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Sacrificing Harvey Weinstein

The downfall of movie studio executive Harvey Weinstein following articles earlier this month in The New Yorker and the New York Times alleging sexual assault and harassment not only demonstrates Hollywood’s hypocrisy, though it certainly does that. What’s happened in the two weeks since the Weinstein claims first emerged has major, possibly ominous, implications for due process, free exercise of speech and the press, and moviemaking. So, I don’t think the scandal’s sudden consequences are necessarily positive. I doubt that the fundamental cause of sexual assault and harassment will be named and eradicated as a result. Indeed, I think the Weinstein scandal is more likely to embolden the worst plans by regressive, Puritanical, anti-sexual leftists and conservatives alike.

It’s impossible to fully account for Hollywood’s hypocrisy here. It’s exhausting to contemplate. I think of Hollywood’s rationalizations for behavior by Roman Polanski, Mel Gibson and Bill Cosby. Or Hollywood’s calls for prison reform and Judeo-Christian notions of forgiveness and its denunciations of anyone making moral judgments of anyone else about anything, such as Islamic law and its impact on gays, women and rape victims. I think, too, of the left’s constant cries about a “rush to judgment” to find guilty the accused murderer O.J. Simpson, whom a jury found responsible for the deaths of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson. Unlike Harvey Weinstein, the people for whom rationalizations were made were actually arrested, tried and convicted or legally held accountable.

Not Weinstein. Hollywood’s campaign against him is unprecedented. Whatever one thinks of Weinstein’s guilt, never has so much been said so publicly without substantiation or confirmation or arrest, trial or conviction that’s lead to such huge and devastating impact on one’s life, work and legacy — and industry.

This week, Viacom-owned Nickelodeon fired Loud House creator Chris Savino after women made claims of “sexual harassment, unwanted advances, [and] inappropriate behavior” against the animator, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Savino, who has neither been charged with a crime nor named in a lawsuit, was terminated after someone used the hashtag #MeToo. The future of Amazon’s microstudio is in question after its CEO resigned following post-Weinstein claims of abuse. The Weinstein Company’s existence is also in question.

Speech, too, is suddenly suspect and can lead to castigation. An actress made a claim in public against Hollywood studio mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, asserting that he made a comment to the press decades ago, a claim which Katzenberg denies. He apologized to the actress for something he says he did not say.

Harvey Weinstein apologized, too, for bad behavior he admits. He did so immediately after the October 5 New York Times article was published. He hired a women’s rights lawyer. He pleaded for help, guidance and forgiveness. He pledged to seek rehabilitation (and, according to People, he’s in treatment). In other words, he did everything Cosby and Polanski did not do. However, Weinstein denies doing anything non-consensual. Is it possible he’s innocent of some of the charges? New York City law enforcement investigated a claim and, after examining the results, declined to press charges. Linda Fairstein, a women’s advocate and early pioneer against sex crimes, came to the conclusion that at least one claim against Weinstein was without merit. The former Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor told the New York Times that she had determined a complaint was unfounded.

Time cover

None of this slowed the mass media assault on Harvey Weinstein. Though I can’t recall that the press has ever been as explicitly biased and unified in a campaign against an accused individual against whom not a single charge has been filed in court — on the contrary, the press generally sought to report the side of the accused, too, in cases and/or claims against Simpson, Cosby, Polanski, Gibson and others — only Harvey Weinstein has been unequivocally pronounced a predator, as Time‘s cover proclaims with neither doubt nor scrutiny.

I tend to believe people who claim to have been assaulted or harassed, though I’ve been wrong. I am dubious, however, of the herd mentality.

Certainly, there is no doubt that the sexual assault and harassment claims published in the New Yorker, written by ex-MSNBC host Ronan Farrow, and the New York Times are extremely disturbing and, if the claims are true, monstrous. And Weinstein, who claims he is innocent of the worst allegations, is, as I’ve said, bearing severe consequences. Yesterday, he was denounced again by his longtime creative partner, director Quentin Tarantino. He was similarly condemned by artists ranging from the melodramatic Meryl Streep (Suffragette, Into the Woods, The Iron Lady), who praised Weinstein as “God” in 2012, to the great Judi Dench (Philomena, Victoria & Abdul). Channing Tatum (Dear John) and Apple went back on previous agreements with Weinstein. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revoked his membership. The Producers Guild voted to condemn him. France seeks to revoke his Legion of Honor. Weinstein has been terminated by the company he’d founded. His wife reportedly took the kids and left. Police in New York, London and Los Angeles are investigating certain allegations.

Only three show business outcasts, Lindsay Lohan, Oliver Stone (JFK, Snowden) and Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris), who married his adopted child, each of whom have worked with Weinstein, expressed varying degrees of sympathy for Weinstein. They were promptly vilified. Mayim Bialik, an actress who describes herself as an Orthodox Jewish feminist, was similarly attacked and forced to apologize when what she wrote about sexual harassment (for, surprise!, the New York Times) failed in the minds of feminists to pre-exonerate women of any wrongdoing under any circumstances.

Many rightly and astutely condemn the accusations against Weinstein, which range from peculiar, vulgar and inappropriate at best to sexual harassment and rape or sexual assault at worst. But, this time, the fact that these are allegations is downplayed by the press. Even recently accused and fallen Fox News principals such as the late boss Roger Ailes, host Bill O’Reilly and recently promoted host Eric Bolling, whose son was found dead within hours of his father’s termination, were bestowed by the dominant media with the qualified ‘alleged’ most of the time.

But the left-wing dominated and conservative-driven press have both banded together against Harvey Weinstein. The left stands against him from the feminist-statist-collectivist perspective, using the scandal to denounce contracts, men in positions of power and to show that they can take down one of their own, not merely right-wing TV hosts and businessmen. The right’s against him from the traditionalist-statist-religionist viewpoint, using the scandal to denounce Hollywood and movies, Democrats in positions of power and to prove that they, too, can pile on a presumed serial sexual harasser, abuser or rapist. As the left did with O’Reilly, conservatives attack Weinstein for settling with accusers, as if merely being accused of sexual harassment, and especially reaching a settlement, is tantamount to proof of one’s guilt. The conservative Weekly Standard refers to “Harvey Weinstein’s long record of sexual harassment” as if it’s an established fact.

It isn’t, at least not yet, and taking assertions as facts is a mistake, even for conservatives and especially for a serious magazine.

Caricature of Weinstein as killer clown from “It”

Leftists, who calls themselves liberals and progressives, a term which dates to anti-capitalist Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, make that distinction when the accused fits a particular altruist-collectivist agenda, such as government-imposed quotas or new laws mandating egalitarianism. A wealthy, white male capitalist such as Weinstein — I mean, really look at this caricature, which appears on the cover of a Hollywood trade publication — does not qualify for that status (particularly if he’s Jewish). So, I suspect the longtime Democratic Party donor and activist is being sacrificed not for his transgressions, though I know that some on the left are sincere, as for his being caught and convenient. According to almost everyone in Hollywood, especially film journalists writing about how they knew how bad he was and why they, too, did and said nothing about it, knew or had heard about Harvey Weinstein’s improprieties. What persuaded the pack mentality press and their enablers in movie publicity departments to come out is that the claims against Weinstein were already reported in the New York Times, the left’s arbiter for whether, what and how to think. What the Times gains from aping the National Enquirer in pseudo-journalism ought to be clear. Previously accused men were either targeted for character assassination or disclosures (depending on who you tend to believe) through coordinated social media campaigns — I think all of the Fox News personalities, including two who survived, were initially targeted by the left — or reports of the claims were widely known.

But those scandals failed to dislodge Fox News, hastening the left’s long, historic march toward merging with religionists, traditionalists and conservatives and bringing the merger to a kind of climax. Not in an explicitly coordinated conspiracy to target a Jewish capitalist “fatcat”. But Harvey Weinstein is the perfect sacrifice for both conservatives and leftists. The left gets to claim credibility in tossing out one of its own and in grand fashion while advancing an anti-capitalist, anti-individualist agenda. The right gets to notch a win on the scoreboard after a series of losses (chiefly, the embarrassment of Trump) and reinforce its assault on Hollywood as the root of all that Judeo-Christianity regards as evil — namely, sex. In this sense, secular Miramax and its successor, The Weinstein Company, with its slate of Hollywood’s best movies, is absolutely ‘guilty’ as charged.

Whatever the merit of the women’s claims, which I tend to believe and hope leads to greater awareness and discourse about these serious and complicated topics, Harvey Weinstein’s fast, epic downfall makes faster the fusion of the New Left’s and conservatives’ political agenda. The result is likely to be accelerated momentum toward a common, sinister goal: total government control of the arts, starting with movies. The left supposedly wants power for the sake of the so-called underprivileged. So does the right. Their battle over which favored group is underprivileged (and, therefore, warrants power over movies), Christians or women, for instance, comes next.

Gone are calls for admission, disclosure and remorse. That ended with NBC News’ defrocked nightly anchorman Brian Williams, another powerful white media male who, like Harvey Weinstein, made mistakes and who, like Harvey Weinstein, immediately admitted wrongdoing which is what detractors used to say they want. But they don’t and remorse is never enough. As with their united opposition to civil discourse courtesy of Starbucks, conservatives and the left seek submission, humiliation and power.

Observe that, in most of the coverage about Weinstein, there’s rarely a mention of even a few of his movies, which might at least provide context for why his alleged power abuse matters and what’s at stake with the end of a pioneering movie studio and the 150-plus people who work there. Note that disclosures of sexual abuse by Terry Crews, James Van Der Beek and Corey Feldman were ignored by conservatives, who, following the Catholic Church same-sex pedophilia conspiracy, don’t acknowledge religious sexual abuse, and by feminist-leftists, who tend to minimize or don’t acknowledge men as victims.

Whether every rotten and disgusting claim against Harvey Weinstein is 100 percent true, the nation is impoverished by the lynch mob mentality and its disproportionate response to claims of injustice. Why should a studio be boycotted within two weeks because its ex-boss is accused of behaving badly? On what grounds? Think of all the female sex predators — the guilty, convicted pedophiles and predators — and consider what’s happened to their lives, careers and institutions. I just read an article written with sympathy and understanding about the woman who as a teacher seduced a male child student and, later, married him. Not a word in that article about institutional sexism and sanctioning of sexual abuse of boys or who knew what, when and why.

Gretchen Carlson, the beauty contestant turned Fox News hostess whose claims against Roger Ailes led to a settlement and started a wave of claims against the men of Fox News, wrote in Time that she seeks to “prohibit the forced-arbitration clauses that are embedded in many employment contracts.”

Conservative Carlson’s proposal if enacted would constitute a violation of private, consensual relationships and contract law. But the rationale for prohibiting arbitration — that state-sponsored controls on how people choose to live, work and trade will magically change people’s bad behavior — is identical to the basis for the left’s longtime solutions.

Besides, the left asserts, might makes right. In a statement, the Academy celebrated its expulsion of Oscar-winning Harvey Weinstein by boasting that he was rejected by a vote “well in excess of the required two-thirds majority.” The Academy, which has initiated no action against members accused of serial rape and sued for sexual assault (Cosby), convicted of drunk driving before lashing out against Jews, gays and women and pleaded no contest to a charge of battery against an ex-girlfriend (Gibson) and those who plead guilty to a sex crime involving a 13-year-old girl (Polanski, who fled the country), added that they expelled Weinstein “to send a message that the era of willful ignorance and shameful complicity in sexually predatory behavior and workplace harassment in our industry is over.”

Reporting on the Academy’s expulsion, the New York Times, which had initiated the campaign against Weinstein with its Oct. 5 article, which had no clear editorial impetus other than as a random expose, admitted that “no charges have been filed against [Weinstein]” adding that “[p]ressure had been building on the academy to purge Mr. Weinstein.” No admission that it was pressure that the Times had applied.

With the can of worms now opened, the Academy either now must define its own membership ethical standards, conduct membership morality detection and expel those who violate the moral code — or be dismissed and disregarded as having no moral credibility. Either way, it is compromised as an arts and sciences academy.

Cautioning against jumping to conclusions about Harvey Weinstein fell to film director Woody Allen — who, incidentally, has been offered membership in Hollywood’s academy and refused — who warned that Hollywood’s and New York’s purge “could lead to a witch hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere, where every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer to defend himself. That’s not right either.” Woody Allen is right, though, predictably, his comment lead to another woman writing another op-ed in the New York Times titled “Yes, This is a Witch Hunt. I’m a Witch and I’m Hunting You”.

In yet another recent Weinstein-themed Times article, it’s being reported that “a spreadsheet listing men in the media business accused of sexist behaviors ranging from inappropriate flirting to rape surfaced last week and was circulated by email.” This lead one media writer to conclude that: “Things do get complicated when you start lumping all this behavior together in a big anonymous spreadsheet of unsubstantiated allegations against dozens of named men.”

Today’s contender for monster of the moment, however, is Harvey Weinstein, and, while he appears to have earned his monster status, it is important to keep in mind which movies his studios have produced.

Miramax and The Weinstein Company movies, as I’ve written for years, are among the most thought-provoking, serious, controversial, enlightening and joyful movies of the last 40 years.

This list is partial: Scream, The English Patient, Cop Land, Good Will Hunting, The Mighty, The Human Stain, Shakespeare in Love, The Cider House Rules, The Founder, The Shipping News, An Unfinished Life, The Others, Iris, Chicago, Cold Mountain, Finding Neverland, Carol, Shall We Dance, The Aviator, Sin City, Dirty Girl, My Week with Marilyn, The Iron Lady, Silver Linings Playbook, Fruitvale Station, Gold, Django Unchained, The Butler, The Giver, August: Osage County, Woman in Gold, Macbeth, Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot, Sing Street, The Artist, Lion, The King’s Speech, Chocolat and Benedict Cumberbatch in a new movie about an industrial contest between George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison, The Current War, which now may never be seen.

A critic for the Los Angeles Times chimed in this week to reduce Weinstein’s role even in making movies to a mere “knack for putting golden statuettes in the hands of talented people.” And pop singer Tom Jones, whom at least one actress has told the press had a reputation for making unwanted sexual advances, told the West Coast Times that he “has little sympathy for abusers. “If you’ve done something wrong, you’ve got to pay for it, or prove that you haven’t done anything wrong,” [Jones] said.”

In reality, you can’t prove a negative. With left and right merging and threatening to create a huge, new commission to control companies — Disney-owned Lucasfilm (Star Wars) boss Kathleen Kennedy proposed a new commission composed of “lawyers and legal scholars, sociologists, psychologists, feminists, activists, and theorists” to monitor Hollywood‘s work behavior — the opportunity to admit wrongdoing if you think you might be wrong, show remorse and argue that you deserve a second chance because you’ve earned it by doing work that demonstrates good character and that you’re capable of recovering — as Harvey Weinstein and Brian Williams did — may disappear.

In Weinstein’s case, in less than 14 days.

I keep hearing, from Oprah and others, and reading, in New York Times op-ed after op-ed, that this proposed post-Weinstein power shift and unmitigated assault on a man’s character and wiping out of his legacy, including that which he achieved for the good, is not about Harvey Weinstein. It’s about the allegedly assaulted and harassed women, it’s asserted. To this point, an online writer who covers show business for Vox.com observes in an intelligent commentary that

Trying to erase Harvey Weinstein’s legacy will not erase the harm he’s done. Pretending Weinstein was never a part of those TV shows and renaming his company won’t negate what he allegedly did — both to the women he targeted and to the people he enlisted into helping him do it. Weinstein didn’t operate alone when it came to acting out his alleged patterns of intimidation, harassment, and abuse. The fact of the matter is, he couldn’t have. He didn’t just need willing accomplices; he needed a culture that thrived on intimidation and dismissed the vulnerable, and he got it in Hollywood.

This is true. I, too, have seen and experienced it firsthand. I’m glad people are coming out and writing and speaking about what happens in Hollywood, New York and anywhere assault and harassment takes place (how about Washington).

Proposed bans on arbitration and non-disclosure agreements and a commission to monitor, detect and control people’s business conduct will lead to worse, not better, working conditions. Jumping to conclusions and glorifying a witch hunt merely switches harassment from one sex to the other and compounds the real and irrational discrimination against today’s woman. That subculture in which people enable, ignore, compartmentalize, evade and sanction injustice must be rejected and, instead, people must honor and practice principles of justice. It is hard, but it can be done. Progress is possible but not in an atmosphere of spite, revenge and indiscriminate accusation. It means listening, not just talking, about sexual assault and harassment. At its root, progress requires the use of one’s reasoning mind, not belief in dogma from conservatives or leftists — or their new, ominously irrational hybrid of both.

Books: Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ at 60

My relationship with Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand began years ago. As most reading this may know, the fictional story of man’s mind on strike is Rand’s magnum opus. I read the mysterious tale, which struck me as both knowing and searching, one summer in Chicago. I recall thinking that it was at once epic, cautionary and glorious. When I finally finished, I felt exalted. I’ve read Atlas Shrugged, which was published 60 years ago today, several times since.

Buy the Novel

But that first time was indelible. I was confused, serious and young, still forming my thoughts and views and, frankly, wanting more from life than sometimes seemed possible. I remember reading Atlas Shrugged — in my apartment, while riding on the El or Chicago & North Western railroad or on the rocks on Lake Michigan’s shore — and thinking that this story was suddenly, strikingly very important and relevant. I had lived long and hard enough to know that its characters, plots and theme were true, though I knew I had more to learn.

Reading Atlas Shrugged was part of my lesson plan. It turned out to be much better than that. This is a plug, not a review. Yet writing even this brings back the searing emotions I experienced while reading Atlas Shrugged as a young man. I was caught up in the thrills, suspense and drama of everything from finding the motor to losing the lights of New York City. I hung on every page and thought about every chapter. I recall being stopped by passengers on the train. I was often harassed or scolded but I was also met, on occasion, with an abrupt interruption by someone who’d say something short, direct and oddly personal. They’d usually spot me reading. Then, before disembarking, they’d simply tuck a briefcase, newspaper or package of cigarettes away while coming to face me and say: “Who is John Galt?” I’d look up. We’d almost always part in silence with a nod or a smile.

Yet there’s loneliness while reading this epic tale. I experienced it that summer in Chicago, again when I re-read it years later, and again and again, as the world closed in, resembling the dystopian America Rand conceived, re-created and dramatized with romantic realism, power and a passionate love for life. The story of the woman of ability who runs a railroad in a rotting civilization and who is the ideal man breeds a sense of alienation, at least it did for me, while at the same time yielding a sense of clarity and peace. I am enlightened, soothed and uplifted when I read Atlas Shrugged. I am horrified, too, of course, and the libertarian movie trilogy narrowly and unfortunately focussed on that, but, mostly, I am exalted. Though it is fiction, this is the world in which I live. It is richer and more vibrant than the horror of a civilization coming to a grinding, screeching stop.

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand teases, sketches and distinguishes with literary brilliance what makes the world go. She does this eerily, compellingly and with grace, depth and grandeur. That I’ve found it takes a lifetime — at least it does for me — to contemplate, reflect and integrate the wisdom to be gained from its themes is less discouraging now than it was when Atlas Shrugged was in its 20s. I celebrated in Boston when Rand’s last published novel turned 35, ten years after its author had died, and again in Colorado when it turned 50. And again at the first Objectivist Conference (OCON) in Chicago and this summer at the world’s first OCON in Pittsburgh. I think of it when the lights go out, trains derail and Washington directives come down. I think of it when the manmade glows, rockets soar and the individual rises above the collective and for his own sake.

I think of Atlas Shrugged, too, when the best men fall, hide or stumble. The world is still confusing, though I am less confused, perhaps even more than when I read it when I was young. There is still so much about life that stings, saddens and looms, and, 60 years after it shocked the West and was denounced by the dominant thinkers, Atlas Shrugged is here to read, enjoy, think about, ponder and inspire.

In my general adult writing course, I recently read “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury and a draft of a short-short story I wrote called “Escape from Indigena”. Each student reads or listens and formulates what he thinks is the writer’s theme. This immersion in the writing process, which I call Writing Boot Camp, is a kind of mental fitness training for living in a world that still sometimes feels like it’s about to “blank out”, expire or has just plain gone bad. Atlas Shrugged is foremost a novel about what being alive means. It is poetic, serious and profound. I first read it because I passionately wanted to live. I write this because I still do. So, this is my 60th anniversary plug for Atlas Shrugged, which is to say — if you want to read a great and powerful American novel, especially if you, too, sense that something’s horribly wrong with the world and you want to know why so you can live and enjoy your life to the fullest, do something wonderful for yourself: read Atlas Shrugged.

Buyer Beware of the News

How do you know what you know? This is the question studied in the field of epistemology. If you go by reason, it’s important to apply the question to today’s media, too. The freedom of speech implies freedom of the press and, as censorship and so-called soft censorship or suppressed speech worsens, trusting the facts you read, watch and hear becomes more challenging.

CNN’s recent report linking Russians to fake Twitter and Facebook accounts constantly posting about racism, police brutality and Black Lives Matter (BLM) — one fake Facebook account for “Blacktivist” had thousands more ‘like’s than BLM’s official account — underscores the potential power of foreign and domestic enemies and adversaries to affect the course of American news, events and laws. The whole police-are-racist position may have been impacted by such false posts, claims of outrage and expressions of disgust. CNN’s report (read it here) shows that the Russian state-sponsored smear campaign against police, whites and American law enforcement was conducted with specific targets including Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, where controversial police shootings were being protested by BLM, leftists and others — and feverishly covered by the press.

CNN’s report raises disturbing questions about reporting, gathering, aggregating, disseminating and consuming facts, assertions and conclusions regarded as “the news”. Does Russia, which reportedly tried to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election in favor of Trump, consider black outrage over police brutality and institutional racism to be distinctly pro-Trump in political terms? If so, what other steps if any has Russia taken to foster leftist and BLM outrage? Are riots and attacks by anarchists who show up whenever Nazis exercise free speech — or vice versa or both — funded by Russia? Amid a national sports controversy purportedly instigated by opposition to police racism, it’s legitimate to question the origins, sourcing and funding.

This is especially true because, increasingly, journalism in all forms is unduly influenced by unseen, anonymous and secondary sources such as posts on Twitter and Facebook. Today’s news assignment and segment producers and editors are as whim-worshipping as the president. The coverage of purported trends is often highly charged with emotionalism, sensationalism and hyperbole. News often comes in spurts to match short attention spans. Suddenly, the news is dominated by events in Houston — Florida — Puerto Rico — depending on a variety of factors, including ratings, advertising, favoritism, related crony-controlled entities and political bias.

In today’s perceptual-based media, news aggregators and prodcuers tend to pounce on whatever third-hand (or, sometimes, non-existent, as happened in Mexico) reports emanating from some batch of real, premeditated, purchased or automated posts that, in turn, feed pre-programmed algorithms calculated to determine what’s trending. This estimate then regurgitates the same false, distorted or misleading claims. This invariably feeds your small or large screen or page as what’s news.

Earlier this month, I cautioned against deciding which movie to see based on what a band of programmers decides by consensus (read my post on Rotten Tomatoes here). This week, as Saudi Arabia prepares to let women obtain permission to drive, someone using a word commonly and quite distinctly associated with Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) followers (the flipside of the left’s social justice warriors or SJWs) threatened to kill anyone supporting women drivers (read the article here). This makes me doubt whether the threat is credible.

Is someone really trying to stop any attempt to bring Saudi Arabia into the modern, civilized age? Who stands to gain from the press and public assuming that Saudi Arabia is encountering, facing and defeating opposition to women drivers? False claims of horrific threats have in some cases been found to have been self-generated by members of intended victim groups. Arsonists, in certain cases, are the firemen whose job is to put out fires. America’s history of enemy agents who infiltrate the highest levels of American government, movements, industry and institutions, from Soviet Russia’s Communist spies to Islamic terrorists’ agents in place, must also be kept in mind. The nation is deeply and severely fractured and divided over a range of complicated and serious issues. It stands to reason that America’s enemies will exploit the divisions.

So, CNN’s report is more evidence that outsider and insider forces have every reason to divide Americans, which makes one’s need to read, think and judge with ruthless rationality more urgent. Anyone opposed to statism is well warranted to conclude that failed statist schemes such as ObamaCare might be intended to fail — to lead to total statism. Or that terrorist threats feed the total surveillance state. And it is reasonable to suspect that fake news propagates the media, including social media — to achieve total government control of the media. Congress is now considering legislation to regulate social media, a threat that reeks of censorship which authoritarian Trump seems seriously predisposed to enact.

What can stop it is you, or, more broadly, each American reading, thinking and judging for himself or herself what’s real, what makes sense, whether a claim has a credible source, makes a credible assertion, fits a particular agenda, context or policy goal, who’s making the claim (and who influences, owns or controls who’s making the claim), what’s at stake, where reports are coming from, how it’s being delivered, i.e., with breathless emotionalism, and why it’s coming out now.

I first warned about the emergent need to better discern how media’s consumed in a February 13, 2015, blog post on “New Media and You” (read the post, in which I first used the term ‘fake news’, here). I addressed the issue again later that year after Donald Trump and Megyn Kelly engaged in a televised spat, which I saw not as a real conflict but as two sides of the same mangled and defective coin (read “The Circus Cycle” here).

More than ever, the reader, thinker and trader — anyone who thinks for himself — must beware of what’s news and, as a corollary, assert his absolute right to judge what’s news for himself.

Hugh Hefner, 1926-2017

The best this longtime Playboy subscriber and reader can say about Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who died this week at the age of 91, is that he was a passionate advocate for sex. I think his early years were his best, really, as he introduced the Playboy brand, which began with journalism and women’s nudity in a magazine described as “entertainment for men”, across multiple platforms.

Lacking an explicit philosophy, however, I think his reach, influence and legacy is limited and he had mixed results. How he went from a young entrepreneur from Chicago‘s northwest side to worldwide icon of a hedonistic men’s lifestyle in Southern California parallels in essence how he went from publishing nude but not explicitly pornographic pictures of women, the centerfolds, and serious, thoughtful articles, such as Alvin Toffler’s 1964 interview with Ayn Rand, erotic fiction and the outstanding Playboy Advisor advice column to supporting the re-election of President Obama in 2012.

RIP, Hugh Hefner

Hefner’s work and record speak for themselves and he has some grand and amazing achievements, especially in providing fact-based articles about sex, news and the culture, even some of his activism against religionism, which he regarded as Puritanism, and the absolute right to free speech. Hedonism as an alternative to Puritanism, however, has a similarly constrictive effect and I think this, too, showed in Hefner’s work and life (and, possibly, in his face; Hefner rarely looks happy, especially in his later years). Accordingly, Playboy began in the 1950s as a bold voice of sexual liberationism, featuring nude photographs of Marilyn Monroe in its first edition, and faded in popularity and influence in the 1980s, culminating in a recent low point with the numerous accusations of rape and sexual assault against Bill Cosby, which included an alleged attack at the Playboy Mansion in LA’s Holmby Hills. Based on what I’ve seen, heard and read, I think the tales of anything-goes depravity at Playboy parties are probably true.

In her book, The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight From Commitment, according to an article by Rick Kogan in the Chicago Tribune, author Barbara Ehrenreich asserts that the conventional wisdom about Hugh Hefner and his sexual-themed empire is 100 percent wrong. Playboy, she writes, offers “not eroticism, but escape — literal escape from the bondage of breadwinning.” The posed Playmates, she wrote, “were necessary not just to sell the magazine, but to protect it. When, in the first issue, Hefner talked about staying in his apartment listening to music and discussing Picasso, there was the Marilyn Monroe centerfold to let you know that there was nothing queer about these urbane and indoor pleasures.”

On this point, I think Barbara Ehrenreich has Playboy exactly right. It was an airtight digest packed with pictures of beautiful women, outstanding journalism and tips, tools and advice for man at his best, on everything from sports, wine, travel, grooming and art to contraception, foreplay, lubrication, masturbation and the joy of sex.

The worst article I’ve read about Hefner is published in the Los Angeles Times. It’s a commentary by Robin Abcarian and she starts by complaining that he cultured women to be subservient pieces of flesh for men’s indiscriminate approval, an argument that might have been more persuasive had she provided evidence and not ended her column with her seeking a man’s opinion — to validate her own? the reader wonders — especially because the man is her father and, in Abcarian’s telling, he agrees with his daughter’s low estimate of Hugh Hefner as a sexist. The best Hefner obituary I’ve read appears, appropriately I think, in the Chicago Tribune. It’s an extensive piece by Rick Kogan who, like Hugh Hefner, was born and raised in Chicago. It’s longer and more thoughtful than the usual fluff. Kogan writes like he’s thought about Hugh Hefner, not like he’s spinning an agenda to malign someone’s character, and he offers a broad range and wide scope view of the life of one of the 20th century’s only voices of reason on the topic of sex. I learned nothing in the former article. I learned a lot (such as Ehrenreich’s thoughts) about Playboy‘s founder in the latter, just like when I read an edition of Playboy. So, I think, will you. Read Kogan’s article here.

Why Hollywood’s Finally Got a Hit

The worst summer at the box office in decades finally closes with a record-breaking hit in a new adaptation of an Eighties novel by horror writer Stephen King. The movie’s titled after the bestselling book, It. The Warner Bros. picture stars Jaeden Lieberher (Aloha, Midnight Special, St. Vincent) as the leader of a group of bullied children who are terrorized by a clown, and, this weekend, It smashed records in several categories, including an opening day beating of Marvel’s recent hit Deadpool. Why It is a hit is as simple as ever; audiences figured It looked like a good movie.

Read the review

And It is a good movie (read my review here) if a clear, coherent and character-based plot’s the standard for what makes a movie good. Not every good movie’s a hit, let alone a records-breaker, and, of course, not every hit’s a good movie. This summer’s dismal returns suggest a confluence of factors for declining box office trends. When it comes to seeing movies, people are more savvy about oversaturated marketing and advertising, more discriminating with their dollars and there are many more sources for discernment, for starters. There are more sources for entertainment, too, and, with rising cable prices and lower quality service and control of choices, streaming is growing as an option.

Today’s consumer has a wide range of choices in not only creative material but also the format for seeing the material — streaming a movie or TV show or listening to a book being read on a tablet, watching a Blu-Ray or DVD or seeing a classic movie or show via a variety of free, pay and subscriber models — and the range is both exhausting and daunting. An invitation to accept a clear-cut value proposition such as It‘s promise to deliver a coherent blend of character-based humor, plot and frights in the movie theater makes the choice easier: come to the theater and you’ll be scared, humored and entertained. That’s the appeal of It in a nutshell. Weekend receipts indicate that word of mouth was apparently better than decent. It blew past the summer’s overrated hit Wonder Woman.

But an article by Brooks Barnes in last week’s New York Times about an aggregator website co-owned by movie studios, to the extent they’re still studios, points to trouble for Hollywood movies in the future. The popular site, founded by Berkeley college students who named it Rotten Tomatoes, evoking the medieval practice of mobs physically assaulting criminals (which the Times reports spread to theaters and pelting artists with tomatoes in the 19th century), purports to rate movies based on an aggregate of numerous reviews.

Now, the studios that bought the site blame the site for poor box office results.

There is some truth in the claim. Audiences tend to stay away from movies with low ratings, which are decided by a committee of the site’s employees at an office in Beverly Hills. A 36-person bunch, who report to a former studio executive at a company partly owned by a unit of NBCUniversal, which owns MSNBC, NBC News and Universal Pictures which is itself owned by Comcast, the cable TV cartel, decides numerical ratings. The site’s senior “editor” sports a pink mohawk and dresses up as a comic book character at events the site sponsors in which audiences and movie critics are squared off in a confrontational contest. Rotten Tomatoes calls these events Your Opinion Sucks. The site’s “editor”, Barnes writes, was in charge of three such “sessions” at this summer’s Comic-Con. “Let’s just say that it’s not an accident that I chose a costume that needs a whip,” the Rotten Tomatoes senior movie “editor” quipped in a Catwoman costume.

This is the caliber of operations that studios, which the article admits game the movie review system with pre-release screenings of carefully selected critics deemed more likely to write a positive review of a given film, both condone and condemn. Not that it’s possible to rely on ratings by committees that (claim they) skim or read reviews and then put numerical values on them to choose which movie to see. Rotten Tomatoes, for its part, told Barnes that it aggregates a diversity of reviews because “critics at traditional outlets tended to be white men” and “Rotten Tomatoes wanted to include female and minority voices.” Try to numerically factor that, RogerEbert.com.

As Barnes reports, Americans increasingly use aggregated reviews from sources such as Rotten Tomatoes, Amazon, Yelp and TripAdvisor to make decisions on whether and what to buy. According to an entertainment industry consulting firm, 34 percent of U.S. teenagers consult Rotten Tomatoes before buying a movie ticket, an increase from 23 percent a few years ago. But he wrongly concludes that this rotten chicken coming home to roost represents a “battle between movie companies and critics.”

Going by what other people think of what other people think of other people’s reviews is not a conflict between the Hollywood moviemaker and movie reviewer. It’s the oldest, laziest form of conformity and it’s a byproduct of the mass dumbing down of American culture — the refusal to read, think and form a judgment based on the thoughts of one’s own reasoning mind — and this groupthink, rule by consensus or mob rule poses the gravest threat to Hollywood, movies and the culture. Whatever its merits, despite the fact that its audience may have been drawn by the groupthink, too, though I am more optimistic than that, at least It appears to have earned its audience based on the promise of a good movie, not by the allure of an arbitrary number picked by a band of bean-counters in Beverly Hills. On the other hand, It, a horror movie which also gains from the theme that deep-seated fear can be conquered, was made by a movie studio that also owns part of that popular and meaningless website.