Dear progressives: Words matter, and listening matters

Do you want to feel better about yourself, or do you want to change the world?

They’re not mutually exclusive, but focusing on the first at the expense of the second is one of the reasons we’re in the mess we’re in today.

Americans love “progressive” policy — background checks on gun sales, a path to citizenship for immigrants, keeping the U.S. in the Paris climate agreement, etc. They hate being belittled. They hate being condescended to.

And like the people who take Trump’s suggestions to hurt journalists or guzzle hydroxychloroquine literally, a lot of people are going to take slogans such as “defund the police” literally.

Rule of thumb: If you have to write several thinkpieces explaining your slogan, your slogan sucks.

  • Law professor Christy Lopez in The Washington Post: “Be not afraid. ‘Defunding the police’ is not as scary (or even as radical) as it sounds, and engaging on this topic is necessary if we are going to achieve the kind of public safety we need.”
  • Ray Levy-Uyeda at Mic: “Defunding the police is a more holistic demand to reduce police department budgets to $0 for the staunchest activists, and for others a call to simply reallocate some of the money dedicated to funding law enforcement to other community resources instead.”
  • Dionne Searcey at The New York Times: “Leaders in different cities have advocated various specific plans, but generally speaking, the calls aim to reimagine public safety tactics in ways that are different from traditional police forces.”

Granted, any word or slogan can be twisted. When you think “anti-fascist,” do you think of folk singer Woody Guthrie, who wrote “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar? Or do you think of overblown fears of white “antifa” dudes looting in bandannas to prove their street cred?

And yes, it’s understandable that we’d like to see the Overton window — the gamut of things that can be discussed without being immediately dismissed — pulled back after a few years of seeing it yanked violently toward racism and ignorance.

The media are absolutely complicit in the Overton window’s rightward tilt by allowing “both sides” to be defined as one extreme vs. another, or one extreme vs. the supposed status quo. Instead of having climate change “debates” between one people who accepts the facts and one who doesn’t, the debate should be between “hey, here’s how we can adapt” and “we’re toast and should pack for Mars.” Debates over stopping police racism should be between those seeking mild reforms and those seeking comprehensive overhauls, not between someone still drunk off looted liquor and someone who wants the police to roll a tank through Lafayette Square.

If we pay more attention to potential policies rather than professional trouble-makers (looters, yes, but also the Fox News prime-time lineup), we could change the conversation.

We could debate all the ideas mentioned in the pieces above, some of which are already in action. Divert some 911 calls to mental-health professionals rather than police. Cut away the militarization that has made local police much more dangerous.

Another idea implied but not directly stated in the harrowing piece “Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop“: Hold police accountable, in part by stopping retaliation against whistle-blowers:

Every quarter, we were to write anonymous evaluations of our squadmates. I wrote scathing accounts of their behavior, thinking I was helping keep bad apples out of law enforcement and believing I would be protected. Instead, the academy staff read my complaints to them out loud and outed me to them and never punished them, causing me to get harassed for the rest of my academy class. That’s how I learned that even police leadership hates rats. That’s why no one is “changing things from the inside.” They can’t, the structure won’t allow it.

Seems like something we should address.

It’s condescending to think people can’t see nuance. You don’t need a slogan to tell people — as Lopez, the anonymous ex-cop above and John Oliver have — that police are asked to fill too many roles, especially that of an ad hoc counselor or therapist.

It’s offensive to assume someone who doesn’t immediately jump on your bandwagon is less empathetic than you are. I’ve been dealing with this on Facebook not only in the discussions over the protests and COVID-19 but also in a group I moderate that has taken discussions on development density into an assumption that anyone who’s concerned about traffic and overcrowding is really just in it for the racism.

A common thread in both of those: People are refusing to listen. They’re good at telling other people to listen but not so good at doing it themselves.

A discussion about police reform should include people — and you’ll find a lot of people of color — who fear for their own safety. A discussion about agriculture should include farmers. A discussion about closing coal mines should include people whose livelihoods will be displaced. (An honest discussion — not Trump’s insinuation that people in West Virginia can’t do anything but work in a coal mine, so we’d better keep them all open.)

My experience is that once you talk and listen, you make progress. I say that as someone who grew up the grandson of a segregationist. I had stereotypes of gay people, Muslims and “Yankees” that faded only as I grew up and met gay people, Muslims and “Yankees.” I only started to support gay marriage maybe 15 years ago, and I assure you no one changed my mind on the subject by telling me what a bigot I was.

The best slogan may or may not have originated with Native Americans. You may call it “cultural appropriation” if you’re feeling cynical or “learning from indigenous peoples” if you’re feeling generous. It hits directly at the notion of “privilege,” either reinforcing it (by making people consider their own privilege as well as their political opponents) or undermining it (by restating the concept in way less likely to put people on the defensive):

Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes

Change “man” to “person” and “his” to “their,” and you won’t find a better guideline for any political thought.

Racists posing as “antifa” make Twitter and Facebook take action

You wouldn’t expect bigots and fascists to be above misinformation campaigns, would you?

Fortunately, Twitter and Facebook have spotted these campaigns. Give them some credit.

Twitter has phony “antifa” accounts urging protesters to fulfill white supremacists’ fantasies of violence.

On Facebook, these dirtbags are playing Palpatine and trying to stir things up from both sides, posing as “antifa” on one hand and asking counter-protesters to show up with guns.

If only we didn’t have so many suckers who believe this crap.

On M*A*S*H, Monty Python, Animal House and smart humor

Juxtaposed in my daily newsletter from The Guardian yesterday:

  1. Monty Python’s Terry Jones has passed away.
  2. Now that the movie M*A*S*H is 50 years old, can we talk about what a misogynist piece of crap it was?

M*A*S*H and Monty Python were both products of the turn of the decade into the 70s. Conventional wisdom would say M*A*S*H is the More Serious Work of Meaningful Art. It was released during the Vietnam War, and it had an irreverent attitude toward war. It has been deemed “culturally significant” by the people who deem things as such. So it must be brilliant, right?

In snippets, it was. Robert Duvall’s Maj. Frank Burns is a prototypical hypocritical Christian soldier who snaps when confronted about his dalliance with Maj. Houlihan, leading to one of the better lines in the film — “Now, Colonel, fair’s fair — if I nail Hot Lips and punch Hawkeye can I go home?” The best remark on the military was one of those moments that goes quickly, and it’s delivered by another person who left us recently — René Auberjonois, whose harried Father Mulcahy provided, as William Christopher’s version did in the TV series, a much-needed dose of kindness:

But too much of it is, well, crap. Yes, it’s sexist crap. Nurses, including Sally Kellerman’s Major Houlihan, are objects. This was Kellerman’s only Oscar nomination, which may be as powerful a statement on the rampant sexism in the Academy than the inability to nominate a female director. Kellerman’s is too good a comic actress to be totally lost here, and she rescues an otherwise cringe-worthy football scene with a perfectly delivered line, but this character’s one-dimensional sex-object status is confirmed when she’s later found sleeping with Duke, one of her tormenters. (All that said, I frequently quote “Yay, we got a flag!” when I see a penalty in a football game.)

It’s also selfish crap. In a rather pointless digression from the activity at camp, the doctors are called to Tokyo to operate on a congressman’s son. They take full advantage of their status as hotshots, demanding steak and demeaning nurses.

The Guardian piece above blames M*A*S*H for sexist films to follow, such as Animal House, Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds. There’s no defending Revenge of the Nerds and its mistaken-identity sex scene, and I can’t speak to Porky’s. But let’s talk about Animal House, coincidentally featuring M*A*S*H star and ubiquitous actor Donald Sutherland …

The case against, as laid out in a USA TODAY story that gives the film a thumbs-up with a few caveats: Bluto is a Peeping Tom, Larry sleeps with a 13-year-old, and the end credits have a joke about Greg being raped in prison. The story doesn’t mention Neidermayer being killed in Vietnam by his own troops, which was actually so serious a problem that Colin Powell felt threatened while he was there.

The case for: First of all, it has so many indelible lines and scenes. Bluto’s “was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” motivational speech is a staple of sports fandom. I frequently use Kevin Bacon’s “REMAIN CALM! ALL IS WELL!” GIF in response to people who think there’s nothing wrong with the current sociopolitical state. “Seven years of college down the drain” is something I hope not to be hearing. The rigged trial. The parade, from the marbles to Stork redirecting the band.

So Animal House, like M*A*S*H has been deemed culturally significant. So was Amadeus, giving Tom Hulce at least two films on the list. And NYT columnist Elvis Mitchell said Animal House followed the M*A*S*H legacy not in sexism but in bringing us the “arrogance of the counterculture.”

Animal House borrows more good than bad from M*A*S*H. And the women aren’t as one-dimensional as in previous films. Mandy is in full control of her sex life — “agency,” we’d call it today. Katy is justifiably frustrated with Boon. I’d love to see an edit, but I’m not going to dismiss it. It punctures the hypocrisy of authority — to me, more effectively than M*A*S*H. (Of course, the M*A*S*H TV series did a bit better than the Animal House series. A bit.)

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Monty Python may not seem to be such a powerful comedic voice. The troupe dwelled in the absurd — an incongruous argument about the air speed of a swallow, a cheese shop with no cheese, a soccer match between philosophers (for the record, Marx was right — Socrates was offside), etc.

But Python was driven by legitimate intellectual heavyweights, which certainly explains its appeal to nerds like me. The importance of philosophy is evident today only in The Good Place, which I’ll have to binge-watch at some point. Monty Python and the Holy Grail was inspired by a solid grounding in medieval life.

And that’s where we’ll start with Terry Jones.

Jones was, as many obituaries have noted, a Renaissance man. His work on Holy Grail was intertwined with his research on Geoffrey Chaucer, about whom he wrote two books. He produced documentary series on the Crusades (a must-watch) and other medieval phenomena, bringing the sins of the past into a modern context with strong commentary leavened with outrageous humor.

Much of Jones’ commentary was direct. He wrote frequently against the burgeoning war industry. But he also was a master of satire, most obviously as the director of Life of Brian, which satirized Christianity and cult behavior but not Christ. The people who complain about the film never realized they, not Jesus, were the ones we were laughing at.

I’ve often lamented the decline in comedy in an era in which humor in film seems consigned to quips from Marvel characters as they dispatch the bad guys. The 2015 Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical went to The Martian, which I’m guessing is funny in places but isn’t exactly Caddyshack, a glorious anti-authoritarian mess of a movie. The last comedy to have any sort of pop-culture impact was probably The Hangover — a decade ago.

The idea that political correctness is to blame is simply ridiculous. Listen to any Pandora comedy station, and you’ll hear the same misogynist crap we heard from bad standups in decades past.

We do have a lot of great comedies on TV, at least, and Saturday Night Live is in a golden era. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert ushered in a new era of sharp satire just when we needed it most.

But wouldn’t we love to see another Terry Jones?

Remember libertarianism?

Atlas Shrugged poster: Who is John Galt?
Film date: 2014

Remember the 1980s, when the Tea Party was all the rage and obnoxious people were putting “Who is John Galt?” bumper stickers on their cars?

What? It was last decade?!

And now the libertarian-Republican alliance is dead.

I never thought I’d shed a tear for libertarians, whom Bloom County cartoonist Berke Breathed memorably described as “a bunch of tax-dodging professional whiners.” I’d add that the libertarians I knew in college basically had a “I’ve got mine, up yours” attitude.

I do feel a little sad for the folks at Reason magazine, who are trying to stay relevant even though the Libertarian Party couldn’t make any inroads in a presidential election featuring two staggeringly unpopular candidates and the Republican Party has abandoned all pretense of support free trade, open borders, freedom of choice, military restraint, etc.

But should we be surprised by the ideological incoherence of Republicans? These people just move from one cult to another. The only constants are that they hate “liberals” and they’re empathy-impaired.

Being “triggered” is an act of courage, not cowardice

Dear Donald Trump Jr. (and Boris Johnson … for that matter, and Vladimir Putin),

On behalf of “liberals,” “progressives” and former Republicans, I would like to say the following …

You’re damn right we’re “triggered.”

We’re triggered because we’ve seen a rise in violent racist hate crimes and other signs of emboldened racism, including a fatal rally in Charlottesville that its own organizer said “wouldn’t have occurred without Trump.” (No, the recent action that’s supposed to help fight the rise in anti-Semitism won’t help.

We’re triggered because we know separating kids from their parents and keeping people in inhumane conditions because they’re seeking the same opportunities our grandfathers sought is incompatible with any sort of morality, secular or religious. And it’s even taking a toll on the economy.

We’re triggered because we know the bill will come due for the corporate debt and federal debt we’re using to prop up the economy while people like you are afraid to steer us toward *long-term* prosperity. (Yes, Obama ran up deficits, but only to bail out the last Republican president, and it worked. When the economy recovered, so did the budget.)

We’re triggered because we know we’re also passing the bill for climate change to our kids and grandkids. We don’t all buy into the worst-case scenario of impending extinction, but we know we’re going to be spending a lot of money to relocate and renovate farms, put up seawalls (got $46 billion?) or simply move cities inland, and repair all the damage from stronger storms and fires.

We’re triggered because we’re the developed world’s biggest hotbed of gun violence, and yet a minority of people who insist it’s somehow not about guns has managed to intimidate people like you.

We’re triggered because Puerto Rico is part of the United States and shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to get aid after a hurricane.

We’re triggered because we think 25-year-olds who are diagnosed with cancer while they’re working entry-level jobs without insurance shouldn’t have to declare bankruptcy to get the care they need. (They’re just part of the hundreds of thousands of people who do so each year.)

We’re triggered because younger generations are racking up massive debt just to go to college, something other countries have managed to make accessible to all.

We’re triggered because we’re the world’s laughingstock. (OK, that’s not really directed at Putin.)

We’re triggered because we believe women shouldn’t be sexually assaulted. (No, we haven’t forgotten. Nor have we forgotten that he said it was OK.)

We’re triggered because we believe our gay and transgender friends and family should have the same rights we have.

You’ve convinced farmers you’re on their side, even as your tariffs ruin them.

You’ve convinced hard-working people that they can keep their coal and manufacturing jobs rather than working to train them for the future, and they’re already losing out in industry and agriculture — thanks in part to Trump’s tariffs.

You’ve convinced evangelicals to support you despite your obvious lack of morality because they think you’ll get abortion banned. Let’s not even debate the thorny biological and theological questions there. Let’s tell the truth. If you or one of your buddies knocks up your mistress, you have the means to push her onto a plane to fly somewhere abortion will still be legal, and you can pay for the procedure while slipping her a bit of hush money. You know abortion will only be banned for poor people.

You’ve convinced people on Wall Street that it’s OK to buy into your short-term thinking and keep their party rolling.

You haven’t convinced us.

And it’s telling that you’re not even trying. Your book isn’t called “Persuaded.” You don’t even care.

We do.

We care about other people, and we will never be ashamed of it.

We will never stop fighting for them.

You will be defeated.

The good news is that a lot of us still believe in repentance. Your path back is clear.

Donate your royalties to causes that will help undo everything you’ve done.

Then come back and work with us instead of treating us as the enemy. We’re good people. You’ll feel good about it.

I’m really writing this for you.

The person who has read this far.

You can stop this. You can stop buying into the propaganda. You can join us in fighting for others.

You can vote with a conscience.

“Triggering” is easy. It’s not an accomplishment.

You can have the courage to care. To fight back.

To be positive. (Yes, it’s OK to live a happy life. We’re not just negative nannies. We want to encourage people to share the joy we get from pursuing the good life without stomping on those in need and future generations.)

Besides, we have all the good bands. All the people who make good TV shows and movies. All the good writers. We even have all the good preachers.

So come join us. We’ll have fun. ALL of us. Not just those who were born with all the advantages the world can offer and chose not to use them for anything but self-gratification.

$10 trillion of corporate debt propping up the economy? What could go wrong?

Let me get this straight …

We’re in an era in which corporations are given every conceivable break to do whatever the hell they want and barely pay for it. And they’re still borrowing so much that they’re getting BBB ratings?

So when the next recession hits, the government and corporations will have already gone so deep into the red that no rational person will lend them another dime?

Yeah, this’ll end well.

This news comes to you from The Washington Post, and whatever you think of Amazon’s business practices, at least Jeff Bezos is keeping such reporting alive. Similar stories are at NPR and the Financial Times.