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 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 Atlanticasked 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.
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.
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.
Rejoice! If you’re reading this, it means we haven’t yet managed to get ourselves embroiled in a nuclear war and that the future of our civilization as a going concern—despite our best efforts—is still a possibility!
Whatever your outlook on the days, weeks, and years to come, it’s worth looking back on the moments of the past 12 months and revisiting the themes they evoked.
Without further ado, it’s time for…
2018 IN REVIEW: HEY, WE’RE STILL HERE!
Mueller…always a good call.
When the year started, what did you figure the odds were that Robert Mueller’s investigation would still be going? 50% Less than that? At this writing—with Donald Trump and this administration, you never know what might happen and who might suddenly quit or get fired—the Mueller probe into Trump’s presidential campaign and possible collusion with Russia continues largely unimpeded.
This is not to say that its continued operation and final delivery are guaranteed. Jeff Sessions’s watch as Attorney General has ended, and his dismissal created the objectively strange sensation of a furor over his removal by the left despite his support of the Trump administration’s destructive agenda. His replacement, Matthew Whitaker, a Trump loyalist, inspires little faith there will be any obfuscation of the investigation, especially since he has rejected the advice of an ethics official from the Office of the Deputy Attorney General to recuse himself from the investigation.
With Mitch McConnell the obstructionist refusing to allow a vote on a bill that would safeguard the investigation, there’s little hope Congress will act to intervene should Trump move to fire Mueller. Which, as he has reminded us umpteen times, he can do because he’s the president. Whatever Mueller’s fate, the results of his team’s findings are yet impressive and suggest the probe should be permitted to run its course. Over 30 people and three Russian companies have been charged in the special counsel’s investigation, producing more than 100 criminal charges, and more yet might be on the way.
Despite Trump’s hollow concerns about the cost—Mueller’s probe is a “waste of money” and yet we should fund a wall that a lot of people don’t want—Robert Mueller and Co. have been remarkably effective and efficient. Trump shouldn’t mess with this investigation if for no other reason than not to risk a major public outcry against him.
“Guns don’t kill people,” but more people killed people with guns
The February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in which 17 students were killed and another 17 injured was perhaps the most notable for the activism it helped inspire, but there were other newsworthy shootings around the country. Yountville, California at a veterans home. Nashville, Tennessee at a Waffle House. Santa Fe, Texas at the high school. Scottsdale, Arizona in a series of shootings. Trenton, New Jersey at the Art All Night Festival. Annapolis, Maryland at the Capital Gazette building. Jacksonville, Florida at a Madden NFL 19 tournament. Aberdeen, Maryland at a Rite Aid. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the Tree of Life synagogue. Tallahassee, Florida at a yoga studio. Thousands Oaks, California at a bar. Robbins, Illinois at a bar. Chicago, Illinois at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center.
Gun rights advocates may point to the varying locales of these shootings and suggest that no matter where you go and how restrictive the gun laws, people can still acquire firearms by illicit means and can do harm. In any number of cases, however, shooters haven’t needed to subvert legal channels. Either way, this shouldn’t deter lawmakers from passing more restrictive gun laws. It should be difficult for individuals to acquire guns. There are too many guns. More guns means a higher likelihood that people will get shot. This is not complicated.
If you want to talk about mental health aside from the gun issue, I’m with you. If you want to insist that we just need more good people with guns, I’m not with you, but I still think we should talk about it. In the case of Jemel Roberson in the Robbins, Illinois shooting, he was the good guy with a gun, and got shot because he was black. We haven’t come close to solving the gun violence problem in America, and as long as groups like the National Rifle Association will continue to lobby against gun control and resist statistical research into fatalities related to gun violence, we won’t make progress on this issue. Here’s hoping the NRA continues to suffer a decline in funding.
Stormy Daniels alleges Donald Trump had an extramarital affair with her back in 2006. Trump, who denies everything, denies this happened. Meanwhile, someone paid her $130,000 in advance of the election. Who do you believe? Also, and perhaps more to the point, do you care?
I have no reason to doubt the veracity of Daniels’s account. For some people, though, the mere notion she gets and has gotten money to have sex on camera puts her word in doubt. She’s an opportunistic liar looking to cash in on her 15 minutes of fame. Ditto for her lawyer Michael Avenatti, who naturally has political aspirations.
Even for those who might believe her or who would like nothing more than to nail Trump on some dimension, the nature of her profession is such that they might be loath to discuss the matter of Trump’s infidelity and hush money payments. Talking about sex and adult entertainers is, well, icky for some.
In this respect, our willingness or unwillingness to confront this chapter of Daniels’s and Trump’s lives is a reflection of our own set of values and morals. It’s especially telling, moreover, that so many white evangelicals are willing to forgive Pres. Trump his trespasses. For a group that has, until Trump’s rise, been the most insistent on a person’s character to eschew such concerns demonstrates their willingness to compromise their standards in support of a man who upholds “religious liberty” and who exemplifies the prosperity gospel.
Thus, while some of us may not care about Stormy Daniels personally or may not find campaign finance law riveting, there’s still larger conversations about sex and money in politics worth having. Despite what nonsense Rudy Giuliani might spout.
FOX News continued its worsening trend of defending Trump and white supremacy
Oh, FOX News. Where do we begin? If we’re talking about everyone’s favorite source for unbiased reporting (sarcasm intended), a good place to start is probably their prime-time personalities who masquerade as legitimate journalists.
Sean Hannity, now firmly entrenched as FOX News’s night-time slot elder statesman with Bill O’Reilly gone, was revealed as a client of Michael Cohen’s (yes, that Michael Cohen) and an owner of various shell companies formed to buy property in low-income areas financed by HUD loans. Surprise! That surprise extended to Hannity’s employer, to whom he did not see fit to disclose a potential conflict of interest when propping up the likes of Cohen and Ben Carson, or his adoring viewers. Not that they care, in all likelihood. Hannity tells it not like it is, but how they want to hear.
As for more recent more additions to the prime-time schedule, Laura Ingraham, when not mocking Parkland, FL survivor David Hogg for not getting into colleges (he since has been accepted to Harvard) or telling LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” denounced the “massive demographic changes” that have been “foisted on the American people.” She says she wasn’t being racist. She is full of shit.
Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, remained the go-to guy for white supremacist viewpoints, questioning the value of all forms of immigration and more recently deriding immigrants as poor and dirty. He has lost more than a dozen advertisers since those latest comments. Good. The only criticism is that it took them this long to dissociate themselves from Carlson’s program.
FOX News has seemingly abandoned any pretense of separation from the Trump administration in terms of trying to influence the president’s views or tapping into his racist, xenophobic agenda. It hasn’t hurt them any in the ratings—yet. As those “demographic changes” continue, as television viewership is challenged by new media, and as President Trump remains unpopular among Americans as a whole, however, there is no guarantee the network will remain at the top. Enjoy it while you can, Laura, Sean, and Tucker.
Turns out big companies don’t always do the right thing
Facebook, Papa John’s, and Wells Fargo would like you to know they are very truly sorry for anything they may or may have not done. Kind of.
In Facebook’s case, it’s selling the information of millions of users to Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm which did work for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and was founded by Steve Bannon (yes, that Steve Bannon). It also did a piss-poor job of weeding out fake news and hate speech and has since taken to relying on a questionable consortium of fact-checkers, most suspect among them The Weekly Standard.
Papa John’s had to reckon with the idea John Schnatter, the company’s namesake, is, well, kind of a racist dick. They’ve been battling over his ouster and his stake in the company ever since. As for Wells Fargo, it’s still dealing with the bad PR from its massive account fraud scandal created as a function of a toxic sales-oriented corporate culture, as well as the need to propose a reform plan to the Federal Reserve to address its ongoing shady practices (its proposals heretofore have yet to be approved).
In all three cases, these companies have sought to paper over their misdeeds with advertising campaigns that highlight their legacy of service to their customers or the people within their organization who are not bigoted assholes. With Facebook and Wells Fargo in particular, that they continue to abuse the public’s trust conveys the sense they aren’t truly repentant for what they’ve done and haven’t learned anything from the scandals they’ve created.
Unfortunately, cash is king, and until they lose a significant share of the market (or the government refuses to bail them out), they will be unlikely to change in a meaningful positive way. The best we can do as consumers is pressure our elected representatives to act on behalf of their constituents—and consider taking our business elsewhere if these organizations don’t get their shit together.
Poor Sarah Sanders. It seems she can’t attend the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner or go out for a meal with her family without being harangued.
While I don’t necessarily think people like Sanders, Kirstjen Nielsen, and Stephen Miller should be denied the ability to eat (although it’s pretty f**ked up that Miller and Nielsen would go to a Mexican restaurant amid an immigration crisis), calls for “civility” are only as good as the people making such calls and the possibility of substantive action in key policy areas.
People were upset with Michelle Wolf, for instance, for telling the truth about Sanders’s propensity for not telling the truth by making allusions to her as Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale and by referencing her smoky eye makeup as the ash from burned facts. Members of the press tripped over themselves to comfort Sanders and to disavow Wolf’s performance. But Wolf was doing her job, and told truth to power. It’s Michelle Wolf who deserves the apology, not habitual liar and Trump enabler Sarah Sanders.
I believe we shouldn’t go around punching Nazis—as satisfying as that might be. That said, we shouldn’t allow people to dispense hate simply to appease “both sides,” and we should be vocal about advocating for the rights of immigrants and other vulnerable populations when people like Miller and Nielsen and Sanders do everything in their power to pivot away from the Trump administration’s destructive actions. After all, it’s hard to be civil when children are being taken from their mothers and people are being tear-gassed or dying in DHS custody.
There’s something about Alexandria
Love her or hate her, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has arrived on the national stage following her upset of incumbent Joe Crowley in the Democratic Party primary for New York’s 14th congressional district.
If you’re a devotee of FOX News, it’s probably the latter. The incoming first-year representative has joined Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Nancy Pelosi in the vaunted space of people to be booed and hissed at for pretty much everything she does. She took a break before the start of her first term? How dare she! She refused to debate Ben Shapiro? What is she afraid of? As a young Latina socialist, she ticks off all the boxes their audience possesses on their Fear and Hate Index. All without spending an official day on the job.
Like any inexperienced politician, AOC has had her wobbles, chief among them when she flubbed a question on Israel and Palestine. Nevertheless, she has handled the numerous attacks on her on Twitter and elsewhere with remarkable deftness and grace. More importantly, she appears ready to lead her party on key issues, as evidenced by her outspokenness on the concept of a Green New Deal.
Party leaders may downplay the significance of her upset primary win, but Ocasio-Cortez’s emergence, to many, heralds a progressive shift for Democrats, one in which its younger members and women are not just participants, but at the forefront. At a time when establishment Dems only seem more and more unwilling to change, there is yet reason for genuine excitement in the Democratic Party.
John McCain died. Cue the whitewashing.
I don’t wish death on anyone, but John McCain died at the right time. That time would be the era of President Donald Trump, and by contrast, McCain looks like a saint.
McCain is best remembered for his service to the United States and for helping to kill the Republicans’ intended replacement for the Affordable Care Act. But we shouldn’t brush aside the less-savory elements of his track record. As a Trump critic, he still voted in line with the president’s agenda most of the time. He was a prototypical war hawk, advocating for intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as a proponent of armed conflict with Iran—even after all he saw and endured in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, as a presidential candidate, though he is celebrated for defending Barack Obama at a town hall as a good Christian man (though he didn’t specify that he’d be worth defending if he were actually a Muslim), he was an unrepentant user of a racial slur directed at Asians and he signed off on the unqualified Sarah Palin as his running mate. A lot of the fondness he receives now from journalists likely stems from the access McCain gave reporters while on the campaign trail. Even his vote not to quash the ACA was done with a flair for the dramatic that belied the seriousness of its implications.
John McCain wasn’t the worst person to inhabit the U.S. Senate. But simply being more civil than Donald Trump is a low bar to clear. Regardless, he should be remembered in a more nuanced way in the name of accurate historical representation.
There were a lot of shameful occurrences in American politics in 2018. I already alluded to the Trump administration’s catastrophic mishandling of the immigration situation and of ripping apart families. The White House also seems intent on hastening environmental destruction, doing nothing to protect vulnerable subdivisions of the electorate, and pulling out of Syria as an apparent gift to Assad and Vladimir Putin.
And yet, the nomination and eventual confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court somehow became the most galling example of D.C. partisanship witnessed in sometime. Of course, any discussion of Kavanaugh would be incomplete without the mention of Merrick Garland. On the heels of Republicans’ refusal to hear him as a nominee following the death of Antonin Scalia and after Neil Gorsuch was sworn in, things were already primed for tension between the two major parties.
When reports of multiple alleged instances of sexual misconduct dating back to Kavanaugh’s high school and college days surfaced, though, the GOP’s stubborn refusal to budge and choose a new candidate was downright appalling. Kavanaugh didn’t do himself any favors with his testimony on the subject of these accusations, lashing out at the people who questioned him, insisting this investigation was a partisan witch hunt, and assuming the role of the aggrieved party like the spoiled frat boy we imagine he was and perhaps still is.
Kavanaugh’s defenders would be wont to point out that the rest of us are just salty that “they” won and “we” lost. Bullshit. Though we may have disagreed with Gorsuch’s nomination and conservatism prior to his being confirmed, he didn’t allegedly sexually assault or harass anybody. Brett Kavanaugh, in light of everything we now know about him, was a terrible choice for the Supreme Court. Senate Republicans should be ashamed of this chapter in American history, and this might be a good segue into talking about term limits for Supreme Court justices. Just saying.
Death by plastic
In case you were keeping score at home, there’s still an ass-ton of plastic in the world’s oceans. According to experts on the matter, the global economy is losing tens of billions of dollars each year because of plastic waste and we’re on a pace to have more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. Doesn’t sound appetizing, does it?
By all means, we should keep recycling and finding ways to avoid using plastic on an individual basis. Every bit helps. At the same time, we’re not going to make the progress we need until the primary drivers of plastic waste are held accountable for their actions. Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Starbucks, Unilever—looking at you.
In terms of world governments, China is the worst offender hands down, and numerous Asian countries line the top 10 (Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia), but we’re not exactly above reproach. In fact, with Trump at the helm, we’ve been active in helping water down UN resolutions designed to eliminate plastic pollution.
Plastic pollution is not an isolated problem, and it’s not going away either. Literally. That stuff lasts a long time. We need to stop plastic production at the source, and push back against companies like Nestlé who exploit downtrodden communities with lax water safeguarding laws. This isn’t a game.
The Dems flipped the House, Brian Kemp stole an election, and other observations about the midterms
It’s true. Though Republicans widened their majority in the Senate, Democrats flipped the House, presumably paving the way for Nancy Pelosi to return to the role of House Majority Leader. Groan at this point if you’d like.
With the Dems running the show in the House, there’s likely to be all sorts of investigations into Donald Trump and his affairs. I mean, more political and financial, not the other kind, but you never know with that guy. That should encourage party supporters despite some tough losses. Beto O’Rourke fell short in his bid to unseat Ted Cruz from Senate, despite being way sexier and cooler. Andrew Gillum likewise had a “close but no cigar” moment in the Florida gubernatorial race. Evidently, voters preferred Ron DeSantis, his shameless alignment with Trump, and his thinly-veiled racism. Congratulations, Florida! You never fail to disappoint in close elections!
Perhaps the worst of these close losses was Stacey Abrams, edged out by Brian Kemp in the Georgia gubernatorial race. If you ask Kemp, he won fair and square. If you ask anyone else with a modicum of discretion, he won because, as Georgia’s Secretary of State, he closed polling stations, purged voters from the rolls, failed to process voter applications, and kept voting machines locked up. Kemp’s antics and the shenanigans in North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District give democracy a bad name, and beckon real voting reform championed by grassroots activists. After all, if Florida can restore voting rights to felons—Florida!—the lot of us can do better.
George H.W. Bush also picked a good time to die
Like John McCain, I didn’t wish for “Bush Sr.” to die. Also like John McCain, people on both sides of the aisle extolled his virtues at the expense of a more complete (and accurate) telling of his personal history.
Bush, on one hand, was a beloved patriarch, served his country, and had more class than Donald Trump (again, low bar to clear). He also was fairly adept at throwing out first pitches at baseball games, I guess. On the other hand, he campaigned for president on dog-whistle politics (see also “Willie Horton”), pushed for involvement in the first Gulf War by relying on fabricated intelligence, escalated the war on drugs for political gain, turned a deaf ear to people suffering from AIDS, and was accused by multiple women of trying to cop a feel. So much for being miles apart from Trump.
Was George H.W. Bush a good man? I didn’t know the man, so I can’t say for sure. But he was no saint. Nor was his son or Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama or any other president. He led the country. Let’s not erase his flaws in the name of “togetherness.”
I chose to review these topics because I covered them at length on my blog. This obviously doesn’t cover the sum total of the events that transpired in 2018. Let’s see.
Congress reauthorized Section 702 of FISA and rolled back Dodd-Frank, extending our use of warrantless surveillance and making it more liable we will slide back into a recession. That sucked. Devin Nunes released a memo that was reckless, misleading, dishonest, and not quite the bombshell it was made out to be. That sucked as well. Our national debt went way up and continues to rise. American workers are making more money because they are working more, not because wages have risen.
What else? Trump got the idea for a self-congratulatory military parade—and then cancelled it because people thought it was a waste of time, effort, and money. DACA is still in limbo. U.S. manufacturing, outside of computers, continues its downward slide. Sacha Baron Cohen had a new show that was hit-or-miss. Oh, and we’re still involved in Yemen, helping a Saudi regime that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
So, yeah, in all, not a whole lot to get excited about in 2018 on the national news front. Moreover, that there seems to be mutual distrust between liberals and conservatives dampens enthusiasm for 2019 a bit. And let’s not even get started on 2020. If you think I’m raring to go for a Biden-Trump match-up (based on current polling), you’d be sorely mistaken.
And yet—step back from the ledge—there is enough reason to not lose hope. Alongside Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a record number of women won seats in Congress. Ayanna Pressley became the first black women elected to Congress from Massachusetts. Michelle Lujan Grisham became the first Democratic Latina governor. Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland were elected as the first Native American women to Congress. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were elected as the first Muslim women in Congress. Guam got its first female governor in history in Lou Leon Guerrero. That’s real progress.
Indeed, while Donald Trump as president is intent on standing in the way of progress, and while his continued habitation of the White House is bad on so many fronts, his win has been a wake-up call to ordinary people to get involved in politics, whether by running for office, by canvassing for political candidates and issues, or by making their voices heard by their elected representatives one way or another. Politics can’t be and is no longer just the sphere of rich old white dudes. Despite the efforts of political leaders, lobbyists, and industry leaders with a regressive agenda as well as other obstacles, folks are, as they say, rising up.
There’s a lot of work to do in 2019, the prospect of which is daunting given that many of us are probably already tired from this year and even before that. It’s truly a marathon and not a sprint, and the immediate rewards can feel few and far between. The goal of a more equal and just society, however, is worth the extra effort. Here’s hoping we make more progress in 2019—and yes, that we’re still here to talk about it same time next year.
Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert, took to his blog to explain his reasoning for why he switched his endorsement from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump in advance of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Though he acknowledged it wasn’t his biggest reason—positions on the estate tax, concerns about Hillary’s health, and a lack of concern about Trump being a “fascist” and belief in his talents of persuasion also were factors—part of his decision was the subjective experience of being a prospective voter in the election. In a subsection of his post titled “Party or Wake,” Adams had this to say about the Clinton-Trump audience dichotomy:
It seems to me that Trump supporters are planning for the world’s biggest party on election night whereas Clinton supporters seem to be preparing for a funeral. I want to be invited to the event that doesn’t involve crying and moving to Canada.
Silly and privileged as it might seem—I want to have a good time and not a bad time—there might be something to Adams’s sentiments as they relate to Trump’s base. In a sprawling piece for Politico, senior staff writer Michael Grunwald delves into how the culture war has pervaded our modern political landscape. Speaking on the mood at Trump’s rallies during the campaign, he evokes that party-like atmosphere to which Adams referred:
The thing I remember most about Trump’s rallies in 2016, especially the auto-da-fé moments in which he would call out various liars and losers who didn’t look like the faces in his crowds, was how much fun everyone seemed to be having. The drill-baby-drill candidate would drill the Mexicans, drill the Chinese, drill the gun-grabbers, drill all the boring Washington politicians who had made America not-great. It sure as hell wasn’t boring. It was a showman putting on a show, a culture-war general firing up his internet troops. It wasn’t a real war, like the one that Trump skipped while John McCain paid an unimaginable price, but it made the spectators feel like they were not just spectating, like they had joined an exhilarating fight. They got the adrenaline rush, the sense of being part of something larger, the foxhole camaraderie of war against a common enemy, without the physical danger.
“How much fun everyone seemed to be having.” From my liberal suburban bubble, it seems strange to imagine an environment that feels akin to a circle of Hell from Dante’s Inferno as fun.
And yet, there’s the feeling of inclusion (without really being included) that his fans apparently relish. As much as one might tend to feel that Trump gets more credit than he deserves, he has tapped into a genuine spirit of Americans feeling ignored or replaced and desiring to be part of a celebration. We don’t want change. We don’t want a level playing field for everyone. We want America to be great again. We want to keep winning. Never mind that we don’t exactly know what winning means or if we’ll still be winning five, ten, or twenty years down the road.
There’s much more to dwell upon than just the tenor of Trump’s rallies, though. Which, despite having won the election back in 2016, he’s still regularly holding. Is he already running for 2020? Or is he doing this because winning the election is his biggest achievement to date? Does anyone else think this is weird and/or a waste of time and other resources? Or is this Trump being Trump and we’re already past trying to explain why he does what he does? But, I digress.
Before we even get to present-day jaunts with the “LOCK HER UP!” crowd, there’s a historical perspective by which to assess the tao of Trump. Grunwald starts his piece with a trip back to a John McCain campaign rally in 2008. In a departure from his more measured political style, McCain railed against a Congress on recess and high gas prices by issuing a call to arms on drilling for oil, including in offshore locations. McCain sensed the direction in which his party was headed, a moment which presaged the rise of Sarah “Drill, Baby, Drill” Palin, unabashed in demanding more energy no matter how we get it.
As Grunwald tells it, the audience ate this rhetoric up “because their political enemies hated it.” Damn the consequences as long as we “own the libs.” Ten years later, McCain is gone, Trump’s in the White House, and every political confrontation is a new iteration of a perpetual culture war. Instead of motivating his supporters to vote and institute policy reform, Donald Trump is “weaponizing” policy stances to mobilize them.
Accordingly, even issues which should be above partisanship like climate change and infrastructure are framed as part of an us-versus-them dynamic. Granted, Trump may not have created the tear in the electorate that allows him to exploit mutual resentment on both sides of the political aisle. That said, he has seen the hole and has driven a gas-guzzling truck right through it. Meanwhile, foreign adversaries are keen to capitalize on the disarray and disunion. Russian bots and trolls meddle in our elections and spread fake news online, and don’t need all that much convincing for us to help them do it.
The threat to America’s political health, already somewhat suspect, is obvious. It’s difficult if not impossible to have substantive discussions on policy matters when so much emphasis is on the short term and on reactionary positions. Expressing one’s political identity has become as important as putting forth a meaningful point of view. And Trump, Trump, Trump—everything is a referendum on him and his administration, even when there’s no direct causal relationship. It’s a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
What’s particularly dangerous about this political climate is that it obscures the reality of the underlying issues. Along the lines of expressing our political identities, emotions (chiefly outrage) are becoming a more valuable currency than facts. As much as we might dislike the perils of climate change or even acknowledging it exists, it’s happening. Our infrastructure is crumbling. The topic shouldn’t be treated as a zero-sum game between urban and rural districts. But tell that to the powers-that-be in Washington, D.C.
President Trump, while, again, not the originator of divisive politics, is well-suited for capitalizing on this zeitgeist. As Grunwald describes it, he understands “how to use the levers of government to reward his allies and punish his enemies.” This means going after Democratic constituencies and giving bailouts/breaks to Republican-friendly blocs. With GOP leadership in Congress largely in step with his policy aims, too (this likely gives Trump more due than he deserves because it implies he actually makes carefully crafted policy goals), ideologically-based attacks on certain institutions are all the more probable.
What’s the next great hurrah for Republicans, in this respect? From what Mr. Grunwald has observed, it may well be a “war on college.” I’m sure you’ve heard all the chatter in conservative circles about colleges and universities becoming bastions of “liberal indoctrination.” Free public tuition is something to be feared and loathed, a concession to spoiled young people. And don’t get us started about a liberal arts degree. It’s bad enough it has “liberal” in the name!
As the saying goes, though, it takes two to tango. In this context, there’s the idea that people on the left share the same sense of disdain for their detractors on the right. How many liberals, while decrying giving Republicans any ammunition in Hillary calling Trump supporters “deplorables,” secretly agreed with her conception of these irredeemable sorts? There are shirts available online that depict states that went “blue” in 2016 as the United States of America and states that went “red” as belonging to the mythical land of Dumbf**kistan. For every individual on the right who imagines a snowflake on the left turning his or her nose up at the “uncultured swine” on the other side, there is someone on the left who imagines and resents their deplorable counterpart. Presumably from the comfort of his or her electric scooter.
This bring us full-circle back to our experience of waging the cultural war first alluded to in our discussion of the party vibe at Donald Trump’s rallies, and how people could be having a good time at a forum where hate and xenophobia are common parlance and violence isn’t just a possibility, but encouraged if it’s against the “wrong” type of people. The implications of a culture war fought eagerly by both sides are unsettling ones. Close to the end of his piece, Grunwald has this to say about our ongoing conflict:
This is presumably how entire countries turn into Dumbf**kistan. The solutions to our political forever war are pretty obvious: Americans need to rebuild mutual trust and respect. We need to try to keep open minds, to seek information rather than partisan ammunition. We need to agree on a shared foundation of facts from authoritative sources. But those words looked ridiculous the moment I typed them. Americans are not on the verge of doing any of those things. Once the dogs of war have been unleashed, it’s hard to call them back. And we should at least consider the possibility that we’re fighting this forever war because we like it.
“Because we like it.” It sounds almost as strange as “how much fun everyone seemed to be having” with respect to Trump’s pre-election events, but it rings true. Sure, some of us may yet yearn for civility and feelings of bipartisan togetherness, but how many of us are content to stay in our bubbles and pop out occasionally only to toss invectives and the occasional Molotov cocktail across the aisle? I’m reminded of actor Michael Shannon’s comments following the realization that Donald Trump would, despite his (Trump’s) best efforts, be President of the United States. Shannon suggested, among other things, that Trump voters form a new country called “the United States of Moronic F**king Assholes” and that the older people who voted for him “need to realize they’ve had a nice life, and it’s time for them to move on.” As in shuffle off this mortal coil. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s my second Shakespeare reference so far in this piece.
I’m reasonably sure Shannon doesn’t actually mean what he said. Though who knows—maybe his creepy stares really do betray some homicidal tendencies. I myself don’t want Trump voters to die—at least not before they’ve lived long, fruitful lives. But in the wake of the gut punch that was Trump’s electoral victory, did I derive a sense of satisfaction from Shannon’s words? Admittedly, yes. I feel like, even if temporarily, we all have the urge to be a combatant in the culture war, assuming we invest enough in politics to have a baseline opinion. Because deep down, we like the fight.
Wars among ideologues can be messy affairs because each side holds to its dogmas even in the face of factual evidence to the contrary and in spite of signs that portend poorly for their side. Regarding the culture war, there’s nothing to suggest a cessation of hostilities in the near future. To quote Michael Grunwald once more, “Once the dogs of war have been unleashed, it’s hard to call them back.” Rebuilding mutual trust and respect. Keeping open minds. Agreeing on a shared foundation of facts from authoritative facts. Indeed, we are not on the verge of doing any of that. Having a man like Donald Trump in the White House who not only fans the flames of the culture war but pours gasoline on them sure doesn’t help either.
What’s striking to me is the seeming notion held by members of each side about their counterparts across the way that they actively wish for life in the United States to get worse. While I may surmise that many conservatives are misguided in how they believe we should make progress as a nation (i.e. “they know not what they do”), I don’t believe they are choosing bad courses of action simply because they want to win over the short term. Bear in mind I am speaking chiefly of rank-and-file people on the right. When it comes to politicians, I am willing to believe some will make any choice as long as it keeps them in office and/or personally enriches them.
But yes, I’ve experienced my fair share of attacks online because of my stated identity as a leftist. Even when not trying to deliberately feed the trolls, they have a way of finding you. One commenter on Twitter told me that, because I am a “liberal,” I am useless, not a man, that I have no honor and no one respects me nor do I have a soul, and that I hate the military, cheer when cops are shot, and burn the flag—all while wearing my pussyhat.
Never mind the concerns about soullessness or my inherent lack of masculinity. Does this person actually think I want our troops or uniformed police to die and that I go around torching every representation of Old Glory I can find? In today’s black-and-white spirit of discourse, because I criticize our country’s policy of endless war, or demand accountability for police who break protocol when arresting or shooting someone suspected of a crime, or believe in the right of people to protest during the playing of the National Anthem, I evidently hate the military, hate the police, and hate the American flag. I wouldn’t assume because you are a Trump supporter that you necessarily hate immigrants or the environment or Islam. I mean, if the shoe fits, then all bets are off, but let’s not write each other off at the jump.
With Election Day behind us and most races thus decided, in the immediate aftermath, our feelings of conviviality (or lack thereof) are liable to be that much worse. The open wounds salted by mudslinging politicians are yet fresh and stinging. As much as we might not anticipate healing anytime soon, though, if nothing else, we should contemplate whether being on the winning or losing side is enough. What does it to mean to us, our families, our friends, our co-workers, etc. if the Democrats or Republicans emerge victorious? Do our lives stand to improve? Does the income and wealth inequality here and elsewhere go away? Does this mean the political process doesn’t need to be reformed?
As important as who, what, or even if we fight, the why and what next are critical considerations for a fractured electorate. For all the squabbling we do amongst ourselves, perhaps even within groups rather than between, there are other battles against inadequate representation by elected officials and to eliminate the influence of moneyed interests in our politics that appear more worth the waging.
Chances are someone you know has given up on using Facebook, Twitter, or both because he or she regards it as a haven for discord and stupidity. Personally, my biggest gripe is there are too many Nazis and far-righters milling about, but I sympathize with the position of those who have forsaken these outlets. After all, when you write a post about how whiteness is a distinction that merits no pride, and the first comment you receive is from someone you don’t know living across the country who suggests you should pick a fight with a “real white man” and find out, you tend to want to roll your eyes, throw your computer in the garbage, and call it a day.
Suffice it to say, though, that outrage isn’t just plentiful in the Twitterverse and within the blogosphere—it may as well be a type of currency for social media. In the era of President Donald Trump, it seemingly has spiked the way bitcoin’s price shot up amid its initial surge.
Liberals are upset with the Trump presidency because, well, it’s a shit show. Conservatives are upset with liberals who are upset with Trump. Progressives are upset with liberals for hewing too close to center. Ultra-conservatives are upset with conservatives for spending too much on war and other things. Trump, on top of all this, tweets in frustration all the time, and most of us will be damned if we can figure out why exactly. In all, it’s an exhausting maelstrom of deprecation and fury.
The demand for outrage-inducing content is such that, in the haste to provide it, people, works of art, etc. can be exploited as icons of this outrage. Often times, this purpose will be served against the express wishes of those whose images or work is being usurped.
A recent salient example of this was when Mollie Tibbetts’ murder at the hands of an undocumented immigrant became a rallying cry for border security and immigration enforcement. Trump and other xenophobes like him once again began beating the drum of immigration “reform,” sounding a call for building a wall and for addressing the alleged flood of dangerous immigrants crossing into the United States.
One person who isn’t joining in with pitchforks and torches, meanwhile, is Ron Tibbetts, Mollie’s father, echoing a position other family members have espoused. In an op-ed piece in the Des Moines Register, he urged people not to “distort her death to advance racist views.” From the piece:
Ten days ago, we learned that Mollie would not be coming home. Shattered, my family set out to celebrate Mollie’s extraordinary life and chose to share our sorrow in private. At the outset, politicians and pundits used Mollie’s death to promote various political agendas. We appealed to them and they graciously stopped. For that, we are grateful.
Sadly, others have ignored our request. They have instead chosen to callously distort and corrupt Mollie’s tragic death to advance a cause she vehemently opposed. I encourage the debate on immigration; there is great merit in its reasonable outcome. But do not appropriate Mollie’s soul in advancing views she believed were profoundly racist. The act grievously extends the crime that stole Mollie from our family and is, to quote Donald Trump Jr., “heartless” and “despicable.”
Make no mistake, Mollie was my daughter and my best friend. At her eulogy, I said Mollie was nobody’s victim. Nor is she a pawn in others’ debate. She may not be able to speak for herself, but I can and will. Please leave us out of your debate. Allow us to grieve in privacy and with dignity. At long last, show some decency. On behalf of my family and Mollie’s memory, I’m imploring you to stop.
It is hard to imagine the heartbreak I would feel having a member of my immediate family die in such a gruesome way, and on top of this, to have people like Candace Owens invoke the racist trope of the white woman attacked by a man of color to further their agenda amid my grief. For that matter, I’m not sure I wouldn’t be angry at the individual who killed someone I love.
Keeping this in mind, I consider it a testament of Ron Tibbetts’ character and of Mollie’s that he would argue against messages of division and hate in the aftermath of learning that she had died. As such, his appeals to not “knowingly foment discord among races” as a “disgrace to our flag” and to “build bridges, not walls” carry much weight. As does his notion that the divisive rhetoric of Trump et al. does not leadership make.
“The Lonesome Death of Mollie Tibbetts” isn’t the only event in recent memory by which Americans, flying a flag of pseudo-patriotism, have taken an idea and run with it despite the explicit objection of its originator. The forthcoming movie First Man, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival, has garnered criticism for not showing the planting of the flag on the moon as part of Apollo 11, a perceived slight against America about which Buzz Aldrin helped kindle outrage. The movie reportedly focuses on Neil Armstrong’s personal journey leading up to the moonwalk, and on that walk, the visit to Little West Crater.
As Neil’s sons Rick and Mark Armstrong have interceded to emphasize, though they believe otherwise, the famed astronaut did not consider himself an “American hero,” a point actor Ryan Gosling, who stars in the film, also stressed. Thus, they defend director Damien Chazelle’s choice. Chazelle himself also explained that he wanted to portray the events of the Apollo 11 moon landing from a different perspective, highlighting the humanity behind Armstrong’s experience and the universality of his achievement. One small step for a man, and one giant leap for mankind, no? Besides, as Armstrong’s sons and others have reasoned, most people nitpicking First Man haven’t actually seen it to tear it asunder.
Then there’s the whole matter of Colin Kaepernick as the face of Nike’s 30th anniversary advertisement for their “Just Do It” campaign. The print ad, which shows Kaepernick’s face up close and personal, features the tagline, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” As self-styled arbiters of patriotism and what is good and right would aver, however, Kaepernick hasn’t sacrificed anything, and featuring a non-patriot like him is grounds for divorce.
Consequently, the hashtag #NikeBoycott was trending on Labor Day and into Tuesday, replete with videos of indignant Nike owners burning their sneakers and other apparel, cutting/ripping the telltale “swooshes” out of their clothing, or otherwise vowing to never shop Nike again. I suppose on some level I appreciate their enthusiasm, though I submit there are any number of reasons why this is folly, including:
First of all, if you never planned on buying Nike products in the first place, don’t front like your “boycott” means anything. It’s like people who complained about the Starbucks red nondenominational “holiday” cup controversy. Come on—you know y’all were only getting your coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts.
Assuming you did actually buy Nike sneakers and apparel, burning things doesn’t take the money back. As far as the company is concerned, you can eat the shoes when you’re done with them. The transaction is done.
Though it seems like a lost point by now, Colin Kaepernick consulted Nate Boyer, a former long snapper in the NFL and U.S. Army Green Beret, about how to protest respectfully. They eventually decided on kneeling rather than sitting as a sort of compromise, evoking the image of the serviceperson kneeling at the grave of a fallen comrade. At any rate, it’s not America or the military that Kaepernick and others have protested—it’s the treatment of people of color at the hands of law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and other rigged institutions.
A more meaningful boycott directed at Nike would be recognizing the company’s questionable commitment to worker rights here and abroad over the past few decades, including more recent allegations of a corporate culture that discriminates against women. Just saying.
As I’m sure numerous veterans would agree, regardless of what you think about Kaepernick and his playing ability, fighting overseas for inalienable human rights just to see players deprived of the right to protest—that is, able to enjoy fewer freedoms—does not indicate progress.
The financial fallout from Nike’s taking a stand, of course, still needs to be measured. There’s also the notion aligning with Colin Kaepernick will ruffle feathers of NFL executives and team owners. Still, one reasons Nike would not make such a potentially controversial move without knowing what it was doing, or at least figuring it was a gamble worth taking.
Going back to social media and expression of outrage, people unhappy about Nike’s decision to celebrate a figure in Kaepernick they perceive to be a spoiled rich athlete who doesn’t know the meaning of the word sacrifice also have been active in creating and sharing parodies of Nike’s advertisement with the late Pat Tillman, another NFL player/serviceperson, swapped in for Kaepernick. While Tillman is certainly worth the admiration, it appears doubtful he would want his image used in this way.
In fact, as many would suggest, based on his political views, it’s Kaepernick he would support, not the other way around. Marie Tillman, Pat’s wife, while not specifically endorsing player protests, nonetheless publicly rebuked Trump for retweeting a post using her husband’s image. As she put it, “The very action of self expression and the freedom to speak from one’s heart—no matter those views—is what Pat and so many other Americans have given their lives for. Even if they don’t always agree with those views.” As with Ron Tibbetts’s pleas not to exploit or capitalize his daughter’s death, Marie’s desire not to see her husband’s sacrifice and service politicized is one worth honoring.
There’s any number of examples of people’s art and memories being used without their permission (assuming they can give it) despite requests to the contrary. Recently, Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler sent a cease-and-desist letter to President Trump warning him not to use his (Tyler’s) music without his (Tyler’s) permission at his (Trump’s) political rallies. As Tyler insists, this is strictly about copyright protection—not about politics. As Trump insists, he already has the rights to use Aerosmith’s songs. If I’m believing one or the other, I’ll opt for the one who isn’t a serial liar, cheater, predator, and fraud, but you may do with these examples as you wish.
The larger point here, however, is that in the zeal for sparking outrage about political and social issues, there too frequently seems to be a failure to appreciate context—if not a blatant disregard for it. Mollie Tibbetts didn’t believe in an immigration policy which vilifies Latinx immigrants and other people of color. Neil Armstrong, in all likelihood, wouldn’t have balked at choosing not to show the planting of the U.S. flag on the moon. Pat Tillman probably would’ve backed the ability of Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players to protest during the playing of the National Anthem.
In all cases, a politically-motivated counternarrative threatens to derail meaningful discussion on the underlying subject matter. The outrage builds, as does the mistrust. The few issues upon which we disagree potentially overshadow the larger consensus we share on important topics. Sadly, this also seems to be the way many representatives of the major political parties like it.
I’ve highlighted examples in which people of a conservative mindset have coopted other people’s memories and works amid their expression of anger and resentment. This is not to say, mind you, that there aren’t occurrences on the other end of the political spectrum.
Not long ago, actor Peter Dinklage had to intervene to defray a controversy surrounding his casting as Hervé Villechaize in a forthcoming biopic about the late actor and painter. The charge was that this casting was a case of Hollywood “whitewashing.” As Dinklage explained in an interview, however, Villechaize is not Asian, as some people believe or claim, but suffered from a particular form of dwarfism that explains why they might assume this ethnicity. From the interview:
There’s this term “whitewashing.” I completely understand that. But Hervé wasn’t Filipino. Dwarfism manifests physically in many different ways. I have a very different type of dwarfism than Hervé had. I’ve met his brother and other members of his family. He was French, and of German and English descent. So it’s strange these people are saying he’s Filipino. They kind of don’t have any information. I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes or sense of justice because I feel the exact same way when there’s some weird racial profile. But these people think they’re doing the right thing politically and morally and it’s actually getting flipped because what they’re doing is judging and assuming what he is ethnically based on his looks alone. He has a very unique face and people have to be very careful about this stuff. This [movie] isn’t Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Personally, I would never do that, and I haven’t done that, because he wasn’t. People are jumping to conclusions based on a man’s appearance alone and that saddens me.
Jumping to conclusions—on the Internet? Well, I never! Dinklage seems to take this in stride along the lines of folks meaning well, but not necessarily being well informed. In this instance, the error is fairly innocuous, but the rush to judgment in today’s climate of information sharing can have serious consequences. There’s a lesson here, no matter what your political inclinations.
As for the Nike/Colin Kaepernick business which Donald Trump may very well be tweeting about right now, Drew Magary, writing for GQ, insists that something is “hopelessly broken” when people feel compelled to champion the company synonymous with the swoosh for taking a stand. He writes:
Corporations already control so much in America that people are compelled—happy, even—to depend on them as beacons of social change, because they are now the ONLY possible drivers of it. I shouldn’t need Nike to get police departments to stop being violent and corrupt. Making decent shoes is hard enough for them, you know what I mean? But I’m forced to applaud their efforts here only because I live in a world where people cannot effect anywhere near the level of change that a billion-dollar corporation can. The social compact of this nation was meant to be between its citizens, but brands have essentially hijacked that compact, driving all meaningful conversation within. A great many brands have performed a great many acts of evil thanks to this. Others have talked up a big game while still being evil (that’s you, Silicon Valley). Only rarely do brands use their ownership of the social compact for good and genuine ends, and even then it accomplishes far less than what actual PEOPLE could accomplish if they had that compact to themselves once more. Politically speaking, one Colin Kaepernick ought to be worth a million Nikes.
Instead, as Magary tells it, “we live in a country where causes only to get to see daylight if they have a sponsor attached.” It’s a particularly bad phenomenon because corporations like Nike exist for their own benefit and have no “obligation to society.” Thus, if we need an athletic apparel company to lecture us on the virtues of sacrifice and of protesting police brutality, or if we need a pizza company to fill in potholes that municipalities can’t or won’t address, you know we’re in pretty bad shape.
While we contemplate our eroding civic virtue and crumbling infrastructure—a contemplation none too heartening, at that—we might also consider what we can do to end the “internet outrage cycle,” as Spencer Kornhaber, staff writer at The Atlantic, put it. Certainly, much as discretion may be deemed the better part of valor, discretion about what to post or tweet and whether to do so seems fundamental to limiting the reactionary culture of outrage, and outrage about others’ outrage that plagues much of interaction on contentious topics. Besides, while we’re dabbling in truisms, if one doesn’t have anything nice to say, perhaps one shouldn’t say anything at all.
Social media giants like Facebook and Twitter aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and their ability to organize for meritorious purposes is too profound to ignore. If we’re going to use them constructively, we will need to resist the iconography of outrage, specifically that which distorts images and people to serve a new agenda. At a time when ownership of creative works can get lost in the ability to share them, and when public figures can become buried under an avalanche of negativity, it’s best to do our homework and to pick our battles when choosing a cause to fight for.
It’s impossible to talk about the state of affairs in this country politically, socially, and economically without touching on the subject of race.
While we can slice Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral victory any number of ways, at heart, his win was facilitated by whites concerned with America’s changing demographics and perceived trends toward godlessness, joblessness, and lawlessness. Even within subsets of the electorate that favored Trump apparently unrelated to the white/non-white binary, there are racial components to be found; among evangelicals, while 81% of white evangelicals who voted went for Trump, two-thirds of evangelicals of color opted for Hillary Clinton.
Since Trump’s upset win on a ticket more than tinged by white nationalism, white nationalists of his ilk have become emboldened by his success. A number of avowed white supremacists and individuals flirting with white supremacist support are on the ballot in 2018. Perhaps most notorious of them all is Arthur Jones, an outspoken Holocaust denier and American Nazi Party figurehead running for Congress in the state of Illinois. He is unlikely to win given his district’s propensity for voting blue, but the mere fact he is the GOP’s representative for this district (after having run unopposed in the Republican primary) is both chilling and telling.
It is with this mind to present racial hostilities amid growing mutual appreciation among people of different ethnicities, faiths, gender identification, nationalities, sexual orientation, and other identifying characteristics that I present a column by Talia Lavin, writer, extremism researcher, and one-time target of Milo Yiannopoulos’s anti-Semitism entitled “It’s OK to Be White, but It’s Not Enough.”
Lavin, who writes this piece with an explicit hope it pisses off white supremacists, expresses her opinions through a lens of having recently watched Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and seeing the juxtaposition within the film of David Duke’s call for “racial purity” with activist Jerome Turner’s recollection of the lynching of Jesse Washington. She writes:
The camera intercuts between the two speeches — Duke declaring the need for racial purity, Turner describing the devastation the policing of that spurious purity has caused — and serves, as much of the film does, to offer a lucid appraisal of the violent boundaries of whiteness, and the sucking, vacuous nullity at the center of that concept. “White power,” as championed by Duke, is the urge toward violence for the sake of the preservation of unearned dominance. “Black power,” as spoken by the young activists in the film, is the reclamation of strength stolen by an oppressive state, a celebration of physicality denigrated as undesirable, degenerate. That much hasn’t changed in the decades since the incidents that inspired the film took place in 1979. But in a time of social upheaval, the grim little soldiers of white power have re-emerged emboldened.
“The violent boundaries of whiteness, and the sucking, vacuous nullity at the center of that concept.” This is stark language coming from Lavin, but it may very well be deserved.
Firstly, there is the matter of whiteness and its boundaries. As Lavin argues in outlining it conceptually from a historical perspective, whiteness is an idea treated as something concrete, but it is ultimately amorphous so as to serve the purpose of those who wield it as a weapon.
For all the rigidity with which its bounds are policed, whiteness has been a surprisingly elastic category. Immigrant groups — Irish and Italians in particular — who were initially cast as ethnically inferior found themselves assimilated into whiteness over the course of the twentieth century. Whiteness expands and contracts as necessary to police its bounds, and keep its enemies subjugated. Even Jews, in the last decades of the twentieth century, found themselves conditionally admitted. The elasticity of whiteness is rooted in its essential lack of substance, its existence as a negation of the other.
Along these lines, whiteness is a tool that informs a struggle between those who have power and those who don’t or, as defenders of “white pride” would aver, shouldn’t. The inclusion of Irish, Italians, and Jews would therefore seem to be a function of wanting to deny representation to a group less easily defined by matters of adherence to religion and more predicated on observable physical features. It’s not merely about secularization, either. As Lavin takes care to point out, white supremacists have used the Bible alongside pseudoscience to prop up their racist beliefs.
Additionally, Lavin puts forth that whiteness as a concept is rooted in nothingness and is a thing solely to do damage and perpetuate fear and resentment.
At its hollow core, whiteness is nothing in particular: It’s an airless vacuum, bereft of any affirmative quality. To be white in America is merely to benefit from the absence of racial discrimination. To be white in America is to walk a path that contains no hurdles based on the color of one’s skin, one’s name, one’s outward presentation to the world. To be white is to benefit from a history of slavery, theft, and colonization that transpired before you were born; it’s to reap the harvest, without any effort on your own part, of centuries of religious and intellectual justification for violence. It’s playing life, like a video game, on the easiest setting. There’s no shame in being born white, but there’s no pride in it either, because it is by definition a category bereft of specificity.
Whiteness exists to punish blackness; whiteness exists to hurt those who are not white; whiteness exists to exert its own supremacy, in a great feral and bitter taunt against those it loathes. Whiteness has no language of its own; whiteness has no homeland, no cuisine, none of the markers that distinguish a culture worth celebrating. “White pride” — the notion that whiteness itself is something to boast about — is rooted in this vacuity, and that’s why it manifests as violence. White pride is a license to patrol the boundaries of whiteness, to inflict violence on those who seek to live, as white people do, unencumbered by racial prejudice. And the “White Power” of David Duke and his contemporary analogues is precisely this power: the power to inflict harm and to create fear. That’s what Spike Lee hammers home so well in BlackKlansman [sic]: If black power is about the reclamation of a stolen history, a stolen sense of self-esteem and worth, white power is about perpetrating that theft over and over again.
Lavin’s sentiments strike at the core of a reactionary set of beliefs that elevate the accomplishments of “western” or “Judeo-Christian culture” above all others and lament the supposed demonization of whites, males especially. To take part in white pride is to deny the existence of white privilege, and to do so in the face of perceived diminishment is to mistake the loss of such privilege for discrimination. The attitudes of white supremacists comprise an absurd worldview that helps perpetuate terms like “reverse racism.” As if America doesn’t possess an established history of the institutionalized subjugation and vilification of non-whites. But sure, affirmative action is wrong, political correctness is a threat to the United States and the world at large, and reverse racism is, you know, a thing.
As Lavin underscores, though, one does not need to be sorry he or she is white, but one shouldn’t revel in this either. The better course of action is to do research into one’s heritage and to be an active and good member of one’s community, both in the immediate geographic and global sense. Lavin concludes her column thusly:
If you are white in America, you have nothing to apologize for — but you have much to learn. If you wish to celebrate yourself, to feel part of something bigger, to express pride in a heritage, you can do better than the cruel sucking nullity of whiteness. Surely you were born somewhere; surely your ancestors came from somewhere; surely your hometown has a history you can plumb; surely there is music in its annals. Perhaps you can be an American; or you can be a Pole or an Irishman, a Scot, a German, a Finn, or bits of each rolled into a delicious composite that is you. Love your family, love your ancestors. Love where you live and your neighbors.
White pride and white power seduce by means of an easy solidarity, a call to arms against a formless threat, an appeal to inchoate anger. But they are essentially empty; they have nothing to give you but rage, and in this world rage is bountiful enough.
Work toward justice, and center yourself in the movement to create a better world, so you can be proud of the work of your hands, and not merely their color.
Lavin’s guidance here seems to be an appeal directly to the individual who would insist that the kinds of abuses perpetrated by slavery happened long ago and therefore he or she doesn’t need to apologize because he or she wasn’t there, or similarly, that she doesn’t benefit from white privilege insomuch as he or she is not super rich and therefore can’t be all that privileged.
White people shouldn’t feel a sense of shame to the extent it cripples them and prevents from getting out the door, beset by woe over the ills of the world other white people have inflicted. Rather, recognizing that white privilege exists even independent of class, that systemic issues related to race yet exist even after the formal abolition of slavery, and that more needs to be done by activists of all make and model is critically important. At any rate, compassion and empathy should be driving forces, not the rage which characterizes white pride and white power. As Lavin underscores, it is easy to be seduced by their appeal to “solidarity,” much as it is easy to tear others down. The trick, and the more difficult part, is building up others in the name of a shared identity as human beings.
As a younger Italian-American, I confessedly approach both the past treatment of those with Italian heritage in America and my personal connection to my ancestry with a sense of detachment. I have never known a time when Italians were ostracized to the extent certain minority groups are today, a resident of a bubble in which surnames like D’Addetta and Fragale and Leone and Napolitano are commonplace.
As for my closeness to my roots, well, I’m no stranger to Italian food (at one point, my father actually worked at a pasta company), but otherwise, I’ve associated myself more so with being “white” than being “Italian,” of which the majority of my ancestors are. In fact, I’ve gotten mistaken for Albanian, Irish, and a number of other nationalities from the European continent. Maybe that’s to be expected considering how many countries are on top of one another there.
Just because I don’t feel an overwhelmingly strong attachment to my roots doesn’t mean I am not critical of stereotypes of Italian-Americans that hearken back to perception of them as lesser-than, mind you. No, I am not nor do I know anyone in the Mafia, and truth be told, I never even watched The Sopranos. For that matter, I never watched Jersey Shore either, and I find that show way more offensive to Italian-Americans and my home state. No “guido” am I, Sir or Madam.
Perhaps I could take a cue from Ms. Lavin and learn more about my heritage. Maybe I could take a class to learn Italian, which I’ll note wasn’t even offered in my high school; at the time there, it was Latin, Spanish, or the highway. Or I could visit Italy. After all, my brother has visited there. Because of his darker complexion, that he has a full beard, that he was traveling alone, and that he doesn’t speak a lick of Italian, he may have received more than his fair share of scrutiny at the airport. Certainly, I would hope to fare better in that regard.
Then again, maybe I could be a more active member of my community. I’ve been involved with the local chapters of Our Revolution and Indivisible in my area. I also recently started a campaign to get a member removed from the Board of Education in my town for his sharing of memes with misogynistic language. This is not to say I’ve done as much as I’ve wanted to do, or by this token, enough. But I’m trying. As always, it’s a process, such that rather than considering myself “woke” (never liked that term anyway), I would say I’m starting to wake up. At any rate, it’s not about “arriving” at a fixed destination.
I’ll stop boring you with my personal journey toward cultural appreciation and political awakening. Suffice it to say, however, that I regard Lavin’s comments about rejecting white pride and white power seriously. It is one thing to feel the need to apologize for one’s whiteness or to stress that white supremacists are bad. The latter, in particular, is not really going out on a limb.
It’s another, however, and more valuable to oppose the attitudes that color white pride/power with action as well as words. I’m not suggesting we go around punching Nazis. In fact, I am explicitly saying we should avoid punching Nazis. Protesting “Unite the Right” rallies in a non-violent fashion and defeating white supremacist candidates at the polls are more productive uses of our time, and take the starch out of the talking points made by conservative commentators vilifying the supposedly destructive, intolerant left. At a time when skirmishes between neo-Nazis and Antifa groups can result in the loss of life, commitment to nonviolence and de-escalation seems more important than ever.
Many of us might commit to resisting the “blank sucking nullity” (thanks to David Roth for this turn of phrase) of the Trump White House, as we should, because it’s not going to get better. The larger commitment to resisting the “easy solidarity” and “cruel sucking nullity” of white pride alluded to by Talia Lavin is the bigger fish to fry, however, because Trump’s rise is only an outgrowth of the rage and trepidation he stokes. We can do better as a nation. In truth, we must.