The Complicated Legacy Of Helen Thomas

Published: mic (July 20, 2013)

How does an American political historian cope with the death of Helen Thomas?

She was a pioneer for female journalists, an old-fashioned shoe-leather reporter, an astute observer of Washington’s grimy, smarmy underbelly who had personally interrogated every president since John F. Kennedy. When Stephen Colbert used the third act of his legendary 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech to pay her a tongue-in-cheek tribute, few in the press corps doubted that the honor was well deserved. Thomas embodied the best tradition of newsroom skepticism, the school of thought that continued to live by H. L. Mencken’s undeniable aphorism, “The only way for a reporter to look at a politician is down.”

Oh, and she hated Jews.

Before this article digresses too deeply into a disquisition on the intricacies of Middle Eastern politics, allow me to quickly point out that I do not think all criticism of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic. Indeed, I believe that many individuals who offer valid criticisms of the Jewish state — from Jimmy Carter on the left to Ron Paul on the right — have been wrongly attacked as bigoted for doing so. Even if one doesn’t share their particular views on the subject (which certainly applies to me), it’s always important to distinguish between people who disapprove of what the Israeli state has done, and those who extend that to a general attack on Jews. The former position is not inherently bigoted, while the latter is indisputably so. In that vein, when Thomas went on her infamous little rant saying the Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and that they should “go home [to] Poland, Germany, and America and everywhere else,” she revealed herself guilty of a repulsive prejudice. She wasn’t simply arguing that Israel was wrong for this or that particular policy or action, she was saying that the Jews who currently reside in that nation shouldn’t even be there. This was a disgusting sentiment, one that no decent human being could in good conscience condone or excuse.

And yet does this diminish her overall legacy?

This is a subject that I’ve broached before (particularly in this article which I co-authored with fashion blogger Tillie Adelson), but in light of Thomas’s death, it warrants a second evaluation. After all, unlike so many of the other public figures who have been disgraced by revelations of bigotry over the past few years, Thomas was someone who I had actively admired. Even before the Colbert speech gave her wider public attention, I had known her name and read about her accomplishments. Inside of every political history Ph.D. there is a child carrying far more books out of his school library than his little arms can carry, and whenever my wandering took me to the American studies section, Thomas’s name repeatedly came up. While I wouldn’t have called her a hero of mine, I was deeply hurt and disappointed by what she said — hurt because I am Jewish myself, and disappointed because her legacy would be forever tarnished in my eyes (a position I would like to think I would have held even if she had not been disparaging my particular heritage).

As I reflect back on her career, though, my mind pulls up an anecdote about a somewhat dissimilar figure. Unlike Thomas, this individual is an actual hero of mine, and has been ever since I picked up my (now-worn-out) Library of America paperback collection of his speeches at my local Barnes and Noble. His name was Abraham Lincoln — I’m going to go out on a limb and presume that he requires no introduction — and there is probably not a single human being, save only myself, about whom I know more meaningless minutiae than the Railsplitter. Most of them are fascinating and inspiring (hence my admiration for him), but more than a few are pretty unflattering. For example, there was this incident that he recalled from the autobiographical pamphlet he composed for his 1860 presidential campaign (which, in true Bob Dole-esque fashion, he wrote in the third person):

It was in connection with this boat that occurred the ludicrous incident of sewing up the hogs eyes. Offutt bought thirty odd large fat live hogs, but found difficulty in driving them from where [he] purchased them to the boat, and thereupon conceived the whim that he could sew up their eyes and drive them where he pleased. No sooner thought of than decided, he put his hands, including A. at the job, which they completed — all but the driving. In their blind condition they could not be driven out of the lot or field they were in. This expedient failing, they were tied and hauled on carts to the boat.

One can go on and on about how popular conceptions on animal rights were different in Lincoln’s era than they are today, and how if one can pardon his occasionally backward views on race by contextualizing them with his time, then one should be able to do the same thing with his torturing of pigs. All of this, though, misses the big point: How can I still admire Abraham Lincoln knowing that he did something that I find to be truly monstrous?

The answer, I suspect, is to remember that homo sapiens are complex animals. Despite the stringent moral demands made of us by the various social institutions which exist in the times we inhabit, each of us possesses numerous dimensions — some of them light, some of them dark, most of them neutral, and more than a few at odds with each other. Of course, there isn’t anything inherently contradictory about being a great journalist and a Jew-hater, or a great president and a pig mutilator. But these aren’t just bits of useless trivia — they reveal the inner quality of an individual soul. Since we like to admire souls as well as minds, the discovery that someone’s dark side plunged to such loathsome depths is always heartbreaking. At the same time, it should never obscure the clarity with which we perceive those who have contributed greatly to our world before shuffling off this mortal coil.

The Obama Speech On Trayvon Martin Was Brutally Honest — And Magnificent

Published: mic (July 19, 2013)

Liberals … we have our Obama back.

Well, let’s not go too far. The president who repeatedly compromised when it wasn’t necessary (see the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), reneged on promises (see Guantanamo Bay), and betrayed his own professed principles (see PRISM) cannot be entirely forgiven for his ideological betrayals simply after one press conference.

Then again, what a press conference it was.

One must bear in mind here that, despite his reputation as a barrier-breaker due to being our nation’s first African American president, Obama has not actually done very much for the black community during his time in office. He has appointed fewer blacks to cabinet positions than his two immediate predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush; eschewed the kinds of aggressive anti-poverty measures that could reduce skyrocketing inner city unemployment rates, allowing black joblessness to reach perilous heights; and refused to aggressively act to halt federal policies like the War on Drugs, which disproportionately target minority citizens. His acclaimed “More Perfect Union” speech may have been delivered only five years ago, but in light of the disparity between that soaring oratory and his subsequent policies, one wouldn’t be surprised for feeling like five decades have passed.

That is why, before progressives start cheering Obama’s recent comments, our president has not had the best track record of reinforcing his rhetoric with substantive action. At the same time, in light of his recent mealy-mouthed defenses of such policies as PRISM, we can at least be grateful that he is avowing the right ideals again.

So what exactly did Obama say?

First and foremost, he drew upon his own experiences as an African American male to explain why so many in the black community feel as strongly as they do about the Trayvon Martin shooting.

He recalled his own memories of being followed in department stores and hearing car locks click as he walked down a street, as well as learning about the racial underpinnings of many of America’s legal policies, from the death penalty to drug enforcement (although, again, Obama has done virtually nothing to address these issues himself).

When non-black Americans look at the Trayvon Martin fiasco, Obama pointed out, they need to remember how these social paradigms “inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.”

From there, Obama made it clear that he, like most African Americans, understands the complexity of this issue. Blacks are not naive “about the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence.”

At the same time, they also realize that much of the violence which takes place in poor black neighborhoods stems both from America’s long history of racial violence against blacks and from the oppressive conditions of poverty itself. As a result, when the statistics that apply to some black men are used to justify profiling most or all of them, African Americans see this for what it is: “an excuse to then see [their] sons treated differently [that] causes pain.”

The bottom line, as Obama soberly stated, is blacks being left with “a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.”

This, as they say, is really the nut of it. For all of the attempts by Zimmerman supporters to obfuscate the issue, the reality is that the forensic evidence never bore out Zimmerman’s claim to have acted in self-defense. His wounds were not consistent with those caused by the head trauma he described, Martin was not behaving in any way that would have suggested to a reasonable person that he was engaged in criminal wrongdoing before he was stalked, and because witness claims contradicted each other regarding whether Zimmerman or Martin started the fight, one could hardly rest on certainty that Martin had absolutely been the aggressor.

Yet we live in a racist society, and for all of what Young Turk Cenk Uygur rightly characterized as the “boo hoo”-ing of Zimmerman supporters at having the infamous “r-word” applied to them, the pro-Zimmerman reasoning has always been fundamentally racist at its core. Had Martin been white, he would not have been stalked, and had any white teenager been killed under comparable circumstances, no mass movement would have emerged to label the victim as the thug and sympathize with the dangeorus hothead who killed him.

All of this was present in Obama’s remarks today, along with a list of suggestions as to how we can prevent future tragedies like the Martin shooting from happening in the future. Most of these ideas were very good: Encouraging governors and mayors to work with law enforcement on ways to discourage racial profiling, evaluating how “Stand Your Ground” laws (though not used in this case) could be sending a “message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there’s a way for them to exit from a situation,” working with “business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes” to create programs to help “young African American men feel that they’re a full part of this society.”

Finally, he encouraged Americans to engage in some brutally honest introspection about their own attitudes toward race, so that the prejudiced mentalities that led Zimmerman to shoot Martin and so many others to support the killer could be more effectively confronted.

Obama should be commended for injecting these ideas into the public dialogue … and, of course, repeatedly reminded of them. Just as his remarks today show that the Obama for which we voted isn’t entirely gone, so too should his track record make it clear that we cannot entirely celebrate him as having returned. This doesn’t mean “Obama’s Back,” but rather “Obama Might Be Back.”

When all is said and done, the appropriate progressive response to Obama’s remarks would be to act as if he just said to us what Franklin Roosevelt said to some of his supporters eighty years ago:

“I agree with you. I want to do it. Now make me do it.”

 

4 Movies So Awful, They’re Actually Hilarious

Published: mic (July 18, 2013)

5 Reasons Why Libertarians Are the Hipsters Of U.S. Politics

Published: mic (June 17, 2013)

The slaying of sacred cows is one of the foremost responsibilities of anyone who hopes to shape public opinion in a responsible fashion. That is why most of America’s prominent political groups have received their fair share of ridicule, from The Colbert Report’s shtick parodying conservatives to South Park’s legendary lampoons deflating liberals. Considering the stakes involved and the sacrifices demanded in matters of state and society, this forced humbling of those who would wield political power is not only appropriate, but necessary.

This brings me to “The Top Five Similarities Between Libertarians and Hipsters,” including…

1. They demonstrate how “free thinking” they are by making a point of talking, thinking, and acting exactly like other self-proclaimed “free thinking” people.

Ron Paul. Barry Goldwater. Murray Rothbard. Ludwig von Mises. Walter Block. Henry Hazlitt. Frederich Hayek. Milton Friedman. Ayn Rand.

What do these names have in common? When libertarians attempt to win arguments, works by these and other intellectuals who run (or ran) in their circles frequently make an appearance. Sometimes they are directly cited, as the libertarian in question will confidently brandish titles by these authors with the same belief in their unquestionable truth that one normally expects to see from a zealot talking about the Bible — or, dare I say, a Communist when championing Karl Marx. Even if specific names and works aren’t directly referenced, however, they will still use the rhetoric, reasoning processes, and informational premises (founded and otherwise) that were first brought into popular currency by this school of authors. Just as hipsters claim to be individualistic while simply following the trends that are chic among other hipsters, so too do libertarians claim to be “free thinkers” not by actually thinking for themselves, but by devouring the literature consumed by others who view “free thinker” as a fashionable label instead of a state of mind.

2. They prefer to move in packs.

Have you ever noticed how rare it is to encounter just a single hipster when at a party, concert, or any other kind of social gathering? Regardless of whether the event involves hundreds of guests or just a handful of people, it seems like hipsters are driven not merely by the desire to make their cultural statement, but to receive the approval of other hipsters while they do so.

Similarly, libertarians seem to prefer traveling in packs. This serves two dual purposes: (1) It allows them to stifle discussion, whether online or in person, by exhausting those dissenters who even think about rebutting their arguments. (2) It allows them to create a community based on reciprocal group affirmation and self-validation.

The irony of this tactic is that it is uniquely designed to provide groups which are in the minority with a sense of being a growing majority. After all, if one’s ideas or lifestyle choices are mainstream, there is hardly the need for the reinforcement that comes with regularly traveling in numbers. With libertarians as with hipsters, however, the important thing is not merely being X, but having others who are like-minded see you being X.

3. They have a condescending attitude unique to those who take pride on being in an “out” group.

Just as hipster culture is far removed from the conventional, so too do libertarians currently fall well outside what is generally considered “conventional” political thought. Similarly, just as hipsters are conspicuous for possessing an attitude that I like to call “the arrogance of the rarefied” – i.e., not simply being condescending, but doing so from the implicit premise that one is part of a select group – so too do libertarians tend to display a “rarefied arrogance” toward non-libertarians that (though they are often loath to admit it) depends upon their status as an “out” group.

This isn’t to say that liberals and conservatives can’t also be quite arrogant. That said, because liberals and conservatives have both held national power in recent American history (whereas the last presidents who could be safely called libertarian were Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge), they lack the distinctly “rarefied arrogance” that comes with being a seemingly untested alternative. Libertarianism, meanwhile, is just large enough to avoid the stigma of freakish exoticism without actually being “establishment.” As such, it is a safe alternative for anyone who (1) falls into the trap of equating “smart” with “thinking differently than the majority” or (2) has an ambition and/or ego which cannot, as Abraham Lincoln once put it, find gratification “in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others.”

4. They overuse certain words so egregiously that those conversing with them are frequently tempted to say, a la Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Verbal motifs include the constant conflation of their movement with being pro-“freedom” and “liberty” (which, by implication, those who disagree with them oppose) and anti-“big government” and “excessive spending” (which, by implication, means their opponents are indifferent to or actively crave wasteful statism). The goal here isn’t merely to link their cause with noble abstract concepts and implicitly position their opponents as working against those same ideals; it is also to appropriate those terms for themselves, depriving them of their objective meaning and instead reorienting them so that they can solely fit their ideological goals. While this effort is rarely persuasive in its own right outside of circles already disposed to agree with their definitions (namely, conservatives and other libertarians), it does make it pretty quick to spot a libertarian when engaged in political conversation. Most other political groups take it for granted that you realize that they are in favor of liberty and freedom and want a fiscally responsible government with no more power than is absolutely necessary. Libertarians, with an insecurity that would inspire Freud to write volumes, feel the need to constantly remind the world of this fact about themselves. 

5. They are remarkably lacking in self-awareness.

This point can best be illustrated with a story. Some time ago I found myself wandering through the Urban Dictionary when I came across the term “Paulbot.” The bottom two entries contained the definitions generally associated with that term, such as “supporters [of Ron Paul] who act in a habitual, drone-like nature via constant domination of internet forums, polls or even real-life events (due to their overwhelming support for the candidate)” and “someone suffering from an obnoxious personality disorder which causes them to endlessly scan online discussions for mentions of Ron Paul and then descend on those discussions with hostile invective and over the top praise for Dr. Paul.”

Intriguingly, however, a concerted effort seemed to have occurred to vote the unflattering definitions down so as to subordinate them to defensively self-congratulatory alternatives: viz., “a government policy Dalek programmed to support human liberty” and “freedom and personal liberty loving online supporters of Ron Paul were given this name by close-minded individuals who only follow main-stream media’s propaganda and lies.” It was almost as if the so-called Paulbots had acted in a habitually drone-like fashion that drove them to dominate an internet forum so that they could obnoxiously praise themselves and shower hostile invective against dissenters…

Oh, nevermind. Let me just close with this particularly apt quote by Dwight Eisenhower:

“Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in the blood of his followers and the sacrifices of his friends.”

 

Why Joe Biden Should Run For President in 2016

Published: mic (July 17, 2013)The Morning Call (July 17, 2013)

According to a recent Politico article, Vice President Joe Biden is being criticized by some of his backers for not doing more to promote his 2016 presidential candidacy. Should Biden choose to run, he would, no doubt, face a formidable opponent in Hillary Clinton, the erstwhile first lady, senator, and secretary of state who is widely considered to be the Democratic front-runner. It’s right that she should be considered a top contender for the Oval Office, given her impressive resume and long history of remarkable political resilience. But there is also a strong case to be made for Biden’s candidacy. To whit:

1. He has the experience we need.

As the recent string of landmark Supreme Court decisions has made clear, we live in an important time in America’s judicial history. Biden’s decades of service on the Senate Judiciary Committee give him an exceptional understanding of how our courts operate. As such, he may be able to ensure that the courts serve the people’s interests, instead of being hijacked by ideological radicals (his capability was best demonstrated by his handling of the Robert Bork confirmation hearings). Similarly, as a longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a key foreign policy adviser for President Obama, Biden has been effective in grappling with complex issues ranging from ethnic conflict in the Balkans, to the Arab-Israeli peace process, to South African apartheid, to our seemingly intractable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Finally, he has long used his clout to champion the rights of the vulnerable, from women seeking refuge from physical and sexual abuse (he drafted the Violence Against Women Act of 1994), to low-income children struggling to afford a quality education (he championed a number of student financial aid and loan programs).

2. He has the right public image.

Although pundits like to scoff at Biden’s tendency toward gaffes, his ostensible weakness could, in fact, be one of his greatest strengths. After all, Americans love a good comeback story; Harry Truman’s legendary upset victory over Thomas Dewey in the 1948 presidential election continues to be a favorite of students of political history. Like Biden, Truman made a number of trivial blunders, and was widely disregarded. However, by remaining true to himself and embracing his plain speaking style, Truman defied conventional wisdom – Dewey was favored by nearly all of the pundits of his time – and famously demonstrated that authenticity can triumph over shrewd packaging. While Biden’s likely 2016 opponents are considerably to the right of Dewey ideologically, there is little question that pols like Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) could each give Dewey a run for his money in terms of sheer slickness. By following Truman’s example and remaining genuine, Biden would benefit from the contrast with any of them.

3. He has an inspiring personal story.

As the media increasingly focuses on the issue of childhood bullying, attention should be paid to Biden’s personal history; as a child, Biden had a speech impediment that took him years to master. As someone who was bullied while growing up, I can personally attest to how such treatment instills within its victims a visceral empathy for others who are victimized, whether it is for being gay, having a developmental handicap, looking different, or anything else. What’s more, by virtue of his subsequent achievements, Biden is in a unique position to serve as a role model for victims of bullying who need to know that they can overcome their present hardships and experience a bright future.

None of this is intended as a way of saying that I’d prefer Biden over Clinton in the Democratic primaries next year. Indeed, a primary contest between Clinton and the vice president would pose a very difficult decision for me, as I suspect it would for thoughtful Democrats everywhere. Then again, at a time when elections often offer little more than a choice between lesser evils, I, for one, would eagerly anticipate the dilemma that comes with deciding between two genuinely appealing alternatives.

“J’Accuse” George Zimmerman

Published: mic (July 14, 2013)

More than a century ago, the French novelist Emile Zola drew attention to one epidemic of bigotry that was infecting his country. In his classic essay “J’Accuse,” he pointed the finger of accusation at anti-Semites throughout the Western world who were celebrating a wrong that had been perpetrated against a Jew, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, because he was a Jew.

As I see the reactions to the George Zimmerman acquittal, I can’t help but think of Zola’s article — and how another one like it is necessary.

First, I accuse Zimmerman’s defenders of deliberate asininity when it comes to the details of this case. To whit:

1. Trayvon Martin was an unarmed teenager walking home after purchasing candy and a soft drink. No one has claimed that he was engaged in any criminal conduct at the time.

2. Zimmerman identified him as a potential criminal and decided to pursue him, against the advice of a 911 police dispatcher.

3. We will never be able to say with certainty what happened between the moment Zimmerman got off the phone with the dispatcher and the moment Martin was killed. For all of the speculation made by both sides, in the end we do not have any reliable accounts of what occurred. All of the witnesses are either biased (Zimmerman) or, for logistical reasons, were unable to provide entirely reliable accounts. What we do know is that, beyond any reasonable doubt, Martin died because Zimmerman shot him. As such, Zimmerman is indisputably responsible for Martin’s death. Insofar as the principles of Western jurisprudence are concerned, the only relevant issue is whether he killed Martin in self-defense. If he did, then his actions were justified; if he did not, then he is guilty of murder.

4. Contrary to popular misconception, the burden of proof lies on Zimmerman to demonstrate that he acted in self-defense, not on the state to show that he didn’t. “Innocent until proven guilty” only applies to culpability for the offense in question, and no one has argued that Zimmerman didn’t pull the trigger that ended Martin’s life. While someone who has committed a violent crime obviously has the right to defend himself, we set a dangerous precedent if we automatically give the benefit of the doubt to the murderer instead of the victim. Not only does the victim lack a voice to present his or her side of the story, but any murderer who has been caught will naturally be inclined to argue that his or her actions were somehow justified. Because a murderer’s word is obviously suspect, and because murder is not an offense which we can afford as a society to sanction without the strongest of all possible reasons, we must demand that one who is known to have taken another human life establish beyond any shred of doubt that he or she had good reason to do so — and punish them, for the sake of protecting the sanctity of human life, if their culpability can be established and their justification cannot.

5. Zimmerman never convincingly proved that his life was in danger. His bloody nose and the scrapes on the back of his head do suggest that he and Martin were involved in a physical altercation of some sort, but had he had his head smashed against the pavement several times (as he claims), he would have sustained far worse injuries than that. As the evidence stands, all we know for certain is that he and Martin had a fight, which does not translate into justifiable cause for thinking his life was in danger. If, for example, two men are involved in a barroom brawl, and one pulls out a gun and shoots the other, the killer shouldn’t be exonerated simply because both parties were equally engaged in the act of violence; he is only justified if he can prove that he had good reason to fear the other party would have killed him if he had not acted first. A charge of manslaughter may be substituted for a more severe account, but it is ludicrous to claim that he should be entirely acquitted. Similarly, Zimmerman simply fighting with Martin does not justify Zimmerman killing Martin precisely because the only sound evidence that could have proved his life was in jeopardy — the severity of his bodily injuries — failed to meet that standard of proof. In short, there is no good reason to believe beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman had to end Martin’s life.

All of these details add up to one conclusion: George Zimmerman stalked, shot, and killed an unarmed teenager without justifiable cause. As such, he should have been convicted of murder.

Yet millions of people have ignored the facts, and the rather basic logic that can be applied to them, because they want to take his side. Even before the photographs of Zimmerman’s injuries were released, or before Martin’s character was smeared by Zimmerman’s defense attorneys, these same people were scrounging around for ways to defend Zimmerman and condemn the child whose life he took. For all of the talk of political correctness inconveniencing white people, the primary beneficiaries of braindead etiquette are the racists who are allowed to spew their bile and then hide behind disclaimers of their own so-called “color blindness.”

I say enough. And I add to that disgust the following:

I accuse George Zimmerman of being a common murderer, for the reasons explained before.

I accuse Zimmerman’s defenders of believing that Trayvon Martin deserved to die because he was a black male.

Some of them undoubtedly have deluded themselves into thinking that they aren’t racist; others, just as certainly, know that they dislike black people but lie so as to avoid the stigma of being labelled a “racist.” All, however, are basing their opinions on the fact that Martin was black. If both men had been white, these same people would never dream of arguing that a heavyset adult male with a firearm could be defended for stalking an unarmed child and killing him. These same people, whether they admit it or not, would rightly dismiss his claim to have acted in self-defense once the aforementioned evidence was presented to them. Because Martin was black, however, they readily bought into the stereotypes our society teaches about African American men, and formed their opinions accordingly.

Finally, I accuse our society of systematically targeting African Americans using the same logic employed by Zimmerman, his supporters, and the Florida jurors.

Stories of blacks being profiled as criminals because of their race are so common that our history textbooks devote entire chapters to this subject. Indeed, we have grown so accustomed to this sociological grotesquerie that, like Cicero describing the music of the spheres, we have stopped appreciating the sheer freakishness of this phenomenon. In a culture devoid of racist attitudes, Zimmerman would have attracted attention as a character in the same vein of Robert John Bardo or Jodi Arias, a self-aggrandizing murderer no more deserving of sympathy than any other narcisstic child-killer. Instead we have grown so used to the idea of blacks being profiled as criminals, and whites treating them as such, that it is possible for so many of us to fail to see Zimmerman for what he was.

Reading about Martin’s story moved me for reasons that I’ll readily admit were somewhat personal. His tale reminded me of a 12-year-old boy who was likewise targeted because of his ethnic background — in this case, being Jewish — and nearly murdered as a result of racial hate. As was the case with Martin, that boy’s assailants ultimately got away with it because the culture which tried them didn’t particularly care for Jews.

The only reason I can write to you today is because that boy, luckily, was not murdered. The fact that Martin isn’t here to point the accusing finger at Zimmerman is because he wasn’t so lucky. That is why decent people everywhere must make the accusations for him.

What Men Can Learn From Dustin Hoffman’s ‘Tootsie’ Breakthrough

Published: mic (July 11, 2013)

Sometimes it’s necessary to feel ashamed of yourself.

This unpleasant epiphany came to me when I came across a Dustin Hoffman interview in which the Academy Award-winning actor discussed his experience preparing for the 1982 cross-dressing comedy Tootsie. As he described the studio’s attempts to make him look like a convincing woman, he recalled his shock at being told that no matter how realistic they might make him appear, they would never be able to make him look beautiful. After all, Hoffman had assumed that if he was going to be a woman, he would naturally be an interesting woman, and as such should be as beautiful as possible. When the deeper implications of his female alter ego’s inability to transcend the limitations of her physical appearance settled in, he came to an upsetting realization:

“I think I am an interesting woman when I look at myself on screen. And I know that if I met myself at a party, I would never talk to that character because she doesn’t fulfill physically the demands that we’re brought up to think women have to have in order to ask them out… There’s too many interesting women I have … not had the experience to know in this life because I have been brainwashed.”

Naturally my initial response was to be impressed with Hoffman’s insight. Like most politically and socially progressive men, I strongly sympathize with the precepts of feminism, all of which revolve around the belief that women should be defined by the content of their characters rather than by the strictures of socially-imposed gender roles. Because women are taught from a young age that their social value depends on their physical attractiveness — indeed, that “hot” women are hierarchically superior to those who are only pretty or average, with unattractive women being condemned to social invisibility or the status of a walking punchline — I wasn’t surprised that a renowned character actor would be so shaken upon being able to relate to his character’s struggles with this issue. In a sense, Hoffman simply reinforced through his visceral experience what Mary Wollstonecraft sagely explained to the world more than two centuries ago, that “taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”

And that, normally, would have been the closing point of this article. Like every other columnist, I would have plugged all of the necessary variables into the trusty pundit’s formula and then sent my piece off for publication, fully confident that I had done my own small part to advocate a cause I believed was right.

Then I had an introspective moment. A pesky, inconvenient, deeply unsettling introspective moment.

First I reflected on the women in my past and my reasons for being with them. Even as I’ve sneered at men who brag about their sexual conquests as if women were mere ornaments to be hung from boughs, could I honestly say that my own motivations had been that much different? How many women had I pursued primarily because I thought they were “hot” or, even worse, because my subconscious ego would be gratified by the knowledge that society had designated them as “hot”? How many had I ruled out as romantic and/or sexual partners simply because they failed to meet those aforementioned standards that Hoffman aptly referred to as society’s “physical demands”? If the women I’d been with had looked like the ones I had turned down and vice versa, would I have still made the same decisions? Would those memories that I savor or cherish from my personal life lose their luster if the other party hadn’t looked a certain way? Are there memories I’ll never have simply because I only knew how to look and never figured out how to see?

It is tempting to excuse any potential past superficialities by arguing that it’s “only human nature,” but that can only go so far. While we can’t control what we find physically attractive on a basic level, we can choose the extent to which we allow physical attraction to determine how we manage our personal lives. What’s more, it’s disingenuous to argue that the sexual ideals lauded by men today are entirely the result of their own biological programming. Given the innumerable studies which prove that women base their perceptions of their own beauty on external influences (such as mass media and peer influence), it stands to reason that men are similarly likely to deem certain types of women “attractive” and “unattractive” based less on their inherent preferences than on social pressure. Certainly the sense of social status men derive from being involved with attractive women is based far more on social norms than actual sexual inclination.

My thoughts wandered further, past the realms of love and sex which had reflexively (and tellingly) come up first when I pondered these questions. I began to think about the women with whom I interact every day as a matter of course, from complete strangers and colleagues to various professionals and even friends. How many times have I casually affixed the label of “fat woman” or “masculine woman” or “old woman” to someone – rarely using those actual words, mind you, but shuffling them into those categories nonetheless – without even realizing it? What’s worse, how often have I done it while realizing it? Even when my opinions haven’t been negative, how often have I reduced a woman’s entire identity to a collection of her most superficial parts?

Maddeningly, I ultimately found that I was unable to come up with definitive answers to any of those questions. Like most people, I am constantly torn between the part of my ego that wishes to only think the best of myself and the part of my soul that always assumes the worst, leaving little room for objective self-assessments. My hunch is that I probably lie somewhere in the middle. I know for sure that there are women I have loved, and love, who would have captured my heart regardless of how they looked. Likewise, I know that there are women I have prejudged based on their appearance and pursued/spurned accordingly. Finally, just as I am proud of the moments when my better angels have prevailed, I am ashamed of the moments when I’ve succumbed to my worst instincts.

I don’t think this shame is a bad thing. Indeed, I would recommend that every man who reads this article ask himself questions similar to the ones I used during my own introspective moment. Hell, even the women should try this on for size, since male objectification — while not even remotely as pervasive or devastating as female objectification — is still quite prevalent.

I don’t think a single person can honestly claim to have not been guilty of the kind of superficiality Hoffman uncovered in himself. While I won’t claim to know all the ways this problem can be solved, I do know that a healthy sense of shame is a good place to start. As the Roman philosopher Seneca put it best, “Shame may restrain what law does not prohibit.”