Michelle Wolf Upset Some People. Good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Slippery Slope to Punishing Women for Abortions

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Republican and Democratic legislators in the state of Florida may not have a problem with the Grieving Families Act, but members of the National Organization for Women and others (like me) who see this a way to more stealthily advance a pro-life agenda are quite concerned. (Photo Credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

In a March 2016 town hall event in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Donald Trump expressed the belief that women should be punished for having an abortion. The due outrage was swift to follow, as were Trump’s attempts to modify or recant on his remarks. No, he meant that doctors should be punished for performing these procedures. No, wait—women were punishing themselves for getting abortions. Yes—that’s the ticket! Actually, hold on—are the evangelicals listening? Then women definitely should be punished in some way for aborting their baby. Absolutely. I’ve believed this all of my life—except in 1999 when I said that I was “very pro-choice.” Trump’s expressed opinions on this subject may as well as have been a magic 8-ball. Wait a few minutes and shake—you were liable to get a different answer depending on his mood and his audience.

Trump may have waffled on the issue of abortion as he did on the issue of support of the Iraq War—he claims he didn’t support it, but he totally f**king did—but as far as his pandering to conservative interests went, like a lawyer who makes an extreme allusion only to have his or her line of questioning instructed by the judge of the jury to be disregarded, he got his point across. For the Christians who hold a deep distaste for abortion as a sin and tantamount to murder, and who are yet more resolute than he, Donald Trump was their man. Bringing Mike Pence along as his choice for Vice President only affirmed his commitment to the religious right. Despite his dearth of knowledge of the Bible (or, for that matter, most books intended to be read by adults), and despite his decidedly un-Christian remarks about various minority groups and particularly lewd comments about women, on this issue and perhaps other choice topics (e.g. bringing jobs back to America, immigration, terrorism), Trump’s supporters evidently could forgive and forget. After all, if some of these individuals would be willing to do something as crazy as firebomb a Planned Parenthood center over their antipathy toward abortion—a small portion, granted, but still—then voting for Trump was, if not less crazy, then certainly eminently more legal.

Republican politicians, when not precisely enunciating their views on abortion, will frequently defer to one of two stock positions so as not to alienate voters and yet still communicate a satisfactory enough answer to the desired constituency. The first is something to the effect of, “Roe v. Wade is the law of the land (presumably, they would throw their hands up at this point), but I would support the Supreme Court overturning that decision.” Never mind that a majority of Americans oppose such a reversal, including a majority of moderate and liberal Republicans (apparently, they do exist) who disagree with a complete overturning of this decision. The other standard response: “Well, Anderson, I feel abortion and reproductive rights are a matter best left to the states.” Beautiful. Not only does this raise the possibility of abortion being banned by law in the individual’s jurisdiction, but it specifically sticks it to the federal government. Tell me what kind of meat I can and can’t eat! A pox on your standards, I say! Besides, going back to Roe v. Wade, seeing as this landmark decision has survived for decades without being reversed, the more prudent move for GOP politicians and supporters may be to try their luck at the state level.

Unfortunately for the pro-choice crowd, Republican pro-life forces have more than just simple luck at their disposal, controlling as many state legislatures and governor seats as they do. With this in mind, it’s no wonder some scary pieces of legislation have and continue to be advanced in red states across America. In Texas, Senate Bill 8 would, if passed, allow those who drive women seeking abortions to clinics as effective accessories to a crime. In Oklahoma, legislators passed a non-binding resolution to force officials to equate abortion with murder, and one particular Oklahoma representative dared to insinuate as part of his anti-abortion agenda that cases of pregnancy by rape and incest could be considered “God’s will.” Kansas Republicans, in requiring doctors to provide additional information to women considering abortions, even specified what font, size, and color of paper and ink must be used in furnishing this information. The list goes on. In particular, minors seeking abortions are heavy targets of these kinds of provisions, such that if the potential embarrassment of an unintended pregnancy or having to receive permission from one’s parents is not bad enough, additional legal hurdles and the threat of jail time exacerbate the situation. Apparently, it’s worth it to make young people feel like shit and risk them taking matters into their own hands. Thanks for the life lessons, GOP.

The hardline stance of those on the right against abortion and even access to contraceptives is nothing new. For that matter, it speaks to a dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist attitude that equates babies being born out of wedlock or even sex without the express purpose of procreation as sinful. With Roe v. Wade serving as established legal precedent, meanwhile, as much as overt maneuvers to all but outlaw abortion in name bear scrutiny for their relentless advancement of a pro-life cause, policies which seem more benign and would even superficially seem to show genuine concern for women’s reproductive health also deserve to be analyzed. In Florida, Governor Rick Scott recently signed into law the Grieving Families Act, which provides for issuance of a birth certificate of sorts upon request for women who have miscarriages between nine and 20 weeks of gestation starting July 1. The measure had support from both Democratic and Republican state legislators. OK, you’re thinking, this is good, right? Bilateral political support, recognition of the intensity of emotion surrounding pregnancy, especially one that ends early—no problem here.

Not so fast. This is Rick Scott we’re talking about here, a man who, as governor of the state of Florida, has signed bills that have eliminated funding for Planned Parenthood and imposed additional restrictions on abortions, as well as a measure that requires women to wait 24 hours and visit a doctor before going through with the procedure. Also, the Grieving Families Act was vocally opposed by the Florida chapter of the National Organization for Women, who, you would suppose, would tend to have women and their best interests in mind. Might there be a hidden abortion-related subtext to this legislation? You bet your “certificate of nonviable birth,” there is. Without mentioning abortion, the Act suggests that life starts at nine weeks, while at the same time obliquely referencing the 20-week threshold by which right-oriented politicians have sought to cap abortions nationwide.

This is why Florida’s iteration of NOW chose to voice their opposition to the bill: it is a stepping stone to legally defining when life begins and thereby reducing lawful abortions. According to a report for Associated Press by Brendan Farrington, Planned Parenthood was neutral on the Grieving Families Act before being signed by Gov. Scott, and between Democrats and Republicans, only one “no” vote was recorded between the state Senate and House. It’s disturbing, because it’s not hard to connect the dots between awarding “birth” certificates for miscarriages and trying to change the law on abortion. Sure, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bob Cortes, claims there is no anti-abortion aspect and that he worked with Democrats to make sure they were “comfortable” with the language of the bill. In my mind, however, this only makes the construction of this legislation more suspect, and of the Democrats who voted “yes” on the Grieving Families Act, at best, they appear easily duped, and at worst, complacent or complicit with what Florida GOP members are trying to achieve with respect to curtailing women’s reproductive rights.

Supporters of the Grieving Families Act maintain that there is no mandate regarding issuance of these certificates of nonviable birth, hence there should be no need for such a fuss over the provisions effected by this legislation. If you want a certificate to help you grieve over the loss of a child, then get one. If you don’t, don’t. Quit your bitching, am I right? Again, not so fast. While likewise unstated, there is another level of implication to the Act that makes you believe there is more to the story than altruistically helping women and their families cope. Danielle Campoamor, writing for the website Romper, also has issues with the mentality behind Florida’s new law. Aside from her belief that the law is just one in an ongoing line of the kind of legislation created by Republicans nationwide to try to restrict women’s choices—like attempts elsewhere to mandate burials for aborted fetuses or to bar women and the clinics they attend from donating fetal tissue for medical research—Campoamor draws from her own personal experiences as someone who has suffered a miscarriage to offer her viewpoint that grief is but one emotion experienced by women like her, and as such, Bob Cortes and others who think like him are really projecting certain feelings onto the female portion of their electorate. She explains:

Issuing a birth certificate to a miscarried fetus that was never born might help some women grieve. But it also poses a threat to women’s reproductive rights by establishing personhood at the early stages of gestation. Perhaps more importantly, the bill is predicated on the belief that women can and should only have one emotion related to pregnancy loss, and that emotion should be grief. But the reality is so much more complicated than that.

As a woman who has had an abortion, lost multiple pregnancies, and given birth, I can say with the utmost certainty that there is no “one way” to respond to pregnancy, pregnancy loss, or childbirth. With a positive pregnancy test in my shaking hands, I was both excited and terrified, unsure and steadfast in my decision to be a mother. And during my miscarriage, I felt both sad and relieved that even though I wanted to have another child, that time wouldn’t be now. I wouldn’t have to navigate the difficulties of parenting two children while working, and I wouldn’t have to go through another potentially high-risk pregnancy. My life would stay the same.

As Danielle Campoamor goes on to write about, not only do women who have miscarriages often not suffer from grief, but they frequently are made to feel guilty as part of some sort of odd stigma, as if they are “shitty human beings” for not being able to “keep a pregnancy.” To some, it may even sound absurd, but then again, our President, en route to the White House, suggested the moderator of a Republican debate (Megyn Kelly, then with FOX News) was going after him on matters of policy especially hard because she was menstruating, not merely because she was doing her job. If stigma about women’s periods, a normal biological function, still exists in this day and age, it is perhaps no wonder that women are made to feel inadequate for miscarrying, or for feeling like a cold-blooded killer for daring to end their pregnancy on their terms. Besides, and to stress, if naysayers on the right want to limit abortions, they should insist on the use of contraceptives and other forms of healthy sexual activity. Then again, that brings up the whole “sex is wrong even though it made you and it feels really good and you should hate yourself for liking it so much” argument, and we just end up talking in circles. Let’s just have men and women limit their physicality to holding hands and force them to sleep in separate beds. That’ll do the trick.

Campoamor closes her post with musings on the larger societal attitudes behind pregnancy, miscarriages, and abortions, as well as the implicit sexist bias that marks creations like the Grieving Families Act:

The Grieving Families Act, and other like-minded bills, establishes a narrow, prescribed relationship women should have with their pregnancies. It perpetuates the sexist trope that all women want to be mothers first, foremost, and always. It fortifies the notion that every woman will face the loss of a pregnancy the very same way, stumbling through the stages of grief and in need of some sort of reprieve. It positions motherhood as less of a choice and more of an inevitability, telling women that if they are not devastated by a miscarriage, they’re intrinsically defunct, all the while attempting to establish legal personhood that would give a fetus more rights than the mother.

Women are more than [their] ability to reproduce, and while we must continue to support those women who do suffer through miscarriage, we must also be willing to support those women who do not see a pregnancy loss as cause for suffering, but as a welcomed grace. If we are to champion motherhood as a worthwhile life choice, we must also be willing to celebrate those who choose not to become mothers, or those who want to become mothers but are unable to do so. Most importantly, we must remind women that any time they see a positive pregnancy test, or any time they are faced with the loss of a pregnancy, there’s no one “right” way to feel about it.

Agreed, Danielle, in particular because human beings are so complex, not to mention that they should have control over their life choices and should not have fewer rights than, say, a fetus or someone who rapes or abuses them. As referenced before, the conservative agenda against abortion and a woman’s right to choose is well apparent, especially as it turns confrontational and even violent. Less obvious attempts to define life and the sentiments surrounding pregnancy for women right down to how they should feel, however, also must be guarded against. The Grieving Families Act and its supporters would have you believe it exists only to aid women and families in dealing with the unexpected loss of a child. Those of us who can look past the palatable language of the law, on the other hand, know better, and see only the greasing of an already-slippery slope to punishing women for having abortions. As with Donald Trump and his myriad positions on the subject, and once more invoking the image of the attorney advancing an idea only to have it be stricken from the official record, you don’t actually have to spell it out to get the point across.