This Dystopian Future

This Dystopian Future

Credit where credit is due. The punchline came from a friend. We were talking over lunch trying to reconcile the events of the past week: The Republican/Trump tax bill, the Alabama Senate race, travel-ban decisions, North Korean missiles, the Mueller investigation, and so on.

There is just so much to process, so much to, well, not to sound old, but growing up we just never would have anticipated this level craziness.

For example, it’s bad enough that the Senate rammed through a huge national tax bill with no time provided for actually reading it; that it included handwritten notes directly from lobbyists; that it purposely adds to the national debt at a time of near full employment. But it’s the doublespeak and the pious assurances of our so-called leaders (with absolutely no real evidence) that is so unsettling.

I said to my friend, “We seem to be heading toward a dystopian future.” He said, “This is a dystopian future!” Then we laughed. I’m not sure why.

We’ve all read Brave New World and 1984. We’ve all seen The Matrix and Hunger Games movies. As with most science fiction, these stories are cautionary tales — they are beginning to feel more like documentaries.

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Condemning Sexual Assault Shouldn’t Be a Divisive Issue

Defending Sexual Predators

Larry Nassar, the doctor who worked with various women’s gymnastics programs including the Michigan State University team and USA Gymnastics, pled guilty this week to charges of first degree criminal sexual conduct with children under the age of 16. This is just a small portion of the charges that have been (and could be) brought against him, including further abuses and child pornography possession. It would be difficult to find anybody who would deny that Dr. Nassar is in every sense a sexual predator.

So there is some consensus. And we should try to remember this common ground because it gets very divisive, very quickly, when we go on to name the politicians, entertainers, executives, and media personalities whose indiscretions have recently come to light.

In an effort to defend those who we are inclined to support (and demonize those whom we would like to see suffer), it can go immediately off the rails. It turns into an ugly parlor game of “what’s worse?” Admitting or denying? Is one accuser enough? Is a dozen too many? How’s a random grab stack up against soliciting underage girls?

As a result, victims are either further exploited or dismissed. It muddies the waters, which helps only the guilty. I suggest we focus more on real justice and less on scoring points for a particular “side.” There have been men with power who have taken advantage of their power to sexually abuse women. It is in everybody’s best interest that they be held accountable for their actions.

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Where Have All the Bad Guys Gone?

Where Have All the Bad Guys Gone?

My wife and I were channel surfing recently and came upon the Blues Brothers movie. It was at the scene where Jake and Elwood are stuck in traffic because of a demonstration. A cop walks by:

Jake: Hey, what’s going on?

Policeman: Those bums won their court case, so they’re marching today.

Jake: What bums?

Policeman: The <deleted> Nazi party.

Elwood: Illinois Nazis.

Jake: I hate Illinois Nazis!

My wife said, “Remember when that was funny? When Nazis were universally reviled and there was no ‘other side’?” Ah, the good ol’ days, back when the bad guys in comedies were obvious: The Illinois Nazis, the sadistic leader of the rival frat house, the rich tycoon brothers with no sense of morality. Sure, the heroes were flawed (and almost always terribly misogynistic), but at least it was unambiguous who you were supposed to hate.

Thus was my inspiration for this week’s cartoon. After reading story after story about the tax bill the US House passed (and then actually reading parts of the bill itself), it just seems obvious who the bad guys are. It’s not the poor and middle class scraping to get by and provide their children with a decent education. It’s not the grad students seeking to earn advanced degrees by teaching and researching in fields that will return value manyfold to the American economy. It’s not anybody that the trickle-down economics are supposed to trickle down to.

I’m not going to tell you who it is. If you can’t figure it out for yourselves, go watch the 1983 film Trading Places and then get back with me.

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Jeff Sessions Then and Now

Jeff Sessions Then and Now

Remember nine years ago, when the auto industry was teetering on the brink of disaster? The housing bubble had burst, credit evaporated, and nobody was buying cars. Years of poor decision-making made the American automakers particularly vulnerable, so their execs headed to Washington to seek a bailout.

Part of that process was to appear before congressional panels so representatives and senators could ask appropriate questions like: “Why should we trust you?”

Our current attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was a senator from Alabama at that time, and he was among those who grilled the execs. I remember Sessions being particularly aggressive. I didn’t feel bad for the execs (after all, they were responsible).

But Sessions was so … vengeful — as if he had bought a Cadillac Cimarron back in the day and was still bitter about it. He seemed not to care that without a bailout the entire American auto industry would very likely collapse (and a good chunk of our manufacturing capabilities with it).

Cut to this week: Sessions appeared again before a congressional panel as attorney general and was exactly the sort of hostile testifier he would have eviscerated when he was the senator asking the questions. Not remembering, mis-remembering, truthful remembering but not actually how it happened. Which is it, Jeff?

At best, it’s just hypocritical behavior on Sessions’ part. At worst, he’s being a bully — abusing power when he has the opportunity and hiding behind it when he feels threatened.

No, wait, I can think of one thing worse: He’s the dang attorney general of the United States! If there is one position that Americans need as an honest advocate, it’s attorney general. And Sessions is acting with all the integrity of a 1978 Dodge Aspen.

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Veterans Day

Veterans Day

The vast majority of us Americans have no direct ties to our military. Most of us have not served in the armed services. There are lots of reasons for this, but it’s mostly because service is voluntary and has been for over 40 years.

It’s something of a symbiotic relationship: Sometimes beneficial — generally citizens in the military are those who want to be in the military, and those who don’t want to be are free to pursue other goals. But other times it feels as if those in the military are doing all the sacrificing.

Veterans Day is November 11 and annually brings this awkwardness into relief. Honoring our soldiers, supporting our troops is often just lip service. We genuflect out of habit. It is marketed to us. It gives politicians and grandstanders a guaranteed ovation line.

Perhaps a better way for us civilians to honor the sacrifices of those who serve is to take better care of what the troops are protecting. If they are the defenders, then shouldn’t the rest of us, at the very least, be proper caretakers?

This past week there were a couple of cautionary stories. From Flint and the ongoing water disaster, there have been court hearings concerning the spike in deaths from Legionnaires’ disease and potential mishandling by state officials. In Rockford near Grand Rapids, residents are grappling with water contamination from industrial sludge dumps.

This isn’t right. Freedom is of no use to you if you’re poisoned to death. We need to be better stewards of our freedom.

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Fake News Flu

Fake News Flu

There was a story from the Detroit Free Press this week about an Oakland Country judge getting death threats over recent rulings.

The cases involved divorced parents and their disagreements over whether to vaccinate their children. Oakland County Circuit Judge Karen McDonald ordered a 9-year-old boy to be vaccinated in one case and questioned the qualifications of an anti-vaccination witness in another.

A couple things about this caught my attention.

First, it seemed a pretty good example of how the dangers of fake news transcends politics. As Google, Twitter and Facebook testified before Congress this week on Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the issue of deliberately misleading stories on social media may seem to have only right vs. left implications. But misinformation can also lead to ugly family issues and death threats (not to mention a potential public health crisis).

Second, the truth matters more than opinion. My wife and I had our kids at home — natural births with a midwife instead of in a hospital — so we are a bit predisposed to be skeptical of traditional medical conventions. And earlier in the decade when stories questioning vaccination safety broke, we were definitely drawn to them. But science and accurate reporting has proven the overwhelming advantages of vaccinations.

In that spirit, I feel the need to acknowledge the technical inaccuracy in the cartoon. A vaccine is generally something that’s given to prevent illness, not treat it. Of course I noticed this approximately three seconds after I finished the drawing. But then I should also make clear that I’m an editorial cartoonist, which is not the same thing as a reporting journalist. My job is occasionally helpful; a fact-based journalist is absolutely vital.

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Bullying Prevention Visit to Michigan

Bullying Prevention Visit to Michigan

Okay, let’s get this out of the way. The first five reasons that come to mind demonstrating why the President is the opposite of what his wife is advocating:

If you are so inclined, feel free to mince, dice, and misdirect. Go ahead and deny. Get your White House Press Secretary on. But we all know the truth, and I’m pretty sure the first lady knows it too.

Which is maybe the most unfortunate thing here.

The message Mrs. Trump delivered on Monday to the 6th graders at Orchard Lake Middle School in West Bloomfield is so, so important: inclusion, integrity, kindness, leadership. I’m willing to believe the First Lady is sincere. It’s the persistently contrary behavior of her husband that creates a mixed message.

But let’s not despair that the children are confused. Middle schoolers are smarter than adults often assume. They are experts at recognizing authenticity. All the more reason that we, as adults, should hold ourselves to the standards Mrs. Trump is promoting, and expect our elected officials to do the same.

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Be a Mensch!

Be a Mensch!

It’s ironic to me that the best guidance for men (specifically men with power) comes from a 1960 film, an era when sexual predatory behavior was often encouraged if not celebrated.

In the 1960 film “The Apartment,” CC Baxter (played by Jack Lemmon) is a bright and earnest young man trying to make a success of himself at a big insurance company in New York City. Baxter is single and lives in an apartment in the city near the office, whereas the executives he works with (and is eager to impress) are married and live in the suburbs. To improve his career opportunities Baxter reluctantly lends the key to his apartment to some of these executives for trysts with women who are clearly not their wives.

His next door neighbors and the landlady assume Baxter is some sort of party boy, with the loud music and noises and constant parade of various women. He lets them think this to protect the reputations of his superiors. Baxter knows he’s being used, but he rationalizes his moral misgivings by throwing himself even harder into climbing the corporate ladder.

At work, Baxter meets and finds himself falling for a young woman, Fran Kubelik (played by Shirley MacLaine). Unfortunately, he soon discovers that Miss Kubelik is the mistress of a very high exec to whom Baxter recently started lending his apartment key. The exec is cruel and manipulative, leading Kubelik on to a point where she attempts suicide by ingesting sleeping pills.

Baxter comes home late that evening to find her passed out in his bed. At first he is furious but soon realizes the situation and rushes next door to get his neighbor who is a doctor. Dr Dreyfuss is able revive her and once she is somewhat stabilized, he tears into Baxter:

Dr. Dreyfuss: I don’t know what you did to that girl in there — and don’t tell me — but it was bound to happen, the way you carry on. Live now, pay later. Diner’s Club! Why don’t you grow up, Baxter? Be a mensch! You know what that means?

CC Baxter: I’m not sure.

Dr. Dreyfuss: A mensch — a human being!

It turns out the film’s advice is deceptively simple: No matter who you are — from an everyday Joe to a celebrated entertainer, a Hollywood mogul, or even the President of the United States — first be a mensch, a decent human being. Let’s hope we can all follow the good doctor’s advice.

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Hey, Watch the Name Calling

Hey, Watch the Name Calling

As an editorial cartoonist, I get called names all the time. Most are just garden variety insults (stupid, wimp, jerk), many are nonsensical (“Marxist Fascist” is one of my favorites), and some are ones that occasionally get close to sensitive areas (we “talentless” cartoonists actually prefer the term “artistically challenged”). What name-calling has never done is change my mind and win me over the name-caller’s side of an argument. I’m pretty sure that’s how it works for most people.

During the campaign last year when Clinton referred to Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” it wasn’t surprising for her to lose the support of that demographic. In fact, it became something of a rallying cry — Trump supporters proudly wearing “Deplorable” t-shirts. In a similar way, whenever Trump perceives that a woman has the audacity to slight him, he will refer to her as “nasty.” Boom, there’s the mayor of San Juan with a “Nasty” t-shirt.

I think we can all agree that name-calling is counterproductive for winning arguments. But it is oh-so-pleasing to our reptile brains, isn’t it? It feeds right into our tribal tendencies. And then along comes social media providing the easiest way ever to launch a killer burn! We don’t even have be witty ourselves — just share a pre-packaged meme. It’s a name-caller’s dream!

So I have some sympathy for Michigan State Police Director, Kriste Etue who, as the cartoon mentioned, shared that meme. Just like any of us, I’m sure she saw it, felt that rush of righteousness, click, and it was shared.

Except, of course, Col Etue is in a position of power and privilege that comes with a great deal of responsibility. She is paid well to understand the consequences of her actions as a police leader, to be able to anticipate the potential damage of her words, to know better. She failed miserably. That sure seems like a punishable offense.

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Flint Water Crisis Bad? This Is Even Worse.

This Is Even Worse

At this point another editorial cartoon about guns and gun violence (especially after a mass shooting) feels like an exercise in futility. There is the emotional tumult that fuels an enormous bonfire, and the cartoons simply get tossed in. It rages and eventually burns itself out, leaving a feeling of despair. Rinse and repeat.

I tried a different route here and attempted to add context, specifically for my fellow Michiganders. But any metaphor is imperfect. Guns aren’t just like cars or cigarettes or abortion or freedom or God or whatever. They aren’t “just like” anything. Guns are guns. Especially in America.

So I only really have one important takeaway to share. People are dying. Sometimes individually, sometimes in groups. On average, 93 Americans are killed with guns everyday. But that’s not the takeaway — the actual takeaway is this: We can in fact do something to reduce this. If we want to.

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