On a summer evening in 1984, conservative columnist George Will attended a Bruce Springsteen concert, where he heard “Born in the U.S.A.,” Springsteen’s scathing critique of the Vietnam War. Will, who stuffed his ears with cotton balls that night, later described the song — sung in the voice of a lost and desperate veteran — as a “grand, cheerful affirmation” of American life.
In the time since, and particularly in recent years, Will has left his readers wondering whether he ever bothered to remove those cotton balls except to hear the sound of his own voice. From his characterization of homeless people as a “public nuisance” to his vehement denial of climate change, Will has consistently ignored fact and compassion in favor of his painfully anachronistic worldview.
Will, who was once celebrated as the intellectual op-ed tribune of Reaganism, is compiling a disturbingly thick anthology of baffling, and baffled, columns. This week’s entry is particularly retrograde. In a sneering tone, Will tackles “the supposed campus epidemic of rape, a.k.a. ‘sexual assault.’ ” He rests his argument on the claim that victimhood is now “a coveted status that confers privileges” on college campuses and that “victims proliferate” as a result, including the number of sexual assault claims.
It is one thing for Will to go on believing in the principles of Reaganomics and many other conservative articles of faith, but there is no excusing this. Never mind for a moment that it’s been more than half a century since Will graduated from Trinity College, a school from which women were banned — and let’s consider that idea.
The way Will sees it, women once reported rapes in modest numbers, but over time, as others bore witness to the victims’ many “privileges,” more and more began crying rape in hopes of scoring a similar prize. With this assertion that women desire victimhood, Will isn’t using the “she should’ve known better” argument typical of rape apologists but instead the “she wanted it” logic often touted by rapists themselves.
Like so many students, I’ve spent a great deal of time studying and talking with faculty and other students about what constitutes privilege, fairness and unfairness in American society. But what to make of Will’s concept of survivor privilege? We’ve all seen and read about victims of sexual assault who were ostracized by peers and humiliated by administrators and law enforcement.
Indeed, according to the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network, the “privileges” conferred on rape victims include depression, substance abuse and suicide. The statistics are appalling, but perhaps no less arresting are the thousands of #SurvivorPrivilege posts written by sexual assault victims on Twitter that sprung up in response to Will’s claim.
“Where's my survivor privilege?” read a tweet from feminist writer Wagatwe Wanjuki, who started the hashtag. “Was expelled & have $10,000s of private student loans used to attend school that didn't care I was raped.”
“#SurvivorPrivilege was being told to go home, be safe & put *my* education on hold — so that my rapist could comfortably conclude his,” read another.
These are essential voices in today’s debate about college sexual assault — voices without platforms on television or in the op-ed universe — and they demand to be heard. Unfortunately, it seems that Will has no interest in listening to them. College students, he believes, are too busy with “hormones, alcohol and … faux sophistication” — the last of which is a particularly amusing charge from a man so well known for his extensive collection of bow ties.
As much as Will appears to be the product of a bygone generation, his thinking continues to pervade the modern conservative ideology that he was so instrumental in shaping. Pundits and politicians alike regularly shame rape victims, and their contempt is reflected in the languishing of Kirsten Gillibrand’s bill addressing military sexual assault as well as the embarrassingly long legislative battle that raged in Congress over the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2012 and 2013.
Women across the country are working tirelessly to make their voices heard and to enlighten the public about the pervasiveness and pain of sexual assault, but that earnest battle is insulted and stalled when still-powerful ideologues like George Will are determined to meet them with uncomprehending mockery. Time to pull out the cotton balls.
Follow @NoahRemnick for more news and opinions