We’re in the Midst of a Culture War. Do We Actually Like Fighting It?

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The protests at UC Berkeley in 2017. As much as “the culture war” between liberals, conservatives, and everyone betwixt and between may be characterized by outrage, we should consider it’s become so pervasive because we actually relish fighting it. (Photo Credit: Pax Ahimsa Gethen/Funcrunch Photo/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert, took to his blog to explain his reasoning for why he switched his endorsement from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump in advance of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Though he acknowledged it wasn’t his biggest reason—positions on the estate tax, concerns about Hillary’s health, and a lack of concern about Trump being a “fascist” and belief in his talents of persuasion also were factors—part of his decision was the subjective experience of being a prospective voter in the election. In a subsection of his post titled “Party or Wake,” Adams had this to say about the Clinton-Trump audience dichotomy:

It seems to me that Trump supporters are planning for the world’s biggest party on election night whereas Clinton supporters seem to be preparing for a funeral. I want to be invited to the event that doesn’t involve crying and moving to Canada.

Silly and privileged as it might seem—I want to have a good time and not a bad time—there might be something to Adams’s sentiments as they relate to Trump’s base. In a sprawling piece for Politico, senior staff writer Michael Grunwald delves into how the culture war has pervaded our modern political landscape. Speaking on the mood at Trump’s rallies during the campaign, he evokes that party-like atmosphere to which Adams referred:

The thing I remember most about Trump’s rallies in 2016, especially the auto-da-fé moments in which he would call out various liars and losers who didn’t look like the faces in his crowds, was how much fun everyone seemed to be having. The drill-baby-drill candidate would drill the Mexicans, drill the Chinese, drill the gun-grabbers, drill all the boring Washington politicians who had made America not-great. It sure as hell wasn’t boring. It was a showman putting on a show, a culture-war general firing up his internet troops. It wasn’t a real war, like the one that Trump skipped while John McCain paid an unimaginable price, but it made the spectators feel like they were not just spectating, like they had joined an exhilarating fight. They got the adrenaline rush, the sense of being part of something larger, the foxhole camaraderie of war against a common enemy, without the physical danger.

“How much fun everyone seemed to be having.” From my liberal suburban bubble, it seems strange to imagine an environment that feels akin to a circle of Hell from Dante’s Inferno as fun.

And yet, there’s the feeling of inclusion (without really being included) that his fans apparently relish. As much as one might tend to feel that Trump gets more credit than he deserves, he has tapped into a genuine spirit of Americans feeling ignored or replaced and desiring to be part of a celebration. We don’t want change. We don’t want a level playing field for everyone. We want America to be great again. We want to keep winning. Never mind that we don’t exactly know what winning means or if we’ll still be winning five, ten, or twenty years down the road.

There’s much more to dwell upon than just the tenor of Trump’s rallies, though. Which, despite having won the election back in 2016, he’s still regularly holding. Is he already running for 2020? Or is he doing this because winning the election is his biggest achievement to date? Does anyone else think this is weird and/or a waste of time and other resources? Or is this Trump being Trump and we’re already past trying to explain why he does what he does? But, I digress.

Before we even get to present-day jaunts with the “LOCK HER UP!” crowd, there’s a historical perspective by which to assess the tao of Trump. Grunwald starts his piece with a trip back to a John McCain campaign rally in 2008. In a departure from his more measured political style, McCain railed against a Congress on recess and high gas prices by issuing a call to arms on drilling for oil, including in offshore locations. McCain sensed the direction in which his party was headed, a moment which presaged the rise of Sarah “Drill, Baby, Drill” Palin, unabashed in demanding more energy no matter how we get it.

As Grunwald tells it, the audience ate this rhetoric up “because their political enemies hated it.” Damn the consequences as long as we “own the libs.” Ten years later, McCain is gone, Trump’s in the White House, and every political confrontation is a new iteration of a perpetual culture war. Instead of motivating his supporters to vote and institute policy reform, Donald Trump is “weaponizing” policy stances to mobilize them.

Accordingly, even issues which should be above partisanship like climate change and infrastructure are framed as part of an us-versus-them dynamic. Granted, Trump may not have created the tear in the electorate that allows him to exploit mutual resentment on both sides of the political aisle. That said, he has seen the hole and has driven a gas-guzzling truck right through it. Meanwhile, foreign adversaries are keen to capitalize on the disarray and disunion. Russian bots and trolls meddle in our elections and spread fake news online, and don’t need all that much convincing for us to help them do it.

The threat to America’s political health, already somewhat suspect, is obvious. It’s difficult if not impossible to have substantive discussions on policy matters when so much emphasis is on the short term and on reactionary positions. Expressing one’s political identity has become as important as putting forth a meaningful point of view. And Trump, Trump, Trump—everything is a referendum on him and his administration, even when there’s no direct causal relationship. It’s a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

What’s particularly dangerous about this political climate is that it obscures the reality of the underlying issues. Along the lines of expressing our political identities, emotions (chiefly outrage) are becoming a more valuable currency than facts. As much as we might dislike the perils of climate change or even acknowledging it exists, it’s happening. Our infrastructure is crumbling. The topic shouldn’t be treated as a zero-sum game between urban and rural districts. But tell that to the powers-that-be in Washington, D.C.

President Trump, while, again, not the originator of divisive politics, is well-suited for capitalizing on this zeitgeist. As Grunwald describes it, he understands “how to use the levers of government to reward his allies and punish his enemies.” This means going after Democratic constituencies and giving bailouts/breaks to Republican-friendly blocs. With GOP leadership in Congress largely in step with his policy aims, too (this likely gives Trump more due than he deserves because it implies he actually makes carefully crafted policy goals), ideologically-based attacks on certain institutions are all the more probable.

What’s the next great hurrah for Republicans, in this respect? From what Mr. Grunwald has observed, it may well be a “war on college.” I’m sure you’ve heard all the chatter in conservative circles about colleges and universities becoming bastions of “liberal indoctrination.” Free public tuition is something to be feared and loathed, a concession to spoiled young people. And don’t get us started about a liberal arts degree. It’s bad enough it has “liberal” in the name!

As the saying goes, though, it takes two to tango. In this context, there’s the idea that people on the left share the same sense of disdain for their detractors on the right. How many liberals, while decrying giving Republicans any ammunition in Hillary calling Trump supporters “deplorables,” secretly agreed with her conception of these irredeemable sorts? There are shirts available online that depict states that went “blue” in 2016 as the United States of America and states that went “red” as belonging to the mythical land of Dumbf**kistan. For every individual on the right who imagines a snowflake on the left turning his or her nose up at the “uncultured swine” on the other side, there is someone on the left who imagines and resents their deplorable counterpart. Presumably from the comfort of his or her electric scooter.

This bring us full-circle back to our experience of waging the cultural war first alluded to in our discussion of the party vibe at Donald Trump’s rallies, and how people could be having a good time at a forum where hate and xenophobia are common parlance and violence isn’t just a possibility, but encouraged if it’s against the “wrong” type of people. The implications of a culture war fought eagerly by both sides are unsettling ones. Close to the end of his piece, Grunwald has this to say about our ongoing conflict:

This is presumably how entire countries turn into Dumbf**kistan. The solutions to our political forever war are pretty obvious: Americans need to rebuild mutual trust and respect. We need to try to keep open minds, to seek information rather than partisan ammunition. We need to agree on a shared foundation of facts from authoritative sources. But those words looked ridiculous the moment I typed them. Americans are not on the verge of doing any of those things. Once the dogs of war have been unleashed, it’s hard to call them back. And we should at least consider the possibility that we’re fighting this forever war because we like it.

“Because we like it.” It sounds almost as strange as “how much fun everyone seemed to be having” with respect to Trump’s pre-election events, but it rings true. Sure, some of us may yet yearn for civility and feelings of bipartisan togetherness, but how many of us are content to stay in our bubbles and pop out occasionally only to toss invectives and the occasional Molotov cocktail across the aisle? I’m reminded of actor Michael Shannon’s comments following the realization that Donald Trump would, despite his (Trump’s) best efforts, be President of the United States. Shannon suggested, among other things, that Trump voters form a new country called “the United States of Moronic F**king Assholes” and that the older people who voted for him “need to realize they’ve had a nice life, and it’s time for them to move on.” As in shuffle off this mortal coil. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s my second Shakespeare reference so far in this piece.

I’m reasonably sure Shannon doesn’t actually mean what he said. Though who knows—maybe his creepy stares really do betray some homicidal tendencies. I myself don’t want Trump voters to die—at least not before they’ve lived long, fruitful lives. But in the wake of the gut punch that was Trump’s electoral victory, did I derive a sense of satisfaction from Shannon’s words? Admittedly, yes. I feel like, even if temporarily, we all have the urge to be a combatant in the culture war, assuming we invest enough in politics to have a baseline opinion. Because deep down, we like the fight.


Wars among ideologues can be messy affairs because each side holds to its dogmas even in the face of factual evidence to the contrary and in spite of signs that portend poorly for their side. Regarding the culture war, there’s nothing to suggest a cessation of hostilities in the near future. To quote Michael Grunwald once more, “Once the dogs of war have been unleashed, it’s hard to call them back.” Rebuilding mutual trust and respect. Keeping open minds. Agreeing on a shared foundation of facts from authoritative facts. Indeed, we are not on the verge of doing any of that. Having a man like Donald Trump in the White House who not only fans the flames of the culture war but pours gasoline on them sure doesn’t help either.

What’s striking to me is the seeming notion held by members of each side about their counterparts across the way that they actively wish for life in the United States to get worse. While I may surmise that many conservatives are misguided in how they believe we should make progress as a nation (i.e. “they know not what they do”), I don’t believe they are choosing bad courses of action simply because they want to win over the short term. Bear in mind I am speaking chiefly of rank-and-file people on the right. When it comes to politicians, I am willing to believe some will make any choice as long as it keeps them in office and/or personally enriches them.

But yes, I’ve experienced my fair share of attacks online because of my stated identity as a leftist. Even when not trying to deliberately feed the trolls, they have a way of finding you. One commenter on Twitter told me that, because I am a “liberal,” I am useless, not a man, that I have no honor and no one respects me nor do I have a soul, and that I hate the military, cheer when cops are shot, and burn the flag—all while wearing my pussyhat.

Never mind the concerns about soullessness or my inherent lack of masculinity. Does this person actually think I want our troops or uniformed police to die and that I go around torching every representation of Old Glory I can find? In today’s black-and-white spirit of discourse, because I criticize our country’s policy of endless war, or demand accountability for police who break protocol when arresting or shooting someone suspected of a crime, or believe in the right of people to protest during the playing of the National Anthem, I evidently hate the military, hate the police, and hate the American flag. I wouldn’t assume because you are a Trump supporter that you necessarily hate immigrants or the environment or Islam. I mean, if the shoe fits, then all bets are off, but let’s not write each other off at the jump.

With Election Day behind us and most races thus decided, in the immediate aftermath, our feelings of conviviality (or lack thereof) are liable to be that much worse. The open wounds salted by mudslinging politicians are yet fresh and stinging. As much as we might not anticipate healing anytime soon, though, if nothing else, we should contemplate whether being on the winning or losing side is enough. What does it to mean to us, our families, our friends, our co-workers, etc. if the Democrats or Republicans emerge victorious? Do our lives stand to improve? Does the income and wealth inequality here and elsewhere go away? Does this mean the political process doesn’t need to be reformed?

As important as who, what, or even if we fight, the why and what next are critical considerations for a fractured electorate. For all the squabbling we do amongst ourselves, perhaps even within groups rather than between, there are other battles against inadequate representation by elected officials and to eliminate the influence of moneyed interests in our politics that appear more worth the waging.

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.

“This Was Locker Room Talk.” Yeah, Not Good Enough, Mr. Trump

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What was Donald Trump thinking about here? Was he sorry about those awful things he said about women over a decade ago? Was he contemplating how his campaign is in shambles and Republicans are running to get away from him? Or was he constipated, wondering when he would be able to shit again? You make the call. (Photo Credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has lied so frequently and so blatantly it is frankly odd he would issue some sort of mea culpa when it came to the newly-released recording known colloquially as the Trump Tapes. By now, pretty much anyone following national news on a regular basis is at least vaguely familiar with the details of this much-talked-about conversation between the Republican Party nominee (boy, aren’t they glad they’ve stuck with him up to now!) and Billy Bush, who made such a fine impression on us recently when defending Ryan Lochte despite obvious evidence he had fabricated the story of his robbing at gunpoint in Rio de Janeiro. Back in 2005, when Donald Trump was set to make a cameo appearance on soap opera Days of Our Lives, in a recorded conversation with Bush, then-host of Access Hollywood, he made various references to kissing and groping women as part of his sexual advances, whether they had given explicit consent or not and even whether or not they were married. His language, as one might imagine, was not suitable for all audiences, with Trump even going as far as to say that, because he’s a star, he could “grab [women] by the pussy.” According to the real estate mogul, a man of his stature can “do anything” he wants in this regard.

Certainly, there are any number of things wrong with this contention of Trump’s, not the least of which is his collective comments smack of entitlement and a misguided belief in his sheer magnetism. What is perhaps most galling now, though, is that more than 10 years after the fact, Donald Trump is quick to dismiss his banter as “locker room talk.” Boys will be boys. What’s said in the sauna room at the country club stays in the sauna room at the country club. Unsurprisingly, very few beyond the purview of Trump supporters and apologists are having any of this justification. One group which has slammed Donald Trump’s sexist nonsense is professional athletes, who are not always known for their tact in relationships with women.

Yet numerous athletes have rejected this characterization of the GOP nominee’s about locker rooms, with some suggesting that while they can’t speak for all situations, and while players do talk about women, they don’t do so in such degrading, ugly terms, especially those with wives and daughters and other close relationships with females in their lives. The devil’s advocate argument is that maybe these athletes aren’t telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help them God. Then again, it is theoretically equally likely that Donald Trump, whose own athleticism appears relegated to playing shitty golf, knows very little about what is said in locker rooms circa 2016. Of course, this wouldn’t necessarily stop Trump from making faulty attributions about them, mind you, but it is worth noting for those of us who understand his, shall we say, complicated relationship with the truth.

This whole debate—if you can even refer to it as such owing to the dearth of logical arguments herein—is mediated by what one side in particular refers to as a “culture war.” In one corner, we have those who favor a growing recognition for the need for equality for groups which have been marginalized over centuries by a white patriarchal society, and with that, increased sensitivity to the effect images, sounds and words have on members of the disenfranchised, especially those of a homophobic, racist, sexist, transphobic, or xenophobic nature. In the other corner, we have those individuals who aver we are becoming too sensitive and too politically correct, and that those same disenfranchised people should “grow up” or “get a pair” or not get “so butt-hurt” about these matters.

In defense of the “lighten up” crowd, as one might call them, there are times, I believe, when cultural sensitivity and political correctness can be taken to absurd extremes. A notorious example from recent memory can be found in Starbucks’ decision to issue plain red cups for its hot beverages around the “holiday” season last year, devoid of any symbols which may be construed as Christmas-related and thereby promoting Christianity above all other faiths. The coffee company’s apprehensiveness about offending some of its customers, while understandable, was offensive to a number of its clientele, particularly the crowd that’s tired of taking “the Christ out of Christmas” and otherwise kowtowing to the beliefs of other religions, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa be damned. Others, more apathetic to the spiritual nature of this argument, were likely annoyed people were making such a big deal about a bunch of stupid paper cups. I myself sympathized with the commentary of poet and novelist Jay Parini, who decried Starbucks’ choice in an opinion piece for CNN.

As Parini contends, first of all, Christmas has become largely secular anyhow, with commemoration of the birth of Christ in the manger (some dispute December 25th is the true date of the Nativity, but this is another issue altogether) giving way to crass consumerism and the pursuit of the perfect present. More importantly, however, the author suggests that by removing more innocuous icons that have nothing to do with Christmas, such as reindeer and tree ornaments, we are sacrificing mythical applications of these images and stripping the aesthetic of any real sentiment. He writes:

I write this as a Christian who feels no need to thrust my own faith upon anyone else. Political correctness has its place — we don’t want to impose our beliefs (and especially our prejudices) on anyone else. People need to have and feel good about their own stories.
But this attempt to peel away even the secular side of Christmas — to strip all texture and mythic potential from contemporary life — seems beyond absurd, perhaps even dangerous, as it points in the direction of total blankness, a life lived without depth, without meaning.

Discussions of this nature concerning excessive political correctness are arguably characteristic of outliers, not the norm, however. In many more cases, circumstances that cause self-appointed social critics to rail against the trappings of too much PC “nonsense” are either protesting instances in which just enough or too little attentiveness to mutual respect of one another manifests. It is the latter condition, in particular, which potentially may be deeply disturbing, and which pretty much exclusively colors Donald Trump’s campaign. Even within this distinction of being too politically incorrect, it should be pointed out, there are degrees of just how, well, reprehensible the GOP candidate is.

At his best—er, least worst—Trump favors discrimination and prejudice under, if nothing else, the pretense of keeping America safe. You can’t separate Donald Trump from his professed policy and rhetoric against Mexicans and Muslims, though those prospective voters who support the man are apt to share an anxiety and fear about these “outsiders.” So, while the man of a thousand failed investments may tap into the paranoia and rage of a portion of the electorate which is predominantly white and not as liable to have graduated from college, he certainly didn’t invent these emotion-laden responses to domestic and international population trends. Thus, when Trump speaks of political correctness holding America back in terms of our ability to furnish law enforcement with information from cellphones and other technological devices, verify the legal status of residents, and vet refugees, even the most rational among us may allow our sensibilities to be affected by discourse of this kind.

Even when Donald Trump’s deviations from standard operating procedure for politicians possess some vague justifiability and/or connection to theoretical policy, they lack merit on the humanity dimension. Accordingly, when there is no apparent immediate connection to an executive decision to be rendered, and Trump is behaving like an ass to be an ass, his actions and words tend to feel that much more terrible. Recall Trump’s childish and insensitive imitation of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, invoking his disability (arthrogryposis, a joint condition), following a dispute over whether or not there were thousands of Muslim-Americans cheering on the streets of Jersey City on 9/11 (guess which side Trump was on). Or his way-off-base comments criticizing military veterans, such as when he suggested John McCain was somehow less of a man for being held captive, or going after Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Pakistani-born parents of fallen U.S. soldier Humayun Khan, a man awarded multiple posthumous honors for his service. There was no need to make comments of these sort—unless Trump’s implicit intent was to rile up the “deplorables” among his supporters, and in that case, we should rightly be disgusted. In addition, we might note with some irony how the GOP candidate talks tough about belittling the sacrifices of others, dismantling ISIS and knowing more than the generals on the ground despite never having served himself. But that’s our Donald. Bully and misdirect like no one’s business.

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Tastes good, doesn’t it? I’ll bet it does, you fat f**k, you. (Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Coming back at last to the notion of Donald Trump excusing his degrading remarks about women as locker-room fodder, it’s on some level sad that we’re talking about awful things he said before he even seriously considered running for President when there are so many important issues on the table this election. Such is the state of the 2016 race, however, when Democrats and other anti-Trump forces must spend umpteen hours trying to delegitimize a candidate who was never legitimate in the first place. Amid the controversy over what Trump was heard saying on the recording, Trump apologists are quick to point out that the man said these things over 10 years ago, and so should be granted some clemency with respect to being excoriated for it now. Because this donnybrook has nothing to do with actual policy ideas, and instead is one of a myriad number of dialogs about presidential character and fitness for the office, a small part of me is sympathetic to this defense.

I stress that it is a small part, though. After all, Donald Trump has been quick to drag the marriage of Hillary and Bill Clinton into the spotlight, invoking events that transpired even before his ill-advised trip to the gutter-mouth convention in 2005. In this regard, his pseudo-private conversations and own personal romantic life are fair game. I mean, when you start slinging mud around indiscriminately, you shouldn’t really act offended or shocked when some of it gets on your high-priced suit. Meanwhile, I and scores of others also submit that there is no statute of limitations on being a sexist douchebag. Trump, in his quasi-apology, has vowed to be a better man after the breaking of this latest scandal. If comments as recent as last year about Carly Fiorina’s appearance are any indication, however, the Republican Party nominee hasn’t learned anything since his chat with Billy Bush—and moreover won’t, because he can’t.

Snippets of Donald Trump’s past, then, are useful to the extent they illuminate present attitudes of men toward women and vice-versa, and how these attitudes may be constructed in the future. In today’s terms, as is alluded to by even those professional athletes critical of Trump’s stance on lewd remarks about females, whether private or not, one can’t truly know what happens in all locker rooms across the United States, be they used by grown men or still-developing boys. And certainly, I am not advocating for assigning culpability based on what people think, lest we get into the realm of science-fiction, or something like that. Still, let me qualify Trump’s remarks simply by returning to the idea that he is a seemingly shitty golfer, and judging by his current physical stature, he doesn’t really fit the mold of the athlete. To put this another way, Barack Obama, he is not. Besides, it wasn’t like Donald Trump and Billy Bush were in an actual locker room at the time of the recording. Per my understanding, it is an audio recording that is responsible for boasts about kissing women and even more graphic non-consensual situations with the opposite sex, so I’m not sure exactly where the fateful one-on-one took place, but even if Trump were under the impression what he was saying was “off the record,” in a public place, you can’t really rely on the vague notion of confidentiality. To this day, it amazes me how many high-profile figures get caught in “hot mic” situations. Even when you’re not “on,” you should have the mentality that you’re being recorded. Shit, you never know when the NSA might be listening!

Even if 2016’s male-populated locker rooms are, in fact, largely above reproach on the respecting women dimension (though knowing myself and having lived through my teenage years, I can attest that they are most certainly not above reproach on the cleanliness dimension), going forward, to have someone like Donald Trump in a position of relatively high standing saying such terrible things about females that since have been made very public—and to excuse them with little more than a wave of his hand—makes me concerned about how this lends itself to perpetuation, or, worse yet, proliferation of rape culture among impressionable young men. Already, educators are reporting a “Trump effect” on playgrounds and in schools among children who are harassing African-Americans, Hispanic/Latino(a) and Muslim cohorts, as well other targets of Trump’s ridicule. Undoubtedly, small children are probably as confused by why the GOP nominee advocates grabbing women by their “kitty cats” as they are by why, say, they are told by their classmates to “go back to China” when they are from South Korea or Vietnam.

But what about “bigger kids,” especially those teens and young adults who are affluent, white and, well, apt to feeling rather entitled to talk and behave in a way that fails to hold them accountable for their bad behavior? In past posts, I’ve referenced the Brock Turner rape case (dude’s already out of jail, BTW), as well as the ridiculous “affluenza” defense levied by Ethan Couch, his family, and his legal defense team after Ethan hit and killed multiple people while driving drunk (he’s only 19, mind you, and was only 16 when he committed the fatal act) and then violating probation by fleeing to Mexico (the latest: dude’s appeals to have his sentence reduced and the judge presiding over his case thrown out have failed, but he’s still only serving 720 days for killing four human beings). These are extreme cases and ones that garnered a wealth of publicity, granted, but this also sort of goes to my point: what about those less-publicized instances where “locker room talk” leads to extra-locker-room action, and not necessarily of the sort where the woman encourages such action?

Women’s rights groups, rights activists groups, and other concerned citizens speak of a “rape culture” that manifests in this country, one that is disturbingly prevalent at colleges and universities, even extending to treatment of purported female victims at the hands of police. I’m sure you’ve heard the kinds of excuse responses that mark this pattern of behavior and thought. She realized what she did and now she’s crying “rape.” thought it was consensual. She was asking for it—the way she was dressed. She was drunk and can’t remember. She’s a slut, she’s a bitch, she’s a whore.

In response to allegations of race or sexual assault, some men (and women, in some cases, too) will get not just defensive, but downright nasty toward their accusers, and what’s more, those charged with hearing and responding to student claims at various colleges and universities may be slow or unwilling to acquiesce, requiring the victim to proverbially jump through any number of administrative/legal hoops to move forward with the case. A few months ago, Brigham Young University caught a lot of flak from members of its female student body and later national media for encouraging female students who believed they were victims of sexual assault to come forward and file a report, yet punishing those same students for violations of BYU’s Honor Code, which prohibits consumption of alcohol, drug use and consensual sex—on or off the campus. As numerous critics inside and outside the university believe, and so it would appear, BYU is concerned more with the school’s image than the safety of its students. Don’t be afraid to speak up—but shh! Not so loud!

If Donald Trump is inaccurate about the state of locker room banter in this day and age, and thus we can’t directly attribute rape and sexual assaults to what is discussed in this setting, then we’re already worse off in light of Trump spreading falsehoods or making incorrect assumptions about the character of today’s “jocks.” If he is, in fact, authentically portraying the mindset and speech of not just athletic men, but individuals of the male persuasion more generally, however, then we may have a different problem on our hands, for what is said behind closed doors may not necessarily stay that way. Either way, the statistics would dictate the incidence of sexual crimes against both women and men is very much a problem. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives. When considering sexual abuse of minors, the stats are yet more alarming, with approximately one in four girls and one in six boys abused before the age of 18.

Meanwhile, in the context of college, one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted during the course of their study. Worst of all? Many cases of abuse and assault go unreported by victims too distraught or too intimidated to confront their abuser/assailant; according to the NSVRC, over 90% of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report the assault, and in general, 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police, and as much as 88% of instances of child abuse fail to be brought to the attention of authorities. Just “locker room talk?” “Boys will be boys?” I’m sorry, but that’s not good enough. Not with so many victims out in our world, and more unfortunately guaranteed to come with each passing year.

By invoking the concept of locker-room talk, if Donald Trump were truly cognizant of the danger so many people face as a result of rationalizing guilt away, especially women and children, he would use his unfortunate comments as a teachable moment rather than an excuse. As mentioned before, though, this is Donald J. Trump we’re talking about here. How can he teach when he refuses to learn or, at that, engage in a modicum of self-reflection? If how he spoke to Billy Bush in that recording is how guys supposedly talk and think, maybe we should be guiding them with a firmer hand on a path to a mindset that reinforces equal treatment of women. If you supposedly respect women as much as you say you do, Mr. Trump, you would call for greater accountability for yourself and others in political correctness toward people of all genders, rather than delivering some pithy excuse and continuing along the campaign trail as if nothing happened. Not only do you not seem genuinely interested in anyone but yourself, however, Mr. Trump, but you apparently are not all that invested in the female vote. Yeah, um, good luck with that next month.

In case I haven’t made it abundantly clear by now, I find Donald Trump’s comments singularly abhorrent, but whether it’s self-identifying members of the alt-right, or other males who evidently are on board with indiscriminate groping of women and blurred lines between forced and consensual sex, with these types running off at the mouth from behind their computer screens, it is incumbent upon the men who likewise are appalled by Trump’s foul-mouthed, entitled yapping to speak up on behalf of the women in their life and speak out against this type of thinking. This whole controversy is not a women’s issue. It’s a human issue, and until more people grasp that fact as well as the overall importance of this discussion, we’re that much further away from genuine gender equality.

The Alt-Right Isn’t Alright

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Stephen Bannon, one of the faces of the alt-right movement. Not pretty, is it? (Photo Credit: Gerald Herbert/AP)

To me, Alt-Right sounds like some sort of keyboard shortcut that allows you to move to the next page in a Microsoft Word document or scroll across on a webpage or something. Unfortunately, speaking in political/social terms, the so-called “alt-right” movement is not a helpful keystroke, nor does it seem to be particular useful to society. In fact, from the recently-built consensus on this loose assortment of activists and theorists, the forces behind the alt-right might actually portend the coming of a battle against deleterious influences within the American electorate.

So, why the hubbub all of a sudden about this element, one for which I will readily admit I was not aware a name actually existed until recently? Well, a big reason likely lies in the fact Hillary Clinton just referenced the alt-right in a fiery speech denouncing its core motivations and tenets. Here’s a snippet from her latest anti-Donald Trump tirade in Reno, Nevada this past Thursday:

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, Breitbart embraces “ideas on the extremist fringe of the conservative right. Racist ideas. Race-baiting ideas. Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas—all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the “Alt-Right.”

Alt-Right is short for “Alternative Right.” The Wall Street Journal describes it as a loosely organized movement, mostly online, that “rejects mainstream conservatism, promotes nationalism and views immigration and multiculturalism as threats to white identity.” The de facto merger between Breitbart and the Trump Campaign represents a landmark achievement for the Alt-Right. A fringe element has effectively taken over the Republican Party.

This is part of a broader story—the rising tide of hardline, right-wing nationalism around the world.

As I’ve made abundantly clear through my posts here, I am not a fan of Hillary Clinton, but give the devil wearing Prada her due, she’s spot-on here, which partially explains why outlets like CNN were practically having an orgasm over how strong Clinton seemed in delivering this diatribe. The Republican Party, led by Trump and touched by crazies, has more or less been hijacked by this ilk, alienating high-ranking members, including past presidents, in the process. As for the rise of “hardline, right-wing nationalism around the world,” HRC is correct on this assertion as well. As we’ve seen throughout Europe, be it with Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, the Freedom Party in Austria (jeez, these nationalists sure like their freedom, don’t they?) and, perhaps most notably, in the machinations of Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party resulting in the Brexit referendum and the eventual vote which decided the United Kingdom would leave the EU, rabid anti-immigrant nationalism and xenophobia are alive and well in places other than the United States of America. And while he claims no allegiance to or even knowledge of the alt-right, Donald Trump has seemingly embraced its kind and the same principles set forth by the know-nothings across the pond. In fact, Trump has even envisioned himself as some sort of “Mr. Brexit.” If by this, he means that, like the decision to exit the European Union, he is hated by young people and feared to destroy the country’s economy, then sure, Mr. Brexit it is.

Let’s go a little deeper into the nature of the alt-right in an attempt to further facilitate understanding, though. Sarah Posner, writing for Mother Jones, profiles Stephen Bannon, chairman of Breitbart Media and newly-enlisted head of the Donald Trump, as someone more unabashedly supportive of the alternative right and someone with yet more pronounced fingerprints on the movement’s origins. In doing so, she, as so many journalists have had to do in apparently scrambling to cover the abstract concept of the alt-right, pursues an operational definition of the term:

Exactly who and what defines the alt-right is hotly debated in conservative circles, but its most visible proponents—who tend to be young, white, and male—are united in a belief that traditional movement conservatism has failed. They often criticize immigration policies and a “globalist” agenda as examples of how the deck is stacked in favor of outsiders instead of “real Americans.” They bash social conservatives as ineffective sellouts to the GOP establishment, and rail against neo-conservative hawks for their embrace of Israel. They see themselves as a threat to the establishment, far bolder and edgier than Fox News. While often tapping into legitimate economic grievances, their social-media hashtags (such as #altright on Twitter) dredge up torrents of racist, sexist, and xenophobic memes.

Posner, like many, acknowledges that painting the alt-right with a broad brush, or at least panning it outright, as with most movements, has it perils. Establishment politics on both sides of the political aisle in the U.S. is being decried by more extreme factions within the Democratic and Republican Parties; on the blue side, Bernie Sanders and other more progressive candidates have taken Hillary Clinton and other mainstream Dems to task for abandoning working-class Americans and preserving a status quo characterized by massive income and wealth inequality. Trickle-down conservative economics are also well worthy of criticism, as is the country’s pandering to Israel’s agenda in Gaza and the West Bank at the expense of legitimate Palestinian claims and interests.

This notwithstanding, it is the methods of many self-identifying members of the alternative right that threaten to undermine any more cogent arguments to be made within. Sarah Posner speaks to recurrent themes of racism, sexism and xenophobia in alt-righters’ online communications, and along these lines, bullying, hate speech and targeted attacks have become a modus operandi of sorts for individuals like Milo Yiannopoulos and his followers, as the persistent harassment of Ghostbusters (2016) and Saturday Night Live star Leslie Jones serves to indicate. Not to mention there are additional policy stances held by the alt-right and mentioned by Posner in the above blurb that are not nearly as well-regarded by the national and international communities, chief among them the vehement antipathy toward immigrants and others perceived to be “outsiders” or otherwise not “real Americans.” Not only would some argue this is sentiment is decidedly un-American, especially since the backbone of this nation and the source of much of its character is immigration, but the sheer notion of what constitutes a “real American” and how elusively subjective that definition is further detracts from the alt-right’s credibility.

Concerning Stephen Bannon’s role in the promulgation of alt-right rhetoric, Sarah Posner gives salient examples of how his views and those of Breitbart readers coincide:

Bannon’s views often echo those of his devoted followers. He describes Islam as “a political ideology” and Sharia law as “like Nazism, fascism, and communism.” On his Sirius XM radio show, he heaped praise on Pamela Geller, whose American Freedom Defense Initiative has been labeled an anti-Muslim hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Bannon called her “one of the leading experts in the country, if not the world,” on Islam. And he basically endorsed House Speaker Paul Ryan’s primary challenger, businessman Paul Nehlen, who floated the idea of deporting all Muslims from the United States.

Posner also underscores how Bannon has utilized Breitbart Media as a mouthpiece against black activists, especially those identifying with Black Lives Matter, suggesting those killed by police brutality likely deserved it, and that certain people—he doesn’t say African-Americans, but you know he totally means it—are predisposed toward aggression and violence. And when Stephen Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos and others aren’t being overtly bigoted, misogynistic or xenophobic, which seemingly doesn’t happen often, much of their behavior still qualifies as bullying. It’s as if followers of the alt-right know deep down that they can’t win on the strength of their viewpoints alone, so they gang up on people, aiming to badger or frighten them into submission, thereby winning on a technical knockout, if you will, rather than a convincing string of logical arguments delivered on respectful terms. Toward the end of her piece, Sarah Posner provides yet another illustration of the sort of corrosive, abusive language that appears to be a hallmark of the alt-right:

On Thursday, in the Washington Post, [former Breitbart editor-at-large Ben] Shapiro upped the ante, describing the alt-right as a “movement shot through with racism and anti-Semitism,” and Breitbart News as “a party organ, a pathetic cog in the Trump-Media Complex and a gathering place for white nationalists.” The reception he and another conservative Jewish Breitbart critic, Bethany Mandel, have experienced in the Bannonosphere is revealing: In May, when Shapiro, who became editor-in-chief of the Daily Wire after leaving Breitbart, tweeted about the birth of his second child, he received a torrent of anti-Semitic tweets. “Into the gas chamber with all 4 of you,” one read. Another tweet depicted his family as lampshades. Mandel says she has been harassed on Twitter for months, “called a ‘slimy Jewess’ and told that I ‘deserve the oven.'”

After Shapiro called out the anti-Semitism, Breitbart News published (under the byline of Pizza Party Ben) a post ridiculing Shapiro for “playing the victim on Twitter and throwing around allegations of anti-Semitism and racism, just like the people he used to mock.”

Back at the RNC, Bannon dismissed Shapiro as a “whiner…I don’t think that the alt-right is anti-Semitic at all,” he told me. “Are there anti-Semitic people involved in the alt-right? Absolutely. Are there racist people involved in the alt-right? Absolutely. But I don’t believe that the movement overall is anti-Semitic.”

Holocaust imagery. Demeaning foul language, and stubborn denial of the hate it encourages. Accusing others of falsely playing “the victim.” What passes as political discourse by much of the alt-right is a mix of puerile remarks and threatening epithets that in most cases amounts to nothing, but in a country like the United States replete with lethal weapons and even in nations with stricter gun laws, that one or more of these peddlers of death threats and threats of other bodily harm might actually seek to act on their anger and prejudices is enough that the rest of us can’t simply disregard the potential for tragedy. What’s more, while authorities may be able to intervene in time in the case of a telling social media post, in so many instances, the warning comes too quickly or not at all, such that someone may walk into a building or up to a person on the street and just start firing, with the target more or less completely unaware of the threat that looms. It’s scary, but this is the reality of life in 2016. Call it the “new normal,” if you must, but the possibility, however slim, statistically speaking, is ever-present.

If, perhaps, the alt-right’s most outspoken voices lack genuine conviction in their system of beliefs, it is their unshakable confidence in the inviolate permissiveness of free speech and their thinking that political correctness is a deleterious force in today’s domestic and foreign policy which are most striking. Before knowing full well of the extent of what the alternative right comprises, I wrote about Milo Yiannopoulos’ directed, targeted abuse at Leslie Jones that ended up getting him banned on Twitter. This is not merely to toot my own horn, I assure you, but to recall how Milo didn’t exactly take this perceived affront by Twitter et al lightly, and furthermore, framed his reaction with respect to what he and others like him envision as a larger conflict of ideals. From his response on—where else?—Breitbart:

Like all acts of the totalitarian regressive left, this will blow up in their faces, netting me more adoring fans. We’re winning the culture war, and Twitter just shot themselves in the foot.

This is the end for Twitter. Anyone who cares about free speech has been sent a clear message: you’re not welcome on Twitter.

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Milo Yiannopoulos’ latest salvo on Twitter. Oh, wait. (Image retrieved from theblaze.com.)

Because we had so much fun the first time, let’s dissect this bold talk from everyone’s favorite British-Greek “journalist” once more, shall we?

Like all acts of the totalitarian regressive left, this will blow up in their faces, netting me more adoring fans.

Milo Yiannopoulos certainly doesn’t lack for high opinion for himself, does he? But he may be right on aspects of his rhetoric, in particular, the notion that permanent Twitter bans and bombastic Clintonian speeches lend legitimacy to the alt-right movement and give them free press. In fact, as Rebecca Harrington of Business Insider reports, alt-right thinkers were “practically giddy” that Hillary had done their work for them, so there may be something to the “bashing us only drives up our ratings” claim.

The other points are more debatable. Certainly, the concept of the “totalitarian” left is not a new one, with articles like this one from The American Thinker slamming modern liberals as enthusiastic about diversity along demographic lines but not about diversity of opinions, and essentially being one step away from fascists. In Milo’s case, however, not only was he violating Twitter’s terms of service by encouraging Leslie Jones’s harassment at the hands (fingertips?) of his fans, but he afterwards made a false connection between an alleged instance of overreach by Twitter’s censorship and the supposed unmitigated sanctity of the First Amendment. As I suggested in my aforementioned earlier post, free speech is all well and good, but it doesn’t entitle you to be a complete and total asshole. There are limits, and you just cried about totalitarianism because Twitter refused to give in to you like a mother does to her spoiled-brat child.

As for the “regressive left” mantra, this also is not a new idea. Critics of liberal policymakers and thinkers have long considered, for instance, the refusal to use the term “radical Islam” as pandering to Muslims and diversity at the expense of America’s security. Like with the “totalitarian” charge, however, this characterization falls into a logical trap. Apparently, since America hasn’t closed the door on the War on Terror, and political correctness has marked much of the White House’s relationship with this initiative as a subset of relationships with the Muslim community in the United States, it must be that a more delicate, nuanced handling of the situation is ineffective. By this logic, once again, being an asshole is evidently the correct way to approach these matters, and measures such as banning Muslims are supposed to reverse our fortunes. Even though terrorism experts insist that this is having the exact opposite effect. But what would they know?

We’re winning the culture war, and Twitter just shot themselves in the foot.

The phrase “culture war” implies that there are two sides intent on the other’s destruction, and while this sentiment definitely applies for Breitbart and its readers, the reverse, I would argue, does not hold as true. Liberalism in the United States, broadly speaking, tends to focus on civil liberty and equality, and thus fighting for Americans as a whole, rather than fighting against someone or something, as in the amorphous notion of “the Left.” Moreover, while liberalism certainly can err on the side of failing to assign responsibility to groups or individuals for their role in economic, moral and social shortcomings, perhaps explaining in part the rise in popularity of the alt-right, to say that it is “winning” the culture war is a stretch, to say the least. After all, when media types find themselves writing articles about what the alt-right entails because they themselves don’t know what that is, let alone their readers, it’s hard to argue you’re winning anything, let alone making much of a dent in the national consciousness.

This is the end for Twitter. Anyone who cares about free speech has been sent a clear message: you’re not welcome on Twitter.

Like I said in my previous piece, Twitter seems to be doing just fine without you, Mr. Yiannopoulos. And speaking of the alt-right, if Donald Trump is seen as a key figure in this movement—whether he recognizes it or not—he, for one, has been given free reign to use social media as a soapbox, or to hit back at his detractors like the petulant child he is deep down. The fact of the matter is Twitter is a business, and unfortunately, it likely has to deal with the more unsavory aspects of some people’s behavior, or else ban them and risk seeming like the “totalitarian” institution alt-right sympathizers envision them to be. Again, though, I submit, it’s not a question of free speech—it’s that the alternative right’s bullying ways impinge upon the First Amendment rights of other users, namely those of wanting to have certain material remain private and of wishing to feel safe in the online environment. These wants are not unreasonable, and should not be negotiable, what’s more. So, Milo, when it comes down to it, it appears it’s just you and a select few other poor sports who are not welcome on Twitter. Congratulations on this dubious distinction.


Linda Stasi, writing for the New York Daily News and obviously taking Leslie Jones’ online harassment quite personally, recently clapped back at her would-be aggressors and others that seem to fit the alternative right mold:

Instead of doing anything to improve yourselves, you waste your lives online spewing hatred, misogyny and racism. How ’bout getting off your asses and doing something to improve the world?

You have declared open warfare on women like Jones because she’s black, a woman, accomplished. But you really hate her because you aren’t any of those things.

Because you aren’t, you instead insult women by calling them by body parts, and by using ugly sexual references.

You are such dimwits that you think it’s clever to post nonsense like telling women who’ve accomplished much in life to get a life. News flash: If their lives were any bigger, they’d explode. Meantime, you’re the ones writing hate mail to celebrities you’ve never met. Seriously, losers: Time you all got a life.

It may be a bit of an oversimplification to depict the anti-SJW crowd in this way—as jealous, lazy, sexually frustrated, whiny white guys who hide behind their keyboards. As is the nature of many stereotypes, though, they exist because more often than not, they are true. And while some delicacy might be warranted with members of the alt-right because of the remote possibility they might represent a physical or other danger to the people around them, this should not be taken as a sign of defeat. If anything, it might actually be advantageous to Hillary Clinton and those outside the alt-right to let them think they’ve won something, only to emerge more confident and determined in promoting progressive ideas in the future. So, no, in short, the alt-right isn’t alright, nor are they, in most cases, right. And until they, by and large, learn to express themselves in ways that command respect, they should not receive it.

Free Speech Is All Well and Good—Except When You’re Being a Complete and Total Asshole

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Don’t be sad, Milo. You weren’t banned because Twitter hates conservatives, free speech or gays. You were banned because you were being an asshole. (Image retrieved from pixel.nymag.com)

In one form or another, you’re probably well familiar with the saying attributed to Voltaire, but really authored by writer and Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” With that, this phrase is probably the most common citation used in evoking the fundamental right of the individual of free speech in a free society. Not made explicit herein is the presumption that any argument which qualifies as protected speech under this maxim is reasonable or otherwise not intended as an injurious attack, though many would contend this much is implied. In other words, freedom of speech, conferred upon the American people by the First Amendment to the Constitution, is not absolute.

Where common sense has been insufficient, case law has helped to fill the void and define the parameters of what constitutes protected speech and that by which an individual may be held liable for what they say. Pursuant to this notion, another popular trope concerning the potential limitations of free speech is the “shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater” analogy made by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in expressing the Supreme Court’s opinion in the unanimous ruling in the 1919 case Schenck v. United States, which seeks to illustrate the point that false statements of a kind that would “create a clear and present danger” to the public are and should not be protected. This is to say, in a larger sense, that malicious or reckless language could present a liability for the person who indiscriminately utters it.

Now that we’ve got some context under our belt, let’s get to the relevant present-day circumstances, shall we? As reported by Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel and his cohorts on numerous other media outlets, on July 19, conservative commentator Milo Yiannopoulos was permanently banned on Twitter after he evidently orchestrated a campaign to attack Leslie Jones, Saturday Night Live cast member and star of the female-led Ghostbusters remake, via social media, which Yiannopoulos’ loyal followers acceded to in the form of scores of racist and otherwise derogatory images and remarks. The totality of the hateful messages Jones received spurred her to, in an emotion-laden post, announce her self-imposed Twitter hiatus, prompting Paul Feig, the director of the new Ghostbusters, to come to her defense and, eventually, Twitter itself to intervene. Here’s what the company—or a spokesperson within its ranks—had to say on the decision to ban Milo:

People should be able to express diverse opinions and beliefs on Twitter. But no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online, and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others. Over the past 48 hours in particular, we’ve seen an uptick in the number of accounts violating these policies and have taken enforcement actions against these accounts, ranging from warnings that also require the deletion of Tweets violating our policies to permanent suspension.

We know many people believe we have not done enough to curb this type of behavior on Twitter. We agree. We are continuing to invest heavily in improving our tools and enforcement systems to better allow us to identify and take faster action on abuse as it’s happening and prevent repeat offenders. We have been in the process of reviewing our hateful conduct policy to prohibit additional types of abusive behavior and allow more types of reporting, with the goal of reducing the burden on the person being targeted. We’ll provide more details on those changes in the coming weeks.

As Warzel highlights in the Buzzfeed piece, it’s not so much his own hateful speech which got Yiannopoulos indefinitely barred—though his bullying, condescending (Milo refers to Jones as “barely literate” after a typo) and insulting comments likely didn’t help his case—but that he put a target on Leslie Jones’ back and encouraged abuse hurled at her. Milo Yiannopoulos, meanwhile, did not go gentle into that good night of social media censure, firing back at Twitter from his soapbox on Breitbart, for which he serves as tech editor. Straight from the horse’s ass, er, mouth:

With the cowardly suspension of my account, Twitter has confirmed itself as a safe space for Muslim terrorists and Black Lives Matter extremists, but a no-go zone for conservatives.

Twitter is holding me responsible for the actions of fans and trolls using the special pretzel logic of the left. Where are the Twitter police when Justin Bieber’s fans cut themselves on his behalf?

Like all acts of the totalitarian regressive left, this will blow up in their faces, netting me more adoring fans. We’re winning the culture war, and Twitter just shot themselves in the foot.

This is the end for Twitter. Anyone who cares about free speech has been sent a clear message: you’re not welcome on Twitter.

Wow. Yiannopoulos’ response to Twitter’s administrative action hits on a number of underlying issues, so it’s difficult to know where to begin. Before sifting through his arguments, let me first say that I find it a tad bit perplexing that Milo would vilify Leslie Jones for playing the victim when his speech is framed in a way that makes him seem like a martyr, crucified by the “totalitarian regressive left” and its dictatorial arm, the fascist Twitter. Nice use of manipulative demagoguery there, Milo. Maybe the Trump campaign could use you as part of its public relations wing.

Without going further on Milo Yiannopoulos’ rhetoric, let me take a step back with my own views on the very concept of a Ghostbusters remake. Personally, when I first heard about this project, I was not enthusiastic about it. Before you go ahead and infer a reason, let me explain. My aversion to this 2016 do-over of the original popular action-comedy film has little to do with the casting, and much more to do with the decision to green-light it in the first place. See, this kind of “creative” work strikes me as an example of the kind of unoriginality which plagues much of Hollywood’s output these days. If movies are not being remade, they are adapted from existing media. Like comic books and graphic novels. There are more superhero movies nowadays than one could shake a turbo-charged stick at, and as some might argue, these are a big part of the problem with modern American cinema. Or there are “reboots.” You can thank that trend for why we’ve had not one, but two shitty Fantastic Four adaptations in the past decade. And sequels. God help us, the sequels. From reports, the Saw film series, which I submit should have never gone beyond the first iteration, is likely to see its eighth installment start filming in the next few months. And the Ice Age franchise just released a movie involving a saber-toothed squirrel flying around, of all things, a spaceship. SPACESHIPS? FOR F**K’S SAKE! DID WE REALLY NEED ANOTHER F**KING “ICE AGE” MOVIE?!?

Sorry, I get worked up about these kinds of things. But yes, my major malfunction is with the perceived lack of effort on producers’ and studios’ parts, not on the gender of Ghostbusters (2016)’s primary quartet. If anything, my quibble with the casting would be that the film’s makers borrowed too heavily from the current and former ranks of SNL (though I acknowledge the common lineage), but on talent, I can’t say I fault these choices—Leslie Jones especially. Others who are more vocal in their criticisms may have similarly legitimate objections to the existence of this new movie, namely their condemnation of the updated model in favor of the 1984 original, which has stood the test of time since its release and has inspired its much-warranted affection and legacy. Simply put, 1984 Ghostbusters is good enough that 2016 Ghostbusters was patently unnecessary. That the comedic talents of Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis have been supplanted or usurped, as some might see it, and in a format that simply because it is different is threatening, makes this especially galling. “They’re just sweeping the 1984 version under the rug! There’s no emoticon for what I am feeling!”

For those individuals who are not Ghostbusters fanboys, or otherwise are not nerdish enough in their protests to argue against the Jones-McCarthy-McKinnon-Wiig quaternity based on its revisionist nature, if not embracing this fab female four, or just hopelessly ambivalent, the likely alternative is outright hatred, and not necessarily based on the movie’s technical merit. Here’s where we start to approach the position of Milo Yiannopoulos and his ilk. While Yiannopoulos may choose to hide behind his assertion that Leslie Jones participated in a terrible movie, and hence deserves to be targeted, the tone of the “hate mail” directed at Jones as a result of his efforts really puts the “hate” in “hate mail.” Jones, who is black and fairly large in physical stature (though not obese/seriously overweight or anything like that), drew unfortunate comparisons to an ape in many of the Tweets that bombarded her account. Otherwise, death threats, derogatory imagery of a sexual nature, and taunts about her being ugly pervaded the glut of responses she received as a result of her involvement with the movie and her own reactions to the vitriol to which she was subjected. I don’t blame Leslie for wanting to abandon Twitter outright after having to absorb that level of abuse.

In the eyes and minds of Jones’ online assailants, a prohibitively male audience, the new Ghostbusters and its star are a symbol of a vague leftist conspiracy that intrudes upon their way of life. In particular, their reading of a feminist bias in the movie’s cast—which to them, based on their definition of “feminism,” stands for the subjugation of the male even though mainstream feminists seek elevation of the female only to the extent female and male are equal—and an ever-increasing tendency for society as a whole to insist on political correctness represent a threat of the highest order. Consequently, those so-called “social justice warriors” who argue on behalf of what are seen as faulty defenses of feminism and political correctness (under this purview, I suppose I would qualify as an SJW, too) are ostracized for their beliefs and for pontificating from behind a keyboard on issues they neither care about nor truly understand. As much as one might counter that this rebellion against the social justice warrior is a bit like the proverbial pot calling the kettle black, with any confrontations with chauvinistic trolls on these terms, appeals to logic may only go so far. So it goes in the arena of Internet discourse.

As a result, right or wrong, these users’ free speech is understood by them to be unassailable, and in turn, any harassment of other users is justifiable based on the cloak of the First Amendment and the imminent danger of a woman-oriented, politically correct existence. Which brings us back to Milo Yiannopoulos. Let’s—at last—dissect what he has to say regarding Twitter’s “cowardice,” as he elects to call it.

With the cowardly suspension of my account, Twitter has confirmed itself as a safe space for Muslim terrorists and Black Lives Matter extremists, but a no-go zone for conservatives.

Putting aside that these may be legitimate issues, what does this have to do with you getting kicked off Twitter? You’re deflecting from the subject at hand: whether or not you specifically targeted someone for abuse.

Twitter is holding me responsible for the actions of fans and trolls using the special pretzel logic of the left. Where are the Twitter police when Justin Bieber’s fans cut themselves on his behalf?

Um, Milo, you do understand that was a hoax, right? Yiannopoulos is referencing a hashtag campaign prank circa 2013 with apparent origins on 4chan—a site known for its fair share of targeted attacks and threats of violence as organized by its users. The prank, accompanied by fake but nonetheless graphic photos of people cutting their arms over their frustration with Justin Bieber’s alleged use of marijuana, evidently targeted the singer’s fans, perhaps even aiming to convince them through the hashtag #CuttingForBieber to cut their own limbs out of protest of Bieber’s bad behavior. A sick joke, yes, and again, maybe Twitter bears some responsibility on its end (though arguably 4chan should shoulder a larger portion of the blame), but nonetheless, this is once more deflecting from your culpability with respect to attacks on Leslie Jones and others.

Like all acts of the totalitarian regressive left, this will blow up in their faces, netting me more adoring fans. We’re winning the culture war, and Twitter just shot themselves in the foot.

Hmm, someone really has a high opinion of himself, doesn’t he? Milo Yiannopoulos speaks of a culture war, and I can only think he’s referring to a seemingly growing divide between Americans who think political correctness is a good thing, because, well, it is—people generally like to be treated with respect and sensitivity—and those who think it imperils and inhibits us—when what they’re really saying is, “I’m bigoted/racist/sexist/xenophobic/all of the above, and I hate that you’re making me think before I speak.” Are you really winning the culture war, though, Milo, or is this just what your sycophantic followers have convinced you is true?

This is the end for Twitter. Anyone who cares about free speech has been sent a clear message: you’re not welcome on Twitter.

I don’t know—last time I checked, Twitter was still doing OK for itself. Really a vibrant community, actually. Beyond the 140-character limit, however, I have never felt particularly restricted by Twitter’s terms and conditions. Then again, though, I don’t target actresses who only appear in films—as opposed to actually directing, producing or writing them—with derision and hate. Hearkening back to my discussion of the First Amendment at the start of this piece, freedom of speech is not inherently absolute, and furthermore, you broke the rules that Twitter had posted as terms of your use of the site. It’s not about free speech. It’s about you being a complete and total asshole.


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Alison Rapp was an enthusiastic brand ambassador for Nintendo as well as a feminist. Which, of course, is why she had to be the subject of online harassment and get fired by her employer. Nice going, guys! (Photo retrieved from kotaku.com)

Leslie Jones’ harassment at the hands of a small but vocal group of haters is reminiscent of the kind of abuse Alison Rapp faced when localization changes were made in a number of titles by then-employer Nintendo regarding the sexualization of young women and the anticipated negative backlash which would ensue among Western audiences to have female characters depicted in a certain way. Rather than blame Nintendo, however, Internet trolls, always lurking, looked for a scapegoat for this action of the video game company’s, which they saw as emblematic of a feminist-led crusade in favor of censorship and political correctness. Enter Rapp, a self-professed feminist, who had nothing to do with the decisions on content, and lo and behold, their target was acquired. What ensued was an attack of a number of levels. Of course, there was the expected name-calling, with her aggressors labeling her “cancerous” as well as a “femi-Nazi.” Always enjoy that particular portmanteau, myself.

This element hell-bent on Alison Rapp’s destruction, however, which she believed was affiliated with the loosely-constructed GamerGate movement, took things a step further by digging into her academic and professional-verging-on-the-personal lives. Regarding the former, Rapp wrote a paper while in college concerning Western pressure on Japan to strengthen laws against sexualized depictions of minors, arguing that this agenda was misplaced because it didn’t take into account cultural differences and shifted blame away from the governments and other “patriarchal” systems that enable the abuse of children. In the hands of the online lynch mob calling for her head, though, this was translated to mean she endorses the legalization of kiddie porn, which is an absurd extrapolation. As for the latter, the anti-SJW crowd which put Alison in their crosshairs wasn’t shy about bringing to Nintendo’s attention the fact that she moonlighted as a model under an alias posing for pictures that were not unforgivably obscene but still NSFW.

Nintendo, being the understanding company it is, though, was not cowed by the stream of antipathy hurled at Rapp nor was it influenced by these revelations about her off-the-clock identity. Kidding! They fired her. Nintendo has maintained they “terminated” Alison Rapp because of her second job. From a statement by a company representative:

Alison Rapp was terminated due to violation of an internal company policy involving holding a second job in conflict with Nintendo’s corporate culture. Though Ms. Rapp’s termination follows her being the subject of criticism from certain groups via social media several weeks ago, the two are absolutely not related.

Nintendo is a company committed to fostering inclusion and diversity in both our company and the broader video game industry and we firmly reject the harassment of individuals based on gender, race or personal beliefs. We wish Ms. Rapp well in her future endeavors.

“Ms. Rapp,” meanwhile, disputes this explanation. According to the moonlighting model herself, “Moonlighting is actually accepted at Nintendo. It’s policy.” Regardless of why she was fired, however, what a number of people reacting to this situation when news first broke were dismayed with was not simply that the company terminated Alison Rapp—though numerous critics expressed the belief that Nintendo caved to the pressure exerted by the GamerGate gang—but that it failed to support Alison through months of directed online attacks. As Jessica Lachenal wrote in a piece on The Mary Sue:

For an industry that apparently tries so hard to “make things better” for women, this is one hell of a way of show it. Provided with an opportunity to make an impact for women working in games, Nintendo instead chose to distance itself from someone undeserving of the harassment she soaked up on behalf of the company. Most of all, it comes down to this: For many, it is completely unsurprising that Nintendo did what it did. This is the sad, depressing expectation of all women working in games. When—and believe me, it is a when and not an if—they become the target of harassment, it’s more likely than not that they can expect to be “laterally moved” out of what they love to do and iced out, or perhaps even outright fired for completely unrelated reasons. These things can and will and have happened through no fault of their own; they will have their entire lives dramatically altered simply because a faceless group of people have decided to harass and dig up skeletons in order to assassinate a person’s character.

Viewing the circumstances behind Rapp’s firing in this way, what happened was fairly simple. A group of anonymous trolls decided Alison Rapp was intruding on what they saw as their space—the male-dominated world of video games—they attacked her with prejudice and without restraint, and a high-profile company stood by and watched it happen. The parallels to Leslie Jones’ abuse on Twitter at the behest of Milo Yiannopoulos and others are obvious, and what’s more, her case is just another turn in the long-standing saga of content providers being unable—or perhaps unwilling—to step in to curb misogynistic malice. As Twitter itself seems to grasp in its justification for suspending Yiannopoulos’ account, there are those who feel it hasn’t done enough to discourage or stop hate speech on its interface. I, for one, would count myself among this concerned bloc of users.

The reality is that, even with Twitter insisting it is working on improving tools and enforcement systems to better root out abuse, especially the type coming from repeat offenders, there is little assurance that either Milo Yiannopoulos’ censure will be the first of many to come, or that Jones’ prolonged abuse will be among the last of its kind. Twitter, as a business and one devoted to allowing people to express themselves, respectfully must walk a fine line in generating traffic without wanting to seem like an institution of the “totalitarian regressive left.” That said, if it fails to act in a way that discourages hate, Twitter runs a risk of alienating even more of its millions of accountholders. It’s the same dance that an organization like, say, the Republican Party must reckon with. On one hand, it must try to expand its ranks if it is to avoid stagnation. On the other hand, it is set to feature a man who revels in his divisiveness as its nominee for President of the United States. My, what a dance it is, indeed.

As much as doubts may exist about Twitter and other social media sites’ ability to police its content, aspersions have similarly been cast on their ability to enforce Milo Yiannopoulos’ “permanent” ban. Soon after the announcement of the ban, the hashtag #FreeMilo was trending, and it is doubtful we’ve heard the last on this case or this topic. In the meantime, though, I won’t shed any tears for Milo. Not because he’s a conservative. Or because he’s gay. It’s because he behaves like an entitled asshole. Apparently, he believes he’s entitled to free speech because this is America or that he’s particularly clever or whatever. But when your free speech makes others feel trapped—in the case of Leslie Jones, like she’s in her own “personal hell”—it’s not really so “free.” When abuse, online or otherwise, is on the table, there is always a cost. If Milo Yiannopoulos has to pay it, someone with a history of directing hateful, malicious attacks on innocent users, all the better.