Category Archives: Current Events

Feminism, Men’s Issues, And How Legalizing Prostitution Could Affect Both

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Politics, in general, are contentious enough. Gender politics, and the identity politics they invite, often escalate in ways that bring out the ugliest side in people. Every time I’ve talked about these sensitive issues, be they the sources of slut shaming or the implications of double standards, I’ve tried to be fair and understanding to all sides.

In addition, I’ve tried to focus on the bigger picture. That’s often necessary because debating gender politics can get frustratingly personal. I can make a perfectly reasonable argument on an issue like abortion, but that argument will get overshadowed by the fact that I’m a straight male. When it comes to something so divisive, the big picture is often the only one you can scrutinize.

I’m going to try talk about gender politics again and I’m going to get into a few specifics. I understand that’s risky. I also expect more than one person to disagree with my point, if not outright resent it. I’ll take that chance because I feel like this is a point worth making within the current political climate.

On top of gender politics, which covers a great many areas from media depictions to social issues, I’m going to explore it in the context of prostitution. It’s another issue I’ve scrutinized on both a legal and societal level. In this case, they’re intertwined in certain aspects that have major implications.

Even before gender politics entered its current state of contention, there was somewhat of a divide within feminism over prostitution and sex work. I’ve discussed it before, citing the different approaches of sex positive and sex negative ideologies. One sees it as inherently exploitative towards women. The other sees it as an exercise of agency and freedom.

For those concerned with men’s issues, the issue rarely comes up. When I’ve asked about it on places like Reddit, most adopt the libertarian stance. It shouldn’t be illegal and it’s not the business of the government to prosecute consensual sexual behavior. There are a few who oppose it for other reasons, but there isn’t the same divide as there is in other men’s issues.

That could change very soon and, unlike other recent controversies involving gender, it could have serious legal implications. That’s because for the first time in generations, the legality of prostitution is a serious issue during a major election cycle. More than four presidential candidates have gone on record as saying they favor decriminalization of sex work. For such a taboo issue, that’s pretty remarkable.

Some have likened it to the recent successes surrounding the decriminalization of marijuana. Others contend that recent crackdowns on sex workers have added greater urgency to confront this issue. Whatever the source, prostitution is finally becoming a relevant issue and gender politics is sure to be part of it. Unfortunately, that may not be a good thing.

To understand why, it’s necessary to understand what happens when lawyers and the law enter a debate. This isn’t like the anti-harassment movement that seeks to help victims of exploitation in the entertainment industry. This deals in real-world legal issues that have decades of complicated precedent. Changing the law is going to have impacts that go far beyond any trending hashtags.

Gender politics is sure to affect these issues. It already has, to some extent. In recent years, prostitution has become intertwined with transgender rights because it’s not uncommon for transgender women resort to sex work for survival. Keeping prostitution illegal puts an already-vulnerable population at even greater risk of exploitation.

It was also a certain subset of feminists, which includes the likes of Gloria Steinem, who favored the recent laws that cracked down against prostitution online. This is already an issue that strikes many chords within gender politics and it could certainly escalate as more legal challenges come to the forefront.

Just this past year, several states have proposed legislation that would decriminalize sex work. In addition, efforts to close the small number of legal brothels operating in Nevada failed in 2018. While there hasn’t been much tangible change in the courts yet, there is some momentum for this issue. It will only take one state to take the leap and, like marijuana before it, that could start a trend.

This is where the gender politics surrounding prostitution could either get slightly better or significantly worse. In a perfect exchange, the dynamics are simple. Two consenting adults agree on an exchange of money for sex. They carry out the act, exchange the money, and that’s the end of it. Both are satisfied, relatively speaking. There’s no further need for conflict.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world. Even in a world where prostitution laws are as equitable as possible, there are plenty of complications. Say, for instance, the two consenting adults agree to the exchange, but one fails or refuses to deliver on their part. Maybe a prostitute could suddenly change her mind about a client. Maybe a client feels the service did not warrant the payment.

How is this resolved?

What happens when someone tries to take a sex worker to court or vice versa?

How does the court or the police go about handling these issues in a way that protects the privacy and welfare of both parties? Is it even possible?

These are all relevant questions and gender politics can only complicate the answer. At the moment, most sex workers cannot go to the police or seek legal recourse when a client becomes abusive or uncooperative. If prostitution is decriminalized, then not only do they have recourse. They have leverage. To appreciate that leverage, consider the following scenario.

A married man with a steady job and several children is going through some serious issues with his wife. As a result, he seeks the intimate comfort with a female sex worker. They engage in multiple exchanges and, by the letter of the law, their actions are legal.

Then, one day, the sex worker incurs an unexpected debt she can’t pay. As a result, she finds out the married man is wealthy and asks for help. When he refuses, she threatens to go the police and claim that he was violent with her during one of their encounters. It’s not true, but filing a report will expose his activities to his family and likely ruin his life.

Very little in this scenario is outright illegal. The sex worker could get into a lot of trouble for filing a false report, but even if she cannot prove her case, the law allows her to pursue a recourse for a client who wrongs her and even if she doesn’t prevail, the client could still suffer incur significant damages.

It’s not just men who are vulnerable, either. Even if sex work is completely decriminalized and those who participate are safe from prosecution, it can still be used against them in entirely legal ways. To illustrate, consider this scenario.

A young woman gets accepted into a prestigious university, but is unable to pay all her expenses, despite having taken out multiple loans. She decides to get into sex work to make extra money, which helps her pay her way through college. She ultimately graduates with honors, gets a great job at a good company, and leaves sex work altogether.

Years later, someone she knew from college joins the company. They knew she did sex work on the side, but don’t bring it up. Then, they’re both up for a promotion and to get an edge, her associate reveals to the whole office that she did sex work. To prove it, this person provides an ad she used that they just happened to have saved.

The woman is humiliated and outraged. On top of that, she doesn’t get the promotion. She is so angry that she tries to sue the company and the person who revealed her past for damages. She also threatens to quit, but knowledge of her past is already public and even though her work was completely legal, it dissuades others from hiring her.

This issue isn’t entirely fictitious. In 2013, a California woman was fired from her teaching job after it was discovered that she’d worked in porn years ago. Even though what she did was perfectly legal, she lost her job and the appeal to get it back. With decriminalized sex work, this could become even more common.

In a world of decriminalized prostitution, those who seek the services of prostitutes are suddenly vulnerable in entirely new ways. A sex worker who need not fear arrest for their activities has a greater ability to expose their activities and use it against them. It doesn’t matter if it’s out of desperation or spite. The leverage is there.

The same applies to those who participate in sex work. Like it or not, there is still a heavy stigma for anyone who works in the sex industry. Even if prostitution is decriminalized, the stigma may still linger. If clients no longer fear arrest, then what’s to stop them from using that stigma against sex workers?

Whether you’re a man, woman, or transgender, these are major complications that have significant implications for everyone. They could ultimately widen the many divides within gender politics. Sex workers and clients alike could face significant, unwanted scrutiny that could trigger a whole host of new debates that nobody is ready for.

These issues aside, I’m still of the opinion that decriminalizing prostitution is preferable to prohibition. History shows time and again that prohibition does more harm than good. We cannot completely remove the harm, but at the very least, we can mitigate it.

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Filed under Current Events, gender issues, men's issues, prostitution, sex in society, sexuality, women's issues

How Religion (Indirectly) Re-enforces Inequality

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I once knew a guy who worked a job he hated for an overpaid boss he’d once described as a cross between Patrick Bateman and Darth Vader. I can’t put into words how much he resented that man. To make matters worse, he was one of those bosses whose family had connections. He couldn’t get fired, let alone disciplined. Even if he did, he had a trust fund that ensured he’d never work a day in his life.

My friend shared all sorts of horror stories with me, but I often found myself asking why he stayed at that job for so long. I also asked why he didn’t try to do something about it. I’m no lawyer, but I’m fairly confident that he could’ve sued his boss and won. He never did and gave plenty of reasons, some more understandable than others.

However, one particular reason stood out to me. While I don’t remember his exact words, this is what he told me.

“I’m not concerned. I know that one day, that asshole will die and when he gets to the gates of Heaven, he won’t be able to hide anymore. He’ll go to Hell. I’ll go to Heaven. I believe God is just. No matter how bad things get in this life, the scales always balance in the next.”

Now, I wasn’t surprised by this sentiment. This particular friend of mine was very religious. He’d gone to church every Sunday. He and his pastor were on a first-name basis. He could quote bible verses the same way I could quote X-Men comics. He knew his theology and I don’t doubt it helped him endure that awful job that he somehow endured for several years.

While I respect my friend and his faith, I find the notion of taking comfort in someone’s afterlife punishment more than a little unsettling. It’s not just due to the schadenfreude inherent in that sentiment. What I find most troubling is how this common theological concept perpetuates imbalances, injustices, and inequalities, albeit indirectly.

The very notion of an afterlife, especially with respect to concepts of Hell, has plenty of troubling issues. From both a theological and non-theological standpoint, it frames everything that occurs in the current life we’re living as a prelude for the much grander life to come. Even if a view of the afterlife has no concept of Hell, it still devalues our current lives to some extent.

However, when divine justice enters the equation, as it often did for my friend, there’s a less obvious impact that has real consequences in the non-religious lives of many. I would even argue that those consequences influenced society on multiple levels at many points throughout history. The extent of those consequences are hard to gauge, but the implications are unavoidable.

To illustrate, think back to the terrible boss my friend described. Think of him as a placeholder for any rich, entitled, over-privileged class of people in history. He could be a king, a warlord, a cleric, an emperor, or just some powerful tribal leader. By any measure, this individual has more power and wealth than almost everyone else.

While that earns them many benefits, from having all the nice stuff to attracting all the best sexual partners, it also makes them a target. What exactly entitles them to have all that power and wealth? Did they earn it? Did they fight for it and win it? What do they have to do to maintain it?

The answers vary, depending on circumstance and context. Some are more responsible with wealth and power than others. However, if we’re going to grasp the bigger picture here, we have to acknowledge the general guidelines of human nature and, chief among them, is the inclination to take the path of least resistance.

Like it or not, human beings are wired to take the easiest possible path to resolve an issue. That’s especially true of difficult tasks, such as maintaining an objectively unequal status within a society. Seeing as how humans, and even other primates, have an innate sense of justice, this is an issue that the rich, wealthy, and powerful cannot avoid.

That’s where religion enters the picture. Logistically speaking, it offers some convenient justifications for an objectively unequal situation. It’s not just that the boss, cleric, king, warlord, or rich asshole inherited their status. It was divinely granted to them.

That helps solve several major problems for the rich and powerful off the back. It means those who consider themselves pious and devout can’t just rebel against those of greater wealth. Doing so would mean protesting the will of the divine. For anyone concerned about facing divine wrath, that’s a major incentive to accept the current situation. In some cases, they even celebrate it.

That kind of divine excuse has another benefit, as well. For people like my friend, who have to toil under wealthy, entitled bosses, it gives them comfort about their current lot in life. While they could go through the trouble of fighting back, that’s both laborious and risky. Historically, powerful people don’t react kindly to being challenged and they don’t always fight back with lawyers.

Religion provides them another, less exhaustive option. Instead of going through all that trouble and taking all those risks, they need only keep living their current lives. They need not worry about contesting people like my friend’s tyrannical boss. He’ll face justice after he dies. That’s not just comforting. It plays directly into our natural inclination to resist change.

The only change these people believe in.

On a larger scale, this has minor personal benefits to the devout, but major benefits to the wealthy and powerful. If the vast majority of people are convinced that oppressors will get theirs in the afterlife, they’re not going to be as inclined to protest the status quo or, in the worst-case scenario, demand change that requires a loss of wealth and power.

This is especially important for religious leaders who, unlike governments or business elites, have to keep justifying why people devote their time, labor, and money to the institution. That’s tough when religious organizations don’t pay taxes, enrich top officials, and wield significant authority on geopolitical level.

It’s considerably easy, though, if the theology in question convinces adherents that the wealth and power of the institution is divinely granted. As a result, the inequality between the average believer and the top official is justified. That’s how the deity wants it. Even if some are corrupt, and there have been many, they’ll eventually face justice in the afterlife.

It gets even easier when adherents and believers are uneducated and uninformed. My friend wasn’t stupid, but he didn’t get much of an education, which was why he got stuck in a lot of bad jobs. His story is not uncommon. In general, the less educated you are, the more religious you tend to be. On top of that, less education often means a higher chance of living and staying in poverty.

In that context, it makes sense for religion to discourage critical thinking and higher education that isn’t specifically sanctioned by their institutions. If people aren’t educated, then they’re not just ill-equipped to question authority. They’ll remain in poverty and so too will their children, who are more likely to adopt their parents’ piety.

It’s a self-reinforcing cycle. People are born into their current lot. They either appreciate or resent it. Religion helps provide justification for it, however good or bad it might be. It gives them an excuse to accept it and pass it onto the next generation. Any inequality or injustice within that system remains in place and can even widen under the right circumstances.

Now, this is the point where I try to temper my rhetoric because I know the mechanisms I just described seem cynical. It gives the impression that every religious figure throughout history was just some greedy schemer who knew they were lying to gullible people and taking advantage of their faith to benefit themselves. I want to make clear that this is not the message I’m trying to send.

Are there religious and non-religious people who are that corrupt? There most certainly are. Some are more egregious than others. Some are historically egregious. I believe that most people, even those at the top of the hierarchy, are sincere in their piety. They don’t see their religion as a mechanism for propagating inequality and injustice. That’s why I see this impact as indirect.

Even if all organized religion disappeared tomorrow, I don’t doubt for a second that the wealthy and the powerful would find some other way to protect their status. For now, and for a good chunk of history, religion has been a powerful tool to justify and maintain this immense disparity.

Relying on the afterlife is convenient, but it requires assumptions that no human being can know for certain. Nobody truly knows what happens, if anything, after we die. We only know that no matter how rich or wealthy you are in life, death still affects you all the same. It is, in many respects, the ultimate equalizer.

In many respects, that’s the most valuable asset that the religious and the wealthy have going for them. The fact that nobody truly knows means that nobody can prove them wrong when they say their power is divinely protected. It also means that people like my friend can’t be proven wrong when they take comfort in the idea of his boss getting divine justice at some point. The result is still the same.

People on both ends of the inequality spectrum have an excuse to not change the situation. While there are some circumstance that are unalterable due to forces beyond anyone’s control, there are certainly some that can and should be confronted. As long as people find excuses in divine forces that cannot be confirmed, the inequality will only continue.

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Filed under Current Events, extremism, human nature, philosophy, psychology, religion

Good People, Corruption, And Politics According To “Designated Survivor”

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Politics is a dirty, cut-throat world that often requires good people to compromise principles, integrity, and basic human decency. Most people wouldn’t argue that. Even before the internet, the corruption that often goes hand-in-hand with politics was well-documented. That corruption has only become more visible in recent years. It’s hard to go more than a week without seeing a fresh case of shady political conduct.

However, instead of dwelling on how ugly politics can get in the age of social media and outrage culture, I’d like to scrutinize the nature of that corruption. I don’t doubt the ugliness or absurdities that politics often breeds, but it also poses some interesting question.

Do politics naturally corrupt the people who get involved?

Is corruption in politics unavoidable?

Do politics only attract corrupt individuals?

Is it possible to get anything done in politics without some amount of corruption?

These are not easy questions to answer. You don’t have to look hard to find corrupt politicians or uncover cases where politics undermined efforts to pursue a public good. However, the extent and the process of that corruption is sometimes difficult to understand. Those of us not involved in politics have a hard time imagining how ordinary people could become so callous.

That’s why a show like “Designated Survivor” is so uniquely compelling. Even as a work of fiction, this show explores the complex world of politics within the most extreme of circumstances. There’s political drama, intense action, and ongoing mysteries that go beyond politics, but the latest season of the show accomplished something unique in terms of how people become corrupt.

The premise of the show starts simple. Tom Kirkman, played by Keifer Sutherland, works at the White House as a fairly low-level department head as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. In terms of rank and influence, his authority is barely above that of a typical intern.

Then, prior to the annual State of the Union Speech, he gets picked for the unenviable role of designated survivor, which is a real thing. It’s a role meant to keep the government going in the worst of worst-case scenarios when there’s a catastrophic attack that kills the President, Congress, and much of the government. In the pilot episode, that’s exactly what happens.

Suddenly, this man who has never run for political office or served as an elected official is thrust into the role of President of the United States and after the worst attack in the history of the country. It’s overwhelming, to say the least. It makes for great TV drama, but it also creates a unique experiment in what power and politics do to an otherwise ordinary person.

Before Kirkman is thrust into this role, it’s established early on that he’s somewhat of an idealist. He identifies as an independent who is genuinely concerned with using the political process to pursue a public good. He also demonstrates early on that he has a strict understanding of right and wrong. For him, there’s no compromise or second-guessing when it comes to ethics.

On paper, he has the kind of character and ethics that most people want in a politician. Even the dire circumstances of his ascension are favorable because he never had to raise money from billionaires to finance his campaign. He doesn’t even have to make shady deals or back-stab anyone, which is also an all-too-common tactic in politics.

In a sense, Tom Kirkman comes into this position of power free of corruption. He is in a position where he can govern with his principles and ideals intact. This isn’t “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.” This is Mr. Smith gaining unprecedented power without having to go through the corrupt process.

Throughout the first and second season of the show, Kirkman tries to do his job with his ideals intact. Whether it’s tracking down who blew up the Capitol or preventing an all-out war in East Asia, he has to constantly render difficult and weighty decisions that test his ability to keep being that affable man from the first episode.

For the most part, he succeeds on many fronts. The conflicts throughout the show often followed a common formula. President Kirkman faces a difficult issue. One side urges him to make one risky, politically-motivated decision. The other side urges something else that’s just as risky and just as political. Kirkman, unwilling to compromise his laurels, has to forge a third option.

Time and again, the integrity of his character shows. By the end of the second season, the extent of that integrity is beyond dispute. Then, the third season arrives, via Netflix, and everything changes and not just due to the sudden increase in profanity.

This season, unlike the previous two, cast aside the formula of the first two seasons, but not without reason. The entire third season is built around Kirkman running for re-election as an independent. At this point, all the good he did with respect to rebuilding the government after a devastating attack is a distant memory. It’s all politics now and this is where his integrity is pushed to the limit.

Almost immediately, Kirkman discovers that just being a man of integrity isn’t enough. The first episode of the third season really sets the tone, highlighting how easy it is for his ideals to get lost in the politics of an election. Just saying what’s true and right isn’t enough. It has to resonate with voters. That’s the only criterion that counts for anything.

His primary opponent in this season is Cornelius Moss. In the second season, he was an ally. He came in as a former president who knew the rigors of the job better than most. He was also an experienced politician. He had experienced the corrupt world of politics and he had successfully navigated it. As a result, he never comes off as having the kind of integrity and principles that Kirkman espouses.

For a while, Moss comes off as an outright villain in the world of “Designated Survivor” and in a season that introduces a full-fledged bioterrorist, no less. He conducts himself the same way most people expect a corrupt politician to behave. He doesn’t care about truth, integrity, or decency. He does whatever he must in order to win the election and secure his power.

In previous seasons, Kirkman would’ve sought a way to counter those tactics and come out with his integrity intact. It was part of what made him so respectable, as both a character and a politician. Season three makes it abundantly clear that this is not going to work this time. If Kirkman wants to win, he’ll have to compromise his principles.

Without spoiling too many plot points, I’ll just state that the conclusion of this struggle leaves Kirkman in a very vulnerable position. He’s no longer the same man he was when he became President. The attack on the Capitol that made him President was an extreme circumstance that he never could’ve known about. What happens with the election in season three is very much a byproduct of his own choices.

It doesn’t definitively answer those questions I listed earlier, but it does offer some insights. More than anything else, season three of “Designated Survivor” makes the case that the political process will ultimately corrupt anyone who gets involved. It doesn’t matter how principled or decent they are. The very nature of navigating power requires that people compromise their ideals.

It’s not just Tom Kirkman who struggles with it, either. The same supporting cast that helped him cling to his principles for the first two seasons, such as Aaron Shore, Emily Rhodes, and Seth Wright, end up compromising, as well. For some, it’s disconcerting. For others, it’s downright traumatic. In the final episodes of Season 3, the reactions of Emily Rhodes nicely mirror those who valued Kirkman’s character.

There’s now an unavoidable disconnect between what Kirkman says and what he does. Even the actions of Cornelius Moss are obscured when he too becomes a victim of shady political dealings. In the end, there’s no one left in “Designated Survivor” whose integrity hasn’t been compromised. There’s also no one left whose morals aren’t muddled by circumstances.

Even in a fictional context, the politics in “Designated Survivor” are surprisingly reflective of real-world complications. Like in the show, every political party or movement believes they’re right and their opponents are wrong. They believe in what they’re doing. They also believe that if they fail, then the wrong policies will prevail.

Conservatives, liberals, libertarians, and even anarchists are guilty of that flawed mentality. It’s one of the many reasons why politics tends to breed polarization. When people are so convinced that they’re the good guys, they become more willing to cross certain lines to defeat the bad guys. Tom Kirkman managed to avoid that for two seasons. He couldn’t in the third.

Whether or not he’s vindicated for his choices remains to be seen. Depending on whether the show gets a fourth season, it’s inevitable that he’ll face consequences for his choices. How he manages those consequences will reveal how much integrity he still has. If he plays his cards poorly, he may not have any left when all is said and done.

Designated Survivor” is a great show that explores difficult issues. Season three had its faults, but it marked a major turning point for Tom Kirkman. He is definitely not the same person he was in the show’s first episode, but he’s not quite at that point where we can say he’s lost sight of his laurels.

Both circumstances and politics did plenty to change Tom Kirkman over the course of the show. You could make the case that these forces corrupted him. After season three, you could also make the case that he’s now on the same path as Walter White from “Breaking Bad” in that these circumstances simply brought out a side of him that was always there.

Whatever the case, the ugliness of politics is something people have to navigate, both in the real world and the fictional world of “Designated Survivor.” Good people will keep trying to do good. Corrupt people will keep pursuing corrupt behavior. Politics, whatever form it takes, can only ever complicate that process.

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“King of the Hill” Vs. “F is for Family” And The Evolution/Disillusion Of The American Dream

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What happened to the American Dream? That’s a question more and more people are asking these days. It’s a question people have been asking in some form or another for decades. Even if you’re not American, it’s relevant because as politics and economics become more global, there’s a sense that a great many people are being left behind. More recently, it feels like that trend is accelerating.

Since I’m not a political scientist or an economist, I’m not qualified to break down all the factors behind these trends. However, given my age and relative experiences, I’ve witnessed many of the changes and upheavals that have shaped the current state of affairs. Over that period, I’ve even seen those changes reflected in two iconic animated TV shows from two disparate eras.

One is “King of the Hill,” a colorful slice of the late 90s/early 2000s cultural zeitgeist. The other is “F is for Family,” a show that, despite taking place in the 1970s, heaps plenty of scathing criticism on current American ideals. I’ve written about both shows before, citing the former as a lesson in work ethic and the latter as a perfect satire for its time. I also consider myself a fan of both shows.

Combined

On their own, they each have their own sense of style, story, and overall humor. They’re both entertaining and endearing in their own unique way. When placed side-by-side, though, they reflect an even greater message that goes beyond the themes of either shows. That message can be summed up with one harsh realization.

The American Dream isn’t just failing. Those who pursue it are being punished.

I know it sounds bleak, if not fatalistic. It’s certainly not a message that “King of the Hill” and “F is for Family” ever state overtly. However, when placed in the context of their time and their over-arching themes, the overarching themes are clear, if not unavoidable.

In terms of ideals, Hank Hill and Frank Murphy have a lot in common. They’re both hard-working American men who see themselves as embodiments of American values. They take pride in their roles and responsibilities as husbands, fathers, and providers. They’re active in shaping the identity of their community. They both have an idealized vision of what the American Dream entails.

Some of those similarities extend to their family and how they impact the structure of the show. Many plots in “King of the Hill” and “F is for Family” revolve around Hank and Frank reacting to events that happen within their family. They have wives that seek their own path and kids who rarely appreciate the work they do. Much of the comedy in each show emerges from these conflicts.

The face of many such conflicts.

Things really start to differ when the bigger picture of their respective worlds comes in. Whereas “King of the Hill” reflects a more optimistic view of the world that was more prevalent in the late 1990s, “F is for Family” paints a more dire picture. In Frank’s world, American ideals are failing and he’s struggling just to keep that vision alive.

In just three seasons, Frank has lost his job, struggled to provide for his family, and had his dreams derailed again when his wife gets pregnant. While his temper and his penchant for threatening to put people through walls don’t help, many of the factors that put him in such situations aren’t his fault. In fact, his tendency to do things the right way, as Hank often does, often work against him.

This isn’t even Frank’s worst day.

Within this dynamic, “King of the Hill” and “F is for Family” diverge in a critical way that speaks to the larger issues surrounding the American Dream. In the world of “King of the Hill,” doing the right thing and following American values are rewarded. It’s one of the show’s most common themes over the course of 13 seasons.

In this world, working hard at a blue collar job is fulfilling, respectable, and rewarding.

In this world, a man can support his family with a job that involves selling propane and propane accessories.

In this world, people who take short-cuts or try to avoid hard work ultimately fail.

In this world, a man who marries the woman he impregnates is rewarded with respect, support, and admiration.

Simply put, adhering to principles of hard work, high morals, and personal responsibility will help someone achieve the American dream. Hank Hill, with his quaint suburban house and supportive community, is the personification of these principles. It’s not always easy for him, given his influences, but that only makes his adherence to those principles more respectable.

This is virtuous system is not present in “F is for Family.” If anything, it’s turned upside down. Frank Murphy followed those principles as closely as Hank. He put his personal goals on hold when his wife got pregnant. He served his country dutifully when he got drafted. He works hard and provides, despite having a slob for a boss. However, his efforts go unrewarded. If anything, they’re punished.

In Frank Murphy’s world, a hard-working man can save the company he works for, but still get fired.

In Frank Murphy’s world, marrying your pregnant girlfriend instead of following your dreams will only get you ungrateful kids, a miserable wife, and an unfulfilling job.

In Frank Murphy’s world, people who eschew hard work and behave irresponsibility are rewarded with cocaine-fueled parties and trophy wives.

In Frank Murphy’s world, a corporation can steal your idea and make millions off it while you don’t even get credit.

The system is harsh, unfair, and completely unconcerned with who adheres to American ideals. The only thing that ever seems to matter is dumb luck and already having significant wealth or privilege. Sadly, this is a lot more consistent with the current state of affairs where the rich and powerful exact immense influence, creating a system that benefits those at the top while straining everyone else.

Frank yelling on behalf of America.

This unfair system even extends beyond the political and economic sphere. In “F is for Family,” there are multiple characters who seem to succeed, no matter how little they work or how unmotivated they are. It’s not unlike those who flaunt their lavish lifestyles on Instagram, which is often fueled by inherited wealth that they did not work for or earn.

That kind of system wouldn’t just leave Hank Hill aghast. It would completely undermine his world, his identity, and his ethics. Whether he would resort to putting people through walls instead of just kicking asses is difficult to determine, but the bigger picture is clear. The American Dream in his world is intact whereas its reversing course in “F is for Family.”

To some extent, this reversal is consistent with how the world has been trending since the late 1990s and early 2000s. People have become increasingly cynical and trust in institutions is declining. Thanks to the media and the internet, it’s getting harder to hide the harsh realities of a world where just doing the right thing isn’t enough anymore. Despite taking place before the internet, “F is for Family” perfectly reflects this reality.

The face of that harsh reality.

It creates a dynamic that’s bound to create more Frank Murphys and fewer Hank Hills. People are told that the American dream is still in their grasp. They just have to be like Hank, playing by the rules, working hard, and not taking shortcuts. Those who buy into that dream aren’t just let down. They’re outright punished.

Frank didn’t become a profanity-spewing rageaholic overnight. As perfectly depicted in the show’s opening credits, the various machinations of this unfair system just kept hitting him and no matter how hard he worked or how much he sacrificed, he never got closer to the American Dream. If anything, it just kept getting farther away.

Both “F is for Family” and “King of the Hill” have plenty to offer in terms of insights. Their respective worlds may take place in an animated world where former presidents and future serial killers can show up, but such exaggerated dynamics help each show convey a certain message that fit perfectly within the context of a certain time.

The idealism in “King of the Hill” and the satirical deconstruction in “F is for Family” paint conflicting pictures of the American Dream. Both still glorify it as an ideal, but each present a different understanding of how it plays out. Within the comedy, there are genuine, relevant messages worth considering.

For many people in the real, non-animated world, the American Dream still matters. Many still work as hard and as passionately as Hank Hill and Frank Murphy. It’s hard enough when those efforts go unrewarded, but when doing the right thing becomes a liability, it’s hard to call it a dream.

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Gender Politics, Military Conscription, And Why It Matters

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When it comes to gender politics, there are certain issues that come to mind and others that slip under the radar. These days, the most newsworthy issues involve things like diversity in popular media, discrimination in certain social spheres, attitudes within certain sub-cultures, and patterns of harassment.

I’ve explored some of these issues in the past, but only when I feel like there’s relevant discussion worth having. The problem with the issues that slip under the radar is that they rarely make headlines, which helps them persist. Even when a headline finally does come along, it’s difficult to discuss because most people aren’t aware of it and haven’t contemplated the implications.

A good example is military conscription. If you live in America, Canada, or Western Europe and are under the age of 40, chances are you haven’t given it a moment’s thought. Conscription, or the draft as it’s commonly known, is one of those institutions that just isn’t as relevant as it used to be. Considering how much war, in general, has declined in the past 50 years, that’s understandable.

However, it’s still relevant in the sense that it reflects old attitudes about society, war, and gender roles. These attitudes are rarely scrutinized, even among feminists, conservatives, liberals, and egalitarians. Now, thanks to recent developments in the courts, this might be a good time to discuss this often-overlooked issue.

If you’re an adult, able-bodied man, then this issue affects you. It has already affected me and almost every other man older than 18 years of age because that’s the age when we had to sign up for the Selective Service System. In doing so, we gave the government the information and discretion to draft us into military service, should the need arrive.

Make no mistake. This is not akin to getting a driver’s license or a social security card. By signing up for the Selective Service System, a sizable chunk of the male population is agreeing to go to war whenever their government decides to conscript them. It’s not a formality, nor is it done out of patriotism either.

Every man has had to learn what this emblem means.

It’s not just because doing so is necessary to access federal programs like student loans, job training, and Pell Grants. Failure to sign up for Selective Service is a felony, punishable by hefty fines and prison time. Logistically speaking, this is an issue in which consent truly doesn’t matter. Men have to do this. They are as subject to conscription as they are to paying taxes.

It’s one of the few issues in which the gender divide is clear cut. Men must permit the government to conscript them into military service. Women do not. While women are still free to join the military and enjoy its many benefits, they ultimately have a choice that men don’t. In the event of a war that requires conscription, they won’t be forced to join the fight.

Whether you’re a pacifist, egalitarian, or a radical feminist, this issue should matter because it has significant implications. It’s frequently cited as a case of male disposability and for good reason. The fact that only men must sign up for conscription implies that society is comfortable sending them to the front lines of a war. It affirms that we’re okay with men being brutalized, but not women, a double standard I’ve explored before.

While there are many historical reasons for this, ranging from ancient warrior cultures to evolutionary factors to the pragmatism of protecting the gender that bears the babies, those reasons don’t carry as much weight anymore. Most countries, including the United States, rely on a voluntary service system and several decades of civil rights movements have made gender discrimination illegal.

However, the Selective Service System managed to escape all these changes until very recently. In February 2019, a federal court issued a groundbreaking ruling that concluded the Military Selective Service Act was unconstitutional. This quote from the ruling nicely sums up the reasoning behind that ruling.

In short, while historical restrictions on women in the military may have justified past discrimination, men and women are now “similarly situated for purposes of a draft or registration for a draft.”

While it’s likely that this ruling will be contested, it does provide an opportunity for a more nuanced discussion. Most debates regarding gender tend to focus on areas where women and transgender individuals face discrimination and marginalization. These debates have certainly made their share of headlines, but military conscription is unique in its impact on men.

That might be part of the reason why conscription rarely arises in a gender debate, but with this ruling, the time is right to address it. There’s no denying the discrimination here. Men are being forced to do something at the behest of their government and women are not. This issue reflects a major disparity, but it’s also an opportunity.

Even though military conscription hasn’t been practiced in the United States for several decades, it has already played a significant role in shaping society. A big reason why the civil rights movement made so much progress in the 1950s and 1960s is because conscription required people of various races and backgrounds to work together. In many respects, the structure of the military was a huge equalizer.

This is nicely depicted in the opening scenes of “Full Metal Jacket.” Gunnery Sergeant Hartman made it abundantly clear to every recruit that there’s no discrimination in his unit. Your race, ethnicity, and background didn’t matter in the slightest. In a war, it can’t matter. It’s a powerful message that many soldiers brought back with them.

The face of true unity.

That sort of message has never been applied to gender in the United States. It’s not unprecedented, though. There are a number of countries that have mandatory military service for both men and women. Israel, one of America’s closest allies, is one of them. While they tend to serve different roles, the fact that they’re subject to the same obligations as men sends a powerful message.

It doesn’t just show in the status that women have in Israel have, especially when compared to other neighboring nations. It establishes equal expectations for women and men, alike. In a system where everyone is held to a similar standard when defending their country, it’s harder to justify discrimination.

That has significant implications for the United States in wake of the ruling. Either the Selective Service System must be thrown out entirely or women must be subject to the same requirements. As recently as 2016, Congress debated the idea of including women in the system, but it did not pass. The fact that it sparked few protests is revealing, in and of itself.

By not acting through legislation, the courts are forcing the issue. The Justice Department is already opposing the ruling by claiming that requiring women to register for the draft is “particularly problematic.” That’s somewhat ironic, given that similar rhetoric is used when feminists criticize video game characters for being too sexy.

Despite that rhetoric, it’s just as telling that there are few protests surrounding this statement. The same protesters who marched in Washington DC back in 2017 have been relatively silent in how the government views gender disparity with respect to military conscription. This isn’t a right. It’s a responsibility and one that can unify a society full of diverse people.

To some extent, it’s understandable why those same protesters don’t argue for the same standards with respect to military conscription. Unlike Israel, the United States and most western countries don’t have mandatory military service and the draft hasn’t been utilized in 40 years. For most people, it doesn’t directly affect them.

However, that might also make it the perfect issue for unifying people from both ends of gender issues. If feminists and men’s rights activists are serious about equality in terms of the law and societal standards, then military conscription is a clear-cut issue that they can both rally behind. Either you’re for equality or you’re not. At the very least, it would be helpful to know who’s not.

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Why The Republic Of Gilead Would Fail (Spectacularly) In The Real World

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In recent years, there has been a great deal of dread among feminists, libertarians, and supporters of secular values in the United States. The country seems to be going down an authoritarian path. Traditions of liberty and personal freedom are under threat by a government that seems more inclined to micromanage peoples’ lives for their own benefit.

One path in particular is becoming a lot more prominent. That is the one that could lead the United States to a government like that of the Republic of Gilead, the repressive theocratic regime from Margaret Atwood’s novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale.” In that system, gender politics are pushed to the utmost extreme. The freedom, equality, sex, and love that contemporary society enjoys doesn’t exist.

The reasons for these fears are many. The current state of gender politics has become heated with the rise of the anti-harassment movement and ongoing legal battles surrounding abortion access. During the protests surrounding upheavals on the Supreme Court, it was common to see female protesters dressed in the distinct garb from the “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Such protest has even spread to other countries.

The message is clear. People are worried that our society is inching closer to a world similar to the repressive gender politics of Gilead. I can certainly understand those concerns. While I’ve often criticized certain aspects of gender politics, I don’t deny the worry that many women feel about the current state of affairs.

That said, I believe the idea that the United States, or any western country for that matter, could descend into a state of gender apartheid like Gilead is absurd. While we should be concerned about the influence of religious extremism, even in the west, the chances of it ever gaining power on the level depicted in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is precisely zero.

Even if a regime like it came to power, it wouldn’t just fail quickly. It would collapse so spectacularly that it would be a joke on par with the Emu War. Gilead is not this all-encompassing, overwhelming power on par with Big Brother in George Orwell’s “1984.” Atwood even implied at the end of “The Handmaid’s Tale” that the regime was set to fall.

We’ve yet to hear that part of the story, but Atwood did announce that she’s working on a sequel. One way or another, Gilead’s days are numbered, even in the fanciful world that she created. Before then, I’d like to break down why the Republic of Gilead would be doomed if it ever attempted to set up shop in the real world.

If nothing else, I’d like to offer some perspective to those who fear that the state of gender politics is regressing. To those people, I share your concerns. However, I’m an optimist. I believe both feminists and men’s rights activists can and will find plenty of common ground on these issues in due time.

Even if they don’t, they can take comfort in knowing that Gilead, as both a philosophy and a system, is so flawed that dreading it is an exercise in hyperbole. There are still plenty of lessons to be learned from “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but in terms of setting up a competent theocratic regime, it’s a perfect check-list on what not to do.


Reason #1: Establishing Gilead Would Collapse The Economy

One of the first things the Sons of Jacob did when they established Gilead was fire every woman from their job and effectively eliminate their legal rights. On top of it being an exercise in brutal oppression, it removed half the labor force from the economy. In 2010, there were approximately 123 million women in the workforce. Firing every one of them wouldn’t just cause a huge recession. It would destroy the economy at every level.

Even the most ardent anti-feminist would be badly hurt by a world where half the GDP just disappeared. Suddenly, the industries that everybody relies on just cease functioning. Baking, health care, technology, and basic services essentially collapse as both the labor pool and the consumer base disappears.

That means from the very beginning, Gilead would have to navigate the worst economic collapse in history. More often than not, governments that cause collapses or fail to recover from them don’t last very long. Even if the Sons of Jacob found a way to blame it on minorities, feminists, or other religions, they would still be on the hook for fixing things and doing so with half the labor force will be difficult, to say the least.

Beyond the logistics, destroying an entire economy as part of a religious crusade is going to piss off some very powerful people who were thriving in the current system. America, alone, has over 500 billionaires whose massive wealth would be threatened by such a collapse. People with those kinds of resources aren’t going to let Gilead succeed, even if they manage to seize power.


Reason #2: Micromanaging Peoples’ Lives Is Impossible (In The Long Run)

I’ve noted before that fascist systems have many fundamental flaws. There’s a reason why some of the most brutal, authoritarian regimes in history still ended up collapsing. In the long run, they find out the hard way that it’s just impossible to effectively manage the lives their citizens.

The Republic of Gilead is a lot like Big Brother in that it takes micromanaging to a ridiculous extreme. It doesn’t just have its own secret police to enforce a rigid caste system. Much of its governing philosophy relies on ensuring people stick to their roles and never deviate. Women do what the state requires them to do without question. Men do the same, right down to how they structure their families.

That system only works if human beings are like machines who never get bored doing the same thing over and over again for their entire lives. Since human beings are not like that, there’s no way that kind of society can remain functional in the long run. The fact that the boredom of solitary confinement drives people crazy is proof enough of that.

It still gets worse than that. In every revolution, there’s often a period of heavy solidarity when the people rally behind the new regime as the beginning of a new Utopian vision. This happened in the Russian Revolution and during the Cultural Revolution in Communist China. Unfortunately for Gilead, it came to power by brute, terrorizing force.

That means this government coming to power isn’t the will of the people. It’s just plain bullying and people tend to resent that sort of thing. Even the Iran Revolution had the good sense to rally the people. The Republic of Gilead didn’t bother with that. It’s hard to imagine that collapsing the economy and subjugating half the population at gunpoint will make them many friends.


Reason #3: Theocracies Are The Least Stable Forms Of Autocracies

Remember when a purely theocratic state managed to prosper without being located atop an ocean of valuable oil? I don’t either and there’s a good reason for that. When it comes to repressive authoritarian states, theocracies are the worst possible choice. That’s because by entwining government with religion, it’s also entwining itself with the various flaws of religion.

Big Brother didn’t bother with religion in “1984.” It didn’t have to because religion, for all intents and purposes, was obsolete. The authority of the state and the authority of a deity was the same thing. The Republic of Gilead doesn’t have that luxury. Their politics and theology is based on an extremely conservative form of Christianity.

While that may seem fine to the Pat Robertson’s of the world, it adds a whole host of complications to the mix. The Sons of Jacob justify their repressive actions by appealing to Christianity and the bible. That’s okay if every single person in the entire republic agrees on one single interpretation of a religion and its holy text. Unfortunately, that has never occurred in the history of humanity.

There are dozens upon dozens of denominations in Christianity. There are also fringe cults, radical sects, and even schisms within those groups. At most, Gilead could have a unified theology at the beginning, but as new generations come along, that unity will collapse.

People will inevitably disagree. Every side will claim God is with them and everyone else are heretics. This sort of thing has been happening with religion for centuries. It won’t stop in Gilead. At some point, someone is going to think they heard God tell them something else and no one will be able to convince them otherwise. When that happens, conflict will ensue.

That sort of conflict can be managed in a more secular dictatorship. When government and religion are entwined, though, it’s much harder to work around. Even if Gilead could survive an economic collapse and the logistics of micromanaging peoples’ lives, it’s very unlikely it’ll survive the never-ending onslaught of religious debates.


Reason #4: Gilead Would Be An Easy Target For Invasion

Whether you’ve read the book or only watched the TV show, it’s hard to tell what sort of geopolitics the Republic of Gilead deals with. There are a few hints that there are other countries who did not descend into theocratic repression. There are even some cases of refugees in neighboring areas where women still have their rights.

The existence of those neighbors is yet another complication that ensures Gilead won’t last long, no matter how much its leaders pray. It already created a huge refugee crisis when it took over a sovereign government by force. At the same time, it handicapped itself by collapsing its economy and relegating half its population to serve as baby factories. It’s not just a source of chaos. It’s an easy target.

Neither the book nor the show reveals much about Gilead’s military capabilities. Even if we assume they get their hands on nuclear weapons, they’re still vulnerable because other countries have them too. More importantly, they know how to operate and maintain them. Religious zealots are good at a lot of things, but science isn’t one of them.

In the same way creationists aren’t likely to understand quantum mechanics, an entire government run by religious extremists aren’t likely to manage advanced weaponry. As time goes on, their emphasis of religion over reality will undermine their ability to develop such weapons. Their secular neighbors will have no such qualms.

Letting Gilead endure with its religious extremism and gender oppression means establishing a precedent that most other countries don’t want. Seeing one country fall to such a violent overthrow would be jarring enough. The first reaction to every nearby country would be to take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen to them. One of those steps could be overthrowing Gilead before one woman has to wear those goofy outfits.


Regardless of how you feel about “The Handmaid’s Tale” or where you stand in terms of gender politics, the book offers a powerful message. Like “1984,” it shows how bad things can get when extremism takes hold. Whether you’re a man, woman, or transgender, we have a lot more incentive to get along rather than fight one another. At the end of the day, that will ensure that Gilead remains nothing more than a flawed, fictional country.

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Why Nobody Should EVER Be As Famous As Michael Jackson

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A lot has been said about Michael Jackson’s legacy in recent years. Like so many others, I remember just how big he was. I’ve listened to his music. I’ve watched his music videos. I’ve also read some of the many weird stories that have been told about him. While I never considered myself a huge fan, I don’t deny that in terms of sheer star power, he’s in a league all his own.

The extent of that star power is difficult to fathom today, even for people who become stars for all the wrong reasons. It’s impossible to overstate just how big Michael Jackson was as an entertainer and a celebrity. Anyone under the age of 30 can’t hope to understand the status he had in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. He was the closest any celebrity ever came to becoming a full-blown demigod.

Whether you cared for his music or not, he forged an unparalleled legacy that will likely never be matched. Ever since his death in 2009, however, the narrative surrounding that legacy has branched off into two very different directions.

One attempts to celebrate just how much he contributed to entertainment, highlighting how he ascended from his days as the cute kid in the Jackson 5 to one of the undisputed King of Pop. The other attempts to cut through the breadth of his fame to reveal his egregious misdeeds, which may have included child sexual abuse.

The stories surrounding these misdeeds have recently gained greater attention thanks to the “Leaving Neverland” documentary that aired on HBO. In this film, the kids Jackson allegedly abused, who are now adults with families of their own, get to tell their stories. Without spoiling too much, the details of those stories are not for the faint of heart.

It’s impossible to know just how true some details are. I’ve noted before that people should never take documentaries too seriously. I’ve also pointed out that human memory is notoriously unreliable. Even though Michael Jackson was ultimately acquitted, there’s still an underlying sentiment that he’s an abuser who got away with his crimes.

Personally, I don’t blame people for thinking that way about him. Jackson was a weird, eccentric character and for understandable reasons. He was a child star who somehow managed to become an even bigger star as an adult. He even said in the days leading up to his death that he never had a childhood. His whole life was consumed by fame, celebrity, and stardom.

Even today, there aren’t many parallels. Even the biggest celebrities of today, from Taylor Swift to Ryan Reynolds, never had to endure fame to that extent. They got to have childhoods. They had a chance to anchor themselves to the real world, if only to a limited extent. Even the children of celebrities have some breathing room, although not all of them handle it well.

Michael Jackson never had that opportunity. Shortly after he achieved stardom with the Jackson 5, his life became consumed with celebrity. He ceased becoming Michael Jackson, the kid, and forever became Michael Jackson, the celebrity. He never faded into obscurity, like many other child stars do. He remained this superstar icon who, no matter what he did, couldn’t escape the fame.

It’s a caliber of fame that, logistically speaking, just isn’t possible today when one mis-worded tweet or one scandalous video from a smartphone is enough to cause a celebrity’s downfall. Personally, I believe that’s a good thing. I would even go so far as to say that nobody should ever achieve the level of fame that Michael Jackson had.

It’s not just that fame can corrupt otherwise decent people. Michael Jackson already had issues beyond fame, from his lengthy list of medical ailments to the way his father disciplined him and his brothers. Fame, in many cases, acts as a fuel rather than a catalyst. It compounds the good and the bad in people. For someone who has real demons, the bad can lead to real tragedy.

The level of fame that Michael Jackson achieved wasn’t just fuel, though. It was more akin to weapons grade plutonium, bombarding him with a level of volatility that no human being is equipped to handle. Through both the interviews he has conducted and the anecdotes of other celebrities, the effects of such immense fame are painfully clear.

Michael, as talented and weird as he was, couldn’t handle it. The pressure of navigating that kind of celebrity isn’t just daunting. It’s impossible. It’s also likely that pressure played a role in some of the health issues he endured later in his life. It probably played a role in his less-than-normal mental health.

Now, none of those issues should absolve him of any crimes he may have committed. The fact that he’s no longer alive to defend his legacy against a contrasting narrative is worth considering when judging him, as both a person and an icon. That won’t stop some from furthering a certain narrative, which has already had a substantial impact on Jackson’s legacy, but it should provide context.

Regardless of the narrative that best reflects the truth, there are lessons from Michael Jackson’s famous story that are more relevant now than they were when he was alive. Currently, we live in a world of outrage culture where the internet and social media has given people unprecedented access to the world of celebrity. With that access, the dark side of that world is harder to avoid.

Even at the height of his fame, Michael Jackson just had to dodge reporters and the paparazzi. He could also rely, to some extent, on people not taking the tabloids too seriously. After all, some of those tabloids published stories that were weird, even by his standards. Today, he would have to worry about everyone with a smartphone and social media account.

On top of that, the very nature of the internet and human psychology have made it so that even proven lies somehow become accepted as truth. They never go away. The internet never forgets. Once you’ve been labeled with an embarrassing smear, it doesn’t go away. Even if you’re innocent, the label sticks.

Someone of Michael Jackson’s fame and eccentricities wouldn’t last long in the current social climate. It’s remarkable how some celebrities manage to sustain themselves for extended periods of time, but those individuals are few and far between. In addition, none of them have ever come close to achieving Jackson’s level of fame.

Perhaps, it’s for the best that no one will ever reach the level of celebrity that that Michael Jackson achieved. The human psyche, no matter how talented or resilient, just isn’t equipped to handle that kind of stardom. What it means to be a celebrity is rapidly changing, thanks to the internet and even to Jackson’s influence on the culture, at large. Chances are the pace of that change will only accelerate.

For better or for worse, Michael Jackson’s legacy is a testament to how damaging fame can be when taken to ridiculous extremes. In an era where fame is both fleeting and increasingly irrational, it’s harder than ever to escape that damage. Even if it’s no longer possible for someone to achieve that level of fame, the lessons of that legacy are worth learning from.

 

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