Conor Friedersdorf saw the issue as a spectacular confluence of errors combined with one disingenuous curiosity. Why, in this age of putative sexual freedom but for hysterical sexual repression, did an act of masturbation become the yank of death?
“When Occam’s Razor suggests someone humiliated himself through a combo of technological error, pandemic circumstances, bad judgment, & bad luck, it seems like we should react w/ empathy, politeness, & forgiveness, as we would want to be treated, rather than punitive mockery,” Atlantic staff writer Conor Friedersdorf tweeted. In a tweet, CNN’s Brian Stelter sympathetically clucked that Toobin had “been sidelined at a pivotal moment in the run-up to the presidential election” (despite CNN having hundreds of talking heads who could theoretically also serve Toobin’s role). Vox reporter German Lopez said in a now-deleted tweet, “Not sure someone getting caught doing something almost everyone does should be a national story”; he then, inexplicably, went on to compare the media’s treatment of Toobin to the issue of mass incarceration.
This, because it was men defending a man, was dismissed as “himpathy.” Even if masturbation is a natural act, provided not done on a Zoom meeting in full, if accidental, view of your colleagues, this was a man doing it.
Of course, there is a glaring issue with this reasoning: pleasuring yourself whilst on a call with star war reporter Dexter Filkins does not exactly fall into the category of “something almost everyone does.”
That, “of course,” wasn’t the point at all, but that, “of course,” doesn’t really matter in the scheme of Jeffrey Toobin jerking off in the midst of a work meeting.
I was fired today by @NewYorker after 27 years as a Staff Writer. I will always love the magazine, will miss my colleagues, and will look forward to reading their work.
— Jeffrey Toobin (@JeffreyToobin) November 11, 2020
Toobin, at 60, is a bit younger than me. A Harvard law school graduate (which pops up with surprising regularity in bizarre and unpleasant occurrences of late), he got a gig working on Iran-Contra and then as an AUSA in the Eastern District of New York, where HLS grads who can’t get a job in the Southern District go. After that, it was all punditry.
Toobin lucked into the mother lode of legal commentary, the O.J. Simpson trial, which captured a nation’s attention, was on the television for all to watch, and required color commentators to flesh out pseudo-legal details to fascinated viewers. Toobin, and others, made his bones there, but Toobin is one of the handful whose future was on the tube or in the mag rather than in the courtroom. Not quite a personality, but a fixture.
Maintaining relevance as a legal pundit isn’t easy. The public, you see, doesn’t really want to know the nuances of law, but wants to have someone officious confirm that their notion of justice is right. The failure of many lawyers trying to game the limelight was their unwillingness or ineptitude to be shameful poseurs. Toobin not only had the skill to do so, but the will.
Most of what you see in legal commentary isn’t legal commentary at all, but a lawyer pretending to play a lawyer on TV, telling the viewers what they promised the producer they would say to meld into the narrative on a script and put their professional seal of approval on the pre-determined conclusion. The legal commentator puts on his serious face and says words with utmost gravity. Maybe they’re correct. Maybe they’re nonsensical. Mostly they’re banal, because let’s face it, nobody really cares about the lawyers. They’re supporting actors at most, not the leads.
Whenever I watched Toobin, i cringed. To be fair, I cringe when I hear most television legal commentary, my own included, which is why I stopped doing it. It’s almost invariably simplistic, and far too often, just false. Most of these pundits have no clue what they’re talking about. They either never did it, or didn’t do enough of it, to know any more than your basic three and out prosecutor or public defender. But then, it’s TV and intended to fill airtime between commercials or put lipstick on whatever pig of a position they’re selling.
Now Toobin’s been canceled, and there are those who correctly defended a man, because few else will take the chance of bucking the woke mob, for doing what “we all do.” That said, the defense of Toobin, whose “legal insight” will not be missed only because it was neither legal nor insight, falls short.
The problem may not be the act in which he engaged. That Toobin masturbates is his own business. It’s not something I personally want to think about, but I know it happens and if that’s his thing, well, so be it. I prefer not to think about it, and so I don’t.
But that someone whose professional career is being engaged in being the lawyer actor playing the lawyer, during the day, in the midst of a work-related engagement, Toobin was so astoundingly irresponsible and reckless as to be shocking to another old lawyer.
In a workplace culture where white men are inculcated with the belief that the office is their playground, where their ascensions are taken for granted as their female and BIPOC counterparts scramble for crumbs beneath their feet and there is no shortage of justifications for bad male behavior, it is not all that surprising that Toobin would be led to believe it was OK to rub one out during a work meeting. But it’s telling that men like Friedersdorf and Lopez — who are, like Toobin, prominent media figures with sizable followings — are so quick to write off his actions as an unfortunate but almost inevitable technological snafu.
It was not “almost inevitable,” but a risk Toobin not only didn’t have to take, but should never have taken. Is that because of his “white man” cultural privilege, that the “office is their playground”? Beats me. Maybe others know more about such things than I do, but not in my office.
Had it been someone other than a “white man,” would anything have been different? There are many disgusting personal things done in offices, in meetings, even on Zoom, by many who don’t fit the narrative, and we shrug them off, repulsed but whatever. I could describe things I’ve seen, but care too much about you, dear reader, to needlessly gross you out. People do disgusting things all the time, and these happen when unwhite unmales are fully aware that they can be seen by 30 of their closest colleagues.
There doesn’t seem to be a white man epidemic of lawyers masturbating on Zoom, thankfully. Masturbation is, as “men like Friedersdorf and Lopez” contend, a natural human act. But then, such reckless indiscretion as to engage in it in the midst of a workday, in the midst of a group meeting of one’s coworkers, rather than control the impulse and wait until you’re in the privacy of your personal secret world, is what nailed Toobin’s egregious failing. Legal punditry will be no worse for Toobin’s absence.