Why can’t bro comedies stop making fun of gay men?


CHiPs (Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

One of the perks of directing your own movie is that you get to give yourself all the best close-ups. “CHiPs,” a big-screen adaptation of the confoundingly popular ’80s TV show starring Erik Estrada, is brought to you by Dax Shepard, an actor whose most interesting feature is a perpetually clueless expression. In the opening scenes of his third directorial feature, his character, aspiring California Highway Patrolman John Baker, is lying in bed shirtless. The shot shows off his casually ripped abs. John may be a pill-popping idiot, but “CHiPs” would like you to know he’s a sexy pill-popping idiot.

John is also heterosexual. Given the immense progress our society has made in recent years around LGBT acceptance, this might appear an incidental plot point, but “CHiPs” is firm on this subject.

Officer Baker signs up for law enforcement to win back his way-too-hot-for-him wife (Kristen Bell, wasted here) who has moved on to far greener pastures (a mustachioed Josh Duhamel). John repeatedly reminds everyone around him — and, ipso facto, the audience — that he intends to mend fences with his lady love. This puts him at odds with a fellow officer, Frank “Ponch” Poncherello (Michael Peña), an FBI agent assigned to investigate an undercover case. Ponch has sleuthing to do and doesn’t have time to play meter maid to all of Southern California. When the men meet for the first time, John attempts to give his new partner a hug in the locker room but is rebuffed. Real men put their shirts on first.

Ponch’s apprehension to embracing his barely clothed colleague is quickly validated. When John spies a fellow patrolman (Ryan Hansen) — also very straight — the men exchange a friendly, no homo back-pat. As their bodies briefly collide, their crotches touch. Ponch, staring at their bulging tighty-whities, is horrified. One has to wonder, though, why he was looking at their genitals to begin with.

“CHiPs” is yet another in a long line of Hollywood gay panic comedies, in which the closeness between men is played for constant laughs. This would appear to be a relic of the decade from which its source material originates — when gay people were deployed as punchlines in everything from “Night Shift” and “Teen Wolf” to “Revenge of the Nerds” — but homophobia hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s still flourishing in an industry that struggles to treat queer people with dignity and respect at a time when marginalized groups are calling for diverse representation. This unfortunate throwback is a reminder of how far we still have to go.

“CHiPs” desperately wants to have it both ways by being cosmetically inclusive, even while mocking the very groups it portrays onscreen (many Ryan Murphy shows share this problem). Shortly after infiltrating his new group of coworkers, Ponch meets a ginger cop who describes himself as “Gay Terry,” whose sexuality is his only character trait. Jess Rowland reprises the role from Shepard’s previous feature, “Hit and Run,” in which his orientation was dealt with more respectfully. “Hit and Run” even snuck in a good Grindr joke.

But reducing Officer Rathbun to a cameo here does no one any favors. Aside from being introduced as the token gay, Terry has almost no lines in the film. His only memorable moment is a scene in which he confesses that he would sleep with either John or Ponch given the opportunity, playing on the tired stereotypes that all queer men lust after neckbearded straight dudes to lure into the sack (sorry, guys, we’re just not that into you).

Shepard, who also wrote “CHiPs,” is nothing if not well-meaning. Even as his script is deeply uncomfortable about the idea of men having sex with each other, it attempts to call out its own regressiveness, amounting to an extremely flaccid attempt at meta-commentary on toxic masculinity. When Ponch won’t give his colleague a shirtless hug, John claims it’s because his new co-worker is homophobic. Ponch protests that a) he doesn’t hate gay people, b) being repulsed at the idea of skin-to-skin contact with a stranger isn’t weird, and c) John is misusing the term. If homophobia, as Ponch straight-splains, is about the hatred of gay people, it doesn’t apply when there are no gays in the room.

But it absolutely still applies. “CHiPs” takes great pains to illustrate that it’s down with homosexuality, and it’s revealed a colleague has been having an affair with a man in a way that’s refreshingly devoid of judgment. There’s a double standard here, though, when it comes to straight men. The film upholds the notion that the most repugnant and embarrassing insult that can be hurled at a straight man is the idea that he could be light in the loafers.

This comes to a head — quite literally — during a scene in which Ponch is called to the rescue when John falls out of bed. Officer Baker has titanium in his arm from previous injuries, and on rainy days the pain makes it difficult to move. Ponch must come help his ailing partner to the bathroom. At first, he is unwilling to do so because John is naked, as “CHiPs” finds every opportunity to get its director/star’s shirt off. Ponch is guilted into the deed and while helping out trips with John in his arms, accidentally getting a crotch in the face. The scene is meant to be uproarious, and for the audience in my theater, it got the job done. The characters’ gay panic meltdown was one of the few times the audience actually laughed.

Hollywood movies keep going to this well because it effectively plays to the lowest common denominator — exploiting minority populations for cheap laughs in unfunny movies that desperately need a jolt of guffaws. It’s a sign of just how desperate and cynical so many studio comedies are.

Take the Robert De Niro-starring “Dirty Grandpa,” the nadir in a career that has already had its fair share of low points. De Niro was cast in the 2016 raunchfest as the appropriately named Dick Kelly, a septuagenarian retiree who’s like a horny Archie Bunker on amphetamines. His political incorrectness isn’t biting or satiric, as in the case of Norman Lear’s trailblazing sitcom. It’s just sad. After convincing his straitlaced grandson (Zac Efron) to take a Spring Break trip to Daytona Beach, the pair meet Bradley (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), the gay BFF of party girl Lenore (Aubrey Plaza). Dick, always a charmer, repeatedly calls Bradley “twinkletoes” and “princess.” He later calls the idea of being black and LGBT “funny.”

There are so many examples of blatant homophobia in the genre loosely known as “bro comedy” — the post-Apatow strain of movies about hetero hijinks — that it would be impossible to include them all.

“Wedding Crashers,” the sleeper smash in which two bachelors show up at strangers’ weddings for the free hooch, features a subplot in which the Duane Hall-like brother (Keir O’Donnell) of pretty love interest Claire (Rachel McAdams) makes a nude portrait of Jeremy (Vince Vaughn). Todd, sneaking into Jeremy’s bedroom at night with a declaration of love, claims the painting is “violent and sexual.” In “The Hangover Part II,” ever-hapless Stu (Ed Helms) gets his “Crying Game” on: He’s horrified to learn he had sex with a trans woman (Yasmin Lee), whose anatomy is flashed on screen for extra shock value, while blackout drunk. “Get Hard,” starring Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart, is 90 minutes of prison rape jokes. Even the title is a prison rape joke.

The obvious solution to the pervasive gay panic in movies like “Hot Tub Time Machine 2,” “Role Models,” “Meet the Spartans,” “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay,” and “Horrible Bosses 2” is to simply not see them. You have a choice where to spend your money. But even if you don’t buy a ticket, lots of other people will. “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,” in which the most humiliating debasement that straight men can face is to be forced to pretend to be gay in order to get health benefits, made over $100 million. “The Hangover Part II” is the highest-grossing R-rated comedy ever made (not counting superhero movies).

When these movies repeatedly reinforce that LGBT people are laughable and ridiculous, it sends the message that they are less human. It might get you a laugh, but it’s at the expense of the basic dignity with which we all deserve to be treated.

Thankfully, a handful of movies have done a stellar job of undercutting the mundane bigotry of mainstream studio efforts. There’s “Deadpool,” which treats anal sex not like a horrific nightmare but a pleasurable activity its hero (Ryan Reynolds) liberally enjoys. Don’t knock it ’til you try it. “22 Jump Street,” the Rolls Royce of bro comedies, upends gay panic tropes with a scene in which a pair of detectives posing as college students (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) pretend to be engaging in same-sex fellatio in order to throw some drug dealers off their scent. When the criminals call them “faggots,” Janko (Tatum) isn’t upset they think he’s gay. He’s mad that they used a homophobic slur. “It’s 2014, asshole,” Jenko responds.

Three years later, “CHiPs” clearly hasn’t gotten the message.

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Love will tear us apart: Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” is brilliant but not for the emotionally tender

13 Reasons Why

13 REASONS WHY (Credit: Netflix/Beth Dubber)

Lately I’ve wondered whether watching certain films and TV shows during times of grief or anxiety serves as a perfect balm, or if it’s one of the worst things a vulnerable person can do.

I’m not referring to episodes or movies that announce themselves as tragedies — no, those works let you know precisely what you’re signing up for. Rather, it’s the diversions masquerading as relatively safe escapism that can sneak up and punch you square in the chest. Maybe such a shock to the system is just what you need. On the other hand, maybe life is hard enough without viewing entertainment that unexpectedly makes you wake up at 4:19 a.m. in a sobbing fit.

The 13-episode first season of “13 Reasons Why” is currently streaming on Netflix, and it looks like the next collective pop culture obsession you’ll be hearing and reading about for the foreseeable future.

It also has the potential to wreck a person. You have been warned.

Granted, people who read Jay Asher’s 2007 young adult novel may already know what to expect, since the series is based on it. A viewer discretion advisement is in its very premise: The plot turns on events set in motion by 17-year-old Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), a beautiful girl who committed suicide.

Hannah was bullied, slut-shamed, scapegoated and relegated to the status of school pariah, and she tells her story posthumously via 13 confessional, indicting accounts recorded on cassette tapes.

Death is an easy hook into adolescent angst, which is why the Y.A. genre is bursting at the seams with stories anchored by terminal characters, suicides and the like. To be fair, death fuels all manner of literature, films and TV series; it’s the most popular character next to love. Thanatos and Eros, that forever power couple.

With all that in mind, a Y.A. tale colored by death isn’t necessarily a no-go for someone who is slogging through a rough patch, especially when the demise in question sparks a mystery. And “13 Reasons Why” is not your average whodunit. From the law’s viewpoint, the only person responsible for killing Hannah Baker is Hannah Baker.

The true nature of the mystery remains ambiguous through most of “13 Reason Why,” and that carrot-and-stick element of the plot is a prime motivation to gorge on one episode after another. Another essential lure is the tenderness with which the story considers the thirst for love that is part of the human experience, an urge that parched Hannah to death.

At least Hannah’s tapes allow her to achieve a sort of immortality along the way. The dead can tell tales, but the fact that they’re not available for follow-up questions or cross examination can be problematic. Hannah might also be an unreliable narrator — the best type for a show like this one.

But I wasn’t prepared for how deeply “13 Reasons Why” cuts into the raw epidermis of regret that grief’s rough grasping sloughs off of a person. The plot, the story, the soundtrack are all scalpels surgically slicing any pulsing veins of misery that may be lurking just under the skin, making rivers of remorse gush forth.

Perhaps I should have expected that. “13 Reasons Why” is basically an agnostic version of the act Catholics know as Confiteor, a prayer meant to inspire reflection on all we’ve done and all we’ve failed to do. Admittedly this is one person’s reaction watching the show under a specific version of numbness, but maybe it conveys how viscerally affecting this show can be. Not many series puncture the veil of emotional separation between viewer and screen with such unexpected precision.

Indeed, “13 Reasons Why” is a story about mourning, regret and culpability, but the mystery is the main engine.  It commences when Hannah’s tapes turn up on the porch of Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), a friend and classmate at Liberty High who quietly nursed a crush on the girl. Curious to listen to artifacts of a distant past, he’s instead horrified to hear the recently departed Hannah’s voice explaining that each story she tells represents one of the reasons she killed herself. Not only that, each chapter is dedicated to a person behind one of those reasons — and, since he’s received the tapes, that means Clay is one of them.

This somewhat cruel task makes Clay curious to find out what he did and who else contributed to her death. And as wrenching as Clay’s journey through the recent past and Hannah’s reasons turns out to be, his quest also makes “13 Reasons Why” highly addictive.

Similar to last year’s “Stranger Things,” “13 Reasons Why” is cocooned in nostalgia and memory, a killer combo for a good binge. But Langford and Minnette are the magnetic core of this drama. Separately and together, they have a dynamic chemistry that glows when they share the screen and energizes their scenes with others. Langford allows Hannah to radiate with bruised, shielded innocence even as she cloaks the character’s suffering with an open smile and sardonic humor. In Clay, Minnette captures a blend of awkwardness and sensitivity that makes you pine for him to get the girl even though it’s clear that can never happen.

The pair leads a racially diverse cast, all of whom deliver formidable performances with few, if any, weak spots. Kate Walsh effectively plays Hannah’s bereft mother as if everything bright has been scooped out of her. Christian Navarro also stands out as Tony, one of those cool high school guys (with an impeccably restored vintage muscle car, no less) who holds no firm allegiances, and who happens to be a connoisseur of obsolete machinery — including cassette players. Tony has his secrets, as does everyone else at Liberty High, and Navarro makes him a crucial pillar of calm for Clay and the narrative, especially once the maelstrom of paranoia created by Hannah’s tapes grows furious.

For while the hallways of Liberty High are gridlocked by misunderstood teenagers squirming under the close watch of helicopter parents, the series also proves that even watchful adults nevertheless allow vital clues to slip by unnoticed.

An impressive team of producers and directors brought “13 Reasons Why” to television, including director Tom McCarthy and Selena Gomez, who serve as executive producers alongside co-showrunners Diana Son and Brian Yorkey. A Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Yorkey writes dialogue that calls forth the ache and yearning of adolescence in a way that’s both timeless and universal.

Or maybe the cassettes deserve some credit for that feeling. Asher’s combining of a popular, personal teenage ritual of yesteryear — recorded journaling — with the perils that instant communication and fast, shallow connection visit upon today’s teens, is a fabulous conceit. On the page, it allows Hannah to control the flow of information, a grace she was not granted in life. Onscreen, these old media objects serve create a bridge between the show’s parents and their children, as well as connecting the Gen Xers and millennials in the audience who are watching the story unfold.

This collusion of details makes “13 Reasons Why” acutely appealing on an inter-generational level, capturing the dual and dueling frustrations of youth and adulthood (a warning to parents who want to view it with their children: there’s a fair share of sexual content and violence that is difficult to watch).

Yorkey shuffles these old-school rituals and details into the lives of modern characters effortlessly and with a few purposeful winks. Tony, who serves as Clay’s Virgil as he blindly lurches through Hannah’s ghostly world, refers to mix tapes as a lost art. The post-punk soundtrack hammers that point home by shuffling together tracks by The Cure, Bob Mould, Protomartyr and Eagulls, among many others.

Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” plays over one episode’s end credits, and taken in the context of the story, it’s a sublime choice. Depending on who you are, that track could also stir up the kind of buried sentiment and longing that’s weighing on Clay, creating an empathy that pulls a a person into his cloud of mourning. The whole thing is gorgeous, and it’s a lot to take in. Be careful.

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The season of Kendrick Lamar is upon us


(Credit: Youtube/KendrickLamarVEVO)

Hip-hop had hit a bit of a drought until Big Sean dropped “I Decided” in February and some of us started waking up, eager to hear good mainstream music again. And then Drake gave us more life when he dropped “More Life” two weeks ago, flooding the timelines and freezing the internet. I couldn’t open an app without seeing Drake’s name, image or praise for his work.

Remember back when an artist would drop a dope album and he or she would have the rap game on lock for six months to a year or more? All your friends, the radio, the DJs and every car riding by would be playing the same album, the same song, over and over? Yeah, so, those days are long gone. But Kendrick Lamar dropped “The Heart Part 4″ last week and washed away all the billboard-recording buzz Drake had — and completely silenced Big Sean’s album, too.

To put the power of Kendrick into context, “The Heart Part 4″ is not an album; it’s only a single. And to add a little insult to all that injury, Kendrick opens the second verse with what insiders say is a shot at Drake or Big Sean — or maybe both of them?

My fans can’t wait for me to son ya punk ass
And crush your whole lil’ shit
I’ll Big Pun ya punk-ass, you a scared lil’ bitch
Tiptoein’ around my name, nigga you lame
And when I get at you homie
Don’t you just tell me you was just playin’

I don’t want to start any rumors. He’s had lyrical exchanges with both artists in the past and either name could be easily inserted. But beyond the suggestions of a rap beef, my favorite part of the song — and why we love hip-hop in general — is its direct, aggressive political commentary:

The whole world goin’ mad
Bodies is adding up, market’s about to crash
Niggas is fake rich, bitches is fake bad
Blacks that act white, whites that do the dab
Donald Trump is a chump, know how we feel, punk

Here he trashes Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Paul Ryan’s horrible dab in just two bars, saying the things that many of us are feeling in a way that is universal, raw and extremely accessible. Lamar ends the song with a message to the whole industry: “Y’all got ’til April the 7th to get y’all shit together!”

That date could not come fast enough. In anticipation of the new project that remains untitled, he dropped a video yesterday called “Humble.” Just as he did with “The Heart Part 4,” Kendrick broke the internet and left us all wanting more.

The video opens with a study in contrasts: Kendrick in full priest attire in an empty church and covered in cash in a room full of it. The rest of the video jumps in and out of a TDE-styled version of the Last Supper, with Kendrick playing Jesus, and a beautiful scene where he pays homage to natural women, real stretch marks and the resistance against the oppressive beauty standards. In short: It’s amazing.

April 7 can’t come fast enough.

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Tom Price intervened on rule that would hurt drug profits on the same day he acquired drug stocks

Tom Price

(Credit: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

This post originally appeared on ProPublica

On the same day the stockbroker for then-Georgia Congressman Tom Price bought him up to $90,000 of stock in six pharmaceutical companies last year, Price arranged to call a top U.S. health official, seeking to scuttle a controversial rule that could have hurt the firms’ profits and driven down their share prices, records obtained by ProPublica show.

Stock trades made by Price while he served in Congress came under scrutiny at his confirmation hearings to become President Trump’s secretary of health and human services. The lawmaker, a physician, traded hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of shares in health-related companies while he voted on and sponsored legislation affecting the industry, but Price has said his broker acted on his behalf without his involvement or knowledge. ProPublica previously reported that his trading is said to have been under investigation by federal prosecutors.

On March 17, 2016, Price’s broker purchased shares worth between $1,000 and $15,000 each in Eli Lilly, Amgen, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, McKesson, Pfizer and Biogen. Previous reports have noted that, a month later, Price was among lawmakers from both parties who signed onto a bill that would have blocked a rule proposed by the Obama administration, which was intended to remove the incentive for doctors to prescribe expensive drugs that don’t necessarily improve patient outcomes.

What hasn’t been previously known is Price’s personal appeal to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services about the rule, called the Medicare Part B Drug Payment Model.

The same day as the stock trade, Price’s legislative aide, Carla DiBlasio, emailed health officials to follow up on a request she had made to set up a call with Patrick Conway, the agency’s chief medical officer. In her earlier emails, DiBlasio said the call would focus on payments for joint replacement procedures. But that day, she mentioned a new issue.

“Chairman Price may briefly bring up … his concerns about the new Part B drug demo, as well,” she wrote. “Congressman Price really appreciates the opportunity to have an open conversation with Dr. Conway, so we really appreciate you keeping the lines of communication open.”

The call was scheduled for the following week, according to the emails.

An HHS spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment from Price. DiBlasio and Conway didn’t respond to questions about the phone call.

The proposed rule drew wide opposition from members of both parties as well as industry lobbyists and some patient advocacy groups. It was meant to change a system under which the government reimburses doctors the average sales price for drugs administered in their offices or inside clinics, along with a 6 percent bonus. Some health analysts say that bonus encourages doctors to pad their profits by selecting more expensive treatments.

Critics argued that the rule might cause Medicare enrollees to lose access to lifesaving drugs. Lawmakers worried the federal government was potentially endangering patients and turning them into guinea pigs in a wide-scale experiment in cost savings.

However, supporters of the rule said the experiment in payments was the kind of drastic action needed to rein in soaring health costs. “We are actively reforming every other aspect of our health-care system to pay for value except pharmaceuticals,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said at the time. “Drug manufacturers are the only entity that can charge Medicare anything they want.”

The six companies that Price invested in were steadfastly opposed to the rule. McKesson formally warned investors in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing that such a change could hurt share prices. The firms lobbied the government to kill the plan.

And at two of the six companies Price invested in, people who used to work for the congressman were part of the lobbying effort.

Price’s former chief of staff, Matt McGinley, lobbied House members for Amgen, disclosure records show. Another former Price aide, Keagan Lenihan, lobbied on behalf of McKesson, where she was director of government relations at the time. Lenihan has since reunited with Price, returning to government to work as a senior adviser to her old boss at HHS.

Neither McGinley nor Lenihan responded to requests for comment.

Although Price said he wasn’t aware of his broker’s trades at the time they were made, he would have learned of his holdings no later than April 2016 when he signed and filed his latest financial disclosure forms. In earlier disclosures, Price signed forms listing his other health-related holdings, which included some drug stocks.

Price’s personal intervention raises more questions about the overlap between his investments and his work as a member of Congress.

According to House ethics guidelines, “contacting an executive branch agency” represents “a degree of advocacy above and beyond that involved in voting” on legislation where a financial conflict of interest may exist.

“Such actions may implicate the rules and standards … that prohibit the use of one‘s official position for personal gain,” the guidelines state. “Whenever a Member is considering taking any such action on a matter that may affect his or her personal financial interests, the Member should first contact the Standards Committee for guidance.”

Tom Rust, chief counsel for the House Ethics Committee, declined to comment, saying any consultations with members of Congress are confidential.

In December, after Trump was elected and named Price as his choice to lead HHS, Obama administration health officials scrapped their plan to change the drug reimbursement system. “The complexity of the issues and the limited time available led to the decision not to finalize the rule at this time,” a spokesman said.

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Too good to be true? Michael Flynn’s offer of testimony for immunity sends up a lot of red flags

GOP Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Campaigns In Philadelphia

(Credit: Getty/Mark Makela/AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

On Thursday evening, when the news broke that Michael Flynn, the recently-canned national security adviser, offered testimony to House and Senate investigators in exchange for immunity from prosecution, the excitement in political circles was palpable. Twitter exploded and pundits on cable news shows were practically vibrating with excitement at the possibility that Flynn would soon be spilling his guts over what, exactly, he knows about the connections between Donald Trump and Russian intelligence services that were behind the various email hacks of Democratic Party members, which may in turn have influenced the outcome of the 2016 election.

But Friday morning, the Senate Intelligence Committee — which, unlike their Rep. Devin Nunes-led counterpart in the House, actually seems to be taking this investigation seriously — rejected Flynn’s request.

“A senior congressional official with direct knowledge said Flynn’s lawyer was told it was ‘wildly preliminary’ and that immunity was ‘not on the table’ at the moment,” reports NBC News. “A second source said the committee communicated that it is ‘not receptive’ to Flynn’s request ‘at this time.’”

While it’s exciting to imagine Flynn getting behind a desk and spilling all sorts of dirty secrets about the Trump administration, I believe the Senate Intelligence Committee was right not to snap up this offer. I would also advise that my fellow liberals suck an ice cube, cool their jets and not freak out on congressional and intelligence officials, demanding they take Flynn’s offer. We are all impatient to get to the bottom of this Russia scandal, but that’s all the more reason to slow down. This needs to be done right, and that means it will take time.

To be blunt, something about this offer doesn’t smell right. For one thing, the fact that this offer was leaked is a big red flag, raising the possibility that Flynn’s legal team wanted the story to come out precisely so that there would be public pressure on authorities to take the deal. Then there is the vagueness of the offer, which could set investigators up to offer a lot and get nothing truly substantial in return.

Oh, and then there was this:

It’s fun to laugh at Trump, who sounds like he doesn’t really understand what “immunity” is. But there’s a darker possibility, which is that Trump is confident that the deal that’s on offer, as it stands, is a crappy one that will not actually result in Flynn giving up the goods to the authorities. Trump’s not a subtle man. On the contrary, his public record suggests he’s someone who thinks he can just bark demands and have them met. The fact that he is openly calling on investigators to take the deal is, by itself, an excellent reason not to take it.

If there is a strategy from Flynn and Trump’s camps to increase pressure on investigators, it’s working. Richard Painter and Norman Eisen, who were the ethics lawyers for George W. Bush and Barack Obama respectively, have an op-ed in Friday’s New York Times calling for investigators to take Flynn’s deal.

“This is the latest development in a scandal more frightening than Watergate because it involves a foreign adversary attacking the American political system,” they write. “We need to get to the bottom of it as soon as possible.”

The headline reads, “Trump Is Right: Give Michael Flynn Immunity.” And while both Painter and Eisen are smart men that are generally good at their jobs, both of them should take a moment to really think about the words “Trump is right.”

Trump isn’t right. Even when he gets something factually correct, it’s almost always by accident and not a deliberate choice. But on issues of ethics and what’s right to do, Trump is categorically incapable of being right.

Trump is only capable of being venal and self-interested. He does or says that isn’t aimed directly at that goal. So when he says that he wants Flynn to get immunity, then that’s all the more reason to view Flynn’s request skeptically. Trump almost certainly wouldn’t say that if he didn’t think it benefited him in some way.

We don’t know what’s going on, of course, but what we do know is that Trump really wants investigators to take Flynn’s deal. When the guy you’re investigating recommends a course of action in your investigation, that’s a bad sign. That goes double when the guy you’re investigating is morally bankrupt and thoroughly corrupt.

Maybe Flynn will offer a better deal down the road, but right now, what he’s offering doesn’t look so great. Maybe it’s painful to let go of the liberal fantasy that Trump will go down easily, or soon. But patience is the right course now.

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LISTEN: Extra Credit

Extra Credit

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Salon contributor Neal Pollack supplements his 14-year-old son Elijah’s education with dubious life lessons in his podcast “Extra Credit” on Audible. Their quest takes them to slave plantations in New Orleans, synagogues in Manhattan, and a gun range in San Antonio. They interview Mexican comedians, medical-marijuana refugees, and comic-book creators. Elijah learns something, even though he won’t admit it. We’ve got an exclusive clip from his current season here:

More Extra Credit is available on Audible.

This podcast is part of Salon’s new collection of Featured Audio highlighting culturally diverse voices and undiscovered stories.

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“That white men might roll in ease”: I feel like the first real American in my family, which has been here for centuries

Frederick Douglass; D. Watkins; Thomas Jefferson

Frederick Douglass; D. Watkins; Thomas Jefferson (Credit: Wikimedia/Peter Cooper/Salon)

“Professor Watkins, you got a sec?” a student asked at the end of class last week as I shuffled ungraded papers into my book bag. “You don’t seem patriotic at all, like not even a little. What’s up with that?”

He was a boy-next-door type of white kid in a vintage Orioles cap and matching jersey. He doesn’t really speak much in class, but his essays are great.

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“Because of the way you called Jefferson a dehumanizing slaveholder, better known as the godfather of black oppression!” he said with a laugh. “I don’t know. I feel like he did so much more.”

“Oh, he did. But the way you interpret his legacy is a matter of perspective,” I answered. “Recognizing how my ancestors were being treated under his dictatorship doesn’t really make me want to rush out and praise his legacy. Think about it like this: What if you recently found out that player plastered on your shirt was a genius, but also a human-trafficking rapist. Would you proudly wear his jersey?”

“Of course not,” he said. “But I’ll always love my country.”

I thought about his comments on my drive home.  History is my first love. Most of my leisure reading involves the topics of slavery and Reconstruction, so I’m constantly thinking about the development of America and the role Africans played. And even after years of research and stacks of books, I’m still amazed at what enslaved and freed Africans accomplished in the world under the harshest of circumstances. By harsh, I mean being kidnapped, stripped of family and culture, having a foreign culture forced on them, and facing overwhelming degradation, beatings, torture, rape and murder in a place where discrimination against black people was not only legal; it was celebrated.

But back to those accomplishments. In addition to the sacrifices made by African-American historical leaders, from Fredrick Douglass to Barack Obama, those accomplishments make me and many other Americans more than proud. And yet the idea of my being both black and a patriot danced around in my mind. It feels impossible. What does that even look like? Does it look like Ben Carson or one of those other black Republicans who can justify anything and everything against blackness? It was Carson who traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, and said, “I think a lot of people understood that [Mike Brown] had done bad things, but his body didn’t have to be disrespected. I heard also that people need to learn how to respect authority.”

“Respect authority.” Is that what being a black patriot is all about? No mention from Carson of the trigger-pulling officer Darren Wilson’s use of the N-word or the racist rhetoric tossed around by the Ferguson police department, only to pop back up in the media calling slaves migrant workers and interns? I don’t think so. I struggle with the idea of black conservatives in general — mainly because they all make comments like Carson’s. Some aren’t as extreme but they still sound like apologetic, subservient, weak cowards. To me, that’s non-American.

And then I think about people like Oprah, Jay Z, Maya Angelou, Dave Chappelle, and all the other black innovators who I don’t know personally but have mentored me from a distance, and how their amazing success stories can take place only in America. Seeing their talents and witnessing their social mobility forces me to work hard in an effort to reach similar heights, and that makes the American Dream a real thing for me.

It connects me to so many others who believe in that dream, making my relationship with the country a love-hate thing. I love the opportunity wrapped around all of those amazing come-up stories, but I hate the bloody history, in addition to the way women, people of color and the LGBTQ community are constantly discriminated against. And yet I acknowledge the progress we’ve made. It’s complicated.

I received an email from my student later on that night requesting a conference to finish our conversation and go over his midterm grade. I set it up for the next day and sent him this passage from Frederick Douglass, published in The North Star:

For two hundred and twenty-eight years has the colored man toiled over the soil of America, under a burning sun and a driver’s lash — plowing, planting, reaping, that white men might roll in ease, their hands unhardened by labor, and their brows unmoistened by the waters of genial toil; and now that the moral sense of mankind is beginning to revolt at this system of foul treachery and cruel wrong, and is demanding its overthrow, the mean and cowardly oppressor is meditating plans to expel the colored man entirely from the country. Shame upon the guilty wretches that dare propose, and all that countenance such a proposition. We live here — have lived here — have a right to live here, and mean to live here.

We both showed up to my office five or so minutes early the next day.

“Professor Watkins, why’d you send that Douglass quote?” he asked.

I unlocked the door and we both walked into my office.

“Look at all of your awards and trophies,” he said, pointing to my wall. “Even you have a great American story!”

“I do,” I responded.

Then I explained what Fredrick Douglass called “the Great Tradition,” a theory that African slaves built this country, meaning that they should not be shipped to a different place after slavery ended and that they deserve to reap the benefits of everything that America has to offer.

“Reaping those benefits have been a rocky road,” I explained. “From slavery to Jim Crow to the prison industrial complex and all the other different types of discrimination that allowed — allow — these racist people and institutions to function.”

The fact is, I feel like the first real American in my family. Yes, my parents and the grandparents I met were born here; however, I’m a part of the first generation in my family to travel, to receive a good education, to own property, to advance. And my good fortune feels tainted when I see so many black people who may never be able to have the same experience. That lack of opportunity, especially among the people who look like me, is what prohibits me and many other blacks from being flag-waving patriots.

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“We have the power to create as well as to destroy and that’s frightening to people”: Alice Lowe director of “Prevenge” on murder and motherhood


Prevenge (Credit: Kaliedoscope)

It’s hard enough being eight months pregnant. But when you’re trying to manage all that late-stage discomfort and those prenatal visits while simultaneously lurching through a murder spree — at the behest of your bloodthirsty unborn baby, no less — it’s bound to get messy.

Yet in the new British horror film “Prevenge soon-to-be mum Ruth gamely manages to leave an impressive trail of dead bodies in her wake. Actress Alice Lowe, meanwhile, has pulled off a more socially acceptable feat — writing, directing and starring in the film all while she herself was really awaiting the birth of her first child. Salon spoke recently with Lowe, a veteran of other darkly comic works including “Sightseers” and “Hot Fuzz,” about murder, moviemaking and motherhood.

When I first saw the film, I didn’t realize that was your real pregnant belly. When I was eight months pregnant, I didn’t want to even walk across the room, so kudos.

Well, I think by that stage I didn’t want to either. I was lucky I got in just before that period where you become really tired and always half asleep. You know that bit where you suddenly get huge? I think we finished filming just before that, so I was just lucky in that sense.

You’ve done really dark things before and you’ve done dark and funny before. I first became a fan of you through “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace,” so that is the lane I see you skating in again and again. But what was it that made you want to do this particular kind of story?

Well, I wanted to direct a film and I had accepted that I wouldn’t be able to because I was having a baby. Then I thought, If I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it because how female directors do you see with tiny babies? It just doesn’t happen, you know? If I do it it might be in 10 years’ time, but this is probably going to mean that I can’t do it for a while.

I was about six months pregnant and someone came to me and said, “Look, there’s a company. They’ve got financing already; it’s very low budget but they want to make it this year.” And I was a bit like, “Why is this happening to me now?”

So I went away having said no, turning it down. Then I went away and I was like, “Why do I have that assumption? I actually feel fine. I’m still the same person. I still have the same pent-up frustration about making films. I feel like I can do it. I’ve got the capacity to do it. It’s just that no one’s let me do it.”

I thought, well, I’ll pitch this idea and see if it takes. It was kind of everything that was unexpected about a pregnant character, so I was just like, “Well, she’s going to have a kind of power, and she’s going to be feeling cut off from society.” I also thought, “Why don’t we have a female “Taxi Driver”? Why do we not have more female loner characters?”

So this character sort of came to life really. I pitched it to the company and they said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” I said, “Can you do it in the next two months?” And they were like, “Yeah.” Then the guy who was going to direct it said, “I can’t direct your story. You’ve got to direct it.” I was planning to direct but not doing this necessarily as my debut.

In a way I felt, “Well, if it doesn’t work out, I don’t care. The baby is the most important thing. But if it does work out, that would be great.” So I had a kind of a strangely relaxed attitude.

Plus you got to save money on effects by having your own belly play itself.

That’s what I actually said to them. I said, “This is one very good special effect in the bag that we got for free.”

What did it feel like getting to like cut people into ribbons and smash heads while you were hugely pregnant? 

First of all, it was always a logistical challenge. Sometimes it was really funny as well because we’d have one chance to get this prosthetic oozing blood, one take with this pretend knife slashing. We’ve got a makeup assistant standing with a syringe with a tube of blood, and if it doesn’t come out of the neck, that’s not going to work.

So it’s just funny; there’s nothing horrific about this. Someone once said to me, “Did you feel really squeamish in the edit?” I just said no. If I thought I was going to be squeamish, I wouldn’t have written the film. 

There were certain shots that were quite satisfying. Like I had this idea that I wanted to just shoot through a glass table this woman who’s like so obsessed with her work that the only relationship she’s got is with her desk. I wanted her to die over her desk. That was really satisfying when we were able to get that shot. That particular kill, I did go, “Yesss!” It was logistically some of the least complicated stuff that we did, but it’s some of the most effective.

All of the characters were hugely important, and I knew they had to be played by people who are amazing because otherwise the audience would get bored. You can’t just side with the killer, even though the people she’s killing are kind of vile. There needs to be some kind of human tension about it. You have to be feeling this push and pull all the way through their scenes for you to want to watch them. 

I have this theory that if you have a horrible character, you cast someone hugely charismatic in it. You’re going to have that tension all the way through anyway because you’re enjoying watching that so much that you don’t want to hate them, but they’re doing horrible things. It just makes it compelling.

I’m curious about what the response has been to a film like this. There aren’t that many films where the serial killer is a woman and there are very few where the serial killer is a pregnant woman. At the beginning of this century, there are these kind of French body horror films that I love and I’m so fascinated with, like “High Tension” and “Inside” that really explore the horror from the female perspective. Did you get any kind of pushback like “Oh, but moms don’t go killing people. They certainly don’t murder people!”?

I thought it was going to get more negative. There was one Christian fundamentalist group or website that said it was an abomination, but they hadn’t seen the film. So it was a bit like, well, you might watch and think it’s quite moral actually. This woman is not exactly the happiest person. It’s not like, yeah, I’ll do what she’s doing; it looks great. What I really was trying to say, if I was going to say anything about the film, is that women are individuals. Who is to say that any one person wouldn’t make these choices? You don’t have to make these choices just because she’s made these choices.

Like when you watch “Taxi Driver,” you know it’s not an indictment of all men. Then why would you do that with female characters? So maybe I was just trying to say this is a just an individual journey, to shake you out of the idea that all women are the same, or all characters should represent something, should represent their gender. We just don’t expect that with male characters.

We don’t, but there is this sacredness around women and then an elevated sacredness around motherhood and what mothers are supposed to be. Your character reminded me in many ways of the bride in “Kill Bill,” in that she’s a woman with a mission.

Revenge is really, really fascinating because it’s about someone who has said goodbye to society. They’ve cut off anything that attaches them to society and they’ve become a weapon. They become action. There is something really interesting about that, and that was why I liked the revenge narrative. I’ve seen so many female characters that are supporting roles. I mean they are literally supporting the other characters, supporting the husband or supporting the lead role in whatever way, just to fulfill whatever journey they’re on.

It just felt like, I’m so bored of being able to play those parts as an actress. I felt like, What about the woman’s journey? What about the woman sort of being free from all those attachments to do what she wants to do? I think you so rarely see that, a woman who’s just doing whatever the hell she wants. I think it’s quite frightening for people because they are like, “A woman that doesn’t have any responsibility for someone else or guilt about stuff?”

Then you get these iconic films like “Fatal Attraction” or “Gone Girl” where you have super-driven women who kill, and they are also portrayed as just crazy and dependent. Those roles are very polarizing because the way that women behave in those films, even as they’re creating mayhem, is really around the idea of a man. In some ways your character is, too, because she’s driven so much by loss and by grief, but it’s primarily more about her baby and about her maternal instincts.

Also she’s in a way being a hero, like in “John Wick” or “Taken” or “Gladiator.” These are all films where the guy’s family gets killed or kidnapped or whatever, which is then a license for him to do whatever violent acts he wants but with complete righteousness. And I thought this woman, in her mind, she’s a heroine; she’s doing the right thing for her child and for society. She’s kind of cleaning it up. Even though she’s a very damaged person, she is sort a powerful person as well.

She reminds me of “Carrie in certain ways or Nicole Kidman in “Dogville.” You have a nice girl who then becomes this absolute destroyer character. It turns out she’s really good at it.

I tend to go for those sort of narratives anyway. “Carrie” was one of the inspirations for this film as well, any of those horrors that are about liminal, transgressive kind of human phases. I love Lars von Trier because his females are really transgressive, often either martyrs or witches. It’s someone coming into their power, like a superhero film, someone realizing, “These are what my skills and abilities are.” Her superpower is pregnancy. She uses the invisibility that she has to smuggle her way into people’s houses and that kind of thing.

Right, because it’s the appearance of vulnerability that she plays on and the appearance of trustworthiness. I also love “Thelma and Louise.” I love that moment in it, where Thelma says, “I think I’ve got a knack for this.” Whenever you make movies about women, they just wind up being about womanhood in a way that you can’t escape right now because we’re still in this moment where the masculine is the norm. It’s like you say, when Liam Neeson does it, it’s really super cool. But when a woman does it, what does it mean?

It means it’s frightening. We have the power to create as well as to destroy and that’s frightening to people. That’s what it’s constantly about with Medea. What’s the one power for a woman in that era, when women were not seen and not heard unless they’d done something bad? The only power that woman had would be to kill her own children. That’s her only way of punishing her husband. Women having power is a scary thing. So it just suddenly feels like, Oooh, that’s a chilling thought, what if women realized that they had power?

I’ve been thinking about “Prevenge” a lot also in relation to “Get Out.” It seems like it’s a very interesting moment for movies to be telling different kinds of stories, to come at these social issues and political issues, through the prism of horror. 

I’m really excited about seeing “Get Out” because I don’t know very much about it. I do think it gets to this thing of people who are underrepresented in cinema, especially as protagonists. It’s exploring social issues. It’s comedy; it’s horror. But it’s also entire scenes which are serious that make you think. That was a risk for me when I was editing and even when I was writing, because I don’t want people to shortchange the character. I wanted them to care, and I wanted them to think. I think that’s what’s paid off in terms of there being a lot to talk about in relation to the film and lots of different people liking the film. There’s definitely an appetite for different perspectives or maybe stories that have been told before but not quite in this way. I think it’s all really exciting actually.

Has your perspective changed since you have had a child?

No, I think to make a film while I was pregnant was the right thing for me. I think I had to be, for all that I was feeling to be sharp and powerful in my head. But I don’t think I would have made a different film. It’s still truthful. It’s about fear; it’s a representation of a nightmare. It’s a dream sort of thing. So for me, it is what it is. I wouldn’t go, “Oh no, I’m going to make a film about butterflies now.” You know, that’s not how it would be.

Portions of this interview have been condensed and edited for clarity.

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POLL: What does freedom mean to you?

Paul Ryan

In this March 24, 2017, photo, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., announces that he is abruptly pulling the troubled Republican health care overhaul bill off the House floor, short of votes and eager to avoid a humiliating defeat for President Donald Trump and GOP leaders, at the Capitol in Washington. Trump wants to tackle tax reform, but the loss on health care deals a blow to that effort. The loss on health care deprives Republicans of $1 trillion in tax cuts, and the GOP is just as divided on what steps to take. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (Credit: AP)

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Trump nixes Obama order preventing federal workers from being fired because they’re LGBT

President Trump Signs Executive Orders On Oil Pipelines

(Credit: Getty/Shawn Thew)

President Trump has repealed an executive order that advocates believe will provide loophole for employers to discriminate against LGBT people.

As part of his stated goal to strike down two pieces of federal regulation for every new policy introduced by the White House, the POTUS nixed Executive Order 13673 on Monday, along with two other Obama EOs. Known as the “Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Order,” that order required contractors who work with the federal government to demonstrate that they have complied with laws barring discrimination on gender identity and sexual orientation for at least three years. That policy was introduced in July 2014 along with an EO prohibiting bias against LGBT workers in all federal contracting.

Although Donald Trump has claimed he would uphold the Obama order explicitly condemning anti-LGBT bias, civil rights groups argue that policy is more difficult to mandate without federal enforcement.

The Obama order was really a way of making sure the federal government was only directing federal contracting dollars to businesses who were good actors,” said Sharon McGowan, Director of Strategy at Lambda Legal. “What President Trump did by repealing the executive order was eliminate a really powerful tool to ensure that companies wanting to get federal business and contracting dollars comply with all their federal obligations.”

“It says a lot about what the ethos of this administration is and will be for the next four years,” she added. “It’s not one that’s interested in advancing the interests of American workers.”

The repeal of Executive Order 13673, although it most directly impacts the LGBT community, has implications for a wide swath of federal regulation designed to prevent discrimination against women and minority communities. The 14 laws it affects include the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act, as well as  Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The latter prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace, which the Obama administration extended in 2015 to include gender identity and sexual orientation.

Selisse Berry, CEO and founder of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, said that Trump’s decision to repeal the Obama order is “out of sync” with corporate values of equality.

“Businesses have led the way for LGBT equality even as federal legislation lagged,” Berry said in a statement. “Today, an astounding 92 percent of Fortune 500 companies embrace LGB employees through non-discrimination policies and 82 percent include gender identity. . . . Businesses are some of the most prominent and powerful voices against discriminatory legislation.”

Major corporations have steadily become more inclusive in the past few decades. When the Human Rights Campaign first launched its Corporate Equality Index in 2002, just 13 companies earned a perfect score on that survey — including Apple, Eastman Kodak, Intel, Nike and Xerox. As controversies like the battle over North Carolina’s HB 2 demonstrate the costs of discrimination, more companies have realized the benefits of protections for LGBT workers. 517 companies earned a top score on the last HRC report.

McGowan argued that the Obama policies played an important role in pushing corporate America forward.

“For people who don’t give a hoot about doing the right thing but care about the bottom line, this is a way of making compliance with federal law directly tied to the ability of these companies to maintain corporate profits,” she said.

If McGowan claims that a “very significant portion of the workforce” today does business with the U.S. government, that’s a huge blow to the millions of LGBT workers who are employed at these businesses. But David Stacy, the Director of Government Affairs at HRC, claimed that what’s most worrisome about the executive order’s repeal is that it sets an unfortunate precedent. Although Trump vowed to “protect our LGBT citizens” from harm following the 2016 Pulse shooting, his administration rolled back guidance on Title IX protections for trans students last month, which were enacted just last year.

“It signals that the administration could continue to repeal Obama-era policies aimed at protecting LGBT people,” Stacy said.

The announcement of Executive Order 13673’s repeal comes at an auspicious moment for the Trump White House. After news broke that LGBT seniors would be erased from two national surveys conducted by the federal government, the Census Bureau reported that questions on gender identity and sexual orientation will not be included in the 2020 survey, contrary to previous reports. 

“This topic is not being proposed to Congress for the 2020 Census or American Community Survey,” the Bureau said in a statement.

A recent Gallup report estimated there are more than 10 million LGBT Americans.

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