How many times have you seen an inexplicable murder or mass killing on the TV news and the only quotes are from neighbors who could not fathom what went wrong, that “he seemed like such a nice guy.” Roy Den Hollander, the now-dead 72-year-old lawyer believed to have shown up Sunday at the central New Jersey home of a federal judge and shot to death her 21-year-old son while wounding her husband, was absolutely nothing like that.
Den Hollander did not seem like such a nice guy. To the contrary, the decades-long descent of this so-called “men’s rights” activist from over-the-top gender grievance — such as filing a lawsuit against “Ladies Nights” at bars as a form of discrimination — into irrational ramblings and finally homicide was a toxic freight train that one could see coming from about 50 miles away.
As U.S. District Court Judge Esther Salas — New Jersey’s first Latina federal judge — mourned the unthinkable loss of her only child, The Atlantic’s Joshua Benton analyzed the trail of breadcrumbs that more resembled a massive dessert tray of clues. He chronicled the time in 2011 that Den Hollander was satirically profiled on TV’s The Colbert Report and given a megaphone to pronounce “I’m going to fight the feminists until my last dollar, my last breath” as part of his journey from alarming threats to actual, lethal violence.
“For years, the media metabolized his misogyny as an amusement,” Benton wrote, as he reveals the way that scores of respectable outlets like The New Yorker, Time magazine, MSNBC and many local TV and radio stations gave Den Hollander airtime that didn’t so much mock the media-friendly lawyer — portrayed in some of the pieces as “a crusading barrister” or even “a civil-rights attorney” — as bestow an odd legitimacy on his loopy gender grievances. The signs of growing extremism and the potential for bloodshed — he told the New York Daily News in 2013 “I’m beginning to think it’s time for vigilante justice” — were utterly ignored.
It was weirdly fitting that the deadly assault on the family of a trailblazing woman judge — with some stunning details, including Hollander dressing as a Fed Ex deliveryman to gain access, and the gunman later killing himself in a car in upstate New York with a package addressed to Judge Salas, whom Hollander believed was slow-walking one of his many anti-women suits —got such little airplay. A case that would have received breathless tabloid TV coverage a few years ago was now swamped by a nation in crisis — with a president overwhelmed by a pandemic’s again-rising death toll and siccing unmarked troops on protesting citizens in Portland.
That’s somewhat understandable, and yet it’s also symbolic of a nation that’s finally having something of a day of reckoning on 401 years of systemic racism but still can’t summon the energy to attack our deeply embedded systemic sexism with the same passion, let alone attention span. The thing is, you don’t need to ace the Montreal cognitive assessment to connect the many dots showing how misogyny has played such a critical role in our national crack-up — with connections to mass shootings in our public venues, murders in our bedrooms, and neo-fascism in our politics.
Did I mention that one of Roy Den Hollander’s earlier go-to outlets for spouting hatred against “feminazis” was the Fox News channel? On the same day the media was ID-ing Den Hollander as the killer at the Salas home, a new lawsuit revealed a culture of toxic masculinity at FNC that ranged from non-stop sexist remarks and harassment from the likes of the network’s superstars Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson to crude allegations of sexual assault against on-air personality Ed Henry. It’s hard not to see the straight line between the rank misogyny at America’s most-watched cable news channel and the increasingly authoritarian lines that Hannity or Carlson spout to their millions of fans.
And sexism-drenched media like Fox News and talk radio provided the platform for a generation of GOP politicians who rode the no-longer-sublimated backlash against women’s rights’ gains of the latter 20th Century all the way to the corridors of Congress. That boiled over this week on the Capitol steps when one of those Republican congressmen, Ted Yoho of Florida, encountered the relentlessly fierce progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (another strong Latina ... hmm ...) and engaged in a deep philosophical debate over ... Just kidding, Yoho reportedly called her “a f***ing bitch.”
This is the far-right’s brand of what you might call “intersectionality,” with the movement’s women-hatred deeply threaded through everything about the current moment — from the 2016′s election of a wildly unfit, unethical and untruthful president, credibly accused of sexual misconduct, because his opponent was “a nasty women,” to the growing tally of mass killers who’d started on that path with acts of domestic violence or online “incel” misogyny, to this week’s tear-gas and rubber-bullet attacks by camouflaged tin soldiers against “a wall of moms” in Portland.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which was founded in Alabama in the 1960s to track hate groups centered on racism, has in recent years closely tracked the role of “men’s rights” movements like the one proclaimed by the murderous Hollander in America’s increasing fraught war against far-right extremism. Here’s an SPLC report from just last year:
Yet the feminist writer Amanda Marcotte noted in a piece for Salon after the Salas shooting that “the media still tends to cover these acts of misogynist violence as isolated events perpetrated by ‘lone wolf’ oddballs, instead of as lethal outbursts from a semi-organized movement that engages in ‘stochastic terrorism,‘ in which political leaders or movement activists deliberately use provocative and inciting language in hopes of inspiring their followers to commit acts of terrorism (while maintaining some shreds of plausible deniability).”
Let’s be clear: One of those political leaders is Donald Trump, who may have launched his presidential bid with a broadside against Mexican migrants as “rapists” but brought his Nuremberg-style campaign rallies to their frenzied peak with chants of “Lock her up!” against a female opponent already cleared of an alleged (and fairly low level) crime.
And yet as 2020 has emerged as every bit a pivotal political year along the lines of 1968 or 1861, America’s reaction to the various elements of Trump’s alarming descent into authoritarianism has been separate and unequal. The bravery of protesters taking to the streets and confronting walls of militarized and too-often violent robocops to fight racism in America will hopefully change the course of history. But amid so much systemic sexism, the tendency here has been either to change the subject, as with the Salas killing, or even run the other direction.
The biggest non-happening of 2020 was the manner in which Democratic primary voters (a majority of whom are women) rejected the most accomplished field of female presidential candidates in American history for an aging white man because of the overt fear that America probably isn’t ready for a woman leader (and that the immediate danger of Trump made it too risky to try). I still see that an epic fail — mitigated somewhat by Joe Biden’s pledge to pick a female running mate and put a black woman on the Supreme Court — but the courage of those Portland moms (now being replicated in Philly and elsewhere) gives me some hope that a gender reckoning can build on the racial moment already underway.
Neither the well-deserved take-downs of high-profile men in the #MeToo movement nor the necessary push for more female representation in the White House or on the High Court should be allowed to distract from the urgent and substantive work that needs to be done. That starts with finally enacting the Equal Rights Amendment and undoing the four-year jihad led by Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to make the federal judiciary overly male (and overly white). And it should build up to a legal framework to give women their full reproductive rights and the equality in the workplace and the other pillars of American life that they’ve been long denied.
I was in the middle of writing this column Thursday morning when Ocasio-Cortez took to the floor of the House to issue a dramatic rebuke not just of Yoho and his comments, but of the deeper problems in American society they reflected.
“This issue is not about one incident,” the New York City congresswomen asserted. “It is cultural. It is a culture of lack of impunity, of accepting violence and violent language against women, and an entire structure of power that supports that.” Ocasio-Cortez said the misogyny connected up with GOP remarks that she is The Other, that she somehow doesn’t belong. “This is a pattern of an attitude towards women and dehumanization of others.”