Thursday, November 30, 2017

Trump’s Tax Bill: A Right-Wing Revolutionary Act

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Within days — maybe the very day after I’m writing this, November 30, 2017 — the Republican-controlled United States Senate is going to strike yet another powerful blow on behalf of the Right-wing counterrevolution in the U.S. today. They’re going to pass a highly reactionary, regressive tax bill that will hugely benefit corporations and super-rich people — not only presently existing super-rich people but their descendants — and hurt almost every American who isn’t part of the 0.01 percent.
And they’re going to do it at the end of a mockery of traditional legislative process — what Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) called “regular order.” They’re going to pass a bill that makes sweeping changes in virtually every aspect of how Americans relate to their government with only one committee hearing and at most 20 hours of floor debate. They’re also going to pass it with zero support from the Democratic Party. Historically attempts to rewrite the U.S. tax code have been bipartisan, but not this one: it is a weapon of mass destruction in an ideological war being waged by a party that has rejected any notion that equality and fairness are virtues.
The heart of the Republican tax bill is a reduction of the nominal tax rate on corporations from 35 to 20 percent. I wrote “nominal” above because there are so many deductions and loopholes in the current tax law that virtually no corporation actually pays 35 percent of its earnings in taxes. Many, in fact, pay little or nothing. In addition, by eliminating the standard allowance — the part of your tax return where you write in the number one for yourself and add one for each of your “dependents” — and making other adjustments to skew the tax codes in favor of the rich, the bill is going to raise taxes for more than 80 million Americans.
What’s more, by eliminating the estate tax, it will bring the U.S. closer to the sort of hereditary aristocracy our founders feared creating, in which money will continue to concentrate, generation after generation, in the families that have it now. At the same time the bill directly attacks college students and others pursuing the traditional paths of upward mobility in this country.
It’s also an assault on the very notion that government should ever tax the rich to benefit the not-so-rich. The Senate version of the bill totally eliminates the ability of taxpayers who itemize deductions to take their state and local taxes off their federal tax burden. The point of this is to penalize states like California, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts which have chosen to tax their better-off residents to benefit their not-so-better-off ones.
Once such taxpayers can’t take off state and local taxes from their federal returns, it will become politically impossible for any state to sustain expensive social programs with their own revenues because even their most generous-minded residents won’t be able to stand the tax burden. The idea — and it’s quite explicitly stated by the people pushing this bill — is to drive every state down to the level of places like Mississippi, where taxes are low and state government does little or nothing to help its poorer citizens.
With each new incarnation of the tax bill, it looks even worse. The Senate slipped into its version of the bill the elimination of the “individual mandate,” the provision of the Affordable Care Act (so-called “Obamacare”) that requires every American either to carry health insurance or to pay a penalty to the government.
Nonpartisan analysts, including the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), have estimated that up to 13 million Americans could lose access to health coverage if this passes, either because it will cause chaos in the private insurance market or it will force insurance companies to raise premiums so high insurance will be unaffordable. The CBO also estimates that people who would still have insurance would face an average 10 percent increase in their premiums. This is essentially a “stealth” provision to accomplish what the Republicans tried and failed to do with their bills to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act.
Various drafts of the tax bill — there are many, and according to the Politico Web site (https://www.politico.com/story/2017/11/30/mccain-to-vote-for-gop-tax-bill-270511), the contents of the bill are still in flux — include provisions that single out such typical Republican targets as graduate students and the tech industry (which in at least one version didn’t get the generous tax credits for repatriating profits stored in foreign countries other big corporations got).
And as Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, came to New York at the end of November to tell Rachel Maddow and Stephen Colbert, the current Senate bill imposes a punitive 20 percent excise tax on goods made in Puerto Rico and brought onto the U.S. mainland. That’s proof, in case we still needed any, that the Republican Party does not think of Puerto Rico as part of the United States (which it is) but as an alien territory from which we need to be “protected.”
The Republican tax bill is a perfect expression of the Libertarian ideology that dominates the Republican Party and to which virtually all GOP officeholders adhere. I’ve written about Libertarianism a lot in these pages before, but just to recap: Libertarians believe it is none of the government’s damned business to tax the most fortunate to help the less fortunate. They fundamentally reject Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, as well as all other social-welfare programs, because they regard them as “enslaving” the rich to help the not-so-rich.
Libertarians also believe in economic inequality. While other people — including some who call themselves “conservatives” — lament the increasing economic inequality in the U.S., Libertarians love inequality because they regard the rich as the “makers” who create economic value and everyone else as the “takers” who demand wealth and income they do not deserve. Indeed, Libertarians believe that in a true “free market” economy, wealth is an indicator of personal capability and social worth: if you’re rich, that proves that you are better than the common run of humanity and therefore you deserve more.
Also, Libertarians are completely opposed to civil rights laws — they believe that people ought to have the right to discriminate as a part of “economic freedom” — and they hate environmental protection. Libertarians believe that the spirit of entrepreneurial capitalism is so strong it can literally set aside the laws of physics (the hero of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, which is to Libertarianism what Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto and Capital are to socialism, invents a motor that runs on air and then organizes the disappearance of all the entrepreneurial capitalists in the world to prove that it can’t run without them), and therefore laws to protect the environment are just one more encumbrance those pesky “takers” in government and among the masses try to impose on the superior capitalist “makers.”
President Trump didn’t campaign as a Libertarian — he basically posed as a European-style Right-wing nationalist conservative who promised to spare Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid for “real Americans” (i.e., U.S.-born white men) by blocking immigration and thereby protecting the jobs of “real Americans.” But, as I’ve argued in these pages before, he’s certainly governed as a Libertarian. He’s savaged the environment (when he lists his accomplishments, among the items he always cites are pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement and authorizing the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines), blocked pro-consumer regulations, fought civil-rights protections and been open about his racism.
The Republican tax bill now before Congress, which Trump probably had little hand in writing but which he certainly supports wholeheartedly, is a perfect expression of Libertarian economic and social priorities. It will slash taxes on the rich while raising them for virtually everybody else. It will be paid for with gaping cuts of over $1 trillion in funding for Medicaid — the government health program (Medi-Cal in California) that pays for about one-fourth of all health care in the U.S., including one-half of all births — and nearly $500 billion in Medicare.
It will essentially repudiate the entire history of the United States since the 1880’s, when corporations and super-rich individuals not only openly bribed politicians to make laws that would make themselves richer and everyone else poorer, but sometimes (as with railroad magnate and U.S. Senator from California Leland Stanford, essentially the Donald Trump of the 19th century) bought political office for themselves. It’s especially ironic that there are still political commentators who call Trump a “populist” when his policy proposals, and especially this tax bill, are exactly the kind of soak-the-poor, coddle-the-rich policies the original American Populists of the 1890’s were rebelling against.

A Done Deal

Don’t hold out hope that somehow there will be enough divisions within the Republican Senate caucus to sink this monster of a tax ripoff. On November 28, when the U.S. Senate passed its last procedural hurdle before the final vote on this tax bill — the motion to proceed (i.e., allow it to be voted on), the vote was on strict party lines, with all 52 Senate Republicans voting yes and all 48 Senate Democrats voting no. (So much for the idiotic idea promoted by alt-Leftists in pathetic, impotent “alternative parties” like the U.S. Green Party and Peace and Freedom that there is “no difference” between the Republicans and the Democrats.)
Senators Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) and Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), who’d both previously told reporters they had vague “reservations” about the tax bill, voted for the motion to proceed. So did all three Republican Senators whose “no” votes sank the last attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act: Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and John McCain (R-Arizona) — and McCain and Murkowski have both publicly pledged to vote for the final bill as well. Ignore everything you’ve read or heard from the pundit class about “civil war in the Republican Party.” On this — and in general on their commitment to wipe out all progressive programs from the 1890’s to today — the Republicans in both houses of Congress move in lock-step with an absolute, unshakable loyalty to the Libertarian ideology.
The Republican tax bill is a done deal. Let me repeat that: the Republican tax bill is a done deal. There will be no dramatic last-minute Senate votes by so-called “mavericks” to sink this. This tax bill is too pure an expression of Republican ideology for the party to allow any waverers to sink it. It is also too important a priority to the mega-donors the GOP relies on to finance its campaigns — the Mercers, the Kochs, the DeVoses, the Adelsons, the Popes and others — for the Republicans to allow it not to pass.
Republican Congressmembers have been surprisingly honest about that. A number of them have given on-the-record interviews — and others have leaked it off the record — that the big donors to the Republican Party have made it clear that if they do not get this huge tax cut for themselves and their companies (and their heirs), GOP Congressional candidates needn’t bother asking them for money in 2018. As Betsy DeVos, sister of Blackwater founder and missionary Erik Prince and Trump’s Secretary of Education, bluntly — and publicly — said, she and the GOP’s other “big donors” demand “a return on their investment” in the Republican Party — and this tax bill is that “return.”
That’s why the Senate Republicans are pushing through a bill that, according to polls, is opposed by about half the country — the percentages have ranged from 49 to 52 percent opposed, 25 to 28 percent in favor, 20 to 25 percent undecided, but all the polls agree that by nearly 2 to 1 Americans who have come to an opinion about this bill are against it. That’s also why the attempts of people with disabilities to stage the kinds of direct action they did so powerfully to block the attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act — including sit-ins in Congressional offices and a stark, dramatic disruption of the Senate Finance Committee hearing at whch the bill was reported to the floor — haven’t had the same effect this time.
Once the tax bill passes and President Trump signs it into law, not only will he finally have a legislative accomplishment to show for his first year in office — something his critics have been ragging on him about — it will be a doozy. It will be the most important victory for the radical Right, the oddball coalition of economic Libertarians and social conservatives who don’t trust the government to regulate the economy but want it to micromanage people’s sex lives, since Trump’s election on November 8, 2016. It will be a huge step forward in the Republicans’ determination to wipe out every vestige of the Progressive Era, the New Deal and the Great Society.
It is a clear answer to the oft-asked question from the 2016 campaign, “When does Donald Trump think America was ‘great,’ and to which he thinks we need to return to ‘make America great again’?” The answer is the 1880’s, when it was totally legal for wealthy individuals and corporations to bribe politicians and openly buy elective office, either for themselves or their loyal servants in the political class. It was a time when labor unions were illegal and segregation and discrimination against people of color was legal. It was a time when cities took civic pride in how black their air was with coal-fueled industrial production and environmental protection wasn’t even a concept in politics.
The Republican tax bill is a concerted attempt by the Republican Party, its politicians and its campaign funders to return America to a state without Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation, a minimum wage or any other encumbrances on the absolute power of wealthy individuals and corporations. It is virtually certain to pass; and, once passed, it is likely to be successful. It will be a game-changer in future political organizing on both sides of America’s ideological divide, with the Right ascendant and the Left essentially restricted to damage control. Just 3 ½ weeks after voters in Virginia, New Jersey and other U.S. states that were having elections in November 2017 decisively and overwhelmingly rejected the Republican Party and its policies, this tax bill will enshrine them into law and fundamentally remake America in the swaggering, bullying wealth-über-alles spirit of Donald Trump and his fellow 0.01-percenters.
I must say that I made a rare mistake after November 7, 2016: I let myself get optimistic about the political future of this country. I started a commentary on the Democrats’ election victories that was supposed to be a vision of hope as well as a warning that, now that they had won races across the country essentially by promising not to be Donald Trump, they needed to be serious about governing and in particular about delivering on their promise of a society that works for all people. But events move so fast in Trump’s America — they “swirl,” as one literary critic wrote about Shakespeare’s plays in general and Macbeth in particular — that election already seems like ancient history, like a mere blip in the Right’s road to absolute triumph.

Here’s What I Wrote on November 8, 2017

I began writing this article on November 8, 2017, the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s surprise election as President of the United States. Ironically enough, the anniversary was greeted by the first good political news the Democratic Party has had in nearly a decade. Until November 7, 2017 the 2010’s had been one unrelieved disaster for the Democrats — and for the progressive coalition a lot of former Presdent Barack Obama’s supporters believed his 2008 election would usher in — after another. The Democrats lost the House of Representatives in 2010 — and, arguably more important, they got killed in elections for governors and state legislatures that year, so Republicans could and did stack electoral districts against them in the once-a-decade process of redistricting.
Obama squeaked to re-election in 2012 but the Democrats suffered further losses in elections for state houses and Congress. Indeed, so good were the Republicans at gerrymandering following the 2010 census and their virtual sweep of state governments that even though more Americans voted for Democrats than Republicans to serve in the House of Representatives, the GOP kept their House majority anyway. In 2014 the Republicans regained control of the U.S. Senate, and in 2016 the Democrats got slaughtered nationwide. The Republicans not only with the Presidency, they held onto the Senate (despite math that favored the Democrats) and they got the largest House majority they’d had since 1928, just before the Great Depression that spawned the New Deal Coalition and 36 years of Democratic dominance from 1932 to 1968.
The results of the off-off-year elections on November 7 were a different story. Democrat Ralph Northam not only won the governorship of Virginia against Ed Gillespie — who’d begun his campaign as a moderate Republican but by the end of it was fully embracing the Trump agenda, bashing immigrants, “sanctuary cities” (of which there are none in Virginia) and protesting football players, and embracing gun rights and Confederate war memorials — he did so by nine percentage points, four points better than the final pre-election polls had indicated. What’s more, he took his entire ticket into office with him, including Justin Fairfax, the lieutenant governor candidate who is the first African-American elected to statewide office in Virginia since governor L. Douglas Wilder in 1989 — and came within one vote of a majority in the House of Delegates, the lower chamber of Virginia’s legislature.
Democrats also got good news in New Jersey, where Phil Murphy was elected governor over Republican Kim Guadagno, who’d served as lieutenant governor to the spectacularly unpopular Chris Christie. Murphy won by a 13-point margin. Voters in Maine, which Trump carried in 2016 and whose governor, Paul LePage, said last summer he deliberately plants false “news” stories about himself and the country would be better off without newspapers, passed an initiative to expand Medicaid health-care coverage by nearly 20 points — though LePage is doing his level best to block it (https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2017/11/8/1713945/-Maine-s-Referendum-on-Medicaid-Still-Faces-Uphill-Battle) and the Trump administration, in its ongoing jihad against the Affordable Care Act (so-called “Obamacare”), has monkey-wrenched any state seeking the federal waivers needed to expand Medicaid.
Democrats also picked up three state legislative seats in Georgia. They won mayoral races in Charlotte and Fayetteville, North Carolina. They defeated the incumbent mayor of Manchester, New Hampshire’s largest city. Democrats held on to the mayoralty of St. Petersburg, Florida. In Washington state, the Democrats won a special election to secure a majority in the upper house of the stage legislature and elected open Lesbian Jenny Durkan Mayor of Seattle, the city’s first female mayor since the 1920’s. St. Paul, Minnesota elected its first Black mayor, Melvin Carter.
Progressive lawyer Larry Krasner won his bid to be district attorney of Philadelphia in a race of which the Philadelphia Inquirer said, “[T]he 56-year-old was assailed from the start of his campaign by critics as unsuitable for the job — as an attorney best known for taking on civil rights cases and suing the Philadelphia Police Department. It was for some of the same reasons that he drew support from activists demanding criminal justice reform from an office they deemed unfair[.]” Mayors in New York City and Boston were overwhelmingly re-elected (though the Boston mayor, a Democrat with a past as a labor leader, defeated an even more progressive Black candidate). About the only good news for Republicans were a few victories in special Congressional elections, notably Provo, Utah Mayor Jack Curtis, who was elected to replace the retiring Congressmember Jason Chaffetz.
Perhaps the best news for America’s Queer community was the victory of open Transgender activist and journalist Danica Roem for District 13 of the Virginia House of Delegates. In a case of karmic justice if there ever was one, she unseated two-decade incumbent Bob Marshall, who had proudly boasted of being “homophobe-in-chief” in Virginia and had pushed through the state’s controversial bill to ban Trans people from using the restroom corresponding to their gender identity. Not that Roem made that her signature issue: her campaign signs said, “Fix Route 28 Now!” — referring to a terribly congested roadway a lot of people in her district depend on to get to and from work. In her victory speech, Roem cited her victory not only as a defense of equal rights for Trans people but a defense of journalists against the ceaseless attacks by President Trump and his supporters on the media as “fake news.”
And Roem wasn’t the only openly Trans person to win a U.S. election on November 7. African-American Andrea Jenkins won a seat on the Minneapolis City Council. Tyler Titus was elected to the school board in Erie, Pennsylvania. And Lisa Middleton became the first Trans person elected to a non-judicial office in California when she won a seat on the Palm Springs City Council — which after this year’s election will consist exclusively of “out” Queer people.

And Here’s What Things Look Like Now

As I noted before that historical digression, events move so fast in Trump’s America the above seems like not only old news, but ancient history. Since then we’ve had not only the zip-through of the Republicans’ horrible tax bill, which as of this writing stands on the verge of near-certain passage in the U.S. Senate (and, likely, quick enactment into law because instead of following the usual practice of appointing a “conference committee” of both House and Senate members to resolve difference in the bills, I suspect House Speaker Paul Ryan will simply bring the Senate version to a vote in the House and get it to Trump’s desk that much sooner), but the rising scandal over sexual harassment in workplaces in general and politics, entertainment and the media in particular.
Contrary to popular belief, the sexual harassment scandals that have quickly brought down such formerly powerful and prominent people as Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Al Franken and John Conyers is a net benefit for the Republicans, not the Democrats, in today’s twisted partisan landscape. The reason is that people who are considered likely to vote Democratic care about it far more than people who are likely to vote Republican. In fact, I would argue that the sexual harassment scandals are as great an existential threat to the Democratic Party as failure to pass the current tax bill would be to the Republicans.
That’s because the Democratic Party long ago lost the votes of white men. The last Democratic Presidential candidate to win a majority of white male voters was Lyndon Johnson … in 1964. Democrats win elections these days only when they can mobilize enough women and people of color to vote for them to neutralize their disadvantage among white men. Barack Obama won the Presidency in 2008 and 2012 because as a person of color himself, he was uniquely able to mobilize voters of color, especially African-Americans, to vote for him in record numbers.
Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 because as a white woman she didn’t have the appeal to voters of color Obama did, and she didn’t get a comparable boost among female voters because, unlike people of color, women aren’t an economically and socially oppressed minority group with a class interest in common. Donald Trump not only mobilized white male voters to turn out for him in much greater numbers than they had for John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, he won a majority of white women as well.
Women range all over the political map in terms of socioeconomic status, education levels, religious commitment and belief (since the radical religious Right emerged as a political force in the 1980 election one of the key predictors of whether people vote Republican or Democratic has been how often they go to church), and views even on such so-called “women’s issues” as reproductive choice and equal pay for jobs of comparable worth.
Though the so-called “gender gap” isn’t as broadly decisive in elections as many Democrats believe (or want to believe), it nonetheless does exist. Women are on the whole more likely to vote for Democrats than for Republicans, and out of all demographic groups of women the one that most overwhelmingly prefers the Democratic to the Republican party is college-educated women in white-collar professional jobs. These are exactly the sorts of women most vulnerable to the kinds of sexual harassment and exploitation that have been reported from Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose et al.
Because the Republican voter base is overwhelmingly male, Republicans running for office can afford to make light of sexual harassment, or even commit it themselves. Clarence Thomas, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Donald Trump (the sequence is purely chronological) all won high office after being credibly accused of harassing and even assaulting women. Indeed, Trump was seen and heard on nationwide TV in the infamous Access Hollywood tape not only making highly sexualized, demeaning remarks about women but saying that because he was a “star,” he could get away with groping them.
And from the latest polls in the special election to fill Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat December 12, it looks like Roy Moore is about to join that list. What Moore has been accused of by multiple women is disgusting, and some of it is illegal (or would have been if it had been reported within the statute of limitations), but President Trump and the Alabama Republican Party have come down hard on Moore’s behalf and said point-blank that all Democrats are so terrible that no matter what Moore may or may not have done, he needs to be elected to keep the Alabama Senate seat in Republican hands and make sure the GOP’s already narrow 52-48 Senate majority doesn’t become even more precarious.
In order to preserve their share of the women’s vote and their branding as the “party of women,” Democrats have to move hard against any of their officials who are accused of sexual misconduct. That’s why San Diego Democrats came down so hard on newly elected Mayor Bob Filner in 2013. Filner was a local progressive icon whose voting record on women’s issues was everything the National Organization for Women (NOW), National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) and other major national feminist organizations could have wanted. He was also a bizarre sexual harasser who remarked to the veteran professional women on his staff that he’d like them to come to work without wearing panties, and made so many other demeaning comments about them that liberal Democratic activists came together in June 2013 to force him out of office.
The troika who went after Filner — former City Councilmember Donna Frye, public interest attorney Cory Briggs and Marco Gonzalez, lawyer and brother of Lorena Gonzalez (then head of San Diego’s labor movement and now a state assemblymember) — couldn’t have cared less that Filner had been the first Democrat elected as Mayor of San Diego in 20 years. They also couldn’t have cared less that in all likelihood, if he were forced out as Mayor, a Republican would succeed him — which indeed happened. Their public statements were that his treatment of women was so intolerable he needed to go, Realpolitik considerations be damned. Their real interest was in protecting the Democratic “brand” against an elected official whose private behavior towards women threatened to brand the entire Democratic Party as hypocrites, paying lip service to women’s rights in public while treating them like shit in private.
All those wonderful Democratic electoral victories I wrote so joyously about on November 8 came about because their campaigns were especially successful at mobilizing women to vote. Indeed, many of the grass-roots candidates who took on established Republican politicians and beat them were women. But women will only turn out en masse for Democrats when they feel the Democrats are on their side, not only politically but personally.
Hillary Clinton didn’t make that case in 2016, partly because of her personal baggage on the issue. When Bill Clinton was impeached and nearly removed from office in 1999, the social consensus was that Hillary, the cheated-on spouse, was a victim, and a lot of people who opposed the impeachment did so because they felt that if Hillary were willing to forgive him, they should be too. A decade and a half later, the spouses of sexually abusive men are judged considerably more harshly, routinely referred to as “enablers” and almost equally at fault when their men misbehave. That’s why New York Senator Kristen Gillibrand, who sits in Hillary Clinton’s old Senate seat and represents the same constituency she did, recently said that Bill Clinton should have resigned over the sexual scandals instead of fighting and eventually winning acquittal in the Senate.
As Amy Davidson Sorkin wrote in the November 27, 2017 New Yorker (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/11/27/liberals-and-sexual-harassment?mbid=nl_Weekly%20112017&CNDID=48795007&spMailingID=12403837&spUserID=MTgxNTc4MjMxMTQ5S0&spJobID=1281914575&spReportId=MTI4MTkxNDU3NQS2), “When Hillary [Clinton] ran for President in 2016, she may not have gauged how profoundly Bill Clinton’s record with women would hurt her. Just a month before the election, after the Access Hollywood” video emerged, in which Trump bragged about grabbing women’s genitals, he brought [Juanita] Broaddrick and [Paula] Jones to a Presidential debate.” (Paula Jones was the woman whose sexual harassment suit against Clinton had led to special counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation of him, the exposure of his affair with Monica Lewinsky, and his impeachment. Juanita Broaddrick had gone even farther and accused Clinton of outright rape.)
“Clinton dismissed this as a stunt, meant to throw her off her game,” Davidson Sorkin wrote. “But the key audience for it was purple-state women, particularly middle-aged or older working-class women, who might identify with Broaddrick, or be receptive, based on their own experience, to the contention that, as Trump put it, Hillary was Bill’s ‘enabler.’ (Polls after the election showed that Clinton performed less well with those voters than her campaign had hoped.) For others, Clinton’s decision to make her husband an active part of her campaign—and the potential First Spouse—constrained it.” And no doubt Hillary’s tight connection with another wife of a sexually errant Democratic officeholder — close political advisor Huma Abedin, then-wife of disgraced (and now imprisoned) former New York Congressmember Anthony Weiner — didn’t help her either.
So in order to protect their political “brand” and attract the overwhelming turnouts among women (especially white women) they need to overcome the Republicans’ advantage among men (especially white men), Democras have to cut loose immediately any Democratic officeholder credibly accused of sexual misconducts. Republicans, with a voting base containing a far larger percentage of men, don’t have to be nearly as harsh. Also, despite Republicans’ claim to be the party of “family values,” Republicans have proven themselves less likely than Democrats to base their votes on a candidate’s personal conduct.
Republicans keep their eyes on the ideological prize, voting not on who the candidate is but what he (or she) says s/he will do. Candidate Donald Trump promised Right-wing (anti-choice, anti-Queer, pro-business) judicial appointments, expanding fossil-fuel production over environmentalist objections, repealing the Affordable Care Act and building a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border. He’s delivered on the first two, and he can legitimately claim that the others are being blocked by obstructionists in the Congressional establishments of both major parties.
Those Democrats and Leftists who think the Trump Presidency is doomed because his public approval ratings in polls have hovered between 30 and 38 percent need to be reminded that on the day before he won the election, his approval rating was at 36 percent. He got 46 percent of the vote, clearly because that additional 10 percent may not have “approved” of him as a person, but they decided he would be better on the issues they cared about than the hated Hillary, a figure so demonized by the American Right that subscription solicitations for the American Spectator magazine contained a cartoon literally depicting her as a witch.
Likewise, Roy Moore is going to win the Alabama Senate race, partly because a lot of voters will believe him when he says the attacks against him were made up by “Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgenders and Socialists” (as a Gay Socialist I feel inordinately proud to be so high up on Roy Moore’s enemies list!; partly because a lot of Alabamans, particularly from evangelical religious backgrounds, don’t think what Moore is accused of is so bad (for a fascinating commentary on why, see Kathryn Brighthill’s fascinating commentary in the November 12 Los Angeles Times: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-brightbill-roy-moore-evangelical-culture-20171110-story.html); but mostly because Alabama Republicans (and Republicans in general) don’t care how good (or bad) a man he is as long as he can be counted on to vote the way they want him to.
The extent to which the sexual harassment scandals pose an existential threat to the Democratic Party (and not to the Republicans) was brought home this week. On Monday, November 27, Nancy Pelosi, former House Speaker and current leader of the Democrats in the House, gave an interview on the NBC-TV show Meet the Press in which she called John Conyers an “icon” and said she would insist on due process in the House ethics investigation of his conduct with women on his staff before taking a position on whether he should remain in office.
That was the “wrong” answer politically, and it met with almost immediate big-time blowback from Republicans and Democrats alike. It sent a signal to women voters that neither Republicans nor Democrats can be counted on to protect you: both parties will circle the wagons to protect their own who are accused of sexual harassment, while blasting away at people from the other big party facing similar charges.
Three days later, Pelosi got the message and, as CNN reported (http://www.cnn.com/2017/11/30/politics/nancy-pelosi-john-conyers-resign/), called on Conyers to resign and said on November 30 what she should have said November 27: ““It’s very sad and the brave women who came forward are owed justice. I will pray for Congressman Conyers and his family, and wish them well. However Congressman Conyers should resign. … No matter how great a legacy, there’s no license to harass or discriminate. In fact it makes it even more disappointing.”
In short, precisely because they are so dependent on mobilizing and motivating women voters to overcome their major disadvantage among men, Democrats have to have a “zero tolerance” policy towards sexual harassers in their ranks. Republicans don’t. That’s why John Conyers and Minnesota Senator Al Franken will be forced out of office in disgrace, as Elliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner and Bob Filner were, while Donald Trump and Roy Moore will serve in office and be treated with full honors and deference by their Republican colleagues.

Electing Democrats the Only Way to Stop Trump

The Democratic Party is certainly not perfect. I think Senator Bernie Sanders got it right when he said in his campaign that the Republican Party was “controlled” by Wall Street and the Democrats were “influenced” by it. The war between conservative Democrats who think the way to push their party forward is to move to the “center” and accept a good part of the agenda of the business community in return for their campaign donations, and progressives who want to challenge Wall Street (as Sanders did) instead of sucking up to it (as Hillary Clinton) did has been going on at least since 1896, when William Jennings Bryan successfully challenged incumbent President Grover Cleveland for the nomination, won but then lost the election to Republican William McKinley.
One can certainly assemble a long laundry list of all the faults of the Democrats, all their failures — either due to incompetence or to “centrist” willfulness — to push forward a progressive agenda. Nonetheless, as the events of the Trump administration are proving, when it comes to a rational choice between America’s two big political parties, the Democrats are far, far preferable to the Republicans. They may not be as aggressive in protecting workers, consumers or the environment as we would want them to be, but at least they aren’t actively opposed to them the way the Republicans are.
As I said at the beginning of this article, the starkness of the party-line vote with which the motion to proceed on the Republican tax bill passed the Senate — all 52 Republicans voted for it, all 48 Democrats voted against — itself proves that, contrary to the idiotic mewlings of several generations of “alt-Leftists,” there are profound differences between the two major parties on the issues progressives and Leftists care about. And what’s more, thanks to the structure of American politics — particularly that we elect our legislatures in single-member districts on a winner-take-all basis — for progressives and Leftists the Democratic Party is the only electoral game in town.
It wasn’t always thus. In the 1890’s and even up to the 1930’s, there was a sufficient base of progressives and even radicals in the Republican party that Leftists could play the two big parties off against each other to see who could give us the better deal. The reformation of the Republican Party as a consistently ideological far-Right party began in 1912 — when former President Theodore Roosevelt sought to win back the Presidency against his more conservative successor, William Howard Taft, was unable to wrest the GOP nomination away from Taft (largely due to internal process-rigging much like what Bernie Sanders endured from the Democratic National Committee in 2016) and formed his own party — and it was basically completed with the nomination and election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Therefore, once again, when it comes to participation in electoral politics, for American progressives and Leftists the Democratic Party is the only game in town. Noam Chomsky realized this when, much to the disappointment of many of his anarchist admirers, he endorsed Democrat John Kerry over Republican George W. Bush in 2004 and gave, as his reason, that it was essential for the short-term interest of the American Left that “the reality-based wing of the ruling class be in power.” That’s even more of a consideration given that Trump has reached heights of irrationality Bush could only have dreamed of — especially his schoolboy taunts against North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, which threaten to start a nuclear war, and his outright demonization not just of “radical Islam” but Islam itself as our enemy in the “war on terror.”
The continuation of the Trump administration and the Republican regime in Congress must end for America to have a future that doesn’t look like The Hunger Games. And under the rules of American politics, the only way to get rid of Trump and the Republicans is to elect Democrats. Electing Democrats is a necessary but not sufficient condition to achieve the social change we desire. It will also be necessary to continue street actions to demand that the Democrats keep their promises to the progressive and Left communities that help elect them, and to organize contests within the Democratic Party (as Bernie Sanders and others from his movement have already done) to target pro-corporate Democrats for primary challenges and replace them with progressive Democrats.
As I’ve written in these pages before, in past periods of progressive ferment in American history — the 1890’s, the 1930’s, the 1960’s — the American Left understood that you cannot achieve social change just through electoral politics, and you cannot achieve it just through direct action. It takes both. Our only road out of the political, economic, environmental and moral sinkhole the United States of America is becoming under Trump and the Republican Congress is to stay committed both to electing Democrats and using direct action to pressure them to fulfill the progressive agenda.
The Right-wing “Tea Party” of the early 2010’s successfully pursued this dual strategy on the other side, using both direct action and primary challenges to drive the Republican Party farther Right while remaining in the GOP instead of pursuing the will-o’-the-wisp of an alternative party. We on the Left need to do the same if we want America — the America we grew up in and believed could be made even better, the America that protects and takes care of all its citizens instead of pitting them against each other in dog-eat-dog competition — to survive Donald Trump and the Republican ideological onslaught of which he is the leader and the public face.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Casting Couch

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

There’s a quite remarkable scene in an otherwise entertaining but mediocre movie made in 1935, The Nitwits, starring the long-forgotten comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Bob Woolsey. Mary Roberts (Betty Grable), office assistant to music publishing CEO Winfield Lake (Hale Hamilton), suffers an unwanted sexual advance from her married boss when he puts his hand on her wrist. Mary calmly lifts his hand off her wrist and says, “I’d rather you not do that again” — a rare moment of women’s empowerment in a 1935 film about office work.
It was far more common in the 1930’s for Hollywood to tell women that if they wanted a career in business, being sexually harassed was just part of the dues they had to pay. A typical movie in that genre was a 1932 Warner Bros. production bluntly called She Had to Say Yes, which starred Loretta Young as a secretary to an executive at a fashion company. She’s given what at first appears to be a promotion to sales representative — a “customer’s girl,” she’s called in the script — but she soon learns that the people she has to say yes to are the buyers for major department stores, who expect to have sex with her in exchange for ordering her company’s clothes to sell in their stores.
So, to paraphrase a line from a classic Hollywood film far better known than either of these two, it’s bizarre to watch people in the movie industry today act shocked, shocked! by the revelation that Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax Studio and the Weinstein Company, not only relentlessly harassed and made unwanted advances to women seeking work both behind and in front of the cameras, but essentially organized his studios as pimping machines for him.
The simple fact is that much of the history of show business in general and the movie industry in particular consists of middle-aged rich guys with power dangling the prospects of fame and fortune in front of nubile young women, and saying, “All these can be yours, if only … ” Occasionally, as with William Randolph Hearst and his long-time mistress Marion Davies, there was genuine love, affection and a long-term commitment involved. Usually, though, the grandees of Hollywood treated their fuck objects de jour as disposable commodities: use once (or a few times) and then throw away because there’ll be plenty more where they came from.
It’s been an open secret in Hollywood for decades, admitted to in the phrase “the casting couch” and jokes like the one about the actress, caught in the middle of a troubled production that’s run way over budget and schedule, lamenting, “Just who do I have to fuck to get off this picture?” All the legendary names of Hollywood history — Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, Harry Cohn and the rest — had legends surrounding them of the (metaphorical) revolving doors in their offices that whirled their latest victims in and out, each one with stars in their eyes hoping that for the sake of this indignity there would be untold riches and worldwide fame coming to them later on.
The secret made its way into American literature in a number of novels about Hollywood, most blatantly Norman Mailer’s 1955 book The Deer Park. Mailer made his point obvious by his title, a reference to the French King Louis XV and his conversion of one of the private gardens at Versailles into what he called his “deer park,” where he could stroll around his naked mistresses and pick the one (or more) he wanted to cavort with just them. In the novel’s most chilling scene, studio executive Herman Teppis — a character obviously based on real-life Columbia studio head Harry Cohn — is receiving a blow job from a woman crouched under his desk. While he’s being “pleasured” he makes a mental note to make sure she never gets a job in Hollywood again.
In her 1988 memoir Child Star, Shirley Temple Black recounted being pursued by Hollywood producers David O. Selznick and Arthur Freed, both of whom chased her around their desks while, no longer a child but not yet at the age of consent, she signed with them to make a comeback as a teenager. No one really cared, probably because by the time she made the accusations both Selznick and Freed were long dead. People are still watching the works of these two men, among the most tasteful, intelligent and both commercially and artistically successful producers in Hollywood history, and we’d be poorer as a culture without their films.
Other Hollywood stars fought off unwanted attentions from their producers with the same sort of wit that was their stock in trade on screen. In his biography of Judy Holliday, Gary Carey recounts one day in which a lecherous producer was chasing her around his desk, continually lunging at her breasts with his hands. Holliday reached down into her chest, pulled out the falsies she was wearing, and threw them at the producer, saying, “You want ’em so bad — you can have ’em!” It’s a line one can readily imagine coming from a Judy Holliday movie.
So Harvey Weinstein was right, in a way, when he said as an excuse for his behavior that he came up in an era (the 1950’s and 1960’s) when sexual harassment was taken far less seriously than it is now — indeed, when it was regarded as one of the legitimate perks of being a boss. Of course, that was no excuse: it was wrong when David O. Selznick and Arthur Freed chased an underage Shirley Temple around their office desks in the early 1940’s, and it was wrong when Harvey Weinstein used his physical bulk to corner women and force his tongue (or more) down their throats. But it adds to the sense I have, as a fan of old movies and a student of Hollywood’s politically Byzantine and sexually sordid history, that Weinstein is being punished for the sins of a lot of his colleagues, past and present.

Weinstein a Throwback

The myth surrounding Harvey Weinstein was that he was a major figure in the rise of independent film in the 1990’s and 2000’s, and that despite his personal boorishness he made “classy,” high-quality film that elevated the caliber of American moviemaking and gave opportunities to visionary directors like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. The reality of Harvey Weinstein is that he was a chip off the block of Old Hollywood, similar to the moguls of the classic era not only in his tendency to treat the women in his employ as his own private “deer park” but his egomania and his bullying tactics against quality filmmakers pursuing an artistic vision.
Miramax and the Weinstein Company weren’t the first U.S. film studios founded by a pair of feuding brothers, one of whom worked directly with filmmakers as a creative producer while the other hung back from the limelight and ran the business end of the company. That was also the division of labor between studio head Jack Warner and financial manager Harry Warner at Warner Bros.; between studio head Harry Cohn and financial manager Jack Cohn at Columbia; and between studio head Walt Disney and financial manager Roy Disney at Disney.
Indeed, the tensions in this sort of relationship between people who are both biological siblings and business partners can get even nastier than many professional breakups between people who aren’t related. In the world of rock music, we’ve seen spectacular fallings-out between Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks, and Noel and Liam Gallagher of Oasis. The dynamics in this sort of relationship are to me summed up by a famous anecdote of the argument Walt and Roy Disney over Walt’s decision to shoot the three half-hour episodes of his Davy Crockett TV mini-series in color. Roy, the how-the-hell-are-we-going-to-pay-the-bills finance guy, said, “Why did you waste all that money shooting Davy Crockett in color? TV isn’t in color!” Walt, the artistic visionary, smiled his gnomic smile and said, “It will be.”
The Weinstein brothers were throwbacks to the Warner, Cohn and Disney brothers temperamentally as well. Harvey was notorious for losing his temper at story conferences and business meetings, and though it clashed with his reputation as a protector of independent films and their creative talent, stories abound of Harvey treating major directors, writers and stars in the same high-handed ways Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner and Harry Cohn were notorious for in the classic era. Actress Molly Ringwald published an article on The New Yorker Web site on October 17 (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/all-the-other-harveys) in which she discussed her experience of sexual harassment from producers other than Harvey Weinstein, but also mentioned her own non-sexual but still unpleasant and artistically frustrating experience with him.
It happened in 1990, when Ringwald, then 20 years old and a star in John Hughes’ comedies about teen life (especially teen sex life), wanted to prove that she could do more adult roles in more sophisticated stories. She took a role as the female lead in a Weinstein production based on a Graham Greene novel called Loser Take All. “When we began filming, in France, I was warned about the producer, but I had never heard of him and had no reason to fear him,” Ringwald recalled. “The feeling on the set was that he and his brother Bob were becoming powerful and were difficult to work with, and that it was inadvisable to cross them. During a dinner at the Chèvre d’Or, in a tiny medieval village, there was a tense, awkward moment when Harvey became testy toward our British co-workers and accused them of thinking of us Americans as just the ‘little guys in the colonies.’ It was sort of meant as a joke, I suppose, but it made everyone cringe, and all I could think was that the guy was volatile.
While Ringwald didn’t have to deal with Harvey Weinstein hitting on her, she did suffer an indignity that’s been just as common in the filmmaking world as unwanted sexual advances: arbitrary and unwelcome interference in the actual creation of a film. She and her co-star, Robert Lindsay, found themselves “performing new pages that Harvey had someone else write, which were not in the script,” Ringwald said. She and Lindsay “had signed off to do a film adapted and directed by one person [James Scott], and then were essentially asked to turn our backs on him and film scenes that were not what we had agreed to. We hadn’t even finished filming, and the movie was already being taken away from the director.
“After that, the film was completely taken away, recut, and retitled. Weinstein named it Strike It Rich, because he insisted that Americans couldn’t stand to have the word ‘loser’ in a title. He also changed the poster: he had my head stuck onto another body, dressed in a form-fitting, nineteen-fifties-pinup-style dress, with a hand reaching out to accept a diamond, like Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I wouldn’t have posed for a picture like that, since it had nothing to do with the character I portrayed; it struck me as ridiculous false advertising.” Not surprisingly, the film bombed at the box office. What’s more, Harvey Weinstein tried to stiff Ringwald on the percentage of its gross receipts she was supposed to be paid, and she had to sue him to get her money.
More recently, Kate Winslet gave an interview to Los Angeles Times reporter Glenn Whipp (http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-kate-winslet-harvey-weinstein-20171014-story.html) in which she recounted her similar experiences with Harvey Weinstein nearly 20 years later on a 2008 film called The Reader, set in 1950’s Germany, in which Winslet plays a woman trying to conceal the fact that a decade earlier she’d worked at a Nazi extermination camp. When The Reader’s director, Stephen Daldry, told Weinstein he couldn’t deliver the film in time to qualify for the 2008 awards season, Weinstein badgered the film’s producers, Sydney Pollack, Scott Rudin and Carolyn Choa. (Pollack was on his deathbed at the time and Choa was involved because she’d inherited a share of the film from her late husband, Anthony Minghella.)
“I can’t even begin to describe the disgraceful behavior that went on — and I’m actually not going to because it’s a can of worms that I’m not prepared to publicly open — nothing to do with sexual harassment, thankfully, lucky me. My god. I somehow dodged that bullet,” Winslet told Whipp. When the filming was drawing to a close, Winslet explained, “We still had a full four days of shooting of very key scenes that for me — as a person playing that part — were absolutely crucial to the story and to Stephen Daldry, they were as well,” Winslet says. “And Harvey just decided, ‘O.K., we’re done. No more money. I’m pulling the plug.’ We had to stop and were sent home. That was it. And again, this is just on the business side of things, but he was always, always very, very, very unpleasant to deal with. Very.
Thanks in part to Weinstein’s promotional activities on her behalf, Kate Winslet actually won an Academy Award for her truncated performance in The Reader. But she refused to thank Harvey Weinstein for it in her acceptance speech. “That was deliberate. That was absolutely deliberate,” Winslet told Whipp in the Los Angeles Times. “I remember being told. ‘Make sure you thank Harvey if you win.’ And I remember turning around and saying, ‘No I won’t. No I won’t.’ And it was nothing to do with not being grateful. If people aren’t well-behaved, why would I thank him? … The fact that I’m never going to have to deal with Harvey Weinstein again as long as I live is one of the best things that’s ever happened, and I'm sure the feeling is universal,”
Screwing with the artistic intentions of the directors, writers and actors actually making a film may seem like a lesser sin than screwing, metaphorically or literally, with the nubile young female bodies of the cast, crew and office staff. But it belies Harvey Weinstein’s carefully cultivated image as an avatar of quality filmmaking just as his sexual antics belie all the donations he made to women’s groups and political candidates like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. And Weinstein did it again to the French director Olivier Dahan when he filmed Grace of Monaco, about actress Grace Kelly, her abandonment of a Hollywood career to marry Prince Rainier Grimaldi of Monaco, and her successful involvement in Monegasque politics that kept the tiny principality from being taken over by France in the 1960’s.
Olivier Dahan was just coming off his star-making movie La Vie en Rose, a biopic of legendary French singer Édith Piaf, when he made Grace of Monaco. To play Grace Kelly he landed Nicole Kidman — “ironically, a far better and more sophisticated actress than the real one she was playing,” as I wrote in my blog post on the film. Only when the movie was finished, Weinstein pulled rank on Dahan and insisted that he re-edit the film according to Harvey Weinstein’s idea of what an American audience would want. Dahan refused, the two were unable to agree on a version of the film that satisfied both, so Weinstein took the film off his theatrical release list and dumped it on the Lifetime cable-TV network, where it sat oddly next to Lifetime’s cheap productions with unheard-of actors playing clichéd damsel-in-distress stories.
In short, Harvey Weinstein was an old-style producer who successfully merchandised himself as a friend of visionary directors and edgy independent films. He convinced people that he was a man of taste and culture, just as he convinced people that he supported equal rights for women, while treating them like meat in his personal life. “I was always a little mystified that Harvey had a reputation as a great tastemaker when he seemed so noticeably lacking in taste himself,” Molly Ringwald wrote in The New Yorker. “But he did have a knack for hiring people who had it, and I figured that’s what passes for taste in Hollywood.”

The Political Implications

The spectacular fall of Harvey Weinstein proved an unexpected political boon for the radical Right. Progressives both in and out of the entertainment industry had been making great hay out of the abrupt downfalls of Fox News founding president Roger Ailes and his biggest on-air star, commentator Bill O’Reilly, over similar accusations that they’d used their positions to force women to have sex with them. Both lost their jobs over the issue, and Ailes subsequently died. Weinstein has been a convenient cudgel for Rightists to beat Leftists who tried to make a facile — and wrong — link between Ailes’ and O’Reilly’s anti-feminist politics and their sexual behavior. Here was a guy, Harvey Weinstein, who said all the right things about women’s equality, gave to all the candidates and causes that promoted feminist issues like equal pay and reproductive choice, and treated women as shabbily in his workplace as Ailes and O’Reilly did in theirs.
The Weinstein incident proved a lesson we San Diego progressives had already learned the hard way from the spectacular crash and burn of our city’s first Democratic mayor in 20 years, Bob Filner. As a multi-term Congressmember he had consistently scored a 100 percent voting record on women’s issues from feminist organizations. As Mayor of San Diego, he engaged in a bizarre series of sexual harassments that seemed aimed less at actually getting women to go to bed with him than exorcising some weird demons in his mind, heart or maybe a lower part of his anatomy.
Like disgraced former Democratic Congressmember Anthony Weiner — whose “sexting” unwanted photos of his private parts to women he didn’t otherwise know made him one of the few politicians driven from office by a sex scandal that didn’t involve any actual sex — Filner’s conduct seemed more diseased than depraved. But that didn’t stop San Diego’s Democrats from leading the charge to get him out of office, even though that meant he would likely be replaced by a business-friendly, pro-developer, anti-labor Republican — as he was.
In one recent show, MS-NBC host Rachel Maddow read off a list of people who’d lost hugely important and influential careers overnight as a result of sexual harassment allegations, including Ailes, O’Reilly, Bill Cosby (who counts on both sides of the political fence: in the 1960’s he was a major activist in the civil rights movement but more recently he’d become a hero on the Right for his calls to African-Americans to stay in school, avold the “gangsta” life and not listen to rap music) and Weinstein. Then she mentioned one name that was conspicuously absent from her list: Donald “Grab ’em by the pussy … If you’re a star, they’ll let you get away with it” Trump, who not only got away with it but got to be President of the United States.
One of the ironies is that Trump’s election proved that, though Republicans proclaim themselves the party of “family values,” Republicans actually vote more ideologically than Democrats. Democratic politicians like Filner, Weiner and Elliot Spitzer fell from grace due to sexual allegations because Democratic voters seem more concerned than Republicans with what kind of person their candidates are, and whether they live up to their proclaimed values in their personal lives. (There are exceptions, though; when Republicans impeached President Bill Clinton in 1999 over his inept attempts to lie about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky, Democrats rallied around him and he escaped Senate conviction and removal from office.)
But the main moral of the virtually simultaneous downfalls of Weinstein, Cosby, Ailes and O’Reilly is that sexual harassment in the workplace has nothing to do with political, ideological or even moral values. As one Hollywood executive said to the Los Angeles Times, it’s all about power — and it’s revealing that, like Cosby, Weinstein was exposed when his career was on the downgrade. It’s been a long time since the Weinstein Company released any movies on the level of success, either criminal or commercial, of The English Patient, Pulp Fiction, Chicago, Shakespeare in Love and The King’s Speech. By the time he was exposed as a serial harasser, Harvey Weinstein was a far less Mcinfluential figure in Hollywood than he’d been at his peak — and that meant he had far less capacity to threaten anyone who exposed him than he’d had at the heyday of his career.
And, as Molly Ringwald wrote in her New Yorker piece, there are far more lecherous males in Hollywood than Harvey Weinstein. “When I was thirteen, a fifty-year-old crew member told me that he would teach me to dance, and then proceeded to push against me with an erection.” she recalled. “When I was fourteen, a married film director stuck his tongue in my mouth on set. At a time when I was trying to figure out what it meant to become a sexually viable young woman, at every turn some older guy tried to help speed up the process. And all this went on despite my having very protective parents who did their best to shield me. I shudder to think of what would have happened had I not had them.”
Ringwald’s most horrifying memory was of an audition she underwent in her 20’s. “I was blindsided … when I was asked by the director, in a somewhat rhetorical manner, to let the lead actor put a dog collar around my neck,” she wrote. “This was not remotely in the pages I had studied; I could not even fathom how it made sense in the story. The actor was a friend of mine, and I looked in his eyes with panic. He looked back at me with an ‘I’m really sorry’ expression on his face as his hands reached out toward my neck.
“I don’t know if the collar ever made it on me, because that’s the closest I’ve had to an out-of-body experience. I’d like to think that I just walked out, but, more than likely, there’s an old VHS tape, disintegrating in a drawer somewhere, of me trying to remember lines with a dog collar around my neck in front of a young man I once had a crush on. I sobbed in the parking lot and, when I got home and called my agent to tell him what happened, he laughed and said, ‘Well, I guess that’s one for the memoirs. … ‘ I fired him and moved to Paris not long after.”
And it’s not just a Hollywood thing, either. U.S. Olympic-medal winning gymnast McKayla Maroney just reported to the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/18/sports/olympics/gymnast-mckayla-maroney-team-doctor-sexual-abuse.html) that she is one of at least 150 young women sexually abused by the U.S.A. Gymnastics team’s doctor, Lawrence Nassar. The story actually broke over a year ago (https://www.indystar.com/story/news/2016/09/12/former-usa-gymnastics-doctor-accused-abuse/89995734/), but has got a new lease on life from Maroney’s public statement as well as the hyper-awareness of sexual abuse allegations following those against Weinstein.
Maroney told Twitter that Dr. Nassar would sexually assault her and other U.S. women gymnasts under the guise of giving them “medical treatments.” ““It seemed whenever and wherever this man could find the chance, I was ‘treated,’” Maroney told the New York Times. “It happened in London before my team and I won the gold medal, and it happened before I won my silver. For me, the scariest night of my life happened when I was 15 years old. I had flown all day and night with the team to get to Tokyo. He’d given me a sleeping pill for the flight, and the next thing I know, I was all alone with him in his hotel room getting a ‘treatment.’ I thought I was going to die that night.”
Another gymnast, Rachael Denhollander, told IndyStar media a similar story over a year ago. “I was terrified,” she remembered. “I was ashamed. I was very embarrassed. And I was very confused, trying to reconcile what was happening with the person he was supposed to be. He’s this famous doctor. He’s trusted by my friends. He’s trusted by these other gymnasts. How could he reach this position in the medical profession, how could he reach this kind of prominence and stature if this is who he is?”
Sexual harassment in the workplace happens, and it happens in every setting where one person has the power to inflict economic or physical harm on another by virtue of their working for him — or her, I suspect. It happens at the empyrean heights of Harvey Weinstein’s (former) position in the movie business, where he opened his arms and promised young women stardom if they’d open their bodies to his dick. It happens in the lowliest office to people who go along with it just for the sake of keeping their minimum-wage jobs and keeping food on their tables for their kids.
And it doesn’t just happen to women, either; there’ve been plenty of reports of Gay male bosses (including former New Jersey Governor James McGreevey) demanding sex from other men in exchange for jobs, promotions or just continued employment. Indeed, I remember reading a series of stories in the San Francisco Queer press in the 1980’s revealing that the founder of San Francisco’s Shanti organization, the group that created the model for support agencies for people with AIDS and HIV, was an equal-opportunity harasser. A Bisexual man, he was hitting on both the men and women in his employ.
I don’t doubt for one minute, human nature (not just male nature!) being what it is, that as women get more power in the workplace and more women rise to important executive positions that give them sweeping powers to hire, promote and fire, we’ll hear more stories about women abusing their positions to force men to have sex with them the way Harvey Weinstein did with women. The problem isn’t one industry, one political tendency or even one gender: it’s with the inequality of power, authority and autonomy inherent in the whole concept of employment: “You do what I say — or else!” Mostly the “you do what I say” has something to do with the actual work, but all too often it doesn’t.
That doesn’t mean we’re helpless to stop it. We can build social awareness of the problem. We can attempt to educate shareholders and managers of corporations that this type of behavior will not be tolerated, and that the short-term profits the efforts of a sexually abusive boss can be giving their bottom line are not worth the long-term discredit and opprobrium that will attach to a company that tolerates such abuse. We can launch boycotts against companies who keep on sexual harassers, and use the power of social media as well as traditional news outlets to explain why.
Harvey Weinstein fell farther and faster than most in Hollywood, partly because he was already on the downgrade, but also because he was taken on by an angry but thoughtful group of women who were willing to hold the industry to account to live up to its stated values. If there’s a heroine in this, it’s probably actress Rose McGowan, who not only has gone public with her own accusation that Harvey Weinstein out-and-out raped her but has mobilized many of his other accusers to step forward.

But Weinstein was able to get away with it for decades because he built enough power to threaten to punish anyone who moved against him — and it’s the power imbalance between employer and employee, more than anything else, that keeps sexual harassment happening. It takes a rare degree of courage and a willingness to risk one’s livelihood for one’s integrity to do what Betty Grable’s character did in the 1935 film The Nitwits — to lift her harassing boss’s hand off her wrist and say, “I’d rather you not do that again” — but that’s what it’s going to take until we figure out a way to run our economy and get our work done without giving people like Harvey Weinstein that kind of authority in the first place.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

The Vegas Shooting

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

I really don’t want to write anymore about mass shootings. Hey, I really don’t want to think anymore about mass shootings. I think I would have had a nice, lovely life if I could have lived to the end of it without ever having heard of “bump stocks,” those devices you stick at the end of a semi-automatic rifle (one which reloads itself, but you have to let go of the trigger and then pull it again to fire your next shot) to convert it to a fully automatic machine gun-style weapon (one that keeps firing round after round as long as you hold down the trigger and doesn’t stop until you let go).
But a man just a few months older than me, Stephen Paddock, forced the issue on the night of Sunday, October 2, when he allegedly took up a vantage point from a suite on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas and brought 23 rifles, at least 12 equipped with bump stocks. He was there to assume a sort of god-like position over the final night’s concert of the Route 91 country-music festival and, while the event’s headliner, Jason Aldean, performed, pick off as many people as possible in a random hail of automatically fired bullets that would make it pure happenstance who lived unscathed, who was wounded and who would die. (Paddock has been mistakenly referred to in some of the news coverage as a “sniper,” which he wasn’t. A sniper shoots from a long distance from the target with a telescopic sight to kill a specific person. Paddock was 1,000 feet from his targets but he was shooting randomly.)
In the week or so since the Vegas shootings happened, we’ve heard all the old, familiar and by now tiresome arguments. We’ve heard that the U.S. is inherently a violent country that mythologizes the role of firearms in building this country — which is true. A majority-white population occupies the present United States of America because our forebears brought guns with which to commit genocide against the Native population that was here before we were. Not only did we shoot the Native people, we also used guns to wipe out the great herds of buffalo on whom the Natives depended for food, clothing and shelter.
Our national mythology says that the way you solve your problems is with guns. Our entertainment industry rushes out film after TV show after book after magazine article carefully indoctrinating young people that the way to deal with someone in your way is to shoot them — or stab them, burn them, beat them or otherwise, in the CIA’s macabre euphemism, “terminate them with extreme prejudice” (in plain English, kill them). It’s long been known that U.S. movie censors are considerably tougher on sex scenes than their European counterparts but considerably looser about violence. As the late Lenny Bruce grimly joked, “It’s O.K. for your kids to watch killing, but if they watch schtupping [Yiddish for ‘fucking’], they might want to do it someday.”
It’s also become a truism that the U.S. has basically outsourced its public policy on guns to the National Rifle Association (NRA). It says a lot about the mores of this society that firearms are the only consumer product in the entire economy the Constitution gives you a right to own. And the NRA has been able to convince the American people — maybe not all the American people, but enough to make sure that politicians live or die in public office based on the NRA’s ratings — that any law restricting the availability of guns in any way is just the first step down the slippery slope to a Big Brother-ish federal government swooping down and “taking your guns away.”
Since 2000, there have been five Presidential elections, in two of which — 2000 and 2016 — the ultimate winner carried the Electoral College despite coming in second in the popular vote. In both those elections, the NRA played a crucial role in the outcome. In 2000, the NRA mounted independent campaigns for George W. Bush in Tennessee and West Virginia, thus enabling Bush to carry both states. In an otherwise razor-thin election, Democratic nominee Al Gore became the first major-party Presidential candidate since George McGovern’s landslide defeat in 1972 to lose his home state. This is relevant because had Gore carried his home state, Tennessee, he would have won the election and all that fooforaw about Florida wouldn’t have mattered one bit.
The Democratic Party got the message loud and clear. Instead of the big push for new gun regulations they’d made after the Columbine shooting in 1999, they reacted quietly, offering bills that just nibbled around the issue with minor ideas like broader background checks on gun purchasers. That didn’t stop the NRA from exploiting the paranoia they’d carefully built up among their members and gun owners in general that any laws restricting access to guns, no matter how minor or ineffectual, was just the prelude to the mass confiscation of everyone’s guns, which would leave ordinary Americans helpless in the face of what NRA executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre called “jack-booted government thugs.”
The NRA once again helped install the minority vote-getter as President of the United States in 2016. Exactly one year ago to the date I’m writing this (October 7), the NRA stood behind its enthusiastic endorsement of Donald Trump even as other Republicans were backing away from him following release of the so-called “Access Hollywood tape” in which Trump made clear his view that women were meat, ripe for the sexual exploitation of any macho male within their vicinity, especially if he were a “star” and could therefore kiss and grope them with impunity.
While some Republicans even thought the party might have to dump Trump and find another nominee, the NRA stood solidly behind him — and so did their voter base. Along with his opposition to the de-industrialization of America brought about in part by the succession of ghastly “free trade” treaties, which had started under Bill Clinton’s administration with the passage of the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Trump’s open embrace of gun culture in general and the NRA in particular helped him win traditionally Democratic voters in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio — which gave him the election.
In addition to its control of gun policy from Washington, D.C. the NRA has so totally dictated gun policy in state legislatures that the rising series of mass shootings since 2007 has actually been accompanied by an increase in the legal options available for individuals to buy, carry and use guns. Under pressure from NRA-backed legislators, state after state has passed laws allowing virtually anyone to carry a weapon anywhere, at any time. At first the NRA and its political supporters sought “concealed-carry” laws, which allowed you to bring guns into public places if they weren’t visible on your person. Then, once “concealed-carry” laws were passed in most states, the NRA further demanded “open-carry,” which allowed you not only to walk around with your gun wherever you pleased but have it fully visible — and readily accessible if you decided you needed to use it immediately.
The NRA has also pushed “stand-your-ground” laws, which make it easier for homeowners and other individuals who shoot someone to claim self-defense and get away with it legally. As Rachel Maddow pointed out on her MS-NBC program October 5, the very first thing President Trump and the Republican Congress did once they took office in January 2017 was pass a law removing restrictions on the ability of mentally ill individuals to buy firearms — a bill Maddow chillingly counterpointed to Trump’s public statements calling Stephen Paddock “sick” and “deranged.” And, amazingly, while Paddock was doing his gun thing in Las Vegas, the U.S. Congress was debating laws that would make life even easier for people who want to own guns — and, inevitably, for people who want to kill other people with them.
According to Doyle McManus in the October 3 Los Angeles Times (http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-mcmanus-las-vegas-shooting-20171002-story.html), “The House is preparing to take up the Sportsmen Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act, which not only loosens restrictions on hunting and shooting on public lands, but also includes two provisions that don’t exactly seem essential to sport shooters. One would legalize the sale of armor-piercing bullets as long as the manufacturer declares that the ammunition is intended for sporting purposes. The other would loosen longstanding federal regulations on silencers. There is little question that the bill, strongly supported by the National Rifle Association, will pass in the Republican-majority House. After that, the House will take up a separate bill that would allow people whose states permit them to carry concealed weapons to take their guns into other states, regardless of local regulations.”
In other words, tough luck for states like California who have tried to restrict people’s ability to own, carry and use guns. All you’d have to do, if these NRA-backed laws are passed and you want to bring a lot of guns into California to commit mass murder, is buy them in a “red state” where concealed-carry, open-carry, stand-your-ground and the other wet dreams of the NRA and the gun manufacturers they represent (most of the NRA’s income comes not from membership dues but from the big ads gun makers buy in their publications) are the law — and state authorities couldn’t do anything to stop them.
The October 5 edition of the PBS news show Washington Week offered two sobering statistics that define just how awash the U.S. is in guns. The U.S., with just 5 percent of the world’s population, has 50 percent of the world’s guns owned by civilians. And those guns are concentrated among a surprisingly small portion of the U.S.’s population: just 3 percent of Americans own 50 percent of the U.S.’s total supply of civilian guns.
What’s more, rising gun ownership brings with it an overall militarization of society. June 27, 2016 New Yorker article (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/06/27/after-orlando-examining-the-gun-business), reporter Evan Osnos quoted Jeff Cooper, firearms instructor and ex-Marine, as saying, “Before World War II, one could stroll in the parks and streets of the city after dark with hardly any risk. … [But in] today’s world of permissive atrocity,” Cooper argued, one had to live one’s whole life essentially as if you were in a war zone at all times — and act accordingly. He mentioned famous mass killers, including Charles Manson, and argued that their victims’ “appalling ineptitude and timidity virtually assisted in their own murders.” Adapting a concept from the Marines, Cooper called on civilian gun owners to assume a constant state of alertness called “Condition Yellow.” In his 1972 book Principles of Personal Defense, Cooper wrote, “The one who fights back retains his dignity and his self-respect.”
In 2014 a Daily Kos contributor signed only as “Hunter” infiltrated a gun-rights group that was planning a mass protest against Target in Texas, apparently demanding that Target stores start selling weapons that could be used by Texans interested in exercising their new-found open-carry rights under state law. It wasn’t easy to figure out from Hunter’s dispatch (http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/06/04/1304356/-Open-Carry-Texas-targets-Target?detail=email) just what the aims of the group, which called itself “Open Carry Texas,” were, but Hunter could barely conceal (pardon the pun) his horror at what sort of society we would become if they had their way.
These guys want a nation that looks like Somalia with more strip malls and higher brand penetration,” Hunter wrote. “They literally think that everyone should be wandering around with rifles explicitly designed to kill the people around them, and that everyone should be fine with that except when someone pulls a trigger on purpose or by accident and then, well, all the other patriots nearby will just sort things out as it happens. You’re not supposed to see a group of guys march into a bank loaded for bear and think I should duck out of here, you’re not supposed to think anything of it until the bullets start flying. ‘Oh, I see. They were here to rob the bank after all. I wish there had been some obvious tell that I could have used to gain valuable run-like-hell time.’ Can’t judge them based on how they’re holding their weapons, either, because apparently you should also be able to put your finger right up to the trigger and we’re still supposed to figure that you’re the Good Guy With a Gun.”
I must say I totally miss the whole appeal of gun culture. As a kid I played with cap pistols and fired BB guns on occasion — and felt the recoil that was the way my grade-school science teachers explained Newton’s Third Law and demonstrated how rockets flew. But I have never so much as held an actual firearm in my life, much less fired one. I didn’t grow up in the Midwest or the South. I didn’t have a dad who took me out to the country, handed me a gun and taught me to shoot. I’ve eaten meat all my life but I’ve never had any active role in the process of killing it first (which my vegan friends tell me makes me a hypocrite, but that’s another topic). And, if anything, I saw the movie Bambi (which, according to one overenthusiastic NRA spokesperson I saw on TV in the Bay Area in the 1970’s, was the worst film ever made) too often to regard hunters as something other than villains.
Apparently, the Las Vegas massacre, and in particular the shooter’s use of bump stocks to turn the semi-automatic rifles the NRA has fought to keep legal into the sorts of fully automatic machine guns that have been against the law in the U.S. for decades, has led to an ever-so-slight softening of the NRA’s no-way, no-how attitude towards gun regulation. The NRA has sent signals to politicians in Washington, D.C. that they wouldn’t oppose a change in gun regulations to ban bump stocks — but they want it to come administratively from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms rather than through an actual law passed by Congress.
Apparently the NRA fears that if there’s an actual Congressional bill to ban bump stocks, Congressmembers who aren’t total pawns of the NRA will use it to sneak in background checks, closing the gun-show loophole by which you can avoid background checks, maybe even reviving the assault weapons ban Congress passed in the 1990’s and let expire in 2004. But there’s a problem with relying on ATF to ban bump stocks: according to a report on Rachel Maddow’s MS-NBC program, in 2010, when Barack Obama was in the second year of his presidency and the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, ATF reviewed their powers under existing gun legislation … and decided it didn’t give them the authority to ban bump stocks.
So the likely result of Las Vegas will be the same as it was after Columbine, Sandy Hook, Newtown, Aurora, Santa Barbara, San Bernardino, Charleston, Orlando and all the other mass killings by sick individuals with the firepower they acquired under the Second Amendment: a lot of crocodile tears of grief, a lot of solemn statements that “this isn’t the time” to talk about gun control (just as officials of the Trump administration said that it would be “an insult to Floridians” to talk about how human-caused climate change just might have made Hurricane Irma more devastating, and more costly to lives and property, than previous ones); a quick forgetting and then the Congress getting back to business and pre-empting state laws against concealed-carry, removing restrictions on silencers and granting the NRA the rest of its legislative wish list.
Mass shootings, it seems, are just part of the price Americans are supposed to pay for “freedom” — just like we get the “freedom” from being “burdened” by having universal access to health care, and just like previous generations of Republicans say we needed the “freedom” to work for less than the minimum wage and current Republicans say we need the “freedom” from being represented at the workplace by labor unions able to bargain collectively with our employers. The Republican concept of “freedom” means the freedom of the strong to exploit the weak; the well to exploit the sick; the male to exploit the female; the white to exploit the person of color; and above all, again and again, the rich to exploit the poor and to make themselves even richer off the surplus value working people produce for them.
Gun culture is just another one of the mechanisms by which the ruling elite in the U.S. play divide-and-conquer among the 99 percent. As long as people on the short end of the economic stick can be persuaded that the real enemies are white liberals, Mexican murderers and rapists, Muslim terrorists, women who want to control their own bodies, Queers seeking equal rights, and jack-booted government thugs who want to take their guns away, they’ll keep voting for Republican thugs like Donald Trump and pro-corporate Democratic sellouts like Hillary Clinton. And the rich will take their tax cuts they’ve been given at the expense of everyone else and laugh all the way to their secret accounts in Swiss banks they keep just in case there’s ever a real revolution and they have to get out of the country in a hurry.