The New Puritans

The attack on congressional candidate Alex Morse for consensual sexual relationships is disturbing for many reasons, but mostly because it reveals a new American phobia toward adulthood

In 2011, Alex Morse looked like a progressive star. At age 22, he’d become the first openly gay mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, was the youngest person ever to hold the office, and soon after became the first Bay State mayor to endorse a recreational marijuana ballot initiative.

Bright, quick, and with a sense of humor, he appeared headed places. His announcement last year that he was running for congress against Richard Neal, the House Ways and Means committee chair and a master collector of corporate cash, made him a focal point of the movement to remake the Democratic Party in a less donor-fattened image.  

Last week, Morse’s career took a dark turn. The College Democrats of Massachusetts sent him a letter telling him he was no longer welcome at any of their events. The group later released a letter accusing him of a variety of things, most particularly “having sexual contact with college students, including at UMass Amherst, where he teaches, and the greater Five College Consortium.” The College Dems claimed he met college students on apps like Tinder and Grindr; Morse taught a political science course at UMass-Amherst.

Morse acknowledged having “consensual adult relationships, including some with college students” but insisted he had “never used his power as Mayor or UMass lecturer for romantic or sexual gain,” adding that he “never violated UMass policy,” and “any claim to the contrary is false.”

UMass policy bans consensual sexual contact between faculty and “any students or postdoctoral researchers they teach, advise or supervise.” Although the College Democrats said Morse “abused his power for sexual relationships,” no one seems to be accusing him of sleeping with one of his own students. The issue here appears to lay entirely in the group’s conception of “power,” which reads like a parody of post-millenial paranoia.

The College Democrats explained that a major part of Morse’s offense was that he sought the contact information of students at their events:

Mayor Morse came to College Democrats of Massachusetts events and got to know our membership, and then sought out students that he met at our events privately on social media, in a manner widely understood by our generation to indicate intimacy. 

If you’re wondering if it’s possible that the College Democrats just defined communicating on social media as a kind of sexual act, you’re not wrong. It got worse. In their letter to Morse, the group explained that when Morse wrote to those adult students – who, of course, gave Morse their contact info voluntarily – they lacked the free will to ignore his communications:

We have heard ​countless​ stories of Morse adding students to his ‘Close Friends Story’ and Direct Messaging members of College Democrats on Instagram in a way that makes these students feel pressured to respond due to his status…

American college students, it seems, are so intimidated by someone with a political job title that they lack the agency to ignore an Instagram shout-out. The College Democrats elaborated (emphasis mine):

Mayor Morse is a widely-admired and well-connected gatekeeper to progressive politics in Massachusetts and nationally, which makes the task of refusing his advances fraught for college students who wish to enter progressive politics themselves… the Mayor’s various positions of power create a significant and undeniable power imbalance between himself and the college students he sought out… where such a lopsided power dynamic exists, consent becomes complicated.

This is not a sexual harassment issue in the classic sense of someone who actually has power over someone else, for instance in the workplace or in a classroom. The concept here is that students who might “wish to enter progressive politics” will feel uncomfortable refusing, or even just not answering, so mighty a personage as the Mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, for fear of what that might do to their job prospects someday, in a field they have not even chosen yet.

Therefore, just as a child or, say, a St. Bernard cannot consent to sex, neither apparently can an adult college student with an uncertain job future. And given that consent is “complicated” when such a “lopsided power dynamic” comes into play, it’s no wonder that the actual encounters could be harrowing – even when, as the Boston Globe explained, the victims were not even aware of that “power imbalance” at the time:

One student who had a sexual encounter with Morse found out afterward that Morse is a mayor and university lecturer, the letter said, and the student felt uncomfortable at learning this information.

There is an argument to be made that anyone who teaches, even part-time, even a T.A., should avoid having relationships with students at their own college, as that person might someday end up in one’s own classroom. I could be maybe be convinced by this idea, if I didn’t feel so sure this question would less likely be raised about a 31 year-old part-time male lecturer having sex with female students, and moreover if it were not so clear that the actual problem for these College Democrats is something else entirely.

There are a million reasons to be disgusted by this story – the overt trading in ancient homophobic tropes about sexual predation, the Moral-Majority style sexual Puritanism, the nauseating neo-Bolshevik terminology (“gatekeeper” is set to be this generation’s kulak) and the ludicrous political implications, with would-be mega-progressives laboring to keep someone like Morse from unseating a favorite of Lockheed-Martin and Altria from one of the Hill’s most powerful committees.

But the most grotesque part of the story is the obsessive/delusional misunderstanding of “power,” which after years of intersectional propaganda has become the primary lens through which young progressives see the world. Constant preaching that all human interactions are political contests, with one side always getting the better of the other, has made a whole generation phobic about adulthood.

This terror of a world separated into victimizers and victims has already ruined journalism, where a new class of reporters is so locked into the idea that every second of airtime or line of an editorial is an exercise of power that they’ve begun demanding the removal of alternative political viewpoints from their publications — other ideas make them feel literally unsafe.

New reporters see news audiences in much the way the College Democrat leaders view students, as helpless beings incapable of exercising judgment or free will. Journalists like me once enjoyed the idea that our audiences were grownups capable of taking in difficult truths and deciding their meaning for themselves: the new trend is to see audiences as defenseless, childlike lumps, who must be led to the correct political conclusion the way horses are led by their bits.

The right-wing, Jerry Falwell-style terrors about Twisted Sister or N.W.A. or Hustler cartoons or whatever were grounded in parents’ fears about outside influences undermining relationships with their children (the political code was “assaults on family values”). This new movement is the opposite: young people seduced by academic busybodies instead of metal stars or rappers, fleeing the freedoms of adulthood instead of rushing toward them, and demanding that they be allowed to remain in a permanent infantilized state as a human right.  

Woody Allen* once said his vision of nature was “big fish eating little fish, and plants eating plants, and animals eating… it’s like an enormous restaurant.” He was being funny. This new movement that sees humanity as a brutal landscape of devourers and devoured is definitely not joking. In fact it has no sense of humor at all, and as episodes like Morse’s show, it’s becoming more aggressive and demanding all the time.