The Darwinian theory of Al Franken

A peacock displaying his brilliant plumes to impress the drabber peahen (foreground).

A peacock displaying his brilliant plumes to impress the drabber peahen (foreground).

Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota, is resigning from the U.S. Senate, and many folks are none too happy about it – not the least of whom is Al Franken himself.

In a farewell address that was nothing less than bitterly ironic, Franken wondered why he was going while the P-Grabber in Chief remained in the White House.

He’s staying and you’re going, Al, for the same reason that men harass women: One has the power. The other doesn’t.

There are those, including Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, who would argue that Franken’s behavior – while rude, crude and lewd – was different from the alleged menacing of movie producer Harvey Weinstein, the alleged student groping of Met conductor James Levine and the alleged teen trolling of Republican Senate hopeful and mall exile Roy Moore. But there was a zero-tolerance counterbalance spurred by such Democratic women senators as New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand who – depending on your viewpoint – has emerged as the Norma Rae or the Mme. Defarge of this sordid story.

Was Franken sacrificed so that the Dems, still somewhat in disarray, can bring ethics charges against Moore once he wins the special election in Alabama on Tuesday, Dec. 12 – as polling suggests he will – and stick it to the increasingly repudiated Repubs? Was Franken also a victim of the Ghost of Sexual Misconduct Past, Bill Clinton, whose affairs with subordinate women were met with Democratic silence and even defense?

A gifted questioner (see his grilling of Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Russkiegate), Franken was considered one of the Dems’ rising stars, a presidential hopeful. But that was always a liberal fantasy. I’ve worked with many Al Frankens in my life. They were not particularly tall, not particularly handsome, not particularly talented, not particularly brilliant, not particularly charismatic, not particularly moral or kind and certainly not particularly rich. But they had a kind of wit – or what passed for wit then – which fostered a smarmy, snarky, almost sleazy overconfidence that was ultimately their undoing. They are – to quote The New York Times columnist Gail Collins – “otherwise nice people under the deeply mistaken impression they’re so attractive no woman would mind a surprise hand up her skirt.” Gail, I would agree with the phrase “deeply mistaken impression they’re so attractive” but not “otherwise nice people.” And this speaks to Gillibrand’s point, whatever her presidential aspirations: Nice people don’t use surprise hands.

But let’s stay with “deeply mistaken impression they’re so attractive.” I’ve written a great deal on this blog about the relationship of power and beauty. Men have the former. They relegate the latter to women, who use it to gain status. But as women’s looks evolve, beauty becomes a trap for them.

With the movement against sexual harassment, however, I’m refining my thinking. What if men didn’t relinquish beauty to the province of women to acquire power? What if many men acquired power, because they’re weren’t beautiful and needed an edge to attract women? Most of the sexual harassers we’ve seen aren’t attractive. They’re downright repugnant.

I’ve always considered men to be more beautiful than women, and I still think the best-looking men are more so than the best-looking women. But I realize my argument may be more art historical, more academic, than actual – and also an attempt on my part to turn the tables on men and to claim, or reclaim, a kind of power they have used on women.

In his new book “The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us” (Doubleday, $30), Richard O. Prom argues that Darwin argues that the aesthetic selections made by females play a forgotten but critical choice in evolution. I would argue that one of the byproducts of the sexual harassment backlash, the #MeToo Movement, is to remind us of this.

Nature is cruel.

As Al Franken is discovering.