Dear Garrison — Enough With Your “Aw Shucks” Whining

I’m using your interview to teach my grandson how to be a good person

Kate Bracy
Age of Empathy

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Illustration by Tom Haney (used with permission)

Dear Garrison,

I caught your interview this week on CBS Sunday Morning. I was looking forward to a nostalgic look at Lake Woebegone, and fond memories of my time in the Twin Cities. That was back when I believed in you. Back when you were just that poignant little Emmet Kelly of the airwaves; Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Little Tramp’ with a Minnesota accent and the scars of a Lutheran upbringing.

But that was not who I saw in this interview. No. The man I saw being questioned by Anthony Mason was a whiny old white guy. A misogyny apologist plugging his new book and his small-town road trips. It made me think that you have learned almost nothing in eighty years — about life, or women, or kindness, or what it means to be a real man.

It also made me mad.

I’ll tell you why it made me mad. Not just because, like most women, I can’t tolerate a whimpering complainer who doesn’t face up to their own behavior. No. It’s because I love my grandson, and I want him to have a happy life and good relationships. But men with attitudes like yours make it harder.

Like you, my grandson is really smart and he likes words. His vocabulary rivals Shakespeare’s, and he is only eleven. And, like you, he is awkward in social situations and misses the social cues that seem so obvious to others. He is mystified when his sister gets upset because he “won’t leave her alone.”

“What did I do?” he asks.

In the interview, you said, “I appreciate correction.” Really? I hope so. Because, dear Garrison, you need correction. At Eighty, you are the poster boy for “Old White Boy Paternalistic Privilege” I am going to use your interview to have a long talk with my grandson. I know you will appreciate it, too, because, as you told Anthony Mason, “I accept being corrected.”

Here’s how that talk with my grandson will go.

Bullies

When asked about #MeToo, you said it was a “noble undertaking.” You pointed out that it was an effort to fight bullies, and you are “in favor of fighting bullies.” And you added “I’m not one myself.”

(At this point I will pause the video.)

Correction #1: Yes you are. And the worst sort. You are one of “the good ones” that firmly believe that they are the “nice guy” who is “well-meaning” and you think that because you see yourself as virtuous, it adds up to not being a bully. [Loud Buzzer here.] Well-meaning does not protect you from the impact your crass behavior and creepy emails have on their recipients. “I didn’t mean any harm…” “It was just a joke…” “She never said it bothered her…” (More on that one in a minute.)

I will explain to my grandson that a bully is someone who dominates another with whatever it takes. If celebrity and power are enough, they do not need to resort to name-calling or physical violence. I will say to my grandson, “Honey, just because you don’t mean to hurt someone doesn’t mean you didn’t hurt them. This is called “being clueless,” and after this talk, you will no longer be clueless. You will have many clues about what is a good way to act.

You can’t use your power (like wrestling your sister to the floor) to get what you want (like the TV remote). You are not allowed to say things that make other people uncomfortable, especially when they ask you to stop. And, like Mr. Keillor, just because you don’t mean to hurt someone doesn’t mean you won’t be punished if you DO hurt someone.

Note to Garrison: Cluelessness in the oldwhiteboy narrative is not a bug, it’s a feature. It has a purpose. It lets a bully tell himself that because he meant no harm he is innocent. What if someone ran over you in a pedestrian crosswalk because they were texting on their cell phone, and then, seeing your bleeding body on the pavement, said, “Oops! No harm meant, buddy!” They could get back in the car and drive merrily away, right? No hard feelings, whatever the damage. Because, well, they meant no harm! I think you see where I’m going with this…

Yes, you are a bully. Whatever you are telling yourself about this, you need to check your sources.

Not intending harm does not release you from responsibility.

Eyes of the Flirter

Onward. I have my grandson to think about. When Mason asked you what you’d say to those who haven’t seen enough “reflection or regret” on your part, you said, “I can only tell what I honestly feel.” And what you honestly felt was that the complaint that caused MPR to cut ties with you was a “mutual flirtation.” I will pause the video here, again, for:

Correction #2: A flirtation isn’t mutual because you think it is. If a woman doesn’t answer your emails, it doesn’t mean she is flirting back. If she dodges you in the hallway, she is not “playing coy.” If you didn’t get consent for your married self to be flirting with a young staffer, then she is just trying to stay below your angry radar, she is not trying to lead you on. (To be fair, this is a correction that about 87% of men could use, but I’m talking to you here.) “Mutual” is not in the eyes of the aging flirter, it is at the discretion of his unwilling target. And she (and other women in your past) were not accomplices in an affair de Coeur, but ambushed employees just trying to make a living and build a career.

Photo by Alisa Ventur on Unsplash

I will say to my grandson, “What Mr. Keillor is saying here is that even though the woman he wanted to be friends with didn’t SAY she wanted to be friends, he decided all by himself that she liked him too. This is a big mistake. If a girl likes you she can tell you. If you really want to know if she wants to be friends, ask her something like, ‘Hey. Do you want to hang out sometime?’ or, ‘I see you like video games. Can I sit with you at lunch?’ And if she says, ‘I don’t think so.’ Or, ‘Um, I can’t today,’ say something like, ‘That’s okay! Let me know if you change your mind.’ And smile at her and leave her alone. Don’t sock her in the arm, or mess her hair, or jump out at her in the hallway to scare her. Girls don’t like it when they have to keep telling someone that what you’re doing is hard on them. Just don’t do it. Or definitely stop when she asks you to. If you don’t stop when you’re asked, or if girls at school (or your sister) complain about you, we will have to watch this video again, and neither of us wants that!

Everybody Does It!

Garrison, you were asked whether you think you crossed a line. Tossing it off with “evidently I did,” (in other words, “SOME people say so…” Very sixth grade of you) you added, “If I did, thousands of people did before me, and I hope they take my case as a warning. If [I did cross the line], I crossed the line in a way that if you were to dismiss everybody else who had crossed the line, there would be no staff left. And there would be no management whatsoever.”

Correction #3: As my mother might have phrased it, “If thousands of people go jump off a bridge, are you going to jump off it too?” Just because centuries of patriarchy have allowed (and still allow) men to cross lines and harm others, it is not a hall pass for you to do the same. Again, as my mother said so often, “I don’t care WHAT all the other kids are doing, I expect you to do what’s right.” Rather than dismissing all the people who have made the same oppressive mistake, it might be reframed that “if workplaces were respectful of everyone’s boundaries, and if they enforced (formally and informally) the notion that unwanted sexual advances were oppressive remainders of our paternalistic cultural history, not only would we have plenty of staff and management, we’d be in the top five companies to work for in the country. Maybe in the world.” (Feel free to use that corrected response.)

With the video paused right after ‘thousands of people did before me’ I will ask my grandson, “If Mr. Keillor says it’s okay to bother women because lots of men do it, does that make it okay?”

As I said, he is a smart boy, and he will know that the right answer is., “No it doesn’t, Meema.” And he will be right.

Stay Away From Girls!!

And what was the lesson that you wanted so many people to learn from your experience? That, “You should not be friends with a female colleague. It’s dangerous.” And, “You should never put your hand on a female colleague. Ever. It’s dangerous.”

Correction #4: Painting women as dangerous goes back as far as the (alleged) garden of Eden. It, once again, let’s you off the hook. Awww… Poor men… At the mercy of all those DANGEROUS women. Stay away, fellas. Keep your paws off, guys. WOMEN ARE DANGEROUS!!!! Garrison, I hate to push a point here, but women are not usually the problem. Ask any hundred women (don’t touch or befriend them, just ask them) would they feel safer at night in a neighborhood of women or a neighborhood of men? They will tell you where the danger is. (What percentage of partner violence is committed by women?) But if a guy SAYS a woman is dangerous, who pays for that? My money is on her, not the whiny boy pointing a finger. She is the one people will avoid. They will still go out with him for drinks after work.

I will tell my grandson, “Mr. Keillor thinks that men should stop being friends with women. Because it’s dangerous. He is just plain wrong about that. It’s fine for you to have friends who are girls. Treat them with respect, and listen to their words.”

I will add, “It probably is a good idea for Mr. Keillor to stop being friends with women. He gets confused about how to be nice.”

Friends Don’t DO That!

Mason points out that lots of people, reading the emails released around your case, would say it was “more than a friendship.” You tossed this off by characterizing it as just “a friendship.”

Correction #5: Garden variety friendship does not include unsolicited descriptions of your sexual fantasies. I have lots of friends. I have sent exactly zero emails describing being in bed with them naked. If I did, they would send a social worker to my house to do a welfare check. It is NOT NORMAL in a friendship to describe sex on an airplane as a happy way to spend time together. (Friends might opt for a night out bowling or a Brandi Carlile concert.) I don’t have to do a poll to know it is not typical work-colleague/friend activity. An actual friendship is not made up of “dozens of sexually inappropriate incidents” or of any “unwanted touching.”

I may fast forward through this part of the video, and summarize for my grandson with, “Mr. Keillor kept touching women when they didn’t want to be touched and kept sending them emails saying disturbing things. It made them really uncomfortable, and sometimes it probably scared them. He did it lots of times, not just once. This is not okay.”

They Changed the Rules!

Then you looked mournfully at Mason and said, “The culture changed.”

Correction #6: The culture needed to change. Any culture that offers a Cad License to everyone with a penis, and makes it difficult or impossible to call them out, needs to change. It is a cause for celebration, not forlorn moaning. Did it take you unawares? Did it seem too sudden? (See “Correction #1” above for information re: cluelessness.)

I’ll pause the video yet again after ‘changed.’

“Mr. Keillor thinks that the world changed the rules for men, and nobody told him. This is a little bit true. It used to be that men were allowed to do a lot of selfish and disrespectful things, and no one really stopped them. Now we know that this isn’t kind, and it isn’t fair. And that people are hurt by it. But you are growing up in the world with the new rules. Being a boy isn’t going to buy you permission to be selfish or mean. Plus, your mother will kill you if she sees you doing either.”

NOBODY TOLD ME!!!

Garrison, I know that you are sincere in accepting correction. I know it because you accept it in your new book from the fictional characters that you created. I also know it because you said to Anthony Mason, “I would have been grateful if an angry person had come up to me and said, ‘This is what you did to me.’ And this was the effect that it had on me.’” Dear Boy, the world needs more like this! Men who are hoping that angry women will approach them and explicitly tell them what an asshole they’ve been! I’m happy to hear that you are one of these Hommes Nouveaux, eager to hear directly how they have hurt their harass-ees.

Correction #6: It’s easy to say, “Why didn’t you just TELL me I was being a dick.” Or its more common variation: “No one has EVER told me I was being inappropriate, therefore I have never been inappropriate.” As you may or may not know (see Correction #1 re: cluelessness), people do not tell us these things. I think we both know what would have happened if your flirt target had come up to you in the hallway and said, “This is what you did to me: You sent me creepy descriptions of things you’ve been thinking about, and you put your grubby little paws on my body when it was the last thing I wanted. And its effect on me was to increase my anxiety around you by 1000 percent and make me wonder if I was saying ‘no’ to my future if I said ‘no’ to your awful advances.” Although you say you would welcome such an informative dialogue, I think we both know that this little research assistant would suddenly find herself on the midnight-to-three shift during the quarterly pledge drives. Her desk would be moved to the unheated Ladies Room, if she even had a job at all. Garrison, NOBODY tells people in positions of leadership and power that they are acting like a sweaty middle schooler. Nobody.

I will tell my grandson, “When people are afraid of you, they will not tell you when you are making a mistake. So try not to make people afraid of you, and if they do tell you that you are doing something wrong, listen carefully so that you won’t do it again.”

I Want To Tell My Own Story

Regarding your decision to sign a nondisclosure agreement as part of the legal settlement, you said, “It was a dreadful mistake. A person should never sign away your right to tell your side of the story.”

Correction #7: While I agree with your sentiment that we should be able to tell our own stories, I think you should have explained how you reconcile this belief with your offer of $16,000 to a staffer in exchange for her to sign a similar agreement. I’m having trouble sorting that out.

When I pause the video I will say, “Mr. Keillor is right about this. People should be able to tell their own stories. What he isn’t saying in this interview is that he tried to keep a woman from telling her story by paying her a lot of money. She did not agree to it, and she did not take his money, so she can still tell her own story if she wants to. It seems like Mr. Keillor wants to keep this privilege for himself, but he doesn’t always want it for people who might say bad things about him.”

No Thanks!

And then there was the way you were summarily dismissed by MPR after forty years of working with them. Indeed, you pouted, “There was no thank you.”

Correction #8: People and organizations are not usually grateful when someone makes everyone there uncomfortable. Even if you bring a lot of money into the outfit. Even if you’ve been there a long time. In fact, the longer you’ve been there, the more chances you’ve had to make people uncomfortable. Gratitude will not be the first thought when it’s time to cut ties. In the future, you might notice that people are relieved, not grateful, when they rid themselves of a serial asshat.

I will pause the recording again and say, “Sweetie, even if you do good things for a long time, people won’t say ‘thank you’ for those things if you ruin it by being mean to them.”

People Who Like You, LOOK Like You.

Mason wound the piece down by saying, “#MeToo issues don’t seem to deter his audiences,” and showed the line outside the theater waiting to get in.

They then chatted with a couple of old white guys standing outside who agree with you, and think you got a bum rap. (Imagine my surprise when old white guys are sympathetic to another old white guy.)

I’ll point this out to my grandson and say, “If one of your friends is mean, don’t take his side just because you like him. You can still like him, but be honest with him that you don’t like the mean part.”

What More Could Anyone Want?

Your final statement, Garrison, was that you “have friends and family, and a certain number of people who still want to come out and hear about Lake Woebegone. And that’s enough. What more would one want?”

Correction #9: One could want a life where one did little harm. Where one could use the platform of a self-deprecating Lutheran citizen of Lake Woebegone and show what true responsibility and humility are made of. One could want that.

I will finish our little talk by saying that “friends and family are important, and they are good to have. But just because your friends still like you after you mess up, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t admit your mistakes and apologize.”

“Okay, Meema,” he will agree.

And I’ll say, “You were a good listener, Sweetheart. Now it’s your turn to choose something to watch!”

Thanks for stepping up and appreciating correction, Garrison. Thanks for giving me an afternoon with my grandson that will open up many conversations to come. He will do well. He is willing to learn. He is from a family where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.

Actual picture of all the women who want to be bombarded by unsolicited advances by men who can’t hear “no.” (Photo by Allec Gomes on Unsplash)

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