Facebook Is Not Your Friend

Mark Zuckerberg invoked the iconic figures of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. when defending why his company will allow political candidates to lie with reckless abandon. Wait, what? (Photo Credit: Anthony Quintano/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Q: What kind of company views the very existence of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign as an “existential threat?”

A: Facebook, and the doom-and-gloom terms in which it frames this discussion tell you all you need to know about whose side it’s on.

What’s Mark Zuckerberg and Co.’s bugaboo about the progressive Democrat’s candidacy? Senator Warren doesn’t seem like the most physically imposing character. Could one woman really represent that much of a danger to a corporation worth billions of dollars?

Well, if she becomes President of the United States, perhaps. As a Democratic senator from the state of Massachusetts, Warren has built a profile championing corporate accountability and emphasizing standing up for the rights of end users of companies’ goods and services. Despite Joe Biden’s attempt to take credit for it in the most recent Democratic presidential debate, her signature achievement heretofore is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a creation explicitly and singularly devoted to safeguarding average Americans in their solicitation of financial services.

On a related note, Warren has been a vocal critic of Wells Fargo and its executive leadership, memorably grilling then-CEO John Stumpf in 2016 during a Senate Banking Committee hearing about the banking giant’s underhanded business practices and later advocating for the institution to remain under a growth cap imposed by the Fed until it can evidence a willingness to comply with standards of equitable behavior. Seeing as Wells Fargo has seen a revolving door at the top since then and still languishes under an asset restriction, it appears her concerns are more than warranted.

Broadly speaking then, Elizabeth Warren represents a desire to more directly regulate corporate America, including the tech sector, distinguishing herself from rival Bernie Sanders as an adherent of capitalism rather than a self-described democratic socialist. For Facebook, meanwhile, an organization predicated on selling and manipulating user data which might have and should have faced stronger repercussions for the breadth of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, this does not compute.

Understandably, monoliths like Amazon, Facebook, and Google don’t wish to have their size or power circumscribed. The same applies to the big banks, who have met likewise with Sen. Sanders’s ire and calls for separation of their traditional banking elements and more speculative financial services. How Facebook is going about trying to resist demands for greater accountability, however, deserves every bit of admonishment and scrutiny.

Dipayan Ghosh, co-director of the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School and former adviser to both Facebook and the Obama administration, is one of the growing lot who believes it’s time for Facebook to be more strictly regulated. Ghosh’s sentiments come on the heels of an announcement by the social media titan that it won’t censor or even fact-check politicians despite the notion these ads may contain false or misleading claims.

To be fair, actors across the political spectrum are prone to false or misleading content in their political advertisements; Sen. Warren’s campaign, for a bit of shock value, recently led its own Facebook ad with the notion that Zuckerberg and Facebook had endorsed Donald Trump for re-election before admitting within the same space that that wasn’t literally true. (In response, the Facebook Newsroom Twitter account sent a rebuke of sorts referencing the ad, which is vaguely astonishing in itself.) Nonetheless, when a policy shift clearly benefits lying liars who lie such as Trump, such a move gives pause.

Let’s get one thing straight: Donald Trump is not a smart man, but he ain’t no dummy either. This is to say that he knows how to take advantage of an institution which helps his bottom line, and his campaign has exploited Facebook’s refusal to remove disingenuous political content with heavy investment in advertising through this medium as well as Google. While Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s alleged malfeasance have been a frequent target of Trump’s scorn—even though there is no evidence to suggest the Bidens have done anything improper and, ahem, people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones—the falsehoods and rules violations have been widespread and numerous. In a way, this spending is a perfect microcosm of a presidency marked by its own flagrant falsehoods and rules violations.

For his part, Zuckerberg has sought to defend Facebook’s new open-door political advertising policy on free speech grounds, weirdly invoking the likes of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.—what?—in making his case across media outlets and envisioning his company as one which charitably allows for freedom of expression. Much as you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater or yell “Bomb!” on a airplane with impunity, though, if you’re a platform with the influence and reach of Facebook, you can’t let other people and entities with influence and reach wantonly peddle their lies—or at least you shouldn’t be able to. At the very least, if you’re going to enforce the rules (or not enforce them), you should do so without apparent political prejudice.

Ay, here’s the rub: for all the accusations of a liberal bias on platforms like Facebook, the company’s actions and its very structure suggest a complicity with conservatism and conservative figures/outlets. Over the past few weeks, Judd Legum has practically made Facebook’s dalliances with right-wing favoritism the raison d’être of his newsletter Popular Information. Among the items Legum has cataloged:

  • Zuckerberg meeting with Tucker Carlson and other conservative commentators and journalists to discuss matters of free speech and partnership, and Facebook naming the Daily Caller as a fact-checking partner despite a history of inaccuracies (to put it mildly)
  • Facebook stacking its D.C. office top leadership with veterans of Republican politics
  • Zuckerberg falsely claiming Facebook was created in response to and as a means to facilitate conversation about the Iraq War and other conflicts
  • Facebook permitting coordinated inauthentic behavior by the Daily Wire, originally Ben Shapiro’s baby, while acting to outlaw the same practices from progressive sources
  • Facebook failing to override its automated controls to flag and ban content for Black Lives Matter groups, LGBTQ activists, left-leaning small publications, and others forums which may be critical of conservative views

All this has made for a climate at Facebook hinting at a “frightening new world for political communication,” as Ghosh phrases it. He writes:

It is now the case that leading politicians can openly spread political lies without repercussion. Indeed, the Trump campaign was already spreading other falsehoods through online advertising immediately before Facebook made its announcement — and as one might predict, most of those advertisements have not been removed from the platform.

Should our politicians fail to reform regulations for internet platforms and digital advertising, our political future will be at risk. The 2016 election revealed the tremendous harm to the American democratic process that can result from coordinated misinformation campaigns; 2020 will be far worse if we do nothing to contain the capacity for politicians to lie on social media.

Could the Trump presidential campaign engage in the same kind of chicanery it did in 2016 and still lose in 2020? Sure. In fact, if the results of that election were based solely on the popular vote, Trump never would’ve been elected. Still, Facebook is playing a dangerous game, one which invites great risk to the American political process without much risk to its own survival and which allies the company with disreputable (outside of conservative circles anyway) people like Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson. It is deliberately trying to sway the election to serve the desires of executive leadership, whether it legitimately believes the kind of rhetoric from publications like the Daily Caller and the Daily Wire or not.

In doing so, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are making it clear they are acting only in their own selfish interests. That doesn’t sound like something either Frederick Douglass or MLK would’ve wanted.


When we talk about Facebook’s sense of responsibility regarding how it handles user data and the veracity of claims in advertising that appear on the site, opinions may vary with respect to how culpable we truly believe Mark Zuckerberg et al. to be. If we were to take, say, a Friedman-esque examination of things, we might aver that if Facebook is financially responsible to its shareholders and isn’t breaking the law outright, deliberations about corporate social responsibility are much ado about nothing. In other words, while we might find Facebook’s actions objectionable, as far as leadership may be concerned, they are doing what’s best for the business. At heart, that is priority one.

In this day and age, however, such a perspective is a minority opinion. Personal and organizational accountability matter, even if not everyone agrees on how we can enforce adherence to a certain standard of conduct. Fines against a company may look like an appropriate punishment, but not only might these sums function as a mere drop in the proverbial bucket for corporations like Facebook, they don’t get at the personnel and the faulty leadership structures to blame for such lapses or intentional misdeeds.

What’s more, assigning guilt to an entity without the capacity for feeling guilty (i.e. a corporation is not a person) arguably is of limited utility and may only serve to ensnare lower-level accomplices or negatively impact workers on the lower links of the food chain. Much in the way #MeToo can be scrutinized for how much change it has effected and how durable its assignment of repercussions, there is room to wonder how punitive these measures truly are for major players in the U.S. economy, especially within the tech sector. Both in terms of applicable statutes and defined ethical frameworks, we seem to be lagging behind Silicon Valley’s attempts to define itself as an adjudicator of moral standards.

So, what’s the answer? Owing to the complexity of the question re individual vs. company-wide responsibility, the potential solutions are manifold, but some part of what actions should be taken would seem to involve government intervention. As noted, Dipayan Ghosh, for one, believes it’s time to regulate. From the closing of his piece:

If Facebook cannot take appropriate action and remove paid political lies from its platform, the only answer must be earnest regulation of the company — regulation that forces Facebook to be transparent about the nature of political ads and prevents it from propagating political falsehoods, even if they are enthusiastically distributed by President Trump.

Our nation has always aspired to place the interests of our democratic purpose over the interests of markets. Silicon Valley should be no exception.

Going back to Elizabeth Warren, supposed existential threat that she is, she advocates going a step further and breaking up monopolistic tech companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google, even going as far as to call for the undoing of certain mergers such as Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods and Facebook’s ownership of Instagram. Zuckerberg, in the leaked audio from a Facebook employee meeting that produced his quote about Warren in the first place, acknowledges the likelihood of a lawsuit to combat such a move, in the same breath expressing his confidence that the company would be successful in an eventual legal challenge. Are Warren’s plans unrealistic? Is Zuckerberg overconfident in this instance? By now, we’re used to big businesses winning, but the courts, interpreting existing antitrust law, may yet favor would-be regulators.

To say the least therefore, the fight over Facebook’s open-door political advertising policy appears far from over. In the meantime, and barring a course change like that of Twitter’s to ban all political ads (personally, I don’t love the idea the company is just throwing up its hands and waiving its potential to be a model actor, but it’s better than doing nothing), what you can be sure of is that, Facebook, a company which has never meaningfully apologized for the large-scale breach of trust exposed by the Cambridge Analytica bombshell, is not your friend. You may like being able to connect with family and friends and share photos and do all the things the social media platform is capable of doing. But executive leadership is neither truly interested in your privacy nor the sanctity of the First Amendment, and if you’re using the service, you’re implicitly giving your assent to their disregard of both. Whether that’s a deal-breaker is up to you.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like China?

When even those who are usually outspoken about human rights toe Beijing’s line on the Hong Kong protests, you know China has a disturbing amount of influence on American businesses and U.S. politics. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia/Hf9631/CC BY-SA 4.0)

In case one requires a lesson about the long arm of Chinese influence in the United States, one need look no further than the recent fracas surrounding Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s pro-Hong Kong protests tweet.

The backlash in China to Morey’s errant post was sizable and swift. Live games and other upcoming promotional events were cancelled. Multiple Chinese sponsors announced their decision to cut business ties with the Rockets organization or the NBA outright and Chinese state television vowed to no longer air Rockets preseason games. In addition, Houston potentially faces $25 million in sponsorship boycotts and the league could see a hit to player contract monies owing to the newfound hostility.

Oof. Talk about the power of social media.

The magnitude of the Chinese reaction to criticism from one basketball executive is somewhat surprising in it of itself. All that for one tweet, which yielded an apology from Morey? What is more startling, if not unsettling, though, is how little support the Rockets GM has seemed to get in the United States.

Tilman Fertitta, billionaire owner of the Houston Rockets, for one, public distanced Morey’s comments from the team’s position, stating explicitly that the club is not a “political organization.” Joe Tsai, owner of the Brooklyn Nets and billionaire businessman in his own right, also condemned Morey’s support for the Hong Kong protests, characterizing the situation as a “third-rail issue” not to be touched and voicing his displeasure with the “separatist movement” of which these protests evidently are a part. Even the league itself has offered contradictory sentiments of support and regret, on one hand defending Morey’s right to self-expression but in the same breath deeply apologizing to China and its NBA fans in Chinese.

Morey’s and the NBA’s cautionary tale, so to speak, is not the only one lately to garner media attention. When Chung Ng Wai, a pro Hearthstone player who goes by “Blitzchung,” made a show of support for the Hong Kong protests during a Grandmasters tournament, he was removed from the competition, had his prize money forfeited, and was banned from tournament play by Blizzard, the game’s maker, for a year. Blizzard has since reduced the length of the ban and reinstated his winnings, but not before a public outcry earned the company strong criticism and spawned talk of boycotts and protests.

Apple and Google sparked outrage as well when they removed apps used by protesters or that were otherwise evocative of the protests/were vaguely supportive. Apple indicated it acted because the app in question allegedly was being used to target law enforcement officials and Hong Kong residents, a charge disputed by protest supporters. Google claims it removed The Revolution of Our Times for capitalizing on a sensitive event such as conflict.

Sound business practice or kowtowing to a censorious Chinese communist regime widely regarded as a human rights abuser in the name of money? Who’s pulling the strings? These are the kinds of questions major corporations like Apple, Blizzard, Google, and the NBA face in the wake of decisions that appear to favor the latter condition. It doesn’t help their cases that their various responses were made so quickly, and for Blizzard, arguably so disproportionately, at least initially. If what some believe is true, it’s not a question of whether these companies will jump, but how high.

This is part of the problem with China, a country that is a major player on the world stage and is seemingly unhappy with the amount of control it has in global affairs, including what people say about it and how. As Bill Bishop, author of the newsletter Sinocism, writes in an entry about the Morey-NBA flap with China entitled “The NBA’s poisoned China chalice,” Beijing doesn’t just want to be part of the conversation—it wants to lead the discourse. Bishop writes:

The broader context for this crisis is that the [Chinese Communist Party] has long pushed to increase its “international discourse power 国际话语权“, and as with many things its efforts have intensified under Xi. The idea is that China’s share of international voice is not commensurate with its growing economic, military and cultural power and that the Party should have much more control over the global discussion of all things Chinese, in any language, anywhere.

The Party is taking at least a two-track approach to rectifying this problem. On the one hand it is launching, buying, co-opting and coercing overseas media outlets. On the other it uses the power of the Chinese market to co-opt and coerce global businesses, their executives and other elite voices.

From the looks of it, these obeisant acts on the part of aforementioned American multinationals fit the second category. Never mind trying to influence politicians or meddle with elections. This takes a direct route to the heart of U.S. business, and including executives like Adam Silver and Tim Cook, nonetheless impacts influential figures who may yet have a voice in the domestic political discussion. Paired with a multi-million-dollar media campaign designed to shape public opinion and policy in the United States, China is anything but a passive player in the global politics of power.

Such is why, for the spotlight that has been shone on Russian interference in our elections and hacking of campaign infrastructures, the shadow China casts on American commerce (not to mention the amount of our debt it holds and potential attempts to steal intellectual property and other secrets) seemingly hasn’t had its due consideration. If China’s flexing to minimize criticism of its handling of the Hong Kong protests is any indication, the United States and other relevant world powers are highly susceptible to Beijing’s reactionary demands, right down to their more socially-conscious participants. As citizens and conscientious consumers, the scope of Chinese authority should concern us.


For those who have been sounding the alarm about China for years, that it might be something like Beijing’s knee-jerk retaliation against the NBA and the Houston Rockets organization or Blizzard’s Hearthstone debacle to affect the public consciousness is striking, although one supposes it may as well be one of these circumstances. In either of these instances, the shift in attention from the masses simply may have finally intersected with an area of importance to them, a milieu they conceivably enjoyed irrespective of their political leanings. Certainly, the duration and visibility of the Hong Kong protests helps in this regard.

Regardless of why there is such a strong focus all of a sudden on corporate management of the China-Hong Kong relationship, the realization across industries that politics does, in fact, play a role and compels executive leadership to take a meaningful stand is a critical one. Before, NBA figures such as Gregg Popovich, LeBron James, and Steve Kerr known for being outspoken on political and social issues in the United States might have gotten a pass for equivocating on the subject of China. Now, they’re getting their due criticism, or in the case of LeBron, having their jersey burned in a protest within the Hong Kong protests. To say the paradigm has changed would seem to be an understatement.

CNBC contributor Jake Novak, for one, marvels at how the NBA’s China fiasco has struck a nerve when years of reporting and pundits’ observations about how China hasn’t lived up to its promises to be a model state haven’t hit their mark, calling the ensuing fallout “just the wake-up call the world needed.”

As Novak explains, despite increasing economic engagement with the West, China, in numerous ways, has become or has tried to become more repressive and secretive. With Google’s help, no less, it worked on a government-censored search engine under the code name “Dragonfly” that only this past summer was terminated. It holds millions of people, many of them members of ethnic minority groups, in “counter-extremism centers” or “re-education camps,” and otherwise tramples on human rights, brutally punishing dissent. Militarily, China has built its forces to antagonistic levels, making bold shows of force repeatedly in the South China Sea before its neighbors. In addition, China’s lack of transparency concerning its international lending practices obscures the true level of debt (and therefore, risk) the global economy faces. This is the business partner countless American multinationals have chosen, a partner that fancies itself a victim in countless scenarios despite a pattern of aggression.

Of course, America is no saint when it comes to observation of human rights and respecting the autonomy of foreign lands, a notion much more glaring under would-be dictator Donald Trump. Attempted moral equivalencies by Kerr et al. aside, China’s quest to insinuate itself across state lines and continental divides is a problem not just for the U.S., but the world. Furthermore, it’s one that corporate America can be instrumental in addressing.

So, getting to the central question: how do we solve a problem like China? As James Palmer, senior editor at Foreign Policy, quoted in Bishop’s post instructs, part of the solution lies in boycotts, public shaming, and protests against company leadership that does business with China’s repressive regime under Xi Jinping. Also, Congress will likely have to intercede, calling on executives to testify about the deals they’ve made and threatening contracts and tax breaks for failure to comply with existing laws or for otherwise unsatisfactory answers.

Such is the good news: that we can take concrete steps to hold China and its enablers accountable for their misdeeds. The bad news? We’re, ahem, relying on consumer political participation and the efficacy of Congress, neither of which is a guarantee. As Novak suggests, the NBA is unlikely to be crippled by boycotts any more than the NFL was by fans upset over Colin Kaepernick. Bishop, in response to Palmer’s sentiments, is “not optimistic” on either front. Amid an emphasis on social responsibility—feigned or not—by chief executives and tough talk from politicians, the talk of the Chinese market’s money would appear to carry further.

In terms of solving our China “problem,” then, we may ultimately be more successful catching a cloud and pinning it down, or holding a moonbeam in our hand.

Bret Stephens Sucks, Or, When Punditry Goes Awry

Despite growing up in Mexico and speaking Spanish fluently, Bret Stephens espouses us-versus-them attitudes and lambasts Democrats for their support of undocumented immigrants. How cool! (Photo Credit: Veni Markovski/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Despite President Donald Trump’s umpteen comments in reference to the “failing” New York Times, the “Fake News Washington Post,” and other notable publications critical of his leadership, there has been a lot of good reporting during his tenure in the White House and in the campaign leading up to the election.

It is good reporting borne out of necessity, prompted by an administration in disarray built on a complete disregard for transparency and truth. Alas, there has also been some less-than-good reporting and/or questionable editorial oversight in recent times. Frequently, media outlets will report Trump’s public comments at face value, devoid of meaningful context. “President Trump accuses Democrats of election fraud.” Right, but what about the idea he is doing so without citing any credible evidence? For the love of journalistic integrity, call a spade a spade, won’t you?

If reporting on Trump’s failed stewardship of the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City or the utter fraud behind Trump University or his repeated aggressive sexual behavior in and out of marriage or his stance on the Central Park Five and advocacy for their execution is the good, and reporting on, say, Stephen Miller eating glue as a child is the bad, the ugly may be the out-of-touch views promulgated by today’s television pundits and columnists, many of them white males who refuse to check their privilege at the door.

Case in point, Bret Stephens, whose work, according to many familiar with it, is a repository for bad takes. In a recent column for the New York Times, Stephens opined that the Democratic Party, as evidenced by the first round of presidential debates, is off to a “wretched start” in advance of 2020 and “seems interested in helping everyone except the voters it needs.”

Let’s put aside our puzzlement over why Stephens, a conservative notorious for being a climate change “agnostic” (as he terms it), feels he needs to criticize the Dems declared for presidential runs in this way even noting his frequent criticism of President Trump. The startlingly crude viewpoints in his piece speak for themselves. In particular, this passage drew jeers and censure from the blogosphere/Twitterverse:

In this week’s Democratic debates, it wasn’t just individual candidates who presented themselves to the public. It was also the party itself. What conclusions should ordinary people draw about what Democrats stand for, other than a thunderous repudiation of Donald Trump, and how they see America, other than as a land of unscrupulous profiteers and hapless victims?

Here’s what: a party that makes too many Americans feel like strangers in their own country. A party that puts more of its faith, and invests most of its efforts, in them instead of us.

They speak Spanish. We don’t. They are not U.S. citizens or legal residents. We are. They broke the rules to get into this country. We didn’t. They pay few or no taxes. We already pay most of those taxes. They willingly got themselves into debt. We’re asked to write it off. They don’t pay the premiums for private health insurance. We’re supposed to give up ours in exchange for some V.A.-type nightmare. They didn’t start enterprises that create employment and drive innovation. We’re expected to join the candidates in demonizing the job-creators, breaking up their businesses and taxing them to the hilt.

As numerous critics have pointed out, for Stephens, who spent his childhood in Mexico and is fluent in Spanish, to lump himself in with the “this is America, we speak English” crowd is woefully disingenuous. You know, unless he suffered a head injury that has caused him to forget the Spanish he learned as well as the very fact he speaks it, which in that case, my condolences.

More than that, though, the dehumanizing “them-versus-us” rhetoric at a time when migrant families are being indefinitely detained en masse in substandard facilities (the term “facilities,” in many cases, is a generous one) without legal representation or even being charged with a crime is chilling. Not to mention it’s riddled with inaccuracies as a function of being grounded in nativism and trickle-down hogwash.

They broke the rules, even though seeking asylum is supposed to be legal. They don’t pay taxes, even though they do. They got themselves into debt. Who? Are we talking about undocumented immigrants here or college students/young adults born in the States, whose issues with repaying their student loans are nothing at which to scoff? And spare me the “job-creators, taxed to the hilt” line. If we’re talking about multinational corporations, some of them have gotten exceedingly proficient in paying little to no taxes while forgoing investment in their employees and the surrounding communities for the sake of relentlessly seeking profit. In this respect, creating jobs (which may not even be that rewarding for the job-holders in the first place) is the least they could do.

Stephens isn’t the only one at the Times trafficking in self-centered moderate conservative whining. In his own reaction column to the Democratic debates, David Brooks, another Never-Trumper, pleads with Democrats not to “drive him away,” taking it upon himself to speak for the 35% of American voters who identify as “moderates.”

In doing so, he decries how “the party is moving toward all sorts of positions that drive away moderates and make it more likely the nominee will be unelectable.” Americans like their health plans. The economy is doing well (yay, capitalism!). These candidates sound like they want open borders, which has lost progressives elections elsewhere around the world. There’s too much raging against the top 1% and not against the top 20% (the upper middle class).

There’s that concept again: “electability.” It’s a concept everyone seems to profess knowing a lot about without being able to clearly define it. Will advocating for Medicare for All (which, by the by, has broad support from Americans across the political spectrum) make a candidate unelectable in the general election? How would we even know? The economy is doing well now. What happens if we suffer another economic crisis (and yes, there are warning signs to be had)?

On immigration, are we to ignore the ethical and moral concerns for-profit imprisonment of asylum-seekers and immigrants presents, not to mention the real economic benefits these people bring to the table, because of moderate whites’ vague worries about a loss of “cultural identity?” On the Democrats trying to engage with Trump in a battle of “populist v. populist,” why not mention how Trump’s supposed “populism” is really just a concession to wealthy white males like himself?

Ultimately and in all, Brooks is critical of progressives who reject calls for civility and, in laying out their vision of the future, ensure the party can’t win next November. What good is “civility,” however, when today’s Republican Party is premised on bad-faith, deceptive arguments for holding up the status quo? And rather than appealing to a shrinking, elusive voting bloc, why not try to generate actual enthusiasm among those who haven’t voted or previously couldn’t vote? Why not try to win rather than playing not to lose? Have we learned nothing from 2016?

Evidently not. Instead, we get moderates who lauded Hillary Clinton and assured us voters would tire of Trump once again propping up an establishment candidate in Joe Biden because he supposedly “can stand up to” the orange-faced incumbent. Never mind Biden’s checkered past as a senator or that he seems to lack original policy ideas. Let the gaslighting continue and ignore the sound of progressives banging their heads against the wall.


I’ve highlighted Bret Stephens’s and David Brooks’s questionable outlooks on the 2020 presidential race, but this kind of analysis is by no means limited to conservatives. On the Democratic/liberal end of things, there are examples of punditry gone awry a-plenty.

Rebecca Traister, columnist at The Cut, an offshoot of New York magazine skewed toward women’s interests, describes this as the “Donny Deutsch problem in media.” As she explains, while the Democratic Party field is indicative of the country’s growing diversity—both ethnic and ideological—the face of today’s talking heads in political media hasn’t kept pace. Traister writes:

Where many Americans have seen the emergence of compelling and charismatic candidates who don’t look like those who’ve preceded them (but do look more like the country they want to lead), some prominent pundits seem to be looking at a field of people they simply can’t recognize as presidential. Where many hear Democratic politicians arguing vigorously on behalf of more justice and access to resources for people who have historically been kept at the margins of power, some prominent columnists are hearing a scary call to destabilization and chaos, imagining themselves on the outside of politics they’ve long assumed should be centered around them.

Altogether, what’s emerging is a view of a presidential commentariat that — in terms of both ideas and diversity — is embarrassingly outpaced by the candidates, many of whom appear smarter, more thoughtful, and to have a nimbler grasp of American history and structural inequities than the television journalists being paid to cover them.

Traister acknowledges Stephens amid the elaboration of her column, but adds some more names as examples of individuals who are supposed to be experts in their field but seem out of touch with what’s happening in the world more than anything.

Following the debates, Joe Scarborough railed against the Democrats’ stances in favor of undocumented immigrants being entitled to health care and that their crossing the border should be decriminalized. Chris Matthews, like Stephens, framed Kamala Harris’s taking of Joe Biden to task on the subject of busing during the debate as making white people feel as if they are “on trial” or that she is speaking out of some racially-based resentment. As for Mr. Deutsch, he panned Elizabeth Warren’s prospects in the general election next to Biden’s, touting his experience as an advertising and branding executive as an affirmation of the validity of his viewpoint. He, like Donald Trump, evidently gets people. Well, I’m sold, I don’t know about you.

As Traister finds and as others would agree, the “safe center” on which these men think the Democrats can rely may no longer be the source of salvation they or other mainstream liberals imagine it to be. This much becomes evident when looking at the substantial appeal of signature policy ideals such as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and taxing the wealthy at a higher marginal rate. The contention of Deutsch et al. is that promoting these positions will hand Trump the election in 2020. Maybe it’s through embracing a bold vision of the future (a vision furthered by strong female candidates, no less) that the excitement needed to turn out the necessary voters to prevent his re-election will be achieved, though.

In fairness, Traister admits the likes of Stephens and Scarborough may be right, at least in the short term. Maybe the Democrats will win with Biden as their chosen candidate. Over the long term, however, the party strategy will almost certainly have to change in deference to a “different, faster, smarter, lefter turn toward the future.” To this end, the hegemonic hold white males have over political punditry will need to be addressed at some point too.

Unfortunately, this won’t be realized nearly fast enough, meaning newspaper subscribers and TV viewers will be forced to see the 2020 campaign through the prism of these privileged, moneyed men’s worldviews. Meaning we’re liable to get defenses of Biden and his condescending attitude toward people unlike him ad nauseum until the election or until his bid for the White House goes down in flames.

There’s a #MeToo dimension to this disproportionate representation as well. Matthews caught heat last year for an unearthed “hot mic” incident of sorts from 2016 where he jokingly asked where he put “that Bill Cosby pill” he brought with him in advance of an interview with Hillary Clinton. Deutsch, by his own admission, is a shameless flirt who has fantasized about women he was worked with and waxed poetic on Sarah Palin’s hotness when she first came to political prominence.

When Traister speaks to how problematic it is that potential voters and prospective candidates for public office are having their opinions shaped by these men, she has a firm grasp of what she’s talking about. Their professionalism (or lack thereof) is certainly not above reproach. Might we not submit the same of their political insights?

The male-dominated world of political media reacting with pearl-clutching bewilderment at up-and-comers in the Democratic Party like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez leading by example. Joe Biden’s place atop the polls despite his apparent unpreparedness in that first debate. These phenomena are related. These men are unused to a world in which their place atop the hierarchy is no longer guaranteed, where a twenty-something who previously worked as a bartender—gasp!—is beating them in the open exchange of ideas. As the very title of Rebecca Traister’s article asks, politics is changing; why aren’t the pundits who cover it?

Amen, sister.

The Artist, the Art, and the People in Between

Michael Jackson was a gifted entertainer and by many accounts a loving person. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he is innocent and it doesn’t justify his fans’ harsh treatment of his accusers. (Photo Credit: Zoran Veselinovic/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Michael Jackson was a phenomenally talented individual and entertainer. He also may well have been a pedophile who abused multiple children entrusted to his care. These two ideas are not mutually exclusive, and our complicated relationship with the artist and his art is illustrative of our larger struggle with how to regard the accused, their accusers, and their past creations in the #MeToo era.

Concerns about Jackson’s troubled legacy related to his long-suspected indiscretions have returned with renewed vigor in the wake of the airing of the documentary Leaving Neverland. The four-hour film, which prominently features Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two of Jackson’s accusers, is by many accounts a must-see.

As with any creative work, the movie’s merits may certainly be debated. Some critics have also observed the documentary, in its spotlight on the accusers, is not neutral—though it’s realistically difficult for the people involved with making the film not to take a stand on a matter of such import. Whatever you think of the veracity of the accusers’ accounts, the subject of child abuse and the effect it has on families is a discussion worth having, and to the extent Leaving Neverland can add to this discussion, this suggests its existence has value.

The subsequent backlash has been notable, at any rate. Some radio stations have removed Michael Jackson’s catalog from their programming. Other artists/companies/productions sampling or performing his songs have canceled upcoming projects invoking his image or have likewise moved to retroactively remove his likeness and his music. Perhaps fitting for this era, the backlash itself has seen a backlash, particularly from Jackson’s estate and his avid fans. The former filed a $100 million defamation lawsuit against HBO. Protestors came out in full force outside the office of British television company Channel 4 and at the Sundance Film Festival for showing the movie. To put it mildly, Leaving Neverland has caused a stir.

Most of us are not as close to the events of the documentary or Jackson’s music to have such strong feelings as his accusers, his family and friends, or his loyal supporters. Still, it’s not like the rest of us aren’t familiar with the man and his body of work. After all, they didn’t call him “the King of Pop” for nothing. At his peak popularity, Jackson possessed the kind of fame most of today’s entertainers could only dream of. The allusion to him being pop royalty was especially apt. His stardom rivaled the love and affection the queen of England might receive. Heck, he met with presidents and foreign dignitaries. If not quite larger than life, “MJ” was pretty gosh darn huge nonetheless.

Accordingly, we all possess some degree of connection to Jackson and his music. The question then becomes: how do we regard the artist and his art? For many people, it’s an uncomfortable situation marked by cognitive dissonance. “I like his music. People tell me he’s a pedophile. This upsets me. How do I reconcile these disparate feelings?” I paint this picture as if it’s a wholly conscious decision on our parts, though I am cognizant of the notion it is not. We use coping mechanisms to assuage ourselves of the discordant emotions and ideations within our minds. It’s up to us as individuals to process and sort through how we experience it all.

So, to listen or not to listen? If you ask Kate Maltby, broadcaster, columnist, and theater critic in the UK, the answer—at least for her—is yes. For her part, Maltby believes Robson and Safechuck. Among her reasons is the idea that these accusers would be loath to invite the wrath of the Jackson estate and his fans except for the need to tell the truth. Not to mention their lawsuits against the estate have since been dismissed on effective technicalities or statutes of limitation. If this were a ruse for the sake of money or fame, it wouldn’t appear to serve those ends very well.

Assuming we do believe these men, Maltby feels we are doing ourselves a disservice by negating the greatness of Jackson’s hits alongside adding a new context to his life’s saga. In making this assertion, she is making a key distinction between a figure who has passed on and can’t make any more money off of his creative works and those of disgraced living entertainers who are abusers and whose mere presence would stunt the development of other potential collaborators. Jackson’s family didn’t perpetrate these acts. Why should they suffer as a result?

Ultimately, for Maltby, the recognition that Michael Jackson was a musical “genius” and an active worker for the benefit of charities but also a flawed human being is essential, lest we try to absolve other gifted individuals because of their ability in the future. She directs this argument at Jackson’s “superfans,” specifically the kinds that “wonder why people don’t come out earlier with accusations of abuse, then attack those who do.” She finishes her op-ed on this subject with these thoughts:

Appreciating Jackson’s music should help us see him, and humanity, as susceptible to complex tragedy. Jackson’s own father has been called “one of the most monstrous fathers in pop” — and we know how many children of abuse go on to abuse others in turn. Jackson’s superfans would do well to reflect on how quick they are to believe Jackson’s own tales of childhood abuse — whippings with electric cords and belt buckles — and how quick to disbelieve his accusers.

Jackson’s critics should be open-minded enough to recognize that his impact on our musical landscape can’t be reversed. But his defenders should be open-minded enough to accept he may still have done terrible things. The rest of us should keep playing those tracks — and test how easy it is to lose ourselves in the music.

Though it may be small consolation to some to hear, approaching Jackson’s identity as a peerless talent with a dark side isn’t easy for anyone. Perhaps this is simply the nature of these things. As hard as it is to assign blame or prove guilt in cases of sexual abuse, it’s also difficult to reckon with the emotional and psychological aftermath of these acts in their own way. Child abuse has pervasive negative effects on our psyches and these effects are only magnified in the case of an alleged abuser with the profile of “the King of Pop.” Our collective discomfort only hints at the destructive force of this sort of violence and the sense of shame survivors can feel.


Long before Leaving Neverland, Dave Chappelle invoked Michael Jackson’s trials in a sketch for his hit eponymous comedy show. The premise is that Chappelle is a potential juror in various courtroom proceedings of high-profile black celebrities, a premise of which the genesis could be found in his conversations with one of the show’s writers about the notion that he (Chappelle) almost never believes these stars are guilty. Chappelle’s character goes to great lengths to absolve Jackson of any culpability, downplaying accounts of his accusers describing Jackson’s genitalia as well as Jackson’s own admissions that he slept in the same bed as children who stayed at his Neverland ranch. He also reasons Jackson can’t be guilty because “the man made Thriller.”

Of course, this is comedy and Chappelle’s juror, when asked by the prosecutor if he’d let his children sleep in the same bed, responds with a disgusted “F**k no!” Still, this sketch arguably hasn’t aged very well. Regardless of the character’s sincerity, these are real arguments used against survivors of sexual abuse. Why didn’t they come forward sooner? What’s in it for them? Are they doing it for the money? For the attention? Where’s the evidence?

In Jackson’s case, while not the only ones to cast aspersions on Wade Robson’s and James Safechuck’s accounts, those “superfans” Kate Maltby describes take it to an extreme. Mike Pesca, writing for Slate, is among those who say Jackson’s steadfast defenders “sound like conspiracy theorists” way past impartiality more so than discerning consumers of news and entertainment media. Pesca likens these fanatics to so-called 9/11 “truthers” who aver that this tragedy was an inside job. He points out that he doesn’t know “for certain” that Jackson is an abuser, but that a preponderance of evidence suggests he is and that Robson and Safechuck are telling the truth.

That hasn’t resonated with Jackson’s defenders, however. As Pesca characterizes their defenses of their beloved pop idol, there are three major points by which his accusers can be refuted: 1) there were plenty of boys Jackson didn’t molest, 2) Robson testified on Jackson’s behalf back in the 2004-2005 trial against him, and 3) they are after Jackson’s money.

Let’s start with #3, which we’ve already addressed in part with discussion of the fact Robson’s and Safechuck’s lawsuits against the Jackson estate have been thrown out. We may be eager to discount the accusers as motivated by money, but what about the Jackson’s estate’s lawyers? What about the relatives who, in defending Michael, neglect to mention that their public profiles and musical relevance are intimately connected with his image? If Robson and Safechuck are fair game, certainly, those with a material interest in Michael Jackson’s marketability making public statements on his behalf are too.

As for the other proverbial prongs in the trident that is Jackson’s defense, on the first count—that Jackson didn’t molest many children—this doesn’t prove he couldn’t have violated other young people. The same kind of defense was used by Brett Kavanaugh’s apologizers after multiple accusations of sexual impropriety not long ago. If it seemed suspicious then, it should seem equally specious now if not more so given the irregularity of Jackson’s behavior during the period in question. On #2? Very simply, Robson could’ve been lying then and is telling the truth now, and not the other way around.

For Pesca, that Jackson’s staunchest defenders take to ramblings on Medium and YouTube doesn’t damn them absolutely, but it doesn’t speak highly of them either. Even when those who stand by Jackson possess a veneer of greater respectability—in name-checking music journalist Joe Vogel, Pesca confesses he doesn’t possess a high regard for Forbes—they still might be reliant on character references who themselves may be blind to or uncapable of entertaining the thought that Jackson molested children.

Another defense Pesca underscores is that Jackson was black and his accusers are white, reminiscent of Dave Chappelle’s hyperbolic characterization. Vogel awkwardly tries to make this case too, citing—of all things—To Kill a Mockingbird. Mr. Vogel, ahem, you are no Harper Lee. Ditto for will.i.am, who threw out the idea that the backlash against Jackson is a “smear campaign” and that black artists are targeted disproportionately over white artists.

Even if will.i.am—I hate that I have to keep writing his name this way—has a point about the inherent hypocrisy in the ability of corporations and certain other individuals to reclaim their standing after heinous acts, the perceived lack of empathy here undermines the strength of his argument. Why is it so much easier to believe that Jackson is innocent and that his accusers are opportunists than the reverse? Or espouse the belief that their mothers were terrible parents and say nothing of Jackson’s alleged misdeeds? Because, as Chappelle joked, he made Thriller? Should it matter if the accused is, as the song goes, black or white?

As with sorting out our feelings on these matters, answering these questions isn’t easy either. Despite the controversy related to Leaving Neverland and radio station bans, streams of Michael Jackson’s music increased following the documentary’s premiere. Maybe listeners are simply able to separate the art from the artist. Maybe it’s a show of defiance from the fans who have never lost faith. For those of us in between and victims of physical and sexual abuse everywhere, the reasons may change but the song remains the same.

On Sex Work, Morality, and Truth

Pete Buttigieg is among those on the left who, in deriding Donald Trump as a “porn star president,” takes a jab at an industry in sex work that has been disproportionately stigmatized and which sees its professionals face certain risks and a lack of concern for their rights and trustworthiness. (Photo Credit: Marc Nozell/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

At a recent CNN town hall, Democratic hopeful Pete Buttigieg took specific issue with Vice President Mike Pence’s support of Donald Trump. Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana (Pence’s home state) and openly gay (ahem, not Pence’s favorite distinction), criticized Pence for his support for Trump in an apparent abandonment of his principles as a Christian. As Buttigieg put it, “How could he allow himself to become the cheerleader of the porn star presidency? Is it that he stopped believing in scripture when he started believing in Donald Trump?”

As far as the post-event dissection and sound bite accumulation went, this was Buttigieg’s quote of the night. For what it’s worth, the pointed criticism of Pence and the religious right is well taken. Prior to the rise of Trump, white evangelicals were most likely to insist on a candidate’s morality as an important quality. Now, however, they downplay Trump’s moral and other deficiencies of character, in this respect acting more white than evangelical. For some, it may be unconscious, but either way, religious conservatives see an ally in a president who appears to exemplify the so-called “prosperity gospel” and who would uphold their brand of “religious freedom.”

Mayor Buttigieg, though, is not a member of the religious right. He is a Democrat and Episcopalian whose mere sexual orientation would make him a target of conservative Christians’ scorn. His attack of Trump’s “porn star presidency” is a double-edged sword that strikes not only at Mike Pence’s hypocrisy and that of his ilk but also at adult entertainers and their choice of vocation. Within his comments are an implicit criticism of porn stars—or at least a failure to defend them. Trump is a bad person. He consorts with porn stars. By association, if you associate with him or them, you are a bad person.

The unnamed allusion to Trump’s extramarital liaison with Stephanie Clifford a.k.a. Stormy Daniels is not the first knock on the woman who alleges she slept with Trump and was paid off in advance of the 2016 presidential election for her silence. Rudy Giuliani—or the crazy person masquerading as Rudy Giuliani for the purposes of defending Donald Trump—expressed to a national audience the belief that Daniels has no credibility because she is a porn star. Translation: Stormy Daniels is a lying whore who can’t be trusted because all porn stars are lying whores. Michael Avenatti’s detractors on the right have leveled similar criticisms of Daniels’s then-lawyer on guilt-by-association principles. He represents porn stars, ipso facto, he is a lying scumbag.

Irrespective of what you think of their personalities—Avenatti, in particular, strikes me as an obnoxious attention-seeker—their choice of vocation or client shouldn’t have a bearing on their believability. As is oft said, love the sinner; hate the sin. In this instance, however, even on the left, there are those who condemn the sinner and sin. Trump is a “porn star president.” Lost in the discussion of his and Pence’s and Daniels’s and Avenatti’s morality is the more relevant issue of whether Donald Trump specifically directed a payoff to Stormy Daniels and whether that constituted a breach of campaign finance law. It shouldn’t matter whether Daniels is a porn star or prostitute or any other similar type of professional. It’s Trump’s conduct with which we should be primarily concerned.

Unfortunately, this bilateral takedown of adult entertainers and other sex workers is emblematic of our larger discomfort with sex work as a function of our discomfort with, well, sex. Sex is enjoyable. It’s the reason most of us are here, barring in vitro fertilization or the like. Talking about it, though, for many of us can be an, er, icky prospect, necessitating the use of double entendre or other euphemistic language. And showing our appreciation of its splendor? Oh, no. Especially for women, that’s not very “lady-like.” Too much sex and you risk getting branded as a “slut.” Worse yet if you’re a prostitute. Then you’re a criminal and deserve to be admonished. So much for the world’s oldest profession.

I watch porn. (Mom, if you’re reading this, apologies.) I’m not without my reservations. There are the usual complaints. The costumes tend to be tacky. Lo, the cut-rate nurse uniforms. The dialogue is often stilted. The acting is frequently subpar. And is there nothing that doesn’t get a porn parody? Who asks for a Rugrats porn parody anyway? Who finds that sexy?

Even when these things are improved upon—and I do think the production value of today’s adult entertainment is largely superior to the XXX offerings of yesteryear—there are troubling aspects of the presentation and of the industry as a whole. The plots—which often barely qualify as such and for some reason usually revolve around sex with stepfamily—can be steeped in misogyny, involving coercion or trickery of the female participant(s) as pivotal “plot” points.

Even when the content is geared to be more “female friendly,” the on-screen enjoyment is often reserved for wealthy characters who enjoy lavish accommodations on the count of being highly-paid hard-working individuals. It’s luxury porn on top of being actual porn. There are also concerns off camera about suicides of numerous high-profile stars and the ever-present worry about transmission of sexually-transmitted infections in a world where condom use is infrequent. And we haven’t yet gotten to the problem of monetization for production companies and actors/actresses alike.

So yeah, the adult entertainment industry has its issues—and I’m sure I’ve missed a few. Still, I’m not sure why there seems to be such a disdain or disregard for the people involved, the type which prompts left-leaning comedians like Chelsea Handler to equate porn stars with abusers, child molesters, and Russian hackers. I get that its objectors may see porn as exploitative and the performers as lacking talent. But why the hate? Because they love sex and like getting paid for it? Even within the context of the on-film productions, there seems to be an inherent condemnation of the young women in these situations modeled on real life. These whores will do anything for money! They can’t control themselves when they see what he’s packing down there! We condemn them for their vices while absconding to our bedrooms, gratifying our pleasures. To the extent that these scenes are a reflection of us and our society is disconcerting.

Morality also appears to cloud our collective judgment when it comes to our demonization of escorts, prostitutes, et cetera and advocacy for their rights. A presumption in this regard is that the sex worker has agency over her or his circumstances—and that may be a big presumption to make. There are arguments by some feminists and others that sex work is an oppressive form of labor, especially as it relates to exploitation by “pimps.” Speaking of exploitation, there are serious concerns about human and sex trafficking that would subvert that necessary agency and constitute a serious crime. In many cases, there are quantifiable risks to the sex worker, including drug use, poverty, rape, sexually-transmitted infections, and violence.

These issues notwithstanding, the stigma of sex work lingers. As with adult entertainers, prostitutes who get involved with this line of work for the money or sex are demeaned as unskilled opportunists, and as for the risks they face, the consensus response seems to be an effective shrug of the shoulders. They chose this lifestyle. If they don’t like it, they should get an education and a real job. This comes to a head when discussing sex workers’ desire for safety and protection against burdensome regulations as well as freedom of movement, available health services, and other rights that mere status as a human being should confer. In practice, this is not always the reality.

Meera Senthilingam, a CNN Health and Wellness editor, penned an article which appeared on CNN in February concerning “what sex workers really want.” In the opinion of one sex worker interviewed for the piece, seeing as they pay the same taxes, sex workers should be afforded the same rights as other service professionals who are allowed to work from home. There is also the problem for some prostitutes when law enforcement gets involved. In places where the legality of the practice is null or vague and dependent on who solicits who, the presence of police may actually be a deterrent to would-be customers.

This assumes, by the by, that the police aren’t the ones abusing, exploiting, or harassing sex workers, and as with the agency of sex workers mentioned earlier, this is quite an assumption to make. As with any profession, there are bad actors, and for a population in sex workers already susceptible to violence and other health and safety concerns, it puts practitioners in a bind, to put it mildly. It begs the question: who will watch the watchers when it comes to safeguarding their liberties as citizens?

The above deliberations are worth talking about. Whether it’s because of a deprecating attitude regarding sex work, a discomfort in approaching such matters, or both, however, even those on the left who usually are keen on standing up for individuals’ agency over their bodies and protecting their inalienable rights appear loath to mention sex workers specifically. Chalk it up to social mores or personal morality, but in 2019, America and the world at large is evidently lagging on this topic.


You might ask why we are worried about the feelings and opinions and rights of someone like Stormy Daniels. The woman didn’t even vote, for crying out loud! What do she and her contemporaries have to contribute to the larger discussion about Donald Trump and American politics? To be honest, I’m not totally sure, but if we dismiss her as an opportunist and a slut from the jump, what chance do we have to listen and know with an open mind?

In front of an audience of 500 women or so at The Wing, a work and community space designed for women in Washington, D.C., Daniels recently said she believes Michael Cohen to be true in his testimony to lawmakers. Cohen, like Daniels, has had his credibility attacked reflexively by Republican supporters of the president, and while she may not possess a great deal of affection for the man—she referred to Cohen as “dumber than herpes”—she thinks he is honest and that, like her, he came forward because he’s tired of “being bullied” and “being called a liar and a rat.”

Sure, this is just one person’s opinion, but it comes from someone who alleges to know Trump intimately—in more than one sense of the word. In this respect, her thoughts have at least much value as a shameless defender of Trump like Sean Hannity. Instead, though, she’s a porn star to be derided alongside the president, Mike Pence, and even child molesters and wife beaters. Thanks for the insight, but we’d rather scoff at you from atop our high horses. Don’t call us; we’ll call you.

Whether it’s within the context of #MeToo or of simply acknowledging the dignity of sex workers as human beings, the left has a problematic relationship with those storytellers it considers to be problematic or unsavory. Daniels has stressed she is a not a victim with regard to #MeToo. Cohen, set to spend three years in federal prison, is sure as heck not a victim.

Through all the deals they’ve struck and monies they’ve received, this doesn’t mean they’re utterly irredeemable. And their past actions and vocations have no bearing on the veracity of what they say about Trump. To allow our social and moral misgivings to stand in the way of our better judgment is to fall prey to the same kind of prejudices that have characterized conservatism of late. You know, when its practitioners actually heed their conscience or the teachings of scripture.

You Don’t Have to Be a Democrat—but Who Are You Supporting?

Candace Owens is right that blacks don’t have to support the Democrats. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much all she’s right about. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0)

You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.

Treating the analogy of the closing bar as a metaphor for political affiliation, “going home” is presumably supporting the Democratic Party, at least for people who have been party supporters or are members of subsets of the electorate that traditionally have formed the party’s base. It may not be the most satisfying way to end the night but it’s safe, familiar.

The “staying here” non-option-option, by association, is supporting the Republican Party. In terms of the bar analogy, this means if you don’t leave willingly, the cops show up and you likely go to jail. In politics, it means likely supporting a party in the GOP that stokes racist prejudice and makes upholding the status quo a priority—whether that’s good for the population as a whole or not.

In either case, the “staying here” option seems like a questionable decision to make. Who would rather go to jail than leave of his or her own volition? Why would you support a party that seems predicated on hatred of people like yourself?

And yet, there are obviously exceptions to the rule. For example, in the 2016 election, an estimated 8% of black voters opted for Donald Trump. As Michael D. Shear, John Eligon, and Maggie Haberman profile in a piece for The New York Times, there are those blacks who stand by the president even at the risk of damage to their credibility and despite his negative messaging.

The article focuses on but isn’t limited to people that have a following on social media and YouTube, namely Candace Owens and the sisterly duo of Diamond and Silk. These figures had prominent roles at this year’s CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) as well, loudly arguing against liberalism, socialism, and reparations, among other things. As Owens would insist, President Trump is not a racist and black people who hear him speak up close “love him.” As Trump’s fervent backers would insist, this support from black voters as well as his relationships with black celebrities is evidence that the mogul-turned-Commander-in-Chief is not a racist.

Only Donald J. Trump knows what’s in Donald J. Trump’s heart for sure. From what we’ve seen so far, meanwhile, the evidence pointing to him not being a racist is, well, not good. The firm of Eligon, Haberman, and Shear isolate just a handful of instances where Trump and his rhetoric speak to an anti-black bias, namely accusations of housing discrimination for him and his father, Fred Trump, calls for violence against Black Lives Matter activists, his unrepentant advocacy for the death penalty or other punishment for the Central Park Five even after their exoneration, and that whole “shithole countries” comment in reference to Africa and immigration. In other words, if Trump isn’t a racist, he’s got a lot of explaining to do. And this is all before we get to his treatment of other people of color, especially Hispanics/Latinx residents and individuals from countries subject to his administration’s “travel ban” (or “Muslim ban,” as its critics would less diplomatically label it).

Also not a good sign: the lack of black representation in Trump’s Cabinet and his administration as a whole. Ben Carson is the only African-American in the Cabinet, serving in a capacity for which he was questionably qualified in the first place as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Omarosa Manigault Newman was the only black member of his senior staff and has since written a tell-all book that would seek to confirm the allegations of racism at which Trump’s public conduct hints.

Expanding the conversation to the Republican Party at large, the article’s authors key in on a recent episode during the Cohen hearing in which Rep. Mark Meadows defended the president from Michael Cohen’s allegations of racism by pointing to his employ of Lynne Patton, an official within Carson’s HUD department. For detractors, this was Meadows using Patton as a “prop” and an example of a bigger pattern of GOP leaders relying on “token” members as proof of their commitment to minority groups. I can’t be a racist. I have family that are people of color. If it seems like weak sauce to a white person like myself, you can just imagine how it might sound to actual people of color.

This is what makes Trump backers like Candace Owens and Diamond and Silk so confounding and profiles like the recent New York Times piece so compelling. Short of a gun to my head or literal brain damage, I can’t think of any reason why I would cast a vote for Trump in 2020—to be clear, I didn’t vote for him in 2016—and being a straight white cisgender male, I am the least likely to feel the brunt of the administration’s more destructive policies toward communities of color. For blacks and other members of minority groups, the reasons for standing by President Trump seem less clear.

The division within the ranks of black Republicans as told by Shear, Eligon, and Haberman may shed some light. Even within this sphere, conflict and uneasiness abound. Some unequivocally believe in Trump. Some support him despite his rhetoric or what they see as black administration officials reinforcing negative stereotypes. And some, like their white GOP counterparts, have distanced themselves from the president entirely.

Accordingly, if we non-Republicans are perplexed, we are not alone. For the Candace Owenses of the world, “staying here” and sticking with the Republican Party has been an option and, what’s more, it has boosted their national profile. It’s a path and a profile not without risk to their long-term relevance, though, and not without consequences for other women and people of color. Not to mention all bets may be off when, as with the closing bar, the cops show up. Unless you believe all the African-Americans who have died at the hands of police had it coming to them. In that case, don’t let me dissuade you.


For those not totally enamored with Donald Trump’s approach and/or who represent a potentially vulnerable segment of the electorate, they may see their identity as a Republican or Trump supporter as a virtue, even as others might deem it a liability.

Returning to the Eligon, Haberman, and Shear piece, black political strategist Raynard Jackson, who found himself aghast at the spectacle of Mark Meadows and Lynne Patton, is cited within as a Trump backer despite certain misgivings. While he criticizes the president for “surrounding himself with black people who told him what he wanted to hear rather than what he needed to hear,” Jackson still stands by him because of his economic policies and because he feels he (Jackson) can make a bigger difference from the inside of the conservative movement. If nothing else, he feels he has a seat at the table. Love or hate Trump, that’s more than a lot of us can say.

The portion of African-Americans who support Trump/other Republicans is perhaps an extreme example owing to how small it is. I also recognize the idea that I am perhaps not the best or most qualified person to be talking about Trump’s approval as it intersects with race. Either way, let’s open the conversation to a larger discussion of his supporters and why they voted for our country’s leader.

Back in 2015, Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic asked 30 Trump supporters why they backed the orange-faced one. The answers were fairly wide-ranging, though understandably, some common themes emerged. He’s a moderate at heart. He wants America to win. He has a drive for perfection. He’s living the American dream. He’s an alpha male. He has led large organizations before. He has BUILT REAL THINGS. He’s not politically correct. He’s not politically correct. He’s not politically correct. He’s not rehearsed. He’s a deal-maker. He won’t take no for an answer. He’s not Barack Obama. He’s not Hillary Clinton. He stands up for working Americans. He’ll protect America and put it first. He has put illegal immigration front and center. We’ll be able to burn it down and build it up faster with him in charge. The two-party system is broken. The presidency is a joke. At least it will all be entertaining.

As Friedersdorf found, the responses tended to fall into one of two broad categories: 1) those who believed Trump was the best choice to lead the country, and 2) chaotic as his presidency would be, it would be a sight to behold. Reading through the responses myself, what struck me—beyond the ideas that some people are really fed up with political correctness and that some people simply want to watch the world burn—is that Americans wanted someone who made them feel proud to be Americans. Obama, in his intellectual, reserved manner, did not always communicate that sense of bravado and confidence that people have come to associate with our proud republic. On the other hand, Trump, the consummate showman, articulates these sentiments better than anyone. For a self-professed Ivy league-educated billionaire, he’s somehow relatable.

Minuscule as the segment of pro-Trump black voters may be, it nonetheless may be instructive not to dismiss what the president means to them. Trump, for many, represents winning and patriotic pride. For all their fidelity to the Democratic Party, black Americans may not find their lives dramatically better because of it. As it bears stressing, politics and your support should be fundamentally about what you believe is right; it shouldn’t necessarily be characterized by what you expect to get out of the deal. But could I understand blacks expressing their dissatisfaction with a party they feel has taken them for granted? Sure. As a progressive, I feel it sometimes myself. Perhaps not in the same way, mind you, but feel it I have.

You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here. Nothing says you have to vote Democrat. You can vote independent. You can vote third-party. You can not vote at all, which I would discourage, but it’s your choice. The likes of Candace Owens and Kanye West have helped promote this notion. At the end of the day, however, voting Republican in the era of Trump, despite what it means for one’s sense of autonomy or desire to succeed or national pride or even morbid curiosity, nonetheless strikes me as a counterproductive exercise. It’s one thing to walk away from the Democratic Party. It’s another to walk away and into the jaws of a party that uses you as a prop or actively campaigns on the idea you are something lesser.

We Don’t Need You Back, Kevin Spaceys of the World

Kevin Spacey may be a fine actor, but we don’t need his ilk in Hollywood. Rather than accepting admitted abusers back into the limelight, we should strive to find new talent, especially as it concerns women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups. (Photo Credit: Richard Cooper/CC-BY-SA-3.0)

In advance of Christmas, Kevin Spacey released a video entitled “Let Me Be Frank” on his YouTube channel. Beyond it being strange enough news that Kevin Spacey has a YouTube channel in the first place, the three-minute clip was deeply weird.

In the video, Spacey, speaking in the manner of his persona Frank Underwood from House of Cards, directly addresses the viewer, as he did in character within the context of the show. His remarks are as follows:

I know what you want. Oh, sure, they may have tried to separate us, but what he have is too strong, it’s too powerful. I mean, after all, we shared everything, you and I. I told you my deepest, darkest secrets. I showed you exactly what people are capable of. I shocked you with my honesty, but mostly I challenged you and made you think. And you trusted me—even though you knew you shouldn’t.

So we’re not done no matter what anyone says. And besides, I know what you want: you want me back.

Of course, some believed everything and have just been waiting with bated breath to hear me confess it—they’re just dying to have me declare that everything said is true, that I got what I deserved. Wouldn’t that be easy—if it was all so simple? Only you and I both know it’s never that simple—not in politics and not in life.

But you wouldn’t believe the worst without evidence, would you? You wouldn’t rush to judgment without facts, would you? Did you? No, not you. You’re smarter than that.

Anyway, all this presumption made for such an unsatisfying ending, and to think it could’ve been such a memorable send-off. I mean, if you and I have learned nothing else these past years, it’s that in life and art, nothing should be off the table. We weren’t afraid—not of what we said, not of what we did, and we’re still not afraid.

Because I can promise you this: if I didn’t pay the price for the things we both know I did do, I’m certainly not going to pay the price for the things I didn’t do. Oh, of course, they’re going to say I’m being disrespectful, not playing by the rules—like I ever played by anyone’s rules before. I never did—and you loved it.

Anyhow, despite all the poppycock, the animosity, the headlines, the impeachment without a trial, despite everything—despite even my own death—I feel surprisingly good. And my confidence grows each day that, soon enough, you will know the full truth.

Oh, wait a minute. Now that I think of it, you never actually saw me die, did you? Conclusions can be so deceiving.

Miss me?

In his indirectness, his comments are questionable in their true application. Is Spacey talking about another season of House of Cards involving him despite the apparent end of the series without him? Or, more probably, is he speaking through Underwood in a thinly-veiled set of allusions to his accused sexual misconduct, taking a shot at the producers of the show and its perceived dip in quality in its final eight episodes?

Whatever Spacey’s motivations, the conflation of his character’s darkness with his own seeming defense of his real-life behavior is an odd one. It’s like Ted Cruz making jokes about himself being the Zodiac Killer as if to make him more likable. Who associates himself with a soulless politician who will stop at nothing in his bid for power so as to make his suspected sexual misconduct and pedophilia more palatable? Who does that?

Apparently, Kevin Spacey does, and what’s more, he may be partially right about people wanting him back. Back in November, Sophie Gilbert, staff writer at The Atlantic, penned an article about the notion that, for all the attention of #MeToo and Time’s Up to holding men in power accountable for their actions, not only has the comeuppance for many offenders been short-lived, but a disparity in on-screen and off-screen representation for women remains.

In the case of Kevin Spacey, mentioned specifically in Gilbert’s piece, the weight of his legal troubles may be enough to deep-six his career as we have known it. But for others? Charlie Rose? James Franco? Louis C.K.? Matt Lauer? Despite admissions of guilt or multiple accusations of wrongdoing, these men are either working on comebacks or continue to find work. Hell, even Roman Polanski keeps directing films.

As for women being creators, directors, and the like as well as garnering screen time, Gilbert notes that these opportunities declined in the year preceding her column’s publication, citing statistics from Women and Hollywood, an advocacy group. And this is on top of the belief held by some that, owing to how pervasive sexual harassment and other forms of misconduct are alleged to be in Hollywood (and other industries), if the punishments were truly indicative of the crimes, so to speak, a lot more dudes would be losing their jobs.

Gilbert closes her piece on a bit of a sobering note detailing the “paradox” of the #MeToo/Time’s Up movements:

Since the Weinstein allegations were first published, the entertainment industry has taken measurable steps to help fight instances of abuse, harassment, and predatory behavior. It’s committed time and money to helping women and men who’ve been harassed receive the emotional and legal support they need. A handful of high-level executives accused of harassment and abuse (Amazon Studios’s Roy Price, CBS’s Les Moonves) have been replaced.

At the same time, though, studio heads and producers have been relatively quick to welcome back actors, directors, and writers who’ve been accused of harassment and assault, particularly when their status makes them seem irreplaceable. It’s a dual-edged message: Don’t abuse your power, but if you do, you’ll still have a career.

Part of the confusion comes down to the fact that these men are seen as invaluable because the stories they tell are still understood to have disproportionate worth. When the slate of new fall TV shows is filled with father-and-son buddy-cop stories and prison-break narratives and not one but two gentle, empathetic examinations of male grief, it’s harder to imagine how women writers and directors might step up to occupy a sudden void. When television and film are fixated on helping audiences find sympathy for troubled, selfish, cruel, brilliant men, it’s easier to believe that the troubled, brilliant men in real life also deserve empathy, forgiveness, and second chances.

And so the tangible achievements one year into the #MeToo movement need to be considered hand in hand with the fact that the stories being told haven’t changed much at all, and neither have the people telling them. A true reckoning with structural disparities in the entertainment industry will demand something else as well: acknowledging that women’s voices and women’s stories are not only worth believing, but also worth hearing. At every level.

For Gilbert, the slow and incomplete taking to task of men who abuse their fame and power is inextricably linked to societal attitudes that place men, their feelings, and their drive for success above those of women. Moving outside the purview of Hollywood—though, noting his courtroom shenanigans, perhaps with the same performative flair—that Brett Kavanaugh could even be defended as a viable Supreme Court candidate who was being “attacked” as part of a “witch hunt” is beyond absurd.

And yet, GOP senators did it with a straight face, eventually casting their votes in favor of his confirmation. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. If this pudding doesn’t prove Gilbert’s point, I’m not sure what does.


Returning to Kevin Spacey’s insistence that we’re eagerly anticipating his return and my suggestion that he may be, in part, right, it’s worth noting that some Internet commentators have expressed dismay that they may not be able to see him act more in the future or have advanced the thought “we haven’t heard his side of the story.”

As Spacey will have his day in court, we undoubtedly will, or at least will have the testimony of his accuser(s) cross-examined. There would seem to be ample time for “his side” to be made public. Theoretically speaking, the truth should set him free.

I admittedly think Spacey is a fine actor. His award wins and nominations, as far as I know or am concerned, were well deserved. Owing to his talent, people indeed may want him acting again. But do we need him and his ilk in Hollywood? I submit no.

Perhaps I am underestimating the gifts that certain creative minds at the peak of their craft bestow upon their audiences. My supposition, however, is that individuals like Spacey are eminently replaceable. Literally. His scenes in the film All the Money in the World were re-shot with Christopher Plummer in his place, an effort that earned Plummer an Academy Award nomination. If a two-time Academy Award winner like Spacey can be replaced, why not others accused of misconduct? Are we that deficient on acting and other artistic ability?

Spacey’s attitude and that of critics of the #MeToo movement exist in stark contrast to comments made by actor Idris Elba on the subject. In an interview for an article in the British newspaper The Times, Elba opined that #MeToo is “only difficult if you’re a man with something to hide.” He received a lot of adulation on social media from prominent women in entertainment. Less so in conservative circles, but as is often heard on The Sopranos, eh, whaddya gonna do?

It shouldn’t take Shonda Rhimes’s enthusiastic agreement, though, to convince us of the veracity of Elba’s statement—woman or man, famous or not. Protests of #MeToo and Time’s Up as “witch hunts” continue the trend of Donald Trump—who is certainly not above reproach given his remarks about women over the years and multiple alleged instances of sexual misconduct—and others robbing this phrase of its significance. Moreover, that Elba is the conduit for these thoughts conveys the sense that we can yet have performers of a high caliber grace our screens and maintain a clear conscience about whether the rights of women and survivors in general can be respected.

As for women having more speaking time on screen and having more chances to direct, edit, produce, serve as lead photographer, and write, this also should not be the obstacle it presently is. If Black Panther, a movie with a predominantly black cast and black director, or Crazy Rich Asians, a movie with an all-Asian cast directed by an Asian, can do exceedingly well commercially, why can’t we have more creative works in which women play central roles, behind and in front of the lens? Ocean’s 8, for example, as derivative as it is, was a box-office success. If the story is a compelling one, the ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation or any similar identifying characteristic of the people involved shouldn’t matter. Shouldn’t we raise our expectations?

Kevin Spacey’s “Let Me Be Frank” video has amassed more than 9.5 million views on YouTube since first being uploaded as of this writing. I viewed it only to transcribe what he said. Others, I hope, only watched it because of a similar need to report on its contents or because, like seeing a flaming car wreck on the side of the road, they couldn’t help but look away.

If they viewed it because they wanted to see more of Spacey and think his talent outweighs his alleged misdeeds, however, I would consider that supremely disappointing. We don’t need the Kevin Spaceys of the world back, and we’ll be all the better for that realization.