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America is in the middle of an agonizing reappraisal of sexual conduct. What constitutes sexual harassment or assault? Where is the line that separates acceptable, or merely rude, actions from unacceptable, and possibly criminal or civilly actionable, behavior?
It’s been less than two months since the New York Times brought movie magnate Harvey Weinstein low with its story on his decades of sexual misbehavior and cover-ups.
Weinstein was the first domino to fall, but far from the last. Numerous entertainers, journalists and politicians now find themselves accused.
Garrison Keillor is an unparalleled icon. Foremost among his accomplishments is creating Minnesota Public Radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and hosting it (with breaks) for 40 years.
On Nov. 29, MPR said it had fired Keillor and severed all contractual relationships with him over allegations of “inappropriate behavior” with a co-worker.
Keillor might, like so many others, have donned a hair shirt and beat his chest while screaming public apologies for a few days before conspicuously entering rehab.
Instead, he shrugged off the firing (“I’m just fine. I had a good long run and am grateful for it and for everything else”) and politely explained himself without pillorying himself:
“I put my hand on a woman’s bare back. I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness and her shirt was open and my hand went up it about six inches. She recoiled. I apologized. I sent her an email of apology later and she replied that she had forgiven me and not to think about it. We were friends. We continued to be friendly right up until her lawyer called.”
The explanation has the ring of truth to it. As he himself points out, he’s well-known for being physically standoffish and describes himself as being on the autism spectrum (of which aversion to physical touch is often a feature). Groping a colleague isn’t just out of radio character for Keillor. It’s out of character, period.
If Keillor’s travail, and how he’s handling it, marks the point in time where we pause to reconsider the content of our suddenly evolving set of standards instead of plunging headlong into a new Salem witch hunt, he will indeed have brought us good news from Lake Wobegon.
Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.