The Art vs. the Artist

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Revelations of sexual misconduct have roiled the entertainment industry, among others, in recent months. The allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and intimidation against producer Harvey Weinstein seemed to have unloosed a dam in Hollywood, and numerous directors, actors, and other entertainers have been accused of using their positions to abuse women.

In light of the accusations, networks have been cancelling TV series and specials, and no doubt the fate of some feature films hangs in the balance. I’m heartened by the change in attitude towards sexual impropriety in the workplace; it’s long overdue. But I wonder how to balance our admiration for the talent and artistry of a person with the ugly reality of his behavior in real life.

For decades there has been debate about such figures as Roman Polanski and Woody Allen and the degree to which we should ostracize their work out of protest at their sexual misdeeds (although in the case of Allen, many people see nothing wrong with his dating and eventually marrying his ex-wife’s adopted daughter. I would not be one of those people.) Heavyweights in Hollywood have always stood up for these men, even though Polanski had to flee the country on a statutory rape charge. But the question is, should we not see Chinatown, The Pianist, or Rosemary’s Baby – or indeed even recognize their greatness as films?

Sometimes the rejection of an artist’s work is based on unambiguous factors. Leni Riefenstahl, for instance, used her directorial talents to create propaganda for Hitler and Nazi Germany. It also doesn’t take much hemming and hawing to denounce D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a film that glories in the creation of the Ku Klux Klan. But what about the well-known anti-Semite Richard Wagner? His Nineteenth Century operas and other classical music are renowned works of art. Should we protest any productions of his work today, knowing what we know about his bigotry and xenophobia?

Over the years people have boycotted entertainers for political reasons. In fact, it seems like the entire world of the arts is fraught with politics these days. In fact, recently I had to stop and consider whether someone might be offended if I gave their child a book written by Bill Nye, the Science Guy. But short of objecting to the content of a specific book, movie, or other work of art, I’m not sure I want to let my personal opinion of an artist affect my appreciation of their work.

I don’t have the answers here. It seems to me that works of art should be judged on their own merits. Yet I would be hard pressed to attend a Louis C.K. performance these days. And should I finish binge-watching House of Cards or shun the series in protest over Kevin Spacey’s lame excuses and rationalizations for preying upon young men? Do time and distance make an artist’s work more palatable? I just don’t know.

Still, I am glad to see the cult of celebrity being shattered a bit to allow victims the ability to confront abuse and intimidation. After all, actors, directors, comedians, musicians and other artists are only human. They should be held to the same laws and standards as other humans, famous or not.

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Paying the Piper

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As yet another horrific act of mass murder by firearms goes by with the usual platitudes and talking points, I am coming to the realization that in many areas of needed reform, an appeal to the humanity of our leaders is sadly misplaced. So I have another angle to help persuade government leaders, institutions, and the American public: the steep cost of failing to change.

In the area of guns, a Johns Hopkins study found that gun violence costs $2.8 billion in medical costs annually. That doesn’t take into account the expense of police and other law enforcement involvement, court costs, and prison expenditures, all of which are borne by us, the taxpayers. Even the health price tag comes back on individual Americans through higher insurance premiums and taxes to pay for victims on Medicaid. The high cost of gun violence could be reduced by expanding background checks, thus keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and domestic abusers, and by requiring owners to complete training in the safe use and storage of firearms, thus preventing the many accidental gun injuries and deaths that occur each year.

Another area in desperate need of reform is policing. Unwarranted shootings of suspects are not only an abrogation of individuals’ civil rights; they become a huge expense for police departments, which must shell out millions of dollars to settle lawsuits brought by victims and their families. Guess who ends up paying those bills?

Even in the business world, the current push to deregulate business and industry can have detrimental effects on our pocketbooks. Questionable investment and banking practices, for instance, nearly brought down the entire economy in 2008. More recently, Wells Fargo Bank employees were found to have created over a million fake accounts for which their customers were charged fees. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created during the Obama Administration to prevent financial institutions from playing fast and loose with other people’s money. But now the Trump Administration has destroyed the ability of citizens to participate in class action lawsuits, the threat of which can prevent banks and other institutions from mismanagement and fraud. Maybe it’s time to go back to the days of hiding our cash under our beds.

And in the area of the environment, our EPA is looking more like the Environmental Pillaging Agency than an agent of protection. Beyond the idealistic goal of keeping our wildernesses wild and pristine, environmental damage is costing us in real dollars and cents. Unsafe drinking water and polluted air cause health problems for ordinary Americans, and those health problems cost money to treat.

So if you’re not moved by the sight of dwindling wetlands, gunshot victims, or grieving families, maybe this will spur you to action: It’s gonna cost you.

 

Being Blue in a Red Environment

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red_and_blue_make_purple_by_mothafoochaBack when we lived in what my husband disparagingly referred to as the “People’s Republic of Santa Monica,” I was in my political comfort zone. The Los Angeles area has long been known as a bastion of liberalism, and California as a rule goes blue in presidential contests. I was surrounded, for the most part, by like-minded people. So although my husband and I sparred on political issues, I was a relatively lazy liberal.

Moving to a conservative town west of Chicago, I soon learned that my liberal outlook was not the norm. I had grown up nearby, so I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with the generally Republican voting habits in the area. But I had been young and relatively uninterested in political goings-on. Now I was confronted with yard signs supporting Republican candidates and social conversations dominated by an assumed shared conservatism. I became a sort of stealth Democrat.

Over time, I developed the ability to disagree (usually politely) with friends and acquaintances on political matters. I found a few closet liberals here and there with which to share my disgruntlement about the Bush (and now Trump) administration. I even cheered loudly during the Fourth of July parade when the little ragtag band of Democrats marched by.

It’s not all bad living in an opposing political climate. Being in the minority, I find that I am more thorough and thoughtful in defense of my beliefs. Studies have shown that people who are surrounded by like-minded friends become more extreme and strident in their opinions. I, on the other hand, try to moderate the way I express my political opinions out of respect for my friends and acquaintances. It’s also instructive to learn about what others believe and why.

In our current political climate, people can feed themselves a steady diet of news and commentary that nourishes their already established beliefs. Unfortunately, Marc Zuckerberg and the folks at Facebook have made it even easier to insulate ourselves from opposing viewpoints. I find that my friendships with people on the opposite side of the political spectrum give me a more balanced perspective and the knowledge that, whatever our differences, there are decent American citizens on both sides of the aisle.

Being blue in a red community? Well, maybe it makes me a lovely shade of purple.

Hidden v. Overt Racism

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I prefer a Richard Spencer to a Donald Trump. Richard Spencer is the white nationalist whose recent appearance at the University of Florida created a security nightmare for the university and prompted Florida governor Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency. Spencer was basically shouted down by a preponderance of protesters who object to his overt racism.

Spencer’s stated goal is the creation of a “white ethno-state” in America. (“His Kampf,” Graeme Wood, Atlantic Monthly, June, 2017) In his now infamous “Hail Trump” speech, Spencer stated:

To be white is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer and a conqueror. We build, we produce, we go upward … For us, it is conquer or die. This is a unique burden for the white man …. We were not meant to beg for moral validation from some of the most despicable creatures to ever populate the planet.

Spencer also supports abortion rights because it will reduce the number of nonwhites in the world, who are, according to him, too stupid to use birth control.

There is nothing subtle or open to interpretation here. Thus, as hateful and disgusting as Spencer and his ideology are, it is easy to counter and criticize them.

On the other hand, our president is (only slightly )more subtle. Trump ridicules Gold Star families, but only when they’re brown. Trump throws paper towels at hurricane victims and minimizes their suffering, but only when they’re brown. Trump calls peaceful protesters “sons of bitches,” but only when they’re brown. In each case, he and his supporters can declare that they are misunderstood or that the media is lying about Trump’s behavior. They can couch his casual racism in vague concepts of patriotism.

I’m not saying that the beliefs of neo-Nazis like Richard Spencer aren’t dangerous. But they are clear cut. We know what we are dealing with and fighting against. Much more difficult is the implied bigotry underlying Donald Trump’s words and actions as president. His hollow embrace of the American flag masks his assault on the American values of liberty and equality for all.

 

The World in Black and White

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When I was about 9 years old, our family got our first color television set. It was a wonder to us and a plague to my father, who spent endless hours trying to get the color adjusted properly. People on early TV shows always looked orange or green, it seemed, but it was exciting to see the television world full of color. It was like that moment when Dorothy gets deposited in Oz, and she steps out into a new and beautiful world.

The advent of color TV coincided with a flowering of expression and political activism in the United States. The civil rights movement had given birth to the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the beginning of a larger push toward affording blacks equal rights to whites. Growing unrest over US involvement in the Vietnam War led to protests and violent clashes with police. The late Sixties was the time of hippies, free love, and drug experimentation. Many in America, youth in particular, rebelled against the homogeneity and conservatism of the 1950s.

The Fifties were a prosperous time for many, and after the deprivations of the Great Depression and the horrors of World War II, Americans naturally craved comfort and security. The problem was that nonconformity was frowned upon, and prosperity and security remained elusive for blacks. So although some of the unrest and unruliness of the Sixties was negative, overall the era brought about progress for women and minorities.

Trump’s America seems to be a return to black and white. So much of his political platform and presidential agenda are designed to turn back the clock on civil rights, reproductive freedom, and freedom of expression. During the campaign, for instance, he called nonwhite immigrants criminals, rapists, and terrorists. He questioned the validity of Barack Obama’s U.S. birth certificate until late in the campaign. He said that women who had abortions should be punished and bragged about grabbing women’s genitals against their will. This was dismissed by his supporters as “locker room talk.” It seemed clear to those not dazzled by his reality TV fame that his slogan “Make America Great Again” really meant “Make America White Again.”

As president, Trump has put his reactionary views into action – decreeing a de facto travel ban on foreign Muslims, appointing an anti-civil rights attorney general, removing the contraceptive mandate from Obamacare, calling for a ban on transgender individuals in the military. He has made both veiled and overt threats against press freedom and taken exception to NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem. He has called these peaceful protestors “sons of bitches” while refusing to condemn white nationalists marching in Charlottesville and shouting slogans such as “Jews will not replace us.”

Seeing things in black and white is an apt metaphor for both the conformist Fifties and today’s politically polarized environment. It is incredibly depressing to see the hard-fought gains of the Sixties and Seventies being undone by the current administration with the complicity of the Republican-dominated Congress. I can only hope that the many Americans who have grown to love a world of color will rise up and demand that our country move forward, not backward, in the advancement of freedom and human rights.

Why Trump’s Words Matter

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At a press conference in Puerto Rico, where President Donald Trump had flown to view the devastation first hand, Trump made a lame joke about the island’s recovery wrecking the federal budget. Along with his remarks about Hurricane Maria not causing as many deaths as did Katrina in Louisiana over a decade ago, the president’s remarks were criticized as callous and unpresidential.

It may seem picayune to quibble about every word that comes out of the president’s mouth. Indeed, many conservatives paint Trump as a “can’t win for losing” figure. His off the cuff manner and refusal to keep his less seemly thoughts to himself actually appealed to many voters during the campaign. But now that he is president, Trump needs to mind his words. As the leader of the United States, he has the responsibility to understand that what he says has the power to hurt or heal our nation.

Most of Trump’s remarks concerning the devastating aftermath of Maria on the island of Puerto Rico consisted of his praising his own administration and, by extension, himself for their handling of the crisis. More ominously, any criticism of that response, such as the impassioned outcry from San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, was met with denunciation by Trump and the usual accusations of fake news leveled at the mainstream media. In other words, if you don’t prostrate yourself in homage to Trump and his administration, Trump will attack and attempt to discredit you. These are the actions of petty tyrants, not democratically elected presidents.

I have a Facebook friend who relentlessly attacks the mainstream media as being completely false and lying about Trump whenever anything negative is reported about his words or actions. This attitude is the direct result of a relentless campaign to preemptively discredit any negative news or opinions about our president. Again, I would expect this kind of tactic in an autocracy, but not in our country.

Donald Trump does not have to be the most polished speaker. I don’t care if his vocabulary is less than professorial. But Trump’s Twitter attacks, his callous remarks, and his constant insistence on praising himself are indicative of the kind of man we have elected to lead our country. His words do matter. And I shudder to imagine what he will say in Las Vegas.

Thank You, President Trump

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Dear President Trump,

On behalf of a divided nation, thank you. Your insensitive and thinly veiled racist jabs at Colin Kaepernick and other black NFL players has had some beautiful unintended consequences.

Prior to your latest childish and angry tweet, wherein you called peaceful protesters “sons of bitches,” a few NFL players had been taking a stand (so to speak) by taking a knee during the national anthem at the start of games. Since your remarks, entire teams of NFL players, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers, have chosen to remain off the field rather  than salute a flag that stands for freedoms they find far too elusive. More and more players have chosen this dignified and nonviolent method of protesting police brutality and institutional racism. So rather than do away with the practice, your hateful comments have created a tidal wave.

Another unintended consequence of your hate-spewing bile is that you have fostered unity among players, coaches, and others who support their teammates in their struggles to right injustice. Last night at the Dallas Cowboys game, the entire team including the coach took a knee to make such a statement of solidarity. Then they stood, arms locked together, during the anthem. All of this had been agreed upon beforehand in conversations that may never have taken place had you not had one of your Twitter tantrums.

I have also noticed people who are not particularly political taking a stand – whether prominent celebrities or just Facebook friends who are fed up with the hatred and casual racism that has been growing like a cancer since you took office. Their courage to speak out gives me great hope in our future. It gives me hope that your election was an aberration and that people of good will can bring some sanity and dignity back to our great nation.

I pray that this movement continues to grow and that it forces local and state governments to take action against police brutality and other forms of institutional racism in this country. I pray that it is not just a blip on the screens of our lives. I pray that it energizes a new civil rights era and moves us away from division and hate and towards unity and equality for all.