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.

Leave Jake Lloyd alone: We need compassion for mental illness, not snark

Published: Salon (April 11, 2016)

Life wasn’t easy for Jake Lloyd after his starring role in “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.” As anyone who went to the movies in 1999 will recall, his subpar performance was frequently singled out as a major weakness in a film that was hardly lacking in shortcomings. Lloyd has even discussed how the bullying he received from other kids ultimately turned him off acting for good.

Now Lloyd has been hospitalized for schizophrenia following a ten-month stint in jail, which occurred after he led South Carolina police on a high-speech car chase last June. Predictably, a great deal of the reaction from the Internet has ranged from unsympathetic to downright cruel. “Dude looks like straight sith material. Do not let him out” posted one reader at TMZ. A commenter on Inquirer wrote “too much metaclorian [sic] in blood, bad for the brain.” On Global News, a Star Wars fan snarkily joked that “someone probably showed him Phantom Menace.”

While it’s tempting to chalk this up to the sociopathy that seems to contaminate nerd culture these days (see: Star Wars fans complaining that George Lucas “raped their childhood” or the toxic misogyny brewing in Gamergate), there is a deeper issue at play here. Even though our society is appropriately sympathetic to celebrities who develop serious physical illnesses, we continue to ridicule the ones whose sicknesses are psychological in nature. Despite living at a time when scientific progress has made it clear that mental illnesses are no less preventable than many physiological counterparts, the stigma surrounding these disorders remains – and it is particularly evident in how we respond to celebrities who have them.

Take Amanda Bynes, who became the butt of late-night jokes and online barbs alike during her widely-publicized mental breakdown in 2014. Even though she was officially diagnosed as bipolar and manic depressive, the cultural consensus seemed to be that her condition was an acceptable reason to mock her. “I often hear people throwing around the term ‘Bipolar’ as if it were a personality trait like funny, mean or serious. It is a disease, and it needs to be respected as a disease,” explained Dr. Karen Latimer on AOL News at the time. “Imagine a celebrity, like Amanda Bynes, who has breast cancer. Now imagine, she is unwittingly caught on camera in an unflattering picture with a bald head exposed. Almost everyone with a conscious would find the publication of the photo distasteful.”

A similar point could be made about Charlie Sheen. Of course, unlike Lloyd and Bynes, Sheen has behaved in ways that are without question morally repugnant (a long history of domestic violence, issuing death threats), but for much of 2011 the media lapped up every salacious detail of a downward spiral that was clearly fueled by mental illness and drug addiction. The public wasn’t condemning him for the harm he had done others (which would have been understandable), but laughing at him for his mentally unhinged rants about possessing “tiger blood” or declaring that he was “winning.” Oddly enough, the most appropriate condemnation of this trend came from late-night comedian Craig Ferguson, who explained that he was uncomfortable poking fun at Sheen because it reminded him of the days when Bedlam Royal Hospital in London would charge a penny for spectators to gawk at the so-called ‘lunatics.’ “I think people look at that now and think, ‘Gosh, people were heartless and cruel back then,’” Ferguson commented at the time, “I don’t think they were heartless and cruel. They just didn’t know that mental illness isn’t funny.”

Despite the passage of more than three centuries, our attitudes seem to have only gotten slightly better. Whether we collectively accept this or not, the brain is an organ like any other part of the human body; as such, it is capable of getting sick and requiring medical attention. Just because a celebrity like Jake Lloyd, Amanda Bynes, or Charlie Sheen seems to have the wealth and fame necessary to treat these conditions, that doesn’t mean that they are capable of doing so – and, if the long list of high-profile meltdowns from public figures is any indication, very often they aren’t. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if one of the reasons celebrities don’t seek the help they need is because they know there is a stigma attached to mental illness. If Lloyd had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, the likelihood is that his plight would have been received sympathetically. It’s easy to imagine that – knowing how  a mental health problem will be greeted as shameful and deserving of ridicule – famous men and women might feel especially compelled to conceal them from the public, or deny their reality to themselves.

While individuals like Jake Lloyd may be the most high profile victims of these cultural attitudes, everyone who struggles with mental health problems winds up suffering as a result. If we want to truly progress as a society, we need to recognize that laughing at mental illness is as deplorable as mocking someone with AIDS or cancer or Parkinson’s Disease or any other physical ailment. We are better than this— or, at the very least, we should be.

Martin Luther King and the Panama Papers

Published: Salon (April 9, 2016), The Good Men Project (April 7, 2016)

When Martin Luther King Jr. is brought up in a political conversation, it is usually in reference to his work for civil rights…. and if you’re a member of the proverbial one percent, this is definitely for the best. Considering the reverence with which King is held today, it would ill-serve them if the general public remembered him for quotes like this one:

“Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.”

This brings me to the Panama Papers. They have been covered in such great detail that there isn’t much new analysis that I can provide here. Suffice to say that they demonstrate, with irrefutable evidence, what the vast majority of leftists have known for decades – that the forces of globalization have allowed the super-wealthy to hide their money from the public. They create fake companies, squirrel away their assets in offshore accounts, and in general show brazen contempt for the rest of us by refusing – absolutely refusing – to pay their fair share in taxes.

For the most part, Americans have been spared from humiliation in the Panama Papers leaks, but this is only because our own tax laws are so rigged that the plutocracy here doesn’t need the assistance of shady Central American law firms. This brings us to the body of economic thought which King left behind, brought to fruition in the last year of his life as the Poor People’s Campaign. Starting in 1967, King pivoted away from his focus on racial inequality, instead arguing that poverty and other forms of economic injustice required more immediate attention. Had he not been assassinated in the spring of 1968, he would have led a massive march on Washington in order to enact his agenda, the “Economic and Social Bill of Rights for the Poor.” These included:

1. A meaningful job “at a living wage” for every employable citizen.

2. A secure and adequate income for all who cannot find jobs, or for whom employment is inappropriate.

3. Access to land as a means to income and livelihood.

4. Access to Capital as a means of full participation in the economic life of America.

5. Recognition by law of the rights of people affected by government programs to play a truly significant role in determining how they are designed and carried out.

6. Recommit the Federal Government to the “Full Employment Act of 1946” and legislate the immediate creation of at least one million socially useful career jobs in public service.

7. Adopt the pending “House and Urban Development Act of 1968.”

8. Repeal the 90th Congress’s punitive welfare restrictions in the “1967 Social Security Act.”

9. Extend to all farm workers the right guaranteed under the “National Labor Relations Act” – to organize agriculture labor unions.

10. Restore budget cuts for bilingual education, Head Start, summer jobs, “Economic Opportunity Act,” and “Elementary and Secondary Education Acts.”

While the details are a bit technical for review in a single op-ed, the underlying principle here was simple and powerful. King understood that any society which permitted vast numbers of people to languish in poverty would, by default, elevate the wealthy to a level of privilege that put them above the law. If money is power, then the only way to prevent the tyranny of wealth is to make sure that no one is so lacking in money as to be disempowered. When that lesson is forgotten, law firms like Mossack Fonseca in Panama are able to thrive.

If history serves as any reliable precedent, the release of the Panama Papers is unlikely to change anything. Outside of that small collection of individuals who dutifully follow politics, the world either won’t notice or won’t care, and anyone not directly implicated in the documents will go on as before. Indeed, even those of us who are familiar with the Panama Papers’ contents won’t make the necessary connections between how the world’s financial elite rigged the system on this occasion and the more systemic injustices identified by King almost half a century ago. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the various scandals that keep popping up, and to thus overlook how they’re all connected.

Nevertheless, we on the left still need to try. Until the presence of poverty is lumped in the same category as the persistence of racism and sexism – that is, until economic inequality is viewed not as an ineffable reality, but as a profound moral flaw that humanity must collectively address – we will continue to watch as the privileged benefit from a special set of rules that they created for themselves. All of these problems are linked, and if we’re going to unravel the straitjacket of economic oppression, the Panama Papers are as good a thread as any on which to start tugging.

This, I strongly suspect, is how Martin Luther King would have viewed the situation. It’s a shame that so few of us are around to remember his words.

Not another weak celebrity apology: This hollow public ritual desperately needs an overhaul

Published: Salon (February 3, 2016)

When Shia LaBeouf was caught plagiarizing another artist, he launched a performance art piece called #IAmSorry as a statement on the ritual of celebrity apologies. Although his particular offense had nothing to do with bigotry, he could have just as easily been ridiculing the familiar formula that seems to have emerged when celebrities are caught in scandals caused by bigoted comments – racist, sexist, and otherwise.

First there is the collective outrage and consequent shaming from social and traditional media alike. This is followed by the celebrity’s insistence that (a) he or she doesn’t really hold those despicable views and (b) they are genuinely contrite for anyone who may have been offended or hurt by their remarks; and finally, more often than not, the public moves on after having added a metaphorical asterisk next to the reputation and/or legacy of the famous person in question.

At the end of the day, though, does any of this serve some kind of greater good? More specifically, does it allow us to better confront widespread bigotries and determine which celebrities deserve our forgiveness and which do not?

We can start with the latter question and, in turn, the most recent high profile apology from a celebrity-turned-pariah. The subject here is Phil Anselmo, the former frontman for heavy metal band Pantera who recently got in trouble for performing a Nazi salute and shouting “White Power!” at a concert. Although he dismissed the incident as a joke, this wasn’t Anselmo’s first racist lapse, since back in 1995 he attracted attention for delivering a white pride speech while onstage with his original band.

So how did he apologize for this? After claiming that he was merely continuing backstage jokes, he insisted that “anyone who knows me and my true nature knows that I don’t believe in any of that,” that he is “a thousand percent apologetic to anyone that took offence to what I said, because you should have taken offence to what I said,” and that he hopes “you give me another chance.” What he didn’t do, notably, was acknowledge his personal history of racist comments, without which any disclaimer that he himself doesn’t harbor such views falls flat. After all, remorse can only be sincere if it forthrightly acknowledges one’s own errors – and by trying to excuse his comments instead of confronting his underlying belief system, he betrays an unwillingness to sincerely apologize.

That said, it isn’t fair to single out Anselmo here, as many other celebrities have handled this type of predicament in a similar fashion. After Michael Richards (i.e., Kramer from “Seinfeld”) was caught shouting the n-word at a heckler during a 2006 stand up performance, he appeared on David Letterman’s talk show and insisted “”I’m not a racist, that’s what’s so insane about this.” When Food Network chef Paula Deen was revealed to have used the n-word in private conversation, in addition to trying to plan a Southern plantation wedding for her brother, she likewise disclaimed any possibility of being a racist herself, pleading that “I believe that every one of God’s creatures was created equal, no matter what church you go to pray. I believe that everyone should be treated equal, and that’s the way I was raised.” Mel Gibson took a similar tack when he was caught making anti-Semitic comments during a DUI arrest, arguing that “I am not an anti-Semite. I am not a bigot. Hatred of any kind goes against my faith.”

On the other side of the theological spectrum, scientist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins has offered a series of insincere apologies for everything from saying date rape isn’t as bad as “stranger rape at knife point” to telling a woman she should abort a baby with Down syndrome. Whereas Richards, Deen, and Gibson all flat-out denied holding prejudiced views, Dawkins instead tries to defend his statements as mere exercises in logic, thereby casting himself as an isle of rationalism and his critics as overly-emotional. In the process, he denies the implicit misogyny in arguing that one type of rape could be worse than another and the ableism in claiming that a human life has less value if it possesses a genetic disability.

Does this mean that no celebrity apology for bigotry can be sincere? Of course not – but it must demonstrate a recognition of the prejudice that spawned their views, which in turn can contain social value in helping spread awareness of the origins of hateful perspectives.

Take Hulk Hogan, who was caught making racial slurs in a tape released by theNational Enquirer last year. “We are all products of our environment,” he explained in an interview with People, recalling that “the n-word” was used all the time while he was growing up in South Tampa, a Florida town that still had segregated water fountains in its local Sears. “When you inherit something that is passed on generation to generation to generation, it becomes a practice,” he observed. “You have to be aware of it. I realized this behavior and this type of verbiage is unacceptable. So for me to digress and say something so foul is devastating.”

While none of these observations excuse Hogan’s offensive language, they offer us some valuable insight into how we can combat prejudiced attitudes – and, in the process, shed light on why the current approach of publicly shaming so-called bigotry is actually counterproductive.

1. Everyone has prejudiced attitudes, and when we treat those who fall astray like “others,” we fail to recognize this.

The implicit logic behind public shaming, whether for bigotry or anything else, is that the individuals being humiliated must be somehow separated from the rest of society so as to not contaminate the rest of us with their transgressions. That said, bigoted attitudes aren’t exclusive to a few bad apples – they are embedded into the fabric of our culture, meaning all of us harbor prejudiced beliefs and assumptions. They may vary from person to person in terms of their targets (African-Americans, Hispanics, women, homosexuals, Jews, Muslims, etc.) and intensity and impact (from private thoughts that are never uttered to supporting entire political ideologies and oppressive systems and institutions based around them), but no one is completely free from them. Consequently…

2. If the goal is to effectively eliminate prejudice, we need to hate the sin, not the sinner.

It’s actually quite healthy that so many Americans insist on holding public figures accountable when they reveal bigoted opinions. After all, outright discrimination is born from such views, so if we ignore problematic comments or dismiss them with a shrug, we allow the seeds to be planted for dangerous acts of hate in the future. The problem is that, rather than trying to understand the origins of such opinions and better educate both society and ourselves so that we can gradually chip away at them, we instead focus on disgracing the specific individuals who made the offensive comments in the first place. Not only does this reinforce the mistaken notion that prejudice is a disease limited to a handful of malevolent “others” who need to be quarantined, but it creates a climate in which prejudices are squirreled away instead of openly addressed. Even worse, it encourages people who don’t believe that prejudice is a problem to view themselves as martyrs and free-thinkers rather than hatemongers (see: Donald Trump’s presidential campaign).

This is where Hogan’s interview is so instructive. Instead of merely insisting that he isn’t actually racist, he offered a detailed and perceptive explanation for where his racist language and attitudes came from in the first place. He recognized that, despite having had an impressive career that has taken him all over the world, he remains a product of the environment in which he was reared – and that no one, regardless of their subsequent experiences and achievements, can ever fully shake off the background that formed them.

If we can learn any lesson from this spate of celebrity apologies, it is this one: We don’t need our public figures to be shamed before the world and eternally disgraced for articulating bigoted opinions; what we do need is for them to not only apologize for those views, but understand where they came from and promise to combat them. If this happened more often, we would not only see a reduction in the number of hollow celebrity apologies, but the emergence of a culture in which articulating subconscious prejudices is recognized as a problem requiring a practical solution, rather than a scandal needing to be covered up or excused. This would count as true progress.

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.

Activision should be ashamed of its ‘Call of Duty’ terrorism hoax

Published: The Daily Dot (October 4, 2015)

To promote the upcoming Call of Duty: Black Ops III, Activision reskinned the franchise’s Twitter account into a fake news agency called “Current Events Aggregate.” Its plan was to tease the plot of the new game through these fictitious news stories. Unfortunately, the company neglected to clearly indicate that any of the tweets they posted – which claimed there had been an explosion on the Singapore Marina – were actually fictional.

The stunt was meet with strong criticism across the board, as the Daily Dot’s Dennis Scimeca noted in his original report.

“Call of Duty games have never shied away from sensitive and political subject matter, but when Activision’s official Call of Duty account started ‘live reporting’ a fictional terrorist attack, we saw a marketing move exit the realm of entertainment,” argued Mitch Dyer of IGN. Kyle Sledge of Gamerant agreed:

“Activision should regret creating such a tasteless marketing campaign. Yes, they successfully achieved the goal of getting people to talk about their video game – as we’re doing right now – but the method was rather tactless, as Activision’s manufacturing of a fake terrorist attack could have easily been misconstrued as the real thing, and led to panic.”

That Activision could have Twitter users into believing that a major catastrophe had occurred in Singapore is only half of the problem. It’s the complete lack of sensitivity to acts of terrorism that Activision—an American company—should be ashamed of.

After all, it was only last August that China infamously imposed a social media blackout on citizens’ attempts to discuss a series of mysterious explosions that killed over 100 people in Tianjin. Considering that Activision has been assiduously courting the Asian market since 2012, it’s hard to believe that its social media division would have been unaware of such a recent and prominent news story in that region. If nothing else, It’s definitely guilty of an astonishingly unprofessional oversight.

Singaporeans already have reason to be emotionally vulnerable about the subject of terrorist threats and explosions. Back in May, two Singaporean youths associated with ISIS were arrested for planning violent domestic attacks on Singapore’s soil. Less than a month later, a man was shot dead after plowing his car through concrete barricades outside the Shangri-La Hotel. Although it was later determined that he had been on drugs, the incident still prompted Singaporean security to go on high alert about possible terrorist threats, particularly as the nation hosted the SEA Games (South-East Asian Games).

If this seems like an overreaction, bear in mind that Singapore has experienced several similar tragedies related over the past half century. Its first major encounter with terrorism occurred in 1965, when the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank building (also known as MacDonald House) was bombed by IndonesianKonfrontasi opposed to the formation of Malaysia. Next there was the Laju Incident in 1974, during which a group of Japanese and Palestinian radicals attacked a Shell Oil refinery. Then 1978 brought about the explosion of the oil tanker ST Spyros—not a terrorist attack, to be sure, but a major natural disaster that devastated Singapore at the time (and could have been conjured up by the Activision tweets). In 1991, Pakistani radicals hijacked Singapore Airlines flight SQ117, holding its 114 passengers and 11 crew members hostage until they were killed during a successful rescue operation. Finally, in 2001 —only three months after the Sept. 11 attacks made international headlines—Singaporean intelligence managed to thwart a plot by the Islamic terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah to bomb various embassies throughout the country.

In short, Singapore has its own long and painful history with terrorism, and as such news hoaxes about possible explosions and martial law in that country are as tasteless as a comparable exploitation of Sept.11 would be here. It’s fair to assume that American audiences would be equally dismayed if the roles were reversed. Whether intentional or not, Activision wound up playing on a series of very real tragedies that have occurred in Singapore to promote its game.

This wasn’t simply an artistic representation or repurposing of those events; it was a marketing gimmick that used realistic-sounding news reports of a hypothetical Singaporean national crisis as a means of drumming up attention for a product.

The moral here is, hopefully, obvious. While there is nothing wrong with trying to find innovative ways of drawing attention to your latest business venture, a line must be drawn when it comes to matters of good taste and social responsibility.


The sex offender behind “Jeepers Creepers”: Should Hollywood support Victor Salva’s return to the hit horror franchise?

Published: Salon (September 14, 2015)

You may not know the name Victor Salva, but if you’re a fan of horror movies the chances are good you’ve seen one of his most famous films: “Jeepers Creepers,” the2001 sleeper hit about a winged monster in the Nebraska countryside who goes on a killing spree every 23 years to replenish his internal organs. Considering that it spawned a successful sequel in 2003, it was only a matter of time before a studio decided to produce a third installment. According to an announcement last week, legendary director Francis Ford Coppola (of “The Godfather” fame) plans on joining forces with Myriad Pictures to do precisely that.

That makes this as good a time as any to discuss the fact that Salva is a registered sex offender.

The story is as simple as it is reprehensible: Back when Salva was making his first feature film, a 1989 horror flick called “Clownhouse,” he kept 12-year-old star Nathan Forrest Winters for extra rehearsals during which Salva forced the young actor to give and receive oral sex, all the while recording the sessions for his private child pornography collection. After serving 15 months of a three-year sentence in prison, Salva was released and slowly climbed his way back up the Hollywood ladder. He never entirely escaped his sordid past — it caused controversy when Disney released another one of his cult classics, the science-fiction parable “Powder“ — but ultimately has managed to carve out a modestly successful career in spite of it.

What lessons can we learn from this?

First and foremost, we must recognize that there is a systemic problem of sexual exploitation in show business. In his memoirs on being one of the world’s biggest child stars in the ‘80s, Corey Feldman described how pedophiles and other sexual predators were rampant in Hollywood when he was growing up and are likely as bad or worse today. The nearly 50 separate allegations against Bill Cosby for sexual abuse further underscore that point, illustrating how powerful entertainment figures can allegedly commit heinous crimes and get away with it for years and years. And if they are held in particularly high artistic regard, they’ll even find scores of apologists — just look at Roman Polanski, who fled the country after being convicted of raping a 13-year-old girl, or Woody Allen, who continued to be a fixture at awards ceremonies despite accusations of molestation made against him by his adoptive daughter, Dylan Farrow.

But we need to hold entertainers who have paid their debt to society to a different standard than the ones, like Polanski who has avoided extradition to serve time for his crime, who have avoided accountability. This has less to do with “forgiving” them for their crimes (true forgiveness can only come from their victims and, if one believes in such things, from God) than it does with making sure bad precedents don’t continue to be set. For instance, although both Salva and Polanski committed comparable crimes, only Salva actually spent time behind bars for what he did. This doesn’t make Salva any less of an awful person, but if we fail to distinguish between wrongdoers who pay their debt to society and those who don’t, we risk encouraging the idea that such distinctions are meaningless. Once someone has been punished in our judicial system (and although Salva, a first-time offender, was released early), our social contract argues that they at least deserve a chance to rehabilitate themselves. That benefit cannot in good conscience be extended to those who haven’t even gone through our penal system.

Does this mean horror film aficionados should feel compelled to overlook Salva’s past? Of course not. Regardless of whether he went to prison or not, Salva still ruined lives in order to indulge a perversion that has been rightly stigmatized by society. The point here is not that Salva should be considered redeemed or forgiven, but rather that if entertainment consumers are expected to move past convicted crimes, the offender must at the very least have undergone the rudimentary process of receiving social sanction and legal punishment.
Indeed, this is what separates criminals like Salva from public entertainers whose controversies merely surround bigoted or other unsavory views. Even though Tom Cruise and plenty of other celebrities are advocates for Scientology, an institution accused of many abuses, none of them (to the best of our knowledge) has actively caused heinous harm to other people. Consequently, there is a crucial difference between deciding to enjoy “Braveheart” despite Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitism or enjoying a “Seinfeld” rerun despite Michael Richards’ racist rant, and, say, watching “Clownhouse” despite Salva’s pedophilia — the former entails separating personal views from an artistic sensibility, while the latter involves implicitly condoning a crime that was entwined with the act of artistic creation itself.
Personally, despite enjoying the first two “Jeepers Creepers” movies (which I saw before I knew about Salva’s background), I don’t think I can bring myself to watch “Jeepers Creepers 3.” Although I’m sure it will be good, I know too many people who were victimized as children by predators like Salva for me to be able to support someone like him in good conscience. That said, this is a purely individual decision for me, and I fully acknowledge that others may come to different conclusions for their own reasons. My only hope is that when they do so, it is with a full and deep understanding of the true stakes involved.

Josh Duggar’s hypocrisy is part of a much larger cultural problem


Published: The Daily Dot (August 21, 2015)

America’s most high-profile Christian conservatives often use their social media platforms and media prominence to extol the virtues of chastity—only to get caught up in sex scandals.

The most recent example comes by way of Josh Duggar, one of the oldest kids from the hit reality TV show 19 Kids and CountingComing on the heels of a revelation last month that Duggar molested five young girls (including his own sisters), Americans have now learned that the outspoken opponent of same-sex marriageabortion rights, and sex education was cheating on his wife with an account on the notorious dating site for cheaters, Ashley Madison. “I have been the biggest hypocrite ever,” Duggar proclaimed in a public statement. “While espousing faith and family values, I have secretly over the last several years been viewing pornography on the Internet and this became an addiction and I became unfaithful to my wife.”

Duggar is certainly a hypocrite, but it’s arguable whether or not he’s the biggest hypocrite of them all—because over the past few decades, plenty of other religious conservatives could give him a run for his money at that title.

A short list might include names such as Jason Dore, executive director of the Louisiana Republican Party, whose information also appeared in the Ashley Madison dump. It would also include Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House and 2012 Republican presidential candidate who cheated on two of his wives (including when he was calling for Bill Clinton’s impeachment over the scandal involving Monica Lewinsky). There’s also Evangelical pastor Ted Haggard, who despite his anti-gay rhetoric admitted to having an affair with another man. And former Sen. John Ensign of Nevada was revealed to have had an affair with the wife of a former staffer.

Duggar is certainly a hypocrite, but it’s arguable whether or not he’s the biggest hypocrite of them all.

The list goes on, and on, and on. During the same month that he voted against an anti-discrimination bill, North Dakota legislator Randy Boehning sent an unsolicited picture of his genitals to a 21-year-old on a gay dating site. Former Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina had his status as a conservative darling was destroyed when he vanished for several days to have an affair with an Argentinian woman.

Then-Alabama Attorney General Troy King attempted to outlaw sex toys and opposed gay rights, before being caught by his wife having sex with a male college student. Another Southern conservative, Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, had a reputation for promoting “old-fashioned” values when news surfaced his frequent engagement with the D.C. Madam. And who could forget former Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, another anti-gay rights conservative, who was caught soliciting sex from a male undercover cop in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport bathroom.

Why does this keep happening?

When it comes to conservatives being caught up in sex scandals, the reason could be traced to what Sigmund Freud called the “reaction formation.” The concept, as Freud coined it, signifies a hostile fight against outward symbols of inward emotions that are being stifled—in other words, self-repression. As it relates to homophobic leaders cheating on their wives with other men, a study from a 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology make shed some light.

There is a solidly established statistical correlation
between social conservatism and higher rates of abortion, teen pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases.

The researchers discovered that individuals who identified as “highly straight” but had latent impulses for sex with other men were far more likely to favor anti-gay policies. In addition, those men were also more likely to call for stricter punishments against gay people who commit petty crimes. “Not all those who campaign against gay men and lesbians secretly feel same-sex attractions,” explained Dr. Richard M. Ryan to The New York Times. “But at least some who oppose homosexuality are likely to be individuals struggling against parts of themselves, having themselves been victims of oppression and lack of acceptance.”

The explanation is pretty similar when talking about heterosexual sex scandals, such as the one involving Duggar. One study found that residents of highly religious and politically conservative states spent more money on Internet pornography than their less religious and conservative counterparts. And the states which banned gay marriage had 11 percent more porn subscribers. There is a solidly-established statistical correlation between social conservatism and higher rates of abortion, teen pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases—and nations that have more liberal views on sexuality generally have fewer sex-related health problems than countries that are more repressive.

All of this is because, as Dr. Christopher Ryan explained at Psychology Today:

If expression of sexuality is thwarted, the human psyche tends to grow twisted into grotesque, enraged perversions of desire. Unfortunately, the distorted rage resulting from sexual repression rarely takes the form of rebellion against the people and institutions behind the repression… Instead, the rage is generally directed at helpless victims who are sacrificed to the sick gods of guilt, shame, and ignorant pride.

It’s worth noting here that many of the right-wing objections to what they characterize as pathological sexuality are incredibly modern notions. Beliefs like the idea that there is a clear dichotomy between heterosexuality and homosexuality, or that the traits associated with womanhood are fixed, are relatively modern. They’re the simultaneous product of industrialization—which has created national and global cultures in place of purely local ones—and a reaction to the dizzyingly fast social and cultural changes that have been wrought over the past two centuries.

The danger comes when one’s individual sexual inclinations manifests in social policy, affecting others.

These problems, then, may very well have a root cause. While sexually repressed lifestyles may not be psychologically healthy for individuals, there is nothing morally wrong or dangerous about deciding to follow an abstinent (or an otherwise sexually-conservative) set of values. The danger comes when one’s individual sexual inclinations manifests in social policy, affecting others.

Although social conservatives claim to promote “old-fashioned” sexual values, it is necessary to understand that there are deeper psychological drives behind much of the political rhetoric. The personal intersects with the political, often with dire consequences for innocent men and women who want nothing more than to live according to their own inclinations—and to do so free from persecution.

They have every right to do this—and we, as a society, have a moral responsibility to protect them from hypocrites like Josh Duggar.