What I've been reading, featuring my vote in the 2016 election and the mediocrity of “Vice”

“By now it should be obvious that Facebook’s so-called pro-democracy rhetoric has been fundamentally damaging to real democracies and to democratic movements around the world. It has also directly benefited authoritarian regimes, which have relied on the platform to spread untruths in order to control and manipulate their citizens. In the Philippines, as content moderators busily remove posts and pictures according to a bespoke metric developed by “mostly twenty-something-year-olds” in Menlo Park, California, the president, Rodrigo Duterte, is busy on Facebook too, using paid followers to spread falsehoods about his critics and his policies. The journalist Maria Ressa, whose news organization, Rappler, has been keeping a database of the more than twelve million Facebook accounts that have attacked critics of Duterte and have been traced back to the president, has been a target of those accounts as well, at one point getting as manmy as ninety hate messages an hour via Facebook—messages like ‘I want Maria Ressa to be raped repeatedly to death.’

“…in countries like the Philippines and Myanmar, where the vast majority of people access the Internet through Facebook, not using the platform is likely not an option. Indeed, establishing an equivalence between Facebook and the Internet is one of the payoffs of Free Basics, an app Facebook created that provides purposefully limited Internet access—there is no stand-alone e-mail server and Facebook is the only social media platform—to people in developing countries who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to go online.”

There was a special futility in my mailing my overseas ballot against Duterte in 2016 when I lived three minutes from Facebook’s East Palo Alto–gentrifying campus. Like even though I could well have been the only voter in the Philippine elections living in this historically disenfranchised American city still suffering from its legacy of redlining, racial segregation, crime, violence, and public neglect, the net contribution of my small neighborhood to my home country 7000 miles away was nothing less than the corrosion of its democracy.

“Hatred might not come into it for Finnis, but there is little doubt that hating, disliking, maligning gay people – and creating the conditions under which gay people come to loathe themselves – follow from his proposals…

“When I read my straight colleagues telling everyone else to give Finnis the ‘respect’ of engaging with his opinions, to ‘make arguments’ in response, I wonder how many times they have had to ‘make the argument’ for their happiness, for their home and their partner, for the life they’ve built with the people they love. At times, I’m not even sure what I am meant to be making the argument for. It does not matter if my gayness was innate or chosen, it is so deeply a part of me, such a root cause of any fulfilment that I feel and any good that I do, that it becomes clear that what really follows from Finnis’s view is that I should stop existing as me. I should retreat into some other Sophie, who lives without the woman who makes her a better teacher, listener, thinker. Finnis thinks my good would be actualised in an unhappy marriage with a man. But almost everything I know about the virtues, I learned from my experiences as a gay woman: courage, constancy, generosity, love. I can engage, certainly, I can make arguments in response, but there is also a sense, at a deeper level, in which there is nothing I can say.”

  • I didn’t really like “Vice” (2018), the Adam McKay film about Dick Cheney

    • As with McKay’s previous film “The Big Short”, which I enjoyed, the movie is defined by its narration, dark comedy, and hyper-stylized editing. I’m all for that and bought in the instant the trailer was released. It just wasn’t done nearly as well in the final product. Definitely some highlights, but if you take on Cheney and the neoconservative world order on this large a platform, you have a responsibility to do so thoughtfully. That’s not a criticism of the stylization or comedic take of the film; I just mean that if you’re going to take on this subject and license the recency, pain, and footage of real events, you should submit a product that demonstrates more effort went into its formulation. Everything about this felt unfinished .

    • For one thing, the 2-hour, 12-minute movie didn’t decide whether it was going to be a biopic or an exploration of the cruelty of the Bush-Cheney Iraq War. The first half runs through Cheney’s life, but he’s already a diabolical opportunist from the outset: early scenes include him unbothered by a colleague’s shattered leg and only choosing to identify as a Republican for its career advantages. This isn’t a character study then. Similarly, if the second half of the movie is about the cruelty of the Bush-Cheney administration during the Iraq War, why did we spend the entire first half on a mostly-irrelevant overview of Cheney’s career path? The movie’s “Where Are They Now?” epilogue suggests McKay’s movie is ‘about’ the cost of the unnecessary Iraq War; if that’s the takeaway of the movie, then humanizing Cheney and spending time on anything more than the broad strokes of his non-political life story shouldn’t occupy nearly as much time as it did.

    • Also it used its ending monologue to accuse the audience of complicity in Cheney’s empowerment. That would be OK if there were any lead-up to it, but the movie showed he was unelectable whenever he ran at the front of a ticket and entered the private sector because of it. Cheney’s power came from unprecedented diminution of a president behind the scenes and away from public scrutiny. How then is Cheney’s foreign policy the public’s fault? Just felt completely out of left field for that to be presented as the message of the movie.

    • The narration is awful. It’s somehow indignantly sanctimonious and condescending while also not explaining enough what was wrong. It spent a lot of time re-emphasizing the same point about the Unitary Executive Theory—not that hard a concept from what I can tell—while glossing over the exact details of how it was exploited. We had a very cool montage of Cheney installing his men in different sections of government, but we never actually see how he used the machine he built to create the war he wanted other than when they mention he had a lot of offices. Yes, we see that Halliburton influenced his Iraq policy—very subtle: on election night, Cheney reads his wife a text saying they got “double what we expected” as their exit bonus—but other than a map of oil wells and a spreadsheet of energy companies, we don’t know what the administration actually did for them in Iraq. At one point, Rumsfeld asks Cheney whether they’d be indicted and the audience doesn’t even really know what the hypothetical charges would be.

    • Sam Rockwell in the wake of last year’s Oscar win turns in a bad SNL impression as George W. Bush. Similarly lazy: at some point McKay asked himself how to convey Steve Carrell’s Donald Rumsfeld’s evil and decided the answer was to have someone ask him what his values are and have him laugh and shut the door on them. Come on now, how are you going to spend all that runtime on Cheney’s pre-political years but not spend time on Rumsfeld’s brand of evil?

    • “Vice” as in ‘vice president’ and “Vice” as in ‘bad’ because the vice president was bad

    • Rare instance where the Reddit comments are generally on point

    • All in all, my frustration stems from seeing an argument I sympathize with being made poorly and without focus or sense of story-telling, which I feel is almost more devastating to an argument than a good counterargument.

    • If you wanted a ridiculously over-the-top challenge to the moral corruption of the crony capitalist elite, the WWE did it better:

 
 
 
 

“When people of color enter elite spaces, they make those with unearned advantages conscious of how they’ve been favored by the system. That poses a choice to those whose access to such cloistered communities is unquestioned: They can recognize that others might also succeed given the right circumstances, or they can defend the inequities of that system in an effort to preserve their self-image, attacking the new entrant as a charlatan or the group they belong to as backwards.”

  • Spotify’s revenue-sharing model is dumb

  • Book club selection #3: “Pnin” (h/t Lucy) by Vladimir Nabokov (whose last name I learned to mispronounce from Sting). The theme of blissful ignorance made this tweet a somewhat apt unintentional summary:

  • Have aliens found us? The interview is a mess but even more enjoyable when you imagine Dr. Avi Loeb as the scientist in a B movie whose calculations correctly predict an incoming alien invasion but everyone ignores him because his hair is messy and whenever he tries to explain his theory, he keeps dropping papers of printed-out spreadsheets and then a high-ranking bureaucrat who’s in cahoots with the aliens sneeringly tells him that they’re cutting his funding and confiscating his desktop computer.

  • Conan O’Brien contemplating his legacy as his late-night show restructures into a 30-minute format (h/t Junho)

“Calvin Coolidge was a pretty popular president. I’ve been to his grave in Vermont. It has the presidential seal on it. Nobody was there. And by the way, I’m the only late-night host that has been to Calvin Coolidge’s grave. I think that’s what separates me from the other hosts.

“I had a great conversation with Albert Brooks once. When I met him for the first time, I was kind of stammering. I said, you make movies, they live on forever. I just do these late-night shows, they get lost, they’re never seen again and who cares? And he looked at me and he said, [Albert Brooks voice] “What are you talking about? None of it matters.” None of it matters? “No, that’s the secret. In 1940, people said Clark Gable is the face of the 20th Century. Who [expletive] thinks about Clark Gable? It doesn’t matter. You’ll be forgotten. I’ll be forgotten. We’ll all be forgotten.” It’s so funny because you’d think that would depress me. I was walking on air after that.”

Relevant: his recent appearance on the Comedy Bang Bang podcast. The style of the podcast is often absurdist, fast pace, and highly improvisational. Associating Conan with the late-night monologuing format that I’ve long found trite, I was really impressed by his ability not just to keep up with host Scott Aukerman, but to outwit him with ease. It’s a strange duality that I frequently confront with Conan, Late Show-era Stephen Colbert, and the best SNL alumni: their undeniable innate talent and intelligence contrasted against the mediocrity of their TV shows.

 
 
  • Two-time Oscar-nominated director Jonah Hill and Tony-nominated Broadway star Michael Cera in conversation for the A24 podcast. Apparently they co-starred in a movie together when they were teenagers.

 

Post-ASSA 2019: lingering issues in academic economics

This was originally just going to be a bullet-point in a What I’ve Been Reading post, but it ended up quite crowded and most crucially, I couldn’t figure out how to embed tweets in between sub–bullet points.

…it also deprives economics, in general, of its best chance to serve the public most effectively. A narrow pipeline of economists has created a profession vulnerable to groupthink. Lacking the widest possible range of perspectives, life experiences, and expertise, the profession stands to miss crucial information, and make poor decisions.

How different would US economic policy be if people from ethnic minorities more consistently took part in policymaking? How different would policies be if the macroeconomic models they were founded on more fully reflected people’s lived experiences? A black man living in the US doesn’t need a research study to tell him his chances of good employment and decent credit are worse than for his white peers. But maybe a policymaker does.

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What I've been reading, featuring NK Jemisin inventing and changing worlds

Who did get into Oxford back then? A small group whose upholding of the old traditions of Englishness can no longer prepare a British Isles – made up of all its various peoples – for the forces of modernity. For our real place in the world, for the consequences of Empire.

This is the shrinking Kingdom of the English, who subjugated Wales and Scotland and Ireland. The biggest problem of elite cliques is myopia. The country is far more brittle and divided than they can see. They are the believers who still, somewhere, think that the map of the world is pink. But they forget their Classics lessons; what happens when an empire falls? With no one else to dominate, the establishment turns on its own people. We become subjects, not of the British Empire, but of the last dregs of the English upper classes. A report into undergraduate admissions earlier this year found that in 2017 Oxford admitted more pupils from Westminster School than black students, a glaring piece of evidence about how the knot is being tightened even more firmly around the bag of family silver.

I wonder now about all the other kids like me, the ones at odd angles, the queer and working class and black, or even just Northern, or Welsh, or provincial. This is not a place for them, however loudly they might be knocking on the door.

“In reality, the school falsified transcripts, made up student accomplishments and mined the worst stereotypes of black America to manufacture up-from-hardship tales that it sold to Ivy League schools hungry for diversity. The Landrys also fostered a culture of fear with physical and emotional abuse, students and teachers said. Students were forced to kneel on rice, rocks and hot pavement, and were choked, yelled at and berated.”

Part of why Jemisin is viewed as “political” is the mere fact that she writes about things like dragons and planets at all. Since at least the early 1900s, when people began using “fantasy” to signify a certain type of literature, the genre has been dominated by white male authors and their nostalgia for the pastoral European past, a time of kings and queens and wizards, all of them white. The heroes in these tales are often intent on saving that traditional order from some alien force — an invading army of orcs, an evil sorcerer. Jemisin flips that formula on its head. The Broken Earth, her latest and most famous trilogy, begins with an oppressed man, an escaped slave of sorts, setting off an earthquake that rips the land in two, toppling cities and covering the realm in a cloud of ash that will linger for thousands of years. In Jemisin’s telling, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As one character tells another, ‘Some worlds are built on a fault line of pain, held up by nightmares. Don’t lament when those worlds fall. Rage that they were built doomed in the first place.’”

 

From August, Jemisin accepting her third consecutive Hugo Award: "This is the year in which I get to smile at all of those naysayers—every single mediocre insecure wanna-be who fixes their mouth to suggest that I do not belong on this stage; that people like me cannot possibly have earned such an honor; and that when they win, it's meritocracy, but when we win, it's identity politics. I get to smile at those people and lift a massive shining rocket-shaped finger in their direction.”

 

“I had seen trauma before, but never an entire traumatized nation. I reminded myself regularly that all the adults I met were survivors or former killers, who now had to try to live with what they had seen or done. Almost everyone, survivor or killer, had lost family members. They carried around inside themselves millions of tiny worlds of suffering.”

And yet so rarely has a protest novel contained within it as soaring a love as that between Tish and Fonny. To put it simply, the romance at the center of this novel is pure to the point of saccharine. It’s no wonder that, amongst the more scholarly of his readers, the book is held in lesser esteem. And yet even this is a testament to the magic trick Baldwin pulls here, and a key reason for the tone of our adaptation. We don’t expect to treat the lives and souls of black folks in the aesthetic of the ecstatic. It’s assumed that the struggle to live, to simply breathe and exist, weighs so heavily on black folks that our very beings need be shrouded in the pathos of pain and suffering.

It is this need, this desire to render blackness in hues of dread and sorrow, that leads some to reject rapturous renderings of black life as inauthentic. This misconception would be trivial if it didn’t trivialize an unquestionable fact about black life, for who else has wrested as much beauty from abject pain? Who else has manifested such joy despite outsized suffering? Somewhere, an Earth, Wind & Fire song is playing in a living room where portraits of Maya Angelou and a blue-eyed Jesus share a wall. The Rapture will be televised. And I’ll be damned if it won’t involve a cookout and somebody’s auntie leading an Electric Slide. I chose Beale Street because I felt the novel, more than any of his other works, represented the perfect blend of Baldwin’s dual obsessions with romance and social critique, as sensual a depiction of love as it is a biting observation of systemic injustice.