Consenting Adults and Citizens

It’s amazing to think that Monica Lewinsky is only a couple of years older than I. When I was 20 and she 22, that sexual scandal happened. At the time, it seemed like something that was part of the adult world and I still didn’t quite yet feel fully adult. But as Lewinsky now admits, even with a couple of years of age on me, she didn’t have the emotional and intellectual maturity to understand what was happening to her nor the consequences that would follow. It is only all these decades later that she can begin to come to terms with the fact that consent wasn’t even possible in that relationship.

Consent is a tricky thing. What does consent mean for any of us in a society of such vast disparities of power, wealth, and resources. When your boss has all the power and you have little if any leverage, what does it mean for a worker to consent to anything? What other option does the worker have when quitting or being fired means being unemployed potentially without being able to find another job and so ending up in debt or, worse still, homeless? What does consent mean for a poor minority facing pervasive biases and a racist system of social control? What does consent of the governed mean in a country where the government is owned by plutocrats and corporations?

Consent only can exist among equals. But equality is a joke in our society. Yet we are so brainwashed that we can’t see how this extends far beyond the sphere of sexual relationships. It is at the heart of the struggle for democracy, the consent of We the People as citizens and as a community. It was the core issue over which the American Revolution was fought. Consent isn’t merely something to be given. It must be earned. And if anyone acts without our consent as they do on a daily basis in our society, we have to demand that our consent be respected. Or failing that, we must take back our consent and ensure there will be consequences for those who took advantage of us, and that is even more important for the least among us.

Betrayal of consent is betrayal of our rights and freedom, betrayal of our autonomy and independence, betrayal of our human worth. It is betrayal of what our foremothers and forefathers fought for. And the fight for democratic and egalitarian consent that began so long ago is a fight that is ongoing. As I’ve said before, something like that would be a #MeToo movement that would inspire us all to collectively fight for a better world. Individual responsibility goes hand in hand with social and moral responsibility. And responsibility isn’t possible where victims are scapegoated, costs externalized, and justice denied. With a meaningful understanding of consent, the path forward becomes clear. Consent is about choice and we must make a choice about what kind of society we want and demand, what we envision and aspire toward.

It’s time to take the next step. Our society has been immature about our understanding of consent, of freedom and democracy. We can’t remain in collective childhood forever. American society must grow up and take responsibility. And that means we Americans must begin to act like adults and treat each other as adults, that is to say as equals. What this means is greater equality of power, wealth and resources, greater equality of opportunities which can only be measured by real world results. We can’t continue to live in equality as an abstract ideal and childish fantasy. It’s time for the American Dream to become an American Reality.

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It Depends on What the Meaning of ‘Consent’ Is

It’s amazing how the #MeToo movement has so quickly reframed our understanding of so many old things — books, movies, culture, news stories, scandals. I’ve been waiting for an updated interpretation of what was once problematically known as “the Lewinsky affair,” and I was so thrilled this week to see it coming to us from Monica Lewinsky herself.

In a personal essay for Vanity Fair, on the 20th anniversary of Ken Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton, Lewinsky reconsiders her relationship with Clinton — 27 years her senior — through the lens of 2018, and realizes that given their power differential, the word “consensual” might not have perfectly applied.

Given my PTSD and my understanding of trauma, it’s very likely that my thinking would not necessarily be changing at this time had it not been for the #MeToo movement—not only because of the new lens it has provided but also because of how it has offered new avenues toward the safety that comes from solidarity. Just four years ago, in an essay for this magazine, I wrote the following: “Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship. Any ‘abuse’ came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position.” I now see how problematic it was that the two of us even got to a place where there was a question of consent. Instead, the road that led there was littered with inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege. (Full stop.)

Now, at 44, I’m beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern. I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot. (Although power imbalances—and the ability to abuse them—do exist even when the sex has been consensual.)

But it’s also complicated. Very, very complicated. The dictionary definition of “consent”? “To give permission for something to happen.” And yet what did the “something” mean in this instance, given the power dynamics, his position, and my age? Was the “something” just about crossing a line of sexual (and later emotional) intimacy? (An intimacy I wanted—with a 22-year-old’s limited understanding of the consequences.) He was my boss. He was the most powerful man on the planet. He was 27 years my senior, with enough life experience to know better. He was, at the time, at the pinnacle of his career, while I was in my first job out of college. (Note to the trolls, both Democratic and Republican: none of the above excuses me for my responsibility for what happened. I meet Regret every day.)

Pursuit of Happiness and Consent of the Governed

Conservatives prefer to see the American Revolution and Founding as part of a Lockean lineage. This would be true for some of the Founders, but not true for all. One Founder conservatives take as an example of a Lockean founder is Thomas Jefferson.

Many scholars have assumed a connection of Jefferson’s “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” and Locke’s “life, liberty and estate”:

“Locke argued in his Two Treatises of Government that political society existed for the sake of protecting “property”, which he defined as a person’s “life, liberty, and estate”. In A Letter Concerning Toleration, he wrote that the magistrate’s power was limited to preserving a person’s “civil interest”, which he described as “life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things”. He declared in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding that “the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness”.”

Even if that were the case:

“According to those scholars who saw the root of Jefferson’s thought in Locke’s doctrine, Jefferson replaced “estate” with “the pursuit of happiness”, although this does not mean that Jefferson meant the “pursuit of happiness” to refer primarily or exclusively to property. Under such an assumption, the Declaration of Independence would declare that government existed primarily for the reasons Locke gave, and some have extended that line of thinking to support a conception of limited government.”

Besides, Jefferson wasn’t alone in his views:

“Benjamin Franklin was in agreement with Thomas Jefferson in downplaying protection of “property” as a goal of government. It is noted that Franklin found property to be a “creature of society” and thus, he believed that it should be taxed as a way to finance civil society.”

Furthermore, other scholars have offered and alternative interpretation:

“Garry Wills has argued that Jefferson did not take the phrase from Locke and that it was indeed meant to be a standard by which governments should be judged. Wills suggests Adam Ferguson as a good guide to what Jefferson had in mind:

“If, in reality, courage and a heart devoted to the good of mankind are the constituents of human felicity, the kindness which is done infers a happiness in the person from whom it proceeds, not in him on whom it is bestowed; and the greatest good which men possessed of fortitude and generosity can procure to their fellow creatures is a participation of this happy character. If this be the good of the individual, it is likewise that of mankind; and virtue no longer imposes a task by which we are obliged to bestow upon others that good from which we ourselves refrain; but supposes, in the highest degree, as possessed by ourselves, that state of felicity which we are required to promote in the world.”
—Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society

“The 17th-century cleric and philosopher Richard Cumberland wrote that promoting the well-being of our fellow humans is essential to the “pursuit of our own happiness”. Locke never associated natural rights with happiness, but his philosophical opponent Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz made such an association in the introduction to his Codex Iuris Gentium. William Wollaston’s The Religion of Nature Delineated describes the “truest definition” of “natural religion” as being “The pursuit of happiness by the practice of reason and truth”. An English translation of Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui’s Principles of Natural and Politic Law prepared in 1763 extolled the “noble pursuit” of “true and solid happiness” in the opening chapter discussing natural rights. Historian Jack Rakove posits Burlamaqui as the inspiration for Jefferson’s phrase.”

A more nuanced view is offered by Howard Schwartz in Liberty In America’s Founding Moment (Kindle Locations 485-506):

“I offer a different approach to the question of the Declaration’s position on rights, arguing that a key aspect of the Declaration’s meaning and function has been missed. Instead of asking whether the Declaration is Lockean or what literary documents are the source of its ideas, I will suggest that the Declaration’s position on natural rights and independence is much more equivocal than has been typically realized. The question about the source of Jefferson’s ideas is less relevant and interesting than the question of what position on rights was getting articulated. The answer to that question is more ambiguous than typically thought. And the equivocation is one part of the Declaration’s meaning and function. Indeed, one central purpose of the Declaration was to unite the colonies behind the decision to declare independence. As such, the Declaration had to evade and sidestep any disagreements about rights that might still have lingered. In this sense, the Declaration had to speak as if “debate had ended,” to use the words of Thomas Paine in Common Sense, when in fact on the matter of American rights, the debate had not completely ended and there remained some significant disagreements about the foundations of and nature of natural and American rights. Jefferson himself did not agree with the view endorsed by the First Continental Congress in 1774, though that constituted the official view endorsed by the Congress on behalf of the colonies. When Jefferson sat down to write the Declaration, he had to find words to unite those who otherwise had diverging views. On this interpretation of the situation, Jefferson’s brilliance was not only in his powerful rhetorical performance, but in finding an articulation of rights that would seemingly be amenable to as many parties as possible, including himself. In this sense, “all its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day,” to use Jefferson’s own words, is a more profound and ironic interpretation than anyone has fully appreciated.21 If Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence captures the American Mind, then it does so in all the complexity and disagreement that characterized the “American Mind” at the time. There was arguably no single American Mind on the question of rights.22 And the Declaration was harmonizing a tradition that did in fact have divergent views and loose ends. This statement on rights would have to speak not just to those who endorsed the position of the First Congress, but also those who did not, including its author. This interpretation of the Declaration thus takes a position that both affirms and criticizes all of the various the positions in the debate. The Declaration does endorse natural rights language and a Lockean-like view but at the same time it exhibits some of ambivalence about natural rights and the way natural rights are linked up to American rights. It thus affirms that Locke’s ideas were in the air but also argues that these ideas were contested and doubted. The American foundation of rights was not a settled matter.”

As for Jefferson’s personal view, a fundamental right related to happiness had to do with consent. A government earned consent by ensuring the happiness of citizens. When that happiness abated, so did the requirement of consent. This puts “pursuit of Happiness” in a whole other context.