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PC Culture

The Controversy over Controversy

Writer and director James Gunn poses at the world premiere of Marvel Studios’ “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” in Hollywood, California, April 19, 2017 (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)

It wasn’t that long ago — the 90s? — when controversy and being “edgy” was practically a requirement in popular culture.

You could start the day awakening to wacky, occasionally off-color “Morning Zoo” radio hosts on your clock radio and end it with an HBO series that pushed the envelope of the language, sex, or violence portrayed in a drama series. In between, your hours could be filled with Howard Stern, the furious voices of some corners of conservative talk radio, and hip-hop lyrics that its fans insisted were a form of nonfiction narrative about urban black culture but that usually seemed to offer a uncomfortably sympathetic portrayal of gang members, drug dealers, and pimps. Beyond hip-hop, the easiest way to stand out on MTV was to have the network either refuse to air your video as is or demand it be edited.

If you tuned in to stand-up comedians, at least half, if not more, were working “blue.” Only once in a great while did one of the crasser voices wear out their welcome, like Andrew Dice Clay. If you went to the cineplex, there was at least one Tarantino-inspired quasi-“independent” film featuring violence, sex, vulgar language, and a generally nihilist attitude. Even children’s entertainment got “edgy.” Ren and Stimpy featured fart jokes and lessons like “Don’t Whiz on the Electric Fence.” Don’t like Demi Moore’s naked-pregnant cover of Vanity Fair? Then there’s Madonna on the cover of Esquire in a dog collar and bra. Don’t like that? Oh, here’s Britney Spears in a Lolita-esque pose on the cover of Rolling Stone. Oh, you think that was as offensive as we could get? Here’s Kanye West in a crown of thorns on the cover of the same magazine.

A few years back, I wrote about the edgy “I say the things that are true that no one else will” persona:

You’ve seen this style of television personality before. We saw it in 1990s-era Dennis Miller, and Denis Leary’s old stand-up persona, and more or less Bill Maher today. This is not a comparison of their quality, just their tone and attitude: I’m the guy who’s got the guts to tell it like it is, whether you like it or not. In the sports world, we’ve seen it from Jim Rome and more recently, Colin Cowherd, who may have gotten me to yell “YOU ARE COMPLETELY WRONG” at my car radio more than any other host. For a while, Glenn Beck’s old CNN show offered billboards with a slightly obscured “Cut the cr*p” slogan.

Regardless of whether you liked any of these offerings, they represented a very big cultural change. Instead of avoiding taboos, entertainers steered towards them, hit the accelerator, and attempted to crash through the barrier. Once in a while, someone like Sinead O’Connor would step over the line and encounter a consequential backlash. The tawdry Showgirls crashed, although it gained a fan base for its purported so-amazingly-bad-it’s-entertaining qualities. Roseanne Barr wore out her original welcome for her egregious national anthem antics.

Now, seemingly all of a sudden, edgy is bad. Very, very bad, or at least, very risky. Your controversial statements now might spur a furious reaction on social media, a threatened boycott, and make your advertisers nervous. Your movie’s sex scene is exploitational — and let’s face it, a segment of the audience now wonders if a casting couch was involved in the creation of the film. Your minor one-joke supporting character now is accused of being an ethnic stereotype.

And apparently there’s no statute of limitations. Hollywood Reporter columnist Marc Bernardin points out that the current mentality — where year-old tweets can mean instant termination if they’re bad enough, regardless of how you treat people in real life — does not allow people to make awful decisions and learn from them and become better.

Is the content of those past tweets revolting? Absolutely. Undeniably. And Gunn, now 51, was in his 40s when he sent them, hardly a kid. But so long as there has been no actual criminal activity, there has to be a difference between who a person was and who a person is. And we have to allow for the fact that people can change.

Roseanne Barr is the kind of person who dresses up in a Hitler costume and threatens to bake Jews in an oven. She is the kind of person who fires off racist tweets and conspiracy theories. Jeffrey Tambor is someone who creates a hostile work environment on the sets of his television shows. You fire that person today for something she or he did yesterday. 

What’s weird is that the culture is moving in two different directions in its thinking about crimes and punishment simultaneously. On both sides of the aisle, we’re seeing a policy push for criminal-justice reform and prison reform — and a sense that people who have made bad decisions and broken the law need a path to a better way, in addition to punishment. Advocates for reform like to point out that about 95 percent of all state prisoners will be released someday, so we might as well put some effort into helping them stay away from the criminal life and bad decisions. If our country is indeed founded upon and sustained by Judeo-Christian values, we can’t just ignore the redemption part.

But a certain segment of society doesn’t feel there’s any path of redemption for those who commit thought crimes. There doesn’t seem to be much of a “medium” setting for bad decisions, particularly in the realm of social media. There’s no penalty box, paid or unpaid leave, counseling, community service, or fines. Usually the consequence jumps straight to termination and presumably a struggle to find different work in obscurity. Social media can galvanize and accelerate outrage, but it sure hasn’t figured out how to do the same for forgiveness.

(Chris Brown still walks the streets a free man, right? He pled guilty to felony assault on Rihanna in 2009. Anybody in the music industry refusing to work with him? How does the outrage mob nail Brendan Eich and James Damore but leave Brown unscathed?)

Sonny Bunch points out that many of these outrage mobs generate those instant, perhaps-panicked firings by threatening boycotts, and he has his doubts that those boycotts will ever come to fruition if an employer chose to stand by a controversial figure.

Corporations are so used to caving without a fight in order to avoid a few bad headlines that we don’t really have any idea if social-media boycott campaigns of mega-popular entities — an actual refusal to hand over money for goods and services — would really make a dent in anyone’s bottom line.

This will take a little backbone, and lord knows corporations don’t exactly have a surfeit of vertebrae. But it’s worth trying out if only as a means of breaking the cycle of stupidity. The next time a mob — conservative, liberal, nihilist, whatever — comes for one of your employees, refuse to play along until you see how serious they are.

Guys, You Can’t Use NATO Troops as a Bargaining Chip

The fairest point in Michael Brendan Dougherty’s column, disagreeing with myself and several other NR contributors on the value of NATO:

Also, NATO lately makes decisions on military matters for non-military reasons. The U.S. State Department recently protested Poland’s recent law on Holocaust scholarship by threatening to redeploy NATO troops and resources outside of Poland. Why? Either the troops had a strategic reason to be stationed in Poland, or they did not. NATO is a either a military alliance to deter Russia, or it is a political project to deter central European populists.

Dougherty’s weakest point is the argument that Montenegro “offers no significant military or intelligence capability to the alliance and its financial contributions will not be noticed.”  That’s true enough as it goes, but the decision to welcome Montenegro into NATO had little to do with its military and a lot to do with its tiny stretch of coastline on the Adriatic Sea. Look around the Adriatic: Croatia’s a member of NATO, Albania’s a member, Slovenia, Italy, Greece . . . Until recently, everybody around that body of water was in NATO except one. And guess who noticed?

“Russia’s interest in Montenegro heightened several years ago. As the reliability of its naval base in Tartus, Syria became less certain, Russia began seeking alternatives. In September 2013, the Russian government requested a meeting with the Montenegrin Ministry of Defense to discuss the temporary moorage of Russian warships at the ports of Bar and Kotor,” Tuesday’s report reads. “By Moscow’s proposal, Russian ships would dock under a privileged status that would allow for the extensive use of territorial waters.”

Geography turned Montenegro into a prize. Had Russia signed an alliance with it, Russian ships would be able to sail into the Adriatic and dock in Montenegro’s ports . . .and use that as a way to keep a naval presence in the Adriatic and keep an eye on NATO’s members around there. NATO brought Montenegro in to keep the Russians out.

Is having Montenegro as a member of the alliance worth it? NATO’s naval chiefs seem to think so.

If You Outlaw Straws, Only Outlaws Will Have Straws

Really, how difficult would it be to become an illegal plastic straw cartel kingpin?

As bans on plastic straws are cropping up in municipalities up and down the West Coast, Santa Barbara has escalated things with a ban that includes the possibility of jail time for repeat plastic straw-distributing offenders.

Honest to goodness, you know somebody in Santa Barbara is contemplating the Breaking-Bad-to-Scarface route right now.

Noah Rothman observes how quickly we move from “commonplace” to “controversial” to “banned” in some parts of the country:

If there had been a genuine give and take between adversarial factions, as was once customary in American politics before one-party municipalities summarily banned minor conveniences, the cities and towns behind this new prohibition might have been told that it would have almost no effect on the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean.

ADDENDA: If you don’t like the idea of Stormy Daniels’ lawyer Michael Avanetti being discussed as a serious presidential candidate, don’t get mad at him. Get mad at the Iowa Democratic groups that are inviting him and treating him like a serious candidate.


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