How Sitcoms Reflect Their Times

How Sitcoms Reflect Their Times

Like many of yous, I’ve been eagerly awaiting new episodes of the Marvel series Wandavision each week. Besides fitting in with the greater course of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and boasting an interesting premise in itself (and no spoilers, don’t worry), what delights me is the attention paid to the shifting styles of sitcoms from the 1950s to the 2010s. It’s so expertly executed each episode that it stirs nostalgic feelings, even for times before my own (1991 on).

As someone who unabashedly lives in the past, I can’t help but remark how much our sensibilities have changed; evident even in such a specific format as the sitcom. Where some subjects were once taboo (the word “pregnancy” wasn’t used on I Love Lucy in the 1950s) and others prioritised (the traditional family unit), we now tend to approach these issues and images with a much different set of eyes. Of course, this can be traced through cultural developments that extend beyond the sitcom, but for a format that’s (more or less) remained consistently popular, I think some of these changes are more readily apparent.

1950s-1960s

With the advent of TV in American households, a novel form of entertainment was born. Being a rather conservative era (culturally), risqué subjects weren’t often broached with emphasis instead placed on garnering comfortable content that would make audiences tune in each week. To this end, the format was developed with strong lighting, familiar camera angles, likeable characters who embodied the American middle class ideal and below the line, comedy fodder (slapstick gags, catchphrases, etc.) Some of the popular sitcoms from this era included I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Andy Griffith Show.

1970s

The 1960s saw remarkable cultural change with the rise of the counter-culture and boomers beginning to assert their voices. Plus, colour started creeping onto TV sets, setting the stage for a new era of television. Despite the vibrancy of these tones and the fashion however, sitcoms began to reflect a more realistic world, focusing on friends, family, and the workplace. Taboos also began to be addressed, such as abortion, in shows like All In The Family.

1980s

A crazy decade for sure but again, the sitcom snuggly repeated tropes on the cozy, ideal American family unit. In an era of conservatism and Reagan, heavy-handed morals also began to dominate many shows (“just say no” to drugs, etc.) The wholesomeness of this era was reflected in Family Ties, The Cosby Show (now ironically), and Cheers, among others.

1990s

The sitcom continued to follow some of the usual cliches but with an increased air of rebellion against the traditional family unit becoming the norm. Gen-X were now asserting their claim to TV. This was thanks in part to The Simpsons, which flared up the culture wars when President George H.W. Bush reflected his hopes that there were more families “like the Waltons and less like The Simpsons.” Alas, his finger wasn’t on the pulse there. Instead, parental figures would increasingly become the ire and mocking of the “school sucks, parents blow” ethos.

Working class families and family dysfunction began to also see some representation with the likes of Roseanne, although on the whole, we were still dealing with conventional values.

2000s

The sitcom format was more purposefully challenged this decade with the likes of The Office reflecting a reality-TV obsessed world. Catchphrases by this point had largely become hokey and laugh tracks were on the way out. As The Office and shows to follow took up a mockumentary-style format, others like Malcolm In The Middle and Scrubs experimented with narrative. Thanks to globalisation, syndication, and the Box set market, shows also became a lot more attuned to retention humour, relating to the popular culture they were influencing.

2010s

With traditional networks losing ratings as streaming became the norm, the sitcom was seemingly on the decline. Still, there was plenty of room for the likes of Modern Family and Brooklyn Nine-Nine to thrive. What’s especially notable about the sitcoms of more recent years is the diversification in cast members and the deconstruction of the family unit, to reflect something less traditional. On the other hand, where the 90s and 00s saw moves away from moralistic standpoints, the 2010s revived this sense of idealism, in part (albeit in a far more progressive and tactful way, perhaps reflecting millennial indignation, as opposed to the despondency of Gen X).

Change and Consistency

Any discussion of generational change is bound to ensnare the trappings of misgivings and generalisations but sometimes, it’s worth drawing a sketch. To an extent, the sitcom really hasn’t changed all that much, considering the span of decades in discussion. The same innovations in lighting and cinematography, largely pioneered by Karl Freund for I Love Lucy in the ’50s set the stage for what followed with many classics like Growing Pains, The Golden Girls, The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, Seinfeld, and Friends. Sure, single-cam sitcoms have replaced multi-cam ones in many instances, the laugh track has largely died out (a positive development, in my opinion), and the American family has changed in appearance but many of these popular shows have thrived because they’ve all shared the collective space of comfort TV. We relate to and enjoy returning to the lives of these characters and the wacky shenanigans they get up to. It’s likely, there’ll always be a space for such light-hearted entertainment, even if the streaming services get the bulk of their kudos from the heavy-hitting dramas.

What Wandavision has managed to achieve, in this regard, is giving us a glimpse into the sensibilities of the eras it depicts. We see the idealism of the Eisenhower era, the cultural change of the 1970s, the pop-punk aesthetic of the MTV generation, and the onset of the modern era. They’re not wholly accurate representations, sure, but they reflect the popular images we’ve come to appreciate of these times (which in part, then also reinforces the nostalgic preoccupation of today). And as art imitates life, the opposite often holds true as well.

The Key Players Of The House & Senate

The Key Players Of The House & Senate

With the start of a new administration and change in power in the Senate, we here at the Washington Walrus thought we’d take the time to recalibrate our takes on the key players of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Basically, a who’s who of the big cheeses; the ones pulling the strings, be it with their positions or influence in the media and political landscape. So without further ado.

Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, pictured (D)

The 80-year old Speaker looks like she owns a formidable hard candy collection and is known for keeping her party in check. She proved she still had it by taking on Donald Trump, upon retaking the majority in the House in 2019. Now, she is pursuing impeachment against the former President, despite initially holding out on the first one until they had a solid case with evidence. How old school of you, Nancy.

At present, she is navigating a tough transition for the Democratic Party. Despite keeping the majority last election, they lost a number of seats to Republicans. Is it because they’re perceived as moving in too liberal a direction or holding onto old cronies like her? It’s hard to say but most seem glad to have her steady-hand and salon-tempered hair at the wheel in these uncertain times.

Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Lead (R)

What if a bullfrog wished he could be transformed into human form? Now, what if that bullfrog was also kind of a dick? Well, then you’ve got Mitch McConnell. Also ancient in age, he’s proved himself to be one of the least likeable Republicans in American history, by hawkishly prioritising politics over the good of the country at almost every turn; one of the key figures responsible for the gridlock of Washington during the Obama administration. If he had a chance to redeem himself, he sure squandered it during the Trump era, again mindful of what anything but appeasement would cost him (even if he truly abhorred him).

The Senate is roughly 50-50 at present (with Kamala Harris coming in as the deciding vote) but McConnell’s influence unfortunately doesn’t look like it’s going to wane any time soon. To an extent, I suspect he’s glad to be the minority leader because he gets to still effectively oppose new legislation without feeling the burden to present any of his own (or indeed any solutions, as evidenced when both parties’ leaders were brought together in late 2008 to discuss the financial crash).

Ted Cruz, Senator (R)

The Senator’s electability apparently hasn’t suffered despite the fact he is one of the least liked members of the Senate, even in his own party. Like McConnell, he’s all about politics but he’s just that bit more weasel-like to the point he resembles some sort of rat or otter.

Cruz’ immediate test is moving beyond his association with Donald Trump, who once called him a “sleaze” who nobody liked. Cruz helped goad the Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol last month without taking any responsibility for his part. If I might liken him to a Harry Potter character, I’d have to choose Wormtail.

Chuck Schumer, Senate Majority Lead (D)

He’s a key player in that he’s the Senate majority lead but there’s not much to say about him. Decent, I guess. Where Nancy’s a bit more collected and elegant, he’s a bit more rough and ready with the odd controversial remark on Gaza or immigration. The bulldog of the Senate, why not?

“The Squad”, House Members (D)

Netflix’s casting dream consists of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, Jamaal Bowman, and Cori Bush. The former four were elected to the House in 2018 and the latter two in 2020. They’re generally painted as the progressive wing or “future” of the party to some and can’t be criticised, lest you face the wrath of Twitter. So let’s just leave it at they’re excellent and brave and speak your truth and stay true to yourself, cause they are “fire” and move on. Quite quickly.

Elizabeth Warren, Senator (D)

But you don’t have to be young and hip to be progressive, just ask 71-year old Elizabeth Warren who ran the 2nd-most progressive presidential campaign after Bernie Sanders. While undoubtedly impressive, she probably lacked the charisma necessary to ever mount a notable bid. Still, we need someone who’s economically minded like her and just doesn’t speak in platitudes or empty gestures.

Bernie Sanders, Senator (Independent)

Bernie Sanders is both no nonsense and a master of memes; something that should be paradoxical but just works. In a sense, it’s a shame he didn’t get the nomination in either of his bids but with the might of the Democratic Party at hand, it’s hard to move that last boulder. Still, the energy of America’s youth was behind him and there’s no one else who’s been so consistent in his or her values. Thankfully, he’s stayed on long enough that his ideas have become more mainstream and even though he’s not a part of Biden’s administration, it looks at least as if he’ll have some influence.

Amy Klobuchar, Senator (D)

Honestly, I kind of find her annoying. Anyone else? Well, apparently not Joe Biden or Kamala Harris, since she introduced the inaugural proceedings last month.

Lindsey Graham, Senator (R)

Joe Biden admitted his old friend’s allegiances had been something of a “personal disappointment” in an interview with Stephen Colbert. Once described as pretty amiable, even by former Democratic Senator Al Franken, Lindsey Graham’s lowered his standing by association and defence of Trump.

Mitt Romney, Senator (R)

There’s something quite likeable about Mitt Romney, although it may just be a desire to see a Republican act anything other than reprehensible. The 2012 nominee is something of a new McCain, in a sense. He’s conservative in his principles but entirely anti-Trump and willing to to go outside what one would consider regular party behaviour, marching in solidarity with BLM last summer. If there’s a way to restore some dignity to the morally compromised GOP and toe a more centrist line, perhaps Mitt Romney could be looked on as a potential future candidate (again).

The Changing Legacy of George W. Bush

The Changing Legacy of George W. Bush

Time Changes Perspectives

Time has a way of changing how we see things. With an ever speculative media and lowering of the bar in our general cultural zeitgeist, it’s only natural that our hearts soften and we yearn for an escape to the past, blissfully ignorant of the fires once ignited in us. We see things differently because we forget, we forgive, we re-evaluate, and re-prioritise our claims to what holds important today. In a broad sense, this has helped out former President George W. Bush a great deal.

Once the ire of liberals and humanitarians around the world, George W. Bush has managed to shift his appeal and image to that of a happy-go-lucky, maybe he wasn’t-so-bad-after-all kooky figure. Perhaps one of the most controversial US leaders of all time has somehow become the least controversial of the former living occupants of the Oval Office.

That might sound a little extreme but when you consider the current climate of divisiveness in the US, it makes sense. Obama and soon Trump represent polar opposites and are each pinatas for the other side due to their current relevance (and in Obama’s case, race). Bill Clinton… well, we wrote a piece on him earlier this year delving into his legacy but to surmise briefly- Epstein, Clinton Global Initiative, Hillary, women, etc. And then there’s Jimmy Carter. While he’s my favourite president, he’s few others’ and has remained a punching bag for “ineptitude” in conservatives and some liberals’ minds since he left office (unfairly I might add).

The Likability Factor

George, like his father, has mostly stayed out of the limelight since leaving office and for this reason, doesn’t grate people as much. (Absence makes the heart grow fonder, etc.) When he does appear in public, it’s usually for a non-partisan cause like supporting veterans or promoting humanitarian relief. When interviewed, he will explain and reassert his opinion that what he did in Iraq was important but he also seems content that “history will judge” his efforts. In other words, he’ll defend himself without becoming too defensive, like Bill Clinton has. Plus, he’s able to joke about himself (“most people didn’t think I could read, let alone write a book”) and has shown he’s not as partisan as once believed, becoming friends (or at least friendly) with Bill and Michelle Obama. Plus, he’s taken up painting which seems a bit quirky for someone like him.

So, in that sense, he’s re-established his likability factor which was probably his strongest asset against the rather dry Al Gore in 2000. This successful rehabilitation rendered a 61% approval rating in a CNN poll in 2018, compared to 33% upon leaving office. And he’s even been able to appear on Jimmy Kimmel and Ellen. I can only imagine Trump being invited to some wretched right-wing podcast in the coming years.

Iraq

Likability is just one thing, however. Have his actual acts as commander-in-chief been vindicated? The answer is basically no, although the emphasis has shifted away from what was important in the 2000s. Where the war on terror once occupied the headspace of many Americans there is now a miasma of issues relating to what side you are on. While partisanship has developed bitterly over the last three decades, it’s so much more intrinsic to the nature of politics than even then. Basically, concerns for warfare abroad have been replaced with grisly notions of civil war at home.

That doesn’t mean Iraq is forgiven. In the 2016 Republican primaries, no candidate (except poor Jeb) backed their former leader’s venture into democracy. Four years before that, George wasn’t even present at their convention. So, the Republicans have basically tried to make their supporters forget he was ever a thing. The Democrats meanwhile, have pushed against their own for supporting the war effort back in 2002-3, using it as bait against the likes of Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. All in all, it would be fair to say, Iraq probably wasn’t a great idea.

On the other hand, some of Obama’s critics have argued he withdrew from Iraq too soon and that helped facilitate the rise of ISIS. His defence would counter some sort of pushback was inevitable and he was merely fulfilling the obligation of the American people but ultimately, enough room has been left for some blame there.

Afghanistan was a less controversial affair so that’s not been as much of an issue for George, besides relaying the popular assertion that he was a warmonger. And to many, he is seen as a war criminal who should have been trialed or impeached for what he did, particularly with regards interrogative measures in Guantanamo. He and his team have always asserted that they took any necessary precautions to avoid another attack on America, which they point out, didn’t happen. Critics remember the one time it did, of course, and argue that his administration took advantage of the patriotic frenzy following September 11th to pursue goals that were long in place, particularly with Saddam Hussein.

Ten years before, the Gulf War had been a triumphant effort. George H.W. Bush’s approval ratings had skyrocketed for the way he handled foreign affairs but he had played his cards with more caution, not moving beyond a liberation of Kuwait (to the dismay of many). Sanctions and warnings were placed against the Iraqi dictator and a resolution passed with bi-partisan support later on in the 90s which suggested there was actual cause for war should they put a toe in the wrong place (which Saddam did). Of course, principles and ambitions don’t mean much without proper strategy and when your intelligence amounts to nothing. In this regard, even George W. Bush admits things could’ve gone better. No WMDs were found and in 2007, he decided to send a surge of troops in order to relieve the chaos that developed in the aftermath of the liberation effort.

Establishing democracies is not easily done and the absence of a dictatorship does not immediately resolve all problems. Iraq developed into a mess, whatever the president’s intentions, and for this, it’s highly unlikely he will be forgiven.

Other Agendas

With that said, it wouldn’t be fair to omit some of the accomplishments of George W. Bush. For one, his PEPFAR (AIDS’ relief) program in Africa was one of the greatest relief efforts America ever heralded, making him especially popular there. His Medicare expansion proved a fruitful endeavour. So too did his No Child Left Behind program, which aimed to hold schools with sluggish standards to account (though criticised for making teachers teach for the exam).

Anyways that’s that. So… there was also his slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 which brought his approval ratings to an all-time low and led to accusations of racism on his part. Gay marriage also became a red-hot subject for the 2004 elections under his tutelage, but not in a positive sense. And yes, the 2008 financial crash. Now, of course it’s not fair to place the blame solely on his administration. That bubble had been expanding since the 90s. However… only a year into his presidency, after successive years of a surplus, America was in recession. And he provided, as Republicans always dream of, a massive tax cut, going against much of the work Clinton had built on. Some of this comes down to political perspective but surrounding yourself with controversy and chaos rarely bodes well for one’s resume.

The Legacy

Historians, in their presidential rankings, generally place George W. Bush close to the bottom 10, if not among them. As briefly touched on, this was not an easy or steady presidency. In his defence, it never was going to be with the attacks of September 11th. He was dealt, undoubtedly, a tougher card than his predecessor and had to make some tough decisions, that could’ve gone either way. In this respect, I’m more sympathetic than most. If we think of these world leaders as playing on a chess board, partially obscured with fog, then it can be pretty difficult to navigate your next move.

With that said, it hasn’t gotten any worse since 2009 for George. His party may have severed ties with him (on an official capacity) but the majority seem to have taken a shine to this man. Maybe it’s because they forget easily. Maybe they think he was a good guy, waylaid in his efforts. Maybe they suspect Cheney was really in power. Maybe it’s because he seems so amiable compared to the current occupant. Maybe his candour, since leaving office, appreciated by the likes of Obama, has become symptomatic of something lost in US politics today. There’s all sorts of possibilities.

It’s not necessarily a good or bad thing that this legacy is changing so quickly. Commonality and closing the political divide is certainly important; in that respect, when he teams up with Bill Clinton, it’s understandable why people are happy to see him. On the other hand, he who forgets history is likely to repeat it and in some measure, it feels a bit insulting to trivialise this man’s legacy given the death toll and destruction afflicted under his watch. Popularity, in other words, is no replacement for competency.

Maybe, to toe the line, it’s as simple as one of us thinking what we would have done in his shoes since unlike so many other world leaders, he seemed like one of us.

Review Bombs: Cancel Culture’s Pettiest Epithet

Review Bombs: Cancel Culture’s Pettiest Epithet

In a world rife with injustice, it’s understandable that we sometimes turn a blind eye to minor hiccups or due process when it comes to getting results. How else are we to tackle the above-law antics of the Trump legions? How else are we to defend fundamental human rights when the odds are ever stacked in the favour of for-profit, billionaire conservatives? How else are we to be heard when all else around us is so loud?

Cancel Culture has become prominent in recent years for its maverick, f- due diligence approach to taking on those who would in (extreme cases) avoid legal penalty or in more trivial but common scenarios, go unpunished or challenged for the problematic viewpoints they espouse / funnel into the zeitgeist. It’s become popular because it’s effective, at least on an emotional and socio-political level. It helped topple the creeps in the #metoo movement and set some wrongs to right when it came to diversifying casting in Hollywood, demanding greater equality, and calling out BS journalism. One could argue it was a well-deserved slap-in-the face for the orthodoxy.

But in all this gesticulation and generalisation, where exactly am I heading, you might ask. Well, let’s face it. It’s not exactly an easy topic to delve headfirst into. Indeed, the previous two paragraphs are fodder for insulation, backtracking, and defence, as much as they are a prelude to what I’m about to criticise. For you see, such base, emotive reactionary attacks don’t always serve us well. They, often, lower the intellectual bar and nuanced appreciation for discourse we once cherished so dearly as part of a free-thinking society. They placate the once common-sense approach that all cases should be regarded individually and contribute zealously to the polarisation of political ideologies; you’re either with us or against this- none of this “on the other hand” schlep.

A case in point- Review Bombs.

What are Review Bombs? They’re basically attempts to undermine a work of art based on ideological speculation or information related to an associate partner of said art. For example, JK Rowling has recently received enormous backlash for her views surrounding gender theory and the place of women in society with legions of once-fans accusing her of transphobia and encouraging others with similar views, owing to her expansive Twitter following and influence in the media. This resulted in a swift bombardment of her latest novel, Troubled Blood (under pseudonym Robert Galbraith), even though no-one had had a chance to read the 900+ page tome, when it emerged from one review that the plot concerned a serial killer who dresses in women’s clothing.

It’s pretty easy to take sides when you have a predisposition. Especially in this scenario. When you read into it a little more, it gets complex and interesting, if depressing however. Is she transphobic? Possibly. Not in the robust sense of outright hatred but in the more coy (yet increasingly challenged) manner of trying to undermine LGBTQ progress by pushing far-less prevalent concerns surrounding the placehood of women if chromosomes don’t matter, etc. Some have expressed support for the trans community while pointing out she may have a point while others have pressed the importance of whole acceptance. In real life, they argue, trans people face incredible challenges the likes of JK Rowling cannot fathom. Why does she have to make things that much harder?

Most figures, faced with such controversy, have usually amended their positions with retractions or halfway-apologies. JK Rowling, seemingly, has buckled down on hers which has made the publication of this latest novel all the more controversial.

So when the novel’s general plot line was revealed, it was brought down by a series of 1-star reviews on GoodReads (alongside greater media coverage) with comments ranging from distaste for what the author had become to how they would never read this novel. When people then actually started to, the five-star reviews came abounding bringing the average up to 4/5, with some rebuking that previous assertions of transphobia were based on second-hand info and minor points, not central to the focus of the novel. Was she vindicated? In terms of commercial success, absolutely. It seems JK Rowling will go on. But even with the 5-star reviews, one has to wonder how many of those were written after a complete read of the novel (again, 900-pages long; these reviews came within a week) and how many of them were reactionary in the same way the 1-star ones were?

When it comes to Cancel Culture, a fine line is drawn between reasonable outrage and outright pettiness. In the case of JK Rowling, it seems both were there in measure, distorted by (let’s face it) an increased laziness in media coverage (mainstream too, not some poxy blogs like this) which sought to do anything but review the novel in its own merits.

And don’t take this as a defence of JK Rowling. At the very least, I find her concern with women’s issues vis-a-vis the trans community obsessive and tedious at this point. Having once made the point, herself, that you can’t have a reasonable discussion on Twitter, she should have then stopped proffering her points via Twitter. With that said, I tend to disassociate my love of movies/music/novels with the person behind them because frankly, a lot of the greats have been problematic and with generational changes in attitude, we’re only ever going to be disappointed by one thing or another if we dare to dig deep enough.

Review Bombing and Cancel Culture, however, is an issue worth tackling and it applies to conservatives as much as it does those easily agitated PC-liberals. For example, Captain Marvel was met with a slew of negative buzz before anyone had a chance to see it because women-starring role-traditionally men-change = bad. With increased diversity and promotion of minorities in these major budget movies, there was always going to be a push-back. It’s a recurring aspect in generational passing of torches but the review-bombing of this movie proved the other side, to appropriate their claims, had equally fragile egos.

The Last of Us 2 racked up its fair share of hatred this summer upon release for the PlayStation 4 as well. Taking the slow-burning, zombie-survivalism of the first game (from 2013), it should have been a hit. But they ruined it. By making the lead character gay and inserting a bunch of LGBTQ stuff into the mix. Typical Hollywood, right? Or whatever libtards got their hands on this… Actually, I thought it was a very entertaining sequel and fun game but as with many things now, the actual entertainment value doesn’t matter as much. It’s all about subtext.

That’s why Star Wars: The Last Jedi is bad- because it promotes a different world viewpoint to what we had grown accustomed to when really, it’s actually bad because they disregarded the tone of the previous movie and f-d up the trilogy.

Anyways… It’s a new way of being heard; online assault. And it’s a petty, oft-misdirected means of making your point, whether that point is valid or not. So as much as we should oppose discrimination, perhaps reviewing a book we haven’t even read isn’t the way to do it. If you think Hollywood and associated media are inserting too much liberal ideology into your favourite franchises, then stop watching and don’t ruin it for others (as some did by leaking the plot of The Last of Us 2). Acting this way doesn’t gain you kudos or respect and it doesn’t even have the desired effect most the time. Last of Us 2 still sold impressively, Captain Marvel grossed over a billion, and Troubled Blood recently topped the charts. Congratulations review-bombers. You saved marketing a bucket load of money!

A couple years ago, in a debate on political correctness, the author, comedian, actor, etc. Stephen Fry remarked that one of the great failings of our time is when people prefer to be “correct rather than effective”. This self-righteousness has increasingly frayed political and social-political discourse. If we can’t even offer each other a presumptive measure of respect, can we really go on saying, “if only we had politicians as good as our people?”

Bill Clinton’s Re-Evaluation

Bill Clinton’s Re-Evaluation

History is always being rewritten. The heroes of yesterday become the villains of today. We’ve seen this with the toppling of statues recently and the scathing rebukes of once-beloved or admired figures such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, After all, our values change and once ignored facts (inconveniences), such as Churchill’s white supremacy , come into greater light with new appreciation (or lack thereof). This revisionism is natural and no historical evaluation is without fault.

But something’s changed as of late. Our fervent grasps for social justice have left us empty-handed too often when it comes to a nuanced appreciation of certain historical figures. We fail to see these figures as a whole because one nibbling, doubtful, pernicious defect often overrides all common sense. In this case, I’m referring to the scandals that detract from the legacy of William Jefferson Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States (1993-2001).

Speculation and Scandals

Now, don’t get me wrong. The man is problematic, if we must indulge that favored millennial word. Some of the decisions made under his administration have had negative consequences, ranging from the short-sighted (crime bills, economic impairments linked to the 2008 crash) to the devastating (initial inaction in Bosnia and Rwanda). But really, what people focus on, in their retribution, is the man’s personal life. How many affairs has he had? Is his marriage an arranged partnership? What exactly was the nature of his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein? At the very least, the latter one should be investigated because of the differences in accounts being brought forward (it’s said he may have taken up to 26 flights on Epstein’s private jet and visited the island, although no affairs with any of the girls have been exposed). As for the other questions, one could defend him and say he has the right to a private life and that it’s unimportant in the larger scheme of things but instead of doing that, I will touch on the nature of speculation that surrounds the Clintons.

Speculation has hindered both Bill and Hillary’s public image more than any other figure in American politics. There’s always been this pervasive feeling that they’ve been up to something, be it through business connections or the Clinton Global Initiative, which arouses suspicion in the form of a lingering, shadowy question mark. The more questions that arise, the darker that shadow gets, even if there’s no substance or merit behind the question. What was Whitewater? I don’t know, man, but there’s something there. What were in Hillary’s emails? Shrug. And why did Vince Foster kill himself? Did he know something the Clintons wanted kept secret?

Indeed, the latter episode was a most shameful one in American history given the man’s longtime friendship to Bill. But when the Deputy White House Counsel committed suicide, Bill wasn’t even afforded a common level of decency in his grief. Ken Starr and the Republicans spent all their energy trying to discredit the man with a new, nasty kind of politics that involved personal injury at whatever cost. When the Whitewater investigation, which began looking into the real estate dealings of the Clintons, proved unfruitful, they simply kept the heat going. The Paula Jones’ sexual harassment allegations also persevered, though the Republicans were quite ready to redirect their focus when the “gift” of Monica Lewinsky came around.

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Clinton’s famous “I did not have sexual relations” moment.

In this regard, Bill deservedly brought some of the wrath upon himself. In a deposition, he was blind sighted by Lewinsky’s name being brought up and denied any “sexual relations”, given the legal definition provided by the Starr counsel. It was a technically correct answer but an unwise and immoral move that reinforced his image as a dodgy, snake-like politician. For months, he would deny the nature of their relationship, even to his staff and Hillary, until it became too obvious he was lying, or in his words “misleading” the nation. It was a personal embarrassment and a horrible thing to do to both Hillary and Monica, whose life would be greatly affected as a result (although, this enters the realm of cyber bullying for which many millions more than Bill also deserve a portion of blame).

Many people today, in light of the #metoo movement, point to this scandal as a demonstrable abuse of power. A couple of years back, Clinton’s attempts to salvage himself and take on an interviewer who brought it up, only served to convey a seeming lack of empathy on his part. Lewinksy, too, has been critical of the president, who never apologized directly to her.

That’s something he really should have done, straight away. He should have apologized to Monica and her family because they were given an unwarranted amount of press, that was relentless and downright mean. That’s not necessarily his fault but he could’ve stepped in and said “enough is enough, we’ve all made mistakes, leave her alone.” I think that would’ve helped but I also believe nothing he could have said or done would ever have been enough. Remember, this scandal came about, not because the people were concerned with Clinton’s supposed weakness for women but because the Republicans were attempting to destroy his presidency.

The impeachment which resulted was largely a joke, made in a last-ditch effort to humiliate Bill. Already, the Democrats had won back the House while his and Hillary’s approval ratings shot up. Back then, people had a better understanding of what was actually going on and in a universal middle-finger to the GOP, took to the polls. Ordinary people and leaders of other nations, including Neslon Mandela and Tony Blair, would stand by Clinton with the belief that he was a decent man who had done a bad thing. Today, I can’t imagine the same thing would play out and that’s not an effort to outright dismiss our morals. Integrity is important and we should expect it in our world leaders but let’s face it, there are more important things at play in shaping that integrity than personal scandals and failings.

The Record: A Moderate Democrat

Another interesting nugget you might hear about Bill Clinton was that he was not all that progressive or liberal. Correct. In the 1980s, the Democratic Party weren’t exactly on their A-game. Following the largely besmirched Carter Presidency (and for the record, he’s my favorite president), which was plagued by a struggle between moderacy and liberalism in the 1980 primaries, they had a hard time finding their footing. Eventually, the party’s liberals acquiesced to the more pragmatic middle-ground ideologies of the likes of Clinton, which gave way to a presidential victory after three consecutive Republican terms bolstered by the Reagan revolution and a strong but faltering economy. Reaganomics was good politics but very much the “voodoo economics” George HW Bush had called it when up against Reagan in 1980. By 1990, Bush had to rescind his “no new taxes” pledge for the good of the nation. It was a bold but noble move that damaged him in the 1992 election.

The first baby-boomer president made the economy one of his top priorities and actually left the country with a surplus, three years in a row at the end of his tenure. This had not been achieved since the post-war years under Harry Truman. Given Bush’s concession to the Democrats in 1990 and some of the negative consequences that resulted in 2008 (although that can be attributed to several administrations), this achievement has appropriately been lessened but it still remains a positive in most historians’ eyes. In the following years that would see major tax cuts and costly wars, people would naturally look back on the Clinton Presidency, in this regard, with nostalgia. It was a relatively prosperous time, helped by the rise of the Internet but also by a set of steady hands.

Social unrest was also another major concern which helped Clinton get elected. He pledged to invest in more police forces to keep the streets safe. This was a popular stance to take and received bi-partisanship support, resulting in the lowest crime rate America had in decades. Unfortunately however, this also led to a rise in mass-incarceration with arrests of minorities and low-grade drug offenders. Undoubtedly this has tainted his legacy and deservedly so, with both Bill and Hillary admitting that aspects of the crime bill needing to be revisited. Part of the problem, as most people now see it however, also lies with pervasive racism in certain areas and unaccountable police officers; a common trend that stretches back way before this crime bill passed.

The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy of 1993 was another controversial measure. Bill had pledged in his campaign that gays could serve in the military. Many opposed this. So, quite quickly, they compromised. Basically, gays could serve but couldn’t come out as gay. Better than nothing? Possibly but ultimately, a pretty feeble gesture, which Bill was quite happy to get rid of, given the controversy surrounding such a topic at the time.

What’s interesting about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, along with some of Clinton’s other compromises is that they demonstrated a strategic tactfulness to his administration. Elected as essentially a moderate, he was willing to settle for what he could get, aware that the Republicans (who swept into power in the 1994 midterms) would accept only certain things. Another example: Hillary’s health-care led initiative essentially stalled that same year with fervent opposition. Aware of this, they worked to at least provide health care to children with CHIP (Children Healthcare Insurance Program).

Compromise is often seen as a dirty word. The Clintons were largely pragmatic though, aware of the political game and very much willing to play it. Even in his memoir, My Life, Bill Clinton can’t help but admire the strategy Newt Gingrich employed to lead his party to victory in 1994. The problem arises when people perceive their party as moving away from their traditional values and causes. The Republicans’ success and move to the right in the 1980s didn’t result in the Democrats following suit towards their side. Rather, they also moved to the right. This meant, for many, that a moderate Democrat was essentially an old-style conservative. Of course, now that the Democratic Party has actually started to move to the left, we’re in a whole different scenario, which lends credence to the liberal critics of the Clinton administration.

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Bill Clinton delivers his State of the Union address in 1995.

Political pragmatism is important though, even if perceived as selling out. Had Ted Kennedy been more willing to work with Jimmy Carter’s more pragmatic approach to health care, then they might have actually gotten something achieved instead of nothing. The Clintons failed to get health care too, as so many before had, but at least they tried and got something done. After all, millions of children as a result were given a safety net they otherwise would not have had.

This pragmatism became all the more crucial however in Clinton’s foreign affairs, which began on a rocky trajectory before steadily improving. First, there was Black Hawk Down, which cast doubt over whether Clinton could really manage a humanitarian crisis. Initially, the US had been successful in their Somalian dealings at the end of Bush’s presidency (Bush being, by most accounts, a masterful player on the world stage). Then Bosnia followed, which saw a massive ethnic cleansing of the Muslim population. At first, the US were hesitant in their approach but by 1995, Clinton came into his own as commander-in-chief, sending in forces. Perhaps he had learned from the Rwandan genocide, which he always regretted inaction about. Part of the problem was public opposition to US intervention elsewhere, given the disaster of Somalia. It seemed navigating the morality of the US’ role in these conflicts was not always that black and white. You were damned if you acted and damned if you didn’t.

By the late 1990s however, Bill Clinton was very much a respected leader around the world. The intervention in Kosovo in 1999 was seen as a prudent step across the board, between Democrats and Republicans, and he had helped negotiate the terms of the Good Friday Agreement the year before, which greatly helped the situation in Northern Ireland. While his efforts to formulate a lasting peace agreement between Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David ultimately stalled in 2000, it was seen later as one of the better attempts made by a US president at resolving the problem.

Legacy

Towards the end of his presidency, when asked about his legacy, Bill Clinton saw it in terms of navigating the shift from one American age (Industrial) to another (the Information Age) as had occurred a century before. He felt the historians would wonder whether he had succeeded in preparing America for the new century but he was realistic even in his thinking, realizing that if George W. was elected and the Republicans regained power, much of what he had achieved could be undone. Indeed, that became the case notably when the Brady Bill (which acquired some gun control legislation) wasn’t renewed.

It may not stand in the mercurial tide of politics as one of the most important presidencies of American history but in my opinion, it was a good one. Despite personal setbacks and a new norm of vitriolic partisanship, Clinton was able to hone in on what could be achieved and act accordingly. While negative consequences arose as tributaries to the main functions of certain bills (like the crime bill), the overall objectives were usually sound and reasoned. His foreign relations too were smart without recklessness (queue an analysis of the Bush II administration) and where he failed (e.g. Rwanda, Somalia), he at least had the decency to learn and make adjustments so he could help (queue an analysis of the Trump administration).

Of course, consensus and absolute certainty make for a dismal appreciation of any historical figure when discussing nuance. Most US presidents have been imperfect with wildly mixed legacies. It can’t be helped when you’re playing chess on such a massive scale. I decided to write this long piece and read his ridiculously long memoir (958 pages) because I felt we were in danger of simplifying this man’s legacy. In the years that have passed since his presidency, he’s gone from one of the most respected world leaders to a figure of disdain, even for many from his own party. I wouldn’t go so far as to point to Hillary’s loss in 2016 as a referendum on their legacy but in this new age of evaluation, I feel the constraints of examining history through a modern lens should be acknowledged.

Context is key to any historical understanding and we can learn from history. But just as the problems of today don’t necessarily require the attitudes and solutions of years before, so too did the problems of those years not necessarily requite the outlook we would hold now.

Statues: Heritage and Hate

Statues: Heritage and Hate

As someone who studied History to an MA level, I often find myself dismayed and a little disappointed at the trivial and reductive nature by which certain historical figures and events are popularly surmised. This includes the Clinton and Nixon legacies being arraigned around scandals, the morality of the Atomic Bomb drop, and the retrospective reassessment of leaders such as Churchill.

So let’s make something clear as quickly as possible. I do not admire people like Churchill and in his case, think revisionism as related to his treatment of India is in dire need of being taught more expansively at school-level. It is true to call a man a monster on one end and an inspiring leader on another however. For generations, he was held as a key figure of inspiration for Britons, primarily for the speeches he gave during their darkest hour. That should not be disregarded as we move forward in tackling our understanding of history. In fact, I think it’s even important that the pendulum of scholarly and popular opinion swings the other way, so that we might arrive at a more reasoned disposition.

In this particular scenario, I think I’m against statues of Churchill being taken down and that is with full knowledge of him being a dick. While his legacy will continue to darken as we adopt more liberal viewpoints, his importance within his period will never change. Indeed, most statues commemorate leading figures who were at one stage beloved or felt representative of an ideology or cause within a specific framework. For that reason, I felt for quite a long time, that history should be kept on the long finger, examined but without emotional plea or reckoning from a modern viewpoint. Naturally, I’ve learned it’s not that simple.

First of all, it’s rather easy and insensitive for another white man to dismiss concerns over historical monuments and statue for the sake of preserving heritage and culture. In the US, Black people’s lives are affected by a deeply ingrained, systemic racism that branches out to government, employment, and pretty much everything, including statues. Seeing the likes of Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee memorialised is a sickening kind of reminder that while, yes, the Confederates lost the Civil War, they’re very much still the boss. I can try and do my best to be an ally but being frank and realistic, I can never fully appreciate how difficult that must be to face.

So why keep Confederate statues up then? Well, you could argue history comprises the good and the bad, that both interweave in the fabric of American culture but the legacy of the Civil War and slavery is still pertinent to today. So, maybe certain statues should be removed. Let’s face it, people are unlikely to forget these historical figures and if what they stood for is largely discredited or maligned, then what exactly are we holding them up for. Churchill, at least, fought against the totalitarianism of a greater racism in Nazism. Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, led the defected states in an effort to defend slavery. He was an important figure, yes, but one, only the very ill-nerved would try to defend.

What about Christopher Columbus then? Here’s a figure more removed from the current climate of racism and division but whose lasting imprint on American history is just as deadly, if not more so, in the eyes of Native Americans. Several statues of his have been targeted in recent weeks, including a decapitation in Boston (as the above picture). These instances have given me more pause for thought because they raise the question of just how far back we can go in our quest for reappraising history. I’ve no interest in defending his character, of course, but to cast judgment on the imperialist and colonist mindset of 15th century figures just strikes me as bizarre. Should we target everyone from the past who committed unspeakable atrocities or put aside our distaste at some point? I do not mean to be glib on this but to what extent can we remove our emotions from the past?

Again, history is complicated and the “greats”, even more so. A statue of Thomas Jefferson was toppled in Portland, Oregon recently; a founding father, who owned nearly 200 slaves, had relationships with several but who was also one of the most notable opponents of slavery in his time, calling it a “moral blot” that was the greatest threat to America. How can we reconcile such hypocrisy? You could argue that slavery was central to the American economic system but even then, you’d then have to face the fact that that system thrived because Black people were dehumanised so whites could justify their fortitude. Unfortunately, even the noblest of historical figures (like Lincoln) held views we’d be deeply offended by today.

Context is key in our appreciation for the past. We should not judge harshly but we should not ignore clear violations of human rights, atrocities, and their lasting legacies, especially when they’re still so prescient today. In this sense, I think there’s reasonable doubt for both sides on the argument of whether statues should be kept or removed. The question which then arises is who gets to decide and when petitions are ignored or not given proper evaluation (as felt with the Cecil Rhodes statue), can we not expect others to take a stand?

I’m fully willing to accept my viewpoint on this is at best limited but when history is devalued to base analyses, I think it’s important to take a step back and think. Maybe there are better ways to memorialise our leaders or reflect on past events. In Berlin, they’ve done this with the Holocaust memorial and other centres which acknowledge their darkest chapter without trying to erase or sweep over it. Maybe that’s better or maybe we do need to take on each statue with a specific lens as to what it represented, what it represents now, and will, in the future.

Online Convenience

The quarantine has yanked the rope sharply in the tug of war between online convenience and retail industry. As the likes of Amazon and Walmart thrive in the current climate, many other major vendors have suffered remarkably, knocked flat in an already losing battle. In the US, J.Crew, Neiman Marcus, JCPenney, and more have filed for bankruptcy; a most disturbing development since these are nationwide chains. What hope can there be for local businesses if they fail?

Perhaps this is just the nature of our capitalist, economic model. Perhaps, the truly innovative and adaptable industries will emerge stronger than ever when things get back on track. Perhaps, this quarantine has even just sped things up that were bound to happen.

It’s true that Amazon offers a much faster, reliable, and convenient service than most stores can afford to but are we really serving our greater interests in investing all our purchases through them? Don’t get me wrong. I’ve used this site many times, have a Kindle, and think Audible is great! It’s also much cheaper and that’s in Ireland, where it’s not even at the height of its powers! In America with Prime, you can get your treadmill or shelf or box of Sour Patch Kids sent to you in two days! Why would you go through the hassle of a trip to a supermarket or independent retailer when you know that you’ll have to pay more and even expose yourself to the virus?

That’s a hard thing to argue against. After all, we should be social distancing and with uncertain economic times ahead, we should all be saving as much as we can. Indeed, there’s very little room for some high-minded rhetoric. Or at least there would be, if this kind of thinking wasn’t so short-sighted and narrow-minded.

Monopolies are not good. They’re not even in the spirit of capitalism. They pave the way for uniformity and sheer blandness in the products we buy, effectively reduce employment opportunities, and discourage trade unions and workers’ rights. After all, what real incentive is there for benefits, sick leave, and other amenities when there’s little to no alternative options for your employee?

Amazon’s record on employee treatment is, in this regard, exceptionally bad but I don’t want to focus on the titans of modern industry purely because really, we (or the growing majority of us) are also to blame. We simply can’t expect new businesses to flourish or even some of the older ones if we demand this level of convenience. Yes, customer service is important and sometimes we’re on a budget but even for the pure sake of imagination, how about we exhibit a little patience and try to help the little guy out for once? Our world would be a lot better for it and in time, many of our towns might even lose those tumbleweeds soundtracked by slide guitars.

At present, this seems like an almost irresponsible message to spread given that aforementioned pandemic. With a little common sense though, I think most people can visit their corner shop, local supermarket, or bookstore with reasonable peace of mind. They might not be able to prevent a recession from occurring but they can make things so much better by keeping these local industries afloat. Even, the other major retailers in competition with Amazon and Walmart deserve our business. It’s better to have five titans than two!

The choice is yours… for now. I will, personally, be making an effort to shop locally as much as possible when businesses attempt to reopen this summer. Will I buy anything online? Of course. Sometimes I need to for presents if they’re not available nearby and have a date to order by. But if you can’t resist that urge to splurge while browsing then at least have the decency to not buy your Sour Patch Kids through Amazon.

My Favorite President: Jimmy Carter

My Favorite President: Jimmy Carter

On Presidents’ Day, we like to take some time out from covering current events and issues to look back at past presidents, their ups and downs, and how they shaped the United States. In 2017, we ranked the modern presidents (including Trump) and last year, we pondered which presidents might make up a Mount Rushmore of the worst leaders (including Trump). This year, we’re taking a positive turn to examine my favorite president; James Earl Carter (1977-1981).

Let’s address first the fact that Carter was not a popular leader and is not even that well regarded by Democrats or Republicans. With massive levels of inflation, long lines for petrol, an energy crisis, and a tense Iranian hostage situation dominating headlines in the late 1970s, it was only natural that his image would suffer. Besides these largely external factors however, Carter was perceived as a weak leader, indeterminate in his decision making and unable to inspire a nation brought down by a prolonged war in Vietnam and the controversial Watergate scandal. He was even challenged by the popular senator Ted Kennedy for the nomination in 1980 when he went up for re-election, going on to beat him before eventually losing to Reagan. So… I’ve got a fair amount to explain.

One of America’s biggest problems has always been its unmitigated patriotism. The idea that this is a superior nation where Government is always the problem, not the people, really got a burst of steam in 1980 when Reagan ran against Carter. This was an easy card to play against a president who once stated that “human identity is no longer defined by what one does but rather by what one owns.” Carter was not a man of bluster and pomp; at his inauguration, he demonstrated as much by getting out of the limo and walking towards Congress. Unlike previous presidents before he him, he would not be removed from the people. He would always do what was right and always be honest; a far cry from what we expect of any politician today.

The thing is people don’t like to be told they’re wrong or that they need to change their ways. On almost every measure he undertook, Carter had to face an upwards battle, be it with the return of the Panama Canal, passing energy bills, SALT II, and even a lost battle for national health insurance. With the latter, he was notably more conservative than the great liberal hopeful, Ted Kennedy, but not to the degree that he was senseless or insensitive. Rather, he was being somewhat measured and cautious with taxation, given the economic problems of the time. This was perhaps the Democrats’ greatest chance at a comprehensive health care scheme too up until the Obama administration, destroyed not by the president but by Ted Kennedy, who saw his last-minute withdrawal of support as an opportune moment to leverage his stakes against Carter in 1980. This has been leveled as a failure of the Carter administration despite the fact that Ted Kennedy undermined the bill for mere electoral purposes (when asked why he was running for president, the man could barely even respond).

Carter and Kennedy’s animosity towards each other had been building even before that battle. The reason was simple enough. Carter was an outsider. He was not a part of the traditional Democratic elite and his election had come out of nowhere for a party who had ran Hubert Humphries and George McGovern in 1968 and 1972 to no avail. In the wake of Watergate, the nationally unknown governor of Georgia was able to capitalize on the peoples’ disenfranchisement and rise like no other candidate before or since. In power, he comprised a cabinet of his own people (the so-called “Georgia mafia”) and adopted something of a middle-ground idealism between the Republican and Democratic parties. In many ways, the Democrats had much more trouble with him than the adversary party. Carter would not play ball with them on everything; upon taking office, he quickly axed several water projects that had been in projection for years and set about tackling goals they had no interest in. Kennedy’s opposition would eventually fracture the Democratic party and make it a lot easier for Reagan to win. Had the senator’s personal ego not gotten in the way in 1980, Carter’s success might have been a whole other story.

There were successes too of note. Carter was the only president to broker a lasting peace agreement between Egypt and Israel in the Camp David Accords, which stunned even his most ardent critics. He brought human rights front and center for all the world to appreciate and understand in a way that hadn’t been done by any president before. He established both the Department of Energy and the Department of Education. He didn’t launch a single missile (the only president since WW2 to not do so). And, he tried to tackle America’s growing dependence on foreign resources. He even had solar panels up on the White House!

On paper or online then, it’s quite easy to make a case for the 39th president. A majority of people simply didn’t see him as presidential however. He wasn’t bold in his decision making; he didn’t rock the boat the way Reagan would with the Soviet Union. He didn’t deliver a multitude of triumphant speeches (although his Crisis of Confidence speech, which we looked at back in 2017, was one of the greatest ever given by a president) and he didn’t equate military might with strength as a nation.

On this last point, it’s difficult to wholly absolve him of blame for the Iranian Hostage Crisis. The helicopter rescue was a disaster, if well meaning, and his decision to let the Shah receive cancer treatment in the US too was short-sighted (again, if decent). Carter was made to look foolish throughout the prolonged period in which the hostages were held (lasting 444 days) to the point that they were mockingly released mere moments into the Reagan administration. This episode however also speaks volumes of the man’s decency because the first thing he did, upon leaving office (having stayed up the whole night negotiating their release) was to fly and meet them. Carter might’ve been more successful had he launched a missile, yes (something Reagan would’ve had no hesitation in doing) but above anything, he was concerned what ramifications this might have had for the prisoners. That kind of humanity is often lost in those reaches of powers.

I don’t consider Jimmy Carter to be the greatest US president or even in the top ten but what he was, was a different choice who, given enough time, might have set the US on a much more noble path. They might’ve really had a shot at implementing renewable sources elsewhere (had Reagan not had the solar panels torn down) and might really have made further grounds with the Middle East peace process. Alas, in 1980, America decided to turn the other cheek and have the convenient microwave meal. Carter went on to inspire in his own way, establishing the Carter Center for Human Rights, tackling the guinea worm disease in Africa, monitoring elections, and going on to win a Noble Peace Prize in 2002. He’s one of the very few presidents in US history I believe who refused the easy short cuts and was willing to make the hardest decisions, because they were right and not out of political motivation.

Celebrity Endorsements & Activism

Celebrity Endorsements & Activism

The 2020 election’s in full swing and that means one thing; it’s time for the A-listers to have their voices heard. So, drop your shield and pick up your placard Chris Evans cause this time, you know it’s going to matter!

Okay, perhaps that’s a tad too snotty because really, celebrities can influence an election turnout by drawing attention to issues and candidates. Oprah’s endorsement of Obama, without a doubt, made an impact in the lead up to the 2008 election and certain groups can be targeted, that would otherwise be out of reach on proper news networks, like the Kardashian fan base (I’m not abandoning snottiness altogether). On the other hand however, celebrity endorsements and political proclamations can sometimes be a wealth of patronizing embarrassments. For instance:

That happened and we let it happen…

In all seriousness however, there was a lot of criticism to be drawn from the Hillary camp in 2016 as an endless deluge of pop stars and actors came forward at rallies to incite substance-less messages, achieving nothing really besides spectacle.  Maybe that was just Hillary, though. Maybe, not even the ghost of Sir Laurence Olivier could have inspired people to flock to her side. Maybe… just maybe, we don’t give the people enough credit in their own critical thinking. I suspect the latter notion holds true because while people may admire certain celebrities like Beyonce, they also understand that their life experiences are far removed from the working peoples’.

U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton joins Jay Z and Beyonce onstage at a campaign concert in Cleveland
“Here I am with my friends, Queen Bee and Jason Z!”

There’s another layer to this differentiation too; the cultural divide between liberals and conservatives has in recent years been amplified by the mainstream media, often courtesy of the latest woke trends / virtue signalling of celebrities. I’m not just talking about Gwyneth Paltrow’s holier-than-thou approach to good living. I’m talking about every celebrity that appears on the Colbert show with an anti-Trump message; every time a celebrity coins a weird hipster form of phrase (e.g. Emma Watson’s “self-partnered”, i.e single status affirmation); and every time we’re given some pandering new display of wokeness (e.g. John Legend’s new version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”). These changes in the zeitgeist are, to many, welcome and sensible extensions of progressive thinking. To many others though, they’re tedious nuggets of preaching that detract from the actual substantive issues (economy, health care, job loss, climate change) and reminders that yes, you’re out of touch.

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John Legend, among others, found the classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” to be problematic. So, he made a new version. Wait until he hears any rap song released in the last fifteen years.

I don’t think these celebrities have bad intentions, to be fair. Emma Watson has certainly gone above and beyond in her duties as a UN Women’s Goodwill Ambassador, proving herself truly dedicated to her cause. Still, the perception remains and that’s what’s so important as we approach next year’s election; to present a noble and dignified front for the Democratic party, instead of exacerbating the elitist theatrics of a militant #cancel, PC faction.

To this end, it’s important to lastly examine why we, as a society, give so much clout to celebrities’ political opinions. Is it really as simple as saying they draw attention to important issues, where needed? That’s a pretty shallow response, if so. It suggests we’d rather an unqualified opinion that’s popular than an experts’ know-how. Therein lies the loss of nuance and the opportunity to present a false sense of validation for the virtue signaler who really doesn’t know what they’re talking about (e.g. when Ben Affleck called Sam Harris and Bill Maher “racist” over their criticism of Islam.) It’s a response, used among others however, to justify peoples’ greater complacency when it comes to avoiding actual research and reading on the issues. It’s a response, I think, that has effectively become default across the world too.

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“You do know I’m Batman, right?”

Why else would we continue making celebrities UN ambassadors? In general elections and chat shows, I can compromise and allow for a bit of endorsements and activism but with an international institution? Am I purely curmudgeonly or is this just downright tacky? For that matter too, why does the Queen keep knighting ageing rock stars every couple of years? Is this really a way of honoring those who’ve made a significant contribution to the arts or just cheap publicity for the sake of relevancy?

Perhaps, this societal framework is all in contribution to raising awareness and encouraging charity and political activism. Perhaps, we all need our own “fight” song. It’s difficult to come down on those doing more than yourself to make the world a better place but in conclusion, I think it’s of great importance to remind people to think for themselves and not accept a cheap form of populism. After all, Trump didn’t even have the real Smash Mouth performing at his inauguration.

Scorsese vs. Marvel: Cultural Divides and Toxic Fandom

Scorsese vs. Marvel: Cultural Divides and Toxic Fandom

Earlier this month, Martin Scorsese compared Marvel movies to “theme park rides”, stating that they are not what he considers to be proper “cinema”. Social media reaction was, as you could imagine, well thought out and nuanced. LOL JK! For real, the shit hit the fan with many bemoaning this “hackneyed, old curmudgeon fuck-face” for not being with “it”. Okay, I’m paraphrasing but it was embarrassing to read the amount of comments I did with people unfavorably comparing his movies to Marvel’s. Don’t get me wrong! I enjoy all the Marvel movies. But Scorsese has directed Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, among many other original greats. In some cases, sure, it’s a matter of opinion but beyond this, what became apparent to me was how vitriolic and nasty these people were in their comments. This has become the norm, all too readily, when an unpopular opinion is shared, even in a matter as insignificant as this.

On some level, I think Scorsese was being picked a part for not speaking as delicately as he should have. I don’t actually agree with his opinion and would note that these Marvel movies are keeping cinemas alive, to an extent. Plus, there is some proper acting, directorial creativity, and emotion to be found in them. You could even argue that the magnitude of a shared, albeit commercially-driven universe, like the MCU, is a bold and ambitious experiment in modern cinema. On the other hand, I want to back Scorsese because his knowledge of cinema is second-to-none (or very few), he has helped restore many great movies, and has a point when he says we’re being “invaded” by these kind of movies. There are too many of them and on some level, it feels like a factory-churning process. For instance, Captain Marvel came less than two months before Endgame which was followed by Spiderman: Far From Home, just over two months later. We knew Spiderman was fine after the snap in Infinity War before we’d even seen its sequel. Furthermore, there seems to be no end in sight. Disney have already filled their calendar for the next three years with an array of shows, sequels, and new additions to the MCU. It really is an all-consuming empire.

So, you can go back and forth on this. You may not like Scorsese. You may think superhero movies are for children. What’s so desperate about this all is how hard it is to even have a conversation without great offense being suffered. That’s where I admire Robert Downey Jr., who simply left it at “appreciating” Scorsese’s opinion (which has been edified slightly since to acknowledge them as a different/new kind of “art”, if not proper cinema- I don’t know, it was kind of vague). Downey Jr’s latter-day career has been built on the legacy of Iron Man and he’s made a ton of dough from it but he’s not arrogant enough to disregard what one of the true greats has to say. Interestingly, he compared the Marvel phenomenon to a  “stomping beast [eliminating] the competition”. When things like that happen, as with the Westerns’ craze in the 1950s, there’s naturally going to be some push back. Sometimes, a spanner needs to be thrown into the works to get things interesting again. Punk did that for music in 1976 and the likes of Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola did that for cinema that same decade.

Thanks to social media, cults of fandom have been given a voice most people used to ignore. We can all, in some sense, be producers of the franchises we love and consume. For instance, notice how the trailers for The Rise of Skywalker are steering things back from the divisive reaction to The Last Jedi? Disney listens because Disney has a product to sell. That doesn’t mean their movies lack artistic integrity but it does color the picture, if only a little bit. It’s gratifying for fans to have their voices heard but when you pay too much due diligence to popularity, you appropriate credibility in turn. That’s why there’s such a sense of entitlement in these fans’ expectations of these franchise movies and why more unique, original projects are so lacking today. I suspect the directors of old, like Scorsese and Coppola, feel this way, which is why they are so hostile to the way industry has gone recently. The culture has changed.

Now since, we’re here- my top five MCU movies:

  1. Avengers: Infinity War
  2. Captain America: Civil War
  3. Spiderman: Far From Home
  4. Thor: Ragnarok
  5. Avengers: Endgame

and my top five Scorsese movies:

  1. Goodfellas 
  2. Taxi Driver
  3. Casino
  4. Raging Bull
  5. The King of Comedy