Mickey Mouse at the Disneyland Park in Hong Kong. (Mark Ashman via Getty Images)

TGIF: Slaps for All!

Grubby culture war battles hit Disney, late night and Hollywood.

Welcome back to you know what. (TGIF)

→Inflation is America’s number one issue: Voters seem to care a lot about the thing that’s eating their savings and their paychecks, according to a comprehensive new Harvard/Harris poll. Indeed, Americans care more about inflation than any other issue. Far, far more than climate change or January 6, women’s rights or cancel culture or racial equity. Three-quarters of American voters say they’ve been personally impacted by inflation. (And I’d like to know where the other quarter shops for groceries.) 

Remember MMT? Modern Monetary Theory was the notion, advanced by a small but influential group of very smart people, that our government can just keep printing money, traditional concerns—deficits, inflation—be damned. This view was advanced by Bernie Sanders’s economic advisor and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, whose policy dreams required the government to print trillions of dollars for every social cause under the sun (Green New Deal! Medicare for All!) and by Goldman Sachs, which loved the idea of a hot economy and cheap money. Covid relief was to be the big tryout. The enemy was that old man Larry Summers, trying to ruin all the fun. The Times’s Ezra Klein slips a small mea culpa in this week in an interview with Summers: “There was a reason the Biden administration wanted to run the economy hot. . . .  It felt, finally, like we were reaching people on the margins,” Klein said. “We were putting a lot of firepower to do that,” he said. “And then for that to then turn into this horrifying inflation problem.”

One of MMT’s original economist proponents is now saying Biden did it wrong with the Covid spending and, therefore, true MMT has still never been tried.

→New budget: Biden released a new 2023 budget that includes nice things for both moderates and progressives. To the moderates, he gives more funding for police. To the progressives, he pays for the police with a new 20% tax on billionaire’s wealth (including their unrealized capital gains). That bit might be illegal, and of course West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin has already indicated he won’t support it. “You can’t tax something that’s not earned. Earned income is what we’re based on,” he told The Hill. 

→Wait but cutting vaccine funding seems unwise: To compromise with Republicans on a new Covid relief bill, the Democrats are having to gut $4 billion from global vaccine efforts. Of all the fat to cut in government spending right now, vaccinating the developing world is not the bit I would pick to scrap.

→The news abroad: As we entered week six of the war in Ukraine, Moscow said it would allow humanitarian aid into the devastated city of Mariupol, and is partly pulling back from Kyiv.

Meanwhile, in Israel, 11 innocent people are dead after three terrorist attacks in the span eight days. Among the 11: two Arab Israelis. A Druze police officer named Yazan Falah and a Christian Arab police officer named Amir Khoury. Thousands of people from across the country, including hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews, attended Khoury’s funeral. “Rest in peace, my hero of Israel,” said his fiance

→Longshot, but we love to see it: Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose latest tear is heaping praise on Vladimir Putin and blaming Ukraine for being invaded, has a primary challenger in Jennifer Strahan. The normal-seeming conservative, Strahan is picking up attention and endorsements for being competent and sane. Nice. 

→Speaking of conspiracies: Former CBS reporter and current Fox Nation star Lara Logan went this week on a QAnon-affiliated show, “And We Know.” There she dove right into an odd anti-Semitic rant, tapping into ideas so fringe and bizarre I didn’t even know they were things. Logan asks: “Does anyone know who employed Darwin? Where Darwinism comes from? Well, I mean, you know, look it up. The Rothschilds.” Oy gevalt. 

→Last one: Alex Jones, who spent years telling his audience that the Sandy Hook mass shootings were faked, is trying to dodge a new lawsuit brought by relatives of those preschoolers who were killed. A Connecticut judge has ruled that for every day he skips his deposition he gets $25,000 in fines. Good on her. 

He’s also reportedly offered to settle with the families, who have refused. Good on them. 

→MIT brings back the SAT: Most prestigious universities have scrapped SAT requirements, some before Covid but most under the cover of Covid chaos. Proponents say this is for equity, since scores can be improved by expensive test prep classes—though it was never clear how this group envisioned essays and extracurriculars as being somehow immune to wealth’s influence. “Lacrosse captain” and “volunteer at orphanage in Bali” and “long letter of recommendation from high school teacher who had five students per class” are totally equitable ways to measure a teenager, of course.

This week, MIT announced it is bringing the SAT back. Here’s what they say: “Our research shows standardized tests help us better assess the academic preparedness of all applicants, and also help us identify socioeconomically disadvantaged students who lack access to advanced coursework or other enrichment opportunities that would otherwise demonstrate their readiness for MIT.” Let’s see if other schools follow suit.

(My working hypothesis: The reason prestigious schools dropped the SAT is because having those scores on the record makes it harder to discriminate against Asian applicants—and opens them up to more lawsuits.)

→Could real labor unions come back? Friend of Common Sense Alec MacGillis, the author of “Fulfillment,” a book about Amazon’s labor practices, has some interesting news: “Chris Smalls came to a Fulfillment event in New York and announced he was launching an independent effort to organize the huge Staten Island warehouse where he used to work. Votes are now being counted and the union is holding a slight lead. Pretty stunning.” 

Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, have voted on unionization this week—the count is still underway as of this writing. It looks like the Staten Island union vote will pass. For a labor movement that’s lately been more focused on Buzzfeed writers than factory workers, this is an amazing turn of events. 

→Forever young: What if some of those young people on puberty blockers decide they never want to go through any puberty at all? What happens to a person in the long-term if their brain and bones never go through the transformation of puberty? Obviously they will be sterile. But what else? A fascinating new paper in the British Medical Journal is exploring this.

“Phoenix, 18, was assigned female at birth but has identified as gender non-binary (not entirely/exclusively male or female) since age 5. Phoenix uses they/them pronouns, has short hair and wears gender-neutral clothes. When Phoenix was 11, they began puberty and became extremely distressed by development of their breast buds and anxious about menstruation commencing soon. This prompted Phoenix and their parents to ask Phoenix’s pediatrician for puberty blockers to halt puberty and stop further pubertal development.” 

The character of Phoenix (a hypothetical individual based on real clinical situations) may have a gender identity that is nonbinary. But it is also “lifelong childhood,” forever prepubescent. In a lot of ways this conversation is turning into one about medical freedom. Some people get plastic surgery to look like a lizard or an elf or make their lips the size of bananas, and in a way this now 18-year-old adult is pushing similar boundaries. Also interesting to ask: Since Phoenix’s brain arguably stopped maturing at age 11—missing the crucial transformations that happen during adolescence—did they actually reach what we know of as adulthood? 

Biden on Thursday announced that his administration is doubling down on support for medical interventions like puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and surgeries for gender dysphoric adolescents. The Department of Health and Human Services then released new guidelines that included double mastectomies as appropriate care for adolescents and called puberty blockers “reversible,” which is not at all certain.  This is a major development and bucks the trend in Europe, where many governments are pulling back from aggressive adolescent interventions. We’ll be reporting more on this.

→Doctors doing harm for fun: A fourth-year med student at Wake Forest University, Kychelle Del Rosario, tweeted this week about a Bad Man whom she punished with pain—no doubt, assuming people would applaud her. Here’s what she said (tweet has been taken down): “I had a patient I was doing a blood draw on see my pronoun pin and loudly laugh to the staff: ‘She/Her? Well of course it is! What other pronouns even are there? It?’ I missed his vein so he had to get stuck twice.” She added a funny nose-blowing emoji. 

The University says it is taking measures to address the situation

→Dude, you banned that book: Gavin Newsom posted a photo of himself reading “Beloved” with a stack of books on the table in front of him. His caption: “Reading some banned books to figure out what these states are so afraid of.” The only trouble: The book on the top of the pile was “banned” by progressives in Burbank, California. That book: “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The crime: harming the district’s black children with depictions of Southern racism. 

Now, the term “banned” is used incorrectly by both sides. School districts, like Burbank, are allowed to choose what’s in their libraries and what’s on their students’ assigned reading lists. Those black families have every right to decide that “To Kill a Mockingbird” is offensive to their kids. It’s not “banned” any more than a conservative district deciding not to stock Ibram Kendi or 1619 is “banning” those books. 

Much closer to banning is when you can’t buy a book on Amazon

→Disney goes hard on the culture war: Disney this week slammed Florida Gov. Ron Desantis and the state’s new bill that bars public school teachers of K-3 students from teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity. Disney said the bill—called “Don’t Say Gay” by progressives and framed as “anti-grooming” by the right—“should never have passed and should never have been signed into law” and vowed to fight it. 

Chris Rufo, the man who single-handedly made CRT a galvanizing political issue, got his hands on internal video of Disney executives. In the video, one of the company’s corporate presidents is presenting about her children—one transgender and one pansexual—and how they inform her desire for more “LGBTQIA” characters in Disney content. Another executive talks about trying to get as many queer characters in the content as possible and jokes about the secret gay agenda.

It’s a grubby situation when you find yourself debating the nuances of kindergarteners, prepubescent trans identity, religious freedom and gay cartoon kisses all at once. 

What if someone is sympathetic to the Florida bill and to the Disney exec’s understandable desire for lots of different families and children to be represented? Could it not be that it’s up to families to decide when kids learn about sensitive subjects like gender identity–and also which Disney movies to watch or avoid?

This thing is a witch’s brew of a culture war. It’s a mess. 

One thing is clear: there seems to be little room at Disney for those that support the Florida bill. A few Disney employees published an anonymous letter saying as much.

→Sorry state of late night comedy: Stephen Colbert became a household name for (brilliantly) skewering the White House press for being soft on then President George W. Bush (boy, they were). Now, he spends his time mocking anyone who isn’t properly deferential to President Biden. 

This week, he had a whole segment tearing into reporter Peter Doocy for politely asking Biden to clarify some of his comments on Ukraine. Colbert says the president was asked “a ridiculous question by a ridiculous man” who should be slapped. The question Doocy asked: “When you said a chemical weapon used by Russia would trigger a response in kind, what does that mean?”

Colbert, mocking Doocy: “First, what are the exact locations of all of America’s troops? And can you give me the nuclear launch codes? … Just tell me, is one of them a four? Can I buy a vowel, Mr. President?” It’s worth watching for how bizarre it is. 

Jon Stewart, meanwhile, put out a recent episode of his Apple show about “The Problem with White People,” which could be very funny but instead was a snarky potpourri of politically correct slogans. “Black people have had to fight so hard for equality that they’ve been irreparably set back in the pursuit of equity,” Stewart said, adding a call for reparations. One of the leaders of Race2Dinner—this is an organization that charges white people to attend dinners to discuss how racist they are—came on to talk about how we’re all racist and need to talk about it more. Andrew Sullivan, the writer of The Weekly Dish, was brought in as the foil for the panel to mock.  

Sullivan talked about how the idea that all white people are irredeemably racist is turning off would-be allies to liberal causes. He said America’s actually an incredibly good, diverse, non-racist country when compared with any other country on the planet. He said that expensive dinner parties for white people to talk about their racism don’t help black kids all that much in real life. For this he was slammed, smeared, and called a racist. 

“I did not come on this show to sit here and argue with another white man. That’s one of the reasons that we don’t even engage with white men at Race2Dinner,” said Lisa Bond, as the audience roared in applause. “Because quite honestly if white men were going to do something about racism, you had 400 years.” 

“I don’t care if we say that we’re abolitionists. I don’t care if we say we’re progressive. I don’t care if we are literally members of the KKK, every single white person upholds these systems and structures of white supremacy,” Bond said. “And we have got to talk about it.”

Jon Stewart responded approvingly: “If I could finger snap, I would finger snap right now.” (Is that fetishizing black American female culture, Jon?)

As the best comedians of my youth become state propagandists, one late night guy I’d never heard of before recently is having a blast. For the first time this week, the number one most watched late night comedian is Fox New’s Greg Gutfeld with the show “Gutfeld!” Mazel! Tov!

Interlude: update from my hometown

→Something nice: Here’s a touching story about a group of blind students at University of California, Berkeley, who changed the world of technological access for people with disabilities. As kids in the 1980s, the students hung out and worked underneath the university library in a warren of basement offices they called The Cave. They had keys to the place and came and went at all hours, hacking away at different projects with non-blind readers hanging out to help (paid partly in beer) and nascent accessibility technology that could scan and then read text aloud. Now, the early Cave crew has gone on to high ranking positions making accessibility technology at companies like Amazon and Apple. 

→You know I wouldn’t let you down: What joy that America has gotten back to normal so much so that we can indulge in a little celebrity drama. Inflation is bad, and Covid lingers, but not bad enough that we can’t have fun. And this week we had fun.

In case you’re living in a tiny mountain dugout: During the Oscars, beloved standup comedian Chris Rock made a joke about how the actress Jada Pinkett Smith could play G.I. Jane (she has alopecia, so they’re both bald, is the joke). Will Smith, her husband, marched on stage, slapped Rock, and yelled to keep Jada’s name out of his mouth. During Smith’s subsequent acceptance speech for Best Actor, he cried and talked about the importance of defending family. 

It was wild. And for a moment it befuddled America’s culture warriors. The right wondered: Was Will Smith a man’s man heroically defending his wife? Or was he cancel culture-ing Chris Rock with his hand? The left wondered: Was he guilty of toxic masculinity? Or was he supporting black women? 

“Teachable Moment: Don’t joke about a Black woman’s hair,” wrote progressive congressman Jamaal Bowman. Squad leader Ayanna Pressley agreed: “Alopecia nation stand up! Thank you Will Smith. Shout out to all the husbands who defend their wives living with alopecia in the face of daily ignorance and insults.” (Both have since deleted their tweets.)

Then the media mostly spent the week yelling at us for thinking about the slap at all. Thinking about the slap is racism. “The slap reinforced the ways in which public expressions of Black anger gets America’s attention,” wrote Buzzfeed, which also lately announced layoffs among their news team, who this week are preparing to strike. Opposing the slap is racism. The Guardian came in hot with: “White outrage about Will Smith’s slap is rooted in anti-Blackness. It’s inequality in plain sight.”

But it was The New York Times that won this week’s award for Slap Take, coming out with a piece on how, actually, jokesters are out of line and being sensitive is OK: “Jada Pinkett Smith Shouldn’t Have to ‘Take a Joke.’ Neither Should You.” 

That friend who made fun of your sunglasses? Slapped. Your uncle who made a joke about your dancing? Slapped. Me who makes jokes about everyone I know and love? Hiding!

TGIF from my bunker. Too long for Common Sense digest this week—go to the homepage for that.

See you in the comments. And keep all debate respectful or there will be slaps.