Film director becomes scapegoat in gender wars

Nate Parker, director of "The Birth of a Nation."

Nate Parker, director of “The Birth of a Nation.”

The blacklisting of entertainment industry professionals on the altar of anti-communism after World War II has left an indelible stain on the American conscience. The 2015 film “Trumbo” serves as a scary reminder of how lives can be destroyed by mere accusation amplified through the mass media.

If you want to get a sense of how ideological passions can still inflict injustice, consider the witch hunt enveloping Nate Parker, director, writer and star of “The Birth of a Nation.” His film, based on an 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, excited audiences at the Sundance Film Festival in January and inspired Fox Searchlight to pay a festival record $17.5 million for the world rights. The film is scheduled for release Oct. 7.

The 36-year-old Parker, making his debut as a feature-film director, should be riding high these days. Instead, he is being branded as a rapist who got away with his crime. He is being further vilified as a symbol of a legal system incapable of treating women fairly, a pervasive rape culture on college campuses, athletic privilege and toxic masculinity.

That’s one hellish brew of villainy being dumped on a man who was found not guilty 15 years ago. NOT GUILTY! That’s what a jury decided after hearing the evidence against Parker, who was charged with raping an 18-year-old Penn State student who said she was intoxicated and unconscious. Parker was a sophomore wrestler at the university.

The jury found Parker’s roommate and fellow wrestler, Jean McGianni Celestin, guilty of sexual assault. An appeals court overturned the verdict, and the case against Celestin was dismissed after the accuser declined to testify again. Celestin helped write the story line for “The Birth of a Nation.”

Adding fuel to the witch hunt is the recent revelation that Parker’s accuser, who has remained unnamed publicly, committed suicide four years ago.

The future of Parker’s film, as well as his career, looks shaky because of the attacks, leveled in such publications as The New York Times and The Atlantic magazine. Some critics have called for a boycott of the film.

This week, the American Film Institute canceled a screening of the film and a question-and-answer session with Parker that had been scheduled for Friday.

“I have been the recipient of many different passionate points of view about the screening, and I believe it is essential that we discuss these issues together — messenger and message, gender, race and more — before we see the film,” AFI dean Jan Schuette said in a statement.

Parker’s attackers are eager to selectively tear apart the trial or proclaim their ideological convictions as proof of Parker’s guilt. Consider these quotes:

The criminal justice system is so broken that, with regard to sexual assault cases, we have no faith in its ability to deliver a verdict of guilt and no confidence in a verdict of not guilty.Willa Paskin, Slate magazine.

I cannot value a movie, no matter how good or “important” it might be, over the dignity of a woman whose story should be seen as just as important, a woman who is no longer alive to speak for herself, or benefit from any measure of justice.Roxane Gay, Purdue University professor in the New York Times.

Toxic masculinity creates the landscape for men who were “alleged” to have raped a woman, and later found guilty of rape (Celestin), to not stop their abuse and intimidation of their victim.Deirdre Cooper Owens, assistant professor of history at Queens College, CUNY.

Thankfully, at least one brave soul writing for a major media publication takes aim at the virulent attacks on Parker and warns against making him a scapegoat in the gender wars. Justice “requires a cultural climate in which the accused are given the benefit of the doubt, … and someone who is found not guilty is treated as innocent, barring a glaring miscarriage of justice,” says writer Cathy Young in the Washington Post. She continues with these thoughtful observations:

We are rightly wary of the misogynist subtext in the cliche of the woman “crying rape.” But it is equally sexist to put women who come forward as rape victims on a pedestal of absolute credibility — and this form of chivalrous sexism, too, is a very real and ugly part of our history.

As we seek to do right by victims of sexual violence, cases in which the alleged victim and the alleged offender each tell a plausible story pose a vexing dilemma. Let’s not try to resolve it by discarding fundamental principles of justice that protect everyone. And let’s not make Nate Parker the scapegoat.


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Swimmer Ryan Lochte is becoming punch line of jokes

Ryan Lochte with 2012 Olympic gold and his diamond dental retainer.

Ryan Lochte with 2012 Olympic gold and his diamond dental retainer.

“Speedo drops Lochte. In retaliation, swimmer drops Speedos.”

That’s a fanciful headline a copy-editor friend of mine came up with, and I can imagine seeing it soon in some racy tabloid. Why? Because disgraced swimmer Ryan Lochte is rapidly running out of options for making money on his fame.

As I said in Monday’s blog, Lochte’s effort to spin his stupid actions in Rio de Janeiro into a tale of victimhood wasn’t going to appeal to his sponsors. Sure enough, four commercial sponsors dumped Lochte yesterday. The decisions by Speedo, Ralph Lauren, Airweave and Gentle Hair Removal could cost Lochte a million bucks, according to one report I saw.

“While we have enjoyed a winning relationship with Ryan for over a decade and he has been an important member of the Speedo team, we cannot condone behavior that is counter to the values this brand has long stood for,” Speedo, the swimwear company, said in a statement released Monday morning. “We appreciate his many achievements and hope he moves forward and learns from this experience.”

Lochte, who won one gold medal at the Rio Olympics, damaged his reputation by concocting a tale of being robbed at gunpoint. He made things worse by issuing a half-baked apology via Instagram, said one marketing expert.

“Sports fans have proven over decades to be very forgiving of their athlete heroes if those heroes are genuinely apologetic and prove over time that they’ve learned from their mistakes,” said Bob Williams, chief executive of Burns Entertainment & Sports Marketing. “Ryan Lochte could have helped himself more by making his apology in front of a camera or at a press conference, difficult as that may be.”

Another expert pointed out a troubling reality for the 32-year-old Lochte, a four-time Olympian and winner of 12 medals. “Given his age, he is less likely to be competitive going forward,” said David Carter, executive director of the Marshall Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California.

Lochte has missed the boat on damage control and is unlikely to make a competitive comeback at the next Olympics. If he wants to keep his name in the public eye, he has two choices, I think. He can embrace religious redemption and push the sin-and-salvation angle, or he can play the buffoon.

Lochte isn’t afraid to look silly. After winning a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics, he smiled at reporters and displayed a red, white and blue diamond-encrusted grill. He said he wore this dental retainer because it was “a unique way of showing personality out to everyone.”  In 2013, he starred in his own reality TV showWhat Would Ryan Lochte Do?, which aired on the E! channel. For the 2016 Olympic Games, Lochte unveiled a new look, dyeing his hair blue-grey.

So, don’t be surprised if Lochte drops his Speedos in an effort to put his troubles behind him.


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Swimmer Lochte and Shasta Lake otters need some good PR

River otter

River otter

Ryan Lochte

Ryan Lochte

U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte and a bunch of Shasta Lake otters have this in common: they’ve messed up a good public image and need the help of smooth PR agents.

Lochte, a 12-time Olympic medal winner, concocted a wild story of being robbed at gunpoint in Rio de Janeiro. Even after police and teammates discredited his tale, Lochte continued to insist he was a victim, not a vandal. Consider this labored apology:

“I want to apologize for my behavior last weekend — for not being more careful and candid in how I described the events of that early morning,” Lochte said in a statement on Instagram. “It’s traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country — with a language barrier — and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave.”

Lochte would find more forgiveness and eventual redemption – lucrative endorsements, that is – if he would just shed some tears on TV, confess that he had been a drunken idiot and vow to act like a good American in the future.

By contrast, the marauding Shasta Lake otters that scratched and bit two boys frolicking in the lake have had the sense to keep their mouths shut and disappear from view. I suspect they are getting a stern scolding from the otter community, which has enjoyed an image of being endearingly cute.

How cute? River otters could bring a smile to the faces of fanatic fishermen, such as myself, when they showed up on Sacramento River riffles loaded with steelhead and spawning salmon. Everyone knew the steelhead fishing would be dead while the otters were chasing their prey, but the delightful show was worth the wait.

A good image goes a long way toward self-preservation in places like Shasta County in far Northern California, where hunters are numerous and Bambi is ridiculed. If there are more attacks, otters may find themselves viewed like their unpopular cousins – weasels and badgers. Someone might even discover that otters are related to polecats, a despised critter in Wild West days. Start calling them “ornery, thieving otters,” and they’ll be in big trouble.

It’s odd how some creatures get good press and others don’t. Steelhead and suckers both hang out at salmon spawning sites. Both species are predators gobbling up all the salmon eggs they can from exhausted salmon on death’s doorstep. Yet steelhead are esteemed gamefish that only the most gifted fishermen can hope to catch. Suckers are viewed as lowly trash fish that are best kicked into the bushes.

Buzzards are reviled as carrion-eating creeps; eagles are our national symbol. Rats are despicable; hamsters are adorable. Dogs are delightful; jackals ain’t. Butterflies are beloved; moths put holes in expensive suits.

If Ryan Lochte hopes to salvage any future marketability, he needs to find a savvy PR firm – and fast.

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Lawyers and immigrant success stories

When you lie down with dogs, you get fleas.

I’m saying this metaphorically, as a prelude to suggesting that I see nothing admirable or redeeming in a lawyer who gets paid big bucks to help a powerful and wealthy client manipulate the legal system.

Why would anyone sing the praises of attorney Melinda Guzman? I ask myself. Guzman is the lawyer who saw fit to represent the disgraced chancellor of UC Davis, Linda Katehi, and help get her a cushy deal in return for stepping down under pressure. Katehi will keep her salary of $424,360 during a year of navel-gazing, be guaranteed a high-paying teaching spot and maintain her retirement and health benefits.

I’m not going to bash Guzman for doing a job that is recognized as necessary by her profession – providing good representation for villains as well as victims. Being a lawyer in an adversarial system can be a flea-bite job sometimes, leading to results that fall far short of anything resembling “justice.”

On the other hand, I wouldn’t write a newspaper column hailing her as an immigrant success story because she gets to play in the muck with the big dogs. That’s the amoral angle taken by Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton last Sunday in writing about the Katehi mess. He begins this way:

The story behind the story is the only redeeming part of an otherwise dismal tale of waste and politics in higher education.

 Guzman is the daughter of an immigrant father, Breton says. He was a railroad mechanic with no formal education who managed to provide for Guzman and her three sisters and see them all graduate from UC Davis. Guzman had to find her way through an intimidating academic environment pretty much on her own.

Instead of becoming a public defender, like many Latino lawyers, Guzman chose to go into corporate law, representing Chevron, venture capital firms and large companies, Breton says. Guzman, now 53, decided to take on an unsympathetic client in Katehi because “she had built a career on facing challenges.”

And where did right or wrong figure into Guzman’s decision?  Isn’t that the context for anything to be deemed redemptive?

Let me give another example of a lawyer who might be thought of as an immigrant success story. That would be John Yoo, who was brought to the United States by his South Korean parents as an infant. He graduated from Harvard College and Yale law school. Today, he is a tenured law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

In his notable career path, Yoo served as deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel at the U.S. Department of Justice. In this position, he became the controversial primary author of the so-called “torture memos,” which gave President George W. Bush legal cover to allow the torture of detainees in the war on terror.

In January 2009, President Barack Obama, on his second full day in office, signed an executive order barring Bush-era torture tactics. Later that year, the Justice Department concluded, in a nearly 300-page final report, that Yoo “committed intentional professional misconduct when he violated his duty to exercise independent legal judgment and render thorough, objective and candid legal advice.”

In 2010, the Justice Department waffled and decided Yoo’s conduct wasn’t reprehensible enough to refer his actions to the Pennsylvania State Bar for disciplinary action. Yoo remained a lawyer in good standing and continued his teaching career at UC Berkeley despite periodic calls for his dismissal.

Just because you have an immigrant background and have achieved career success doesn’t put you beyond moral reproach.




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Bicyclist’s carbon footprint proves costly to pedestrian

A letter to the editor in  the Aug. 13 Sacramento Bee.

A letter to the editor in the Aug. 13 Sacramento Bee.

When a bicycling scofflaw shows no contrition for slamming into a pedestrian in downtown Sacramento, he should be put in the stocks and publicly shamed. Instead, he is given a public forum to blame his victim and tout his concern for the environment.

My goodness, what strange times we live in.

Consider this: My wife and I and two friends got ripped off the other night by two over-the-hill comedians who chose to inflict utter boredom on an audience of 5,000 fans sitting in searing heat and hoping for a few laughs.

Thank God for Katie Ledecky, Simone Biles and the U.S. women’s eight rowing squad for demonstrating grace and excellence under pressure while providing thrilling entertainment I could watch in my air-conditioned living room.

In case you missed the letters to the editor in Saturday’s Sacramento Bee, I call your attention to the cavalier admission by Don Knutson of Sacramento. He said he regularly rides his bicycle on our city sidewalks, a clear violation of Sacramento City Code 10.76.010, and has racked up at least one notch on his belt.

A few years ago, he said, he nailed a pedestrian near the Central Library in downtown Sacramento. The unsuspecting fellow had just finished putting money into a parking meter.  Knutson didn’t bother to reveal the injuries inflicted on his victim. Instead, he proceeded to brag about reducing his carbon footprint by using pedal power instead of gasoline.

I would be astounded by Knutson’s ability to rationalize his lawbreaking conduct, but, hey, this is a guy who believes his self-indulgence outweighs public safety.

And speaking of disregard for the public, let me mention the performance of former comedians Steve Martin and Martin Short last Friday at the outdoor amphitheater at Thunder Valley Casino Resort in Lincoln. With the temperature close to 100 degrees, the pair started about a half-hour late due to “technical problems.” They engaged in hackneyed putdowns of each other, dragged three guys from the audience to do a “¡Three Amigos!” bit, recycled old jokes and told war stories that bored even those old enough to get the references.

My wife and I and our two friends agreed that the $80 apiece we had paid to be entertained had been squandered. We felt taken by two so-called entertainers who seemed to have devoted little effort to put together a fresh act.

The joke, I guess, was on us. We had expected these comedians to live up to the funny, entertaining performances of their prime years; they evidently thought the local yokels would be thrilled by seeing them live in their sunset years.

The upside of our decision to leave after 45 minutes was that we had time to get home and watch inspiring Olympic performances by athletes committed to doing their very best.

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