The Breakfast Table

Lies About Sex? Not Any Longer

Dear Neal,

So you’re a transplanted New Yorker! That must make the gloating of New Englanders hard to endure. But at least you can take comfort in the dazzling victories of the Knicks, who looked like a basket case (pardon the pun) so recently.

I yield to no one in my allegiance to Western civilization and its values. Yet the notion of universal human rights, not bound by national or cultural origins, is one of the noblest ideas the West has generated. And surely you must realize that an argument for humanitarian intervention in countries that lie within the boundaries of Western-Judeo-Christian civilization will look, to many people, like a rationale for giving priority to protecting the lives of white people. (Besides, while Yugoslavia is clearly a part of the Judeo-Christian world, isn’t it a bit of a stretch to say that it historically shares “liberal-democratic” values as well?) This is not to say that we should have stood by and done nothing, only that it’s a tremendously complex issue with good arguments on both sides.

While we’re on the subject of foreign affairs, are you surprised by the rather apathetic public reaction to news of Chinese nuclear spying? Is it just that, in the post-Cold War era, we don’t feel threatened by big bad Communists any more and have grown complacent? There is also a curious indifference to revelations in the Cox Report that Clinton evidently lied when, in his March 19 press conference, he asserted that no one had ever informed him of the espionage. In his column in today’s Washington Post, Michael Kelly points out that White House press secretary Joe Lockhart has used Monicagate-style verbal trickery to explain why the president’s statement was technically accurate: e.g., he meant that he hadn’t received reports about specific acts of spying, not about the general occurrence of Chinese espionage on his watch. Kelly sees this as a rebuke to all those who said that the president’s lies about his private life had no bearing on his public duties. What do you think? Is the view that “a man who will lie to his wife will lie to his country” being vindicated? And did the sex-and-lies scandals paradoxically help Clinton by making him immune to any further outrage, even about lies on a matter of national security?

To segue from White House sex scandals to schoolhouse sexual harassment: I found the Times front-page story on Sandra Day O’Connor somewhat unsettling, based as it is on the argument that Justice O’Connor brings a distinctly female perspective to her jurisprudence. Does this mean that women who oppose this new expansion of sexual harassment law–e.g., Boston-based attorney Jennifer Braceras, who helped write a brief for the defendant in the case–are somehow traitors to their sex? Also, does it make really sense to treat sexual harassment in schools as a case of sex discrimination? School surveys find that boys are almost as likely as girls to experience behaviors labeled as “sexual harassment,” and that victims and victimizers are frequently of the same sex. (In my experience, almost everyone who has ever been a girl agrees that girls’ worst tormentors are usually other girls.) There is also no evidence that girls generally see the school environment as less safe or more hostile than boys–quite the contrary. I return to my earlier question: Why not say that the schools have an obligation to protect students from bullying, sexual or not, and treat a school’s failure to do so like any other case of negligence?