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Published: Mon, 20 Nov 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Mon, 20 Nov 2017 16:47:39 -0500

 



Is Donald Trump Responsible for the Attack on Rand Paul?

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 12:25:00 -0500

Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS) has taken hold at The New Yorker. Hence, this idiotic story, which is advertised in a tweet from the magazine's official feed: The attack on Rand Paul by his neighbor reveals a sinister banality of American life that, these days, is often emanating from Donald Trump. https://t.co/tTIPkEe9Ja — The New Yorker (@NewYorker) November 20, 2017 The actual story, written by Jeffrey Frank, is a minor classic of snide political-violence tourism, noting that Paul, the libertarian-leaning Republican senator, lives in a gated community in Kentucky and that his attacker, a liberal Democrat, is supposedly a "near-perfect" neighbor, according to a (Republican!) resident. Near-perfect, of course, except for his violent attack on an unsuspecting Paul while he was mowing his lawn. The attack busted the senator's ribs and is, to put it mildly, fucked up. But, says Frank, Although [Jim] Skaggs was once the chairman of the Warren County Republican Party, he seemed to side with Boucher, whom he called a "near-perfect" neighbor, as opposed to Paul, who, he said, was less willing to go along with the regulations of the homeowners association "because he has a strong belief in property rights."... The Times reported that Paul grows pumpkins, and composts. Pumpkins and compost may well be at the root of things. This fall has been unusually warm in Kentucky, and the heat may affect decomposing organic matter in unpleasant, olfactory ways. Paul, who leans toward libertarianism, could well have considered the compost of a private gardener, on private property, to be an inalienable right, and one can sympathize with that view. Haw haw haw! Frank then dredges up a 1980 novel by Thomas Berger, Neighbors, that was "the basis of an unfunny movie starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd," because, well, you know, it's important to remind New Yorker readers that novels exist and are usually better than the movie version, right? But the real point, of course, is that somehow Donald Trump is responsible for all that is baffling in this world, including an indefensible attack by a "near-perfect" neighbor who is a Democrat against a libertarianish Republican. Frank again: Berger told the critic Richard Schickel what he'd learned from Kafka: "That at any moment banality might turn sinister, for existence was not meant to be unfailingly genial." The sinister banality of American life periodically moves into view, with a lot of it these days emanating from Donald J. Trump, the person who was elected President, a year ago. Yeah, sure. Forget that maybe, just maybe, Boucher is responsible for his own sinister banality, whether his reported "feud" with Rand Paul had more to do with lawn-care issues than political ones. Then again, Boucher did post at Facebook his wish, "May Robert Mueller fry Trump's gonads." But isn't that how all doctors—Boucher is an anesthesiologist—talk? I think there's a real problem with throwing violence perpetrated by individuals onto broad zeitgeist-y forces, partly because doing so minimizes the responsibility we all have for the choices we make and partly because it's so often wrong (remember how all that "right-wing" hate and paranoia in Dallas drove communist-sympathizer Lee Harvey Oswald to plug JFK?). It's a small step from such atrributions to start blaming all sorts of things—books! movies! video games! Trump!—on whatever you happen to find objectionable. Donald Trump does this all the time, blaming immigrants, antifa, you name it for a phantom crime wave, job losses, and more. Do liberals at publications need to join him in such efforts? Of course not, but they're already blaming Trump not only for his misdeeds, but their own as well.[...]



Future Man Is Gleefully Sophomoric, and That's Part of the Charm

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 15:30:00 -0500

Future Man. Available now on Hulu. I am officially on record as complaining that television relies on time travel just a tad heavily. But then along comes Future Man, in which a mild-mannered and generally witless janitor has been selected by some tough bastards from the future to interrupt a sexual act in 1969 (and yeah, "sexual act" and "1969" are a smirky non-coincidence), which, if performed, will a couple of hundred years later plunge the world into fascism. The janitor has what passes in Future Man as an epiphany. "We cock block him!" he exclaims. One of the tough guys nods in approval: "Okay, rip his cock off, he bleeds out slow. I like it." How is any past or present 13-year-old boy not gonna cackle in joy at that and break out the popcorn to binge-watch the next the next 12 episodes? Sophomorically funny and hormonally twitchy, Future Man is just too stupidly engaging to pass by. Once you know that Future Man is written and produced by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, and Ariel Shaffir, the team behind the epically uncouth cartoon Sausage Party, further explanation becomes almost totally unnecessary. It's a comic onslaught against video-gamers and their culture of the past 30 years or so, with the occasional random shot at baby boomers so they won't be left out of the fun. The plot—which sounds like it could have been lifted from a video game if it weren't already stolen, as the script gleefully acknowledges, from the 1984 teensploitaton film The Last Starfighter—centers around that janitor, Josh Futturman (Josh Hutcherson, The Hunger Games). Nerd to the very bone, Josh lives in his parents' basement and plays video games 18 hours a day. Well, make that a game, singular; he plays the same one, over and over. His nerd friends are certain it's because he wants to diddle himself while watching one of the game's female characters. (Not that they judge; in a group harboring unnatural designs on Ms. Pac-Man or Mario's brother Luigi, the gender spectrum is pretty wide.) But when an apparently dumb strategy unlocks the game's final level, two of its characters pop out with disconcerting news: The cartridge was really a training and recruitment device to locate the man who could save the future from its enemies. Even if his job is sweeping the floor at a herpes pharmaceutical research facility where the activity seems mainly to consist of jamming cotton swab up the urethras of infected lab animals. The two warriors who escape from the game, Tiger (Eliza Coupe, Quantico) and Wolf (Derek Wilson, Preacher), come from a future where the veneer of civilization has been pretty much worn away from everything, and their sanguinary work habits—Wolf's favorite plan is "Rip his fucking dick off!"—supply much of Future Man's staple humor. (Bodily effluents, emitted in always surprising but ever disgusting ways, are pretty much the rest.) But it's hard to resist a show a show that so relentlessly mocks its own origins. Future Man is a tapestry of withering allusions to everything from The Terminator movies to the Mortal Kombat video games (can you guess which organ gets ripped out of losing contestants?) to Animal House. Even entire epochs get the shiv. When Josh, Tiger, and Wolf take their time machine back to the Age of Aquarius in hopes of stopping the forbidden sexual act, they wind up in the home of Josh's grandparents—who promptly try to kill them, assuming they're drug-crazed hippies. Coupe, Wilson, and Hutcherson all show a nice facility for playing off of one another as well as a sense of balance with the material, deftly avoiding the temptation to overplay. I know I said time travel shows are the stuff of doltishness, but that doesn't mean you can't have some secret fun with this one as long as you do it in secret and remember that no penises were harmed in the making of this series.[...]



BBC Dark Comedy Ill Behaviour Finds Home on Showtime

Fri, 10 Nov 2017 15:00:00 -0500

Ill Behaviour. Showtime. Monday, November 13, 10 p.m. Showtime is intent that you need a laugh. Ill Behaviour is its third sitcom to debut in less than a month, after White Famous and SMILF. And the deranged/debauched underclass comedy Shameless returned for its eight season in that same time span. Maybe somebody at Showtime is trying to eliminate the market for Zoloft so they can short stock in Pfizer. Whether Ill Behaviour, a co-production with the BBC (it aired in Great Britain this summer), will aid in this endeavor remains to be seen. Its combination of black humor and gross-out jokes is a little bit on the hit-or-miss side. Ill Behaviour is about a four-way relationship between four bughouse millennials. The show opens with one of them, professional slacker Joel (Chris Geere, FX's You're The Worst) sitting on the ledge of a skyscraper, scattering cash into the wind, shouting "It's my money and I can do what a want with it." (Bonus points for the allusion to the wise Randian philosopher-queen Lesley Gore.) The money is a settlement from the wealthy wife who has blindsided Joel with a divorce. His tragic dismay is only worsened by the delight of his friends, hippie airhead Charlie (Tom Riley, Da Vinci's Demons) and budding robot-porn writer Tess (Jessica Regan, among the epic numbers of the cast of the long-running Brit soap opera Doctors), whose novel in progress is For the Love of a Synthezoid. It seems they've secretly loathed the now-departed wife since the day Joel met her, and even, long ago, set up a profile for him at a dating site on the grounds that "sometimes wishful thinking pays off." The fruit of the dating profile turns out to be Nadia (Lizzy Caplan, Masters of Sex), a cokehead American oncologist with a yen for sex in public bathrooms. Her presence turns out to be quite fortuitous, since Charlie has just been diagnosed with cancer. Which, he announces, he will not treat with chemotherapy but coffee enemas and herbal remedies of the gloriously cancer-free 19th century. What follows is a blizzard of kidnappings, crossbow fights, macrobiotic-food jokes and gooey body-parts humor, all of it with highly variant degrees of success. Sometimes Ill Behaviour is amusing, sometimes—as the put-down line of my grade-school years had it—about as funny as a stop sign in a polio ward. In Great Britain, that criticism of the show turned nearly literal; there was clamor about the decorum of making a comedy about cancer. The fuss was largely lost on Ill Behaviour's creator-writer Sam Bain, a British TV veteran whose shows (which mostly haven't made it across the Atlantic) have never exhibited an overreliance on good taste. "I've done cancer, terrorism, pedophiles," he parried the complaints. "I'm ticking off a good list." In any event, Showtime broke that barrier long ago in the United States with The Big C, in which a cancer diagnosis liberated Laura Linney from a stifling marriage and job and allowed her to be herself—for a while, anyway. And the subject of Ill Behaviour is not really cancer, but the implications of intervention in somebody's life, even that of a friend. As Joel protests when his buds try to stop him from throwing his money off the roof, "If I wanna be a dick, let me be a dick." Not that you policy wonks are excluded. Joel and Nadia prepare for a toilet-top tryst, her beeper goes off. "Is that an emergency?" wonders Joel. "I guess we'll never know," replies Nadia, clicking the device off. No wonder British healthcare prices are so affordable.[...]



The Corporation for Public Broadcasting Turns 50

Tue, 07 Nov 2017 12:23:00 -0500

Fifty years ago this week, Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, the law that created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I've been writing about the CPB for two of its five decades; here's a sampling of those stories: • "With Friends Like These" (July 24, 1997): A paper I wrote for Cato on the ways the CPB has made independent, listener-funded, volunteer-driven community radio stations blander and less accountable to their communities. This is out of date in all sorts of ways, but the history I discuss is still relevant. And there may be some broader lessons in my explanation of a cycle built into the CPB's subsidies: The limited amount of money the state has to offer requires it to discriminate on some rational basis—if the CPB dispensed funds to every small community station in America, it would have to divide its budget so finely that no station would receive enough money to justify the corporation's existence. So the CPB strives to direct its money to the stations with the most powerful signals and the largest measured audiences and shies away from financing more than one outlet in a single market. But the CPB requirements encourage stations to grow and adopt "professional" values, putting further pressure on the CPB's budget and forcing it to further restrict the flow of money, refueling the cycle yet again. If the CPB's budget is expanding anyway—as it did during the Carter years, for example—the cycle might be slowed and the problem concealed. If the budget is contracting, as it is today, the problem only gets worse. Under any circumstances, the professionalization and expansion cycle is built into the federal subsidies; it cannot be eliminated by minor reforms or by putting a friendlier group of bureaucrats in charge. • "It Didn't Begin with Sesame Street" (October 1997): I review Ralph Engelman's book Public Radio and Television in America: A Political History. Among other things, the article discusses the birth of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; it also looks at the handful of public TV stations that existed before the CPB, when some social engineers at the Ford Foundation argued that "educational television" (as it was then known) could be a force for social uplift, "an instrument for the development of community leaders," even "a form of psychotherapy." • "Independent Airwaves" (March 2001): I interview a man with a plan to "restructure public broadcasting as an independent public trust." His group was split between people who wanted a completely independent institution and people who just wanted to rearrange how the government gives broadcasters money. • Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (2001): The CPB isn't the only topic I cover in this book, but it's a significant part of it. • "The Way to Sesame Street" (November 2009): For Sesame Street's 40th birthday, I looked at the complicated social legacy of a show that "reflected both an antipathy to commercialism and a fascination with commercials, which served not just as a source for its parodies but as a model for its programming." We had to make some cuts to the piece to fit it into a two-page spread; I posted some of the outtakes, including the tale of the time an executive mistook Jim Henson for a member of the Weather Underground, on my personal blog. • "Radio Theater" (February 2011): Republicans have repeatedly threatened to defund the CPB. Not only do these standoffs always end with the institution still standing, but in the long run its budget keeps growing. This article takes a tour through the history of those fights, arguing that the real point of these exercises isn't to cut the broadcasters loose. It's to use the threat of cutting them loose to whip them into shape. The system was still standing after Nixon made his threats, but all save one of the programs he found objectionable went off the air. After the Gingrich-era battle ended, the Republican pundits Fred Barnes, Peggy Noonan, [...]



The Death of the Alt-Weekly As Told By An Industry Lifer

Sat, 04 Nov 2017 07:00:00 -0400

On September 21, The Village Voice printed its final paper edition, its cover a Dont Look Back–era Bob Dylan offering a defiant adiós. Though the publication continues online, pundits mourned the end of an era, not just for the legendary rag but for the industry it spawned. For decades, the alternative weekly was a staple of any city where there were young people who felt the mainstream media sucked and who wanted to read as many underground cartoons, scandalous exposés, concert reviews, and wacky columnists as could fit between the ads for massages and head shops. The Voice's last issue sparked a dark autumn for alt-weeklies. Seattle's irreverent The Stranger, home to the iconic sex-advice columnist Dan Savage, switched to a biweekly format, even though its owners say the paper makes money. Creative Loafing Atlanta, around since 1972, became a monthly. The Baltimore City Paper announced it would close for good on November 1. And then there was the week that began October 13, when I announced I was resigning as editor of OC Weekly after 15 years at the paper (the last six as editor) because I refused the owner's demand that I lay off half my staff. Soon after, the Washington City Paper—once home to David Carr, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Jake Tapper, among others—was put up for sale. LA Weekly got sold to mysterious owners represented by a marijuana lawyer. And the Seattle Weekly dropped out of the alt-business altogether and became just another throwaway community fishwrap. Media watchers have spilled a lot of ink and tears this year over what The Guardian called "the death of the great alt-weeklies." But more damning was the stream of hosannas put forth by alt-week alumni about the supposed glory days—so many, that the Columbia Journalism Review ridiculed such nostalgia as "hoary remembrances." Such cynicism was right. The fact is, alt-weeklies long ago condemned themselves to a slow, pitiful death. They had an amazing advantage to conquer the digital age, because they were historically younger, ostensibly hipper, and seemingly more open to evolve than the media dinosaurs they so gleefully mocked. Their legacy defines a modern-day media landscape dominated by Vice, Buzzfeed, podcasts, Instagrammers, and other outlets that inherited the alt-weekly emphasis on point of view, individualism, and creating a self-contained universe for consumers. But the alts blew it. They're even more imperiled now than the dailies, which can at least count on big-ticket advertisers too afraid to buy space in papers that drop f-bombs. Alt-weeklies find themselves in a position much like the baby boomers who launched most of them: stuck in the past, oblivious to the present, and increasingly obsolete. ¡Ask a Mexican! OC Weekly launched in the fall of 1995, when I was a junior at Anaheim High School. It was spun off from LA Weekly, a paper that served as a beacon to the West Coast left for its unabashedly progressive politics. Orange County, long defined by the libertarian Orange County Register, welcomed the outrageous weekly to the point that it broke even within a year, leading The New York Times to note it had "found an eager audience and receptive advertisers." I didn't discover the paper until April Fool's Day of 2000, because it didn't circulate in the barrio. I found out about it only because I found a copy in the trash late one night while I volunteered for a city council race. After I wrote a fake letter to the editor (long story), Weekly founder and then-editor Will Swaim invited me to pitch him story ideas. He didn't care that I was a college kid better versed in film theory than in FOIAs; he saw a guy who knew his community. I was freelancing within months, became food editor in 2002, and was a staff writer the following year. I joined a newsroom that counted a former labor organizer, a past spokesperson for the Federal Elections Commission, a PhD dropout, an editor who started as an intern, someone who never even at[...]



Showtime Comedy SMILF Offers Questionable Authenticity

Fri, 03 Nov 2017 15:15:00 -0400

SMILF. Showtime. Sunday, November 5. If you're making short films these days, it's all about vision and authenticity and postmodernism rather than the ancient and discredited concept of quality. So Showtime's SMILF (the first S is for "single"; you guess the rest), which originated as a popular film-festival short, has to be presented as a chronicle of the actual life of producer-star Frankie Shaw. This seems, well, unlikely. SMILF's lead character, Bridgette, is a gritty South Boston actress wannabe who can hold her own in pickup basketball with the neighbor guys. She lives in a scruffy one-room apartment with her son by an amiable but utterly jobless recovering drunk. The only thing emptier than her fridge is the credit remaining on her charge cards. This doesn't sound a great deal like Frankie Shaw, who went to Milton and Barnard and was already scoring roles in shows like Law & Order: Criminal Intent while she was a college student. I have no idea if Mark Webber, the father of her child, had a drinking problem, but he certainly hasn't had an employment problem: He's an actor with over 70 screen credits in the past 19 years. A little resume puffery by Shaw is not a big deal. (Though only in Hollywood does it take the form of slumming down your actual life.) What makes it noteworthy in this case is there's so much else about SMILF that that doesn't add up. Beneath that indy-film facade of grainy candor is a big pile of canny Hollywood calculation. Start with the title, which is supposed to be ironic, because no one is signing onto the "ILF" part of it—Bridgette's most intimate relationship is with a purple vibrator. Though Bridgette is lithe, pretty and—most importantly—singularly undiscriminating in her quest for a sexual partner, she hasn't hooked up once in the months since splitting with her boyfriend. Prospective pickups flee from the sight of her child as if he's a flea-infested vermin in a time of plague. Which invites the question, "On which planet?" I understand male commitment phobia, but that fear's about commitment, not no-strings-attached offers of quickies from a delectably naked woman standing two feet away. Then there's Bridgette's puzzling timeline. She acts like a new mom jittery about her sexual allure—her gynecologist's advice to do kegels triggers the panicked response, "Why? Did you see something up there?" But her little boy is a toddler, 2 or 3 years old. It seems like Shaw wanted some sexual paranoia wisecracks but not the fidgety concept of a horny mom barely removed from the delivery room. But, despite these conceptual weaknesses—some of which may have been forced on Shaw by suits nervous the instincts of a young, first-time producer, SMILF has a considerable number of merits. Shaw has created a memorable set of characters and assembled an estimable cast to play them. Chief among them is Connie Britton (Nashville, Friday Night Lights) as Ally, the wealthy mom who pays Bridgette to tutor her aimless teenagers. But the fact that Ally pretends to her family that she's going to yoga exercises, then hides out wolfing down prodigious piles of junk food punctuated by terrifying crying jags suggests her life is more complicated than it appears. Another damaged-goods character is Tutu (startlingly well-played by Rosie O'Donnell), Bridgette's weatherbeaten mom, who appears to have taken a licking from life and is barely ticking. She listens to tape's of Frank McCourt's brutal memoir Angela's Ashes to cheer herself up. The best of all is Bridgette, loving the daylights out of her child even as she resents the restrictions he's imposed on her life, affectionately shielding Ally's kids even as she winces at the knowledge of what she could do with their opportunities. Shaw has previously demonstrated her ability to illuminate and even draw cheer from desolation, perhaps most vividly as a doomed junkie in Mr. Robot, but never on a canvas this big. She's an eyeful[...]



A Week in the Life of Political News Commentary

Sun, 29 Oct 2017 22:44:00 -0400

Morgan Spurlock, the documentarian first made famous by his 2004 film Super Size Me, has a new podcast called Week in the Knees, in which he and his guests speed through the previous week's news day by day, while also suggesting bigger stories that deserved to get more play. On Saturday, Oct. 21, Spurlock and his musical sidekick Jon Spurney were kind enough to invite me and The Dead Ladies Project author Jessica Crispin to free-associate about the Weinstein Effect, the mistake of ever believing in politicians, the then-late-breaking announcement that President Donald Trump would be releasing the JFK assassination files, and more. You can listen here: src="https://art19.com/shows/week-in-the-knees/episodes/737743c4-f750-473e-8d6e-af65d9cb6ae2/embed" width="300" height="150" frameborder="0"> Later that day we posted Episode 78 of The Fifth Column, the weekly podcast (and Sirius XM POTUS program) featuring Kmele Foster, Michael C. Moynihan and myself. Discussion ranged from the John McCain/George W. Bush speeches against Trumpism, to the ongoing kerfufflage with Gold Star families, and the Louis Farrakhan/Richard Spencer overlap. I am told there is quite a good deal of cussing, much of it coming from me: src="https://www.podbean.com/media/player/hyxhr-78bca2?from=site&vjs=1&skin=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0" width="100%" height="315" frameborder="0"> Then it was time for breakfast with Al Sharpton…. On MSNBC's PoliticsNation Sunday, I reacted to the Benghazi/Niger comparison ("There`s one key similarity to Benghazi and there`s one key difference"), and also to the Bush/McCain/Barack Obama speeches of the prior week ("The thing that I miss from all three speeches and I would like to see more of going forward, is any sense from those leaders, the people who were in the elites for the last 15, 16 years, of their own failings that contributed to the degradation of our discourse and also of our policies"). You can watch at this link. Of the broadcast hits during the ensuing work week (including MSNBC, Fox News Radio, SiriusXM, and The Blaze), only Monday's Reason podcast was captured in a public place. But yesterday we dropped another Fifth Column, in which the great journalist Nancy Rommelmann (Reason archive here) and great humorist Bill Schulz (I did his new Compound Media show recently, too), filled in admirably for my two co-hosts, and talked mostly about gruesome stories involving media men acting grotesquely with the ladies: src="https://www.podbean.com/media/player/kigjr-799e37?from=site&vjs=1&skin=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0" width="100%" height="315" frameborder="0">[...]



Another Margaret Atwood Adaptation Shines on Netflix

Fri, 27 Oct 2017 17:00:00 -0400

S.W.A.T. CBS. Thursday, November 2, 10 p.m. Alias Grace. Available November 3 on Netflix. Whether it's a metaphor or an omen, the confluence of the debuts of CBS' S.W.A.T. and Netflix's Alias Grace this week is painful. Broadcast television is showcasing its antiquary status by wrapping up its fall season with a tepid remake of a failed 1970s cop drama, while Netflix, the model of TV's future, offers a subtle, layered dissection of the nature of truth wrapped inside a macabre double-murder. The most remarkable thing about Alias Grace may not even be its content, though that's quite extraordinary, but that it's the second time in six months that Canadian author Margaret Atwood, now tiptoeing toward her 80th birthday, has had one of her books adapted into a miniseries. Who knew literary feminism could be so profitable? Except that's far too narrow a label to pin on Atwood. The intellectual underpinnings of her work are more complex and elusive than many of her fans recognize. Men often behave badly in her novels, but so do women. Like The Handmaid's Tale, which is as much a critique of totalitarianism as it is of male supremacy, Alias Grace abounds with ideas about a host of subjects in addition to feminism: Class. Poverty. Penology. Religion. Epistemology. All this is packaged in a fictionalized account of the 1843 murder of a wealthy Canadian land owner and his housekeeper by two other members of the household staff. The killers, a stable hand named James McDermott and an oft-mistreated maid named Grace Marks, fled to the United States, but were captured. McDermott, who confessed but blamed Marks for egging him on, was executed. Marks, who said she had lost all memory of the crime, was confined to an asylum. Alias Grace opens 15 years after the murders. A group of Methodist gentry, seeking a pardon for Marks, has hired Dr. Simon Jordan—an alienist, as early psychologists were called—to investigate the case in hopes of proving she was not sane at the time of the crime. After the opening moments, almost everything that happens in Alias Grace is told through the framing device of her lengthy conversations with Jordan. And it's immediately apparent that as a narrator, she's far from reliable, evading some of his questions, falsifying her answers to others. The obvious question is whether Grace's equivocations are an attempt to take back some control over a life that has long been usurped by her father, her employers, and the masters of the bone-breaking penal and mental institutions to which she has been confined. Or is she trying to conceal something? Her own musings are ambivalent. The sincerity of the doctor's gentle and largely sympathetic interrogations, she notes in a letter to a friend, make her feel like an overripe peach, ready to burst and spill its contents. But, she reminds herself: "Inside the peach is a stone." On the other side of this unbalanced equation, Dr. Jordan is increasingly subsumed in fantasies about his patient. But are they born of romance? Or—as she suspects—is the brutality of her life functioning as a sort of misery-porn for a man secretly thrilled by tales of female subjugation? Much of Alias Grace was scripted by Atwood herself, and it shares her literary sensibilities more than any other screen adaptation of her work. What might have been a rather talky script is enlivened by the peerless performances of Sarah Gadon (who played the romantically doomed librarian in the Hulu miniseries production of 11.22.63) as the wan but flinty Grace and Canadian TV regular Paul Gross as the bewildered Dr. Jordan. The story is certainly told in feminist tones—occasionally accusatory, sometimes only chiding. But Grace has more to contend with than the patriarchy. She's afflicted by the British class system, retained to a far greater degree in loyalist Canada than the renegade United States (longing gazes acro[...]



Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Early LSD Guru

Fri, 27 Oct 2017 12:23:00 -0400

(image) One of the odder episodes in the Truman/Eisenhower days of the libertarian movement involves Gerald Heard, a mystic whose ideas took hold in the higher echelons of the Foundation for Economic Education and a now-mostly-forgotten free-market group called Spiritual Mobilization. Heard's syncretic spiritual path eventually led him to mescaline and LSD, which some of his market-loving students then tried under his guidance. In the meantime, Heard's articles graced the pages of The Freeman and Faith and Freedom, journals that were generally associated with the right wing of libertarianism but were apparently open nonetheless to a little proto–New Age thought.

Heard was also a novelist, and his corpus includes three books about "Mr. Mycroft," a retired Sherlock Holmes living incognito under his brother's name. And the first of those books, 1941's A Taste of Honey, was adapted in an ABC anthology series called The Elgin Hour, with Boris Karloff as Mr. Mycroft. I haven't read the novel, but as told here the story is a lightly comic, lightly horrific tale about a man who murders his victims with specially engineered killer bees. The plot is a bit on the thin side, but it's fun to watch Karloff, who plays up his character's eccentricities so much that at times he feels less like Sherlock Holmes than a lost incarnation of Doctor Who.

The show originally aired on February 22, 1955, but I think it makes better viewing in the week before Halloween:

src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/QChOFJHdQps" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0">

The novel was adapted again in 1966 as a movie called The Deadly Bees, this time without the Mr. Mycroft character. To see the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of that one, go here. For past Halloween installments of the Friday A/V Club, you can watch haunted-house comedies here, vintage Halloween safety films here, and a punk show at a mental hospital here. Yet more Friday A/V Club posts are here. And Gerald Heard's articles for The Freeman are here. I find them almost unreadable but your mileage may very.




The Truth About Niger

Sun, 22 Oct 2017 08:00:00 -0400

Predictably, the news media spent most of last week examining words Donald Trump may or may not have spoken to the widow of an American Green Beret killed in Niger, in northwest Africa, in early October. Not only was this coverage tedious, it was largely pointless. We know Trump is a clumsy boor, and we also know that lots of people are ready to pounce on him for any sort of gaffe, real or imagined. Who cares? It's not news. But it was useful to those who wish to distract Americans from what really needs attention: the U.S. government's perpetual war. The media's efforts should have been devoted to exploring—really exploring—why Green Berets (and drones) are in Niger at all. (This is typical of the establishment media's explanation.) That subject is apparently of little interest to media companies that see themselves merely as cheerleaders for the American Empire. For them, it's all so simple: a U.S president (even one they despise) has put or left military forces in a foreign country—no justification required; therefore, those forces are serving their country; and that in turn means that if they die, they die as heroes who were protecting our way of life. End of story. Thus the establishment media see no need to present a dissenting view, say, from an analyst who would question the dogma that inserting American warriors into faraway conflicts whenever a warlord proclaims his allegiance to ISIS is in the "national interest." Patriotic media companies have no wish to expose their audiences to the idea that jihadists would be no threat to Americans who were left to mind their own business. Apparently the American people also must be shielded from anyone who might point out that the jihadist activity in Niger and neighboring Mali is directly related to the U.S. and NATO bombing of Libya, which enabled al-Qaeda and other Muslim militants to overthrow the secular regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi. That Obama-Clinton operation in 2011, besides producing Qaddafi's grisly murder and turning Libya into a nightmare, facilitated the transfer of weapons and fanatical guerrillas from Libya to nearby countries in the Sahel — as well as Syria. Since then the U.S. government has been helping the French to "stabilize" its former colony Mali with surveillance drones and Green Berets based in Niger. Nice work, Nobel Peace Prize winner Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. (Citizen Trump was an early advocate of U.S. intervention in Libya.) Need I remind you that the U.S./NATO regime-change operation in Libya was based on a lie? Obama later said his failure to foresee the consequences of the Libya intervention was the biggest mistake of his presidency. (For more on the unintended consequences for the Sahel, see articles here, here, and here.) So the media, which pretends to play a role in keeping Americans informed, have decided the people need not hear the truth behind the events in Niger. Instead, "reporters" and "analysts" perform their role as cheerleaders for the American Empire by declaring the dead men "heroes" and focusing on the tragedy that has befallen their families. Public scrutiny of the military operation is discouraged because it thought to detract from the Green Berets' heroism. What makes them heroes? They were killed by non-Americans in a foreign land while wearing military uniforms. That's all it takes, according to the gospel of what Andrew Bacevich calls the Church of America the Redeemer and its media choir. But are they really heroes? We can question this while feeling sorrow for the people who will never see their husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers again. Reporters and analysts who emote over alleged heroism base their claim on the dubious proposition that the men were "serving their country" and "protecting our freedom." A brief examination, however, is enough to sh[...]



Nova Offers an Unusual Environmental Whodunnit Starring Volcanoes

Fri, 20 Oct 2017 15:30:00 -0400

Nova: Killer Volcanoes. Wednesday, October 25, 9 p.m. After two wretchedly solid months of hurricanes, everybody who lives on the U.S. coast anywhere east of New Mexico will welcome a chance to wallow in somebody else's misery at the hands of nature. Which makes Killer Volcanoes, an episode of the PBS science series Nova, perfectly timed. The hell with tropical depressions and vortex fixes! We salute you, magma chambers and explosive caldera eruptions! Admittedly, I may be showing signs of post-Irma stress disorder. But Killer Volcanoes is an interesting piece of work, the tale of a hunt for the source of a monstrous 13th-century eruption so cataclysmic it would eventually claim the lives of about a fifth the population of a European capital half a world away. The story begins in the 1980s, when British archeologists excavating what they thought was an ancient Roman cemetery—Brit fascination with Roman mortuary science is as endless and inexplicable as their conviction that offal is the foundation of gourmet cuisine—discovered mass, unmarked graves containing 4,000 or so skeletons. Radiocarbon dating placed their deaths around 1250 AD, several hundred years past the Romans, but also a hundred or so years before the next most logical suspect, the black plague. From there, Killer Volcanoes assumes the trappings of a noir-tinged CSI episode. Somebody remembers an ancient British monk's description—not on his deathbed, unfortunately; nobody was reading Agatha Christie yet—of a frigid summer around that time that triggered a famine that killed 15,000 people in London, something like a fifth of the city. Other reports surface of lethally cold weather across Europe and even into Japan. The most likely culprit for anything like that is a volcanic eruption, which spews ashes and gases into the air, blocking sunlight for days, weeks, and even months at a time. The 2010 eruption of a volcano in Iceland with an unpronounceable (and, more importantly for the purposes of this review, unspellable) name spewed so much subterranean crud that some people seriously wondered if it might lead to global cooling. (No word on what that would have meant for Al Gore's Nobel Prize.) And an earlier Icelandic volcano's temperature is said to have touched off the French Revolution and frozen part of the Mississippi River. Great as it might be to declare Iceland a geologic war criminal and impose U.N. sanctions on reindeer poop or whatever it is they export, it turns out the earth is riddled with sociopathic volcanoes, some 1,500 of them, going off 50 times a year, according to Killer Volcanoes. Consider Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, whose 1991 eruption sent a plume of gas 22 miles into the air and dropped the entire planet's average temperature one degree Fahrenheit for two years. Or Indonesia's Mount Tambora, whose eruption so befogged the earth with sulfurous clouds that 1815 would be remembered as The Year Without Summer, with 200,000 dead of famine. Or even Italy's Mount Vesuvius, which not only obliterated the city of Pompeii in 79 AD but saddled us for all eternity with the literary works of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, whose very name has become synonymous with barbaric hackdom. The indefatigable volcano nerds of Killer Volcanoes work through all these suspects and more by, among other things, digging into the polar ice caps in search of frozen atmosphere samples that contain volcanic gases and ash. Comparing its location to known wind patterns establishes that the guilty volcano must be located along the equator, and the sulfur content provides a sort of fingerprint that will identify the volcano positively when it's found. No spoilers here, just my assurance that there's lots of fun faux-tabloid narration ("it seemed the trail had gone cold until a clue appear[...]



White Famous Hilariously Tackles the Racial Tensions of Comedy

Fri, 13 Oct 2017 15:00:00 -0400

White Famous. Showtime. Sunday, October 15, 10 p.m. Young black comedian Floyd Mooney is unfamiliar with the concept of "white famous," so his agent explains it for him: a fame so singular that the name alone obliterates all ethnic boundaries: "Obama. Tiger Woods. Will Smith before the Jada shit." And it is within Floyd's grasp, the agent cheerily adds: "All you gotta do is be willing to wrap your lips around a little white dick now and then." That exchange pretty much sums up White Famous, a scathingly funny cocktail of hardball racial humor, caustic Hollywood self-lampoon and general filthy talk. It hits gender and race hot-buttons like Ali and Frazier hit each other—fast, hard and bloody—and if you're interested, you might want to see it soon, because even on premium cable, its life span may be short. Jay Pharoah (whose impressions of Barack Obama, Kanye West, Chris Rock and others have been a staple of Saturday Night Live the past few years) plays Floyd, an Eddie Murphy-ish stand-up comedian who's popular in Los Angeles' black clubs but hasn't had much crossover success. Still, with a steady income, a little son he loves like crazy and a pretty ex-girlfriend (Cleopatra Coleman, The Last Man On Earth) he can talk back into bed on a semi-routine basis, Floyd's life rolls along on a pleasant-enough track. His biggest challenge seems to be deadpan during his regular encounters with white Hollywood big kahunas who cringingly try to show how woke they are by saying "motherfucker" a lot and botching attempts at giving dap. When a tape of a particularly surreal exchange with a director finds its way onto the Internet, Floyd quickly becomes a viral sensation and even gets a movie offer. The catch: He has to play the role in drag, a prospect that horrifies him. "Every time there's a funny black brother in Hollywood, they try to emasculate him," Floyd complains to his sharkish agent Malcolm (Utkarsh Ambudkar, The Mindy Project), who responds with his definition of "white famous" and his prescription for what's required to attain it. Floyd doesn't buy it, and the ensuing argument—like virtually every frame of White Famous—is drenched in profound obscenity and scorched-earth racial invective until it ends with Floyd firing his agent in the middle of a posh restaurant while screaming, "Go ride a carpet!" (Malcolm's shrieked rejoinder: "How is that insulting? You know how dope it would be to have a carpet that flies?") White Famous was created by Tom Kapinos, and it embraces ethnic obloquy with the same manic zeal his show Californication did sexual depravity. Likewise with its gloriously cascading tides of obscenities, embedded in even the most mundane dialogue ("The heart wants what the heart wants, motherfucker") with such frequency that it may revive the fucks-per-minute meters that many websites used to monitor the old HBO Western Deadwood. Another meter may be necessary to track—or even identify—the political agenda of White Famous. Some gender warriors, for instance, have already identified Floyd's complaint about having to cross-dress to get a role as hetero-norming fascism. Others may think it's a shot at Tyler Perry's crotchety grandma character Madea, who's either an appalling modern incarnation of the mammy stereotype or the heroic, politically incorrect voice of the black working class, depending on which side of the debate you fall on. Actually, though, there's a tradition of male black comedians in cross-dressing roles going back at least half a century to Flip Wilson's Geraldine. Whether they've been a cultural positive, allowing for the presentation of alternative voices, or just a modern Stepin Fetchit device to give white people a laugh at the expense of blacks is a long-standing debate that's a lot more c[...]



Nathan for You Tackles Uber, Finds the Free Market Always Wins

Fri, 13 Oct 2017 13:25:00 -0400

Last night's episode of Nathan for You—the reality show where Nathan Fielder tries to help struggling businesses by coming up with zany ideas to reinvigorate them—tackled the effect of Uber on the taxi business. "Love massive corporations," Nathan tweeted before last night's show, "but tonight I make an exception and help cabbies take on Uber." (Spoilers ahead.) The episode revisited Andy, a taxi driver Nathan first tried to help back in 2014. Even then, Andy was struggling to compete with Uber. Nathan's idea was to find a pregnant woman to give birth in Andy's cab, reasoning that such publicity would be good for business. It didn't work. Three years and countless Uber expansions later, Andy was still chugging along, barely, as a cab driver. Nathan returned to Andy because, a few months after the first episode aired, Uber started a promotion where babies born in the back of Uber rides received Uber onesies. Nathan was convinced the idea was cribbed from his show. Last night's episode sought revenge. As in every episode of Nathan for You, Fielder's plan is needlessly complicated and over-the-top. Nathan and Andy try to form a "sleeper cell" of cab drivers within the Uber network who could sabotage it at any minute. With that leverage, Nathan hoped to force Uber to stop its pregnant woman promotion. Recruiting cab drivers was easy—most of them resented Uber and blamed it for steep revenue drops. At a group meeting, many of them called Uber "unfair competition," while a few pushed the myth that Uber was less safe than a taxi. (Given that you know the identity of your Uber driver and they yours before the ride starts, that the ride is tracked on GPS, and that each ride ends with a rating for both driver and passenger, this common claim stretches credulity.) Nathan ended up signing up more than 60 cabbies. They didn't know his ultimate aim was to end an Uber pregnancy promotion, just that they were supposed to provide subpar service to lower Uber's reputation. But at the end of the episode, after Nathan had produced a video of demands for Uber that almost certainly would've been flagged to federal authorities, he hit a big road block: Andy had realized that Uber was a viable alternative for him to make a livelihood. Nathan signed Andy up for Uber for a day to test the system and see which strategies (farts in a bag, Mambo #5 on blast, getting lost) could yield the lowest ratings in the fastest times. Andy performed admirably, earning a series of one-star reviews. But at some point after that, unbeknownst to Nathan, Andy gave Uber a try for real. In his last days as a cabbie, Andy installed a karaoke machine in his taxi, claiming it was the first karaoke cab. He was so sold on Uber he moved it into his personal car, claiming he was now the first karaoke Uber. Andy asked Nathan not to proceed with their plan, since he was worried it would affect his rating. Nathan reluctantly agreed, deciding that just as telephones replaced telegraphs and cars replaced horse and buggies, Uber was replacing taxis. "The free market had again chosen a winner," Nathan said in the wrap-up narration of the show. "The real enemy wasn't Uber. It was progress." Andy's experience reveals the futility of the taxi industry's fight against ride-sharing services. There's nothing inherently unfair about Uber's competition—if anything, Uber is making the playing field fairer by breaking up the old cartel. And the idea that an Uber is less safe than a taxi is not held by anyone who isn't already anti-Uber. And so Uber's share of the marketplace grows. Uber is not guaranteed to last forever, of course, but ridesharing apps are here to stay. As when the car displaced the horse and buggy, there's no going back for taxis. Cabbies who [...]



The CDC, Like the FBI, Dramatically Undercounts Deaths at Hands of Police

Thu, 12 Oct 2017 13:50:00 -0400

The media do a better job at keeping track of who the government kills than the government does. Go figure. By "who the government kills," I specifically mean who the police kill. A new study released this week shows that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which tracks stats on causes of death in the National Vital Statistics System, seriously undercounts how many people in the United States are killed during encounters with police. The report was put together by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, who compared the CDC's numbers for 2015 to The Guardian's database of people killed in police encounters in the United States. Not only did the CDC undercount the deaths, but it did so dramatically, catching only half of them. The researchers counted 1,166 fatalities that year. The Guardian's database caught 1,086 of them. The CDC registered only 643. Justin Feldman, lead author of the study, explained to Reuters that the CDC relies on diagnosis codes in state death certificates that indicate "legal intervention" was involved in the death. But many medical examiners and coroners fail to mention police involvement on these documents. This seems to happen most frequently with deaths that don't involve guns (such as a person dying after getting Tasered) and with deaths in less wealthy counties. As just one example, none of the 30 people killed by police in Oklahoma in 2015 were included in the CDC count. The CDC isn't the only agency doing a bad job of tracking these deaths. In fact, the Guardian project—and another by The Washington Post that won a Pulitzer—were devised because the FBI's efforts are so insufficient. The FBI does have a program to track police killings, but participation is voluntary and many law enforcement agencies do not participate. In some cases, entire states don't participate. So the FBI, tasked with tracking national statistics on violence and crime, does not have good numbers. They've got amazing stats on how many police are themselves killed or assaulted every year. But they don't have reliable figures on how many people the police themselves kill. The FBI announced in 2015 that it will work on improving these statistics to make them more reliable, but the bureau lacks the authority to mandate full participation by law enforcement agencies. Civil rights groups would like the FBI to try to tie federal grants to participation in the program. If we don't have the most basic information on how many people the police kill, that makes it all the harder to evaluate the circumstances behind these deaths, the trends they might represent, and whether there are changes that could reduce the risks of someone dying. "As with any public health outcome or exposure, the only way to understand the magnitude of the problem, and whether it is getting better or worse, requires that data be uniformly, validly, and reliably obtained throughout the U.S.," notes Nancy Krieger, one of the report's authors, in a press release. Check out the report out here at PLOS Medicine.[...]



FCC Chair Preemptively Rubbishes Trump’s Dumb Tweet About Challenging Media Licenses (UPDATED)

Wed, 11 Oct 2017 18:42:00 -0400

Is it a day ending in the letter "y"? Then yes, President Donald Trump has said something flippantly authoritarian, made a wholly empty threat, and blasted the media, all before lunch. Helpfully, he accomplished this all with just one tweet: With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2017 The president is correct, if unintentionally so, that challenging a media company's license out of frustration over its allegedly inaccurate coverage is "Bad for country!" As he would know well, if he paid attention to his own Federal Communications Commission Chair, Ajit Pai, who in a speech last month (as covered by Variety) sounded the warning that "free speech in practice seems to be under siege in this country": Pai added that the "common thread is the belief, shared by too many, that those with views perceived as unpopular or offensive should be silenced. One has to wonder whether those who will one day carry the torch will be dedicated to open debate or will instead seek to marginalize viewpoints they don't like." Pai said that he also sees "worrying signs" at the FCC, pointing to Twitter messages in which "people regularly demand that the FCC yank licenses from cable news channels like Fox News, MSNBC, or CNN because they disagree with the opinions expressed on those networks." "Setting aside the fact that the FCC doesn't license cable channels, these demands are fundamentally at odds with our legal and cultural traditions," Pai said. (Check out Reason's April interview with Pai, which is embedded at the bottom of this post.) CNN's Oliver Darcy and Brian Stelter do a good job of explaining why Trump's trial-balloon threat is "essentially toothless," not least because "there is no single license for NBC or any other national television network." Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of Press Foundation, counters in a Twitter thread that "There's an argument that Trump's new threats against NBC & the NFL have crossed the line into an actual First Amendment violation." As always, keep refreshing Popehat. Working through my own "5-Step Process for Playing Defense Against Trump's Bad Ideas," part of which emanated from his nonsense-talk as president-elect about criminalizing flag-burning, I quickly conclude that 1) Trump can't really do anything about this specific issue right now (not least because his FCC commish would raise a stink). 2) Congress ain't gonna do jack about this or any related issue, either. 3) There are many constitutional/institutional restraints to Trump acting on his many garbage ideas about the media (on which more below). 4) It's possible that his behavior will create a backlash that reverses the seeming erosion in public support for the First Amendment (see, for example, the recent increase in public trust of the media, and yes, yes, "the media" does not equal the First Amendment, but I'm talking about backlashes). But! 5) How might he be changing the political conversation in such a way to make what is currently unlikely possible? That's where this latest belch might linger. Let's just posit that this is a stupid and awful thing for any American president to say: President Trump: "It's frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it." pic.twitter.com/gT9FhI94tJ — NBC News (@NBCNews) October 11, 2017 Press freedoms (including to the freedom to write mean-spirited things about politicians without being rung up for sedition) are not "disgusting"; they are part of what Made America Great In the First Place (#MAGIF[...]