When actress Minnie Driver’s character Debi Newberry utters the words that form the title of this essay in the 1997 movie Grosse Pointe Blank, her concern is entirely personal. She wonders where the good men are out in the world and why the ones she feels attracted to, like “the man who vanished” Martin Blank (played by John Cusack), seem emotionally damaged or otherwise unavailable. Unbeknownst to her, the answer to the latter half of her query is (spoiler alert!) that he’s a morally defective (er, I’m sorry: flexible) contract killer hired to murder her very own father. Oh what hilarious hijinks might ensue from that plot line! Why did he stand her up in a $700 dress for Prom? Because he freaked out, went and joined the army where he trained in the arts of assassination, and then went into “the business” for himself.
As social satire on the emotional stuntedness of modern American men, the idea’s not too shabby. This is especially true considering the fact that, when he returns to his hometown for a ten-year high school reunion and the audience begins acquainting itself with the host of male characters from Martin Blank’s younger days, the eponymous cold-hearted killer turns out to be among the most normal of the lot. In light of the seemingly never-ending series of media revelations of allegations of past (usually sexual) malfeasance on the part of famous and powerful people (usually men), however, the question in this title-cum-movie quote takes on entirely new relevance. Just what the hell is wrong with the hearts and heads of powerful people?
Is it OK to like the work of assholes?
My mother has always hated Nicolas Cage: not for his arguable acting ability, but the man himself. As a result, she simply refuses to see any movie featuring Cage in any role whatsoever. Absolutely refuses. I’ve always found this aversion puzzling, tending rather to regard an artist’s output as separate from whatever my feelings may be as to the person themself.
Enter the #MeToo movement, however, and suddenly I’m disgusted that I ever laughed at a Louis C.K. segment or whiled away a quiet afternoon enjoying the banter, travel reminiscences, and Italian cooking secrets of celebrity chef Mario Batali. I question my admiration for Kevin Spacey’s performance in The Usual Suspects, a film I still (somewhat guiltily now) adore.
And then there’s this article from CNN about the popular and critical reception of the new HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, a film which exposes allegations of sexual abuse leveled against deceased pop superstar Michael Jackson. Now, not yet having seen Leaving Neverland, I can’t comment directly on the film’s content, nor pick through the contested veracity of its claims (or claimants). However, a general consensus seems to hold that the anguished and detailed personal stories told in the picture of lives damaged by sexual abuse allegedly perpetrated by Jackson are pretty believable, to such an extent, even, that they seem to make continued appreciation of that monumental pop icon’s life’s work more difficult than had previously been the case.
Thus, the author of the CNN piece poses the serious philosophical question of whether it’s even moral to continue consuming and appreciating the artistic output of a performer credibly accused of serious wrongdoing. Two of Jackson’s older songs, “P.Y.T.” and “Rock with You”, feature in a playlist my wife and I recently put together for our daughters’ combined roller skating birthday party, and this whole discussion has me wondering: is that even still okay?
Of course, Jackson is not the first artist to have his public reputation sullied by allegations of physical abuse. CNN author Brandon Griggs mentions him right alongside R&B performer R. Kelly, who’s having his own, similar reckoning right now while still very much alive. The article even notes that Jackson’s 1995 hit “You are not alone” was penned by none other than Kelly himself (a fact which renders that work decidedly creepy lyrically, and I’m not the first person to notice, as this article reveals). Yet these two figures comprise merely the tip of a very large iceberg years and years (indeed, according to my arguments, centuries and even millennia) in the making. And if all the preeminent public figures go wrong in the delayed-return heart or the delayed-return schlong, just what art can we like?
Silencing as Reverse Dominance
The question of whether or not choosing to continue listening to and enjoying Jackson’s music is in keeping with morality is one I find particularly interesting in light of the arguments I’ve made recently in pieces like the second installment of this very blog series on Satanism qua religion. I’ve written before about how delayed-return cultural systems don’t merely fail to sanction abusive dominators, they even provide them with incentives and license through occupational specialization and social capital accruing to certain specializations to exercise their abusive dominance and then even justify such abusive actions ex post facto. So when Griggs brings up the specter of so-called “cancel culture,” essentially the modern incarnation of the ancient Roman practice of damnatio memoriae in the form of using social media to push for economic punishments and media silencing of those with large platforms and followings who have been judged to have betrayed society by dint of alleged abuses of one sort or another, those of us who have appreciated and continue to appreciate the artistic output of acknowledged masters of their craft are put into a tight spot. It’s almost inevitable that those who have risen to artistic prominence have proved or will prove themselves classic assholes and hubristēs given the pressures and incentives of delayed-return social organization. By all accounts, Picasso was a sadistic prick, and modernist poet Ezra Pound, some of whose ideas I plugged a bit in a recent essay here, proved such the fan of Italian fascism under Benito Mussolini and anti-Semitism à la Hitler and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion that he eventually won himself indictment in the United States for treason and committal to a federally funded mental institution. Can I no longer pause with admiration over Picasso’s Guernica or Le Rêve? No longer urge adherence to Pound’s dictum to “make it new”?
What makes matters worse is the fact that, as a form of reverse dominance, this cancelling approach appears to work well. If the offender is a television or movie personality, opponents agitate to have any and all shows or films featuring them canceled. After allegations and admissions of his misconduct aired, Louis C.K. complained that he “lost $35 million in an hour,” dumped by agency, manager, and publicist alike and deprived of the opening of his film “I love you, Daddy” which got pulled from distribution ahead of its planned release date. Fallout like that should give any would-be abuser pause enough to question motives and morals. If the offender is a musician, crowds clamor for concerts to be similarly called off and music to be pulled from streaming services. Accordingly, both Apple Music and Spotify yanked R. Kelly’s songs from their featured playlists, and the beleaguered performer had the rug of several European concert dates pulled out from under him to boot.
It seems the Romans had it right when it came to expressing extreme popular disfavor via the damnatio memoriae. In imperial Rome, that particular ignominious fate stood as an ever present threat and warning for striving emperors equal and opposite to apotheosis. A ruler whose grasping for greatness tipped over into tyranny or infamy didn’t just fail to achieve godhead, he won intended total oblivion for his efforts. The pressure proved so threatening because the true abject terror of humankind before the specter of ultimate existential nihilism in the form of death stems not from the struggle to remain erect and unbowed beneath the burden of historical memory; rather, it centers on the sure knowledge that, ponderous as the weight of history already is, it comprises a mere drop in the bucket compared to the vast, invisible dark matter of all that have not been remembered, who are not born on the struggling backs of their posterity—like aged Anchises in the opening portions of Vergil’s famous Aeneid that I mentioned last time—to task the minds of later generations of kids frantically studying for history tests. There is, in the words of Ernest Becker, such “unfeeling and extravagant wastefulness” to life on planet earth: so many lives that positively raged in their own time, burning as bright as can be, only to be completely snuffed out and lost to all memory, forever, all their accomplishments and achievements utterly obliterated. Remember the words of Richard Wilbur’s brilliant poem “To the Etruscan Poets” that I quoted in the essay on making it new: “Not reckoning that all could melt and go.” In the modern linguistic subdiscipline of language documentation, it is only when no one even remembers that a given language was once spoken, much less how and by whom, that the tongue is considered ripe for definitive classification as well and truly extinct. So long as people remember, a language can be reclaimed and brought back from the brink, like Native American Myaamia and Wôpanâak and the Taiwanese Aboriginal tongue Siraya. For this reason, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently commented on the 28-year-old Australian man charged with shooting and killing at least fifty people at two Kiwi mosques:
“He sought many things from his act of terror, but one was notoriety. And that is why you will never hear me mention his name. He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless. And to others, I implore you: speak the names of those who were lost, rather than the name of the man who took them. He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing, not even his name.”
It’s telling that one of the most common pushbacks against the idea of “cancel culture” is the “too big to fail” type of argument. In his CNN piece, Griggs cites Slate music critic Carl Wilson as arguing that “Michael Jackson’s mark on our culture is too huge…to be erased” by such grumblings as the #MuteMichaelJackson hashtag on Twitter. Such may be the desperate hope of those faced with public calls of damnatio memoriae, but the aim of “cancel culture” is precisely to prove this perspective false by enacting the very outcome pundits and professionals would predict as impossible: failure. In the wake of the revelations that celebrities like actress Lori Loughlin (on whom I’ll confess I had a major crush growing up as a result of her role in the 1986 BMX movie Rad) bribed officials to guarantee their lackluster offspring entry into prestigious universities, starring roles have been lost and social media fame has been ruined, hitting the entitled assholes where it hurts: the deep pockets they used to perpetrate their crimes. Oh Lori Loughlin: I’m so ashamed of you. I feel so betrayed! Loughlin’s daughter, social media personality and “influencer” Olivia Jade, has likewise lost sponsors and brand deals in spades over the fallout of the scandal.
Where do Satanists fit in within any of this?
When I consider the question of where all this leaves me, as a Satanist, on the thorny question of just how to exercise reverse dominance over public artistic and media figures who abuse innocents in the manner of classic assholes and hubristēs, I quickly arrive at a startling aporia. On the one hand, I want to deny them the continued use of their considerable media platforms; I want to silence their voices by refusing to consume or further propagate their works. NO more roller skating to P.Y.T.! I’ll never root for the plucky Cru Jones and his girlfriend Christian Hollings (Lori Loughlin) in their quest to win Helltrack, $100,000, and a new Corvette ever again! Yet, on the other hand, I remember that, in fifteenth-century Renaissance Florence, Dominican strongman Savonarola led a puritanical campaign against a corrupt church and an abusive civil administration under the Medicis that involved significant damnationes memoriae in the form of bonfires of the vanities bent on destroying all the secular art and culture that had become associated with the “godless” and corrupt assholes in charge. It was as if the pugnacious pietist hoped he could single handedly engineer a reversal of the very Renaissance itself, plunging northern Italy back into a Middle Ages where the Church again reigned supreme over all aspects of life and justice. I recall, too, that the rabid fifth-century Alexandrian Christians depicted in the film Agora whom I wrote about last time similarly attempted to wipe the earth clean of all traces of pagan culture in their own desperate desire for social justice from slave-holding, aristocratic Greek overlords held over the city of Alexandria, Egypt, from the days of the Hellenistic dynasty of the Ptolemies following the dissolution of Alexander the Great’s far-flung empire. Campaigns to silence have a totalizing character that falls in lock-step with the totalizing nature of delayed-return religion itself.
In this way, “cancel culture” meant as reverse dominance can quickly devolve into the much maligned “outrage culture,” by which is usually meant a sort of fakery or mere display of concern for the purpose of forging and mobilizing group-identity either to play victim and thereby get the better of an ideological enemy or, perhaps even worse, just to put oneself and one’s cronies in a position to watch others burn for the sheer enjoyment of the spectacle, for the theater of it all. Public expressions of outrage and calls for silencing can become a kind of so-called “hate spin” or “virtue signaling,” which some Satanists like to deride as “wearing a Good Guy Badge,” or even just a disagreeable distemper of the putative mediocre rabble foaming at the mouth with eagerness to take down movers and shakers who have managed to scrape their way to the top of some societal heap and may have committed abuses and stepped on toes in the process just to prove that they can, just to revel in the destruction, which would make them no better as hubristēs by Aristotle’s definition of the term than the abusers themselves. Alleged offenders themselves (whether in self-defense or in defending fellow offenders) tend particularly to prefer to characterize all public expression of outrage as being of this latter sort because such explanations serve to further their own narratives of self-aggrandizement and bootstrapism (e.g. see this video, around the 3:50 time signature): this is the argument that “outrage culture” boils down almost entirely to nothing more than the expression of frustration on the part of “losers” who harbor jealousy over the fact that the famous have risen to the heights of notoriety and feel that they should be taken down a notch, closer to the gutter where the hoi polloi must root amid trash for table scraps.
So maybe calls for public silencing are not the way to go in seeking to exercise reverse dominance over abusive public figures and institutions: they play too easily into the hands of abusive dominance itself. If not, however, then what, precisely, is the way?
The Power and Precedent of Back Talk
“Gossip” and “talking behind one’s back” have always served valuable evolutionary purposes among us sapient primates, aiding in the reputation management that punishes abusers and free riders alike. Vocal criticism and ridicule also play a key role in reverse dominance hierarchies used in highly egalitarian immediate-return hunter-gatherer societies to manage the outsized reputations and presumptive prestige of would-be dominators. The problem when it comes to delayed-return cultural systems is that the dominating assholes most in need of checking and balancing through gossip and satire are most often institutionalized and, as such, tend to work vigorously to destroy the mere possibility of back talk. Let’s look at some examples, shall we?
Lee and the Ju
Anthropologist Richard Lee lived among the Ju/‘hoansi, or just Ju, of the Kalahari desert in northeastern Namibia for three years and learned the hard way about how the egalitarian group of hunters and gatherers worked reverse dominance through gossip and satirical talking back.
During all his time in this modern-day hunter-gatherer culture, the western anthropologist had set himself apart by constantly maintaining a multi-year supply of canned goods which he didn’t share with the rest of the tribe, who themselves almost never stored away food for future consumption and rarely had more than enough for a single day on hand. He had also used his material wealth and stores to ply informants with for his anthropological work, leading to more than a little resentment within the otherwise egalitarian society. So when December rolled around near the end of his term of fieldwork—time for the annual ox slaughter and Christmas feasting—Lee decided he would play the role of tribal benefactor and purchase the biggest, best ox to be slaughtered and shared out among the Ju. And he got a beauty: flawless and jet black, five feet high at the shoulder, easily twelve hundred pounds, with horns spanning five feet wide. He calculated the ox would provide approximately four pounds of meat for every man, woman, and child among the one-hundred-and-fifty Ju expected at the feast.
When word got out about the purchase and impending largesse, however, tribe members seemed distinctly unimpressed. Worse than that, they approached Lee, incredulous at the news, and actually insulted the meat he had purchased, telling him the ox was big—yes—but old and too thin. It would never give enough meat for everybody, they said. You got fleeced, others told him. When the anthropologist spoke about the ox with two particularly trusted confidantes, the one told him: “Since you’ve already bought the deathly old thing, you’ve got no choice but to go ahead and kill and serve it, but don’t expect much dancing afterwards.” The other, a respected and powerful hunter, said: “We Ju/‘hoansi love meat and fat most of all, fat that sizzles in the pan and slip-slides down our throats. Your ox is big—sure—but it’s all bones, probably good for nothing but soup. We will feast this year with a heavy heart.” Even when time came to slaughter the animal, and three deep cuts into its hide reveled nothing but several inches’ thickness of pearlescent white fat, the tribesfolk could be heard complaining: “You call that fat? That wreck is thin, sick, dead!”
In the end, the beast of an ox gave fourteen fifty-pound potfuls of meat during a feast that lasted for two days and two nights. No one went hungry or left the feasting ground wanting for juicy fat. No fights or quarrels broke out over the distribution of meagre quantities of food. The slaughter was a resounding success. So just what “angle” were the tribespeople working when they constantly denigrated Lee’s contribution to the feast?
It turns out the Ju, as do other hunter-gatherer groups known to researchers, self-consciously control the upward mobility in reputation and honor of individual tribe members for fear that exceptional individuals, if left unchecked, will succumb to critically inflated egos and arrogance and attempt to lord it over their peers in the egalitarian group. Individuals who, through talent and ability, attain excellence deservedly earn the respect of other members of the tribe. But such ascendancy must be carefully monitored and managed, lest the lauded individual take laurels as license to misbehave. If the potential autocrat in question is—say—a surpassingly skilled hunter, “insulting the meat” proves a sure-fire way to cut his self-regard back down to tractable size. Sure, that’s a nice kill and all, but why does it have to be so scrawny, so sickly, so this, that, and the other and not just—in a word—perfect?
What is the old saying? Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely? Perfection is inhuman, and the mark of the inhuman is being inhumane toward humans.
Aristophanes and Cleon
Cut to several millennia ago, during the late fifth-century BCE in Athens, Greece. An up-and-coming comedic playwright named Aristophanes who began his career by penning material for other comic writers is now working closely with the director and producer Callistratus. In 425, the pair stage Aristophanes’ third ever play, Acharnians, in which a plucky hero named Dikaiopolis (literally “Just City”) opposes the Athenian government’s scheme of warfare against Sparta during what is now known as the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). When Dikaiopolis can’t get a fair hearing for his plans for peace from the Athenian council or Boulē, he pursues and wins a private peace treaty just for himself and begins organizing a rural festival to honor Dionysus and enjoy the simple pleasures of a life without warfare.
Possibly due to an abundance of caution on the part of producer Callistratus, Dikaiopolis broaches the fourth wall at several moments during the play to address the audience about a legal action from the previous year directed at one or both of Aristophanes and his producer for a play the pair staged in 426 BCE called Babylonians. Unfortunately, the text of that particular work has been lost to time and the caprice of a textual tradition that has preserved for us only eleven complete plays from an Aristophanic oeuvre totaling forty works. Luckily, though, ancient manuscripts are filled in the margins with notes and scribblings made over the centuries by scholars and scribes to which modern students of the Classics refer collectively as scholia. The scholiast to one particular moment in the play where Dikaiopolis brings up the previous year’s lawsuit sheds considerable light on the reference.
When Dikaiopolis observes how his fellow Athenians are too easily won to the side of silver-tongued, selfish demagogues and, as a result, end up overly harsh in their judgments against fellow citizens when incited by such demagogues, he continues:
“I know this personally from what I suffered at Cleon’s hands because of last year’s comedy. For he dragged me into the Council Chamber, slandered me, wagged his lying tongue at me, and came at me with so much filth like a mountain torrent washing over me, that I was almost destroyed in the whole dirty business.” (lines 377-382).
If you happened to catch the most recent segment of John Oliver’s hit HBO comedy news commentary show Last Week Tonight which was all about the problematic phenomenon of public shaming and the devastating impact it can have on the lives of everyday private individuals targeted, you might be struck by just how jarringly modern the tone of this quote sounds. The scholiast to this passage explains that, in the previous year’s play, Aristophanes had mocked government officials, including one Cleon, and that this had happened in the presence of foreign dignitaries present in Athens for the celebration of the major festival called the City Dionysia. As a result, Cleon charged the playwright and/or his producer Callistratus with wrongdoing and acting with the intent to insult the people of Athens and the Boulē.
The Cleon in question had inherited a lucrative tannery business from his father and was the first member of the commercial class to rise to political prominence in ancient Athens. Cleon began his career in politics by opposing himself as a harsh critic to Pericles, the aristocratic Golden Age statesman and general whom historian Thucydides hailed as “first citizen of Athens.” In 430 BCE, Pericles led an unsuccessful navel expedition against Sparta: he had trouble with his sailors just before setting sail because, on August 3rd of that year, a total solar eclipse occurred and spooked the seamen; Pericles calmed their fears by citing astronomical knowledge he had learned at the foot of the philosopher Anaxagoras (Plutarch’s Life of Pericles, 35). That same year, a plague broke out in Athens which, combined with Sparta’s looting of the region around the city and Pericles’ flaccid naval campaign, turned public sentiment against the general. Cleon served as public prosecutor in a trial against Pericles that ended with the statesman’s being stripped of his command and fined a large sum of money. Pericles would later be reinstated once Athens’ fortunes had improved, but the debacle was enough to catapult Cleon into the public eye.
When Pericles died in 429, the way was cleared for Cleon’s ascendency from mere opposition figure to populist demagogue. Though coarse and unpolished, Cleon proved a powerful speaker who knew how to work the crowd, and he curried favor with the poorer classes by proposing to triple the pay for jurors. (A chief means for poor Athenians to gain their livelihood in the highly litigious society of classical Athens was by serving on paid juries.) He also delighted the harder-lined and jingoist elements in Athenian society by adopting a strongman approach to foreign policy. In 427, when the city of Mytilene attempted to unite the whole of the island of Lesbos in revolt against Athens, Cleon proposed to put the inhabitants of the city to death indiscriminately. In 425, he headed a move to demand a trebling of the tribute Athens required its “allies” in the Delian League to pay for nominal mutual defense. And Cleon remained throughout the decade a consistent voice in opposition to peace with Sparta to end the Peloponnesian War. His bloodlust would eventually get him killed at the hands of the Spartan general Brasidas in the second battle of Amphipolis in 422.
If any of this biography sounds slightly familiar to those readers living through the Trump presidency—from the inherited fortunes and membership in the business class, to the rise to political prominence as a President-skewering opposition figure, to popular demagoguery, to outlandishly harsh “tough on crime” talk, to xenophobia and war-mongering, to demanding that allies, like NATO, “pay their fair share” of defense costs, to declaring war on satirists, like Alec Baldwin and SNL—you’re not the first to notice the parallels. How’s this for another eerie echo of the modern day? Dikaiopolis’ preparations for the Bacchanal in celebration of his private peace are interrupted at one point in the play by a chorus of angry, embittered old farmers and coal-burners, military vets all, who give the Acharnians its name. Acharnae was the largest administrative district of ancient Athens and the center of the city’s coal production, where wood was burned under controlled conditions in order to produce coal. The Acharnians hated the Spartans for destroying their farms and wanted war, not peace. Dikaiopolis stays their hand from throttling him in a particularly humorous and ridiculous scene only by seizing a basket of coal as “hostage.” The old men regard the lumps of hard-won carbon as essentially a fellow countryman and back off (lines 319-356). Trump’s regard and enthusiasm for our own nation’s flagging coal industry are legendary. Imagine, then, the irony when we discover in the Acharnians (lines 300-301) that the chorus of embittered old charcoal-burners has not been won over to the side of the populist Cleon: they may share his zeal for war with Sparta, but they know a rich profiteer whose principal allegiance is to himself and his lucre when they see one.
The legal principle to which Cleon resorted in seeking to press his case against Aristophanes and Callistratus rested on two key notions: first, that Cleon, as council member in the Athenian Boulē, was an elected official of the government and thus represented the state, such that an insult to him constituted an insult to the people of Athens; second, that the satire had taken place at the City Dionysia in the presence of foreign observers in town for the major festivities. Aristophanes self-consciously counters both of these charges in his remarks through Dikaiopolis in Acharnians, noting that, this time around, his satire will not be aired before foreigners and is not directed at the state entire, but just at Cleon as a private individual:
“I will say things that are terrible—yes—but also lawful. For this time, at least, Cleon won’t be able to accuse me of bad mouthing the city while foreign guests are present. Because this time it’s just us and only the contest of the lesser festival of the Lenaia: there are no foreigners on hand yet…And I am not speaking against the city—remember that!—that I do not speak against the city” (lines 501-505 and 515-516).
Apart from being Athens’ Golden Age, the fifth century BCE was a fraught time for local comedic and satiric writers seeking to lampoon prominent individuals. The scholiast to another portion of Acharnians notes that, in 440 or 439, a law was passed against the writing of comedy entirely. Thank goodness it was quickly repealed three years later. Yet another scholiast on a passage from another of Aristophanes’ plays mentions that, in 415/414, a law was passed specifically against writing satire that ridicules individuals by name. In this latter case, the politician who reportedly sponsored the measure, one Syracosius, earns singular mention for specific abuse in both Aristophanes’ play Birds and a work by another comic writer named Phrynicus that survives only in fragmentary form. Since Cleon’s alleged persecution of Aristophanes and/or Callistratus fell in between these two laws, he could not avail himself of a charge of personal abuse. Instead, Cleon relied upon a general prohibition against injury to the state.
Around the time that the successor play to Acharnians, a piece entitled Knights, won first prize at the same minor festival where the previous year’s play had debuted, a short work dealing with the government of fifth-century Athens falsely attributed to the philosopher Xenophon discussed the legal limits and responsibilities of public satire. The relevant passage from the Constitution of the Athenians reads:
“They do not permit the Athenian People to be ill spoken of in comedy, so that the state may not have a bad reputation; but if anyone wants to attack private persons, they bid him do so, knowing perfectly well that the person so treated in comedy does not, for the most part, come from the populace and mass of people but is a person of either wealth, high birth, or influence. Some few poor and plebeian types are indeed abused in comedy but only if they have been meddling in others’ affairs and trying to rise above their class, so that the people feel no vexation at seeing such persons abused in comedy.”
In short, what Athenians of the fifth-century BCE Golden Age had in place, even enshrined in discussions of their constitution, was a social system of reverse dominance hierarchy for managing the potentially outsized self-regard of superlative individuals which resembles that of the Ju/‘hoansi except in one key regard. In Classical Athens, individuals who, whether through birth, wealth, political might, or simple power-grabbing, attempt to impose themselves on others all comprise fair targets for comedy and satire—as individuals. The state, though, which in a limited democracy such as that of ancient Greece constituted merely the aggregate of all individuals who had a vote and say in the running of public affairs and governance (unfortunately, all native-born, Greek-speaking men), was off limits. Individual assholes could be curtailed through ridicule. Institutional assholes…not so much.
How Institutional Assholes Push Back
The importance of back-talk to exercising reverse dominance over assholes both institutional and individual is most likely precisely why delayed-return religions—institutional assholes to beat the band, ever the tool of the powerful to bring the masses into line—have traditionally spewed a never-ending string of condemnations and recriminations against the practices of gossip and satire. Recently, a Catholic diocese in Brooklyn demanded an apology from Saturday Night Live (SNL) comedian Pete Davidson for his satiric comparison of the Church in its (mis)handling of the current spate of sexual abuse allegations and investigations to besmirched R&B star R. Kelly.
When such “moral” suasion fails to convince, highly litigious delayed-return culture offers a means of more forceful anti-gossip/satire of which the institutional asshole may avail himself. SCOTUS “Justice” Clarence Thomas recently called for the High Court to revisit the jurisprudence of libel law, in particular the tradition established since 1964’s New York Times v. Sullivan case of holding public figures to the higher standard of proving “actual malice” when it comes to charging libel and defamation than ordinary citizens. Thomas’ remarks to the effect that “[w]e [of the Supreme Court] did not begin meddling in this area until 1964, nearly 175 years after the First Amendment was ratified” and “[t]he states are perfectly capable of striking an acceptable balance between encouraging robust public discourse and providing a meaningful remedy for reputational harm” signal an intent likely in line with President Trump’s frequent fulminations about needing to strengthen libel law as a means of silencing his critics. Before the Sullivan case, some $300 million in libel suits had been brought against the press by government officials in southern US states as part of a program of organized intimidation to shut their critics up. That glut of lawsuits was what constituted, at the time, the states striking their own “acceptable” balances between “robust public discourse” and policing their own “reputational harm.” Obviously, those particular scales tipped almost entirely toward the latter aim, whence the Sullivan case itself. Republican US Representative Devin Nunes recently sued Twitter and a handful of Twitter users for what he perceives as harm to his reputation for both users insulting him and Twitter allowing such insults to proceed unchecked.
Meanwhile, on March 18, 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed two bills amounting to media censorship that would criminalize any media outlet or internet commentator who “exhibits blatant disrespect for the society, government, official government symbols, constitution or governmental bodies of Russia.” In effect, the measures appear intended solely to stifle public dissent from the government and its policies. In response, Democratic US Representative Eric Swalwell suggested that Trump has his sights on similar legislation in this country and must be stopped by means of “everything physically possible” from realizing such restrictions here. In this way, silencing those you disagree with yet again takes on the character of a tool of the powerful to manage, and ultimately quell, dissent of the type which would serve in more immediate-return cultural systems to check the ability of the preeminent to lord it over others, namely gossip and satire. The answer would appear to be not silencing or cancelling so much as vigorously and frequently talking back, gossiping, satirizing, never letting the infraction and its punishment be forgotten, holding up abusive assholes as constant and continuously invoked examples of what happens when you try to lord it abusively over others for your own pleasure and gain.
So I reckon what I’m ultimately arguing for is what Pete Davidson himself plugs in his controversial SNL segment:
“All I’m saying is—like—pretending these people never existed is maybe not the solution. You know? The rule should be—like—you could appreciate their work, but only if you admit what they did. You know? You could buy a Mustang, but you have to say “Henry Ford hated the Jews!” as you buckle in. You know? The full sentence should be “Mark Wahlberg beat up an old Asian dude, and I would like one ticket to Daddy’s Home 3 please!” Because if it’s that important to you, at least own it. You know? Like, I don’t need to ever see a Kevin Spacey movie again, but if the CEO of Swisher Sweets turns out to be a cannibal, I just can’t change my whole life!”