2019 Recap: No Rest for the Weary

Beto, you look like I feel. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Excitement and dread.

These two moods best describe how I feel heading into a new year and a new decade. On one hand, I am eager to see how the United States presidential election and how impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump will shake out. On the other hand, I worry voters are prepared to repeat a very dumb decision they made back in 2016 on top of being concerned about the health of the global economy, the future of our planet, and the welfare of the most disadvantaged and disenfranchised segments of the population. I’m getting my popcorn ready—and trying not to bite my nails as I prepare to eat it.

Where do you stand as we turn the calendar to 2020? Are you looking ahead, saying “good riddance” to 2019? Are you pumping the brakes, cautious about the hell that the coming year might have to offer? Or, if you’re like me, are you somewhere in between? Whatever your sentiments, this recap of the past year is designed to reflect on some of its prevailing themes, at least as far as this writer covered it. So without further ado, stop looking at those Baby Yoda memes and let’s take a look back on the year that was.

Tucker Carlson’s white power hour

FOX News has been a repository for false or misleading narratives and opinion journalism masquerading as real news reporting for some time now. Of late, though, its prime time lineup has seemed particularly reprehensible and soulless.

Trying to choose which of FOX’s personalities is the worst is a bit like deciding whether you’d rather be burned alive, poisoned, or shot. However you look at it, there’s a terrible option awaiting you. Sean Hannity is a shameless Trump apologist who serves as a propaganda machine for the president and who regularly traffics in conspiracy theories. Laura Ingraham likewise is a staunch Trump defender who has assailed Democrats for voting to impeach Trump and who has targeted liberal critics of her employer as “journo-terrorists,” inciting her followers to spew venom in their direction.

If one figure takes FOX News’s cake of hateful conservative rhetoric, however, that person might just be Tucker Carlson, who has demonized not just illegal immigration, but all non-white immigration to the United States, lamenting would-be immigrants as making “our own country poorer and dirtier and more divided.” Not exactly lifting our lamp beside the golden door, are we, Tucker?

Depending on how you view American attitudes toward immigration, such an argument is either un-American or distinctly American, but it certainly goes against our stated values as that fabled melting pot of the North American continent. Tucker Carlson is a white nationalist who espouses racist views regularly from his position as a highly-watched political commentator. At heart, it doesn’t matter what he believes. His platform for cruelty and hate outweighs his protestations on the basis of free speech, and calls for boycotts of his program are more than warranted.

Candace Owens is a conservative grifter

Candace Owens makes a legitimate point: Blacks don’t necessarily have to vote for Democrats. In truth, they, like members of other minority groups, have probably been underserved by the Democratic Party. That said, this reality does nothing to absolve the Republican Party of being an exclusionary group of largely white males which harbors actual white supremacists. It also doesn’t mean that Owens has any legitimacy as a political activist.

Conservatives like Owens because she makes their talking points for them and because they can point to her as a token example of how the GOP isn’t just a repository for folks of the Caucasian persuasion. The problem with Owens’s service in this capacity is that she makes her arguments in bad faith and/or in ignorance of the true history of past events.

For example, she downplays the existence of racism in America despite her and her family members being a victim of it. Because she’s NOT A VICTIM, YOU LIBERAL CUCKS. YOU’RE THE SNOWFLAKE. Also, there was the time she tried to claim Adolf Hitler wasn’t a nationalist, as if to say that the Führer was fine except for when he took his act on the road. Right.

Candace Owens is someone who has filled a void among today’s conservatives to rise to prominence despite being a relative newcomer to the fold. But she’s an opportunist who owes her popularity in right-wing circles to YouTube more than the content of her speeches and she shouldn’t be taken seriously—you know, even if she was asked to testify before Congress.

Making America Great Againwhether you realize it or not

Americans frequently lament the political divide which dominates the nation’s discourse. When they can’t even agree on the same set of facts let alone holding different opinions, however, the notion that many of us are living in separate realities becomes readily apparent.

Take the case of a group of students from Covington Catholic High School attending a March for Life rally in Washington, D.C. and Nathan Phillips, a Native American and veteran on hand for the Indigenous Peoples March. Upon members of the Black Hebrew Israelites shouting epithets at the kids on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Phillips interceded to try to diffuse the situation, singing and drumming. The students, meanwhile, several wearing MAGA hats, mocked Phillips, with one boy, Nick Sandmann, standing face-to-face to him and smirking derisively.

Of course, that Sandmann and his family would be sent death threats is inexcusable. That media outlets and public figures would post hasty retractions and hold softball interviews with the fresh-faced white kid, all the while doubting their initial reactions to what they saw, though, is wrong all the same. Spare me the hagiographic sanctification of Sandmann’s “right” to do what he did. His privilege existed before this incident and will certainly continue long after it. Furthermore, the both-sides-ing of this case is appalling in light of the implied racism herein.

Alas, this is emblematic of America in the era of President Trump. If you believe him and his supporters, the economy has never been doing better, immigrants are a danger to the country, Israel is our only ally in the Middle East and that will always be the case, and he alone is the reason why North Korea hasn’t moved to nuke us. These are the falsehoods perpetuated by a Divider-in-Chief who, as he gives as a State of the Union address, only promotes more disunity.

There’s something about “The Squad”

Outside of Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton, whose evident shadow presidency has loomed over Donald Trump’s tenure since before it began, no figures make Republicans and conservative pundits foam at the mouth quite like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib, known colloquially as “The Squad.”

The congressional neophytes have been a frequent target for Trump and others, with the president himself playing every part the ugly American and suggesting they “go back where they came from.” Ocasio-Cortez is of Puerto Rican descent and was born in the Bronx. Pressley was born on American soil, too, as was Tlaib. Only Omar was born outside the United States and she eventually secured citizenship. These women are Americans and their patriotism shouldn’t be questioned.

Omar in particular has seen more than her share of abuse from detractors on the left and right. She and Tlaib, for their support of Palestinian rights and for their attention to the influence of the pro-Israel lobby, specifically AIPAC, have been branded as anti-Semites. Being a Muslim and alluding to the corrosive influence of money in politics doesn’t make you an anti-Semite, however, and Omar’s forced apology only seems to make her point about the Israel lobby’s reach for her.

Party leaders like Pelosi may downplay the influence of these women as limited to their Twitter followers, but going after The Squad is ill-advised no matter where you land on the political spectrum. Centrist Dems may balk at their progressive ideals, but if they are not model Democrats, who is?

The irresponsibility of social media giants

Social media has greatly expanded our idea to communicate ideas to one another and share content. The bad news is not all of this material is equal in its merit and companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter are unwilling or unable to handle it.

On YouTube, for instance, right-wing and far-right content creators have been given effective carte blanche to peddle their hate to impressionable young males, and pedophiles have been given access to random people’s videos through the service’s automated recommendation system. Twitter has been slow to respond to warranted bans for professional liars such as Alex Jones and has seemingly been content to make cosmetic changes to its interface rather than authentically enforce its stated guidelines.

Perhaps the worst actor in this regard, though, is Facebook, whose founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has expressly identified Elizabeth Warren’s prospects of winning the presidency as an “existential threat.” Earlier this year, the company announced a shift that would allow political campaigns to essentially lie with impunity in their advertisements, a shift that favors the Trump campaign, a haven for disinformation.

Zuckerberg has publicly defended this change on free speech grounds, weirdly invoking civil rights leaders amid attempting to justify Facebook’s abdication of its responsibility. But realistically speaking, Facebook has been derelict in its duty for some time now, failing to clearly state rules or enforcing them only in the most obvious and publicized instances. If companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter can’t police themselves, it’s high time we move to regulate them or even break them up to the point they can be effectively managed.

Hey, did you know there’s a process called “impeachment?”

Will they or won’t they? By now, we know they did, although, as some would argue, they could’ve done more with it.

I’m talking about impeachment, in case you were unaware or did not read the heading preceding this subsection. For the longest time, it seemed as if Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats were going to forgo bringing articles of impeachment up for a vote. As Pelosi stated publicly, there was the matter of beating Donald Trump in 2020 at the ballot box. She also insisted Trump impeached himself, even though self-impeachment isn’t a thing and that just made it appear as if she were waiting for the president to self-destruct or for someone else to do the Democrats’ dirty work for them.

Unfortunately for Pelosi and Company, Robert Mueller, while he could not clear Trump of the possibility of obstruction of justice in his report, also wouldn’t move to prosecute the president, citing DOJ precedent. With growing public support for impeachment not to mention an increasing number of House Democrats making their preference for impeachment known, it became harder and harder to resist the calls.

When news broke of Trump’s fateful call to Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky requesting an investigation into Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden as well as an admission of guilt regarding Ukraine’s framing of Russia for interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election (based on a debunked conspiracy theory, no less) all as part of a quid pro quo to secure $400 million in aid already earmarked by Congress, the path forward became clear. In September, a formal impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump was announced and in December, the House voted to impeach Trump on two counts: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Obstruction of justice was notably absent from these counts.

Support for or against impeachment has largely fallen along party lines. Justin Amash deserves at least a modicum of credit for breaking from his fellow Republicans and opting to impeach Trump, though his new identity as an independent who criticizes both parties equally isn’t exactly great. Jeff Van Drew, in switching from a Democrat to a Republican because he was unlikely to get re-elected, deserves nothing but scorn, as does Tulsi Gabbard for voting Present on the articles of impeachment. The concerns of vulnerable Democratic seats are well taken but aren’t numerous enough to merit withholding on impeachment altogether.

While winning the presidential election is critical for Democrats and losing House seats would clearly not be a desired outcome, at the end of the day, accountability matters. For Democrats to sit by and do nothing while Trump continues on a path of corruption and destruction would’ve been unconscionable. It took them long enough, but at least they did something.

The absolute mess that has been the Democratic primary

Joe Biden. Michael Bloomberg. Cory Booker. Pete Buttigieg. Julián Castro. Bill de Blasio. John Delaney. Tulsi Gabbard. Kirsten Gillibrand. Kamala Harris. Amy Klobuchar. Beto O’Rourke. Bernie Sanders. Tom Steyer. Elizabeth Warren. Marianne Williamson. And a bunch of dudes you probably didn’t even know were running or still are campaigning. Welcome to the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primary, ladies and gentlemen.

By this point in the race, we’ve lost some notable contenders, chief among them Harris and O’Rourke. Some, like Bloomberg, joined late. Howard Schultz never even joined and was unmercifully booed along his path to discovering he had no shot. More concessions of defeat will eventually come, but in the meantime, the field remains crowded as all heck in advance of the Iowa caucuses. It’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen in February.

As it stands, Joe Biden is the presumptive nominee, despite the absence of clear policy goals, a checkered record as a legislator, and apparent signs of decline. This is not to say the race is over, however. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are strong contenders, and Pete Buttigieg has seen his star rise in recent weeks. With a significant portion of prospective primary voters yet undecided, it’s still anyone’s proverbial ballgame. OK, probably not Michael Bennet’s, but yes, still very wide open.

In a theoretical match-up with a generic Democrat, Donald Trump loses frequently depending on the survey. While Biden and Buttigieg are seen as perhaps the “safest” bets based on their place in the polls and their centrist stances, in 2016, the centrist Hillary Clinton proved to be the loser and a moderate could well lose again to Trump in 2020.

Establishment Democrats may be loath to have a progressive like Elizabeth Warren or, worse yet, an independent and self-described democratic socialist like Bernie Sanders at the top of the ticket, a feeling exacerbated by Jeremy Corbyn’s and the Labour Party’s recent drubbing at the hands of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party in the UK. There are appreciable differences to be had between someone like Corbyn and someone like Sanders, though, including the very different situations facing the United States and a United Kingdom still trying to come to grips with the Brexit referendum vote. If the Dems are serious about beating Trump this coming November, a Sanders or Warren might just be their best hope to achieve this.

Quick items

  • Evidently, some Democratic donors are still in their feelings about Al Franken’s fall from grace. Even though, you know, Franken made his own bed and lay in it. Meanwhile, another fallen male celebrity of the #MeToo era, Kevin Spacey, continues to be creepy AF.
  • Michael Jackson’s image took yet another hit upon the release of the docu-series Leaving Neverland. Jackson’s most rabid fans, er, did not take kindly to this new production.
  • Anti-Semitism is on the rise and “lone wolf” attacks carried out by shooters sharing hateful extremist views continue to occur. But Ilhan Omar is the bad guy because she pointed out the connection between the Israel lobby and public positions on Israel. Is that you pounding your head on the table or is it me?
  • In my home state of New Jersey, so-called Democrats like Steve Sweeney have seen fit to challenge Phil Murphy on various initiatives for daring to question millions in tax breaks given to party boss George Norcross and companies linked to him. Nice to know where their priorities lie.
  • Sarah Sanders resigned from her post of White House press secretary, allowing the White House to finally, er, continue not having actual press conferences.
  • Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey dared to support Hong Kong protesters in their opposition to heavy-handed Chinese policies aimed at the region. China had a fit and cancelled various deals with the Rockets and the NBA. In general, China has a major influence on our economy and holds a lot of our debt, greatly impacting publicly-stated political positions. But sure, let’s talk about Russia some more, shall we, MSNBC?
  • Migrant families are still being detained in inhumane conditions at the border, and yes, they are still concentration camps.
  • Much of today’s political punditry, dominated by white males, continues to suck. Especially yours, Bret Stephens, you bed bug, you.
  • Mitch McConnell is still, like, the worst.
  • On second thought, no, Stephen Miller is probably the worst.

Pete Buttigieg is young and well-spoken, so apparently, some people think he should be the next President of the United States. (Photo Credit: Lorie Shaull/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

I struggled for a while before settling on “No Rest for the Weary” as the title of this post. Why did I choose this? In trying to look back at the 2010s and identify a theme, a lot of what seemed to characterize major events was unrest. A global financial crisis. The uprisings of what was termed the Arab Spring. The emergence of ISIS. The annexation of Crimea. Brexit. The ongoing climate crisis.

Much of this has a chaotic feel to it, and what’s more, there’s little to no reassurance the 2020s will be any better along this dimension. As income and wealth inequality grow in the United States and abroad, and as more people become refugees as a result of a less habitable planet, there are plenty of reasons to worry we’ll reach some sort of tipping point unless dramatic corrective action is taken. In truth, we should really be further along than we are.

All this uncertainty and unrest is, well, tiring. It takes a lot to invest oneself in the politics and social issues and economics of the day. I myself continuously feel as if I am not saying or doing enough to contribute to the betterment of our society. Realistically, depending on one’s immediate circumstances, it can be a real struggle to want to be involved in the first place.

Despite the emotional and physical fatigue of it all, seeing what happens when Americans aren’t engaged with the issues affecting them or aren’t involved with the decisions impacting them at home and at work makes it all the more imperative that we stay informed and politically active. The Washington Post has adopted the slogan, “Democracy dies in darkness.” While they may be overstating their part in this a bit, I feel the maxim holds true. When we cede our power to those who seek to diminish us for theirs or someone else’s personal gain, we have lost a great deal indeed.

My hope is that all is not lost, however. I would not have wished President Donald Trump on this country for anything, but in the wake of his catastrophe, ordinary people are organizing and making their voices heard. This may have happened regardless of who won in 2016, but in America, Trump’s political ascendancy sure seems to have accelerated things.

What needs to happen and what I believe is already underway is a political revolution. You and I may have different ideas on how that will manifest. I believe a progressive direction is the best and perhaps only path forward. Much of our story has yet to be written. Whatever happens, though, it is through our solidarity as everyday people that positive change will be achieved.

In all, here’s hoping for a better 2020. There may be no rest for the weary, but there are enough people and big ideas at work to suggest a new dawn is on the horizon.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube: Where the Rules May or May Not Apply

YouTube hasn’t removed Steven Crowder’s content despite his repeated violations of its terms of service prohibiting abusive behavior and hate speech. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

In a recent piece for The Intercept, Sam Biddle outlines how Project Veritas, a conservative group known for using deception and subterfuge in its attempts to expose the alleged misdeeds of leftists and left-leaning outlets like The Washington Post, has openly violated Facebook’s guidelines about the use of fake profiles in the service of “coordinated authentic behavior.”

The article, which includes deposition from members of the group admitting to how manufactured Facebook profiles factor into their work as well as context about the group’s backing, has this to say about Facebook’s oversight of the content it hosts alongside the company’s stated goal of stemming disinformation and propaganda:

The real issue is uneven, arbitrary enforcement of “the rules.” Max Read, writing in New York magazine on another social network’s enforcement blunders, argued that “the problem for YouTube is that for rules to be taken seriously by the people they govern, they need to be applied consistently and clearly.” YouTube is about as terrible at this exercise as Facebook is, and there’s a good chance that if Facebook treated malicious right-wing American exploitation of its network the same way it treats malicious foreign exploitation of its network, it would probably botch the whole thing and end up burning people who actually do use phony Facebook profiles for work toward the public good.

That a company like Facebook is even in a position to create “rules” like the coordinated inauthentic behavior policy that apply to a large chunk of the Earth’s population is itself a serious problem, one made considerably worse by completely erratic enforcement. It’s bad enough having a couple guys in California take up the banner of defending “Democracy” around the world through the exclusive control of one of the most powerful information organs in human history; if nothing else, we should hope their decisions are predictable and consistent.

While Biddle acknowledges that Facebook would probably screw up its attempts to officiate its policies against domestic political manipulation anyway, that it gives the practice a half-hearted, inconsistent effort doesn’t make matters better.

As the allusion to YouTube in Biddle’s closing additionally suggests, this phenomenon of tech giants being inadequate gatekeepers of authentic information free from hate speech is a pattern of frustrating behavior for observers across the political spectrum. Recently, YouTube caught a lot of heat from the journalist community when Carlos Maza, producer, writer, and host of the “Strikethrough” video series at Vox, made a public plea to the video-sharing website in a series of tweets pointing to homophobic and racist abuse by Steven Crowder, a conservative talk show host and self-professed comedian who has near four million subscribers to his name.

Crowder’s hollow defense against Maza’s compilation of all the times he referred to him as a “queer,” a “Mexican,” or demeaned his “lispy” delivery while caricaturing gay men has been that his is a comedy show and that his comments amount to nothing more than “playful ribbing.” This, however, to most objective observers, is unmitigated bullshit. Crowder’s repeated jabs at Maza for his criticisms of right-wing talking heads like Tucker Carlson are much stronger than the barbs you’d reserve for one of your friends—and even then they’re probably not all that appropriate and definitely not funny.

Crowder’s protestations of YouTube’s responses during this whole affair also miss the mark. Predictably, YouTube first addressed Maza’s plight by doing, well, nothing, claiming Crowder hadn’t violated its terms of service. This, like Crowder’s claims of innocence, is bogus. YouTube’s rules explicitly outlaw “content or behavior intended to maliciously harass, threaten, or bully others” and furthermore view hate speech as a violation. Representatives from the company explained that it opted not to take action against Crowder because he didn’t direct his viewers to harass Maza, which is immaterial to the above concerns and, at any rate, irrelevant in consideration of the notion he himself (Crowder) was the one doing the bullying.

Eventually, however, enough people raised objections whereby YouTube moved to demonetize Crowder, itself a token gesture given the conservative provocateur gets the bulk of his revenue from merchandise sales (including his ever-tasteful “Socialism Is for Fags” T-shirt depicting Che Guevara). Crowder’s reaction? This was YouTube caving to the demands of a corporation throwing its weight around to “censor” a conservative voice in accordance with the demands of a leftist who had targeted him, one of the “little guys,” because he didn’t like his viewpoints. Never mind that Maza is a gay Latino who regular receives abuse on both Crowder’s channel and Vox each time he makes a post. Right, Mr. Crowder, you’re the marginalized one here.

This isn’t censorship, though. This is a private company enforcing its rules by which Crowder did not abide. What’s more, it’s not even doing that right. For violations of its terms, YouTube should be removing this content, not simply demonetizing it. Instead, the offending remarks remain and Crowder gets to use this episode to rally his troops and paint Maza as the aggressor. Show your outrage by signing up for the Mug Club! What better way than to proudly exhibit your freedom!

At a minimum, this is an episode that makes YouTube look very bad. That its decision-making appears so wishy-washy lends credence to the criticism that the company is trying merely to avoid accusations of bias rather than doing the right thing. It doesn’t help either that these events are unfolding during Pride Month, an occasion for which YouTube has touted its commitment to the LGBTQ community. If it were really interested in upholding the civil rights of a vulnerable subset of the population beyond mere window-dressing, maybe YouTube would actually stand in solidarity with its LGBTQ creators rather than banning them too in the interest of purported “fairness.”


I mentioned Twitter in the headline for this article. Emil Protalinski, news editor for VentureBeat, while trashing YouTube for, alongside perpetuating the Maza-Crowder fiasco, allowing its automated recommendation system to show random people’s videos to pedophiles and providing platforms for content creators to capitalize on the anger of impressionable young male viewers, likewise takes Facebook and Twitter to task for their uneven commitment to rules they aver are clearly posted and stated.

In both cases, Protalinski views failure to consistently uphold a set of guidelines as occurring so often that there are simply “too many examples to list.” The instances he does highlight, meanwhile, are salient and illustrative. Re Facebook, its refusal to remove a video headily edited to make Nancy Pelosi look drunk, senile, or some combination thereof was highly criticized at the time for irresponsibility in allowing false/misleading content to exist contrary to the company’s stated goals.

As for Twitter, Protalinski cites the social media behemoth’s dilatory response to other apps and sites banning conspiracy theory promulgator Alex Jones from its service. If nothing else, Twitter is woefully behind the curve when it comes to properly marshaling the content it hosts. And, not for nothing, but why are there so many Nazis hanging around? Like, why is banning them evidently so controversial?

Lather, rinse, repeat. We’ve sadly seen this before and we’ll see it again. Protalinski writes:

There are two whack-a-mole cycles happening on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. First, these companies fail to write clear rules. Disgusting content on their platform is brought to light. It isn’t removed. Users protest. The companies point to their rules. More outrage follows. Finally, if there is enough of a blowback, apologies are issued, the rules are “clarified,” and the example content is taken down.

The second cycle is happening at the same time. A given rule is already clear and specific. Disgusting content is brought to light. It isn’t removed. Users protest. The companies fail to explain why it wasn’t removed immediately or make up excuses. More outrage follows. Finally, if there is enough of a blowback, apologies are issued, the rules are “clarified,” and the example content is taken down.

In these cycles, only blatant and high-profile cases are removed. And that process can take anywhere from weeks to months from when the original content was published. By then it has done the damage and generated the revenue.

In either scenario, the sticking point is not necessarily the specificity of rules (although lacking clear standards of conduct is in it of itself a problem), but rather the inability or unwillingness to consistently enforce them independent of political affiliation or other identifying characteristic. Without the requisite amount of outrage or clout of the individuals expressing that outrage, nothing moves forward. Even then, actions taken are liable to be too little, too late, and backed by an inauthentic, insufficient rationale. In other words, and to echo Protalinski, the damage is done.

To be fair, this business of moderating the wealth of content that appears on the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube is no easy task given its sheer volume and the rapidity with which it is created. At the same time, this is the responsibility these companies bear as providers. If your priorities involve retaining your share of the content creation/streaming market and growing your business, you’re going to have invest in a modicum of safeguards to ensure that users and creators alike feel comfortable using your platform.

So spare us the half-assed excuses and non-apology apologies. If people like Steven Crowder don’t want to play by the rules, invite them to abide by your code of conduct or find somewhere else to peddle their hate and disinformation. I, for one, could do without the moral quandary I face by using your services—and I know I’m not alone.

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.