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Published: Sun, 04 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Sun, 04 Dec 2016 06:37:37 -0500


HBO Documentaries Illuminate Castro’s Brutal Cuba

Sat, 03 Dec 2016 15:00:00 -0500

Patria O Muerte: Cuba, Fatherland or Death. HBO. Sunday, December 4, 9:45 a.m. Mariela Castro's March: Cuba's LGBT Revolution. HBO. Tuesday, December 6, 5 p.m. HBO should get a little trophy from the television industry for giving executives something to talk about at holiday parties besides falling ratings and the specific level of Hell that should be reserved for whoever invented this internet thing. Instead, they can ponder over the question: Is HBO's documentary division the most genius outfit in television, or just the luckiest? Months ago, HBO acquired two unheralded documentaries on Cuba, then booked them for the very moment when Fidel Castro would head off to the great workers' collective in the sky. Water-cooler buzz galore, Latin American Policy Wonk Department. And if that department had an Emmy, Patria O Muerte: Cuba, Fatherland or Death would win it right now. First-time director Olatz López Garmendia is better known as a model and a fashion designer, but she must have had a career in operating heavy construction equipment, too, because Patria O Muerte takes a merciless wrecking ball to the Potemkin Village imagery of Cuba promoted by most of the American chattering class. The desolation and despair of Castro's Revolution—its actually existing socialism, as Marxist theoreticians of the 1950s would have called it—has never been on such devastating display for American audiences. Garmendia lived in Cuba as a child, when her Spaniard parents joined the flocks of European Fidel groupies moving to Havana to stand by their man, but she clearly didn't swallow the Kool-Aid; Patria O Muerte is not her first demythology project on Cuba. She also informed the sensibilities of her then-husband, Julian Schnabel, when he was making his epic anti-Castro movie Before Night Falls. (Garmendia worked on the film as music supervisor.) She made Patria O Muerte as something of a samizdat work; the film was shot without Cuban authorization, and she had a devil of a time getting the footage off the island. Without narration and little archival footage, Patria O Muerte makes its points through a series of interviews of ordinary Cubans, filmed in their seedy tenement apartments in Old Havana. The stories they tell, with only occasional exceptions, are not of lurid torture or persecution, but of the quiet desperation of life in a dead-end society weighed down by decay of every type: economic, physical, mental. There's a cadaverous old man named Julio who bluntly declares his life useless and is clearly talking about more than his grubby apartment when he responds to a question: "What am I missing? Everything." Or Valery, a goth transvestite who took to the streets as a jinatera, as the island's part-time hookers are known, after the remittances from a sister in the United States dried up and she found herself without enough money to buy a new toothbrush. That career ended, though, one night after she was lectured by a tourist whose appreciation for cheap commercial sex had not diminished his more-revolutionary-than-thou ardor for the Castro regime. He told her that "Cubans were shameless, that Cubans said they had problems, when there weren't any problems in Cuba." Retorted Valery: "If that's true, then what am I doing here with you for $20?" She left the streets, fearful that she was "about to kill [herself], or kill one of these foreigners." Or Mercedes, a housewife living in a tottering building built in the 1870s in which she must sleep with one eye open to avoid being hit by chunks of falling masonry. Her young son, injured in a balcony collapse, needs surgery, but building repairs make it impossible: "If we buy cement, then we can't buy food or medicine." An aphorism which, oddly, didn't make it into Sicko, Michael Moore's encomium to the Cuban health-care system. Garmendia shot some interviews with dissidents, too, including rogue blogger Yoani Sanchez, whose contribution of an audio tape of her 2010 detention by men without uniforms or credentials is by far the most chilling moment in the film. Unfortunately, her cameras [...]

LGBT Lives Are Better Than Ever, Yet The Culture War Grows Louder

Thu, 01 Dec 2016 13:15:00 -0500

My public reaction (on Twitter) when I saw BuzzFeed's strange, now-viral piece about a couple of HGTV hosts going to a church whose pastor doesn't support gay marriage was to wonder if the media outlet was going to write a similar piece about every single Catholic in America or just the famous ones. Whatever the stated intent for running a story about the church attendance of some C-list home improvement show hosts (they do well in cable ratings, anyway), the subtext is clearly intended for us to look askance at Chip and Joanna Gaines for belonging to a church whose pastor preaches against gay marriage. The weirdest part of the piece is that it's entirely speculative. The Gaineses didn't respond to requests for comment, so it's a piece that cannot even tell the reader whether the Gaineses themselves support or oppose gay marriage. Robby Soave noted this morning a couple of media outlets like Jezebel and Cosmopolitan running with the story. There's also been a much larger blitz of responses that are critical of the BuzzFeed piece. Here's some critical analysis over at the Washington Post from an engaged gay man who worries that the digital media environment under the Donald Trump administration is going to end up as "four agonizing, tedious years of 'gotcha' non-stories like this one." There is some possible good news here amid the media feeding frenzy surrounding the story: At the time that I'm writing this, a host of outlets have written about and linked to the BuzzFeed story. But I haven't seen a peep at the major blogs or media outlets (such as The Advocate) that specifically cater to LGBT readers. I may have missed a blog link somewhere given the size of the internet, but this "controversy" doesn't seem to be a focus of sites that are narrowly focused on LGBT lives and issues. Why is this good news? Because it's a sign that the people who are actually affected by cultural attitudes toward gay marriage recognition understand where the battles truly are (to the extent that there are any battles left). Whatever the Gaineses and their retrograde preacher believe about gay marriage is not relevant to whether the practice will continue. There is no indication that any of these people in this story have influence to alter the state of legal recognition (or any interest in doing so). There is a lot of focus at LGBT sites about who will be serving the Trump administration and fears about what they may do. Trump actively courted LGBT voters, which is remarkable on its own for a representative of the Republican Party. Let's not forget that the Republican Party's opposition to gay issues hasn't been just a plank in the platform—it's also historically been an issue to campaign with, something largely absent from this year's race. Trump nevertheless did terribly with gay voters, according to exit polls. But while Trump doesn't seem to personally have much opposition to the LGBT agenda, the same cannot be said for the people he's selecting for his administration, and that's where all the power will be. I've noted previously fear over Trump's selection of Rep. Tom Price to head the Department of Health and Human Services, given his record of opposition on gay issues. Betsy DeVos, Trump's pick for secretary of education, didn't just oppose legal recognition of gay marriage; she actually bankrolled ballot initiatives to block it. Her family has significant connections to organizations that have done everything they could to halt the legal normalization of same-sex relationships, and it's worth analyzing how that might affect what she does in Trump's cabinet. So having said that, what I'm seeing from pieces like this bizarre one from BuzzFeed, and from things like a gay politician's attempt to promote a boycott of a beer company owner for supporting Trump, is an inability to accept a norm that we live side-by-side in a world with significant ideological diversity, and an inability to place an emphasis on policy-making over signaling and culture war judging. Debate over DeVos' actual anti-gay background and[...]

Why It's a Mistake to Describe the Alt-Right as 'Neo-Nazis'

Tue, 29 Nov 2016 13:32:00 -0500

"Nazis. They are Nazis. Call them Nazis." With slight variations, this has been a common refrain since the National Policy Institute (NPI), a white-nationalist think tank headed by founder Richard Spencer, held a mid-November D.C. conference devoted to the alt-right's future. The event—which attracted a few hundred attendees, a few hundred protesters, and international media attention—has renewed debate over whether referring to the "alt-right" by its chosen moniker is an affront to decency and lapse in press ethics that risks "normalizing" hate. Even the Associated Press, print-media's bastion of detached editorial authority, issued recent guidance that cautions against "using the term [alt-right] generically and without definition," as "it is not well known and the term may exist primarily as a public-relations device to make its supporters' actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience." In the past, AP stated, "we have called such beliefs racist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist." Reporters writing about those who claim the alt-right mantle should use quotation marks around the term of modify it with phrases such as "self-described" or "so-called alt-right," AP advised. At ThinkProgress, editors announced last week that they would "no longer treat 'alt-right' as an accurate descriptor of either a movement or its members" and would "only use the name when quoting others." In its own coverage of "men like Spencer and groups like NPI, we will use terms we consider more accurate, such as 'white nationalist' or 'white supremacist," they stated, calling it a matter of editorial "clarity and accuracy," as there is very little that "distinguishes the alt-right from more hidebound racist movements such as the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan." ThinkProgress is right that this is a matter of "clarity and accuracy." It's just hard to see how declaring a movement specific to our current cultural and political moment as synonymous with more broad and historical analogues actually serves the purpose of clarity or accuracy. As Julian Sanchez writes at The Washington Post, "The Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and the Cambodian Khmer Rouge are (or were) all violent racist movements — and using the specific names instead of referring to them as 'violent racists' does not seem to have been much of an obstacle to recognizing them as such. They're all also distinct historical phenomena, and our understanding of them would not be enhanced if we insisted on using the same generic description for all of them." People worrying that the term "alt-right" sugarcoats the bad beliefs of those it describes ignore the way most people actually relate to language and mass communication. Alt-right isn't a term that previously meant something else in U.S. politics but got co-opted by racist extremists. It is a new term, and one still rapidly evolving and gaining meaning, which means alt-right is as alt-right does right now. If those who self-identify as alt-right keep shouting "Heil Trump!" while throwing up Nazi salutes, blasting out hateful anti-Semitic memes, and espousing the dangers of race-mixing, people will get the picture. We don't need thought-leaders to say "this movement calls itself alt-right but they're really racists and anti-Semites!!!!" because the term alt-right itself will become synonymous with these beliefs. And it will do so in a way that's specific to our current context, rather than muddying the waters with poor historical analogies. The term "Nazi" isn't a Kleenex or Xerox situation, where we just throw it around now to mean "all people with beliefs that skew nationalist or racist." Nazis (and groups like the KKK) are inextricably connected to their originating times and contexts, and all the socio-political pathologies that flourished in them. And while there are certainly some parallels between the alt-right and historical hate-groups, considering them all interchangeable isn't merely inaccurate, it also obfuscates the kind of[...]

When Fidel Castro Went on The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show

Mon, 28 Nov 2016 15:32:00 -0500

Fidel Castro ousted Fulgencio Batista's regime on January 1, 1959. Within a little more than a month, he had promoted his revolution on both The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. That Tonight Show interview—a warm conversation with then-host Jack Paar—doesn't seem to be online, so you'll have to take my word when I tell you just how strange it looks from the vantage point of 2016. But Sullivan's segment has been preserved on YouTube, and it's one hell of a the-past-is-another-country artifact. Sullivan opens by asking Fidel about his religion (Castro replies that he was raised a Catholic) and inquires about what sports the guerrilla leader used to play ("undoubtedly the exercise you did at school prepared you for this role"). Then it's on to exchanges like this one: SULLIVAN: In Latin American countries, over and over again, dictators will come along. They rape the country; they have stolen the money, millions and millions of dollars; tortured and killed people. How do you propose to end that here in Cuba? CASTRO: Very easy: not permitting any dictatorship to come again to rule our country. By the end of the interview, Sullivan has compared Castro to George Washington: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> My point in sharing this isn't to mock Sullivan. (Or Paar, who later joked: "I interviewed Fidel Castro once and he immediately turned anti-American. Of course, it may have been coincidental.") With hindsight, I know that Castro would himself soon be a self-enriching dictator who tortured and killed people. But without hindsight, I probably would have been enthusiastic about the Cuban revolution at that point too. Lots of people were enthusiastic: The rebels had just ousted a thuggish tyrant, and it wasn't yet obvious that they were about to establish a different flavor of tyranny. When you watch that interview, take it as a glimpse at how Castro looked to many Americans right after he came to power. Over the next decade, that support gradually fell away. By the time Castro proclaimed himself a Marxist-Leninist in 1961, he had lost most of his mainstream boosters. The hip lefties stuck with him for a while after that (listen to a young Bob Dylan singing "Who Killed Davey Moore" at Carnegie Hall in 1963, and check out the crowd's vigorous response when he invokes "Cuba's door/where boxing ain't allowed no more"), and much of the New Left spent the '60s imagining Cuba as an alternative to the Soviet model. But a steady drip-drip of ugly developments, especially Castro's endorsement of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, lost him a lot of those New Left fans. By the '70s, overt support for Castro was much less common. It was still around, mind you—in 1975, Francis Ford Coppola wrote but never sent the dictator a letter that began with the words "Dear Fidel, I love you"—but it was considerably more rare than it had been in the '60s, let alone in those first months of 1959. But it never disappeared. As a college student, back around 1989, I befriended the sole active member of Michigan's chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. (I was, for all practical purposes, the sole active member of the student libertarian group, so we had that in common.) He sincerely believed in human rights and civil liberties; so when he gave a presentation on campus about a trip he'd just taken to Cuba, he took care to mention some of the more unsavory facts about the regime—remarking, for example, that it was forcibly confining people with HIV. At that point an old fart by the wall piped up. "They're not imprisoned," he said. "They're quarantined." When I saw the apologetics that greeted Castro's death over the weekend, I thought of that guy. * * * * * Bonus links: I'd like to report that libertarians saw through the Castro regime quickly, and for the most part they did. But there was an element that enjoyed the romantic vision of an island standing up [...]

Amazon Delivers Trio of Trite Christmas Stories

Fri, 25 Nov 2016 15:00:00 -0500

If You Give a Mouse a Christmas Cookie. Available Friday, November 25, on Amazon Prime. The Snowy Day. Available Friday, November 25, on Amazon Prime. An American Girl Story – Maryellen 1955: Extraordinary Christmas. Available Friday, November 25, on Amazon Prime. I used to eagerly await the annual crop of Christmas movies and TV shows. And I still light up with a soft glow like a bulb on the tree when I watch the seasonal classics of my childhood. Who can resist watching dull little Bedford Falls transformed into the glorious, neon-lit hookers-and-pawnshops urban landscape of Pottersville in It's A Wonderful Life? Or sniffling away a sad tear or two at the martyrdom of the visionary Mr. Potter in the film's lost ending? Whether it was yuletide zombies, ill-mannered Norwegians, or a jolly Santa Claus blasting Satan in the butt with a cannon, I was endlessly enchanted. But those days have passed. Today's children being the overprotected little snowflake dorks they are, Christmas shows for them are nightmarish descents into robotic multicultural tedium that make me long for the bony embrace of the best Ghost of Christmas Future ever in Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. Amazon Prime has appointed itself the Official Network of Christmas Lobotomization this year, releasing three heinous little shows that parents can prop their kids (or, possibly, tie them down) in front of as they join the Black Friday throngs overrunning shopping malls. If You Give a Mouse a Christmas Cookie is an animated version of Merry Christmas, Mouse, part of a line of children's books that started in the mid-1980s with If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and then devolved into a series of increasingly horrifying tales of vermin entitlement that led through cookies, muffins, pancakes, and movie tickets, ending, probably, in the not-too-distant future with If You Give a Mouse Full Second Amendment Rights. The plot, such as it is, consists of an anthropomorphic rodent gnawing on a Christmas cookie, then rampaging around first a house and then a school in the grips of an acute Noelian psychosis, breaking stuff and spouting aphorisms ("If your friend gets stuck in a barn on Christmas Eve, then you gotta get him out no matter what") that the Developmental Psychology Police apparently believe are indispensible to living a useful life. There are lots of original songs, the most melodious and spiritually sensitive recorded since the final, dying starburst of rock'n'roll in 1970. Eventually the mouse is joined by a similarly inclined pig, dog, moose and just about every other other anthropoid ever animated short of South Park's Mr. Hankey, the singing, dancing Christmas Poo. Even the most simple-minded kid (and of course I'm referring to your neighbor's kid, not yours) is likely to find this lethally boring after about the first five minutes. If You Give a Mouse a Christmas Cookie does threaten to lapse into mild interestingness for a moment about midway through when the mouse asks the boss at a Christmas-tree lot for a free tree. "I'm a tree salesman, not a tree-giver-awayer," he snaps, but then, naturally, is so mortified at the cruel vision of a mouse without its own Christmas tree that he erupts into a fit of altruism that would cause Ayn Rand to set her own hair on fire. My only comfort was the possibility that the Health Nazis, horrified at the specter of children sharing their cookies with epidemical vectors, will launch their own series of playful specials: When a Mouse Gives You Bubonic Plague, When a Mouse Gives You Hantavirus... . The Snowy Day, Amazon Prime's other animated Christmas special, is based on the groundbreaking 1962 children's picture book about a little boy experiencing small adventures as he wanders around a snowed-under Brooklyn on Christmas Eve. Though the text didn't mention it, the illustrations made it clear that Peter was black, the first African-American protagonist in a full-color picture book. Back then the book was widely admi[...]

'Fake News' Is Easier to Trace and Debunk Than Ever Before

Tue, 22 Nov 2016 14:45:00 -0500

As pundits search for a scapegoat they can blame for Donald Trump's victory, one increasingly popular target is "fake news." Most of the discussion proceeds as though groundless stories transmitted from friend to friend are something invented in the Facebook era. You're lucky if people remember the dubious email forwards of a decade ago, let alone the orally transmitted tales of earlier generations. But when I hear the phrase fake news, I think of the Eleanor Clubs. Don't feel bad if you've never heard of those: It's been seven decades since anyone was abuzz about them, and even then they were as fictional as the pope's endorsement of Donald Trump or that photo of a bare-chested, gay Mike Pence. But in the early 1940s, quite a few people believed in them. They were even investigated by the FBI. The clubs—named for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a vocal supporter of civil rights—were supposedly a subversive network of black servants working to overturn the racial caste system, so that one day whites would work for blacks instead of the other way around. Howard Odum, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, collected versions of this story from across the South (and sometimes from other parts of the country too) in his 1943 book Race and Rumors of Race. The details varied, but the core idea, in the words of one of his informants, was this: "I hear the cooks have organized Eleanor Clubs and their motto is: A white woman in every kitchen by Christmas." Mrs. Roosevelt was supposed to be the clubs' secret chief. Did the Eleanor Club story injure Eleanor's husband at the polls? No: He kept carrying the South, as the Democrat usually did in those days. But then again, no one—as far as I know—tried to weaponize this particular tale against him. Other rumors were deliberately engineered to hurt particular public figures. These were known as whispering campaigns, and they have been deployed in political fights for eons. In 1928, Irving Stone writes in They Also Ran, a host of rumors dogged the Democrats' Catholic nominee, Al Smith: "he was building a tunnel which would connect with the Vatican; the Pope would set up his office in the White House; the Catholics would rule the country, and no one could hold office who was not a Catholic; Protestant children would be forced into Catholic schools; priests would flood the states and be in supreme command; Smith would set himself up at the head of a Catholic party which would supersede the old Democratic party!" (These were transmitted not just orally but through the fake-news organs of the day: "A flood of letters, pamphlets and anonymous newspapers swept across the South, rehashing the worst libels against the Catholic church that had been circulated in the United States during the period of 1840–60. One Democratic chairman of North Carolina reported that the anti-Catholic literature that poured into the state must have cost at least half a million dollars.") Smith didn't just lose the election; he managed to lose several Southern states. Did the rumor-mongering swing many votes? Quite possibly. The point isn't that this is the same as the fakery that flows through Facebook. We live in an entirely different media environment, with possibilities that hardly anyone could imagine in the '20s or '40s. If you told Al Smith that one day there would be Macedonian content farms targeting Trump fans because that's what brings more clicks, he would say, "No offense, my fellow American, but I don't know what the hell that means." 2016 is not 1928, and I'm all for careful efforts to see how this era's rumor transmission belts differ from their many, many precursors. But that requires you to acknowledge that the precursors existed. It also requires you to think about the ways the internet has empowered not just liars but debunkers. Consider this image, highlighted and marked up in one anti-fake-news jeremiad that's been floating around: No, tha[...]

America Called Bullshit on the Cult of Clinton

Sun, 20 Nov 2016 09:34:00 -0500

If you want to see politics based on emotionalism over reason and a borderline-religious devotion to an iconic figure, forget the Trump Army; look instead to the Cult of Clinton. Ever since Donald Trump won the presidential election, all eyes, and wringing hands, have been on the white blob who voted for him. These "loud, illiterate and credulous people," as a sap at Salon brands them, think on an "emotional level." Bill Moyers warned that ours is a "dark age of unreason," in which "low information" folks are lining up behind "The Trump Emotion Machine." Andrew Sullivan said Trump supporters relate to him as a "cult leader fused with the idea of the nation." What's funny about this is not simply that it's the biggest chattering-class hissy fit of the 21st century so far — and chattering-class hissy fits are always funny. It's that whatever you think of Trump (I'm not a fan) or his supporters (I think they're mostly normal, good people), the fact is they've got nothing on the Clinton cult when it comes to creepy, pious worship of a politician. By the Cult of Hillary Clinton, I don't mean the nearly 62 million Americans who voted for her. I have not one doubt that they are as mixed and normal a bag of people as the Trumpites are. No, I mean the Hillary machine—the celebs and activists and hacks who were so devoted to getting her elected and who have spent the past week sobbing and moaning over her loss. These people exhibit cult-like behavior far more than any Trump cheerer I've come across. Trump supporters view their man as a leader "fused with the idea of the nation"? Perhaps some do, but at least they don't see him as "light itself." That's how Clinton was described in the subhead of a piece for Lena Dunham's Lenny Letter. "Maybe [Clinton] is more than a president," gushed writer Virginia Heffernan. "Maybe she is an idea, a world-historical heroine, light itself," Nothing this nutty has been said by any of Trump's media fanboys. "Hillary is Athena," Heffernan continued, adding that "Hillary did everything right in this campaign… She cannot be faulted, criticized, or analyzed for even one more second." That's a key cry of the Cult of Hillary (as it is among followers of L. Ron Hubbard or devotees of Christ): our gal is beyond criticism, beyond the sober and technical analysis of mere humans. Michael Moore, in his movie Trumpland, looked out at his audience and, with voice breaking, said: "Maybe Hillary could be our Pope Francis." Or consider Kate McKinnon's post-election opening bit on SNL, in which she played Clinton as a pantsuited angel at a piano singing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," her voice almost cracking as she sang: "I told the truth, I didn't come to fool ya." Just imagine if some right-leaning Christian celeb (are there any?) had dolled up as Trump-as-godhead and sang praises to him. It would have been the source of East Coast mirth for years to come. But SNL's Hallelujah for Hillary was seen as perfectly normal. As with all saints and prophets, all human manifestations of light itself, the problem is never with them, but with us. We mortals are not worthy of Hillary. "Hillary didn't fail us, we failed her," asserted a writer for the Guardian. The press, and by extension the rest of us, "crucified her," claimed someone at Bustle. We always do that to messiahs, assholes that we are. And of course the light of Hillary had to be guarded against blasphemy. Truly did the Cult of Hillary seek to put her beyond "analysis for even one more second." All that stuff about her emails and Libya was pseudo-scandal, inventions of her aspiring slayers, they told us again and again and again. As Thomas Frank says, the insistence that Hillary was scandal-free had a blasphemy-deflecting feel to it. The message was that "Hillary was virtually without flaws… a peerless leader clad in saintly white… a caring benefactor of women and children." Mother Teresa in[...]

This Awkward Search Party May Be Worth Joining

Fri, 18 Nov 2016 15:00:00 -0500

Search Party. TBS. Monday, November 21, 11 p.m. Viewers wondering if they should give the bleakly satirical TBS comedy Search Party a try can certainly be forgiven if they get the impression that the network is kicking them under the table and mouthing "don't bother." Modeled on indie films not only in its grimy photography and elliptical plotting but its penurious budgeting—the closest thing to a marketable star is Alia Shawkat, part of the ensemble cast of the decade-old cult favorite Arrested Development—Search Party is not so much being aired as burned off, two episodes at a time, at 11 p.m. every night during Thanksgiving week. Don't let the lid hit you on your head as we lower your coffin into the grave, fellows. What's strange about this (well, okay, almost everything is strange about this, but especially strange) is that if you give it a chance, Search Party is kind of weirdly endearing, in a misanthropic, foul-mouthed sort of way. If you've ever wondered why all your friends are self-important sociopaths, Search Party may be the show you've been waiting for all your life. At the center of Search Party is a group of superciliously narcissistic college friends nearing the end of their 20s whose pathological self-absorption leaves them happily blinded to the fact that their supposedly fast-track career paths have veered into the breakdown lane. The single exception is Dory, played by Shawkat, the cunning, irascible teenager with incestuous designs on her cousin in Arrested Development. She has a dawning awareness that inside the group she's a doormat and outside even less: "You're not even equipped to teach tic-tac-toe," snaps a charity manager when she volunteers to mentor teenage girls. Dory is even feeling the stirrings of disenchantment with her tight little social circle, which includes Drew, her pampered, clueless boyfriend (John Reynolds, Stranger Things); Elliott, a preening designer who runs a charity that supplies designer water-bottles to sub-Saharan Africa (John Early, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising); and Portia, a bit actress and walking blonde joke (Meredith Wagner, Royal Palms). Disenchantment turns to rebellion when Dory finds herself inexplicably moved at the news that a college acquaintance named Chantal has ominously gone missing. Her friends' reactions range from bored shrugs to open hostility. "She sucked!" shouts one. "She was always brushing her hair in public!" With a surprising, if tentative, stubbornness, Dory pushes the crew into a grudging pursuit of the mystery. Like the hunt for Chantal, Search Party moves fitfully in its early stages, when it's more a series of bitterly etched sketches than a cohesive narrative. But the preening egomania of its characters becomes easier to laugh at as they acquire a few trappings of humanity. And the show gains momentum as the vanished Chantal turns from a Hitchcockian MacGuffin—a device of no importance except to trigger the plot—into a genuine mystery. The show's progression also makes it clear that the pugnacious self-absorption of Dory's friends is not trendy TV millennial-bashing but merely one more malevolent element of a hostile universe. In the unhinged world of Search Party, a subway passenger reading Anna Karenina is likely to be accosted by a strap-hanger who leans close to murmur, "I'll save you 400 pages, she dies at the end." A neighbor who timidly offers shelter to an abused wife is rewarded with a shriek: "Get the fuck out, you baby-cocked bitch!" Perhaps the reason the characters in Search Party spend so much time in front of mirrors is that they're wondering if the person they see there is, like everybody else, out to get them.[...]

Hate Crimes, Hoaxes, and Hyperbole

Fri, 18 Nov 2016 11:06:00 -0500

Swastikas spray-painted on softball dugouts. Steve Bannon getting appointed to the White House. There's been lots of spooky stuff going down in America since Donald Trump was elected president. When I reported last Friday that there had been "no violent hate-crimewave" happening—emphasis on the word violent—it was to dispel widespread rumors of a post-election surge in physical attacks on gay, transgender, and non-white Americans by emboldened and bigoted Trump supporters. Thankfully, this still holds true. While the public expression of nativist, racist, sexist, or anti-LGBT sentiments may have experienced a post-election upswing, incidents of actual altercations or attacks have still been very rare. Several of the most prominent early reports of Trump-inspired violence against people of color were later admitted to be fabrications or directly contradicted by police statements. Pointing this out seems to really anger people, who assume my intent is discredit all such reports, or to deny that there's any bigotry among Trump supporters. Neither is true. Rather, I saw a lot of distortions being spread and a lot of people who were really scared. I heard from LGBT and Jewish and non-white friends of mine, in private communications and on social media, who honestly believed it was open season on them this week. And I didn't want to see people I care about fearing for their very lives and physical safety because of a massive amount of misinformation floating around. This isn't helped by groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which states that more than 400 hate crimes have been committed in America post-election. But the vast majority of the examples SPLC gives involve incidents like one elementary student telling another that he would be deported, or a white woman laughing at a black woman who overheard her saying racist things, or a man in a car yelling "fag" as he drove by a gay couple—things that may be intolerant, unkind, and legitimately scary for those targeted, but not what most people would conjure when they hear "hate crimes" or "hateful extremism." And pointing that out doesn't equate to condoning these acts, or dismissing the hurt and fear they inspire in people. It is simply an attempt to separate what is really happening in America right now from what is hyperbole, hysteria, or hoax. The bottom line is that when it comes to physical aggression inspired by this election, we are looking at a little more than a dozen incidents reported, over a 10 day period, in a country of roughly 318.9 million people—none of which resulted in serious injuries. And these incidents vary widely in how much they can be attributed to politics, prejudice, and hate versus tempers, egos, and mental-health issues flaring along with the election results and our collective heightened emotional state. Regarding the rash of hateful graffiti and signs popping up this week: while some was certainly meant to offend or inspire terror, other times it has turned out to be the work of anti-Trump forces who intended it as commentary on how they perceive "Trump's America." For instance, the message scrawled on an Elon University whiteboard post-election—"Bye Bye Latinos Hasta La Vista"—was actually "written by a Latino student who was upset about the results of the election and wrote the message as a satirical commentary," according the school's vice president for student life. The same for a Nazi flag that went up over a house in San Francisco last week. In Pittsburg, California, a sign reading "You can hang a n****r from a tree / Equal rights he will never see!" was posted aside a house, and shared in a photo on Twitter November 12 by a man who wrote: "My sister texted this to me 10 minutes ago. Our democracy is being tested even in California." This post was retweeted more than 4,200 times. But it turns out th[...]

This Professor’s List of ‘Fake News’ Sites Goes Predictably Wrong

Thu, 17 Nov 2016 12:30:00 -0500

When a rash of news stories and analysis suggested that Facebook has a "problem" with "fake news" from pretend media outlets and wondered if something needed to be done about it, I warned about the potential consequences. In short: If Facebook were to decide to start censoring the sharing of "fake news," there would be a scramble to define what "fake" was in a way that could lead to censorship of other content. It turns out the attempt to broaden the definition of "fake news" is already happening. In a way, describing Assistant Professor Melissa Zimdars' list of online outlets to be wary of as a list of "fake news" sites is itself a little misleading. But that is how the non-fake news outlets are describing her work. Zimdars, a communications professor at Merrimaack College in Massachusetts, put together a list of what she calls "False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical 'News' Sources.'" Only two of those modifiers suggest actual faked news—"false" and "satirical." The other two words are judgment calls that we make ourselves as readers. Nevertheless, reporting is describing Zimdars' work as a list of "fake news" sites. And there are now web browser extensions that create pop-ups to warn visitors when they're looking at stories from one of these sites. This one by Brian and Feldman at New York Magazine uses Zimdars' list as a foundation. But Zimdars' list is awful. It includes not just fake or parody sites; it includes sites with heavily ideological slants like Breitbart,, Liberty Unyielding, and Red State. These are not "fake news" sites. They are blogs that—much like Reason—have a mix of opinion and news content designed to advance a particular point of view. Red State has linked to pieces from Reason on multiple occasions, and years ago I wrote a guest commentary for Breitbart attempting to make a conservative case to support gay marriage recognition. So what happens if Facebook staff were to look at Zimdars' list and accept it and decide to censor the sharing of headlines from these sites? It's within Facebook's power and right to do so, but it would be a terrible decision on their end. They wouldn't just be preventing the spreading of factually incorrect, fabricated stories. They would be blocking a lot of opinionated analysis from sites on the basis of their ideologies. The company would face a backlash for such a decision that could impact their bottom line. Reporting on the alleged impact of fake news on the election is itself full of problems. BuzzFeed investigated how well the top "fake" election news stories performed on Facebook compared to the top "real" election news stories. The fake stories had more "engagement" on Facebook than stories from mainstream media outlets. There's basic problems with this comparison—engagement doesn't mean that people read the stories or even believed them (I know anecdotally that when a fake news story shows up in my feed, the "engagement" is often people pointing out that the story is fake). There's also a problem when you look at the top stories from mainstream media outlets—they tend toward ideologically supported opinion pieces as well. Tim Carney over at The Washington Examiner noted that two of the top three stories are essentially opinion pieces: Here's the top "Real News" stories: "Trump's history of corruption is mind-boggling. So why is Clinton supposedly the corrupt one?" As the headline suggests, this is a liberal opinion piece, complaining that the media doesn't report enough on Trump's scandals. No. 2 is "Stop Pretending You Don't Know Why People Hate Hillary Clinton." This is a rambling screed claiming that people only dislike Clinton because she is a woman. So in an environment where "fake news" is policed by third parties that rely on expert analysis, we could see ideologically drive[...]

Policing ‘Fake News’ Is Our Own Responsibility, Not Facebook’s

Tue, 15 Nov 2016 13:45:00 -0500

So now it's Facebook's fault that Donald Trump was elected president. If you have any number of friends who like sharing either memes or headlines, you've undoubtedly seen all sorts of fake news stories and fabricated facts. We're not talking deliberate parodies, like The Onion, though even they fool people now and then. We're talking pieces that are just completely made up by little-known "media outlets" with vague names, and the stories are intended to be perceived as real. Because these stories don't show up anywhere else (because they're not true), people might be more inclined to click the link to read when they see them on Facebook, particularly when the headlines are outrageous. There's now apparently both a push to act as though these fake stories had a major impact on the election and also that Facebook should do something about it. There has been coverage in the New York Times, Gizmodo, and elsewhere. Google and Facebook have responded in the past by trying to find ways to de-emphasize links from these sites and just recently announced they'll refuse to run ads on fake news sites. There are a lot of concepts to parse on what seems like a minor election side story (and the latest reason for some people to ignore why Hillary Clinton actually lost), but it's worth exploring more deeply. First of all, perhaps consider that thinking people voted because of fake information they were exposed to on Facebook says more about you than them. To the extent that people fall for fake news, the fact that such news affirms existing biases certainly plays a major factor. Does anybody have evidence to suggest that fake news actually caused anybody to change their vote? There is a component to this particular argument that has a stench of "What a bunch of rubes the people are," connected directly to the results of a controversial election. Not that people don't believe in conspiracies or fall for fake news, but as Jesse Walker would point out, Americans across the spectrum believe in them, not just those who would vote for Trump. And I would point out that believing fabricated conspiracy stories perpetuated by fake news sites significantly influenced the election is itself kind of a conspiracy theory. Second, do you know who was big about pointing out fake news stories? Donald Trump. All those accusations of sexual assault and harassment? He said they're all lies. A smear job. He said he was the victim. We all understand what people demanding Facebook do something about "fake news" are actually getting at. They're generally not asking for Facebook to serve as an arbiter of the factual components of controversies (though I wouldn't put it past some people). Facebook is not very good at managing controvery. Rather what these folks have in mind that is that there are clearly news outlets that are producing fake news stories on purpose to get page views and earn some cash, and they're absolutely right. But that's exactly how Trump would describe the media outlets who run with the assault stories. So what these frustrated people need to realize is that if they convince Facebook to censor sharing of these obviously fake stories, then there's going to be a fight over what a "fake story" actually is. There's a bias here—in media circles most obviously—that it's simply going to be a matter of cutting out the outlets making stuff up from whole cloth. These little no-name places that aren't known journalistic outfits. Why would it end there? Given that Facebook is now so influential in putting information in front of people, the result will most certainly be a push to define "fake" down in order to keep stories that harm certain interests from spreading. And so, yes, forget letting algorithms do all the work. Eventually Facebook staff will be put in a position of dete[...]

Matt Welch Guest-Hosting on SiriusXM Insight (Channel 121) Today and Tomorrow From 9-12 AM ET!

Tue, 15 Nov 2016 08:50:00 -0500

This morning and next I'll be guest-hosting on SiriusXM's Insight channel (121) from 9 AM to noon on the great StandUP with Pete Dominick program. Today we will be talking the election and media bias/responsibility with familiar faces John Avlon of The Daily Beast, Mollie Hemingway of The Federalist, Michael Tracey from Planet I-Told-You-So, and Kmele Foster from your very favorite weekly three-headed podcast. You can call in at 1-877-974-7487 to heckle, so please do!

Trump and the Media’s Alleged 'Failure'

Mon, 14 Nov 2016 00:01:00 -0500

Terry Brown is a 55-year-old plumber in Stanley, North Carolina, a small town that is 90 percent white and whose motto is "Jesus Saves." He is the sort of person media elites and coastal liberals allegedly overlooked or scorned before Donald Trump's surprise victory. These arrogant sophisticates, we are told, live in a world of people just like themselves, making them incapable of understanding the real America. So Trump's victory hit them like a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky. Brown, however, was not surprised. "I don't know anyone who would vote for Hillary Clinton," he told Los Angeles Times reporter Jenny Jarvie the day after the election. He doesn't know anyone who would vote for Clinton? That's quite a feat, because 60.5 million of his fellow Americans did. Apparently, there are Trump voters who live in their own bubbles—distant from and deaf to ordinary people who think differently. On Tuesday, analysts reported, the outcome was determined largely by a surge of support from whites who didn't go to college and live in rural counties, particularly in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. The media and Democrats were blamed for not expecting as much. The ensuing condemnations implied that Jake Tapper knew less about Toledo than he does about Tanzania. Rod Dreher of The American Conservative accused the news media of "forgetting that (they) ever knew people like the white working-class and rural people of the Rust Belt." Piers Morgan congratulated himself in the Daily Mail for writing last year, "Trump has a big popular appeal away from the snobby halls of Washington and New York's media elite. Regular Americans love the guy." If the media assumed Clinton would win, it was not because reporters forgot that there were people who favored Trump. There was an endless supply of stories featuring interviews with them. Each of his rallies drew throngs of journalists—who might have done a better job of learning the views of Trump supporters if the campaign had not confined the press to areas separate from the rest of the audience. When Morgan says "regular Americans" love Trump, he's using the term in an odd way. It's worth noting that Trump didn't even get more votes than Clinton, who beat him by nearly 400,000 votes nationally. You can't get as many votes as she did without attracting at least a few ordinary folks. Nor did Trump capture the working class. Among voters with incomes between $30,000 and $50,000 a year, Clinton beat him by 9 points. But when Morgan refers to "regular Americans," he obviously means "white Americans." Working-class blacks and small-town Hispanics are irregular and thus irrelevant. It never occurs to the media-bashers that rural white blue-collar guys may be insulated from real Americans, a lot of whom live in big cities. Metropolitan New York alone has 18 million people—more than Wisconsin, Michigan and New Hampshire combined. Marathon County, an industrial area in north central Wisconsin that Trump won easily, is 0.8 percent African-American and 2.7 percent Hispanic. Manhattan is 18 percent black and 26 percent Latino. New York and other urban areas have just as much claim to be the home of real Americans as any Midwestern town. If the media failed to foresee the election outcome, it's not because they weren't paying attention. It was partly because they relied on the most comprehensive information available—national and state polls. Public opinion surveys had shown Trump leading his Republican rivals during the primaries, and they proved accurate. In the general election campaign, polls consistently showed Clinton leading the race both nationally and in most battleground states. Most Republican politicians and consultants expected Trump[...]

Stop Sharing News That Trans Teen Suicides Spiked Post-Election—It's Not Just Wrong, But Dangerous to LGBT Youth

Sat, 12 Nov 2016 21:15:00 -0500

Calls to mental health and suicide hotlines spiked this week after Donald Trump was elected president, according to four major crisis-prevention hotlines, with much of the increase coming in calls from LGBT people. Even worse, the election results allegedly triggered the suicides of at least 10 transgender Americans—the majority of them teenagers—within the few days following Trump's win, according to reports rapidly circulating on social media. But while the Trump/Pence win and the return of Republican power may have created apprehension among the LGBT community, there's no evidence to support rumors of a recent wave of transgender-teen suicides and very good cause to doubt them. Tragically, though, this false epidemic going viral could help drive up real suicide attempts among struggling teens. The news of a wave of trans teen suicides began circulating on Wednesday, when a few people posted Facebook updates claiming that the information came from private support groups for parents of transgender children. It was given legs Wednesday night by Guardian writer and Out magazine editor-at-large Zach Stafford, who tweeted that "at least 8 trans youth have committed suicide in the wake of Trump's win." Stafford's tweet was retweeted more than 13,000 times before he deleted it, explaining: "as we continue to investigate the reported suicides, I've spoken w/ GLAAD and we feel it best to take down the original tweet. ...until families can come forward & we have better facts. Currently there is fear of suicide contagion due to the social media." Nick Adams, director of the GLAAD Transgender Media Program, told BuzzFeed News that there were "unconfirmed reports that some trans people died by suicide in the hours following the election," though at that point it was "not possible to substantiate those rumors." He added that "it's important that mainstream media outlets and people on social media do not spread incomplete or inaccurate information about suicides, as it can lead others to attempt self harm." But while mainstream media may have heeded his warning, the rumors escalated on social media and blogs, spread by activists, journalists, and thousands of scared and saddened individuals. By Friday, a list of names was circulating: 10 transgender Americans who had killed themselves since Tuesday for reasons directly related to Trump's election. It's unclear where this list originated, but soon it was filling Facebook feeds and Twitter timelines. I had mentioned the transgender-teen suicide rumors in passing in an earlier post, and if there was evidence showing them to be true, I wanted to update the post. But the list immediately raised red flags—everyone was a "revolutionary communist activist" or had a pregnant fiance or a family wherein Trump's election somehow resulted in there only being enough money for one of two trans siblings to transition. So I started looking for more information about any of the named people. If I could find anything affirming these heartbreaking incidents, I wanted to share it. If not... well, what kind of sick person makes things like this up? In countless comments, tweets, and Tumblr posts, people were sharing the list with genuine grief, worry, anger, and fear. Countless young LGBT people and sad, scared kids were likely seeing this. I'm no expert on social contagion or teen suicides, but the people who are seem to think this is exactly what we don't want: a tide of unsubstantiated suicide rumors that could normalize, glamorize, or otherwise encourage suicide attempts in already depressed or vulnerable young people. But in trying to confirm that any of the named people had committed suicide, or even existed, I've turned up nothing. Most of thei[...]

Who Knew Traveling to Mars Could Seem So Dull?

Fri, 11 Nov 2016 15:00:00 -0500

Mars. National Geographic Channel. Monday, November 14, 9 p.m. Over the years, Hollywood has populated Mars with hungry bat-rat-spiders, horny little bald guys, decapitationist ghosts, and even dorky little nerd children who look like Pia Zadora. But now, the National Geographic Channel's miniseries Mars will change forever the way we think about the planet, for it boldly goes where no man has gone before, into the very cosmic bowels of tedium and ennui. A weird attempt to blend documentary and sci-fi, Mars is an exquisite botch of both. Its only real accomplishment is to set back the reputation of executive producer Ron Howard to the days when he was murdering the mommies of adorable little baby birds on The Andy Griffith Show. Mars is structured, to use a far more elegant term than is actually warranted, as a mockumentary about a manned mission to Mars in 2033. About half the show is devoted to the fictional mission, half to the real work of "pioneers" in the field, particularly Elon Musk and his mercantilist interplanetary-colonization SpaceX boondoggle, for which Mars often seems a cruelly overlong infomercial. The National Geographic Channel has been bragging that the mockumentary mix "will redefine television storytelling by combining feature film-quality scripted drama and visual effects with best-in-class documentary sequences to drive forward a cohesive, edge-of-your-seat story." I'd say it will more likely redefine Hollywood accounting practices by substituting mundane interviews for scripts and action sequences, and obviating the need for actors with emotional ranges much beyond those of the faces on Mount Rushmore. Both halves of Mars consist largely of talking heads heaped upon talking heads, and not in an interesting Khmer Rouge way. The "pioneers" mostly seem to be vying for the title of King of the Obvious. Genuflect before the insight of Neil deGrasse Tyson, who observes that Mars "is more hostile to life than any place on Earth," courageously defying the common wisdom that a near-vacuum atmosphere devoid of oxygen and nighttime temperatures of a hundred below zero are practically synonyms for "live long and prosper." The fictional side of the show is, if anything, worse, consisting largely of interviews like this one, in which the astronauts are questioned about their captain. Reporter: "Who is Ben Sawyer?" Astronaut No. 1, in profound tone: "Ben Sawyer is our commander." Astronaut No. 2, in even more profound tone: "Ben Sawyer is a member of the team." Those astronauts have names, by the way, but there's no need to keep track of them; characterizations in Mars do not even rise to the level of cardboard, more like a sodden wad of toilet paper. The belabored cast includes Ben Cotton (Battlestar Galactica), Alberto Ammann (Narcos), Robert Foucault (Django Unchained) and Korean-American rocker JiHae playing twins, or maybe triplets—who can tell? To the extent the cast escapes the omnipresent interviews for a story, it doesn't amount to much. The crew gets in a rocket and flies to Mars; stuff breaks; they fix it; or they don't. There are occasional scenes of the astronauts trooping around the awesome Martian landscape, shot in Morocco, but certainly no more awesome than those shot in Jordan for Matt Damon's 2015 marooned-in-space drama The Martian, which was a more engaging work in every way. For that matter, a NASA reality show would be more engaging. Remember Lisa Nowak, the astronaut who outfitted herself with a BB gun, a two-pound mallet, pepper spray, surgical tubing and absorbent diapers—so she wouldn't have to make any bathroom stops—and then drove 900 miles and five states to straighten out a rival for the affections [...]