Everybody Knows

It is an underworld axiom that two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead, but there is a safer kind of secret, the one that everybody knows but nobody talks about. The taboo has been lifted on one of those recently – the tacit understanding that men in powerful positions can pressure female underlings for sex with impunity. The media is full of tales about men who took advantage of that social arrangement. If that results in permanent change, and it looks like it might, then I wonder if some of the institutions that accommodate it can survive either. My guess – not in their present form.

For example, back when I was an undergraduate, lechery was the organizing principle of the English Literature department at the University of Minnesota. It was probably built into the structure of other departments as well, but that was a situation I was familiar with. The crowd I hung out with included young women students who got hit on, but they just said no and went on with their lives without consequence. At least that’s what they told us guys. The way teaching assistant positions were awarded was more insidious. If the assistant was female, you just knew how she got the job, and maybe men too. Many a droll remark was made based on that knowledge. And there were two young women graduate students who dropped out because they were pregnant. They just quietly giving up their careers because that was deemed preferable to a scandal that would result in two professors losing theirs.

Now I wonder if the institution of academic departmentalization didn’t evolve largely in order to give lots of older men an opportunity to prey on young women. And if that behavior doesn’t fly any more, why preserve the institution that facilitated it? Aren’t there better ways to organize the teaching of various disciplines?

The same question might be asked of the film industry. Was the studio system the best way to make films, or was it just an unwieldy patriarchy that ground out product well enough, but truly excelled at giving old men an opportunity to take sexual advantage of beautiful young women?

In St. Paul, where I grew up, there used to be an institution called The Winter Carnival. The parade, the pageantry and the events staged around it, especially the ice palace and its’ destruction, were for everybody, but there was a back story that everybody knew but nobody talked about, and that was just for the elites. I wove it into a short story I wrote for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine a few years back. It’s called “The Widow’s Garden Party“. You can download it free at the link.


The Winter Carnival is a relic nowadays. The Super Bowl will be in the Twin Cities next February, exactly when the Carnival would have peaked, but we’re not even going to have an ice palace. There just isn’t any enthusiasm for it. Climate change and changing ideas about entertainment took a toll, certainly, but I wonder if the increasingly untenable nature of that back story wasn’t what really sucked the life out of it.