The Fundamental Difference Between Sanders and Trump

Published: Alternet (January 31, 2016), Salon (January 31, 2016), The Good Men Project (January 21, 2016)

As the 2016 presidential election gathers steam, it’s tempting to compare the Bernie Sanders surge among Democrats with the Donald Trump phenomenon among Republicans. After all, both candidates are marshalling support from the ideological grassroots in their respective parties (the left in Sanders’ case, the right for Trump), and both have successfully tapped into a deeper anger that animates their campaigns.

When you reflect on the nature of that anger, however, a crucial distinction between the two candidates emerges: Sanders is drawing on a compassionate anger, while Trump is fanning the flames of a selfish anger. This may seem like a small difference, but it’s one that will literally determine the fate of millions.

First, a quick moment of clarification. When I discuss “compassionate” and “selfish” forms of anger, I’m referring to the underlying philosophy embedded in a given set of frustrations. Although both forms of anger tap into a visceral sense of outrage within their listeners, the former insists that they exhibit empathy for others, while the latter encourages them to focus on advancing their own interests at the expense of others. Thus – to use the analogy of a schoolyard setting – the practitioner of empathetic anger will demand that the rules be fair and the toys be shared, while the practitioner of selfish anger will raise a fuss whenever he’s losing the game or doesn’t have as many toys as he’d like… regardless of whether real cheating or unjust inequality is actually involved.

This brings us to the current election cycle. As the most recent Democratic debate demonstrated, Sanders is practically monomaniacal in his focus on the problem of income inequality in America. Whether he’s discussing the importance of raising the minimum wage, proposing a substitute for Obamacare that would guarantee free health coverage for everyone, or advocating policies that would lower college tuition and student loan rates, all of his positions are bound by a common thread. Sanders sees an America that, despite proclaiming itself the “land of opportunity,” is clearly rigged to offer better opportunities for the affluent than the poor. Similarly, despite its nickname as the “land of the free,” Sanders vocalizes a widespread outrage at the notion that anyone can have a freedom worth having while languishing in insurmountable poverty. Listening to his rhetoric, one hears undeniable echoes of Franklin Roosevelt’s famous Economic Bill of Rights:

“We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.”

Whereas Sanders’ campaign has been fueled by a consistent ideology of economic progressivism (or, as he likes to call it, democratic socialism), the Trump boom has gathered momentum by pitting various groups of Americans against each other. It’s easy to forget that when Trump skyrocketed to his current frontrunner status over the summer, it was by vilifying undocumented Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. Since that time, his campaign has wallowed in the depth of misogyny, racism, and Islamophobia, with Trump garnering headlines and gaining support by openly promoting the prejudices that have marginalized non-white males in the past. While it’s tempting to identify this pattern of bigotry as the common thread tying his campaign themes together, this wouldn’t be precisely accurate. The actual thread is Trump’s cynical awareness of the fact that, by shattering the so-called “politically correct” taboos against attacking traditionally oppressed groups of people, he can simultaneously speak on behalf of the privileged while making both them and himself seem like the underdogs.

Indeed, the evidence of this can be found not on the many occasions when Trump’s hatemongering has succeeded, but on the numerous times it has failed. Take his anti-Semitic comments during a speech in front of the Republican Jewish Coalition; when he declared to his appalled audience that “you’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” he clearly intended to position himself as a brave challenger of a Jew-controlled status quo. This approach didn’t gain traction, so naturally he abandoned it, but structurally it was identical to the rhetoric he has successfully used against Mexicans or Muslims – insinuate that racist assumptions about those groups are correct, feed off of the media outrage regarding his remarks, and profit from the support that rallies behind him for “speaking the truth.” The same thing can be said of his efforts to mobilize a bigoted reaction against the Cuban heritage of his chief rival, Ted Cruz; when he urged an Iowa audience to remember that “not too many evangelicals come out of Cuba,” the goal was once again to politically weaponized what he hoped would be the racist inclinations of his own supporters. The fact that this tactic didn’t work against Cubans (and thus Cruz) simply proves that Trump’s strategy, though often successful, is still a hit-and-miss affair. Of course, because the hits yield such great rewards and the misses have yet to hurt him politically, Trump has no particular incentive to stop.

Even though Trump will probably never redeem the quality of his anger, though, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from his actions. If Americans truly want to elevate the quality of their political discourse, it is imperative to start by distinguishing between the type of anger that speaks to legitimate needs among the vulnerable and the type of anger that only sows seeds of dissent and hatred. This is an issue that transcends the Sanders and Trump campaigns, or indeed the 2016 presidential election entirely. At its core, this is about what it means to be a responsible citizen within a democratic society – something that Sanders clearly understands, and Trump just as clearly does not.

Enough about Hillary Clinton’s damn emails!

Published: The Good Men Project (January 30, 2016)

815 words into the Associated Press’s recent 949 word piece on Hillary Clinton’s email scandal, one will find a passage that should appear at the very beginning:

The FBI also is looking into Clinton’s email setup, but has said nothing about the nature of its probe. Independent experts says it’s unlikely Clinton will be charged with wrongdoing, based on details that have surfaced so far and the lack of indications that she intended to break laws.

Since the start of the 2016 election cycle, I have been highly conflicted about Clinton’s presidential campaign. Of the three candidates seeking the Democratic nomination, she is easily the most conservative, and there is plenty of evidence that she has used her establishment connections to rig the contest in her favor before a single ballot has been cast. Although her extensive experience makes her abundantly well-qualified for the presidency and I would support her over any of the Republican alternatives, she certainly isn’t my first choice.

At the same time, as Bernie Sanders once put it, I am sick and tired of hearing about her damn emails. The latest revelations change none of that.

Yes, it has been revealed that that 22 emails sent from Clinton’s private server contained highly classified information. Yes, this was a major faux pas on her part, and to paraphrase Washington lawyer Bradley Moss (who specializes in security clearance matters), she should feel humbled by her mistake.

At the same time, the headlines are plastered with declarations like those of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who insists that the FBI is ready to indict her (a rich claim coming from a man who was indicted in 2005 on criminal charges of conspiracy to violate election law). Former House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa made the same claim, despite his own role in hounding Clinton during the discredited Benghazi hearings. Left and right, pundits seem to agree that this news could be catastrophic for her presidential campaign, coming as it does a mere three days before the Iowa caucuses will take place. As CBS News aptly put it, “Hillary Clinton is in damage control over new information about the private email server she used as secretary of state.”

None of this is warranted.

For one thing, Clinton herself has consistently called for all of her emails to be released to the public. Even though the media has made it seem as if there is little dispute that these 22 emails would jeopardize American national security, there is plenty of reason to believe that the ongoing controversy is really one over bureaucratic labeling. Some government officials believe that the emails should have been highly classified and others don’t, but it is hardly definitive that Clinton did anything wrong. What IS certain, though, is that Clinton didn’t think she had done anything wrong. If that had been the case, she would have pushed for those emails to be suppressed even as the rest of her material was publicized. Similarly, it would not have taken the State Department almost a year to reach the conclusion that these were highly classified.

Beyond this, though, there is something downright unseemly about the media’s determination to have this issue become a major factor in the Democratic primary process. Sanders put it best in a statement released by his campaign on Friday:

“There is a legal process in place which should proceed and not be politicized. The voters of Iowa and this nation deserve a serious discussion of the issues facing them.”

That, really, is the bottom line. If Clinton is denied the Democratic nomination, it should be as a result of the voters carefully evaluating her views and finding them wanting. Her ability to perfectly navigate through the State Department bureaucracy without so much as cracking a single eggshell, on the other hand? Anyone who says that this should determine her fitness for the presidency is either (a) already biased against her or (b) not conducting nearly enough research on the subject.

Then again, who can really blame them? Even the AP doesn’t think the fact that this is a non-scandal matters enough to appear until the very end of their reporting.

Marvel’s Trump agenda: Maybe it’s no accident that fans have to push for equality and diversity at every turn

Published: Salon (January 29, 2016)

How should progressives respond to the recent news that Marvel Comics CEO Ike Perlmutter donated over $1 million to a Donald Trump event intended to draw viewers away from the Republican presidential debate? As a start, they should remember these words of wisdom from one of Marvel’s most iconic superhero franchises:

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

Thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel Comics has become one of the most influential forces in shaping American popular culture today. Unfortunately, Marvel has refused to use this power responsibly; even as their celluloid and pulp characters rake in billions fighting fictional bogeyman, Marvel continues to actively perpetuate many of the racial and gender inequalities that thwart justice in the real world. As such, Perlmutter’s support for the Trump campaign – which has emerged as a potent vehicle for racist and sexist ideologies – cannot simply be dismissed as simply one more occasion of a right-wing plutocrat backing one of his own. On a deeper level, it demonstrates that the reactionary ideals embedded in Trumpism are also promoted in our entertainment products… and that if we are going to oppose the former, we must also recognize and take a stand against the latter.

We can start with the lack of diversity in Marvel Comics itself. “For all the good that seeing traditionally marginalized people fighting crime does though, there are still two pressing matters at hand,” writes Charles Pulliam-Moore of Fusion. “First, for the most part, these characters are still being written by white men. Second, there’s the perception that Marvel’s larger editorial voice and vision are still being guided primarily by white men.” Although these kinds of exclusionary hiring practices are hardly limited to Marvel, they do tie directly into one of the most problematic aspects of the Trump campaign’s mass appeal. “There’s something unique about Trump’s whiteness and his masculinity,” explains Mona Chalabi of The Guardian. “He is distinctly unashamed of either trait, and is unwilling to even pay lip service to the notion that they were beneficial to his success.” Similarly, despite appealing to a very diverse audience, Marvel Comics continues to disproportionately employ white male writers – even as they would no doubt insist that race and gender have nothing to do with it. In fact, considering the positive press that Marvel has received for tapping Ta-Nehisi Coates to write a Black Panther comic and creating the acclaimed Ms. Marvel series, this lack of diversity is even more of a slap in the face.

Needless to say, these attitudes have a direct impact on how Marvel shapes its entertainment products. As the hacked Sony emails revealed, Marvel and Sonysigned a contract in September 2011 that explicitly required all cinematic representations of Spider-Man to be Caucasian and straight. A few years later, Perlmutter sent an email to Sony CEO Michael Lynton explaining why he was opposed to creating so-called “female movies” with Marvel characters, citing outdated and critically-panned examples like “Catwoman,” “Elektra” and “Supergirl.” This mentality even effects Marvel’s merchandise, which has drawn fire for underrepresenting or downright excluding female characters amid leaked reports that Marvel employees secretly acknowledge they want Marvel to appeal only to boys. As a result, despite its global appeal, Marvel continues to churn out movies that disproportionately star white, male, and heterosexual characters, with no end to that trend in sight.

While it’s tempting to defend Marvel by arguing that they’re only operating based on business logic, a study by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA found that movies with 21 to 30 percent nonwhite diversity and TV shows with casts that were 41 to 50 percent nonwhite were consistently more successful than their exclusionary counterparts. Likewise, a review of box office return from 2013found female-led movies actually earned 20 percent more than male-led ones, including action franchises like “The Hunger Games.” This means that, at best, Marvel is operating mainly on hunches in its conviction that diversity would spell financial doom. In light of Perlmutter’s own words and actions, however, it seems like there may be a sinister ideology at work, too.

Take the Trump event that Perlmutter decided to help sponsor. He didn’t simply write a check and donate it to Trump’s campaign, but actively bankrolled Trump’s attempt to draw ratings from the Republican debates because of their decision to include Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly as one of their moderates. “Trump is boycotting the debate at least in part because it’s co-moderated by Megyn Kelly, a Fox News anchor he feels personally slighted him in the first Republican primary debate in August,” explains Emily Arrowood of US News & World Report. “Kelly’s crime? She asked Trump to account for his temperament, given his practice of condemning women with whom he disagreed as ‘fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.’” Since then, Trump has engaged in an openly misogynistic campaign to discredit and disempower Kelly, from implying that she asked him harsh questions because she was menstruating to having his campaign manager issue veiled threatsagainst her. Moreover, his supporters are notorious for using misogynistic languagein attacking her on Twitter, with insults like “bitch” and “bimbo” being particularly pervasive.

This is the reactionary movement to which Perlmutter, the CEO of Marvel Comics, decided to donate his money. Beyond simply endorsing Trump’s campaign, he is actively backing his efforts to punish Fox News for not capitulating to Trump’s misogynistic demand that Kelly either kowtow to his ego or not be included among the panel’s moderators. Between that and his willingness to help elect a presidential candidate whose campaign has been fueled by bigotry against Mexicans andMuslims, it’s impossible to believe that Perlmutter’s reactionary beliefs aren’t shaping the properties he plays such a major role in helping to craft.

This brings us back to the quote that opened this article: “With great power comes great responsibility.” As consumers, progressives have the power to compel Marvel and its business allies to change its racial and gender attitudes. If they refuse to hire more non-white and non-male writers, we can stop buying their comic books. If their movies and toys continue to omit or underrepresent racial minorities and women, we can refuse to see or purchase them. Because there are a great many fictional properties out there that do respect the diverse spectrum of their audiences, we are not beholden to Marvel or any other single company for quality entertainment. As such, when a consumer chooses to give money to Marvel after being made aware of these racist and sexist tendencies, they are implicitly expressing either sympathy for or indifference toward those problems.

Neither of those attitudes are morally acceptable. Indeed, at a time when racial and gender inequality continues to hold back millions of Americans, there is something rather loathsome in being entertained by fictional heroes triumphing over fictional villains while simultaneously reinforcing the actual injustices suffered by ordinary people. In its own small way, holding Marvel accountable for its Trumpism – not only Perlmutter’s direct support for Trump himself, but also the ideology that permeates its numerous franchises – is an opportunity for each and every one of us to be heroes against the real villains in our own world. What a tragedy it will be if, instead of seizing this opportunity, we continue throwing our money at them… and, in the process, allow the bad guys to win the battle that counts the most.

When did incompetence become okay?

Published: The Good Men Project (January 26, 2016)

Have we decided, as a society, that professional incompetence is something we must tolerate? Indeed, dare I say, that it is even acceptable?

This isn’t an entirely rhetorical question. Most people are happy to pay lip service to the importance of reliability and efficiency, and there is little question that Americans are second-to-none when it comes to our collective work ethic. Quantity of labor is not the same as quality of labor, though, and claiming to despise incompetence is quite different from taking an active stand against it. Unfortunately, if my own recent experiences are any indication, our culture has moved away from demanding competence of those around us.

Take the post office. A few weeks ago, my friend Liskula Cohen helped me pick out a pair of eyeglasses (seen below) from her website frontroweyewear.com and arranged to have them delivered through expedited shipping. Day after day passed, and the package was nowhere near my doorstep. It wasn’t until a little proactive prodding on both our parts that the location of my new frames was ascertained, and even then I needed to wait an additional 48 hours before they actually arrived. Yet when I told this story to my friends, several insisted that I was somehow to blame for not being patient. Even though Cohen had spent the extra money to have them delivered quickly, many assumed that the burden should fall on us to tolerate not receiving our money’s worth, rather than on the carrier to provide it. It’s just a few extra days! You don’t know how hard it is to work in package delivery! Why make a big deal about it instead of just being patient? At no point did anyone challenge that the postal carrier had, quite literally, failed to deliver. Nevertheless, in the eyes of many, the sin of falling short of one’s professional responsibilities was lesser than that of the aggrieved party actually making a fuss about it.

A few weeks earlier, I had an even more galling experience at a local department store. My mother and I had decided to do some early holiday shopping, but when one of the items we intended to purchase had a defective bar code, the cashier told us that she was a seasonal employee and needed to call a manager so she could ring up our merchandise. Half an hour passed as the hapless cashier made phone call after phone call and – when that failed – walked from station to station throughout the store, desperately trying to find someone who could help her. During that time, a line six people deep formed behind my mother and myself, all of them increasingly irate at the hold up. Finally a supervisor arrived and, appropriately, offered my mother and myself a discount as an apology for our inconvenience. After thanking him, I then pointed out that the half-dozen people who had waited behind us also deserved a discount for their trouble. The supervisor agreed… At which point one lady in the line snorted and declared, “Well, I don’t need a discount,” thus heroically denying everyone besides my mother and myself the deal to which their inconvenience had entitled them.

My most recent encounter with proud ineptitude occurred while I was waiting at a doctor’s office. Although my appointment had been scheduled months in advance, the doctor left me in her waiting room more than an hour after the time I had arranged to see her. Indeed, had I not spoken up, I may have waited even longer. Because I had other appointments that day, though, I finally walked to the front desk and explained to the receptionist that, because I had other responsibilities that day, I would need to leave without seeing her. “If you do that, you’ll be charged for canceling without 24 hours notice,” she warned in an ominous tone. “If she does that,” I replied, “I will cancel all future appointments and find a new doctor. After all, if she cares so much about her schedule, then she has no right being so inconsiderate of mine.” At that point I walked out the door and down the hallway… only to hear hurried footsteps behind me. It was my doctor. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Rozsa,” she exclaimed. “I promise this won’t happen again. We’ll see you right away.”

This brings me back to my opening question: Have we decided that professional incompetence is something that must be tolerated? Why are so many of us inclined to silently allow our time to be wasted, then lash out at those who want their packages delivered on time, merchandise purchased without hassle, and appointments upheld mutually?

For one theory, I turn to a 1960 essay by conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr. on the same subject. It was aptly titled “Why Don’t We Complain?”

“… we are all increasingly anxious in America to be unobtrusive, we are reluctant to make our voices heard, hesitant about claiming our right; we are afraid that our cause is unjust, or that if it is not unjust, that it is ambiguous; or if not even that, that it is too trivial to justify the horrors of a confrontation with Authority.”

While I agree with this insight, I’d like to add one of my own. At a time when so many Americans are overworked and/or underpaid, there is a natural instinct among socially conscious individuals to view complaining as an inherently oppressive act. On one level, this impulse is commendable; not only does it keep us from behaving like boors, but it reminds us to be sensitive to the plights of those whose jobs are unsatisfying, exhausting, and fail to adequately reward them for their labor. This is one of the major moral issues of our time – if not the major moral issue – and it is important that we keep this in mind not only when we discuss politics or vote, but in our ordinary interactions as consumers.

At the same time, there is something to be said for the old saying that two wrongs don’t make a right. Just because a worker who has inconvenienced us is being wronged by his or her employer, it doesn’t automatically follow that our (admittedly lesser) wrong of needing to deal with incompetence ought to be dismissed. In fact, the worker’s hardship and the consumer’s inconvenience are often caused by the same underlying problem. If a business is understaffed, its employees may not be capable of meeting customer needs in a timely fashion. Similarly, if the workers are underpaid, they may suffer from the mental and physical exhaustion that accompanies a life mired in poverty, rendering them unable to adequately fulfill their duties even if they so desired. There could be any number of reasons why incompetence exists in a given organization, and those reason may have nothing to do with the faces we see and everything to do with the guys on top… who, naturally, we don’t see.

Nevertheless, it is important that we not lose sight of why it is important to expect competence in our day-to-day lives. This doesn’t mean that we should be rude, no matter how aggravated we might feel, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we should allow our anger to get the better of us. At the same time, there is something disturbing about the widespread notion that it is preferable to silently endure incompetence than speak out against it. By way of explanation, I refer one last time to Buckley:

“When our voices are finally mute, when we have finally suppressed the natural instinct to complain, whether the vexation is trivial or grave, we shall have become automatons, incapable of feeling.”

Photo courtesy of author, featuring eyeglasses from FrontRow Eyewear

“Star Wars” fans, unite: The only way to fight #WheresRey trends is to stop buying the toys

Published: Salon (January 25, 2016)

After it became apparent that the character of Rey had been excluded from game sets for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” critics quickly accused Lucasfilm – which was purchased by Disney in 2012 – of making sexist assumptions when developing its product line. Although Hasbro denied these claims in a statement to Entertainment Weekly about their “Star Wars Monopoly” game, an anonymous industry insider recently revealed the ugly truth to the culture blog Sweatpants & Coffee. “As the meetings wore on, one or more individuals raised concerns about the presence of female characters in the ‘Star Wars’ products,” writes Michael Boehm in his report of a conference that took place in January 2015 with toy and merchandise vendors at Lucasfilm’s Letterman Center. “Eventually, the product vendors were specifically directed to exclude the Rey character from all ‘Star Wars’-related merchandise, says the insider. ‘We know what sells,’ the industry insider was told. ‘No boy wants to be given a product with a female character on it.’”

This echoes the observation made by another anonymous Disney employee (one who used to work for Marvel), who describes in The Mary Sue that their company refused to include female characters in its superhero merchandise because “that’s not why Disney bought us. They already have the girls’ market on lockdown.” While it may be tempting to assume that this reasoning is purely financial in nature, that assumption doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. After all, anyone who didn’t live under a rock for the past few years will recall how, when the animated film “Frozen” became an international hit in 2013, young boys joined young girls in singing cover versions of the movie’s hit songs, dressing up as its major female characters, and (of course)buying toys and other related merchandise. This is because, despite what toy manufacturers like to claim, there is no reason to believe boys and girls won’t play with the same toys… that is, unless they’re told that they’re not supposed to.

“In my research on toy advertisements, I found that even when gendered marketing was most pronounced in the 20th century, roughly half of toys were still being advertised in a gender-neutral manner,” writes Elizabeth Sweet, a professor of sociology at the University of California–Davis, in The Atlantic. “This is a stark difference from what we see today, as businesses categorize toys in a way that more narrowly forces kids into boxes.” The reason for this change, explains Rebecca Hains in The Boston Globe, can be traced back to the 1980s, “when the Federal Communications Commission’s television deregulation removed longstanding limitations on children’s advertising… As a result, marketers suddenly viewed children as a segmentable, highly lucrative demographic after largely ignoring them for 50 years.”

This explains not only Rey’s absence from “Star Wars” toy sets, but various other omissions that have drawn the ire of social progressives in recent years. Althoughwomen comprised 44 percent of the audience for the 2014 blockbuster “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the female character Gamora was conspicuously absent from the vast majority of their toy, T-shirt and costume merchandise. The same thing happened again last year with “The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” when the female superhero Black Widow was likewise left out of most of the film’s merchandise. In fact, LEGO and Hasbro even replaced Black Widow with Captain America in one of the most iconic scenes from the film – one in which the former assassin is dropped from the Quinjet on her character’s distinctive motorcycle.

There is more at stake here than the mere desire for faithfulness to the source material. “Boys and girls stop playing together at a much younger age than was developmentally typical until this recent gender segmentation,” writes educational consultant and psychologist Lori Day in her book “Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More.” “The resulting rigidly stereotyped gender roles are unhealthy for both males and females, who are actually more alike than different.”

John Marcotte, founder of the non-profit feminist organization Heroic Girls, made the same observation, noting that “these gender divisions are hard-coded into their toys and it informs their behavior in ways that has lasting results on their presumptions.”

In short, even though Disney and its allied toy manufacturers would like us to believe that boys simply won’t buy toys that have girls on them, the circumstantial evidence suggests that ideology is playing a bigger role than fiscal pragmatism here. Because the executives personally believe that boys’ toys and girls’ toys ought not to mix, they are ignoring the history of their own industry, recent developments like the “Frozen” phenomenon, and the widespread outrage over the omission of major female characters from their product lines.

If this isn’t a good reason to boycott their merchandise, I don’t know what is.

This may sound like a bold suggestion, but it actually makes a great deal of sense. If you’re a parent who wants to raise future men and women who respect individuals of the opposite gender, then it is necessary to avoid inadvertently promoting gender segregation through your consumer patterns. Your children can still watch and fall in love with movies like “Guardians of the Galaxy, “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (all of which I’ve personally seen and enjoyed), but it is hardly necessary for them to own all of its affiliated merchandise. Indeed, at a time when large corporations have unprecedented influence over how we think and live, this would be a perfect opportunity to separate our youngest generation from one of the more sinister ways big business can negatively impact their lives.

Similarly, adult geeks who love Marvel or Star Wars have an ethical responsibility to condemn these practices, too. In the character of Rey, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” created a strong female protagonist in a franchise that was notoriously male-dominated in the original trilogy (aside from Princess Leia, female characters had only 63 seconds of speaking time in the 386 minutes of the first three films). Although Gamora and Black Widow weren’t nearly as prominent as Rey in their respective movies, they were still hard-hitting action heroes who were the center of major set pieces during their films. Considering how much nerd subculture values completionism, the need for accuracy alone should dissuade any true geek from purchasing merchandise that doesn’t include the major female characters alongside the male ones. That said, adult consumers are morally responsible for the patterns they reinforce through their spending choices. If you are aware that women are being discriminated against in your favorite franchises and you choose to patron them anyway, you are part of the problem.

For what it’s worth, I’m not too pessimistic about the future of female characters in toy and other merchandising properties. My guess is that, as the outrage over exclusionary practices continues to build, both Disney and toy companies will realize that there is more money to be made by including everyone than by kowtowing to their own reactionary beliefs. In order for them to reach that conclusion, though, consumers will need to start hitting them where it hurts the most… in their wallets.

Amy Schumer and the rise of Internet vigilance

Published: The Daily Dot (January 23, 2016)

If there is any silver lining to the Amy Schumer plagiarism scandal, it is that it establishes one of the ways in which the Internet can be an unequivocal force for good.

Thanks to social media and online activism, the days in which the powerful can rip off the powerless with impunity are long gone.

Just to recap: Three female comedians have accused Schumer of stealing their jokes for her stand-up routines, TV show, and movie Trainwreck. Wendy Liebman, Tammy Pescatelli, and Kathleen Madigan each used Twitter as their platform for holding Schumer to account. Liebman pointed out that Schumer had used “one of my best jokes” on her HBO special; Pescatelli challenged how Schumer could claim to be a feminist “yet only steals from other female comedians” such as herself; and Madigan referred to a “disgusting amount of stealing” perpetrated by Schumer.

Even though many of the original tweets have been removed, Refinery29 was able to compile them into an exhaustive news story that is now making headlines. In response, Schumer has denied the allegations.

She’s also gone on the attack, blaming everything from sexism (even though her accusers are women, with the only male victim being the now-deceased Patrice O’Neal) to jealousy. Her use of character assassination is particularly striking here, as she speculates Pescatelli “pictured a different life for herself, and a different outcome, so to see someone who’s succeeding…”

What’s noteworthy about Schumer’s defense (aside from its viciousness, which may have prompted Pescatelli’s sounds-way-too-much-like-it-was-forced apology) is that it completely disregards the considerable video evidence proving that Schumer’s bits are almost identical to those of Liebman, Pescatelli, Madigan, and O’Neal.

Thanks to social media and online activism, the days in which the powerful can rip off the powerless with impunity are long gone.

In the past, famous comedians from Milton Berle to Robin Williams were notorious for stealing from lesser-known performers, who were then powerless to fight back. That trend began to reverse a few years ago, when Internet video compilations were used to take serious hits against the careers of Dane Cook (who stole, among others, from a then lesser-known Louis C.K.) and Carlos Mencia (who stole from a number of comicsuntil he was exposed in a blog post by Joe Rogan).

Thankfully, the Internet’s ability to expose celebrities who steal is hardly limited to the world of comedy. BuzzFeed has drawn attention to numerous instances of plagiarism committed by actor Shia LaBeouf, from ripping off a famous comic book artist for one of his short films to stealing lines from Charles Bukowski and Benoit Duteurtein his own self-published literature. Similarly, BuzzFeed managed to bring attention to the fact that Dr. Ben Carson, the prominent neurosurgeon now seeking the Republican presidential nomination, plagiarized sections of his 2012 book America the Beautiful.

The Internet’s use as a vehicle for exposing plagiarism isn’t limited to the initiative of intrepid journalists or the wronged parties themselves. Because plagiarism is so common among college students, academics have access to special online resources developed for the sole purpose of helping them weed out cheaters.

“A handful of companies, like Plagiarism .org, are offering Internet-based anti-plagiarism technology that teachers can use for a fee,” wrote Verne G. Kopytoff of the New York Times back in 2000. “The most complex sites compare student term papers with millions of Web pages and the archives of dozens of online sites that offer term papers free.” A few years later, Internet users in China humiliatedcollege professors throughout their country after managing to expose rampant plagiarism in Chinese universities.

On a larger level, the takeaway from these plagiarism scandals is that even as the Internet makes it easier to steal, it also makes it easier to get caught.

There are two lessons to be learned from the Schumer scandal specifically, and the rise of the Internet as a force for intellectual accountability in general. Although Schumer’s contributions to feminism are admirable, there is a cruel irony in the fact that Schumer—whose comic voice often focuses on articulating the frustrations of the disempowered—has resorted to shaming those who she’s ripped off on the grounds of their powerlessness. By arguing that they’re simply trying to tear her down to advance their own careers, she betrays her own ostensible values.

On a larger level, the takeaway from these plagiarism scandals is that even as the Internet makes it easier to steal, it also makes it easier to get caught.

“The act of uncovering and investigating acts of plagiarism is becoming easier by the day,” explains Rhodri Marsden. “Search engines, online plagiarism checkers (of varying quality) and the viral publicity opportunities afforded by social media all play their part. Plagiarism searches can be compelling, like addictive puzzles where positive results elicit mental fist-pumps of delight.” For every Sen. Rand Paul willing to steal lines from Wikipedia for a speech, there exists an army of bloggers ready to identify the intellectual property crime (metaphorical if not literal) and demand that the perpetrator acknowledge his or her transgression.

Schumer’s career may survive her current ordeal, but unless she can convincingly demonstrate that her copying was an innocent mistake, there will always be an asterisk next to her credibility. The same is true for Mencia and Cook, for LaBeouf and Carson—and for everyone else who has tried to succeed at the expense of other people’s hard work.

Bloomberg is Not the Answer in 2016

Published: Salon (January 22, 2016), The Good Men Project (January 16, 2016)

Apparently former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is thinking of running for president as a third-party candidate. The New York Times reports that Bloomberg commissioned a private poll to see how he would fare if the Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton and the Republicans nominate Donald Trump, which seems likely (though not certain) at this point. Although Bloomberg hasn’t released the poll’s results – either because they weren’t favorable or were so promising that he’s waiting for the perfect moment, depending on how you look at it – there is an inarguable logic to him waging a third-party candidacy in 2016.

Regardless of one’s own partisan and ideological inclinations, it’s hard to deny that both Clinton and Trump are incredibly polarizing to the general electorate. Indeed, even the candidates most likely to stage an upset – i.e., Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side and Ted Cruz among the Republicans – are equally divisive and controversial. In such an election, Bloomberg could cast himself as a nonpartisan centrist, a man who has always supported gay rights, fights for a woman’s right to choose and for stricter gun control measures, and yet simultaneously wants to deregulate big businesses, slash taxes, and strengthen America’s military.

While it’s unlikely that Bloomberg could appeal to all segments of the voting public, he seems primed to position himself as a palatable moderate in a race in which both parties nominate candidates who are reviled by large sections of the country. The question is whether he would actually make a good president if elected.

The answer, unequivocally, is no.

We can start with Bloomberg’s out-of-touch attitude toward the American working class. “In Bloomberg’s 12 years in office, his personal fortune increased sevenfold, from $4.5 to $32 billion, while 46 percent of the city’s residents now live in or near poverty,” writes Steven Wishnia of Talking Points Memo. “If Manhattan were an independent nation, its income inequality would rank with South Africa’s and Namibia’s.” In the waning years of his mayoralty, Bloomberg fought against a living wage law that would have required employers receiving at least $1 million in city aid to pay their workers either $10 an hour with benefits or $11.50 without.

He also exacerbated law enforcement mistreatment of racial minorities by appointing Ray Kelly as Police Commissioner, who proceeded to implement a “stop and frisk” policy that disproportionately targeted non-whites for searching and oversaw widespread surveillance of the city’s Muslim community. Finally, there is Bloomberg’s clear disdain for following the rules that apply to non-billionaires, as evidenced by his successful effort to have the city council temporarily suspend term limits so he could serve an extra four years.

On a deeper level, though, Bloomberg’s problem isn’t merely being insufficiently sympathetic to low-income and non-white Americans. It is that, as a third-party presidential candidate, he would automatically assume the symbolic role of national iconoclast. For 163 years, every single one of America’s presidents has hailed from either the Democratic or Republican parties; before 1853, we still chose our presidents from one of two major parties, albeit with some differences from the ones known today (i.e., we had Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, National Republicans, and Whigs). By virtue of attempting to buck that precedent, Bloomberg would seemingly be a man willing to fight the status quo.

Yet as his ideology makes clear, he is a candidate of the status quo. Aside from his unwillingness to commit to either of America’s major parties, there is nothing even remotely anti-establishment about the man. Say what you will about Trump and Cruz, but both of them are openly disliked by large segments of the Republican Party establishment. Similarly, say what you will about Clinton and Sanders, but both of them support economic and social policies that fight against the wealthy interest groups that have dominated our nation for so long.

A Bloomberg third-party campaign, by contrast, would be the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothes. Even his ideological message is an inversion of American norms; third-party candidates have, traditionally, represented ideas perceived as too extreme for the major parties. Bloomberg, on the other hand, would be a self-declared moderate denouncing the perceived extremism to his left and right from the major parties.

In short, if Bloomberg emerges as a viable third-party alternative in the 2016 presidential election, his candidacy will severely distort our collective understanding of the political world we inhabit today. There are real problems that need to be addressed – income inequality, racial and sexual discrimination, an entire generation cast adrift by an economy that seems to have no use for them – and they require a serious candidate who is willing to openly and aggressively confront them. In Bloomberg, we would have a champion of the status quo who presents himself as a bold game-changer. Frankly, if our next president needs to be an agent of the same, I’d at least prefer it that he present himself as such.

Technology should help, not hurt the workforce

Published: The Daily Dot (January 21, 2016)

Calling the recent boom in digital technology, artificial intelligence, robotics, and biotechnology the “fourth industrial revolution,” the World Economic Forum, determined that by 2020—just a few years from now—as many as 7.1 million jobs may be lost in the world’s richest countries through redundancy and automation.

In particular, the forum, which is meeting this week in Davos, projected that administrative and white collar office jobs would be hard-struck by a major outburst of technological development. Though this could be offset by the creation of 2.1 million positions in fields like technology, media, and professional services.

In other words, if you’re a millennial or Generation Xer who is worried about maintaining steady employment in your future, you should be paying attention.

This dire warning calls to mind a favorite historical anecdote of mine from the ancient Roman Empire.

We as a society need to start asking ourselves tough questions about the nature of the technological progress we are witnessing and what it means for our future.

In the aftermath of the great fire in 64 AD that destroyed large sections of the city of Rome, Emperor Vespasian began a large scale public works project that employed thousands of Romans by having them construct new buildings, roads, aqueducts, and other forms of infrastructure. One day, as the population labored at these various endeavors, an inventor approached Vespasian and asked if he would be interested in bankrolling a special machine that would allow him to rebuild the city more quickly, cheaply, and efficiently than ever before. Instead of accepting this offer, Vespasian observed that “my people need jobs” and continued with the less efficient—but, arguably, more humane—civic construction program.

Flash forward nearly two millennia and we have repeatedly faced the same choice that confronted Vespasian.

“After farms were mechanized, Americans moved to factories,” explained former Labor Secretary Robert Reich in an op-ed for Marketplace on Wednesday. “After manufacturing declined—in part due to technologies that dramatically cut the cost of shipping goods—we moved into services.” Corporate strategic advisor Irving Wladawsky-Berger made a similar point in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last November.

“Nothing illustrates the impact of technology on jobs like the dramatic decline in the U.S. workforce employed in agriculture—from 41 percent of the population in 1900 to 2 percent in 2000,” he wrote. “Big declines also occurred in a number of other occupations. Automobiles reduced the demand for blacksmiths and stable hands; machines replaced many manual jobs in construction and factories; and computers displaced a large number of record keeping and office positions.”

Fortunately, there are steps that nations can take to prevent the mass displacement of millions of their workers. According to the World Economic Forum’s report, investing in education and adult learning programs can retrain workers whose current fields of employment may be reduced or outright eliminated by future advances in technology. Similarly, because roughly 65 percent of children starting primary school today will work in jobs that currently don’t exist, it is necessary for our education system to train children to be adaptable and innovative learners. Finally, as Klaus Schwab, the founder and chairman of the World Economic Forum, put it, nations need to prioritize avoiding the worst case scenario of “talent shortages, mass unemployment, and growing inequality” that will result if technological advances are allowed to bypass the human factor.

When all is said and done, the machines that we create and knowledge that we use in order to create them must always be the servants of mankind rather than our masters.

Beyond education and retraining, we also need to embrace the various ways new technology can alleviate economic hardship as well as cause it.

“As someone who works at the nexus of technology and social change, I’m far more encouraged by the promise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution to alleviate human suffering than discouraged by its risks,” writes Ryan Scott, founder and CEO of Causecast, in a recent Huffington Post article responding to the Davos report. He cites as one example The Social Collective: “A digital tool that provides monitoring and evaluation so that nonprofits can understand the personal and professional development of individuals and analyze their employability. It also enables donors, policymakers and the private sector to track skills development and shape the details around the needs of job creation for given regions and countries.”

On a deeper level, though, we as a society need to start asking ourselves tough questions about the nature of the technological progress we are witnessing and what it means for our future. The Vespasianic approach—namely, to outright suppress technological innovation as a way of protecting jobs—is neither practical nor desirable in our globalized economy. At the same time, considering that technological unemployment has been a major problem since the dawning of the Industrial Revolution, it’s morally irresponsible to simply allow it to wreak havoc on people’s lives without any kind of check or regulation.

Writing about the history of how scholars and pundits in the past have made predictions regarding technological unemployment, Rebecca J. Rosen of theAtlantic notes that “this history is much more valuable than some pat lesson about the foolhardiness of prognosticators. Even for those who were right, the fact that they saw the future accurately mattered very little, as no one could have known they were right at the time. What matters, then, isn’t whether early observers were right or wrong about the long term, but whether they were sufficiently empathetic in the short term.”

This, ultimately, is the bottom line. When all is said and done, the machines that we create and knowledge that we use in order to create them must always be the servants of mankind rather than our masters. Even if certain technological developments are beneficial in the long-run, it is essential that we minimize their harmful effects on workers who might be displaced in the short term. By failing to take these necessary steps, we aren’t simply neglecting the vulnerable and powerless in our society, but committing a serious error in our greater thinking.

If we allow the welfare of individual human beings to be sacrificed in the name of progress, we reveal that we’ve forgotten what the term “progress” is really supposed to be about.