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Published: Wed, 21 Mar 2018 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Wed, 21 Mar 2018 16:02:36 -0400


Arthur Miller’s Daughter Humanizes Playwright in New Documentary

Fri, 16 Mar 2018 15:00:00 -0400

Arthur Miller: Writer. HBO. Monday, March 19, 8 p.m. The public image of the playwright Arthur Miller has always been chilly and cerebral, perhaps best summed up in his explanation to a reporter of why he wouldn't be attending the funeral of his ex-wife Marilyn Monroe, who committed suicide 18 months after they split: "She won't be there." The signal achievement of Arthur Miller: Writer, a documentary made by his writer-filmmaker daughter Rebecca, is to introduce some color into that black-and-white picture. In old home movies and impromptu interviews shot over she shot over two decades, her father is seen joking, singing, building furniture (complete with the requisite cursing: "Goddamn angles drive you crazy," he mutters when pieces don't fit together), and swapping family folktales with his brothers and sisters. Even his brief reminiscences about the stormy marriage to Monroe, though they sound cold (he couldn't do any writing during the marriage because "I guess, to put it frankly, I was taking care of her," which was "the most thankless job you can possibly imagine"), are spoken with an obvious pain that belies the wintry words. Humanizing her father is at once the most singularly successful element of Rebecca Miller's documentary, and the source of its failures. "He lived through so many different eras, almost like different lifetimes," she says early during her narration of the documentary, an insightful observation. There is Miller the star playwright, rattling Broadway with go-for-the-throat accounts of the crumbling dynamics of families whose patriarchs have been undone by outside forces: the delusional, failed Willie Loman of Death of a Salesman, or the sexually obsessed longshoreman Eddie Carbone of A View from the Bridge. Then there's Miller the brave (and a bit preening) moralist of the Red Scares in the 1950s, projecting a carefully constructed image of an innocent and courageous writer being persecuted for showing character at a time when, in the words of his daughter, "it was dangerous to be a liberal and an artist." There's also Miller the unwilling prey of the tabloids during the marriage to Monroe. Or Miller the gentle husband and dad, who when an adolescent Rebecca asked for a stereo, built one from scratch using discarded stuff he found at the dump. The Miller Rebecca knew best was the affectionate dad, finally getting domesticity and parenthood right, mostly, when his best work was well behind him, and the sections of Writer devoted to him ring mostly warm and true. They also have a revelatory feel that's mostly not present the rest of the time; so much has been written about Miller's work and his public persona that there's probably little new left to tell. (Indeed, a number of soundbites that seem to come from Rebecca's interviews with her father are actually him reading from Timebend, Miller's 1987 autobiography.) When Writer veers into other areas, it is not always as forthcoming. The account of Miller's marriage to Monroe concentrates entirely on her downward swirl of barbiturates and booze and doesn't mention that at least a small part of it probably resulted from her reading in his diary that he considered her an embarrassment around his friends. (Give Rebecca credit, though, for recounting the critical outrage at the vindictive and wildly egocentric play After the Fall, written by Miller after Monroe's death. The Village Voice suggested it be retitled I Slept with Marilyn Monroe.) Much worse is her fractured retelling of the events surrounding Miller's confrontation with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and its investigation of Hollywood's Communist Party in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Director Elia Kazan, Miller's best friend and stage collaborator, was an embittered ex-Communist who agreed to testify and name names of other party members. ("I hate the Communists and have for many years, and don't feel right about giving up my career to defend them," Kazan said.) Miller didn't speak to him for 10 years, and also wrote a play, The Crucible, comparing HUAC and its witnes[...]

Will and Grace Botches the Gay Wedding Cake Fight

Fri, 16 Mar 2018 14:30:00 -0400

Granted, we shouldn't expect complex legal analysis from television comedies, even ones that have lawyers in them. But I thought that Will & Grace, of all shows, would at least grasp the basics of the conflict around conservative bakers and gay wedding cakes. Alas: Thursday's Will & Grace, in its comic pursuit of laughs connected to current gay issues, gets the entire wedding cake debate absurdly wrong in its attempt to flip the script. In "The Beefcake and the Cake Beef," over-the-top wealthy gadfly Karen, a vocal supporter of Donald Trump, is rejected by a bakery when she tries to get a cake made with "MAGA" on it for a birthday party for the president. Here's the set-up: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> Refusing Karen is well within the bakery's rights, and it will be regardless of how the Masterpiece Cakeshop case before the Supreme Court comes out. A pro-Trump message on a cake is speech. A cake baker, a T-shirt printer, or a book publisher cannot be forced to print speech that he or she disagrees with. That's called compelled speech. The show ends up taking this role reversal to a weird and terrible conclusion. Grace, who hates Trump and all he stands for, pushes the bakery to make Karen's MAGA cake, going so far as to raise the specter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) coming after them. To its credit, the show takes the argument to its natural, terrible conclusion: The episode ends with the baker reluctantly baking a customer a cake with a swastika on it. But in doing so, the show pretty much gets everything backwards. It mentions that the ACLU has represented the free speech rights of Nazis, and this is true, but the show doesn't even grasp the basic idea that the bakery has speech rights too. When it comes to compelled speech, the ACLU would likely be defending the bakery here. The argument about gay wedding cakes is fundamentally about what counts as speech and expression. The ACLU is representing gay couples in these wedding cases, including Masterpiece Cakeshop. Their argument is not that bakers have to cook whatever cake their customers demand. They're arguing that this isn't a speech or religious freedom issue and that it's foundationally about denying service to gay people in violation of public accommodation laws. They don't see wedding cakes and other wedding products as a form of expressive speech. The writing on the cake, yes. The cake itself, no. I think the ACLU is wrong here. So does the Reason Foundation, which publishes this site: We've submitted an amicus brief supporting the bakery and arguing that custom-made wedding goods like cakes and floral arrangements count as expressive speech and therefore that the government cannot force businesses to provide them. But even some libertarians disagree. Eugene Volokh of The Volokh Conspiracy (hosted here at Reason) submitted an amicus brief supporting the opposite side. Within this dispute, though, neither side argues that a baker should be required to make any cake that any customer wants. People do not give up their rights to free speech (and more important, the right to refuse to communicate some speech) just because they've opened a business and serve the public. Everything about this debate is where those boundaries of speech sit. So Grace was completely in the wrong when she browbeat the bakery into making Karen's MAGA cake. By doing so, she treated those bakers as though they're nothing but servants with no say in what they may do—which, ironically, makes her just like Karen.[...]

$20 Fee for Porn Access Proposed in Rhode Island

Mon, 05 Mar 2018 14:08:00 -0500

(image) Rhode Island has joined a host of other states in considering an irrational measure to regulate online porn by charging consumers a $20 access fee. But the Rhode Island bill actually beats others like it in terrible and unconstitutional requirements, such as requiring the blockage of not just nude imagery or porn sites but any content that "affront(s) current standards of decency"... whatever that means.

The bill, sponsored by state Sens. Frank Ciccone (D-Providence) and Hannah Gallo (D-Cranston), is packed with ill-defined terms and extreme mandates.

To start, it would require all internet-enabled devices sold in the state to come with "a digital blocking capability that renders inaccessible sexual content and/or patently offensive material." But as many previous schemes to block sexual content have shown, it's nearly impossible for automated censors to distinguish pornographic sexual content from sexual wellness websites, reproductive health organizations, ancient art, educational information, and all sorts of other non-obscene or pornographic stuff.

And the Rhode Island bill wouldn't just block overtly sexual content but anything deemed "patently offensive," too–even though there's no clear definition of this term. The state currently defines "patently offensive" as material "so offensive on its face as to affront current standards of decency."

Makers of computers, smartphones, and other internet-enabled products would be left to determine for themselves what exactly "current standards of decency" means and how to put that in algorithmic terms.

The proposal doesn't stop there in terms of confusing and unconstitutional dictates, though. It would also require devices to automatically block "any hub that facilitates prostitution"—again, not a legal or well-defined category of content.

And device makers would also have to "ensure that all child pornography and revenge pornography is inaccessible" on their products—something that sounds great but is completely technically infeasible. If it were that easy to stop the spread of child porn, companies would be doing it already.

What makes all of this especially ridiculous is that under Ciccone and Gallo's proposal, anyone over 18-years-old could have the filter removed by making a request in writing and paying a $20 fee. The money would go to the state's general treasury "to help fund the operations of the council on human trafficking." (But... if people are paying the state $20 to access prostitution sites, doesn't that make the state a trafficker?)

The fact that lawmakers think blocked "patently offensive" material should be able to be accessed for a low price just shows how toothless their proclamations that the legislation is necessary to protect public health or morals. But what lawmakers would get out of the measure is a nice new source of steady income and a registry of people who want the filter removed.

Plus, the fees imposed on individual consumers would be pocket change compared to the money the state could make shaking down tech companies. Under Ciccone and Gallo's proposal, failure to implement the technically impossible filtering requirements could mean being sued by the state or any Rhode Island resident, being held liable for civil damages, and being charged up to $500 "for each piece of content that was reported but not subsequently blocked."

Two New Sitcoms High on Concepts; Unfortunately Less So on Laughs

Fri, 02 Mar 2018 15:30:00 -0500

Life Sentence. The CW. Wednesday, March 7, 9 p.m. Champions. NBC. Thursday, March 8, 9:30 p.m. Once upon a time, television sitcoms were mostly high-concept, built in a one-punch concept: Appalachian rednecks move into a Southern California mansion! An astronaut lives with a hot supernatural chick who will do anything for him, except show her belly button! Identical teenage cousins with violently different temperaments (Where Cathy adores a minuet, the Ballets Russes, and crepe suzette, our Patty loves to rock and roll, a hot dog makes her lose control ...) wreak havoc! In recent years, high concept has taken a back seat to sitcoms in which the characters mostly sit around in offices or coffee shops, talking about stuff. Supposedly this is a more realistic approach, though my bosses don't seem to think so. ("No, you may not take your laptop over to Starbucks for the afternoon.") But the pendulum may be swinging back, if next week's sitcom premieres are any indication. The CW's Life Sentence and NBC's Champions are very high on concept. Not so much on jokes or characters, though. Life Sentence is essentially a giant good-news-bad-news joke: Hey, you're not dying of cancer after all! But while you were sick, your family turned into a bunch of bilious, broke blockheads! Lucy Hale, the weird but cute-as-a-button Aria in Pretty Little Liars, plays ex-cancer-victim Stella Adler, whose family wrapped her in a tight, Make-a-Wish cocoon during an eight-year battle against a disease that everybody thought was terminal. "My life has been pretty amazing," she says, and indeed it has been: An endless round of elegant pre-funeral parties; a long visit to Paris "where I dressed up like a sexy mime and waited for a soulmate to appear"; marriage to a sexy continental chap she hardly knows. ("It was only a six-month commitment, tops!") But the news that an experimental therapy has cured her also flattens Stella under the weight of the real world. That trip to Paris bankrupted her father and hastened her mother's entry into an affair. Her oh-so-supportive sister is really a shrew, her lovable brother a slacker whose sole waking activity is boinking married women. And it turns out the continental chap would, all things considered, prefer being whipped to hours of having hours of butterfly sex by candlelight. Oh, and when her dad's cancer family support group found out his daughter wasn't going to die, they gave him a farewell pizza and booted him before he could even slice it. Life Sentence is going for the same macabre, black-comedy laughs that Queen Latifah did in her 2006 mistaken-terminal-diagnosis Last Holiday, or even those Alec Guinness chased in the less sunny original 1950 version of the film. Hale and the rest of the cast get a few of them, particularly when they're first realizing that they can no longer hustle favors by playing the cancer card. But as the financial and emotional dominoes keep tumbling, there are only so many chuckles to be wrung from financial ruin and emotional defenestration. The show goes from morbidly funny to morbid to jagged and depressing at record speed. There are a lot of jokes in Life Sentence about patients watching "sappy cancer movies." Now, for a change of pace, they've got a cruelly serrated TV show about wellness. As jokes go, that's more of a bad-news-worse-news type. The concept in Champions seems to be Two and a Half Men viewed through the lens of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Written, produced, and even acted in an inexplicable bit by Mindy Kaling (much loved as a writer on NBC's The Office, much unwatched as the creator-producer of Fox's The Mindy Project), Champions concerns a couple of amiably dumb jock brothers who somehow wind up with the custody of a flamboyantly gay teenage boy. Laffs mostly do not ensue. Anders Holm, part of Kaling's crew on The Mindy Project, plays gym owner Vince, whose lack of intelligence or ambition is compensated for with a prodigious string of romantic conquests. His life get tu[...]

The Volokh Conspiracy Comes to Reason

Thu, 01 Mar 2018 12:00:00 -0500

In December, the cast of characters known collectively as The Volokh Conspiracy left The Washington Post—where they have made their home since 2014—and moved to Shortly before the eclectic crew of legal bloggers began their migration, the conspiracy's namesake and unofficial ringleader, University of California, Los Angeles law professor Eugene Volokh, talked with Reason's Nick Gillespie about life, liberty, and the law. Q: The contributors to The Volokh Conspiracy are mostly libertarianish, but not exclusively so. Is that accurate? A: That's right. We're basically moderates, libertarians, and conservatives. Some of us are more on one side than another, but I like "libertarianish." That's how I think of myself. For the purposes of our blog, we never feel we need to toe the party line. Sometimes I talk about court cases, and I point out that the legally correct result under the precedents, it's not the libertarian result. We might like to have a Constitution that's more libertarian than ours, but in many ways our Constitution is majoritarian rather than libertarian. Q: Why "conspiracy"? A: I was trying to come up with a name, and I thought, "How about The Volokh Gang?" Then I realized there was a show on television, a public affairs show, called The Capital Gang, and people would think that we are trying to rip them off, or at the very least that we're derivative. Q: And who wants that? Especially in law, where everything is based on what came before. A: There's a line that law is the only discipline in which the phrase "That's an original idea" is a pejorative. But in the academy, we're always supposed to be original, and what's more, it's more fun to be original. "OK," I thought, "so it can't be gang." This was in 2002, not long after all this talk about the "vast right-wing conspiracy." So I thought, "How about The Volokh Conspiracy?" The absurd thing is that a conspiracy would call itself "The Conspiracy" on a webpage. I will say that since then I've heard people say, "Look, I'm reluctant to pass along your stories to my friends, because they're going to think that this is a conspiracy theory website." On the other hand, at times I remember looking in our referrer logs, and people were looking for conspiracy theories. They found our blog. They may have been disappointed, but maybe they got enlightened. Q: You have a pretty fascinating American story. How does that experience affect your views? A: I was born in Kiev, which was then in the Soviet Union. My parents, as a result of their experience in Russia, ended up being Republicans. They saw Reagan as telling it like it is on communism, and the Democrats of the late '70s and early '80s as basically missing the evils of communism. I was 7 when I came [to the United States]. Their support made me open to the values of free markets. I like to think I've independently reached that result, but I think it helped that free markets and laissez-faire were not dirty words in our household. Q: How has Trump has done on the federal judiciary so far? A: There are many things to quarrel with the administration on, but in my view the one area in which they have done a really good job is picking top-notch judges. I'm sure you can find some exceptions, but the judges that I happen to know who were picked by the administration are really all superb. Q: When you say a judge is good, is it because they come to results you agree with? A: Human beings being who we are, we do tend to see more virtues in those we agree with and more vices in those we disagree with. But here I'm speaking about intelligence and, to the extent that we have this information, judicial craft. In any event, if what you're looking for is liberals, you're not going to get them from President Trump. If you're looking for libertarians, you're really not going to get any from either party. On the other hand, if you're looking for smart, thoughtful conservatives who will, at least some of them, ha[...]

The Men Who Saw Bin Laden Coming

Fri, 23 Feb 2018 15:00:00 -0500

The Looming Tower. Available Thursday, February 28, on Hulu. In the days following 9/11, The Siege—a 1998 box-office dud in which paranoia about terrorism causes the U.S. government to declare martial law and start herding Muslims into prison camps—became the most-rented video in America, "making me the first profiteer in the war on terrorism," the film's screenwriter Lawrence Wright morbidly joked at the time. No disrespect to Mr. Wright—far from it—but it may be that his reputation and bank account will prove to be Osama bin Laden's most lasting legacy. Following The Siege, Wright in 2006 wrote a magnificent, Pulitzer Prize-winning history of modern jihad, The Looming Tower. That was followed in 2007 by a one-man, off-Broadway show, My Trip to Al Qaeda, partly an adaptation of the book and partly a reflection about what it meant. Three years later, Wright turned out an HBO adaptation of the play. Both were widely praised. And now Wright has turned his book into a Hulu miniseries about the handful of U.S. national security officials who saw bin Laden coming and tried to stop him, much to their government's indifference. It's scary, a little sickening, and entirely spellbinding. Perhaps it would better to say that Wright has turned a part of his book into a miniseries. The Looming Tower has undergone massive compression in this conversion to the screen. The book is a sprawling history that begins with the tale of Egyptian educator Sayyim Qtub's 1948 trip to America—his account of the sexual predation and heretical dietary habits (salt on melons!) of Greeley, Colorado, is considered to be the intellectual foundation of Islamic fundamentalism—and extends to virtually every point on the geographic and political compass as it tracks jihadists and their pursuers alike. This 10-hour miniseries has reduced the story to a single electrified thread that ticks like a time bomb, the lackadaisical U.S. tracking of bin Laden in the years before the September 11. Sloughing the history and ideology of al Qaeda may make the show less intellectually satisfying than the book, but what's left in the miniseries shines diamond-hard and brilliant. The Looming Tower miniseries begins in 1998, in a Washington still smitten with the idea that the end of the Cold War was the prelude to a peaceful world in which ideological conflict had no place. Not that the upper echelons of the Clinton administration didn't have fears, but they mostly centered on Monica Lewinsky's blue dress. Practically nobody is concerned about bin Laden, an obscure sheik whose mad threats to make war on Washington sound like Third World magical thinking. Among the few people in Washington who disagree are John O'Neill (Jeff Daniels, Godless), the head of the FBI's counterterrorism section, and Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard, The Killing), chief of the CIA station code-named Alec, which was entirely devoted to the pursuit of bin Laden. And it's the vicious, no-holds-barred battle between them—and with their own bosses—as they competitively pursue bin Laden that's at the center of The Looming Tower. Both are organizational renegades whose jobs perpetually dangle by threads. The New York-based O'Neill, enraged when FBI Direct Louis Freeh sides with another office in a jurisdictional dispute, screams at his Washington rival: "You and Louie can go fuck yourselves, or each other, whichever makes you happy!" Schmidt's prose is more elegant, but his propensity for bureaucratic kamikaze-dom equally zealous. He has a complete meltdown when the CIA won't let him order a missile strike on a desert hunting camp in Afghanistan where bin Laden was visiting with a United Arab Emirates prince. (The Schmidt character is a thinly disguised fictional version of the real head of the CIA's Alec Station, the since-retired Michael Scheuer. I once asked Scheuer if the agency's fear of the diplomatic ramifications of killing a member of the UAE roya[...]

Netflix Loves the ‘90s in New Teen Comedy Everything Sucks!

Fri, 16 Feb 2018 15:45:00 -0500

Everything Sucks! Available now on Netflix. One of the most enduring cultural contributions of the Baby Boomers is the serio-comic generational-coming-of-age flick. (Whether that's a positive contribution or a cosmic banana peel is a discussion for another time and bottle of Jack Daniels.) Since American Graffiti's teenage archetypes drove off into the night toward Vietnam, the civil rights movement and K-tel hell, every generation, sub-generation and random demo (Hey, remember Generation Jones? The Bay City Rollers will never die!) has gotten a movie or TV series about its teenage years. From The Lords of Flatbush to The Wonder Years, from Pretty in Pink to Freaks and Geeks, getting older never gets old. What's interesting about this is that—except for the records/cassettes/CDs/mp3s they listened to—there doesn't to be a great deal of difference in the generations. Nerds, jocks, bullies, cool kids, bad boys, and mean girls march shoulder to shoulder through the decades in an eternal cycle of mindless oppression and hopeless sexual obsession. Toad, the Vespa-riding geek of American Graffiti, could just as easily be the reeking-of-virginity Finch in the American Pie movies. The bitch-to-the-bone Heathers of Heathers are clones (or maybe it's vice-versa) of the devious Cheerios cheering squad in Glee. Growing up is growing up. So saying that Netflix's back-to-the-'90s Everything Sucks! is derivative isn't a criticism, just an observation. Unlike ABC's Grown-ish, which swallowed The Breakfast Club and then regurgitated it whole, Everything Sucks! isn't a ripoff. But it's trapped by the parameters of the genre. There isn't much to see in it that you haven't run across before: a doomed romance not unlike the one in 16 Candles, a raucous cafeteria scene with echoes of Animal House, botched and malapropistic morning school announcements like Grease. But God knows kids who went to high school in the late 1990s deserve their chance to wallow in fuzzy nostalgia, too, especially since the two decades since they graduated have been largely comprised of economic malaise and Middle Eastern wars. So Everything Sucks! will have to do, and it does. It's funny, if not clamorously so; superbly acted, by a bunch of people you never heard of; and good-hearted, without being Hallmark-ish. You may not be screaming "Author!" at the end of every episode, but you might be smiling and thinking that 1996—existing in an age when the primary teenage use of cell phones was not to tearfully inform parents that a madman with an AR-15 was firing through the school windows—wasn't so bad. That's the year in which Everything Sucks! is set, in Boring, Oregon, which really exists even if the show's precise mise en scène, Boring High School ("Home of the Boring Beavers!") does not. Freshman geeks Luke (Jahi Di'Allo Winston, Feed the Beast), McQuaid (Rio Mangini, Nickelodeon's Bella and the Bulldogs) and Tyler (newcomer Quinn Liebling), frantically searching for protection from the terrors of high school, decide they might have a shot at the Audio-Visual Club. "It's beneath choir," notes one of them hopefully. "It's beneath Weather Club." Indeed, the AV Club turns out to be largely populated of clods and spastics whose closed-circuit TV production of the morning announcements is an ongoing technical disaster. When Luke tries to help out one of the crew, a pretty but eremitic girl named Kate (Canadian TV actress Peyton Kennedy), he peers into the viewfinder of her camera and warns her, "You're a little out of focus." Her reply—"I know, I'm trying to fix that"—will prove to be more ambiguous than Luke understands. Kate is laden with secrets, which Luke doesn't know as he lays plans to date her. What follows is the predictable if amusingly well-executed humor of a nerd suitor trying to punch above his romantic weight. (First dilemma: Whether to ask for the date via fax or telepathy.) But th[...]

Trump's Fake News

Thu, 15 Feb 2018 11:20:00 -0500

Donald Trump tends to call whatever he dislikes "fake news," from inconvenient facts to unfavorable reporting. Even though the President himself is less a font of truth and more a spigot of self-serving exaggeration and insults. But Trump isn't all wrong when he labels reporting against him as fictitious or slanted. Reporters have become so enraged with the President that in their hurry to lambaste him, they sometimes forget about fact checking and standard quality controls. Here are just a few stories which turned out to be exaggerated or wrong. CNN: Trump's healthcare plan would qualify rape as a preexisting condition ABC: Trump instructed Michael Flynn to contact Russian officials during the campaign WSJ: Mueller subpoenaed Trump's financial records from Deutsche Bank Washington Post: Trump's Florida rally was all but empty CNN: Trump accessed stolen DNC emails nine days before WikiLeaks released them MSNBC: America's ambassador to Panama quit over Trump's "shithole" comments The result is that actual "fake news" is slipping into major news outlets. When hit pieces turn out to be false, they bolster Trump's claims about the media and discredit journalists in the eyes of his supporters. In the latest "Mostly Weekly" Andrew Heaton explains the relationship between "Trump Derangement Syndrome," fake news, and a solution for the media. Mostly Weekly is hosted by Andrew Heaton, with headwriter Sarah Rose Siskind. Script by Sarah Rose Siskind with writing assistance from Andrew Heaton and Brian Sack. Special guest appearance by Brian Sack as "TV doctor" Edited by Austin Bragg and Siskind. Produced by Meredith and Austin Bragg. Theme Song: Frozen by Surfer Blood. Subscribe at YouTube. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.[...]

When an Echo Chamber Gets Worked Up About Echo Chambers

Wed, 14 Feb 2018 11:40:00 -0500

The fear of filter bubbles has only grown stronger since Eli Pariser popularized the term at the beginning of the decade. Americans, he warned in his 2011 book The Filter Bubble, are "more and more enclosed in our own little bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared facts; instead we're being offered parallel but separate universes." If you follow elite political discourse, you've probably heard several ever-more-worried versions of that idea. Or at least I keep hearing them. It's possible that they just seem ubiquitous in my own particular bubble. Pariser's portrait may be popular, but that doesn't mean it's well-grounded. Four academics—Andrew Guess, Benjamin Lyons, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler—have just published a skeptical take on the topic. Summarizing several studies, they argue that "the 'echo chambers' narrative captures, at most, the experience of a minority of the public." For example: In controlled experiments, people do prefer congenial information over uncongenial information—a tendency that is especially prevalent in the domain of politics. People also tend to self-report a filtered media diet. But studies that actually track people's behavior tell a different story. On television, media outlets with a significant partisan or ideological slant simply do not reach most of the U.S. population. The audience of Fox News and MSNBC peaks at 2 million to 3 million for well-known shows by hosts like Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow in prime time. By comparison, about 24 million Americans tune into nightly network news broadcasts on NBC, ABC, and CBS and over 10 million viewers watch these networks' Sunday morning political talk shows. These audiences are in turn dwarfed by those for entertainment, where programs like The Big Bang Theory and Sunday Night Football attract as many as 20 million viewers. The point here isn't that the network newscasts are themselves free of ideology (they aren't!) or that viewers are getting their news from The Big Bang Theory. It's that people aren't as politically self-segregated as the narrative has it, and that the most popular media-consumption tribes aren't organized around news or political commentary at all. Guess & co. suggest that one reason the filter-bubble narrative is so popular in the press is because it's much more likely to be true of political writers and the people they cover. In the authors' words, "polarized media consumption is much more common among an important segment of the public—the most politically active, knowledgeable, and engaged. This group is disproportionately visible online and in public life." As a result, the idea that echo chambers are growing more common "has ironically been amplified and distorted in a kind of echo chamber effect." (Morris Fiorina made a similar argument in a recent Reason interview.) Some of us have been beating this drum for a while. Back in 2011, for example, I panned Pariser's book for missing the ways the internet has reduced rather than intensified the filter-bubble effect. I'll wrap up with an excerpt from that: Yes, our media consumption is increasingly personalized. But personalized does not mean isolated. Pariser imagines the Internet becoming a stagnant "city of ghettoes" where "connections and overlap between communities" disappear. But how many people belong to just one online community? A personalized Internet is an Internet geared toward your particular combination of interests, and therefore to your particular combination of human networks. If you're a Methodist Democrat in South Baltimore who watches birds, follows basketball, and loves Elvis, you might be in touch online with people who share your faith but not your politics, and vice versa; your neighborhood but not your hobby, and vice versa; your taste in sports but not in music, and vice versa. That isn't a city of ghettoes[...]

CNN’s Patty Hearst Docuseries Shows Surprising Depth

Fri, 09 Feb 2018 15:01:00 -0500

The Radical Story of Patty Hearst. CNN. Sunday, February 11, 9 p.m. Not to be flippant, but I sometimes think Patricia Hearst—the kidnapped heiress turned bank robber turned brainwash victim, not necessarily in that order—has been my personal full-employment program. I've been writing newspaper and magazine stories about her almost from the moment she was kidnapped in 1974, a stream of assignments that shows no sign of ending. I am, however, small economic potatoes compared to CNN's Jeffrey Toobin. After buying 150 boxes of research materials from one of Hearst's kidnappers—defense files compiled for their criminal trials, including secret FBI documents and reports from private investigators—he leveraged it into a series of blockbuster media properties: A book! A podcast! A movie! A TV series! The film was deep-sixed by a timid studio, at least temporarily, when an angry Hearst played the #MeToo card. (Satiate unfulfilled longing for a big-screen treatment with all those Patty-porn flicks from the 1970s or even Paul Schrader's lacerating 1988 film Patty Hearst.) But the TV show has arrived. Toobin's six-part documentary, The Radical Story of Patty Hearst, kicks off on CNN with back-to-back episodes Sunday. And somewhat to my surprise, there is still considerable life in the story, despite who is telling it. Hearst, an heiress to the Hearst media fortune, was an apolitical 19-year-old college kid when she was grabbed by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a band of semi-literate and fully crazy "urban guerrillas" who had already killed an Oakland school superintendent for his imagined fascism. (He wanted to introduce student IDs to the school system.) They threw her into a closet for six weeks, raped her, and threatened to kill her, reading her to sleep at night with the works of Stalin. When Hearst emerged two months later, she declared she had switched sides—"I have chosen to stay and fight"—and was now at war with the "pig Hearsts." What followed was a lunatic rollercoaster ride of bank robberies, shootouts, and bombings that ended with most of the SLA members dead and Hearst in the custody of the FBI, claiming to be brainwashed. As I wrote when Toobin's book American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst appeared in 2016, "It is not easy to botch an account of the Hearst case, which overflowed with primal cultural fears, political nutballery, criminal bang-bang, and lurid sexual subtexts." Toobin, however, proved himself equal to the task, managing to somehow produce a text with the batty lynch-mistress vehemence of his former CNN colleague Nancy Grace that was nonetheless as dull as the Stalinist semiotics the SLA loved. With barely a few sentences about real-life instances of what psychologists called coercive persuasion that might lend weight to Hearst's brainwashing defense—American POWs in North Korea who confessed to preposterous accusations of biological warfare, the bank-robbery hostages so smitten by their captors that they prompted the coining of the phrase "Stockholm syndrome," the hundreds of members of Rev. Jim Jones' doomsday temple in Guyana who let him talk them into mass suicide—Toobin blithely declared Hearst a thrill-seeking rich kid invoking class privilege who belonged in jail. There was no reason to expect anything different from The Radical Story of Patty Hearst. But, startlingly, Toobin proves himself a much better storyteller when the medium is video, at least for the first five hours or so. A large part of that is due to the surprising presence of a couple of long-silent participants in the Hearst drama. One is Steven Weed, Hearst's fiancé (and, ahem, former high school math teacher) at the time of her kidnapping. To many of the Americans following the case, Weed seemed a sketchy character from the be[...]

That Time the LaRouchies Won Two Primaries in Illinois

Fri, 09 Feb 2018 14:20:00 -0500

Arthur Jones, a man whose career includes a long stint in the National Socialist White People's Party, is on track to win the Republican nomination next month in Illinois' 3rd Congressional District. When this story first started attracting attention, some people added it to their list of signs that bigots are newly "emboldened" in the Trump era. But on closer examination, it turned out to be more of a sign that the Democrats have a stranglehold on the 3rd District: Jones is a perennial fringe candidate, and the only reason the old Nazi looks likely to actually win a primary this time is because he's the only candidate on the Republican side who bothered to sign up. That's the kind of thing that can happen in a race that one party is sure to lose. But this post isn't about Jones. It's about the déjà vu this story is giving me. It was in the same state, 32 years ago, that two followers of the proto-fascist crank Lyndon LaRouche managed to win the Democratic nominations for lieutenant governor and secretary of state. That time there were some other candidates on the primary ballot—George Sangmeister and Aurelia Pucinski, respectively. When Mark Fairchild and Janice Hart beat them, the most widespread theory had it that they won by having less "ethnic" names. Below you'll find a 1986 C-Span interview with Fairchild, the would-be lieutenant governor. Asked at the beginning if LaRouche runs an "anti-Semitic, hate-filled, neo-Nazi organization," Fairchild, who was 28 at the time, describes the charge as "pretty heavy-duty stuff" and denies it. He then goes on to discuss his platform, which among other things included quarantining AIDS patients and using the military to fight the war on drugs. The talk also turns to some of LaRouche's trademark conspiracy theories, including the notions that Henry Kissinger is secretly gay, that Walter Mondale is a KGB agent, and that the queen of England is a drug dealer. But the best moment comes at 51:20, when a caller reads a passage from the LaRouchie book Dope, Inc.: In the late 1940s, University of Chicago professor Milton Friedman was installed as President of the Gold Seal Liquor Company—the original Capone enterprise. Friedman soon also assumed the presidency of the Illinois Liquor Dealers Association—a position from which he no doubt carried out his first experiments in "free market economics." "My understanding," the caller remarks, "is that the Milton Friedman who headed Gold Seal Liquors is a totally different Milton Friedman than Milton Friedman the economist." For the record, the caller's understanding was correct. The Republicans wound up crushing the LaRouche Democrats. Meanwhile, Adlai Stevenson III, who had been set to be the Democratic nominee for governor, instead created a third party—the Solidarity Party—rather than share a ticket with Fairchild and Hart. The punchline: After Stevenson returned to the Democrats, the Solidarity Party and its ballot line were seized by a group whose cultist reputation rivaled the LaRouchies'—the New Alliance Party. And the New Alliance Party had been created by one Fred Newman, a former ally of a fellow named Lyndon LaRouche. Here is the full C-Span interview: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="512" height="330" frameborder="0"> (For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. Dope, Inc. was co-authored by David Goldman, who after leaving the LaRouche movement started blogging under the name "Spengler"; to see what he's up to these days, go here.)[...]

Showtime Documentary Highlights Drug War’s Futility

Fri, 02 Feb 2018 15:00:00 -0500

(image) The Trade. Showtime. Friday, February 2, 9 p.m.

In all the billions of words and electronic images expended in telling the story of the war on drugs, perhaps nothing sums it up quite so concisely as a scene in Showtime's new documentary series The Trade. As a bedraggled mother is dragged off following her arrest on heroin charges, a cop kneels to speak to her crying children. "It's okay," he comforts them. "We're the good guys." After more than a century of this senseless, futile war, you still can't identify the players without a scorecard.

Producer-director Matthew Heineman, in his second go-round with the war on drugs (his 2015 film Cartel Land was nominated for the Oscar in documentaries), has given us an unnervingly close-up study of the conflict. Given an astonishing level of access to both Mexican drug lords and American junkies, he's intercut their stories with a narrative about an Ohio police narcotics squad, which though far more ordinary, is still revealing.

The result is a maddening and depressing account of cruelty and stupidity on every side. In the southwestern Mexico state of Guerrero, the country's top-producing poppy state, Don Miguel's heroin business is booming so much that he throws a giant Christmas party for the kids in his town, complete with toys and pizza.

But his body count is rising exponentially, too, as he settles difficulties (real or imagined) with rivals in distinctly un-lawyerly ways—a part of the job, Don Miguel is quick to add, that he doesn't enjoy: "It's no fun doing dirty work." Judging from the terrifyingly animalistic howls of townfolk who've found loved ones among roadside stacks of Don Miguel's tortured, headless victims, it's not much fun on the receiving end, either.

A couple of thousand miles to the northeast in Atlanta, we meet some of the consumers of Don Miguel's product. Skylar, a 30-ish junkie whose days are devoted to shooting a prodigious amount of dope and ripping off his parents, is—after going through seven overdoses and the shootings of a bunch of his friends—as fatigued as Don Miguel. "The last seven years have been like a frickin' roller coaster," he allows, saying he's ready to quit. His mother, who's heard it all before, is willing to help, but skeptical. "Skylar would walk over my dead body to get his drug," she declares with weary certainty.

And in Columbus, Ohio, narcotics cops are relentlessly pursuing their mission to get drugs off the street with the same single-minded zeal of the American military officer in Vietnam who famously observed that sometimes you've got to destroy a village in order to save it. "Chilling" isn't nearly a sufficient word for what it feels like to listen as they map out a flash-bang grenade attack on a suspected drug house, even though they know several small children are inside.

The raid, amazingly, ends without disaster, only because a couple of addled junkies—"dealers" in the sense only that they sell small amounts of dope to support their own habits—have better judgment than the cops and surrender without a fuss. "I am making a difference," brags one of the cops. "We are getting drug dealers off the street. At least this way we can say we are trying." So are Special Olympics softball players who get ribbons for hitting the ball even though they ran to third base instead of first. That analogy is dead-on, in more ways than one.

Farewell to Nicholas von Hoffman, the Newsman Who Got Fired for Comparing Nixon to a Dead Mouse

Fri, 02 Feb 2018 09:30:00 -0500

Nicholas von Hoffman died yesterday. He was 88 years old and he wasn't that famous anymore, but he used to be all over the media: He had a Washington Post column that was syndicated across the country, he recorded radio commentaries for the CBS show Spectrum, and he had a recurring gig doing point/counterpoint segments for 60 Minutes, speaking for the left while James Kilpatrick represented the right. He was fired from that last job after the night he compared Richard Nixon to a dead mouse on a kitchen floor. "The question," he said of the president, "is who is going to pick it up by the tail and drop it in the trash. At this point it makes no difference whether he resigns, thereby depositing himself in a sanitary container, or whether Congress scoops him up in the dustpan of impeachment. But as an urgent national health measure, we've got to get that decomposing political corpse out of the White House." I'm trying to think of the last time von Hoffman had a big moment of public notoriety. It was probably in 2001, when Andrew Sullivan started handing out a sarcastic "Von Hoffman Award" for "stunningly wrong political, social and cultural predictions." The columnist had earned the honor by writing skeptically about the then-young war in Afghanistan—he had said the U.S. was "fighting blind" and "distracted by gusts of wishful thinking." What a nut, right? After a few years, an abashed Sullivan confessed that von Hoffman had had a point, and he renamed the prize for Dick Morris. Von Hoffman got his start as an activist, not a journalist, and in the '50s he was a lieutenant of sorts to the Chicago-based organizer Saul Alinsky. (My review of Radical, von Hoffman's memoir of his Alinsky days, is here.) From there he drifted into reporting, filing lively dispatches for the Chicago Daily News and then The Washington Post. He wrote sympathetically about the counterculture and the civil rights movement, unsympathetically about Nixon and the Vietnam War; he developed a reputation as the Post's in-house New Leftist. And that he was, more or less. But like the more anarchistic New Left types—and like his old boss Alinsky—von Hoffman didn't have much faith in big government. By the early 1970s, when he had his newspaper column and his 60 Minutes job, that distrust sometimes led him to unexpected positions. Take the time he devoted a column to the notion that the John Birch Society offers a useful "corrective to our thinking." (When they denounce Nixon or the Fed, he wrote, they start "talking about the uses of power, money and politics in ways we can learn from.") He still kept the Birchers at arm's length, naturally. But he didn't add any caveats in 1971 when he wrote a piece praising the foreign policy views of the isolationist Ohio senator Robert Taft. After quoting extensively from a speech the late Republican had given two decades earlier, von Hoffman announced that Taft was "right on every question all the way from inflation to the terrible demoralization of troops." Von Hoffman also wrote several '70s articles applauding the ideas of Louis Kelso, an apostle of employee ownership. That might sound more like what you'd expect from a New Left writer—worker power!—except that both Kelso and von Hoffman presented the proposal not as an alternative to capitalism but as a more radical form of it. When Henry Fairlie read some of those dispatches, he threw up his hands and complained that von Hoffman "parades himself as a radical" but wants "to make everyone a capitalist." And then there was his column about the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard. It didn't endorse the full ancap program, but it did embrace the most radical part of it. "One of Rothbard's best, new ideas is to shut down the police depar[...]

This Boring British Cops Clone May Show the Future of American Mass Surveillance

Wed, 31 Jan 2018 15:50:00 -0500

BBC's popular reality show Traffic Cops is not so far from what a stereotype-inclined American might imagine if told "it's like Cops, but British." It also shows a worrying future-that-might-be of mass surveillance in America. Traffic Cops may not be a montage of helmeted and mustachioed bobbies puffing after pickpocketing orphans on cobblestoned streets. But to American eyes, the constables of Traffic Cops do seem terribly proper and polite. Compared to the show's ever-controversial American cousin, there's very little shouting, wrestling, cracking of skulls, or brandishing of firearms. In fact, to Americans used to seeing copious amounts of such activities in our cop shows, Traffic Cops (and its spinoff, Motorway Cops) can seem downright boring. Sure, you get the occasional familiar chase-bail-run-tackle sequence. But thanks to strict national restrictions on engaging in high-speed chases, pursuits often end with the cops taking down a plate number and letting the fugitive drive away. This might sound like a pleasant alternative to American civil libertarians, but there's a sinister twist that sours the picture: mass surveillance. The really boring thing about the show is how much time the constables spend just waiting for alerts from Britain's driver surveillance network to pop up on their squad-car screens. Some background: Britain's major roads are among the most heavily surveilled on earth. Every day, more than 8,500 Automated Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) devices placed along the country's roads and in police vehicles read and store the location of between 25 and 35 million license plates, potentially capturing more than half of Britain's entire population of 65 million. Driving in the United Kingdom is also regulated more heavily than in many parts of the U.S. In addition to being licensed and insured, British drivers must pay an annual per-vehicle excise tax meant to discourage private car ownership. The Ministry of Transportation is also supposed to inspect each car annually for compliance with environmental standards. The Ministry of Transporation and the United Kingdom's tax collection service share all their vehicle data with a vast law enforcement data management system called the Police National Computer (PNC). All private car insurers are required to do this as well. And the PNC is connected, of course, to the ANPR network. As such, the ANPR cameras are able to determine, within moments, the license, insurance, tax, and inspection status of every car they see. When the system spots a violation, it alerts the Traffic Cops. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" frameborder="0" height="315" width="560"> Occasionally, the ANPR helps the cops recover a stolen vehicle or locate a missing person. At other times it flags cars "known to be associated with drugs," cars possessed by people with unpaid tax debt, and cars whose owners have a history of "anti-social driving," whatever that is. But the great majority of the infractions it uncovers seem to involve skirting the high costs of compliance with Britain's burdensome driving regulation scheme. To judge from the show, the typical penalty seems to be a stiff fine and seizure of the car—a punishment the cops readily explain (with exquisite politeness) is imposed purely as a deterrent. In straight-to-camera bits filmed in the backs of police cars, "outlaw drivers" often confess that they haven't paid their road tax or renewed their inspection because they can't afford to, but still need to drive to get to work, take children to school, and so on. The cops nod sympathetically while writing out the ticket and calling the tow truck. These enc[...]

The New York Times Is Now a Nazi Paper. Wait, What?

Mon, 29 Jan 2018 14:45:00 -0500

Over the weekend, St. Louis writer and "scholar of authoritarian states" Sarah Kendzior caused a stir by asserting that it was no longer possible to deny that The New York Times is "now a white supremacist paper." Kendzior herself had shared an article from the Times just a few hours earlier, but in light of a Saturday op-ed by columnist Ross Douthat she was now urging people to "#Unsubscribe". Douthat's piece argued that maybe it was time for establishment lawmakers to bargain with people like White House immigration adviser Stephen Miller, since trying to shut immigration restrictionists out of the conversation hadn't worked. "The present view of many liberals seems to be that restrictionists can eventually be steamrolled—that the same ethnic transformations that have made white anxiety acute will eventually bury white-identity politics with sheer multiethnic numbers," wrote Douthat. "But liberals have been waiting 12 years for that 'eventually' to arrive, and instead Trump is president and the illegal immigrants they want to protect are still in limbo." Kendzior labeled this "praise for Miller," which—in conjunction with the Times' "multiple Nazi puff pieces" and "constant pro-Trump PR"—made it clear that anyone who has "a conscience" or "value[s] the truth" must cancel their Times' subscriptions. Together, Kendzior's two anti-Times tweets had garnered around 3,000 retweets and more than 6,000 likes by Monday. NYT is now a white supremacist paper. The multiple Nazi puff pieces, constant pro-Trump PR, and praise for Miller on today of all days is not exceptional -- it's the guiding ideology of the paper. I don't think every writer there shares it, but it dominates coverage #Unsubscribe — Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) January 28, 2018 The Times will be fine, of course, and Douthat too. Reasonable people can concede that even if Douthat is wrong about the value of including Miller in immigration talks, he is not personally championing Miller's mindset; that a lot of people who want to limit immigration are not Nazis or white supremacists; and that the Times airing these ideas in an op-ed is not tantamount to the paper endorsing them. But Kendzior's denunciation of the paper—an outlet routinely accused by the right of being too liberal—highlights precisely how hyperbolic and silly some high-profile "resistance" figures can be these days, and how much of a performative witch-hunt slinging "white nationalist" accusations has become. For those with less clout than The New York Times (i.e., most of us), the consequences of these tendencies can be dire—especially when combined with what's become widespread and bipartisan acceptance for doxxing (outing people's identities or personal information), for trying to get people fired over online speech or associations unrelated to their jobs, for tagging people's employers into online disagreements, and for using old and out-of-context content to score points in current and unrelated arguments. All of these trends were on display last week in a dust-up involving a D.C. public employee who was identified in a Facebook photo posted by Escape The Room DC. The photo featured activist Chelsea Manning hanging out with notable right-wing provocateurs like Cassandra Fairbanks, Lucian Wintrich, and Jack Posobiec. Also tagged was someone identified as both John Goldman and Jack Murphy. In his non-digital life, Goldman serves as a senior manager of finance, analysis, and strategy with the D.C. Public Charter School Board. We met once, in 2016, and have followed each other digitally ever since. Online, he manages a blog and active Twitter account as Murphy, detailing his experiences as a former Democrat[...]