The Cosby Problem and the Card Line

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I’ve gone round and round with this issue in my head a lot over the years. But it was our friends at Radio Vs. The Martians that gave it a name.

Sam Mulvey calls it “the Card line.” And Mike Gillis refers to it as “the Cosby problem.” I think they use it to mean roughly the same thing… the place where separating the art from the artist becomes impossible. But the more I think about it, the more those examples seem to me to be two different things.

Let’s take the Cosby one first. To me that problem is when you find out that someone whose work you enjoy is a terrible, terrible person. Does that discovery color your perception of the work itself? Is it still possible to enjoy it?

In my particular case? Mostly, yeah, I can still enjoy the work. But it helps if the artist in question is long dead. For example, Dashiell Hammett was, by all reports– even according to his longtime lover Lillian Hellman– not a good guy. He was a drunk who hit women, he was a serial philanderer, he was often vindictive and mean-spirited. But he still stood up to the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s and went to jail rather than betray his friends, and he gave us some of the finest detective fiction ever written.

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He was one of the leading writers of the “hard-boiled” school along with Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and other crime fiction writers of the 1930s that changed the detective story genre forever. And you can make a case that he also created the “cute couple solving crimes” style of mystery fiction with Nick and Nora Charles from The Thin Man, which led to a series of movies that is more or less the direct ancestor of TV shows like Hart To Hart, Remington Steele, Castle, and a bunch of others. (The irony is that if you actually read Hammett’s original Thin Man novel you will see a strong streak of self-disgust and cynicism underlying Nick’s first-person narration; Hammett seemed to have a certain self-awareness about his drinking and the hollow lives of the New York social set he was running with at the time, though not quite enough to change his actual real-life behavior.)

A lot of Hammett’s fiction was about guys desperately trying to do the right thing in a morally ambiguous world, of the necessity of holding to a personal code of justice no matter what. But was he actually that iron-willed ethical guy? Should that matter?

In fairness, that’s an impossibly high standard. Say, rather, was Hammett at least someone I could find admirable just as a person, or that I’d want to spend time with in real life? No, not really. All right, then, should that matter?

I think not. I don’t have to be pals with him. He’s long gone, and so are the people he wronged. Time and distance have made it okay for me to enjoy his books without worrying about it.

Well, what about stuff that’s more current? How about our title example, Bill Cosby, accused rapist?

Certainly his public image is destroyed. “Bill Cosby, family entertainer,” is pretty much over as a marketable brand. It’s impossible for me to look even at old episodes of the Fat Albert cartoon without feeling skeeved out.

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Especially since each episode began and ended with Cosby giving a little morality lecture. That well’s poisoned now.

In fact, pretty much any sitcom he was ever in is tainted for me by the knowledge that the cardigan-clad family man widely regarded as America’s Dad would end up a grizzled and bitter defendant against fifty-plus allegations of sexually predatory behavior. I can’t ever see the cheerful salesman pushing Jello Puddin’ Pops without also flashing on all those perp-walk shots of the evil old man in the hoodie.

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But there’s one exception. I still love I Spy.

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The Cosby problem is just not a thing for me with that show. I own a bunch of them on DVD and can watch them all day long without once remembering that Bill Cosby (allegedly) drugged women and molested them.

Why? Well, part of it is the time-and-distance thing I mentioned before. The I Spy character of Alexander Scott is differentiated from the guy I think of as ‘Bill Cosby.’ He doesn’t move like him or act like him or do any of the comedy schtick that Cosby did as a stand-up, or even on Fat Albert just four years later. On I Spy, Scotty’s primary function on the show is to be the Exposition Nerd. He became much more, but that is still his raison d’etre in most episodes.

But even more than that, I came to Alexander Scott as a literary character. Up through the mid-1980s, I’d never actually seen an episode of I Spy. I knew the books. First the Whitmans, and later the paperbacks from “John Tiger,” the pen name of Walter Wager. (Fun fact about Wager– he went on to write 58 Minutes, which would eventually become the movie Die Hard 2.)

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There were also the I Spy comics that were not terribly evocative of Bill Cosby other than the photo covers.

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So by the time I got around to watching the show, roughly fifteen years after reading all the books and comics? Alexander Scott was completely separated for me from Bill Cosby. So I Spy is not tainted for me. Your experience might be different.

(That was actually my experience with a lot of cool stuff growing up. My mother was a bit restrictive and tightly wound and we were pretty much forbidden from anything non-Disney when it came to movies and television. But I found that books and comics were an acceptable work-around. So my ideas about James Bond, Kwai Chang Caine, the crew of the Starship Enterprise, and so on… those were all from the books. And those books were often quite a bit more lurid than the movies and TV that Mom thought she was shielding us from, but I sure wasn’t going to let on.)

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…sorry, digressing. My point is that I rarely have a problem separating the art from the artist. Gene Roddenberry was certainly not noble, despite the ongoing effort of Star Trek fans to canonize him, but I’m totally fine with enjoying his shows. (Though when I write about them I try very hard to give the appropriate credit; Roddenberry often claimed to be the creator of things he had nothing at all to do with.) It can be harder with actors– it’s very difficult today for me to see Bob Crane on screen without remembering how awful he was, to say nothing of his ignominious end.

Really, though, the worst one for me is O.J. Simpson. I have a hard time seeing him as comedy relief in the Naked Gun movies today, but the one that really hurts is The Towering Inferno.

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I love The Towering Inferno. It’s my favorite of Irwin Allen’s run of disaster movies, even more than The Poseidon Adventure. It was the very first non-children’s/Disney movie I was allowed to see in a theater and I think it holds up well to this day.

But there’s a subplot where O.J. is a hero security guard who gives his life trying to save trapped victims and I can’t see those scenes any more without thinking about how he killed two people, left a DNA trail a mile wide, and the LAPD still couldn’t put him away. It takes me right out of the movie.

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Fortunately, it’s not a HUGE part of the movie, but it does somewhat dim the pleasure of seeing it today. I don’t even bother with the Naked Gun movies any more; all I can think of when I see them now are the super-awkward interviews with Leslie Nielsen where they were asking him about O.J., and how Nielsen could hardly talk, he was so troubled by each new revelation.

The “Card line” is a slightly different thing. In those cases, you know going in that the artist is not someone you approve of and you are faced with the dilemma of whether you want to continue to finance the bad behavior by supporting the work. The name comes from Orson Scott Card, who sparked an angry fan boycott of his books with his anti-LGBT comments a while back.

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It came to a head in 2013 when DC Comics wanted him to write a Superman miniseries for them. Fans threw a fit and said if there was anyone unfit to write about truth and justice and the American way, it was that hateful bigot Card. And so on. The artist actually walked off the assignment and DC ended up pulling the story.

So the Card line, basically, means the line you won’t cross, the guy whose personal stuff is so abhorrent you can’t bring yourself to support his work or add to his income in any way.

I have a couple of creators on a mental list where I’ve sworn I’m NEVER EVER BUYING THEIR WORK, but you know what? Card’s not one of them. I disagree vehemently with his views but I really don’t see it in the work. He’s not a Klansman or a militia type blowing up AIDS clinics. He is a writer and he is politically active. When the Supreme Court said gay marriage was legal he accepted it as the law of the land and stopped fighting it. At no point did he do anything that was illegal. In fact, he used his platform to try and be socially pro-active and applied his talents to a cause he believed in. These are all things that, to my way of thinking, are admirable and worthy of encouragement. The fact that I think his actual cause was completely wrongheaded, and that at its core is essentially bigoted and nasty, is not really the point. People are allowed to campaign for their ideas in this country. If I disagree, I am allowed to campaign against them. But neither Card nor I should be prevented from making a living at our day job because of it.

My solution to this has always been to establish more of a no-fly-zone. I went to high school with a woman named Maggie Gallagher, who was a devotee of Ayn Rand and went on to become one of the most prominent anti-gay-rights activists ever. Maggie and I agree on almost nothing. I often wondered how she could do what she did considering that several of her high school friends and even faculty mentors turned out to be gay, but I never asked her; it was possible, after all, that those folks weren’t out to her and she is on television all the damn time, so I figured it was better to keep my trap shut. We certainly were not close friends.

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But we did share one. My dear friend Janet, who helped me put together my first zine project back in high school, was a staunch Republican and ended up being very active in state politics for years. She and Maggie were very close and the three of us often ended up at the same functions, Christmas gatherings and whatnot. In high school we’d all done the speech and debate thing, and those friendships were stronger than politics. For Janet’s sake, Maggie and I had a no-fly-zone about politics (for that matter, I had one with Janet too, though we broke our rule once or twice a decade.) But Maggie and I never got into it about anything ever. Janet passed away about a year and a half ago and at the funeral the first person to recognize me and give me a hug was Maggie. We were both feeling gutted over losing Janet and even though I still think Maggie has wasted her life serving the Forces of Evil, she endeared herself to me forever when CNN called and she hung up on them, snarling that she couldn’t talk, she was at her best friend’s funeral. The FUCK OFF was unspoken but implied. I don’t respect her position at all, but I respected the hell out of THAT.

See, the day of Janet’s funeral was also the day the Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage was legal. Every news outfit in the country wanted Maggie, as a professional pundit, to comment. She blew them all off so she could give Janet’s eulogy, and she barely made it through without breaking down.

Why am I telling you all this? I guess to illustrate the point that politics, for me, is not the person. And if you are espousing views I find completely abhorrent, I might be baffled, but if you are simply using words and argument in the public square, engaging in the kind of vigorous debate that this country is supposed to encourage, I have no problem with you making a living.

Want an example from the arts? How about Chuck Dixon?

Again, we agree on pretty much nothing. But I like his books and he keeps his politics out of them.

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When he doesn’t– he’s got a bestselling graphic novel out that is accusing the Clintons of all sorts of terrible things, adapting a book that I consider to be just a half-step away from tinfoil hat territory– well, I don’t buy that book. I’m pretty sure the charges made in that graphic novel are bunk but I am also sure that Mr. Dixon is enough of a man of conscience that he genuinely believes in the book. There are professional Clinton-haters that learned in the 1990s that there was a good living to be made saying terrible things about that family, and moved on to liberals in general when Bill Clinton left the presidency; but Dixon is not one of them. I think we can all agree Chuck Dixon isn’t Ann Coulter. I’d much rather have the next Levon Cade or Bad Times book than this Clinton thing, but I don’t actually get a vote on how Mr. Dixon chooses to spend his writing time.

My “Card Line” is not really ideological at all. It’s mostly made up of creators who have personally wronged me or my friends, and I’m not going to list those folks here. Dirty laundry. Nobody’s business. But I’m not spending money on their stuff, even at second-hand. Period.

Anyway. I make no claim that this is THE best compromise when it comes to being a consumer of entertainment. Everyone makes their own peace with this stuff in a different way, and the rationale laid out above is mine, that’s all.

But I thought it was a subject worth writing about, mostly because I’m curious if anyone else out there thinks about this sort of thing. Have at it in the comments below, but let’s keep it civil, shall we?

Back next week with something cool.

15 Comments

  1. John Trumbull

    GREAT column, Greg. One of your best.

    Agreed on Chuck Dixon. I’m friends with him on Facebook, so I know that we don’t agree politically, but I don’t care. He tells good yarns, and that’s all that I need.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    Yeah, I think about this sort of thing. I wondered if I could watch the Cosby Show, a show I loved, in its earlier seasons, and compartmentalize the feelings I had about the allegations. I couldn’t. I sat through a couple of very funny episodes and all I could think, every time Cliff made a joke or a statement, was how he (Cosby), in a sworn deposition, admitted to slipping a mickey to a woman. When he was accused of fathering a child out of wedlock, back in the height of the show, I gave it a pass, since he was human. The affair aspect was between he and his wife. The accusations of molestation and rape were something else. Especially after the numbers grew. Even if 90% are false, that’s 10% too many. I can’t compartmentalize it.

    A big one for me was the murder/suicide of pro wrestler Chris Benoit. I was a big pro wrestling fan, from my teen years on, until the self destruction of the WCW promotion. One of the careers I followed was Chris Benoit, from his start in Calgary, through the time he was having the most exciting matches in the world, in Japan, to his becoming a prominent performer in the US. Pro wrestling is theater and the best make you suspend disbelief. I was weaned on a more realistic ring style, before the national expansion of the WWF, with its more cartoon-like characters. Benoit was a throwback to those more realistic performers. His skill far outmatched his lesser size (relative to other wrestlers). Nevertheless, I drifted away from wrestling, bored with the presentation. I still bought historical dvds, including one devoted to his career. Then, the news report came that he and his family were dead. I was horrified. Then came the determination that he killed his wife and son, then hung himself the next morning. I threw out my dvds. I couldn’t watch it. I had seen too many great performers die by their 40s, from a cocktail of steroids, narcotics and alcohol, mixed with injuries and mental health issues (due to head traumas and depression, brought on by substance abuse). I couldn’t stand to watch it, realizing how many were dead or crippled. Benoit was the worst. Here was a guy I admired, who turned out to be the most damaged of all. I can watch old matches, before these issue became prominent; but, not Benoits. I see people want to preserve his legacy of a performer and I can’t support it. I’ve read and heard interviews with family members, about the person he once was; yet, I can’t shake the person he became.

    Distance is a factor. I can read Kipling and Burroughs and separate their racism and colonialism from their literary talent. I could mostly do it with Fleming, in my younger days of reading the Bond novels (though I used to laugh at every foreign contact having an English mother). The more I read about Fleming, the man, the less I liked him; but, I still liked his writing (up to a point; he had more than one Bond clinker).

    I’ve watched movies with OJ and make cracks when he is on screen and then move on when he isn’t. The one difference is the ironically titled Killer Force, with Peter Fonda, Telly Savalas, Maud Adams and Christopher Lee. Of the group of mercenaries trying to break into a South African diamond mining compound, you have Christopher Lee, Ian Yule and OJ Simpson. Lee has alleged he was involved in intelligence operations behind enemy lines and had killed people. The stories have varied and he always played it as “I can’t speak about it,” which is a great way to keep people talking about hit. Maybe he exaggerated his experiences, much as Flemings were. However, with Lee, you wonder. Ian Yule had been a mercenary soldier in the Congo, under Col. Mike Hoare, part of the legendary Wild Geese, during the Simba uprising in the mid to late 60s. He played one of the mercenaries in the movie The Wild Geese, which had Hoare as a technical advisor. Then, there is OJ, a probable murderer who got away with it. That leaves High O’Brian looking like a pacifist, by comparison.

    I’ve always been able to read Dixon’s work and wondered, as I knew his politics, how he was able to work with cat yronwode, at Eclipse. Well, Beau Smith chimed in, when I posed the question at the old site and said they used to have lively discussions; but, always left personal politics out of the story and focused on what made a good story. Airboy is a pretty odd mix of left and right, when you look at it. However, I have to question his thinking process with his most recent work; not so much the Clinton attack (there’s enough fuel there, despite how out of proportion the Right makes it). It’s more working with scum like his publisher. I don’ care for some of Dixon’s politics; but, I thought he had more integrity than work with people who play deceptive games with their production to manipulate demand and create an illusion of persecution. I’ll still be there is he wants to revisit Sky Wolf, though.

  3. Simon

    “18. The acts of men are worthy of neither fire nor heaven.”

    Most things would be unappealing if we knew what lies in the heart of most people doing them. (Jean Rostand said something like that.) So separating the person from the works better be clear in one’s head before venturing into biographical material, heh.

    Isn’t that clear separation also an unconditional part of more general freedoms, such as of speech and of conscience? A part of real justice? (As Unca Alan reminded us, “Fiction and fact: only madmen and magistrates cannot discriminate between them.”) A part of true civilization?

    Conversely, isn’t actively informing about (say) Card’s nonsense also part of the same freedom? Though a line may be crossed when these activists demand a blanket boycott of all his works, past and future. And that you sign a pledge that seems to imply you’re some sort of homophobe if you don’t. Isn’t all that starting to sound like a fascist patrol demanding you audibly hail their leader?

    “19. Do not hate your enemy, for if you do, you are in some way his slave. Your hate will never be greater than your peace.”

    So I think I’m essentially with you on the gist. *Columbo voice* One unrelated problem, though:

    – “remembering that Bill Cosby (allegedly) drugged women and molested them”

    He’s prolly guilty as sin, but then, isn’t it still premature to have that argument heavily lean on him while still at the “allegedly” stage? I mean, aren’t there enough proven examples beside Card, that Cosby didn’t necessarily need to be half the headline and the article? YMMV.

    “40. Do not judge the tree by its fruits nor the man by his works; they may be worse or better.” (Jorge Luis Borges, “Fragments from an Apocryphal Gospel”, 1969, tr. Kessler, 1998.)

  4. Edo Bosnar

    Yeah, great column, Greg.
    And man, I didn’t know all that stuff about Hammett, especially – and most troubling for me – that he was physically abusive to the women in his life. He is otherwise definitely and by far my favorite of the hard-boiled detective story writers, but I don’t think knowing this will diminish my admiration for this work.
    As for Cosby, yep, that well has been poisoned for me as well. Another case that comes close is Mel Gibson. To be honest, I was starting to cool on much of his oeuvre even before I learned he was a raving maniac and just a very awful person all around, but once that news hit it really makes it for me hard to watch almost any movie he’s in – with 3 exceptions: Mad Max, Road Warrior and, for some reason, Payback (seriously, I’ve seen that one about 5 times and never get tired of it; I even like it better than the much more highly regarded adaptation of The Hunter, Point Blank).

  5. DJGhettoFabulousAdamFlex

    Re: Roddenberry; Gene L. Coon and DC Fontana had a lot to do with shaping the show, to say nothing of Roddenberry’s near non-involvement after the second season of Star Trek the Next Generation. Though I suppose the collaborative nature of that television show allows for more separation. (Even if the original Star Trek often uncomfortably brushed up against Roddenberry’s worst beliefs in episodes such as “The Omega Glory” and “The Turnabout Intruder”).

    1. John Trumbull

      My opinion of Gene Roddenberry has plummeted over the last decade or two, and more or less cratered out in the last year. it would take too long to explain why, but I’m now of the opinion that he was a marginally-talented writer who was a piece of shit human being. But I’ll still always love the original Star Trek. I might have a tougher time if GR was one of the people on camera.

  6. Knightsky

    Time is definitely a mitigating factor for me. I can bypass the racism of Howard and Lovecraft well enough, but there’s no way I can read any Marion Zimmer Bradley after the details of her abusing her children came out. The latter is too recent, and doesn’t even have the excuse of being more socially accepted at the time (unlike Howard’s and Lovecraft’s racism).

  7. darkemeralds

    Serendipitously, another writer friend and I were discussing this very issue yesterday. (You came up in the same conversation, by the way, when it veered into the arcless character-as-concept, as in Sherlock Holmes–I talked up your excellent pastiche work.)

    I don’t yet know where to settle on this issue, or where my “Card Line” is, but your position strikes me as moderate, reasonable, and appropriately personal. And I’m glad it’s being discussed. We’re entering a world with no secrets. If we will only accept art from the blameless, I suspect we’ll be limiting ourselves to some pretty blameless art. And that would be dull–not to mention dangerous.

  8. Pol Rua

    The recent reprints of ‘Airboy’ contain a lot of neat stuff on how Dixon and cat yronwode were able to co-exist on the title.

    The Card issue is a bit of a sticky wicket for me. My personal take is that buying his work is putting money in his pocket, and at least some of that money will be spent trying to deny people, including personal friends, their basic human rights, so personally, I try not to funnel any cash his way.

    There was a really interesting recent take on this on Bob Chipman’s (a.k.a. Moviebob) youtube page. Essentially, his take is that popular wisdom states that “You have to separate the artist from the art”.
    But what if the art is informed by the artist? Is it fair that the audience be asked to remove art from its larger context when the creator of said art is under no such obligation… anyway, here it is.

    I’m reminded of the back-and-forth between Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan over Kazan’s willingness to name names at the HUAC hearings – ‘The Crucible’, ‘On the Waterfront’ and ‘View from a Bridge’ – all of which are about the pros and cons of being an informant.

  9. frasersherman

    I think the thing about Card I dislike the most is a column he wrote a few years back about how Obama was going to run Michelle for president in 2016, rule from the shadows and use black street gangs he’d recruited as a federal militia to silence all opposition. It was racist, nuts (at least gay marriage actually happened) and written very weaselly (he tries to have it both ways on whether he’s serious or not).
    I’ve been rereading Airboy and I was amused that one issue (showing a dictator Airboy takes out has Reagan’s autographed photo) infuriated readers who accused Dixon of being a commie-loving anti-american left-winger. I enjoy Dixon’s work, but not his No Gays In Comics and Bring Back the Comics Code rants.
    Some of Howard’s comics adaptations are more uncomfortable for me than reading the originals–the visuals make it impossible not to notice when he’s playing with racist tropes like black men lusting for white women.

  10. Hal

    Synchronicity, Mr Hatcher! I asked much the same question of you that you answer here in a response to Travis Pelkie’s post of a week last Sunday altho’ there I wondered if you ever found yourself discomfited when the pulp/adventure/espionage/thriller books et al you read wander into dubious territory that is counter to your beliefs (and if, further to that, if any have not just wandered but gambolled and frolicked into such territory to such an extent that you’ve hurled them aside!); coincidentally you have partially answered/touched on that here, see – synchronicity!
    As an aside, it’s pretty easy to for me to dismiss and laugh at the loony/ill-informed material scattered throughout the better very early Tom Clancy novels but quickly as the totally bonkos ultraconservative material (with self-satisfied paternalism, entitlement, and more than a pinch of misogyny sprinkled liberally – and liberal isn’t a word one would usually associate with ol’ Tom! – alongside Mr Clancy’s masturbatory worship of the flawless armed services) frothed over in the books they become nigh unreadable, luckily the books collapse into total unreadability in around, what, 1993? The crowning absurdity being Jack Ryan being made President! After that point, although I cannot imagine anyone with taste (ha!) wanting to read them, I understand that one of Clancy’s whacko fantasias features marauding environmentalists! Bwahahaha! Michael Crichton’s State Of Fear (surely *Climate* Of Fear would have been a more fitting title?!) garbage over a decade early! (One last observation, it’s telling that Ryan transmogrifies from being more than halfway likeable early on – even if his politics aren’t to yiur taste – to a repulsive Marty Stu-ish can-do-no-wrong jerk by the early Clinton-era with lots of liberal strawmen to combat… Odd that… *winks*)

    1. frasersherman

      I haven’t read Climate of Fear (not a big Crichton fan) but the anti-Japanese racism of Rising Sun is appalling. He doesn’t actually refer to them being inscrutable or having fiendish Oriental cunning but the emphasis on how they just don’t think like white people comes to the same place in the end.

      1. Hal

        You aren’t missing anything with State Of Fear, Fraser. It is dire. Yes, I remember Rising Sun; it is pretty ironic that Crichton wrote his excessively mediocre and more than a little xenophobic thriller cum tract cum dire warning about the dangers of Japanese commercial supremacy not long before Japan went into economic decline. Oh, and lo and behold! Who also wrote a novel about Japan launching a more literal economic war against the USA as a sort-of WW II Redux? Tom Clancy with Debt Of Honor (the one that ****SPOILER**** ends with a vanquished Japanese villain crashing a plane into the Capitol building and wiping out congress leaving Lil’ Jackie Ryan – recently made VP due to some tortuous plotting – becoming President… Yes, really…), altho’ as it is Clancy he finds space for some military/naval action as well. The mind boggles.
        After Rising Sun Crichton went onto bravely tackle the subject of sexual harassment… Um, wait a moment… Oh, yes, Crichton tackled the pressing issue of female against *male* sexual harassment… So, *bravely* is an adverb that doesn’t apply. The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park are both very good but his post-JP novels aren’t really worth touching with a ten-foot-pole.

  11. Simon

    What I like about Card or Dixon’s positions, is how desperate they seem. Such people used to own the joint and *enforce* their views as a matter of course. Nowadays, they have to debate laws or walk the streets with a “The End Is Nigh” sign. Isn’t that some form of progress?

    On the other hand, I don’t remember such boycott pledges against Disney-Warner, even after Marvel’s Perlmutter giving $1m to Trump, or DC’s protection of predators from Julie to Eddie. (Not to mention their treatment of creators.) Double standards or simple cowardice?

  12. Great column, Greg. I was really encouraged to read, well, what I think of as the complete “reasonableness” of your approach to these things.

    Two little fiddly points of information, which you can take or leave, as you wish. The first is that you make it sound like OJ Simpson’s character dies in “The Towering Inferno” but he doesn’t, he makes it out at the end (and gives Fred Astaire a cat). 2nd, Orson Scott Card was going to write a single story in the Adventures of Superman anthology series, not a whole miniseries.

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