Colorado teen kills self as sign of Nazi allegiance: “I have crippling depression but I shall cure it by killing Jews”

Published: Salon (October 17, 2016)

The suicide of a Colorado teenager has been linked to a Nazi-themed Facebook group that the young man apparently led.

The teenager apparently believed that killing himself would “show his allegiance to the Nazi Party and the killing of Jewish people,” according to local law enforcement officials. The theory stems from a message he wrote shortly before his death, proclaiming, “I have crippling depression but I shall cure it by killing Jews.”f

The Facebook group itself was called “4th Reich’s Official Group Chat” and engaged indiscussions ranging from plans for “executing n***ers” to poems like “You can hang Jews on trees, shoot them right in the knees. Gas as many as you please.”

Republican Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been heavily criticized forinspiring an increase in the number of hate groups throughout the country. Ideologically, Trump seems to draw heavily from an offshoot of modern conservatism, the alt-right, whose adherents believe that their “white identity” is under attack from the forces of political correctness — something that Trump often attacks.

Trump’s candidacy has also had an observable impact on America’s youth, with an increase in racial or religious bullying as well as normalizing racist ideas that were formerly considered unacceptable.

Interview with Franchesca Ramsey: Yes, Trump supporters are deplorable!

Published: The Good Men Project (October 4, 2016)

A brief thought on the kind of person – well, let’s be honest here, the millions of people – who may wind up electing Donald Trump as the next American president. Unflattering things have already been said about them, and deservedly so, because their behavior is frankly deplorable.

But let’s start this article on a happier note. Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Franchesca Ramsey. You may not recognize her name, but if you watch MTV or casually browse YouTube’s politics videos, you already know her face and voice. She is most famous for “Decoded,” a series of educational lectures and comedy skits that break down sensitive topics such as race and gender.

Her most recent video, “A Retirement Home for Donald Trump Supporters,” also ranks as one of her best. While I won’t spoil the various gags and punchlines, it’s fair to say that the video illustrates how the “greater” and “simpler” America for which Trump supporters yearn is really just one in which the last sixty years’ worth of progress for women and minorities has been wiped away. Naturally, it also clearly demonstrates how the vast bulk of Trump’s core supporters are motivated by racial bigotry and misogyny. Considering that Hillary Clinton recently got in trouble for referring to these same Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” this is a pretty bold statement for Ramsey to make… and many Trump supporters are complaining about precisely that on the message board.

“I see a lot of irony in that, especially for a candidate and for supporters who make wild generalizations about Mexican immigrants, about black people, about women, about LGBT folks,” Ramsey observed to me. “They continually make generalizations about marginalized people.” This is a vital point, since it speaks to the logical flaw whenever Trump supporters assume an air of victimhood. It isn’t simply that a political ideology is something you choose whereas racial and gender identities are inherent parts of who you are. The power dynamic between the forces backing Trump’s campaign and the marginalized groups opposing it is not equal, not by a long shot. “When you make a generalization about a Trump supporter, you’re talking about hurt feelings, versus generalizations about marginalized people that lead to their oppression and mistreatment,” Ramsey noted. “Hurt feelings are just not comparable to dead bodies.”

This doesn’t mean that every Trump supporter is a drooling maniac or howling monster. “Sure, I’m sure there are some Trump supporters who are nice people,” Ramsey explained. ‘But I think that we have to be really careful when we talk about ‘nice people’ versus ‘nice people who support harmful laws, ideologies, and beliefs.’ And so, you could be very nice to me and polite to me, but if you support a candidate who wants to take away my rights, who wants to profile Muslim Americans, who wants to uphold negative ideas that potentially have damaging effects for me and people that I love, then I have no problem saying that I don’t agree with that, and I think that those are not good people. I think that good people can support terrible things, and I think terrible people can occasionally do good things, and I think you have to be really good about separating those things.”

The point here is not that Trump supporters should be demonized, but that their problematic attitude need to be identified and called out. Because comedy is a powerful tool for doing precisely that, satirists from Ramsey to the Comedy Central lineup (including Larry Wilmore, for whom she writes) often point their barbs at these ordinary people and the bad things they do… such as supporting presidential candidates like Trump. The laughs may feel harsh to those on the receiving end of them, but that is nothing compared to the pain caused by the oppression which these individuals seek to perpetuate.

It’s uncomfortable to be reminded of this fact, to be sure. I can’t promise that those who watch Ramsey’s work won’t sometimes squirm in their seat as they view. That discomfort that they feel, though, merely proves that these are conversations which need to happen.

Mike Pence, a heartbeat away from the presidency? Now that’s frightening

Published: Salon (September 22, 2016)

Why isn’t Mike Pence a major issue in this campaign?

In any other election, Pence would be to a Republican presidential nominee what Sarah Palin was to John McCain back in 2008 — that is, an extreme right-winger whose presence on the ticket is widely regarded as a liability. Of course, this is the year in which the GOP tapped Donald Trump to be its standard-bearer, and when the main attraction is that prone to controversy, it makes sense that anyone running with him will wind up being more or less ignored by the media.

Considering that Donald Trump is as dangerously close as ever to winning the presidency, though, we need to pay close attention to his running mate, particularly since Pence has said he’d like to model his vice presidency after Dick Cheney, one of the most “consequential” No. 2’s in history. Needless to say, if Trump becomes president, Pence’s opinions will matter … and those views are, upon closer inspection, chilling.

While it’s easy to point to Pence’s extreme positions on a wide range of issues — from climate change and evolution (where he is anti-science) to trade policy (where he’s a staunch free trader, putting him at odds with Trump) — Pence has defined his political career by his hatreds.

Most conspicuous among these is his animus toward the LGBTQ community. This was most recently made evident by his support for and signing of the notoriousIndiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act — a bill that, under the guise of protecting religious liberty, established loopholes that allow businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians. But Pence’s LGBTQ bigotry goes much deeper than that. Back when he was a Hoosier congressman, Pence opposed funding legislation to combat AIDS on the grounds that the money could be better spent trying to “cure” homosexuality. As governor, before the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land, Pence signed a law making it a felony for gay couples even to applyfor a marriage license. All this, of course, occurred on top of Pence’s predictable anti-gay positions on matters like hate-crime legislation or repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Pence’s record on race is hardly better. Back when he ran for Congress in 1990, Pence used a fear-mongering campaign ad that criticized American dependence on foreign oil by grotesquely caricaturing Arabs; six years later, he defended Pat Buchanan on his radio show as someone who should not be considered outside the mainstream of the Republican Party. (In case you’ve forgotten, Buchanan sympathizes with fascism so openly that Donald Trump himself once called him out on it.) Pence’s race-baiting was not limited to the ’90s. Check out his suppression of minority voters in Indiana or his recent refusal to denounce neo-Nazi leader David Duke as deplorable. Pence may claim that Martin Luther King Jr. is his personal hero, but his actions would seem to contradict those words.

Finally, there is Pence’s attitude toward women. If his career-long commitment to defunding Planned Parenthood isn’t enough to convince you that he has a problem, how about his 1997 editorialproclamation that working mothers stunt the emotional growth of their children, or his 1999 article denouncing the Disney film “Mulan” as “liberal propaganda”?

There’s also Pence’s (thankfully unsuccessful) effortto allow federal funds for a post-rape abortion only if the rape was “forcible,” or his support of an Indiana law mandating investigations of women to see if they caused their own miscarriages, and requiring women to bury or cremate miscarried fetuses. Perhaps most tellingly, even though Pence used his radio show to express outrage at a female Air Force pilot for cheating on her husband, he didn’t bring up Bill Clinton’s marital infidelities until his listeners prompted him. Even if you believe someone can be anti-abortion without being anti-woman, it’s difficult defend Pence’s stances on issues like these without crossing the threshold into misogyny.

Again, these positions are not mere blips in Pence’s background. They are the foundation of his political career, from the campaign messages he’s used to win votes to the policies he’s supported once in office. As such, they offer a reliable indicator of the attitudes Pence would bring with him if the fates conspire to make him president. As the running mate of a man plagued by scandal who would be the oldest incoming president in our history, it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine impeachment or mortality elevating Pence to the highest office in the land.

That’s why we have a responsibility to draw attention to Pence’s record and his evident prejudices, just as we’ve done with Trump’s long history of sexist and racistremarks. By not holding Trump’s feet to the fire for choosing a running mate with Pence’s extreme positions, we normalize those stances instead of shuffling them to the margins of political discourse where they belong. Even worse, instead of allowing the American people to make an informed choice about such a controversial figure, we have created an environment in which polls suggest that nearly half the publicdoesn’t know enough about the man to form a first impression.

Of course it’s possible that Trump would win this election even if Pence’s views were as widely understood as Sarah Palin’s were in 2008. That said, it’s difficult to believe that Pence’s background wouldn’t at least become a major factor. It’s clear that whenever he’s been entrusted with power, Mike Pence strive to turn back the tide of progress made over the last few decades in terms of social justice for racial minorities, women and the LGBTQ community. He may not be as flamboyant as Trump, but he is just as dangerous, and most mainstream journalists covering this election have simply looked the other way. We have less than seven weeks to correct this.

Jews must speak out against Islamophobia: Standing with our Muslim brothers and sisters is critical

Published: Salon (September 14, 2016)

When news first broke earlier this week that a mosque in Orlando had been set on fire, presumably because it had been attended by Omar Mateen, the man who in June shot 49 people to death at the nightclub Pulse, I immediately thought of Alaa Basatneh. Three weeks earlier I’d interviewed the Syrian-American journalist and activist and had been struck by her optimism.

“I do have faith that, down the road, just like the Jews faced a lot of negativity in the past in the U.S. — and the Irish, the Italians, the Japanese, you know the entire list— things are going to be the same for Muslims,” she had told me. “It’s going to take a lot of time and effort from the Muslim-American community.”

But the arson at the Orlando mosque served as a reminder to me that the Muslim-American community shouldn’t have to go through this alone. More than ever, Jews and other marginalized groups have a moral responsibility to stand with our nation’s Muslims as they continue to face bigotry and persecution.

The good news is that over the past year many Jews have taken steps to do precisely that. In December Jewish activists held demonstrations on each day of Hanukkah  in 15 U.S. cities to protest anti-Muslim hate speech and public policies. In May, nine Jewish groups joined more than 30 other organizations to support a bill that wouldforbid the government to turn away immigrants based on religion, a clear response to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration. Around the same time, the American Jewish Community called for The Citadel to let Muslim students wear hijabs, while in New Jersey the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists lent their support to Muslims who are trying to build a mosque in the town of Basking Ridge.

And in recent years some Muslims have clearly demonstrated their rejection of anti-Semitism. In 2013 11 prominent imams, sheiks and religious teachers traveled to Auschwitz from nine nations to counter Holocaust denial. Also that year President Barack Obama personally congratulated a young Swedish Muslim activist, Siavosh Derakhti, for having founded Young People Against Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia to combat prejudice in his country. In November 2015 hundreds of Norwegian Muslimsformed a human shield around a synagogue in Oslo to express solidarity with the Jewish community there after an attack on a synagogue in Denmark. And in the March Democratic primary in Dearborn, Michigan, a city with many Muslims and Arab-Americans, a majority of voters voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders, who happens to be the country’s first major Jewish presidential candidate.

Although both sides have laid the groundwork for building Jewish-Muslim solidarity piece by piece, those efforts must be redoubled whenever one group yet again experiences mistreatment.

With the poisonous influence of anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, millions of individuals can be held accountable for the actions of another who happens to share their faith.

As Basatneh said when I asked for her reaction to the Orlando mosque attack, “What’s upsetting is that one person’s actions are taken out [and superimposed over] an entire religion. Had I been at that mosque, I would have been hurt, even though I stand firmly against terrorism.”

I think this holds true not just for other Muslims who have been attacked because of the actions of a violent few but when Jews are collectively blamed for Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians (as happened in 2014  during anti-Semitic riots in Paris).

Whether we like it or not, the spotlight is on both communities because Jews and Palestinians of Muslim and Christian faith as well as others are embroiled in a bloody, decades-long conflict in Israel. As a result, many have grown to expect that Jews and Muslims everywhere will inevitably become foes, and it behooves individuals in both groups to defy those assumptions. When we don’t speak out against hateful words and deeds directed against the other, our silence can (unfairly or otherwise) be read as indifference or even implicit approval.

Perhaps the key to avoiding this can be found in a theory Basatneh shared with me why Muslims supported Sanders. “They understood what he was talking about and what he was preaching in terms of rights for all,” she suggested, recalling when he took the hand of a Muslim student asking a question about Islamophobia at a Virginia town hall and hugged her, noting that his father’s family had died in concentration camps and adding that he will everything he can to rid the country of the ugly stain of racism.

That moment touched many Muslims because he simply showed that he was “a human being that understood the struggle of the Muslim-American,” Basatneh said.

When Jews tell Muslims that we, too, identify with their pain, and when they do likewise, our society is taking small but meaningful strides toward overcoming the hostilities groups express toward one another.

These individual steps may not seem like much, but they add up and ultimately do make a difference.

That’s why I call on my fellow Jews to be at the forefront of the call to condemn the arson attack against the Orlando mosque. Those of us who don’t do the right thing now may, I suspect, regret their silence in later years.

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.

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.

From Gamergate to “Ghostbusters” to Suicide Squad: The Problem of Fan Entitlement

Published: Salon (August 9, 2016)

It’s easy to roll your eyes at the “Suicide Squad” petition. In case you’ve been lucky enough to miss the news, fans of the new movie “Suicide Squad” have created an online movement to shut down aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes for posting predominantly negative reviews of their beloved film. Cue the inevitable jokes about how nerds need to get a life.

Is it really that simple, though? Over the past few years, it’s become increasingly clear that fans of pop culture properties – whether movies, TV shows, books, video games, or anything else – don’t merely view them as forms of entertainment, or themselves as consumers of said media. From Comic Cons to the nostalgia craze, it is clear that millions of people deeply identify with the culture produced by others, and, as a result of this feeling of ownership, many of them have developed a deep sense of entitlement that at its most innocuous is merely silly, and at its worst manifests itself in ugly bigotries.

The brouhaha over “Suicide Squad” offers a great starting point for tracing this evolution from the absurd to the sinister. While there is a highly unflattering whininess in those “Suicide Squad” fans who assume that critics are compelled to share their views, Rotten Tomatoes hasn’t exactly been victimized by their petition (no one believes it’s going to be effective). The same can be said of Ben Affleck, who three years ago was targeted by a petition to recast him as Batman before critics and audiences had a chance to see that he’d wind up being the best thing about “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Incidents like these can be safely lumped under the “silly” category.

But what about the female film critic who received misogynistic death threats from a comic book fan incensed over her negative review for “Man of Steel”?

The same entitlement that can cause DC Comics fans to complain about unpopular actors or unfavorable movie reviews can also, if they harbor certain prejudices, come across in more harmful ways. Because only 15 percent of major movies star female characters, it was easy for fanboys with a sense of entitlement to denounce the new “Ghostbusters” reboot in viciously misogynistic language for recasting the lead roles with female performers. Similarly, because video games have traditionally targeted white men as their core audience, movements like Gamergate can spring up when reactionary gamers hear feminists call for increased gender diversity in gaming. These sexist attitudes even appear around franchises where you wouldn’t expect it; just ask Anna Gunn, who has endured years of harassment for her role as Skyler White in the TV drama, “Breaking Bad.”

Unfortunately, the problem of nerd entitlement isn’t limited to misogyny. Last year a number of racists made waves with their movement to boycott Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens because it had cast African-American actor John Boyega in one of the starring roles. A similar backlash occurred when it came out that Michael B. Jordan had been cast as The Human Torch in last year’s reboot of The Fantastic Four. Skip over to the realm of literature and things aren’t much better, as evidenced by the considerable number of Twilight fans who harassed indie pop singer FKA Twigs in vile racist language for daring to enter a relationship with the male star of their franchise’s film universe, Robert Pattinson.

These are only a handful of examples (I had to cut more than three-quarters of my research for this article just to save space), but they all underscore a common theme. It isn’t simply that consumers of popular culture often harbor ugly racist and sexist views; it’s that, because they personally identify with the properties in question, their inflated sense of entitlement over these products can make them quick to anger when that identity is challenged. This is why latent racism and sexism so often bubbles to the surface among those members of the community community that think of their identity in terms of being white and male.

The underlying logic is fundamentally irrational: It’s the belief that, because they’ve financially supported these industries their whole lives and received an embarrassing social stigma for doing so, these industries owe them. While being a fan gives you a legitimate emotional connection to a product, the underlying relationship is still that of consumer with product. Any loyalty that you feel is a personal choice you make on how to invest your time and money; any choice made by a producer, from corporations to individuals, is done to promote their own self-interest. Because that involves appealing to as broad an audience as possible, this means ignoring their fans when they insist on exclusivist attitudes.

What can be done about this? More than anything else, we need to change the conversation that we’re having about pop culture in general. For better or worse, the fact that our generation holds pop culture on such a pedestal means that the cultural has become political. As a result, when a disproportionately large number of our movies, TV shows, video games, and books feature white, straight, and male characters at the expense of other groups, this is an inherently political act (deliberately or otherwise) and needs to be confronted. Indeed, when nerds react to calls for diversity with hostility, they are only demonstrating how true this is. There is a poignant symbolic significance to including non-white, non-male, and non-straight voices in cultural roles that were traditionally reserved for members of privileged groups… and, conversely, it is terribly disheartening when the producers of entertainment refuse to recognize the cultural power they wield and utilize it in an inclusive way.

Beyond simply calling for diversity, though, we also must infuse our debate with an awareness that being a fanboy doesn’t entitle you to anything. The common thread linking the “Suicide Squad” petition to other nerd-based racist and misogynist incidents this decade is that, at their core, all of them betray an assumption that producers of popular entertainment are beholden to the nerd community. This misunderstands a basic principle of a free market society – while consumers have the right to invest or not invest their time and money as they see fit, they don’t have the right to demand that producers act as obedient servants to their will. It’s certainly nice when an author or actor or critic or film studio shows deference to the wishes of fans, but they are in no way ethically obligated to do so. Indeed, because many fans (like many people from all walks of life) harbor terrible social views, it is very often necessary for producers to disregard the will of the more vocal segments of their fanbases. Just because a lot of gamers don’t want increased diversity doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen; just because a lot of moviegoers liked “Suicide Squad” (myself included) doesn’t mean the critics on Rotten Tomatoes should feel likewise.

At the same time, it’s also necessary for progressives to maintain an even keel about the greater significance of these cultural properties. The sexist backlash against the “Ghostbusters” reboot was certainly despicable, but that doesn’t justify alleging misogyny in every moviegoer who disliked the film (I personally thought it was good and worth seeing). It’s important to oppose racism, but that doesn’t mean we should start hashtags like #CancelColbert that willfully ignore the difference between satire and bigotry. While it’s important for progressives to stand up to problematic trends and tropes in cultural products, we still need to remember that they are ultimately just that – products. When we lose sight of this, we risk overreacting against those whose opinions and actions are based on an awareness of the fact that we too are acting first and foremost as consumers of entertainment.

I suspect that, years from now, future cultural historians will love to mine incidents like Gamergate and the “Ghostbusters” controversy for deeper meaning. There is a great deal to be said about a society that loves its popular culture so fervently that they will turn them into platforms on which greater social justice causes are fought. For right now, though, it behooves all of us to take a step back and recognize that there is an air of entitlement which makes all of this possible… and none of us look good so long as it remains unaddressed.

Will Smith is right (I think)

Published: The Good Men Project (August 9, 2016)

Before I get to why Will Smith is probably right, let’s dispense with why his hysterical right-wing critics are definitely wrong. At a press event in Dubai, Smith tried to find a silver lining to the dark cloud that is Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. “As painful as it is to hear Donald Trump talk and as embarrassing as it is as an American to hear him talk, I think it’s good,” Smith said. “We get to know who people are and now we get to cleanse it out of our country.”

Note how he said “we get to cleanse it out of our country.” Not people, like Trump or his supporters, but ideas – namely, the ones that make him feel embarrassed as an American. He obviously was criticizing Trump’s racist philosophy, one that in the past he has described (accurately) as a “separatist non-inclusive xenophobic racist wave that is sweeping the globe.” Interpreting it in any other way is disingenuous.

Is he right overall, though? Are America and the world benefiting from the airing out of these pent up prejudices?

For one thing, the answer depends entirely on what Americans decide to do in this presidential election. Not to overstate the obvious (and a point I’ve made plenty of times already), but the outcome of the Clinton-Trump election will be one of the most important in American history. If Clinton wins, her victory will decisively rebuke the aspirations of demagogues like Trump who believe racial, religious, and gender-based bigotry can bring them to national power. A Trump victory, on the other hand, will send the signal that there elections can be won his way… in which case, no, it definitely was not a good thing.

Assuming that Clinton wins, however (and this is what experts seem to be predicting), Trump’s presidency could be a positive by exposing the prevalence of these attitudes. When millions of Americans are willing to gift its highest office to a man who regularly demeans women and generalizes racial and religious minorities, that reveals something important about where we are as a society. We may have elected our first African American and female presidents, but nipping at their heels were alternatives that staunchly oppose the values symbolized by their presidencies. The Age of Obama and Clinton may be viewed as one that helped empower the marginalized, but it won’t have happened without a fight.

Of course, for it to happen at all, it won’t be enough to stop once Trump has been defeated. Those of us with a voice have an obligation to speak out against all forms of prejudice, wherever they may appear. If we are capable of doing more, than we must do so. There will be more Trumps after The Donald has left the scene – from presidential candidates to the people we meet on the street – and their assorted hatreds cause a lot of real-world harm for a lot of people. Smith is right in his point was indeed that, yes, the first step in confronting them is knowing that they exist. Yet if we do nothing with that knowledge, then we allow them to win.

Either way, the 2016 presidential election is going to count for a lot. If Smith’s voice can in any way help people appreciate that and vote, I’m all for him using it.