Easy Chair — From the March 2018 issue

Nobody Knows

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It is an old truism that knowledge is power. The inverse — that power is often ignorance — is rarely discussed. The powerful swathe themselves in obliviousness in order to avoid the pain of others and their own relationship to that pain. There’s a large category of acts hidden from people with standing: the more you are, the less you know. In my neighborhood in San Francisco, for example, white women like me don’t need to know that blue is a gang color, but if a young man of color does not know this, he may be in danger. Similarly, knowing the strategies that women use to be safe around men is, for men, optional, if they ever think about the issue in the first place. Every subordinate has a strategy for survival, which relies, in part, on secrecy; every unequal system preserves that secrecy and protects the powerful: better the sergeant not know how the privates tolerate him, the master not know that the staff have lives beyond servitude.

All the world is not a stage: backstage and beyond the theater are important territories, too. There, people at all levels of power act outside the limelight, out of reach of the official rules. For underlings, this can mean a measure of freedom from a system that represses them; for those who wield power, it allows rank hypocrisy. Often they act in the confidence that the people who see them do not matter or cannot affect their reputation among those who do. Because it’s not just the knowledge itself that matters, of course — it’s also important who knows, whose knowledge it is. You could say that when the powerful insist that nobody knows, what they mean is that their acts are witnessed by nobodies. Nobody knows.

In the mid-Seventies, when she was sixteen, my friend Pam Farmer was a page in the House of Representatives, not long after female pages were first appointed. Over dinner recently, Farmer told me that one day, in the Republican cloakroom, she was standing nearby when Sam Steiger from Arizona made a sneeringly sexual remark to Millicent Fenwick from New Jersey, a genteel woman in her sixties. Another congressman, Barry Goldwater Jr., happened to be within earshot. He rebuked his colleague: “Would you say this in front of your granddaughter?” Steiger was flustered. He apologized — to Goldwater: it mattered that there was another man with power who had witnessed the event. Neither woman was of consequence. Somebody knew.

A more recent example: last December, female clerks came forth to accuse Alex Kozinski, a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, of forcing them to view pornography with him. These women described how they navigated around the man; they felt obliged to treat him and his despicable behavior as an obstacle that could not be budged, like a mountain range. Alexandra Brodsky, a civil rights attorney, wrote on Twitter, “Glad to see another open secret in print. In law school, everyone knew.” But everybody who knew was nobody, at least compared to a federal judge. When an investigative journalist compiled the voices of several of these nobodies into something with clout, the judge resigned as a result.

Perhaps it’s not that knowledge is power, but that some knowledge has power and some is stripped of the power it deserves. The powerful lack the knowledge; the knowledge lacks the power. In a just society, if you say, truthfully, that someone assaulted you, that remark should have consequences. An open secret among subordinates is knowledge that is, quite literally, inconsequential. On other occasions, knowledge is received, but only reluctantly, as a result of lawsuits and settlement payments. Once the powerful know that the public knows — as when the Murdoch family was faced with exposure of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes’s long history of sexual abuse of employees — they finally feel pressure to act.

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