The 2017 Hollywood award season got going with last night’s Golden Globes. These awards are given by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association after a period of intense lobbying by Hollywood studios.
Mostly it seemed like a very nice party for an industry that loves to give itself awards. As per usual, some Hollywood elites took their time in the spotlight to disparage others, such as Paul Ryan, Donald Trump, and Republicans in general.
Hugh Laurie, who won “best supporting actor in a series, limited series or TV movie” for his role in AMC’s “The Night Manager” joked that it was going to be the last year these awards were presented. “I don’t mean to be gloomy, it’s just that it has the words ‘Hollywood,’ ‘Foreign,’ and ‘Press’ in the title. I also think to some Republicans even the word ‘association’ is sketchy.” He added, “I accept this award on behalf of psychopathic billionaires everywhere,” he said.
Edgy! Or it’s the opposite. The cliched dig on Trump is better than the out-of-nowhere broadside against Republicans. If well-heeled Hollywood stars and starlets feel the need to mock Trump, they should do that, I guess. I’m not sure how meaningful it is after eight years of unwavering devotion for the current president, but Hollywood is going to do what Hollywood does.
Members of the cast of The West Wing, which went off the air in 2006, will campaign together in Ohio this weekend, while Scandal stars Bellamy Young and Tony Goldwyn have hit the trail in Virginia. Tim Daly, who plays the husband of a fictional Secretary of State on Madam Secretary, one of Clinton’s favorite shows, stumped in Ohio, as will Sally Field, who won an Oscar portraying a union organizer.
The list went on and on. But as much as people may enjoy their stories on the TV, enough Americans rejected the guidance of people who recite other people’s lines to give Trump, of all people, a victory.
So it came to pass that Meryl Streep, the high priestess of Hollywood, gave a barn burner of a sermon to her congregation. Now, federal law requires that you say Streep is the best actress who ever lived and ever will live. (I rather agree with Kate Hepburn’s critique of her, but we’re outliers.) Streep won a Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award and chose to speak on Donald Trump.
Or as CNN put it in their “breaking news” (really!) announcement: Streep “criticized President-elect Trump — without mentioning his name — for his behavior on the campaign trail and called on the press to hold him accountable.” Someone needs to let the folks at CNN know about the difference between dogs biting men and men biting dogs. A Hollywood star criticizing Trump is the opposite of breaking news.
Here were a few issues with her speech.
1. No, Meryl, Hollywood Elites Are Not Victims
Streep said, “Just to pick up on what Hugh Laurie said. You and all of us in this room, really, belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now. Think about it. Hollywood, foreigners, and the press.”
How do I put this? UM, NO. Just no. The press and Hollywood are some of the most privileged segments of society. Whether you measure it in terms of cash money, prestige, fame, or an ability to fail year after year and get promoted, Hollywood and media elite do not get to cast themselves as victims.
2. Less Condescension Would Be Nice
Then Streep said Hollywood is “just a bunch of people from other places” noting that not everyone who works in Hollywood was born there. I bet you did not know that until Ms. Streep informed you of this salient fact that renders all criticism of smug Hollywood suddenly moot. She added, “So Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners. And if we kick ’em all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.”
As J.D. Vance, author of the hit memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” put it:
Can someone explain to me why she needed to insult football and mixed-martial arts? Seemed like needless condescension.
— J.D. Vance (@JDVance1) January 9, 2017
Seriously. I don’t watch football or MMA (and, to be fair, you couldn’t pay me to watch “Florence Foster Jenkins”), but this statement doesn’t even make sense. Mixed martial arts has more “outsiders and foreigners” than Hollywood does. It’s such unnecessary condescension, unless you believe all condescension is necessary to those who watch MMA instead of yet another progressive call to arms masquerading as entertainment.
3. What Is Empathy?
Streep said, “An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like. And there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that, breathtaking, compassionate work. There was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good. There was nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it. I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life.”
Okay, there is so much to unpack here, so buckle up. Streep tells the widely known story of Trump mocking Serge Kovaleski, a reporter with a physical ailment. This was something that everyone from Jeb Bush to Hillary Clinton and, of course, the entire media complex was very focused on throughout 2016. But if our best empathizers want to truly empathize with people who voted differently from them, it’s time to have a little bit of a chat about this incident and the entire 2016 freakshow.
First off, Trump is horribly rude. He hits people hard, commenting on their looks, their strength, their demeanor. He mocks what they say. At its worst, this is embarrassing behavior to witness in a grown man and a sure sign that our civil discourse is suffering. At its best, he shows some much needed fight in a world where bullies are able to shut down differing opinions through control of the news cycle.
Now, Trump didn’t just do this mocking and insulting in 2016. He’s been doing this for decades. It’s his entire brand. He did this while NBC paid him millions upon millions upon many, many millions of dollars as one of their entertainers. He did this while appearing in “Zoolander,” “Sex and the City,” “Home Alone 2,” and countless other TV shows and movies. He did this while TV networks gave him unparalleled free coverage as he trounced every Republican primary opponent. So it was in this context that people saw him mocking Kovaleski. The media absolutely loved this very persona for decades … until they didn’t.
The media always claimed that Trump was mocking Kovaleski for his disability, a charge that Trump denied. While Trump’s rudeness and failure to speak well of others didn’t help his case, the fact is that the specific “flailing hands” motion that led to this charge is one that he has used on others. Here’s a video of him doing the “flailing hands” motion twice in the same rally — once to describe Kovaleski and once to describe some general — and at another rally when he went after Ted Cruz. It’s the exact same motion for Kovaleski and Cruz. Go ahead and see for yourself:
Now, I don’t particularly like any of these insults. But the characterization of the insult being specific to the reporter’s disability — as opposed to a charge that the reporter was flailing — doesn’t explain why Ted Cruz got the exact same treatment when he was accused of flailing in a debate.
Now it wasn’t that voters had a choice between a boorish insulter and a church mouse. Perhaps the most damaging thing Hillary Clinton did in her campaign — even worse than not visiting Wisconsin because she thought she didn’t need to — was her broadbrush insult of Americans being “deplorable” and “irredeemable.” For some reason Americans chose to nominate these two people, and these were our choices. All of which to say, though, that while Trump did mock Kovaleski, the charge he “imitated” a reporter’s disability is questionable.
So our chief empathizer Streep says that Trump mocked a “disabled reporter” for the purpose of making his “intended audience laugh and show their teeth.” That’s a pretty awful thing to say about your fellow Americans, if we’re all about empathizing. It’s doing the same thing Trump was doing. His flailing arm motions were always done while retelling a story so that he sounded great and others sounded stupid.
Streep skips the flailing arm motions but puts herself and her in-group on a pedestal while disparaging others and mischaracterizing their views. They didn’t laugh with Trump at the reporter so they could show their teeth at the disabled. That’s ridiculous. They laughed because they were enjoying Trump — a proven entertainer — whipping the media into a frenzy and evading their once-powerful jaws. You can disagree with Trump — vehemently, even — without inventing a false story about what his supporters enjoyed in him.
4. We Learned It by Watching You, Meryl!
Streep goes on, “And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, ’cause it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”
Oh man, where to start? There is this advertisement from way back in the day where a kid is getting busted by his dad for smoking weed. “Who taught you how to do this stuff?” the dad asks. “You all right? I learned it by watching you!” the kid shouts in response. That’s all I can think of when smug, condescending, rude, insulting, mocking Hollywood tells Americans that “disrespect invites disrespect.”
You don’t say. You don’t say!
Yes! That’s exactly what it does!
Media reporter Alex Griswold wrote, “I think those who share Hollywood’s politics don’t realize how tiresome it is that being lectured at is a prerequisite to follow pop culture.” It’s not just Hollywood. It’s a political media that treated Mitt Romney — Mitt Freaking Romney! — as the second coming of Hitler. It’s a political media that has never cared to understand, much less fairly explain, conservative viewpoints, instead running after Republican politicians shouting “What about your gaffes!”
Yes, if you rudely dismiss and sneer and treat half the country like they are monsters worthy of extermination for enough decades, you should not be surprised to find them voting for Donald Trump as a weapon of last resort. If you disparage and mock and systematically dismantle all norms, tear down every traditional institution, deny objective reality, and preach that all truth is relative, you should not act like the rise of Donald Trump is such a surprise.
5. Now Is the Time for Humility
So if you’re wondering why anyone could possibly have any problem with the saintly Streep’s sermon, hopefully you can empathize with others who heard it differently. It was an unwelcome reproof from a representative of a group that doesn’t exactly have a ton of credibility. To see media elites cheer her on and push out her message was as unwelcome as everything else the media pushed in 2016. You’d think they’d learn.
But let’s revisit the best part of the speech Streep delivered. “Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.” We can hope that powerful Hollywood and the powerful political media will take this message to heart and stop disrespecting those who disagree with them, excommunicating as heretics any who dare differ. We can hope that they will stop bullying others into their narrow groupthink. While we’re at it, we can hope that Donald Trump stops being so rude on Twitter and elsewhere.
We can also face the reality that at this point Trump is more likely to modify his behavior than Hollywood or political media are. As individuals, however, we can and should always redouble our efforts to speak well of each other and treat each other well. We shouldn’t take our guidance from politicians or movie stars, and if we focus our efforts on improving our own virtue, perhaps future generations will have better statesmen and artists.