When Powerful Men Laugh, It’s No Joke

The mirthless contempt of Zuckerberg, Weinstein, and Trump’s regime all underscore the same message: They can do whatever they want.

Keep laughing, boys. Photo: Getty Images
Keep laughing, boys. Photo: Getty Images

There’s a certain brand of laughter permeating events right now. Once confined to boardrooms and back rooms, it beams forth from tablet, phone, and television screens — during pressers, talk shows, and cable-news interviews — more mockery than mirth, a jesting contempt that isn’t necessarily always manifest but that we know is there even when we can’t hear it or see it.

They’ve been plentiful of late, these jocund moments of hostility. Take William Barr’s derisive little guffaw as he stolidly evaded Senator Kamala Harris’s questions about whether Rod Rosenstein had a conflict of interest in producing the Mueller report. He told her, “That’s what the acting attorney general’s job is!” Rudy Giuliani, Mike Pompeo, and Mick Mulvaney have all used this tactic of blatant dishonesty coupled with dismissive laughter while fancy-footworking the Ukraine scandal.

We’re unsettled when we go back and look at the footage of these little scenes. Like acts of theater, they’re both real and not real at the same time. The unreal part is the derision, which is meant to make the question and questioner look addled or naïve. The real part is the way the liar relishes the deception. It’s fun, it’s safe, it’s delicious — because there’s nothing anyone can do.

Last week, this sort of mockery, half-hidden, half-displayed, hovered over two events that had nothing, technically, to do with the White House but everything to do with the atmosphere of this decidedly unfunny moment we’re living in. One involved Harvey Weinstein, out for a night on the town, the other Mark Zuckerberg, who was testifying before Congress.

Weinstein had decided to attend a showcase of young performers. It hadn’t gone well. A comedian, herself a rape survivor, had called attention to his presence during her act and been booed and heckled. Eventually members of Weinstein’s retinue encouraged her and two other people to leave the premises. The next day, his publicist issued a statement: “Harvey Weinstein was out with friends enjoying the music and trying to find some solace in his life that has been turned upside down.”

In fact, though, the whole incident had been a sort of stunt. Weinstein could have spent the evening anywhere, but he’d chosen to attend the very sort of event where he would be recognized and among people aware of his power who were liable to feel threatened by him. In doing so, he was thumbing his nose at the world, showing everyone he could still do as he pleased.

It rhymed with a moment that had taken place earlier that same day, when Representative Maxine Waters was giving her opening statement as chair of the House Financial Services Committee’s hearing on Facebook’s cryptocurrency venture. Zuckerberg had been unable to suppress a little smirk.

The two events are linked by more than the fact that they both occurred last Wednesday. Each man in his way was displaying a mind-set one sees in those who have a tendency to minimize the importance of other people’s free will. Both were laughing in the face of the people who had challenged them and, in fact, laughing at any attempt to control them.

The word predatory has been used to describe Facebook before, particularly in connection with the data it collects from children. But it’s high time, surely, that we all recognize this predation as the basic nature of Facebook. Aggression and exploitation imbue the company’s whole attitude toward its users, whom it sees as “targets”; Facebook stalks people, even when they’re not using the platform, even when they’re offline, even when they aren’t themselves Facebook users but only “connected” to people who are. Born of a platform called “Facemash,” which allowed students to rate each other on the basis of their appearance— and conceived by Zuckerberg as a Harvard undergraduate — Facebook went on to do much more than demean and objectify people: It commodified everyone, and it did so with people’s identities, the fact of who they were. Zuckerberg invented a way of monetizing people’s inner selves manifested in their habits of mind, their interests, their trains of thought, what they wanted, what they needed, how they dreamed.

There’s a moral logic that characterized Zuckerberg’s stance during the 2018 congressional hearings into the Cambridge Analytica scandal, a mind-set that women are familiar with because we’ve heard it all our lives: Whatever you did out of a desire to take a normal part in the life everyone wants to have — to sit at the table, engage in a profession, do what you do well — is the cause of whatever happened to you. (But you walked and didn’t take a taxi. But you went to the party. You wore that outfit. You went to his room. You took that job.) It’s your fault for not understanding some arcane set of rules.

This was literally Zuckerberg’s response to the plain fact with which lawmakers tried to confront him again and again: that Facebook’s terms-of-service agreement couldn’t be understood, that it required users to assent to conditions they weren’t aware of. Over and over, this point was met with bland, impassive silence or a verbal shrug from Zuckerberg. It doesn’t matter, he seemed silently to be saying. That’s how things are. Once or twice he pointed out, “They signed it.”

“They trust me. Dumb fucks,” Zuckerberg once texted a friend about his Facemash users. To Facebook — and Zuckerberg — participation is synonymous with agreeing to be taken advantage of.

His wide-eyed naïveté about anything having to do with the company he founded and runs is another thing that’s been much on display in the Facebook CEO’s appearances before Congress. Again, it’s a posture that women recognize. It plays like the mantle of cluelessness that the experienced sexual harasser so often adopts when confronted about his behavior: the I’m-just-an-untaught-enthusiastic-oaf persona that accused predator after predator presented to the world during the early months of the Me Too movement, behavior that — in Weinstein’s case, for instance — turned out to be manifestly false; at any rate, the interactions he claimed not to have understood there was anything wrong with were interactions that we now know he spent an awful lot of time, effort, and money covering up.

During the 2018 hearings, the male senators seemed stymied by their inability to get anything out of Zuckerberg, by the fact that he couldn’t seem to be budged or shamed or reasoned with. The women, for their part, seemed to expect this, or anyway to be unsurprised by it. They focused on asking questions that would reveal how little Zuckerberg knew about his own company. During this round of hearings, what the female lawmakers chiefly focused on was exposing what Lili Loofbourow has called, in the context of sexual predators, “The Myth of the Male Bumbler,” that it is a sham, a canny bit of imposture.

Here is Representative Katie Porter hitting directly at Zuckerberg’s hypocrisy. “If that’s true that you care about privacy and you’re hewing to these principles, why are you arguing, Facebook, in Federal Court that consumers can’t hold you liable for any of these promises because ‘as plaintiffs admit, they and every Facebook user are bound by Facebook’s Terms of Service, which release Facebook from liability for users’ contract and common law claims?’” Zuckerberg: “Congresswoman, I’m not familiar with that specific legal argument.” And later: “Congresswoman, I’m not familiar with all the context here,” and now comes an incipient self-effacing smile, “I’m not a lawyer, so it’s a little hard for me to weigh in on the—”

“Mr. Zuckerberg,” Porter explains, “as CEO … you are responsible for the legal arguments that your company makes.”

I saw few male lawmakers taking Zuckerberg to task that way: One was Brad Sherman, who exposed the disingenuousness of Zuckerberg’s claims to be launching a cryptocurrency to benefit the poor and downtrodden. Even there, at the end of the clip, you can see Zuckerberg mugging for the camera, first with his eyes and then with the sort of middle-school WTF grimace that Trump peppers his campaign rallies with.

There’s a direct line between Zuckerberg’s laughter and pretended innocence and Weinstein’s preposterous claim that he just wanted to get out of the house and enjoy a little performance, just as there’s a direct line from there to the cynical laughter of Trump’s minions. And there’s a direct line from all of these to the laughter of two teenage boys that Christine Blasey Ford said she couldn’t forget when she described Brett Kavanaugh trying to rape her in front of another student in high school. All these scenarios are three-person scenes in which one party performs an act of aggression on a second party for the entertainment of a third. The performance aspect is at once the event itself and part of the gaslighting, a construct that can be used as evidence later that the event never happened — because who in the world would commit a crime or an act of violence in plain sight?

The gaslighting itself is what’s exciting to these predators. The lies are part of the joke and, in the case of Zuckerberg, the senators who indulge him and shower him with adulation are in on it. All of these actions and utterances are gestures; they’re a way of saying, with Mick Mulvaney, Get over it! Nothing needs to change and nothing is going to change because we’re in charge and everything’s just fine. The evidence of the crime that they leave — the laughter, the ellipses — are a sign to one another of how clever they are and how much fun they’re having.

They’re performing for each other and the punch line is us.

When Powerful Men Laugh, It’s No Joke