Facebook on the Hot Seat Before Senate Judiciary Committee

This is a dedicated post to capture your comments about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee this afternoon. At the time of this post Zuckerberg has already been on the hot seat for more than two hours and another two hours is anticipated.

Before this hearing today I have already begun to think Facebook’s oligopolic position and its decade-plus inability to effectively police its operation requires a different approach than merely increasing regulation. While Facebook isn’t the only corporation monetizing users’ data as its core business model, its platform has become so ubiquitous that it is difficult to make use of a broad swath of online services without a Facebook login (or one of a very small number of competing platforms like Google or Twitter).

If Facebook’s core mission is connecting people with a positive experience, it should be regulated like a telecommunications provider — they, too, are connectors — or it should be taken public like the U.S. Postal Service. USPS, after all, is about connecting individual and corporate users by mediating exchange of analog data.

The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) offers a potential starting point as a model for the U.S. to regulate Facebook and other social media platforms. GDPR will shape both users’ expectations and Facebook’s service whether the U.S. is on board or not; we ought to look at GDPR as a baseline for this reason, while compliant with the First Amendment and existing data regulations like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).

What aggravates me as I watch this hearing is Zuckerberg’s obvious inability to grasp nuance, whether divisions in political ideology or the fuzzy line between businesses’ interests and users’ rights. I don’t know if regulation will be enough if Facebook (manifest in Zuckerberg’s attitude) can’t fully and willingly comply with the Federal Trade Commission’s 2011 consent decree protecting users’ privacy. It’s possible fines for violations of this consent decree arising from the Cambridge Analytica/SCL abuse of users’ data might substantively damage Facebook; will we end up “owning” Facebook before we can even regulate it?

Have at it in comments.

UPDATE — 6:00 PM EDT — One of my senators, Gary Peters, just asked Zuck about audio capture, whether Facebook uses audio technology to listen to users in order to place ads relevant to users’ conversational topics. Zuck says no, which is really odd given the number of anecdotes floating around about ads popping up related to topics of conversation.

It strikes me this is one of the key problems with regulating social media: we are dealing with a technology which has outstripped its users AND its developers, evident in the inability to discuss Facebook’s operations with real fluency on either the part of government or its progenitor.

This is the real danger of artificial intelligence (AI) used to “fix” Facebook’s shortcomings; not only does Facebook not understand how its app is being abused, it can’t assure the public it can prevent AI from being flawed or itself being abused because Facebook is not in absolute control of its platform.

Zuckerberg called the Russian influence operation an ongoing “arms race.” Yeah — imagine arms made and sold by a weapons purveyor who has serious limitations understanding their own weapons. Gods help us.

EDIT — 7:32 PM EDT — Committee is trying to wrap up, Grassley is droning on in old-man-ese about defending free speech but implying at the same time Facebook needs to help salvage Congress’ public image. What a dumpster fire.

Future shock. Our entire society is suffering from future shock, unable to grasp the technology it relies on every day. Even the guy who launched Facebook can’t say with absolute certainty how his platform operates. He can point to the users’ Terms of Service but he can’t say how any user or the government can be absolutely certain users’ data is fully deleted if it goes overseas.

And conservatives aren’t going to like this one bit, but they are worst off as a whole. They are older on average, including in Congress, and they struggle with usage let alone implications and the fundamentals of social media technology itself. They haven’t moved fast enough from now-deceased Alaska Senator Ted Steven’s understanding of the internet as a “series of tubes.”

Parkland and the Twittered Revolt

Marvel at the teen survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Their composed rage is terrifying to a generation or two which have not seen the like since the 1960s and early 1970s. They are leading a revolution — but note the platform they’re using to best effect.


I can’t tell you how much use they are making of Facebook as I haven’t used it in several years. What I find telling is the dearth of links to students’ and followers’ Facebook posts tweeted into my timeline. I also note at least one MSD student exited Facebook after receiving death threats.

Twitter’s platform allows the authenticity and immediacy of the students’ communications, as easy to use as texting. There’s no filter. For whatever reason, parents haven’t taken to Twitter as they did Facebook, leaving the micro-blogging platform a space without as much adult oversight.

These attributes terrify the right-wing. There’s nothing limiting the reach of students’ messages — no algorithms slow their tweets. The ability to communicate bluntly, efficiently, and yet with grace has further thrown the right. The right-wing’s inability to accept these students as legitimately speaking for themselves and for their fellow students across the country is an expression of the right’s cognitive dissonance.

The students’ use of Twitter redeems the platform, asserting its true value. It’s 180 degrees from the problems Twitter posed as a toxic cesspool filled with trolls and bots. Parkland’s tragedy exposes what Twitter should be, what Twitter must do to ensure it doesn’t backslide.

Minors shouldn’t have to put up with bullying — especially bullying by adults. Donnie Trump Jr. is one of the worst examples of this bullying and should be booted out of the platform. Other adult bullies have also emerged but Twitter’s user base is ruthless in its swiftness, dealing a coup de grâce to Laura Ingraham’s sponsorships.

If only Twitter itself was as swift in ejecting bullies and trolls. Troll bots continue to flourish even after a large number were removed recently. Victims of tragedies should expect an ethical social media platform to eliminate trolls and bots promptly along with bullies.

Ethical social media platforms also need to ask themselves whether they want to make profit off products intended to maim and kill. Should it allow certain businesses to use promoted tweets to promote deadly products, or allow accounts for lobbying organizations representing weapons manufacturers as well as owners? Should Twitter remove the NRA just as it doesn’t permit accounts representing tobacco products?

Not to mention avoiding Facebook’s ethical crisis — should Twitter be more proactive in protecting its users now that Parkland’s Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School students have revitalized its brand?

[Photo: Annie Spratt via Unsplash]

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: Changes in the Conditions of Production

My series on Trumpian Motion concluded with the question “What happened to the cultural elites?”; meaning why did they not do a better job of resisting the conditions that produced Trump and the ugly Republican party. Of course there is no single answer, but there are several contributing explanations. It’s worth examining these partial explanations, if for no other reason than the hope that open discussion might lead to changes.

I use the term cultural elites in the sense of Pierre Bourdieu as explained in David Swartz’ book Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Swartz says Bourdieu believed that culture is largely created by cultural producers such as artists, writers, academics, intellectuals; movie and TV writers, actors and producers; and both social scientists and physical scientists. I assume today Bourdieu would include technologists, especially computer tech workers who design and produce web sites, games, and platforms and much else. The products of these workers shape our interactions with the world and society, and provide a structure through which we understand ourselves and our roles in society.

In the US we don’t have a separate category for intellectuals. We have experts, who have mastered a chunk of knowledge and are able to use it to advance that knowledge and to offer specific guidance where their knowledge is relevant. And we have pundits, who aren’t experts but who have great confidence in their ability to explain things to the rest of us. They too are cultural producers and maybe even cultural elites, people like Tom Friedman, and David Brooks and others I won’t mention; they aren’t all old, you know. There are plenty of these people scattered across the political and ideological spectrum.

In a section discussing the relationship between workers and intellectuals, based in large part on a book on French intellectuals Bourdieu wrote in the late 1980s,Swartz offers an idea that seems relevant to the issue of why cultural elites did not forcefully resist the rise of neoliberalism.

Finally, Bourdieu points to changes in the conditions of intellectual production as a source of ambiguity in political attitudes and behaviors among highly educated workers. He notes a significant decline in the numbers of French intellectuals working as self-employed artisans or entrepreneurs and their increasing integration as salaried employees within large bureaucratic organizations where they no longer claim full control over the means of their intellectual production. P. 239, cites omitted.

This change might encourage more aggressive efforts against the dominant culture, because cultural producers might rebel against their dominated status. But this seems more likely:

These new wage earners of research, [Bourdieu] charges, become more attentive to the norms of “bureaucratic reliability” than act as guardians of the “critical detachment from authority” afforded by the relative autonomy of the university. Moreover, their intellectual products bear the imprint of the “standardized norms of mass production” rather than those of the book or scientific article or the charismatic quality traditionally attached to the independent intellectual. P. 239-40, cites omitted.

This seems like a good partial explanation of the failure of cultural elites to respond to neoliberalism. It also partially explains a point Mike Konczal raised in his article Why Are There No Good Conservative Critiques of Trump’s Unified Government? And, it helps explain the rise of Trumpism as discussed here.

The trend Bourdieu describes is obvious in the US; in fact integration of research workers into the ranks of salaried workers seems even stronger than Swartz’ description. The trend is perhaps worse here because colleges and universities have become so infused with neoliberal business practices, primarily the use of adjuncts (the gig economy for teachers) who have little stability, little opportunity for sustained research, little protection from the gatekeepers of orthodoxy, and much less “critical distance from authority”. Nevertheless, I think (hope) there is still a large amount of independence in academia, especially among tenured faculty. That independence is centered around expertise in fields of study, where depth of knowledge in small areas is paramount. Many of those areas of study are far too specialized for the general public, and for policy-making.

Much of academic study is intermediated for the public and for policy-making by and through think tanks and similar groups. Of course, those organizations do some interesting research, but most of the worker’s time and energy is spent extracting useful ideas from the bowels of journals and academic books and rewriting it so that the rest of us can understand and maybe act on it.

These organizations are dependent on their rich donors, and don’t tolerate much from workers that conflicts with the interests of their donors. As an example, Barry Lynn was at New America Foundation, a prominent democratic think tank for years. He wrote often on the problems of monopoly and lack of competition in the US economy. Then he wrote an article critical of Google, one of the big sponsors of New America, and was driven out. He and a few of his associates started Open Markets Institute with funding from George Soros, another wealthy donor with his own agenda.

Charles and David Koch tried to take over the Cato Institute, which they funded, and which claims to be a libertarian think tank. This effort which was not completely successful, causing a lot of distress on the conservative side. Not much critical detachment from authority there.

Perhaps we should read this as an example of another phenomenon Bourdieu describes, the attempt to exchange cultural capital for economic capital. There is nothing inherently wrong with this of course. For example, in the university setting, getting tenure should involve both teaching and research. Competition for status and other resources in one’s field should be driven by these skills, and so should be a net gain. Good teachers and researchers should be rewarded with tenure and a steady income to support further study and teaching.

3It isn’t obvious that this will happen in the think tank world. Further it’s hard to imagine how the kind of competition we see in academic fields would work in the private sector, where there are powerful forces at work to limit the scope of intellectual activity and control access to influence.

There are similar patterns in other areas of cultural production: journalism, movies, TV, magazines, book publishing, and large parts of the music industry. Consolidation and business failures have increased the control of the few over cultural production. Where once there were many outlets for culture producers, today there are fewer, and most of them are more rigidly ideological.

It’s easy to see how people can lose their independence in these settings. They see themselves as brain workers, employees responding to the cues of their work environment, trying to do good work and advance themselves in a bureaucratic system. Institutional pressures dominate independent thinking critical of existing authority. It isn’t necessary to attribute bad motives to them to despair at the outcome.

Cambridge Analytica Uncovered and More to Come

A little recap of events overnight while we wait for Channel 4’s next video. Channel 4 had already posted a video on March 17 which you can see here:

Very much worth watching — listen carefully to whistleblower Chris Wylie explain what data was used and how it was used. I can’t emphasize enough the problem of non-consensual use; if you didn’t explicitly consent but a friend did, they still swept up your data

David Carroll of Parsons School of Design (@profcarroll) offered a short and sweet synopsis last evening of the fallout after UK’s Channel 4 aired the first video of Cambridge Analytica Uncovered.

Facebook CTO Alex Stamos had a disagreement with management about the company’s handling of crisis; first reports said he had resigned. Stamos tweeted later, explaining:

“Despite the rumors, I’m still fully engaged with my work at Facebook. It’s true that my role did change. I’m currently spending more time exploring emerging security risks and working on election security.”

Other reports say Stamos is leaving in August. Both could be true: his job has changed and he’s eventually leaving.

I’m betting we will hear from him before Congress soon, whatever the truth.

Speaking of Congress, Sen. Ron Wyden has asked Mark Zuckerberg to provide a lot of information pronto to staffer Chris Sogohian. This ought to be a lot of fun.

A Facebook whistleblower has now come forward; Sandy Parkilas said covert harvesting of users’ data happened frequently, and Facebook could have done something about it.

Perhaps we ought to talk about nationalization of a citizens’ database?

Another Shoe Dropped: Cambridge Analytica Used Its Own Kompromat

I confess, I did NOT see this coming, a perfect example of blindness based in preconceived notions about technology companies.

UK’s Channel 4 just aired a report in which Cambridge Analytica executives were secretly filmed discussing the creation and use of compromising material in campaigns. Some of the acts described violate UK Bribery Act and the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Watch:

Last evening there had been teasers revealing Cambridge Analytica had used actual Facebook users’ account information while demonstrating their psychographic profiling product, without masking the users’ personal information. This is ugly on its own, violating users’ privacy without permission.

But the creation and use of kompromat…wow.

This is an open thread. Have at it.

Three Things: This Matin, Think Latin

I have three things cluttering up my notes — just big enough to give pause but not big enough for a full post. I’ll toss them out here for an open thread.

~ 3 ~
Aluminum -> Aeronautics -> Stock Market and Spies
I’ve spent quite a while researching the aeronautics industry over the couple of years, trying to make sense out of a snippet in the Buryakov spy case indictment. The three spies were at one point digging into an aeronautics company, but the limited amount of information in the indictment suggested they were looking at a non-U.S. company.

You can imagine my surprise on December 6, 2016, when then-president-elect tweeted about Boeing’s contract for the next Air Force One, complaining it was too expensive. Was it Boeing the spies were discussing? But the company didn’t fit what I could see in the indictment, though Boeing’s business is exposed to Russia, in terms of competition and in terms of components (titanium, in particular).

It didn’t help that Trump tweeted before the stock market opened and Boeing’s stock plummeted after the opening bell. There was plenty of time for dark pool operators to go in and take positions between Trump’s tweet and the market’s open. What an incredible bonanza for those who might be on their toes — or who knew in advance this was going to happen.

And, of course, the media explained this all away as Trump’s “Art of the Deal” tactics, ignoring the fact he wasn’t yet president and he was renegotiating the terms of a signed government contract before he took office. (Ignoring also this is not much different than renegotiating sanctions before taking office…)

I was surprised again only a couple weeks later about Boeing and Lockheed; this time I wasn’t the only person who saw the opportunity, though the timing of the tweet and market opening were different.

Again, the media took note of the change in stock prices before rolling over and playing dead before the holidays.

There have been a few other opportunities like this to “take advantage of the market,” though they are a bit more obscure. Look back at the NYSE and S&P trends whenever Trump has tweeted about North Korea; if one knew it was coming, they could make a fortune.

A human would only need the gap as long as that between a Fox and Friends’ mention of bad, bad North Korea and a corresponding Trump tweet to make the play (although one might have to watch that vomit-inducing program to do this). An algorithm monitoring FaF program and Trump tweets would need even less time.

Yesterday was somebody’s platinum opportunity even if Trump was dicking around with U.S. manufacturers (including aeronautics companies) and global aluminum and steel producers. His flip-flop on tariffs surely made somebody beaucoup bucks — maybe even an oligarch with a lot of money and a stake in one of the metals, assuming he knew in advance where Trump was going to end up by the close of the market day. The market this morning is still trying to make sense of his ridiculous premise that trade wars are good and winnable; too bad the market still believes this incredibly crappy businessman is fighting a war for U.S. trade.

Just for the heck of it, go to Google News, search for [trump tariffs -solar], look for Full Coverage, sort by date and not relevance. Note how many times you see Russia mentioned in the chronologically ordered feed — mine shows exactly zero while China, Korea, Germany are all over the feed. I sure hope somebody at the SEC is paying as much attention to this as cryptocurrency.

I suppose I have to spell this out: airplanes are made of aluminum and steel, capisce?

~ 2 ~
Italian Son
One niggling bit from Glenn Simpson’s testimony for Fusion GPS before the Senate Intelligence Committee has stuck with me. I wish I could time travel and leave Simpson a note before testimony and tell him, “TELL US WHAT YOU SEE, GLENN!” when he is presented with Paul Manafort’s handwritten notes. The recorder only types what was actually said and Glenn says only the sketchiest bit about what he sees. Reading this transcript, we have only the thinnest amount of context to piece together what he sees.

Q. Do any of the other entries in here mean anything to you in light of the research you’ve conducted or what you otherwise know about Mr. Browder?

A. I’m going to — I can only speculate about some of these things. I mean, sometimes —

MR. LEVY: Don’t speculate.

A. Just would be guesses.

Q. Okay.

A. I can skip down a couple. So “Value in Cyprus as inter,” I don’t know what that means.”Illici,” I don’t know what that means. “Active sponsors of RNC,” I don’t know what that means. “Browder hired Joanna Glover” is a mistaken reference to Juliana Glover, who was Dick Cheney’s press secretary during the Iraq war and associated with another foreign policy controversy. “Russian adoptions by American families” I assume is a reference to the adoption issue.

Q. And by “adoption issue” do you mean Russia prohibiting U.S. families from adopting Russian babies as a measure in response to the Magnitsky act?

A. I assume so.

Bold mine, to emphasis the bit which has been chewing away at me. “Illici” could be an interrupted “illicit”; the committee and Simpson use the word or a modifier, illicitly, eight times during the course of their closed door session. It’s not a word we use every day; the average American Joe/Josie is more likely to use “illegitimate” or the even more popular “illegal” to describe an unlawful or undesirable action or outcome.

(I’m skeptical Manafort was stupid enough to begin scratching out “illicit” and catch himself in time, but then I can’t believe how stupid much of this criminality has been.)

But the average American Joe/Josie doesn’t travel abroad, speak with Europeans often, or speak second languages. The average white Joe/Josie may be three or more generations from their immigrant antecedents.

Not so Mr. Manafort, who is second generation Italian on both sides of his family. He may speak some Italian since his grandfather was an immigrant — and quite likely Catholic, too. Hello, Latin masses in Italian American communities.

Did Manafort mean “illici,” a derivative of Latin “illicio,” which means to entice or seduce? Or was it a corrupted variant of Latin “illico,” which means immediately?

Or is Manafort a bad speller who really meant either “elici”, “elicio,” or “elicit,” meaning to draw out or entice?

Like Simpson, these are just guesses. Only Manafort really knows and I seriously doubt he’ll ever tell what he meant.

~ 1 ~
If you haven’t checked your personal online privacy and cybersecurity recently, give Privacy Haus’s checklist a look. Nearly all of the items I’ve already addressed but I tried one of the items suggested as a fix to an ongoing challenge. Good stuff!

~ 0 ~
That’s it, have at it in this open thread! One last thing: if you didn’t read Marcy’s op-ed, Has Jared Kushner Conspired to Defraud America? in Wednesday’s NYT, you should. You’re going to need it as part of a primer going forward.

About Not Making Nice

[NB: Check the byline – this is a personal essay by me, Rayne.]

Not long ago my mother told me about an incident she found puzzling. She has an odd habit of telling me certain uncomfortable stories in a casual manner, sandwiched between other day-to-day topics; it may take some mental stuttering before I realize what it was she really told me.

Like the time she was talking about her shift in the emergency room and dropped in a passing remark that humans burnt to a crisp smell like chicken. She simply continued on, “Last night was so busy, there must have been a full moon…”

And of course I realized then as I picked my jaw up from off the floor that she needed to unload or run mad with PTSD. We share the horror she dumped on me but at least she was validated and she’s not alone with her burden.

This summer over lunch at a quaint little cafe she told me the refrigerator and stove in my parents’ Florida home needed to be replaced. My father went to the local Big Box Hardware Behemoth to replace them using the store’s credit card.

The store called her and asked her if she knew someone had the store card and was buying appliances with it. “Yes, my husband has the card,” she told the cashier. “How odd was that?” she asked me, before taking a bite from her salad and telling me about the new appliances.

Wait. Back the fuck up. I know my eyes must have bugged out of my head at this point. I asked her to repeat everything she said. My dad had a Big Box store credit card he opened to buy building supplies and appliances when they built their home a dozen years ago. He’s used it without problem up north. But now, in Florida this summer, he was told to wait until the cashier looked up his home’s hardline phone number and called the house to make sure he’s legit.

He had his fucking driver’s license and other forms of ID on him, mind you. And the cashier still called the house.

The nice white lady with the northern Midwest accent at the home number vouched for him.

The nice brown-skinned guy sporting a darker-than-usual tan because he’s been on the golf course a lot was cleared to buy appliances with his own goddamn credit card.

“Mom, that was discriminatory behavior. The cashier was racist. She just treated Dad like a second-class citizen,” I told her.

“No. Why would they do that?” She was in denial, but deep down she knew better or she would never have brought it up and slipped into our lunch chat like a rotten wedge of tomato eased onto the top of a salad.

The other person joining us for lunch gave me a side-eye and a nod. We both know my mom was both uncomfortable with what happened and yet unable to grasp the ramifications that her Asian-Pacific Islander husband, who looks like he could be Filipino or Latinx, was just treated like dirt while she wasn’t there with him to extend her invisible white privilege.

But that was just a single microaggression. There may be worse ahead.

After several reports that ICE has been randomly boarding public transportation and asking people for their identity papers, I’ve told my mother to make sure my dad carries his ID everywhere, all the time. I’ve told her to make sure her to make sure if he leaves the house he tells her where he’s headed and for how long, in case he suddenly disappears.

I can’t tell my father this. He’s a conservative, brainwashed into thinking this stuff only happens to other undeserving people, not a military veteran like him. This credit card thing was just a quirky one-off from his perspective. Never mind that the current occupant of the White House cast aspersions on the value of a birth certificate issued in Honolulu for more than a decade — which is the only kind of birth certificate my father has, born in what was then an American territory.

And never mind that ICE has picked up brown-skinned American citizens and detained them.

Mom struggled with my admonitions as much as she struggled with the idea of a racist cashier. She’s college educated, has multiple degrees in STEM fields, but she can’t see what’s in front of her, blinded by a lifetime of white privilege. She has to buffer it to accept it just the way she drops ugly things in the middle of the most innocuous conversations.

This summer my mother also dropped another nugget mid-chat; my kid brother was worried about the political environment especially because of his wife and kids. My brother is adopted, of AAPI heritage, and his spouse is of Latinx descent. They live in the Midwest near a large city, so they aren’t the only people of color in a sea of Caucasians. But they are still worried based on the little bit my mom wove into her download. Apparently my mom’s worried, too, even if she struggles to articulate what’s bothering her.

I’ve lived with the dull background noise of racism my whole life. I pass for white thanks to my mom’s StayPuft marshmallow-like genetics. My sister doesn’t pass, nor does my other brother by birth. My adopted brother definitely doesn’t pass. By passing I hear and see stuff my siblings don’t, the kind of racism white people have been reluctant to display openly but have no problem sharing when in a crowd they believe to be all white like them. This administration gave these closeted racists permission to come out and share their ugliness. They think they don’t have to spare anybody else’s feelings any more — literally, wearing t-shirts at Trump campaign rallies that read, “Fuck Your Feelings.”

With their newfound openness, I don’t need to take the time to make nice and get to know people who openly declare their belief I am not entitled to the same rights they have at best, and at worst lack the right to exist. I’m worried about family members, all Americans by birth, two of them military veterans, being detained and denied their rights simply because they are not white. I’m worried family members who are minors and in K-12 education are dealing with harassment which interferes with their learning.

Imagine how much worse this must be for African Americans. I have only just started to worry about my brother or father while their driving their car, only whether ICE will show up and nab one of them while they cut their grass, mistaking them for immigrants working as landscapers. African Americans have lived with this every day.

Making nice with racists to get inside their heads is a luxury some of us really can’t afford. Exit your denial; don’t mistake manners-as-survival-tactic for our acceptance of those who would rather see some of us dead.

Illiberal Hollywood: Kicked in its Pants by a Panther

[Graphic: Black Panther (2018) theatrical release poster, Walt Disney Studios distributor, Marvel Studios producer]

Though conservatives love to disparage the American entertainment industry as liberal, Hollywood’s business practices have been anything but. I’ve written before about its misogyny and sexism; it has only recently received the scrutiny it deserves, thanks to open protests by women actors and directors, and sadly the cascading revelations about sexual harassment and abuse.

Hollywood has likewise been racist; though minorities make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S.’ population, minorities are poorly represented in front and behind the camera. As of 2013-14, only scripted broadcast television had seen any gains in diversity. Their numbers were stable or falling in nearly all other areas. In film alone, minorities were underrepresented by:

  • Nearly 3 to 1 among film leads
  • Nearly 3 to 1 among film directors
  • Nearly 5 to 1 among film writers

(source: UCLA Bunche Center’s 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report (pdf))

Which is why this week’s release of Disney/Marvel Studios’ live action superhero film, Black Panther, has received so much attention. The director (Ryan Coogler), screen writer (Joe Robert Cole), and leads (Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o) are all African American. This is a first for a film belonging to a major franchise (Marvel Studios), produced by a major studio, with a blockbuster-sized budget of $200 million. While there are a few roles played by white actors, they are small parts which exist to support the story — a complete inversion of racial representation typical across the majority of American films.

The film’s reception even before this week’s release was overwhelmingly ecstatic; many theaters sold out once online ticket sales were available. Reaction from viewers at advance press screenings were joyful, which sold even more tickets. Box office sales this weekend are expected to surpass the film’s budget.

Eager audience response offers a solid swat in the butt of Hollywood’s bigotry, which for too long has rejected scripts or denied minority-led/directed/written films adequate funding, saying, These films aren’t what audiences want. We’ve heard the same excuses about women-led/directed/written films, too, yet they often blow away expectations. Like Wonder Woman (female director and lead), which was the third highest grossing film last year at $412M; it would have placed higher except for the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (female lead) and long-awaited live action reboot of Beauty and the Beast (female lead).

Another refrain too often heard after a minority-led/directed/written film releases: This film exceeded expectations. Hollywood never sees this as a signal not that the film outperformed their forecasts but that audience demand is greater than films supplied. In other words, institutional racism thwarts normal free market response.

Black Panther has garnered some racist reactions, predictably from those who haven’t even seen the movie. DailyCaller’s EIC Ben Shapiro had one of the stupidest as well as most racist takes:

“‘Blade’ was not enough,” Shapiro quipped, referencing the 1998 film and subsequent two sequels that starred Wesley Snipes.

His rant lumped in Halle Berry’s appearance in Catwoman (2004) and Will Smith as lead in the Men in Black trilogy (1997, 2002, 2012), implying that African Americans should be content with what they have in film representation since they’ve been free for more than 200 years and assured their civil rights more than 50 years ago.

Never mind that his first example, Blade, though it featured Wesley Snipes as its lead was made in 1998 with a white director and writer and predominantly white cast. Ditto for the following two entries in the series, released in 2002 and 2004. Apparently black Americans shouldn’t expect to see a black lead in an action film more than once every couple of years — maybe once a year if they’re lucky.

If you’re white — and let’s face it, most of this site’s readers are — imagine a lifetime of rarely seeing anyone who looks like you in film, let alone TV. The idea that minorities, who make up such a large percentage of our population, should be satisfied with rarely ever seeing themselves in all manner of stories is repugnant. It’s both an economic and cultural apartheid. Or worse; it’s not a walling off but erasure of human beings.

It’s a pretty grotesque and deeply unaware stance coming from a guy with the family name Shapiro. It’s an insult to the writers who created Black Panther as a comic book character for Marvel — Jack Kirby and Stan Lee.

There are better criticisms of the film, and they come from those who are much better informed. WaPo’s Karen Attiah interviews Kenyan journalist and broadcaster Larry Madowo on the subject of Black Panther’s fictional fantasy representation of African culture and the ‘messed up’ relationship between Africans and African Americans. Critic Leslie Lee III takes issue with Black Panther’s politics. Warning: Both critiques are spoilery, with Lee’s feedback much more so. However, these critiques are educational for a white audience unfamiliar with African culture let alone African American culture.

Based on casual feedback from creative community and fandom members alike, Black Panther may be the top grossing film this year — and in spite of its release in February, typically the slowest time in the release calendar. It may crack the all-time top 20 films for box office ticket sales.

But will this finally be enough to get through to Hollywood’s other major and minor studios that their expectations need to be reset, that minority-led/directed/written films are successful and deserve a more proportional share of the film market?

In case you’re thinking of seeing Black Panther soon, here’s a decent primer. about its place in the Marvel Studios’ Avengers mythology. I’m not going this week; I’m going a couple weeks from now to an early Monday matinee when I might have 50 percent of the theater to myself so I can take notes. I don’t expect the theater to be less than half full before then.

Open Thread: Guns, Guns, and More Bloody Guns

This is an open thread dedicated to what the National Rifle Association wants you to believe is as necessary as air along with ~13,000 gun homicides each year, and seven children and teen gun deaths each day.

Freedom — we have it at gun point.

For the record, my household has guns. They’re used for hunting. Half the meat this household consumes is venison harvested from family property. They’re secured in a gun safe when not in use.

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban in force from 1994 to 2004 didn’t impede the ability of this household to hunt its annual venison. Mass shootings were markedly lower during the ban, however, though increasing use of high capacity magazines eventually thwarted the effects of the ban.

Do I believe in the Second Amendment? Sure — including the part about a “well regulated Militia.”

The NRA doesn’t believe in that part of the amendment because it affects their actual clients’ profit motive; regulating a militia means gun makers can’t sell more guns.

At some point gun makers and their lobbyists at the NRA need to face reality: the market is saturated, which is why Remington is going into bankruptcy. There are no more arguments to be made to increase gun sales when there are more guns in the U.S. than Americans.

There are no more arguments to be made to sell more guns into a saturated market when gun proponents care more about their guns than the shattered children in classrooms.

Or when gun proponents’ arguments rely on augmentation and dispersion by foreign agents.

Bring your discussions about guns here. Keep them out of other threads so that others can have uninterrupted discussions on topic.

Happy Holidays to All

I’m in PA trying to visit with a bunch of sick relatives, so won’t have much time to voice my appreciation for everything this community does for me.

But I will share my long-time Congressman’s holiday wishes

May today be a safe and joyous day for everyone.

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