Gone to Silence, Every One…Long Time Ago

Several years ago now I was accused of communicating two liberal stances. The accusations were leveled in dripping vitriol by two individuals whose aspersions from their never-wrong and mighty positions were laced with unreconciled irony. You know the type. The first was due to my proposition that many English voters did not know what they were voting for in leaving the EU or even what that organization was. This, of course, has been widely reported by all manner of British and American media outlets and is backed up by the largest data collector on the planet. Google reported a surge in queries such as “what happens if we leave the EU” and “what is the EU” from servers in the UK after the polls closed on June 23rd, 2016. Following that, I pointed out in an op ed that 1,508 International Security Assistance Forces personnel (ISAF)—good guys with guns—had been killed in Afghanistan since January, 2008 at the time, approximately 10% of them from so-called “green-on-blue” attacks, or those committed by active members of the Afghan forces ISAF troops were working with. Their determined attackers had been neither deterred nor preempted by the presence of other armed and potential defenders. This second accusation of liberalism was presumably for stating what over 80% of Americans believe, that we could do more to control access to weapons that are specifically designed for only one thing. That accuser included a link to a source I had actually cited and made the point that almost all of the attackers were in fact killed from return fire from the good guys. Lost on this commenter was the circular logic of such a statement. Good guys with guns did not prevent those deaths or even deter the attackers; they served only to exact retribution. If I had a choice, I would like to live a world where that is not considered normal.

When did it become an insult—if you come from the background I did and live in the place that I do and have the career that I have—to accuse someone of being liberal because you should be conservative? When did it become an insult—if you come from a different background and live where you do or have the career you have—to be called conservative because you should be a liberal? When did it happen that we stopped valuing having our assumptions, beliefs, and understanding challenged? Or that we allowed ourselves to be surrounded by only those who would back up an inherently in-bred and forever devolving worldview?

I have often thought I was born too late. Too late to fly P-51s against the Luftwaffe. Too late to have seen our whole understanding of Physics upended. Too late to watch in awe as women—with new and hopefully more morally ambiguous attitudes—burned their bras. And now apparently too late to have enjoyed dinner parties among guests of high intellect and varying views. Thomas Jefferson is said to have thrown the most magnificent parties of this kind. I would have liked to have donned a smoking jacket for long cigars and equally long conversations on how the world works and what works in the world. Those days are gone.

It surprises me as much to be called a liberal as it does to hear some I know call themselves conservative. It disturbs me to hear people call themselves “patriots,” solely because they despise a president with a deep personal hatred so vile they cannot have a meaningful conversation on actual policy (when I originally penned this it was a one-way street, but now this criticism cuts both ways…still, there is one faction that clearly still believes they are more patriotic than another). It disturbed me when, in 2000, some decried the Supreme Court decision that handed the presidency to the man who lost the popular vote and refused to call that president their own. Perhaps that was the incarnation of our present discontent. “Not my president” was a double-edged sword, but those who first wielded it had not adequately considered that other edge, just as dangerous. Perhaps it was when a blow-hard radio host and then the leader of Senate Republicans went on record as hoping the President of the United States of America failed at his job. Or perhaps it was when one party decided to impeach a different president because he lied about a sex act. One would like to think it is more complicated than that, but given what we now allow as public discourse it is far too optimistic to think it so, “believe me.”

Where have all the smart moderates gone? Where are the intellectuals who study all sides of an issue, who have their own internal debates, who know they cannot possibly know everything there is to know, who are willing to actually listen, and maybe, just maybe alter their position if only by a glacial amount? Where are the ones who know both that everything cannot be free and that bombastic personal attacks do not show character or substitute for policy? I have to think they are out there. Because if they are not our democracy is doomed.

I want to think there are those who understand the value of free trade and of a vibrant labor movement that defends workers’ rights. There are those who recognize oil sands petroleum is going to get to market with or without a certain pipeline and, though it will not create the number of jobs it claims, also understand building it is the best alternative. There are those who know the value that fracking has been to the strategic interest of the nation, are dubious of environmentalists’ hyperbole, but are also concerned about the lack of science about what it is doing to the mantle of the earth and our future water supply. There are those who understand that climate change is real and that it is man-made but who see nothing but capitalistic opportunity in our perhaps feeble future attempts to save ourselves. Those who can know, as a point of fact, voters sometimes have no idea what they are voting for but are equally compelled to follow the decisions such voters make. There must be those who have a deep belief in every amendment of the Constitution and in their entirety—despite what a Supreme Court justice may choose to discard from the text by rhetorical ploy in the ironic name of “Originalism”—and still be for finding ways to limit access to dangerous firearms. There are gun owners who know that the NRA is a corrupting influence in Congress and the most destructive force in public safety in two generations. There are those who know that college is both too expensive and too limiting of qualified candidates in the name of diversity. There are those who recognize there is no science behind the movement against genetically modified organisms but who still are concerned with our food supply from seed to store and who want to buy organic or natural. Those who know that saying all lives matter is—quite literally—a definition of inclusion. There are those who do not feel they can join a political party because they cannot stand the partisanship and lack of objectivity. There are those who would defend their nation’s flag as vehemently as they would defend someone’s right to burn it. Those who hate war but will forever miss its personal contests and are better for having taken part in them. Somewhere are those who expect thrift and efficiency in government spending but also know there are things only governments can do. There are those who understand that diplomacy is better than its alternatives, and that sometimes there are no other alternatives. There are those who have a deep belief in personal responsibility and a work ethic who also recognize the dignity and desire for opportunity in every human being, even those who might need a hand now and then. There are those who want you to be able to pray however you so desire in whatever setting is chosen for such a purpose but who will not in any circumstance bow their head nor give deference to your god or any other. There are those who will fight for real religious liberty should you choose to bring yours into the public sphere or use it to detract from the liberty of others. And there are those, somewhere, who know that someone who identifies with an ideology that does not match their own is only an enemy if they attempt to enforce it with violence. Somewhere, we have to think, there are those who know that compromise is the only place where hope for the human condition can possibly lie.

I claim no label. I inhabit a space, I want to think, where most Americans are. We hold positions that cannot be placed in one of two ballot boxes, though we are forced to do so every election. What sets us apart from politicians is that we hold these positions on principle after deep and critical thought. I want to talk about those positions and principles, but I am uninterested and undeterred by labels used in the pejorative. They do not have the meaning those who cast them as such wish they did.

Some of us continue to study our principled positions extensively. We are expectant at the publication of new results and theories that make us question what we thought we knew. We welcome the funding of research that will further the cause of human knowledge and would never contemplate restricting it out of a fear that it might obliterate some item of faith. Some of us are willing to reconsider what we have said, and even admit misunderstanding, particularly when that misunderstanding might have misrepresented what another thoughtful individual was attempting to communicate. Some of us are willing to say many voters were misled and voted against their interest. It is easy to do, because it is a fact. Some of us are willing to say there are things we can do to mitigate gun violence, because it is also a fact.

We are willing to say the electorate is far more ignorant than it should be before casting votes of enormous importance. We are willing to take the sadly extraordinary step of stating unequivocally that those under watch for terrorist tendencies should not be able to purchase a firearm. Others are not. That is their right. It is also their right to attach labels to those whose opinions they disagree with. It would have been harder for them to do so as an insult at a dinner party where civility was a virtue, and they were blissfully unaware of the self-identification of other guests. I miss those days, even though I never knew them.

Order, Discipline, and the Last Hope

The U.S. military has a problem. That problem is their commander in chief. He has a disdain for institutions, the vast defense department bureaucracy, “experts” of any kind including the 30-year veterans of our nation’s armed conflicts who wear stars and sit atop the greatest and most professional military the world has ever known, and the rule of law itself. His actions will have far-reaching effects for the credibility of the U.S. national security apparatus and the hard-won reputation of all those who have and will wear the uniform for their country.

Last month the president pardoned three members of the U.S. military who had been convicted of or were awaiting trial on what the media has called war crimes. Not all were violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), or what is commonly referred to as the Law of War. Some would have been described simply as “crimes” had they been committed outside of an area where armed conflict was generally recognized to have been occurring. It is important to understand that the two convictions were given by members of the armed forces against two of their own. The third individual pardoned was awaiting a trial of his peers, also uniformed members of the services. The president is not defending these individuals against rogue, anti-military peace activists or the “liberal media” who have unfairly attacked them. He is, presumably in his mind, protecting them from members of their own organizations. These are unprecedented actions by a chief executive.

Most of the charges involved the killing or attempted killing of civilians. It is a violation of IHL to directly target civilians who are not providing direct material assistance to enemy combatants. One of the members’ pardons—that of Clint Lorance—fell under this category. A pretrial pardon—that of Matthew Golsteyn—was for the charge of killing a suspected bomb-maker who should have been immune to such acts after his capture and release. This charge is similar to the outright killing of civilians, but involves some nuance. Finally, one conviction—that of Edward Gallagher (who was acquitted of the attempted killing of unarmed civilians)—was for “bringing discredit on the Armed Forces” for posing with the dead body of an alleged enemy killed in action. This conviction was under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), the legal standard under which all uniformed members of the U.S. armed services are held to account. It is not technically a war crime, although there are provisions in other international agreements that prohibit photography and display of deceased combatants. If you are starting to understand that there is great complexity and “terms of art” involved in the prosecution of alleged wrongdoing by uniformed members of the armed forces in a combat zone, you likely understand far more than the man who actually issued the pardons.

Clint Lorance, a former Army lieutenant, was pardoned for killing two civilians in Afghanistan. He was turned in by members of his platoon after ordering them to fire on unarmed civilians. His crime occurred on only his second day of command. Two Afghan men died. Lorance then called in false reports to try to hide his illegal actions. He was serving a 19-year sentence at Ft. Leavenworth.

Mathew Golsteyn is, still, an Army Special Forces Major who was awaiting trial for killing an unarmed Afghan man in 2010 he thought to be a Taliban bomb-maker. The case was investigated after Golsteyn admitted in a CIA job interview to the killing. Golsteyn was given a reprimand, but no criminal charges were brought. This often occurs when there is insufficient evidence to take to court martial but there is admitted wrongdoing or the preponderance of evidence suggest that wrongdoing occurred. Administrative, rather than judicial action, is then taken to punish and/or correct the aberrant behavior. When Golsteyn later admitted again to the killing in a Fox News interview, the Army decided to charge him with premeditated murder.

A bomb-maker is not a combatant, just as those working in German or Japanese munitions factories during World War Two were not combatants. These civilians may be attacked and killed only when they are providing direct material assistance to enemy combatants. This is why bombing munitions factories during active shifts are legitimate even when they kill the civilians working there, but targeting them in firebombing attacks while they slept in their beds did not then and would not now meet the high standards of International Humanitarian Law. The bomb-maker Golsteyn allegedly killed would only have been a valid target if caught in the act of building and/or deploying a device; he was no longer a valid target after he had been captured, presumably interrogated, and released.

Edward Gallagher was charged with 12 counts including two counts of attempted murder, multiple counts of obstruction of justice for threatening to kill fellow members of his elite special warfare unit if they brought his wrongdoing to light, the murder with a personal hunting knife of an unarmed and incapacitated teenage boy who was an alleged terrorist—the law of war calls those incapable or unwilling to continue to fight hors de combat and guarantees the same protections afforded to civilians and other “innocents”—and for posing for a photograph while holding the dead body of the boy up by the hair and holding the knife to the corpse’s throat.

He was accused of attempted murder for the possible killing with a sniper rifle of a young girl and an old man, both unarmed and of no threat to himself or members of coalition forces. Members of his team reported hearing shots from his position and seeing the targeted individuals fall, but no bodies were recovered and no one directly witnessed who pulled the trigger during these shootings. The laws of war are designed to specifically protect people like these from the abuses of combatants in a war zone. Gallagher was also earlier accused of shooting through a young girl in the arms of an alleged terrorist in order to neutralize the man, something members of his team clearly felt was unnecessary and particularly brutal. Gallagher had a storied career that involved other lower-level disciplinary actions in his past, one including an attempt to run over a navy officer with a vehicle. This is not someone with a record as clean as the white uniform he wore in court and appearances across his social media campaign. Members of his own SEAL team brought his actions to the Navy’s attention and testified against him at trial. He was acquitted of all charges except for “bringing discredit on the Armed Forces” for posing for the photo with the dead boy.

Edward Gallagher’s case is the one that has made the most news, likely because he personally and actively enlisted the help of the president of the United States and had many defenders among commentators on the president’s favorite television channel. The president intervened after Gallagher’s trial ended when the Navy decided to reduce the convict’s rank and consider stripping him of the Trident pin signifying his place in the fold of the Navy’s most elite special warfare unit. Chief (still) Gallagher was convicted by a jury of his peers and superiors of bringing discredit on the U.S. armed forces. It is a matter of record and accepted fact that the Chief’s actions do not reflect favorably on himself or the nation he served. He has, by fact, discredited that for which many in this country, including this writer, have faithfully served. It is entirely appropriate for the Navy to reduce him in rank and to consider removing him from its finest special warfare unit.

A reduction in rank often occurs where a uniformed member once served honorably but then commits acts unbecoming his or her position. The UCMJ provides an ability for punitive action and for rehabilitation. The military, perhaps above all other endeavors, must be deeply concerned about the public trust. As such, it only allows members of the armed services who have been convicted at courts martial or given administrative discipline to either leave the service or continue only at the rank and level at which they last served honorably. This was the appropriate rationale for the Navy to have reduced Edward Gallagher in rank.

The Navy then acted to impanel a group of Chief Gallagher’s peers—other Navy Chiefs who were also SEALs—to consider whether he should still be allowed to wear the Trident pin representative of his membership in the Navy’s Sea, Air, Land Special Warfare unit, commonly referred to as SEALs. The SEALs, like any elite combat unit, ought to have the right to determine whether certain members still live up to the high standards expected of members of that unit. The admiralty decided not to specifically intervene in that matter saying a panel of Chiefs was the best judge of whether Gallagher’s actions, as already witnessed and found lacking by members of his own team, still served the best interests of the Navy and the SEALs and therefore whether he should still be allowed to wear his Trident. There is ample anecdotal evidence to say that this panel would likely have removed the Trident from Gallagher’s chest, from members’ descriptions of Gallagher as a “pirate,” from members distancing themselves from his actions in the press, and from members decrying the distraction he had become with his very public courting of presidential favor. As it turned out neither the reduction in rank nor the possible removal of the Trident will now take place.

The president, following the pardons, intervened in Gallagher’s case again to disallow the reduction in rank and tweeted that Gallagher would keep his Trident. In a debacle with no “good guys” or pristine actions, the Navy’s contortions to satisfy the commander in chief eventually cost the Secretary of the Navy his job. The secretary’s own actions clearly provided just cause for the Secretary of Defense to demand his resignation. He was saying one thing in public and attempting to make a separate deal with the White House in private, all without keeping the Secretary of Defense in the loop. Secretary Spencer’s op-ed discussing the need for “good order and discipline” following his resignation/dismissal does not have the effect it should, given the duplicitous actions at the heart of his downfall. It is true, however, that the president has upended long-standing tradition in maintaining distance between the office of the president and the discipline of junior members of the Armed Forces and, in doing so, has severely affected the concept of good order and discipline. It is a concept at the very heart of enabling the armed services to accomplish their mission for the nation.

The Navy now has a SEAL Chief whom no one in the Navy, the Department of Defense, indeed no one below the level of the president has any authority over. It is clear that any order issued to Chief Gallagher, even by the Chief of Naval Operations and highest ranking member of the Navy, is immediately able to be appealed to and adjudicated by the president of the United States via tweet. The Chief is now insulated outside the bounds of any known authority that might control his actions or his daily activities, actions and activities that his service record clearly indicate need constant monitoring and control by superiors. No officer could give the chief an order and expect he would follow it. That cannot be how the military is run.

That is a part of what Secretary Spencer tried to convey in his recent op-ed. Good order and discipline relies on the authorities in U.S. law, through the UCMJ, and International Humanitarian Law, exercised under what the U.S. military calls the Law of Armed Conflict, to grant command authority to those under certain orders. These authorities allow for the proper execution of military actions, down to an individual level, in support of U.S. national interests. If there are members of the U.S. military outside of those authorities, then good order and discipline has broken down, and the consequences could be catastrophic. But this is not the only meaning of “good order and discipline.”

All of the actors for whom the president wielded his unchecked pardon power were brought to the doorstep of justice by members of their own units or other members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Former Lt. Lorance ordered his charges to fire on unarmed civilians that posed no threat. His subordinates acted immediately to bring his actions to the attention of their superiors. Members of Gallagher’s SEAL team came forward, even after months of being told by an officer and senior enlisted man in their unit to keep quiet. CIA officers forwarded an admission of guilt to murder by Golsteyn to the Army command. Members of Lorance’s and Gallagher’s units testified against them in court, and members of the armed forces themselves convicted them. The president’s actions will have a chilling effect on those faced with similar decisions in the future. He has undermined the ability of the military to be a check on itself. He has invalidated the concept of rank and command. He has normalized brutal and destructive behavior and called into question the very concept of the military as a noble profession. As such he has attacked the very core of what it means to be a professional organization. Professionals do not engage in wanton killing of the kind all of these men were either convicted of or credibly accused of attempting.

Make no mistake, these men are not “warriors,” certainly not heroes, as Pete Hegseth, the Fox News personality that lobbied for these pardons, has said. Neither Mr. Hegseth nor the president understand the term. To our grave detriment, they and other members of their audience have a flawed understanding—indeed a complete lack of understanding—about the place for the rule of law even in the depths of the most immediately destructive of all human activities. They will say that since we ask so much of those we send into combat we ought to go to extraordinary means to protect them from judgment in what seems to the uninitiated as just another terrible consequence of war. The president and those who cheer his trampling of the Law of War have it all wrong. Warriors—real warriors—know otherwise.

Warriors understand their place in a complex moral endeavor. They understand that warfare is an inherently rules-based activity driven by a commonality of experience with their enemies and adversaries. This moral equality assumes a consent to risk and is integral to the legal rights of combatants, as I have argued in print in Killing Without Heart: The Limits of Robotic Warfare in an age of Persistent Conflict. The moral nature of warfare is overlaid by an ethic on which we argue this morality. That ethic is Just War theory. Just War theory, though inherently a western concept, is tacitly accepted by all nations who have signed on to the United Nations Charter and who are then explicitly bound by International Humanitarian Law. Just War concepts are the basis for IHL just as they form the bases of numerous other international conventions relating to war—Hague, Geneva, and others. When an ethic enjoys normal acceptance in society—as the Just War ethic now has in the community of nations—it becomes law. The Law of War is underpinned by an ethic that itself rests upon a moral foundation. It is this structure that gives warfare its moral standing and its character as a rules-based activity.

War is not chaos, though combat and its “fog” and “friction,” as Clausewitz so famously attested, can seem so. Warfare is bounded by well-understood guardrails and takes place in an ordered, legal, and moral manner. This is hard to understand for those who have no experience with it. It just seems endlessly tragic for, unfortunately, history tends to show war as inevitable and broadly continuous. It is a violent and unforgiving environment of great destruction where people will kill and die. It is an environment not everyone is equally equipped to handle, and simply fighting in a war does not make one a warrior. Those who understand it, are resigned to and respect its nature, and see in it a place for their own moral growth tend to handle it best. They are the ones we call “warriors,” and their numbers are very few.

Warriors do not shy from killing, but they take no joy in it either. Warriors understand that killing in war is necessary but only for those who have also granted consent to harm and declared themselves—by uniformed membership of an armed group, by openly carrying arms, or by actions indicative of and inherent in armed conflict—to be combatants or other legal targets. Warriors do not kill or attempt to kill unarmed civilians. They do not kill those who are hors de combat. They do not so relish the act of killing that they brag about it in texts or take trophy pictures with dead bodies. They have no need of covering their deeds or obfuscating their responsibilities for their actions.

Lorance attempted to cover his crimes by lying. Golsteyn admitted to killing someone who should have been immune under the Law of War. Gallagher admitted, multiple times, to killing an injured teenage boy who was incapable of fighting back. Warriors do none of these things. Criminals—pardoned or acquitted as they may be—do these things, and there is no place in our military for those like them. Indeed our society as a whole suffers because of their very existence.

It should be no surprise that the president does not understand any of this. His actions in all of his decades of public life indicate a transactional and amoral personality. He has no valid military experience, not that it is or should be a requirement of the office, and his ignorance is astounding. He has claimed on multiple occasions to know more than “the generals.” He has denigrated a sitting senator and former prisoner of war and insulted a Gold Star family. He said in campaigning for his present position that he would allow torture of prisoners and that he would target the families of terrorists, crimes against humanity and the Law of War that would rightly land him in The Hague. He has called perhaps the most respected four-star general since Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf and a former Secretary of Defense a “mediocre general.” He is wholly unqualified to understand the complexities of military justice or the Law of War, and he is likely incapable—certainly unwilling—of learning. One wonders what comes next and whether the institutions the president clearly despises, in spite of his flag hugging and insincere “support for our troops,” can withstand such an onslaught of lawlessness. Can they weather this frontal attack on “good order and discipline?”

If I were to hazard a wager, I would bet on the warriors. It won’t be easy, but they will, as they always have, guide their peers back to our “better angels.” They will “hold the line,” as Secretary Mattis charged the young uniformed personnel he so loved as political turbulence continued to build over the last several years. Somewhere in a dark mud-brick back alley or in the searing heat of a sub-Saharan jungle a young warrior will stop an atrocity. Failing that they will report the crime, one committed by a member of their own team. They will do so perhaps at great risk to themselves and to their unit, but they will do so because they know right from wrong; they know both exist, even war. They know we do not, as the president has claimed, lower the standards we hold ourselves to based on how our adversaries choose to fight. They are willing to do what is necessary to live up to their legacy, because they made peace long ago with the risks of their chosen profession. They will hold that line because, despite the “common knowledge” about the heroism of every single member of the military, they know themselves, and they know those with whom they fight. They know they are human, and they understand the frailty and imperfection of humanity. They know it better than anyone else. They understand there are no heroes, only those who perform their duties at varying levels of accomplishment and sacrifice. They understand that innocent deaths are sometimes unavoidable, but they grieve for them nonetheless. They know that the intentional killing of innocents is a crime and a deep, abiding stain on the character of the service they have so meticulously nurtured. They will do their duty because they are, in a single word so very few truly comprehend, warriors. They remain disciplined because of their commitment to the solemnity of their oath…and because they simply know no other way to be. At least that is what we must now hope.

Human Depravity and the Reinterpretation of Art

When Saturday Night Live came back to the air after the events of September 11th, 2001, the show’s creator Lorne Michaels, flanked by the entire cast, asked Mayor Giuliani if it was OK for them to be funny. The mayor’s deadpan answer is now the stuff of comedy legend, the question and its real answer were important concepts in the days after a terrible event that many believed had fundamentally changed the world as we knew it—or at least how we interacted with and in it. We are now in the midst of another of those events that seems to have changed how we interact with and in our world, and primarily how we interact with each other. It is, in almost every sense, as tragic a realization as it was on that clear fall morning in September nearly two decades ago, because it speaks to the depths some will plumb to do harm to their fellow humans.

This new environment is our struggle to atone for the long-term suffering of females at the hands of men who somehow feel entitled to those intimate places of the mind and body and who have, throughout nearly all of human history, helped themselves to them with or without consent. We are, like the cast of Saturday Night Live, now wondering what we can and cannot do, what we can and cannot say, and whether we can still admire works from a different time. Where Lorne and his cast were concerned about trying to be funny so soon after a national tragedy, we are wondering if we should still laugh at things that might have been born during a tragedy of which so many were simply unaware. We are trying to decide if we should still see certain films involving certain directors or actors. Should we go see certain comics? We are determining if we should be reinterpreting the art from another age. I find this to be a very dangerous and self-defeating proposition and one that will surely do far more harm than good.

Is it OK to go back and watch Louis C.K. from before we knew he liked to try to impress women by stroking himself in scenarios no normal person would think appropriate? If not, how are we to account for Hollywood’s fawning over the films of Roman Polanski long after he fled the country so as not to meet child rape charges? By most accounts, Ernest Hemingway was lacking as a father, had a great temper, and fell in and out of alcoholism-induced violence and abuse. Should we no longer be enthralled by his peerless prose and the window it opens to our souls in works like “Hills Like White Elephants” or For Whom the Bell Tolls? Perhaps Washington and Jefferson should be swept from the pages of our children’s History books and removed from our currency, disgraced slaveholders that they were.

How much should our present condition act as a lens on how we judge the works of others from an earlier time? This, I suspect, will be one of the driving questions of the next decade, and I urge great caution. I urge—dare I say it—conservatism, that is the resistance to social relativism that asks us to view previous events or works with an eye neither we nor those who lived or created them could possibly have had at the time. This is not an easy thing to do, to resist the urge to coat a distressing past in our newly informed morality.

This past week I was catching up on podcasts and heard Terry Gross interviewing Jonah Hill. She asked him, in light of the “#MeToo era,” about his reaction to a scene in Superbad. Ms. Gross has spent a significant amount of time over recent months engaging in this kind of questioning. It is a subject she clearly has strong feelings about. In this particular scene, Hill’s character and a friend are discussing whether/how to comply with the popular girl’s request of his character that he acquire the alcohol for a party she’s throwing while her parents are out of town. The line is, “You know when you hear girls say, ‘Ah, I was so shitfaced last night. I shouldn’t have fucked that guy’?…we could be that mistake!” Hill said he felt terrible hearing that back. He might have said it sounds horrific now. That is not what I expected of an artist.

I wanted Hill to say this:

[note: this is my imagined response; it is not, to my great disappointment, what Jonah Hill actually said]

[“]First of all, Terry, that was a funny line…and it still is. Second, and I think this is the most important part. My character was trying to buy alcohol because the girl he wanted asked him to. She has agency here. The anonymous girl he quotes says “I shouldn’t have [had sex with] that guy.” That girl has agency too. She decided to sleep with “that guy,” and she is capable of self-assessment. The sex he is discussing is consensual just as the responsibility for getting [beep]faced lies with all of those knowingly partaking, both girls and boys. There is a multidimensional dynamic taking place here. And here’s the real kicker, I think, Terry. That line is truth. Sometimes comedy does that, you know. It speaks a truth. And good comedy always does. Always.

[“]Think of this. Every weekend—probably every single day—a woman wakes up after consensual sex and knows she’s made a mistake. Hell…that’s the story of my sex life! (Terry laughs…) That’s truth, Terry. We cannot go around denying that fact. But there is even something deeper here.

[“]Comedy is an art form and art must shine a light on places we don’t always want to acknowledge exist. Part of this joke, the part that makes it so relevant now—YES even now!—is the commentary it is making about the culture I think you are trying to tap into and dissuade. Should high school girls ask guys to buy them alcohol for a party they shouldn’t be having so everyone, who is likely underage, can drink to excess and lose their inhibitions? Should that boy go and break the law to achieve it? Should young men rely on alcohol to find a way to “yes?” None of this should be happening, Terry. Not in a perfect world. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and our art has to reflect human frailty and imperfection. Our art has to comment on the world as it is, and if we squirm a little while we laugh because it makes us a bit queasy or uncomfortable, then the art is doing exactly as art should.

[“]That line is not a throw-away slapstick line. This isn’t Larry slapping the [beep] out of Mo. That line is a complex characterization of the young human condition. It is funny. Still. It’s also disturbing. But above all, it’s true. So, I guess that’s how I feel about hearing that now. I feel proud to have been a part of making the kind of art that can remain relevant and meaningful a decade on…what a great question, Terry. You truly are a national asset.[“]

[Here ends my dreamed-up response.]

Everything my Jonah says here is real. The line is funny. I know this because when I told it to a confidant who also happens to be a woman that has never seen the movie, she laughed out loud. That’s important, but it is not the main affair. Art is perhaps more relevant today than it has been in my lifetime. In a world where people pick their own “alternative” facts, where reason seems to be sliding into the oblivion of the Twitterverse, where what you “know” comes to you from a self-reinforcing media and social machine that implores you never to question it or yourself, art is the only thing with a small chance to make people think about things in a way they have never thought before. The staunchest Levitical evangelical could not see The Laramie Project and not be moved in some small way. The most ardent pacifist could not hear John Ondrasik’s “Note to the Unknown Soldier” and not feel something they have never known before. Art, because it is a personal medium, necessarily stands apart not only from the artist, but from their time, and—until it is internalized—apart from those who view it.

Certainly, there is comedy I do not care for. I’m sure this happens to us all. Some of it makes me too uncomfortable to enjoy. Sometimes that is because it is too close to my own experience or it impinges too significantly on my own biases. These are not issues with the art or artist. They are mine alone.

There is visual art I cannot revere. I have yet to find the message or meaning in Picasso’s modern interpretation of the nude form, though his classical sketches and some of his sculptures are moving forms of expression to me. Some of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography disturbs me deeply. Some of it seems to have been made purely to foster that very response, and I cannot respect such self-indulgence. These are personal judgements, however, and they have no bearing on the ultimate worth of the works I may despise.

It is not up to one person—even more so, a group of like-minded people—to say what should and should not be seen, what should and should not be funny, whether the work of a fallible human caught in the depths of his own depravity should be vanquished from the canon. It is not up to a “movement” to tell others what is now deemed acceptable in retrospect and what is not. All of these works teach us something. They communicate in ways that are forever important in the struggle to divine our own humanity.

I hope Terry Gross and other insightful interviewers continue to ask artists how they now view their creations. It is all right if some of them say they no longer see its value for reasons that have to do with artistic choices at the time or those choices in relation to a greater understanding or maturity on the part of the artist today. There are tens of thousands of words whose value to me is simply their volume. What they say is no longer important, if it ever was. I want to hear artists discuss their craft and their creations, but I hope I never again hear an artist acquiescing to the current mood of the country or saying something to inoculate themselves from righteous trolls lacking the intellect or introspection required to find the multifaceted and relevant forward reflections of that art into the narrative of our times.

Yes, it is OK to be funny, and it is OK to laugh. Even now. Even about that, whatever that is for you. If it makes you question why, all the better.