A con is a con: Donald Trump is Bernie Madoff all over again

Bernie Madoff (U.S. Dept. of Justice/Wikimedia)

Bernie Madoff (U.S. Dept. of Justice/Wikimedia)

This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

Imagine for a moment that it’s January 2009. Bernie Madoff, America’s poster-child fraudster, has yet to be caught. The 2007-2008 financial crisis never happened. The markets didn’t tank to reveal the emptiness beneath his schemes. We still don’t know what’s lurking in his tax returns because he’s never released them, but we know that he’s a billionaire, at least on paper. We also know, of course, that he just won the presidency by featuring the slogan — on hats, t-shirts, everywhere — “Make America Rich Again!” On a frosty morning in late January, before his colleagues, his country, God, and the world, Madoff takes the oath of office. He swears on a Bible to uphold the constitution.

The next day, everything comes crashing down. The banks. The markets. His fortune.

Madoff is a businessman, not a politician. He’s run and won as an anti-establishment maverick. Now, he’s faced with a choice: save the United States or his own posterior. During the campaign, he promised that he could separate the two, that his kids could run his empire, while he did the people’s business. But no one wants to talk to his progeny. They want him. They want the man in the suit who owes them money.

Okay, so that never happened, though over two decades Madoff did build a $65 billion Ponzi scheme. In December 2008, he became the most vilified man in America — at the very moment when Washington and Wall Street needed a distraction from the crippling financial crisis. He’s now serving a 150-year sentence for multiple felonies.

Of course, Donald Trump is not Bernie Madoff, who was 70 when he took up residence in the Big House. Trump at 70 is eyeing the White House. Other glaring differences separate them, though certain overriding similarities can’t be ignored. Let’s look at those differences first.

Trump vs. Madoff, The Scorecard

1. Trump is much richer than Madoff ever was, though we have no idea by how much. Forbes puts his wealth at $4.5 billion. Trump says it’s $10 billion. (Compared to just under a billion for Madoff.)

2. Madoff took advantage of individuals. Trump extracted tax breaks from entire cities.

3. Madoff broke the law and got caught. He’s in jail. As a felon, he can’t even vote in this election. Trump may have broken the law, and has bragged about paying people off, but now deflects everything and is running for president.

4. Trump forced poor people from their homes and onto the street. Madoff ripped off customers who were predominantly financially well off to begin with.

5. In 2007, while Madoff was enjoying himself at Mar-a-Lago Country Club, Trump’s premier Palm Beach hotel, The Donald racked up $120,000 in unpaid fines to that city. In exchange for a $100,000 donation to a veterans’ charity, the city agreed to forget about it. That check came from the Donald J. Trump charitable foundation (that is, from other people’s donated money), not from The Donald himself. This seems to have been typical. According to the Washington Post, more than a quarter of a million dollars from his charity went toward solving his own business woes, a violation of “self-dealing” laws. Madoff actually did donate money to charity. Okay, technically, it wasn’t his money either, but at least he had the decency to pretend it came from his own pocket.

6. Madoff never ran for president.

Moving in on Pennsylvania Avenue

If those are the differences, think about the similarities. Both men manipulated people over decades, were less than forthcoming about the numbers behind their methods, and had long-term plans for their own success at the expense of others. But where Madoff merely scammed his generally well-off clients, Donald Trump, if elected, could possibly scam us all.

Imagine this: if he wins in November, he’s going to be right on Pennsylvania Avenue twice, once as the people’s representative and once representing himself — and can there be any question which of the two will be more important to him? Indeed, Trump first targeted Pennsylvania Avenue just after abandoning his unofficial bid for the presidency in 2012 to focus on his fortune.

As he said at the time, “Ultimately… business is my greatest passion and I am not ready to leave the private sector.” He then managed to corral the political real-estate deal of the century, outbidding a group of hotel chains to secure 60-year rights from the government to the Old Post Office building at 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s just southeast of the White House. He then pledged more than $200 million toward its renovation, assuring its future customers — hardly a cross section of average Americans — that “the hotel is going to be incredible, super luxury.”

Normally, Trump merely licenses his gilded name to the constellation of hotels that bear it. Not so in D.C. There was too much at stake for him in our nation’s capital. When the hotel opened ahead of schedule and just in time to aid his publicity drive in this year’s election, rooms were said to start at $750 to $850 per night and escalate to $18,000 for a “presidential suite.” It costs about $33,000 for election night in the elite Trump Townhouse section of the hotel billed as the “largest presidential suite in Washington.” My scan of prices on booking.com revealed some “bargains.” For a mere $489 (not including tax), I could have been writing this piece in the comfort of my own hotel room, slightly bigger than Madoff’s cell. Trump knew exactly what he was doing when he opened his business on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Now, imagine another chill morning, this time in January 2017. Foreign dignitaries are hopping into black Lincoln Town Cars emblazoned with the Trump logo and lined up by that Trump hotel. President Donald J. Trump, a businessman and by his own account the best dealmaker in the history of deal-making, is pledging to uphold the Constitution. He smiles and gestures with those not-too-small hands of his at his family, a.k.a. his business associates, a.k.a. his advisers. They beam. They wave. They’ve got this.

Consider what Trump wrote about Ronald Reagan in The Art of the Deal: “He is so smooth and so effective a performer that he completely won over the American people. Only now, nearly seven years later, are people beginning to question whether there’s anything beneath that smile.”

Trump could hardly be described as smooth. More like nails on a chalkboard combined with Dr. Strangelove-level crass. But one thing is guaranteed: he brings into the Oval Office with him a set of conflicts of interest that would make Madoff’s head spin and potentially make the Iran-Contra affair look like a bad episode of Celebrity Apprentice.

Conflicts of interest galore

When Hank Paulson, former CEO and chairman of Goldman Sachs, was appointed treasury secretary by George W. Bush in 2006, he had to sell his 4.58 million shares of stock in that company. Executive branch conflict-of-interest laws require appointed senior government officials to divest themselves of investments that could be affected by or benefit from decisions they might make in public office. (Let us note, however, that even without the stock Paulson would prove to be a walking conflict of interest. From his public post, he would help Goldman Sachs survive the financial crisis with federal funds, and look where that got us.)

However, the president and vice president don’t even have to abide by those formal laws of divestment. Trump has indeed promised to focus on the country and not his business and branding empire by, among other things, placing the Trump Organization in a blind trust. But don’t count on it. Why would he? That would be like asking him to actually release his tax returns. In addition, Trump’s businesses are the antithesis of the sort that easily lend themselves to inclusion in such a trust. As David Cay Johnston, author of The Making of Donald Trump, told me in an email, “The ethics rules don’t apply to the president. But a blind trust is absurd as this is not simply an issue of stocks and bonds.”

According to his tax lawyers at Morgan Lewis, the blue-chip global law firm, his 2002-2008 returns were under audit by the Internal Revenue Service precisely because he runs “large and complex businesses.” During the primary, he said, “I have three children now who are grown and could run [the business].” This July, when asked by the New York Times whether he would actually step away from his business dealings while president, he equivocated, “I’ll let you know how I feel about it after it happens.”

As with most things Trumpian, we are left with nothing but his word and a belief that someone as impossibly rich as him might not mind losing some ground in his business empire because of decisions, foreign and domestic, that he might make in moments of crisis or otherwise. We are also supposed to believe that he always makes the best deals. What if the two aren’t compatible?

And what if possible illegal activities follow Trump directly into the Oval Office? Examining the possible conflicts of interest of a Trump administration and his track record when it comes to siphoning the money of others to his personal uses makes him look like a prospective — to use a term of his — disaster.

The first and most obvious potential area where conflict of interest is likely play a crucial role: the many decisions a President Trump would have to make on foreign affairs. Kurt Eichenwald vividly explored this issue at Newsweek recently and concluded that it would be a singular reality of any future Trump presidency. After all, many of his businesses exist in countries with which the U.S. has, shall we say, squirrelly relationships.

As Vin Weber, partner at Mercury Consulting in Washington, told me: “Even though he says he won’t be influenced and has only basically addressed the issue of whether his businesses would distract him time-wise, other countries may feel they have leverage on him and therefore on the U.S.” That’s obviously a problem. As a way to achieve ends of their own, foreign leaders could easily fashion their future policies in terms of threats of damage to the Trump empire. It would make no difference whether Ivanka or anyone else was in charge of daily operations. Trump would be dealing with countries that could impact his brand in significant ways.

Trump’s foreign business holdings (the ones publicly disclosed anyway) span areas that already involve scandal, as in the case of India, or dicey national security issues, as would be true of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Foreign parties have helped Trump out of business jams in the past. Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, for instance, came to Trump’s aid during his corporate bankruptcies in the 1990s. He even bought Trump’s yacht and some bad hotel debt.

Another kind of major conflict of interest hits far closer to home. As president, Trump gets to appoint federal district court judges nationwide. The media has focused exclusively on the crucial Supreme Court seats he might get to fill. But if any of those federal judges turn out to have jurisdiction in areas touching on Trump’s widespread business activities, imagine the opportunity for conflict of interest both in who might be appointed to the bench and how they might act. Keep in mind that, in addition to properties he owns or that bear his name, Trump is the sole proprietor of 268 of the 500 or more limited liability companies (LLCs) that he disclosed in his Federal Election Commission filings. These LLCs can be found all over the country, including in New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, and San Diego where, for instance, Trump University is already in the dock.

Last month, San Diego federal court judge Gonzalo Curiel, appointed by Obama, green-lighted that case to proceed to trial after Trump had lambasted him and claimed that he had an “absolute conflict” in presiding over it because of his “Mexican heritage.” What would a Trump appointee have done in the same situation? Of Obama’s 320 federal district court appointees, 262 were district court judges. Imagine the conflicts of interest to come in a Trump presidency where each lawsuit (and so many possible appointments) might represent one. And we’re not talking about the unlikely here. Trump or his businesses have been involved in a reported 3,500 lawsuits over the last three decades. In 1,900 of them, he or his companies were the plaintiff; in about 1,300, the defendant. He’s essentially guaranteed the title of most litigious leader in the modern world, possibly in history.

Trump’s sole proprietorships — companies where he alone is listed as the owner — also pop up in tax havens like Panama, Cozumel, and Dubai, bringing up a third area of potential major conflict of interest for the country, but of enormous potential benefit to Trump. Those elusive tax returns of his undoubtedly would reveal hints about this. They might also show that he’s not as rich as he says he is, and perhaps that he hasn’t given as much to charity as he claims, but those are unlikely to be the real problems that have stopped him from releasing his taxes because neither of them is illegal.

What Trump may worry about is whether a thorough public analysis of those returns would illuminate dodgy behavior, ways in which he’s been operating possible financial shell games. Shady deals can be easily hidden in shell companies and tax havens or in LLCs that no one can examine.

If he’s president, none of this is likely to matter much. Remember, he would get to appoint the new IRS commissioner, the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and of course the Attorney General. We don’t know how all of his little sole proprietorships interrelate and what they could be hiding. (It should be noted that a sole proprietorship is a business owned and run by one individual with no distinction between the business and its owner.) All we know is what his lawyers wrote him regarding his 2002-2008 returns: “Because you operate these businesses almost exclusively through sole proprietorships and/or closely held partnerships, your personal federal income tax returns are inordinately large and complex for an individual.”

He has not released proof from those lawyers that he even filed personal tax returns after 2008, or that such filings are actually under audit, though he says his taxes since 2009 are. But even if he did file them and they are being audited, there’s nothing in federal law or IRS regulations to prohibit him from sharing what he’s done — except perhaps the fear of getting caught.

Reportedly, he’s already played fast and loose with donated money from the Donald J. Trump Foundation to cover some of his personal business shortcomings. As the New York Times recently revealed, he used charity money on multiple occasions to settle personal legal issues. These were relatively small-scale matters, but — as Madoff found out with his smaller clients — small-scale can add up fast. In Florida, for instance, Trump paid a $2,500 IRS penalty for a tax regulation violation after his nonprofit foundation contributed an improper donation of $25,000 to a political action committee of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who may have been contemplating whether or not to investigate fraud allegations against Trump University.

In fact, using money to wash away problems seems to have been a characteristic of the Trump way of life. For instance, he gave at least $35,000 to Democrat Alan Hevesi for his campaign to become New York state comptroller. According to the Huffington Post, “Trump’s donations coincided with a $500 million lawsuit he filed against the city of New York in the hopes of reducing his property taxes.” Hevesi won his 2002 race. In the fall of 2003, the city settled Trump’s lawsuit. Imagine, then, how — once he’s in the Oval Office — this country could become his personal piggy bank.

The final potential conflict of interest: his entire administration to come. According to figures from the U.S. Government Policy and Supporting Positions, a congressional publication also known as the “Plum Book,” a president (or his administration) could appoint people to nearly 9,000 positions in the federal government. Of those, only about 800 must be confirmed by the Senate. This would mean, for instance, that in areas of gaming, environmental building codes, or housing and urban development, he would control the game. Business and politics would become one and the same in a unique fashion.

How all of this would play out, of course, remains unknown. Trump’s family has touted The Donald’s super-ability to focus exclusively on the affairs of the country. “My father is going to be a government official, and he’s going to separate himself” from the Trump Organization’s business interests, Donald Trump Jr., 38, typically promised a bunch of editors and reporters. But who would dare to count on this being anything but fantasy?

A Pandora’s Box for Americans

Trump and Madoff knew each other in the old pre-cellblock days. Madoff frequented the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach. In an April 2009 Vanity Fair spread, Trump noted that Bernie and his brother Peter (later sentenced to 10 years in jail for his role in their mutual swindle) played golf at the Trump International Golf Club, where Bernie’s game was as steady as his returns. “Out of hundreds and hundreds of rounds, he never shot lower than 80 or more than 89,” said Trump.

It wasn’t until after Madoff pled guilty on March 12, 2009, that Trump sounded warning bells. As he said about Madoff in his 2009 book, Think Like A Champion, “I think we would all do well to pay heed to all of our transactions no matter how much we might respect or like someone. But the main lesson is never to invest 100 percent of your money with one person or one entity.”

Whatever Trump may be, perhaps we should heed his warning in the present situation. Because as he also wrote, “Just because someone is well established doesn’t mean they’re not above being a total crook.”

The immense power Donald Trump would wield over his own interests as president already looms as the biggest conflict of interest in the nation’s history. Think of the Oval Office under Trump as a kind of Pandora’s Box for the American people. Giving him the White House threatens to be no better than giving Madoff your bank account information. You know how the story is likely to end.

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Our lady of the pantsuit: In praise — yes, praise! — of Hillary Clinton’s style

Hillary Clinton

(Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster)

It’s time we talk about pants. Hillary’s, specifically. I’m thinking of the red pair she rocked a few nights ago at the first 2016 presidential debate. Fire Engine. Candy Apple. Crimson. Whatever you call the shade, Hillary’s pantsuit was hot—even as she remained cool in the face of the most blustery and unpredictable opposing candidate in history.

I wasn’t even finished crushing on the white suit she wore to accept her nomination at the Democratic National Convention back in July, given that all but the leanest women tend to avoid the color. Like horizontal stripes or mid-length capris. Even my mother-in-law, when discussing the convention, was surprised Hillary had chosen white.

“I know,” I smiled, thinking of all the white I’ve never worn. “And I love her for that.”

And just when I thought I could not have stronger feelings for a pantsuit, Hillary comes blazing onto the stage in red, once again obliterating the idea of looking as small as possible that dominates women’s sartorial choices, especially those in the public eye. It has been the job of women to slenderize, minimize and fade away. We veer toward narrow cuts and safe colors: navy and black and gray. Never red. Red screams I’m here. Red says I’m not backing down. Red makes the body into a beacon, and we’ve been made to fear all that largeness and reflected light. But for her first debate against Trump, with so much at stake and millions watching, Hillary chose to flare.

But even beyond the color, there’s the fact of the pants themselves. We’re getting used to Hillary’s suits, but let’s not forget that most women still wear dresses to elevate events and manage the spotlight. Accepting the nomination for president and debating her opponent is about as elevated as an event can get, and Hillary chose to wear pants. She’s been wearing pantsuits all along. Mostly they’re elegant, but sometimes they make her look stern, or their silhouettes aren’t as flattering as expected. But even as an undergraduate at Wellesley, Hillary fought for many things, including admitting more black students and adding more black studies to the curriculum, but she also battled to abolish the dress code requiring skirts in the dining hall. So you see, Hillary’s commitment to pants is solid and longstanding.

My attention to Hillary’s attire began with the display of nutcrackers for sale at Dulles airport during her 2008 presidential run. There she was, rendered in plastic, wearing a navy blue suit, campaign button on her lapel, smile painted on her face.

“Is America Ready for this Nutcracker?” The box asked.

Stainless steel thighs, it promised. Cracks toughest nuts.

My gut sank. A gag gift, yes, but with an all-too-real statement about what we think of women who try to claim power. Nutcrackers. Ballbusters. Battle-axes.

Eight years is not so long ago. The vitriol against Hillary began long before and will continue, no doubt — but even as Trump restated his view that she “doesn’t have the look” of a president, something has begun to shift. The 2016 version of the Hillary nutcracker depicts her a little fuller in the face, a bit wider in the thighs, wearing black pants and a pink blazer. Her smile is more pointed than pleasing. Her posture is commanding. Her arms have migrated from crossed over her chest to hands planted firmly on hips, giving the overall impression of someone prepared to kick ass.

The packaging has changed and I suppose I have too, because I no longer mind the nutcracker and have, in fact, become delighted by the sight of Hillary in her power pose and steel-lined thighs.

It’s crunch time, America, the new box reads.

No more nuts in the White House.

2016 or Bust.

It’s possible that I’m reading too much into nutcrackers and pantsuits. But I’m an American woman in 2016, confused by the tangle of symbols and messages, caught up in the mash of feminine ideals and realities, and I need something to cling to.

Which leads me to prayer cards. Also called holy cards, the pocket-sized devotionals feature illustrations of the saints. Catholicism, for all the negative press and gender inequality, produces as many holy cards of women as men — more if you include all the iterations of The Blessed Mother. No matter what else, a Catholic girl grows up with images of women venerated for their actions and strengths. The only catch, of course, is that the qualities they’re praised for tend to be virginity, martyrdom and self-mortification — virtues that have for too long been synonymous with what it means to be a good woman. Certainly, the female saints were bold. Certainly, they made others uncomfortable. But on holy cards, they are depicted as soft and pliable, ethereal creatures outfitted in robes of pale green, pink and blue who lift their eyes beseechingly to Heaven or lower them humbly to the ground. So that when it comes to models for those qualities I most want to develop, I find myself in need of an updated list.

I want a patron of loud talk, of speaking her mind, of taking up space. Give me a woman who climbs flagpoles, an icon with full thighs and an easy and resonant laugh. Where’s the patron of good sex, of not apologizing, of erasing from her face — at least part of the time — the sweet pink smile? How about a patron of taking charge, of wild success, of not backing down? Give me a high-flying woman who has no clue what to do with leftover chicken cacciatore. I don’t hope to become a composite of such characteristics, but neither do I any longer want to fear them.

I’ve begun to assemble my own icons; lighting candles to the teenage detective Nancy Drew and her gender-bending pal, George Fayne, making altars to Harlem Renaissance trumpeter Valaida Snow, cloaking the Victorian tightrope walker Maria Spelterini in a mantle of blue, saying novenas to Susan B. Anthony. Now I’m adding Hillary to the list. Our Lady of the Glorious Pantsuit. Light spills from her in jagged sunbursts, and a gilded nimbus encircles her scarlet suit as she stands on a slip of moon. Queen of persistence. Model of putting yourself out there, of standing your ground, of daring to flame in the spotlight.

Listen, I’m not suggesting that Hillary is a saint. Nor do I consider her Our Lady in any Marian sense. I’m only borrowing the language of veneration, and if in doing so I’m guilty of throwing too much adoration her way, so be it — because apart from physical desirability and self-sacrifice, how often do we openly adore women?

But back to the pantsuit and Hillary on stage. She looks into the camera without blinking and is listened to for what she says and not how much she pleases the eye as she says it. Vital at 68. With stamina to spare. She’s not selling her sweetness or her beauty — though in this, there is profound beauty.

Why I love Hillary is that I don’t need to like Hillary.

We women, even the most educated and progressive, still spend much energy trying to please. We almost can’t help it. We’re groomed for it from the get-go — learning to lower our voices, to put others first, to make ourselves tiny, to try for the prettiest face — until it feels as natural as breath. There’s nothing wrong with cultivating attraction, or sacrifice, or kindness. The real problem is how uncomfortable we become when someone breaks out of the mold and comes at the world with an unbroken gaze. No matter how much we embrace the concept of powerful women, in real life we aren’t always comfortable with them. They rattle subtle but ingrained expectations and threaten to undo something so embedded in the fabric of our culture we can hardly name it. We tend not to like them, even if we aren’t exactly sure why. All of which has me thinking about pants and our ongoing discomfort with a woman who wears them. Because, make no mistake about it, Hillary wears pants. Unapologetically. Literally. Symbolically. And in every other glorious sense of the word.

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Broadcasting LGBT stories to Red State America: Groundbreaking trans casting on network shows could save lives


Dreama Walker and Laverne Cox in “Doubt” (Credit: CBS)

Wednesday’s episode of “Modern Family” debuted the first transgender child actor in prime-time history. Jackson Millarker, an 8-year-old from Atlanta, guested on the long-running sitcom as Tom, a trans schoolmate of Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons), the adopted daughter of Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cam (Eric Stonestreet). When Lily calls Tom a hurtful name during a play date, the moment forces the couple to reflect on what lessons they are teaching Lily. Are Mitchell and Cam really as accepting as they think?

Millarker’s groundbreaking casting followed the news that trans actress Jen Richards will join the cast of “Nashville,” the country music soap starring Connie Britton (“Friday Night Lights”) and Hayden Panettiere (“Heroes”). Richards, who was nominated for an Emmy for writing, starring in and producing the web series “Her Story,” will become the first trans actress to ever appear on CMT. The music-oriented network picked up “Nashville” after it was cancelled by ABC in May. The show, which will premiere its fifth season on Jan. 5, will also boast the first trans character in the channel’s history. Richards is set to play Allyson Del Lago, described in a network press release as a “tough but understanding physical therapist.”

These are just a few of the many “firsts” made by TV in recent years when it comes to trans media representation. In 2014, Laverne Cox became the first transgender actor nominated for an Emmy for her role as Sophia Burset on Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black.” Cox will also appear in the forthcoming CBS legal drama “Doubt,” co-starring Katherine Heigl. The actress will appear as Cameron Wirth, a high-powered trans lawyer. The mid-season entry will make Cox the first trans actor to be a series regular on a network show.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Tambor recently took home his second consecutive Emmy for Outstanding Actor in a Comedy for Amazon’s family dramedy “Transparent.” Tambor, most widely known to audiences as George Sr. on “Arrested Development,” plays Maura Pfefferman, a late-life transitioner who comes out to her neurotic Jewish family. The show, created by Jill Soloway (“Afternoon Delight”), has been criticized for casting a cisgender male actor in a trans role. As LGBT activists argue, “Transparent” misgenders trans people, unintentionally furthering the view that women like Maura are no more than “men in dresses.”

During his Emmys speech, Tambor acknowledged criticism of the show, saying that he would “not be unhappy” if he were “the last cisgender man to play a female transgender on TV.” The 72-year-old pleaded with Hollywood to “give transgender talent a chance, give them auditions, [and] give them their stories.” Despite the justified concerns about Tambor’s performance, “Transparent” has helped to open doors for trans actors by casting Hari Nef, Trace Lysette and Alexandra Billings in supporting parts. The show’s new season also features 12-year-old actress Sophia Grace Gianna, who plays Maura in flashbacks. During the character’s upbringing in the 1950s, the youngster is chastised for wanting to wear women’s clothing.

The difference between shows like “Transparent” and “Modern Family,” though, is one of reach. “Transparent,” like “Orange Is the New Black,” is broadcast on a paid streaming platform and attracts a relatively niche, liberal audience. Its viewers are likely to share the show’s values when it comes to LGBT acceptance. “Modern Family,” however, has an appeal that is surprisingly conservative. In a 2010 survey, the ABC show was found to be the favorite scripted series among members of the GOP, beating out “The Big Bang Theory” and “The Mentalist.”

At face value, the right-wing popularity of “Modern Family” would seem to be a strange fate. When the mockumentary-style comedy debuted in 2009, it was billed as the “hip,” “innovative” alternative to the laugh track-heavy offerings of the ’90s (think “Home Improvement”). But Christian Toto of Breitbart argues that it’s the show’s values of “friendship, trust, [and] loyalty” that resonate with heartland viewers. “‘Modern Family’ suggests that families of all shapes and sizes are equal,” Toto writes, adding: “The series is all about ties that bind and strengthen us, even if we end up in families that appear radically different than the ones we watched in the ’50s and ’60s on TV.”

“Modern Family,” which includes both same-sex and interracial couples, has been credited with normalizing gay relationships for viewers who might not know families like Mitchell and Cam’s. When the show premiered seven years ago, gay couples could get married in just four U.S. states — Iowa, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont. At the time, the Pew Research Center found that just 40 percent of Americans believed that all marriages are entitled to legal recognition. Following the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to legalize same-sex unions in all 50 states, that figure shot up to 58 percent.

The show would be cited as a factor in the country’s increasing acceptance of marriage equality. According to a 2012 survey from The Hollywood Reporter, 27 percent of respondents said that programs like “Modern Family” made them more accepting of same-sex couples. This impact was felt across party lines: Whereas 30 percent of Democrats claimed that LGBT-inclusive media made them more tolerant, 13 percent of Republicans said the same. THR further noted that Michelle Obama and Ann Romney both count themselves as fans of the show.

“Nashville” is unlikely have the same effect as ABC’s smash-hit comedy. Whereas “Modern Family” reached 15 million viewers at its peak, the showbiz drama’s audience maxed out at 8.93 million. Just over 4 million people bid the show farewell during its network bon voyage; meanwhile, CMT’s highest-rated show reaches just over a million viewers. What the revamped “Nashville,” which is set to be executive produced by “Thirtysomething” creators Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, lacks in ratings it will, however, make up for in demographics: CMT appeals to Red State Americans, the kinds of viewers who listen to Toby Keith, and who might not know someone like Allyson Del Lago or Maura Pfefferman.

Learning about trans people’s stories and lives can serve to humanize their struggles. Currently, UCLA’s Williams Institute estimates that there are just 1.4 million transgender people living in the U.S. In the CMT show’s home state of Tennessee, the trans population amounts to just 31,200. Despite recent gains in mainstream media representation, this community remains disproportionately targeted for violence, particularly trans women of color. So far this year, 19 trans people have been murdered in the U.S., and that doesn’t include the deaths that weren’t reported to authorities.

The bipartisan success of “Modern Family” helped show Americans that couples like Cam and Mitchell deserve the same rights are everyone else — the ability to have their love recognized and protected. Seven years later, bringing trans characters into the living rooms of Red State voters won’t just open hearts and minds. It could make America a little bit safer for those who remain the most vulnerable among us.

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Lessons from a “Substitute”: “We need less school, less homework, less fretting about international competitiveness”


(Credit: Getty/danchooalex)

Nicholson Baker is a best known as a novelist whose ability to see, hear and think about minuscule details is so highly developed that the word “intense” doesn’t quite do it justice. But aside from authoring novels like “Vox” and “The Mezzanine,” he has written important essays and books of argument and observation. The latest in this line is “Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids.”

The book chronicles Baker’s 28 days teaching at several public schools near his Maine hometown. After the call came in at 5:40 a.m., he headed to teach subjects he sometimes knew little about — to students he had never met. His goal was to learn about the everyday texture of life with schoolchildren.

Salon and Baker corresponded about his experiences by email.

You surely knew this wouldn’t be easy. What surprised you the most about being a substitute teacher?

 The difficulty in being a substitute mainly comes from the fact that you’re a low-ranking interloper who knows nothing about anything. But you can learn a lot in any aquarium by observing life on the bottom. I was surprised by how kind most kids were, and by how much they had going on in their lives — and how differently they acted when I talked to them as individuals [from] when I had to police them as groups of twenty bored, noise-crazed conscripts.

In some ways, public education hasn’t changed much since you were a student. But the arrival of iPads, the Internet and so on has clearly altered the experience significantly. How did you see this playing out with the students you taught?

A pencil is a lovely literacy tool but it can also be flung up in the air so that it pokes into a ceiling tile and hangs there. The iPad cases had long straps and could be swung around and used as weapons. Even so, the iPads gave kids enormous freedom of choice.

When students were stuck in a class they disliked — when they were 15 or 20 assignments behind in math, say, and were just going through the motions of being in school — they could play Shark Attack or watch music videos or monster truck videos or text a friend. In days of yore they would have been playing eraser hockey or shooting each other with rubber bands and paper clips.  

Common Core, frequent high-stakes testing and various “standards” have come to dominate public education lately. Do these improve the experience of teaching or learning, do you think?

Not so much. Kids need to know how to read, of course — everything else is nice but inessential. They don’t need to know how to diagram sentences or what a third-person narrator is. If they want to study narrative strategies, great, but it’s not crucial. Some students love math puzzles, some like making clocks, some like learning about breeds of dogs, some like drawing, some like baseball.

All the testing and the “rigor” just makes teachers crazy and increases the amount of homework. We need less school, less homework, less fretting about international competitiveness. I recently spent six months in Singapore: That country is rethinking its heavy emphasis on high-stakes tests because children are obviously suffering. No country is helped to do great things by systems that have kids grinding till midnight every night.

If you could make one change to the way public education works, what would it be?

I would shorten the day — shorten it two ways, by starting it later and by getting rid of homework. That would take some of the stress off students and it would also have the effect of increasing teacher pay. Bonus suggestion: require anyone who is in charge of educational policy to do some real work as a teacher or a substitute teacher in a public school. You will be a different person afterward. 

 A recent letter to the New York Times Book Review asked how much someone like you — who dropped in for about month — could really see and understand about the way education works. How full or representative a picture do you think you got?

I worked on and off for 28 days sprinkled over one semester. Of course that can’t come close to the experience and training that real teachers bring to their classes — and I really admire how hard teachers work, how completely some of them throw themselves into their jobs. 

The advantage I had, though, was that I saw a number of different schools and classes and taught all grade levels — one day it was middle school, the next day kindergarten, the next day remedial high school English — so that the book is a sort of K-12 core sample of American education as it exists in one lower-middle-class district in the state of Maine. 

There’s really no quicker — or more exhausting — way to find out how students of all ages think and survive in schools right now than by being there with them as their temp teacher and seeing what they like and what they hate. I think the book is pretty representative, actually. That’s the contribution it makes, I hope — it conveys what life is like, right now, on the ground, for American schoolkids. It listens to what they say.

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Trump-loving Pennsylvania mayor under fire for posting racist meme depicting Obama lynching


(Credit: Classmates.com)

A Trump supporting Pennsylvania mayor says he’s the victim of a “witch hunt” amid calls for his resignation after he posted numerous racist messages on Facebook, including a meme that suggested that President Obama be lynched.

Republican West York Mayor Charles Wasko, who was elected in 2013, posted the memes throughout the year. But a series of posts recently grabbed the attention of other elected official in the small town located about 100 miles west of Philadelphia.

The image showed Clint Eastwood from the film “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” and a noose. The caption read: “Barry, this rope is for you. You wanna bring that empty chair over here!”

Wasko Clint

Another shows a wheelbarrow full of orangutans with the caption, “Aww…moving day at the Whitehouse has finally arrived. “Kenya or bust” is inscribed on the side of the wheelbarrow:


Another post suggested black Americans were incapable of caring for themselves without “socialism,” which Wasko defined as “government entitlement stuff.”

Wasko’s Facebook feed is also full of memes disparaging Muslims and Hillary Clinton.

A post in February showed a smiling ape, with the words “Most think it is Obama’s picture……sorry its Moochelles baby photo.”

West York Borough Council members told PennLive they’ve repeatedly asked Wasko to resign over the content.

“I almost want to throw up,” City Council president Shawn Mauck told the newspaper.

“I would punch him in the mouth if I could get away with it,” Councilwoman Shelley Metzler told the York Daily Record. “This man needs to resign.”

“I say what people think but are afraid to upset the liberal media and crooked politicians…there will be more to come from me,” Wasko posted in a comment on one of his Facebook post. “When I ran for this position I told the residents that I will work with council but I won’t put up with and wrong doings I will let residents know what they really do, and the bomb is ready to drop on Mauck and Wilson.”

But Wasko has more than those two city councilmembers to worry about.

“With those types of thoughts in your mind, how can you oversee the police department?” said City Councilman Brian Wilson. “We can’t have anybody being racist or bigoted — especially an elected official.”

Mauck told the York Dispatch that he plans to put forward a motion to censure the mayor, chastising Wasko for the posts and saying that those views are not the views of the borough government. The West York Borough Council will vote on whether or not to censure Wasko, who helps oversee the town’s police department, on October 6th, according to PennLive.

In a brief phone interview with The Associated Press, Mr. Wasko said he would provide more details at a later date about his “witch hunt” claim and then hung up.

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Queer rights are human rights: Fighting for freedom is polarizing the world

Turkey Gay Rights

People gather to protest against the ban on the gay pride march, off Istiklal Avenue, central Istanbul’s main shopping road, Sunday, June 19, 2016. Turkish police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators who gathered for a gay pride rally in Istanbul despite a government ban over security concerns. (AP Photo/ Emrah Gurel) (Credit: AP)

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

In much of the world, gay rights, and recognition of sexual and gender diversity, appear to be progressing. In Europe, the United States, Latin America and Australasia, acceptance is growing of the idea that queer rights are human rights. Still, in large parts of the world, people face rape, murder and torture if they are perceived to be openly homosexual or transgendered.

Terms are tricky: in this article I use the term “queer” to stand for everyone whose sexual orientation or gender expression deviates from the societal norm. There are times when one has to unpack the omnibus — and American — concept of “LGBT”: in some countries there is legal recognition of a trans* identity but severe legal sanctions against homosexual behavior. This is true of most of south Asia. In Iran, homosexuals are “encouraged” to undergo a gender transition as it is assumed that same-sex desires are proof of gender dysphoria.

The global situation suggests increasing polarization, both between and within states. As the authors of a 2016 report on state-sponsored homophobia point out, some Latin American countries have been leaders in legal recognition of queer rights, yet “the region shows the highest levels of violence and murder against LGBTI population, and in the most of the cases [sic] impunity is the rule.”

Progress is always ambiguous: South Africa has constitutional recognition of the need to prevent discrimination based on sexuality, and has legalized same sex-marriage; Australia has neither. Yet the real-life experience of most queer South Africans is almost certainly more difficult than for most Australians.

In other places, the growing assertion of queer rights has been met by a rise in homophobic rhetoric and legislation, as authoritarian religious and political leaders see queers as an easy target who can be attacked in the name of culture, religion and tradition.

In our book “Queer Wars,” Jon Symons and I traced the current backlash back to the espousal of “Asian values” by Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew and Malaysia’s Mohammed Mahathir in the early 1990s. Their rhetoric of protecting “traditional values” against western decadence, in particular “deviant” sexual or gender expression, foreshadowed the language now employed by leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni.

As western states push for acknowledgement of queer rights, there is a danger of playing into the hands of those leaders who want to portray queer issues as the imposition of neo-colonial values. Governments can rally nationalist fervor through homophobia; accusations against the European Union for imposing “homosexual dictatorship” are central to right-wing rhetoric in the Ukraine and other former Soviet states.

Public statements by American officials in defense of “LGBT rights” over recent years have sometimes played into the hands of those who claim that homosexuality is a western import, even in societies where there is a rich history of same-sex intimacies.

Governments and religious leaders both create and reflect public opinion, and there are few issues where different attitudes are as stark. Research suggests that more than 80 percent of the population of some western countries accept homosexuality, whereas the figure drops below 10 percent across much of Africa and the Middle East.

Given the passions that same-sex marriage arouses in western countries, it is not surprising that anti-queer rhetoric often revolves around the specter of gay marriage. Nigeria used opposition to same-sex marriage to legislate against any freedom of association for queer people. A recent upsurge of homophobic demands from Indonesian political and religious leaders has invoked marriage as a threat.

The United Nations has taken tentative steps towards including sexual orientation and gender expression within its understanding of human rights. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has been a strong supporter of queer rights. But these moves have met considerable resistance, and while they are important there is no universally accepted norm that sees sexual orientation and gender identity as worthy of respect.

In 2016, the U.N. Human Rights Council appointed an “independent expert” to find the causes of violence and discrimination against people due to their gender identity and sexual orientation, and discuss with governments how to protect those people. At its best, the United Nations can create what U.S. scholar Ronnie Lipschutz called “an incipient global welfare system,” able to provide global norms and rules, and to prevent local opposition to basic human rights principles. U.N. resolutions can be used by local activists in lobbying governments, and an increasing number of U.N. agencies, led by UNDP and UNESCO, are incorporating queer issues into their agendas.

These interventions are important, but they can only be successful where they support locally led initiatives and movements. Small queer movements have been growing across the world during this century, often displaying extraordinary bravery in face of great hostility, as is true for gay pride events in Kiev, Dhaka and Nairobi.

Listening to activists in hostile environments, and supporting them on their terms, is a challenge that queer movements in the western world are only beginning to accept.

The Conversation

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Gaby Hoffmann’s radical bush: Let’s chat about pubic hair with the cast of “Transparent”


Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, and Gaby Hoffmann in “Transparent” (Credit: Amazon Studios)

Gaby Hoffmann’s bush is mesmerizing. Flowing. Fierce. Free. The epitome of Freud’s Medusa, it is the feminist embodiment of femaleness. With recurring seasonal appearances on both “Girls” and “Transparent,” Gaby Hoffmann’s bush deserves its own SAG card — or, at the very least, its own IMDb page. (There’s a Twitter account for gaby hoffmann’s bush, but, alas, it has yet to send out a tweet.)

The latest entry on the IMDb page would include an appearance early in the third season of “Transparent,” which dropped on Amazon Prime last Friday, in a lush and dreamy scene of Hoffmann’s character, Ali Pfefferman, au naturel in the forest.

My obsession with Gaby Hoffmann’s bush caused me to abandon journalistic decorum during a press junket for the third season of “Transparent.” While I was interviewing Hoffmann and her TV siblings Amy Landecker (Sarah Pfefferman) and Jay Duplass (Josh Pfefferman), Hoffmann had no sooner sat down when I blurted out, “I want to talk about bush pride. I am obsessed with your bush! Is that your real bush on camera? I want to talk about your pro-bush politics.”

“I actually voted for Nader,” quipped Hoffmann.


Hoffmann said when her characters show pubic hair on screen, it’s “always my bush,” except in the first season of “Transparent.”

“I was very pregnant and my belly was in the way of my bush,” said Hoffmann. “I was mad. I didn’t want a bush stand-in! And I was like, Just shoot it with me! And there was a stand-in, and of course, she didn’t have a bush. So she had a wig . . .”

To which Landecker and I simultaneously chimed in, “A merkin!”

“Yes, a merkin,” Hoffmann said. “It was the only time it wasn’t my bush because my baby was in the way.”

“Nudity, to me, doesn’t feel strange or hard,” explained Hoffmann, who grew up “very naked and comfortable,” having spent the first 11 years of her life among the bohemian artists of the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. Her mother was Viva, one of Andy Warhol’s “superstars.” Exposure to an environment where self-expression was art gave Hoffmann her liberal ethos and a certain ease and fearlessness about nudity.

Hoffmann is known for her intensely expressive scenes, which often involve full-frontal nudity with resplendent pubic hair. In Hoffmann’s memorable first appearance in season 3’s episode 3 of “Girls,” Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) opens her bathroom door to find Hoffmann’s character, Caroline, standing naked and disheveled, crushing a drinking glass in her bare hand.

Hoffmann understands the value of this type of exposure when it comes to feminist body politics. It’s important, she noted in our interview, “that we can see more representation of real female bodies.” But she quickly clarified, “Not that having a waxed pussy isn’t real. It’s totally real. To each her own.”

In a TIFF master class in September, “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway gave a lecture on the female gaze. The male gaze, she said, which is “pretty much everything you’ve ever seen seen” on TV and film, presents women as objects to be gazed at and desired or possessed. The female gaze is not the inverse of that. It is far more complex and involves numerous parts. As Soloway said in her talk, the female gaze “says, I don’t want to be the OBJECT any longer, I would like to be the SUBJECT, and with that SUBJECTIVITY I can name you as the OBJECT.”

The female gaze is therefore a “justice-demanding way of art making . . . of changing the way the world feels for women when they move their BODIES through the world.” With the female gaze, women are seeing, feeling humans, not objects. They are characters “feeling themselves as the subject.”

This is where Gaby Hoffmann’s bush comes in as an instrument of the female gaze: It disrupts the male gaze. “It’s about bodies again, bodies of women. Ladies. Girls. Gender non-conforming people,” Soloway said.

Hoffmann has shone in productions created by female show runners like Soloway and Dunham, both of whom have revolutionized not only how we see women’s bodies on screen, but also what types of bodies we see on screen, too. Hoffmann’s powerful embodiment of womanhood forces the audience to reconcile the fullness and hairiness: the naturalness of her body.

This resonates with Soloway’s theory of the female gaze “using the camera to take on the very nuanced, occasionally impossible task of showing us how it feels to be the object of the Gaze.” The gaze is turned on the gazers. At the same time, there’s a difference between what we see on the screen, and how we live our daily lives and how we prefer our own bodies to be in the world.

This is the point in our conversation when Landecker interjected, “I want to defend waxed pussies!” Everyone laughed, including Duplass, who sat the whole time between Landecker and Hoffmann sometimes with his head down in contemplation and perhaps even modesty, but seeming to enjoy every minute.

Landecker’s defense of shaved bits was grounded in pleasure and pragmatism. “Gay or straight, the access and the pleasure that can come from not having to forage through — and I wish men would do it, too — is easier and lovely.”

“And,” Landecker emphasized, “it’s not because I want to look like a little girl. It’s because I would like easy access without things getting caught.”

“It has nothing to do with oppression,” she added.

Hoffmann concurred. “I have heard about it from women I trust about pleasure and access, and like I said if . . . it didn’t look like a 12-year-old’s pimply face, I would give it a go.”

The conversation turned serious (to the noticeable delight of their publicists, who sat aghast in the corner of the room as we discussed pubic hair) when Hoffmann reflected on the larger topic of nudity in the entertainment industry and in American culture. “I think what’s most important is that we all just lay the fuck off each other,” she said. “If you want to have a hairy pussy, great. If you want to have a waxed pussy, great.”

“I’m just amazed that we have to talk so much about nudity, but nobody ever says, How did it feel to shoot that gun and blow that guys head off?, you know?” Hoffman said. “I would love to have to talk about violence all the time — and [the fact that] it is so accepted that we don’t have to talk about it — and not talk about nudity anymore, because it is so accepted.”

Duplass opened up then about his own “Transparent” nudity and first on-camera sex scene.

“In the pilot, I was mostly naked a lot of the time,” Duplass said. “I was so nervous about that — I was so fucking freaked out about it — that when it came time for me to orgasm, and that camera was right here,” he said, making a close-up gesture. “I was like, Oh, this is what I should be scared of!” he said. “There’s no acting in orgasm. I was just sweating bullets!”

For Duplass, the unnerving intimacy of the scene had less to do with nudity than with emotional exposure. Despite the cultural taboo of male nudity on screen, Duplass’ story conveys how gender norms and expectations play out differently for men and women. Vulnerability is culturally coded as female, feminine; it is deemed unnatural for a man to be vulnerable. Instead, on screen and in life, men are supposed to be strong, impassive and even aggressive.

Violence is accepted and acceptable in American culture to the extent that no actor is ever questioned about “what it feels” like to act out aggression on screen. Instead, women are interrogated about any and every flash of skin. It is no wonder that many of Hollywood’s most celebrated actresses, like Meryl Streep, have refused to do nudity. In an industry dominated and directed by the male gaze, they do not want their careers reduced to bits of tits and ass.

But women like Hoffmann, whose incredible acting skills earned her two Emmy nominations in 2015, one for “Girls” and the other for “Transparent,” are changing the rules. Through working with feminist show runners, actors like Hoffmann are proving how bodies — and even pubic hair — can matter.

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BREAKING: “Cultural appropriation is not just appropriate — it is my birthright!”: The Greatest Living American Writer

Taylor Swift; Beyoncé; Justin Bieber

Taylor Swift; Beyoncé; Justin Bieber (Credit: TaylorSwiftVEVO/YouTube/Coldplay-Official/Reuters/Danny Moloshok)

As a professional writer of great acclaim, I have worn many hats. For instance, once while I was consummating my brief but sweet affair with Simone de Beauvoir in my Chicago garret overlooking the intersection of Damen and Division, she forced me to wear a beret, saying, “It reminds me of my dead father.”

I thought that was pretty weird, but I went along with it for the kink and also because novelists must be open to all experiences. In my journeys through time and space, I’ve worn a sombrero, a kepi, a kufi, a homburg, a tender bonnet, a papal miter, an alpine yodeler’s cap, a Stetson, an ascot, a beanie, a boater, a fez, various cardboard party hats — and right now a baseball cap that reads “I Like To Fuck Pussy,” which I received as a gift for giving a reading at the Alabama State Fair. Far too often, I have worn a yarmulke. Was any of that cultural appropriation? Who knows? Who cares?

I say all this because of late there have been too many incidents involving “identity politics” on our college campuses. When I attended the University of Chicago before the invention of nuclear fission, there were two identities: male, and for three students, female. Apparently, that has changed.

Now, apparently, it is unacceptable for fraternal brothers to sing “La Cucaracha” while enjoying a bottle of tequila while in the company of willing sophomore lovelies. At Duke University recently, three students were suspended for performing a song called “Lookieee I Chineeee” at a talent show. If you can’t dress in blackface to attend a class on urban economics at NYU, then are you really attending school in a marketplace of ideas? I say no.

As my colleague Lionel Shriver, author of the novels “We Need to Talk Dirty About Steven” and “The Lionel King,” recently pointed out at a literary conference in Antarctica, this has troubling implications for our fiction. As the British literary critic (and my romantic rival) Nigel Balderdash once wrote: “What was Conrad without the jungle, Greene without the Sierra Madre? The colonies gave us literary inspiration and that shall not be torn asunder.”

I took my cues from that noble essay titled “The World Is Our Spicy Oyster: Why White Men Can Write About Whatever They Want,” and then I produced some great works of literature.

Without “cultural appropriation,” I never would have written my seminal work of Native-American romance, “The Sioux Who Loved the Eskimo,” or my 1971 book of travel essays, “Homos of The Pampas.” I couldn’t have written the book and subsequent screenplay for my greatest work, “Leon: A Man of the Streets,” or my book of alternative slave history, “The Repression Of Turner Natterson.”

Yes, I was a man when I wrote “The Labia,” a dark Kafka-esque comedy about a guy who wakes up one morning transformed into the inner and outer folds of a vagina, and I was also a man when I wrote “Rise of the Ball Breakers: An Anti-Feminist Manifesto.”

What of it? Would our politically correct literary gatekeepers deny me the pleasure of penning a novel about a bumbling Jewish man who marries into a large Asian family? Under today’s literary austerity, I never would have written “The Joy Schmuck Club.”

For instance, in my latest novel, I have a character who is a 97 years old, black and homosexual. Now, I have been all of those things at one time or another in my life though I am none of them now. But today’s cultural gatekeepers would deny me my agency just because I am racist or homophobic. This is not just. This is not right.

Some academic broad whose name I can’t remember defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

That, as we used to say back at my partially integrated racquet club, is a load of diseased horseshit. Do we fiction writers, the noblest and least fallible humans alive, have to seek “permission” to use a character from another race or culture or to employ the sexual slang terms of a group to which we don’t belong?

What are we supposed to do? Ask pretty please on Twitter? Get a visa from the Vietnamese government? No. We must publish our fiction like writers always have: By going to college with literary editors and making sure to send them holiday gift baskets whether we like them or not. That time-honored tradition will stand long after multiculturalism has gone the way of ashtrays in airplane seats.

Because who is the appropriator par excellence, really? Who has the chutzpah to be the master ventriloquist, learning how to speak and dress like other people so they can sneak into Mecca for a Travel + Leisure article? Who wrote the book of love? Who can make a rainbow, sprinkle it with dew, cover it with chocolate and a miracle or two? The writer man. The writer man can.

Who took the multicultural cookie from the cookie jar? Who, me? Yes, you. Couldn’t be. Then who?

Being Chinese is not an identity. Being Mexican means nothing. No one cares if you are a lesbian girl. Only one thing matters: writing and writers, and the truth we tell, no matter our background. Whether you are the heir to a large industrial fortune and graduate of every Ivy League school, like I am, or some poor Puerto Rican guy, once you join the galaxy of literary stars, nothing is off-limits.

You can wear whatever hat you want. In fact, I’m wearing a sombrero right now. And I’m happily touching myself in the darkest of places while simultaneously writing this essay and a novel about transgendered Indonesian sex workers. I claim full cultural agency. No one can stop me, because I am The Greatest Living American Writer.

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Chris Gethard opens up: “I’ve spent too much time growing up feeling like I couldn’t talk about this stuff. And it almost killed me”

Chris Gethard

Chris Gethard (Credit: Courtesy of Chris Gethard: Career Suicide)

Chris Gethard is very funny guy who often begins with very painful subjects, whether his own childhood nerdiness, his teenage alcoholism or the sometimes crippling anxiety and depression that he’s dealt with for much of his life. These become the material of his show “Career Suicide,” which begins previews Off-Broadway at the Lynn Redgrave Theater on Oct. 5.

“This is a subject that isn’t often addressed in comedy,” Judd Apatow, who produces the show, told Salon via email. “It means so much to people when someone like Chris can speak so honestly and hilariously about their experiences. It helps people understand what some of their friends and loved ones go through and it lets the people who are struggling with these issues know that they are not alone and that there is hope.”

Apatow added, “Chris has developed a really big following recently because he has had the courage to open up to his audience and share his struggles and his triumphs. “

The comedian is probably best known for “The Chris Gethard Show” on Fusion, but he’s also appeared on a handful of television shows (regularly on “Broad City”) and recently in the movie “Don’t Think Twice,” about the improv comedy world. Gethard  is a product of the Upright Citizens Brigade and developed some of “Career Suicide” there.

Salon spoke by phone to Gethard, who was at his home in New York; the interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Your new show turns heavily on subjects like depression and anxiety. These are clearly some things you’ve gone through yourself. But does it seem to you that they are far more common among people in the arts and entertainment than we typically acknowledge? Do a lot of the comedians and musicians and so on you know deal with various kinds of torments?

Well, I’ve though about this a lot. And I think it’s probably just more common in general. I do think there’s been a history of artists who suffer from this stuff and sometimes that comes out after bad things happen.

But I don’t know that artists are more prone to dealing with it — it’s probably swept under the rug in most people’s lives. I’m very resistant to the idea of the tortured artist. Do you have to be messed up to be funny, to be creative, to be musical?

It’s probably that artists tend to be public people and they process their feelings in public.

To me it’s very concerning that the perception is that artists have this more commonly — because I think there are more people behind closed doors dealing with this, not ready to deal with it.

I guess by saying [mental illness] is mostly something that artists and musicians and whatever deal with, it allows the mainstream to shrug it off, push it into a corner. “It’s just something those people deal with.”

I know for me, the whole show has been about examining my own experience. . . . I don’t get on a soapbox and preach. But so many people have come up to me after the show and said, “I’ve dealt with similar stuff” or “My mom has dealt with similar stuff.” Or “What you’re saying seems to speak honestly about this.”

The idea of the tortured artist is trouble to me because I think a lot of people avoid getting help because they think it’s going to kill their creativity. I was one of those people for years. But when I got medicated, my career got better because I wasn’t a manic person, running all over the place will all sorts of unrestrained energy and unrealistic ideas and an inability to focus.

I get it. We all want part of Kurt Cobain’s legend to be that he was so sad. But I wouldn’t mind personally if part of his legend had been that he stayed alive and jumped the shark eventually.

You told a Scottish paper when you played the Edinburgh Fringe Festival that “I can safely say with no hyperbole that if I wasn’t a comedian I’d be dead in a grave already.” You really mean that literally, right?

Yeah.   I was in very, very rough shape when I first discovered comedy. There is no part of me that’s trying to build an image as a depressed guy, trying to corner the market on this.

I was in a very, very bad place. And then I discovered the UCB Theater, and that gave me something to feel passionate about, something to be excited by. I think comedy got me through a couple of my toughest years there.

Comedy was what kept my head above water.

You came up through the improv world of Upright Citizens Brigade. But do you have models or influences in earlier generations of standup comedians?

It’s funny. the people I point to as my biggest influences are not people known for wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Andy Kaufman was a god I worshipped growing up, and he obviously does so much stuff in character or that’s absurd or performance-art based. Especially on “The Chris Gethard Show” I do things like that, but still.

And David Letterman — he was known for cynical detachment and not bearing his soul. But one thing those two have in common is creating a lot of honest emotion in the room. Andy Kaufman could make the people around him mad or upset. If you look at Letterman’s interviews with Madonna or various reality stars or Paris Hilton, these could be really tense and honest. The stuff I respond to tends to be really, really honest.

Another touchstone for you has been the band The Smiths and the singer Morrissey. Tell us a bit about what they meant to you.

The Smiths mean a lot to me still. A lot of people would say that Morrissey’s lyrics maybe spoke to them when nothing else does. That was true of my experience. To feel that sense of isolation when you can’t figure out how you fit into the world.

And to hear someone who can say it so eloquently and humorously. It was eye-opening to me. He could say it with a knowing nod and wink.

I’ve thought a lot when I’m writing my comedy that I never want to lose sight of how music made me feel when I was young. Music tended to slice through all the static and all the noise.

Morrissey has become the kind of guy we all roll our eyes at these days. I think it’s a real shame because he’s someone who still tries to just do what he believes in, to stand by what he says.

He’s certainly stood by his principles. No doubt about that. He’s certain stubbornly ethical.

And there were a bunch of articles last week, because he was at [Riot Fest] in Chicago, and he came out late because there was still meat cooking. I don’t know why people make fun of him. He’s been a passionate celebrity since 1982. He was probably the first celebrity to make it cool to be a vegetarian. He views animals being killed as actual murder.

I don’t get why we’re all giving him a hard time. He doesn’t always say popular or easy things.

Comedians have complained over the last year or so about political correctness in comedy, that we’re such an oversensitive culture that comedian can’t be honest or can’t be funny anymore. Does this problem really exist? Does it limit what you can say?

Well, I really go back and forth on this stuff. You’ll see someone’s act being videotaped, and it will lead to a blog post, and then a backlash.

Comics have this stance of, “We’re comedians, we have to get onstage and say things that are uncomfortable, to hold a mirror up to something.”

I agree with that — comedians do have the right to say what they want. But people also have the right to get offended by it. You have to be ready to take it on the chin if you say something unpopular. Do I think the PC stuff is a little extreme these days? I definitely do. I think there are people coming to comedy clubs looking to be offended, looking to be upset, looking for things to write a think piece about.

That’s not the social contract you’re signing up for. You should be looking to laugh.

Some people were very mad at me for making comedy about suicide. I don’t think there’s anything funny about it, but I’ve spent too much time growing up feeling like I couldn’t talk about this stuff. And it almost killed me.

A lot of the best comedy makes people uncomfortable. I think audiences need to remember that that’s part of the deal. And comedians need to remember that if people get offended, that’s also part of the deal.

Every profession — whether jazz musicians or scientists — has its own inside dialogue and subcultural style. I wonder if when comedians get together — when there are no civilians around — if they are more outrageous than usual. Pushing each other to go as far as they can. Is there a kind of arms race quality to comedian-to-comedian banter?

There are definitely situations where comedians get together are busting on each other and saying shocking things. That’s part of it.

But the more shocking thing that people would be surprised is how boring comedians can be when they’re around each other. A lot of time the most boring, dry conversations I’ve had are with other comedians. It oscillates between showoffs trying to one up each other, even if it gets a little offensive, and the least funny conversations in the entire world.

The amount of times I’ve told people I’m a comedian and they look me in the eye and say, “You don’t seem funny” . . . it’s both astounding and entirely accurate.

Source: New feed

The primal appeal of pimple-popping videos: Our obsession with gross anatomy has deep roots

Woman Popping Pimple

(Credit: Iakov Filimonov via Shutterstock)

“OK. This is the craziest thing,” the man says in the video. He points to a curly tuft of hair, like a single nascent pube on his neck. “I’ve had this gigantic black mark on my face for months, and it looks like it’s literally a pound of hair.”

He then takes a tweezer — a pink, girly tweezer — and starts to pull. He pulls and pulls and pulls for a minute, until he’s fully extracted “like, a year of hair.” For the life of me, I cannot tell you why I am watching it. I am wincing in horror and disgust and yet I am still watching it.

I’m not alone, either. Since it was originally posted in 2014, that clip, by a guy who only calls himself “Joe Gross,” has been viewed on YouTube over 31 million times. To put that in perspective, only 26 million Americans watched the Rio Olympics‘ opening ceremonies. We humans really love our gross stuff.

As further evidence, consider the surprise viral star of the summer: that dark, hairy growth an Oklahoma woman painstakingly removed from her belly button in August. When she posted a video of the extraction on YouTube — complete with guttural screams of “Ewwwwwwwww!” — it became a worldwide news story.

And then there’s Dr. Sandra Lee, aka “Dr. Pimple Popper,” the California dermatologist who’s amassed more than 2 million Instagram followers and over 750 million YouTube views for her chronicles of extracting blackheads, cysts, lipomas and so much more. In a recent clip, she tenderly squeezes out some yellow pus and observes how it’s “like butter.” I can’t believe it’s not!

The phenomenon of body fascination and horror was not invented with YouTube. After all, we’ve tried to purge our zits and ear wax and insane belly button growths for the duration of our humanity. A 17th-century folk guide suggested taking “your first urine of the day on a white washcloth and patting it around the acne area.” The 1779 guide “The Toilet of Flora” offered a recipe for “an excellent water to clear the skin and take away pimples.”

We struggle with our icky body stuff and then strangely, we need to see what’s on that Q-tip. Biore’s entire ’90s-era ad campaign was about directly appealing to women’s need to see their recently extracted blackheads.

Our warts and growths and grossness have been a staple of art, fiction and nonfiction. The anatomical museums of Florence, Vienna and Budapest have for hundreds of years served as sources of both education and morbid fascination. Philadelphia’s famed Mütter Museum, part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, contains “wet specimens” like cysts and tumors, a jar of dried skin, a necklace of genital warts, and wax models — like one of a woman who grew a horn on her face. The facility can be rented out for events. For several years, it sold a popular calendar of photos from its collection. Would you like to see a photograph of its 74-pound cyst? It’s not out there because you don’t.

Yet the oddly cathartic modern phenomenon of extraction — or “popping” — videos does feel uniquely ideal for the short-form video audience. A popping clip is a story with dramatic tension and resolution, often all in the span of mere seconds. And Gainesville, Florida, psychiatrist Dr. Andrew J. Pierce understands the curiosity from a unique perspective — his wife is an aspiring dermatology nurse practitioner.

Pierce says that she “loves those videos — and they gross me out. Their ability to create such strong emotional responses is fascinating. . . . The most common way I see one of these pimple popping videos is at night, we’re in bed, I roll over. . . . and look over her shoulder. So I’m not prepared.”

Continues Pierce: “I think the emotion it elicits for her is different. A lot of people talk about disgust or repulsion; she finds it intriguing and satisfying. There’s healing occurring; there’s the extraction of something bad from inside the body to outside the body. She sees the therapeutic side.” Stands to reason.

In an interview with Daniel Tosh earlier this year, Dr. Sandra Lee said, “A lot of people like these videos because they relax them. . . . I think it makes people happy.”

Pierce theorizes that the allure of these videos is almost primal. “A lot of the neurocircuits in our brain are, for want of a better term, holdovers,” he says. “We still have this part of our brain that triggers disgust and repulsion that’s led us to do great things, like recognize inedible objects and have better sanitation. . . . Now we’re more or less protected. These videos, in a safe way, are kind of tapping into that. . . . Disgust and fear are two separate but closely aligned things. . . . These videos are eliciting similar emotions.”

Anna Rothschild, a journalist and host of “Gross Science” on “Nova” who spends much of her career mucking about exploring the realm of poo and slime and bugs, has some other ideas, too. “My feeling is there’s this element of voyeurism that is deeply satisfying, and part of it is because in our daily lives we aren’t allowed to express the gross side of ourselves.”

Rothschild notes, “We go to great lengths to try to not be be disgusting creatures. We try not to do the things animals do. We don’t poop in public. It’s considered unsavory to spit on the street. . . . But in truth they’re natural parts of life. We do have to poop, and we have saliva in our mouths, and sometimes we have gases that need to be released. Watching gross things allows us to experience this natural side of life without engaging in it. That’s my idea.”

Yet one person’s mesmerizing clip is another’s oh hell no. On her site, Rothschild has a video of a tonsil stone extraction that she calls “one of the most revolting pieces of footage I’ve ever seen.” Yet while she describes it as “deeply horrifying,” because “the idea that it’s something lurking in there that I’d have no control over is really unsettling,” I find the same clip borderline satisfying.

The extraction is so clean, so decisive, so free of pus or hair. It just pops out like a little tooth. It’s the more . . . liquid videos that make me want to hurl. I also remain horrifically baffled at those clips of foul things that have quite clearly been lingering within a person’s body for an inordinate amount of time. Have these YouTubers’ friends and families been spending years avoiding looking at their EGG-SIZED CYSTS?

All I know that I have learned from researching this story while shrieking “Oh God no whyyyyyyyy?” repeatedly at my computer screen is that there’s an obvious reason I never went to medical school.

Ultimately, Anna Rothschild wonders if perhaps part of the allure of these videos is “because grooming is such an innate thing that we do. And removing something from their body that’s unhealthy is almost tapping into this deep grooming desire we have.” There’s got to be something to it because if you want to watch “massive and nasty” ear wax removed or the “world’s worst” blisters draining, you will find yourself in the company of millions of other viewers.

And maybe it just comes down to, as Rothschild suggests, “There’s something satisfying about seeing people purifying themselves.”

Source: New feed