Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Roll Over, D. W. Griffith — Make Way For Ryan Coogler & An Afrofuturistic Alternative To White Imagination

This past weekend, this blogger's daughter and her middle son came for a visit. The blogger asked the grandson, "What would you like to do?" The boy answered without hesitation: "Let's go see "Black Panther." And so off we went to a nearby movie palace with at least a dozen screens. "Black Panther" was shown on opening Friday in 3 versions: IMAX, 3-D, and Regular. The choice was a grandfatherly decision to go for the IMAX-version. To say the least, the film was a powerful experience. Later, in reading today's essay about "Black Panther," the film's director, Ryan Coogler, was identified by his first film, "Fruitvale Station" — a very powerful film in its own right. Ryan Coogler is a gifted film-maker. If this is (fair & balanced) film appreciation, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap 'Zine]
Why "Black Panther" Is A Defining Moment For Black America
By Carvell Wallace

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The Grand Lake Theater — the kind of old-time movie house with cavernous ceilings and ornate crown moldings — is one place I take my kids to remind us that we belong to Oakland, CA. Whenever there is a film or community event that has meaning for this town, the Grand Lake is where you go to see it. There are local film festivals, indie film festivals, erotic film festivals, congressional town halls, political fund-raisers. After Hurricane Katrina, the lobby served as a drop-off for donations. We run into friends and classmates there. On weekends we meet at the farmers’ market across the street for coffee.

The last momentous community event I experienced at the Grand Lake was a weeknight viewing of “Fruitvale Station,” the 2013 film directed by the Bay Area native Ryan Coogler. It was about the real-life police shooting of Oscar Grant, 22, right here in Oakland, where Grant’s killing landed less like a news story and more like the death of a friend or a child. He had worked at a popular grocery, gone to schools and summer camps with the children of acquaintances. His death — he was shot by the transit police while handcuffed, unarmed and face down on a train-station platform, early in the morning of New Year’s Day 2009 — sparked intense grief, outrage and sustained protest, years before Black Lives Matter took shape as a movement. Coogler’s telling took us slowly through the minutiae of Grant’s last day alive: We saw his family and child, his struggles at work, his relationship to a gentrifying city, his attempts to make sense of a young life that felt both aimless and daunting. But the moment I remember most took place after the movie was over: A group of us, friends and strangers alike and nearly all black, stood in the cool night under the marquee, crying and holding one another. It didn’t matter that we didn’t know one another. We knew enough.

On a misty morning this January, I found myself standing at that same spot, having gotten out of my car to take a picture of the Grand Lake’s marquee. The words “Black Panther” were on it, placed dead center. They were not in normal-size letters; the theater was using the biggest ones it had. All the other titles huddled together in another corner of the marquee. A month away from its Feb. 16 opening, “Black Panther” was, already and by a wide margin, the most important thing happening at the Grand Lake.

Marvel Comics’s Black Panther was originally conceived in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, two Jewish New Yorkers, as a bid to offer black readers a character to identify with. The titular hero, whose real name is T’Challa, is heir apparent to the throne of Wakanda, a fictional African nation. The tiny country has, for centuries, been in nearly sole possession of vibranium, an alien element acquired from a fallen meteor. (Vibranium is powerful and nearly indestructible; it’s in the special alloy Captain America’s shield is made of.) Wakanda’s rulers have wisely kept their homeland and its elemental riches hidden from the world, and in its isolation the nation has grown wildly powerful and technologically advanced. Its secret, of course, is inevitably discovered, and as the world’s evil powers plot to extract the resources of yet another African nation, T’Challa’s father is cruelly assassinated, forcing the end of Wakanda’s sequestration. The young king will be forced to don the virtually indestructible vibranium Black Panther suit and face a duplicitous world on behalf of his people.

This is the subject of Ryan Coogler’s third feature film — after “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed” (2015) — and when glimpses of the work first appeared last June, the response was frenzied. The trailer teaser — not even the full trailer — racked up 89 million views in 24 hours. On January 10, 2018, after tickets were made available for presale, Fandango’s managing editor, Erik Davis, tweeted that the movie’s first 24 hours of advance ticket sales exceeded those of any other movie from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The black internet was, to put it mildly, exploding. Twitter reported that “Black Panther” was one of the most tweeted-about films of 2017, despite not even opening that year. There were plans for viewing parties, a fund-raiser to arrange a private screening for the Boys & Girls Club of Harlem, hashtags like #BlackPantherSoLit and #WelcomeToWakanda. When the date of the premiere was announced, people began posting pictures of what might be called African-Americana, a kitsch version of an older generation’s pride touchstones — kente cloth du-rags, candy-colored nine-button suits, King Jaffe Joffer from “Coming to America” with his lion-hide sash — alongside captions like “This is how I’ma show up to the 'Black Panther' premiere.” Someone described how they’d feel approaching the box office by simply posting a video of the Compton rapper Buddy Crip-walking in front of a Moroccan hotel.

None of this is because “Black Panther” is the first major black superhero movie. Far from it. In the mid-1990s, the Damon Wayans vehicle “Blankman” and Robert Townsend’s “The Meteor Man” played black-superhero premises for campy laughs. Superheroes are powerful and beloved, held in high esteem by society at large; the idea that a normal black person could experience such a thing in America was so far-fetched as to effectively constitute gallows humor. “Blade,” released in 1998, featured Wesley Snipes as a Marvel vampire hunter, and “Hancock” (2008) depicted Will Smith as a slacker antihero, but in each case the actor’s blackness seemed somewhat incidental.

“Black Panther,” by contrast, is steeped very specifically and purposefully in its blackness. “It’s the first time in a very long time that we’re seeing a film with centered black people, where we have a lot of agency,” says Jamie Broadnax, the founder of Black Girl Nerds, a pop-culture site focused on sci-fi and comic-book fandoms. These characters, she notes, “are rulers of a kingdom, inventors and creators of advanced technology. We’re not dealing with black pain, and black suffering, and black poverty” — the usual topics of acclaimed movies about the black experience.

In a video posted to Twitter in December, which has since gone viral, three young men are seen fawning over the “Black Panther” poster at a movie theater. One jokingly embraces the poster while another asks, rhetorically: “This is what white people get to feel all the time?” There is laughter before someone says, as though delivering the punch line to the most painful joke ever told: “I would love this country, too.”

Ryan Coogler saw his first Black Panther comic book as a child, at an Oakland shop called Dr. Comics & Mr. Games, about a mile from the Grand Lake Theater. When I sat down with him in early February, at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills, I told him about the night I saw “Fruitvale Station,” and he listened with his head down, slowly nodding. When he looked up at me, he seemed to be blinking back tears of his own.

Coogler played football in high school, and between his fitness and his humble listening poses — leaning forward, elbows propped on knees — he reminds me of what might happen if a mild-mannered athlete accidentally discovered a radioactive movie camera and was gifted with remarkable artistic vision. He’s interested in questions of identity: What does it mean to be a black person or an African person? “You know, you got to have the race conversation,” he told me, describing how his parents prepared him for the world. “And you can’t have that without having the slavery conversation. And with the slavery conversation comes a question of, OK, so what about before that? And then when you ask that question, they got to tell you about a place that nine times out of 10 they’ve never been before. So you end up hearing about Africa, but it’s a skewed version of it. It’s not a tactile version.”

Around the time he was wrapping up “Creed,” Coogler made his first journey to the continent, visiting Kenya, South Africa and the Kingdom of Lesotho, a tiny nation in the center of the South African landmass. Tucked high amid rough mountains, Lesotho was spared much of the colonization of its neighbors, and Coogler based much of his concept of Wakanda on it. While he was there, he told me, he was being shown around by an older woman who said she’d been a lover of the South African pop star Brenda Fassie. Riding along the hills with this woman, Coogler was told that they would need to visit an even older woman in order to drop off some watermelon. During their journey, they would stop occasionally to approach a shepherd and give him a piece of watermelon; each time the shepherd would gingerly take the piece, wrap it in cloth and tuck it away as though it were a religious totem. Time passed. Another bit of travel, another shepherd, another gift of watermelon. Eventually Coogler grew frustrated: “Why are we stopping so much?” he asked. “Watermelon is sacred,” he was told. “It hydrates, it nourishes and its seeds are used for offerings.” When they arrived at the old woman’s home, it turned out that she was, in fact, a watermelon farmer, but her crop had not yet ripened — she needed a delivery to help her last the next few weeks.

When I was a kid, I refused to eat watermelon in front of white people. To this day, the word itself makes me uncomfortable. Coogler told me that in high school he and his black football teammates used to have the same rule: Never eat watermelon in front of white teammates. Centuries of demonizing and ridiculing blackness have, in effect, forced black people to abandon what was once sacred. When we spoke of Africa and black Americans’ attempts to reconnect with what we’re told is our lost home, I admitted that I sometimes wondered if we could ever fully be part of what was left behind. He dipped his head, fell briefly quiet and then looked back at me with a solemn expression. “I think we can,” he said. “It’s no question. It’s almost as if we’ve been brainwashed into thinking that we can’t have that connection.”

“Black Panther” is a Hollywood movie, and Wakanda is a fictional nation. But coming when they do, from a director like Coogler, they must also function as a place for multiple generations of black Americans to store some of our most deeply held aspirations. We have for centuries sought to either find or create a promised land where we would be untroubled by the criminal horrors of our American existence. From Paul Cuffee’s attempts in 1811 to repatriate blacks to Sierra Leone and Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa Black Star shipping line to the Afrocentric movements of the ’60s and ’70s, black people have populated the Africa of our imagination with our most yearning attempts at self-realization. In my earliest memories, the Africa of my family was a warm fever dream, seen on the record covers I stared at alone, the sun setting over glowing, haloed Afros, the smell of incense and oils at the homes of my father’s friends — a beauty so pure as to make the world outside, one of car commercials and blond sitcom families, feel empty and perverse in comparison. As I grew into adolescence, I began to see these romantic visions as just another irrelevant habit of the older folks, like a folk remedy or a warning to wear a jacket on a breezy day. But by then my generation was building its own African dreamscape, populated by KRS-One, Public Enemy and Poor Righteous Teachers; we were indoctrinating ourselves into a prideful militancy about our worth. By the end of the century, “Black Star” was not just the name of Garvey’s shipping line but also one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever made.

Never mind that most of us had never been to Africa. The point was not verisimilitude or a precise accounting of Africa’s reality. It was the envisioning of a free self. Nina Simone once described freedom as the absence of fear, and as with all humans, the attempt of black Americans to picture a homeland, whether real or mythical, was an attempt to picture a place where there was no fear. This is why it doesn’t matter that Wakanda was an idea from a comic book, created by two Jewish artists. No one knows colonization better than the colonized, and black folks wasted no time in recolonizing Wakanda. No genocide or takeover of land was required. Wakanda is ours now. We do with it as we please.

Until recently, most popular speculation on what the future would be like had been provided by white writers and futurists, like Isaac Asimov and Gene Roddenberry. Not coincidentally, these futures tended to carry the power dynamics of the present into perpetuity. Think of the original “Star Trek,” with its peaceful, international crew, still under the charge of a white man from Iowa. At the time, the character of Lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols, was so vital for African-Americans — the black woman of the future as an accomplished philologist — that, as Nichols told NPR, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself persuaded her not to quit the show after the first season. It was a symbol of great progress that she was conceived as something more than a maid. But so much still stood in the way of her being conceived as a captain.

The artistic movement called Afrofuturism, a decidedly black creation, is meant to go far beyond the limitations of the white imagination. It isn’t just the idea that black people will exist in the future, will use technology and science, will travel deep into space. It is the idea that we will have won the future. There exists, somewhere within us, an image in which we are whole, in which we are home. Afrofuturism is, if nothing else, an attempt to imagine what that home would be. “Black Panther” cannot help being part of this. “Wakanda itself is a dream state,” says the director Ava DuVernay, “a place that’s been in the hearts and minds and spirits of black people since we were brought here in chains.” She and Coogler have spent the past few months working across the hall from each other in the same editing facility, with him tending to “Black Panther” and her to her much-anticipated film of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1962). At the heart of Wakanda, she suggests, lie some of our most excruciating existential questions: “What if they didn’t come?” she asked me. “And what if they didn’t take us? What would that have been?”

Afrofuturism, from its earliest iterations, has been an attempt to imagine an answer to these questions. The movement spans from free-jazz thinkers like Sun Ra, who wrote of an African past filled with alien technology and extraterrestrial beings, to the art of Krista Franklin and Ytasha Womack, to the writers Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okorafor and Derrick Bell, to the music of Jamila Woods and Janelle MonĂ¡e. Their work, says John I. Jennings — a media and cultural studies professor at the University of California at Riverside, and co-author of Black Comix Returns (2010, 2018) — is a way of upending the system, “because it jumps past the victory. Afrofuturism is like, ‘We already won.’ ” Comic books are uniquely suited to handling this proposition. In them the laws of our familiar world are broken: Mild-mannered students become godlike creatures, mutants walk among us and untold power is, in an instant, granted to the most downtrodden. They offer an escape from reality, and who might need to escape reality more than a people kidnapped to a stolen land and treated as less-than-complete humans?

At the same time, it is notable that despite selling more than a million books and being the first science-fiction author to win a MacArthur fellowship, Octavia Butler, one of Afrofuturism’s most important voices, never saw her work transferred to film, even as studios churned out adaptations of lesser works on a monthly basis. Butler’s writing not only featured African-Americans as protagonists; it specifically highlighted African-American women. If projects by and about black men have a hard time getting made, projects by and about black women have a nearly impossible one. In March, Disney will release “A Wrinkle in Time,” featuring Storm Reid and Oprah Winfrey in lead roles; the excitement around this female-led film does not seem to compare, as of yet, with the explosion that came with “Black Panther.” But by focusing on a black female hero — one who indeed saves the universe — DuVernay is embodying the deepest and most powerful essence of Afrofuturism: to imagine ourselves in places where we had not been previously imagined.

Can films like these significantly change things for black people in America? The expectations around “Black Panther” remind me of the way I heard the elders in my family talking about the mini-series “Roots,” which aired on ABC in 1977. A multigenerational drama based on the best-selling book in which Alex Haley traced his own family history, “Roots” told the story of an African slave kidnapped and brought to America, and traced his progeny through over 100 years of American history. It was an attempt to claim for us a home, because to be black in America is to be both with and without one: You are told that you must honor this land, that to refuse this is tantamount to hatred — but you are also told that you do not belong here, that you are a burden, an animal, a slave. Haley, through research and narrative and a fair bit of invention, was doing precisely what Afrofuturism does: imagining our blackness as a thing with meaning and with lineage, with value and place.

“The climate was very different in 1977,” the actor LeVar Burton recalled to me recently. Burton was just 19 when he landed an audition, his first ever, for the lead role of young Kunta Kinte in the mini-series. “We had been through the civil rights movement, and there were visible changes as a result, like there was no more Jim Crow,” he told me. “We felt that there were advancements that had been made, so the conversation had really sort of fallen off the table.” The series, he said, was poised to reignite that conversation. “The story had never been told before from the point of view of the Africans. America, both black and white, was getting an emotional education about the costs of slavery to our common American psyche.”

To say that “Roots” held the attention of a nation for its eight-consecutive-night run in January 1977 would be an understatement. Its final episode was viewed by 51.1 percent of all American homes with televisions, a kind of reach that seemed sure to bring about some change in opportunities, some new standing in American culture. “The expectation,” Burton says, “was that this was going to lead to all kinds of positive portrayals of black people on the screen both big and small, and it just didn’t happen. It didn’t go down that way, and it’s taken years.”

Here in Oakland, I am doing what it seems every other black person in the country is doing: assembling my delegation to Wakanda. We bought tickets for the opening as soon as they were available — the first time in my life I’ve done that. Our contingent is made up of my 12-year-old daughter and her friend; my 14-year-old son and his friend; one of my oldest confidants, dating back to adolescence; and two of my closest current friends. Not everyone knows everyone else. But we all know enough. Our group will be eight black people strong.

Beyond the question of what the movie will bring to African-Americans sits what might be a more important question: What will black people bring to “Black Panther”? The film arrives as a corporate product, but we are using it for our own purposes, posting with unbridled ardor about what we’re going to wear to the opening night, announcing the depths of the squads we’ll be rolling with, declaring that February 16, 2018, will be “the Blackest Day in History.”

This is all part of a tradition of unrestrained celebration and joy that we have come to rely on for our spiritual survival. We know that there is no end to the reminders that our lives, our hearts, our personhoods are expendable. Yes, many nonblack people will say differently; they will declare their love for us, they will post Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela quotes one or two days a year. But the actions of our country and its collective society, and our experiences within it, speak unquestionably to the opposite. Love for black people isn’t just saying Oscar Grant should not be dead. Love for black people is Oscar Grant not being dead in the first place.

This is why we love ourselves in the loud and public way we do — because we have to counter his death with the very same force with which such deaths attack our souls. The writer and academic Eve L. Ewing told me a story about her partner, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago: When it is time for graduation, he makes the walk from his office to the celebration site in his full regalia — the gown with velvet panels, full bell sleeves and golden piping, the velvet tam with gold-strand bullion tassel. And when he does it, every year, like clockwork, some older black woman or man he doesn’t know will pull over, roll down their window, stop him and say, with a slow head shake and a deep, wide smile, something like: “I am just so proud of you!”

This is how we do with one another. We hold one another as a family because we must be a family in order to survive. Our individual successes and failures belong, in a perfectly real sense, to all of us. That can be for good or ill. But when it is good, it is very good. It is sunlight and gold on vast African mountains, it is the shining splendor of the Wakandan warriors poised and ready to fight, it is a collective soul as timeless and indestructible as vibranium. And with this love we seek to make the future ours, by making the present ours. We seek to make a place where we belong. # # #

[Carvell Wallace writes about music, culture, race, life, death, parenting, movies, and television and has written for The New Yorker, Pitchfork, The Toast, Vice, Quartz, and The New York Times magazine. He received a BFA (cinema studies) from the Tisch School of the Arts of New York University.]

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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

It's February & Instead Of A Groundhog Predicting Future Weather, We Have The Current Occupant Of The Oval Office Guaranteeing 3 More Years Of Deeper & Deeper Descent Into The National $hithole

Professor Michael Nelson is a consummate political scientist who can examine the antics of the current occupant of the Oval Office without lapsing into a hint of outrage. However, this blogger is beyond outrage over the treason and treachery of the occupant. Impeachment is far too good for the occupant. He deserves more pain. Just as Mayor Rahm Emanuel has declared the occupant as unwelcome in the Chicago City Limits, the TV networks should deny the occupant a single second of media exposure. The reality TV "star" would no longer be seen or heard on the various media outlets, especially Twitter. Obviously, Faux News would not participate so the occupant would suffer in their sickening kindness. The national disgrace would have no grist for his twitter mill. Even the most devout of the Repugnants will turn away in boredom, if subjected to the nonstop tedium of listening to the babble of VP Ha'pence. If this is a (fair & balanced) disclosure that the Repugnants will not support a Yellow Dog, but they'll support an A$$hole, so be it.

[x HNN]
Trump Is Trump: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
By Michael Nelson

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“We need a truly great leader,” Donald Trump said during the campaign that ended with his election in November 2016. “We need a leader that wrote The Art of the Deal.” Trump’s confidence about the deal-making prowess he developed in the business world was overweening. “I deal with Steve Wynn. I deal with Carl Icahn,” he told the voters. “I deal with killers that blow these [politicians] away.”

Trump was surely right to think that striking deals—also known as finding common ground—is an important part of being president. The Constitution assigns the presidency few powers that are not shared with Congress or the states and reviewable by the courts in what the political scientist Richard Neustadt classically described as a system of “separated institutions sharing powers.” Or as former president Bill Clinton has long been fond of saying: “The Constitution boils down to one thing. Let’s have an argument and then let’s make a deal.”

Trump’s voters valued his experience as a business man rather than a politician. Historically, nearly everyone elected or even nominated by a major political party for president has been a current or former senator, governor, vice president, general, or cabinet member. In the quarter century after World War II, senators and vice presidents (most of whom had been senators) dominated presidential elections because Cold War–era voters trusted the federal government and valued their experience dealing with national security issues. Then, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, the electorate turned to state governors, who were untainted by the incompetence and corruption now associated with a Washington-based political career: Jimmy Carter of Georgia in 1976, Ronald Reagan of California in 1980, Bill Clinton of Arkansas in 1992, and George W. Bush of Texas in 2000.

The ascendant Tea Party movement that helped the Republican Party win control of the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, however, was not just anti-Washington but anti-government in all its forms. Seven current or former Republican governors battled Trump for the Republican nomination, including large or swing-state chief executives [George] Bush [TX], [John] Kasich [OH], [Scott] Walker [WI], [Chris] Christie [NJ], George Pataki of New York, and Jim Gilmore of Virginia. None of them came close. On the eve of the primary campaign, 58 percent of Republicans said they would prefer “someone from outside the existing political establishment” to “someone with experience in how the political system works.”

As a candidate who had never held public office, Trump appealed to many voters as a complete outsider who would “drain the swamp” in Washington. “The problem with politicians,” he told a rally: “[they’re] all talk and no action. It’s true. All talk, and it’s all bullshit.” He knew politicians could be bought, Trump claimed, because he had bought some of them himself as a cost of doing business. “When I need something from them—two years later, three years later,” he said. “They are there for me.”

“Deals are my art form,” Trump once bragged. Yet overconfidence blinded him to the reality that government is nothing like the profit-maximizing private economy. He failed to understand that the motivations of the other constitutional actors whose cooperation he needed are varied, complex, and subtle.

In the cutthroat world of real estate development, deal-making is extremely fluid and walking away from a bargain with a contractor, developer, or lender is tolerable. But a president cannot walk away when negotiations break down with Congress and find another legislature to deal with. And in politics a reputation for standing by one’s word is the coin of the realm.

Trump’s experience prior to becoming president was limited not just to business, but to privately owned business. Never having dealt with an independent board of directors, he never learned the arts of shared governance.

Not realizing that the Constitution created a system of separated institutions sharing powers was just a start for Trump. He also seems not to realize much about the Constitution at all. At a July meeting with House Republicans, he professed his devotion to the document he had taken the oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” by declaring, “I want to protect Article I, Article II, Article XII—go down the list.” There are seven articles in the Constitution, not twelve, much less a longer “list.”

It’s one thing not to understand the challenges of a new position because of lack of experience. It’s another not to learn. Every one of Trump’s elected predecessors became more surefooted in the job by doing it. They got better because they crammed during the post-election transition period, surrounded themselves (sometimes sooner, but always later) with advisors experienced in government, and learned from their mistakes.

In contrast, Trump took office avowing that he had nothing to learn. Claiming that he makes great decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability,” Trump added: “I could actually run my business and run the government at the same time.”

During the months that followed Trump’s election, he first blew any chance for even a short honeymoon with a dark, campaign-style inaugural address focused on “American carnage.” Then, failing to take advantage of a unified Republican government, he saw just one important piece of legislation that he supported enacted: a tax cut bill, the near-inevitable consequence of electing a Republican Congress.

This lack of achievement is remarkable considering that Trump took office under unusually favorable circumstances. Although the world had its share of problems, they were ongoing, not new or urgent. The domestic economy had been growing, slowly but steadily, for ninety consecutive months. The inflation rate was about 2 percent and unemployment had dipped below 5 percent. The percentage of Americans who regard themselves as middle- or upper-class had reached 62 percent, a greater share than before the 2008-2009 economic meltdown. The stock market was booming, having tripled from its modern low in March 2009.

Trump was elected by attacking the federal government, not by advancing a positive agenda. He has been insensitive toward anyone, in government or out, who disagrees with him. And he has been unwilling to reach out, as most presidents do at least symbolically, to the unconverted.

From the resistance that has emerged in Congress, the courts, the bureaucracy, the states and cities, the media, and the opposition party, Trump has been taught the hard way what most of the country has rejoiced in for more than two centuries: that the American constitutional system is well designed “to counteract ambition” when ambition aspires to roam directionless and unrestrained. Equally important, the Constitution countenances deal-making among officials chosen to represent the American people in all their variety. But has he been listening? # # #

[Michael Nelson is the Fulmer Professor of Political Science at Rhodes College (TN), a Senior Fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, and Senior Contributing Editor and Book Editor of the Cook Political Report. In 2015, the American Political Science Association gave Nelson the Richard E. Neustadt Award for the Outstanding book on the Presidency and Executive Politics published during the previous year for Resilient America: Electing Nixon in 1968, Channeling Dissent, and Dividing Government. He and his former student and colleague, John Lyman Mason, won the Southern Political Science Association’s 2009 V.O. Key Award for Outstanding Book on Southern Politics for How the South Joined the Gambling Nation: The Politics of State Policy Innovation. Most recently Nelson has written Trump's First Year (2018). Nelson received a BA (political science) from the College of William and Mary (VA) and a PhD (political science) from the Johns Hopkins University (MD).]

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Monday, February 19, 2018

Here's A Modest Proposal For Future 'Toons From The Planet Glox

To assist those readers who may not understand Glox-speak, this explanation was supplied by the wise Wikipedia:

Planet Glox:

Actually shown is only a newscast from Glox with two anchor-aliens. Their newscast resembles "Faux" News, and they report about news strikingly similar to that on earth, but in factual scientific terminology (i.e., "Coneheads"-style), thereby making, for example, fun of the public obsession with the sexual activities of public figures by referring to the global importance of touching reproductive organs.

And Dan/Tom further explained:

Longtime readers know that I’ve done so many cartoons reacting to gun massacres, I could probably publish a book of that work alone, though it would certainly be the world’s most depressing cartoon compilation. It’s a complicated thing, to have to constantly write cartoons about tragedies — though of course, these cartoons aren’t about the tragedies themselves, so much as the idiotic arguments which always emerge afterwards, and haven’t really changed in 20 years — it’s not about guns, it’s about mental illness, or video games, or some other damn thing; if people didn’t have guns, they’d use knives or bombs or beat their victims to death with lawn chairs; laws against guns are not guaranteed to be effective so we shouldn’t even bother, which of course is why we have no laws against rape, murder, burglary, etc. It really does feel like we’re stuck in a loop that we can’t get out of, and I don’t pretend to know the answer at this point.

Anyway, I just wanted to take a slightly different approach to this one, and I think it’s literally been a couple of years since I used the Glox aliens, and so here we are. I really need to introduce the Glox version of Trump -- obviously he'd be orange, but given that these guys don't actually have hair on top of their heads, not sure how to represent the combover appropriately... but I'm sure I'll figure it out.

Until next week…,


Here's a suggestion for Tom/Dan: fret not over a Glox-version of the current occupant of the Oval Office because the Gloxians don't have hair on their heads. Instead, depict the Glox-version of the occupant as a steamin' mound of horse$hit. If this is a (fair & balanced) artistic suggestion, so be it.

[x This Modern World]
Another Particle Blaster Incident
By Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

Tom Tomorrow/Dan Perkins

[Dan Perkins is an editorial cartoonist better known by the pen name "Tom Tomorrow." His weekly comic strip, "This Modern World," which comments on current events from a strong liberal perspective, appears regularly in approximately 150 papers across the U.S., as well as on Daily Kos. The strip debuted in 1990 in SF Weekly. Perkins received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism in both 1998 and 2002. When he is not working on projects related to his comic strip, Perkins writes a daily political blog, also entitled "This Modern World," which he began in December 2001. More recently, Dan Perkins, pen name Tom Tomorrow, was named the winner of the 2013 Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning. Even more recently, Dan Perkins was a runner-up for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning.]

Copyright © 2018 This Modern World/Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Roll Over, Francis Ford Coppola — Make Way For Infocalypse Now

This blogger regrets the need to post this warning: Be Very Afraid — thanks to emerging computer technologies, anyone can make it appear as if anything has happened, regardless of whether or not it did. This is the essence of "fake-truth" that will render the Repugnant shibboleth of "fake-news." If this is the (fair & balanced) terror of becoming toast in the days, weeks, months, and years to come, so be it.

[x BuzzFeed News]
He Predicted The 2016 Fake News Crisis — Now He's Worried About An Information Apocalypse
By Charlie Warzel

TagCrowd Cloud of the following piece of writing

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In mid-2016, Aviv Ovadya realized there was something fundamentally wrong with the internet — so wrong that he abandoned his work and sounded an alarm. A few weeks before the 2016 election, he presented his concerns to technologists in San Francisco’s Bay Area and warned of an impending crisis of misinformation in a presentation he titled “Infocalypse.”

The web and the information ecosystem that had developed around it was wildly unhealthy, Ovadya argued. The incentives that governed its biggest platforms were calibrated to reward information that was often misleading and polarizing, or both. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google prioritized clicks, shares, ads, and money over quality of information, and Ovadya couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all building toward something bad — a kind of critical threshold of addictive and toxic misinformation. The presentation was largely ignored by employees from the Big Tech platforms — including a few from Facebook who would later go on to drive the company’s NewsFeed integrity effort.

“At the time, it felt like we were in a car careening out of control and it wasn’t just that everyone was saying, ‘we’ll be fine’ — it’s that they didn't even see the car,” he said.

Ovadya saw early what many — including lawmakers, journalists, and Big Tech CEOs — wouldn’t grasp until months later: Our platformed and algorithmically optimized world is vulnerable — to propaganda, to misinformation, to dark targeted advertising from foreign governments — so much so that it threatens to undermine a cornerstone of human discourse: the credibility of fact.

But it’s what he sees coming next that will really scare the shit out of you.

“Alarmism can be good — you should be alarmist about this stuff,” Ovadya said one January afternoon before calmly outlining a deeply unsettling projection about the next two decades of fake news, artificial intelligence–assisted misinformation campaigns, and propaganda. “We are so screwed it's beyond what most of us can imagine,” he said. “We were utterly screwed a year and a half ago and we're even more screwed now. And depending how far you look into the future it just gets worse.”

That future, according to Ovadya, will arrive with a slew of slick, easy-to-use, and eventually seamless technological tools for manipulating perception and falsifying reality, for which terms have already been coined — “reality apathy,” “automated laser phishing,” and "human puppets."

Which is why Ovadya, an MIT grad with engineering stints at tech companies like Quora, dropped everything in early 2016 to try to prevent what he saw as a Big Tech–enabled information crisis. “One day something just clicked,” he said of his awakening. It became clear to him that, if somebody were to exploit our attention economy and use the platforms that undergird it to distort the truth, there were no real checks and balances to stop it. “I realized if these systems were going to go out of control, there’d be nothing to reign them in and it was going to get bad, and quick,” he said.

Today Ovadya and a cohort of loosely affiliated researchers and academics are anxiously looking ahead — toward a future that is alarmingly dystopian. They’re running war game–style disaster scenarios based on technologies that have begun to pop up and the outcomes are typically disheartening.

For Ovadya — now the chief technologist for the University of Michigan’s Center for Social Media Responsibility and a Knight News innovation fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia — the shock and ongoing anxiety over Russian Facebook ads and Twitter bots pales in comparison to the greater threat: Technologies that can be used to enhance and distort what is real are evolving faster than our ability to understand and control or mitigate it. The stakes are high and the possible consequences more disastrous than foreign meddling in an election — an undermining or upending of core civilizational institutions, an "infocalypse.” And Ovadya says that this one is just as plausible as the last one — and worse.

Worse because of our ever-expanding computational prowess; worse because of ongoing advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning that can blur the lines between fact and fiction; worse because those things could usher in a future where, as Ovadya observes, anyone could make it “appear as if anything has happened, regardless of whether or not it did.”

And much in the way that foreign-sponsored, targeted misinformation campaigns didn't feel like a plausible near-term threat until we realized that it was already happening, Ovadya cautions that fast-developing tools powered by artificial intelligence, machine learning, and augmented reality tech could be hijacked and used by bad actors to imitate humans and wage an information war.

And we’re closer than one might think to a potential “Infocalypse.” Already available tools for audio and video manipulation have begun to look like a potential fake news Manhattan Project. In the murky corners of the internet, people have begun using machine learning algorithms and open-source software to easily create pornographic videos that realistically superimpose the faces of celebrities — or anyone for that matter — on the adult actors’ bodies. At institutions like Stanford, technologists have built programs that that combine and mix recorded video footage with real-time face tracking to manipulate video. Similarly, at the University of Washington computer scientists successfully built a program capable of “turning audio clips into a realistic, lip-synced video of the person speaking those words.” As proof of concept, both the teams manipulated broadcast video to make world leaders appear to say things they never actually said.As these tools become democratized and widespread, Ovadya notes that the worst case scenarios could be extremely destabilizing.

There’s “diplomacy manipulation,” in which a malicious actor uses advanced technology to “create the belief that an event has occurred” to influence geopolitics. Imagine, for example, a machine-learning algorithm (which analyzes gobs of data in order to teach itself to perform a particular function) fed on hundreds of hours of footage of Donald Trump or North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, which could then spit out a near-perfect — and virtually impossible to distinguish from reality — audio or video clip of the leader declaring nuclear or biological war. “It doesn’t have to be perfect — just good enough to make the enemy think something happened that it provokes a knee-jerk and reckless response of retaliation.”

Another scenario, which Ovadya dubs “polity simulation,” is a dystopian combination of political botnets and astroturfing, where political movements are manipulated by fake grassroots campaigns. In Ovadya’s envisioning, increasingly believable AI-powered bots will be able to effectively compete with real humans for legislator and regulator attention because it will be too difficult to tell the difference. Building upon previous iterations, where public discourse is manipulated, it may soon be possible to directly jam congressional switchboards with heartfelt, believable algorithmically-generated pleas. Similarly, Senators' inboxes could be flooded with messages from constituents that were cobbled together by machine-learning programs working off stitched-together content culled from text, audio, and social media profiles

Then there’s automated laser phishing, a tactic Ovadya notes security researchers are already whispering about. Essentially, it's using AI to scan things, like our social media presences, and craft false but believable messages from people we know. The game changer, according to Ovadya, is that something like laser phishing would allow bad actors to target anyone and to create a believable imitation of them using publicly available data.

“Previously one would have needed to have a human to mimic a voice or come up with an authentic fake conversation — in this version you could just press a button using open source software,” Ovadya said. “That’s where it becomes novel — when anyone can do it because it’s trivial. Then it’s a whole different ball game.”

Imagine, he suggests, phishing messages that aren’t just a confusing link you might click, but a personalized message with context. “Not just an email, but an email from a friend that you’ve been anxiously waiting for for a while,” he said. “And because it would be so easy to create things that are fake you'd become overwhelmed. If every bit of spam you receive looked identical to emails from real people you knew, each one with its own motivation trying to convince you of something, you’d just end up saying, ‘okay, I'm going to ignore my inbox.’”

That can lead to something Ovadya calls “reality apathy”: Beset by a torrent of constant misinformation, people simply start to give up. Ovadya is quick to remind us that this is common in areas where information is poor and thus assumed to be incorrect. The big difference, Ovadya notes, is the adoption of apathy to a developed society like ours. The outcome, he fears, is not good. “People stop paying attention to news and that fundamental level of informedness required for functional democracy becomes unstable.”

Ovadya (and other researchers) see laser phishing as an inevitability. “It’s a threat for sure, but even worse — I don't think there's a solution right now,” he said. “There's internet scale infrastructure stuff that needs to be built to stop this if it starts.”

Beyond all this, there are other long-range nightmare scenarios that Ovadya describes as "far-fetched," but they're not so far-fetched that he's willing to rule them out. And they are frightening. "Human puppets," for example — a black market version of a social media marketplace with people instead of bots. “It’s essentially a mature future cross border market for manipulatable humans,” he said.

Ovadya’s premonitions are particularly terrifying given the ease with which our democracy has already been manipulated by the most rudimentary, blunt-force misinformation techniques. The scamming, deception, and obfuscation that’s coming is nothing new; it’s just more sophisticated, much harder to detect, and working in tandem with other technological forces that are not only currently unknown but likely unpredictable.

For those paying close attention to developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning, none of this feels like much of a stretch. Software currently in development at the chip manufacturer Nvidia [PDF] can already convincingly generate hyperrealistic photos of objects, people, and even some landscapes by scouring tens of thousands of images. Adobe also recently piloted two projects — Voco and Cloak — the first a "Photoshop for audio," the second a tool that can seamlessly remove objects (and people!) from video in a matter of clicks.

In some cases, the technology is so good that it’s startled even its creators. Ian Goodfellow, a Google Brain research scientist who helped code the first “generative adversarial network” (GAN), which is a neural network capable of learning without human supervision, cautioned that AI could set news consumption back roughly 100 years. At an MIT Technology Review conference in November last year, he told an audience that GANs have both “imagination and introspection” and “can tell how well the generator is doing without relying on human feedback.” And that, while the creative possibilities for the machines is boundless, the innovation, when applied to the way we consume information, would likely “clos[e] some of the doors that our generation has been used to having open.”

In that light, scenarios like Ovadya’s polity simulation feel genuinely plausible. This summer, more than one million fake bot accounts flooded the FCC’s open comments system to “amplify the call to repeal net neutrality protections.” Researchers concluded that automated comments — some using natural language processing to appear real — obscured legitimate comments, undermining the authenticity of the entire open comments system. Ovadya nods to the FCC example as well as the recent bot-amplified #releasethememo campaign as a blunt version of what's to come. "It can just get so much worse," he said.

Arguably, this sort of erosion of authenticity and the integrity of official statements altogether is the most sinister and worrying of these future threats. “Whether it’s AI, peculiar Amazon manipulation hacks, or fake political activism — these technological underpinnings [lead] to the increasing erosion of trust,” computational propaganda researcher Renee DiResta said of the future threat. “It makes it possible to cast aspersions on whether videos — or advocacy for that matter — are real.” DiResta pointed out Donald Trump’s recent denial that it was his voice on the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape, citing experts who told him it’s possible it was digitally faked. “You don't need to create the fake video for this tech to have a serious impact. You just point to the fact that the tech exists and you can impugn the integrity of the stuff that’s real.”

It’s why researchers and technologists like DiResta — who spent years of her spare time advising the Obama administration, and now members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, against disinformation campaigns from trolls — and Ovadya (though they work separately) are beginning to talk more about the looming threats. Last week, the NYC Media Lab, which helps the city’s companies and academics collaborate, announced a plan to bring together technologists and researchers in June to “explore worst case scenarios” for the future of news and tech. The event, which they’ve named Fake News Horror Show, is billed as “a science fair of terrifying propaganda tools — some real and some imagined, but all based on plausible technologies.”

“In the next two, three, four years we’re going to have to plan for hobbyist propagandists who can make a fortune by creating highly realistic, photo realistic simulations,” Justin Hendrix, the executive director of NYC Media Lab, told BuzzFeed News. “And should those attempts work, and people come to suspect that there's no underlying reality to media artifacts of any kind, then we're in a really difficult place. It'll only take a couple of big hoaxes to really convince the public that nothing’s real.”

Given the early dismissals of the efficacy of misinformation — like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s now-infamous statement that it was "crazy" that fake news on his site played a crucial role in the 2016 election — the first step for researchers like Ovadya is a daunting one: Convince the greater public, as well as lawmakers, university technologists, and tech companies, that a reality-distorting information apocalypse is not only plausible, but close at hand.

A senior federal employee explicitly tasked with investigating information warfare told BuzzFeed News that even he's not certain how many government agencies are preparing for scenarios like the ones Ovadya and others describe. “We're less on our back feet than we were a year ago," he said, before noting that that's not nearly good enough. “I think about it from the sense of the enlightenment — which was all about the search for truth,” the employee told BuzzFeed News. “I think what you’re seeing now is an attack on the enlightenment — and enlightenment documents like the Constitution — by adversaries trying to create a post-truth society. And that’s a direct threat to the foundations of our current civilization."

That’s a terrifying thought — more so because forecasting this kind of stuff is so tricky. Computational propaganda is far more qualitative than quantitative — a climate scientist can point to explicit data showing rising temperatures, whereas it’s virtually impossible to build a trustworthy prediction model mapping the future impact of yet-to-be-perfected technology.

For technologists like the federal employee, the only viable way forward is to urge caution, to weigh the moral and ethical implications of the tools being built and, in so doing, avoid the Frankensteinian moment when the creature turns to you and asks, "Did you ever consider the consequences of your actions?"

"I’m from the free and open source culture — the goal isn't to stop technology but ensure we're in an equilibria that's positive for people. So I’m not just shouting ‘this is going to happen,' but instead saying, ‘consider it seriously, examine the implications," Ovadya told BuzzFeed News. “The thing I say is, ‘trust that this isn't not going to happen.’”

Hardly an encouraging pronouncement. That said, Ovadya does admit to a bit of optimism. There’s more interest in the computational propaganda space then ever before, and those who were previously slow to take threats seriously are now more receptive to warnings. “In the beginning it was really bleak — few listened,” he said. "But the last few months have been really promising. Some of the checks and balances are beginning to fall into place." Similarly, there are solutions to be found — like cryptographic verification of images and audio, which could help distinguish what's real and what's manipulated.

Still, Ovadya and others warn that the next few years could be rocky. Despite some pledges for reform, he feels the platforms are still governed by the wrong, sensationalist incentives, where clickbait and lower-quality content is rewarded with more attention. "That's a hard nut to crack in general, and when you combine it with a system like Facebook, which is a content accelerator, it becomes very dangerous."

Just how far out we are from that danger remains to be seen. Asked about the warning signs he’s keeping an eye out for, Ovadya paused. “I’m not sure, really. Unfortunately, a lot of the warning signs have already happened.” # # #

[Charlie Warzel is the Tech Editor at BuzzFeed. He also has been a writer at Adweek and NBC News. He received a BA (political science) from Hamilton University (New York).]

Copyright © 2018 BuzzFeed

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Saturday, February 17, 2018

Today, Eags (Timothy Egan) Offers A Genuine Thought & A Genuine Prayer For... Tuesday, November 6, 2018 (Election Day)

The latest news item that flashed on this blogger's computer screen was that the current occupant of the Oval Office made a side trip to Parkland, FL on his way to his so-called Winter White House at Mar-A-Lago, the occupant met with first responders (police and emergency medical personnel) and expressed the usual "thoughts & prayers" bull$hit with nary a word to any of the parents of the slain children at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. Thsi blogger suspects that the current occupant feared the reaction of the grieving parents when one or more of them spit in the occupant's doughy face. Especially when the occupant offered his consoling words: "After all. the kids knew what they were getting into...." Eags concludes with a wish that the Repugnants will be "kicked out of office" on Election Day, 2018. This blogger would expand that to "kicked between their legs on their way out the door." If this is (fair & balanced) disgust with craven behavior by US officeholders, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
The Bad Parent Caucus
By Eags (Timothy Egan)

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Here’s a thought: The next politician to express sorrow over the slaughter of students at a school without offering any specific remedy should be run out of office, for cowardice and failure to protect American children.

Here’s a prayer: Let us remember to hold that thought for at least seven months, to the next election.

President Trump delivered 702 words to the nation Thursday on the murder of 17 kids in Parkland, FL — one of more than 150 school shootings over the last decade. Not once did he mention guns, or more specifically the semiautomatic rifle used by the mentally unstable white-supremacist teenager who entered a school with an AR-15.

The president did order the flag lowered to half-staff. He should have run up a white flag of surrender. Along with a gutless majority in Congress, Trump is hiding behind the shield of “thoughts and prayers” while showing himself derelict of duty in failing to defend the lives of school children.

“You have people who care about you, who love you, and who will do anything at all to protect you,” said Trump, in addressing the children of America. That is a flat-out lie, which is chewing gum to Trump. If the adults were really willing to take any measure to protect them, Trump wouldn’t have signed a bill last year making it easier for mentally ill people to get guns.

If the “people who care about you” really wanted to ensure your safety, they wouldn’t have led a filibuster in the Senate, as Mitch McConnell did in 2013, to prevent an expansion of simple background checks for purchasers of firearms.

If those “who love you” wanted to show that love, they would say something more than the platitudinous mush that came out of the mouth of the do-nothing House speaker, Paul Ryan, whose response to the latest mass killing was, “I think we need to pray.”

Since 1995, there have been more than 4,000 instances of someone rising in Congress to express “thoughts and prayers.” And since that time, about seven children or teenagers have been killed, on average, every day by guns.

Trump, McConnell, Ryan — they all have children of their own. But in their roles as protectors of many other children, who should be free to attend school without fear of being shot, this trio that controls the federal government is leading a bad parent caucus.

The kids know it — they get that people who should be looking after them are looking the other way. After Trump spoke, a sophomore at the Parkland school stated the obvious in an interview with CNN. “There’s no reason that a kid 19 years old that’s been investigated already, and not even a year ago, being able to purchase an AR-15,” said Isabella Gomez.

The gun used in Florida is similar to the kind of rapid-firing weapons used to mow down first graders in Newtown, club-goers in Orlando, civil servants in San Bernardino, and music-lovers in Las Vegas. In our country, a nation with a gun homicide rate 49 times higher than other wealthy countries, lunatics have easy and legal access to these guns.

The cops know the politicians are failing the kids as well. “What about the rights of these students?” said the Broward County sheriff, Scott Israel, in relaying the grim news of the latest massacre. “Don’t they have the right to be protected by the United States government, to the best of our ability?”

Of course they do. But the government will not protect them. The invertebrates in Congress and the soulless blowhard in the White House will not take even the most common-sensical measures to limit the use of militarized weapons by deeply troubled people.

Remember the outrage over bump stocks, the modification used by the man who killed 58 people in Las Vegas last fall? If you don’t, please remember it next November, at the ballot box. Congress has done nothing on this issue, but many states are moving on it, pressed by popular movements unafraid of the gun lobby.

Other countries act to protect their people, which is the most elemental duty of governance. After Australia suffered the deadliest mass shooting in its history, a massacre of 35 people in 1996 by a man with a semiautomatic rifle, the country banned such weapons. There hasn’t been a mass shooting since.

Let me try another take for you bad parents in office. Pretend you live in a pleasant, well-protected community of like-minded people, and you’re in charge. OK, you don’t have to pretend. And let’s say there was a natural gas leak every three days in one of the homes in that community, a leak that killed entire families.

Your response would be to pray and do nothing. Or to pray and talk about everything except the gas leak. Or to pray and say you’re powerless to act because the gas company owns you. The response of those suffering would be to take control and kick you out. That’s what we have to do, and will, next November. # # #

[Timothy Egan writes "Outposts," a column at the NY Fishwrap online. Egan — winner of both a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as a member of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America" and a National Book Award (The Worst Hard Time in 2006) — graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Whitman College in 2000 for his environmental writings. Egan's most recent book is The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero (2016). See all other books by Eags here.]

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Friday, February 16, 2018

The Jocks Repudiate The Defenders Of The Gun & This Blogger Demands Confiscation Of All Assault Weapons By Any Means Necessary Even If The Guns Must Be Ripped From Cold, Clutching Hands!

Yet another school massacre and the only response from the Oval Office is vapid, smarmy empty words from the current occupant of the Oval Office. This blogger nearly threw his Bose radio out the window at the sound of that oleaginous voice mouthing empty platitudes about "thoughts and prayers." It is beyond disgusting to hear this utter nonsense. This blogger hates the current occupant of the Oval Office (and his enablers, to the last voter) and he's sorry there aren't more of 'em. If this is (fair & balanced) truth to power, so be it.

[x The Nation]
Warriors Coach Steve Kerr Speaks Out Against The NRA
By Dave Zirin

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Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr is a person without political fear. Maybe that comes from being the son of the brilliant Dr. Malcolm Kerr, “a pioneer in the field of Middle East studies,” who was killed in Lebanon in 1984 when president of an American University in Beirut. Maybe it comes from having nothing left to prove after leading the Warriors to two championships as well as a 73-win season over the last three years. Maybe it comes from coaching in the Bay Area, where the political winds tend to move toward wanting prominent athletic figures to engage on issues instead of “sticking to sports.” Whatever the motivations, Kerr has again chosen to use his platform to try to reach people who may not otherwise be reached by speaking out after yesterday’s mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people. The greatest tool of the National Rifle Association and the politicians they own is our cynical belief that none of this can ever change. Meanwhile, racist politicians push for “a wall” to keep out imaginary enemies. This is depressing, but it cannot be an excuse for inaction. Steve Kerr spoke to that dynamic before Wednesday’s game against the Portland Trailblazers, saying:

Nothing has been done. It doesn’t seem to matter to our government that children are being shot to death day after day in schools. It doesn’t matter that people are being shot at a concert, in a movie theater. It’s not enough, apparently, to move our leadership, our government, people that are running this country, to actually do anything. That’s demoralizing. But we can do something about it. We can vote people in who actually have the courage to protect people’s lives and not just bow down to the NRA because they’ve financed their campaign for them. So, hopefully we’ll find enough people, first of all, to vote good people in, but hopefully we can find enough people with courage to help our citizens remain safe and focus on the real safety issues. Not building some stupid wall for billions of dollars that has nothing to do with our safety, but actually protecting us from what truly is dangerous, which is maniacs with semi-automatic weapons just slaughtering our children. It’s disgusting.

Kerr wasn’t the only person in the sports world to speak out. After Trump tweeted out, “No child, teacher or anyone else should ever feel unsafe in an American school,” Seattle Seahawk wide receiver Doug Baldwin tweeted back to him, “Yea, but the fact is that they AREN’T safe. Just more rhetoric and no action. WAKEUP!!!!”

These may seem like small gestures, but when you have a president and NRA-owned Congress gaslighting an entire country by telling us that these kinds of shootings are merely “mental-health issues” while both making it easier for the mentally ill to buy guns and cutting funds for mental-health programs, it’s easy to fear that we are collectively going mad ourselves. I don’t write these words lightly. Coming from a family where mental health is a serious issue, I see the NRA and GOP’s instinct to stigmatize people with mental illnesses as craven and contemptible. But when these shootings occur and all we get is a shrug, some prayers, and bombast about this being “the price of freedom,” it is easy to feel like we are losing our own grip on reality. I am not saying gun control is the answer to what ails us, because the rot runs so much deeper. We live in a country where the killer in Parkland and the people he slaughtered have lived their entire lives in a post-Columbine, post-9/11 world. Now that we know the shooter was trained by white supremacists and wore MAGA hats, we also know the politics that we must defeat… politics that give rise to this kind of senseless slaughter. We live in a a country where school shootings and the everyday specter of violence has been baked into our lives. It will take as many voices as possible, from the sports world and beyond, to tells us that this is not the way it has to be. Another world is still possible if we have the will to fight for it. One thing is certain: It is glaringly obvious who stands in our way. # # #

[Dave Zirin is The Nation's sports editor. Named one of UTNE Reader’s “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Our World,” Zirin is a frequent guest on ESPN, MSNBC, and Democracy Now! He is the author — most recently — of Jim Brown: Last Man Standing (forthcoming May 2018). See his other books here. Zirin received a BA (media and cultural studies) from Macalester College (MN).]

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