Last month, George Clooney, Steven Spielberg and other movie stars and moguls announced donations of more than $2 million to keeping the tour buses, promotional rallies and the presence of cameras rolling to support “March for Our Lives,” the high-school student anti-gun movement. To be honest, that doesn’t bother me at all. It’s their money, and celebrities – like the rest of us – have every right to express themselves through statements or donations.
As an aside, and like it or not, the large influx of cash contributes to skepticism about young David Hogg and his compadres being a genuinely “grassroots” movement or instead well-orchestrated or simply convenient sock puppets. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. High school kids are not allowed to rent cars, let alone a string of giant tour buses, and it took several days for the media to catch up to the fact that the walk-outs and rallies had significant political and financial sponsorship.
Sadly, some of that skepticism manifests as out and out mean-spiritedness. Some of the personal attacks on the youngsters themselves – as opposed to what they are saying – stepped over the line into cruelty and tastelessness. One Wikipedia editor friend of mine has been spending dozens of hours cleaning up Wiki pages related to the youngsters, which have been repeatedly vandalized.
Meanwhile, every year hundreds of youngsters (mostly of color) are shot in the mean streets of Chicago. Why is it easier for Hollywood stars to make donations and preen for the cameras when white upper-middle-class kids are the victims of gun violence, but the same cultural icons have been largely silent on Chicago’s ongoing urban genocide? Is it that the preponderance of Chicago murders (which far outpaces school shootings) involves handguns, not AR-15’s? Try to tell a grieving mother that it’s “different.”
What’s happening right now is a dysfunctional two-part dynamic. First, the media allows “indulgences” wherein the “right” people are forgiven for propagating the glamorization of gun violence if they say the right things and make the right donations.
Secondly, the same media engages in selective charges of “normalization.” That’s when the “wrong” speech is a basis for outrage and censorship because merely allowing it to be heard allegedly encourages wrongthink: “My campaign is not going to let Donald Trump try to normalize himself,” vowed presidential heir-apparent Hilary Clinton in 2017.
Come along with me, it’s a wild ride. Mr. Toad has nothing on me.
Indulgences: the first step
Long before the Parkland tragedy, commentators have noted the irony — if not hypocrisy — of Hollywood stars and moguls who make hundreds of millions of dollars on ultraviolent, gun-laden movies who then turn around to virtue signal their anti-gun “positions” on social media and in interviews.
Between the social media posturing and the hefty donations, something about their behavior reminds me of Borgia-era papal indulgences blended with the 24-hour digital news and social media cycle. Your Holiness, I know I sodomized a child, but what’s the going rate for forgiveness? $250,000 and a few tweets? Done deal!
As I said earlier, freedom of speech applies to limousine liberals as much as anyone else. But everyone has a right to challenge the content of that speech. For many years, the poster boy for this first circle of hypocrisy has been Sylvester Stallone. His Rambo character is iconic: a face contorted in rage, wrapped in a sweat-soaked headband sitting atop a chiseled torso, clutching his always-present blazing M-60 machine gun. (FUN FACT: What does it tell you that there is a website dedicated to correctly identifying the type and make of firearms used in movies?).
The Rambo icon powered a juggernaut that grossed as much as $728 million worldwide, and helped Stallone develop a personal net worth of more than $422 million, according to media estimates. Yet the left-leaning Daily Beast quoted Stallone as saying “Until America, door to door, takes every handgun, this [violence] is what you’re gonna have,” added Stallone. “It’s pathetic. It really is pathetic. It’s sad. We’re living in the Dark Ages […] the time has come to be a little more accountable and realize that this is an escalating problem that’s eventually going to lead to, I think, urban warfare.” In other words, I got mine, Jack. Here’s my social posturing, now hand over that indulgence.
Of course, Stallone is easy to pick on. Not to worry, indulgences-via-virtue signaling abound. In a 2015 interview Idris Elba, when asked by The Daily Mail “What one law would you change if you could?” replied: “I would definitely change the law on random gun-holding in America. Nobody should be allowed to have those big guns willy-nilly.” (I have no clue what he means by “random” or “big guns” and I suspect neither does he.) Elba starred as a gun-slinging killer in last year’s “The Dark Tower” which grossed $50,701,325.
Few “action stars” have made as much money from wielding weapons wildly onscreen as Matt Damon, whose “Jason Bourne” franchise garnered $566,147,421 beginning in 2002. Vanity Fair reported that Damon was paid $26,000,000 for one film despite having only 25 lines of dialogue. (His gun had more lines than he did.) Ironically, Damon used a 2016 press conference in Australia promoting that movie to express his desire for a massive confiscation of U.S. guns: “You guys did it here in one fell swoop [in 1996] and I wish that could happen in my country, but it’s such a personal issue for people that we cannot talk about it sensibly.” The next time someone says, “Nobody is saying take away all guns” remember Matt Damon and Sylvester Stallone: hardly “nobodies.”
All the while, Hollywood enjoys a cozy relationship with the National Rifle Association and the gun industry in general. In a remarkable exposé, The Hollywood Reporter published a detailed story titled “The Gun Industry’s Lucrative Relationship with Hollywood” about the symbiotic relationship that helps keep George Clooney up to date on the maintenance costs of his Lake Como estate.
Republished post-Parkland, the music industry bought indulgences en masse via social posturing when the entertainment trade magazine Billboard organized an “An Open Letter to Congress from the Music Industry” in 2016. The signatories to a heart-felt letter of concern about guns included a wide roster of artists and music executives with a long and profitable history of promoting “gangster rap” that glorifies guns and their indiscriminate use. Prior to Parkland, Cameron Strang, former CEO of Warner Brothers Records made $3,430,626 a year developing and promoting “artists” like Gucci Mane, whose painterly lyrics include gems such as “Murder for Fun”:
“Man I murder fo’ fun but my job is never done
From morning morn’ to the setting of the sun
Bad men come come, come get murdered for fun
The hundred round drum in my tommy gun
Be a cat in the Hum’ I’ll cut out your tongue.”
He seems nice. Sondheim could learn a thing or two from him.
The “normalization” complaint: censorship in lamb’s clothing
Against the backdrop of the anti-gun rhetoric coming from people who make a huge living blowing people away on screen and in rhyme, the concept of “normalization” comes into play. It’s essentially another way censors say “shut up.” For many years, arts and music critics as well as civil rights leaders have debated about whether the glorification of gun violence “normalizes” it, encouraging young people to commit violent acts.
Mark Beech, one of the world’s most-read music critics, and a contributing editor at Dante Magazine, notes that “Film makers are growing increasingly sensitive to the perception of public opinion and political correctness after #METOO and more.” When asked if creative freedom should be held hostage to the ebb-and-flow of political correctness, Beech told me that “most viewers are of sound mind and can distinguish between real life and the fictional glorification of bloodshed. For a long time, rap music has also been criticized for its macho lyrics, with boasting, bling, bitches and guns part of the formula. While these tracks are surely not inculcating the best of attitudes, there is mixed evidence if they really inspire criminality among a tiny few of limited intelligence or sanity. Artistic freedom should be used responsibly but not restricted.”
Here’s the disconnect: free speech advocates — myself included — have long argued that content is not “mind-control.” As Beech points out, those who blame movies or music for criminal acts miss the point that most viewers and listeners are independent moral agents capable of distinguishing reality from fiction. I’d dare say any competent or honest First Amendment lawyer or civil libertarian would disagree.
Yet in the political sphere, so-called liberals have thrown that out the window, and a growing “anti-normalization” or “anti-platforming” movement threatens not just free speech, but the credibility of those who pretend to be free speech advocates. As one Guardian editorialist put it, if you don’t use the word “fascist” to describe President Trump, you are normalizing him.
Similarly, New York Times readers utterly lost their minds about “normalization” when Bret Stephens — a moderate conservative — was recently added to the masthead. One email from a “liberal” reader suggested Stephens be beheaded like Danny Pearl. (Stephens’s sin was to pen an op-ed questioning the liberal catechism of “global warming.”)
It’s utterly dishonest to argue that Matt Damon’s bullet-fueled bloodbaths have no “normalizing” effect, but Donald Trump’s screeds, Milo Yiannopolis’s trolling or Christina Hoff Sommers’s quiet and scholarly academic speeches are “normalizing” and must be denied a platform or covered in a fair and objective manner.
Connections, causation and the law
Except in rare cases, US law has rejected “normalization” as a basis for civil suits or as an excuse for criminal acts. People have long blamed content creators for their tragic problems. Black Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne was unsuccessfully sued in 1988 because the parents of a teen suicide victim was allegedly “inspired” to kill himself after listening to the song “Suicide Solution.” In 1979, convicted killer Ronnie Zamora, (15 years old at the time) failed to convince a Florida court that his “constant exposure to violent television programming” was the root cause that drove him to shoot and kill his 83 year old neighbor. There are dozens of cases where courts have found that the lack of a direct and rational causal link between content and violence absolves the speaker of legal liability.
While those who portray violence may be blameless in the eyes of the law, moral culpability ought to be held to a higher standard. PEN America’s executive director Suzanne Nossel, a leading free expression advocate, explained in a Washington Post Op/Ed last year that under the guise of preventing “normalization” (or allowing unpopular speakers a “platform”) “language and violence should not be confused.” Referring to the riots that silenced controversial speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer, and without making an endorsement of either’s substantive content, Nossel added that “Campus speech battles increasingly seem to invite small groups of well-prepared, violent protesters to use controversial talks as an excuse for a show of ideological force masquerading as the defense of free speech. Their presence, sometimes in the midst of much larger gatherings of non-belligerent protesters, can trigger public safety concerns that shut down speech and deprive others of the right to voice their dissent peaceably, as when universities cancel presentations by controversial speakers.”
Just be honest with us
As I said earlier, those who make their Midas-like livings have every right to protest, to rail against guns or to make sizeable donations. But they deserve to be challenged on the source of their wealth and need to do a better job of explaining why glamorizing gun violence isn’t “normalization” but calling Donald Trump anything but a fascist is.
As for the youngsters involved in the protest, perhaps their credibility and sincerity would be more concrete if they vowed to not accept donations from those who make millions of dollars “acting” with their trigger fingers. Young Mr. Hogg and his cadre ought to consider more carefully from whom they take money, and their movement ought to consider rejecting such donations as a matter of policy.
Charles Glasser (@MediaEthicsGuy) was a journalist in the 1980s and later studied at New York University School of Law. After several years as a First Amendment litigator, he became Bloomberg News’ first global media counsel. He is the author of “The International Libel and Privacy Handbook”, teaches media ethics and law at New York University and also lectures globally and writes frequently about media and free speech issues for Instapundit and other outlets.