Late Night TV Hosts vs Trumpland, Part 2

Late night TV comedy hosts - Donald Trump - Conservatives - Progressivism - Bias

As late night TV hosts double down on their anti-conservative themes, opportunities for Left and Right to come together away from politics continue to dwindle, to everyone’s cost

Following Jimmy Kimmel’s recent pronouncement that nearly all talk show hosts are left-wing because only progressives have the required intellect to read jokes into a television camera, I wrote a bit of a meditation on why extending the politicising of everything to the realm of late night TV can only be a bad thing for society.

As amusing as I find the likes of Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher – and at their best, they are searingly funny – one cannot complain about division in society while simultaneously pitching late night talk shows to only half of the country. Even if it makes short-term business sense to drive up ratings by pandering to a particular partisan demographic, it comes at the cost of strengthening the bubble effect and ensuring that the left-wing comedians and their cheering audiences continue to be perplexed and outraged by the concerns, priorities and actions of whole other demographic groups they never bothered to understand.

Joseph Epstein picks up the same thread in the Wall Street Journal today, lamenting the way that late night comedy has jettisoned nonpartisan humour in favour of preachy, hectoring progressivism:

In a political time as divisive as ours, a public figure loses roughly half his following—and hence his charm—just as soon as he announces his politics. For an entertainer to do so is perhaps even more hazardous.

That the late-night talk-show hosts are ready to give up a large share of the audience to indulge their politics is something new in American comedy. Whatever Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, Milton Berle, Joan Rivers or Johnny Carson might have thought about what was happening in Washington, they wisely kept it to themselves. When Charlie Chaplin was revealed as a Communist fellow-traveler in the late 1930s it hurt his reputation, though he never allowed his politics directly to influence his art. On the other side, when Bob Hope found himself, because of his support for the Vietnam War, aligned with Richard Nixon, many of his most steadfast fans deserted him. The lesson, one should have thought, is that comedy and politics don’t mix.

It is worth remembering just how recent a phenomenon this really is. Jay Leno, the former king of late night (whom I found tremendously unfunny) personally skewed to the right but refrained from turning The Tonight Show into After Hours at the Heritage Foundation in favour of a gentler, undiscriminating mockery. And as I wrote the other day, even Jon Stewart managed to excoriate the Bush administration for its manifold failings without coming across as dismissive or hostile towards those who may have voted for George W. Bush. The Daily Show always had a leftward tilt, but there was still some entertainment value for conservatives; it is hard to imagine a Trump voter watching Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel or Bill Maher with any enjoyment.

And yet this approach is clearly good business, because turning on the television in primetime is increasingly like watching Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals made flesh, night after night. Meanwhile, advertisers exercise their prerogative to stop their ads from being shown during the shows of right-wing opinion journalists on cable news, but are only too happy to have their brands associated with comedians who speak exclusively to one half of the country. Again, that is their right, the free market in action, but that only brings me back to my original point – that society is in a pretty wretched state when half the country is fair game for comedians and written off by large corporations while the other half  is pandered to by both.

Epstein goes on to make the same point:

Enough people must share the views of these hosts to keep the careers of Maher, Colbert, Kimmel & Co. afloat, which is to say to keep their ratings high enough to be commercially viable. Yet these insufficiently funny comedians, with their crude political humor, do little more than add to the sad divisiveness that is rending the country. Something, surely, has been lost if one can no longer turn to comedy as a relief from the general woes of life and the greater farce that has for some years now been playing out in our everyday politics.

We have seen what can happen when key institutions of society tilt too far one way or the other, and the destructive knock-on effects which are sometimes unleashed as a consequence. The persistent soft-left bias of the mainstream media was instrumental in driving the success of conservative talk radio in the 1990s, and then right-wing online outlets such as the Drudge Report. The free market in action, yes, but also an encouragement for the political right to decamp into a self-contained ideological bubble of their own, a swamp where exaggerations and conspiracy theories festered, leading first to obstructionist Tea Party representatives and ultimately to Donald Trump himself.

And as conservatives departed the mainstream for their new niche market refuges, so the ideological balance of those who remained tilted ever further to the left, spurring the creation of an equal and opposite left-wing bubble in what was once the unbiased mainstream space, now replete with its own insatiable demands for bias confirming facts and narratives.

Obviously this pattern is far more troubling as it pertains to the media than the relatively trivial world of late night television, but still the latter it is yet more evidence of the same divisive force at work. Where people of all political persuasions could once happily watch Johnny Carson or Jay Leno, now the Left has captured virtually the entirety of  mainstream television programming, with younger web-savvy conservatives seeking equally politicised conservative-skewed comedy such as Steven Crowder‘s growing media empire (his show is also very good).

Individually there is nothing wrong with any of these shows; it is not as though Stephen Colbert represents an existential threat to the fabric of American society. The problem is that the cumulative effect of this divisiveness, this self-segregation generally initiated by the Left and eventually responded to by the Right, is that over time there are fewer and fewer meeting grounds where people of all political stripes can gather as Americans (or Brits, for we have the same problem here) first and foremost. Our national town square is shrinking, and at a time when we most need to reach within ourselves to find empathy for those with different political views, instead we retreat into mockery and incomprehension.

I wonder if those late night TV talk show hosts whose careers are presently flourishing under Donald Trump will ever come to realise that they, too, are catalysts in this destructive Trumpian reaction?

Stephen Colbert interviews Donald Trump

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Late Night TV Hosts vs Trumpland

Stephen Colbert - Donald Trump - chalkboard swastika

When it becomes good business for left-wing late night comedy hosts to actively alienate and belittle half the country, it is clear that Donald Trump is not the only force stoking hatred and division in America

While in New York City last December, my wife and I were fortunate to get tickets to see The Late Show with Stephen Colbert being recorded at the Ed Sullivan Theatre.

It was a good show and ended up being a really fun experience, but as somebody who cannot reliably tick the “Yes, I agree” box next to every progressive cause under the sun, it was only fun because I knew what I was letting myself in for and readied myself in advance for an hour’s worth of dripping condescension, mockery and misrepresentation of conservatives and conservatism.

And increasingly that’s how it is for conservatives – and even some moderates – who want to consume the fruits of mainstream culture, be it network television, Hollywood movies, stand-up comedy or even classical music. Sure, you can watch – nobody barred me from entering the studio or administered an ideological test before I was allowed to sit and watch Stephen Colbert spit-roast Donald Trump in his monologue for the hundredth time. But in order to derive uninterrupted enjoyment from proceedings, those on the right increasingly have to perform a certain degree of mental disassociation from their political views before taking part. One has to fake laughter and perfect the wryly amused smile so as not to look out of place while everyone else clutches their sides and laughs at the Stupid Backward Conservatives.

During the warm-up act before Stephen Colbert came out, the warm-up comedian scoured the audience looking for interesting or odd people, and then made them stand up and engage him in conversation for the delectation of the audience. Pretty standard for a warm-up act, but one person in particular seemed to pique the warm-up comedian’s interest – a slightly patrician-looking, grey-haired and well-dressed man in his late fifties or early sixties. “A Republican in the audience!”, the comedian exclaimed.

The comedian got the man to stand up, confirmed that he was indeed a conservative and then went to town on him in a way which was superficially good-natured but as it dragged on (far longer than his other interactions) quickly became quite awkward both for the gentleman involved and a number of other audience members. This isn’t to resort to snowflakery – go to a comedy show and one should expect to get picked on by the person on stage, after all – but it was notable and entirely predictable that none of the conspicuously progressive stereotypes sitting in the audience received similar treatment. And of course this was but a foreshadowing of what would happen when Colbert himself took the stage (we in the audience were under strict instructions not to “spoil the fun” by booing at any point, though this rule was liberally disregarded when any mention was made of a conservative figure or policy).

Left-wing satire can be brilliant. I always felt that during his long tenure at The Daily Show, Jon Stewart did a fantastic job skewering the many foibles and failings of the George W. Bush administration without coming across as aggressively bitter or hostile to everyday conservative voters. He may not have been speaking to them for much of the time, but neither was Jon Stewart actively belittling those people who twice voted for Bush. Other late night hosts such as Bill Maher often make more pointed barbs directed at ordinary conservatives, but in Maher’s case his jokes are much funnier and are balanced with a frequent willingness to call out the excesses, failings and hypocrisies of his own side (such as the free pass given by much of the American Left to retrograde attitudes toward women in parts of the Islamic world).

Stephen Colbert, while often very funny, is less nuanced. As a non Trump-supporting conservative I personally fall down the awkward gap between agreeing with nearly all of Colbert’s criticisms of President Trump’s personal conduct and suitability for office while also wishing that not every single monologue had to be come a teachable moment about the supposed deficiencies of conservatism, the self-evident correctness of progressive positions and the supposedly inherent wisdom of even the dimmest people who happen to cheer for the progressive cause.

And this brings us to fellow late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, who took the opportunity (in front of an extremely friendly crowd of fellow progressives) to use a guest appearance on left-wing podcast Pod Save America to declare that progressive domination of late-night television was entirely right and proper, Darwinian natural selection at work within showbusiness.

 

From Ben Shapiro at The Daily Wire:

Following President Trump’s State of the Union address last week, CBS late night host Stephen Colbert had on the former Obama staffers of “Pod Save America” to bash Trump. Those same gentlemen welcomed ABC late night host Jimmy Kimmel to the stage for an event on Saturday night, where Kimmel proceeded to explain that all late night hosts are on the Left thanks to their vast intellect.

What a ridiculous and unnecessarily smug thing for Kimmel to say. One cannot rend one’s garments about hatred and division in America and then declare everyone on the winning side of a highly contentious election to be intellectually inferior. These are not the shocked and panicked moments immediately after election night in 2016 – by this point the American Left has had a long period of time to dwell on their missteps and shortcomings in that electoral cycle, but many Democrats and others on the left choose instead to marinade in their own anger, as though shouting at the other half of the country will win them around.

I have also been to a live recording of Pod Save America. It is actually a podcast to which I subscribe and listen frequently, and so when the hosts came on tour to London in January I went with a group of friends to Cadogan Hall to hear them do their thing. At its best, Pod Save America is entertaining and informative, albeit from an avowedly left-wing stance, and there is a real value to hearing how some of the most prominent alumni from the Obama administration view today’s politics. Being a left-wing podcast, nobody expects them to do anything other than preach to the choir in every episode, which is no worse than what many right-wing talk radio hosts do. But surely we should expect a little more from late-night network television?

Nothing good can come from the bitterness and rancour which currently seeps from the late-night talk shows. Network television comedy should bring people together, or at least not needlessly alienate them from one another. It may be good business for late night TV hosts to cater almost exclusively to staunchly Democratic voters – NBC’s Jimmy Fallon, who deliberately stays less political, is certainly suffering in the ratings for failing to bash conservatives on a nightly basis – but it is bad for our society as a whole.

A cohesive society requires that we maintain a public square where everyone is welcome, where people are not encouraged to self-segregate as progressives or conservatives, Christians or Muslims, whites or racial minorities. Where everybody can be American (or British) first and subordinate their various other identities and affiliations, albeit temporarily, to the one which we all hold in common. But time and again we see what should be common territory – places like  late night television or NFL football games – being tussled over by partisans until one side is forced to cede the field. When everything is political, everything becomes divisive and toxic.

In his latest show, Ben Shapiro makes a similar point with reference to last weekend’s Superbowl LII in Minnesota:

One of the things that football needs to understand – one of the things that the NFL needs to understand – is that the popularity of the sport is deeply entwined with the good feeling about the country. If you feel bad about the country it’s hard to enjoy sports, because you feel like sports are frivolous. If you feel good about the country then sports are a distraction from the mundane, sure, but they are also a reminder that all of our conflict is really play-acted.

And that’s not true in politics, you know, in politics there’s a lot of our conflict that’s not, that’s real, that’s about issues that matter and I care deeply about. But it’s good for Americans to recognise once in awhile – and I think that’s what the Superbowl is for – it’s good for us to recognise every once in awhile that there are these moments where we have more in common than we are separated by. So it’s amazing that in an evening that’s really about conflict between two teams is really more about the love for fans for one another. It’s really more about a love of country. It’s really more about what we are unified in favour of, and that’s why it was so entwined with the flag, with the military, and it’s why it alienated so many fans when the players started kneeling.

This is a time when we need to urgently be creating more shared, civic spaces where people of differing political views, backgrounds and identities can come together as fellow citizens first and foremost, not as victims, oppressors or activists. America actually fares better than Britain in this regard, since displays of patriotism and national pride are not yet considered quite so embarrassing or gauche as they are in Britain (though some on the American Left would doubtless love to change that fact), but neither country can afford to be complacent.

And here, late night television serves as a good barometer of just how polarised society has become. There are many excellent and respected comedians at the top of their field who do not feel it necessary to turn their acts into another campaigning wing of the Democratic Party. But many conservatives having already largely abandoned late night television, it does not make sense for ratings (and therefore for business) to do anything other than give the remaining progressive audiences exactly what they want – just ask Jimmy Fallon, who lags in the ratings precisely because he refuses to turn his show into a platform for progressive revivalism.

We see exactly the same situation in Britain, where new satirical news show The Mash Report (itself billed as hybrid of the Daily Show and British current affairs shows like Have I Got News For You) make endless fun of Brexit voters and conservatives as though being left-wing and pro-EU is the “natural” position, from which any departure should rightly trigger outrage and mockery. From a business and professional standpoint there may be every reason to continue along the current trajectory (including high ratings, monetary rewards and approval from fellow bubble-dwellers in the industry), but that doesn’t mean that the status quo is good for societal cohesion. It isn’t. There was a time (before Brexit) when people on the Left used to understand that not everything of value could be quantified, but apparently no more.

The best satirical comedy tends to punch upward, not down (though of course in a free society it should be free to punch wherever it likes). It should be possible to punch up at Donald Trump while reserving a few blows for other highly deserving fixtures of American political life, including the cadaverous and inept figures who make up the Democratic Party leadership. It should be possible to punch upward at ludicrous Tory Brexiteers like Boris Johnson while also using humour to point out the starry-eyed naivety of those on the Left who see the European Union as the fount of all good things.

But most importantly, it should be possible to punch up at the political class while avoiding punching down at entire groups of voters, let alone nearly half the country. Because when it becomes good business sense to deliberately alienate half the country to wring laughter and advertiser dollars from the other half, something has gone terribly wrong.

Stephen Colbert - Cartoon Donald Trump

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So You (Allegedly) Molested A Child

If ‘evil’ oil companies and banks can use Crisis PR firms to launder their sullied reputations, Hollywood celebrities need to start demanding the same 5-star service

I am sure that if it has not already happened, there will soon be a lucrative new niche field of crisis PR management opening up to handle (in exchange for extortionate sums of cash) the cases of terrified and often guilty Hollywood celebrities and power-players accused of inappropriate or illegal historic sexual activity with unwilling partners. Lord knows that whoever first enters the market stands to make an absolute fortune, because the response of those individuals currently being tried in the social media star chamber post Harvey Weinstein has been crying out for professional finesse.

One can imagine it now. The sweaty, shaking fingers slipping over the keypad as some panicked A-lister who only months ago was picking up gold statuettes and industry acclaim by the sackload now frantically dials his manager, begging him to kill a career-threatening story about past indiscretions. And who does the dutiful manager turn to? After looking in his desk and retrieving the handy “So You Raped A Child And Paid Them Hush Money / Forgot All About It” public information leaflet, they call the new service.

The polished executives who come to the A-lister’s house make a couple of things clear right off the bat. First, for the love of God, stop apologising for whatever it is you were accused of, and deny it instead. And certainly don’t concede that it might have happened, but you can’t be sure because you were dead drunk and who can remember all the fourteen-year-olds they clambered on top of at a party three decades ago. Not the way to go. That’s Step One.

A forceful denial comes first, and then you need to find something, anything else to dominate the news cycle – that’s Step Two. If you can arrange for senior campaign figures from last year’s presidential election to be indicted on charges of conspiracy against the United States, that should do the trick. Failing that, engineering some other event of geopolitical importance will take the heat off and buy you a moment’s pause to plan Step Three.

Step Three consists of the distraction. You have to understand the climate and culture in which you operate, and that is one totally dominated by the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics. In this world, accountability (and associated punishments for wrongdoing) are measured in inverse proportion to your position in the Hierarchy of Victimhood. At all costs, you must be able to refute the charge of being white, male and heterosexual – those three strikes will damn you immediately. Trying to pass yourself off as 8 percent Cherokee has yielded only mixed results in the past, so at the very minimum you should shoot for being gay or bisexual. If you’re looking at potential criminal charges rather than just the end of your career, it is worth considering the merits of transgenderism too. If you actually happen to legitimately fit into of these categories then so much the better, it will help with authenticity.

Once you have settled upon your distraction, integrate it tightly into your public response to the accusation, a response which – to repeat Step One – should not include an apology. The goal is to shut things down as quickly as possible by calling the accuser a liar and then winning sympathy by picking up as many identity politics bonus points as possible in your statement. Now you have successfully dealt with Day 1 of the fallout.

Day Two will require another domination of the news cycle. Assuming that there are no more well-connected politicos to indict on conspiracy charges, this is when you want to wheel out your Unimpeachable Character Witness. Use any downtime on Day 1 to identify this person, get them briefed, media trained and ready to spin a wonderful tale about how appropriate you have been at all times to all people, and how despite having been presented with at least ten gold-plated opportunities to rape a child over the past thirty years, not once did you cave to the temptation. That’s Step Four.

Now, the public may be sceptical of such stage-managed events, so the more people you can persuade to sing from the same hymn sheet the better. You want peers, pastors and anyone else to be singing four-part fugues about how awesome you are, and how you live a life of virtual celibacy outside specified age-appropriate relationships where consent forms are signed and notorised before each individual romantic encounter.

The final immediate action in terms of immediate crisis management, Step 5, is celebrity outreach. At this critical juncture, when you have been accused by a single source, you stand on the cusp of becoming toxic in celebrityworld. One more accusation and you are Hollywood kryptonite. At this point, people you once considered good friends will stop calling, and business acquaintances will suddenly be too busy to meet. Some will outright denounce you on social media.

As a savvy person, you know that at all costs you must avoid – what was that phrase? – ah yes, being cleaved from the herd and left to die in the wilderness. Hug your celebrity besties tightly. Do what you have to do to get invited on a sympathetic talk show where you can come across as shocked by the accusation, flaunt your good deeds and somehow paint yourself as the victim. This is a zero sum game, with space for exactly one brave hero and one villain.

This is the service that any go-getting, ambitious soul should be touting around Hollywood right now, as well as the London West End, Washington D.C., Westminster and a bunch of other places where large concentrations of powerful people with dodgy pasts are suddenly terrified for their futures.

And the best thing about this new market niche is that it will never dry up. Protecting terrified, middle-aged celebrities from accusations of inappropriate, abusive or downright illegal behaviour will not fall victim to outsourcing, automation or technical obsolescence. The entertainment industry will always exist, and so will those aspects of human nature which prompt some guilty people to abuse their positions of power to obtain sexual gratification from unwilling parties, and others to misremember or even falsely accuse innocent public figures of similar misdeeds.

In fact, the only way that this Celebrity Crisis PR business model would ever stop making money is if the denizens of Hollywood stopped being such moralising, hypocritical sleazebags. And there is no danger of that happening whatsoever.

 

Harvey Weinstein - sexual harassment

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Harvey Weinstein Hypocrisy And The Westminster Cesspit

Westminster Big Ben Telephone Box

British journalists have reported and commented extensively on the Harvey Weinstein scandal, yet seem curiously unwilling to lift the lid on the seediness and sexual harassment which routinely takes place within their own industry

In the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal (were you as stunned as I was?!) we have seen a range of responses from genuinely shocking and awful first-hand accounts of serious harassment and abuse to the now-obligatory collective guilt lectures delivered condescendingly to All Men.

But I am particularly interested in the response of journalists and commentators in Britain who took the time to report on a sexual harassment scandal unfolding in Hollywood while remaining curiously silent about a similar culture at work in their own industry.

I make no pretence of being a Westminster insider, but in my life on the far, far outer periphery I have attended a number of political functions, meetings, party conferences, boozy book launches and parties where very high profile journalists and moderately high profile politicians were present, and I have seen behaviour with my own eyes which would shame some of those who lent their voices to the chorus of condemnation of Harvey Weinstein and other serial alleged harassers. I have also heard disturbing personal accounts of inappropriate and unwanted advances by married men in the media, though having been relayed to me in confidence, these are not my stories to tell.

The seediness of Westminster politics is reasonably well known, but while political journalists are generally now willing to report on politicians when they come a cropper, most are understandably much less eager to lift the lid on their own sub-clique. Yet ultimately, journalism is no different from many other professions where people work, travel, eat, rest and play with the same group of colleagues in a high-pressure environment. Throw in the fact that politics and political journalism falls squarely into the “showbusiness for ugly people” category and is dominated by big beasts who grew up in a very different Fleet Street era and young people desperate to get a break, and a pulsating atmosphere of illicit romances, scandals and unwanted advances is all but guaranteed.

I have been to events where wine-sodden journalists said eyebrow-raisingly inappropriate things which made others feel uncomfortable, or in some cases made fumbling physical advances which had to be repeatedly warded off by the unfortunate recipient. Most of these incidents amounted to little more than general slovenliness and lechery, the kind of thing which reflect badly on a person but should not necessarily end a career or put somebody in court. But other times the behaviour I witnessed and heard about fell distinctly into the dodgy end of the grey zone.

And yet so far the only people from the political media world to have faced any kind of scrutiny in Britain are the writers Rupert Myers and Sam Kriss – both of whose cases were summarily tried in the fiery crucible of the Twitter and Facebook Star Chamber with no due process. As happened for so long in Hollywood pre-Weinstein, a couple of relatively minor fish in British political journalism are being made scapegoats so that the Big Fish can swim on unsated, undaunted and unchecked.

Much is being written about the bravery (or lack thereof) exhibited by certain individuals in Hollywood in their dealings with Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men accused of sexual harassment. And many of us probably feel rightful admiration for the brave few who first came forward at considerable personal risk, and shake our heads at the powerful A-listers who didn’t once think to risk anything to warn or protect others.

But I am curious about the household name journalists who behave nearly as badly at SW1 events or party conference hotel ballrooms yet go unreported and unpunished year after year. And I am particularly interested in their media peers, who know exactly what is going on and whether or not it fits a pattern of behaviour, and find all the time in the world to excoriate Harvey Weinstein while saying nothing about the atrocious behaviour that occurs right under their noses.

Tom Bradby, former ITV News political editor and current anchor of News at Ten wrote quite a stirring call-to-arms about an unpleasant “lads culture” at his old rugby club and various stag parties he later attended. Yet after all his years at the top of British political journalism he couldn’t think of any relevant anecdotes about his own peers and colleagues of sufficient concern to make it into the article? Perhaps not; Bradby may very well have purposefully avoided many of the booze-fuelled, bacchanalian evening events which make up the Westminster social calendar, and saw nothing. But I suspect that many others of equal seniority and profile to Bradby know exactly what goes on but give their own industry a Get Out Of Jail Free card.

As anyone who works in politics and answers truthfully will attest, Westminster can be a very seedy place. I understand that the ascension of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 saw some dispossessed Labour centrists indulge in behaviour which would have been considered scandalous at King Belshazzar’s feast. It seems likely that Theresa May’s bungled campaign and the trauma of election night this summer saw some similar desperation-fuelled behavioural lapses on the Right.

The two mini scandals du jour – Labour’s Clive Lewis getting a bit verbally carried away at a Momentum event in Brighton or Jared O’Mara having posted unsavoury comments on the internet fifteen years ago as a young man  – barely scratch the surface of what goes on. Indeed, these cases are almost decoys, relatively minor transgressions being seized upon so that the accused can be made scapegoats for the graver sins of a much larger group. One almost wonders whether the enthusiasm with which the UK political blogosphere, print and television media picked up these stories was a way of over-compensating for the profound silence about what takes place within their own camp.

But this seediness and sexual harassment within British politics and journalism will not be eradicated by offering up some scrawny, barely-known writer from Vice or a slightly bigger deal from GQ Magazine as a sacrifice to the Twitter gods. It will take a big fish to land a big fish – a heavyweight figure from a major publication or broadcaster must put their credibility on the line. The world of politics and journalism, like Hollywood, is a very hard industry to crack and those struggling to gain admittance from the outside risk everything by speaking out, even as they are the ones predominantly being preyed upon by grotesque, self-satisfied insiders.

One day – perhaps quite soon, given the rapidity with which Harvey Weinstein fell from grace – one of the big beasts of UK political journalism will be revealed for what they are. Somebody who everybody in the Westminster political/media world has been paying obsequious homage to for years will receive first one allegation of improper conduct, then another, and then a steady drip-drip of accusations until the sudden resignation, admission of “errors of judgment” and flight to celebrity rehab inevitably follow.

And when that happens, we will all be sitting here wondering how it was that so many people whose sole job it is to unearth and report stories of public interest – so many respected, well remunerated household names – somehow neglected to mention what was going on in their own back yard.

And what little scrap of credibility the Westminster media retains will be gone for good.

 

Harvey Weinstein - Meryl Streep

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The Heineken ‘Worlds Apart’ Ad: Corporate Social Justice Done Right

Finally, a corporate attempt at social awareness advertising that does not devolve into sanctimonious progressive preaching

It generally doesn’t end well when big corporations decide to prove their right-on, progressive credentials with a slick new TV advertisement.

Only four months ago, Pepsi found itself on the receiving end of a heap of bad PR when their insipid commercial, featuring celebrity with no discernible talent Kylie Jenner, was deemed to be trivialising the Black Lives Matter movement (the gravest sin that it is presently possible to commit).

The Pepsi ad was certainly stupid, but not because it made light of a movement which is by no means as pure of character as it likes to pretend. No, the problem with the Pepsi ad was that it tried to cast the soft drink manufacturer in a positive light by clinging on to the coattails of various protest movements, and casting its brown sugary liquid as the balm that could ease tensions between Generic Oppressed Communities and the police. It was glib and superficial and insulting to everyone who was portrayed in it.

And unfortunately that’s how it is with most ads that try to paint the responsible corporation in a positive light by embracing the latest progressive fad or injunction from the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics. They politicise that which should not be politicised, needlessly sow division over politically contentious issues, waste shareholder money to burnish the reputations of certain executives and generally fail to serve the corporation’s customers. In Britain, Channel 4’s cynical and self-serving “Gay Mountain” ad, timed to coincide with the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, is another awful example of tawdry corporate behaviour.

That’s not to say that all such ads are bad – by all means, corporations should wade into social territory when the product and the issue actually have some connection with each other and there is a worthy goal in mind. The #LikeAGirl ad campaign by Always, for example, is actually quite moving and packs a real impact. This Barbie ad isn’t half bad either.

Other social justice ads fall into the grey zone, not terrible but not particularly praiseworthy either – or else just plain confusing. Procter & Gamble’s recent ad “The Talk“, highlighting the fact that African American parents have had to teach their children resilience techniques and shore up their self-esteem in ways that white parents generally have not, makes a valid and moving historical point. But it is never quite clear why Procter & Gamble is the one to be making the ad, other than that they cynically calculated that they can burnish their corporate credentials by conspicuously attaching their brand to the worthy cause of anti-racism.

But best of all recent ads where a large corporation dips its toe into the roiling waters of social issues is this one by Heineken, entitled “Worlds Apart“. What makes it so good? The fact that it does not seek to preach any specific value or social outcome besides the importance of tolerance and mutual respect which is too often missing in public discourse. Rather than shoving a particular social cause down the throats of consumers, the ad dares to suggest that more than one opinion (the progressive one) may have value, and that issues should be discussed rather than dissent shut down.

The ad is shot like a reality show, putting various pairs of strangers with diametrically opposed opinions on various issues – feminism, transgenderism, climate change and so on – in a room together, having them perform various icebreaking tasks including assembling furniture, describing both themselves and their partner using five adjectives and then just talking together about their life experiences. It sounds corny, but it actually works quite well – watch the video at the top of this article.

The final task given to the various pairs of strangers is to assemble a construction out of wooden blocks – which turns out to be a bar (see what they did there?) Having cooperated and bonded with each other while completing various tasks, they each then have to watch a video in which the other person talks to the camera about their opinions of various relevant hot-button issues. It then becomes clear that the feminist was paired with the anti-feminist, the climate change sceptic with the environmentalist, the transgender woman with the man who scorned the idea of transgenderism. Having discovered this truth about their partner, they are then offered a choice – either they can leave and never see each other again, or they can discuss their differences over a beer at the bar they just constructed together.

This really is quite effective. You see the shock on each person’s face as they realise this uncomfortable truth about the stranger with whom they have been working and bonding during the various tasks. You see hints of confusion and almost betrayal on some of their faces as they weigh the competing facts – that they got on well with the person, know them through their brief interactions to be decent, yet that they stand on opposite sides of major social wedge issues. Spoiler alert: they all end up deciding to stay and discuss their differences over a nice cool Heineken.

This is a good ad. Firstly in terms of product promotion, it positions Heineken beer as something over which sane, rational people can discuss their differences like adults. In real life, people do discuss their problems and bond over beer. Unlike the Procter & Gamble ad, there is a valid reason for Heineken to be making this commercial. And what’s more, despite only being a commercial the various interactions feel ten times more real than President Obama’s very real and much-publicised “beer summit” in the wake of the Henry Louis Gates arrest controversy.

But more than that, the ad is good because it doesn’t force a set outcome. It doesn’t end with the transgenderism sceptic acknowledging the error of his ways, confessing his sin and being absolved, or the anti-feminist checking his male privilege. Rather, knowing that their partner is more than the sum of his or her political opinions, the various couples are able to forge bonds of mutual respect and friendship. Like adults used to do in the days before social media turbo-charged identity politics.

So why does Heineken succeed where so many other corporations have failed? Again, it’s those three reasons:

  1. A clear link between the issues at stake (in this case various hot-button social issues) and the product (people often discuss their differences over a beer)
  2. Not forcing a preset outcome, and acknowledging that people can be good despite coming down on different sides of an issue
  3. Not alienating any of their customers by charging in with a preachy, absolutist message

If corporations are going to continue to dip their toes into social issues then we need more ads like this. Right now it feels like society is fraying, sometimes even in danger of coming apart at the seams, fuelled by a toxic blend of identity politics zealots, genuine bigots, people who simply dislike being preached to and those who profit from creating friction between them.

Too many people in positions of authority – politicians, media personalities, self-appointed community leaders – fail to encourage understanding and respectful disagreement, preferring to foment mutual intolerance. Only today I was publicly and ostentatiously defriended by a respected acquaintance, someone who suddenly decided that my relatively mainstream and inoffensive conservatarian opinions were beyond the pale and injurious to their mental safety. It isn’t the first time that this has happened. This is what identity politics and leftist intolerance hath wrought.

Retreating into our respective bubbles will not help knit society back together and weave the strands of a common identity and shared purpose around which we can – and must – all unite. The Heineken “Worlds Apart” ad acknowledges this fact and pitches its product as part of the solution.

It shouldn’t take a beer company to say what so many political and community leaders have so conspicuously failed to say themselves, but that’s just what Heineken have done with this ad. And this puts it head and shoulders above the rest.

 

Heineken - Worlds Apart ad

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