The Iconography of Outrage

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Some people upset with Nike’s 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, in their outrage, replaced Kaepernick’s image with that of Pat Tillman. In doing so, however, they most likely are politicizing Tillman’s sacrifice and service in a way he wouldn’t have endorsed. (Photo Credit: Bethany J. Brady/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

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.

The “Cruel Sucking Nullity” of Whiteness: On White Pride and Power

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You don’t have to apologize for being white, but you shouldn’t take pride in it either. Also, you should probably refrain from carrying Confederate and Nazi flags, in case that wasn’t apparent. (Photo Credit: Anthony Crider/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

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.

On Punching Nazis, Serving Sarah Sanders, and Matters of Civility

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Sarah Sanders getting kicked out of The Red Hen in Lexington, Virginia has prompted conversations about whether people should be kicked out of establishments for their political beliefs and whether “civility” is warranted in these situations. While not all calls for civility have equal merit in light of their source, restraint, mediated by facts and precision of language, is still a worthy aspiration. (Photo Credit: Twitter)

You’ve probably seen T-shirts or memes devoted to instructing others to “PUNCH MORE NAZIS.” This sentiment, which invokes Richard Spencer—who doesn’t call himself a “Nazi” or a “white supremacist,” but an “identitarian,” though that basically means he’s a white nationalist and doesn’t want you to know he’s a white nationalist—getting punched in the face by a protestor on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, is one that many of us can probably get behind. After all, who really likes Nazis outside of actual Nazis?

As sympathetic as we may be to the idea of Spencer and his ilk getting decked, however—or, for some of us, wish we could’ve been the ones to do it—just because we can punch more Nazis, does it mean we should? Political theorist Danielle Allen, in an August 2017 column for The Washington Post, emphatically rules for the negative on this question. She writes:

White supremacy, anti-Semitism and racism are false gods, ideologies to be repudiated. They must be countered and fought. We must separate the violence that flows from those ideologies from the ideas that animate them. Different tools are at hand for fighting each.

We need to counter extremism’s violence not with punches but with the tools of law and justice. Where hate crimes and acts of domestic terrorism are perpetrated, our judicial institutions must respond. We as citizens must make sure institutions do their jobs, not plan to take the law into our own hands.

When the legitimacy of legal and judicial institutions has come into question — as has occurred because of police shootings and mass incarceration — we must strenuously advance the project of reforming those institutions to achieve their full legitimacy. But to take the law into one’s own hands is only to further undermine legal and judicial institutions. It provides no foundation for reform.

As Allen sees it, we need to be thinking more Martin Luther King, Jr.’s brand of civil disobedience and nonviolence, and less, you know, Charles Bronson’s brand of vigilantism from Death Wish. In doing so, we must address the failings of major institutions—namely the courts, the criminal justice system, and the legislative branch—enduring the process of advocacy for reform. Punching Nazis, while perhaps providing more immediate satisfaction, doesn’t put us on the same long-term path of reform.

In fact, as Allen stresses, countering violence with more violence only takes us further away from the peaceful society many of us would envision—one devoid of white supremacists and their hate. It does not make our world any more just than it was before we started throwing haymakers, rocks, and the like. It certainly doesn’t make it any more stable.

In other words—Danielle Allen’s words—”Once political violence activates, shutting it off is exceptionally difficult.” Her closing remarks reinforce this theme, with special attention to the morality of nonviolence as well as the impracticality of its opposite:

Why should anyone believe that people who have been committed to political violence will change their minds and recommit to peaceful forms of litigating conflicts? That kind of distrust erodes the foundations of stable political institutions. The path to justice always lies through justice, including the basic moral idea that immediate self-defense is the only justification for the use of force. We need moral clarity on this point.

Along these lines, violence is not the cure or negotiating tool we might conceive it to be. As the saying goes, it just begets more violence, and makes people that much more predisposed to taking sides and fighting, rather than willing to change. When people are made to think of political and social matters in terms of a war, they treat it like one—casualties and all.

The topic of punching Nazis is an extreme example, but one that facilitates a conversation about how we as Americans try to interact with and otherwise react to people with whom we disagree on matters of culture, politics, and morality. Recently, Sarah Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant named The Red Hen in Virginia because of her connection to the Trump White House.

The owner of the restaurant, Stephanie Wilkinson, was home when she got a call from the chef that night, who expressed to Wilkinson the notion that the staff was concerned about Sanders’s presence there. For Wilkinson, Sanders’s defense of Donald Trump’s policies within her role as White House Press Secretary was a deal-breaker. As she (Wilkinson) feels, it’s a matter of moral standards. Compassion. Cooperation. Honesty. These are not the kinds of things that Sanders and her briefings are not known for, and as such, Wilkinson took a stand. What’s more, Wilkinson said she would do it again if given the same opportunity.

News of Sanders’s removal from the restaurant has prompted all sorts of reactions, many of them indicative of a political divide that events such as these only seem to help widen. If The Red Hen’s spike in popularity on Yelp is any indication, the actions taken by its owner have proven very polarizing indeed, with scores of 1-star and 5-star reviews being affixed to the restaurant’s online profile in light of the controversy. While I suppose the treatment of guests should be a factor in reviews of eateries, lest we call these new additions illegitimate, to say nothing of the other elements of the customer experience really seems like a waste of an entry. I mean, what if the trout Grenobloise is truly transcendent? You can say what you want about the owner—but leave her and her restaurant their fish dish, OK?

Beyond reputation assassination via social media from anonymous sources, there are other issues raised by Sarah Sanders getting the boot from The Red Hen and subsequently calling out the restaurant on Twitter. For one, Sanders did so in her official capacity as Press Secretary, and that’s an ethical no-no. According to Walter Shaub, former ethics chief under Barack Obama and Trump, Sanders’s condemnation of a business for personal reasons using her government account can be construed as coercive and a violation of a corollary to the ban on endorsements that someone like Kellyanne Conway has blatantly disregarded in the past. As Shaub reasons, Sanders can “lob attacks on her own time but not using her official position.”

Also, people have drawn a comparison between the way Sanders was refused service for her political positions and the way some businesses have sought to refuse service to homosexuals, claiming “religious freedom.” As far as detractors on the right are concerned, this is just bigotry on the part of the left, but this is a false equivalency; since it has come up frequently enough, it’s worth addressing. Sanders chose her line of work and accepted her current position, and continues to serve as Press Secretary of her own volition. Gays and lesbians, on the other hand, don’t choose to be gay. It’s who they are. The best argument one can try to make is that Sanders, were she to proverbially fall on her sword, would put her career and her livelihood at risk. Still, that’s a stretch when considering the ostracism members of the LGBTQ community have faced over time.

The issue that appears to loom largest here, however, is the matter of whether or not owners of establishments should refuse service to patrons based on their political beliefs or their association with a disinformation machine like the Trump White House. This is where I’m a little unsure that Stephanie Wilkinson’s choice is the right one. Now, it’s one thing if Sanders and her group were actively trying to cause distress to members of the staff or other patrons, or they were trying to espouse discriminatory views. If I were a restaurant owner, I wouldn’t want, say, Ku Klux Klan members waltzing into my place and ordering cheese and crackers. There are limits to freedom of expression, to be sure.

Assuming Wilkinson has the right to ask Sanders and Co. to leave, though, whether or not she should ask them to leave is a subject worthy of debate. It’s like refusing to serve or otherwise accommodate someone wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. In April, a New York City judge ruled a bar was legally allowed to refuse service to a man wearing a “MAGA” hat, as it wasn’t discriminating based on country of origin, race, religion, sexual orientation, or other demographic characteristic. It also didn’t help the man’s cause that he reportedly was verbally abusive to staff. In Sanders’s case, meanwhile, there is no indication that anything more than her presence was the source of unrest. Even in the court of public opinion, this seems like less of an open-and-shut case.

What especially gives me pause is that few people seem to be on Sarah Sanders’s side on this one, and I’m not sure if this is my failing in my refusal to join in, or just the left looking to stick their tongues out at a Donald Trump supporter like the White House Press Secretary in the midst of the administration’s flagging popularity, and as we plumb the depths of a crisis facing immigrant families which feels less like border security and more like ethnic cleansing.

Other Trump administration officials have met with similar treatment, with DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and senior policy advisor Stephen Miller both being met with protests as they ate at—irony fully noted—Mexican restaurants. It’s not just Cabinet members and racist advisors to the President, either. A video of New York-based attorney Aaron Schlossberg berating and threatening employees of a restaurant with deportation because they spoke Spanish went viral, and condemnation and ridicule were soon to follow. Heck, a GoFundMe page was even erected to pay for a mariachi band to play outside the man’s office. At a moment in time marked by visible tension between groups, especially whites who support the President vs. minority groups and their defenders, everyone seems to be fair game. The racist rants of yesteryear now run the risk of damaging people’s careers.

In all, there doesn’t seem to be much sympathy for Ms. Sanders—and I don’t know that there should be, quite frankly—but despite what someone like Rep. Maxine Waters would aver, maybe these officials shouldn’t be kicked out of restaurants, and definitely, I submit, they shouldn’t be harassed. That is, if one were to convey his or her opinions to them in a civil manner, it’s one thing, but it’s another to shout epithets at them while they try to eat enchiladas.

At the end of the day, we may find the positions of Nielsen and Miller reprehensible, but they’re human beings. Like you or I or the immigrants who live in fear of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, they still need to eat and spend time with family. While I suppose Sanders and her group could have just gone, say, to a Chili’s instead, to try to abnegate the humanity of one because of his or her own abnegation of another’s humanity is to make two wrongs without making a right. It might feel good for a spell, but as with punching Nazis, it doesn’t put us on a path to reform.

To boot, for those looking to discredit people on the political left as intolerant in their own right, the decision to ask Sanders to leave The Red Hen has the power to turn her into somewhat of a sympathetic figure, and given that she’s served as the mouthpiece of an administration which doesn’t seem to have the word “sympathy” in its vocabulary, such is a regrettable turn in these cultural conflicts because concern for her feels unearned.

It comes on the heels of criticisms levied on her by Michelle Wolf, for which members of the media were quick to come to her (Sanders’s) defense, a defense not only unearned, but undeserved given that Wolf was only pointing out Sanders’s role as an enabler and liar for President Trump. Thus, when Sanders tweets to say that The Red Hen’s owner’s actions say “more about [Wilkinson]” than they say about her and that she tries to deal respectfully with those with whom she disagrees, you tend to hate that she seems even somewhat credible—compromised ethics and all.


I know my position is liable to be upsetting to some people because it screams Democratic centrism to them (Chuck Schumer, among others, has criticized the desire to harass Trump administration officials). Believe me—I don’t wish to be lumped in with moderates when the Democrats’ refusal to move further left is one of my chief frustrations as someone trying to become more engaged with politics. And I certainly don’t wish to appear as if I agree with Donald Trump, who, though he has much more important things to do—facilitate peace on the Korean peninsula, help Puerto Rico, reunite kids with their families, etc.—felt compelled to rant about The Red Hen’s decision on social media. Say what you want about POTUS, but he’s consistent, you know, in that he never misses a chance to point a finger in a petty way.

Or some might just plain disagree. Ryan Cooper, writing for The Week, defends incivility toward Trump administration officials with points such as these:

  • In the situations recounted above, no one beat up these officials, broke any property, or threatened them in any way.
  • If anyone is “uncivil,” it’s the con artists, criminals, and/or racists of the Trump administration and people of a like mind such as Rep. Steve King of Iowa.
  • President Trump is, like, the most uncivil of us all, and he has a platform much bigger than any dissenter on the left.
  • This is a natural and perhaps unavoidable reaction to a lack of immediate electoral solutions or an absence of meaningful legislative representation.
  • Fretting about civility on the left internalizes the belief that it is pointless to try to appeal to people on the right, especially the far right, on moral and rational terms. Moreover, it sows division within “the Resistance.”

Cooper also dismisses concerns about incivility from the left being used as political capital for Trump and other officials, and while I agree to a certain extent that one shouldn’t necessarily worry about the feelings and potential votes of others in the course of public discourse, I also think that these definitions of “civility” and “incivility” are somewhat vague and get muddled with moral judgments. Being “civil” doesn’t necessarily relate to the moral rectitude of your behavior or your speech, but merely to formal courtesy and politeness in their expression. By the same token, however, “political civility” isn’t exactly the same thing as civility as per the dictionary definition, so maybe the problem is simply with our specificity of expression and how we delineate the terms, first and foremost. The line is an apparently fine one, and who is using this terminology is as important as what words are being used.

Plus, for those decrying this fussing over civility as just a ploy to stifle free speech, while addressing how to reach people in the face of carelessness or lack of composure is critically important, and while not all calls for civility are equal considering the source—this can’t be stressed enough—this doesn’t strike me as an occasion to participate in relativistic exercises. So Trump’s henchmen and henchwomen are uncouth. Does that mean we should all up and call them “feckless c**ts” in the style of Samantha Bee? Even if I feel Bee, like Michelle Wolf, shouldn’t feel duty-bound to apologize, her use of profane language didn’t make her argument more credible. At least we should be able to agree on this point.

I get it—so many of us are angry at Donald Trump and his enablers, and heartbroken about the plight of immigrant children, and feeling powerless with the midterms months away and 2020 still seeming remote, and tired of the onslaught of bullshit day after day. It’s not easy. Then again, it never was going to be easy, and for all the hemming and hawing about civility, if this is not to be the goal, at least we can aim for precision of language and factual correctness. Even in the face of haphazard tweets and “fake news,” rationality and truth yet have value.

To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm, and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.

Is Political Correctness Really Bringing America Down?

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Donald Trump believes America doesn’t have time for political correctness. On that assumption, however, Trump and those who think like him are very incorrect. (Photo Credit: Getty Images News/Scott Olson)

In my last post, I wrote about Jordan Peterson and how I believe, alongside others, that his rhetoric about the excesses of the left can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Naturally, my thoughts were summarily dismissed, my credibility was challenged, and I was told by numerous individuals, presumably Peterson’s supporters, that my references and I completely misunderstood Peterson and his theories, and that I needed to watch one of his lectures in its entirety or read one of his books—that is, hear it straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth—to fully comprehend what he’s talking about. In other words, it’s not Peterson’s fault he’s so misunderstood—it’s the fault of the liberal media who bashes his beliefs and me for being such a leftist dum-dum.

Leftist dum-dum as I may be, I do thank those who pointed me to the Munk Debates, a forum billed by the organization itself as “the world’s preeminent public debating forum.” The most recent debate, held back in May, involved the aforementioned Mr. Peterson; academic, author, preacher, and radio host Michael Eric Dyson; actor, comedian, presenter, and writer Stephen Fry; and author and blogger Michelle Goldberg. The theme was Political Correctness, under the tagline, “Be it resolved, what you call political correctness, I call progress.” Dyson and Goldberg represented the Pro side of the debate. Fry and Peterson comprised the Con half.

The merits of this particular debate can be questioned; Lord knows they have been, from my cursory reading of various reactions to the two-hour-long event. A common charge from reviewers was that, for a forum about political correctness, political correctness wasn’t discussed all that much, a sentiment that Fry, one of the participants, expressed during the actual proceedings.

The discourse wasn’t entirely civil, either. During a particularly heated exchange on the subject of white privilege, Jordan Peterson displayed a sense of irritation, challenging his confrères on the opposite side of the debate to quantify as to what percentage he has benefited from his white privilege, and to ask how he should recompense others for this advantage. Michael Eric Dyson countered by suggesting that white privilege is not something quantifiable, and pivoted to questioning Peterson on his tone: “Why you mad, bruh?” Or, to paraphrase Dyson in his subsequent comments, for all your success as an author and public intellectual, why are you so intent to play the part of the “mean mad white man”?

Unfortunately, comments like Dyson’s—valid or otherwise—have sort of overshadowed the larger conversation about political correctness as the night’s central point. Arguments about whether or not political correctness was adequately addressed also seem to be blown out of proportion. As Michelle Goldberg contended, part of the problem about talking about “political correctness” is how it’s defined and used. That is, political correctness is difficult to define as something discrete, and can be employed by its champions in service to respecting people’s differences or deployed as a weapon to attack liberal politics.

For Dyson, meanwhile, the outrage about political correctness is part of a reactionary attitude for whites in trying to come to grips with the need to cede power to minority groups. When nearly all white straight Christian males were in charge, per Dyson, political correctness wasn’t a thing. Thus, to speak about political correctness, one must acknowledge issues pertaining to race and gender, among other characteristics, as well as the need for larger conversations about these concepts.

Before I get to noting how attendees scored the debate, let’s first get into some background about political correctness itself. Merriam-Webster defines politically correct as “conforming to a belief that languages and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.” From the apparent origins of its current use with the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s, the term has since been coopted in conservative circles as a pejorative to express discontentment with a perceived liberal/progressive orthodoxy in schools and especially at colleges and universities. As many liberal commentators view this alternative use of “PC,” it’s a segue to discrediting the views of “the Left,” as amorphous as that identifier may be.

In the context of the present “culture wars” between liberals and conservatives, the battle over political correctness has taken on new meaning in the era of Donald Trump, a man who, by most accounts, has eschewed traditional political norms as an unabashed political outsider, and according to fact-checkers, who have had no shortage of work during his tenure as President of the United States, is generally incorrect in what he states to be incontrovertibly true. Since then, in the eyes of many onlookers, these two sides have become only that more entrenched in defending their views from perceived attacks from the other side, and for that matter, from those within their own ranks.

Indeed, some people likely felt a sense of betrayal when they found out Stephen Fry, a liberal-leaning homosexual Jew, was to accompany Jordan Peterson on stage arguing against political correctness as progress. For Fry, who acknowledged that he and Peterson may have their differences of opinion—which may be putting it mildly—his argument against political correctness is that it doesn’t work, as exemplified by the rise of Trump and of the growing influence of white nationalism around the globe. As Fry believes, it only succeeds in promoting a backlash from destructive elements on the right and far-right, as well as alienating people by making them unsure about how to act, nervous about how to speak, and unafraid to be creative or experimental for fear of rebuke.

As for Trump, he has addressed the subject of political correctness directly, perhaps most notably in the first Republican debate of the 2016 election season in Cleveland. As Trump put it:

I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people and I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either.

So, to put the question point-blank, does the United States simply not have time for political correctness? And does it do more harm than good, or does it simply not work?

Certainly, there are those who would opine that political correctness is a deleterious force, that it does not make for constructive dialogs. One such opponent of PC culture, Michael Rectenwald, professor of Global Liberal Studies at NYU, believes the fundamental flaw of political correctness is it necessitates political correction.

As Rectenwald recently argued, the necessity to correct incorrect behavior involves a imposition of what is deemed to be right, and hearkens back to earlier invocations of the term as used in Soviet Russia and Maoist China. As he also insists, these allusions are not made merely for shock value, but because of the totalitarian impulses that likewise lie behind enforcing political correctness. Rectenwald writes:

I mention the Soviet and Sino-Communist sources of political correctness not to invoke a Red Scare but rather to note that the contemporary “social justice” movement is marked by the same impulses. Former Soviet and Maoist Chinese citizens recall a system under which verbal spontaneity and skepticism could be fatal. During our soft cultural revolution, those accused of ideological deviation — such as Google’s former employee, James Damore — while neither tortured or killed, are sent to the metaphorical gulags of public censure and unemployment.

On the specific case of James Damore, while it’s certainly the case that his memo was misrepresented by the media as being overtly “anti-diversity” (Damore actually offers suggestions for how Google’s handling of diversity issues might be improved), and while Google perhaps overreacted by firing him, to say that Damore was terminated merely for “ideological deviation” belies the offense that numerous women within the company took in relation to the circulation of this internal memo, and fails to consider that Google and its CEO Sundar Pichai found portions of the memo to be in violation of the company’s Code of Conduct and professed that these offending segments “cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”

Upon the memo’s contents going viral, numerous critics objected to the validity of the science contained within and regarded it as bigotry dressed up as empirically-derived evidence. In short, Pichai and others did not have a problem with Damore questioning specific policies at Google, but in doing so in a way perceived to be discriminatory. Indeed, prior to Damore withdrawing his complaint before the National Labor Relations Board, an NLRB lawyer found the company was within its rights to fire him based on his use of discriminatory language.

As for the invocation of murderous communist regimes, this is quite a comparison to make, and seems just as well suited to come from one of Jordan Peterson’s tirades against “postmodern neo-Marxism.” How does “public censure and unemployment” even come close to being “tortured or killed”? Sure, efforts should be made by Google and other employers to not disproportionately harm one’s image or livelihood in the event of a firing like James Damore’s. Such are unfortunate consequences. They’re not, however, the kind of things that, you know, get outlawed in the Geneva Convention. Rectenwald’s characterization here smacks of hyperbole.

Rectenwald’s other evidence for the growing totalitarianism of North American colleges and universities seems rooted in his personal experience. As he alleges, NYU strongly rebuked him for his “mere questioning of social justice ideology,” essentially forcing him to take a paid medical leave, and faculty members subjecting him to all sorts of racist and sexist slurs. That Rectenwald tweeted anti-Left sentiments any number of times using the handle @antipcnyuprof is not up for debate; the man admitted as much in an interview with the school newspaper. That he was the target of defamatory statements may be true, and I’m not about to question the validity of his claim here.

That he was pushed into taking leave, though, appears highly questionable. According to E-mail correspondence between Rectenwald and Fred Schwarzbach, dean of liberal studies at the university, Rectenwald specifically requested a leave of absence, and Schwarzbach indicated his dismay at how Rectenwald characterized his treatment by NYU to the media. At best, Rectenwald appears to be mistaken in his depiction of how events unfolded, and at worst, is purposely twisting them to serve the designs of his narrative.

Michael Rectenwald’s treatises on the pitfalls of totalitarian political correctness are, of course, not the only source for this type of content, so far be it from me to suggest that his questionable logical connections mean that his side of the debate has necessarily lost. Before we dispense with his case, however, it is worth noting the way in which he has been given a platform for his discontent. Breitbart and FOX News, perhaps predictably, latched onto the story as a case of SJW activism gone wrong, and Rectenwald has also gotten exposure on Tucker Carlson’s show, as well as in The Washington Post and in YouTube videos alongside—you guessed it!—Jordan Peterson.

His exposure is perhaps not on the level of Mr. James Damore, whose termination from Google earned him an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, as well as interviews with, among others, Ben Shapiro, Business Insider, CNBC, CNN, and—right again!—Jordan Peterson, but you get the idea. As with Peterson making waves for vowing not to comply with legislation on the use of gender-neutral pronouns, there seems to be more than just an issue of free speech at hand here.

At least for the moment, let’s pause and swing over to the other side of the debate fence. Mark Hannah, a staffer on the John Kerry and Barack Obama presidential campaigns, wrote a piece for TIME Magazine that characterizes political correctness not as the opponent of “unvarnished truth-telling,” but as the counterpart to carelessness toward other people’s attitudes and beliefs.

In thinking along these lines, Hannah invokes the presidential campaign of one Donald Trump (the column was published prior to the 2016 election), and highlights how the use of precise language by Obama vs. Trump’s free-wheeling approach gets conflated with views on political correctness. In particular, Hannah contrasts Obama’s refusal to refer to “radical Islam” with Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims and political correctness gone amok, recognizing Obama’s deliberateness as strategic rather than fawningly considerate. Hannah writes:

Conservatives might tell us Obama is “politically correct” and Trump “tells it like it is.” But when it comes to the debate over the phrase “radical Islam,” Obama is playing chess and Trump is playing dodge ball. If politics is about strategy, political correctness is arming oneself with a sound strategy while political incorrectness is strategic recklessness.

As Hannah details, Obama himself dismissed concerns about political correctness in avoiding the term “radical Islam,” saying that his careful use of language is about defeating extremism and hampering recruitment efforts. Reckless characterizations, on the other hand, invite alienation of our allies in the war on terror and motivation of adversarial groups like ISIS.

While criticizing Trump and his ilk, Hannah also stresses that perceptions about the right from the left on the subject of political correctness might be similarly confused. From his anecdotal experience as a lecturer, Hannah finds that while anti-PC stances may be a reaction for some in not being able to espouse their personal prejudices, for others, it’s a mistrust of deliberate speech as the tool of high-falutin’ politicians:

Many on the left think conservatives demonize political correctness because they resent having to suppress their own prejudices. That might be true for some. But as someone who teaches a college class on political rhetoric, I’ve come to appreciate that anti-PC attitudes are part of a longer tradition of suspicion toward carefully calibrated language. Throughout history, our species has tended to distrust people who have a knack for political oratory. Part of this stems from the fact that most people are not good public speakers at the same time most people have an affinity for people who are like them. This is something psychologists call “homophily,” and is the reason so many of us tend to want to vote for somebody we’d “like to have a beer with” rather than someone smarter than us.

Looking at the 2016 election post-mortem, while race definitely played a part in people’s votes (how else to explain, for example, the wide disparity between white evangelicals, a majority of whom voted for Trump, and evangelicals of color, a majority of whom sided with Hillary Clinton?), this suspicion of more polished orators like Obama was almost certainly a factor as well, favoring the “Make America Great Again” candidate. It’s a tendency, Hannah tells, with origins as far back as ancient Greece, rooted in distaste for the use of ornate language as a means of courting votes for public office or avoiding jail time. Given his scandal-plagued tenure as president, this sounds more and more like Trump as we go along.

As Hannah writes in closing, though, the use of political correctness is in line with American tradition, back to the country’s very formative days. Political correctness was not viewed as a way to “stifle insensitive speech,” but a manner of speaking for those “trying to out-compete that speech in a free and open exchange.” For Trump and others to complain about PC culture, therefore, is to blame the free marketplace of ideas a professed Republican like he should ideally embrace, or, to borrow a sports analogy, to “petulantly” argue with the umpire. In professional baseball, that’s the kind of thing that can get you thrown out of the game. Trump, alas, is very much still in the game, but there’s every reason to think he stands to do something that will get him removed from office. In theory, even his Republican supporters have their limits.


Going back to the Munk Debate on Political Correctness, it’s worth noting that while 87% of people in attendance expressed an openness to changing their opinion on the matter at hand, prior to the debate, a 64% majority agreed with the Con side, a majority that grew to 70% following its inclusion. Without detailed demographic information or follow-up questions, it’s hard to know precisely what the audience believed and why they voted like they did.

It’s possible they believed, as they are entitled to, that political correctness really is a force that retards societal progress. I surmise that, lost in these statistics, is an affinity for the Jordan Peterson and Stephen Fry that only grew in the wake of Michael Eric Dyson’s “mean mad white man” comment. After all, Peterson and Fry have quite the followings, and admittedly, Dyson and Michelle Goldberg were previously unknown to me. Fry’s self-deprecating humor, too, was one of the highlights of the debate, and provided a nice balance against Peterson’s nearly-relentless seriousness.

Then again, perhaps the uptick can simply be attributed to the sentiment that Peterson and Fry won the debate. After reading a sample of online comments related to viewing the debate remotely, a number of users appear to have indicated Dyson’s comments about Peterson were the point that decided that the Pro side lost the debate, because that’s when it got personal and Dyson’s views lost all weight. It’s difficult to know to what these random commenters genuinely subscribe, or what biases—conscious or unconscious—might inform their assessments of the validity of the onstage arguments.

Wrong or right, the timbre of Dyson’s diatribe was a direct response to Peterson’s tone in asking for a percentage of how much his white privilege has helped him, one of dismissiveness and vitriol. In this respect, you could say Dyson took the bait offered by a clearly-vexed Peterson. Or, you could claim Dyson’s just a “racist,” as numerous commenters did. Never mind the idea that racism implies power and invokes the institutions behind it. In today’s modern political parlance, for many, racism and prejudice are one and the same. Such may be a false (if not dangerous) equivalency.

I’m also not sure how well the percentages of those surveyed at the debate reflect the opinions of Americans or Canadians at large. Certainly, to have someone more liberally inclined such as Stephen Fry arguing against the widespread use of political correctness may be telling that objection to this convention can come from people on either side of the political aisle and in between. Someone on the left, for instance, may balk at the extension of the acronym LGBT to include categories like queer, intersex, asexual, and pansexual because it feels, to them, more like alphabet soup than a community. Political correctness must be adaptive to changing social norms, and requires that participants be capable of adapting with it. For even the most PC-minded among us, it can be a challenge.

This notwithstanding, and irrespective of the Munk Debate audience tallies, political correctness is something worth striving for. Even if its opposition doesn’t reflect an underlying annoyance at having to use preferred terms or, worse, a genuine loathing for someone or their constituent group, political correctness still facilitates an open exchange of ideas and indicates a willingness to deal with the other person on amicable, equitable terms. Moreover, to recapitulate Mark Hannah’s points about the values of our forefathers, political correctness is very much in the American way. As suspect as Barack Obama’s precise language made him seem to some, Donald Trump’s political incorrectness only reflects his lack of preparation and his cruelty. That’s not politically useful—it’s a liability and morally objectionable.

On top of all this, to address Fry’s concerns, political correctness does work. As tempting as it may be to side with social anarchy, political correctness provides guidance on how to act in situations involving mixed-group interactions, and on the plane of creativity, PC language does not stifle innovation, but allows it to grow by imposing constraints, whereas “blue-sky thinking” can give rise to deleterious phenomena like bigotry, groupthink, and misattributions of truth merely to those that speak loudest or most often (for more information, attend this excellent piece by Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman and the appended Cornell study within the text). In short, political correctness works in any number of life situations, and in the era of #MeToo, rejecting it for fear of reprimand from some objector real or imagined is a rather hollow justification.

Political correctness isn’t standing in the way of progress, or making the world less safe, or killing comedy, or coddling our youth. It’s a useful method of communication and representation which connotes our ability to honor those different from us and understand where they’re coming from, and to grease the wheels of strategic advancement rather than to invite counterproductive, reckless behavior. To those of us like Donald Trump who insist we don’t have the time for political correctness, one may easily counter that it’s perhaps exactly the time for it, and something we need now more than ever.

To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm, and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.

The Pseudo-Scientific (and Dangerous) World of Jordan Peterson

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By all accounts, Jordan Peterson is brilliant and a gifted orator, and his self-help guidelines may positively impact people’s lives. On the other hand, the man is arrogant, combative, and his rhetoric about “the left” may be patently dangerous. (Photo Credit: Adam Jacobs/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Without having seen one of his YouTube videos or hearing him speak, I have to rely on second-hand accounts about intellectual and psychologist Jordan Peterson and his ideologies. From what I have read and witnessed about him, Peterson is a charismatic orator, a gifted debater, and intellectually brilliant. He’s also apparently arrogant, confrontational, and dismissive of opinions that are not his own. To even acknowledge his burgeoning popularity is to give credence to his platform and potentially invite a backlash from his adoring followers (though, given my limited readership, this probably all but negates the risk).

So, what is the appeal of writing a blog entry about Jordan Peterson, other than that I needed someone or something about which to write and I didn’t feel like writing about the Trump administration for the umpteenth time?

I suppose my interest was piqued in Peterson only in the last few weeks or so when I began to encounter an onslaught of negative press about the man, his latest book, 12 Rules for Life, and his musings about “enforced monogamy,” the latter of which supposedly is a not a dystopian, government-controlled “insistence” on the virtues of monogamy, but rather a socially and culturally promoted set of ideals which likewise supposedly is reflected in anthropological, biological, and psychological research and theory.

“Enforced monogamy” also informs Peterson’s belief as to a solution to the likes of the attack allegedly perpetrated by Alek Minassian in Toronto last month, evidently a participant in so-called “incel” culture comprised of “involuntary celibate” men who show resentment toward a society that denies them the ability to have sex, actively or otherwise. As Peterson sees it, enforced monogamy is the cure for that anger, and specifically in Minassian’s case, he was angry at God. This despite any stated political or religious affiliations as indicated by authorities at the place and time of the incident. But, hey—maybe this is just another indication of Peterson’s brilliance that he was able to divine this information!

Some of you may read these musings of Jordan Peterson’s on monogamy and the Toronto van attack and think, “Well, this guy is full of shit—I’ve heard all that I need to hear.” Such is well within your right to believe. You may commence with skimming this article and head toward the conclusion. Still, for those of you like me who choose to dig deeper, beyond the headlines that may exist if only to bait you into clicking and to engender outrage (or are just plain masochistic), it’s worth it to study Peterson’s worldview with the help of those who have reviewed his public statements at length or those who know him personally.

One such reviewer is known by the nom de tweet Natalie Wynn, a transgender ex-academic with a background in philosophy who comments on the cultural and philosophical issues of the day from her YouTube channel ContraPoints. In her latest video, Wynn, while jokingly alluding to Peterson’s past invocations of hierarchies in lobsters in talking about human societal order and putting Peterson’s face on a dummy’s body and soaking with it in a bathtub—this is part of her offbeat charm—acknowledges that after listening to his podcasts, reading his books, and watching his videos on YouTube, she gets why people like him.

For Natalie, Peterson has real talent as a public speaker and life coach, with his major distinguishing quality being that Peterson infuses traditional self-help verbiage with biblical insights, Jungian psychoanalysis, philosophy, and psychology. In this respect, nothing that he presents is really new—especially if you’re familiar with the trappings of AA, Ms. Wynn quips—but as far as she is concerned, from a self-improvement standpoint, more power to the Canadian psychology professor.

The issue with Peterson’s life coaching, however, as Wynn views it, is that it is a “Trojan horse for a reactionary political agenda,” one that opposes progressive politics as something “totalitarian and evil.” Peterson refers to progressive politics by the term postmodern neo-Marxism, and Wynn, using her educational background, painstakingly dissects this use of the terminology. Going through a cursory-yet-lengthy history of modernism, she eventually gets to a point that Marxism is a fundamentally modernist worldview that theorizes the human condition in economic terms, while postmodernism is a kind of skepticism that denies humans’ capacity for knowing universal truths about the world around them.

Accordingly, these concepts would seem to be at odds, and Peterson’s use of the term would only seem to enhance the confusion. As Natalie Wynn outlines, Jordan Peterson’s animus is levied upon a rather nebulous group that includes administrators at colleges and universities, civil rights activists, corporate human resources departments, feminists, liberal politicians, Marxists, postmodernists, and so-called “social justice warriors (SJWs).” It’s a problematically loose association of leftists which ignores the tensions that tend to exist between so many of the subgroups under this umbrella and on which Peterson tries to pin the downfall of Western civilization amid his fearmongering.

Likewise problematic is Peterson’s concept of “the West.” As Wynn breaks it down, Peterson’s “West” is emblematic of concepts like capitalism, individualism, and “Judeo-Christian values,” while “postmodern neo-Marxism” is aligned with anti-Western sentiment, collectivism, relativism, and totalitarianism. Marxism and postmodernism, as Wynn elucidates, are Western philosophies, so this immediately calls Peterson’s framework into question, as does his insistence on SJW ideology as a non-Western function.

Moreover, Wynn argues, if Peterson were really concerned about celebrating individuality, he would be more open to, for instance, the use of gender-neutral pronouns to suit the needs of individual students (Peterson made headlines when he vowed he would refuse to comply with any provincial laws on the use of “alternative” pronouns). In addition, if he were more insistent on preserving “the West” as a geographical and philosophical construct, he would, you know, rail against Buddhism, or own that the Marquis de Sade, for one, was into some stuff that doesn’t really fit with “Judeo-Christian values,” and he was from the West. By these standards, Peterson’s categories seem woefully arbitrary and haphazard.

Thus, despite her mild admiration for Peterson’s attention to the tendency of some people on the left to shout down even slightly different opinions, as well as an appreciation for the need to provide folks with a positive, proactive ideology rather than a liberal focus on everything one shouldn’t be doing and a preoccupation with how society oppresses people without a path to corrective action, Natalie Wynn sees a real danger in Jordan Peterson’s anti-leftist rhetoric.

She’s not alone, either. Bernard Schiff, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Toronto and someone who knows Peterson well as one of his historically staunchest defenders against other faculty at the university, recently penned a special opinion piece for the Toronto Star regarding his change of heart, so to speak, on Peterson and his methods. In Schiff’s opening to his expansive essay, he sets the tone for the piece by explaining what he admires about his colleague, and why he has more recently pivoted on someone he has considered a friend:

I thought long and hard before writing about Jordan, and I do not do this lightly. He has one of the most agile and creative minds I’ve ever known. He is a powerful orator. He is smart, passionate, engaging and compelling and can be thoughtful and kind.

I was once his strongest supporter.

That all changed with his rise to celebrity. I am alarmed by his now-questionable relationship to truth, intellectual integrity and common decency, which I had not seen before. His output is voluminous and filled with oversimplifications which obscure or misrepresent complex matters in the service of a message which is difficult to pin down. He can be very persuasive, and toys with facts and with people’s emotions. I believe he is a man with a mission. It is less clear what that mission is.

So, why did Schiff have to defend Peterson as a fellow professor among the faculty at the University of Toronto? Shocker!—though his celebrity may be bringing out the very worst in him, Peterson was always kind of a son of a bitch. Schiff concedes that Peterson possessed a rather immaculate record prior to his arrival at the University of Toronto, and despite misgivings from others about his “eccentricity,” he advocated for Peterson because he thought he could bring a fresh energy and new ideas to the department.

As it turned out, though, according to Schiff, Peterson wasn’t just a little “eccentric.” He sparred with the university’s research ethics committee, suggesting they lacked the authority and expertise to weigh in on his work (despite, you know, it being their government-mandated job to serve this function). He also, alongside numerous enthusiastic reviews from people who had taken his courses and a rapt audience of those who attended, repeatedly acknowledged the dangers of presenting conjecture as fact, and promptly went ahead and did it anyway in his lectures.

For Schiff, this was fine, albeit vaguely concerning; no one was getting hurt, and Peterson’s sermons were largely confined to the classroom. The turn came, however, when Peterson not only misrepresented the relationship between biology and gender in his opposition to Bill C-16, the aforementioned gender-neutral pronoun policy, but misrepresented his own risk at not supporting the law:

Jordan’s first high-profile public battle, and for many people their introduction to the man, followed his declaration that he would not comply with Bill C-16, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act extending its protections to include gender identity and expression. He would refuse to refer to students using gender neutral pronouns. He then upped the stakes by claiming that, for this transgression, he could be sent to jail.

I have a trans daughter, but that was hardly an issue compared to what I felt was a betrayal of my trust and confidence in him. It was an abuse of the trust that comes with his professorial position, which I had fought for, to have misrepresented gender science by dismissing the evidence that the relationship of gender to biology is not absolute and to have made the claim that he could be jailed when, at worst, he could be fined.

In his defence, Jordan told me if he refused to pay the fine he could go to jail. That is not the same as being jailed for what you say, but it did ennoble him as a would-be martyr in the defence of free speech. He was a true free speech “warrior” who was willing to sacrifice and run roughshod over his students to make a point. He could have spared his students and chosen to sidestep the issue and refer to them by their names. And if this was truly a matter of free speech he could have challenged the Human Rights Act, off-campus and much earlier, by openly using language offensive to any of the already-protected groups on that list.

Perhaps this was not just about free speech.

Subsequent actions by Peterson to oppose legislative attempts by the province of Ontario to defend additional trans rights grew all the more worrisome. Peterson railed against the proposed Bill 28 under the premise that it “subjugates the natural family to the transgender agenda.” First of all, and apropos of nothing, the man missed an obvious opportunity to coin a portmanteau in transgenda. Secondly, what the heck is the “transgender agenda,” anyway? And how does it relate to a bill that sought to change the language about families away from “fathers and mothers” to “parents”? Bernard Schiff, for one, is confused, and I find myself similarly perplexed. You might, too.

This sense of wonderment quickly gives way to genuine fear, meanwhile, when considering Jordan Peterson’s conflation of Marxism, the left, and murderous regimes like those of Joseph Stalin that pervert their professed ideology to serve the purposes of the individual at the helm. Here is where Bernard Schiff’s concerns begin to echo those of Natalie Wynn’s. Wynn explicitly states her belief that Peterson is not a fascist. Whether or not Schiff believes Peterson has fascist tendencies is less clear, though he does make allusions to other people’s characterizations of Peterson and fascists in general, so that might tell you all you need to know. Regardless of exact labels, Schiff sees parallels between Peterson’s anti-Marxist, pro-status-quo language and Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist, anti-immigrant fervor. Obviously, this is not a flattering association.

Ultimately, Schiff puts forth that while he may be overstating the potential threat posed by his colleague, to remain silent presents its own risk—one he is not willing to take. Schiff, in suggesting that Peterson does not play by some of his own 12 rules—notably the ones involving assuming the other party knows something you don’t, pursuing what is important and not just what is expedient, telling the truth, and using precise language—expresses regret. Part of that regret lies in his inability to see Peterson’s rise as a self-styled cultural “warrior” coming despite the apparent warning signs. The other half of his regret, if you will, is his role in bringing Peterson to the University of Toronto in the first place. As Schiff plainly writes, “I have been asked by some if I regret my role in bringing Jordan to the University of Toronto. I did not for many years, but I do now.”


Part of what makes Jordan Peterson so frustrating to talk about is his seemingly intentional inscrutability, a quality his devotees laud as a virtue in that the “liberal media” can’t neatly fit him into a box. Indeed, Bernard Schiff goes to great lengths trying to plot out Peterson’s inconsistences. He defiantly asserts his own right to free speech, but then actively tries to steer students away from professors whom he associates with “postmodern neo-Marxism.” He claims to be a champion of scientific research and inquiry but rejects attempts by university administration to scrutinize his methods and cherry-picks data to prove his point. He, like so many conservatives, decries those on the left he sees as willing victims, but plays the martyr when challenged all the same. He’s calm and collected one moment, and angrily confrontational and defensive in the face of criticism the next. It’s a pretty maddening study in contracts.

Equally frustrating is trying to engage Peterson in a conversation on his terms. Natalie Wynn provides examples of Peterson’s rhetorical style, which essentially puts earnest interviewers like Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News in a no-win situation. As Wynn frames it, Peterson verbalizes something generally accepted to be true, while at the same time implying something more controversial and possibly unrelated. For instance, he’ll say that “there are biological differences between men and women,” but in the context of the underrepresentation of women in government. Your apparent choice is either to fall into the trap of arguing against the factual information Peterson presents, or to try infer a meaning by which he can argue that you’re misrepresenting his point of view. Whatever that may be.

Wynn highlights how Peterson used this kind of argument with respect to his famous/infamous “lobster” comment, when he led with a discussion of the notion that human social hierarchies are a construct created by Western patriarchy, and followed that with a note about how lobsters exist in hierarchies and how this structure has existed before Western patriarchy. The problem with this line of discourse, instructs Wynn, is that no one is arguing hierarchies are a product of “Western patriarchy,” and that lobster hierarchies are a non sequitur to the discussion of human social hierarchies. That is, no one is trying to start a lobster revolution. Peterson’s argument, as intellectual as it sounds, is gobbledygook, more or less.

Another oft-cited moment in the Newman-Peterson interview was when Newman asked Peterson why his right to freedom of speech should trump a trans person’s right not to be offended, and Peterson countered by asserting that “in order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive,” and answering her question with another question: “You’re certainly willing to risk offending me in the pursuit of truth. Why should you have the right to do that?” Peterson’s extended response left Newman all but speechless, to which he interjected, “Ha! Gotcha!” Newman, flabbergasted, conceded defeat on this point. This moment is Exhibit A in Peterson’s supporters’ evidence that their icon “won” the interview over Ms. Newman, or “destroyed” her, or “obliterated” her, or did something else to nullify her very existence. Because there has to be a winner or loser in these types of discussions. Right.

Looking back at Peterson’s statements, it’s easier to find the flaws in his reasoning. To equate his personal offense at being challenged to a trans individual’s right to self-identification is a false comparison. This is to say that Peterson’s taking umbrage to a reporter’s queries results in nothing more than his personal irritation, while attacks on personhood for the trans community, a minority group, can lead to continued abuse and physical assaults. It’s not the same thing, something Cathy Newman might’ve been able to express given the time to parse out Peterson’s logic. You or I might’ve found ourselves similarly flummoxed in the same situation against such a skilled orator.

On top of this, Cathy Newman’s reward for attempting to take Jordan Peterson to task for expressed viewpoints and for inadvertently helping to elevate his stature? Numerous vicious personal threats. Peterson did intercede amid the harassment to ask his followers to back off, but his is the kind of sermonizing about the need to defend “Western” culture with obvious appeal to straight white Christian males that lends itself to preemptive strikes against members of the LGBTQ community, people of color, women, and everyone in between. When cultural debates are characterized in the context of a “war,” those who take up the fight with earnest believe all is fair, but this is not automatically the case.

Natalie Wynn ends her segment by abnegating personal responsibility in the debate about Jordan Peterson’s merits, professing she only likes to make YouTube videos for their production value. Bernard Schiff ruefully acknowledges his personal failure in identifying Peterson’s dangerous patterns of behavior and likens his (Peterson’s) desire to preach from the pulpit to the designs of late evangelist Billy Graham. Perhaps there is no single conclusion to be reached about Peterson that would prove satisfactory.

A common thread between the analyses of Wynn and Schiff, though—and one to which I might subscribe in my own thinking—is the idea that maybe those outside his vanguard need to take his meteoric rise more seriously. The “experts” who downplayed the threats of a “Brexit” or a Donald Trump presidency were summarily proven wrong. The hubbub about Jordan Peterson could be much ado about nothing. As with Schiff’s decision not to stay mum, however, do you believe it’s worth the risk of ignoring him?

To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm, and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.

Michelle Wolf Upset Some People. Good.

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Michelle Wolf’s comments during her routine at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner touched quite a few nerves across the political spectrum. In the name of truth-telling and accountability for the parties named, though, she deserves praise. (Photo Credit: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Michelle Wolf, comedienne, Daily Show alum, and writer, hosted this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner. You, ahem, may have heard about it.

Wolf, delivering her routine with a wry sort of smile that often belied a caustic tone, was an equal opportunity joke teller, hurling insults mostly at President Donald Trump, but not sparing members of his administration either. Nor were other media and political figures off limits, as Wolf also assailed the likes of Ann Coulter, Chris Christie, Harvey Weinstein, Hillary Clinton, Michael Cohen, Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity, and the stars of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, among others. On top of this, she took the news media community to task for their part in propping up Trump for the sake of their profits and at the nation’s expense.

Before we get to the myriad responses to Wolf’s monologue, which tidily ran under 20 minutes in length, let’s first go over some of the highlights of her speech, as identified by yours truly:

  • Michelle Wolf began by asserting that her role was to tell jokes, and that she had no agenda or wasn’t “trying to get anything accomplished.” You can question the merits of her statement if you will, but if she came with any “agenda,” it wasn’t apparent by virtue of her barbs aimed in all directions.
  • Wolf did not dwell on the Trump-Russia situation, except at one point suggesting #45 is in some way compromised by this connection. Otherwise, she professed that she didn’t want to titillate the liberal media among the audience by going on about it, and seemed to express frustration at how this story has dominated headlines and has encouraged discussion panels reminiscent of a bad family argument at Thanksgiving dinner.
  • That said, Wolf went after Trump. Hard. She called him a “pussy” for not attending the Dinner, and rather than harping on his misogyny, racism, and xenophobia—though not letting him off the hook about these qualities either—she made a series of jokes designed to eat away at a key part of his image and truly gall him: that he’s not as rich as he says he is.
  • Wolf also referenced Trump’s pandering to white nationalists, and surmises the term “white nationalist” itself is a cop out. As she said during her monologue: “Calling a Nazi a ‘white nationalist’ is like calling a pedophile a ‘kid friend,’ or Harvey Weinstein a ‘ladies’ man’.”
  • Wolf expressed the belief that Trump shouldn’t be impeached, if only because Mike Pence is waiting in the wings.
  • Wolf also mentioned Trump’s Cabinet, and joked she had specific comments for its members, but that they keep changing. She quipped, “You guys have gone through Cabinet members quicker than Starbucks throws out black people.”
  • As mentioned earlier, if Wolf wrote her routine with any sort of agenda, it was political—especially in the feminist sense—but not partisan. She took Hillary Clinton’s campaign to task for abandoning Midwest states like Michigan, and more broadly chided Democrats for their strategic miscues in races up and down tickets.
  • Indeed, for all her (deserved) criticism of Trump, her particular disdain for women in positions of relative prominence was apparent. She identified Kellyanne Conway as an out-and-out liar who has no business appearing on news channels, she characterized Ivanka Trump, self-professed advocate for women, as “as helpful to [them] as an empty box of tampons,” likened Sarah Sanders to the character of Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, a brutal authoritarian figure and spreader of propaganda. Last but not least, she took a shot at Megyn Kelly and NBC’s handling of her contract: “Megyn Kelly got paid $23 million by NBC, and NBC didn’t let Megan go to the Winter Olympics. Why not? She’s so white, cold, and expensive, she might as well be the Winter Olympics.”
  • Wolf’s harshest words perhaps were aimed at the media, and specifically for the way they’ve taken advantage of Donald Trump’s rise within the sphere of U.S. politics. Comparing their attitude toward Trump like a woman who professes to hate her ex-boyfriend but secretly loves him, she uttered, point blank, “You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off him.” For Wolf, this point was one that she sees that members of the media are loath to acknowledge, but bears discussing and repeating.
  • Wolf’s closing words, underscoring the seriousness of her commentary and serving as a reminder in case anyone forgot (or chose to ignore it): “Flint still doesn’t have clean water.” As far as responses to emergency situations are concerned, I’m sure there are those in, say, Puerto Rico who would nod their heads and add their own situations to the mix.

Reactions to the speech have been fairly predictable. Pres. Trump, of course, hated it, calling it “a very big, boring bust.” Takes one to know one, Donald. Sean Spicer called it a “disgrace.” Ditto. Other conservative publications and sites panned Michelle Wolf’s performance, highlighting the opinion she “bombed.” One tends to wonder if they actually watched her performance or simply formed their opinion based on snippets from blogs and their own kneejerk reactions in defense of the President, but this apparently is the state of critical political analysis in our country today.

To be fair, Wolf has had her detractors outside the political right, too. The media, perhaps likewise predictably, have balked at the idea they have helped create the “monster” that is Trump. As someone like Chris Cillizza of CNN and formerly of The Washington Post would aver, he and other reporters have covered Trump to the extent that he has done and said things that no other president/candidate has done, but that Trump, as the “angry id of the GOP,” was on the rise whether the mainstream media gave him the attention or not. That is, while sites like CNN have indeed profited off of Trump’s increased exposure, Cillizza believes this is different from “creating” him.

Other criticisms seem directed at Wolf’s perceived mean streak, particularly in her take-down of Trump administration officials like Kellyanne Conway, Mike Pence, and Sarah Sanders. In addressing the media and telling various outlets not to book Conway, she joked, “If a tree falls in the woods, how do we get Kellyanne under that tree?” She immediately qualified that she wouldn’t want Conway hurt or killed by the falling tree, just stuck, but the image was enough for some people.

In assailing Pence and his anti-abortion views, a sore spot for many women and people concerned with personal rights, she riffed, “Don’t knock it ’til you try it, and when you do try it, really knock it. You know, you’ve got to get that baby out of there.” Abortion jokes, even for the pro-choice crowd, are always a questionable choice. As for Sanders, Wolf’s comments about her make-up and her resemblance to Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale have been branded as unfair and tantamount to bullying, though Wolf professes she was not making fun of Sarah’s looks, but merely her propensity to lie and spin as a buffer between Trump and the press corps. Despite not having an “agenda,” Wolf was clearly not playing to the room, or for that matter, playing nice.

The bilateral backlash to Wolf’s routine has been such that even White House Correspondents’ Association president Margaret Talev publicly distanced herself from the content of the monologue, putting forth the notion that Wolf’s remarks were not “in the spirit” of what the WHCA tries to accomplish, that the occasion should be one of civility, and of defending a free press and celebrating great reporting, and not intentionally divisive. In making this statement to fellow Association members, Talev seemed to be indicating a bit of buyer’s remorse, and at one point, after making an off-color joke about her own anatomy, Wolf herself followed it with the perhaps-too-on-the-nose line, “You should have done more research before you got me to do this.” Touché, Ms. Wolf. Touché.

At the same time, however, Michelle Wolf has her defenders, especially among her comedian brethren. As they contend, Wolf did the job she was asked to do, and if she ruffled a few proverbial feathers, so be it. Their sentiments echo the feelings of some people that the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is the problem, not Wolf or her “speak truth to power” mindset. For years, critics of this annual tradition have highlighted the oddity of an event designed to champion fearless reporting and freedom of the press and yet encourage reporters and political or otherwise public figures to coalesce with one another.

The mere suggestion that members of the press are in some way complicit in Trump’s political rise or in downplaying his administration’s dangerous propensity to lie is therefore bound to be uncomfortable. To put this another way, and to sympathize with the views of chief New York Times television critic James Poniewozik, maybe the WHCA should just not hire a comedian if they want less controversy, and as he puts it, “send the cameras away [and] have a nice dinner in peace.” After all, there’s nothing obligating the Association to hire a stand-up performer. Why do it if you’re unable to handle criticism in your own right?


Michelle Wolf, for her part, has responded to criticism of her speech by indicating she wouldn’t change a word of it, and that the backlash she’s received from her comments means she was actually in the right. Poniewozik, in his closing remarks, also defended Wolf to the extent that the White House Correspondents’ Association did not:

The irony of the association’s disavowing Ms. Wolf is that her routine, whether you agree with it or not, was ultimately about defending the mission of the White House press: sticking up for the truth. Michelle Wolf had the W.H.C.A.’s back Saturday night, even if it didn’t have hers the day after.

As Margaret Talev has made evident by distancing Wolf and her jokes from the Association and its purported mission, she is a comedian and not a member of the press. From where Wolf stands, this is probably a good thing, in that it frees her from any conventions which might prevent her from calling a spade a spade. Still, that the WHCA would publicly disavow the contents of Wolf’s monologue and risk chumming the waters for conservative trolls seems like a questionable stance to take.

It’s reminiscent of when Donald Trump, shortly after the contents of the Steele dossier started becoming public news, shouted down CNN’s Jim Acosta during a press conference, calling Acosta and his employer “fake news.” Looking at this situation retrospectively, it’s not so surprising that Trump would verbally attack a member of the media given his frequent angry Tweets lobbed at the “liberal media.”

At the time, however, it was unnerving to see Acosta shut down by the President and have none of his colleagues come to his defense. Sure, Neil Cavuto and others at FOX News may have been glad to smirk and sneer at CNN for what they perceived as their comeuppance for biased reporting and an overall snobby elitist attitude. But this confrontation foreshadowed the all-out assault Trump has levied upon the mainstream media, and it has ominous implications for the future of news media given Trump’s authoritarian streak and the proliferation of genuine fake news—if that makes any sense.

In other words, if individual members of the press don’t stand in solidarity when freedom of the press/freedom of speech is challenged, it stands to become that much easier to pick them off in the future. Wolf, in laughingly referring to print news as an “endangered species,” punctuated her joke by saying, “Buy more newspapers.” Much as she might disagree with their model, and to stress James Poniewozik’s insights, Michelle Wolf, a comedian with no agenda and not trying to get anything accomplished, recognizes the importance of investigative journalism. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and such explains why FOX News personalities came to CNN’s defense when their rival was besieged by Trump early in 2017. Over a year later, though, it already feels like members of the media/press are less inclined to cross Trump, or in the case of FOX News, are unabashedly biased in his favor. Gulp.

It’s anyone’s guess what Wolf’s performance will mean for the future of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, if anything. Chances are good that the furor over her routine will die down by the time next year rolls around and we’ll be reacting with the usual outrage again, having all but forgotten that dinner’s predecessor. For the media outlets implicated in her speech, meanwhile, it might behoove them to look at themselves in the mirror before putting this episode in the rear view. Given the public’s flagging confidence in the news media, an institution that won’t confront its own accountability may just end up hastening its own decline.

To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm, and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.

#MeToo, Time’s Up, and White Feminism: Issues of Representation and Cultural Change

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Emma Stone has encountered a backlash for, in elevating Greta Gerwig as a female nominee and lumping together the male nominees for Best Director in her introduction, effectively minimizing the accomplishments of directors like Jordan Peele and Guillermo del Toro. This moment, as some see it, is an illustration of the divide between “white feminism” and “intersectional feminism.” (Photo Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Emma Stone made headlines at this year’s Oscars telecast when she introduced the nominees for the award for Best Director, saying, “These four men and Greta Gerwig created their own masterpieces this year.” Not merely because she echoed the sentiments of Natalie Portman, who took a shot at the powers-that-be behind the Golden Globes when she uttered the phrase, “And here are the all-male nominees.” While Stone definitely has her share of supporters for “keeping it 100,” as the kids say, there are a number of critics online who voiced their displeasure with her remarks, specifically in light of the notion that Jordan Peele and Guillermo del Toro, also nominated for the award, are people of color.

As these critics would have it, Peele’s and del Toro’s nods are an achievement in their own right, and shouldn’t be diminished by the likes of her. Furthermore, as April Reign, founder of the #OscarsSoWhite movement suggests, not only does Stone’s criticism ring hollow given that she has worked with Woody Allen, an alleged sexual abuser, and played a character of part-Asian descent in Aloha, a roundly-derided example of whitewashing, but her angst is an illustration of white feminism’s failure to appreciate intersectionality. Emma Stone’s elevation of Greta Gerwig, because it occurred at the expense of Jordan Peele and Guillermo del Toro—not to mention Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher Nolan, two talented directors in their own right—led people to cry foul.

While this moment and stories of Emma Watson’s grammatically incorrect “Time’s Up” tattoo may prompt jeering from those who sneer at Hollywood’s elitist celebrations and limousine liberalism—oh, the perils of missed apostrophes!—the divide that can be identified between “white feminism” and “intersectional feminism” is a concern for #MeToo, Time’s Up, and all movements of a like spirit. Back in January in 2017, when Donald Trump was being sworn in, and women were full-throated in their outrage over how a lying pussy-grabber like him could become President of the United States, Alia Dastagir, culture writer for USA Today, authored a piece concerning the buzz around use of the term intersectional feminism and how it may be defined. Dastagir notes how the Women’s March on Washington, initially organized without much, if any, representation from women of color in leadership roles, helped spark conversations about how white privilege can blind some feminists to other concerns which especially affect women of color.

Intersectional feminism, in seeking to empower all women, strives to account for the differences among women so as to avoid marginalizing certain voices within feminist circles, including differences based on economic status, gender identification (i.e. cisgender or transgender), language, nationality, race, religion, sexuality, and whether or not a feminist can be identified as “radical.” This attention to various distinguishing characteristics, in theory, creates a more complete understanding of the underlying issues facing women in society today. Such that, for instance, a discussion about women breaking through the proverbial glass ceiling or earning equal pay might also include a discussion about raising the minimum wage, or addressing women’s reproductive rights might additionally touch upon the inability of some women to afford abortions or even contraception. Intersectional feminism, therefore, complicates the notion that “the liberation of women means the liberation of all.”

It is through this lens of intersectionality that we may start to more critically view the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements in terms of the big picture, and in saying this, I want to be very delicate with my words and views here. Broadly speaking, I support #MeToo and Time’s Up. That they encourage recognition of the pervasiveness of sexual abuse, harassment, and misconduct, as well as the destructive power these crimes can have on lives and how it is possible for victims to cope with them, notably through sharing their experiences, I believe, is a step forward. That both movements have not only demanded accountability for men who have taken advantage of women in some way, but have yielded real consequences for perpetrators of sexual violence also seems like progress. At the same time, however, and without wishing to appear sexist by invoking criticism, I feel it’s worthwhile to wonder where these initiatives are headed and what their intended purposes are.

First things first, let me speak to the idea thrown around by some high-profile men, notably film director Michael Haneke, that #MeToo et al. are some form of “witch hunt.” While this thinking perhaps bears more credence than Donald Trump’s claim that the investigation into his and his campaign’s dealings with Russia are a witch hunt—if you believe Trump, despite being given every opportunity to succeed, he is the most egregiously persecuted man in the history of the world—framing movements like these along these lines at best undermines the idea that victims should be believed and taken seriously at their word, as well as it belies the low percentage of falsely reported claims of rape and other forms of assault. At worst, it does all of the above and signifies that the person pointing to the irrationality of the angry mob with pitchforks and torches is himself a bad actor. The concept of there being “levels” of sexual misconduct—that not all violations of a sexual nature are created equal—should be similarly and deservedly downplayed. As many observers and experts on these matters have put forth, not every perpetrator is going to be a Harvey Weinstein. Rather, in all probability, they will be more like Al Franken or Louis C.K., ostensible “good guys” who are guilty of misdeeds, even if they don’t involve jail time or even if we like their work. A violation is a violation, no matter the size (I am being serious here, but feel free to conjure innuendo-laden imagery if you desire a humorous aside).

On that last note about how “good guys” can do bad things, even men who are presumably “woke”—a term I usually forgo owing to its ambiguity, if not its blatant disregard for grammatical correctness—one woman’s tale of a date gone wrong with comedian Aziz Ansari created quite a stir when it was published on Babe.net. Prompting its critics to declare that #MeToo had “gone too far” or “run amok,” it depicted an encounter in which the woman felt shocked by Ansari’s aggressive behavior, likening him to a horny teenage boy, a night that he thought was a great time, but that she obviously saw as a nightmare. For some, this is wrong behavior, pure and simple, and Ansari should be admonished for his actions. For others, even those who would identify as feminists and/or socially conscious, though, outing Ansari for something that isn’t a crime, but is related to differences in how men and women may view consent in sexual situations (not that this excuses Ansari, mind you) and something which probably should prompt a larger dialog on the dynamics of sex and male domination, strikes them as excessive, if not sensational or deliberately designed to start controversy. Accordingly, for all the good this cautionary tale might bring about by fostering a conversation, its logistics and naming of names arguably overshadow its merits.

In turn, and speaking to a problem seemingly faced by other activist-led movements concerned with social issues, critics of #MeToo and Time’s Up have suggested that it is not enough to merely name names and wag fingers in condemnation, but to provide a clear path to actionable goals. That is, while stories of sordid acts might entertain us, in the way car accidents may “entertain” us as we rubberneck our way across concrete landscapes, these accounts do not necessarily help us in our bid to reform boardrooms, workplaces, and the like, and need to be more forward-thinking and focused on the victims, as opposed to the due process of and fairness to suspected perpetrators. For all the hoopla about putting Aziz Ansari in the spotlight for poor sexual etiquette, realistically, he is not likely to lose much credibility over the long term (or sleep) in light of what could be recognized as sexual assault (I, not being there, don’t doubt both that Ansari believed the sex was consensual and that the woman believed she was being coerced).

To their credit, people like Tarana Burke who have been instrumental in creating and furthering these movements have identified potential avenues for change, including increased protections for victims, as well as training and vetting of candidates for service, whether in places of worships, schools, workplaces, or anywhere else. This includes Congress, not only as a supposed hotbed of sexual impropriety, but as a place where legislation has been introduced on the subject by Rep. Jackie Speier, and where additional, more far-reaching laws may be approached that more adequately serve the needs of constituents. Still, at a critical moment when change on so many issues seems possible—just look at how the conversation about gun control after the Parkland, FL school shooting has taken on a markedly different tone than it did following, for instance, the Orlando nightclub massacre—and this is not to suggest an onus be thrust on movement leaders, but care must be taken to avoid current and prospective supporters, women and men alike, becoming disenchanted by inaction or feeling alienated as irredeemable obstacles on the path to progress. Lest, at least on the part of the males, they take a cue from the words of Matt Damon and deny any wrongdoing, pushing the truth back into the darkness for fear of what it will do to them and their livelihood.


Returning to the backdrop of the film industry, author Lindy West, in a recent opinion piece for The New York Times, expresses admiration for Academy Award-nominated films like Call Me by Your Name, Get Out, and Lady Bird for challenging the reassertion of “white Christian masculinity as the tentpole of the universe” by Republicans and their ilk, and embraces the resolve and real-world power possessed by supporters of the #MeToo movement. At the same time, though, she insists we as a society need to leverage this newfound influence to address unfinished conversations already begun on related issues. From West’s op-ed:

In the rush of catharsis, it’s important not to lose track of some of those old conceptual conversations, because we never came close to finishing them. We are not done talking about why so many men feel entitled to space, power and other people’s bodies. We are not done talking about our culture’s hostility toward women’s sexual pleasure. We are not done talking about how to get justice for “imperfect” victims, and how to let go of perpetrators we love. We are not done talking about how to decide which abusers deserve a path to redemption, and what that path might look like. We are not done talking about the legal system. We are not done talking about sex. We are not done talking about race.

As we’ve noted, intersectional feminism has something to say about race and the fairness of the legal system on top of other institutions—or lack thereof. Nonetheless, other nuances of the #MeToo/Time’s Up discussion within West’s enumerated list do seem to get lost in the shuffle and kerfuffle of bringing down powerful men. With high-profile political figures like Mike Pence predicting abortion will become illegal in the United States in his lifetime, the sense of entitlement men in power feel to what women do with their bodies is an important area of exploration. Ditto for the double standards that exist for men and women in terms of expression of sexuality, which lends itself to the former being lauded for keeping in mind the biblical mandate to “be fruitful and multiply,” and the latter being called “sluts” and being told to “keep their legs closed.” Meanwhile, on the specific subject of redemption for abusers, while the depth of Harvey Weinstein’s misdeeds and his unrepentant defiance of violating consent would appear to negate any hope for reformation within the sphere of public opinion, for someone like Louis C.K. who admitted his faults and wrongs—albeit after his initial denial of the “rumors”—is the door closed on him as well? Does Aziz Ansari now make for an unwanted advocated for the Time’s Up movement? And how do we regard the work of those like Kevin Spacey or Jeffrey Tambor? That is, can we separate their craft from what they have done or allegedly done in real life, not to mention our enjoyment of it? These are conversations that many might agree are worth having, but don’t seem to be getting their due in light of the focus on specific perpetrators.

As Lindy West says in closing, “Unseating a couple (or a score, or even a generation) of powerful abusers is a start, but it’s not an end, unless we also radically change the power structure that selects their replacements and the shared values that remain even when the movement wanes.” This echoes her own sentiments expressed earlier in the piece that #MeToo can’t just disrupt a broken culture, but become the culture. It’s a goal that will likely take generations to realize, and thus, will need direction and commitment to survive over that duration. For West, that involves making art that reflects the values we seek to promote. For all of us, it requires a shared recognition that gender inequality is a problem which affects us all, and that women’s and men’s voices of all make and model will be needed if we are to advance the conversation.