On the great and glorious skeeviness of “Lean In” and Sheryl Sandberg

It’s even worse than I had realized:

Joining “the community” was just a click away. In fact, the community was already uploaded and ready to receive them; all they had to do was hit the “Lean In Today” button on their computer screen . . . and, oh yeah, join Facebook. (There is no entry into Lean In’s Emerald e-Kingdom except through the Facebook portal; Sandberg has kept her message of liberation confined within her own corporate brand.)

Thomas enumerated the “three things” that Lean In offered. (In the Lean In Community, there are invariably three things required to achieve your aims.) First, Thomas instructed, “Come like us on Facebook” (and, for extra credit, post your own inspirational graphic on Lean In’s Facebook “photo gallery” and “tag your friends, tell them why you’re leaning in!”). Second, watch Lean In’s online “education” videos, twenty-minute lectures from “experts” (business school professors, management consultants, and a public speaking coach) with titles like “Power and Influence” and “Own the Room.” Third, create a “Lean In Circle” with eight to ten similarly aspirational young women. The circles, Lean In literature stresses, are to promote “peer mentorship” only—not to deliver aid and counsel from experienced female elders who might actually help them advance.

The author, Susan Faludi, later mentions that Sandberg’s career was propelled by very targeted and effective university-president-to-student mentorship from Larry Summers. Those of you who follow idiotic political “scandals” will recall that Summers was drummed out of the Harvard presidency a few years ago for being a rank misogynist, as proven by his impolitic comments about women not being naturals at advanced mathematics. The buried lede in the Summers sexism scandal was that he was by most accounts a rank abrasive in general. If I wanted to hang out with his kind, I’d track down the prep school headmaster who shoved me up against a wall in a crowded hallway and screamed at me from a foot away for uttering something along the lines of “that’s fucking crazy.” These guys bear more than a passing resemblance to each other. I don’t care to keep the company of either of them.

There’s an unseemly and disturbing cult aura surrounding Sandberg. The language that she uses in “Lean In” programming is too meaningless and slick, and her you-go-girl followers are a bit too fawning for sane society. As it turns out, like high court functionary, like boy-king:

On Mark Zuckerberg’s birthday, the women at the company were instructed to wear T-shirts displaying his photo, like groupies.

Kate Losse, the former Facebook employee who recounted this birthday stunt, ascribed it to rampant workplace sexism: “It was like Mad Men, but real and happening in the current moment, as if in repudiation of fifty years of social progress.” It was also, I’d add, a repudiation of other important lessons of the mid-Twentieth Century, such as those of Synanon and Rajneeshpuram. Synanon’s founder and tyrant, a marriage-wrecking compulsory vasectomy enthusiast by the name of Chuck Diederich, presided over a compound in West Marin County where he used a pirate radio station to berate his followers to “get your balls clipped,” terrorized neighboring landowners, and corrupted the sheriff’s department to the extent that the county grand jury received an extended audience with the California attorney general and the incumbent sheriff was voted out of office in favor of a previously obscure San Anselmo police captain (i.e., East Marin outsider, over the hill from Synanon’s cohort of reserve sheriff’s deputies) who promised to clean house.  The Rajneeshees spent the early 1980’s vigorously attempting to subvert local governments and poison the townies in Wasco County, Oregon. Sure, Zuckerberg isn’t that bad, or at least he’s a different kind of bad, but only a megalomaniac orchestrates that sort of self-aggrandizing birthday party stunt. His is the sort of behavior that should be nipped in the bud, because if it isn’t, it may reach a point meriting attention from the state police.

Given that Sandberg reports to a smirking, self-important boy wonder who never quite looks like he completed puberty, apparently has quite vulgar taste in office art, and enjoys being worshiped, one might not expect her to keep particularly upright company at her side gig. Indeed: 

Sandberg’s mantra has become the feminist rallying cry of the moment, praised by notable figures such as Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, Marlo Thomas, and Nation columnist Katha Pollitt. A Time magazine cover story hails Sandberg for “embarking on the most ambitious mission to reboot feminism and reframe discussions of gender since the launch of Ms. magazine in 1971.” Pretty good for somebody who, “as of two and a half years ago,” as Sandberg confessed on her book tour, “had never said the word woman aloud. Because that’s not how you get ahead in the world.”

The lovefest continues on LeanIn.org’s “Meet the Community” page, where tribute is paid by Sandberg’s high-powered network of celebrities, corporate executives, and media moguls (many media moguls), among them Oprah Winfrey, New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, Newsweek and Daily Beast editor in chief Tina Brown, Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington, Cosmopolitan editor in chief Joanna Coles, former Good Morning America coanchor Willow Bay, former first lady Laura Bush (and both of her daughters), former California first lady and TV host Maria Shriver, U.S. senators Barbara Boxer and Elizabeth Warren, Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust, Dun & Bradstreet CEO Sara Mathew, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Coca-Cola marketing executive Wendy Clark, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, supermodel Tyra Banks, and actor (and Avon “Global Ambassador”) Reese Witherspoon.

Steinem’s feminism, as it happens, did not interfere with her shacking up with Mort Zuckerman, who has the most fascinating highbrow New York accent I’ve ever heard. Fonda is a second-generation movie star who polarized her country by going on a bizarre wartime mission to North Vietnam, quite arguably for nothing more than the publicity and the morality-whoring. Winfrey is a bottomfeeding charlatan who feigns histrionics for a living. Huffington is notorious for abusing unpaid staff writers at her for-profit publication, some of whom have begun suing for back wages. Boxer is a mediocrity at best who looks decent mainly because her most prominent colleagues in the California Congressional delegation, Feinstein and Pelosi, are morally hideous. Mayer is the girl you hated in high school for brownnosing all the teachers, being haughty because she maintained a 4.5 GPA, and talking shit about classmates for the lulz and the feeling of superiority.

What I find most worrisome is that Warren, one of the few sincere and credible populists in Congress, is also cradling this tar baby. The list is otherwise studded with exactly the sorts of oddities and sleazy operators one would expect, people who stand to lose much less esteem among the attentive for their involvement in this scam than does Warren.

And a scam is exactly what it is. By her own description, Sandberg scrupulously avoided saying anything about women until a few years ago. Then, as a high-powered corporate executive in her early forties, she suddenly started giving a shit about all this feminist empowerment stuff, as if after a career of being mixed up with Larry Summers and Mark Zuckerberg she was overcome with concern for other women and what she could do for them. One of my first suggestions would be to not offer them a chance to jump through hoops for an unpaid internship at a foundation run by a dot-com executive in support of her self-help racket. This isn’t about helping women, unless “women” is defined to mean Sheryl Sandberg and her cronies. It’s seedy marketeering sleaze. They would much more like to serve man. (Because, as Stalin put it, “of course it’s a fucking cookbook!”) 

Another way to look at it is as a sort of affinity fraud. Bernie Madoff didn’t swindle prominent New York Jews to make David Duke or Al Sharpton proud; he swindled them because he was one, and being one he knew their values, worldview, and cultural touchstones. Being a member of the same local ethnic and religious community also helped him build his victims’ trust, much like the guy who faked his own death in a staged plane crash in Alabama had done when he moved from Indianapolis to Atlanta to yuk it up about aviation with guys flying the big metal at the Delta crew base, then take their money in a pyramid scheme for pilots and run. If it doesn’t take one to know one, it takes one to dupe one. Sheryl Sandberg and her cronies are successful women, so they’re perfect marketeers for campaigns targeting less successful but aspiring women. By contrast, I wouldn’t succeed as a marketeer to teh wymmynz because I have the male perspective, and I’d have a hard time sealing deals with Madoff’s old crowd as a three-quarters goy son of a Staten Islander. 

These affinity frauds are all about exploiting and destroying the social capital built up by other people in high-trust communities. Why women as an overarching nebulous collective would be anything but a rock-bottom-low-trust community is inexplicable under any sort of logic, but it’s widely held to be the case. Meanwhile, it’s regarded as marginal and crazed (correctly so, I’d say) to make equivalent comments declaring a universal male solidarity bonding all men everywhere. This double standard has been established by little more than the sheer repetition of crude tautologies about differences between the sexes. Bizarrely, the activists advancing these tautologies simultaneously pride themselves on being sexual equalists. Whether they believe their own bullshit (about sexual equality, female superiority, or both) is debatable, but the language and imagery that they use certainly tend not to be conducive to introspection and sanity.

What they’re running on the public is a massive, often coordinated advertising campaign: in other words, a psychological operation, which is exactly what most modern advertising is. Whether it’s better for these psychological operators to be craven and sentient or to go fully native and truly believe the stuff is a matter of personal preference, dictated by whether one prefers to be manipulated by the consciously evil or by those who are simply out of their goddamn minds.

The end result of this process, however it operates, is that many women who would unabashedly describe specific female relatives or acquaintances as crazy bitches are convinced to place their complete trust in the judgment and morals of women utterly strange to them, specifically because they’re women and they’ve been declared leaders. Sure, my sister steals my sterling and china to feed her meth habit whenever she visits, then we catch her and she guilt-trips us about feeding her children and promises to get clean, but I totally trust this Sandberg lady because she says such nice things about empowering women. The key, of course, is that these thoughts are had subconsciously and separately; otherwise they’d be too ridiculous to grok. 

As Faludi shows, much of the “Lean In” programming is devoted to eliding class divisions by focusing on a meretricious sense of cross-class female solidarity. Here she understates her case, just as she does in only tangentially mentioning Arianna Huffington as a “Lean In” supporter without discussing her being a moneyed woman mooching off of unpaid labor to run her for-profit publication. Sheryl Sandberg is a very wealthy and well-connected corporate executive working in an era of extreme income inequality, diminished social mobility, and a ruined job market. She advanced substantially on the basis of her collegiate relationship with a future Treasury Secretary. Sandberg’s biography, as opposed to the self-help pap she’s marketing, is one of class solidarity with other members of the overclass, not one of gender solidarity with other women. Her example is relevant to men at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and to a lesser extent at somewhat less well-connected universities; it is irrelevant to women at College of the Redwoods or SUNY-New Paltz, let alone women with GED’s working as home health aides in Southie. If you’re wondering why Harvard women don’t hang out in Lowell, Faludi has an explanation: 

In 1834, America’s first industrial wage earners, the “mill girls” of Lowell, Massachusetts, embarked on their own campaign for women’s advancement in the workplace. They didn’t “lean in,” though. When their male overseers in the nation’s first large-scale planned industrial city cut their already paltry wages by 15 to 20 percent, the textile workers declared a “turn-out,” one of the nation’s earliest industrial strikes. That first effort failed, but its participants did not concede defeat. The Lowell women would stage another turn-out two years later, create the first union of working women in American history, lead a fight for the ten-hour work day, and conceive of an increasingly radical vision that took aim both at corporate power and the patriarchal oppression of women. Their bruising early encounter with American industry fueled a nascent feminist outlook that would ultimately find full expression in the first wave of the American women’s movement. 

The Lowell factory owners had recruited “respectable” Yankee farmers’ daughters from the New England countryside, figuring that respectable would translate into docile. They figured wrong. The forces of industrialization had propelled young women out of the home, breaking the fetters binding them to the patriarchal family, unleashing the women into urban areas with few social controls, and permitting them to begin thinking of themselves as public citizens. The combination of newly gained independence and increasingly penurious, exploitative conditions proved combustible—and the factory owners’ reduction in pay turned out to be the match that lit the tinder. Soon after they heard the news, the “mill girls”—proclaiming that they “remain in possession of our unquestionable rights”—shut down their looms and walked out.

 Farmers’ daughters working in factories: they must have been poors, no? Indeed: 

The Lowell turn-out was a communal endeavor, built on intense bonds of sisterhood forged around the clock: by day on the factory floor, where the women worked in pairs, with the more experienced female worker training and looking out for the newcomer, and by night in the company boarding houses, where they shared cramped quarters, often two to a bed, and embroiled themselves in late-night discussions about philosophy, music, literature, and, increasingly, social and economic injustice. As Dublin observed of the web of “mutual dependence” that prevailed in the Lowell mill workforce, the strike was “made possible because women had come to form a ‘community’ of operatives in the mill, rather than simply a group of individual workers.” An actual community, that is—not an online like-a-thon. Tellingly, the strike began when a mill agent, hoping to nip agitation in the bud, fired one of the more voluble factory workers whom he regarded as the ringleader. The other women immediately walked out in protest over her expulsion. The petition they signed and circulated concluded: “Resolved, That none of us will go back, unless they receive us all as one.” 

Yup. Icky poors working shit jobs and doing the community organizing thing because they had no alternative. These are the kind of people who obediently go home to the ass ends of Boston after finishing their shifts at Harvard Yard. One does not associate freely and equally with such people as a Harvard woman. And all this community stuff is le hard. It takes too much time away from Candy Crush Saga. 

The result is a nation whose women can’t make it to the Grange meeting either because they’re too busy being socially-climbing careerists or because the meeting conflicts with Oprah. I know, I’m indulging in sentimental agrarian populist fantasy, and that most of my friends would have to ask me what the hell is a grange, but the same thing goes for men who are too busy watching SportsCenter and UFC pay-per-view to get to union meetings or bowling clubs.

The issue here isn’t sex, but class. Get rid of all chauvinism in these downmarket organizations, and the overclass will still be discomfited. Sheryl Sandberg and company don’t want any of us hanging out at the union hall. They want us to mind our own business, not the community’s. They certainly don’t want anyone getting the idea that they’re winning at a rigged game.