Monthly Archives: January 2006

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Loud judgments only reveal inner hypocrisy

“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” – Romans 2:1 (NIV).

I need to preface this piece with the following disclaimer: I do not claim to have it together.

Like Paul the apostle wrote about himself in his letter to Philippi, I have not obtained it yet. I do not claim to be perfect; nor do I claim to have an immunity from pride or humbling mistakes.

But my twenty-nine plus years on the earth have given me a little bit of perspective. Thus, from my unique vantage point, I feel comfortable in giving a little friendly advice to those who may soon find themselves in the public eye:

If you’re gonna clown somebody for doing something bad, make sure you’re not doing the exact same thing to somebody else. It only makes you look that much worse.

Isiah Thomas: The New Al Capone

This issue vaulted to the forefront of my mind as I read a recent piece by ESPN columnist Bill Simmons, also known as the Boston Sports Guy. His readers had just alerted him to a recent interview of former NBA great and current Knicks GM Isiah Thomas by Stephen A. Smith on New York City’s ESPN radio affiliate 1050 AM. In the interview, Smith asked Thomas to comment, as a high-profile Black sports executive, on the lack of Black sports editors in the media.

Isiah responded by going on a mini-tirade about the bias that sports editors often exhibit in the ways that they process information, frame quotes, etc. Included was this rather defensive bit of commentary:

“And I’ve heard you say this on your show, Stephen A., you’ll call guys out about their ability but you don’t ever get into personal attacks … because that’s when you cross the line and most athletes can understand that. But when you’ve got little guys, you know, sitting behind the desk, you know 5 feet 2 and you never get a chance to see them and they take shots at your character and what you are as a man. If somebody would say those things to you on the street, and would walk up to you and just start saying that to any person in the street … Oh, there’d be a problem. And I’m gonna tell you, if I see this guy Bill Simmons, oh it’s gonna be a problem with me and him.”

Granted, this is a far cry from Pat Robertson almost putting out a hit on the president of Venezuela. But with these set of comments, and others like it, Isiah revealed the dark side of his normally mild-mannered, well-spoken public persona. He was basically saying, hey, you sportswriters are weasels, especially that Bill Simmons, and if I see him in person, I’m gonna squash him like a roach.

Now Simmons himself admitted that he has taken a lot of shots at Isiah Thomas, but he claims (and the links to his previous articles bolster this contention) that he’s never said anything bad about Isiah that A) weren’t documented facts about his personnel decisions as Knicks GM, B) statements about his style of play, or C) isolated incidents containing information independently corroborated by plenty of other unbiased sources.

In other words, he’s never said anything about Thomas that wasn’t either factually accurate or relatively true. But for doing this, again and again,Simmons deserves to catch a beat-down?

I feel a little bad bringing this next part up, because in some ways it feels like I’m piling on. Nevertheless, it’s kind of ironic that I learned about this issue with Isiah and Bill Simmons yesterday — the same day that headlines blared the news that Thomas’ own former VP of marketing, college basketball standout Anucha Brown Sanders, had filed suit against him and the Knicks’ parent company for sexual harassment and wrongful termination.

Among the many accusations leveled against Thomas was that he had turned other Knicks employees against her by berating her publicly with profanity-laced tirades. According to the New York Daily News, these become so frequent that even the Knicks’ star guard Stephon Marbury began referring to her as “a Black b****,” a term that Isiah himself had used on more than one occasion.

Now if that’s not a personal attack, I don’t know what is.

What’s more disturbing about the original incident between Isiah and Bill Simmons is that involved Stephen A. Smith, a man who is known for a brash, confrontational style (his critics call him “Screamin’ A”) and who supposedly doesn’t care who is offended by his version of the truth. Not only did he duck an opportunity to question a public official with a checkered history of decision-making, but he implied that he didn’t even know who Simmons was. This despite the fact they work for the same network (ESPN) and, according to Simmons, one of the producers of Smith’s ESPN2 talk show “Quite Frankly,” had previously contacted Simmons about flying to New York to be a guest on the show.

The next time Stephen A. Smith blasts some milquetoast sports anchor for not asking the hard questions, it’s only going to magnify his own lack of doing the same. This particular scenario may give him some legitimate cover, because hey — it’s not his job to book the guest, it’s the producers’ job. But still. Astute followers of the ESPN media conglomerate were left after this episode with jaws agape, wondering… what happened to Screamin’ A?

Quite frankly, it looks like he’s losing his edge.

Vince calls out Kobe
(In other news, the pot calls the kettle ‘black’)

If you don’t follow sports closely then you might not have heard, but on the same Sunday evening that the NFL’s two conference title games were deciding the participants of this year’s Super Bowl, LA Lakers guard Kobe Bryant set the sports world abuzz by scoring 81 points in a regular season basketball game against the Toronto Raptors.

This is a monumental achievement, eclipsing all other individual scoring accomplishments except for Wilt Chamberlain’s historic 100-point game in 1962. Naturally, everyone in the NBA world wanted to weigh in and give their take, so when reporters from the New Jersey Star Ledger asked New Jersey Nets guard Vince Carter what he thought, he told them he was worried about it sending a bad message to kids about individual vs. team play.

This from someone who averages almost as many shot attempts per game as Kobe Bryant, the man supposedly sending a bad message to kids about team play. And if Vince Carter’s current statistical output isn’t damning enough, his past is.

Toronto Raptor fans remember Vince Carter’s last year with the Raptors, when he played as a shadow of his former self. In 2000, his nickname was “Air Canada,” as he wowed fans all over the world with his athletic dunks, long-range shooting, and flashes of dominant play. But by 2004, in the middle of a long-term contract with the team, Carter was disillusioned with the team’s overall play and lack of payroll flexibility. He openly demanded to be traded on numerous occasions, and gradually forced the Raptors to trade him when it became clear that he would not play hard while suited up in Toronto.

So by repeatedly going through the motions and barely giving half an effort, he torpedoed the fortunes of the ballclub that drafted him and awarded him with a lucrative contract.

And this guy’s worried about Kobe Bryant sending a bad message to kids? Fuggedabout it. If pulling a ‘Kobe’ amounts to playing with matches, then pulling a ‘Vince’ is like hosting a backyard fireworks show with Fire Marshall Bill.


Not just sports but politics, too

You may expect this kind of thing from time to time with out-of-touch athletes, but it’s darn near become the standard with career politicians.

If you don’t believe me, see Sen. Ed Kennedy (D-Mass.), who practically got a hernia trying to block the appointment of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. Among his many protests was the idea that he felt Alito’s record showed he was “overly deferential” to the executive branch of government, the branch controlled by the President of the United States. Kennedy was trying to capitalize on the recent criticism of President Bush’s domestic wiretapping programs that many Democrats claim to be illegal. Kennedy claimed that an appointment of Alito to the Supreme Court would endanger the system of checks and balances that ensures an even distribution of power in our U.S. government.

Of course, if you read the transcript of his comments before Congress regarding the impending impeachment of then-president Clinton in 1998, curiously absent from his rhetoric is any mention of checks-and-balances. Instead, he decried partisan attacks on the president from an overzealous House Judiciary Committee.

So apparently it’s only okay to restrict the President’s authority if he doesn’t belong to your party.

Republicans have also gotten into the act, like the many who criticized U.S. Senator (and former first lady) Hillary Rodham Clinton for comparing Congress to a plantation, even though as the Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page noted, then Republican Majority Leader Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) essentially said the same thing in 1994.

But even the new, rising stars of politics can endanger their credibility by denouncing problems abroad and overlooking those same problems at home. According to the Tribune’s John Kass, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) faces a difficult task, trying to lead the charge for a new ethical standard of conduct while downplaying the rampant corruption in his own state party. Between embattled governor Rod Blagojevich and the defiant mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley… it’s gotten to the point for Chicago Democrats that no-news-is-good-news.

But not all news out of Chicago is bad…

Oprah & Dave: Models of Contrition

No, not that Dave. I’m speaking of Dave Chapelle.

Because if you examine recent events, both Oprah Winfrey and Dave Chapelle have exhibited a striking willingness to tell the truth about themselves, even when it comes at great personal cost.

Oprah’s epiphany came more recently.

In September, she had enthusiastically endorsed a book of memoirs by James Frey entitled A Million Little Pieces. It was a melodramatic story of a drug-addicted criminal who experiences redemption through incarceration and personal discovery. Winfrey gushed about it repeatedly, claiming she and her whole staff had been absolutely riveted by the book.

It was so visceral, so gut-wrenching… and so false, according to an exposé by The Smoking Gun, a website dedicated to debunking myths. According to the TSG story, most of the details of the central characters, including himself, had been wildly exaggerated for dramatic effect. Oprah’s first inclination, once the controversy surfaced, was to defend her darling author — which she did via a phone call to “Larry King Live!” on CNN.

But once the truth was incontrovertibly evident, she again booked James Frey to appear on her show — and before a national audience, admitted that she was wrong for supporting him. Not only that, she blasted him for what she felt was a work of colossal deceit and betrayal. More important is what she didn’t do, which was try to sweep the whole thing under the rug, or take veiled shots at The Smoking Gun by claiming that they were jealous.

On a national stage, she was bold in admitting that she was wrong.

How refreshing.

Similarly refreshing has been the ascent of comic firebrand Dave Chapelle. Known for his ascerbic wit and the gleeful, profane way he skewers our country racial sensibilities, he created a hit show for himself in 2003 with Comedy Central’s “Chapelle’s Show.” Two seasons and $50 million later, he found himself in a weird position. His show’s runaway success and the ubiquitous catchphrases he unwittingly unleashed (“I’m Rick James, b****!”) became increasingly uncomfortable for him, to the point where he began to realize he had created a monster — and it was getting too big for him to control.

What he could have done was keep collecting checks, and once he ran out of original things to say, he could have just kept recycling the same themes and racial cliches that vaulted him to stardom in the first place. But, as he revealed (subscription req’d) to Time reporter Christopher John Farley, he didn’t want success to change him. And more to the point, he began to wonder if his own sketches were crossing the line, and reinforcing the same stereotypes he had previously ridiculed.

So instead, he bounced.

Just straight up disappeared, taking a hasty “spiritual retreat” to South Africa. After he bolted during production of the show’s third season, and many speculated as to the cause of his sudden change of heart. (Including this wacky “Worth 1000” Photoshop contest.)

It wasn’t until the aforementioned Time interview that he revealed his inner motivation for leaving. And this interview, to me, represented Chapelle’s finest hour.

Because once he had taken the time to view the situation from an objective standpoint, he could have tried to distance himself from everything that he felt was wrong. He could have, very easily, blamed the others who surrounded him, especially since some of those people were White, and Lord knows White people make easy targets for racism these days.

But he didn’t go that route. Instead, he took the time to undergo some personal introspection, and pointed the finger — at himself.

Again, I say — how refreshing.

What Does This All Mean?

Avoiding hypocrisy is not the same thing as avoiding judgment.

The reason why I quoted Paul’s verse from Romans and not Jesus’ more famous judge-not-lest-ye-be-judged quote was because people tend to misunderstand that verse. Judgment is not the problem. As morally conscious, responsible citizens — we must use judgment.

The problem is when we judge others without taking a hard ethical inventory of our own flaws and issues.

It doesn’t work.

The same way the parental philosophy of do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do doesn’t work. The same way that women who wear suggestive clothing can’t get men to take them seriously. The same way that trying to save the environment while driving a Hummer H2 doesn’t work.

Millions of regular people envy the money and notoriety that celebrities regularly enjoy. But we have an important advantage over celebrities, in that we can make most of our mistakes without the whole world knowing about it.

So if you admire Isiah Thomas, Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, or Dave Chapelle, then honor them by learning from their mistakes.

I’m G*Natural, and thanks for mixin’ it up with me.

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Reality is key to quality entertainment (just ask Sam Fisher or Jack Bauer)

The entertainment industry is a multibillion dollar industry. Film studios, TV networks, and video game developers are competing for our attention, and when they succeed, they are rewarded handsomely. But many of the biggest successes in the field of media and entertainment have one thing in common – they are grounded in reality.

Not “reality” as defined by the vast wasteland of “reality-based” TV programming. That stuff is as unrealistic as it gets. The only way I could watch “The Simple Life” is if Nicole Richie had to clean up her act in order to compete for an eight-bucks-an-hour office job. That would be reality-based television. Unfortunately, it would also be boring, which is why I probably wouldn’t watch for more than 15 minutes.

The reality I’m talking about is a quality of successful entertaining media projects where the stories and characters have a distinct grounding in real life.

Escape? Nah. Transcend.

See, people often claim to watch television, go to the movies, or play video games in order to escape from reality. I think that’s only half true. People don’t want to escape reality as much as they want to transcend reality. That is, they want something better than reality.

They want to experience the redemption of characters that ring true. They want to experience scenarios where real problems meet real solutions. Even if the nuances of those solutions wouldn’t exactly play out in the real world, it’s still nice to see. People want heroes who succeed in making their world a better place. In so watching these stories, they can, if only for the length of the program, live in that better world.

I’ve noticed this phenomenon in my own tastes. I may seek an immediate escape from the tedium of my own life when I read/watch/play, but I end up gaining more knowledge and insight into the world around me. The shows and movies and games I like the most tend to be rooted in reality.

Consider a few favorites:

John Grisham’s legal thrillers. I recently read The Rainmaker, which seemed downright prophetic in its portrayal of corporate greed and corruption. Reading The Rainmaker can help provide a plausible scenario for the WorldCom and Enron accounting scandals.

Both critically-acclaimed Aaron Sorkin / Tommy Schlamme TV shows: the cult hit “Sports Night” and its more famous sibling, “The West Wing.” Sure, going behind-the-scenes of a presidential administration or a nightly cable sports show is a way to invest emotional weight into fictional characters. But it’s also a great way to learn about how things get done in politics and television.

I’ve written at length about my fascination with Halo 2, but it bears repeating: the success of that game is only partially due to its technical feats. A major reason why people love it is because it examines, albeit in a fantasy setting, the politics of religion and war. There are disturbing parallels between the machinations of the Covenant uprising and the contention between political factions in the U.S. This is not to say Halo 2 was written to be a political satire, but the interstellar leaders of the fictional alien populace suffer through the same hubris-driven power struggles that our own leaders do. In this way, it too is grounded in reality.

A new ethical model

With video games, the sense of vicarious identification is heightened, because instead of just cheering for heroes, you’re guiding them through their challenges yourself. And as games get more and more sophisticated in their storytelling capability, the challenges become greater. Not just harder to execute, but fraught with weightier moral consequences.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Tom Clancy’s “Splinter Cell” franchise. Besides being the definitive title to spawn a whole new genre of game (the stealth-action thriller), the Splinter Cell games have been the first games I’ve seen to explore U.S. counterintelligence programs in a manner that befits their shadowy nature. You play as Sam Fisher, a highly-trained special-ops field agent who is sent, through an experimental NSA program called Third Echelon, on a variety of missions pertaining to classified objectives, all in the name of national security.

Part of what makes playing Splinter Cell a gripping experience is the technical wizardry that enhances your sensory intake: the detailed environments, the continuous interplay between light and shadows, the pulse-pounding music, and the interesting dialogue. But those things pale in comparison to the fascinating ethical morass of situations that Fisher and his team have to wade through.

For example, in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Third Echelon’s director Irving Lambert sends Fisher to break into a Peruvian bank in order to find out who funded a group of terrorist guerillas who kidnapped an American mathematician. But in order to disguise the true nature of the mission, Fisher also has to steal $50 million in French bearer bonds. While guiding Fisher through the mission is exciting in its own right, there are a myriad of philosophical and political questions that thoughtful gamers encounter during gameplay. What is Third Echelon going to do with this money? Are they planning on giving it back later? If so, how? Does Sam Fisher rightfully deserve any of it? How much culpability does the bank have in the inadvertant laundering of terrorist money? Does this culpability justify the use of lethal force in the execution of this mission?

The advent of games like Splinter Cell has ushered in an era of new ethical models for popular culture. The days of victory being achieved by saving the princess or blowing up all the aliens… those days are long gone. No longer are there simply good guys and bad guys. Sometimes the good guys have to do bad things to support the greater good. This progression (or regression, depending on your perspective) has introduced a series of gray areas to issues that for generations have been seen only as black-and-white.

Sam Fisher: The New Jack Bauer

This complicated relationship between the iconic status of video game heroes and the morally questionable lives they are required to lead is only going to get more dicey with the newest iteration of the Splinter Cell franchise, Splinter Cell: Double Agent. In it, Fisher is required to bring down a terrorist organization by going deep undercover as a terrorist. This development will tread down the same path recently traveled by Jack Bauer, the hero of the popular FOX TV series “24” (which, incidentally, is about to release its own action-shooter game exclusively for the Playstation 2). Dedicated “24” fans have witnessed Bauer go undercover on numerous occasions in order to bring down the terrorist organizations threatening to harm its fictional U.S. of A.

It was a risky move for 24, and it will be for Splinter Cell as well. When a well-established game protagonist pushes the envelope of acceptable behavior (even for a highly-trained special agent), there remains a distinct possibility that the audience will turn on that character. Emotional connections to a character often fuel our willful suspension of disbelief. Therefore, if a “good guy” does something too heinous, even for what he perceives as the overall greater good, he will no longer be considered to be a good guy.

If, however, the established good guy later appears to be a bad guy… but then redeems his “bad guy” status by taking down all the other bad guys, then the emotional payoff can be huge. And many of the most successful entertainment franchises (ABC’s “Alias” starring Jennifer Garner is another example) work this formula well by using a series of complicated plot twists to continually shed new light on morally ambiguous characters.

This version of reality in entertainment works well because in real life, people and problems can rarely be broken down to black-and-white characterizations. There are subtle nuances and details that can change the complexion of characters and situations. So when real characters can find real solutions to real problems, and not cheat the system by using easy outs or pat solutions, that is the reality that we all want to see and live.

And if we can’t live it out in real life, then the least we can do is live it out through our favorite pop culture heroes.

I’m G*Natural, and thanks for mixin’ it up with me.