Katie Roiphe is The Worst, and her fawning profile of Colin McGinn is also The Worst

Don’t worry, Internet, my antipathy to anti-feminist “journalist” and “professor” Katie Roiphe began long before she published a flaccid, privilege-dripping rejoinder to “Thesis Hatement,” which contained clichéd insistence that dipping into Clarissa in the years since grad school has provided invaluable enrichment of her life—one of wealth and leisure almost inconceivable by Normals such as myself, and likely you.

Rather, my abject loathing of Roiphe comes from the same source most of yours does: The Morning After, an odious tome in which she provides a blueprint for Steubenville-style rape apologists by insisting that vagina-havers who are dumb enough to get drunk in public are basically raping themselves. Do women not have some “agency” in the situation? Do they not realize that by becoming incapacitated, they give up the rights to their own genitals’ autonomy? Because obviously men never get assaulted while intoxicated (except they do), so the idea of “assaulting” intoxicated people is just feminism-run-amok. The entire concept of “date rape” in the 90s was simply overzealous women ruining college.

Similarly, the spectacular decline and fall of notorious skeezeball and celebrated mediocre philosopher Colin McGinn, recently let go (ahem, “retired”) from his position at the University of Miami, is, according to Roiphe, the story of a man who “lost everything because of a 26-year-old woman.” Because, 100%, of the woman—not, in fact, because Colin McGinn is a well-known student-schtupper whose shenanigans got him in trouble at every previous job he ever had, including Rutgers, where he had an actual “plum” position, as opposed to the definitely-not-plum position (despite Roiphe’s ludicrous characterization) at Miami, which is a poorly-ranked program at a poorly-ranked institution, hardly befitting a Philosopher of Mind of his mind’s stature.

Any time you see a senior professor with long and distinguished publication record teaching somewhere not-that-prestigious, but who used to teach somewhere more prestigious, that is almost 100% because that person fucked someone he wasn’t supposed to. Usually a grad student. Usually his own grad student. It happens all—and I mean all—the time. And it is deplorable, despite what Roiphe says about she, herself, preferring a “powerful, arrogant man” and resenting the fact that apparently in our society, that is a punishable offense, which makes perfect sense when you think about the relative power, arrogance and maleness of nearly every single Fortune 500 CEO in existence.

Why McGinn had to take the fall for what hundreds of senior professors just like him do every day will remain a mystery—perhaps he just did it so much that eventually something had to give. Perhaps he has so many enemies in Philosophy of Mind that he was under extra scrutiny. Perhaps he just got unlucky and the victim of this particular bit of skeeviness was unusually brave–and if you look at the hundreds of disparaging comments on Roiphe’s article (which I am not linking to because it is an odious hagiography that doesn’t even deserve this mention, much less a link), you’ll see why that kind of bravery is rare.

For most of the comments agree with Roiphe. This 26-year-old woman isn’t a “victim” of anything. If anything, she is the perpetrator: a scorned lover who manipulated the rules of an institution to get back at the scorner. Because, as Roiphe describes emails Colin McGinn sent her when he wasn’t busy having Skype-sex with her, erm, I mean, being “interviewed,” this woman welcomed the advances. She advanced back. She flirted. She called him “dearest.” She is just as guilty as he is. The “only” thing he did wrong was not report their relationship to authorities and remove himself as her mentor and employer.

All right, first of all—that’s not “only,” that is a major and fireable offense. And second of all, here is the main reason for this rant: It does not matter at all that she seemed into it at the beginning. It falls under the school’s sexual harassment statute because of the power imbalance inherent in the situation.

Sexual-harassment policies governing relationships–even allegedly consensual ones–between senior professors and their graduate students exist for the same reason that statutory rape exists. One person has a disproportionate amount of power, so much so that even if the other person believes he or she is acting with “agency,” he or she is not. Chris Brown’s virginity loss at eight years old wasn’t awesome—it was rape.

One of my teenaged friends had another friend I thought was really obnoxious, but everyone worshipped her because she was “so mature,” because she “dated” older guys—by which I mean, 18-year-olds when she was 13. She wasn’t mature. She was raped. Those guys weren’t “cool older guys”—they were pedophiles and they should be in jail.

The same is true in the senior-prof-to-first-year-grad-student situation. Anyone not in academia (or anyone in fake academia like Katie Roiphe) might not understand or care that a famous senior scholar has an immense, and often untouchable, amount of power in his department, institution and field. He is largely invincible. He has the power to make, and destroy, careers. So let’s say you are a first-year-grad student and this incredibly famous person takes an interest in you—says you are brilliantly special in a brilliantly special way. Even if that makes you feel a little skeevy, the power just knocks you down like a sneaker wave. That kind of attention, to a certain kind of needy person (and neediness is not a crime), is near-on impossible to resist psychologically, and, even if you resisted it psychologically (which, I will readily admit, McGinn’s victim did not), it would be very inadvisable to resist it morally, simply because the vast, vast, vast majority of lothario senior professors get away with it all the time.

You think this is rare? Think about the senior professors you know, or knew in college, who have or had wives twenty, thirty, forty years younger. Where do you think they met those wives? Was it at the higher-ranked school where they used to work before deigning to bless your school with their greatness? Oh, it was? Huh.

No matter how “into it” Colin McGinn’s victim was, the power imbalance between them was so pronounced that the onus for not manipulating that power imbalance to corral the affections of a student falls primarily, if not entirely, onto McGinn. His career wasn’t ruined “because” of a 26-year-old woman. It was ruined because he acted like an 18-year-old boy in 1963.

I’m not surprised Katie Roiphe doesn’t view power imbalances like this—I mean, look at her. Of the major granters of power—maleness, whiteness, educational privilege, wealth—she has three out of four, and her anti-feminism pretty much makes her an honorary dude. It’s the same reason she missed the entire point of “Thesis Hatement,” which was that the job prospects for humanities PhDs are beyond bleak, and being thrown instead into a “career” of adjuncting for less than 20Gs a year is enough to cause a full-blown existential meltdown.

She never, ever had to worry about that because she was born, and lived her entire life, and continues to live her life, spectacularly wealthy. She has no problem with the power structure that granted Colin McGinn the status that allowed a gross 61-year-old asshole to gain the affections of a woman about a third his age—she, indeed, prefers it. What she doesn’t like is when the power structure that gave her what she has—that gave McGinn what he had, briefly lost, and will, make no mistake, have again very soon—is questioned. Especially by a woman.

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6 thoughts on “Katie Roiphe is The Worst, and her fawning profile of Colin McGinn is also The Worst

  1. I get and basically agree with the power imbalance argument you make and the idea that what looks like two equals so isn’t. And god knows, I share your contempt for Katie Roiphe, who doesn’t seem to understand that her privileged life protects her from a lot of the things that turns other women into feminists.

    But I can’t muster much sympathy for the graduate student who seemed ready to play McGinn for all he was worth professionally until he, who knows what, got too aggressive, was too needy, didn’t really have the juice she thought he had.

    Youth and beauty are also a kind of power and women who want to make it up the ladder, academic or otherwise, would be wise not to use either in order to advance their careers, And yeah, I think that’s precisely what McGinn’s “victim” was up to, until the whole thing became too unpleasant to continue. So I don’t see her as a victim but as someone who encouraged the guy’s attentions until she decided the price for what he offered was too high to pay and outed him as the swine he is.

    For outing him, she deserves admiration because that took guts. But she’s not going to get my sympathy for feeding the fantasies of an old goat she thought she could use to advance her career.

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    1. But even if you view the student in this way, that in no way excuses the fact that McGinn did not report their dalliance the moment it started and withdraw as her mentor. *He knew* he was supposed to do that, he didn’t, the onus was 100% on him to do it, and he had no intention of doing it, ever. Flouting that rule is a fireable offense, and falls under sexual harrassment bylaws because no other appropriate language describes it (“misconduct” is what I prefer, but a lot of universities don’t use it for whatever reason). What he did by keeping the relationship going and not reporting it was the abhorrent part. He knows it. Katie fucking Roiphe knows it too. And again–why the fuck was he at some fourth-rate program like Miami in the first place? I WONDER.

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      1. maybe he is there because Florida is more spectacular than New Jersey OR because Susan Haack is there, one of the preeminent logician/philosophers of the 20th AND 21st century, 2 reasons I would love to be there myself, sun and surf and a great philosopher!!!!!! Teresa Virginia Watkins PS Berit Brogaard also teachs there, the brilliant Berit Brogaard

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  2. I think we should relate this issue to the moral failure of the ‘lifeboaters’. If there is any place in which women should be safe(r) from sexual harassment and retaliation for speaking up about it, it should be in the academy, where female professors with tenure should be protecting junior women who speak out. After all, tenured female professors don’t have to worry about being fired. I know that the paucity of tenured female professors in Philosophy makes this more difficult in that particular discipline, but the larger issue of far to many tenured women being complicit in not changing the prevelance of sexual harassment in the academy stands.

    After all, Philosophy is not the only discipline with a sexual harassment problem: http://blog.aaanet.org/2013/04/16/zero-tolerance-for-sexual-harassment/. Anthropology has no shortage of female practitioners or tenured female professors, and yet how many times do tenured female Anthropology professors sit back and do nothing when they see female students being sexually harassed? Or worse yet, actively support the harassers–both because it is acceptable to minimize sexual harassment as a problem and because those women who speak out are blacklisted (including by tenured female professors) as Troublmakers making the department/university look bad? (And I always find this latter charge odd: both because I don’t understand why speaking out against harassment/abuse/abuse of power to keep others safe shouldn’t be seen as ‘troublemaking’, and because I always wonder why it is that such people see speaking about harassment as the problem and not the harassment that caused the speaking out in the first place.)

    It is sad that so few ‘lifeboaters’ use the safety of tenure to stop sexual harassment and protect the junior scholars who speak out about being harassed.

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  3. Too bad the previous comments weren’t able to be recovered. The current uproar over at Scientific American over the “urban whore” attack on Dr. Danielle Lee and the sexual harassment accusations against Bora Zivkovich confirm what I wrote about race affecting the response to complaints of sexist behavior/sexual misconduct. The perpetual issue of who will and will not get the benefit of the doubt, and (no) support as a result thereof: http://blogs.plos.org/neuroanthropology/2013/10/16/on-racism-and-the-benefit-of-the-doubt/.

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