The Artist, the Art, and the People in Between

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Is the Real “Journo-Terrorist” Here?

Laura Ingraham likes to be taken seriously for offering baseless opinions steeped in racism and xenophobia and for routinely attacking real journalists and other people with less power. But sure, Talia Lavin and Lauren Duca are the “journo-terrorists.” (Photo Credit: Brent Clanton)

A notable aspect of being an “opinion journalist” is that you can offer a viewpoint or set of arguments without being held to the same standards as objective journalists. By this token, I am such a “journalist,” though I tend to refer to myself as a blogger or writer in deference to those journos who do hard reporting. I try to back up my assertions with research and give credit where credit is due. But my pieces are opinion pieces. If you share my opinions, great. If you don’t, that’s fine, though hopefully what I write gives you something to think about. I don’t derive pleasure from targeting people who disagree with me or making them a target.

Regarding commentators who possess much larger platforms and whose narratives depend on demonization of “the other,” however, the same can’t necessarily be said. Their identity as opinion journalists, aided and abetted by employers who fail or refuse to hold them accountable, is a convenient hedge. As noted, because they offer opinions, they are not subject to the rigorous fact-checking of other forms of content. Yet, because they offer insights relevant to today’s current events, they can claim to be “journalists” and maintain some sense of credibility. All the while, they can attack other members of the media and reporters in an age when journalists are increasingly under attack, in both the physical and non-physical senses.

This brings us to FOX News’s Laura Ingraham, who regularly rages against “elites” and highly-paid athletes (despite being college-educated and highly-paid herself) as well as immigrants of all kinds (despite adopting children from foreign countries). Recently, Ingraham, amidst decrying “attacks” against “free speech” on college campuses, pointed to NYU’s hire of Talia Lavin and Lauren Duca as adjunct journalism professors as further evidence of the “liberal indoctrination” of today’s youth.

Lavin has been a frequent target of FOX News and other conservatives after mistakenly referring, alongside others, to a picture of ICE agent Justin Gaertner as having a Nazi tattoo when it was really a symbol of his platoon while serving in Afghanistan; Lavin apologized and resigned as a fact-checker from The New Yorker in the midst of the controversy. Plus, it probably doesn’t help she is A) an outspoken woman and critic of the Trump administration and B) Jewish. Duca, too, has been a subject of abuse for her own feminist views and for, among other things, calling Tucker Carlson a “partisan hack” while being interviewed on his show. Ironically, she herself has been accused of harassment dating back to her days working for Huffington Post (as it was then called), though that doesn’t mean she should be harassed in turn.

Whatever you think of Lavin and Duca and their writing, here were Ingraham and Dinesh D’Souza, commentator, conspiracy theorist filmmaker, and convicted felon, waxing philosophical about these “radical anti-conservatives'” journalistic integrity, dismissing them as writers of “hit pieces,” and Ingraham in particular labeling them as “little journo-terrorists.” To Ingraham’s 2.5 million viewers. About an adjunct teaching assignment for one semester. Right. To say this spotlight seems disproportionate and unfair would be an understatement.

It’s already suspect when you’re relying on the “expertise” of someone like D’Souza, an individual with a highly questionable relationship to truth-telling and a person of color who repeatedly apologizes for racism on the right, to make your points. For Ingraham, though, what is a “journo-terrorist” anyway? On the face of it, it appears to be merely a pretty bad portmanteau of “journo” and “terrorist.” Like, where’s the art herein, Ms. Ingraham?

Let’s take a deeper dive here, though. Vague as her comments were, here’s what Ingraham said about Lavin in response to D’Souza’s notion that Duca and Lavin were hired not because NYU cares about ethics in journalism, but that they simply want people who espouse leftist ideologies:

They want to circumscribe speech. They want to take players off the field altogether. So she’s just a hit gal, she’s another, you know, Media Matters—they don’t want to argue, they don’t want to win the debate. They want to search and destroy—that’s what they do, that’s why, you know, FOX viewers are so loyal to this network. Because we refuse to bow, refuse to cave in to these kinds of terroristic tactics. And that’s what they are: little “journo-terrorists.”

“Search and destroy?” Are these freelance writers or Hellfire missiles? What makes Ingraham’s, ahem, angle so suspect is it is devoid of specifics. Who is someone like Talia Lavin trying to search and destroy? What makes their work “terroristic” in nature? Last time I checked, these women weren’t shooting up mosques in New Zealand like the legitimate terrorist you and your FOX News brethren didn’t adequately condemn because he is a white nationalist and that has essentially been your brand since your employer abandoned all pretense of objectivity in its sycophantic support for President Donald Trump.

Lavin herself reacted with horror to having her face emblazoned on national TV in hyperbolic fashion, tweeting, “I am 29. I have no full-time job. I am teaching a single course, for $7k, as an adjunct. This is insane. And irresponsible. It is incitement. It is not OK.” She’s right. By her own admission, Lavin is “not an interesting or significant person with any power.”

That seems to be the point, however. Ingraham is going after a freelance journalist without an employer, a leftist Jew, no less, precisely because she’s an easy target. Not that having an employer automatically protects your job status, mind you, and actually may cause you to be seen as a liability. See also Marc Lamont Hill. Duca, for her part, responded with a still image from Seinfeld with Jerry and George eating ice cream and the subtitle “Whatever.” We all have different ways of coping.

The larger idea is this: if Ingraham respects journalism, she has a funny way of showing it going after the livelihood of two young women trying to survive by working in an industry plagued by monetization concerns in the Internet/mobile age and which—seemingly like every other industry
—is dogged by allegations of sexism and harassment. Likewise funny (but not humorous) is her “J’accuse!” about terrorism directed at Lavin and Duca when she is the one who dines on scaremongering about immigrants, Muslims, and other people of color and when she has the larger audience predisposed to attack others’ employment. In these respects, Ingraham’s use of the term “journo-terrorist” is all too appropriate: it refers to something that doesn’t exist designed to stoke fear as used by someone who’s not a real journalist.


This isn’t the first time Laura Ingraham has fired shots from atop her bully pulpit and I suspect it won’t be the last. Ingraham notably drew condemnation when she mocked Parkland shooting survivor turned activist David Hogg for “whining” about not getting into the school he wanted when posting a video online about his college application process. Even if you think Hogg shouldn’t be complaining about such matters like the entitled brat you imagine him to be, you’d probably agree Ingraham’s comments were ill-conceived. Why go after one of the survivors of one of the worst mass shootings in the United States in recent memory, one who’s, for all intents and purposes, a kid? According to your mindset, shouldn’t this be considered “punching down?” Don’t you have more important things to worry about?

Evidently not. Either way, Hogg took the occasion to exhort his Twitter followers to boycott and contact companies from a list of Ingraham’s sponsors to voice their displeasure, prompting an exodus of sponsors from her program at least at the time. (I haven’t followed up to see whether these corporations have re-upped once the heat on them was turned down, which has happened and is hence why I qualify my characterization of the loss of sponsors.) I wasn’t weeping for Ingraham’s sake nor did I buy the sincerity of her apology as sponsors continued to jump ship.

This notwithstanding, and coming back to Talia Lavin, Lauren Duca, and what you can do to admonish Ingraham, I think the why is as important as the what. Certainly, you should support Lavin and Duca as writers and you can even support them by donating if you have the money and are feeling charitable. As for calling for a boycott of her advertisers or contacting them directly to make our feelings known, I’m not sure I’m on board with such actions as a means of revenge or something like that. That is, I’m not necessarily going to call for someone’s job on the right even though they go after people’s livelihood on the left. However, if you’re a proponent of such activism specifically as a way to take away Ingraham’s platform because she’s a bully who spews racist and xenophobic hatred, I’m all for it. Ditto for Tucker Carlson. A white supremacist agenda is not the kind I want any brands I use to support.

If Laura Ingraham were a holder for political office, that’d be one thing. The prescribed remedy would be easy: vote her out. Not that it would necessarily provide solace and depending on the political orientation of her district that might be easier said than done, but it would be the most direct way and one free from concerns about participating through allocation of money rather than truly participating. Ingraham can’t be held so accountable, though, and since FOX News sure doesn’t like to reprimand its biggest draws—short of murder, I don’t know what would compel them to fire Sean Hannity, for instance—the onus is on us as consumers and viewers to act accordingly. Ingraham and people like her make a habit of targeting those without power. But we have more power than we sometimes realize and that should scare scaremongers like her more than anything.

On Sex Work, Morality, and Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop with This “Shut Up and Dribble” Nonsense

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LeBron James doesn’t get paid for his opinions, but by no means should he just “shut up and dribble.” (Photo Credit: Keith Allison/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Earlier this year, in response to comments professional basketball player LeBron James made with respect to President Donald Trump—notably that Trump “doesn’t understand the people” and that some of his comments are “laughable and scary”—FOX News personality Laura Ingraham took to her show The Ingraham Angle to denounce the 14-time All-Star, calling his remarks “barely intelligible” and “ungrammatical.” Furthermore, she opined that it’s “unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million to bounce a ball,” and suggested that James “shut up and dribble.” Meow.

Before I delve deeper into why I categorically disagree with Ms. Ingraham, let me first address the tenor of her commentary. Ingraham holds a view shared by other Americans that star athletes like LeBron James are overpaid (hence the “$100 million” jab) to play a sport that children play (hence the “bounce a ball” dig). Ingraham being Ingraham, though, she takes her level of deprecation up a level by insinuating that James is uneducated and unintelligent. He’s a dumb basketball player! He doesn’t speak too good! Bear in mind there likely is a racial subtext here, too, but one can only guess at exactly what the FOX News host was thinking as she delivered her thoughts, so I’ll leave that for you to ponder.

Laura Ingraham’s condescension aside, in addition to thinking that professional athletes earn too much money for playing a game relative to the rank-and-file workers of the U.S.A.—they might not be entirely wrong in thinking this way, mind you—she and others of a similar mindset might wish that entertainers, whether highly-paid basketball players or famous movie stars or what-have-you, would leave their politics to their private conversations. We came for the dunks and the Oscar-worthy performances, not the politics. Stay in your lane.

Taking a step back for a moment, let’s talk some more about LeBron James, and in doing so, not simply dismiss the idea that he, indeed one of the highest-salaried players in the NBA, is one of its best, if not one of its all-time greats. He’s a four-time league MVP, three-time NBA Finals MVP and champion, 12-time All-NBA 1st Team award recipient, five-time All-Defensive 1st Team honoree, and three-time All-Star MVP, not to mention Rookie of the Year winner in 2004. If all he does is bounce a ball, then he bounces it exceedingly well. Thus, while you may not agree with how players are compensated in general, next to other exceptional talents in the league, he is appropriately remunerated for his on-court contributions, and should be given his due among the NBA’s elite. I mean, they don’t call him “King James” for nothing.

As for taking shots at James seeming or sounding uneducated, even people who don’t watch the NBA are likely familiar with his backstory. Straight after a standout high school career at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, LeBron was drafted as the first overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers. In other words, he never went to college. As far as James and those around him were concerned, though, for someone who was a lock as a eventual NBA superstar, there was no need for him to seek a degree or try to prove himself against the top talent in the NCAA. This is not to say that he couldn’t have completed a four-year program, just that he didn’t. Besides, one doesn’t necessarily have to have a Juris Doctorate from the University of Virginia like Ms. Ingraham to be able to speak with any semblance of intelligence. For that matter, we might also be spared the haughty attitude.

With that aside made, let’s get back to the notion that the realm of politics and the realm of entertainment/sports should be kept separate. For those people who look at these media as escapes of sorts from the news media, especially stories of a political nature, this is a desire for which many of us can be sympathetic, at least in theory. Keeping up with the events of today is, in a word, exhausting. I’m sure there are some of us now whose blood boils at the mere mention of the name “Trump.” Even when we’re not having #NotMyPresident moments, there’s enough that goes on which is liable to depress us. Murder, rape, assault, theft, corruption, natural disasters, drug epidemics, mass shootings, salmonella outbreaks, glaciers melting, the last known male northern white rhino dying. So much of what we are made to absorb seems so abjectly negative, it feels only right we should have some sort of distraction or diversion.

In this regard, the controversy brought about by Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest during the playing of the National Anthem might be a shock to the system as much as anything. Along these lines, NFL fans were probably angry on some level that they had to consider politics and social issues at all. Give me my three hours of men crashing into one another, cheerleaders shaking their pom-poms, and tons of commercials! I don’t want to have think about why people are unhappy with America!

Then again, maybe politics and social issues do have much to do with the nature of the controversy—too much, at that. Kaepernick intended his protest as a way to bring attention to the injustices faced by people of color at the hands of the criminal justice system and law enforcement in the United States, but without being disrespectful to veterans and members of the Armed Forces (after meeting and talking with Nate Boyer, former NFL long snapper and U.S. Army Green Beret, Kaepernick opted to kneel rather than sit).

After Donald Trump, a majority of NFL team owners, and other self-appointed arbiters of patriotism got a hold of it, however, it became a referendum on one’s appreciation for the military and the country. You don’t like it? Move to Canada! In Kaepernick’s case, the quarterback who at least could serve as a backup to one of 32 teams was all but officially blacklisted from the league. As far as Trump et al. were concerned re the “son of a bitch” Kaepernick, good riddance. And not another word about the treatments of blacks and other people of color in this proud nation.

This is where the desire to keep politics out of entertainment and sports gets tricky. If it’s part of a plea for a respite from the demands of the outside world, that would seem to have merit, or if nothing else, engender pity. If it’s based on a desire to kick dissenters out of the league for acting in accordance with First Amendment rights and to indefinitely prolong a meaningful conversation about race in this country, that’s a horse of a different color.

The latter condition accompanies an ongoing debate among self-styled culture warriors about whether there is a “time and place” for a discussion on important social issues, and whether “civility” should be observed. With respect to the ongoing dumpster fire that is the Trump administration’s handling of separating/reuniting immigrant families, some individuals decried Sarah Sanders’s being told to leave The Red Hen restaurant because of her politics, while others reveled in it. On the left, some, such as Maxine Waters, insisted Trump administration officials should expected to be “harassed” in public as long as the White House’s disastrous immigrant policy is in place, while others, like Chuck Schumer, put forth that this treatment was “un-American,” and even Bernie Sanders professed that Sanders and others should be able to sit down and have a meal.

While I, too, believe that individuals like Stephen Miller and Kirstjen Nielsen—reprehensible as their conduct has been in their official capacities—deserve not to be shouted at or threatened with bodily harm, all calls for civility are not created equal. First of all, what “civility” entails may be open to interpretation. Is asking Sarah Sanders to leave a restaurant uncivil? That might depend on who you ask.

Secondly, and more importantly, calls for civility are only as good as the ability to interact with the other party on an equal footing and with an openness to act in a corrective way. Indeed, there must be a time and place for such a dialog, alongside a legitimate promise to debate the issues at hand (unlike, say, a Mitch McConnell promise to his Democratic colleagues to hold a vote, which is almost certain to be broken).

Too frequently, meanwhile, protests that there is a time and place for serious deliberation signify that the desired time is “never,” the desired place is “nowhere,” and furthermore, that there is no guarantee the two sides will even talk about the same thing or agree to interact on level-headed, rational terms in the future. Besides, how do you debate, for instance, that tearing children away from their mothers is immoral? If it’s not already apparent that it is, this already signifies a bit of a problem.

Returning to the earlier war of words between Laura Ingraham and LeBron James, there are two concepts I submit we should consider. The first is whether or not Ingraham’s opinions carry more weight than James’s because she is specifically paid to express her opinions, whereas he is paid only to “bounce a ball.” While it might be Ingraham’s job to wax philosophical and political, and while she may be better-versed on specific topics, her opinions are no more valid than James’s, especially if buttressed by misstatements of fact and other misleading information. Sure, Ingraham’s education and experience may make her seem more credible, but just like you or I, she is subject to bias, not to mention a tendency toward elitism. Just because we might agree with her views doesn’t mean that bias isn’t there.

The second topic to consider is whether or not the want of refusal to “talk politics” should be considered an abdication of civil responsibility. Much as we might be loath to confront it, politics is infused into every facet of our daily life. Going back to the NFL, we might seek to avoid politics, but on the subject of player protests and other pertinent matters, the battle lines, if you will, have already been drawn. Consequently, not taking a stance is, in effect, taking a stance.

This sentiment only intensifies when the issue at hand directly impacts the person faced with making a judgment. How reasonable is it to expect professional football players, two-thirds of whom are black, not to have thoughts on this topic? Are they just supposed to “shut up and tackle?” Because they signed a contract to play football for a living, have they thus waived their freedom of speech? It’s no wonder players like Michael Bennett have likened the league’s treatment of its talent to how plantation owners treated slaves as property. It might be an extreme comparison, but it’s one that captures the feelings of blacks across the nation. Unless or until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes, we can’t really know what that’s like.


LeBron James changed team affiliations when he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers in early July, but his views on Donald Trump don’t appear to have changed any. In a recent interview with CNN’s Don Lemon, James reiterated his belief that President Trump is trying to “divide us” and that he feels that he “can’t sit back and say nothing” in the face of POTUS’s rhetoric. He also alluded to the President’s attitudes giving a sense of empowerment to those with strong racist beliefs to say demeaning things when previously they would not have, and stated his wish to never sit across the table from Trump (though he would do so with Obama).

If Laura Ingraham has had anything to say about LeBron James since her previous rant, I don’t know, though confessedly, I’m not really all that interested. Criticizing James as a stupid jock when he has remained free of controversy throughout his career (outside of “The Decision” and his numerous team changes, though this doesn’t relate to his personal conduct) and when he has done so much charity work for children in his native Ohio strikes me as petty and misplaced. As far as the NBA is concerned, James is to be celebrated on and off the court—not the other way around.

As some critics of Ingraham’s have suggested, it’s a little strange for someone who believes in individual liberty to rail against someone like James for expressing his or her personal opinions. What’s obvious in her reaction to James’s words is that she’s only telling him to stay in his lane because she doesn’t like what he says. If it were Candace Owens or Kanye West calling out professional athletes for kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem, Ingraham would, in all likelihood, be lapping it up, extolling the virtues of black Americans becoming “independent thinkers” and eschewing Democratic or liberal values. Cue the comment about taking the “red pill.”

While lamenting the idea that conservatives are threatening to ruin, for me personally, a movie in The Matrix which I have enjoyed since first seeing it in theatres, I am nonetheless focused on the real issue at hand. Though jingoistic Americans may feel otherwise, dissent can be patriotic, too. On the subject of athletes and entertainers using their platform to share their political views, such should be encouraged, for even if we disagree with them, there is no mandate which states that their beliefs are better than or count more than ours. They just happen to have a larger audience at their disposal, or stand to increase the size of their platform exponentially with their commentary. When prompted about her response to his interview, LeBron professed that, before their war of words, he had no idea who Laura Ingraham was, but that he definitely knew now and that it was good for her that she stoked this controversy. The baller he is, James knows not to hate the player, but the game.

So, let’s stop all this “shut up and dribble” nonsense. To be a citizen is to be an engaged, informed, and responsible individual—regardless of what you do for a living. After all, if we can elect a dangerously unqualified businessman in Donald Trump to be our leader, it’s just as well that we encourage one another to speak our minds.

Is Sacha Baron Cohen’s New Show Bad for America?

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Is Saron Baron Cohen’s new show bad for America? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe he’s just a comedian playing tricks on people for entertainment value, and we should just leave it at that. (Photo Credit: Joella Marino/Flickr)

He’s baaaaa-aaack!

Sacha Baron Cohen’s new show Who Is Americapremiered this past Sunday on Showtime, the first episode in a seven-episode series that sees Baron Cohen return to the world of donning disguises and accents, and continuing to dupe people of influence into interviews and supporting positions publicly that undermine their credibility.

Ahead of its release, few details were released about who or what would appear on the show, save for Dick Cheney signing a “waterboarding kit” (which amounted to little more than a jug of water) in the promotional materials. Also, Sarah Palin copped to being played by Baron Cohen, although not without calling him “evil and sick” for tricking her, and Roy Moore threatening to sue Showtime over his chicanery. Clearly, the man has already struck a nerve.

At this writing, reviews are yet sparse, with only a handful having been aggregated by the likes of Metacritic. Having seen the premiere, I can say that Republicans are not the only targets of his comedy, although whether these figures are the jokes or whether Baron Cohen’s send-ups of American culture are tends to vary more as we move more leftward across the political spectrum. Bernie Sanders appears in a segment with Baron Cohen’s character Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick, an Alex Jones-style conspiracy theorist, engaging in an absurd conversation where “Ruddick” engages in some warped math involving the 1% and 99% before Sanders confesses he has no idea what Ruddick is talking about.

As Rick Sherman, meanwhile, an ex-con who paints portraits with bodily fluids, Baron Cohen also meets with Christy Cones, a fine art consultant for Coast Gallery in Laguna Beach, who praises the bravery behind “Sherman’s” story and work. Since finding about the ruse, Cones has evidently expressed a desire to meet face-to-face with Baron Cohen as “compensation for his underhanded tactics,” criticizing him for “pretending to be someone who suffered when he probably hasn’t suffered a moment in his life.” To what extent Cones may have “suffered” in her own life, who knows, but for someone who seemed a willing participant in the throes of the filming, certainly, she is not taking it all in stride after the fact.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s “art”—some might say I am being generous in calling it that—relies on deception and making people feel uncomfortable, both on screen and off it. It’s not a style for everyone, particularly those who feel victimized by their encounters with him and his portfolio of personas. In terms of perceptions of its quality, as noted, reviews are still being written or are in the waiting, but from my estimation, while entertaining, some segments play better than others. Baron Cohen, in his sit-down with June Page Thompson, a Trump delegate from South Carolina, and her husband and fellow Trump voter, Mark Thompson, as Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, a liberal Democrat who apologizes for his identity as a white cisgender male, tells accounts of raising his children that are obvious caricatures of liberalism taken to an extreme. The Thompsons don’t bite, though, or not to the extent that they angrily ask him to leave. It’s as if Baron Cohen is slow-playing them for a reaction he never gets, and the final product seems flat as a result.

The payoff proves larger for a segment in which Baron Cohen, as Col. Erran Morad, an Israeli anti-terrorism expert, convinces numerous gun rights advocates/Republican lawmakers to lend their support to an initiative that would arm children with guns as a means of curbing gun violence in schools. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida does not take the bait, but others, including Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, and former U.S. senator Trent Lott, appeared only too happy to endorse the measure. It’s both funny and terrifying, and the most redeeming value is that these men consented to appearing as they did and reading from prepared materials. That is, they can’t claim this is “fake news” because the tape doesn’t lie.

Whether or not the show is subjectively “good” or “bad” as a comedic creation does not approach, however, the subject of whether or not Who Is America? is a show that real-world America needs in the current political climate. This topic is at the heart of a recent piece by Aja Romano, Internet culture reporter for Vox, who believes Baron Cohen’s “prankster provocations are a bad match for our current cultural climate.” Declaring them “exhausting” and “dangerous,” Romano attempts to quickly poke a hole in the liberal balloon of giddiness in delighting over the trickery and debasement of conservative figureheads:

On the one hand, all this may seem like the beginning of a glorious sublime parade of politicians owning themselves. But on the other hand, these politicians were tricked into appearing on the record as themselves, in a way that further perpetuates and entrenches not only the cultural ideological divide, but the idea among conservatives that “liberal” media, including entertainment media like Baron Cohen’s production, is a constant and perpetual trap to be distrusted at all costs.

Not only that, but the mileage Team Reality will get out of Baron Cohen’s performance-art antics won’t be nearly as potent as the validation Team Fake News will get out of claiming that Who Is America? represents a new low for liberals. And that’s because Team Reality was losing its hold over a single dominant reality paradigm long before Baron Cohen cycled back onto the scene.

As Romano would have it, it’s not so much that Sarah Palin et al. allowed themselves to be deceived, but that someone like Baron Cohen, who may or may not have an ax to grind, is doing the deceiving and providing cannon fodder for conservatives in the ongoing “culture war” coloring much of political interaction today. In other words, the right does not need any more material, not when they are especially good at creating it—out of thin air, if need be.

The problem, as Romano tells it, is that Baron Cohen is an “old comedy dog with old comedy tricks.” Back in 2006, when the Borat movie was first released, his comedy was still fresh and novel, and YouTube and the 24-hour news cycle had yet to really explode. Now, YouTube pranksters are numerous, outrage over news is Twitter’s currency, and it’s getting harder and harder to tell what is the genuine article and what is a meme designed to provoke hysteria. As such, in an era when real news seems like a parody of itself, exposing celebrities as Baron Cohen does loses its (shock) value.

Romano also cites Ted Koppel, who reportedly was also interviewed for the show. While dealing with his being duped better than others, Koppel expresses real concern about whether or not the whole exercise is productive, saying that “if there’s one thing we don’t need any more of in this particular era, it’s people posing as documentarians,” and that “to undermine whatever tiny little bit of confidence might be left by pulling a stunt like this” may make for good comedy, but at the same time, might not be terrific for the “overall atmosphere.” When so much focus is levied on the cultural “divide” and on people adhering to their social media “bubbles,” as a seasoned journalist, Koppel knows full well what is he talking about when he refers to such an atmosphere.

In all, as Aja Romano sees it, Sacha Baron Cohen is not adding to the national dialog, “but…gleefully poking at it and watching everyone — politicians and onlookers alike — get upset.” To wit, I am not familiar with Romano or her work, though that doesn’t mean her commentary is to be dismissed. It’s not like she is the only one concerned about where Who Is America? fits into the whole modern political conversation, either.

While any number of celebrities and humorists have extolled the show’s virtues—presumably because they genuinely enjoy the show and not merely as a show of solidarity—not everyone is as keen on labeling it “essential” viewing. Indeed, Charles Bramesco of The Guardian, for one, finds much of the program’s content “inconsequential,” and Mike Hale of The New York Times prefaces his review of the first episode with the tagline “Should We Care?” When Romano speaks to a larger exhaustion at having to deal with real politics, her assessment of Baron Cohen’s comedy as exhausting might just hit the nail on the head. Certainly, not everyone affixed to the “liberal media” is so amused by his antics.

Then again, it could be that the program is but one amid a glut of comedic programming devoted to the state of political affairs in the United States. With so many competing voices, perhaps it’s natural that Baron Cohen, delivering material in a format not dissimilar from his previous efforts, loses his appeal in light of all the alternatives. In a sea of angry (or wryly amused, at least) voices, maybe he was bound to be unable to add anything to our discourse before he began.


In asking whether or not Sacha Baron Cohen’s new show is “bad” for America, it should be stressed that, while this question is phrased in terms of a yes-or-no binary, a fitting answer may be simply that it is neither bad nor good for America—it just is. Even if Who Is America? isn’t deliberately provoking outrage from detractors on the right, therefore—already, it’s evident that it is provoking outrage, so the remaining debate is whether Baron Cohen should shoulder the lion’s share of the blame or whether his victims should for allowing themselves to get so PO-ed in the first place—and assuming, as Ms. Romano insists, that the program doesn’t add to the discussion but only entertains, might this be a counterproductive creation in that it keeps us stuck in place when we should be making progress on bridging the divide? That is, if we’re not moving forward, are we essentially moving backward?

In considering the utility (or potential lack thereof) of Baron Cohen’s show, I’m reminded of the media’s attempts to grapple with The Daily Show‘s popularity in the Jon Stewart era. At its peak, about 12% of Americans cited The Daily Show as a place where they got their news, according to an online poll by Pew Research in 2015. That didn’t make it a leader in news, of course, but it put the show roughly equal to sources like USA Today and Huffington Post. Stewart, ever self-effacing, has always been quick to downplay the show’s influence, at least as much as he brought to it, and even the results of the poll suggest most respondents watched for the entertainment value during his tenure rather than for in-depth reporting, the latest headlines, or views and opinions.

Any inherent limitations as a news source aside, Stewart’s 16-year stewardship of Comedy Central’s flagship program was admired for his being tough on public figures when the occasion arose, notably Barack Obama and Tony Blair, the latter for his insistence on military solutions to a war on terror which was becoming increasingly apparent could not be fought be purely on military terms, but also had to confront the underlying ideologies.

Accordingly, while interviews with various entertainers seemed comparatively lightweight, the show’s regular dissection of the motives of established political figures and aspiring candidates alike, as well as the agendas of authentic news media outlets, was seen as meritorious. As with Michelle Wolf’s takedown of the news media alongside the political elite in the most recent White House Correspondents’ Dinner (Wolf herself is a Daily Show alum), comedy was a tool for Stewart and his confrères to cut through the bullshit and hold the objects of their critical lenses accountable.

And while Stewart downplayed this aspect of the show, too, his measured, rational approach to confronting the issues of the day prompted favorable responses, not to mention this column in The New Yorker from Amy Davidson Sorkin entitled “Jon Stewart, We Need You in 2016.” In an era in which more traditional news sources are either losing customers (newspapers) or credibility (cable news), The Daily Show seemed less like an escape from reality and more like a bastion of sanity, capped off by its trademark closing “Your Moment of Zen.” By this token, antipathy from the FOX News wing of political belief systems was considered more of a badge of honor than a legitimate admonishment to be honored or feared, with the conservative network billing itself as “fair and balanced” guilty of more than its fair share of biased “reporting.”

Besides, it is not as if Jon Stewart hasn’t been critical of Democrats. In fact, since ending his run as host of The Daily Show, he arguably has reserved his harshest rebukes for figures outside the GOP fold, as if to express his dismay and disapproval with a party that has appeared, at times, to lack a unified message or to act in accordance with its stated values. In a notably tense exchange in a live podcast taping with David Axelrod for The Axe Files, Stewart blamed the Dems, in part, for the rise of a demagogue like Donald Trump by not doing their part to make government more effective and efficient for their constituents. There was still plenty of humor to be enjoyed throughout, although perhaps not as irreverently told as when he was host of The Daily Show—and not without plenty of harsh words for “man-baby” Trump.

This is where I’m a little unsure how to regard Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest act. The backlash from the Joe Arpaios, Roy Moores and Sarah Palins of the world is to be expected, and deceiving them, one might argue, is going after some low-hanging fruit, politically speaking. Then again, when has the provocateur suggested he is interested in anything else but entertainment? If the first episode of Who Is America? is any indication, everyone is fair game, including liberals, so allegations of bias might be deemed overstated.

What’s more, this irritation at Baron Cohen’s humor seems indicative of a larger trend of conservatives reacting negatively to jokes made at their expense, either because of their inability to take a joke, their frustration with having drastically fewer comedians at their disposal in alignment with their ideologies, or both. Liberal humor panning conservatives seems rooted in poking fun at people like Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin, and Donald Trump who carry themselves so seriously and yet merit none of the respect they crave.

When the script is flipped, meanwhile, stabs at comedy feel predicated on lazy stereotypes, if not real contempt for the objects of the joke-maker’s gaze and/or resentment of the perceived snobbery of the left. Or it could be that so many people who enjoy humor with their political news tend to be younger, and by association, more liberal. Or it could be that conservatism is about preserving the status quo, and is therefore fundamentally at odds with comedy, the milieu of the underdog. Or, as comedian Dean Obeidallah would aver, it’s that conservatives want desperately to be funny, but just aren’t very good at it. While humor indeed is subjective, statistically speaking and for what it’s worth, it’s hard to come up with many examples of successful right-leaning comedians. You can fill in the blanks herein as you see fit.

Is Who Is America? a great show, or even among Sacha Baron Cohen’s best work? Probably not. Is it good for America? Maybe, maybe not, though having already outed a number of GOP lawmakers for supporting the right of kindergartners to bear arms, it feels like Baron Cohen has already done fine work. But at the end of the day, perhaps it’s not Baron Cohen’s job to provide hard-hitting commentary, much as it wasn’t incumbent upon Jon Stewart to be a clarion call amid the static of the cable news cycle and the entropy of the social media sphere. Let the funny man play dress-up and prank people, calls for civility aside. There are those in Congress, in the Supreme Court, and the White House who are specifically tasked with upholding major American institutions, and are thereby more deserving of our scorn. No kidding.

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.

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