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Since When? (Gwen Moritz Editor’s Note)

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I was trying to take my mind off current events when I fired up the DVD of one of my favorite movies, “The Maltese Falcon.” Wouldn’t you know it? Something from the 1941 screenplay — actually from Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel — felt newly relevant.

You may know the story. Two police detectives come to private eye Sam Spade’s apartment to quiz him about the murder of his hapless partner, Miles Archer. Spade lies when he tells the cops that he personally broke the bad news to Archer’s widow, with whom he has been carrying on an affair. (Lying to the local police is not a crime like lying to the FBI. That’s currently relevant as well.)

“How’d she take it?” one of the cops asks.

“I don’t know anything about women,” shrugs Spade, played by the incomparable Humphrey Bogart.

“Since when?” the police detective responds.

I’ve watched “The Maltese Falcon” dozens of times over the decades, and I had never paid any attention to that small exchange. But you know how it is when you learn a new word or buy a new car: Suddenly you see it everywhere. In this case, I had just read Lili Loofbourow’s brilliant commentary in “The Week” called “The Myth of the Male Bumbler” — and there was Bogie bumbling to beat the band.

Sam Spade is having an affair with his partner’s wife and is about to launch into a passionate relationship with a darkly captivating new client, but women are a complete mystery to him. Since when? Not even the flatfoot is fooled.

Loofbourow declares this kind of male bumbling to be epidemic. She gives several examples that have nothing to do with sexual misconduct in professional settings, but the avalanche of accusations that powerful men have imposed themselves on vulnerable women (and girls) is clearly the kind of bumbling that inspired her. You mean I accidentally made a subordinate feel threatened with my completely innocent suggestion that she watch me shower? I simply don’t remember reaching under her skirt, and I assure you it was never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable. If I ever said that thing about grabbing women — and I’m no longer sure that’s my voice on the video — it was just locker-room talk.

“There’s a reason for this plague of know-nothings: The bumbler’s perpetual amazement exonerates him,” Loofbourow wrote. “Incompetence is less damaging than malice. And men — particularly powerful men — use that loophole like corporations use off-shore accounts. The bumbler takes one of our culture’s most muscular myths — that men are clueless — and weaponizes it into an alibi.”

Not only are the most powerful men in entertainment, news and politics completely clueless, so are ordinary men doing ordinary jobs. My cousin, a white male nearing 60 and working in the health care industry, sent me a message that I subsequently recognized as textbook male bumbling:

“Gwen … I have to ask … do women really want total equality? I have become fearful of even giving a woman any type of compliment. Even ‘you look nice’ has become scary.”

Scary? I’ll tell you what’s scary: a man trusted with someone else’s health care who thinks men’s lives are being ruined because they told a woman she looked nice.

A few days later, The Associated Press treated us to a story with this headline, “In wake of Weinstein, men wonder if hugging women still OK.” We discussed this in the newsroom. I seem to recall hugging a co-worker in the reception line at his wedding. When my father died, a half-dozen male co-workers came to his funeral, and I hugged every one of them. Miraculously, considering just how difficult and confusing this seems to be, none of these hugs was the least bit creepy.

When my sons were very small, we talked about “good touches” and “bad touches,” and even little boys seemed able to grasp this. But if you have grown up to be such a male bumbler that you aren’t quite sure when it would be appropriate to hug a female co-worker, and you can’t quite trust yourself not to grope her backside while you’re at it, it’s always fine not to hug co-workers at all. And if you can’t trust yourself to compliment a woman without being a creep, then it’s always fine to say nothing about her appearance at all.

Worse than the fact that positions of enormous power have been held by men so inept that they just can’t tell when they are treating women as something other than professional colleagues is the fact that there were undoubtedly non-bumbling women who could have performed those jobs but never got the chance.

Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.
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