Monday, July 23, 2012


Twelve people died, 58 were injured and media went into overdrive following the horrific shootings in an Aurora, CO movie theatre last week. Most of us would agree that this is not the time to pontificate about society’s ills or gun control or God’s messages or whatever. Most of us. But there are those select few who are so hungry for headlines, or who simply must be heard whether the time is right or not.

 Exhibit A would be one evangelical zealot named Jerry Newcombe, the PR face of a group called Truth in Action Ministries. Newcombe, not content to let the dust settle from the shootings, had this to say: “I can't help but feel that to some extent, we're reaping what we've been sowing as a society. We said to God, ‘Get out of the public arena.’ Lawsuit after lawsuit, often by misguided ‘civil libertarians,’ have chased away any fear of God in the land -- at least in the hearts of millions.” 

Not content to allow for the possibility that the shooter was just a deranged kid whose life had spun out of control, Newcombe evidently feels that some imaginary collective dismissal of God caused the tragedy in Colorado. And, to make matters worse, he went on to say some of the dead were doomed to hell: “If a Christian dies early, if a Christian dies young, it seems tragic, but really it is not tragic because they are going to a wonderful place ... on the other hand, if a person doesn’t know Jesus Christ ... if they knowingly rejected Jesus Christ, then, basically, they are going to a terrible place.”

So sayeth PR mouthpiece Jerry Newcombe. Most disturbing about Newcombe’s comments are that they are self-serving and timed simply to push forward Truth In Action’s agenda. According to their web site, the organization’s mission is “To introduce people to Christ, nurture and encourage Christians, and reform cultures.” Evidently, if they have to dishonor those who died in Aurora, and insult their families, that is all done under the guise of Christianity.

Reaction to the shootings has been largely shock and empathy. However, those select few who garner the big stories are individuals who lack an understanding of the negative power of their ill-timed words. Consider ABC News correspondent Brian Ross. Shortly after the shootings, Ross made a poorly conceived and clearly inaccurate connection between the alleged shooter and the Tea Party. Watch: After 20 years with ABC News, Ross knows better, but in the current “gotta be first” media climate, Ross likely felt unduly pressured to get something on ABC’s airwaves that no one else had yet discovered. This is the same reporter who in 2009 tied the now infamous “underwear bomber” to a plan hatched by former Guantanamo prison detainees. It turned out to be total fiction. Ross also dreamed up an Iraqi connection to the 2001 post-9/11 anthrax attacks. As it turned out, there was no truth to the story. But this time, he seemed determined to find a political angle to the Aurora story that was total fabrication.

Others advancing their own agenda after the Aurora tragedy include Former Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce,(right) a longtime advocate for gun rights. Here’s what Pearce saw fit to say on his Facebook page: “Had someone been prepared and armed they could have stopped this 'bad' man from most of this tragedy. He was two and three feet away from folks, I understand he had to stop and reload. Where were the men of flight 93????
Someone should have stopped this man. Someone could have stopped this man….Lives were lost because of a bad man, not because he had a weapon, but because no one was prepared to stop it. Had they been prepared to save their lives or lives of others, lives would have been saved. All that was needed is one [courageous]/brave man prepared mentally or otherwise to stop this. [I]t could have been done. When seconds count, police are only minutes away.”

 It is the old “guns don’t kill, people do” argument, and Pearce clearly saw an opening to put forth his personal dogma. Here is the problem with his position: He assumes that everybody else in that theater who could have been armed (had they subscribed to his theory) was completely sane and reasonable. In other words, let’s just let everybody be armed in all public places and hope for the best. Were I able to reach him, I would ask Pearce, with even more weapons being fired in a dark, crowded movie theater, is it not likely more people would have been shot? Pearce’s misguided passion overtook his logic, but it still makes for great news copy, huh?

Finally, the ultimate insult to those directly affected in Aurora comes from none other than pop superstar Madonna. During her current tour, Madonna has hit the headlines for exposing her breast, exposing her butt, showing Nazi symbols on stage as part of her act and standing on top of a black cross holding a gun to her head. One could chalk up these antics to a sort of desperation to hold on to her fan base via shock value, but what she did just hours after the Aurora shootings is simply irresponsible. At a concert in Scotland, the singer reportedly waved fake machine guns and pistols on stage. At the time she did that, the Aurora story was front page news in most major European publications.

 Sometimes discretion really is the better part of valor. Would it not have been more thoughtful of each of the above-mentioned individuals to forgo calling attention to themselves and their own agendas in favor of respecting the families and survivors of Aurora? Brian Ross was simply looking to “scoop” other reporters and news organizations. Jerry Newcombe tried to use the Aurora tragedy to call attention to and possibly enrich his organization. Just under the mission statement on the site is a call for donations. Russell Pearce, no longer a Senator and lacking constant media coverage, obviously saw Aurora as a vehicle to perpetuate his platform for gun rights. And Madonna? Well, Madonna is 53 years old, competing in a genre whose participants are decades younger. Her motives are selfish, to say the least.

Aurora is yet another American tragedy. Those who cannot contribute something meaningful and substantive to the national conversation need to simply shut up.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Last week a comedian you may never have heard of, named Daniel Tosh, made national headlines for all the wrong reasons.  It seems Tosh was doing his standup comedy routine at L.A.’s Laugh Factory, when a female audience member heckled him for declaring that rape jokes are always funny.  Said the audience member, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny.”  That led to Tosh saying, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…”

I can’t remember a standup comedian getting so much press worldwide since last year when comedian Tracy Morgan said this in his standup act, while performing at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium:  "Gays need to quit being pussies and not be whining about something as insignificant as bullying." It gets worse.  He continued: “My son better talk to me like a man and not in a gay voice or I'll pull out a knife and stab that little nigger to death." In the days that followed, there were lots of apologies, both from the theatre and from Morgan, dramatic mea culpas, and all the predictable walking back of thoughts that can’t really be walked back.

Morgan’s (left) rant was just the latest in a string of comedians desperately groping for laughs.  Well, except for “Seinfeld” alum Michael Richards, of course, who lost his complete mind on stage in late 2006, when he committed career suicide.  It seems a black audience member was heckling Richards when the comedian exploded, saying, “"Fifty years ago we'd have you upside down with a fucking fork up your ass." And he didn’t stop.  He was relentless.  "You can talk, you can talk, you're brave now motherfucker. Throw his ass out. He's a nigger! He's a nigger! He's a nigger! A nigger, look, there's a nigger!"

 And that, ladies and gentleman was a wrap.

This week, after Tosh’s unfortunate choice of subject matter and words, media is abuzz with arguments back and forth about whether comics should have boundaries, or if they should be free to say whatever they wish to say. I have three things to say to Daniel Tosh: First, say anything you want to say whenever you want to say it, but remember that words have consequences, and you’re feeling them right now. Second, Daniel…rape isn’t funny. Not funny. At all.  Third, when you responded to the female audience member by suggesting how funny it would be if she was raped, you were not doing comedy.  You were doing power. Everybody knows that rape is an act of power, not sex.  And by insulting the audience member by resorting to the lowest common denominator, you were exerting your power.

Tosh,(below, right) in case you are one of those who hasn’t followed his career, is big on Comedy Central. He has a show called Tosh.0, that has amassed over a million viewers.
The show is Internet-themed, showing viral videos and online clips, mixed with lots of fart jokes and puberty-level bits, and of course his regular segment called “Is It Racist?”.  I know this because a friend of mine watches the show regularly and I have been in front his TV when the show comes on. Sophomoric is the word that comes to mind.  Tosh is reportedly the son of a minister and suffers from social anxiety disorder. Are we, the viewers, being subjected to the host’s daddy issues and need for affiliation? Just saying.

The term you hear so often when incidents like Tosh’s rape joke debacle come up is “political correctness.” How many times have you heard someone complain that “everything has to be so goddamned politically correct these days.” Stop and think about political correctness. What is it, really? It is cultural change in action.  Political correctness is our society’s collective decision that it is no longer appropriate to use words like “nigger,” because it debases an entire population segment.
It is the 21st century dragging us kicking and screaming toward respect for individuals to whom we have directed our prejudice and disdain for hundreds of years.  People like Tosh must have stayed home sick from school the day when it was communicated that rape is about violence, in a society that does not condone violence. People like Morgan evidently sacrificed the sensitivity chip for anything that would garner a laugh. Even talk of murdering his own son.  Political correctness is nothing more than a society gaining a bit of verbal and behavioral integrity, after years of insults, degradation, humiliation and bullying.

Behind the cushy safety of his Twitter account, Tosh posted this just days after the rape joke incident: "I'd like to sincerely apologize."  That was a good start, until he went on to say that "the point i was making before i was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them. #deadbabies."
Somewhere there are rooms full of junior high school boys coming to terms with their internal hormonal tsunami, and rolling on the floor laughing at their hero, Daniel Tosh. In what will seem like milliseconds, those boys will be men, whose indoctrination to male/female relationships will have more to do with Comedy Central than it will with the reality of a culture that is finally struggling to realize the real power of respect.

I had a teacher once who told me the wisest thing I have heard to date: “People are often what you invite them to be.” So, if a person who has a strong public platform and the full attention of his or her listeners – a person, say, like a standup comedian, maybe –if that person uses his platform to invite people to be racists, or homophobes, or cavemen, a good portion of that audience may just go along to get along. But as long as that happens, people like Daniel Tosh have done nothing more than perpetuate ignorance and delay the cultural change that aims to level the playing field.  Listen, I love funny people.  I always have. But is a good laugh worth all that? I think not.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


We Americans have learned some hard lessons lately about hero worship, creating cultural icons and expecting too much from our fellow humans. Exhibit A, of course, is Joe Paterno, the recently deceased former football coach at the embattled Penn State University. Paterno emerged, over decades, as the symbol of Penn State’s success, which was defined by its football program. Now we know that like many others at the university, Paterno was complicit in covering up child molestations perpetrated by one of his staff members, Jerry Sandusky. Paterno’s dead, Sandusky’s in prison, and the citizens of “Happy Valley,” PA, are left to clean up their mess. Oh, and those young boys who Sandusky molested? Well, they’re still young, but some of them are in young adulthood, and they are left to cope with what happened to them.

 In a scathing report issued by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, Paterno is singled out as one among several powerful figures at Penn State who not only knew of the molestations as far back as 1998, but made a decision to do nothing about it. Paterno, with 409 career victories - the most in NCAA history among major college coaches, chose to ignore the illegality and inhumanity of Sandusky’s behavior, and simply protect the institution. Here is ESPN’s initial report regarding Freeh’s findings: Therein is the problem with heroes. Once we elevate someone to idol status, it is up to them to fight their own ego and stay on the straight and narrow, and it’s up to us to monitor their integrity. Had anyone bothered to monitor Joe Paterno’s real life, rather than the one his fans created for him, it would have been clear that he was a flawed human being, just like the rest of us. Instead, he was assigned some type of mythic status that resulted in his carrying the secrets of his complicity to the grave.

When hero worship runs amok, even low lifers like former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards are able to become symbols of the American dream. Back in 2006, when Edwards came to New Orleans to announce his candidacy, I already had my doubts about him. He went to a site in the Ninth Ward, where the recent Hurricane Katrina had done the most damage, to announce his candidacy. It was a well-orchestrated, strategic move designed to show Edwards getting down with the people. Ostensibly, Edwards was there to help rebuild a badly damaged home. Witnesses who were there say he never so much as picked up a hammer. It was a photo op only.

He announced the candidacy, got in a black SUV with heavily tinted windows and off he went. It was then I knew Edwards was not to be placed on a pedestal. Back then, a close friend of mine told me she was very impressed with Edwards and planned to support his candidacy.
I told her I did not trust him, and if I were her I would wait it out and see if he reveals more of his true self. The rest, as they say, is history. The important point here is that Edwards amassed a lot of support for his candidacy. His all-American good looks and megawatt smile were, for some voters, mesmerizing. Had there been no Hillary Clinton in the race, chances are Edwards would have amassed huge support. He was already gaining endorsements from organized labor, and his campaign appearances were rock-star like. Later, by the time the emperor (Edwards) had no clothes, campaign observers were able to shed their blind admiration for the candidate and see that he was indeed not a hero. In the National Review, writer John Geraghty said it best in a piece he wrote about the Edwards campaign: “The Edwardses warns us of the risk we take when we “fall in love” with a politician — and I don’t mean in a romantic sense, but when we conclude “I can trust that person, I know that person” based on some interviews and speeches.”

But it is not always about trust. Sometimes it is simply about a hunger for leadership, a public need for a return to civil discourse and the potential for positive change. Enter Barack Obama, whose campaign for his first term brought back memories of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 election.
For my part, I believe he ran a pretty straightforward campaign, and while he said things people wanted to hear, I think he believed in what he said. The list of individuals and organizations that endorsed his candidacy is long and now legendary. And talk about a rock star – Edwards was a mere Neil Diamond next to Obama’s Springsteen. It had been a long time since a candidate had been so lionized by the voting public. After his momentous election day, he really had nowhere to go but down. And down he went. Depending upon where and what you read, Obama is currently way down in support among women, young people, Jews, even fellow Democrats. What no one seems to want to admit is that we, the voters, really set him up to fail. Nobody could have fulfilled all of the promise that we entrusted with him.

 It is the incessant need for heroes in our culture that seems to do us the most harm. And it keeps happening. Was Lance Armstrong the super-human athlete we needed him to be, or was he simply an example of better cycling through chemistry? We were the ones who decided that baseball-betting, tax-evading, umpire attacking Pete Rose
was a baseball hero. The list is never-ending: Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Anthony Weiner, Rod Blagojevich, Gary Hart, Tiger Woods, Eliot Spitzer, and of course, our two all-time favorite disgraced heroes: O.J. Simpson and Richard Nixon. All of the above lost public support, and some of them lost their careers, all because they screwed up in spectacular fashion. Well, not “all because.” Perhaps it was partly our fault that caused these and other public figures to fall. They all exercised questionable judgment, but we decided each was way out of our league, because we needed to look up to somebody.

The moral of this story is simple: Because someone can speak or sing or throw a ball or run fast or dazzle a crowd or win football games does not make him or her bigger or better than you. And once they fail to live up to your expectations, perhaps it is best to simply acknowledge they were not perfect. Following last week’s release of the Freeh report on Penn State, Joe Paterno’s family released a lengthy statement denying its claims. Towards the end, it said, “It can certainly be asserted that Joe Paterno could have done more. He acknowledged this himself last fall. But to claim that he knowingly, intentionally protected a pedophile is false.” Although the evidence shows otherwise, there may be some truth to the statement. In fact, Joe Paterno may simply have been protecting himself, and the institution that formed the basis of his lifelong identity. In the end, he was nobody’s hero—he was just a guy who knew how to coach football.