome when it wasn’t, etc. etc. so on and so forth. It is the hallmark of an advanced civilization that, although mistakes can happen even under the best of circumstances, there is always a reason to aspire to do better. And if the guillotines can be held off long enough, we have a unique opportunity to do just that. Respect for the bodily autonomy of women has almost no corollary among other species, and the thing that has helped humanity emerge from the caves and blast off into the stars is our ability to create norms and institutions that make us better than our primitive ape brains could possibly do on their own. The extent to which we speak honestly and compassionately about when even more relatively innocent behavior is unwelcome or unacceptable, the better we get, and the faster such improvement occurs.
Sex and courtship are difficult for everyone, and there are times when awkward mistakes or a miscommunication can happen. And because this can happen, and because women often live with the sense of extreme discomfort or even fear due to even the presence of “Al Franken masculinity” so to speak, it’s incumbent upon all of us to recognize when someone crosses the line and correct it – not by ruining the other person’s livelihood and exiling them socially necessarily, but by enforcing some basket of cultural norms that do require reflection and correction for those genuinely penitent and willing to listen.
Many have pointed out the ways in which the French Revolution, with all of its Democratic and egalitarian ideals, went wrong. But let us not forget that the same egalitarian ideals found success in the formation of the United States. Our founders were smart in both passionately advocating for these ideals but still being wary of the passions of the mob, and the goals of the revolution ended up being served far better in submitting to this temperance. In this same spirit, let us make sure our new revolution ends up along more American lines, and not along those of the French Revolution. Greater success achieved faster depends on us getting this right, and making sure our children not only survive the revolution, but grow and mature as the beneficiaries of its wondrous and righteous aspirations.
Lucas Lynch is currently commissioning editor at Areo Magazine, and formerly Editor-in-Chief of Conatus News. He is a writer and podcaster with interests in science, religion and politics. Follow Lucas on Twitter as @lucasjlynch.