Sunday, February 24, 2019

Sunday Reading

The Real Ugliness — Louisa Thomas in The New Yorker on the real victims of the Robert Kraft story.

The owner of a sports team is an odd species of celebrity. He—or, occasionally, she—is not known primarily for his money, though, as a rule, he has a lot of it. He is not known for a particular skill. What he is known for, really, is his ability to walk into a locker room filled with some of the richest and most famous athletes in the world and receive deference. In short, he’s known for his position with regard to the people he pays.

Robert Kraft, who owns the New England Patriots, is one of the most famous team owners in America. That is due, mostly, to his team’s stupendous success—which is, in turn, largely due to the team’s mastermind coach, Bill Belichick, and its quarterback, Tom Brady, who was chosen in the sixth round of the 2000 N.F.L. draft and has become the greatest quarterback in the league’s history. Earlier this month, wearing a tightly knotted pink tie, with his thick white hair swept back, Kraft accepted the Lombardi trophy, after the Patriots beat the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl—his sixth championship as an owner. But Kraft’s notoriety doesn’t begin or end there. He is also known for his prominent place in the small cabal of N.F.L. owners, and for his friendship with Donald Trump. (The Kraft Group, of which Kraft is the chairman and the C.E.O, donated a million dollars to Trump’s inaugural committee.) Now Kraft is known for something else, too: on Friday, police in Florida announced that he had been charged with two counts of soliciting prostitution at Orchids of Asia Day Spa, in Jupiter. Police say that there is video evidence. A spokesperson for Kraft issued a statement insisting that Kraft did not engage “in any illegal activity,” and informing the press that he would not be commenting further.

According to the Jupiter police, the price of an hour-long massage at Orchids of Asia was seventy-nine dollars; fifty-nine dollars would get you thirty minutes. Kraft is worth a reported $6.6 billion. It may seem surprising that a billionaire would have any interest in frequenting an establishment where, according to Martin County police, hygiene was “minimal.” After the death of his wife, Myra—to whom, by all accounts, Kraft was devoted—the Patriots owner was connected with a number of attractive young women. But Kraft is hardly the first sports-world figure to have been seen in public with many attractive women and later to have been charged with soliciting prostitution. Sometimes, these financial transactions have less to do with sex than they do with something that Kraft, certainly, knows well: power.

Rarely are power asymmetries as stark as those that exist between a man of Kraft’s stature and wealth and the sex workers who toil at places like Orchids of Asia Day Spa. The investigation, which has been going on for months, found evidence that women were lured from China as part of an international human-trafficking ring. They were reportedly not given days off and were not allowed to leave the massage parlors, where they were forced to live, often in squalid conditions.

Kraft lives in a very different world, one where spending lots of money can help big problems disappear. Now he finds himself caught up in a world where money is even harder to follow. It is impossible to put a figure on the scope of the problem of human trafficking; according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, there is no methodologically sound estimate, because instances of it are so rarely reported. Sexual exploitation is by far the most commonly identified form of human trafficking.

In Florida, first-time offenders for the solicitation of prostitution are subject, at the least, to mandatory community service, education, S.T.D. screening, and a five-thousand-dollar penalty. If, in fact, he is levied with the fine, Kraft will be able to pay it easily enough. What happens to the people he paid—and the unknown numbers like them?

“These girls are there all day long, into the evening. They can’t leave, and they’re performing sex acts,” the Vero Beach police chief, David Currey, said on Thursday. “Some of them may tell us they’re O.K., but they’re not.” He added, “Even though we may have charges on some of them, we’d rather them be victims.” Last year, in a piece for the Appeal, Melissa Gira Grant and Emma Whitford noted that even organizations that sought to help victims of human trafficking sometimes ended up hurting them, and others, by exposing them to arrest or deportation. “For Chinese and Korean immigrant women, the potential consequences of law enforcement contact are grave, ranging from loss of massage license to arrest, deportation, and even loss of life,” they wrote. “When a massage business shuts down, its workers — trafficked or not — are likely to remain vulnerable.”

The Real Threat — Joan Walsh in The Nation on the media obsession with Jussie Smollet and the ignoring of racists Christopher Paul Hasson and Roger Stone.

I’m sad about the mess Empire star Jussie Smollett has allegedly caused, and the pain he must have felt to cause this mess. I’m sadder still that the charge that he faked an attack by racist, homophobic Donald Trump supporters in MAGA hats is now the leading story on the front of white-supremacist violence, while we have two genuine examples of white-supremacist menace sludging up our legal system—and they are getting far less coverage.

Of course, Trump took advantage of the Smollett story to tweet: “@JussieSmollett – what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!? #MAGA.” But as TV viewers watched Smollett be shamed live, in real time, in a Chicago courtroom Thursday afternoon, the more important stories about actual violent white racism were elsewhere.

Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Paul Hasson, 49, was arrested nominally on drug and gun charges last Friday, but behind the broad outlines of his threatened violence was a plan to target known Trump enemies, liberals whom the White House bully has railed against in speeches and on social media, from Democratic Congressmembers like Representatives Maxine Waters and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Richard Blumenthal (he called him “Sen blumen jew”), to journalists like CNN’s Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, and “leftists in general.” Weirdly, Hasson’s arrest wasn’t broadcast by the Trump Justice Department; can you imagine the administration busting a violent, well-armed would-be Muslim terrorist and not blowing its own horn to the media?

Meanwhile, lifelong GOP dirty trickster Roger Stone, who likes to portray himself merely as a bad boy, a gadfly, an insurrectionist, a “try-sexual” (as in he’ll try anything); a political fixture who has hundreds of mainstream reporters in his cell phone, because he gives good sound bite—Stone wound up back in Judge Amy Berman Jackson’s courtroom because he seemed to have threatened her last week with ugly images on Instagram, including one that was widely interpreted as placing crosshairs just behind Jackson’s head.

Smollett’s alleged hoax matters, of course, but not as much as the real-life activities of real, live racists—and yet Smollett is getting by far the most coverage. And the fact that Smollett apparently lied about a hate crime should not obscure the fact that hate crimes are increasing in the age of Trump. We, the media, must do better here.

Stone denies those were crosshairs in his menacing Instagram post about Judge Jackson, but it doesn’t much matter. It’s true the circle with a cross through it looks like a type of gun sight; it’s true it also looks like the Iron Cross, the symbol for the Nazi Stormfront site. Stone tried to describe it even more innocently, as a “Celtic cross,” an ancient Irish symbol. If so, it doesn’t look like one. As it happens, I got a Celtic cross necklace at birth, from my godfather; traditionally it’s a cross, often braided, adorned with a circle, a symbol of infinity, or eternal life. There is only one context in which Stone might have been brandishing a Celtic cross, albeit a bastardized one. It’s been adopted by certain racist morons to symbolize their allegedly pure white Celtic ancestry. So we must be clear: Even Stone’s allegedly innocent explanation of the symbol he used to adorn Judge Jackson’s photo is racist and threatening.

At any rate, Jackson didn’t buy it. “Roger Stone fully understands the power of words and the power of symbols. And there’s nothing ambiguous about crosshairs,” she said. “No, Mr. Stone. I’m not giving you another chance. I have serious doubts about whether you have learned any lesson at all.” The judge has now barred him from speaking in any way about his case until his trial. Which to Stone is akin to asphyxiation. But if he violates her order, he will join his old friend Paul Manafort behind bars.

Strangely, Hasson’s much-more-aggressive threats of violence remain even farther at the margins of news coverage, even though Hasson seems to share some of the racist and anti-Semitic obsessions of Trump worshipper Cesar Sayoc, who sent pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and journalists last year, as well as the Pittsburgh Tree of Life murderer Robert Bowers, a racist anti-Semite who thought Trump hadn’t gone far enough with hate. The Coast Guard officer was crystal clear about his racism, according to The New York Times, writing a letter about the need to start a race war: “Much blood will have to be spilled to get whitey off the couch.” His Google searches included questions about “civil war if Trump impeached,” where certain liberals and members of Congress live, and whether they have guards or protection. Trump hasn’t tweeted about Hasson’s arrest, even though prosecutors described him as a “domestic terrorist” in court filings this week.

Appallingly, even after all of this violence and threatened violence, Trump continues to tweet about some of the same media figures targeted by Sayoc, Bowers, and Hasson, going so far as to call the Times “THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE” only yesterday.

The Jussie Smollett story surely merits coverage. But the white-supremacist threats of Trump supporters merit much more. I’m not sure what it’s going to take to get the balance right. Clearly, journalists aren’t being driven by self-interest here. We are in the crosshairs of Trump’s most extreme supporters, but the Smollett story, with its celebrity sizzle, its time-honored fakery and its racial jujitsu, is perceived to draw the bigger audience—so that’s the one more of us chase. That’s bad for the country—and journalists too. Let’s hope we change the balance soon.

Doonesbury — Count him in.