The Curse of Happiness

Here’s the irony about David Chase, the television producer who created the landmark series, The Sopranos. Much like the characters he created in the HBO mob drama, the man is a pillar of misery. He has everything in his life that should make him happy, but like a flock of ducks, happiness seems to elude him.

I’ve never heard Chase state this explicitly in any interview, but I think he always wanted to be a film maker. But somehow, he ended up as a television producer. He found himself chafing against the constraints of network sensibilities from the 1970’s when he served as a writer on The Rockford Files, to the 1990’s when he worked on Northern Exposure.

At long last, HBO and Chase came together in a match made in heaven. The lack of broadcast network control allowed Chase to write and produce The Sopranos with no creative inhibitions. In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, he stated that he thought the pilot would fail and he would turn it into an independent film. No such luck. Instead, The Sopranos was a groundbreaking, runaway smash that became the gold standard for everything that came after it on television.

After The Sopranos concluded, Chase made one film called, Not Fade Away. If you’ve never heard about it, there’s a reason. It was entirely forgettable.

Chase was plagued by fans and media figures who all wanted to know if he would ever make a sequel to The Sopranos. It is doubtful that he ever would have done so, even if James Gandolfini had lived. Chase is no more likely to spell out the meaning of the black screen of doom than George Martin is to finish his epic fantasy series. But I think he still wanted to make a film that would be taken seriously by both fans and critics. At 75 years and counting, what better way to go out on his own terms than to make a prequel to his greatest achievement? Yet, in a usual Chase twist, said prequel would hype the origin story of Tony Soprano, but would fake out hopefuls who would crowd into movie theaters everywhere. It would really be the origin story of Tony’s doomed protégé, Christopher Moltisanti by way of his father, Dicky (Alessandro Nivola), with Tony’s role relegated to the background.

So we get The Many Saints of Newark, a period piece set in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s that tells the story of tensions between the mafia in its glory days and African-American gangsters who were trying to break into the game amidst the Newark riots of 1968.

I won’t try to render a synopsis of the movie. It’s pretty convoluted. The high-lights include James Gandolfini’s real life son Michael playing teenage Tony. And here’s a nitpick from a blind fan. Many critics drool over how much Michael looks like his daddy, but he sure as shit doesn’t sound like him. The adolescent future mafia kingpin we are treated to sounds more like A. J., Tony’s wussbag son from the series.) I seriously doubt this was intentional.

Another irony. There’s a reason why television has come so far since the days of NYPD Blue and Seinfeld. It is the best visual medium for storytelling. If Chase had not caught lightning in a bottle with HBO and turned The Sopranos into a movie, he either would have been accused of doing Goodfellas light, or Analyze This heavy. But the idea of a mafia boss going to a psychiatrist to talk about his inner turmoil allowed the writers to meticulously build this universe of flawed characters. It was a formula, but a winning one that kept audiences coming back week after week, season after season. It was also a formula that could not be duplicated 14 years after the series finale. The complexity of the characters, the quiet moments that illustrated their three dimensional aspects, high-lighted by the occasional brutality of their lifestyle, could not be manufactured in a two-hour movie.

There were other things that worked against Chase. This movie was originally set to premier in September of 2020, but the production schedule was delayed due to an illness in Chase’s family. He wanted to direct it, but said illness forced him to turn the reins over to Alan Taylor. Then, there was the pandemic which hit the movie industry hard, shuttering movie theaters across the country and placing an emphasis on streaming services. Once again, this phenomenon worked for and against Chase. Many people found time to get introduced or reacquainted with The Sopranos as they sat stranded on their couches during lockdown like Uncle Junior. This should have stoked the fires of interest of Many Saints, but reports indicate that Chase was angered when he learned that HBO was going to drop the movie on their streaming platform on the same day when it was released to theaters. He clearly wanted this project to be treated solely as a feature film, but many fans regarded it as little more than a TV movie.

Sidebar: I have a buddy here in Omaha who is a movie buff and I invited him to go watch Many Saints with me in the theater when it premiered last Friday. He said, “It’s not really a big screen event. Let’s do pizza at my place and we can watch it there.” No such luck. His internet was down, so we had to settle for Independence Day and Husker volleyball.

After watching the movie alone in my living room with my cat, I have concluded that I am thoroughly against prequels. Whether it’s Breaking Bad, Star Wars or The Sopranos, writers can’t help but play connect-the-dots. Instead of scenes occurring organically, many of them have an obligatory feel, as if they have been created for fan service, rather than to serve a unique story. Many Saints is no different, with the rise and fall of Dickie Moltisanti, to a cameo by Tony’s future wife Carmela, to an ominous voice-over track from Michael Imperioli that falls like an Annville again and again. It does indeed feel as if Chase is ripping off Martin Scorsese, from the omnipresent source music in every scene to Ray Liotta playing the unlikely dual role of Christopher’s grandpa and grand uncle. It seems a shame that Chase can’t enjoy being shaped by his experiences as a television producer, but would rather exude Scorsese envy as he tries to break out on the big screen.

At the end of it all, the movie was just mediocre. I feel about it the same way I did about the Breaking Bad and Deadwood movies and how I’ll probably feel about the return of Dexter next month. It may have filled some bank accounts, but it was all rather superfluous. It probably would have come off better as a limited series, but that’s clearly not what Chase wanted. And in the typical style of Chase, nobody really got what they wanted. There’s talk of Terence Winter of Boardwalk Empire fame possibly producing a sequel, but I won’t hold my breath.

As for David Chase, I’m reminded of a line from The Crown, rendered by Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth. “That’s the thing about unhappiness. All it takes is for something worse to come along and you realize that it was actually happiness after all.”

Perhaps David Chase can have that one etched on his lonely tombstone in his lonely graveyard when his time comes at last.

“It’s What You Deserve!”

Most TV critics such as David Bianculli seem to agree that, if the Golden Age of Television occurred in the 1950’s in the age of I Love Lucy, than the Platinum Age of Television took place between 1999 and 2010, heralded by the rise of premium cable networks such as HBO. The Platinum Age was kicked off by The Sopranos and came to its natural conclusion with Game of Thrones.

One of the last great series of the Platinum Age was Boardwalk Empire. Most people don’t immediately mention it when they speak of the pantheon of great shows, but I recently rewatched the entire series and am reminded that Boardwalk Empire is a solid, consistently compelling piece of entertainment from start to finish.

The program was created by Sopranos alum Terence Winter and the pilot was directed by the legendary Martin Scorsese, so it is no surprise that it is a gangster epic. Based on a novel by Nelson Johnson, the premise concerns the passing of Prohibition in 1920 and the subsequent rise of bootlegging gangsters across the country. The protagonist is Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the fictional crime boss of Atlantic City who is loosely based on the real life politician, Enoch Johnson. In the pilot, Thompson’s youthful protégé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), meets up with a young, inexperienced Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and the two commit a bold but ill-considered robbery of a shipment of whiskey. Naturally, because it’s a gangster story, the robbery goes wrong and a blood bath ensues.

Meanwhile, Nucky Thompson meets Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), a young Irish immigrant who is a supporter of the temperance movement because of her drunken, abusive husband. Thompson takes pity on her, so naturally, murder ensues. And, of course, we have the dogged law enforcement agent in the character of Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), who is dead sure that Thompson is a criminal mastermind, but who can’t convince his superiors of this obvious fact.

So begins the saga of Boardwalk Empire as we venture forth through this historical period and meet real life criminals such as Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. We also meet real law enforcement figures such as J. Edgar Hoover and Elliott Ness. We even get to meet political figures such as Warren Harding and Joe Kennedy. In true Wouk style, fictional characters mingle with historical figures and small, insignificant events mushroom and have a major impact on history.

Sidebar: Dana, since you’re about the only person who reads this blog, you might not be aware that Arnold Rothstein is best known as the gangster who fixed the World Series in 1919.

On the surface, Boardwalk Empire is a crime drama, but as is often the case with premium shows in the Platinum Age, there is far more beneath its seething façade than guns, booze and blood. Since it is a period piece, we get to see the state of race relations in the country, particularly through the eyes of Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams), a local African-American criminal boss who is in league with Thompson. We see shades of the suffragette movement as Margaret fights for women’s right to vote. We see the lives of veterans of World War I as Jimmy returns home and meets his friend Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), a lethal sniper whose face was disfigured in combat. We even get a glimpse into the life of a closeted lesbian artist in the personage of Jimmy’s wife Angela (Aleksa Palladino.)

There are simply too many characters and stories to give their proper due in this entry. Special shout-outs go to Shea Whigham as Nucky’s brother Eli, Anthony Laciura as Nucky’s put-upon German butler Eddie Kessler, Charlie Cox as Irish hitman Owen Sleater, and Dabney Coleman as The Commodore, Nucky’s former mentor and the original architect of the modern Atlantic City. The Commodore’s lust for power is surpassed only by his lust for under-aged girls.

Boardwalk Empire is a masterpiece of storytelling with its intricate plotting, which sometimes weaves three or four stories together in various locations from New Jersey to New York City to Chicago. But at its heart, it is a crime epic, complete with the usual gangster tropes. Throughout the series, Nucky finds himself in various wars over booze and territory with Rothstein and Luciano, psychotic Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), and Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), an African-American drug lord who challenges Chalky, and even Jimmy Darmody himself. Since Buscemi is the unquestionable star of the show, you don’t often wonder how he’ll come out, but the enjoyment of the story is seeing how it plays out and which beloved supporting character will be the next to die.

Boardwalk is not perfect. No show can make that claim. Some characters exit the show before their time. The most obvious example of this is Jimmy, who exits the show after the second season. Alas, reliable internet gossip suggests that Michael Pitt was a talented but troubled actor and had to be let go for the good of the show. Other characters such as Agent Van Alden seem to outlast their usefulness. I found Van Alden’s arc to be fascinating when he was a pious prohibition agent who chased after Nucky, but less interesting after he fell from grace and ended up in Chicago in the employ of Al Capone.

Some critics seem to think that Steve Buscemi was miscast as an alpha male type gangster who controls an entire city. I don’t entirely disagree. I can buy Buscemi as the wheeling and dealing politician who is the master of the back room deal, but he doesn’t exude the menace necessary to prevail in physical conflicts with gunmen of New York and Chicago. Still, even if you aren’t entirely persuaded by Buscemi in the role, he is not a bad actor and the writing carries him through.

This is a minor nitpick, but the theme music is completely incompatible with the time period and feel of the series. “Straight Up and Down,” by the Brian Jonestown Massacre, is raw Scorsese with its heavy rock guitar feel and would have been far better suited to a ‘60’s or ‘70’s setting, rather than the Roaring ‘20’s.

The fifth and final season jumps ahead eight years and takes place in 1931, around the time that Prohibition was repealed in America. The truncated season has a Godfather II feel to it as we juxtapose a current day assassination conspiracy plot against Nucky in Cuba with flashbacks to Nucky’s childhood as he rises from poverty to power and makes one moral compromise after another along the way in service to The Commodore.

I mentioned that The Sopranos and Game of Thrones bookended the Platinum Age of Television. Whenever you hear those two landmark series referenced by fans, most will inevitably say something to the affect that, “The series is great, but the ending sucked.” This is not the case with Boardwalk Empire. Fans may or may not be able to predict the ending, but no one denies that it was fitting to the series that came before. The only two shows I have seen that stick the landing as well as Boardwalk Empire are Breaking Bad and The Shield.

It is impossible to reference the series finale without taking a moment to tip my hat to Gretchen Mol, who played the part of Gillian Darmody. Gillian is Jimmy’s mother and as the series progresses, it becomes clear that their relationship is far more dysfunctional and toxic than that of Tony and Livia Soprano. There are times throughout the story when I actively despised Gillian, but as we learn more about her past, I gained more sympathy for her. I cannot think of her ultimate fate now without being haunted by it. The arc of Gillian Darmody suggests writing that is expert at crafting the gray areas that typify the anti-heroes and anti-heroines of the Platinum Age of Television.

In a fortuitous turn of fate, I was putting the finishing touches on this entry when a news alert flashed across my phone. Michael K. Williams, who played Chalky White to perfection in this series, as well as Omar on another HBO crime epic, The Wire, was found dead. He was 54 years old. Mr. Williams was a master craftsman, every bit as talented as his Emmy magnet contemporaries like Gandolfini, Cranston and Dinklage. God bless MKW and all of his excellent work.

As for Boardwalk Empire, it stands up very well after seven years off the air. I suspect that history will treat it far more justly than it has treated its source material, The Volstead Act.

By Your Command

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a TV producer named Glen A. Larson decided to rip off George Lucas in an attempt to bring the hype of Star Wars to the small screen.

One year after Star Wars blasted into theaters across America, a science fiction popcorn extravaganza called Battlestar Galactica burst into living rooms everywhere.

The premise concerned the 12 colonies of humanity who were annihilated by the robotic Cylons in a sneak attack. Only a rag tag fleet of spaceships survived, headed by the Battlestar Galactica, commanded by Lorne Green as Captain William Adama. The series was a continuous chase between the surviving humans and the murderous Cylons, who sounded a lot like my first talking Apple 2-E computer in elementary school, as the humans desperately tried to seek out the 13th colony, known as Earth.

This translucent plagiarism did not go unnoticed by 20th Century Fox, who sued Universal Studios for copyright infringement. The results were an out-of-court settlement, while history has rendered its public judgment. Battlestar Galactica lasted for only one season spanning 24 TV episodes, ending in April of 1979. Every kid that I grew up with had Darth Vader or Han Solo on his lunch box. No one knew who Starbuck was.

21 years later, a writer/producer named Ronald D. Moore angrily parted ways with the producers of Star Trek: Voyager. On his way out the door, he penned a pithy manifesto explaining that Star Trek was becoming juvenile, irrelevant and outdated.

After working for four years on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Moore had enjoyed a good deal of creative freedom on the franchise’s sequel series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Moore got to explore themes as wide-ranging as war, religion, overt politics and paranoia; themes that were frowned upon by Gene Roddenberry in previous Trek incarnations. Moore found Voyager to be a tired rehash of TNG (which it was) and was ready for new challenges.

Moore might have gone down in TV obscurity with Carnivale being his greatest achievement, but then, the god of fate smiled upon Mr. Moore in particular, and Hollywood in general. The kiss of fortune came on September 11, 2001, when 19 Muslim extremists hijacked four American planes and turned them into missiles aimed at various targets on the East Coast. The dye was cast for America to enter into a long period that would come to be known as the war on terror.

This war saturated the socio-political landscape of America and more concretely, was waged with boots on the ground in Afghanistan and later, in Iraq.

Like popcorn pop culture, history has rendered its judgments on the war on terror, but in the meantime, a glut of new creative TV sprung forth from the creative loins of Hollywood from such producers as Joel Surnow, David Simon and, of course, Ronald D. Moore. All of these producers used the war on terror as a springboard for creative ideas ranging from an invincible counter terrorist agent, to analogous metaphors to the war on drugs, to the total annihilation of the human race in another galaxy far, far away.

Moore watched an unaired pilot of a resurrected Battlestar Galactica produced by Richard Hatch of the original BSG cast in the late ‘90’s. That flight into creative fancy became the basis for the new reimagined Battlestar Galactica in 2003. At first, BSG aired as a two-part miniseries on the Sci Fi Channel. The ratings were dismal and the show might have died without resurrection once again, but for the intervention of the BBC, who agreed to help finance the regular series if they could have the privilege of airing each new episode before it aired on Sci Fi. Everyone agreed and the show burst forth, much to the delight of critics and a growing fan base across two continents.

The basic premise of BSG 2003 was the same as its 1978 predecessor. The Cylons, a race of artificially intelligent but sentient life forms, obliterated the 12 colonies in a sneak nuclear attack. The remnants of the fleet fled, staying just one step ahead of the Cylons at every jump.

Several of the characters remained. Commander Bill Adama was played by Edward James Olmos, an actor who seems to only speak in a low, growly half whisper, yet who could project the necessary weighty moral authority to guide the fleet through one tragedy after another. English actor Jamie Bamber played his son, Lee ‘Apollo’ Adama. When it came to Starbuck, the powers that be did a very (ahem ahem) enlightened thing and swapped the gender. Starbuck became Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), much to the consternation of Dirk Benedict. James Callis played Dr. Gaius Baltar, the narcissistic scientist who betrayed humanity by unwittingly allowing the Cylons access to the defense systems on Caprica by way of his penis. Boomer, an African-American male Viper pilot from the original, became Sharon ‘Boomer’ Valerii (Grace Park), a female pilot who turns out to be a sleeper Cylon agent.

Moore stirred in some original ingredients to his interstellar brew. Included were Mary McDonnell as Laura Roslin. She begins the series as the cancer-stricken Secretary of Education, but is quickly promoted to President of the civilian fleet when she is the sole survivor in the political line of succession after the Cylon attack. Some of the best drama from the early seasons occurs as Roslin and Adama wrestle each other over moral, tactical and political decisions that affect the very survival of humanity. Tricia Helfer plays a Cylon agent known only as Six, and who appears only in the mind of Dr. Baltar; at least, early on in the series, until we learn that there are numerous copies of Six running around space in various get-ups.

And there is one of the great twists of the reboot. The Cylons are no longer cheesy ‘70’s era robots. They are now evolved into fully flesh and blood antagonists who can easily blend into the fleet and work to undermine the efforts of humanity to save itself by acting as spies, saboteurs and propagandists. Once the humans discover this, paranoia runs rampant throughout the fleet as the major question becomes, who is really human and who is really a Cylon? The stakes are further raised when we learn that Cylons cannot die, but merely download into another copy and return if they are killed.

The first two seasons of this epic series range from good to brilliant television. Moore did in deed surpass Star Trek (and even Star Wars) in his wish to tell a thoughtful, compelling story of human survival and desperation in the wake of a genocidal apocalypse. The tone and tenor of the series is best summed up by the premier episode, “33,” in which the fleet is attacked by the Cylons every 33 minutes, thereby depriving them of sleep. The episode climaxes with Starbuck and Apollo being forced to fire on one of their own vessels in fear of its being infiltrated by the enemy.

Other plots involve a continuous tug-of-war between Adama and Roslin over religion, Boomer’s inner conflict as she realizes that she is a Cylon, Baltar’s continual cerebral encounters with Six and the discovery of another military ship (The Pegasus) commanded by Michelle Forbes, which ultimately causes more problems than it solves.

If only Moore and company had not yielded to the lesser angels of their political souls, Battlestar Galactica might have gone down as one of the best science fiction TV epics of all time. Alas, cracks begin to appear in the show’s third season. The humans have settled on a planet they name New Caprica and are trying to rebuild their civilization when the Cylons show up and establish an occupation force. President Baltar immediately surrenders and is taken prisoner, the remaining space fleet jumps away in order to fight another day, and the planet bound military under the command of Colonel Tigh (Michael Hogan) forms a resistance to fight the invaders. Said resisters come complete with suicide bomb vests, which was a deliberate and sympathetic comment on the plight of insurgents battling U.S. forces in Iraq, circa 2006.

You can be skeptical of the wisdom of the Cylon occupation plot and still enjoy it as I did. The arc climaxes with an epic battle as Adama and Apollo return to save the survivors on New Caprica. More powerful than the battle was Colonel Tigh’s murder of his wife, whom he learns has been colluding with the Cylons.

Much of the remainder of the third season concerns the aftermath of New Caprica as the fleet continues to search for Earth. Baltar is held captive by the Cylons and he learns more about their culture. Starbuck and Tigh deal with PTSD. Apollo, Adama and Roslin all question their choices. A bunch of the crew hold boxing matches to work out their feelings. All of the main characters get married while being in love with someone else. Baltar is returned to the humans and is put on trial for the betrayal of his own people.

And this, my friends, is where the show officially descends into Stupidville. Apollo acts as Baltar’s lawyer and manages to get his client acquitted. This is due to an Aaron Sorkinesque speech in which he basically says, “Sure, President Baltar did some questionable things, but we all do questionable things in the fog of war.” Apollo’s assertion that there are always moral equivalents in war was a nonsensical means of letting Baltar (and by extension, the Cylons) off the hook. The anger and desperation that fueled the early episodes slowly gives way to a facile sense of proportionality that humans and Cylons are equally guilty, even though the Cylons committed genocide, which is acknowledged in our own civilization as a war crime. Rationalizations such as these are often made in comfortable circumstances around a conference table in Hollywood, far from the battlefield of reality.

About the same time as Baltar is getting off, several crew members begin humming notes to All Along the Watch Tower. They meet up in a cargo bay, set up a chorus of a humming choir and figure out that they are all sleeper Cylon agents. One of them is Colonel Tigh. Even though the groundwork was laid for this, the twist still falls flat.

Meanwhile, Starbuck, who died in a cosmic maelstrom three episodes before, suddenly reappears with no explanation and claims that she knows the way to Earth. If you were like me, you finished up the third season finale and muttered, “What the frack?” aloud.

The fourth season is a slog to finish. Starbuck keeps screaming, “WE’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY!” which may as well be a metaphor for life in the writers’ room. Baltar becomes a David Koresh-style figure as he becomes the leader of a cult. The Cylons fall into civil war as they begin to question their campaign against humanity. Roslin keeps having weird visions that don’t ultimately amount to anything. Adama softens from a stalwart military figure into a flaccid consort who reverses and re-reverses himself whenever a character cries loudly enough. More characters keep prattling on about God, destiny, fate, etc.

By the time the humans make it to ancient Earth and we learn that we got our Greek mythology from the 12 colonies, I was too weary to care. All I can tell you is that Roslin succumbed to her cancer, Adama built a cabin somewhere in the wilderness and Starbuck disappeared without explanation.

Ahh, Gods. I don’t even have the energy to write about the two TV movies, Razor, and, The Plan.

Why did such a promising series go off the rails? The answer lies in TV critic Alan Sepinwall’s book, The Revolution Was Televised, in which he interviews Ronald D. Moore. Sepinwall dubs Battlestar Galactica as, “Sci-fi for the thinking man.” As Jonah Goldberg points out, only if you don’t think too hard.

BSG is a victim of high-minded pretentions that ultimately amount to nothing more than one big deus ex machina. The writers constantly tease the audience with the promise that the Cylons have some great master plan. As it turns out, their plan is a series of tortured, contorted retcons that make no sense. Moore admits that he merely relied on his instincts in plotting the series, particularly in the final two seasons. He had no grand vision as to where the fleet was going or what they were doing. The resurrection of Starbuck with no explanation is the ultimate proof of Moore’s rudderless, half-baked theologizing under the guise of science fiction. It’s one thing to engage in world-building, but quite another to betray your audience by making them feel cheated by failing to answer questions that you’ve dangled in front of them all along. Many fans compare the underwhelming series finale to that of Lost, another show that was much better at asking questions than it was at delivering satisfying payoffs.

I first tried watching this show during the platinum age of television back in the mid-2000’s. I ultimately gave it up because it was just too visual for me to follow. But I held out hope that one day, I might get it described. The Brits finally accommodated me, but I knew what I was in for. I was spoiled on the ending. Still, I wanted to make up my own mind. If anything, most fans have underplayed the idiocy of the final season and the finale.

Two spin-off series to BSG were attempted, Caprica and Blood and Chrome. Neither got very far, Moore having squandered his credibility with those whom he needed to entice for another investment. . Today, no one aside from diehard fans speaks much of the Battlestar Galactica reboot. Meanwhile, the world waits with baited breath for season three of The Mandalorian.

Put that on your algae cracker and have a good crunch, Mr. Moore. You can digest it and shit it out, along with the hard fact that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is the better series. It is certainly more padded, but it is more consistently entertaining and explores most of the same themes as BSG and does so more effectively.

So say we all, except certain fan boys masquerading as critics. Such as Alan Cylonwall.

Final tidbit. One quote you hear repeated again and again is, “All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.” Think that’s deep? Wrong. That quote was lifted from Peter Pan. Maybe the ending would have been more satisfying if the crew of the Galactica had wound up in Never Neverland.

The Science Is Unsettled

As a man who has taken both shots of the miracle vaccine, let me now quote the right and honorable Charles C. W. Cooke of National Review.

“I am done with all this nonsense, whatever the CDC says.”

Contrary to all of the doomcasting from the fear-monger types, we are far from the same position in which we were in in April, 2020. Simply put, the vaccine was the game-changer and that bell cannot now be un-rung. We have distributed it to approximately 60 percent of our population freely and for free. The government is now begging people to take it. Though the messaging of the CDC and the president has been abysmal, America has done a better job of vaccinating its populous than almost any other country in the world.

When the pandemic first began, we knew very little about the virus. Remember wipe-down frenzies and hand-washing theater? But more to the point, the vaccine was only a vague light at the end of a dark tunnel; a tunnel that most experts predicted we might very well still be in today. The announcement of the arrival of not one…not two…but three vaccines by last Christmas was a miracle indeed. And yes, it was solid evidence of American exceptionalism.

Now, through its typical muddled messaging, the CDC would further undermine public confidence in the vaccine by insisting that those who are fully vaccinated should still wear a mask. This is patently absurd! The burden of responsibility has now shifted to the unvaccinated. If they choose to live in willful ignorance of the benefits of the vaccine versus the possible long term costs of contracting COVID-19, that is their choice. This choice applies equally to red and blue America.

Pssst! All you vaccine snobs. There are a lot more Team Blue anti-vaxers than you would care to admit.

I believed in masks when they were appropriate. I believed in health guidelines when all of society was at risk. But acting as if the situation on the ground hasn’t changed and that the vaccinated and unvaccinated should shoulder the burden of responsibility equally is typical bureaucratic illogic.

I will not surrender to the hysteria. I will wear a mask if my boss orders me to do so. I will not place a poor bus driver, store clerk or restaurant server in the position of being a mask cop; a job they didn’t sign up for. But my non-sexual default position is, mask off. The Delta variant will be disappearing in a matter of weeks and we will deal with mutations when they occur.

PS: Fuck Fauci. Fuck Walensky. If you want to hear a non-partisan medical expert who has been a voice of reason since the beginning of the pandemic, follow Scott Gottlieb.

Here is an article from the aforementioned Charles C. W. Cooke that serves as another excellent snapshot in time. If you find it useful, I highly recommend National Review for thoughtful conservative content, particularly the NRPlus digital feature.

COVID-19 Has Given Us Progressivism Unleashed
By Charles C. W. Cooke
July 29, 2021 2:08 PM

Thankfully, if history is any guide, the backlash will last a lot longer than the pandemic.

Earlier this week, the investor Paul Graham took to Twitter to criticize the many millions of Americans who have grown skeptical of the scientific establishment during the COVID-19 pandemic. “If you think you don’t trust scientists,” Graham wrote on Twitter, “you’re mistaken.” In reality, he wrote, “You trust scientists in a million different ways every time you step on a plane, or for that matter turn on your
tap or open a can of beans.”

On its own terms, this is of course correct. It’s also entirely non-responsive to the question at hand, which is why so many otherwise-reasonable people have come to conclude that “science” is being routinely used as a means by which to launder political authority. Over the last 16 months, institutions
from the CDC to the NIH to Facebook have been caught making up the rules as they go along — not because the data upon which they were relying was changing
by the minute, but because their political aims had shifted, so their rationale had to as well.

In an excellent piece over at Slate, Kerrington Powell and Vinay Prasad contend that public-health officials have a choice: They can either “report facts and uncertainties
transparently,” which is science; or they can “shape information, via nudges, to influence the public to take specific actions,” which is politics. What
they can’t do is both — at least, not without leading switched-on observers to recognize the ruse. “When experts or agencies deliver information to the
public that they consider possibly or definitively false to further a larger, often well-meaning agenda,” Powell and Prasad conclude, “they are telling
what is called a noble lie.” And noble lies ain’t science.

There is a good reason that American citizens do not tend to question the science behind why airplanes fly, and that is that American citizens are not
given constantly evolving rationales for why airplanes fly — or, even worse, lied to about how the mechanics of flight work in order to advance a discrete goal. If every time American Airlines overbooked a flight, the FAA issued a set of contradictory statements about the likely effects of uplift on aluminum wings, we’d have a lot more flight-skeptical Americans than we do —and with good reason.

Mercifully, this is not how governments behave when the issue is travel, plumbing, or beans. In the case of COVID, however, it absolutely has been. Since the pandemic started, we have been told that masks were useless and that they were imperative; that protests were disastrous super-spreader events and
that they were safe and necessary; that the lab-leak theory was racist, conspiracist nonsense and that it was the most plausible explanation; that any vaccine that was developed while Donald Trump was president was likely to be rushed and dangerous and that to refuse to take such a vaccine is death-cult-like behavior. It is true, of course, that “science” doesn’t care about any of this vacillation — SARS-CoV-2 will ravage your unvaccinated body without the slightest care for why you declined to protect yourself from it. It is also true, though, that when diametrically opposed theories are sold to the public under science’s auspices, people will quickly switch off. Figures such as Graham can snark as much as they wish about the beautiful immutability of the truth, but the reality is that, outside of a few kooks, the many Americans at whom those barbs are aimed are not really rejecting “science” so much as they are rejecting the people who have glued themselves to it as a means by which to accumulate more power.

That rejection is likely to survive the end of the pandemic. Indeed, if this trend continues, it will take a long time for American progressivism to recover from the fallout. In its Wilsonian form, progressivism is a system in which the elected branches attempt to permanently outsource many of the country’s key political decisions to an ostensibly disinterested technocracy. When that technocracy is trusted, as it was for a while in the early 20th century and again in the 1950s and early to mid 1960s, those attempts enjoy a sufficient degree of support. When that technocracy is not trusted, as was the case after the fall of Robert McNamara and during the malaise-ridden 1970s, those attempts create a mighty backlash. In the long run, progressivism will always fail,
because it is incompatible with human nature and because it is simply not possible to abolish politics, but it can work for a short while, providing that its technocrats have the discipline to prioritize science as a neutral process over “science” as a deceptive buzzword. Unfortunately for today’s progressives, the technocrats of this era chose precisely the opposite course.

Observers who wonder why so many within our government have been unwilling to let go of their power would do well to consider that the endless series of lockdowns, mask-mandates, and social-distancing rules that we have just lived through has been progressivism in its purest form. Just as war is the health of the state, the arrival of COVID-19 provided the perfect impetus for the rampant safetyism, unchecked authority, hysterical micromanagement, mawkish moral crusading, and interminable federal spending that the sorts of figures who graduate from public-policy and public-health programs spend their lives dreaming about. For the better part of two years now, they’ve had an absolute ball. If history is any guide, they’ll spend the next 20 or 30 picking up the tab.

Too Big to Fail

On June 20, 2021, the Special Committee formed to investigate sexual misconduct within the National Federation of the Blind issued an interim report. I read this report in full and found it to be deeply troubling, though not surprising.

For purposes of brevity, I will high-light one section that is a snapshot of the conclusions drawn by the external investigators. I will paste the relevant section below, then offer my analysis as an afterward.

Here is Section IV of the interim report:

IV.
LEADERSHIP RESPONSE TO SEXUAL MISCONDUCT ALLEGATIONS
AGAINST FREDRIC SCHROEDER
During the Committee’s work, it became increasingly clear that many within the
NFB community feel disappointment and frustration about how the NFB addressed
complaints alleging sexual misconduct on the part of Fredric Schroeder. Given Dr.
Schroeder’s prominence within the organization and the number of allegations about his
misconduct over the course of many years, it is not possible to conduct an objective
investigation of sexual misconduct within the NFB without addressing the subject of Fred
Schroeder. The Schroeder matter has been described, figuratively, as the elephant in the
room. In the Committee’s estimation, it has simmered within the organization for
decades, and the Committee believes it is healthy and necessary for the organization to
address it in a formal way in this Report. There are two principal reasons to do so. First,
Schroeder was a prominent figure within the organization and complaints concerning his
misconduct spanned close to four decades. Multiple people who either survived or
witnessed the misconduct have been affected. And, the handling, or mishandling, of that
misconduct has been identified by multiple witnesses as a factor contributing to their
mistrust of the organization’s assertion that it wants to improve the ways in which it
responds to these issues and, in some cases, to a decision to leave or decrease
participation in the organization. Second, the case illustrates the significant evolution in
the NFB’s response to sexual misconduct over the decades.
Because this aspect of the investigation concerns events and discussions occurring
over the course of decades, establishing every detail was not possible. Moreover, to
protect survivors, the Committee will not reveal specific details. Nonetheless, witness
accounts of conversations and events were largely consistent (with one notable exception
as set forth below) and several themes emerged. The preponderance of the evidence is
more than sufficient for the Committee to reach the following findings:
(a)
(b)
(c)
(d)
(e)
Schroeder engaged in sexual misconduct over the course of decades.
Although the Committee does not know the exact number of instances, the
Committee reasonably finds that there were many. Multiple women were
traumatized by him.
By the early 2000s, certain members of leadership were aware of
Schroeder’s misconduct and complaints relating to that misconduct.
Leadership’s response in those early days was not adequate.
Leadership’s response improved in and around 2014, as additional incidents
involving Schroeder were raised and as the transition from the Maurer
administration to the Riccobono administration occurred.
The response, however, was still not sufficient. Specifically, the decision
to support Schroeder’s candidacy for president of the World Blind Union
and to grant Schroeder a platform at annual conventions following his
resignation from NFB leadership positions was a mistake.
In our fourteen interviews concerning Schroeder’s misconduct and the response to
that misconduct, seven specific survivors of Schroeder’s misconduct were identified by
name. Witnesses described several additional incidents of sexual misconduct by
Schroeder but declined to identify the victims/survivors of those incidents. The survivors
allege misconduct of two distinct types on the part of Schroeder – predatory grooming
behavior with young women he mentored or supervised; and groping and aggressive acts
committed in connection with alcohol consumption. (Grooming is “manipulative
behavior that the abuser uses to gain access to potential victims, coerce them to agree to
be abused, and reduce the risk of being caught.” See https://www.rainn.org/
news/grooming-know-warning-signs.)
The Committee finds that, based on the statements of then-President Maurer and
additional witnesses with first-hand knowledge, leadership at the highest levels was
aware of the misconduct by 2002 at the latest. Specifically, after a report concerning
Schroeder’s misconduct was made to Louisiana Tech University in 2001 or 2002, then-
President Maurer learned of the complaint and discussed it with Schroeder and another
witness. The witness asserted that Dr. Maurer was upset that the witness had initiated the
complaint without talking with him first. Dr. Maurer admitted he was aware of the
complaint and recalls that the discussions at the time were centered around protecting the
reputation of the Louisiana Tech program and avoiding the potential fallout to that
program and to the Federation.
Five separate, credible witnesses have recounted additional confrontations or
conversations with then-President Maurer about Schroeder’s increasingly public
misconduct and the need to intercede. Each, however, came away with the clear
understanding that Dr. Maurer had no intention of intervening. The Committee
concludes that there was a sense of futility on the part of witnesses who brought to Dr.
Maurer concerns about Schroeder’s behavior. One of the witnesses reported talking with
Dr. Maurer about the issue before 2010. Meanwhile, an informal network of women
formed to protect younger members from Schroeder’s misconduct by devising creative
techniques for avoiding him or minimizing interactions. Dr. Maurer acknowledged
conversations with only one of these witnesses and with an additional person with whom
we have not spoken; he denied having any memory of the other conversations.
According to one witness, Dr. Maurer advised the witness that he intended for Dr.
Schroeder to become the president of the World Blind Union and did not want anything
to “derail” that. Dr. Maurer denied that that discussion occurred. Dr. Maurer explained,
however, that, as a result of Schroeder’s conduct, Dr. Maurer concluded that he could no
longer support Schroeder in his advancement within the NFB. Specifically, Dr. Maurer
stated that he would not support Schroeder as the next president of the NFB. Dr. Maurer
notified Schroeder of that decision in the fall of 2013. Notwithstanding the incredible
leadership Dr. Maurer provided during his tenure on many important issues, the
Committee concludes that, on this issue, Dr. Maurer failed in his duty to the Federation.
The Committee defers to the Board as to what, if any, action should be taken.
In or around October 2014, after Riccobono became president, a survivor came
forward after another incident involving Schroeder. She went initially to then-Treasurer
Pam Allen to report the incident, and thereafter the survivor and Ms. Allen met with
President Riccobono concerning the incident. The survivor reports understanding that, at
or around the same time, another person also came forward with allegations about
Schroeder.
Not long after, President Riccobono, Dr. Maurer, Mrs. Jernigan, and Dr. Schroeder
gathered in Orlando to plan for an upcoming event. President Riccobono, Dr. Maurer,
and Mrs. Jernigan used the trip as an opportunity to meet with Schroeder about his
misconduct. Specifically, the group had concluded that Schroeder needed to resign from
his position as First Vice-President of the NFB Board and as President of the Virginia
affiliate. President Riccobono recalled that, when they confronted Schroeder with the
allegations (and before they had the chance to request Schroeder’s resignation), Schroeder
did not attempt to dispute the allegations and offered to resign. Thereafter, Schroeder
submitted his resignation to the Board, the members of which were made aware of the
most recent issue raised.
In the November 2014 Presidential Release, however, President Riccobono
announced to the membership that Schroeder had resigned from the NFB Board for
“personal reasons.” President Riccobono stated that, although Schroeder had left the
Board, he was not leaving the Federation; President Riccobono expressed his
appreciation for all the work Schroeder had done and would continue to do for the
Federation. At or around the same time, Schroeder resigned from the presidency of the
Virginia affiliate.
There was no announcement from either the national organization or the state
affiliate that Schroeder’s resignation had anything to do with misconduct. In addition to
remaining a member of the NFB, Schroeder maintained his roles on the boards of the
World Blind Union and the NBPCB. One survivor who had previously reported
Schroeder’s misconduct listened to the Release, watched for developments over the next
several months, and wondered, “why did I bother?”
Less than a year later, Schroeder spoke at the General Session of the NFB’s 2015
National Convention, giving a speech entitled, “The Blind in the World: Spreading The
Federation Message.” (2015 Agenda, General Session, July 9, 2015). He was given a
similar platform at the 2016 National Convention, giving the very first speech at the
General Session. (2016 Agenda, General Session, July 4, 2016) (“The Blind in the
World: Leadership, Philosophy, and Action on a Global Scale.”). A month later, with the
NFB’s express support, Schroeder became the President of the World Blind Union.
Meanwhile, Schroeder remained the President of the Board of the NBPCB, having
been so since July 2011. When another member’s certification as a blind professional
was revoked in 2019 for sexual misconduct, it was Schroeder who wrote the letter to him
explaining his options. The NFB also continued to give Schroeder a platform; in 2017,
he once again was given one of the general session slots at the National Convention.
In 2019, Schroeder’s reception at the National Convention was different. Edward
Bell, the Secretary-Treasurer of the NBPCB, was scheduled to speak during the General
Session about consumer-driven professional development. Dr. Bell unexpectedly had to
leave the Convention and asked Schroeder to take his place on the agenda; Dr. Bell
viewed Schroeder as a natural pick because Schroeder was then the President of the
NBPCB. Dr. Bell reported that he, like many in the NFB, was unaware of the reason for
Schroeder’s resignation from the NFB’s Board. The audience, however, did not know
about the change in speaker. As a result, there was no opportunity for audience members
to avoid the presentation had they wished to do so. Multiple witnesses reported to the
Committee that, when it became apparent Schroeder would be giving the speech, dozens
of people stood and left the room (“the 2019 Walk-Out”).
It was this event – when a large group of members literally voted with their feet –
that caused leadership to realize that the decisions they made in 2014 were not adequate.
Leadership recognized that Schroeder should no longer occupy such a prominent position
at NFB events or continue to lead the NBPCB Board.
Since January 2021, when the NFB retained an External Investigator for Code
complaints involving sexual misconduct, five complaints have been filed against
Schroeder alleging sexual misconduct that occurred prior to his resignation in 2014. The
External Investigator recently completed her investigation into those allegations, finding
in favor of the complainants and recommending that Schroeder be suspended from the
NFB for a period of five years, at which point he will be allowed to reapply for
membership if he has complied with several conditions. President Riccobono adopted
the External Investigator’s recommendations in full. He also notified the World Blind
Union of the suspension. On June 15, 2021, the World Blind Union announced
Schroeder’s early resignation from his position as president.
Based on these findings the Committee concludes that, until recently, the NFB’s
response to Schroeder’s misconduct has been inadequate. Multiple witnesses offered
their perspective on why this occurred, explaining that Schroeder’s undeniable
professional accomplishments and contributions to the blind community made it difficult
for any leader to insist that Schroeder be held accountable for his acts, and further that
there was a general belief that the sanctions applied in 2014 – effectively ending
Schroeder’s advancement within the NFB – were fairly serious. But the public-facing
information about Schroeder was obviously very different. Schroeder’s ongoing access to
prominent placement on the NFB’s National Convention agenda and the NFB’s visible
(and reportedly financial) support for Schroeder as president of the World Blind Union
created the distinct impression that the NFB had nothing but the highest regard for
Schroeder. That was not fair to the survivors of Schroeder’s misconduct.
The Committee further concludes that the 2019 Walk-Out was a galvanizing
moment for the NFB, sending a clear message from survivors and their allies that no
member was too important to be held fully accountable for sexual misconduct. The
Committee believes that that message has been received and accepted, as evidenced by
President Riccobono’s adoption of the External Investigator’s recommendation to suspend
Schroeder’s NFB membership.

End of excerpt:

If you take this report at face value (and I do), then it is damning, not only to Fred Schroeder, but to former President Marc Maurer as well. It is clear that Maurer was explicitly warned about Schroeder’s behavior for at least 20 years and chose to place Schroeder’s political advancement above the welfare of individual members. I firmly and fully believe that this is consistent with Maurer’s character, both as a leader and as a human being. Read my previous entry concerning Maurer’s comportment at the 2001 Leadership Seminar for further illumination.

My personal belief is that Maurer, and other unnamed leaders in the report, damn well knew of Schroeder’s behavior long before 2001. The report clearly states that Schroeder’s transgressions go back at least four decades. Stop and absorb the import of that for a moment. I cannot overstate my informed opinion that Dr. Maurer viewed any and all complainants about Fred Schroeder as an inconvenience and that his refusal to deal with the issue is due to callous negligence on his part.

What’s more, President Riccobono was fully aware of the allegations against Schroeder shortly after he assumed the presidency in July, 2014. Yet, even after Schroeder was removed from the national board and from the presidency of the Virginia affiliate, he continued to hold prominent positions in speaking slots at our national conventions. The public walk-out protest at the 2019 convention put an end to this, but note that this occurred over a year after the implementation of the Code of Conduct. Even though Schroeder’s speaking engagement at the 2019 convention was last minute, it still occurred with the approval of Riccobono. I cannot stress enough that every official event that takes place at a national convention happens with the active or passive approval of the president, whether it has been planned long term or occurs with short notice.

But even more chilling than the allegations set forth is the punishment handed down to Dr. Schroeder. I stand aghast at the notion that Schroeder could do what he did and only receive a five-year suspension from the organization. It is inconceivable to me why permanent expulsion would not be a more appropriate consequence.

In my initial entry on this topic, I said that heads must roll. Schroeder was exactly who I had in mind when I made that statement. I’ve been hearing his name since the late ‘90’s in connection with the perpetration of sexual harassment and assault. If a lowly, insignificant member such as myself heard it, it is certain that those who were and are far more prominent and powerful in the movement would have heard stories of his misdeeds as well. The suspension serves only as a reprieve for Schroeder, not a permanent consequence. His victims (both those who have and who have not come forward), surely realize this. Survivors at the hands of less powerful predators within the NFB have also received the implicit message sent by the leadership.

Permanent expulsion accompanied by a forceful, public condemnation of Schroeder by President Riccobono might have satisfied the optics of the situation and would have been a just punishment. Instead, his suspension smacks of just another back room deal struck by the president. Put another way, Dr. Fredric K. Schroeder is too big to fail. I can’t help but think that this will only have a chilling effect on the complaint process going forward.

It is also noteworthy to examine Marc Maurer’s motivations for sweeping Schroeder’s misdeeds under the rug. The report makes it clear that Maurer intended for Schroeder to succeed him as president of the NFB. This is darkly illustrative of my previous entry in which I stated that presidents of the national organization are appointed, and that the election process by the convention body is a mere formality. Furthermore, Maurer wanted Schroeder to be the president of the World Blind Union. Yet, Schroeder has resigned early due to these emerging scandals. How’d that work out for the NFB, and for all of the blind who live in the world?

Men like Marc Maurer are gifted with a vast intellect, but said intellect often blinds them to other possible scenarios that may play out on the chess board outside of their field of control. But if Maurer could not foresee the fall-out from Schroeder’s behavior playing out on social media due to his generational viewpoint and his well-known lack of technological acumen, Riccobono should have possessed more sagacity.

The unholy marriage of political opportunism and the criminality of sexual misconduct, both in the mainstream political world and within the blindness community, cannot be denied. Section 4 of the committee’s report is a textbook example. I therefore renew my call for the NFB to adopt term limits for all national and state board members. One need only reread the section of the committee’s report on Fred Schroeder to understand the entrenched problems within the current governance of the NFB. Term limits are not an ideal solution to all the political ills, but in the specific case of the NFB at this specific time, I believe that they would solve more problems than they would create.

I will further state that, despite any task force, special committee or external investigator, the NFB will continue to experience these same structural failures until the leadership undergoes a transformation in culture. Such a transformation cannot occur without a free and open election at the top. If outsiders want to know when real change has happened, watch the national convention. When you see two candidates compete for the presidency, both chosen organically by grass roots campaigns, and when you see a vote occur that is not lopsided, then you will know that real change has come to the Federation.

Let me emphasize that I am not speaking of internal philosophical change. As my last entry states, I believe that the core principles of the NFB are sound. I’m speaking about shortcomings more fundamental to the dark side of human experience that transcend blindness; nepotism, cronyism and the viewing of human beings who are victims of criminal acts as collateral damage in the face of socio-political achievement.

Sadly, I have come to believe that my words, along with the cries of the survivors for justice, will fall on deaf ears. I wonder if more people won’t simply vote with their feet. I wonder if we’ll have enough of the membership left to hold the free and fair election that sparks my imagination.

The Dark Path

One week ago, the National Federation of the Blind took another step down the dark path of subtle metamorphosis. I’m not talking about the continuing firestorm over sexual misconduct. I’m speaking of policy. The NFB has now taken a public position on a controversy that should not be a blindness issue. It is the issue of so-called, “voter suppression.”

In Resolution 2021-02, the author makes the following provision:

“WHEREAS, the time and expense in obtaining state issued ID or other forms of identification can be onerous and therefore create a barrier for voters with
Disabilities;”

The action statements read as follows:

“BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this tenth day of July, 2021, that this organization condemn and deplore
all acts of suppression that make it difficult for blind and disabled voters to exercise their right to vote; and”

“BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand that state and local election officials protect the right of voters with disabilities to cast a private
and independent ballot, as required by HAVA and Title II of the ADA, without having to provide difficult-to-obtain state-issued identification and documentation;
and”

“BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand that all state and local governments implement legislation and election procedures necessary to expand
the number of polling locations so that they are accessible to public transit routes and so voters need only travel a reasonable distance to cast their
vote.”

I won’t go through all of the problems I have with this resolution. Others who spoke against it at the convention did a fine job of articulating its glaring weak points. Yet, in spite of very reasonable objections, it passed by a vote of 483/299.

This may seem like a minor event to some, but consider the enormity of what has just occurred. The National Federation of the Blind has now taken the position that obtaining a state ID is a form of voter suppression.

If you pay attention to current events, you know that this issue has been in the spotlight since the presidential election of 2020. Georgia, Texas and Arizona are just some of the states to come under fire from Democratic politicians, social justice activists and many members of a sympathetic media for attempting to tighten their election laws to prevent voter fraud; a problem that both political parties acknowledge exists. Corporate America has taken a stand, complete with the MLB moving the All-Star Baseball Game from Atlanta to Denver in protest. The president of the United States even compared new voting reform laws in red states to Jim Crow; a claim that is inflammatory and spurious.

My purpose in writing this is not to re-litigate the issue of voter ID. My larger purpose is to focus on the slow, gradual transformation that is taking hold of the NFB.

Whether you believe in voter suppression or not, if you are a member of the NFB, than you must believe as I do in the capabilities of blind people. Our contention has always been that our capabilities are equal to those of our sighted counterparts. By passing this resolution, the membership has now taken the position that we are a marginalized community that is, in fact, less capable than our sighted peers. Obtaining an ID is a hardship for us. This is not an issue of ballot accessibility or of privacy in the voting booth, but a basic issue of convenience.

The sentiments of those in favor of the resolution can best be summed up by a tweet from Patrick Bouchard, which states:

“Why do some people think we should exclusively speak up about issues that affect the blind and only the blind? Whatever happened to intersectionality? If something affects many people including us, we need to add our voice lest any solutions leave us out. #NFB21”

This didn’t happen in a vacuum. For years, there has been a growing strain of progressives within our organization who wish to shoehorn the NFB into larger causes with which the left sympathizes. One such example is so-called, “net neutrality,” championed by our late colleague, Rachel Olivero. Rachel brought a resolution to the floor in 2014 that would have had the NFB take a position in favor of net neutrality. It failed before the convention body because a majority of members felt that, despite claims to the contrary, net neutrality was not an issue specific to the blindness community.

Seven years later, we now see that the NFB has adopted the opposite view. We have abandoned our traditionally non-partisan stance in favor of a purely partisan political viewpoint. We have previously stayed out of mainstream controversies ranging from abortion to gun control to tribal identity politics within our movement and within the arena of public policy. The passage of resolution 2021-02 signifies that the wind is shifting. Today, its voter suppression. Tomorrow, it could very well be climate change, transgender athletes or police brutality.

Given the recent swell of woke language in statements from the leadership, I don’t foresee moderate influences gaining traction any time soon. If it continues to recede, there will come a point where many of us who hold views in opposition to the social justice movement will be forced to choose whether or not to continue to dedicate our time and energy to a movement that is no longer bipartisan. I do not look forward to such a choice, but to quote Phil Collins, “I can feel it comin’ in the air tonight.”

Beggar’s Choice

It’s been a few months since I’ve written about the issue of sexual misconduct in the NFB. I think it’s fair to say that the Federation has taken control of the narrative at this point. While the #MarchingTogether movement appears to have gone silent, the NFB leadership has conducted trainings in partnership with RAINN to raise awareness amongst chapter and affiliate leaders across the country. They have created a task force to deal with the issue and have appointed a special committee that will bring recommendations for systemic change in the culture.

Yesterday, I spoke with an attorney concerning issues I have been aware of in the past involving sexual misconduct within the leadership of the Federation. It was a difficult conversation and I must confess that it has left me shaken and shrouded in melancholy.

At one point, one of the two attorneys with whom I spoke asked me a very thought-provoking question. Given the fact that sexual abuse exists within all cultures and within all institutions populated by humans, is there anything that differentiates the blindness community from other institutions such as the church, the government or private corporations.

The larger question is, why do so many blind people who are actively or passively aware of sexual misconduct within their own community choose to stay silent on the matter? And when they do speak of the issue, why do they speak in whispers?

I’ve been dwelling upon this question for some months now and I firmly believe that the answer is, desperation.

If you read my previous entry, “Willful Blindness,” you know that the National Federation of the Blind has been a major power player within the blindness community since its inception in 1940. We have had a seat at the table in all major arenas; rehabilitation, vending, technology and legislation. Whether you have been a member, an opponent or a neutral bystander, if you are a blind person, you cannot deny the significant and largely positive impact that the NFB has had upon society over the past five decades. Even if you don’t care for our approach, you cannot quibble with the results.

The leadership is well aware of this fact. Those who have persevered to the ultimate corridors of power in the upper levels of the organization understand the stakes. It is within that framework of understanding that they have gaged acceptable levels of human collateral damage that come with the price of success.

But more to the point, the NFB has also been a primary creator of employment. We hire blind people at our national headquarters in Baltimore, at our three training centers in Colorado, Minnesota and Louisiana and at our numerous vending locations in the Business Enterprise Program throughout the country. We hire personnel to staff offices and positions in many of our state affiliates, we network with state rehab agencies friendly to the Federation philosophy and we have even made inroads into the government and private sectors with mainstream corporations, non-profits and government offices. Such examples include Target, Amazon and the Department of Labor.

For most blind people in western civilization, jobs are the ultimate in coveted currency. Many of us are raised to believe that we can compete on terms of equality for those jobs, but the reality is quite different. If you are blind, you know that many jobs are simply not open to you. Societal awareness and technological advancement have not yet afforded the opportunity for me to work as a police officer, a professional football player, a brain surgeon, a veterinarian, a restaurant server, a bank teller and scores of other occupations.

Many leaders in the NFB realize this plain fact despite their public rhetoric. As I told the lawyer today, “If you should lose your job at your law firm tomorrow, you could go work at a Wendy’s, a Best Buy or as an Uber driver if you’re desperate enough. Blind people don’t have that luxury.”

Every time a blind person fills out a job application, he/she has the big question at the back of their mind. Will I have the right tools to perform my work tasks successfully? Translated, this means, will the technology required be accessible to a non-visual worker? If the applicant should be fortunate enough to score an interview, another big question is raised. When should I disclose the fact that I am blind? None of these issues confront a sighted person, or even a visually impaired person with a large amount of vision, when they apply for a job. Even if you are successful in your job, you might not be able to rightfully advance due to simple issues of inaccessibility to the technology necessary to do your job effectively. Or you may be happy in your job, but suddenly find yourself unable to complete basic tasks which you have been doing for a long time due to a sudden upgrade in technology. This is the ever-shifting obstacle course that constantly confronts the blind working class in this country.

Those in power in the NFB understand this basic truth. They understand the power of positive networking. Those who are loyal to the cause are rewarded with career and monetary advancement. When you exist in a culture that emphasizes scholastic and professional achievement as the means to shatter societal barriers, the ultimate liberation comes in the graduation from government benefits to earned income. And that loyalty also comes with an unspoken understanding that those who are loyal will look the other way, and maybe even assist in the cover-up of criminal acts. I don’t paint all of the leadership with this broad brush, but there are vampires in positions of power who know full well that they have a legion of subordinates at their professional mercy.

I have more than a little empathy for people in this precarious position. I have worked for the NFB in various jobs, and I have worked for bosses who were sympathetic to the NFB. I have worked in the mainstream world and known what it’s like to be the blind outsider at a company of mostly sighted people. And I have been unemployed, waking up each day without the basic structure of a job to solidify my daily routine. I understand the disincentive to work, collecting a government paycheck. And I understand the fulfillment of depositing a paycheck into the bank that I earned with my own hands. I think it’s fair to say that I appreciate the occupational situation for the blind from every angle.

I have worked in jobs with a toxic atmosphere. I know what it’s like to come in every morning under a cloud of anxiety, asking myself, is today my last day? I have sat alone in my work area and seethed with nuclear rage, wanting so badly to go tell my boss to fuck off before storming out the front door. I have even been tempted to quit a job and go on Food Stamps. Note the title of this blog and soak up the irony of that statement. But then what? If I quit a job in righteous anger, how does it affect my resume? How do I just go out and get another job as a blind man? This is the sword that the NFB power structure holds at the neck of many of the silent members who are too intimidated to speak out against things they know to be wrong.

Never underestimate the power of a hard-earned paycheck. When Stacy Cervenka does interviews with the press and speaks of professional retaliation against the signatories of the open letter, I believe her. Cervenka started a movement, and much like the entrenched forces that went after Kenneth Jernigan in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, counter forces are determined to hit the vocal members of #MarchingTogether where they live and make them regret speaking out.

But there is another side to this. In my previous entry, I said that I stand firmly against the absolutist notion that silence is complicity. This is a blunt force club intended to coerce those on the sidelines into taking a stance. Naturally, if that stance should be in opposition to those who cry out for justice, then they are a part of the problem, not the solution. The paradox of this position is that those at the forefront of the #MarchingTogether movement who have adopted these social justice tactics are also fully aware of the terrible quandary that faces the majority of the blind membership of the NFB. When they raise the cry of, “Silence is violence,” they either thoughtlessly downplay or callously disregard the plight of many of those who stand in subordination to the leadership. They conveniently ignore the fact that, while principles and high-sounding battle cries on social media are all well and good, even a modest stand on the right side of an issue might mean the difference between a weekly paycheck and a monthly social security check. In its own way, this inflexible stance is every bit as poisonous and pernicious as the behavior of the elitist NFB power structure who seeks to suppress their open critics.

I know a good number of people who were and are in positions of leadership within the NFB. Most of them are good, honest people. Some are even victims of sexual violence. They want to make a difference, but they fear for their financial and professional security. If people on either side of the issue cannot understand the nuance that accompanies this gray area, then they have surrendered too much of themselves to their cause of choice.

I am sorry to say that I have been aware of sexual misconduct and have not done my part to root it out. I have paid for my lack of principle. I will continue to take the consequences. All I can do now is to stand up and try to speak the truth in order that future students at our training centers and members of our movement can go forth in relative safety.

My preceding thoughts on this issue serve as an explanation, not an excuse. Everyone inevitably faces his/her moment of truth. I faced my own personal and professional test and I failed. But the situation on the ground has changed drastically in the past 20 years. The #MarchingTogether movement has forced the NFB to acknowledge systemic problems in the ranks of its culture. Everyone is now well aware of the problem. Going forward, many people will be forced to take a stand. In the meantime, the leadership appears to be taking substantive steps toward meaningful change. Only time will tell whether or not they are truly in earnest.

The Light and the Dark

I’ve really enjoyed all of the tributes to Rush Limbaugh that have been written since his passing last Wednesday. I’ve already paid my respects and feel that my lengthy blog entry written a year ago after the public announcement of his cancer diagnosis paid the appropriate homage. But something was missing from my tribute. Aside from the obvious factor of Donald Trump, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what changed in Rush’s approach that started to put me off, even before The Donald descended on his escalator in 2015.

Dan McLaughlin of National Review and David French of The Dispatch both nailed it. In the ‘90’s, when Bill Clinton was his chief nemesis, Rush was a happy warrior. On that fateful day in 1990 when my dad picked me up from school and took me to lunch and I first heard Rush, I could tell he was having fun. Even though his program was based upon an aggressive offense against all things liberal, Rush did it with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his lips. Every syllable uttered from his articulate mouth that transmitted over the air reverberated with exuberant joy.

By 2016 when Trump conquered the GOP, much of the mirth and optimism was gone from Rush’s style. The clever parodies, cheeky witticisms and light banter with occasional callers had been replaced by undiluted, mean-spirited bombast. The fun fellowship of Dan’s Bake Sale in Fort Collins, held shortly before I graduated high school in May of 1993, slowly gave way to a spurious comparison of those who stormed the capital to American revolutionaries in January of 2021.

What happened? Why did Rush get so angry?

Could it have been because, in spite of his success, Rush felt he was winning battles, but losing the war? I’m referring to the culture war. Despite all of the accomplishments of my lifetime, including decisive victories in America’s war against communism and Al-Qaeda, conservatives have lost ground on other fronts.

Or could Rush’s anger have been grounded in things more personal? Rush lost his hearing in 2001 and began using a cochlear implant. In 2003, he underwent treatment for addiction to painkillers after a very public scandal. In 2004, he went through his third divorce. Could all of these traumas have inflicted a collective toll?

The hearing loss alone would be a major blow to a man who works in an audio-driven medium. Even though those of us in the disabled community tend to gloss over the long term effects, untreated grief over the loss of a basic faculty is a very real thing that can fundamentally transform a person. Whatever it was, I regret his surrender to the dark forces of the human soul.

Over the past year, we have all been steeped in anger, depression and anxiety. It seems that reflexive outrage can be found everywhere you look. I don’t want to live the rest of my life that way. Whether I die with millions in the bank and a superficial fan base, or destitute and forgotten in a nursing home, I don’t want anger and resentment to be my primary reasons for getting out of bed every morning.

Therefore, my response to Rush’s passing is simply to try to live with more optimism and less anger. Despite all evidence that seems to point to the contrary, we have much to be grateful for in this country. I will try to do a better job of reflecting that gratitude and joy back toward the rest of my fellow humans. Sure, there is a lot to be angry about, but I prefer to be a happy warrior laughing at my opponents, rather than a shrieking gladiator trafficking in personal abuse and violence.

In other words, I want to go hang out at more Dan’s Bake Sales, not more “Stop the Steal” rallies.

Goodbye, Rush, and God bless you. Thank you for everything.

Here is Dan McLaughlin’s article published in National Review:

Rush Limbaugh and the End of the 1990s Right
By Dan McLaughlin
February 17, 2021 5:23 PM

R.I.P. to a vital voice, a monumental talent, and a comfort to millions for decades.
There is much to say, upon the death of Rush Limbaugh, about his career and his landmark role in talk radio and in conservative politics. Few men have ever been as important to the direction of an entire medium as Rush was to AM radio for decades. After the decisive shift of music radio to FM by the mid 1980s, many people gave up on radio in general and AM in particular as an old, declining technology. Rush’s rise after the Reagan FCC’s repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 not only led the reversal of that trend, it also symbolized and helped bring about the end of a top-down media landscape dominated by a handful of center-left establishment outlets, and inaugurate an era when conservatives had their own mass-communication platforms.

His death also marks the decisive end of another era: the post-Reagan, post–Cold War Right of the 1990s, in which he was a central figure. For conservatives of varying stripes, the years from the mid 1960s to the late 1980s had been a dizzying ascent. Conservatives went from deep in the political wilderness to winning the White House and a 49-state landslide in 1984. Ronald Reagan’s first landslide, in 1980, flipped twelve Senate seats. The Right was brimming with ideas, movements, and new institutions. The one big thing that held everyone together, but also often forced other priorities aside, was the fight against Soviet Communism. And then, faster than even the greatest optimists could imagine, it was gone. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The Soviet Union itself unraveled in 1991. And a weighty question loomed over the Right: Now what?
With Reagan and the Soviets gone, domestic policy and culture came to the fore, and the formal leadership of the Republican Party passed mainly to uninspiring figures who could not sell conservative ideas, and in some cases did not believe in them, notably George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, and Bob Michel. New leaders were needed, and new battles needed to be fought.
Five towering figures, all of them fairly fresh to the fight in the mid to late 1980s, led the way on different fronts. All of them were converts to Reaganism, but each had come of age in the darker Nixon years. Newt Gingrich led the populist-conservative revolt that wrested the House back from the Democrats in 1994 for the first time in 40 years. Rudy Giuliani, elected mayor of New York in 1993 after a narrow defeat in 1989, led the battle against urban crime and decay, taking conservative policy onto the most hostile domestic turf and winning. Antonin Scalia led the intellectual movement to restore legitimacy and rigor to the interpretation of the Constitution, beating the academy at its own game. Former Bush consultant Roger Ailes started Fox News in 1996, creating a television platform for ideas and perspectives that had previously been limited to radio and print.

The fifth, and as important as any of the other four, was Rush Limbaugh.

American conservatism, like any other political movement or tendency, is a mix of the light and the dark; of hope and fear, optimism and pessimism, altruism and self-interest. These are the stuff of humanity, all of it legitimately the subject of politics, but too much darkness can poison a movement. Reagan had his own share of the darkness — witness his battles with Hollywood communists in the Fifties and campus radicals in the Sixties — but he had made an art of elevating the light in conservatism: economic opportunity, the bedrock importance of family, the blessings of liberty, the stirrings of patriotism, the sacredness of human life, the shining city on the hill as a beacon of hope for the world’s oppressed.

Rush always understood, at an instinctive level, how to tap into both light and darkness. If you are not a conservative, or if you listened to Rush only in his last years, it may surprise you today to see quite what a variety of people on the right were fans of his at one point or another in their careers. I was an active Rush listener mainly in the early 1990s, after one of my college roommates turned me on to him. He was at his peak then, and a great evangelist for Reaganite optimism at a time when Reaganism and populism were allies, not enemies.
As caustic as Rush could be against Democrats and the Right’s various cultural foes, the essential thrust of his program in those days — and for many years thereafter — was upbeat, hopeful, even jaunty. Rush could thunder with a smile. He truly believed his ideas, but he also winked at the audience: He was an entertainer doing shtick, blowing smoke up his own rear, and you were in on the joke. Conservatism, Rush wanted you to know, was good for everybody, more people should try it, and it didn’t have to be stuffy or dour; it could be fun.
Consider his first book, with its oddly utopian tongue-in-cheek title, The Way Things Ought to Be, published in late 1992 at the tail end of a terrible election year for Republicans, with glowing blurbs from Bill Buckley and Oliver North. Rush concluded the introduction by noting that some readers were sure to be offended, but:
Believe me when I say that my purpose is not to offend. In fact, it bothers me when someone is honestly offended because I don’t consider myself an offensive guy. I am just a harmless, lovable little fuzzball. So, take some advice. Lighten up. We should all laugh more at ourselves . . . . And if you can’t laugh at yourself, turn these pages and laugh at me laughing for you.
Rush lauded Ronald Reagan as “my hero” and thanked Pat Buchanan for “destroy[ing] David Duke’s so-called Republican candidacy” and “dispatching Duke to the ash heap of irrelevance.” Then, from the final chapter, “We Are Winning”:
Many times I get calls on my show from people who rail against one liberal outrage or another and complain that the country is going down the tubes. “The liberals are winning, Rush,” they mournfully conclude. “America is never going to be as great as it once was.” I have one word for such defeatism: NONSENSE . . .
Conservatives are an ever-growing majority. So take heart, dear reader. Don’t get down. Remember how I handle them. I laugh at their outrageous statements and I ridicule their latest lunacies. So should you. Laugh and move on. They are the past. We conservatives are the future. . . . Be confident. This country has not run out of opportunity. Your children can live in an America that is better, safer, more moral, and more prosperous.
You can understand why a lot of my generation of twentysomething conservatives found this an inspiring message, delivered by a man in his early forties who brimmed with wit, energy, and zest for his job. You could be a Reaganite or a Buchananite or a moderate; there was something for everyone on Rush’s show. He even had a lot of liberal listeners, some of whom he converted over the years, others of whom he just entertained. He was current on the day’s arguments, he knew how they all fit in his framework, and his three-hour time slot gave him the space to go further in depth than anything you would find on television. Rush was populist in his style even then — a style that fits the intimacy of radio — but he never talked down as if he thought his audience was stupid.
Those of us seeking a deeper intellectual grounding and tradition for our conservatism could and did find one elsewhere — I stopped listening regularly to Rush once I had a full-time office job by the middle of the 1990s — but we never quite left behind the common spirit of the Rush Limbaugh program and the knowledge that it united millions of Americans listening to Rush give ‘em hell with a smile and half his brain tied behind his back. Like a lot of conservative writers, I had the thrill a couple times of having Rush read things on the air that I wrote. He was generous with attributions, especially in the Internet age, and made his “Stack of Stuff” available to his listeners. His durability and continuing relevance on AM radio as the technological landscape moved from the age of UHF to the age of AIM and Netscape to the ages of blogs, streaming, Twitter and podcasts is a testament to his talent and adaptability.
Of course, a collection of Rush’s lowest moments on air makes for grim reading. But some context is in order. Anyone who has done even a small amount of talk on radio, TV, or even on a podcast must come away with a new appreciation for Rush’s monumental talent. Yes, he put his foot in his mouth more than a few times — ranging from factual errors and political misjudgments to things that were mean, offensive, or in poor taste. Sometimes he apologized, took correction, or changed what he was doing; other times, he stuck to his guns or tuned out the critics. But when you think about what it takes to be on the air, live, mostly alone, 15 hours a week for 33 years, and be consistently interestingthat whole time, you realize how hard the job really is. Anybody who is any good at it will occasionally say things that were best left in the silent part of their brain. Multiply “occasionally” to 20,000-odd hours on the air, and you’re going to cross a lot of lines, especially when you are as combative as Rush. Yet, despite an Ahab-like decade-long campaign by Media Matters and other left-wing agitators to run Rush off the air, he was too big to cancel. Only returning the talent on loan from God could take Rush away from his beloved EIB microphone.
The passage of time is remorseless, and in politics, the world turns over, and then it turns again. Rush’s talent and his vast audience never left him, but as I tuned in or caught excerpts of the show in his later years, there was more darkness and less light. The “we’re the majority, and we’re winning” optimism of the early 1990s was harder for anybody on the right to sustain over the setbacks of the late 2000s in particular, and in light of the past few years of cultural madness. It is harder still to sustain that optimism as you grow older and more unwell.
We live today in the political aftermath of September 11, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the 2008 financial crisis, Obamacare, same-sex marriage, cancel culture, #MeToo, Donald Trump, a revival of socialism, Black Lives Matter, and a global pandemic, among other things unforeseen in the 1990s. Adjusting and adjusting again to the shifting sands of new controversies and new trends in the culture has gradually stripped away the landscape that Rush originally thrived in. His audience grew older with him. The Right has fractured into many warring camps, and Rush did not always make the same choices as others. He supported Trump with enthusiasm, having been old friends with The Donald from well before his political debut in 2015. But then, populism naturally appealed to Rush’s faith in people and his mistrust of the elite gatekeepers who would have taken him off the air decades ago if they could. Some of Rush’s old fans grew disenchanted with his stances — I did, at times — but he never stopped mattering, or attracting new ears.
The Trump campaign in 2020 had the air of a last ride for the 1990s generation. Scalia and Ailes are both dead, and Ailes’s career had ended especially ingloriously. Rush, despite a public battle with terminal cancer, threw himself into the fray with everything he had remaining. Giuliani and Gingrich played their own parts, both clearly now past their primes. With Rush gone now from the scene, it is time for that generation to take the gold watch and give way to voices that embody the hope and optimism that fueled the early Rush Limbaugh show. But as conservatives, we do not burn down our forebears simply because their moment has passed, or because they made some mistakes or left some things unfinished. Such could be said of every generation. Rush Limbaugh was a vital voice on the right in his time, who brought a lot of people into the fold. He was an entertainer and a comfort for millions for decades.

R.I.P.

Devil’s Brew

In my previous entry regarding sexual misconduct within the National Federation of the Blind, I said that sexual predation is not a partisan issue. I misspoke (or mistyped as the case may be.) What I wish I’d written was that sexual misconduct should not be a partisan issue. I guess I could pull a New York Times or Newsweek and go back and edit my entry to make myself look better, but I’ll let it stand. Yes, sex and sexual violence is definitely a partisan hot potato.

Why? Why should a base crime that affects everyone equally be so polarized.

My answer comes in the form of political observations gleaned since I was old enough to take an interest in politics. With my lifetime serving as the parameters of the scope of the high-lights of the politics of sexual misconduct in the public eye, let me give you some prominent examples that will serve to illustrate why this topic is so divisive.

1991 (I was 16)

On July 1, Judge Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court by President George H. W. Bush to fill the pending vacancy of Thurgood Marshall. During Thomas’s confirmation hearings, Anita Hill, a former employee, accused him of sexual harassment while he was her supervisor at the Department of Education and at the EEOC in the early 1980’s. Thomas declared his absolute innocence, but said little else. It was a classic ‘he said/she said’ affair, with everyone from Nina Totenberg to Rush Limbaugh staking out their ideological territory.

After Hill came forward, Committee Chair Senator Joe Biden reopened Thomas’s confirmation hearings, which quickly became contentious with many people testifying both in support of Thomas and Hill. On October 15, the Senate finally took up the vote and Thomas was confirmed with a close margin of 52/48. The vote fell along party lines.

In 1992, a record number of women were elected to various political offices, causing feminists and the media to call it, “The year of the woman,” or, “The Class of Anita Hill.” Hill was celebrated as a modern feminist icon who brought the issue of workplace sexual misconduct out of the shadows and into the light.

In his autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son, Thomas put forth the theory that the Democrats went after him due to his well-known stances in opposition to abortion and affirmative action; two issues that were and are central to the DNC platform.

The battle lines had been drawn. Conservatives who supported Thomas saw the allegations as an opportunistic political hatchet job designed to keep an originalist conservative off of the Supreme Court. Liberals who supported Hill saw her as a brave survivor who came forward and told her story in the face of hostility. Both parties wrote autobiographies, published 10 years apart, that dealt with the issue. Two made-for-cable movies have been aired featuring the event. In the last 30 years, the socio-political boundaries have not changed with respect to the case.

1998 (I was 23)

President Bill Clinton was no stranger to scandal. Throughout his two terms in office, several women accused him of sexual misconduct ranging from verbal harassment to rape. Victims included Kathleen Willey, Juanita Broaddrick and Paula Jones. In 1994, Jones filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton. The suit took time to wind its way through the court system, but in 1997, Pentagon employee Linda Tripp began surreptitiously recording phone conversations with her friend and former coworker, Monica Lewinsky, in hopes that evidence of an affair with Lewinsky would aid in Jones’ legal effort.

On January 17, 1998, future conservative internet warrior Matt Drudge published allegations of Clinton’s affair with his former intern Lewinsky on his website. This forced the mainstream media to run with the ball. It was a story that would dominate the news cycles for the next year. It was a tawdry business that involved an independent council, denials, an incriminating blue dress, retraction of said denials, perjured grand jury testimony from the president of the United States and impeachment proceedings.

In December of 1998, the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Clinton on two articles. The vote fell along party lines. In February of 1999, the Senate acquitted him on both charges. The vote also fell along party lines. IN April of 1998, Paula Jones’ lawsuit was thrown out, but she appealed. Later that year, Clinton quietly settled with her, but admitted no wrongdoing.

During the scandal, the issue of character was front and center. Republicans, led by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and conservative talker Rush Limbaugh, claimed that character matters first and foremost in a president. The Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution stating that God blesses a country based upon its morality. Democrats downplayed the character issue, claiming that the GOP was engaging in a witch hunt against Clinton. In March of 1998, feminist icon Gloria Steinem wrote a now-controversial column in the New York Times defending the president and minimizing the plight of his victims. The controversy translated into thousands of arguments over dinner tables, around water coolers and at parties as to whether or not Bill Clinton was fit to serve as president.

After Clinton was acquitted in 1999, his reputation was bloodied, but not broken. Clinton left office in January of 2001 with a fairly high approval rating. Everyone with even the slightest of political inclinations knew that his wife Hillary would soon be angling for higher office. Matt Drudge’s website, The Drudge Report, became a mainstay for conservatives in the following decade. During the investigation, software entrepreneurs Joan Blades and Wes Boyd founded MoveOn.org, a website dedicated to the censuring of Bill Clinton rather than the more drastic course of impeachment. The site became a mainstay for progressive activism in the following decade.

2006 (I was 31)

On March 15, rape and assault allegations against three lacrosse players at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina exploded across the media. The alleged victim was an African-American college girl who was working as a stripper. She had been invited to a private party at a home owned by Duke U and occupied by two of the captains and accused perpetrators. The accuser claimed that she was gang raped and beaten in a bathroom by three of the players. An Email sent by one of the players hours after the party seemed damning.

Even as the players were arrested and indicted, the case was unraveling. In the subsequent months, the firestorm of controversy would shift from issues of race and sexual violence to those of police and prosecutorial misconduct. The shift was due to the actions of District Attorney Mike Nifong, who acted as lead prosecutor on the case. Over the months between the party and the eventual dismissal of the charges against the players, investigators uncovered gross misconduct on the part of Nifong, who was charged with withholding crucial DNA evidence that would have exculpated the accused. Investigation of the Durham police also unearthed wildly varying accounts of the assault by the alleged victim, as well as several problematic photo ID’s by the police.

The cracks in the case didn’t stop the media dog pile. In the ‘90’s, Americans had their choice between the three broadcast networks, CNN, print media delivered to their doors or bought at the stand, or Rush Limbaugh. By the mid 2,000’s, their options had increased to four broadcast networks, three major cable news networks, dozens of internet news sites and a veritable army of A.M Limbaugh clones. The fault lines were partisan and predictable. Limbaugh, Michael Savage and the entire pundit wing at Fox News pre-judged the case in favor of the defendants. Nancy Grace, Rolling Stone and feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte were among those quick to pre-judge in favor of the accuser. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and the NAACP were quick to emphasize the racial angle of the case by stoking the narrative of three rich white college kids raping a black single mother who was only stripping to put food in her child’s mouth.

But the most disturbing attack came from the so-called, Gang of 88; various faculty members at Duke U who signed an open letter and published it in the Durham Chronicle. In the letter, they condemned racism, sexism and other forms of oppression that were rife at Duke. Their bias in favor of the alleged victim was obvious and shameless.

Nearly a year after they were arrested, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper dropped all charges against all three players. He went a step further, declaring them innocent. In June, 2007, Mike Nifong was disbarred over his handling of the Duke Lacrosse Case. The three players subsequently went elsewhere, but sued both Duke U and the Durham police department for its handling of the case.

2011 (I was 36)

On April 4, Vice-President Joe Biden stood in front of a group of college kids in New Hampshire and proclaimed that sexual violence was no longer merely a crime, but a violation of a woman’s civil rights. This announcement was immediately followed by the issuance of a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter from the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education to all colleges and universities across the country. The letter contained strong language suggesting new guidance on the enforcement of Title 9, the federal statute prohibiting any sex discrimination under any education program receiving federal financial assistance. The letter emphasized the point that Title 9 requires any institution that is aware of sexual violence to take swift and forceful action on the matter. The letter went on to suggest that consideration of a sexual assault case should entail a preponderance of the evidence, which is a lesser legal standard than the reasonable doubt measure that is used in a court of law. The hammer falls at the conclusion of the document, when institutions are warned that a failure to comply with the guidelines may likely result in the withholding of federal funding. This is the kiss of death to all institutions of higher learning.

Unsurprisingly, conservatives and libertarians stood aghast at the directives, but objections were also raised in unexpected quarters. Two professors from Harvard suggested that the new guidelines resulted in a, “sex bureaucracy,” placing more and more normal behavior under federal scrutiny. Legal theorist Janet Halley also expressed concerns about the fairness of the process, worrying about the trampling of the rights of the accused, particularly men of color.

2014 (I was 39)

On November 19, Rolling Stone Magazine published an article by Sabrina Rubin Erdely entitled, “A Rape on Campus.” It told the story of a female student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who claimed she had been gang raped by several members of a fraternity while at a party. The story received much media attention and predictable partisan reaction from the pundit class. It also resulted in the president of UVA suspending all fraternities. However, other independent journalists found notable discrepancies in the accuser’s story.

On January 12, 2015, Charlottesville police officials told UVA that their investigation resulted in no corroboration of her story. The Columbia School of Journalism performed an audit of Rolling Stone’s editorial processes. On April 5, Rolling Stone issued a full retraction of the story and published the audit report from Columbia.

2016 (I was 41)

On July 21, Roger Ailes, CEO of Fox News, resigned in the wake of more than a dozen allegations of sexual harassment brought forth by female employees including Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly. Media figures who despised Ailes and his so-called right-wing propagandist network rubbed their hands together with glee. FNC pundits such as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity circled the wagons.

On October 7, the Washington Post dropped the granddaddy of all October Surprises when it released 11-year-old audio of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump blatantly admitting to sexual assault. The video was recorded while Trump and television host Billy Bush were preparing to record a segment of Access Hollywood. Trump described how he had unsuccessfully tried to bed Bush’s co-host, Nancy O’Dell. Then he saw an actress outside the bus and said:

“I’ve got to use some tictacs, just in case I start kissing her. You know…I’m automatically attracted to beautiful. I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet…just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything…grab ‘em by the pussy…you can do anything.

Even before the Washington Post released the bombshell, Trump’s campaign learned of the audio and had gone into crisis mode. The following weekend was full of GOP officials disavowing Trump and his remarks. Paul Ryan very publicly disinvited Trump from speaking at a fundraiser in Wisconsin. Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell and Chris Christie all distanced themselves. Every political operative and big-name donor forecast doom for the Trump campaign. Trump laughed them off. The only person who’s opinion concerned him was his running mate, Mike Pence. Pence dropped off the radar on Saturday, spending time alone with his wife in prayer at his home in Indiana.

On October 8, Trump posted a short video to his Facebook page in which he apologized for his remarks. He then deflected, accusing the Clintons of doing far worse.

On October 9, just two hours before his second presidential debate with opponent Hillary Clinton, Trump held an unannounced press conference in which he appeared with Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Juanita Broaddrick. During the debate, Trump and Clinton exchanged verbal barbs. She accused him of being unfit to serve, while he accused her of enabling her husband’s bad behavior. When pressed by Anderson Cooper about his comments on the tape, he dismissed them as, “Locker room talk.”

Over the next two weeks, Trump’s poll numbers cratered, but then began to rebound in the days before the election. On November 8, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton and became the 45th president of the United States. The reason for Trump’s ultimate success with his voting base in the face of initial opposition from the GOP machine can best be summarized by a quote from Tim Alberta’s book, American Carnage:

“Trump may have been a shameless deviant, but in the eyes of conservatives, he was running against the first family of perversion.”

Since the discovery of the Hollywood Access tape, 26 women have come forward and accused Trump of sexual harassment and assault during his time on the NBC reality show, The Apprentice, as well as in connection with the Miss U.S.A. beauty pageants. Trump denied all of the allegations and threatened to sue his accusers, as well as the New York Times for publishing their accounts. As of this writing, no lawsuit has been forthcoming.

2017 (I was 42)

On April 11, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly announced that he would be taking a hiatus from his nightly show, The O’Reilly Factor. This was the flagship program for the cable network and the highest rated program in its time slot. O’Reilly claimed he was taking his annual Easter vacation, but the true reason was transparent. Earlier that month, the New York Times had published an expose in which it unearthed the settlement of five lawsuits against Fox News and O’Reilly for sexual misconduct. Backlash against O’Reilly was immediate, with 60 percent of advertisers withdrawing their sponsorship for the program. On April 19, FNC announced that Bill O’Reilly had been dismissed from the company. On April 21, The O’Reilly Factor was canceled.

On October 5, the New York Times published a bombshell report alleging over 30 years of sexual abuse and misconduct by Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Five days later, Ronan Farrow published another article in the New Yorker in which 13 women alleged sexual abuse at the hands of Weinstein. The most damning portion of the New Yorker piece was a leaked audio recording in which Weinstein admitted to groping Ambra Gutierrez. Farrow claimed that he wanted to break the story months earlier, but was stonewalled by NBC, where he worked as a reporter.

Since the initial reports in October, 2017, over 80 women have come forward to accuse Weinstein of harassment, assault or rape. Weinstein initially tried to downplay the scandal, but the rising number of accusers resulted in his ejection from The Weinstein Company, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and nearly all of his other professional associations. Conservative pundits were quick to blast Democrats in general and feminists specifically, claiming that Weinstein was a typical Hollywood figure who had poured millions of dollars into various Democrat-friendly causes and candidates in exchange for the political machine looking the other way with a wink and a nod at Weinstein’s criminal behavior.

The toppling of Harvey Weinstein soon gave rise to a social media phenomenon known as the #MeToo Movement, in which thousands of survivors of sexual violence across the globe came forward to share their stories. On January 1, 2018, over 300 actresses published an open letter in the New York Times that gave birth to the Hollywood-based Time’s Up initiative. In the wake of the Weinstein allegations, a number of high-profile men were subsequently accused of sexual misconduct and were terminated from their professional positions. Casualties included Kevin Spacey, John Besh, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Al Franken, Les Moonves and John Conyers. Judge Roy D. Moore was credibly accused of sexual misconduct by eight victims while running for the Senate seat in Alabama. Though the Republican Party endorsed him, he lost his election to Democrat Doug Jones.

In 2018, both the New York Times and the New Yorker received the Pulitzer Award for their coverage of the Weinstein story. In 2020, Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of rape in the third degree and sentenced to 23 years in prison.

2018 (I was 43)

On July 9, President Trump announced the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, filling the vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Anthony Kennedy. The pundit class immediately began to incessantly chatter about the impact of the nomination. Kennedy had been an unpredictable swing vote, while Kavanaugh was more solidly conservative. Everyone knew that Kavanaugh’s nomination, if successful, might change the philosophical bent of the court for at least a generation.

On September 16, the Washington Post reported that Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford when they were in high school in the summer of 1982. Ford claimed that Kavanaugh and a friend locked her in a bedroom during a party and that Kavanaugh tried to rip off her clothes before she managed to escape. Questions arose over the conduct of Senator Diane Feinstein, who apparently knew about Ford’s allegation but sat on it until it was finally leaked to the media.

One week after the Washington Post report, a second woman accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct in 1983. Subsequently, two more women came forward and accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault, but their claims were discredited by investigating journalists. The already contentious confirmation process became explosive, inflamed by flagrant grandstanding by various senators on the Judiciary Committee, tweets by President Trump engaging in rampant victim-blaming and the behavior of Michael Avenatti, the attorney representing one of the accusers.

On September 27, both Kavanaugh and Ford testified separately in front of the Judiciary Committee. Reaction in pundit circles was partisan and predictable, though conservatives were generally impressed with Ford’s composure and consistency on the stand. Democrats pounced on Kavanaugh’s emotional testimony, particularly a combative exchange with Senator Amy Klobuchar. After the hearing, several GOP senators and the entirety of the Democrat minority called for a delay in the full senate vote so that the allegations could be investigated by the FBI. More controversy ensued when the White House attempted to limit the scope of the FBI investigation.

On October 6, Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court with a narrow majority. The vote was 50/48 and fell along party lines.

Reaction to the Kavanaugh drama was predictable. Kavanaugh accused the Democrats of orchestrating a political hit job on him, suggesting a revenge motive for his role in the Ken Starr Report and Bush v. Gore. Many right-leaning pundits were skeptical of the timing of Ford’s allegations, noting strategic parallels to the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill affair. Democrats were indignant, particularly in the wake of the burgeoning #MeToo Movement, claiming that Kavanaugh was another powerful predator who was going to get away with it, while Christine Blasey Ford was a hero for coming forward.

2020 (I was 45)

During the Democratic presidential primaries, former Vice-President Joe Biden was accused of sexual harassment and assault by former staffer Tara Reade. In an interview with Katie Halper on her morning radio show on March 25, Reade alleged that Biden had pushed her against a wall and penetrated her with his fingers when she worked as a senate staffer for him in 1993. She made the same accusation in subsequent interviews with NPR, Newsweek and Politico. Biden flatly denied the accusations. In an interview on MSNBC on May 1, he touted his accomplishments on behalf of women by passage of the Violence Against Women Act. Subsequent investigative efforts by journalists turned up a mixed record on Reade’s credibility; some viewed her as a hero, while others claimed she was manipulative and duplicitous. A probe into Biden’s past uncovered a series of women who felt uncomfortable with the level of touching that Biden engaged in, but none of the concerns rose to the level of Reade’s claim.

Conservatives noted the relative lack of outrage in media and DNC circles over Reade’s allegations. Even though various journalism outlets did background work, the general consensus was that they went easier on Christine Blasey Ford than they did on Tara Reade. By late Spring, the issue had disappeared from public conversation, replaced by the ongoing pandemic and racial unrest.

On November 4, Joe Biden was elected as the 46th president of the United States.

On December 14, Governor Andrew Cuomo was accused of sexual harassment by former aid Lindsey Boylan.

WHAT!!! YOU NEVER HEARD ABOUT THAT? I’M SHOCKED!

Sidebar: I have painted each of these events in very broad strokes. If you want more nuance and detail, I encourage you to research all of these stories for yourself.

Conclusion:

Why have the politics of sexual assault become so divisive? There are many reasons, I guess, but in my view, it all comes down to one big one. The stakes.

If Clarence Thomas is right, Democrats opposed his nomination, not because he sexually harassed Anita Hill, but because they didn’t want an anti-abortion judge on the court. If Democrats and the media ignored Hillary Clinton’s role in enabling her husband’s predatory behavior, it was because America really needed to obliterate the glass ceiling by electing the first female president. If Republicans reversed their earlier position on character and morality playing a central role in the presidency in order to defend Donald Trump, it was because the alternative of President Clinton 2.0 was far worse than rank hypocrisy. If the DNC and the mainstream media sought to downplay the possibility of the fact that Tara Reade was telling the truth, it was because the idea of a President Biden was far preferable to that of four more years of President Trump.

In all cases, the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t. Everyone from high-level staffers to political pundits to keyboard warriors across the social media spectrum have the same internal and external conversations. Ok, maybe I don’t like what Trump says and does, but I like him better than Hillary! Or socialists! Ok, maybe the timing of Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations are a little iffy, but we just can’t let the Supreme Court transform America into Gilead!

When scandals like these flair up, reaction is always immediate and very partisan. Those in the camp of the accusers will point to Harvey Weinstein or Roger Ailes as an example of a man who got away with sex crimes for decades. Those in the camp of the accused will point to the Duke Lacrosse players or the UVA fraternity students as evidence that men can be falsely accused. There is plenty of evidence on both sides. People cherry pick their facts, build them into talking points and go forth into the arena of social media armed for battle. Names are called. Fingers are pointed. Labels are attached. Everyone wages war on the bad guys, all while the victims continue to suffer. The spirit of unhealthy partisanship festers and coalesces into an unholy devil’s brew that is poisonous, but tastes so, so sweet on the tongue of righteous gladiators.

The thing that struck me as I journeyed down memory lane to put this thread together is how often the victims of these crimes are blatantly used for the purposes of others. Donald Trump’s pre-debate press conference with three of Bill Clinton’s accusers was a transparent attempt by him to use them for political leverage. They, in turn, allowed themselves to be used, ostensibly for payback. Al Sharpton was clearly using the alleged victim of the Duke Lacrosse players for his own ends, just as he used Tawana Brawley in 1987. It is entirely possible that Diane Feinstein used Christine Blasey Ford to further her political agenda. I seriously doubt that Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer are great vessels of empathy and compassion. Who wouldn’t want a Pulitzer? When are we going to see the journalistic blockbuster vindicating Juanita Broaddrick? Five months after Bill O’Reilly was fired from Fox News, Sean Hannity hosted him on his program and gave a very sympathetic interview. A month later, Hannity was excoriating Democrats for giving Harvey Weinstein a pass for decades.

This is a vicious cycle that will keep repeating as long as we as a society view this issue through the lens of tribalism. Honestly, I don’t know if it will change in my lifetime.

More on the NFB and #MarchingTogether

In recent days, the following articles have been published concerning the subject of sexual misconduct within the National Federation of the Blind. With apologies to the Washington Post and the Des Moines Register, and in the interest of the blindness community at large, I am circumventing their pay walls by posting the text of both articles here on my blog for your perusal.

From the Washington Post:

Advocacy group for the blind apologizes for allegations of sexual misconduct

Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind, in an online speech Jan. 4. (National Federation of the Blind)
By
Justin Wm. Moyer
Jan. 15, 2021 at 8:14 a.m. CST
An organization that lobbies for the rights of blind people has formed a task force and hired an outside consultant after apologizing for allegations of sexual misconduct in its programs, which surfaced in an open letter last month.
The letter was sent to the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind and the National Blindness Professional Certification Board, a Louisiana-based organization that certifies instructors for the blind. It includes hundreds of signatures from people the letter describes as “victims, survivors, and witnesses of sexual and psychological abuse at programs, conventions, and blindness rehabilitation centers . . . and their allies and supporters.”
The letter calls for an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations and the institution of new policies by Aug. 31 to prevent misconduct, among other demands. Advocates said they were motivated to come forward amid a movement to shine a light on sexual assault.
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“We are writing this open letter to urge action to be taken to reduce and eliminate the widespread instances of emotional/psychological abuse, sexual assault/harassment, racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and all other forms of abuse within these agencies,” the letter said.
In a speech this month, National Federation of the Blind president Mark Riccobono said the organization has partnered with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network “to assist us in furthering a safe, inclusive and welcoming culture free of sexual misconduct.”
RAINN will help the organization create a mandatory sexual misconduct training program and review its code of conduct, Riccobono said, as the federation launches a “survivor-led task force” to “implement a sustainable, positive culture change.”
The National Federation of the Blind is the oldest and largest nationwide organization of blind Americans, according to its website. Founded in 1940, it works to expand blind people’s access to the ballot and paperwork for federal disability benefits, among other initiatives.
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Riccobono, who apologized in a Dec. 16 letter for the federation’s handling of sexual misconduct, said in an interview that the organization “wanted to be very aggressive and bring in as many experts as we can.” The task force will not investigate individual complaints, he said, but did not rule out providing financial assistance to those who have endured misconduct.
“The survivors are going to lead this and guide us on this,” he said. “I’m completely open.”
Sarah Meyer, a member of the task force, said the effort would “amplify survivor voices.”
RAINN confirmed the partnership with the federation but declined additional comment.
The National Blindness Professional Certification Board said it is reviewing its code of ethics to ensure the highest standards for professional behavior.
“We have proactively encouraged anyone with knowledge of any professional we certify who may have behaved inappropriately to contact us so that we can gather all relevant information and take the necessary actions,” the board said in a statement. “We remain committed to ensuring that those we certify conduct themselves both professionally and ethically.”
Disabled residents in the D.C. region face obstacles when searching for housing, report says
Stacy Cervenka, a 40-year-old consultant for a Nebraska state rehabilitation agency who helped to write the letter, said advocates were concerned the National Federation of the Blind “will not address rooting out the many past offenders and those who have covered acts of sexual misconduct for years.” She said she was sexually assaulted at federation events in 2000 and 2008.
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“It’s important and necessary to put new systems and policies in place, but there is a lot of distrust,” she said.
Danielle Montour, a 23-year-old assistive technology specialist from Texas who signed the letter, said in an interview with The Washington Post that she was raped in a Boston hotel room in 2012 at a federation-affiliated student seminar when she was 15.
Montour, who was blinded during infancy by the rare cancer bilateral retinoblastoma, said she grew up in New Hampshire with few blind peers. She fought with her parents, who were concerned about her safety, to attend the Boston conference.
“It was my first opportunity to meet an organized group of blind people” in an academic setting, she said. “I was really excited.”
Montour said her assailant was a 19-year-old fellow student who had more functional vision and whom she was asked to mentor during the conference, even though he was older. She said she reported the rape to the federation and to law enforcement in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, but nothing was done, and her assailant still attends federation events.
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Federation spokesman Chris Danielsen declined to comment on specific allegations. Boston police said they do not release complaints involving victims of sexual assault, while New Hampshire state police, citing privacy concerns, said they could not confirm the existence of the report.
Montour said society views blind people as asexual “cherubs” — people who are routinely touched by strangers who want to help them navigate the world when, often, they need no such help. Partly for this reason, Montour said, the blind community does not get sufficient sex education, particularly about consent.
“We’re taught our bodies are not just our property,” she said. “If that’s how it is in public, imagine how it is when it comes to sex and people aren’t educated.”
Other sexual misconduct allegations were linked to federation training centers, which teach students life skills like Braille, home economics and use of the organization’s signature long white canes, which can improve blind people’s ability to travel without assistance. The centers, which host months-long programs, are known for a strict philosophy that challenges students to become independent.
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In an interview, Maria Salazar, 25, who also signed the letter, said she moved from Los Angeles to Littleton, Colo., in 2019 to join a training center. She was born blind, she said, and also has poor hearing in one ear and a kidney problem that has left her on dialysis for seven years. She wanted to improve her mobility and learn to live in her own apartment.
“I can take care of myself at the very least,” she said. “I don’t see blindness as a problem — as a reason not to do something.”
Former students allege decades-old sexual abuse at Maryland private school
At the program’s conclusion she sought to stay in Colorado, where she thought she had a better chance of getting a kidney transplant. She said the training center pressured her to move out of its housing and into an apartment with another student — a middle-aged man who raped her in November, she said.
Salazar reported the incident to police. Littleton police declined to release a report or other details, citing the nature of the complaint.
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Riccobono, who attended the Colorado center 21 years ago, said the centers “are committed to protecting blind people.” He added: “The boards of those centers are committed to making sure that the environment is challenging and safe and healthy.”
Now living with her parents in Los Angeles, Salazar said she is waiting for her federal coronavirus stimulus payment to she can return to Colorado.
“Everything is just a disaster, honestly,” she said. “I’m just hoping that something good can happen.”
5 Comments

Justin Wm. Moyer
Justin Wm. Moyer is a breaking news reporter for The Washington Post. After a long stint as a contributing writer at the Washington City Paper, he came to The Post in 2008, becoming an editor in Outlook and for the Morning Mix, The Post’s overnight team. He became a reporter in 2015.Follow

End of article.

From the Des Moines Register:

When Katy Olsen was 20, she won her first scholarship to attend a national convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Orlando, Florida.

The opportunity — afforded to students across the country who excel in academics, community involvement and leadership — meant she would be in the running for a college scholarship ranging from $3,000 to $12,000 and a chance to represent Iowa in the nation’s oldest and largest organization serving blind Americans.

But beginning that week in 2016, the Madrid, Iowa, native said she experienced something similar to what many other blind and low-vision women have come forward to say happened after they became involved with the nationwide nonprofit.

It began with a new friend and mentor she’d met the year before becoming increasingly controlling and touchy, making her feel uncomfortable. The longtime member, Jerad Nylin, would become president of Iowa’s affiliate of National Federation of the Blind later that October.

“He constantly reminded me that I would not be at the convention as a finalist if it wasn’t for him, because he was the one who pushed me to apply for it,” said Olsen, who won a $5,000 scholarship that year.

Olsen said she rejected Nylin’s advances and attempts to kiss her at another national federation seminar in Washington, D.C., in 2017. And she tried to avoid him at the federation’s next national convention in Orlando the same year — until Nylin asked her to come to his hotel room one night to meet some new friends.

After they left, she said, Nylin pressured her to stay and assaulted her, “pushing me back, kissing me, trying to put his hand down my pants,” she said.

Other incidents — groping and touching at times when other blind people in their presence couldn’t be aware — would happen at other gatherings over the next two years, she said.

Olsen filed a complaint with the organization in 2018. She also discussed with Iowa federation leaders in 2019 uncomfortable behavior by Michael Harvey, an older federation member and co-worker at the Iowa Department for the Blind, although she did not file a formal complaint. She said he got too close to her and touched her during a department gathering the same year.

Harvey, the subject of other complaints from female employees, was fired in March 2020, state records show.

“But that time in the hotel room was the time I felt the most attacked,” Olsen said.

Nylin, who did not return phone and Facebook messages seeking comment, voluntarily resigned his position as head of the Iowa affiliate in November 2018, after a three-person panel assembled by the national federation investigated Olsen’s formal code-of-conduct complaint.

His membership in the national federation was suspended, and he was told to refrain from contacting Olsen, according to the letter national federation President Mark Riccobono sent to Olsen outlining the panel’s decision.

“He has been advised that if further credible complaints arise, he may be subject to expulsion from the organization if the complaints are verified,” Riccobono wrote.

Olsen, a former University of Iowa student and youth counselor at the Iowa Department for the Blind who now attends college in Ruston, Lousiana, has since learned of numerous recent allegations of sexual misconduct in connection with the National Federation of the Blind, its affiliated training and rehabilitation programs, and its state affiliates, including the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa.

Emboldened by the MeToo movement, blind women across the country, who have relied on the federation’s advocacy, funding, programming and services to have more independent lives, have taken to Facebook and Twitter to report their encounters of sexual assault, groping and sexual harassment, using #MarchingTogether.

Amid the disclosures, a group of more than 500 survivors and supporters signed an open letter in December demanding action from the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind and the National Blindness Professionals Certification Board in Ruston.

The letter said those who have come forward have suffered retaliation, alienation and “serious damage to personal and professional relationships and reputations.”

Stacy Cervenka, a Lincoln, Nebraska, public policy expert for the blind and member of the national federation until 2018, helped circulate the open letter after she said leaders at the national organization, including Riccobono, failed to address widespread reports of problems more than two years ago.

Married to a supervisor at the Nebraska Commission for the Blind, Cervenka became involved after she said a man who had been fired twice for sexual misconduct received promotions despite being reported to the National Blindness Professionals Certification Board.

Since then, Cervenka said, she has collected dozens of stories of rape, groping, harassment and assault from women who attended federation training centers, conventions and other events.

The stories have led to ongoing discussions on social media about how little has changed over a period of decades in an insular community where federation-sponsored conventions, training programs and gatherings are focal points of socialization for young blind and low-vision people.

Members have complained that men have received little training or guidance on sexual behavior, while women have been encouraged to be passive or silent about widespread groping, harassment or even rape. Many have commented on Facebook about the difficulty of trying to expose deeply rooted problems within a member-led organization that so many people rely on. Others have lashed out at those who have spoken up in support of women who have told their stories.

“I honestly thought that things would be handled if victims would just tell leaders and tell training center directors.,” Cervenka wrote on her Facebook page. “… I came to know that leadership at the highest levels of NFB knew that this was a huge problem.”

‘I’m hoping to see justice for survivors’

The widespread allegations also have created a firestorm of controversy for a national advocacy and watchdog nonprofit that has sued universities, retailers, software companies and other organizations for discriminatory practices on behalf of blind and low-vision Americans.

Cervenka said she wants the organization to stop burying accusations from women, weed out abusers who remain in the federation’s ranks and take meaningful steps to stop sexual misconduct.

“I’m hoping to see justice for survivors,” she said. “I’m hoping those who have perpetrated abuse will be relieved of their positions. I’m hoping those in national leadership will face consequences for all the covering up and the silencing.”

Last month, Riccobono wrote a long letter of apology to the federation’s membership, saying he had made many mistakes and accepted responsibility.

“I am profoundly sorry that anyone has been harmed by experiences in our movement,” he wrote. “As a husband, father of three children, and leader who tries to live by a strong set of ethical values, I hurt for the survivors, and I deeply regret that I have made mistakes along the way.”

Riccobono said the campaign to expose sexual misconduct prompted the national federation this month to form a task force of survivors and engage a national anti-sexual violence organization to train its membership and rework its code of conduct. The organization also is working to enhance its reporting practices and training.

But Cervenka, Olsen and other women say the organization and its affiliates continue to retain members who have been accused of sexual assault and other misconduct, including some in leadership roles.

Nylin, who lives in Iowa City, was reinstated at the Iowa affiliate last year after a year’s probation and was invited to serve on a state nominating committee to elect new board members.

Olsen said she never received any notice of his reinstatement. But when she talked with Iowa affiliate president Scott Van Gorp in emails and over Zoom, she said, he told her the national federation was responsible for reinstating Nylin.

That decision was made even though Janae Peterson, a member since high school who currently works at Iowa State University, told the federation that she also was sexually assaulted and harassed by Nylin in the same year as Olsen’s report.

Peterson said she had known Nylin for years and tended to dismiss his questionable behavior until the summer of 2018, when she said he tried to grab her genitals beneath her shorts while the two were at Johnny’s Hall of Fame, a downtown Des Moines sports bar.

Peterson, 31, said she wasn’t aware of Olsen’s complaint until the code of conduct panel contacted her in fall 2018 during its sexual misconduct investigation.

She said the group sent her a letter after hearing about her case and asked her to outline what happened. But she said the outreach seemed very process-driven and lacking in any concern for what had happened to her.

At that point, she said, she decided not to take part in that investigation.

But she said she later contacted state and national leaders about her case, expressing great disappointment at the way they had gone about trying to investigate Nylin.

In a November 2018 letter to Riccobono, she said she had declined to make a written statement because she feared it would be shared with Nylin, as happened in Olsen’s case.

“In the past month, I have learned a lot about our organization’s history regarding sexual misconduct. If we make victims think twice about coming forward by requiring them to write long letters, relive their experiences in writing, and then send that information to the accused, it will send the message to predators that sexual harassment is acceptable, tolerable, and easily dismissed,” she wrote.

Riccobono replied to her in an email, saying he would reflect on what she wrote and “will take the actions that I believe best serve the members of our organization and creating the culture that we want to have in the future. I hope that you might be willing to take a moment to consider that my intention in this process might actually come from a place of love.”

Riccobono declined to comment on any specific sexual misconduct allegation. In a statement to Watchdog, he said:

“The National Federation of the Blind has a zero tolerance for abusive or violent behavior of any kind. Last week we announced a comprehensive program, in addition to our existing Code of Conduct internal review process. This includes an on-going partnership with RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, to assist us in furthering a safe, inclusive, and welcoming culture as part of all our programs and activities, as well as a survivor-led task force to help advise and guide our efforts.”

Peterson has since posted her story on Facebook. She said it makes her angry the federation reinstated Nylin and put him in another leadership committee position in Iowa.

“I was a pretty prominent member, serving on some of the federation’s national boards. So it’s not like I was a nobody,” she said. “No one has invited either (Olsen or me) to be a part of things again, but they will call Jerad.”

Lynn Baillif, a longtime federation member living in Baltimore, said she got involved in the movement because she believes the federation’s scholarship structure has for decades made students vulnerable to more powerful members and mentors who might take advantage.

A former national scholarship committee member, she said students who attend the national convention are beholden to those who mentor them at conventions because those mentors have sway over the size of their college scholarships.

Bailiff, 51, said she experienced an incident similar to what Olsen said happened to her when she was 17, attending a national federation convention.

Bailiff said she also met the man in his hotel room and he told her he would help get her a college scholarship if she slept with him. She refused him.

She said she reported the man, and he was kicked off the federation’s scholarship committee “in a fairly public way.”

So she was flabbergasted when he was later allowed to rejoin the national federation’s scholarship committee in the late-1990s, when she was also a member, she said.

“I was told he had grown out of it, so they had put him back on,” she said.

Riccobono declined to comment on the allegation.

Bailiff said the man she reported — whom she did not want to name publicly — has been working for the national federation on alleged sexual misconduct cases for years.

Emails related to sexual misconduct cases and the federation’s tax filings show he continues to work for the federation.

Two Iowa Department for the Blind workers fired

Those who signed the open letter have demanded the national federation put in place by Aug. 31 clear policies to “swiftly and thoroughly investigate allegations.” They also want to ensure victims don’t lose services or funding or get kicked out of programs after reporting accusations.

They have asked that perpetrators be removed from their jobs at local rehabilitation centers or any leadership posts in the organizations.

Iowa women say they also have reported sexual misconduct to the Iowa Department for the Blind, which often partners with the National Federation of the Blind and its affiliates with programming.

Since August 2019, two department employees who have been accused of sexual misconduct — Harvey and Michael Hoing — have been fired, state records obtained by Watchdog show.

Hoing could not be reached for comment. Reached by phone, Harvey said he would have to call Watchdog back, but did not.

Olsen, now 24, said she discussed Harvey’s behavior with Van Gorp, the current president of the Iowa affiliate of the national federation, telling him she believed Harvey should be monitored because she knew he had been accused of harassing other women as well.

At that point, she said, Van Gorp told her the only way action could be taken was to file another formal code of conduct complaint to the national federation.

“But I had just done that process the year before with (Nylin). That was traumatizing, and I didn’t want to do it again,” she said.

She said she stepped down last fall as second vice president of the state affiliate after Harvey was tapped by a nominating committee to become first vice president last fall.

She said she told Van Gorp she would have to work closely with Harvey, and she did not feel safe.

“But he kept saying the past is in the past, and we have to keep moving forward,” she said. “But that’s not possible when you’ve been through trauma like this.”

Niah Howard, 29, a former Department for the Blind employee who is also a student now at Louisiana Tech University, said she is one of the people who made formal complaints about Harvey’s inappropriate behavior.

She did so in early summer 2019, she said, after participating in blindness immersion training at the Iowa Department for the Blind’s orientation center in Des Moines.

In the complaint to the National Blindness Professional Certification Board, Howard said Harvey, her braille and technology instructor, asked if he could demonstrate how to track a line of braille by touching her shoulders and back during one of her lessons.

“He proceeded to track his fingers across my back. It felt inappropriate to me, but as a new professional in the field, I was not certain of this,” Howard wrote.

She said she later spoke with another instructor in the training center a few weeks later and was told that the behavior was inappropriate.

“I spoke with (Emily Wharton), director of the Iowa Department for the Blind about the incident, and again it was confirmed that this had been inappropriate behavior of an instructor and she encouraged me to report the incident to the Department of Administrative Services.”

Harvey wasn’t removed from his position as president of the Des Moines chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa until it began a formal code of conduct investigation into several complaints in December 2020. He was first vice president of the state affiliate until October.

Wharton, director of Iowa’s Department for the Blind, said: “Unfortunately, our attorney says we are not able to release the reason for Michael Harvey’s termination.”

But Wharton did confirm that Michael Hoing, a summer worker at the department, left the department in 2019 after a state Department of Administrative Services sexual harassment complaint against him was deemed founded.

Wharton said she wished she “could legally say more” about reports of sexual misconduct within the department, but that she could not elaborate on specific reports.

However, she said, all complaints are referred to the Department of Administrative Services and investigated. All of the complaints the department has received involved employees, she said.

“I can tell you we’ve taken complaints very seriously,” she said. “As a rule or as a policy, we do act on them.”

On Jan. 13, Van Gorp sent the following message to all members of the federation’s affiliate in Iowa:

“In light of recent events within the blindness community and discussions surrounding the Code of Conduct, several members throughout the affiliate have approached me and other leaders with questions that I would like to address at this time. The questions have surrounded allegations regarding one specific individual in the affiliate.

“After coordinating with our national president earlier this week, I am sharing the following information in an effort to be as transparent as possible. A grievance has been filed under the Code of Conduct of the National Federation of the Blind against Michael Harvey. This grievance is still going through the Code of Conduct process, and I have not received any additional information. In the meantime, Michael has been advised not to participate in Federation activities while this grievance is pending.

“In addition, you may see stories in media outlets throughout the country and here in Iowa. We are not commenting on any specific individuals or incidents.

“We in the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa stand with survivors and are doing everything we can to prevent incidents from happening to others while ensuring a safe space for survivors’ voices to be heard. We support the efforts of the survivor task force and look forward to the changes that will be implemented by our national organization in partnership with RAINN as well as from recommendations from the task force.

“In the meantime, as President Riccobono alluded to in his Presidential release on January 4, we need to keep moving forward while continuing to deal with these issues in a compassionate and constructive manner. I look forward to seeing where we go from here. Let’s consider where we’ve been, look at where we are now, and continue to look forward to the future to put these issues behind us and make the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa a safe place for all. To borrow the title of a recent newsletter, Federation Forward!”

Lee Rood’s Reader’s Watchdog column helps Iowans get answers and accountability from public officials, the justice system, businesses and nonprofits. Reach her at lrood@registermedia.com, at 515-284-8549, on Twitter at @leerood or on Facebook at Facebook.com/readerswatchdog.