The Age of Tangents

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

When I wrote this article on my personal blog almost six years ago, I had no idea that it would remain so prescient today. There is very little that I would change from that post, so I’m publishing it unchanged here.

John Kenneth Galbraith, an influential liberal economist who served under four Democratic presidents, once made this observation about the nature of leadership:

All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.

This quote, though wise in any period of history, struck me as being particularly prescient when I began to reflect on the legacies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. After all, the historian in me knows that the final assessment rendered in textbooks about America’s presidents usually comes from their success or failure in confronting the major crises of their time. When Abraham Lincoln is regarded as among our greatest leaders, it is because of his triumphs in eradicating slavery and preserving the Union; when Franklin Roosevelt is similarly lauded, it is because of his creativity and effectiveness in guiding America through the Great Depression and Second World War. Inversely, the presidents who preceded each of these men – James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover, respectively – are often regarded as dismal failures precisely because they fell short in their struggles to deal with the pressing issues of the day (Southern secession in the case of Buchanan, the Great Depression in the case of Hoover).

How do Bush and Obama measure up to this standard? When their presidencies are viewed through the Galbraithan lens, an interesting theme becomes apparent: i.e., not only that both men failed to successfully address the crises that defined their tenures, but that in lieu of this, they squandered the enormous political capital with which those crises had temporarily endowed them in order to pursue digressionary policies.

Simply put… instead of providing America with leadership, Bush and Obama went off on tangents.

The defining issue of George W. Bush’s presidency came on September 11, 2001, when Osama bin Laden led a group of Muslim radicals in a series of bloody terrorist attacks that took thousands of American lives. As was the case with Woodrow Wilson after the exposure of the Zimmermann telegram or Franklin Roosevelt after the Pearl Harbor bombing, George W. Bush’s mission was now clear – to bring to justice the individuals and organizations responsible for wronging America. In Bush’s case, the most important facet of this mission rested in apprehending Osama bin Laden.

In that mission, Bush was a failure. This was certainly not for want of political capital; Americans tend to cast aside partisan differences and unite behind their leaders when the danger of a crisis makes it clear that this is necessary, and Bush benefited from this much as Wilson and Roosevelt had before him. Yet rather than tap this solidarity so as to launch the military campaign required by the needs of the times, Bush focused instead on waging a war against Iraq and its dictator, Saddam Hussein. This decision was noteworthy for two reasons:

The online trial of Nate Parker

Published: The Daily Dot (August 25, 2016)

Is it OK to separate the moral flaws of an artist from the quality of their art? The answer is yes—so long as you understand the consequences.

It’s become an American trending topic that we can’t ignore across our Facebook feeds. When we find out that Mel Gibson said anti-Semitic things, and Michael Richards used the N-word, or that Johnny Depp is alleged to have beaten his wife, we’re naturally expected to chime in. Sometimes it’s an easy decision: Bill Cosby has been rightly turned into personae non grata following overwhelming evidence that he’s a serial rapist.

Then there is the complicated case of Nate Parker, who directed, wrote, produced, and starred in the new movie The Birth of a Nation.

Back when Parker was a 19-year-old undergraduate at Penn State, he and his roommate Jean Celestin (who co-wrote The Birth of a Nation with him) were accused of raping one of their fellow students. Although Parker was eventually acquitted of all charges and Celestin’s conviction was overturned on appeal, eyewitness testimony regarding the case, as well as Parker and Celestin’s own actions during the trial (such as harassing the alleged victim for months after she filed charges) raised suspicions that the two men were guilty. Their accuser committed suicide in 2012 after struggling with years of trauma.

On Monday, the American Film Institute canceled a screening of Parker’s film.

Complicated social politics are embedded in the Parker rape scandal. On one hand, we have the ongoing rape epidemic that plagues our college campuses, one that repeatedly makes headlines as case after case comes out of a rapist being let off the hook or given an unusually light sentence. At the same time, The Birth of a Nation tells an important, controversial story that needs to be spread to a wider audience—that of Nat Turner, a Virginia slave who led a violent rebellion in 1831. It’s a tale that Parker had to fight tooth and nail to put on the silver screen, despite documenting an important event in American history, because producers were concerned it would alienate white audiences.

These thorny gender and racial politics have sharply divided pundits in how they respond to the allegations against Parker. In an interview with the Root, the Rev. Al Sharpton claimed that the rape charges are only being resurrected now to discredit their movie’s political message, one that is particularly relevant in our era of racially charged presidential campaigns and officer-involved shootings. Similarly, two anonymous black directors confided to Variety that they find the timing of these news stories suspicious, with one pointing out that “this seems like a way to muffle a very important piece of work.”

By contrast, Slate television critic Willa Paskin has condemned Parker’s acquittal on the ground that “it seems to have boiled down to the fact that Parker and the woman had engaged in consensual oral sex the day before the incident—which sounds like the oldest smear in the ignore-a-rape-victim’s-testimony handbook.” Roxanne Gay went even further in a op-ed for the New York Times: “I cannot separate the art and the artist, just as I cannot separate my blackness and my continuing desire for more representation of the black experience in film from my womanhood, my feminism, my own history of sexual violence, my humanity.”

What is a socially responsible movie buff to do? We must first accept that our choices as consumers have consequences.

If Parker’s film becomes a success at the box office and wins awards, it will cement his place as an up-and-coming Hollywood giant. While this doesn’t legitimize any past sex crimes he may have committed, it will certainly count as yet another occasion in which a powerful man seems to be above accountability for wrongs, that there are reasons to believe he committed, against a woman’s body. If Parker’s movie fails because of these charges, it won’t just be unfair to a motion picture that may deserve better in terms of its artistic merits; it will send the message that the presumption of innocence until proven guilty doesn’t apply in the court of public opinion, with some arguing that this is particularly true when the accused is a person of color.

It may not seem fair for audiences to have to take these factors into consideration, but it’s the only morally responsible thing to do—especially for a film like The Birth of a Nation, which clearly promotes a pro-social justice message. Whether we like it or not, our choices as consumers establish social precedents that are followed long after individual works of art have faded into the background.

Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post is wrong when she argues that “the only thing that determines whether ‘The Birth of a Nation’ is a truly great movie is what they put on screen.” It is possible to argue that the movie and its creator aren’t one and the same, but they are still inextricably linked.

We don’t have the right to dictate how others should make these choices. I’m certainly not doing so in this article.

Just as one’s opinion of an artwork’s merits is subjective, so too should each individual be allowed to decide for themselves where they draw the line in terms of how they’ll allow an artist’s personal character to impact their thoughts on the work itself. Or whether they choose to believe the claims against an artist in the first place. Our burden rests not in telling other people what is or is not the right thing to do, but simply making it clear that there are choices which must be made.

Tired of Democrats vs. Republicans? Here’s how to fix it

Published: Salon (August 23, 2016)

I’ve been second to none among progressive pundits urging the sane world to unify behind Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump. I’m not going to repeat those arguments here. (If you’re reading this article, the chances are you know them anyway.) But it’s time to acknowledge the major logical flaw in any lesser-of-two-evils position:

If we progressives want meaningful change in our society and the larger world, how can we achieve it when both major parties are so flawed?

“We’re the only political party in this country dedicated to the idea that every American has a right to pursue happiness in any way they choose, so long as they don’t hurt other people or take their stuff,” explained Nicholas Sarwark, chair of the Libertarian National Committee. “That’s a message that’s resonating with more and more voters as the old parties self-destruct.” The Libertarian Party’s candidate for president, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, is running on a platform that consistently opposes government power in every walk of life. As such, he supports positions as ideologically disparate (at least by the traditional left-right ideological paradigm) as low taxes, LGBTQ rights, staying out of war and legalizing marijuana.

The other notable third-party challenge comes from the Green Party, whose presidential nominee is Dr. Jill Stein. The Green Party’s ideology is staunchly left-wing, focusing on issues like income inequality, racial discrimination, regulating big business and protecting the environment. Considering that Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist,” gave Clinton a run for her money in the Democratic primary, one might assume that the Green Party would pose a serious threat to her White House bid. (Indeed, I’ve been quite concerned about that possibility myself.)

Instead, the Green Party candidate consistently ranks last in polls including the four principal presidential contenders: If the election were held today, she’d place last after Clinton, Trump and Johnson, in that order.

I usually hear supporters of third-party candidates chime in with “How are we going to change that if we keep voting for candidates from the two major parties?” My response has been that, while I agree we need to break free from our rigid two-party system, the time to make that change is long before we reach a new presidential election cycle. By the time both major parties have nominated their candidates, the machinery that guarantees one of them a victory has already been set in motion – unless groundwork has been laid well in advance for a viable third-party alternative.

How can voters make this happen? “A third party – or even an organized faction within one of the existing major parties – is most likely to gain influence by winning at lower levels first,” explained Mark Lindeman, adjunct assistant professor of political science at Columbia University.

Citizens “should try to organize and build power wherever they are,”  Lindeman said. “It will tend to weed out any illusions they may have about what their fellow citizens think and want – and to find the most sustainable basis for a movement.”

Sarwark echoed this view, urging those who share libertarian values, “Join the Libertarian Party and get active at the local level. Vote Libertarian in as many elections as possible, to send a clear signal to the old parties that you are tired of their expanding government control over your life.”

Scott McLarty, media director for the Green Party, went even further with his suggestions: “Citizens can protest – even walk out – whenever they attend a ‘nonpartisan’ candidates forum that excludes alternative-party candidates. Citizens can refuse to participate in polls and surveys that artificially limit the choice to two major-party candidates, and complain to reporters and editors who publish such misleading polls.”

McLarty added that people can also push for instant runoff voting, which “enables voters to rank their choices, guarantees that the winner has the support of a majority and eliminates the alleged spoiler effect,” as well as “urge legislators to overturn ballot-access rules that were designed to privilege Democratic and Republican candidates and make access difficult for alternative-party and independent candidates.”

This last point is especially important since it goes to the heart of why most Americans think their only choices are to vote for Clinton or Trump. “The problem for third parties is compounded by restrictive ballot access laws and other barriers that the major parties have erected to protect their de facto monopoly,” wroteBruce Bartlett in Forbes. “Single-member congressional districts and first-past-the-post election rules also tend to favor the two-party system.”

Because each state has very distinct and usually complex laws for candidate eligibility, any contenders outside the Democratic and Republican establishments will have an extremely tough time making it onto the ballot. Unless ordinary citizens start a grassroots movement demanding that this change, third-party candidates will find it virtually impossible to realistically compete for the presidency and only slightly easier to do so in state and local races.

What we can’t do, though, is ignore the hard truths about our choice in 2016 simply because we want things to be better down the road. Right now the Democratic presidential candidate, for all of her flaws, is a smart woman with extensive government experience who supports a moderate (that is, center-left) platform. Her Republican opponent, by comparison, was nominated by pandering to America’s basest racist and sexist impulses, displays temperamental problems (including aterrifyingly blasé attitude toward the prospect of using nuclear weapons) and has no experience except that of running failed business after failed business after failed business.

I agree with McLarty and Sarwark that the nation needs strong third-parties — Libertarian, Green, you name it — to counter the power of the Democratic and Republican establishments, which have had a lock on national power for more than 150 years. This is proved by the fact that the Democratic and Republican nominees are the most unpopular in recorded history. And yet it’s still unlikely that any third-party alternative will poll at 15 percent, the minimum necessary to appear in the presidential debates. (This is something else that voters should demand be changed.) If we don’t change the system soon, we will raise a generation that believes it isn’t even worth fighting for.

That said, one doesn’t effectively fight for it by casting an futile vote in this election, neglecting this problem for four years and then throwing away another ballot during the next presidential contest. If those who are thinking of voting for a third-party candidate want to act like good citizens, they will make sure that the non-racist, non-incompetent contender wins this time around — for the safety not just of America but the world — and then get off their duffs and participate in empowering their preferred third party all year round. If millions of Americans do this in 2017, 2018 and 2019, Clinton can be held accountable in 2020 should she fail in her duties as president — and not just by a Republican.

For that to happen, though, we need to start giving a damn, long before the next presidential election is underway.

Review for “Hell or High Water”

Liskula and Matt

Published: The Good Men Project (August 23, 2016)

co-author Liskula Cohen

2016 has been an especially political year when it comes to the movies. It seems like each of the major presidential candidates has had a major cinematic release to accompany the themes of their campaign: The unapologetically feminist“Ghostbusters” is linked to the same cultural zeitgeist fueling Hillary Clinton’s campaign, schlockmeister Michael Bay’s “13 Hours” exists for the Donald Trump supporters who crave artificial machismo and conspiracy theorizing in equal doses, and “Captain America: Civil War” offers a libertarian view on regulatory state powers that I personally deplored even as I admired the film’s many other strengths.

Now we come to “Hell or High Water,” the upcoming crime drama that feels like a gift to Bernie Sanders supporters.

Directed by David Mackenzie and written by Taylor Sheridan, “Hell or High Water” stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as a pair of Texas bankrobbers being diligently pursued by Texas Rangers like Jeff Bridges’ Marcus Hamilton. Being a 2016 movie, of course, “Hell or High Water” is replete with references to the economic and social divisions that mark our time. In the first fifteen minutes I counted graffiti that read “3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us”; a racist bystander expressing amazement that the robbers aren’t Mexican; an old man commenting that of course he carries a gun with him; and a billboard advertising “Easy Credit.” Even before we learn that the bankrobbers are motivated by a noble cause – namely, trying to save their family farm from foreclosure – it’s clear that this movie isn’t just about cops and robbers shooting it out in the Old West. It has a message.

To appreciate that message, you must start with the fact that the bad guy in this film is actually the good guy. It isn’t that common a theme to see in movies – antiheroes are often ambiguous, but rarely outright virtuous – but it works well here. The movie is eye-opening in drawing attention to how banks are, in real life, often the villains. While the characters working at the banks aren’t always depicted as malevolent, the institutions themselves are all-powerful and brutally lacking in compassion. It’s a neat inversion of the traditional Old West tale of robbers hitting up banks: In this one, the banks are the robbers.

All of this occurs against the backdrop of lush, gorgeous cinematography. It wasn’t just that the movie was shot beautifully; the visuals themselves are depressing and bleak, as it depicts Texas as a state teetering on the edge of poverty due to economic exploitation. The lighting was beautiful, particularly when they went for panoramic shots, creating a film version of Texas that evokes how many of us imagine it being in real life.

This isn’t to say that the movie is perfect. Racially the film has a bit of a blind spot, particularly during a cringe-inducing scene in which a Texas Ranger compares the banks stealing land to European settlers committing genocide against Native Americans. The analogy, though made with the best intentions, is far too glib in conflating economic exploitation with the mass murder of millions of people. Even when this is happening, though, it’s possible to ignore the flawed logic and just marvel at Jeff Bridges’ performance in the scene. If audiences weren’t familiar with Bridges or didn’t know this was a fictional film, he alone could convince them it was a documentary. Like the best actors, he doesn’t simply play a role, but completely disappears into his character.

In a similar way, some future scholar trying to understand the America of 2016 could – and should – try to completely disappear into this film. We live in an era when the rich are getting richer and the rest of us feel powerless to stop them. In the Great Depression, this climate yielded antiheroes like Bonnie and Clyde. Today, at least in the world of celluloid, we’ve got “Hell or High Water.”


Generation Trump

Published: Salon (August 17, 2016)

To understand precisely how Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has changed America, one need only look at a new pair of surveys. In April the Southern Poverty Law Center discovered that the Trump campaign has triggered an unprecedented wave of bigoted bullying in American schools: More than two-thirds of the teachers surveyed have had immigrant, Latino and Muslim students express fear about what will happen to them or their families if Trumps wins, while more than one-third have directly witnessed an increase in anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant prejudice.

More recently, Gallup’s Jonathan Rothwell learned that Trump supporters are less likely to be directly affected by trade and immigration (two of Trump’s top issues) and more likely to be white, suffer from diminished intergenerational mobility and feel generally apprehensive about nonwhite minority groups.

In short, there is no doubt that Trump has both capitalized on and inspired a new wave of racial hostility in this country. The only question left is, What will happen after he is gone?

A first hint comes from looking at the last presidential candidate comparable to Trump. In the 1964 election, when Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona defied the GOP establishment of his time to seize his party’s nomination, his open opposition to civil rights officially intertwined the Republican brand with the cause of active racism. Although Goldwater was trounced by President Lyndon Johnson in the general election, more subtle candidates picked up his baton in future elections. Most notably, Richard Nixon’s 1968 election and Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election both involved mastering the art of avoiding overt racist statements while finding cover issues (law and order, welfare reform, states’ rights, busing) that allowed their followers to avoid the stigma of being overtly bigoted.

Although future presidential candidates will probably be more circumspect in their language than Trump has been, it’s unlikely that they’ll completely ignore the implications of the racial nerves he’s touched. Gone are the days immediately following the 2012 election, when Republican leaders recognized that they needed to increase their appeal to Latinos, women and younger people. Those demographics may be key to winning a general election, but the Republican primaries are being decided by another type of voter. The next Trump may focus on fears of Mexican and Muslim immigration, or he or she may choose a completely different dog whistle. But any shrewd (and amoral) politician will take note that coded appeals to prejudice are the wave of the future. Those who fail to catch this will risk becoming political punch lines like the early-on presumed frontrunner Jeb Bush.

Trump’s influence won’t be limited to the realm of presidential politics. As Mitt Romney astutely observed, “Presidents have an impact on the nature of our nation, and trickle-down racism and trickle-down bigotry and trickle-down misogyny — all of these things are extraordinarily dangerous to the heart and character of America.” Unfortunately, this isn’t only true of presidents. There is an intangible quality to how a campaign as electrifying as Trump’s changes the nation’s ethos. After all, Trump was a pop-culture icon long before he was a presidential candidate, a self-proclaimed embodiment of wealth and power. When a man with his prominence encourages racial divisions — and mobilizes millions to join his crusade — it naturally has a ripple effect far beyond the ballot box and halls of power.

That’s why acts of violence against Latinos, Muslims, Black Lives Matters activists and others have consistently cropped up since Trump’s announcement of his candidacy last summer. Protesters have been thrown out of rallies, members of minority groups have been beat up or spat upon, and those who speak out against Trump are subjected to particularly vile rhetoric. As a Jewish American, I can personally attest to having received more ethnic attacks as a result of my outspoken criticism of Trump than I have from any other issue I’ve discussed in my journalistic career. The bullying of children in schools has been only the most overt manifestation of what is happening among adults.

I hate to conclude on a dour note, but it’s really hard to find a silver lining here. Sure, Trump has performed a service of sorts by drawing Americans’ attention to the fact that this vein of hatred still exists in this country. But the price of this knowledge is likely to be much higher than any decent person is willing to pay. America has had a problem with racism, xenophobia and other forms of bigotry long before Trump’s campaign began, and would have continued to have long after. But there was no need for those sentiments to become as intensified and toxic as they have become this year. Innocent people are suffering unprecedented discrimination and abuse — and will continue to do so — because of his words and deeds.

This will be Trump’s shameful legacy long after he has slunk away from the political spotlight.

About my positive review for “Suicide Squad”

Published: The Daily Dot (August 16, 2016)

It’s a strange feeling, having written one of the few positive articles about Suicide Squad.

If the Internet community can learn anything from “Suicide Squad,” it is that online culture breeds a specific kind of overly-informed and excessively quantifying approach to the art of criticism. This has become apparent in several ways just with the Internet’s response to “Suicide Squad,” although it can also be traced to our own creative tendencies as writers and our access to unprecedented quantities of information about the filmmaking process itself. While this allows for a richer discussion about popular entertainment like movies, it can also result in a form of mass groupthink. When we start to view something inherently subjective and personal, like artistic taste, through a mindset that instinctively defers to so-called experts, we risk forfeiting our own judgment as independent individuals.

This is where the implicit logic behind RottenTomatoes is, for lack of a better word, problematic. By compiling a sampling of movie critics’ opinions and reducing them to a single numeric rating–as well as applying definitive labels of judgment like “fresh” or “rotten”–the website makes art seem like a science. Not only are the movies themselves quantified, but the nuances of each individual criticism are similarly stifled. There is no room for ambiguity, for breaking down a movie by its elements and describing which ones work and which ones don’t. Every criticism is summed up as either “fresh” or “rotten” and the movie is valued accordingly.

The critics themselves aren’t blameless here. One is reminded of the wise words from Anton Ego, a food critic from the 2007 film Ratoutille, who observed “We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.” It’s hard to avoid the sense that many critics, when devoting their best and most caustic prose for an unpopular film, sense an opportunity to sharpen their claws and go for the jugular.

“Got me a sewer to crawl back into,” writes Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal, quoting one the movie’s antiheroes before adding: “[H]e’s got nothing on the movie, which was in the sewer all along.” Christopher Orr of The Atlantic harps on the popular claim that the story is a mess, describing it as “lazy to the point of professional negligence.” The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane was only a little kinder: “The worst of the worst? Maybe not. But it’s a dead end for kids.” The Daily Dot’s Gavia Baker-Whitelaw wrote that “[t]hey should have just stuck with a team of Navy SEALs and an emergency line to Batman.”

Did these critics see the same movie that I did? The story was hardly a masterpiece, but neither were the cluttered narratives in The Avengers: Age of Ultron or Captain America: Civil War, both of which fared much better with critics. Suicide Squad had fun and interesting characters, a punk tone that worked for its material, and a story which cleverly subverted our understanding of the roles of heroes and antiheroes (including, appropriately enough, authority figures like the government). It wasn’t perfect, or even the best superhero film of the year (a distinction that belongs with Deadpool), but it packs thorough entertainment. The film’s tremendous social media buzz and two-week box office dominance likewise suggests that it has resonated with American audiences.

The internet does more than provide critics with a forum encouraging our inner Anton Egos. We don’t just critique our popular culture products online; we actively investigate their behind-the-scenes details, with an avidity that sometime shames our coverage of more substantive issues. Thanks to outstanding reporting like that at the Hollywood Reporter and Midnight’s Edge, we know that the production behind Suicide Squad was immensely troubled. Producers who were concerned that the film would underperform–and knew that the fate of the DC Cinematic Universe largely depended on that not happening–made drastic cuts before it was released. Humorous moments were added, scenes were reorganized, and an overall air of desperation began to permeate the project.

This seemed like a movie destined to fail, a fact not lost on some of the more self-aware online critics (even as they panned it themselves).

Even those who didn’t mention the film’s troubled past or tremendous strategic importance, though, were almost certainly aware of it. This is the Catch-22 of film analysis that those who criticize the critics often fail to appreciate: If you go into a movie with a completely fresh perspective, you may lack important information that can help you better understand why that particular finished product is appearing on your screen. Too much information, on the other hand, can also slant one’s perspective, if for no other reason than it becomes difficult to divorce genuine attempts at art from knowledge of the sausage-factory commercialism that produces them.

From the critics who are overly influenced by bloodlust and information oversaturation to sites like RottenTomatoes which reduce all opinions to statistics, the Internet has created a perfect storm of conditions to bury movies like Suicide Squad under an avalanche of negative press.

This brings us back to the RottenTomatoes controversy. Critics aggregated at RottenTomatoes have largely panned the film (its current standing there is 27%), prompting some overzealous fans to demand that the site be shut down. Contrary to their shrill belief in an anti-DC or anti-comic book movie conspiracy (both of which don’t hold up to scrutiny), there is no centralized agenda among the Internet’s intellectual establishment. This is the paranoia that caused online misogynists to see feminist conspiracy behind video game criticism and the Ghostbusters reboot, or call for a boycott of Star Wars: The Force Awakens because it has a black stormtrooper or create a petition to block Ben Affleck from playing the new Batman. That said, while there are no great powers that be which have hidden agendas for beloved pop culture franchises with which fans identify, that doesn’t mean critics can’t succumb to their own flawed human nature. Indeed, they should try to be aware of that possibility.

At the very least, it behooves the critics who roasted the film to keep an open mind about reevaluating their opinions. This shouldn’t just apply to critics and audiences for Suicide Squad, but to all moviegoers and to every film. More and more of us aren’t seeing those movies in a vacuum, but rather while overwhelmed with information that asks us to prejudge a movie or TV show or book or song before experiencing it for ourselves. Total objectivity may not be possible (that’s a debate topic for philosophers), but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to be aware of these potential biases. The first step toward doing that, though, is recognizing that this tool known as the internet can unduly influence how we think, even as its provides us with unprecedented opportunities for self-expression.

Kevin Smith is right about online bullies

Published: The Good Men Project (August 16, 2016)

Simply put, cyber bullies deserve to be ridiculed because they are cowards.

I suppose I can exclude the rare troll or hater who actually attaches his or her real name to their verbal bile. There are even a handful of individuals who make their careers out of trolling (Perez Hilton and Milo Yiannapoulos come to mind). That said, the vast majority of people who bully or harass online do so anonymously. The reason is obvious: They don’t want to be held accountable for what they say. Even though the very act of harassing another person presumes a position of superiority, the cyber bullies clearly know that they would be shamed for what they say. The only way they can keep the focus on their target instead of themselves is by cowering behind their keyboards. This makes them pathetic… and the more flamboyantly they attack their targets, the more it becomes clear that the joke is actually on them.

This brings us to Kevin Smith’s teenage daughter, actress Harley Quinn Smith, who was recently attacked by an online troll for appearing in his new film “Yoga Hosers.” Smith’s defense of his daughter deserves to be published in full:

“[E]ven though I should be apoplectic about it, my kid thought it was funny. ‘I’d be mad if I had a tiny dick and anonymous voice too,’ she said, bemused by the bitterness. But here’s a nickel’s worth of free advice for folks like this Troll: if you hate me (or my kid) this much, the better use of your time is to make YOUR dreams come true, instead of slamming others for doing the same.”

This may be one of the best-crafted insults against trolls ever penned, and it has nothing to do with the dick joke. The first part was Smith describing how his daughter laughed at the troll’s bitterness, an act that strips the bullies of their power. I’ve had a blast myself poking fun at some of my cyberbullies, in no small part because it’s important to draw attention to the inherent ridiculousness of a troll’s activity. Their power comes in making their victim believe that words written by unnamed sources can possibly be taken seriously; that artifice of authority is obliterated once you point out how ripe their actions are for parody.

That said, it’s not enough to simply put the trolls in their place. If we want to set a better example, we need to show them a level of empathy that they’ve refused to display. As Smith points out, someone who would enjoy trolling a teenage girl clearly doesn’t have any meaningful constructive outlets in their lives. It’s easy to interpret this as a verbose way of saying “Get a life!”, but in truth there are many people whose lives feel empty and without purpose… and not all of them are trolls. The troll’s problem isn’t that he or she feels inadequate, but that they lash out at innocent people because of their insecurities. It’s possible to condemn the action while still seeing the human being responsible for them, and perhaps by offering thoughtful advice as well as sharp rebukes, we can make lemonade out of their lemons.